Gurdjieff HeadshotToward the end of In Search of the Miraculous Ouspensky reproduces a newspaper article written by a well known Russian journalist. The article describes the reporter’s impression of Gurdjieff, who he took to be an ‘oil king.’ Ouspensky was interested in the story because he felt that it demonstrated Gurdjieff’s ability to ‘completely alter his appearance.’

If the article is to be believed, Gurdjieff started a conversation with the man, and, after making a number of enigmatic statements about business and about the Russian Revolution, was asked by the reporter: ‘Don’t you make profits too?’

He [Gurdjieff] smiled… and said with gravity: ‘We always make a profit. War or no war, it is all the same to us. We always make a profit.’

Ouspensky suggested that the ‘esoteric’ meaning behind the words ‘we always make a profit,’ referred to the ‘collecting of knowledge and the collecting of people.’ And though I think Ouspensky’s interpretation of Gurdjieff’s words is correct, I can’t help thinking that it is more likely that Gurdjieff was referring to the possibility of transforming any event, no matter how troubling or negative, for the benefit of inner work. We always make a profit because it’s possible for us to be present to positive or pleasurable moments and to not identify with difficult moments. It’s possible for us to transform any event by concentrating our attention on one of the many exercises of conscious evolution. Our relationship to the world is one of trying to find ways to consistently use what is before us to prolong self-remembering and increase understanding.


Unlike the other three traditional ways, the fourth way exists in everyday life. It is therefore important that we have a basic understanding of what constitutes a healthy, functioning nation, as well as the conditions that make a nation dysfunctional. People in general waste an enormous amount of energy talking about and worrying about politics. This is especially true in times of upheaval. The question for us is this: does the fourth way (or esoteric thought in general) tell us anything about the principles that govern the creation and destruction of nations?  I would say that it doesn’t tell us anything directly, but it does tell us a great deal indirectly because it describes the mechanics of human psychology. In particular the fourth way gives us a detailed picture of the right and wrong work of the four lower centers. The idea here is that the principles that allow for the possibility of individual inner work are the same principles that determine whether a nation supports the potential of its citizens. Put simply the four lower centers play a role on the scale of nations because they determine the needs of the mass of citizens that make up a nation. In the same way an individual must balance his four lower centers to have the possibility to connect to higher centers, a nation must balance its four primary public institutions in order to properly serve its people.

If an individual’s inner work is to be successful, it must have a correct foundation; that is, his mind, or intellectual function, must work out intellectual questions, his emotional function must deal with emotional issues, and his instinctive/moving functions must negotiate the world and care for his physical needs. In the same way, a nation that wants to give its citizens a chance to find their potential must allow its four major public institutions—business, government, religion or myth, and the arts and the press—to play their roles without being overtaken or overwhelmed by the other three.

Gurdjieff described an eastern allegory to his students that compares the lower centers in an unprepared man to a house full of servants.

The servants do what they like. The house is in a state of complete chaos… The cook works in the stables, the coachman in the kitchen, and so on. ~ P. D. Ouspensky

In another example, Gurdjieff explains why the intellectual center should not drive a car.

If one drives a car with the help of one’s mind, one can go only in the lowest gear. The mind cannot keep pace with all the movements…  To drive at full speed, especially in the streets of a large town, while steering with the help of one’s mind is absolutely impossible. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff

In order to understand this allegory we must have already verified, on some level, that man is a micro cosmos.  Man is a micro cosmos because, like the universe, he has within him different layers of realities. What this means is that man’s inner life contains the possible experience of different worlds. For instance the instinctive center’s legitimate function is the care and protection of the body, but it is incapable of understanding and empathizing with other people. The energy that sustains emotion is much faster and finer, and it is needed in order to understand and work with others in a cooperative and tolerant manner.

Racism and religious discrimination are good examples of instinctive reactions to events that require the perception of the emotional center. The instinctive center, instead of seeing that people are essentially alike, sees the differences between themselves and others. (When I say that people are essentially alike, I mean that all people suffer, that all people feel joy and fear, and that all people know loss.) Since the instinctive center is naturally competitive, it finds ways to marginalize people of other races and religions because it is either afraid of them or is convinced that they are inferior because of their differences.

The predominant development of any one center at the expense of the others produces an extremely one-sided type of man, incapable of further development. ~ G. I. Gurdjieff


When we take this principle of balancing the four lower centers to the scale of nations, business mirrors the instinctive center; government, the moving center; religion and myth, the emotional center; and the press and the arts, the intellectual center. I am not saying that these institutions are devoid of the elements contained in the other institutions—for instance art needs to have an emotional element if it is to be effective and government must have an intellectual element to be efficient. What I am saying is that these institutions act on different sides of man and therefore all four play a necessary role in a culture that aspires to support the needs and potential of its citizens.


