Posted on Sunday, 9 October, 2011 | 2 comments
Columnist: William B Stoecker
What is called the New Age Movement really began in the US and Europe in the nineteen sixties and seventies. The New Agers are a diverse lot, but what they have in common is a dissatisfaction with traditional Christianity and Judaism, coupled with a rejection of atheism and materialism. The worst of the New Agers are Satanists like Anton La Vey and Michael Aquino, but the best are sincere spiritual seekers who trust their inner voice more than the voice of any priest or rabbi, although some have merely exchanged one spiritual teacher for another by following various self-appointed gurus. Most are heavily influenced by Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Zen Buddhism. New Agers emphasize the oneness, the unity, of all things and all beings, strive to unite science and mysticism, and often believe in holistic health practices. The Esalen Institute is essentially a New Age organization, as was the Findhorn Foundation.
And the roots of the movement go far back. There were always Christian (including some saints) and Jewish mystics. The kabbalah is certainly outside of mainstream Judaism, and the Hasidic Jews began as mystics. There were always heretical Christian sects like the Gnostics. And there were cults like the Templars (probably ancestors of today’s Freemasons) and Rosicrucians, as well as individual alchemists, astrologers, and magicians, and mystics like Emanuel Swedenborg and Anton Mesmer. The spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century offered an alternative to mainstream religions, and then there were the Transcendentalist of the 1830s and 1840s, mostly members of New England’s cultural elite, people like Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. They believed that spiritual truth could be found, not in church, but by trusting one’s own intuition. In the late nineteenth century Helena Blavatsky founded Theosophy (God-knowledge), and she used the actual term “new age,” as had English poet, artist, and mystic William Blake as far back as 1809. Then there were people like Edgar Cayce, Carl Jung, and Rudolf Steiner, who founded Anthroposophy (Man-knowledge), as well as the more sinister occultists who set the stage for the Nazi Party.
One of the more well-known and influential mystics who preceded the New Age was George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, of Greek and Armenian ancestry, from Georgia (the one in the Eastern Hemisphere). He died 10/29/1949, and his date of birth, though uncertain, is usually given as 1/14/1866. He was from a fairly prosperous family, and it is interesting to note that Josef Stalin (as he was later known) was for a time a roomer in Gurdjieff’s family home. This may or may not be significant; there is no evidence that either man in any way influenced the other. Gurdjieff traveled widely, lived abroad, and was especially drawn to music and dance.
Gurdjieff believed that, in what passes for our normal state of waking consciousness, we are not, in fact, awake. We go through our entire lives more or less half asleep, unaware of much that happens around us, using only a small portion of our intellect, and unprepared to receive spiritual truth. If this sounds a bit like some of the teachings of Zen Buddhism it is probably no accident, as Gurdjieff was heavily influenced by Eastern religions. He rejected what he considered to be the three traditional paths to enlightenment, the way of the fakir, the monk, and the yogi, as they all required that the seeker renounce ordinary life. Gurdjieff believed that this was a mistake, and he advocated what he called the “fourth way,” but also referred to his teachings as “esoteric Christianity,” for he believed that the Bible contains great spiritual truths that have been misunderstood or forgotten. Sometimes he simply called what he was teaching “the work.” In some ways, Gurdjieff’s teachings resemble the “examined life” concept of Socrates and Plato. He wrote ballets and developed “sacred dances,” also called “Gurdjieff movements,” which would supposedly alter consciousness in a manner perhaps analogous to Tai Chi. Gurdjieff believed in nine personality types, which he diagrammed on a geometric figure called an “enneagram.” Gurdjieff wrote three books: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Meetings With Remarkable Men, and the unfinished Life is Real Only Then, When I Am. In 1922 in Paris he founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, and inspired many followers, one of whom, the Russian P.D. Ouspensky (3/4/1878-10/2/1947) who joined Gurdjieff in 1915, carried on his work after the master died. Ouspensky was always fascinated by the concept of time as a fourth dimension. The Gurdjieff Foundation, founded after Gurdjieff’s death, still exists.
Gurdjieff claimed to have studied with a mysterious cult called the Sarmoung Brotherhood, and to have been influenced by the Islamic mystics called Sufis, and to have participated in their sama ceremony, which represents a spiritual ascent toward perfection. Sufis, persecuted in Iran (evidence that they must be doing something right) practice “dhikr,” repeating the names of God. Their holy men are called “dervishes,” and those (mostly in Turkey) of the Mevlevi Order practice whirling dances to alter consciousness and are therefore called “whirling dervishes.” Apart from this, and perhaps his reading of Plato and possibly Zen Buddhism, it is impossible to know exactly what were the traditions that most influenced him…certainly, he seems to have owed little to Helena Blavatsky and other earlier occultists.
At various times he was accused of manipulating and using his followers as servants, and obtaining sexual favors from the women. If these charges are true, it means simply that he was a morally flawed human being, unable to live up to the high ideals he aspired to. If that is the worst that can be said of him, perhaps his teachings should be studied even today. But every spiritual seeker must take care in choosing a teacher and beware of trusting such a teacher too much. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide for himself what to believe.Article Copyright© William B Stoecker - reproduced with permission.