The system explains not only itself but also what is true in other systems. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
At the age of five I was sent to Catholic school and almost immediately got into trouble with the priests and nuns who ran the parish. When I look back on it now, it’s clear that my main problem was that I had no talent for belief. I never understood why I should give up my own judgment. It wasn’t that I was unduly rational and demanded proof for the miracles written about in the gospels. Even at an earlier age I had a bent for the mystical. I loved to hear the stories of the saints and the apostles, no matter how fantastic. Though I have to admit I was confused by the martyrs. Why should they be granted an eternity in heaven because they were willing to die for their beliefs? It seemed a little too easy, like being given an ‘A’ in mathematics not because you understood the material, but because you proclaimed a belief in numbers. Frankly I didn’t understand why I shouldn’t be able to find the means to experience the inner visions and miracles that were described in the gospels. In my childish way I wondered what had happened to the Catholic Church: when had it become an institution for people who believed in the past instead of an organization that cultivated individual revelation?
What I didn’t know at the time was that I had stumbled onto a very old debate. I also didn’t know that my attitude classed me with a group of people who were denounced as heretics by the men who were instrumental in codifying a doctrine that was meant to unify the early church. The heretics were the Gnostics, who claimed to seek self knowledge and esoteric truths because they hoped knowledge (gnosis) would lead to understanding and revelation. Even today there is a dispute over who the Gnostics were. Some scholars see the Gnostics as providing an alternative view of Christian theology, a view that would describe the path of Christianity as a spiritual inquiry rather than an adherence to a system of beliefs. Others see them as dangerous, ignorant people who thought they had all the answers, the ancient equivalent to the televangelist and the right-wing, anti-government preacher.
For centuries we knew about the majority of Gnostic gospels only from descriptions given by their detractors, in particular from Irenaeus, who lived in the second century. He is mainly remembered for Against Heresies, in which he attempts to refute the teachings of various Gnostic sects. He also seems to have been instrumental in getting many Gnostic texts banned from being read in early church services.
It wasn’t until the twentieth century, because of a number of remarkable archeological finds, that it became possible for scholars, and eventually the general public, to read some of these so-called heretical Gnostic gospels. There was some expectation that these texts would reveal the secret teachings of Jesus, because this is exactly what the Gnostics claimed: that they were privy to esoteric teachings that were passed from teacher to teacher and not taught in the mainstream church. But if that was the expectation, then the texts, with a few exceptions like the Gospel of Thomas and the Book of Thomas, were a disappointment. The benefit of the texts proved to be mainly historical. Historians were now able to draw a much clearer picture of Christianity in the first and second century. What they found was not a straight-forward march toward Catholicism, but rather an extremely varied group of churches and individuals who squabbled among themselves not only about theological issues but also about who had authority to preach and write about the teachings of Jesus.
This period, the first and second century, also corresponds to the time when the early church fathers, for political reasons, fought to transform Christianity from a teaching into a ‘faith.’ Because of outside persecution and internal struggles they thought it important to provide a unified front. Essentially they said: this is what it means to be a Christian. And what they used to determine who was a Christian was a system of beliefs. Certainly belief was not the only measure of what it meant to be a Christian. There was a Christian ethic, but the Jews and many pagan cults also had a moral code; what distinguished a Christian was his belief in the ‘way of Jesus Christ.’ We cannot say, for instance, that Paul went out into the world to teach ethics. He traveled throughout the empire to announce the divine manifestation of God through Jesus Christ.
…who is declared to be the Son of God in power, which according to spirit of sanctity, by his resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, from whom we have received grace and the rank of apostle to make the faith obeyed among all the nations for the sake of his name. ~ Romans 1
I became interested in the history of the emerging church for a number of reasons. One was that I began to see some parallels between the disputes of the early Christians and the disunity of what might now be called the Gurdjieff movement. If we take the meeting of Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky in 1915 as the beginning of Gurdjieff’s public teaching—actually it’s our first real record of Gurdjieff’s teaching—then it means that it has now existed for over one hundred years. In that time there have been the same kinds of disputes scholars found in first and second century Christian texts; that is, squabbles about who has the real teaching of Gurdjieff and who has the authority to teach it, arguments about inventions and additions attached to his ideas, disagreements about which fourth-way books best represent his teaching, and controversy about what was more important, Gurdjieff the man or the system.
More importantly for me, the discovery of the Gnostic gospels raised some important questions about the nature of esotericism itself. Questions like: What does it mean to have a secret teaching? Is it possible to know or to guess what this secret teaching might be? What is the difference between an esoteric (or conscious) teaching and a religious institution or a faith? And what role does belief play in esotericism?
