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Richard Harvey

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Gurdjieff and a Spiritual Path in the World

Early last century Gurdjieff expounded his approach to personal and spiritual development—the Fourth Way. He explained that spiritual practice has been followed traditionally in one of three ways. The physical way: to struggle with the body and develop the will by practicing physical exercises to develop attention. The emotional way: to struggle with affection through working with feelings, developing faith and unity, and exercising the will over emotions. The mental way: to struggle with mental habits and capabilities, developing knowledge and the intellect. Gurdjieff called these three ways the way of the fakir, the way of the monk and the way of the yogi. The goal of each way is to “master attention”, which is synonymous with realizing the True Self.

Today the way of the fakir is followed in the Alexander technique, Hatha yoga or Tai Chi; the way of the monk in meditation, spiritual renunciation and monastic life and the way of the yogi in psychoanalysis, spiritual study groups and Advaita Vedanta (in which the mind is used to transcend itself). Each of these approaches has been incorporated into the transpersonal work or mystical approaches of modern times.

But Gurdjieff considered each approach incomplete, because developing the body neglects the emotions and the mind; developing the emotions neglects the mind and the body and developing the mind neglects the body and the emotions. According to Gurdjieff, spiritual attainment through any of these ways leaves aspects of our humanness undeveloped. So how do we fulfill ourselves spiritually without discarding any aspects of our humanness?

Gurdjieff proposes that we can pursue our spiritual path outside of the traditional ways by taking responsibility for our spiritual development, organizing our practice and finding our own way. Rather than accepting spiritual truths, we have to find them for ourselves. We must live our own lives and become our own inner authority.

The Fourth Way was prophetic. Today more people than ever experience a call to follow a spiritual path in the world, rather than outside it. For many the spiritual journey is no longer formally prescribed by an outward authority or pursued in an institutionalized setting; each individual discovers it for his or her self. It is an expression of the emerging intimacy between our humanity and our divinity. We accept responsibility for how we lead our life by choosing the path to our psycho-spiritual unfolding. But, although the contemporary spiritual journey may not conform to a prescribed definition and is practiced outside of established religious tradition, we can still draw on mystical traditions and spiritual wisdom for help, clarification and deepening.

Since much of our understanding of spirituality has come to us via the East, confusion has grown in our minds about adopting the trappings of Eastern religion. While this may be useful and appropriate for some, the reality is that the Eastern mind is very different from the Western mind. This is reflected in the increasing number of individuals seeking liberation through a self-directed path. In spite of our attraction to personal surrender and guru worship, the Western mind is insistent that our spiritual path is our own.

This is more than ever true when you consider the maturation of spirituality today. Western spirituality has been retrieved from its other-worldly associations; the fantastical, magical high of its counter-cultural associations, its love affair with altered states and escape from reality, when Nirvana became confused with Shangri-La. Spirituality has begun to mature in the Western mind and is now understood as an essentially inner process producing individual and collective effects.

Leading a spiritual journey in the world means that we don't have to withdraw and “die to the world”. It may be difficult to have a job and a family, and be part of a worldly community and deal with the profound questions of human and divine nature, time and eternity, love and fear. Traditionally people who wanted to lead a spiritual life retreated to monasteries, convents or ashrams to practice within a prescribed structure of discipline. Since the divine call comes individually, people seek an individual, self-directed path of the spirit. Today the predominant way to practice spirituality is through individual integration, personal wholeness and inner renunciation in the world, rather than retreat and withdrawal from the world. The heart has become the new temple.

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This article was published in Spiritual Guidance on in October 2012.

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