Are you a spiritual seeker? In the tradition of Gurdjieff, this label denotes a person striving to encounter, with the whole of their being, and often in the midst of everyday life, the pure unadulterated truth of human existence. If that is your brand spirituality, and if you are interested in discovering what the study of evolutionarily informed behavioral and brain sciences can help reveal about your mind, then involvement in this group may be of value for you. A core tenet of this Gurdjieff group is the idea that a serious understanding of these western scientific disciplines can contribute mightily to a transformative spiritual process, especially when experienced in conjunction with the powerful first-person methods of self-inquiry taught by G.I. Gurdjieff.This web page serves to introduce a Gurdjieff group based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, whose meetings began in the fall of 2004, “The Gurdjieff Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience Group.” This group dedicates itself to the critical study of Gurdjieff’s teachings, and the practice of his methods, in conjunction with in-depth study of “bleeding-edge” western scientific insights about the human mind - its evolved structure and function, and its natural heritage.
The Gurdjieff Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience Group is a “specialist” Gurdjieff group dedicated both to an intellectually rigorous and deeply experiential cross-referencing of (1) Gurdjieff’s teachings about the human condition, individual developmental potentials, and methods of self-study, with (2) theory and data from the modern natural sciences, especially those pertaining to the evolved structure of human minds and the minds of our evolutionary ancestors. The latter disciplines include evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, neurobiology and cognitive psychology. An awesome synergistic revolution has been taking place within all of these sciences. The aim of this group is to digest the theory and empirical findings of these disciplines while attending seriously to traditional Gurdjieffian studies and exercises. We aim to have the experience of the science, and the resulting alterations of our impressions of nature operating inside and outside ourselves, help provide our minds with strong, trustworthy objectifying influences. We use progressive understandings of these sciences to help us purge bogus misleading “sky hooks” and “ghosts-in-the-machine” from our deeply held, socially and unconsciously self-reinforced matrix of assumptions and beliefs about our own inner workings and the structure of the world around us.
You have to change yourself to really feel something new, to come under genuniely new influences.
The cognitive purification that an actual understanding of science helps to initiate and sustain establishes a richer more realistic basis - inner conditions that are more productive - for the ceaseless questioning process a genuine spiritual search entails.
The biological organism that we necessarily seek to involve in our search consists, one hundred percent, of evolved biological tissue. It is tragic for any serious seeker to ignore areas of biology that offer to elucidate the evolution and functional design features of mind and that reveal real information about the unconscious forces that so transparently dominate us, and that dictate the vast patterns (prisons) of contingency that limit our conscious experiences and endeavors.
Ultimately, we work together to more fully exploit the gift of human life. Helped by Gurdjieff’s massive insights, we squarely and appreciatively face the truth of existence, and try to see more clearly into the true Being of beings. This is a profoundly refreshing and humanizing project. Moreover, it is one that can help the person, who wishes to do so, to break free from the comforting mediocrity and moral blinders of standard passive modes of religiosity, and help the person reach beyond the pandemic delusional sources of meaning and ideology, supposedly underwritten by supernatural agents, which religion promotes so promisingly.
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff offered poignant and exacting teachings about the human condition and the potential of humans who find means to study themselves. The Gurdjieffian theory and practice of human transformation through efforts entailing more intense and complete consciousness, in the midst of everyday life, engages the whole person. Various Gurdjieff groups around the world, most notably those maintained by the Gurdjieff Foundation and Gurdjieff Society, work toward self-knowledge and inner freedom on the basis of an informed, sober faith in consciousness.
Regretably, the commitment to take science seriously, let alone to study it, is very atypical of Gurdjieff groups. As seems to be true in all esoteric traaditions, it is more attractive for seekers to instead focus on vague yet hopeful scenarios involving supernatural influences lifting up the properly prepared, and causing some kind of transformation independent of any kind of right understanding of self and nature. In spite of Gurdjieff’s obvious personal interest in the best scientific knowledge of his own day, the vast majority of Gurdjieff groups are unprepared to integrate modern scientific insights, especially biological ones, into group work. In fact, there often seems to be a denigrating attitude toward science, and a perverse notion that, along with intellectual activity in general, it somehow interferes with experience.