The reality is that any teaching can have an inner and outer circle, and any teacher may decide to reserve a portion of his teaching for a select group of students. The real question is this: On what basis does a teacher holdback ideas?
In certain Jewish traditions the ideas of Kabala were held back from beginners because they were thought to be so complicated that they had the potential to drive a novice insane. In the Gospel of Thomas it is described how Thomas withdraws with Jesus, and then later, when his companions ask him what Jesus said, he replies:
If I tell even one of the things that he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me, and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up. ~ Gospel of Thomas
And in the synoptic Gospels Jesus makes a clear distinction between what his apostles can understand and what the multitude can understand.
I talk to them (the multitude) in parables, because they have sight and do not see, and have hearing but do not hear or understand. ~ Matthew 13:12
What all of these examples hint at is the idea of different levels of being. This is what most scholars of the New Testament miss. What is generally believed about the secret teachings of Jesus is that these teachings will reveal new knowledge, and that this new knowledge will be understandable by anybody who takes the time to study it. Though there may be some truth to this, what actually makes a secret teaching possible is an inner circle of disciples who have the capacity to listen with the benefit of a connection to higher centers.
Even the terms ‘son of man’ and ‘son of God’ which so fascinate (and sometimes perplex) scholars and historians can be understood to represent higher centers. Students of the fourth way or of any living esoteric tradition know that a man, represented by the physical body, can, with effort, connect to and inhabit two other bodies, the astral body and the mental body. The astral body, born of the physical body (son of man) is earned through individual efforts, but the mental body (son of God), though still earned in another way, is usually believed to be a gift.
What is our work all about? It is to enable man to live consciously in three bodies, in three worlds…. A physical body was given him by Nature at birth. Somewhere exists the original Divine spark launched from God and which, refound, will be his conscious spirit (higher intellectual center). But ordinary man has no feeling for that body. The soul (higher emotional center) is the bridge between body and spirit. ~ Rodney Collin
What remains a mystery to most people who study religion solely for academic purposes is that well-known texts, even texts that are thought to be mainstream, can reveal secret teachings if they are read with the eyes of higher centers. As long as people don’t understand that their inner world can be radically altered by exercises like self-remembering and transforming suffering, they cannot be expected to understand that the point is not to discover new texts but to consciously work to connect to what is highest in them so that they can understand the texts they already have.
It’s strange to say it, but what’s ‘secret’ about most teachings and traditions is the knowledge and the exercises that make real understanding possible. In many cases this secret knowledge turns out to be the ideas and concepts that were unpopular, and they were unpopular precisely because they require effort.
When the church fathers wanted to unify the early church, they were right to destroy the Gnostics, because the Gnostics represented, if not individual work, at least the idea that religious truth was dependent on individual understanding. This view is opposed to unification simply because if the truth about Jesus is dependent on individual understanding, then that truth is also dependent on the level of being of the individual, which means that you always end up with a multitude of truths.
The Gnostics understood that personal verification was more important than belief. The early church fathers understood that their survival was dependent on unification and on a hierarchy of authority; otherwise anybody could call themselves a Christian and teach whatever they liked.
The problem with many of the Gnostics, if we can judge them on the basis of their gospels, is that too often their personal understandings were not based on a foundation of effort and inner work, but instead on non-Christian mythologies and their own fantasies. On the side of the church there were problems as well. If Jesus was the only real authority, then the only authority later Christians can assert has to be dependent on the understanding of his story, his sayings, and his actions. And understanding is dependent on individual being, not on who has the historically correct story or on who has the most perfect line of teachers back to Jesus. The problem wasn’t that one or the other was wrong. What their squabbles revealed was that they were both right in their own way, but that they both failed to see that they had lost touch with their conscious or esoteric origin.
When I was young, I was acquainted with a man, F, who was a part of Gurdjieff’s teaching in New York when Orage managed Gurdjieff’s New York group. F. was an old man when I met him, but he was still vital and curious about people and ideas. Several times I was invited to his house where there was often a lively discussion about fourth-way topics. Once in his presence a young man about my age began to speak about the books of Carlos Castaneda, which were very popular at the time. F. interrupted him and chastised him for his praise of Castaneda.
‘The fourth way,’ he said, ‘gives specific knowledge about who we are, about how we can change ourselves, and about the world. Carlos Castaneda is all about mystery. I doubt Carlos Castaneda even knows that he is a three-brained being.’
