A sufi critique of Gurdjieff
An individual made some comments about Gurdjieff, spiritual authenticity, the significance of certain powerful experiences, withdrawing from an alleged silsilah, the process of spiritual seeking, and the relationship between worldly success and the spiritual path. The following is a reply to those concerns.
Some of my earliest contacts with anything remotely related to the Sufi Path was through Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. I actually spent some time with a Gurdjieff group that was tied to Madam Walsh – wife of the attending physician at the time of Gurdjieff’s passing away in France.
One of the other primary lines of Gurdjieff-linked teachings was through Madam de Hartmann, wife of Thomas de Hartmann who often played, and helped arrange, the music that was played in conjunction with the form of sacred dancing which Gurdjieff introduced to the West. Interestingly, at the time I was involved with all of this, the latter group didn’t seem to have much to do with the former group, and vice versa.
While there were many very talented and intelligent people associated with the Gurdjieff-like group with which I spent a little over a year, I didn’t feel any of the leaders of the group had substantial spiritual insight into the nature of Being. More importantly, not only did I find some of their answers to my questions problematic – especially as things related to the possible links between Gurdjieff and the Sufi tradition, alluded to in, for example, the second of three works by Gurdjieff – namely, Meetings with Remarkable Men – but, as well, I found disconcerting and troublesome the way several of them came in search of me at my place of employment when I indicated to them that I was going to pursue the Sufi Path rather than continue with the Gurdjieff group.
As you likely know, one person – Rafael Lefort (who some claim to be a nom de plume … and various candidates have been proposed as to the ‘real’ identity of that individual) – actually followed the veiled clues laid down in the aforementioned book and retraced the steps of Gurdjieff’s spiritual journey. Lefort wrote about this in his book: The Teachers of Gurdjieff. Many, but not all, of these guides were Sufi, and while Lefort kept hoping that one of these individuals would accept him as an initiate, he returned home, seemingly empty handed in this regard, only to find his Sufi teacher within a few miles of his point of departure in Paris.
While there is no doubt that Gurdjieff had some interesting capabilities and gifts,there are many questions within me about what it is that he actually had, or what those capabilities and gifts actually signified. Furthermore, whatever it is that he had, he did not seem capable of transmitting it in anything more than a passing, limited fashion, to any of his followers. Although people such as Ouspensky, Nicoll, Bennett, Walker, Collins, Peters, and others all had interesting things to say, none of them seemed to reflect the sort of understanding or qualities which might incline one to trust them with one’s spiritual well-being (which is to be distinguished from the idea of whether one could learn different things through their writings or by interacting with them – that is, while everyone can be one’s teacher in the sense that one has something to learn from, or through, them, a spiritual guide is much, much more than what is involved in the process of ‘teaching’ in such a limited sense).
With respect to people like Gurdjieff (and numerous other ‘remarkable’ men and women could be listed), many people do not seem to distinguish between worldly kashf and spiritual kashf. The former encompasses such things as precognition, manipulation of certain dimensions of material and psychic phenomena, witnessing of worldly events at a distance, transference of thought, reading of minds, inducing of trances, and so on, while the realms of spiritual kashf are a very different order of reality involving certain dimensions of the heart, sirr, ruh, kafi, and aqfah.
All too many people confuse manifestations of worldly kashf with spirituality. Although some authentic shaykhs have access to such powers, the general principle among legitimate guides is to keep one’s distance, as much as possible, from matters of worldly kashf.
I have read much that Gurdjieff has written (including: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson) along with many of the writings of his followers such as Ouspensky, Nicoll (e.g., the multi-volume Commentaries), as well as spent some time with at least one person who actually knew Gurdjieff. Nonetheless, although I saw lots of evidence for worldly kashf in Gurdjieff (and some of those who followed him), there seemed to be very little evidence for spiritual kashf in conjunction with him – indeed, there seemed to be more confusion about spirituality swirling around, and through, his teachings than clarity.
Gurdjieff was interested – or, so, he claimed – in waking people from their sleep. But, there is such a thing as dreaming that one has awoken, only to remain fast asleep, and one of the questions which is still relevant with respect to Gurdjieff and his teachings is to what extent Gurdjieff was actually spiritually awake, or to what extent his teachings were capable of helping one find the truth of things.
God knows best what the truth is concerning him. However, he gives expression to a continuing problem for seekers after the Truth, and, in fact, this is the primary reason why I have spent a bit of time talking about Gurdjieff.
I have heard many people allude to powerful zikrs that they have experienced. I, too, have participated in zikrs which have quite powerful.
