G. I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

The Essence of the Work

An Interview with Jacob Needleman

by Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney


Jacob Needleman is an internationally known writer and lecturer on philosophy and religion. He is the author of numerous books, including The New Religions, The Heart of Philosophy, Consciousness and Tradition, Money and the Meaning of Life, Time and the Soul, and with George Baker, edited Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teachings. He also serves as professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. Needleman is a long-time student of the Gurdjieff Teaching. Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney visited him at his San Francisco home in February 1991.

Smoley: You’re obviously familiar with many spiritual traditions. Yet you seem to keep coming back to the Gurdjieff Work. What’s so special about it for you?

Needleman: When I was younger, I could never really respond to religious language, or to my particular tradition, which is Judaism, or to the other traditions I saw around me. I started my intellectual life as a scientist; I was going to be a biologist, and religion as such had never really penetrated to me. Many of us felt that way about religion, that there was something about it we couldn’t believe in or give our hearts to.

When I read the Gurdjieff ideas, I immediately responded to this language that had something of the scientific about it, a cosmological language, and a very sophisticated psychological language. It didn’t reject the scientific vision of things; it seemed to have a place for it. It included all the material that science had discovered, and it gave weight to it, and seemed in some sense to go beyond it without denying it.

Another thing was the encompassingness and the unique self-consistency of the ideas. There was no really earnest question that I had that didn’t have a response somewhere in this whole body of ideas, whether it was about the universe and nature, ethics, day-to-day life, art, history, war, sex.

There was of course the figure of Gurdjieff himself, particularly as Ouspensky had presented him in In Search of the Miraculous, which startled me and attracted me in a strange way, both repelled and attracted at the same time.

Having said all that, I also need to say that when I first encountered this teaching, I was rather young, and I was offended by it. But when a person I respected said I should read In Search of the Miraculous, I found something in me was drawn to it even though there were many things in it that seemed unbelievable. Things about the moon and that sort of thing that I couldn’t accept. Yet there was something else deeper; I felt the voice of some authority that I had rarely encountered before.…

[The complete text is available in the printed copy of this issue.]

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This interview originally appeared in Gnosis Magazine, No. 20, Summer 1991. Copyright © 1991 Gnosis Magazine. Copies of this issue of Gnosis on “Gurdjieff and the 4th Way” as well as all other issues are still available from the Lumen Foundation, P.O. Box 14820, San Francisco, CA 94114.

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Featured: Spring 2001 Issue, Vol. IV (2)
Revision: October 1, 2001