Fourth Way Wisdom Work

This study work group, taking place January 15 - March 27, grows out of Cynthia's challenge to take a deep dive into Fourth Way ideas and practices. Knowing that Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales for His Grandson is a heavy lift, we are aiming for a "softer and gentler" approach to Fourth Way inner practices via Maurice Nicoll's five-volume Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.

This was what started me on my own Fourth Way journey.  While on a five day silent retreat in a Franciscan hermitage, I had daily contact with one of the Franciscan brothers.  Every day I came to his office to check in, and noticed this set of commentaries in his library.  I took volume two back to my own cabin, and it lilterally exploded within me.  I asked him where I could find others in my area that are working in this way, and it ultimately led me to a local group where I have been in an active Fourth Way Work group for the past twelve years.  I have gone through these volumes two times already, and next year want to go through them again -- only this time, not privately, but with many of my friends in the Wisdom School network.  These commentaries are ultimately what led me to find Cynthia and the Fourth Way community at Claymont where Cynthia has done a number of Fourth Way Wisdom Schools.  

While working with Fourth Way practices, I wanted to know how to integrate that Work into my own Christian framework and understanding.  Everybody kept saying, you've got to talk to Cynthia, but everytime I tried to sign up for a Wisdom School, it was already full.  In desperation, I sheepishly caught her after a talk at Shalem in Washington DC, and asked, "If I do all the grunt work and hosting, will you come to a Wisdom School at Claymont in the Washington DC area?" She graciously accepted, and I knew I was "in" because now I was the one organizing the school!

In Love is Stronger than Death, Cynthia recounts her relationship to “Rafe” — Brother Raphael Robin — the hermit monk who so profoundly influenced her life. Cynthia writes:

Like me, Rafe was fascinated by G. I. Gurdjieff, that early twentieth-century spiritual genius who had laid out a path of inner transformation frequently referred to as the "Fourth Way." When Rafe finally won permission to join an experimental Trappist community in North Carolina, he bumped into a copy of P.D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous. Later, after he arrived in Colorado, someone gave him the five-volume set of Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which he read from every day, along with his Bible; these became the twin cornerstones of his spiritual work. Most of Rafe's library up at the hermitage (in addition to his Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare) consisted of books by Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff 's three most prodigious disciples, P. D. Ouspensky, Maurice Nicoll, and J. G. Bennett. In a self-taught fusion of Fourth Way ideas and Christian apophatic mysticism, his deepest wish was "to have enough being to be nothing.”

I propose that we create the same study conditions as Rafe’s hermitage — weekly readings from the Bible (Gospel and Psalms) using the Ecumenical Lectionary and Nicoll’s Commentaries, with an added spice of one of Thomas’ Logion. Nicoll’s Commentaries are transcripts of the talks he gave to a weekly Work Group that he led in Britain from 1941 through 1953. Unlike P. D. Ouspensky’s book, his is not a systematic and ordered treatment of the Work ideas, but short commentaries that were given to meet the ongoing needs of the group he led. The Gurdjieff Society of Washington DC, encouraged by Mr. Hugh Ripman, produced a topical index to Nicoll’s commentaries.  I propose that we use that index to topically explore some of the key work ideas, such as autopilot (“man is a machine”), three-centered knowing, attention, sensation, self-observation, identification, self-remembering, external considering, conscious labor, intentional suffering, and many others.

There are many places we could begin, but I suggest that we start with self-observation. One of the first steps in inner transformation is to actually “see” the state of our being. The practice of self-observation is, as Cynthia has remarked, “one of the most valuable tools in the Gurdjieff toolkit.” To really understand the tool, we will need to set aside many of our own conceptions about what “seeing” and “self-observation” actually are. In the Work sense, it is a very refined and subtle tool that takes time to learn how to use properly. It is not seeing with one of our centers (usually the head), or making inner comments and judgements about our own inner condition.

Cynthia writes:

According to contemporary psychological models, a person is self-aware if he or she is in touch with what's going on inside and can articulate these feelings accurately and expressively. In Work terms, however, that kind of self-awareness is simply wandering in the mazes of the mind, still completely in the grip of the intellectual center and its mentally-constructed sense of selfhood. This is introspection, not true self-observation. Real seeing moves faster — and as one contemporary Work teacher trenchantly observes, "it is present only when thinking is excluded."

The palpable difference between thinking and seeing is no doubt the hardest nuance for newcomers to the Work to master. Certainly it was for me. We are so trained in our culture to talk endlessly, rhapsodize on ideas, and articulate our feelings in vast emotional librettos that it's hard to value the direct, blunt power being offered in this new way of seeing.

