What is the Purpose of Life?
George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol in 1866 to a Greek father and Armenian mother. His father was an Ashokh, or bard, and sung epic poetry in an oral tradition that was thousands of years old, including the story of Gilgamesh. With fellow ‘Seekers of Truth’ Gurdjieff spent twenty years of his early adult life travelling in the East searching for real knowledge, driven by the question of the sense and significance of life. He eventually set up his ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ at the Château du Prieuré near Fontainebleau-Avon in France in 1922. He died in 1949 and left an allegorical magnum opus, entitled All and Everything, as well as a large collection of sacred dances and music. One may say that his teaching is simply how to become a real human being.
What is the purpose of life?
A brief exploration, in the light of the teaching of Gurdjieff
This question of questions, the purpose of life, is not for the mind alone. Attempting to grasp its magnitude, our feelings and instinct must have equal share of the work.
Imagine a compassionate and impartial being looking down upon earth from afar, seeing everything, from epoch to epoch. Seeing our destruction of one another’s existence in untold numbers of terrible wars, seeing our abuse and ingratitude to our Mother Nature, seeing the vanities that make up our personal lives…. Might not this being conclude, sorrowfully, that it is only by our death that in general human beings serve a useful purpose, by being food for worms?
Walking in the countryside in springtime, who can fail to be moved by the exuberance of Nature? The singing of the birds, the bursting forth of new life, new growth. But look at that young carefree lamb gambolling in the lush green field over there. Is our fate really any different to his, destined to be slaughtered for his meat?
Gurdjieff tells a story of a rich magician and his sheep, saying that it was a very good picture of the life of people:
‘There is an Eastern tale which speaks about a very rich magician who had a great many sheep. But at the same time this magician was very mean. He did not want to hire shepherds, nor did he want to erect a fence about the pasture where his sheep were grazing. The sheep consequently often wandered into the forest, fell into ravines, and so on, and above all they ran away, for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and skins and this they did not like.
‘At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotized his sheep and suggested to them first of all that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned, that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place he suggested to them that if anything at all were going to happen to them it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it. Further the magician suggested to his sheep that they were not sheep at all; to some of them he suggested that they were lions, to others that they were eagles, to others that they were men, and to others that they were magicians.
‘And after this, all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away again but quietly awaited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.’ [i]
Gurdjieff frequently talks of this state of hypnotized sleep in which we live. However, there is an interesting sequel to this story, also said to be ancient, and prevailing in medieval Europe, about the black sheep who has somehow freed himself from the general hypnosis and realises his position, thus having greater possibilities. [ii]
Gurdjieff often colourfully described human beings as ‘factories for producing merde.’ [iii] (Merde is sometimes politely translated from the French as fertiliser or manure.) He often stressed the need to realise with one’s whole being one’s own nothingness, to see ‘the absurdity of our ordinary life,’ [iv] and even to be ‘convinced that [one] is heading directly over a precipice towards annihilation,’ [v] in order to be really motivated to change. We are ordinarily so immersed in illusion, that we are quite comfortable being such factories. However, Gurdjieff once described himself as being a seeker of ‘pearls in manure’! [vi]
Fritz Peters recounts an episode when he was a twelve year old boy at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré in Fontainebleau-Avon:
‘He then asked me to look out of the window and to tell him what I saw. I said that, from that window, all I could see was an oak tree. And what, he asked, was on the oak tree? I told him: acorns.
‘ “How many acorns?”
‘When I replied, rather uncertainly, that I did not know, he said impatiently: “Not exactly, not ask that. Guess how many!”
‘I said that I supposed there were several thousand of them.
‘He agreed and then asked me how many of the acorns would become oak trees. I answered that I supposed only five or six of them would actually develop into trees, if that many.