Thus, the value of evolutionarily and ecologically framed behavioral and brain sciences for today’s seeker and the Gurdjieff work as a whole is seemingly unrecognized and opposed in the various Gurdjieffian establishment organizations. Of course, the Gurdjieff work is not unlike most other spiritual and religious movements in this regard. But this is not what Gurdjieff would have intended. If we wish to be faithful to the traditional letter as well as to the vital spirit of Gurdjieff’s teaching, the integral study of science, especially fields directly relevant to human psychology, now must be systematically encouraged.
Return To A Society Akhaldan Model
“Take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West – and then seek,” is one of Gurdjieff’s thirty-eight aphorisms. It provides a clear mandate to his students that distinguishes Gurdjieff’s systematic process of transformation from that most other esoteric traditions. This aphorism seems to suggest that the student’s spiritual evolution, in an important operational sense, depends both upon knowledge and understanding. While knowledge without understanding is of little, zero, or perhaps even negative value in relation to an aim of inner transformation, right understanding is more difficult or impossible to attain without right knowledge. Knowledge is an integral part of our inner environment. It has deep effects on our assumptions, attitudes, and the hypotheses we test about ourselves during exercises and self-observation. Facing real facts can be "shocking" in the uncomfortable yet positive Gurdjieffian sense of the term. Tending to the quality of the process of digesting impressions from life, an important activity for Gurdjieffian’s, and thus counteracting and avoiding buildups of physically crystallized illusions that stunt or stop human development, has to entail critical cultivation, in one’s mind, of the most accurate and incisive model of the inner and outer world that is available. Gurdjieff seems to have recognized the self-calming, sleep-inducing dangers inherent to any indulgence in a question-closing love of mystery. Knowledge should be used to help validate, and when necessary to help exterminate, the spiritually deadening feel-good sensations and intellectual blinders that an emotional dependence upon “mystery” engenders.
Accordingly, Gurdjieff left humanity with a rich model for conducting an ideologically unfettered, open-ended search for truth: The Society Akhaldan. Gurdjieff described this Society in his masterwork, “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Impartially Objective Criticism of the Life of Man” (see especially, Chapter 23). In the Society Akhaldan, members carefully and collaboratively studied a variety of contemporary sciences and critically cross-referenced the verifiable knowledge of their day with the discoveries that they made together by practicing contemplative, meditative, introspective techniques of self study, and by pondering traditional sacred teachings about inner and outer conditions important for human spiritual evolution.
The Gurdjieff Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience Group is dedicated, in an attitude of careful determined questioning, to re-vivifying Gurdjieff’s Akhaldan model of the search, and to pushing this exacting, radically “interdisciplinary” approach to truth-seeking toward its maximum 21st century limits. Its goal is to incorporate the serious study of select areas of western behavioral and brain science – those disciplines with direct relevance to understanding the human mind and its natural ancestry - into traditional Gurdjieffian study and practice. Thus our scientific focus will have us studying and applying bodies of knowledge similar to those covered by the fourth and sixth sections of the Society Akhaldan, called “Akhaldanpsychovars” and “Akhaldanmistessovors.” We stress that the intellect has an essential role to play in the struggle to see higher. Correct views concerning the real inner and outer worlds are needed to help guide any program of inner development, including those that rightly place a high value upon work with sensation and emotion. We also stress that the main battle for any truth seeker is always basically the same: to strive to return, again and again, to the inner position of “Being in Question,” intentionally to resist launching into half-baked, ultimately self-reaffirming interpretations of new data or associations before anything new really has been experienced.
A Need for Objectifying Influences
A system of self-study like that of Gurdjieff’s is meant to foster development of conscious awareness powerful enough to exercise increasing degrees of competent authority over perception, interpretation and action. Gurdjieff’s system aims at a consciousness keen enough to evade constant cycles of acting and reacting, and which can play and active role in a person’s lifelong spiritual evolution. In a system like Gurdjieff’s, what is known, and the accuracy and precision of what is known, plays a strong role in determining the quality of the growth of self-understanding. Mediocre knowledge tends to lead to seriously flawed understandings of inner and outer life that can slow, stifle, and even reverse one’s desired movement away from pure helpless mechanicality and toward a more objective and comprehensive capacity for more truly human seeing, choice and action. Although there may be techniques and forms that help defend the individual against the ill effects of bad knowledge, clearly, as Gurdjieffians, unwavering dedication to the acquisition of better more purifying knowledge has to be one of our tools.
