The Fourth Way: A Modernly-Ancient Path of Self-Transformation

The Fourth Way is a term used to refer to a body of teachings and practices with roots in the work of G. I. Gurdjieff (1866?–1949). Gurdjieff, born in Armenia, is a bit of an enigma and controversial figure, but writings about his life consistently report that he studied various schools of religious and philosophical thought as a youth and traveled extensively as a young adult throughout the East (reportedly areas of Central Asia and the Middle East) in search of spiritual truths. He then returned to Russia and began sharing what he had learned and experienced. He developed The Fourth Way as a path of self-development and transformation that integrated singular paths of the body (the fakirs of Sufism), mind (the yogis of Hinduism), and emotions (the monks of Christianity) that he studied and encountered in his travels.

Shortly after he returned to Russia, Gurdjieff met P. D. Ouspensky who became one of his most well-known pupils until they parted ways in 1918. Ouspensky then relocated to England and became a teacher of The Fourth Way in his own right, through lectures and writings. Gurdjieff, whose life was greatly impacted by social upheavals and military conflicts (revolutions and World Wars I & II) traveled and taught in Germany, England, and France throughout the 1920–1940s and visited the United States during that period as well. He had two serious and life-threatening auto accidents during this period but recovered from both. Gurdjieff died in France in 1949.

The Fourth Way teachings are powerful and highly supportive of self-transformation. The Fourth Way posits that the majority of people live in mechanical or sleep states. Consequently, most of humanity resides in lives of quiet desperation, filled with suffering, and destructive habitual patterns of thinking, speaking, and acting. According to The Fourth Way and other systems of self-transformation, this “fundamental infirmity of man” referenced by the founder of Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli (see January 2019 blog essay or TDT), is so because we do not remember who we are and why we are here because of longstanding dysfunctional patterns, particularly overidentification, negativity, and internal considering; blocking self-remembering (or self-awareness).

Overidentification is a fundamental obstacle to self-remembering and occurs whenever we lose ourselves to an identity such as a belief, characteristic, demographic (e.g., race, gender or political affiliation), personality, or role. Overidentification occurs so unconsciously and quickly that most of us are completely unaware when (which is most of the time), we are stuck in overidentification. Indications of being in a state of overidentification include feelings of defensiveness, anger, resentment, self-pity, and self-indignation. When overidentified, one can easily feel they are in a constant state of attack, which locks us into a toxic state of negativity.

Negativity refers to thoughts, emotions, words, and actions that constrict our minds and hearts and cause harm to ourselves and others. Negativity is so toxic because it infects our inner and outer environments and locks us into destructive patterns. Negativity closely aligns with overidentification and internal considering. Internal considering refers to a degree of self-absorption and narcissism that sees life only from the impact events will have on oneself, with little or no concern for the impact events may have on others or our planet. The consequences of living in a state of sleep and being trapped in overidentification, negativity, and internal considering include misery, suffering, loss of energy and power, a sense of disconnection from oneself, others, and God/Spirit/Light, and ultimately, violence.

To begin to awaken from sleep and cultivate self-awareness requires self-observation, the main transformative practice associated with The Fourth Way. Writings and teachings of The Fourth Way offer numerous practical exercises to cultivate self-observation, including an activity frequently referred to as “divided attention.” Divided attention instructs aspirants to periodically place attention on their inner experience and outer experience of a select phenomenon. For example, as a practitioner enters a doorway, he/she would place attention on an aspect of their internal experience (e.g., thoughts, bodily sensations, or feelings/emotions) as well as an aspect of the external experience (as experienced by the five senses). Repeated practice of such exercises builds one’s capacity for self-awareness such that over time, the practitioner can eventually use divided attention in more challenging life circumstances (e.g., an interpersonal conflict) thereby increasing the likelihood of constructive social interactions and outcomes.

Essential to all self-observation exercises is an objective and nonjudgmental attitude toward all noticings or observations. A nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s observations allows a healthy disidentification from them as well as an expanding psychological space in which to choose more constructive states from which thoughts and actions can arise. Over time, sensitivity to and dislike of negative states and attraction to positive states act as motivational forces for the ongoing relinquishment of lower or negative states in favor of more positive states.

This essay is an adapted excerpt from my book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders.”