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Changes in G. I. Gurdjieff’s Teaching ‘The Work’

by Dr Sophia Wellbeloved (London)
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference (CESNUR-INFORM) in London. Preliminary version - Do not reproduce without the consent of the author


Gurdjieff (1866?-1949) changed his teaching’s form to accord with contemporary interests: cosmological occultism in Russia c1912 and writing his texts in literary Paris of the 1920s-1930s. Thus change itself is part of the Gurdjieff ‘tradition’. After his death Foundations were set up to conserve his teaching, however, from the 1960s there has been a change from ‘active’ to ‘passive’ Work practise. Other recent changes suggest the Foundations may wish to ally themselves with established Traditions. Gurdjieff’s obscure spiritual lineage has allowed for the appropriation or absorption of his teaching by those claiming knowledge of its sources in, for example, Hinduism, Western European Occultism, Sufism, Theosophy, or Orthodox Christianity. Others seek to give the Work a contemporary expression, most notably via ‘Gurdjieff’s enneagram’ which has become the ‘enneagram of personality’ utilised in popular psychology, therapies, and business studies.



Gurdjieff was born 1866/70? and died in Paris in 1949. He taught that human beings have no central ‘I’, are asleep and need to wake up. His teaching addresses this problem through a variety of methods for the integration of mind, body and emotions.

Change is inherent in Gurdjieff’s teaching because he both embraced and provoked change; in relation to the needs of his pupils and also in accordance with contemporary interests. [1] This has made it difficult for the teaching to be passed on in one form only, and in fact the Work has fragmented into many streams. We will look first at how Gurdjieff embraced change, adapting his teaching to contemporary interests; secondly at how he provoked change; and thirdly at how these changes relate to the continuation of his teaching after his death.

Changes in Form and Mode of Teaching

We will look briefly at two points, in Gurdjieff’s long teaching career, which show how he changed the form and mode of his teaching. When Gurdjieff began teaching in Russia c1912, his cosmological teaching was given in occult terms, the group meetings were held in secret, pupils could not relate what they learned to others outside the group. This was in accord with contemporary interests because the occult revival was strong in Russia, Theosophy and other Western Occult teachings were of great interest to the intelligentsia in general and Gurdjieff’s pupils in particular.

Gurdjieff is quoted as saying that he taught via occultism because it was a subject his pupil had studied, but that there is ‘no need to use occultism as the base from which to approach an understanding of the truth’. [2] However, if we accept Webb’s definition of the occult as anti-rational and anti-establishment we can see that Gurdieff’s teaching was occult, and whatever other changes occurred to the teaching, it remained occult for the whole of his life. [3]

Later, when Gurdjieff came to France, the period he is probably best known for, he opened his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, forty miles outside Paris in 1922, but this was only fully functioning for two years. During this time Gurdjieff had a high profile life, within a matter of months he had the reputation of both charlatan and magician, the Institute became a kind of tourist attraction and on Saturdays there were demonstrations of sacred dancing and of magic. [4]

Then, in 1924, Gurdjieff made another dramatic change in the form of the Work and began to put his teaching into a written form. This was also in accord with contemporary interests because Paris was both an occult and a literary centre. In the 1920s and 1930s there were many English language writers in Paris and the two interests, occultism and literature were intertwined. [5] Gurdjieff’s texts reflect both interests, they contain many occult references and are zodiacally structured. [6] They may also be defined in relation to contemporary modernist literary interests, in the rejection of conventional literature, experimentation with punctuation, and romantic interest in myth and the anti-hero.

The high profile period of Gurdjieff’s teaching from c1922 - c1932 was important because it enabled him to attract large numbers of pupils and because his ideas were also spread by writers, for example: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, and Aldous Huxley. This would not have happened had he continued teaching in the closed format that he used in Russia. These changes show that Gurdjieff was willing to embrace contemporary interests and to change the form and mode of his teaching accordingly.

Provocation of Change - Fragmentation within the Work

However, Gurdjieff also provoked change. If we looked at what happened after his death, we can see that although he had united the groups of American and British pupils, in Paris after World War Two, he chose not to form a secure line of succession. At the same time he suggested to various pupils that they were the only one who could carry out his teaching after his death and this was a provocation to schism. [7]

Although most of his pupils stayed with Jeanne de Salzmann (b.1889) who remained until her death in 1990 the head of the Foundations set up to transmit and preserve the authentic teaching, at least eight of his pupils, some sooner than others, formed their own institutes or groups which carried on the Work outside the umbrella of the Foundations. [8] Many of these groups, or those which have sprung from them, are still functioning.

The life-myth, which Gurdjieff created for himself in his writings, has also been a cause for fragmentation within the Work. He acknowledged that he drew his teaching from a number of diverse sources, and although traces of Western European Occult traditions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism can all be detected in his teaching and his texts, he left no information about his sources that we can verify. The obscurity and multiplicity of the sources from which Gurdjieff drew his teaching has allowed for the re-fragmentation of his teaching back towards its possible constituent parts.