First-person methods of study go nowhere, and always are at risk of going way off course, without correct objectifying influences. One of Gurdjieff’s most repeated and resounding messages is how easy it is for humans, and even “finer beings” (metaphoric or not, it does not really matter) with higher powers of objective reasoning, to get things terribly wrong. Every moment, cryptically self-serving or complacency-inducing imaginary visions of reality and biased interpretations of basic ideas and personal experiences threaten to suck us under into deep spells of automatism and sleep.
A strong version of the Akhaldanian model needs to be emphasized in the Gurdjieff work. Scientific disciplines exist today that were utterly absent, not only in the time of Gurdjieff himself, but even in the times of his first generation students and during the initiation of second generation leaders of Gurdjieffian work and study groups. Specifically, today’s cognitive and developmental neurosciences together with evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology offer profoundly supportive material for the person bent on knowing him or herself and who, accordingly, is struggling to shed intoxicating romantic illusions about the essential characteristics of mind and body and how the organism “responds” to the impressions and contingencies of life. These burgeoning and revolutionary fields of western scientific inquiry interact to help the student gain greater access to the real inner and outer world, priceless for anyone who has begun to establish faith in consciousness and an appreciation of the practically infinite potential for increased sensitivity as the foundation path to the classic esoteric process: to awake, to die, to be reborn.
Given the Darwinian process of adaptation and natural selection that created the mind/bodies of all animals, including humans, it is practically a miracle that teachings like that of Gurdjieff exist. While the miracle is probably quite explicable, and even lawful, like the miracle of life itself, it nevertheless presents us with an opportunity that should not be wasted. Every means possible for unleashing a deeper humanity within and amongst humans needs to be pursued. The forms that this pursuit take amongst esoteric practitioners must be updated without losing track of the grounding provided by traditional, timeless, core teachings, in order to maximally leverage the power and virtue of these core teachings.
Evolutionarily informed behavioral and neurosciences offer an incredibly strong objectifying influence to those seekers bent on exposing themselves on intellectual, emotional, and even physical levels to clear incisive truths. They are brimming with interconnected matrices of facts and rich coherent theoretical frameworks that foster a naturalistic appreciation of the human organism and that help open one’s potential to partner-with-the-machine in a journey beyond that which natural selection designed us to embark upon automatically. Luckily, perhaps, natural selection can foresee nothing that is truly novel vis á vis the organism’s evolutionary history. The teachings and methods of Gurdjieff, as well as deep evolutionary biological understanding of the body/mind, offer spiritually vivifying shocks, and access to profoundly novel mental and emotional states. The evolved mechanisms for the tight and ruthless regulation of conscious experience have slightly less efficient means for reinitiating waking sleep when such shocks and states arise. More freedom ensues, and it does so more frequently.
Like any sincere Gurdjieff work group including, perhaps most prominently, those run around the world under the direction of the above-mentioned Gurdjieff Foundation and Gurdjieff Society, the goal of the Gurdjieff Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience Group will be to help maintain and enhance the conditions for self-study and human spiritual development established by Gurdjieff and his principal pupils. We seek the guidance of senior members of the Gurdjieff Foundation and Society who might be interested in our approach.
Special Note: There has been no “authorization” by anybody in any existing Gurdjieff establishment to form this group. However, we seek contact with a senior person within the Gurdjieff Foundation or Society, who might be in a position to appreciate the role of modern science in a Gurdjieffian-style search, willing to help supervise this endeavor.
Born in Alexandropol in 1866, in a region of the Czarist Empire that could be viewed as the seam between Europe and Asia, Gurdjieff traveled throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa in search of knowledge concerning the psycho-spiritual possibilities of human beings and our unique place in the Universe.
After his travels and studies Gurdjieff brought back to Russia, and later to Western Europe and the United States, a system of ideas and practical spiritual work. For all its enduring freshness and urgency, Gurdjieff’s system seems bound to degenerate or, at best, stagnate, unless every possible objectifying influence is brought to bear. Gurdjieff has been called an extraordinary man, a master, an "abrupt awakener." He was certainly an influential 20th-century thinker--but in a memorable passage of his most challenging book, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, he chose to designate himself modestly as "a teacher of dance." While this vocational label can be taken to refer to his "sacred dances," part of the practical work in which his pupils engage, it can be extended to indicate a "dance" that is both a movement of self-discovery and a discovery of purpose in relation to the world at large.
