1915–1920: St. Petersburg & the South


In November 1915 the ‘Miracle’ for which Ouspensky had been hoping came about with the arrival of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Accosted by Gurdjieff’s students after giving a lecture in Moscow, Ouspensky reluctantly agreed to meet Gurdjeff, expecting only further disappointment. But when they did meet there was an instinctive conviction that he might at last find a way forward.

Gurdjieff presented the opportunity to learn an esoteric ‘system of knowledge’ derived from ‘higher mind’, the ‘inner circle of humanity’, which he and a group of companions had assembled after long expeditions and extensive research.

The basis of Gurdjieff’s system was self-knowledge. This began with the necessity of realising that, in common with the majority of humanity, individual human beings were merely machines who lived out their lives in a state of waking sleep. Only by long and conscious effort could a person actually ‘wake up’ and come to fulfil the fully human state of ‘being’ they imagined themselves already to possess. The first necessity was to learn to ‘remember oneself’.

In Gurdjieff’s system the whole of Creation, inner and outer, had its source in one single Absolute being which evolved itself into increasingly dense levels of materiality through the interaction of two fundamental laws – the law of three and the law of seven.

Everything – including all inner phenomena and psychic experience – consisted of matter in varying degrees of refinement; yet nothing in nature was dead, everything had its own measure of consciousness and intelligence.

Among several unique diagrams, the Ray of Creation and the Food Table explained the relationship of phenomena on both cosmic and individual scales and precisely defined man’s place in the universe and the possibilities of his conscious experience.

The emphasis lay always upon the practical work of self-development. True knowledge could only be understood and become useful when the ‘being’ of the student had gained the necessary quality and energy.

Letters from Russia

Letters from Russia

It was a unique assembly of knowledge. The inclusion of ideas and terminology which appear to derive from the early 19th century pioneers of western chemistry gave it a ‘scientific’ cachet extremely attractive to Ouspensky’s own approach. The precision with which the system could classify any phenomenon and relate this knowledge to a coherent view of the whole universe provided a framework within which ‘all questions could be answered’.

It was said that all classical methods of knowledge and practice were preponderantly intellectual, emotional or physical – the three ‘ways’ found within yoga and religion. But this new system constituted a Fourth Way by which all three divisions of the human endowment would be developed simultaneously. It was the way of the householder.

Gurdjieff’s presentation gave Ouspensky and his fellow students the freedom to develop the ideas according to their own understanding. In the teaching of the ‘Doctrine of Cosmoses’, derived from ancient Greek ‘atomic theory’, Ouspensky recognised his own ‘table of time in different dimensions’. His development of this and other ideas – e.g. the universal symbol of the Enneagram – are examples of where his own thought became woven into Gurdjieff’s system. He would not again separate the two until 1925.

Then, events of the war and the lead-up to the Russian revolution became rapidly more disruptive and Gurdjieff left Moscow for the Caucasus. In June 1917 Ouspensky and twelve others left St. Petersburg to join him in Essentuki. Their six weeks of work here achieved an even greater intensity than before, but Ouspensky began to have doubts about Gurdjieff’s methods, and he began for the first time to separate Gurdjieff himself from the ideas he had taught.

The process of separation from Gurdjieff continued over the next three years. Survival became the priority during the terrible flux and anarchy of the revolution and the group became widely dispersed. Ouspensky and his family (he had married Sophia Gregorievna probably in 1916) somehow remained secure in Essentuki, where he worked as a librarian. In June 1919 Ouspensky went to Ekaterinodar and, for the first time, began to assemble and teach his own groups. Ouspensky wrote about the difficulties of life at that time in letters which Orage published in the New Era (now collected as Letters from Russia 1919).

Early in 1920 the Ouspenskys made their escape to Constantinople.

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