I propose that we start our Nicoll study on self-observation with a special focus on observing “internal considering” and “external considering.”

Cynthia writes:

External considering is the bridge between the inner world of personal awakening and its real-time practical applications in the collective.

External considering is basically the Work equivalent of "practical compassion." It is fundamentally no more complicated or exotic than simply the capacity to actually see the condition of another, to walk in his or her footsteps, to "love my neighbor as myself" — all familiar territory in every religious tradition. But so often in the West these ideas have become infused with sentimentality and duty; there is no real consciousness involved. In the Gurdjieff version, as by now you might expect, the chief operatives are conscious attention and a well-honed moving center.

The opposite of external considering is internal considering, of course, which for Gurdjieff meant an excessive interiority and a preoccupation with one's own internal states, needs, and narratives. In this state, lost in one's story, it is very difficult to assimilate the actual condition of another, let alone see how to help. Everything moves in relationship to one's own interiority. Like trying to understand a phrase in French by first mentally translating it into English, one moves from "self" to "other" and back to "self" again without ever grasping the relationship directly. That is why, according to Gurdjieff, so much of what we call "self-awareness" nowadays is merely narcissism writ large. True self-awareness begins at the next level out, when those rigid boundaries between self and other are dissolved in a single, flowing energetic field. External considering does not require great personal empathy or emotional drama. It requires a quiet mind, a complete lack of inner talking, and an ability to take one's cues directly from the present moment. If the tuition fee is a problem, drop me a note and I will gladly set you up with a free account.  Or donate an amount of your choosing and in the order comments, let me know that you want to be signed up for this study group.

"Why are you charging for this study group?" 

For three reasons.  First, because "payment" of a financial sort, or otherwise, helps to create clarity of intention.  When I first started going to a weekly Work group in Washington DC, I was living at a retreat center in West Virginia and traveled 2 hours to meeting, met for 2 hours, and traveled 2 hours back. I think I may have profited more than anyone else in the group in those early meetings because of the conditions imposed by travel.

Second, we are experimenting with this new form of online discussion, and we will need to make improvements on the Friends of Silence web site to support this kind of work.

Third, Friends of Silence is creating a scholarship fund for folks who cannot afford the full tuition fee for Wisdom School events and other retreats held by Friends of Silence.  Some of the proceeds from this class will go to the scholsarship fund.    

We do want to make this work group available to all. If the cost of the class is a problematic for you, for whatever reason, you can email me and I will create a class login for you at no cost.  Or you can make a contribution of your choosing here and write me a note so that I can create a login for you.

"Really?  You want me to read the Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky?  Really? How exciting!"

I do not claim that these commentaries will explode in you as they did in me.  In fact, most of the friends that I have shared these commentaries with have simply shrugged and returned them to me.  Remember, this is the 1940's and 1950's when Nicoll wrote these commentaries, so there are lots of offensive "man" this and "he" that -- so you will have to do your own re-writing in your head as you read.  You can read work group introduction and first week's reading below, so that you will get an idea of what you are getting into.  In addition, you can preview a PDF version of Nicoll's Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Volume 1.

"Eleven weeks is a long time.  What exactly are we going to do?"

My hope is to create an online Work group.  A Work group is more than a study group.  A study group reads and studies. A Work group practices and applies Fourth Way ideas and practices in daily life.  The study portion of each week will take about an hour's commitment.  If you sign up, your intention is to read the weekly reading starting January 15 and going through the end of March.  The practice will be that sometime during the week you post into the discussion group for that week:  what parts of the reading "grabbed you" and your reflections about that.  Also, the hope would be that you would comment weekly on at least one other member's post.  

The real Work, though, is how you apply that insight into your daily life.  Is there an inner practice that the reading invites you to?  Most of the time, we will forget the reading and just go on with your life.  Noting our forgetfulness and sleep is a big deal.  For many of us, our first act of waking up is seeing our own sleep! Most of the time it just goes on without our awareness.  But hopefully, something will sound within you, and you will come back to yourself, and the inner practice that you resolved to follow that week. Noting those practices and how you worked with them during the week could be part of the reflection as you start the next weeks study.

We are engaging this way as an experiment, to see whether we can work together in an online environment in a way that produces practical fruit in our life.  We may want to make adjustments as we go along.  And we may want to continue past the eleven weeks.

So that's the deal.  Feel free to call or email me if you have questions.  I can't wait to start!  Email me at or phone me at 202.531.7572.

In the Work,


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