In the Kitchen with Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff Special Meals

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff had many talents, but his ability to stimulate other people’s imaginations was the one that served him best.  His stories, allegories, music, dances and exotic meals were the magical tools which he used to provide those unsatisfied by their ordinary existence with a glimpse of something mysterious, a promise of a way towards a higher state of being and of experiencing reality.

In some way, he was the real-life Wizard of Oz.  A gifted man, an original and highly individuated one, but no wizard, except in the eyes of his followers. Did his teachings, the green tinted glasses attached to the eyes of his pupils, improve their life experience? Well, the answer to this question is beyond the scope of this blogpost.


However, after reading extensively on the subject of Gurdjieff, I am convinced that he possessed vast religious and esoteric knowledge. And, I do believe that in his youth he was a true spiritual seeker. It’s just that at one point in his life he decided that he had found all the answers and that it was time for him to start teaching others.  I am not convinced  that his Fourth Way was (is) the right way for spiritual growth, meaning that I doubt that his teaching techniques were beneficial to his followers. More on this subject in another post.

In this post I want to explore Gurdjieff’s use of food as a function of his teachings. He used different teaching methods at different periods of his activities but during the last period of his life, meals became an important component of his modus operandi.

It is important to compose a dish in its correctly blended elements as a composition of music or the colors in painting. Harmony in scale. Must have much knowledge to be a good cook. A culinary doctor.

G.I. Gurdjieff

A “culinary doctor”? What did he mean exactly? Was he referring to some special culinary knowledge? Was that knowledge related to some healing combination of the three types of food necessary for the nourishment of the three-brained system of the human being?

Now, for those of you not familiar with the concept of the “three-brained beings”, note that Gurdjieff believed that man was a machine, an unconscious automaton reacting impulsively to his external environment with the function of one of his three “brains”, the physical, mental and emotional.  According to Gurdjieff our three brains are invariably at odds with each other, and, it is precisely this inner disharmony of the functions of the human inner workings that cause the fragmentation of our psyches into many different “I”s. The sensation in the average person of a unified “I” is an illusion.

Gurdjieff held that the average man is unaware of his multiplicity, sleepwalking through his life. Only a man who has awaken and has struggled to integrate the functions of his three brains into one harmoniously working unity, is a real man. And, only a real man is able to perceive the terror of his situation, his fate, which is to fulfill the organic cosmic needs of nature. 

Gurdjieff’s cosmology proposes that the purpose of organic life on our planet is to provide the energy needed to sustain the Moon, and that energy is liberated through the process of death.  Once a man has recognised his fate, he could by the exertion of his will (the concept of intentional suffering) have a chance at developing a soul that could outlive the death of his physical body. (Note to readers: Please keep in mind that this is only a simple over-view of Gurdjieff’s system synthesised for the purposes of this post.)

Now let’s examine how Gurdjieff conceived of the nourishment of our three-brained system.

Mr. Gurdjieff next drew a scheme of the human body and compared it to a three-storied factory, the stories being represented by the head, chest and abdomen. Taken together the factory forms a complete whole> (…) and he explained that while the food of the lower story was man’s meat and drink, air was the food of the middle story, and that of the upper story was what could be called “impressions”.

 Glimpses of Truth, Views from the Real World

Gurdjieff held that the air, the “second-being food”, nourishes the mind (and on a physical level we all know that the brain needs oxygen to survive) and helps build the astral body which he called the “Kesdjan body”.  The third type of food, the “impressions” are the emotional records of all of our life experiences.

Since Gurdjieff believed only in experienced based knowledge, then the logical conclusion is that his concept of the alignment of the functions of the three brains is absolutely necessary for the construction of the soul. Hence, the “right” ideas can only be asserted as being right if experienced with the body, mind and heart.

Gurdjieff claimed to be a teacher of “Esoteric Christianity” and from that standpoint we can easily extrapolate that Jesus’s custom of sharing meals with others was Gurdjieff’s source of inspiration for his habit of serving food to his pupils. Gurdjieff, a keen observer of our human nature, must have realised the connecting power of this ritual. His daughter, Dushka Howart, confirms the teaching function of Gurdjieff’s meals in the shared memoir with her mother, Jessmin Howarth:

Much that was said at table had very personal application to the person addressed, but it could also be understood on different levels, in various ways, (or maybe not at all!) by others present.”

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Obviously, to succeed in creating his versions of The Last Supper Gurdjieff had to have a talent for cooking.  

cooking cabinet

Dushka reports of this talent. Once Gurdjieff, expecting important quests for lunch charged his nephew Valia to roast four chickens in the oven. Unfortunately, Valia failed to pull them out of the oven in time.