‘He nodded. “Perhaps only one, perhaps not even one. Must learn from Nature. Man is also organism. Nature make many acorns, but possibility to become tree exist for only few acorns. Same with man – many men born, but only few grow. People think this waste, think Nature waste. Not so. Rest become fertiliser, go back to earth and create possibility for more acorns, more men, once in a while more tree – more real man. Nature always give – but only give possibility. To become real oak, or real man, must make effort. You understand this, my work….not for fertilizer. For real man only. But must also understand fertilizer necessary to Nature. Possibility for real tree, real man also depend just this fertilizer.” ’[vii]
One of Gurdjieff’s special ideas was that of ‘reciprocal maintenance’. He held that human beings, like everything else in the universe, were apparatuses for the transformation of energy, that each so-called ‘class of being’ depended on every other class of being, and that a continual exchange of substances, or reciprocal feeding, takes place. In the words of one of his English pupils, John Bennett, ‘….man….is specifically required to produce sensitive and conscious energy needed for maintaining the harmony of the solar system.’ [viii]
For Gurdjieff, all life was equally necessary and precious. He said, ‘For [the megalocosmos] there is no difference between the life of man and the life of beings of any other form.’ [ix] Indeed, Gurdjieff loved animals and plants, and stressed our kinship with other creatures. Bennett said, ‘….Reciprocal Maintenance….alone breaks down the artificial barrier that man has erected between himself and his Mother Nature.’[x] Gurdjieff, indeed, was the supreme ecologist: the whole universe itself as an ecosystem.
Bennett also said that ‘….the individual can bring about the complete transformation of his nature [only] through his own [in Gurdjieff’s words] ‘conscious labour and intentional suffering.’ [xi] Bennett described this way of living as ‘Service and Sacrifice’ [xii] Through these means, manure may be transformed into ‘Holy Merde,’ [xiii] or even a pearl.
Gurdjieff often described the human organism using an Eastern allegory of the horse, carriage and coachman. The carriage itself represents the body, the horse the emotions, and the coachman the mind. However, in the ordinary person, the carriage is broken down and in dire need of repairs, the horse has been brought up on beatings and continual abuse and has never been properly educated, and the coachman is always drunk and half asleep. And instead of the carriage having an owner who is the master of the equipage, there is a continual succession of passengers that are the different ‘I’s that make up our daily life. One of the aims of Gurdjieff’s teaching was the education of each of these separate components, and to gain one’s own unchanging ‘I’, or conscious individuality.
Gurdjieff demanded that we keep things in perspective:
‘Go out one clear starlit night to some open space and look up at the sky, at those millions of worlds over your head. Remember that perhaps on each of them swarm billions of beings, similar to you or perhaps superior to you in their organization. Look at the Milky Way. The earth cannot even be called a grain of sand in this infinity. It dissolves and vanishes, and with it, you. Where are you? And is what you want simply madness?
‘Before all these worlds ask yourself what are your aims and hopes, your intentions and means of fulfilling them, the demands that may be made upon you and your preparedness to meet them.’ [xiv]
There are two rivers of life, according to Gurdjieff [xv], and the drops within them represent human lives. One is an unconscious current, flowing purely in accordance with the needs of Nature, and the water eventually disappears down crevices to the depths of the earth. The other is the living water, in which those who have their own ‘I’ may take their place, and which ultimately enters and unites with the boundless ocean.
What is he Purpose of Life? Compiled by Dr. Clare Mingins
[i] Ouspensky, P.D. In Search of the Miraculous p.219
[ii] Anon. Gospel of Orage p.7-9
[iii] Patterson, W.P. Voices in the Dark p.252-25
[iv] Gurdjieff, G.I. Life is real only then, when ‘I am’ p.103
[v] Tchekovitch, T. Gurdjieff: Master in Life p.131
[vi] Gurdjieff, G.I. Life is real only then, when ‘I am’ p.7
[vii] Peters, Fritz. Boyhood with Gurdjieff p.43
[viii] Bennett, John. Gurdjieff: Making a New World p.191
[ix] Gurdjieff, G.I. Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (1950) p.193
[x] ibid. P.271
[xi] ibid. p.194
[xii] ibid. p.212
[xiii] Patterson, W.P. Ladies of the Rope p.117
[xiv] Gurdjieff, G.I. Views from the Real World p.58
[xv] Gurdjieff, G.I. Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (1950) p.1227-1232