PW: Why this book [Gurdjieff] now?
John Shirley: People typically think their own era terribly dangerous and volatile—but ours does seem especially dangerous on a global scale. We puzzle over...wars, acts of large-scale terrorism, extremist fundamentalism in various religions, how racism recurs when we should have learned from the past, and so on. Gurdjieff provides explanations that seem to ring true: people are asleep when they think they're awake, people are automatic in their reactions when they think they're choosing their actions. And he points the way to a kind of superb individuality, in right relation to the larger universe, that literally grows within a person who cultivates it. He distills perceptions and methods that can also be found in Zen, in Sufism, in esoteric Buddhism and esoteric Christianity, into a way of looking at humanity's condition that makes practical sense.
These general principles, anyway, ring true—and I don't necessarily have to agree with every last thing he said to feel that there's something essential and powerful in his teaching. There are many great traditions worth pursuing to me. The Gurdjieff teaching's balance between knowledge and understanding makes it the most suited for modern life.
PW: Why you? What's your affinity to Gurdjieff?
JS: I guess I feel I can serve his ideas by expressing them in a palatable, accessible way without (I hope) losing their depth. I'm a professional storyteller, and his was a story that could be told excitingly, without a need for exaggeration. Here was a man who'd ranged the world's exotic places, getting wounded three times by stray bullets; a man who'd wrestled with his conscience like a prophet with an angel; who'd led his students out of the chaos of the Russian revolution; who fell afoul of his own fallibility but never gave up; who'd provided a methodology that startled people with its fresh intensity. Here was drama and meaning, a combination that called to me.
PW: Why did Gurdjieff place such importance on individuality? What does it mean to become an individual?
JS: Gurdjieff emphasized the creation of "being," an accumulating of an actual substance of selfhood that unifies our fragmented, narrow little selves into something that can make conscious choices. We typically live too much in tiny little parts of ourselves, in emotional impulse or mental analysis or bodily appetite, without having any kind of real inner oversight. He provided practical methods for coming to some kind of real freedom through the growth of a kind of individuality that, in many esoteric traditions, is the only thing that can survive death. I won't know if anything in me can survive death till I die—but if something does, it would have to be distinct to itself, capable of real consciousness instead of just endless knee-jerk response.
And this is relevant to our times—a person with real individuality can make a decision that is truly "bi-partisan" or beyond partisan. They can break from social molds and conformity and oppose violence; can stop and think and offer alternatives. His methods involve self-observation refined to a high degree, meditative methods, an encouragement of active will, a "wish" that leads people to deal with their suffering in a conscious way.
PW: Can a reader find guidance in a book like this without a master?
JS: There are some real Gurdjieff teachers who've cultivated something quite strikingly real and aware in themselves. And I do think you need someone like that to follow Gurdjieff's teaching without getting lost. A book is just a signpost, a beginning.
PW: It is fashionable to talk of spiritual work in the midst of life. Isn't this something Gurdjieff emphasized?
JS: Others besides Gurdjieff taught this idea of "work" in life, going back to Pythagoras. You'll also find it in C.S. Lewis's wonderful book The Screwtape Letters. But I think the modern emphasis on applying spirituality to life as it goes on around us probably originates with Gurdjieff. Life seems ever more complex, demanding, time-consuming, so some method of "stopping time," that is, of taking part in the present moment in a conscious way, is naturally something people have been looking for. Gurdjieff's call for being present and aware in the course of ordinary life has such depth and nuance and demand to it that to me it stands out. It's all very easy to call people to be more "in the moment," but harder to offer a way to get there. This teaching provides a real practical path to a kind of presence that makes everything you encounter meaningful.