Mastering his rage and disappointment, Gurdjieff strode off toward the kitchen. With a quick twist of hand he tore off the skin which stuck to the burned carcasses of the birds. A few spoonfuls of butter, some cream, onion, garlic powder and some spices transformed into a delicacy what was a hopeless disaster a few moments ago.

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Gurdjieff concocted exotic dishes and turned his table into a dramatic stage where he acted as the master tamer of egos, administering the necessary external shocks that he believed were necessary to awaken his pupils from their identification to their thoughts and emotions.  His provocative remarks, the famous ritual of the Armagnac Toasts to the Idiots, the readings from his books and the music he played on his harmonium after the meals, assisted him in opening up  his pupils to new “impressions”. 

Gurdjieff handed down four books to posterity but unfortunately none of them was a cookery book. There is however Gurdjieff’s famous marinated salad for which Dushka generously provides the recipe in her family memoir.

What he called his “salad” was a soupy, highly seasoned mixture of raw vegetables that was nearer to a chunky “gazpacho”. Ripe tomatos, cucumbers, onions, dill pickles, herbs and spices were marinated to a thick consistency, redolent of fresh dill, fruit juices and gingery chutney. It was offered in a small bowl and was especially succulent with the smoothing addition of smetana (sour cream).

“It’s Up to Ourselves” A Mother, A Daughter, and Gurdjieff

A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

Obviously, I wanted to have a taste of the salad, but unfortunately the measurements in the recipe are “for three hundred forty-six cup-sized servings …” .   I decided that the effort to reduce the measurements to something more reasonable would be futile given the fact that I have never tasted the salad before. How would I know if the result is accurate?  So instead, I made Russian borsch. I know he served borsch to his pupils.

Tobias Churton’s Deconstruction of Gurdjieff

Cover Deconstructing Gurdjieff

P.L. Travers was a pupil and a lifelong follower of the somewhat controversial spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff. And, it must be stressed right from the start that his teachings are difficult to grasp by people not versed in esotericism. I know I struggled with them enormously at the beginning. And those who are less spiritually inclined readily categorize him as a charlatan. The debate remains.

Gurdjieff was a peculiar character. He did some strange things and, on some occasions, gave downright weird advice to his followers. But then, he also told them not to take anything at face value. His teaching methods were unorthodox, and they did involve humiliation tactics in a group work dynamic, and forced alcohol consumption in the form of the ritual “Toasts to the Idiots.” He believed that human beings needed shocks from outside in order to awaken to their inner truth.

He also used drugs and hormones with a closed group of his pupils known as the Rope. Peculiar or not, he managed to create a system and a following to our present days, and thus he deserves to be taken seriously even if only to understand the psyche of the people who needed his advice. And since I am very much interested in P.L. Travers’s psyche, I had to take Gurdjieff into account.

I didn’t know anything about him until I began investigating the life and literary works of P.L. Travers. To my surprise, I found out that there is an enormous amount of literature on the subject of Gurdjieff and his teachings.

He wrote four books: The Herald of Coming Good, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grand Son, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life is Real Only Then When I am. (The Herald of Coming Good is the only one that was published during his lifetime.) There are also the transcripts of some of his meetings with his pupils during different time periods of his teaching, there are books written by his pupils, books by his modern-day followers, and books explaining his esoteric ideas. Plus, there are the biographies. And I wanted to read a biography,  I wanted to gain some insight into Gurdjieff’s personality in order to better understand the potential causes for his immense influence on P.L. Travers.

Now how was I to choose the right biography? Well, simple. I followed my intuitive pull to a title. I chose a book by its cover. Deconstructing Gurdjieff by Tobias Churton.

I liked the idea of deconstructing something into its forming parts in order to gain a better understanding of its inner workings and what is more, Gurdjieff metaphorically described human beings as machines operating on autopilot. So, I found that there was a certain humor in the title, a tiny mischievous wink in Gurdjieff’s direction.  

Tobias Churton

My intuition didn’t disappoint me, intuition rarely does.

Tobias Churton 2

What makes Deconstructing Gurdjieff  an enjoyable read is the combination of Churton’s expertise in Western Esoterics with his good sense of the historical context of Gurdjieff’s life and his psychological understanding of Gurdjieff’s complex personality.

The effect of Churton’s deconstruction is the exact opposite, the construction of a portrait that is, in all probabilities, closer to who Gurdjieff really was.   

