What is the Fourth Way?

The Fourth Way provides a path to wisdom and enlightenment for ‘householders’, ordinary people living in the world today. It is also known as ‘the Way of Understanding’.

This householder’s way has existed since time immemorial. G.I. Gurdjieff conceived the title ‘Fourth Way’, for the fragmentary assemblage of previously unknown teachings that he brought to the West in the early 20th century – but he never claimed to have invented the Way itself.

Three other ‘specialist’ ways have also always existed for people whose natures are predominantly intellectual, emotional or physical — the ways of knowledge, devotion and action. All these three demand some form of initial and purposeful renunciation and discipline.  For instance, obedience, silence, celibacy, physical regime etc.

On the Fourth Way the three aspects of human ‘being’, ‘head, heart and hand’ are regarded as one whole and all three are worked on simultaneously.  Practice or discipline is progressively self-imposed according to individual understanding.

The Fourth Way continually develops its form to meet the changing needs of time and culture. Methods and teaching are reformulated and re-invented by each succeeding generation.  The principles remain the same but the practice is always being developed and refined.

Ruins of the Sharada Peeth

Ruins of the Sharada Peeth

One of the most ancient existing monuments related to the Fourth Way is the temple of Sharada in Azad Kashmir. Sharada (Saraswati) is the goddess of Wisdom.  Three gates were always open but those entering any one of these had to return and enter also by the other two before full liberation could be achieved.  The fourth gate, called Moksha (liberation), was closed except to those who had already travelled the other three paths.  Adi Shankara was one of those who entered directly through the fourth gate.

Another example of the Fourth Way can be found in the practice of the followers of the Sufi Jellal ad-din Rumi — the ‘whirling dervishes’ — whose complete and life-encompassing discipline and teaching is practised in the context of a normal existence in the world.

To be complete and effective any ‘school’ of the Fourth Way requires direct connection with a truly liberated being, man or woman.  Each generation has to secure its own connection — by being demonstrably capable of receiving and not adulterating the influences and energy it seeks.  If this connection is lost, or remains unmade, the School is comparatively useless, even misleading, however much knowledge it may possess.

Meeting the Shankaracharya, 1979
Watercolour by Elizabeth Guyatt

When Gurdjieff lost, or abandoned, his own connection — after the exodus of his school from revolutionary Russia to Constantinople in 1921 — Ouspensky realised that he would have to start again. The direct reconnection of Ouspensky’s school was not finally established until 14 years after his death when his pupil Francis Roles met HH Shantananda Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Jyotir Peeth.

In 1962 the Shankaracharya was asked if the practice in his Advaita tradition was compatible with Ouspensky’s teaching of the Fourth Way. He replied:

Yes, there couldn’t possibly be any difference. He says that in his System, they take from all the three sources. In the system or ‘Way of Action’ they purify the heart so as to perform any action and yet be detached from it. The ‘Emotional Way’ is the ‘Way of Devotion and Service’. With that an atmosphere within is created so as to serve the Absolute and  receive His Grace. The third, Intellectual Way, is to make Reason work and clarify all the questions met with on the Way, and then if everything is brought together, we hope we are on the ‘Way of Understanding’, the Fourth Way.