I have an affection for Gurdjieff out of proportion with my estimation of him or his work. Maybe it is just that I first read about him and his work when I was young and impressionable and, well, it left an impression. If bother to move past vague affection to examine him, I am usually discomfited.
There is something decidedly cult-ish to him and at least some of that has to do with the intense loathing he directed toward the way our circumstances determine us. Gurdjieff thought that, to the extent we were determined, we were basically machines. Melodramatically, he would suggest that we were nothing more than machines unless we manage to complete the spiritual work of liberation.
The implication that most people are machines is troubling, but it goes deeper than that. When it comes down to it, I just don’t buy that line about liberation. While I do think we can and should ease the degree to which our material conditions (including our habits and instincts) control us, I don’t think we can escape them. Even in death, I suspect we carry over a portion of that determination.
Gurdjieff’s loathing of the mechanism seems to have led him to do some serious psychic injury to those who came to him. That suggests a fundamental flaw in his approach. I don’t think we need to abandon Gurdjieff’s insight about our mechanism, but I think we can do better with it if we consider spiritual work as just that, work. After great spiritual efforts, you need to take respite in your material existence, most especially in the most mechanistic aspects of it. Gurdjieff’s over-emphasis of freedom can lead us into dangerous patterns because instead of work and respite, it encourages us to overwork and subsequently crash back into our determines selves.
I much prefer the way Yeats frames it in A Vision, namely that the more intensely we are able to realize our free and spiritual nature, the more frequently we will find ourselves forced back into our ‘mechanical’ existence. The goal shouldn’t be to surpass the machine, but to work with it. Temper Gurdjieff’s fervor with a little Aristotlean moderation and we might be onto something (I think it might be called behaviorism).
There’s a lesson here for spiritualist technique, too. There is value to cooling off, value to letting yourself do something very simple and pleasant to you. It is another one of those places where a little self-knowledge goes along way–what sort of mechanism do you have? What constitutes a routine for you?
If those routines are particularly toxic, it is worth considering what you can do to alter or modulate them, because if you do a lot of spiritual work, you will probably find yourself falling into them.