Gurdjieff worked to awaken people from the sleep of the automaton. The automaton was an identity through which the will of others, not of the real “I Am”, the authentic being, was expressed. Human beings were unconscious of their unconsciousness.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

In his book, Churton successfully describes the socio-cultural background of Gurdjieff’s humble upbringing in Russian Armenia and Gurdjieff’s innate temperamental traits.  The reader will also be well informed of the different underlying currents of the Gurdjieff’s system, namely the Yezidis tradition, Sufi tradition, Rosicrucianism, Hermetic Masonry, Pythagorean ideas as well as influences of the esoteric and scientific thoughts in Paris during the 1880s and 1890s.

Carte Gurdjieff

(Picture from Deconstructing Gurdjieff, by Tobias Churton)

Others before Churton have made the connection between the Sufi influence and Gurdjieff’s teachings, but Churton is the first to link the teachings to the Gnostic tradition and Free Masonry.

When Gurdjieff came to reorganize his clubs of students in New York in 1931, he divided the membership into exoteric, mesoteric and esoteric. The rule of three he habitually employed is familiar to the thinking Masons.

The Gnostic conception of body, soul and spirit, evident in Fabre d’Olivet, becomes for Gurdjieff the basis for therapeutic interest in reharmonizing bodily instinct, feelings (soul) and thinking or mentation (mind) to generate awakening from the dream of ordinary, externally directed consciousness, to a higher being or state of being.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

On a more personal level, what I find interesting in Gurdjieff is his imaginative mixture of mystic theories, science and psychology, and even a little bit of science-fiction. The result of this amalgamation is original but in my very humble opinion, ambiguous. To me, the most appealing aspect of his teachings is the psychological aspect but then psychology is not a synonym for spirituality. And this is something that Churton insightfully brings to the reader’s attention.

It seems to me that Gurdjieff has either confused the spiritual with the psychic, eliminating the spiritual, or simply regarded the spiritual as a state of special powers attendant on the acquisition of interior psychic and bodily harmony.

Deconstructing Gurdjieff, Tobias Churton

Not long ago, I reached out to Churton via email with a long list of questions. For the benefit of the readers of this blog, and with infinite gratitude to Tobias Churton, and with the desire to avoid any unintentional changes in the meaning of his response, I am reproducing integrally certain portions of his correspondence:

TC: He (Gurdjieff) was not a scientist; he was not a university professor. He was only a teacher in the sense of a craftsman passing on his advice from an assumed superiority. He did not ever explain precisely what HE knew, or thought he knew. That is, he was unable to produce a successor or true inheritor. This is not unusual in the prophetic field!

He was an autodidact, who got the best out of his life as best he could.  I think his activities going up and down the Transcaspian Railway – even if we only take his word for it – show us that he was a manipulator of people and circumstances to suit himself. That he had wisdom about the follies of the human species we  recognize. That wisdom I tried to illuminate in my book. But he was a “player.”

He was Gurdjieff, and it is unwise, I believe, to follow this kind of figure. I agree with Crowley’s view that some of Gurdjieff’s methods, as revealed at the Prieure, were rather “artificial.” He did not like being attached to people who came to him. His personality, however, had magnetism, and he knew it – though not enough to bring in the money he believed he deserved to live on. He was sore at the loss of his income after the Revolution. Who can blame him?

He was an amateur in a field where there has not been anything like a professional magus since, perhaps, and arguably, the Renaissance, or late antiquity. Such men or women can hardly be judged “objectively.” The myth is as much the man as it is a myth. 

I think I showed that “Meetings with Remarkable Men” can hardly be taken entirely at face-value, and that is not a new insight in itself, but I think I have shown where we can see “scissors and paste” and highlighted Gurdjieff’s instinctive attitudes.  I think my suspicions about his leaning on Freemasonry for his ideals is probably correct and justified.

I am sometimes slightly amazed that Gurdjieff has attracted some serious seekers after spiritual truth, but then, there are not that many non-Indian gurus about in the modern period! I believe people like exploring the mystery of their own being, and almost any guide can encourage the self-interest. Gurdjieff’s methods intrigue, partly because they blend rationality with irrationality – just like the human mind itself.

His perception about contrary “brains” is a reasonable metaphor, but is likely to confuse most people, and lead them into quandaries.

Now, about that last point, we must give Gurdjieff some credit about his theory of the three-brained being. The latest scientific discoveries revealed that our bodies have indeed three brains. In recent years scientists have discovered that the heart contains some 40,000 sensory neurons which “opens the door to vast new possibilities that parallel those that have been accurately described in the scriptures of some of our most ancient and cherished spiritual traditions.

And a similar discovery was made in relation to our gut which apparently comprises some 100 million neurons.

However, I do hope that science never comes to prove Gurdjieff’s strange concept of man being food for the moon. More on that in a future posts on this blog.