The Fourth Way

” One must do everything one can and then say ‘God have Mercy!’ “
— G. I. Gurdjieff

The idea of the fourth way is strongly associated with Gurdjieff, who appears to have been the first to use this phrase. The bulk of his discussion of this idea is to be found in Ouspensky’s record of his teaching in Russia, In Search of the Miraculous. In his own writings, the idea is implicit but never mentioned as such (this is similar to his teaching on the enneagram). In Russia, he referred to three traditional ways:

  1. Way of the Fakir, involving effort in the body
  2. Way of the Monk, involving devotion and concentration of feeling
  3. Way of the Yogi, involving largely mental attention.

In the fourth way, effort is made in all three: body, feeling and mind. This is harmonious development, as in Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. To some degree, his series of movements or ‘sacred gymnastics’ epitomised this approach (in the learning of them rather than their performance). His inner exercises, insofar as these are reported, usually involved an act of mental concentration combined with physical effort; the feelings are also involved but spontaneously in the ‘I am’ state.

As with the other ways, the fourth requires its own kind of social organisation. How this has been interpreted has varied from group to group. However, in contrast with the traditional ways, the fourth does not require separation from conditions of ordinary life. Indeed, Gurdjieff often indicated that these conditions were ideal, especially in times of turmoil, for the ‘awakening’ process that he so strongly advocated and which is integral to the effectiveness of the fourth way. At the same time, work with others of like mind is essential.

Some of the reasons for this are:(a) Different types of people see the same thing differently and thus a group working together can get an all round understanding (this is only valid if the ‘work group’ contains enough diversity, which is often not the case).(b) Differences between people can lead to useful ‘friction’ providing energy for inner work.

It should be noted here that the latter consideration has led to considerable indulgence in negativity amongst Gurdjieff groups, and it must be remembered that such friction, to be useful, must be entirely voluntarily entertained and intelligent. Gurdjieff also said: ‘In the fourth way there are many teachers’. This belongs to the same requirement for diversity of vision. In the fourth way here should not be adherence to ritual, blind obedience or pursuit of a single idea, but understanding.

The fourth way is also the way of the sly man. Of him, Gurdjieff said that if he needs to obtain an inner result, he simply ‘takes a pill’. To obtain the same results the traditional ways would take days, weeks, months. The pill in question is probably not a psychotropic drug but a capsule of ‘intentional suffering’.

Why would the fourth way be introduced in this time and, is it something new? To answer the last question first, it is probably not; but, every time it is introduced it has to take a new expression. To a large extent, Idries Shah claimed that Sufism incorporated Gurdjieff’s idea of the fourth way; but it is common to find explanations for the sources of Gurdjieff’s ideas from whatever tradition one upholds. However, the Sufi idea of ‘being in the world but not of it’ strikes a resonance with the fourth way. To answer why it was introduced at this time is not easy. There are suggestions that, in this time of rapid transition and exceeding turmoil, new impulses need to enter humanity and these cannot be transmitted fast enough through the traditional ways.

This is problematic. There are no clear cut indications from Gurdjieff about the relation between ‘fourth way people’ and the rest of humanity. At the same time, we assume that Gurdjieff being an intelligent man did not believe that his ideas were the sole source of fourth way initiative in the world. One of the models for Gurdjieff’s own endeavour is provided by Arnold Toynbee’s concept of ‘creative groups’ that withdraw and concentrate and then re-enter their civilisations with new ideas and impulses.

The practice of the fourth way seems to require a special very adaptable know-how and cannot be followed by adherence to any set of standard procedures. Needless to say, the form of the fourth way has become ossified in many groups which have settled into a pattern of working together that has its roots in previous experience. But, if understanding is crucial to this way, then it must be creative and find ways of challenging itself. Understanding requires conditions of uncertainty, change, diversity and challenge. We believe that this understanding is not at all the same as seeking to understand what Mr Gurdjieff meant. In the literature, reference is made to the critical transformative step called the ‘second conscious shock’. It is said that this must always and in every case be unique.

This leads us to suppose that there is a whole class of approaches similar to the fourth way which exhibit various degrees of uniqueness and specificity. In this context, we need to develop our own way in every moment.

The fourth way is associated with the term ‘work’, which had great appeal in terms of the Protestant ethic. This term refers to conscious efforts by an individual to change herself and also the whole ‘enabling means’ that makes this possible, sometimes called ‘The Work’. The ‘work’ divides into three aspects: (1) work for oneself; (2) work for the group; (3) work for the greater whole (the ‘world’, the ‘Work’, even ‘God’). These three should be in balance. This scheme leaves itself open to a variety of interpretations, of various degrees of spiritual orientation. For example, John Bennett came close to identifying The Work with God. In this respect, one might easily find intense resonances with Gnostic teachings.

Bennett also gave rise to another scheme of the seven lines of work. Some of these were ‘active’ (effort) and others ‘receptive’. Over the years since Gurdjieff’s death there had been a tendency to bring in more passive lines of work such as is loosely called ‘meditation’; but, perhaps more importantly, some began to suspect the critical importance of being able to learn, which is a receptive act. There was also one line neither active nor receptive, but ‘reconciling’. In this line, it is the Work that manifests through us.

Finally, what is the fourth way and/or the Work to achieve? In brief, to cease to be a slave of external and internal influences and be able to contribute consciously towards the working of the whole.


Bennett, J. G. : The Sevenfold Work

Gurdjieff, G. I.: Beelzebub’s Tales [contains a richer and more religious account of human salvation than in ‘In Search’]

Ouspensky, P. D.; In Search of the Miraculous

Shah, Idries: The Sufis

Toynbee, Arnold: A Study of History