Paul Jordan-Smith: Local Gurdjieff group presentation at Open Book, May 16
A hundred years ago, just before the Revolution, an unusual man appeared in Russia offering an approach to understanding one’s life and one’s place on earth. The approach was neither political nor explicitly religious and attracted modest interest in a time of great turmoil.
The man was G.I. Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian who had spent years traveling in Central Asia, searching for answers to some of the fundamental questions concerning human existence: Who and what are we as human beings? What is our place in the scheme of things? Do we serve a purpose, or is life completely accidental?
Such questions are by no means new: for millennia, philosophers have sought answers to them. The questions persist, in human history but also in each of us, mostly below our awareness, surfacing briefly on occasion, only to subside beneath everyday concerns. The self-inquiry they inspired in Gurdjieff directed his lifelong search and became central to the teaching he brought in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and later, in western Europe and America.
One of Gurdjieff’s key observations was that self-inquiry need not conflict with everyday life. These two aspects or “currents” of human existence are equally important, and their reciprocal interaction could bring about a third kind of life that included both. Using methods that were — and are — essentially indirect, he created challenging conditions that called for efforts to remember simultaneously these two currents. Life is enriched when we try to remember our inner life while engaged with everyday concerns: an effort, he said, that makes everything “more vivid.”
Gurdjieff’s teaching is primarily an oral tradition, embodied in his writings, music, and sacred dances (Movements). His writings took the form of three books under the common title “All and Everything.” The first is the massive “Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson,” the second his autobiographical “Meetings with Remarkable Men,” and the third the deliberately incomplete shorter book, “Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I am.’” Beside this corpus of his direct writings stand two important works: a collection of talks given by Gurdjieff in the 1920s and ’30s under the title of Views from the Real World, and the recently published Paris Meetings 1943, consisting of transcripts, translated from the French, of questions that arose during weekly meetings and Gurdjieff’s responses to them.
Gurdjieff’s music consists of pieces written in collaboration with the composer Thomas De Hartmann, who transcribed and harmonized Gurdjieff’s dictated melodies. In addition to printed editions, several recordings are available, including one by De Hartmann himself. Other pianists include Alain Kremsky, Laurence Rosenthal, Linda Daniel Spitz, Charles Ketcham, and Yleana Bautista.
The sacred dances called Movements create conditions that engage mind, body, and feeling. “Taking new, unaccustomed postures,” Gurdjieff wrote, “enables you to observe yourself inside differently from the way you usually do.”
Following Gurdjieff’s death, many of his direct pupils, wishing to continue to work together, organized themselves into groups now known as the Gurdjieff Foundations. These first appeared in Paris, London, Caracas, and New York in the early 1950s. Since then, additional branches of the Gurdjieff Foundations have been established by Gurdjieff’s pupils around the world. Participants usually refer to the teaching as “the Gurdjieff Work,” or simply, “the Work.”
The Sierra Gurdjieff Study Group, in contact with other Gurdjieff Foundations worldwide, was established in 2010 by me, Paul Jordan-Smith, and Ellen Reynard, who have been in the Work for over 50 years and studied with some of Gurdjieff’s original pupils. The group meets regularly in Nevada City and Grass Valley for the study of Gurdjieff’s teaching through practical work, the exchange of experiences, and the study of Gurdjieff’s writings, music, and sacred dance.
Ellen and I, together with musician Alan Feeney, who has been in the Work for over 40 years and also had direct contact with some of Gurdjieff’s pupils, will be hosting a presentation of the Gurdjieff Work touching on all three aspects of his teaching, followed by an informal exchange, from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at The Open Book, 671 Maltman Drive, Grass Valley. Admission is free.
For further information, please visit http://sierra-gurdjieff.org.
Paul Jordan-Smith is a folklorist, managing editor, and writer. He lives in Grass Valley.
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