On Gurdjieff and Yoga

as originally published at the Zen, Yoga, Gurdjieff blog


Along with the diagram correlating the chakras, this diagram represents a seminal graphic for theoretical understanding of the enneagram based on the ancient yoga schools.


There can be little doubt that major portions of Gurdjieff's teaching are derived directly from yoga sources. He changed the language, but the understandings are fundamentally identical.

I thought it might be worthwhile to review some of the specific instances underscoring this fact.

Let's begin with the classic yoga Sutra from the Upanishads recounting the tale of the horse, carriage, and driver. (Click the link to read it in its original.) This story is repeated no less than nine times in various places in the three most well-known sources: In Search of the Miraculous, Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, and Views From the Real World. (Once again, click the link to review the passages.)

In Beelzebub, Gurdjieff furthermore saw fit to expand on the analogy until it filled a colorful nine pages; and that, at the very end of the book, where he felt it necessary to append an editorial with a number of very specific references, including one which is obviously about the six lower chakras, which he called "receivers of vibrations of different qualities."

His extensive chapter on the chemical factory includes obvious and unambiguous references to Prana, which is concentrated through breathing in the practice of Pranayama. And the rest of the book this particular reference comes from is rife with yoga concepts, including the idea of the centers, which has just about everything to do with yoga's idea of chakras. The correlations between the yogic system and Gurdjieff's own are extensive.

There can be no doubt that Gurdjieff considerably expanded on the ideas in yoga, especially with his introduction of the ancient symbol that used to connect all of the ideas in the yoga schools, the enneagram. The importance of this diagram can't be understated, since study in depth will reveal that the diagram is everything he said it was. Nonetheless, the ideas presented by his system and this diagram are complex, and an entry-level understanding of the basic concepts surrounding the diagram, the rate of creation, the 27 types, and so on represents only a scratch on the surface. Remember, ancient schools (one of Gurdjieff's numerous examples is the "Adherents of Legominism" in ancient Babylon) studied these ideas for thousands of years.

My own impression, shared by some scholars, is that almost all "modern" religions — and by modern, I mean any contemporary religions which have left discernible traces in the art and writings of ancient societies — are descended from a prototypical, Ur- religion, a root form of yoga, which was practiced somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago or more in the civilizations of Turkey and countries lying to the east, most probably in the very ancient Indus River Valley civilizations, of which relatively little is known.

By the time we encounter the first very large examples of organized religion in major civilizations such as Babylon and Egypt, it had begun to separate from its original traditions and, as both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky maintained, degenerate. That is to say, its ideas had become fragmented and were no longer intact. Certainly, this is the context that Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson presents religion in; and it need hardly be important, whether or not a civilization called Atlantis actually existed or was submerged under the ocean. We can fairly say that the story of Atlantis ably serves, in Beelzebub, as an allegorical vehicle on several different levels; one might fairly say that today, the myth serves a far greater purpose than any reality could.

In any event the point is that what we know of history emerged from well-developed and sophisticated civilizations with intricate philosophies and detailed understandings of both the natural world and man's nature.

To believe that these understandings only emerged recently — by recently I mean within the last 3,000 to 4,000 years—starting with Egyptian and Babylonian civilization is to vastly underestimate the ability of earlier cultures to think, and to question their existence. One of the conceits of modern civilization is to imagine ourselves as intellectually superior to earlier cultures; whereas the exact opposite may well be true.

So yoga, as a practice, probably underlies the origin of Egyptian religion, Judaism, Christianity, Sufism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, all of which emerge on the scene much later than the original civilizations in which yoga practices are clearly recorded in art. As such, it does represent what one might call the "esoteric core" of all religions, which — not coincidentally — is what Gurdjieff said his teaching was.

As if all of that weren't enough, we are left with the following quote from the man himself:

"The fourth way is the way of “Haida-yoga.


 Commentary on the diagram

by Lee van Laer


From the Zen, Yoga, Gurdjieff Blog, Sept. 17, 2012, "The Three Essential Truths, Part III"


Author's note: It's a bit difficult to divorce this original commentary text from its sister pieces, but the above link will make the other three essays readily available to interested readers.


The second of the three essential Truths.

There is no I, there is only Truth. The way to the Truth is through the heart.

This truth describes the Path of the Yogi.


The word "Yogi" indicates any spiritual seeker, not one on a specific path. Despite all the platitudes to the contrary, there is actually only one path, as described by the enneagram. Each path is inevitably no more than a variation of this progression, because nothing can deviate from a requirement to proceed according to the law of octaves.

