The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.

THE GURDJIEFF WORK with KATHLEEN SPEETH, Ph.D.

 

JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Today we're going to be examining the life and work of Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff was a mystical teacher who died in Paris in 1949. At the time of his death he had thousands of students, virtually in every country of the world. He has left behind him a spiritual legacy which could be considered an important precursor of the new age movement. With me today is Dr. Kathleen Speeth, author of The Gurdjieff Work, and Gurdjieff, Seeker of the Truth. Dr. Speeth is a member of the faculty of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and is also a clinical psychologist. Welcome, Kathy.

KATHLEEN SPEETH, Ph.D.: I'm glad to be here.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You are in something of a unique position as a teacher and writer about the Gurdjieff work, in that you actually met Gurdjieff and knew him while you were a child.

SPEETH: Yes, I did.

MISHLOVE: Could you describe some of your early memories of the man?

SPEETH: Well, I remember the first time I saw him. I was quite young, I don't know exactly how young, and it was in New York, and my parents disappeared somewhere, and there I was in a room full of people milling about, and there was somebody who had a strong magnetic attraction to me. I moved toward that man, and I reached down and I kissed him, and it was Gurdjieff.

MISHLOVE: What a beautiful first memory.

SPEETH: Yes. My mother says, although I don't remember this, that he turned toward Madame de Salzman, who was sitting next to him, and he said, and I hope this is true, "Elle a des possibilites" -- he spoke a little French, a little Armenian -- "She has possibilities." So I'm hoping that that really did happen. So I remember being drawn to him. He was like a big grandfather. And I don't know if it was that day or another day, when -- it was during the Second World War, so everything was very scarce, like chocolates and things that kids like -- he gave a party for children, and in that party we were given a whole box of those chocolates that have maraschino cherries inside. I hadn't even seen a chocolate in so long, and to have a whole box, it was a wonderful thing for a child. So I experienced him as very kind, although many grownups who wrote memoirs found him extremely tough and confrontative.

MISHLOVE: I suppose he used what was appropriate for the occasion.

SPEETH: I suppose he did. He seemed to me one of those people who was free enough to do that.

MISHLOVE: Well, Gurdjieff is noted for really having combined the Eastern and Western traditions in a unique way -- to try and take the mystical thinking and meditative practices of the East and combine them with the disciplines, the technologies in the West, our way of making things really work.

SPEETH: Yes, he did. He grew up about halfway between the East and the West. You know, he grew up between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

MISHLOVE: In central Asia.

SPEETH: In central Asia. He was a person who left the Armenian Church and the family that he had, and went to seek truth with a bunch of friends, a lot like a dharma bum, or somebody who is a dropout in the new age period.

MISHLOVE: Many of our viewers may have seen the movie based on his autobiography, Meetings with Remarkable Men, in which he sort of describes that search -- Peter Brooks's film, I believe.

SPEETH: Exactly. Of course it's very unlikely that those "memoirs," supposed memoirs, with quotes around them, actually had to do with his experience. A lot of it was analog and metaphor and teaching material.

MISHLOVE: Oh really?

SPEETH: I think so.

MISHLOVE: Interesting.

SPEETH: But he certainly did go somewhere, and it's very clear that he was involved with Buddhism and Sufism, and probably Taoism also.

MISHLOVE: Well, he has a reputation also for having been something of a scoundrel -- you know, there are the stories that he was a Russian secret agent in Tibet, for example.

SPEETH: Right, exactly, right. And it's unclear whether that's true or not. In fact one of the things about a man like Gurdjieff is you can't tell whether he is using his life to teach, and making up stories therefore, or whether he's actually recounting the truth.

MISHLOVE: He's sort of in that "crazy wisdom" tradition, where it almost seems you cannot judge this man by the standards by which we ordinarily judge people.

SPEETH: And of course that's very dangerous, as you know. It seems that way, and at the same time we know we're on very shaky ground if we don't somehow have a common-sense response to somebody.

MISHLOVE: One would think so, but let's look for a moment at some of the finer things that we have in the legacy of Gurdjieff. I've been very struck by his notion -- it's one of the most powerful ones that I've heard from the Gurdjieff tradition -- that we are all really asleep, we're not awake. We think we are awake, but we are not.

