Gurdjieff’s way

G. I. Gurdjieff proposed a new way he called the “fourth way,” which requires examining the three assumed ways and the question of whether there are not still more ways.

The three ways are the way of the fakir, of the monk, and of the yogi. The way of the fakir corresponds to control of the body and senses; that of the monk to the emotions or feelings, the heart; that of the yogi to the mind. Gurdjieff proposes the image of concentric circles or squares, with the way of the fakir as the outermost. The problem is that no way intersects or allows the individual to work on integrating all three. Someone at the periphery, who must start with the body, will not have time or strength to attain to control of the heart, let alone the mind. This is the situation for all of us.

Gurdjieff’s alternative is the fourth way, but as with all of his writings and narratives, no firm details are ever revealed. Gurdjieff preferred to work with people directly rather than have them read something. This is a characteristic of modern gurus, as Anthony Storr points out. So we are left with the summaries of P. D. Ouspensky to try to fathom what the “fourth way” could possibly be, though we have an inkling.

First off, Gurdjieff insists, the fourth way differs from the other three in that

it is never a permanent way. It has no definite form and there are no institutions connected with it. It appears and disappears governed by some particular laws of its own.

Schools to follow the fourth way appear, says Gurdjieff cagily, and people do work within them. But when the work is done, the school closes, for it is not a school for instruction or information. However, those who learn of the schools may attempt to follow its content. Such people then create new schools, which, however, are only imitations, and take on a “pseudo-esoteric” character, purporting to carry out work but are themselves “a lie” in respect to the truth of the real work. Such is the history of thousands of years, where ossified institutions and structures still extant carry on with only a grain of truth, representing only their perpetuation of power and control.

Yet concealed within such traditional organizations are surely those who know. Gurdjieff places them in Tibetan monasteries and Indian temples, where visitors or aspirants only pass through the circles corresponding to their adeptness. Most will not penetrate the inner sanctum of their selves, nor of the monasteries or temples — or equivalent institutions.

The fakir will know something about the body and its energies; the monk will know something, too, about fasting, deprivation, sacrifice, and bodily control, plus the feelings of his spiritual tradition; the yogi will know still more, of the body, of the stirrings of the spirit, but also mental exercises and control of thoughts. “In this way a yogi spends on the same thing only one day compared with a month spent by the fakir and a week spent by the monk.”

Gurdjieff insists that the fourth way offers the aspirant a manner of integrating all of the strengths of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi.

When a man attains will on the fourth way, he can make use of it because he has acquired control of all his bodily, emotional, and intellectual functions. And besides, he has saved a great deal of time by working on the three sides of his being in parallel and simultaneously.

The fourth way is sometimes called the way of the sly man. The “sly man” knows some secret which the fakir, monk, and yogi do not know. How the “sly man” learned this secret — it is not known. Perhaps he found it in some old books, perhaps he inherited it, perhaps he bought it, perhaps he stole it from someone. It makes no difference. The “sly man” knows the secret and with its help outstrips the fakir, the monk, and the yogi.

There are “proper and legitimate ways” to attain the fourth way, but, Gurdjieff notes, there are also “artificial ways which give temporary results only.” And there are wrong ways that give permanent but wrong results. And there may be a skeleton key to the fourth room, but with it the user may discover the room to be empty.

These threads, made unnecessarily exotic and abstruse by the sly man Gurdjieff himself, are perfectly legitimate perceptions of the inadequacy of historically dominant thinking and controlling. Gurdjieff was horrified by the limitless capacity for evil in the modern world (in this case, thinking of World War I, when Ouspensky interviewed him), and the need to disengage from it. What his model fakir, monk, and yogi have in common is that they all do find methods of disengaging from the world, but they are incomplete.

While a fourth way would seem to promise a breakthrough, Gurdjieff never develops this “way” and leaves it to his work with individuals, outside the realm of verification and publicity. As to the bulk of Gurdjieff’s known thinking on physics, astronomy, biology, psychology and the like all of it is too far afield from the goal of a fourth way, too irrelevant to a cogent philosophy of self-realization and disengagement.

A philosophy of solitude would include the work of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi, and would — as with Gurdjieff’s “work” — offer those in the world some understanding while they necessarily had to continue to work in the world — those less fortunate than the hermits and solitaries who would not have to continue to work in the world.

A true fourth way might be the way of the hermit, at least in the symbolic or archetypal sense. But that would require a new search for the mechanics of how it would be presented. It would seem to be cheating to take the route of the “sly man” and steal it from some other thinker or philosopher or poet or hermit. After all, as Gurdjieff owns, “He who wants knowledge must himself make the initial efforts to find the source of knowledge. … Knowledge cannot come to people without effort on their part.” Much less a way.

Systems and schools can indicate methods and ways, but no system or school whatever can do for a man the work that he must do himself. Inner growth, a change of being, depend entirely upon the work which a man must do on himself.