Nearly fifty years ago, Robert Earl Burton founded the Fellowship of Friends, a school of spiritual development in the Fourth Way tradition transmitted in this century by G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky.
A Greek-Armenian mystic and teacher of sacred dances, Gurdjieff rediscovered the Fourth Way tradition during long travels in the East, which provided the inspiration for his book, Meetings with Remarkable Men. He is perhaps best known for Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Gurdjieff’s disciple, Ouspensky, became a teacher in his own right, and recorded the Fourth Way ideas in a series of clearly written and elegantly reasoned works, among which are The Fourth Way and In Search of the Miraculous, both published after his death in 1947.
Because the Fourth Way is based on individual verification and understanding, as well as on personal transmission, each teacher reinterprets it anew. Robert Burton’s teaching, while based on the knowledge transmitted by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, has expanded to embrace the legacy of spiritually developed men and women of all ages and cultures, from Marcus Aurelius and St. Paul to Lao Tzu and Abraham Lincoln. Together with his students, he has explored related teachings in esoteric schools from all eras, isolating the common thread to reveal their universal message.
Gurdjieff approached the Fourth Way through the rigorous physical training of his sacred dances, and Ouspensky emphasized an equally rigorous intellectual discipline. Robert Burton stresses the education and disciplining of the emotions. The unique qualities that he offers to his students include a love of beauty and an understanding of its capacity to create higher states of awareness, a non-judgmental acceptance of people and events as they are, and a profound humility and obedience in the face of a higher intelligence. Although the system offers an array of theories, he has resisted all temptations to deviate from its highest application: the creation of higher consciousness within its students. He has never ceased to repeat that this work is simple, although it is not easy. Out of the great storehouse of knowledge in the Fourth Way, he has extracted and exalted two principles above all others: self-remembering and the transformation of suffering.
Self-remembering is the attempt within a specific moment to be more conscious, more aware, more present. It is a form of active meditation that may take place in any moment and in any situation, in which the student strives to be aware both of himself and of his environment simultaneously, rather than being immersed in his internal world or lost in his reactions to the many stimuli around him. Repeated efforts to self-remember lead to higher states of consciousness, and a quite new understanding of humanity’s place in the universe. This private, internal struggle to witness one’s own life is the process thorough which one creates one’s soul.
Relentlessly, Robert Burton has placed self-remembering at the heart of his school. Although he has urged his students to experience the best that life can offer and to develop their own talents and skills, he has never lost sight of the fact that even great genius pales before simple consciousness; that, as he has said so often, “There is no greater activity than presence in silence.”
The transformation of suffering entails learning to use each negative or painful experience or emotion, whether large or small, to create self-remembering. This process requires long work on changing attitudes, so that the student understands that the ultimate responsibility for any negative emotion— anger, irritation, fear, self-pity, and so on—rests with the individual rather than the events that befall him. “Everyone suffers, with or without a school,” Robert Burton has said. “We are trying to use our suffering, rather than being used by it.”
Year after year, Robert Burton’s students have come to him with their questions. Year after year, with unfaltering patience, he has taught that the only true solutions to any perceived “problem” lie in our efforts to self-remember and to transform our suffering. However justified one’s complaints, however unjust the events of one’s life, one has no choice but to embrace them all. This wider acceptance is the key to the actual transformation of negative emotions into higher consciousness, which creates the capacity for selfless love and is the true meaning behind every spiritual teaching. What the individual gains through this process may then be radiated outward for the benefit of others. “There is a secret,” Robert Burton said once, ”that is almost too sacred to tell. The secret is: what one gains, all gain.”