SPEETH: That's certainly the fundamental idea, not only in the Gurdjieff work, but in Sufism and Buddhism. In fact every esoteric part of every religious tradition says there's something wrong, something clouded, something blurred, and something clotted about the attention of human beings, and such as we are, something is the matter with us.

MISHLOVE: It seems to come across most clearly in the Gurdjieff work; that point gets made over and over again.

SPEETH: Over and over again, right. And also, one is given some help in getting out of the mess we're in.

MISHLOVE: As with all other traditions, I suppose, there is some help.

SPEETH: In each religious tradition there is an esoteric form in which real help is given. The exoteric form will tell you what you have to do, and then there'll be some people who will try to help, giving you specifications and guidance on how to do what has to be done. And the Gurdjieff work was that without the dogmatic-work exoteric form on top of it. But you know, he did call his work esoteric Christianity.

MISHLOVE: Oh, he did?

SPEETH: Oh yes.

MISHLOVE: Now, that I was not aware of. That's very interesting.

SPEETH: But it didn't have anything to do with the kind of Christianity that exists in churches and cathedrals here.

MISHLOVE: Well, he writes in Meetings with Remarkable Men that he wandered all over central Asia, and perhaps even into the Far East, in search of some kind of genuine teaching about the higher powers that were available to human beings.

SPEETH: He found that the people -- and this is true of so many teenagers -- the people who were around him, teaching him, the clergy and the professors, they only had opinions. Nobody actually had knowledge, real knowledge, so he had to go and search it.

MISHLOVE: And one senses, at least in this parable of his life, that he went to great lengths -- across the oceans, and walked across deserts, and did everything he could to get to that. And it's ironic for a person who seems to have influenced so many literary people -- today there are hundreds of books about the Gurdjieff work -- that he himself doesn't come across as a scholar in the least.

SPEETH: Oh no, he wasn't a scholar, but he was a seeker, and he was a serious man and not a frivolous man.

MISHLOVE: He spoke twenty languages, I understand.

SPEETH: I don't know how many.

MISHLOVE: I do want to get into the methods that he used, but one of the other concepts that he wrote about which struck me a lot -- and I think modern psychology is more and more coming to this point of view -- is that we are all composed of many different selves. I think Gurdjieff described them as being like puppets inside of us, and they each take control of us at different times. We're not really just one self, as we often think of ourselves to be.

SPEETH: That's very important. The fragmentation of the human psyche is a very important part of the Gurdjieff work, and it's the initial condition that people find themselves in as they begin inner work. The idea would be, of course, to be trustworthy, for oneself and others. That would mean to master those fragments, put them all into one coherent, integrated whole. That is what human integrity is; and as we are, without work, we don't have integrity.

MISHLOVE: So the state of the average individual is a person who is both asleep and fragmented.

SPEETH: Yes, and there are terrible consequences to both of those things. Not only is this sleepwalker unable to see and hear -- he's in a dream -- but also the person says that they can promise things, and in fact there's somebody else. One person makes the promise, and somebody else is there to live up to the promise, and often promises aren't kept.

MISHLOVE: Especially, I suppose, this is serious when we make promises to ourselves.

SPEETH: Exactly.

MISHLOVE: I suppose it's one of the reasons why, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

SPEETH: Right. If you can't keep your promises to yourself, are you a human being? That is to say, Gurdjieff used to say, "Are you a 'man' with quotation marks, or a man without quotation marks?"

MISHLOVE: Would you say, having participated in this tradition somewhat, and having studied it, that there is something to the method of the Gurdjieff work -- that people are able to transcend or overcome this terrible condition? Is it enough just to recognize the problem?

SPEETH: It's not enough to recognize the problem; that's something that you can see empirically. Is it enough? You know many people who know that they're fragmented, and they know that they're out to lunch a lot of the time. Is it enough to have recognized it?

MISHLOVE: No, well, I wouldn't say so.

SPEETH: I wouldn't either.

MISHLOVE: I wouldn't say so. I think that's the first step. So the question I guess I'm trying to get at is, what comes next? What are the methods? And also, at some point, how effective do you think they are? Can they be taught?

