What can a child learn from a controversial mystic?


What can a child learn from a controversial mystic?

Georges Gurdjieff was an esoteric teacher from Armenia who opened his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France in 1923. This was after a young adulthood spent seeking wisdom from monasteries and spiritual enclaves across India, Asia, and the Middle East. He was instrumental in bringing Eastern philosophy to the Western world, seeding ideas that took hold during the 1960s through today. He believed humanity would destroy itself if it could not reconcile the wisdom of the East with the knowledge of the West and he was one of the major influences for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cult classic movie, The Holy Mountain.

His teachings were called, “The Work” – he thought people went through life “asleep,” and work was one way for sleepers to confront themselves, and “the unpleasant manifestations of others,” in healing crises. He also employed flamboyant pranks to provoke conflict, leading–hopefully–to his students’ development.

Fritz Peters’ Boyhood with Gurdjieff is a memoir that vividly illustrates Gurdjieff’s unorthodox methods and iconoclastic ideas, from a child’s point of view.


I met and talked to Georges Gurdjieff for the first time in 1924, on a Saturday afternoon in June, at the Château du Prieuré in Fontainebleau-Avon, France. Although the reasons for my being there were not very clear in my mind—I was eleven at the time—my memory of that meeting is still brilliantly clear.

It was a bright, sunny day. Gurdjieff was sitting by a small marble-topped table, shaded by a striped umbrella, with his back to thechâteau proper, facing a large expanse of formal lawns and flower beds. I had to sit on the terrace of the château, behind him, for some time before I was summoned to his side for an interview. I had, actually, seen him once before, in New York the previous winter, but I did not feel that I had “met” him. My only memory of that prior

time was that I had been frightened of him: partly because of the way he looked at—or through—me, and partly because of his reputation. I had been told that he was at least a “prophet”—at most, something very close to the “second coming of Christ.”

Meeting any version of a “Christ” is an event, and this meeting was not one to which I looked forward. Facing the presence not only did not appeal to me—I dreaded it.

The actual meeting did not measure up to my fears. “Messiah” or not, he seemed to me a simple, straightforward man. He was not surrounded by any halo, and while his English was heavily accented, he spoke far more simply than the Bible had led me to expect. He made a vague gesture in my direction, told me to sit down, called for coffee, and then asked me why I was there. I was relieved to find that he seemed to be an ordinary human being, but I was troubled by the question. I felt sure that I was supposed to give him an important answer; that I should have some excellent reason. Having none, I told him the truth: That I was there because I had been brought there.

He then asked me why I wanted to be there, to study at his school. Once more I was only able to answer that it was all beyond my control—I had not been consulted, I had been, as it were, transported to that place. I remember my strong impulse to lie to him, and my equally strong feeling that I could not lie to him. I felt sure that he knew the truth in advance. The only question that I answered less than honestly was when he asked me if I wanted to stay there and to study with him. I said that I did, which was not essentially true. I said it because I knew that it was expected of me. It seems to me, now, that any child would have answered as I did. Whatever the Prieuré might represent to adults (and the literal name of the school was “The Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man”), I felt that I was experiencing the equivalent of being interviewed by the principal of a high school. Children went to school, and I subscribed to the general agreement that no child would tell his teacher-to-be that he did not want to go to school. The only thing that surprised me was that I was asked the question.

Gurdjieff then asked me two more questions:

1. What do you think life is?


2. What do you want to know?

I answered the first question by saying: “I think life is something that is handed to you on a silver platter, and it is up to you (me) to do something with it.” This answer touched off a long discussion about the phrase “on a silver platter,” including a reference by Gurdjieff to the head of John the Baptist. I retreated—it felt like a retreat— and modified the phrase to the effect that life was a “gift,” and this seemed to please him.

The second question (What do you want to know?) was simpler to answer. My words were: “I want to know everything.” Gurdjieff replied immediately: “You cannot know everything. Everything about what?”

I said: “Everything about man,” and then added: “In English I think it is called psychology or maybe philosophy.”

He sighed then, and after a short silence said: “You can stay. But your answer makes life difficult for me. I am the only one who teaches what you ask. You make more work for me.”

CLICK HERE to continue to listen to excerpt.


This story is continued in the audio link above, read by actor Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Speed Racer). Fritz Peters’ Boyhood with Gurdjieff (Hirsch Giovanni Publishing) is available to purchase through Amazon/Barnes & Noble/Audible in paperback, ebook, and audiobook form. 

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