As al Arabi puts it,

"If things are as we have decided, know that you are an imagination, as is all that you regard as other than yourself an imagination. All [relative] existence is an imagination within an imagination, the only Reality being God, as Self and the Essence, not in respect of His Names." (From The Wisdom of Light in the Word of Joseph, The Bezels of Wisdom, Ibn’ Al Arabi, translation by R.W.J Austin, 1980, Paulist Press)

Readers will undoubtedly note the striking similarities between this passage, Meister Eckhart, and various Buddhist and Yogic doctrines. Al Arabi reached this conclusion through an enlightenment experience, not because of other cultural or philosophical influences.

The second Truth may appear to be about the heart, but it's actually about the mind, which must be correctly prepared in order to approach the work of the heart.

The second essential truth embodies a contradiction which is a direct reflection of the contradiction between transcendence and immanence as described by Ibn al Arabi in The Bezels of Wisdom. The transcendent and the immanent are both part of the Reality; yet they are apparently contradictory. On the right side of the path of the Yogi, the side of incarnation and material development, the transcendent surrenders itself in order to create the immanent. God, in other words, becomes man, but only in the coarsest sense of material man (Gurdjieff's "man," in quotation marks.) This is the side of personality, and represents the descent of God into what we might call Hell, that is, the material world. One might represent it as such because it is a descending action into the material, a separation of God from God.

So in creating the universe, God actually separates Himself from Himself. This creates the illusion of "I," as iterated in the infinite names of God, and directly manifest in the comprehensive arisings of the material world. (Objects, events, circumstances and conditions.)

The consequences of manifestation in the material create an inexorable set of events.

Desire (Jeanne de Salzmann's nostalgia for Being) arises. From the beginning, it understands that it is separated from the Father. It must engage in conscious labor to acquire the power for Being, that is, what Gurdjieff would have called conscious direction. Without this conscious direction, all of the immense energies unleashed by creation are trapped in a self- reflexive and essentially egoistic universe. Only real Being (Real I, as Gurdjieff referred to it) can provide the direction back towards the Father, the creative principle. And this can only be achieved through purification, wisdom, and, ultimately, intentional suffering, in which what we believe is "I" must be surrendered back to its source.

Adepts who have had a taste of what this is like will know that it is death. But this is not death the way I fear it; it's a quite different kind of thing.

So. There is only Truth. This is what Al Arabi calls the Reality, and I think he does an admirable job of expounding the aspects and virtues of this fact in exhaustive detail.

But why is the way to the Truth "through the heart?"

The note Sol on the enneagram represents both the sun and the heart chakra. In Gurdjieff's system, it constitutes the entry of real (feeling) emotion into the inner work of a man, and it also represents the beginning of an awareness of Christ—that is, help from above—which is sent, paradoxically, not in the form of the hero (who also occupies this particular note) but in the form of suffering. This note is the passageway—the entry—into what we might call the conscious side of the enneagram, the acsneding or evolutionary (spiritual) action, as opposed to the descending (carnal) action.

Gurdjieff made it quite clear to Ouspensky and his other pupils that nothing real in terms of work and a man could begin before real emotion entered. If the heart does not open—the ultimate aim of Christian Hesychasm, compassionate Buddhism, Sufic Islam, and Bhakti Yoga— no further progress can be achieved. Once the heart is open—once it can accept its condition, which is the Christian equivalent of the confession of sin—purification can be undertaken. (The Buddhist emphasis on compassion equally reflects this understanding.)

But a heart that isn't open can't be purified.

The left side of the diagram on the path of the Yogi is the path of the essence. Gurdjieff indicated that personality needed to be strong and healthy in order to feed essence; and indeed, we see this progression in the transition between the two sides of the diagram. His system was a reflection of esoteric understandings shared by Islam, Judaeo-Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

As he advised his students, in the end, there is truly only one Way, and there can be no disagreement on it from a certain level.

So the second essential truth is not just a complicated structural meditation on the nature of the universe and the path of the Yogi; it's a mystery that has to be experienced through the intentional creation, and then the intentional surrender, of the "I." An adept has to undergo a recapitulation of the process of universal creation: they must create a real "I" in themself, and then, in the face of this action—which already requires a supreme effort, for which they are poorly equipped—see and agree with their own nothingness.

One must climb the mountain in order see that there is no mountain.

All of this is, to be sure, rather technical in nature, and probably not of much direct practical value in a personal search to open the heart.

But before one enters a search for wordless contemplation and nameless places within, perhaps it helps a bit to know what one is attempting.

The enneagram is the map of "pre-sand Egypt." One can stumble around without a map if one wants to, but there is an alternative.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.