Gurdjieff and Sufism

 

Inside each of us there is a caged animal, struggling to break out. In Sufism, it is called the Base Self (nafs al-ammara). Nor is it as harmless as a cat. Yet even a cat, if left unattended, will devour your pigeons—symbolically speaking, the better angels of our nature, and hence our inner and outer peace. As a poster byline to the movie Colossal (2016) explains, “There’s a monster in all of us.” Another movie poster, that of The Transfiguration (2017), depicts the Base Self as a murderous shadow. Interestingly, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s corresponding term for the Base Self was also “the shadow.” For both illustrations, see below. (Photo above inspired by René Magritte’s painting, The Therapist (1937).)

I’ve been intending to do an update on Gurdjieff. He may not be as renowned today as he once was, but he used to be considered a very important spiritual teacher. Some years ago, I wrote the following: 

Sufism and Gurdjieff

A great deal of information about Sufism has reached the West at
various times, some along quite unexpected avenues. George I. Gurdjieff
was one of those who acted as a long-unrecognized conveyor of such
information, but he was reluctant to reveal his sources.
John G. Bennett devoted most of his life to tracking down the sources
of Gurdjieff’s wisdom. By the time he wrote Gurdjieff: Making a New
World (1973), he had identified these as the Masters of Wisdom of Central
Asia, the Khwajagan Order that initiated the Naqshbandi branch of
the Sufis. Based on information gleaned from the Sufi Master Hasan
Shushud of Istanbul, Bennett wrote his last book, The Masters of Wisdom
(1977). In this book, published posthumously (he died in 1974),
he definitively identified the Sufis as Gurdjieff’s source—or at least, the
source of the essential core of Gurdjieff’s multifaceted teachings. To support
Bennett’s case would require a separate study in itself, so I shall be
content to indicate just one of the dead giveaways which demonstrate
Gurdjieff’s debt to Sufism.

Some time around 1915, Gurdjieff identified three “ways to immortality,”
these he described as the way of the fakir, the way of the monk,
and the way of the yogi. To summarize, the fakir worked on the physical
body, the monk chose the path of religious faith and love, and the yogi
worked with the mind and knowledge (Gurdjieff must have had the
Raja and Jnana modes of Yoga in mind). All three, Gurdjieff added,
required retirement from the world and renunciation of worldly life.
This requirement would leave the ordinary person in a hopeless situation
in terms of spiritual development, were it not for the fact that a “fourth
way” existed. This way, he added, did not require seclusion, but could be
practiced under the usual conditions of life, work, and social involvement,
without having to go into the hills or the desert.151 Mysteriously,
he described the essence of this way as follows: “what substances he needs
for his aims…can be introduced into the organism from without if it is
known how to do it.152
What could this cryptic method be? Gurdjieff leaves few clues as to its
nature. We are left in the dark, until we learn from Annemarie Schimmel
of the Sufic technique of rabita, wherein a “tie” or “connection” is established
between master and disciple,153 enabling the transfer—or download—
of spiritual power or baraka into the disciple’s heart. Establishing
“contact” is mentioned as rabitu in the Koran (3:200), but almost never
interpreted—due to lack of knowledge—in the sense described here.

UPDATE: According to the famous Turkish commentator on the Koran, Ahmet Hamdi Yazir of Elmali, rabita occurs once therein in the form of rabitu and twice in the form of rabatna. Rabitu (3:200): “Be in (the state of) bonding.” Rabatna alâ qulubihim (18:14): “We gave bonding to their hearts.” Rabatna alâ qalbiha (28:10): “We gave bonding to her heart.” (It should be noted that most translators of the Koran into English render the word as “strengthened.”) Rabita has also been described as a technique of fixing in the imagination the visual form of one’s master, which then operates as a channel for the transmission of divine energy or effulgence (fayz). (Dina Le Gall, A Culture of Sufism (2005), p. 114.)  According to Bennett: “Gurdjieff was, more than anything else, a Sufi… The true way transmits a spiritual power, baraka or hanbledzoin, which enables the seeker to do what is quite beyond his unaided strength… This transmission of a higher energy that can be assimilated to the energy of the pupil is a vital part of the whole process, and in this sense it certainly can be said that Gurdjieff, at all times, was a teacher.” (Quoted in http://www.studiesincomparativereligion.com/Public/articles/Gurdjieff_in_the_Light_of_Tradition_Part_1-by_Whitall_Perry.aspx)

(Schimmel also gives an alternate technical term, tawajjuh, i.e., concentration
of the disciple upon the master and/or vice versa.) This is a trademark
of the Sufi tradition and something very specific154 —not to be
confused with the ordinary teacher/student tie, which, of course, occurs
in many traditions. As we have seen, Sufism does not counsel becoming
a recluse; it advises us to be in the world but not of the world, to remain
aloof from the ebb and flow of daily life.
This single example should suffice to show that Gurdjieff was deeply
indebted to the Sufis for his information, but he was so reticent in divulging
his sources that it took John Bennett most of his life to track
down and identify the roots.

(Henry Bayman, The Secret of Islam, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2003, pp. 208-9.)

Further Considerations

Michael S. Pittman has published an important study about our topic with the unlikely title, Classical Spirituality in Contemporary America (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012). Only the subtitle reveals the nature of its contents: The Confluence and Contribution of G.I. Gurdjieff and Sufism.