F.’s attitude is not unlike the kind of attitude the Gnostics took toward the emerging church. Essentially they said: we have secret knowledge that you don’t have, and because of that you have no right to judge us. Whether they came by this knowledge through a succession of oral teachings or by revelation (higher centers) we’ll get into later. The first point is that esoteric teachings have specific knowledge and an institution or a faith has only general knowledge. The word ‘Catholic,’ the descriptor the church fathers choose for themselves, means universal. They sought a single doctrine that could apply to all Christians. But this is a problem from an esoteric point of view because in esotericism the emphasis is on individual awakening. And individuals are different, and sometimes need different practices because what is mechanical for one person may require effort (or self-remembering and transformation) for another.
If we take one idea, the idea that man is a three-brained being and that we all are born with an instinctive/moving center, an emotional center, and an intellectual center, we can begin to see how this works. On one level this idea is universal. All healthy, normal people are born with three functioning centers. But in practice it becomes specific. In fact all people are also born with a center of gravity. Mechanically we are all either instinctive/moving (man number one), or emotional (man number two), or intellectual (man number three). In other words we are all born subjective or unbalanced. And if we are to work toward our ‘harmonious development,’ then we need to create a balance. If we have control over our thoughts, but none over our emotions, we won’t have the energy to connect to higher centers because all our energy will be depleted by negative emotions, and if we have control over our body and none over our thoughts, we may be able to accomplish ascetic feats but not connect to higher centers because all our energy will be frittered away in imagination. Without self knowledge—in this case whether we are born a man number one, two, or three—we won’t understand our limitations and be able to choose exercises and practices that establish a more balanced presence. From an esoteric point of view self knowledge—so important for the Gnostics—is not a beautiful journey toward self-discovery, but rather a solid understanding of our personal limitations.
Now we can address the question of where this specific (or secret) knowledge comes from. Many Gnostic communities claimed that their special knowledge came from revelation or prophecy. Irenaeus describes how one community, under Marcus, was so infatuated by their collective ability to prophesize that they cast lots before their meetings to see who would speak the ‘word of the Holy Spirit.’ Irenaeus was very critical of their methods, which he apparently saw firsthand. He describes how he observed one foolish woman stand, puff herself with vanity, and then utter with excitement the first nonsense that came into her head. It was this kind of immoderation that convinced Irenaeus of the necessity of a hierarchy of authority: the bishop exerts authority over the priests, the priests exert authority over the deacons, and the deacons exert authority over the congregation.
From an esoteric perspective what Marcus didn’t seem to understand was that revelation and prophecy are not available to everybody because they are a manifestation of the higher intellectual center; that is, the most profound result of the long work of conscious evolution. Revelation and prophecy do not come freely except in cases of madness, which in many ways Marcus seems to have encouraged. What Irenaeus didn’t understand was that a conscious teaching—in this case the actual teaching of Jesus during his life—can never become a credential teaching exactly because it is dependent on the working of higher centers.
You cannot open a school and teach people about the ideas of Gudjieff, give them a certificate, and then send them out into the world to teach the fourth way. Knowing about self-remembering doesn’t help you teach self-remembering if you have not practiced it. It would be like a musical theorist, who had never picked up an instrument, trying to teach someone to play the violin. Playing the violin requires more than intellectual knowledge; it requires a considerable moving centered skill and practice, as well as an ability to translate musical notes into emotion. That is, it demands the working of all three lower centers, just as self-remembering does.
The other way that the Gnostic leaders asserted their right to teach Christianity was to claim that they belonged to a line of teachers that began with one of the original apostles, which really meant that their line led back to Jesus himself. Some claimed John, some Thomas or Mary Magdalene, and others Paul, who, though not one of the original twelve, was accepted as an apostle by revelation. Here they were using the same justification that the mainstream church used, but the church claimed that their authority trumped Gnostic authority because their line began with Simon Peter, who according to their gospels was the apostle Jesus had appointed as his successor.
Oddly a number of the Gnostic Gospels accept that Peter was the heir to the public teaching of Jesus. Perhaps it is an event that is historically correct. But Gnostics like Thomas simply claimed that the public events didn’t tell the whole story because he (Thomas) had secret meeting with Jesus that the other eleven were not privy to.
Thomas said to him, ‘Teacher my mouth is unable to say whom you are like.’
Jesus said, ‘I am not your teacher. You have become intoxicated because you drunk from the bubbling spring I tended.’ And he took Thomas and withdrew. ~ The Gospel of Thomas
Despite being important in a number of ways, a direct line of succession from one teacher to the next, as we see from the example of the Catholic Church, doesn’t guard against the original ideas becoming distorted.