Gurdjieff showed a way to achieve profound change in oneself and to live with a lifelong sense of search and discovery, without turning away from the ordinary things of life, which prove by the light he offered to be not ordinary at all. Gurdjieff's teaching is embodied in writings, dance, music, and practical methods studied by many groups today. His teaching continues to be transmitted orally, from person to person, and this avenue of simple contact among like-minded people remains most important.
Background on group’s founder.
Over the past 25 years, the group’s founder (PJW) has studied several contemplative systems of self-study including, most recently, that of Gurdjieff, always in tandem with the sciences of animal behavior, behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, and the neurosciences.
From 1988 through 2003, PJW studied the Gurdjieff work with the USA-based Gurdjieff Foundation and its European counterpart, The Gurdjieff Society. These are the main organizations established after Gurdjieff's death in 1949 by his chief pupil, Jeanne de Salzmann, who carried on his work with the help of many other direct pupils of Gurdjieff. During PJW’s tenure with these organizations, he was fortunate to have contact with outstanding first, second, and third generation students of Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. For several years, PJW helped lead a Gurdjieff Foundation Group in New Mexico. In early 2004, PJW reluctantly left the Foundation to gain the freedom needed to pursue a style of group work that adheres in a full and modern way to the Society Akhaldan model like portrayed in Gurdjieff’s writings.
PJW earned dual-B.A.’s in zoology and botany from the University of Montana (1981), and his Ph.D. in biology, specializing in the evolution of behavior, from Cornell University’s Section of Neurobiology and Behavior (1988). He has studied with widely respected field biologists and evolutionary theoreticians at Cornell University, The University of Oxford, U.K., and the University of New Mexico. He is a member of the Animal Behavior Society and the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. He currently supervises graduate students studying animal and human social and sexual behavior and is a member of the University of New Mexico Department of Biology research faculty. In addition to his own research, PJW teaches advanced seminars on the evolution of human and animal behavior, including the evolution of religious experience, at the University of New Mexico, field courses in the evolution of behavior and plant-animal interactions at The University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, and provides occasional workshops covering evolutionary biological perspectives on psychotherapy and spiritual practice at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California and other venues.
PJW writes: “I decided early in life that self study, and the living of its unforeseeable consequences, was the main point of life, or at least a very special opportunity that comes with being human. I also came early to a feeling that any “lessons learned” using traditional first-person methods of self study needed to be reviewed and interpreted carefully in relation to the most powerful objectifying influences available. These views together with my fascination with nature led me to a life of scholarship and research in the fields of animal behavior and human evolutionary psychology, as well as a long period of self-styled study and practice of Zen and related disciplines.”
“In 1988, about the time I finished my doctoral work in behavioral biology at Cornell University, I was introduced to and soon became thoroughly convinced of the special value of Gurdjieff’s teachings. Soon after, I was blessed with contact with outstanding students and senior teachers of Gurdjieff’s methods. These experiences in the Gurdjieff Foundation and Society became a new, refreshing and substantive gravity-center for my personal journey. As I continue to pursue integrated experiences of both these traditional first-person and scientific third-person worlds of study, I have come to feel strongly that the evolutionary behavioral and brain sciences offer to refine and perhaps in many cases revolutionize the self-understanding of serious Gurdjieffian students in ways that vivify and help to guide or even rectify a 4th Way process of growth and transformation.”
More information on Gurdjieff and his teachings is available at the Gurdjieff International Review and the Gurdjieff Internet Guide
“Stumbling on Happiness” (2006), by Daniel Gilbert
“A Universe of Consciousness” (2000), by Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi
“Consciousness Explained” (1991), “Kinds of Mind” (1996) and “Breaking the Spell” (2005), by Daniel C. Dennett
“The Illusion of Conscious Will” (2002), by Daniel M. Wegner
“Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach, 8th Edition” (2005), by John Alcock
“The Feeling of What Happens” (1999), by Antonio Damasio
“In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion” (2002), by Scott Atran
“The God Delusion” (2006), by Richard Dawkins
Questions or observations?
This page last updated 23 April 2008