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Gurdjieff, George Ivanovich

Category: Magician

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff  (1877–  1949), was a Greek-Armenian magician.  Like all magicians, he used a great deal of ritual and ceremony and kept the vast majority of his tricks a secret.  But it is possible from seeing some of the attempts to re-enact his 'sacred dances', and also from the descriptions of his 'disciples', to glean a little of his techniques.

Gurdjieff was exceptionally clever at creating an air of mystery and magic around himself.  He created all sorts of conflicting reports about his upbringing and adventures.  He founded schools then dissolved them.  He cultivated a truly magician  like appearance – helped by the fact he had very large very dark eyes, which he used to good effect.  He talked apparent nonsense, but this left his disciples unsure whether it wasn't great wisdom they had missed.


He also, like all good magicians, invented secret words and magic phrases.  He uses these  particularly in his writing. 

In 1914 Gurdjieff even created  a ballet, "The Struggle of the Magicians". 

He was a very wise and well read man too, which helped with the magic.  The only account of Gurdjieff's early biography before he appeared in Moscow in 1912, can be found in his text Meetings with Remarkable Men. This text, however, cannot be read as straightforward autobiography.


After Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow in 1912,  we do know he attracted his first associates. In the same year he married Julia Ostrowska in St Petersburg. Gurdjieff is perhaps a rather unconventional magician in this respect, because although he did have a large number of lady admirers, he did not base the techniques he taught others on sex.  Aleister Crowley – another magician -  visited his Institute at least once. Gurdjieff did not approve of  Crowley’s approach  and wanted him to leave. Privately, Crowley praised Gurdjieff's work, though with some reservations.  I suspect Crowley would have thought them too tame for a magician, and Crowley may have been right.  There was much more of the mystic than the magician in Gurdjieff.

'My uniquely beloved wife' - Julia Ostrowska

There are a number of people who accuse him of being a charlatan, and indeed from what one can see, pitifully few people ever genuinely experienced anything of the spiritual world via his teachings. 

But from what one can see, this was not his fault, his explanations are quite clear and totally sound, so he was no charlatan. 

His 'disciples' had egos the size of buses and intellects to match and he was taking on a huge challenge.  Two of the biggest blocks to any form of experience are old belief systems and the ego, as such he was attempting to tackle these head on.  The techniques he uses are clearly borrowed from a number of other well-proven traditions – principally, though not exclusively, Sufi and Hindu/yoga.  He talked a lot about the Brotherhood.  It doesn't matter which Brotherhood, the Brotherhood is the Brotherhood.


What he was attempting to do is provide a system that was perhaps a little kinder on the body than many shamanic and eastern systems, did not require hours of meditation, and which did not require you to head off to a monastery or take up your whole life in the pursuit of spiritual illumination.  It was certainly kinder, but his disciples lived with him, and in effect went into retreat, so it is not really a system for the everyday worker.

His main mistake was that his disciples appear to have chosen him, he did not choose his disciples and from what I can gather, they needed something far stronger than Gurdjieff was proposing to get any results.  The Native American sun-dance ceremony might have worked or being dropped from a plane without a parachute [sorry I jest - or maybe I don't].

Ouspensky [left]

In 1915 Gurdjieff accepted P. D. Ouspensky as a pupil, albeit with certain misgivings.  But a guru cannot turn away a pupil, so a pupil he had.

Gurdjieff had a desire to explain something of the 'approach' he was using, and in Ouspensky - who was a writer - he saw his opportunity. 

But Ouspensky was an intellectual, and never really grasped fully that it was his intellect that was getting in the way.  He thus spent a large amount of his time trying to understand 'the system' and perhaps a bit too little of his time following it. 

Ouspensky studied under Gurdjieff's own supervision for a period of ten years, from 1915 to 1924. Ouspenky's book In Search of the Miraculous is a recounting of what Ouspensky learned from Gurdjieff during those years.  The answer appears to be - not a lot.  Having read a number of accounts of their relationship, I think Gurdjieff became increasingly frustrated with Ouspensky and his inability to understand that there is no magic 'system', a sort of method, a logical series of steps one can follow tantamount to turning the handle and out pops an enlightened one. He also became increasingly annoyed that Ouspensky didn't just write what happened – use his writer's ability [which is what Gurdjieff had singled him out for] instead of always trying to 'philosophise'.

In 1916, he accepted the composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife Olga as students. At this time he had around thirty pupils.  This was a more successful arrangement, as Hartmann composed the music for Gurdjieff's dances and the combination of dance and music is very beautiful.  See the observations for examples.

Below: in the dance studio in Paris

He had more success with his women disciples than his men, which considering the nature of the techniques is not surprising.   Jane Heap was sent to London by Gurdjieff, where she led groups until her death in 1964. Louise Goepfert March, who became a pupil of Gurdjieff's in 1929, started her own groups in 1957.

Louise Goepfert March
Jane Heap

Like most magicians, his 'tricks' died with him, so whatever is taught these days is a shadow of the original and probably completely ineffective.  Certainly P D Ouspensky did not understand.  Gurdjieff called the process 'The Work', - in effect a subset of the Great Work, the following of one's destiny -  it was Ouspensky who called it the Fourth Way.