Business. The instinctive center is necessarily selfish, as is business. Business is the method that an individual citizen uses to provide for himself and his or her family. What is important to understand about business is that it is not meant to give meaning to our lives. Its domain is to provide a scaffold so that emotional experiences and thoughts can be sought out and concentrated on without too much interference from the day-to-day cares of the body. When moneymaking is imagined to be a source of meaning, there are always problems, both on the scale of an individual life and on the scale of nations. On an individual human scale moneymaking, because it provides no lasting meaning, can easily become greed, an obsessive circle of believing that if I just had a little more money, I’d be satisfied. This leads to cheating, lying, and, if it is carried to an extreme, a lack of regard for the property and the lives of others. A war fought to steal the resources of another country is an example of greed on the level of nations.

Government. The moving center is a servant center. Compared to the emotional center and the instinctive center it has few needs. The moving center takes us to the refrigerator when we’re hungry and drives us to our friend’s house when we want company. It is no accident that politicians and soldiers speak of their work in government as service. Ideally government’s role should be to care for and watch over the instinctive, emotional, and intellectual needs of its citizens. It is the role of government to protect, support, regulate, and provide access to the other three institutions.

Religion and Myth.  In individuals the emotional center is what allows us to understand other people and to know how to act and react in their presence. When it works with its own energy, it is also our best mechanical window into higher centers. But for the emotional center to work consistently with its own energy inner work is needed. For the most part the emotional center works with the energy of the other centers. When the instinctive center tries to take on the role of the emotional center, the result is judgment, prejudice, condemnation, and, in extreme cases, persecution. When the intellectual center acts for the emotional center the result is laws and commandants that have nothing to do with conscience. Religion in society should play a role, if not in bringing people together, at least in helping diverse people understand each other. Of course it just as often plays a role of separating people because of their differences.

The Press and the Arts. The press and the arts are lumped together because they have the same purpose in society: to observe and to talk to a culture about itself.

A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself. ~ Arthur Miller

In art the image of a society is transformed; in the press it is not or should not be. The role of the intellectual center in man is to formulate aims and direction. In the esoteric allegory of the carriage, the intellectual center plays the role of the driver, with the instinctive/moving center being the carriage itself and the emotional center being the horses. Not all art is socially motivated, but that doesn’t matter because any real artist will manage to communicate something about his culture no matter what themes he explores. His themes, for example, may be determined by what he finds lacking in a society or by what he imagines a society to be capable of achieving.


Now that the ideas and principles are laid out, let’s look at a few examples of unbalance on the scale of nations.

It is generally thought that the Soviet Union failed because American capitalism, its main competitor, was a more robust system than communism, but it seems more likely that it failed because in the Soviet Union there was an attempt by the government to control not only business but also religion and the press and the arts. The Soviet Union was an experiment in extremism; it was an attempt to replace the four necessary public institutions with one institution, government. Soviet communism was a flawed system because it was tragically one-dimensional—in this case utilitarian—and was therefore subject to despotism and all the other abuses that come along with an imbalance of power.

Ironically the American experiment, if it fails, will do so for the same reason, except in the case of the United States the dominant institution at the present time is not government; it is business.

You often hear it said that the problems in the United States are the fault of big government, when in reality most of our problems are the result of business overreaching its natural domain and trying to control government, the press and the arts, and even religion. A powerful corporate lobby has led to many of the problems we now face. The gun problem and an extremely dysfunctional health care system are both the result of a weak government that cannot anymore make common-sense regulations. Income inequality is another problem that is a direct result of corporate overreach. In the last forty years the government of the United States has been turned away from its legitimate responsibility—the protection and care of its citizens, especially those citizens who need it the most—and has served the business world and its worse vices.

The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves. ~ Abraham Lincoln

This is compounded by the problem of business overreach in the arts and in the press. The benchmark for success in the arts in the United States at the present moment is not a truthful or revelatory description of our history or our present reality, but rather how much money a project makes. This has forced many of our most promising artists, if they want to be heard at all, to become entertainers instead of thinkers and social critics, which means that in a time of crisis our artists and journalists, whose job it is to observe, inform, and educate are marginalized because they are only ‘entertainers’ or because they lack celebrity status.

