When I moved to New York City, I was 18 and clueless. I was deeply curious about art, philosophy, literature and spirituality, but I knew next to nothing. In those pre-internet days, if you were a kid like me, you tended to come across things in a haphazard manner. Someone you knew lent you a book about zen; the zine you bought at the punk show referenced Jack Kerouac; some book you’re reading mentioned a mystic dude who sounds interesting and, it just so happens, a bunch of books about him are being stocked at the bookstore where you work.
That, in a nutshell, is how I fell into a short lived, but intense, interest in the mystic and charlatan known as G.I. Gurdjieff.
Gurdjieff was a Blavatsky type, who borrowed heavily from various religion traditions, wrapped them up in mythology of a “hidden truth” to which he held the key, and then sold this package as a unique path to an awakened life. He was a contradictory, self aggrandizing, innovative, interesting, and full of shit. He wrote three books, only one of which I read. It claimed to be a memoir of sorts of his interactions with various sages and mystics.
It was, I knew even then, total bullshit.
But as the memoirs cited above show, he had a profound and positive impact on many people. He also had a huge impact on me. His ideas of work strangely shaped my world view and the ideas of some of his followers showed me, first hand, the trouble one can find oneself in when you go looking for hidden truths.
In a nutshell* Gurdjieff taught a form of self actualization that was achieved through self discipline and work on one’s spiritual and physical self. There were dances (yep, dances), and specific techniques one was supposed to use. But what resonated with me was the importance of self mastery and of work for its own sake — that the act of doing, be it physical labor, or creative endeavor, regardless of its outcome, was worthwhile I found this inspiring and helpful for getting me off my ass and moving.
This isn’t groundbreaking, and of course, Gurdjieff wasn’t the only one to advocate this. But to a kid floundering around trying to figure out who he was and what he wanted out of life, the admonition to create, and to labor, to figure it out by doing it, was very grounding. I’ve taken that lesson with me throughout my life. My life long fascination with stoicism probably starts here because whether he knew it or not, Gurdjieff cribbed heavily from Aurelius and co.
There were darker lessons from my interest in Gurdjieff as well. When I was getting into the dude, so was someone else I worked with at Tower Books. We’ll call him L. L was a bookstore lifer. In his forties, he’d been working in bookstores for twenty years. He was a kind of awkward, neurotic, hippie that seems to have all but disappeared from the New York of today. We weren’t really friends, but he did invite me join him in checking out a local group that was meeting to discuss their “work” in the Gurdjieff method. I went once to a meeting in a plant filled loft deep in Chelsea. I was 18 and the youngest person there by at least twenty years. There was a lot of vague spiritual talk, someone played some of Gurdjieff’s music, and a woman talked about how she was encouraging her mother to go off her chemotherapy and trust in a more spiritual cure to her cancer.
I was completely turned off by the group and never returned. But L kept going, encouraging me to give it another try. Soon, he stopped coming to work. No one knew why. Eventually, he was fired. Weeks later, he walked in to collect his final pay check and we spoke for a couple of minutes. He was paranoid and confused. He’d gone off his meds (whatever they were) to better see his true self, and his true self was telling him the world was going to end in blood. I didn’t know what to say, and I regret that I didn’t follow him when he wandered out, lost in his own world.
I should have offered help.
I did take that brief conversation with me, however, and used it to build my deep skepticism about anyone claiming answers to the mysteries of the world.
I randomly ran into L again almost ten years later in a diner on Broadway and 12th. He’d gotten married, was working in another book store, and seemed well. We didn’t mention the end of the world thing, or Gurdjieff.
* and as I remember it twenty years after having read the books above