IN THE EARLY 1920S during the Bolshevik Revolution, Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch, a young officer in the army of the Tsar, settled in Constantinople. Haunted by the barbarity and violence of war, he had a strange intuition that behind all the atrocities he had witnessed, there could be another life, a life full of meaning. One day while visiting the Russian community center in Constantinople, Tchekhovitch saw a poster for a series of lectures given by P.D. Ouspensky titled: “The ancient wisdom of the East revealed through a new current in Western thought.” Attracted by the mysterious title, he attended. This contact led to Tchekhovitch’s providential meeting with G.I. Gurdjieff, the man who would become his teacher and spiritual master.
Tchekhovitch’s memoir, GURDJIEFF: A MASTER IN LIFE, chronicles twenty-eight years of intense interaction between master and pupil, and sheds fresh light on the methods Gurdjieff used to open his pupils to an inner reality. After Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, Tchekhovitch worked closely with Jeanne de Salzmann before his own death in 1958.
The following excerpt from the book retells an allegory given by Gurdjieff regarding the qualities and necessary attitudes required for a student on a spiritual path:
ANOTHER TIME WE WERE speaking about “schools” in the traditional sense—that is, about the different “ways” Ouspensky would later describe in his book, IN SEARCH OF THE MIRACULOUS. “What should the attitude of a pupil be in such a school?” one of us asked.
“The attitude of a pupil is judged according to each individual, and is not necessarily always the same,” replied Mr. Gurdjieff. “To say that something is objectively good or bad, right or wrong, can only be true in relation to a particular case. What is most important is that the pupil develops those qualities that make it possible for him to maintain the necessary attitude. An allegory can perhaps help you grasp the qualities that are really required and the subtle principles on which the work of a school is based. Only those who understand, who can accept and undergo the conditions I am going to describe, will be able to go further.
“Imagine you are in a vast, virgin forest. In a clearing, there is an isolated house, far from anywhere. You are given the opportunity to live there in complete freedom. There is just one condition: you are asked to maintain a certain substance at boiling point in a cauldron, which is firmly set over a fire. You don’t know anything about this substance. One of your duties is to get wood from the forest to feed the fire. The boiling must not stop at any price. No one is checking on you. You don’t even know whether someone will come to relieve you. Nothing is certain. However, you have to hold out. The result you obtain will depend on your perseverance, on your rigor, on the honesty with which you undertake this task, which no one verifies except yourself. Besides, no one has the least interest in either encouraging or discouraging you. Well, would you be able to accomplish such a task for an indefinite time? And without trying to find out what is boiling in the cauldron, however intrigued you might be by that question? What is more, the lid of the cauldron, even though it is easily lifted, must not be moved.”
Naturally, many of us thought it did not make sense to undertake this blindly, to waste one’s time, go to all that trouble, without knowing in advance what all that might produce.
Gyorgi Ivanovitch listened patiently to our objections and perplexities. “I have no doubt that you are sincere,” he said “but you need to understand that to be able to bear the difficulties of a situation so foreign to our reason, you must have already been prepared by life itself.”
None of us dared ask questions about this preparation acquired in the course of life, which could allow one to surmount so many temptations, including laziness, curiosity, doubt, and the whole gamut of uncontrollable reactions.
Much later I began to suspect what this mysterious alchemical substance might be, and why it requires such sacrifice to obtain the gift it bestows. ♦
From Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch, GURDJIEFF: A MASTER IN LIFE (Toronto: Dolmen Meadow Editions, 2006), 38. Reprinted with permission from the publisher: dolmenmeadoweditions.com.