The overreach of business into journalism is even more problematic. The idea of reporting the news has become a competition of ratings and of attracting advertisers, which has led to a penchant for reporting the most sensational news stories rather than the most important stories. This encourages extremists to continue to commit more and more sensational and violent acts; it also marginalizes thinkers and politicians who have a balanced and sensible view of events. Business tends to make everything into a competition, a my-product-is-better-than-your-product mentality. And it uses advertisements, short, suggestive messages to communicate its needs. This is appropriate if you’re selling soap, but if your aim is to elect a senator or a president and you need to communicate complex social and political ideas a longer medium is necessary. Journalism, in its best incarnation, should create discussion, not confirm bias.

The framers of the US Constitution understood the dangers of allowing religion to dominate government—they had witnessed it in recent history—but what they didn’t foresee was the rise of the corporation. If they had, I’m guessing that they would have put restraints on the influence of business over government, as they had with religion.

Of course at this point the passing of laws that would put the same kinds of restrictions and separations on business as we have on religion would find little support among lawmakers. This is so because the people who are needed to pass the laws are the same ones who depend on contributions from business for their reelection. It is a circle that will be difficult to break.

The great irony of corporate overreach is that in the end it will destroy the fabric of American society, which is needed for business to flourish. In other words the business community will eventually, by subjecting the other three institutions to its dominance, destroy itself.

History gives us many examples of cultures that were dominated by religion. When the Catholic Church dominated nations in the middle ages, we found many of the same problems we now see in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia; that is, persecution, enforced morality, and disastrous crusades. Though religion always has a social and moral role to play in a culture, it is primarily an institution of individual enlightenment. It should be an institution that changes the way individual men and women see themselves and the world, and this change, which is essentially revelatory, can never be forced on others. Religion’s primary value in society is that it helps form good and, sometimes, great men and women.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of religious extremism is that it discredits texts that were written to teach illumination. When extremists of any religion justify violence and intolerance because of a misreading or a distortion of spiritual texts, they dishonor the texts and the tradition they mistakenly imagine they are promoting.


This is just a sketch. Of course the nations of which we are citizens are complex and cannot be easily analyzed in a short essay. But it is beginning. It gives us a way to begin to think about the problems that face us as a culture, and a way to judge the politicians who want our support.

There are many issues that I have not dealt with here. For instance, education is obviously a primary issue for any nation. In this case it is my belief that education, like many other issues, will prosper if there is balance between the four intuitions I have spoken about. Business, government, religion, art and journalism all have a part to play in the education of children and adults alike.

It is also important to remember that not all social problems have political solutions; some social problems are rooted in spiritual issues that cannot be changed if people remain as they are. Real or lasting outer change can only be effected by inner change. In other words, the world will be different only when people become different.

In the fourth way the world is our denying force. Unlike the fakir or the monk, we don’t torture the body or isolate ourselves from the world; instead, we find a way to use the difficulties created by life to increase our valuation for the kind of focus that is needed to connect to higher centers. Our work toward trying to achieve a permanent connection to higher centers is fueled by our day to day, hour to hour, moment by moment transformations. When things go wrong, even horribly wrong, our fallback position is self-remembering. Put simply, transformation can be seen as replacing worry and disillusionment and anger with self-remembering. The quickest way to connect to higher centers is to remember yourself the moment you become negative.

We don’t need to cut ourselves off from the world because, like the stoics, we have the tools to transform whatever difficulties life brings. But without some insight into events on the scale of nations, we will not be able to grasp what is possible and not possible for us as individuals, and we will also not be able to recognize candidates who have no understating of what it means to create a healthy, functioning nation, or to heal a nation that has become dysfunctional.

We live in a time when lunatics and criminals are believed and widely supported. Men and women who would have been laughed out of politics thirty years ago are now taken seriously. Of course we should all do what we can to stop this trend, but the reality is that as individuals we can do very little. The causes that have determined much of what is happening in America, and around the world, were planted years ago and now must be played out. Things happen and people react, which is the cause for more things to happen and for more reactions. In 1916, in observing the Russian Revolution, Ouspensky made this comment:

Nothing could have given [us] more material for the study of the ‘mechanicalness’ of events.

Taken out of the context of the system, the fourth-way view that ‘man cannot do’ can be seen as fatalism. But an attitude of fatalism is opposed to the spirit of the fourth way. One of the foundations of the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky system is its teaching of what is possible and what is not. This is summed up very neatly in analogy from Ouspensky:

We are in a train, the train is going somewhere. All we can do is to pass the time in the train differently—do something useful or spend it quite uselessly.

So let us do what is possible and not be swept away because of events we cannot control. The privilege of knowing about conscious evolution should not be taken lightly. The tools we have been given are not designed to change the world; they are designed to change us. Identification is identification whether you’re identified with a worthy political cause or the latest movie or your local sports team. We must not lose ourselves, especially at a time when so many others are displaying poor judgment.