The results of the work of a man who takes on himself the role of teacher do not depend on whether or not he knows exactly the origin of what he teaches, but very much depends on whether or not his ideas come in actual fact from the esoteric center and whether he himself understands and can distinguish esoteric ideas, that is, ideas of objective knowledge, from subjective, scientific, and philosophical ideas. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff
I would add to this that the only reliable way a teacher can distinguish esoteric ideas from ordinary ideas is through the functioning of higher centers.
Without question the biggest dispute between the Gnostics and the early church was about whether Jesus was an incarnation of God. The church adopted the view that Jesus is literally the son of God or God himself taken physical form, and the Gnostics, though they were far from unified, mostly believed that Jesus was a teacher and that they, as his students or as students of his way, had the same potential and possibilities that he had.
In the Gospel according to Thomas when Thomas has Jesus say to him, ‘I am not your teacher. You have become intoxicated because you drunk from the bubbling spring I tended,’ he is saying that I, Thomas, have achieved what Jesus achieved. And Philip in his Gospel considers real baptism not a rite of passage but a spiritual transformation, and whoever undergoes such a transformation ‘is no longer a Christian, but a Christ.’ Both these statements have to be seen as heretical by the mainstream church because if Jesus is God, then no man can compare himself to Jesus. Ironically it was the same accusation that the high priests used to justify turning Jesus over to the Romans for execution.
And they all said: Are you then the son of God. But he said to them: You are saying that I am. And they said: why do we need testimony? For we ourselves have heard it from his mouth. ~ Luke 22. 61 – 66
It’s not hard to guess that the early church fathers were trapped by their competition with the pagan sects. In the pagan world in the first century it was not unusual to deify an emperor or a great man, but in that world there were many gods, not one. So the Christians, when they came to explaining to non-Jewish converts who Jesus was, couldn’t say that he anything less than a god; that would rank him below Caesar and below the local god they worshiped. He had to become a god just to compete, but in the Jewish world of the same time a man does not become a god. The Jews have one God, and no man can aspire to become God. So if Jesus was a God, he had to be either God made flesh, or the son of God, both of which were considered blasphemous in Jewish life.
In the beginning was the word… And the word became flesh and lived among us. John 1.1 – 1.14
The belief that the way (or the only salvation) is through Jesus again depends on the belief that Jesus is God or the son of God and again could have come out of a collision of Jewish and pagan beliefs.
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one goes to the father except through me. John 14. 8 – 9
A Roman of the first century is, so to speak, used to having many gods at his disposal. The ancient gods, like the Christian saints later on, had specific roles. One was the god of love, another was the god of war, and another was the god of the town or city where he lived. I think it’s fair to expect that a Roman might find it convenient to simply add Jesus to the list of gods he already worshiped. In order to try to check this misunderstanding the church fathers probably felt that they needed to insist that Jesus was the one God and that his way was the only way. Of course later this insistence became its opposite when the actions of the church leaders opposed the ethic of the teachings of Jesus to defend the position that the only way is through Christ.
Also it needs to be understood that the idea that a student awakens through his master has an esoteric foundation. When John has Jesus say ‘I am the light of the world,’ it is not a complete metaphor. A conscious teacher has access, through higher centers, to higher energies. The energies of world 12 and world 6 can be felt in the teacher’s presence, and this energy, if the student can match it in himself, will illuminate his inner world. In this sense his teacher’s light makes it easier for him to see himself and to learn how he needs to arrange his inner world. He uses the teacher’s consciousness not only to extend his individual presence in the moment but also to ignite a perception of what he needs to do to awaken.
We can be certain that the disciples who knew Jesus in his life partook of his energy. But what about the Christians who lived one hundred and fifty years after his crucifixion?
In speaking about this question, it’s important to remember that Paul, certainly the most influential Christian figure besides Jesus, did not meet Jesus in his lifetime. Paul was the first disciple of Jesus through revelation, a path that would be revered and imitated by the Gnostics and then later by a host of Christian mystics. To have a living teacher is certainly a more promising path, a path that is less likely to be thrown off track by deviations and distortions, but at the same time we can’t dismiss the influence of conscious teachers from an invisible level.
About Ouspensky’s teaching, it is not only a question of a philosophical system or of a great teacher. It is more like a field of influence which was projected through Gurdjieff and Ouspensky from an invisible level much beyond them. When we really enter this field of influence and expose ourselves to it, many things change for us. ~ Rodney Collin
After two thousand years it’s not possible for us to know anything certain about the divinity of Christ or even to accurately gauge how real his influence continues to be. On a large scale it has to be admitted that in the twenty-first century the misunderstandings, lies, and distortions that come out of Christianity far outnumber the esoteric truths that remain connected to the faith that is known by name of Christ.