Nonetheless, one still can raise questions about what is actually transpiring during such sessions or from where the power is coming which may be associated with a given zikr. The unrealized individual is vulnerable to attacks from Iblis and nafs while saying zikr – or, while engaged in prayer, contemplation and seclusion, and the presence of an altered state of consciousness in conjunction with certain practices does not necessarily mean that the state is an expression of Divine favor.
Trans-personal experience does not, in and of itself, necessarily say anything about the significance of such experience. Iblis is capable of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness, as is nafs, and so are practitioners of occult systems. Many drugs – designer and natural – also are capable of generating very powerful, transforming experiences, and, under certain circumstances, group dynamics can bring about overwhelming emotional, physical, and psychological changes.
Sorting out the differences between spiritual experiences which, on the one hand, are powerful and, on the other hand, states or conditions that are powerful but not spiritual is one of the forms of assistance and guidance which can be given by an authentic shaykh to a seeker. Until one has learned, in conjunction with a legitimate spiritual teacher, how to differentiate the ‘tastes’ among such experiences, one is really stumbling around in the darkness of ignorance and, as a result, could easily fall into the spiritual equivalent of crevices, quicksand, and snake pits.
Individuals like Gurdjieff who, on the basis of the personal accounts of many people, seem to possess an ineffable, extraordinary something, tend to stir a certain amount of excitement among many of us (and I admit that, at one point in my life, a fair amount of interest and excitement was generated within me about such individuals). Yet, the truth of the matter is that most of us really have no understanding of just what is being given expression through people such as Gurdjieff, except that it is anomalous in relation to much of the rest of our lives.
Many people consider these sort of anomalies as being synonymous with ‘the Truth’ or the ‘higher’ truths. To be sure, there is a kind of truth which is present in such experiences, but a truth about being in general is not necessarily very illuminating as far as coming to understand ‘the truth’ about one’s essential being in particular.
As indicated earlier, discernment, wisdom, and dhawk (tasting) concerning essential truths are part of what an authentic teacher has to pass on to initiates. This transmission is not primarily through words, but is via the agency of nisbath which is the umbilical cord of trust that serves as the spiritual life-line of communication and nourishment linking a seeker with a spiritual guide (and vice versa).
While every teacher-seeker relationship (whether authentic or not) has a dimension of nisbath associated with it, the quality and truth of what is transmitted through such nisbath is quite another matter. Moreover, one cannot always immediately recognize if what one is being fed is constructive or destructive to one’s spiritual well-being – indeed, as with many poisons, the toxic effects of what is being transmitted through a problematic nisbath may not be manifested for quite some time and, as well, may be quite subtle in the manner in which it debilitates and corrupts a person’s spiritual condition – for, as you quite correctly point out near the end of your posting, many of us are quite blind to the deceitfulness of some of the forces at play within us.
In passing, you allude in your posting to “Anab’s criteria” with respect to trying to differentiate between a false and authentic teacher. There may be some misunderstanding here (and, perhaps, I have helped to engender this to some extent), but I haven’t listed any criteria by which one can recognize an authentic shaykh – in fact, my intention has been to travel in a somewhat different direction.
More specifically, on three separate occasions (and all three instances can be found within this web site), I explored a set of criteria that some individual had put forth as suggested ways of identifying false and/or authentic teachers. On each of these occasions, I have indicated that the criteria being discussed were not capable of differentiating between authentic or inauthentic teachers because either there were too many contra-indications with respect to the stated rules or principles, or the indicated criteria could easily be counterfeited or become subject to misdirection by clever spiritual frauds.
In short, what many people have construed to be a relatively straightforward and easy issue of differentiation – namely, identifying false and authentic spiritual teachers – is, in actuality, neither straightforward nor easy. Instead, we are all faced with a far bigger problem in epistemology – or, theory of knowledge – than is comfortable for many people.
Many people are all too certain about matters pertaining to the foregoing issue – matters that deserve a great deal more circumspection, caution, and humility than, unfortunately, is often the case. Furthermore, all too many people are in denial about this issue and are afraid to peek out from beneath the covers which they have drawn up over their heads to comfort them in the darkness of the hermeneutical and existential night in which they exist.
I say the foregoing, not as someone who is jaded about the possibility of spiritual realization or the Sufi path, but as someone who has been exposed to both spiritual authenticity, as well as inauthentic ‘teachers’, and who, despite the existence of spiritual charlatans, continues to search for the essential truth about myself before, through, and with Divininity. To borrow from Hazrat al-Ghazzali (may Allah be pleased with him), just because I – or anyone – may not experience the essential truth of things, doesn’t, therefore, mean there is no essential truth to be experienced.
