George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (b. 1872, d. Oct. 29, 1949) founded a movement based on doctrines of enlightenment through meditation and heightened self-awareness that attracted many prominent followers in Europe and the United States. Of Armenian-Greek origin, Gurdjieff established his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau, France, where he settled in 1922. He wrote books like Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’.
His disciples included architect Frank Lloyd Wright, painter Georgia O’Keefre, writer Katherine Mansfield, and journalist P.D. Ouspensky, whose books helped to popularize Gurdjieff’s teachings.
(Note: In the following text, ‘man’ refers not to the male only, but it is used in the sense of ‘human being regardless of sex, person’.)
In order to understand what the difference between states of consciousness is, let us consider the state of sleep. This is an entirely subjective state of consciousness. A man is immersed in dreams; whether he remembers them or not, does not matter. Even if some real impressions reach him, such as sounds, voices, warmth, cold, etc., they arouse in him only subjective images.
Then a man wakes up. At first glance, this is a completely new and different state of consciousness. He can move, talk with other people, he can make calculations ahead, he can see danger and avoid it, and so on. It stands to reason that he is now in a better position than when he was asleep. But if we go a little more deeply into things, if we take a look into his inner world, into his thoughts, into the causes of his actions, we shall see that he is almost in the same state as when he is asleep. And it is even worse, because in sleep he is passive, but in the waking state he can do something and the results of his actions will be reflected upon him and upon those around him. And yet he does not remember himself. He is a machine; everything with him happens. He cannot stop the flow of his thoughts, he cannot focus the flow of his thoughts, he cannot control his imagination, his emotions, his attention. He lives in a subjective world of “I love,” “I do not love,” I like,” “I do not like,” “I want,” “I do not want,” that is, of what he thinks he likes, of what he thinks he does not like, of what he thinks he wants, of what he thinks he does not want. He does not see the real world. The real world is hidden from him by a thick wall of uncontrolled imagination. He lives in waking-sleep. He is asleep. What is called “clear consciousness” is actually sleep and a far more dangerous sleep than sleep at night in bed.
Let us take some event in the life of humanity. For instance, war. What does it signify? It signifies that several millions of sleeping people are destroying several millions of other sleeping people. They would not do this, of course, if they were to wake up. Everything that takes place is owing to this sleep.
Both states of consciousness, sleep and the (false) waking state, are thus equally subjective. Only by beginning to remember himself does a man really awaken. And then all surrounding life acquires for him a different aspect and a different meaning. He sees that it is a life of sleeping people, a life in sleep. All that men say and do, they say and do in sleep. All this can have no value whatsoever. Only awakening and what leads to awakening has a value in reality.
How many times have I been asked whether wars can be stopped? Certainly it can. For this it is only necessary that people should awake. This seems a small thing. It is, however, the most difficult thing there can be because this sleep is induced by our so-called education and maintained by the whole surrounding society.
How can one awaken? How can one escape this sleep?
These questions are the most important, the most vital that can ever confront a man. But before this it is necessary to be convinced of the very fact of sleep. It is possible to become convinced of this only by trying to awaken. When a man understands that he does not remember himself and that to remember himself means to awaken to some extent, and when at the same time he sees by experience how difficult it is to remember himself, he will understand that he cannot awaken simply by having the desire to do so. It can be said still more precisely that a man cannot awaken by himself, except in exceptionally rare cases—and we are not talking about those cases.
But if, let’s say, twenty people make an agreement that whoever of them awakens first shall wake the rest, they already have some chance. Even this, however, is insufficient, because all twenty can go to sleep at the same time and dream that they are waking up. Therefore, more still is necessary. They must be looked after by a man who is not asleep any more, or who does not fall asleep as easily as they do. The twenty people must find such a man and hire him to wake them up and not allow them to fall asleep again. Without this, it is impossible to awaken. This is what must be understood.
It is possible to think for a thousand years. It is possible to write whole libraries of books, to create theories by the million, but all this is in sleep, without any possibility of awakening. On the contrary, these books and these theories, written and created in sleep, will merely send other people to sleep, and so on.
There is nothing new in the idea of sleep. People have been told almost since creation of the world that they are asleep and that they must awaken. Christ disciples even slept when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane for the last time. It is all there. But do men understand it? Men take it simply as a form of speech, as an expression, as a metaphor. They completely fail to understand that it must be taken literally. And again it is easy to understand why. In order to understand this idea literally it is necessary to awaken a little, or at least to try to awaken. I have been asked why nothing is said about this kind of sleep in the Gospels. But it is there, spoken of almost on every page. This simply shows that people read the Gospel in sleep.
Generally speaking, what is necessary to awaken a man? A good shock is necessary. But when a man is fast asleep, only one shock is not enough. A long period of continual shocks is needed. Consequently, there must be somebody to administer these shocks. I have said before that if a man wants to awaken he must hire somebody who will keep on shaking him for a long time. But whom can he hire if everyone is asleep? A man will hire somebody to wake him up but this one also falls asleep. What is the use of such a man? And a man who can really keep awake will probably refuse to waste his time in waking others up: he may have his own much more important work to do.
There is also the possibility of being awakened by mechanical means. A man may be awakened by an alarm clock. But the trouble is that a man gets accustomed to the alarm clock far too quickly, he ceases to hear it. Many alarm clocks are necessary and always new ones. Otherwise a man must surround himself with alarm clocks which will prevent him from sleeping. But here again there are certain difficulties. Alarm clocks must be wound up. In order to wind them up one must remember about them. In order to remember about them one must wake up often. But what is still worse, man gets used to all these alarm clocks and after a certain time he only sleeps better for them. Therefore alarm clocks must be constantly changed; new ones must be continually invented. In the course of time this may help a man to awaken. But there is very little chance of a man doing all the work of winding up, inventing, and changing clocks all by himself, without outside help. It is much more likely that he will begin his work and that he will afterwards unnoticeably pass into sleep, and in sleep he will dream of inventing alarm clocks, of winding them up and changing them, and simply sleep all the sounder for it.
Therefore, in order to awaken, a combination of efforts is needed. It is necessary that somebody wakes the man up. It is necessary that somebody looks after the man who wakes him. It is necessary to have alarm clocks and it is also necessary continually to invent new alarm clocks.
But in order to achieve all this and to obtain results a certain number of people must work together.
One man alone can do nothing.
Before anything else, he needs help. But help cannot come to one man alone. Those who are able to help put a great value to their time. And, of course, they would prefer to help, say, twenty or thirty people who want to awake rather than only one man. Moreover, one man can easily deceive himself about his awakening and make awakening simply a new dream. If several people decide to struggle together against sleep, they will wake each other.
Therefore a man who wants to awake must look for other people who also want to awake and work together with them. This, however, is easier said than done because to start such a work and to organize it requires a knowledge which a sleeping man cannot possess. The work must be organized and have an awakened leader. Only then can it produce the results expected from it. Without these conditions no efforts can result in anything whatever. Men may torture themselves, but those tortures will not make them awake. This is most difficult of all for certain people to understand. By themselves and by their own initiative they may be capable of great efforts and great sacrifices. But because their first effort and their first sacrifice ought to be obedience, nothing on Earth will induce them to obey another. They do not want anybody to tell them what to do. And they do not want to reconcile themselves to the thought that all their efforts and all their sacrifices are thus useless.
Work must be organized. And it can be organized only by a man who knows its problems and its aims, who knows its methods; by a man who has in his time passed through such organized work himself.
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