As a result there were, and are, strands of the Work in which it has been mixed with, for example: Roman Catholicism (Rodney Collin); Greek Orthodox Christianity (Mouraviev, Robin Amis, UK, The Church of Conscious Harmony, USA); Hinduism (the School of Economic Science, UK); Hinduism and Theosophy (Sri Krishna Prem, Sri Ashish Madhava, India, Sy Ginsburg, USA). Gurdjieff did not provide a clear lineage and so his teaching was open to appropriation by those who claimed to be in touch with his teachers. Idries Shah, for example, said that he was in contact with Gurdjieff’s Sufi origins. [9]

But, while some of those outside the Foundations have sought to take the teaching back to its ‘origins’ others have sought to take it forward, making it in tune with the times, arguing that this is what Gurdjieff himself would do were he alive now. Thus there are the ‘Gurdjieff Ouspensky Schools’ and ‘The Fellowship of Friends’, they operate outside the Foundations, do not have a line from Gurdieff’s pupils, and they do advertise.

Changes to Work Practice introduced in 1960s/1970s in the Foundations

Although the Foundations were set up to conserve the Work, there is a sense in which the teaching was irrevocably changed by Gurdjieff’s death because pupils were now without his charismatic presence. I was informed in personal communications that Jeanne de Salzmann visited spiritual teachers in North Africa and India, researching how to take the Work forward. Whatever she decided, she does seem to have made one important change. In the late 1960s or early 1970s she introduced a new form of passive and receptive Work, where the pupil received love, through the crown of the head, he experienced himself as being worked upon, rather than actively working on himself, (these changes were not introduced in London until 1980). [10] While we cannot be sure that Gurdieff did not introduce this form of Work at the end of his life, there is nothing in his texts nor in the pupil memoirs which suggest this. [11] All of these stress the need for incessant struggle against passivity and sleep.

Gurdjieff reputation in relation to his pupils is mixed. He had much bad publicity during his high profile time, often unfounded, which he did nothing to correct, he was a great destabiliser of his own reputation. The Foundations, in wishing to preserve the teaching, have focused on his role as a spiritual teacher. But to tidy Gurdjieff up is to deny the essential paradoxes that he himself created; in his self-presentation, his mode of teaching pupils, in his theory which is inconsistent, and in his texts. [12]

Destabilising paradoxes, contradictions and anomalies are of value because they arouse questioning and force the pupil to be active in relation to the teaching. These are qualities which Gurdieff valued and it is clear from his writings that he was aware of and valued the irreconcilable elements within his teaching. [13] As mentioned earlier, Gurdjieff’s teaching remained a revolutionary, occult, anti-establishment, anti-rational teaching and this renders any aim to establish it as a tradition, or to conserve one specific form of it problematic.

There are signs at the moment that there is a change in feeling about the nature of the Work. Terms relating to the traditions, ‘meditation’, ‘spiritual teaching’ are now in use by Work pupils, these were certainly not used in London in the 1960s when the Work was presented largely as a psychology. This shift can also be seen in two quotations relating to John Pentland, who was the head of the Foundation in New York from 1953 until his death in 1984. He is described, by a past Foundation member, as a man:

who understood the work and its need for a vehicle uncontaminated with the thought forms of the time. He had resolutely sought to guard the teachings against any and all deviation, so that it might be passed down intact. [14]

We can see that the aims of the Foundation, expressed in relation to preserving the teaching, is very different from Gurdjieff’s own approach where indeed he did use the ‘thought forms of the time’ and taught through them. The second quotation is from Roy Finch’s introduction to a book of Pentland’s group meetings. [15] He refers to Pentland as a spiritual director who is compared to Thomas Merton, among others. [16] This may show the Foundations moving to establish themselves with the Traditions, or at least looking for a more public face than they have had up till now. The Foundations have always followed the quiet mode of teaching of Gurdjieff’s later years, they have never advertised and so the number of new pupils have declined.

Changes to the Enneagram

However, the element of Gurdjieff’s teaching which seems to have separated itself from the main body of the teaching is ‘Gurdjieff’s enneagram’ which has become the ‘enneagram of typology or personality’ widely used in therapies and business studies. Gurdjieff taught that his enneagram was a unique symbol not to be found elsewhere. [17] However, Gurdjieff did adapt ‘his enneagram’ which has a form and a numerology that is connected with the Tree of Life and the zodiac. This makes its connection with the enneagram of personality understandable; the points of the enneagram represent the signs of the zodiac, or the planets. [18] Once again, Gurdjieff’s decision not to reveal the sources of ‘his’ enneagram, opened the way for its appropriation by Oscar Ichazu at his Arica foundation c1960. The ‘enneagram of personality’ arrived, via Claudio Naranjo, at the Eslan Institute and from there information was taken up at seminars in Jesuit theological centres, especially the Universities of California, Berkley and Loyola University Chicago, and thence on into numerous popular publications. [19] A web search (via www. google.com) reveals that another religious teaching is forming around the enneagram which involves a prayer practise termed kything. [20]


In conclusion we can see that the changes which Gurdjieff made in his teaching, the inconsistencies and the paradoxes that he presented through the way he taught, through his theory and his teaching texts, have opened the teaching to appropriation and fragmentation. Formal and informal Work groups, some with lineage and some without, groups which focus on past origins and those which focus on present adaptations, both advertised and unadvertised now exist in Australia, China, India, Japan, Malaya, North and South America and Europe in a multiplicity of expressions which continue to fragment and reform.