Pittman repeatedly refers to two points that bring Gurdjieff into the orbit of Sufism: “conscious labor and intentional suffering.” The first is known as “struggle” in Sufism, leading to the motto: “without struggle (mujahada), there can be no observation (mushahada) [of the divine].” But struggle against the Base Self is no easy thing. It means fasting and other deprivations, and will at times be painful. Here another, more general motto: “No pain, no gain” is applicable. So conscious labor really cannot be divorced from intentional suffering.

Like the Sufis, Gurdjieff would deprive his followers of their most prized habit or possession. Here is Gurdjieff in his own words: 

There are two different things under different laws: 1) the organic body; 2) the psychic body. The organic body [that is, the Base Self] obeys its laws. It only wishes to satisfy its needs – eating, sleeping, sex. It knows nothing else. It wishes nothing else. It is a real animal. One must feel it as an animal. One must feel it as a stranger. One must subdue it, train it and make it obey, instead of obeying it.

The psychic body [meaning the spirit, more or less] knows something other than the organic body. It has other needs, other aspirations, other desires. It belongs to a different world. It is of a different nature. There is a conflict between these two bodies – one wishes, the other does not. It is a struggle which one must reinforce voluntarily. By our work; by our will. It is this fight which exists naturally, which is the specific state of man, which we must use to create a third thing, a third state different from the other two, which is the Master, which is united with something else.

The task is therefore something precise which reinforces this struggle, because by struggle and ONLY by struggle can a new possibility of being be born. For instance, my organism is in the habit of smoking. That is its need. I do not wish to smoke – I eliminate this habit. The need is always there but I refuse to satisfy it. There is a struggle, a conscious voluntary struggle…

(http://www.gurdjieff-internet.com/article_details.php?ID=128&W=19)

Substitute the insertions in brackets as replacements, and this could almost be lifted in its entirety from a classic manual of Sufism.

Of course, Gurdjieff did not know about the two critical deprivations that really matter. According to Master Ahmet Kayhan, these are abstention from: 1. Illicit Gain and 2. Illicit Sex. No other deprivation, no matter how rigorous, will succeed in taming the Base Self. And for these one needs: 1. a job where you earn an honest living, and 2. a spouse of the opposite sex, to whom you are legally married. Only after these two things are abandoned can any spiritual growth take place and one become a saint. Only then will religious observances such as Formal Prayer (salat, namaz) be productive. Otherwise, you’ll be taking on more water than you’re bailing out.

There are other indications of Gurdjieff’s debt to the Sufis in constructing his teachings. For example, his “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man,” established at the Prieuré (near Paris), was closely modeled on the dervish brotherhoods and lodges (takka, khanqah). His seven “stages of Man” seem to have been borrowed (with modifications) from the seven levels of selfhood in Sufism. Again, Gurdjieff’s assertion that ordinary consciousness is a form of sleep is almost directly a quote from the Prophet: “Human beings are asleep, they wake up when they die.” Other similarities would not be hard to find.

Incidentally, Gurdjieff refers to the Prophet as “Saint Mohammed,” thus highlighting his saintly aspect (walâya) over his prophetic aspect (nubuwwa). This is all too often neglected in discussions about the Prophet, for he was a saint as well as a prophet. A single Tradition“Your worst enemy is your (Base) Self between your two flanks”—is enough to prove the point. (Ghazali, Ihyâ, 3/4; Ajluni, Kashf al-Hafâ, 1/143.)  Phrased a bit differently, the Prophet is saying that you are your own worst enemy.

In concluding, I should perhaps reemphasize that Sufism constitutes only part of Gurdjieff’s syncretistic teachings. But that’s the part that really matters.

PS. I cannot pass without taking note of a remark by Whitall Perry: “It is not known that Gurdjieff, despite his years in Islamic countries, had any Muslims for disciples; and other considerations apart, the stress in Islam on intelligence, beauty, and purity would make it unthinkable for a Muslim still conscious of his heritage to be drawn into Gurdjieff’s world.(http://www.studiesincomparativereligion.com/public/articles/Gurdjieff_in_the_Light_of_Tradition_Part_3-by_Whitall_Perry.aspx)  All indications are that his ethics, too, left a lot to be desired.

NOTES

151 Peter D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, New York: Harcourt,
Brace & World, 1949, pp. 44-49.
152 Ibid., p. 50; italics in the original.
153 Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1975, p. 237.
154 See the chapter “The Spiritual Journey of the Sufi,” Method 3: Spiritual
Connection with the Master. [In The Secret of Islam, p. 262.]

 

One comment on “Gurdjieff and Sufism

  1. A reader who knew Master (Effendi) Ahmet Kayhan has written:

    Thank you for posting this article. Although there is great benefit from Gurdjieff’s teachings, for he was a truly remarkable man and so was J.G. Bennett — whom I felt much closer to — I for one had already found my spiritual path, whilst reading some of his works, so I felt there was no need whatsoever to pursue his other works. But I have to say that I found his works to be rather “cold” with no clear objective or end. It was kind of like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces! Above all, as you have said, “All indications are that his ethics, too, left a lot to be desired”. I totally agree! This was something I could not relate to, as I truly believe that without golden morals and ethics, we would be quite simply “trapped indefinitely” by our base self. This was something I understood immediately from the teachings of Master Ahmet Kayhan. And that is why we and all those who met Master Ahmet Kayhan were more than fortunate… much more than fortunate!

    To which I responded with:

    Thank you for your Gurdjieff comments. It’s exactly like you say, a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Especially, perhaps, because it was assembled from several separate — and disparate — jigsaw puzzles. We have, indeed, been fortunate beyond belief in having met Effendi.