SPEETH: Right. Well, there's been an attempt to teach the Gurdjieff work, and he himself was a real teacher, I'm sure.

MISHLOVE: From all the accounts that I have read, everybody who encountered this man was struck by some intangible yet remarkable quality about him -- that he did seem to exemplify what he was telling people when he talked about the harmonious development of the human being.

SPEETH: He did seem to be.

MISHLOVE: I recall one actually rather skeptical writer said that this man embodied a quality that he could only describe as being, a quality of being that went beyond intellect, or went beyond skilfullness, or achievement in life.

SPEETH: He had weight, he had substance, and many other people seem to be lightweights. And so the question is, how can people who feel themselves to be lightweights, how can we, who are not Gurdjieff, become more substantial; and do the techniques of the Gurdjieff system help anybody? That's the question you're asking. Certainly something has to be done, because if a person is made up of a bunch of shards of human consciousness, and if the consciousness is also degraded or blurred, then that person is in no way capable of, for example, charity. How can that person love?

MISHLOVE: There wouldn't even be a person there to love.

SPEETH: That's right.

MISHLOVE: There would be a committee.

SPEETH: That's right. There wouldn't even be a committee, there would be an anarchy. But even to get that mob into committee form is something. So there are many methods, but they really depend on the understanding of the condition that one is in being seen emotionally, not just intellectually. It has to grip you. You have to participate in it deeply, and catch yourself, and realize what Gurdjieff called the terror of the situation -- that as we are, without work, we're nothing. That is, there isn't even a committee with a chairman. Right.

MISHLOVE: I gather from what you're saying, that this is not the kind of work that one does in a weekend seminar.

SPEETH: No, this is not, no. This is a life work.

MISHLOVE: And people who have been the students of Gurdjieff have been, I guess, in quiet groups carrying out this work over the decades since he has died, and building communities, and trying to integrate his teachings into their lives and into their communities. And that's how it's done; it's not techniques that you can give on audio tape cassettes, or in weekend seminars, or things of that sort.

SPEETH: Well, you can discuss the ideas. You can help people to see what a situation they might find themselves in, and you can give beginning things.

MISHLOVE: I hope so, because we're in a half-hour TV show.

SPEETH: Exactly. But of course one can't expect to have a big quantic leap in a half hour. For example, even at this moment, as I sit here, my attention is divided. Part of my attention is sensing my physical body, and the other part is paying attention and being attuned, I hope, and responding to you. That technique is the very basic technique in the Gurdjieff work.

MISHLOVE: To be aware of what your attention is doing?

SPEETH: To be aware of myself, and of you at the same time. Because another quality of the human condition, and one that keeps human beings from being fully human, is identification, Gurdjieff calls it. What he means by that is being submerged, completely submerged in what's happening, lost in it. It's as if you're in a movie theater watching a movie, and you just don't even remember you're sitting there, and you cry and you gasp and so forth, and then the lights come up and you realize this has just been a movie. In that same way one has to withdraw just a little bit of attention as one lives one's life. Now, that's a Buddhist idea and a Sufi idea too.

MISHLOVE: To see one's own life as if it were a movie

-- to realize that we're not totally caught up in being the actor in our lives. We can also be the observer.

SPEETH: Yes, we have to be a participant-observer, in Harry Stack Sullivan's words. In a sense Gurdjieff brought nothing that hadn't been known before to the West, but what he did was put it into a form that we goal-directed, tough-minded, pragmatic Westerners could use. And so this idea of remembering oneself, which I'm attempting to do as I speak with you here, that idea is a form of Buddhist meditation, you could say, in which attention is put moment after moment on whatever comes into consciousness. But I don't have to do it sitting on a pillow; I can do it sitting in front of these cameras and talking with you, and you could do it as we're sitting here too.

MISHLOVE: It's a simple exercise, in a way, and it strikes me as if there's something profound to be learned at almost any instant when we do that, or if not profound, something. There's always something there. Like I can see I'm sinking a little bit, I'm sitting up straight, or I'm wondering, "What am I going to ask her next? Where is this leading?"