Like most teachers he started off by trying to show people that what they were living, what they perceived was not Reality.  By trying to get them to see that their perceptions were an illusion, he hoped that might awake in them at least a glimmer of understanding and a belief at least in the spiritual world.  He had an uphill battle on his hands most of the time, if his disciples are anything to go by.  "Man lives his life in sleep, and in sleep he dies."

He also attempted in his more general teaching to show that the majority of texts taken literally by many people such as the Bible, were symbolic. “He claimed that those texts possess a very different meaning than what is commonly attributed to them”.


He, like most people at this level of spiritual understanding, also taught that morals are man-made – necessary, but man-made.  Good and bad, or evil, are not spiritual absolutes, but exist only in the minds of those with specific belief systems.  There is no absolute concept of good and bad. 
Distrust 'morality,' which varies from culture to culture and is often contradictory and superficial, but believe in conscience”.
Conscience is in contrast a test against the need to not hurt.  Gurdjieff said, even specifically at times, that a pious, good, and moral man was no more "spiritually developed" than any other person.

His techniques were actually relatively straightforward. 

  • Suppress the intellect - He used a number of the techniques aimed at suppression of learning [repetitive pointless tasks] - One of his principal approaches was to get  the intellectual 'clever men' to do very tedious physical jobs.  Gurdjieff student William Segal recounts periods of hard labor "around the clock" in his autobiography.  This had the added advantage of a free workforce, but its intention was to break the intellect.
Gurdjieff's daughter
  • Exercising and activity - He employed sacred dances of various kinds some of which worked via frenetic activity some via exercising and keeping fit but both of which employed  suppression of learning [mindlessly repetitive and boring], some were befuddling, some being Sufi work via reverse REM.  One of his sacred dances is a direct copy of Sufi dancing.  Gurdjieff stayed in an apartment  near the tekke (monastery) of the Mevlevi Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where he, Ouspensky, and Thomas de Hartmann witnessed the sema ceremony.
  • Listening to music - principally the music that he and Hartmann composed together, which is quite beautiful and totally entrancing, in its best sense
  • Humiliation - He was very good at employing relatively benign methods of  humiliation .  Most of his disciples appear to be absolutely full of intellect and ego, as such to try to get them to voluntarily suppress their own egos was out of the question.  So he humiliated them.  They appear to have accepted it because of who he was.  Once he was gone there was no one left able to do this, so a very key part of the system was lost on his death.
  • Reducing desires - He was also very good at reducing his disciples overwrought desire to get spiritual enlightenment  - desire and objectives are a big block to spiritual experience whatever they are.  He just constantly removed the things they wanted.  Constant frustration – attrition.
  • Question beliefs - Gurdjieff also appears to have spent a great deal of time attempting to get his disciples to question their belief systems and thereby simplify their memory and remove the blocks to spiritual progress. He used meetings, lectures, and innovative forms of group work, none of which of course can be reproduced, because they would have been dependent on the beliefs with which he was having to deal.
Gurdjieff, Mrs Ouspensky and the Nichols, 1922 in the dance studio

He was no lover of religion either, trying vainly to show his disciples how early teachings had been distorted in order to gain power.
His ironical discussions of "orthodoxhydooraki" and "heterodoxhydooraki"--orthodox fools and heterodox fools, from a Russian word -- position him as a critic of religious distortion. Gurdjieff has been interpreted by some to have had a total disregard for the value of mainstream religion

The only books which are an adequate reflection of his approach are his own, and they are symbolically coded, very heavily coded and deliberately designed to confuse – magic you see.

  • The Herald of Coming Good by G. I. Gurdjieff (1933, 1971, 1988)
  • All and Everything trilogy:
    • Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson by G. I. Gurdjieff (1950)
    • Meetings with Remarkable Men by G. I. Gurdjieff (1963)
    • Life is Real Only Then, When 'I Am' by G. I. Gurdjieff (1974)

Gurdjieff was actually a good man, [despite the discussions on good and bad],  he was both compassionate and caring.  He established an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.  He spoke with respect of the obyvatel, the simple householder or salt-of-the-earth peasant, who lives by traditional values and slowly develops himself. Much later, in Paris, he gave encouragement and financial help to a multitude of people who were hard up for one reason or another. His Paris flat had, people say, one of the world's worst art collections, consisting of pieces purchased from indigenous artists as a cover for providing them with funds without humiliating them.


In 1924, while driving alone from Paris to Fontainebleau, Gurdjieff had a near-fatal car accident. Nursed by his wife and mother, he made a slow and painful recovery—against medical expectation. Still convalescent, he formally "disbanded" his Institute on 26 August and began writing All and Everything.  In 1925 Gurdjieff's wife contracted cancer; she died in 1926, despite radiotherapy and Gurdjieff's unorthodox treatment.   Gurdjieff never really fully recovered from these set backs.

Gurdjieff died on October 29, 1949 at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His funeral was held at the St. Alexandre Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 12 Rue Daru, Paris. He is buried in the cemetery at Fontainebleau-Avon.


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