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Steiner and Gurdjieff

A note in response to a query by a visitor to this site respecting Steiner's attitude to Gurdjieff. As the teachings of each man were vast and all encompassing, I'm constrained here by assuming a familiarity on the part of the reader with something of each of them.

They were both contemporary public figures so it is a certainty that they would have known of each other, and they were in reasonably close geographical proximity. It has been suggested in some anthroposophical circles that Steiner was reported to have spoken against Gurdjieff. There is a perhaps apocryphal story kicking around that Gurdjieff visited the Goetheanum once, and was ejected by Steiner. This is only third hand hearsay (as far as I know), however. (I have latterly heard a perhaps more authoritative version that describes the meeting as having taken place and been on more cordial terms of mutual recognition but also a recognition of different missions.)

Likewise Gurdjieff dismisses 'anthroposophism' in his Beelzebub as just another "ism." However, Steiner has been cited favorably, if tentatively, here and there by more recent followers of Gurdjieff.

It seems very understandable that, particularly when they were both in incarnation, that on a basis of their elemental atmospheres that they would find it difficult to tolerate one another; they were radically different characters ... however, now that they are no longer in incarnation, at the distance of fifty or seventy-five years I think it is possible to try and understand the respective teachings in light of each other.

My overall impression is that Gurdjieff's work - which is much more fragmentary ad hoc, and 'disorganized' (despite Ouspensky's best efforts) -- represents in its expression a kind of inverted mirror of certain anthroposophical teachings. (Or, put differently, they are contrary expressions of the same fundamental truths.) And I don't mean 'inverted' in the sense (necessarily) of 'diabolical' or perverted, but simply an alternative expression of similar ideas, but using a reverse sense (quite often). This, however, was very much Gurdjieff's style (Remember, he was enjoined by his grandmother to either 'Do nothing -- just go to school -- or do something nobody else does'). He saw himself , more than anything, I think, as having the mission of 'destroying mercilessly' all of the favored illusions of contemporary culture -- the same contemporary culture born of 19th century materialism, which was no doubt capable of producing some 'very interesting' personalities or characters. Perhaps the best way to describe it, in a sense, is as a sort of 'Alice through the Looking Glass' version of some anthroposophic teachings. (Of course a great deal of it is perfectly straightforward). Remember how Steiner describes that everything in the astral world is, as it were, reversed - 123 is 321. This of course applies both ways. Gurdjieff himself was addressing those in whom the results of the operations of the organ 'kundabuffer' were still operative - which has the effect of causing one to see reality 'upside down.'

However, there was clearly method to this 'madness,' which again from one perspective could be seen as simply a different form of expression. Gurdjieff would constantly experiment with provoking his students and followers, pushing them often to extremes, always confident that he could 'put it back together' if he 'broke' anything. However, in 'fixing' something he would no doubt rely on his skills as 'hypnotist' and thus interfere, perhaps unlawfully from an anthroposophic perspective, with the freedom of the individual in question.

One example of this 'reversal' would be how Gurdjieff describes that when a man 'awakens,' this results in a greater 'connection' between 'centers' (intellectual, feeling, and moving, corresponding more or less to the three soul functions of Steiner - thinking, feeling, and willing). Contrast this with Steiner's description in Knowledge of Higher Worlds, where he describes the disassociation of the three functions. This would seem to be a complete contradiction. However, with a minimum of insight, one can readily see that what is being described in both cases is the same: the automatic, mechanical associations between centers/functions disappears, and the conscious connection, under the influence of the 'I', appears. From the perspective of the awakened 'I', the functions are distinct and under conscious separate control, and can thus be brought into conscious relationship.

I find this type of exercise, in unraveling such apparent contradictions, very useful, personally. It fulfills Steiner's constant admonition that it is necessary to look at something from many sides in order to understand it.

Gurdjieff's cosmological schemes, the enneagram and so on, are likewise fascinating to me in themselves (I encountered the Gurdjieff literature before Steiner). Although some students of Gurdjieff marginalize these teachings as incomprehensible, irrelevant, or a distraction, I found that my exposure to them sensitized me to certain threads within Steiner, specifically relating to the 'cosmic nutrition stream' as well as Steiner's teachings about the cosmic import of musical intervals. (It is on the basis of studying the two that I wrote my article on the 'properties of the enneagram'. Absorbing the perspective expressed in Steiner's views on cosmic evolution, Gurdjieff's cosmological ideas provide a force of resistance, as it were, the digestion of which can provide forces to more closely approach the realities alluded to by Steiner. A most interesting study would be Gurdjieff's narrow but decisive concept of the moon nature in the context of Steiner's.

I think Gurdjieff's essential gift was to be able to work directly with the forces of the lower astral, that is, with the personality, and directly with the vital will forces. Whether or not this is legitimate from the point of view of the age of the consciousness soul, or not, may be debatable. I think from the point of view of wholeness, of being truly incarnated in this life, there is a need to be able to dive into these forces and interpersonal relationships: however, always supported by the higher forces of inspiration and knowledge that anthroposophy provides. To say this may imply that, as a generalization, there is perhaps something missing in what anthroposophy offers the individual in terms of dealing (directly) with their own "stuff". But again, this is not really the method of anthroposophy, which is rather to directly cultivate the positive (which it assumes, of course, is there in the individual, however feeble). Once an individual has glimpsed the supersensible, and has some notion of the double, one realizes that it is not just a question of dealing with the personality of this particular incarnation, which as Gurdjieff so aptly points out, is more or less a mechanical happenstance.

But actually the distinction between 'personality' and 'essence', 'higher' and 'lower' self, are simply different tools for decomposing the unitary self and to hold fast to them is to ultimately distort reality.

A final comparison: one can almost sum up Gurdjieff's entire teaching (in my view) in the saying: "The chief means of happiness in this life is the ability to consider externally always, internally never" -- external considering consisting of taking the other's needs always into account, and inner considering the process of feeling 'disrespected', of keeping internal accounts as to 'who owes you', etc. I compare this with a saying of Steiner's I recently encountered, somewhat as 'we must always struggle to reconcile our love of action with the need to take the wishes of others into account.' These echoes can be found everywhere.

I find Gurdjieff as basically a starting point for what has for me progressed in anthroposophy. Depending on the needs of the individual, there may be examples of progressions in the opposite direction. If one comes to affirm what is contained in anthroposophy, on the basis of one's deepest intuition and sense for truth, one can continue to find vitality in Gurdjieff's enormous contribution. The 'contradictions' become irritants that can turn in to pearls.

Because of the eclectic nature of Gurdjieff's sources, there will inevitably be valuable materials therein. His close at hand exposure to authentic eastern sources provides a more direct link than the oriental teaching filtered, as it were, through the perspective of the theosophical audience with whom Steiner began his work. As Steiner says, if one wishes to discover anything new in the spiritual world, one must first make one's self familiar with what has already been discovered.


Copyright 1998 by David Eyes