SPEETH: Right. You're more a witness of yourself, and if you're more a witness of yourself, then you have some fighting chance to know yourself, and if you know yourself, then maybe you can know the circuit diagram of yourself and really steer yourself and master yourself, and in fact live out your own destiny, not the destiny of some conventional idea of who you are or what you are.

MISHLOVE: You know, what you're saying really makes me want to say something like this to our viewers -- that anyone who is watching right now, at this instant, there might be something essential they could remember about themselves, just as we point this out, that might be important, might even be crucial to a person at this moment, if we just reach for it.

SPEETH: Sure.

MISHLOVE: And I guess the Gurdjieff work means reaching, always reaching for it.

SPEETH: Sustaining it. Because when you say to someone, "Remember yourself. Take a little of your attention and put it on your body right now. Listen to the sound of your voice. Experience the kinesthetic cues inside you. Do that right now," everyone will say, "Well, of course I can do that. It's very easy." Because everyone knows how to do that. The only thing is to sustain it -- that is a big work. Because one can do it, and I challenge anyone to do it for more than a minute without practice. Something will pull you away, right?

MISHLOVE: I think thirty seconds would be very hard.

SPEETH: So one little exercise is to remember yourself, and look at your watch, and be honest. See when it is that you forget. Because something will take you away -- some highly cathected thought, some environmental stimulus.

MISHLOVE: Well, I should imagine the key isn't never to be interrupted, never to let your mind be distracted, but over, say, a period of days or weeks to keep doing it as high a percentage of the time as you can.

SPEETH: Of course, and to notice what takes you away. What is it that keeps you from knowing yourself?

MISHLOVE: Because when you're remembering yourself, then there's less of an opportunity for all these fragments to kind of take control, I should think.

SPEETH: Yes. When you remember yourself, then you're at least in committee form. Somebody is controlling the subpersonalities.

MISHLOVE: One interesting thing about the Gurdjieff work, to me, is that it is designed to fit into a Western culture. You don't have to go off to a monastery, you don't have to give up your job or stop your normal routine in life. In fact, Gurdjieff emphasized that householders were well equipped for this work.

SPEETH: In fact it's directed toward people who want to be in the world but not of the world, and in that way it's more similar to Islamic forms than it is to Buddhist forms. It's non-monastic. In fact in many Sufi orders marriage is really required; it's done in a family situation. Gurdjieff talked about four ways, and they relate to the various functions of the human being -- the belly, the gut; the heart; the intellect; and then those three together. Way number one is the way of the fakir. It's the way of developing will by -- you know those people in India who will just stand there until a bird nests in their hand; they'll never move their arm?

MISHLOVE: I always think of fakirs as lying down on beds of nails.

SPEETH: They can do that too. They master their body, but only their physical body.

MISHLOVE: In other words, it's the notion of will power.

SPEETH: Will power, right.

MISHLOVE: And you associate that with the guts.

SPEETH: You do -- samurai, you know. So there's that way, of mastering the physical body, and that's a very big thing. Athletes love that. It's a real high, that people tell you who do high-performance athletics, like rowing or something.

MISHLOVE: Gurdjieff's point, I gather, is that this is an incomplete way.

SPEETH: Yes, and if you get all the way to transcendence in that way, then you have to be hauled back, and the other two centers have to be worked on, according to him. So one way is the fakir, that's the way of the gut. It's also the samurai in Japan. The second is the way of the monk. But what he means by monk is the Christian idea of monk -- the holy, worship, prayer, or sitting at the feet of the guru, or dancing in a bhakti way.

MISHLOVE: The sense of devotion, opening up the heart.

SPEETH: The heart, right. And we all know that. That's also in Islam; there are various Sufi orders like that.

MISHLOVE: All the groups that have the symbol of the heart with wings.

SPEETH: Heart with wings, or people who dance around Indian gurus in a bhakti way. So that's the way of the monk.

MISHLOVE: Bhakti, I should just mention, is a sanskrit word for devotion.

SPEETH: And then the head center is represented by the way of the yogi, and that's the brahmanic way, or the way of the philosopher. It's more cool, it's more Buddhist -- you know, koan Zen.