In In Search of the Miraculous, during his explanation of the table of hydrogens, Gurdjieff says, ‘Let us suppose Jesus Christ to be a man number eight.’ A man number eight is one step higher than the highest level a ‘man’ can achieve, that is a man number seven, and one step below the Absolute. Gurdjieff explains that a man number eight would have his center gravity in world 6. A center of gravity in this sense is determined by taking the middle story of a three-story being. An evolving being needs three stories because change or moving forward requires that three worlds interact in specific ways. Three worlds are demanded because, according to the law of triads, three forces are necessary to create any action. In this table ‘ordinary man’ is the lowest three-story being.
Gurdjieff doesn’t really say anything about what it would imply to be a man number eight; he supposes the idea only to illustrate different levels of intelligence. But what would it mean to literally be the son of the Absolute? By using the table of hydrogens, we know that a normal, sleeping man has his center of gravity in world 96; that is, in false personality, and generally reaches only as high as world 48, true personality. A man number four, who is working on himself, has his center of gravity in world 48 and reaches as high as world 24, or essence. A man number five has center of gravity in world 24 and experiences the higher emotional center, world 12. A man number six has crystallized in world 12, and has begun to experience world 6, the higher intellectual center. His center of gravity would be essence or the higher emotional center. A man number seven has crystallized in the higher intellectual center and his center of gravity is in the higher emotional center.
This is, of course, a simplification of the reality. In actuality it isn’t so static; for example, at a given moment it’s possible for a man number four to work at the level of a man number five or even a man number six. What’s important to understand here is that the lowest story for a man number seven is still world 24 or essence. To take a step up to a man number eight we would have to suppose, as Gurdjieff does, that a man number eight’s top story would be world 3, that his middle story or center of gravity would be the higher intellectual center, and that his lowest story would be the higher emotional center.
What this implies is that a man number eight would no longer have a natural connection to his essence, the highest level of his physical body. This is why we say that a man number seven is the highest level a ‘man’ can achieve. Beyond that, he cannot really be called a man. His perception would contain so much and be so quick that it would be hard to understand how such a being could translate his understanding to a human form in order to communicate it to his disciples. This scale is what is generally not understood. Think about it this way: if Christ was literally the son of God, then the time frame of an ordinary perception for him would be longer than the entire sequence of civilizations on earth. His knowledge of man’s possibilities and limitations would be so profound and encompass so much that it would be difficult to conceive how he could relate to ordinary human concerns like personal happiness or the petty squabbles and ambitions of his disciples or even the fall of Jerusalem. Death of the body would mean nothing to him. Physical pain would mean nothing to him. If Christ was the son of God during his life on earth, it would mean that the agony in the garden and the suffering of the crucifixion were not real to him. We want to project what we would feel in the same circumstances. We would suffer and we would agonize because we partake in the human experience, but, if Christ was a man number eight, he would not anymore participate in that experience. Using this knowledge we can say that either Jesus was God or he suffered the pain and agony of the crucifixion. One would seem to exclude the other.
Of course this is supposition; we can’t really know anything about the divinity of Christ. We may suppose what we like or believe what we like, as the early Christians did, but we cannot know anything for certain because in this case, more than in others, our understanding has to be limited by our being.
When the Church or any teaching abandons the ideas of conscious evolution, it loses touch with its means for creating understanding in its followers. Exercises like self-remembering or divided attention or transforming negative emotions or loving your enemies are at the core of all esoteric teachings because it is these practices that make it possible to hear and see what is not ordinarily heard or seen.
Very often beliefs exist at the level of false personality, in other words they are opinions, and not based on any real understanding. In a church or a teaching where people are not taught the methods to connect to higher centers, there is no or very little material for personal verification, so they are forced to fall back on what they believe. In esoteric work it is different; in a conscious teaching a student is taught that his beliefs should mirror his understanding.
It’s hard to talk about conscious evolution to people who think that belief is enough and that all spiritual rewards are reserved for an afterlife. At the same time it is equally hard to speak about inner work to people who demand proof and consider themselves too scientific or too clever to begin a work without having definite evidence that it will get them something ‘real’ or meaningful. Oddly esoteric work falls somewhere between these two extremes. A certain amount of belief is needed, especially at the beginning, but this belief isn’t blind. It’s more that we need to have faith in ourselves. We need to believe in our capacity to connect to higher centers, because when higher centers don’t work, it’s easy to forget what we saw and felt there. On the other hand we need to have a certain amount of skepticism. We need to be vigilant because it’s very easy to imagine that we are working when we are not. We need our own verifications. We don’t depend on others for what we know.