[1] ‘While the truth sought for was always the same, the forms through which he [Gurdjieff] helped his pupils approach it served only for a limited time’ de Salzmann in Gurdjieff, G. I., Views From The Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff. (Views). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, p. vii.

2. [2] Views, p. 14.

[3] Webb defines the occult as ‘rejected knowledge, that is an Underground whose basic unity’ is that of being in opposition to the established political and religious powers. Webb, James, The Flight From Reason (vol. I of The Age of The Irrational). London: MacDonald, 1971 pp. v-vii, 120-21. Alchemy, astrology, Hermeticism, Gnostisicm and the mystery religions are all forms of occult teaching traces of which can be found in Gurdjieff’s teaching.

[4] Taylor, Paul Beekman. Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer. York Beach Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1998, p. 9.

[5] Taylor, Paul Beekman. Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium. York Beach Maine: Samuel Weiser, 2001, p. 22-3.

[6] Wellbeloved, Sophia. Gurdjieff Astrology & Beelzebub’s Tales. Aurora, Oregon: Abintra, 2001.

[7] Moore, James. Gurdjieff: the Anatomy of a Myth. London: Element, 1991, p. 288.

[8] Paul and Naomi Anderson (American Institute For Continuing Education, USA) John Bennett, (Sherbourne, Combe Springs, UK and Claymont USA), Rodney Collin (Mexico USA), C. Daly King, USA, Louise March (East Hill Farm, USA), Willem Nyland (Institute for Religious Development, USA), A. L. Stavely (Two Rivers Farm, USA), Olgivana Wright (Taliesen, USA), from a diagram in Speeth, Kathleen, Riordan. The Gurdjieff Work. London: Turnstone, 1977, p. 96, (first pub. USA: And/or, 1976).

[9] Moore, James. ‘Neo-Sufism: The Case of Idries Shah’ Religion Today: A Journal of Contemporary Religion 3 (3),n.d. pp. 4-8 and ‘New Lamps for Old: The Enneagram Debacle’ Religion Today: A Journal of Contemporary Religion/ 5, (3) n. date pp. 8-11.

[10] see Wellbeloved, Sophia. ‘G. I. Gurdjieff: some Reference to Love’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1998 pp. 321-332.

[11] see Anderson, Margaret. The Unknowable Gurdjieff. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962;

de Hartmann. Thomas and Olga, Our Life With Mr Gurdjieff, enlarged edn. rev. by C. T. Daly and T. A. G. Daly, London : Arkana, 1992 (first pub. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964). 1964,

Ouspensky, P. D., In Search of the Miraculous: Fragment of an Unknown Teaching. London Arkana, 1987 (first pub. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949. Peters, Fritz. Gurdjieff. London: Wildwood House, 1976 (Boyhood With Gurdjieff first pub.1964, Gurdjieff Remembered first pub. 1965)

[12] Wellbeloved, 2001 pp. 65-73.

[13] Taylor, Paul Beekman. ‘Decontruction of History in the Third Series’ All & Everything Proceedings of the International Humanities Conference, ed. H. J. Sharp and others, Bognor Regis, privately published 1997.

[14] Patterson, William Patrick. Eating the ‘I’: A Direct Account of the Fourth Way - the Way of Transformation in Ordinary Life. California: Arete, 1992, p. 348).

[15] Pentland, John. Exchanges Within: Questions from Everyday Life selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California 1955 - 84. New York: Continuum, 1997.

[16] Finch, an academic philosopher and long term Gurdjieff student, includes Simone Weil, Baron von Huegel [Hugel], Martin Buber, Frithjof Schuon in the list of spiritual directors with whom Pentland is compared.

[17] (Ouspensky 1950, p. 287).

[18] Wellbeloved 2001, pp. 42-5. Ouspensky (1987, p. 378) shows an ‘astronomical enneagram’ in which seven of the enneagram’s nine points are represented by the seven planets.

[19] Levine, Janet. The Enneagram Intelligences: Understanding Personality for Effective Teaching and Learning. Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1999, pp. 12, 18).

[20] References for and against kything can be found on the web, for: Savary and Bearne on Kything: The Art of Spiritual Presence, a case against kything is given on the Catholic evangelist Eddie Russell’s Blaze

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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