MISHLOVE: Or the scholar.

SPEETH: Or the scholar, right. Maybe even Spinoza sitting in his study, or Erasmus. So there's that way. Then Gurdjieff says his is the way of the sly man.

MISHLOVE: The sly man?

SPEETH: Oh huh. And he was a sly man. You work on all the centers simultaneously, and you do it in life, and when you do it, you don't go out of your life at all, because in your life are the clues for what you need to know, which is your very self, right? So if you just would go home and look at your house -- look at how you've chosen to live, look in your bedroom, what books are there, what kind of bed did you choose -- all of that has information about you. You've made tracks.

MISHLOVE: So when Gurdjieff talks about the harmonious development of man, he means the integration of these centers.

SPEETH: Yes, these functions.

MISHLOVE: The will, the emotions, and the intellect.

SPEETH: Right.

MISHLOVE: And when they function harmoniously, they create another quality, some of the higher capabilities of the human being -- I suppose the way we say it's more than just the sum of our parts.

SPEETH: I hope so, yes. And that is all supposed to be done without special conditions, without withdrawal from the world, but in fact making use of the world.

MISHLOVE: Now, for purposes of clarification, sometimes we hear the term the Fourth Way, Fourth Way schools, and they're often referring to the same concept, I guess -- of not choosing one of the three earlier ways, the monk, the yogi, or the fakir, but the way of the harmonious integration.

SPEETH: Right. Gurdjieff also said, which these Fourth Way schools don't remember perhaps, that the Fourth Way will never have an institution. That is, it cannot, without losing the very center of its existence, be institutionalized. So any place that has a name, is a nonprofit corporation, that has a place, a site, is not the Fourth Way. The Fourth Way cannot be found that way.

MISHLOVE: Oh!

SPEETH: Uh huh.

MISHLOVE: That's what makes it esoteric, I guess.

SPEETH: Yes. That's what Gurdjieff said. In the other ways you can go to a monastery, you can find an ashram, you can find a Talmudic group that studies all day every day, and sits and becomes wise. But you can't find the Fourth Way -- that is, you can find it, but not by looking in the telephone book under "Fourth Way groups."

MISHLOVE: I do recall reading a biography of Orage that was written by a man who was in one of these groups, and he made a point of saying anytime a group of people get together for the purpose of creating this type of work, the work will eventually disperse. It's not as if they're trying to build a big organization or temples or newsletters. They do very creative work, sometimes quite brilliant in terms of what they publish, and then they all separate and go their own ways.

SPEETH: Right. That's the sign of the Fourth Way. It seems that perhaps -- and this is just gossip, I don't really know if this is true -- the people who created Chartres --

MISHLOVE: The cathedral.

SPEETH: Yes -- who appeared, who made that cathedral, and then it was over, they left -- those might possibly have been Fourth Way people. It has the signs of Fourth Way.

MISHLOVE: Gurdjieff also refers to that cathedral as being an eternal work of art, like the Great Pyramid. It's something that influences everybody who sees it in a way which is different than the kind of conventional popular art where everybody has a different reaction to it.

SPEETH: What a difference sitting in Chartres, and going to the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, for example -- the difference between the expression of a person's neurotic and fragmented self, and the expression of the mastery and transcendence of humanity of the makers of Chartres.

MISHLOVE: So there's a sense in which to really do the work, there's an elusive quality -- it comes and it goes; you have to always be paying attention. You can never rely on set guidelines, a set school, an institution, a teacher.

SPEETH: But those people who participate know they're participating.

MISHLOVE: Well, that's a very interesting thought. I think that's a good thought to close on now. I would like to think that maybe, for those of our viewers who have been sharing this half hour with us, we've perhaps brought them a little closer to the Fourth Way.

SPEETH: I hope so.

MISHLOVE: Dr. Kathy Speeth, I think that in your own very quiet and beautiful way, you embody that work.

SPEETH: Thank you.

MISHLOVE: Thank you very much for being with me. It's been a pleasure.

END


Index of Transcripts    Top of  this Web Page    Intuition Network Home Page    Thinking Allowed Productions Home Page