Notwithstanding the foregoing concession, I see an awful lot of people doing the spiritual equivalent of whistling past the cemetery. Many of these people are very frightened, extremely defensive, and all too ready to attack, if not malign, anyone who disagrees with them or suggests that, maybe, just maybe, some of the individuals who are considered to be authentic shaykhs are, in fact, spiritual frauds.
Certainly, when a practice has been given to one and one begins to feel uncomfortable with something in conjunjtion with that practice, then, it is appropriate to ask whether the uncomfortableness is a function of the original zikr given to one, or is a reflection of something problematic in oneself and/or in the teacher. This is a dilemma with which we all are confronted – how to tell whether a spiritual difficulty is a reflection of our own nafs and/or of Iblis whispering to our hearts, or whether that problem is rooted in something which someone else (namely, a so-called ‘teacher’) is doing ‘to’ us or in conjunction with us but without our full-knowledge and understanding.
There are many things which I might list which could be construed as being ‘good’ points of the spiritual fraud with whom I was unknowingly associated for many years. He was funny, a great-story teller, and extremely knowledgeable about the Qur’an, Hadithic literature, and the history and teachings of the Sufi tradition. On the surface he appeared to be very empathetic, compassionate, kind, considerate, gentle, forbearing, forgiving, and sincere. Whenever one left him, one longed to return to his presence.
Unfortunately, among other things, the man was also an inveterate liar. However, the nature of many of his lies took time to come to the light of personal awareness, and many of the lies were done in the shadows and behind one’s back – indeed, he artfully set about seeking to spiritually destroy the lives of many people, myself included, and it was only by God’s Grace that the lies which were being told came to my attention … for, if not for this Grace, I might still be entangled in the lies and not even realize that such was the case.
When I use the term ‘artfully’ above, there are many things which might be said in this regard. Perhaps, one of the most telling of such possibilities is that the way he constructed and introduced lies often left one in a state of wonderment about what was actually going on, yet, without any means to demonstrate, definitively, that lies were being told.
In your posting, you have suggested that, perhaps, one of the criteria which could be added to any list of considerations – through which a seeker might be able to judge the ‘worth’ or authenticity of an alleged teacher – revolves around a seeker’s relationship with truth. More specifically, being committed to the Truth, may be a very important factor in determining how a given context involving an alleged spiritual guide is interpreted or understood.
Although the idea is commendable, it presumes that any one of us knows whether, or not, we are ‘absolutely committed to the Truth’ or that we would even recognize the Truth if it were staring us in the face [and quite a few Sufi shaykhs – e.g., Ibn al-‘Arabi and Rumi (may Allah be pleased with them) indicate that the Truth is staring us in the face, yet, we do not recognize it because we have veiled ourselves from it, even though it is not veiled from us]. The deceits of the nafs are such, and the wiles of Iblis are such, that without the steadying, experienced, wise counsel of an authentic shaykh, the spiritual path for many of us becomes very much like shooting ducks in a barrel of water – with us playing the part of the ducks, and nafs and Iblis playing the shooting role.
Whatever went on between you and your ‘teacher’, there were enough questions and doubts raised to induce you to back away from continued participation. Were you right, or were you wrong in doing this?
If the so-called shaykh was a spiritual charlatan, then, no matter how charming, intelligent, knowledgeable, and powerful he appeared to be, you were right to take the step you did. If that individual is not a spiritual fraud, then, you have a different kind of problem on your hands.
I do consider the fact very important that when you asked for Divine assistance with respect to the practice you had been given, you indicated that the power disappeared leaving a emptiness and a longing that is difficult to bear. Although Allah knows best, I have witnessed a number of people who experienced a condition very similar to the one being described when those people were, by the Grace of Allah, able to be disengaged from the trance-like, on-going state into which they had been induced by the fraudulent shayhk about whom I spoke above.
There is a difference between the pain experienced through the withdrawal associated with addiction in a context of being separated or distanced from the source (a fraudulent teacher) of one’s psychic supply of endorphin rushes and flooding, and the pain felt in the spiritual condition of longing. Many people confuse the two.
Another point to consider is this: many of the people who remain with the false shaykh alluded to in the foregoing are very, very successful in relation to dunya. While our apportioned lot comes from Allah, the fact of the matter is: sometimes, but not always, success in the world really is a manifestation of spiritual failure, whereas, sometimes, but not always, worldly failure and difficulty, are expressions of spiritual expansion. Consequently, the successes and failures of a worldly sort to which you allude in relation to the status of your association with the silsilah may not mean what they appear to on the surface – and, it is precisely because appearances may be deceiving that we require spiritual assistance from an authentic source … which, in turn, is why the issues you have raised in your posting are so important for all of us to reflect upon.