WORK, THE (Religious Movement)

Many new religious movements (see New Religious Movement) refer to their teachings as ‘the work’, but the title is pre-eminently applied to the body of teachings created by Gurdjieff (see Gurdjief, George Ivanovitch) and further developed by Ouspensky (see Ouspensky, Piotr Demianovitch) and other teachers. Gurdjieff also called his work ‘the fourth way’ (aka ‘the sly way’): a distillation of the best elements of what he saw as the three main traditional spiritual paths: the ways of the fakir, the monk and the yogi.

The essence of Gurdjieffs philosophy is the idea that humanity is asleep, and the goal is to wake up—hence his favourite slogan: ‘the war against sleep’. His key technique for awakening is ‘self-remembering’: a process of close observation of inner states, especially negative personal traits, in order to attain higher states of consciousness and self-awareness. Since this task is almost insuperable, it requires the supervision of an experienced teacher, whose authority must be recognized. Progress is most effective while working with a group of like-minded practitioners. In Gurdjieffs time, ‘the work’ was mainly physical, advanced by going outside one’s ‘comfort zone’. At the Prieure, this precept was carried to extreme lengths. People who had never before worked manually were given demanding yet futile tasks to provoke them into awareness. Another central practice was the ‘sacred dance’, demanding immense focus and concentration in order to still the mind into meditation—a process similar to Asian martial arts.

Gurdjieff’s teaching style was highly intuitive, even idiosyncratic; for example, he would put people with the most abrasive personality in charge, order vegetarians to eat meat, teetotallers to become drunk—anything to ‘wake them up’. His praxis was spontaneous, intuitive, unpredictable, but was later systematized and routinized by Ouspensky. Ouspensky is disowned by the Gurdjieff Foundation, though there are schools that combine both teachings. Gurdjieff did not appoint an official successor, but his lineage has passed through Jeanne de Salzmann, who set up many societies and foundations around the world. In modern Gurdjieff schools the focus is less on physical work and more on dance, other awareness exercises, and mystical teaching.

Nowadays there are many NRMs and other organizations around the world exploring ‘the work’, but two main groups are identifiable. First, there are those which claim some direct (if often remote) lineage from Gurdjieff and his disciples; these continue the tradition in an evolving, diverging format. Second, there are groups whose main teachers are not in Gurdjieff’s lineage at all but have co-opted elements of ‘the work’ into their own praxis. Regrettably, some of these movements do not acknowledge their provenance. Many of the strands and divisions between the current schools are due to differences over the sources of his work, (especially the Sufi connection), which remain largely unknown. It is surprising that the movement has survived and flourished for as long as it has after the death of the charismatic founder, given his highly syncretistic teachings and eccentric teaching style. It could be argued that survival has been attained by constant division and schism, a process undergone by many religious movements.

Membership levels are impossible to establish accurately, though they have been estimated at 5,000-10,000 worldwide and either static or declining. There are various possible reasons. There is little proselytizing, the praxis is rigorous, and membership requirements tend to be selective. Gurdjieff was insistent that ‘the work’ was not for everyone. People who lacked a strong sense of boundaries, or conversely, were too rigid and set in their ways, were deemed unsuitable. His ideal student was the mature ‘householder’ who was adaptable and able to function in the working world.

Also spiritual fashions have changed since the movement’s heyday, and contemporary seekers are more likely to join Eastern-based, neo-pagan (see Neo-Paganism) or shamanic groups (see Shamanism).

The main legacy of Gurdjieff’s work may well lie in a more pervasive influence on philosophy, psychology, and the arts. In his lifetime many celebrated intellectuals and artists were drawn to him. Amongst the many movements that have been influenced directly or indirectly by the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky teachings are the School of Economic Science, and TM (Transcendental Meditation). The movement side of his work has influenced the Holistic Health Movement, particularly Wilhelm Reich’s bodywork, the Feldenkrais method, and the Alexander technique. Osho replicated elements of Gurdjieff’s methods at his ashram in India, including the performance of ‘pointless’ tasks and the appointment of aggressive personalities as supervisors. His ideas have also been appropriated by many New Age groups (see New Age Movement), the most popular being the Enneagram, developed by Oscar Ichazo but apparently first used by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Another interesting modern development is a system of self-development known as ‘the Michael teachings’, originating in the USA and now growing in Europe. It is a highly complex and sophisticated system, which has grown rapidly in recent years, and contains many elements from Gurdjieff’s work—plus a great deal more in the same vein that he did not cover.

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