Gurdjieff’s carriage

The fictional interview below I wrote based on a long-standing metaphor from the Katha Upanishad. I first heard this allegory in a simple version around the age of 17, as if it had been conceived by Gurdjieff. At that time, it was my ‘wake-up call’, leading me onto the path of spiritual philosophy.
Now, I have rewritten this allegory in the form of an interview with Gurdjieff, much more detailed than Gurdjieff’s version and certainly more detailed than can be read in the Katha Upanishad. Depth and many nuances have been added. As a result, this ‘interview’ as a metaphor provides as complete a picture as possible of the state of our human mind.

Interview with Georgi Ivanovitsj Gurdjieff


Dear Mr. Gurdjieff, I’ve heard something that I’d like to ask you about…

Just call me Georgi, my friend.

Oh, thank you!
I heard that you compare humans to a carriage with horses in front.
Can you explain this concept to me?

Certainly, I’d love to. But know that this allegory I’ve developed was originally written simply in a very old scripture: the Katha Upanishad. In it, humans are already represented as a carriage drawn by horses, guided by a charioteer. But who still knows or reads this? Time continually buries wisdom, so even the best teachings become dogmas or are assimilated into religion. A true teacher must essentially be an archaeologist, rediscovering and passing on pure teachings.

Is the carriage allegory one of these pure teachings?

Indeed, and its power lies in the depth of this simple representation. I often traveled by carriage to various places with interesting and wise people. These long journeys gave me plenty of time to contemplate and refine this metaphor as an eye-opener.

How did you refine it?

Well, I can compare my own body to a carriage. Just like a carriage, my body enables movement and interactions. My body is a vehicle for my mind and soul, allowing me to navigate through life.

Is that all?

Oh no! That’s just the beginning. The carriage is pulled by horses. Horses, as you know, are sensitive creatures, representing feelings, emotions, desires, and motivations. Without them, the carriage wouldn’t move. However, they can easily get agitated or distracted. Since they’re connected to the carriage, it’s influenced by their behavior.

Well, isn’t there someone holding the reins?

Indeed! The charioteer. He calms the horses and guides them, ensuring a smooth journey. In the past, there were no paved roads, just tracks that provided a somewhat comfortable ride. Off the track, it’s bumpy. The charioteer symbolizes our reason – our intellect and discernment – that guides our feelings, desires, and motivations using the reins, which represent the insights and tactics arising from functional thinking.

Okay, that seems clear. Anything else? Who’s inside the carriage, for instance?

Good question! Who’s inside the carriage? That’s someone who is being driven and should instruct the charioteer. We’ll call him the Occupant. In essence, the Occupant does nothing. He’s an observer, a witness. He oversees the entire carriage system, the journey, and the surroundings. He’s the Watcher. Since he’s the Occupant, the charioteer must execute his instructions, guiding the horses and ensuring a smooth journey towards their destination.

Well, that seems like a clear metaphor. But what’s its practical use?

I’ll explain. The way I described it, with a carriage smoothly progressing towards its destination, is far from reality! Our situation is truly pitiful!


Look, we don’t really maintain that carriage. We don’t oil the wheels on time, only sporadically maintain its frame, only polish the exterior, and many parts rust and wear out. Sometimes, it’s on the verge of collapsing…
But that’s not all that’s wrong… The horses often run wild without guidance. They’re frequently stubborn, restless, or stressed, and often rebellious. This threatens to steer the carriage off track, subjecting the already frail thing to rough terrain and hardships.

Isn’t there a charioteer?

Indeed, but he’s often napping or distracted by things other than his duty as a charioteer. In today’s terms, he’d be engrossed in his mobile phone all day, hardly noticing his horses. This charioteer intervenes far too rarely. Ideally, he should calm the horses and guide them back onto the track using his expertise. However, he often lets things slide, or even lets them spiral out of control, mistakenly thinking he’s “doing good,” when he lacks the true knowledge of handling the carriage.

So how does the charioteer gain this true knowledge?

Ideally, he follows the instructions of the Occupant. For the Occupant knows where to go and how to get there. Without following this true knowledge, the entire carriage system becomes erratic, leading to many difficulties. The Occupant’s instructions can keep the charioteer on track, but the charioteer must listen!

What does the track represent in this allegory? I’m not quite getting that…

The track represents the Present Moment: the only relevant time. The Present is the eternal moment in which everything occurs and where it can always be clear what we should or shouldn’t do. Deviating from the track means we lose focus on the Present, venturing into the wilderness of a distorted past or an imagined future, where nothing can happen. Everything happens in the Present. And distractions are often misleading.

How do we end up lost in this distorted reality?

It happens when the horses become restless due to external disturbances. Something that alarms them, frightens them, or causes them pain. This can easily cause them to bolt and stray off track. Also, their desires can lead them astray, always seeking satisfaction, which can result in addiction. And the charioteer… he does nothing… or too little. He should be vigilant and feel responsible for the horses. But he’s asleep, neglectful, and stubbornly refuses to listen to the Occupant. Hence, the horses don’t get the right attention. They haven’t received proper ‘nourishment’ for years, which results in impulsive behaviors that also harm them. It should be clear that the carriage suffers from this and will hardly reach its destination under these conditions.

Wow… The way you present it, seeing humanity as this entire system, it seems we’re in bad shape. Essentially, you’re suggesting this whole human system is malfunctioning.

You’ve grasped it correctly! However, this malfunction, this imbalance which can even lead to illnesses, is rather simple to fix. But there’s one prerequisite: our entire system needs to calm down first. What’s most missing, time and again, is Silence.

Oh really? How should we proceed then?

The charioteer needs to listen to the Occupant. He needs to listen to true knowledge and not stubbornly follow his own world of ideas, just “doing whatever.” Because of this stubbornness, everything on his journey happens to him rather than him being still, seeing everything coming and happening, and acting accordingly. The horses, in their restlessness, often veer off track rather than being healthy and calm. As a result, the carriage becomes frail instead of staying vital and strong.

How did it come to this?

Well, the root of all these troubles is that the Occupant is not known at all, even though the Occupant could potentially manage the entire system meaningfully. At the very least, the charioteer should obey the Occupant. As a result, the entire carriage system is endangered and susceptible to any random circumstance, any passerby who hijacks it for personal gain without taking any responsibility for the state in which the carriage is carelessly left behind.

Could you summarize it for me in different words, Georgi?

Certainly. Here’s the situation:
This carriage metaphor represents every individual. The Occupant – the Self – is the same for everyone. There is only one Occupant, no matter how many carriages there are. There is only one Self, no matter how many individuals there are.
In pure Present awareness, on the track, our reason – the charioteer – is our mental instrument to guide our desires and feelings – the horses. From true knowledge – stemming from the Self – our reason will act upon what is truly known. If our reason fails to do so, it cannot guide properly.
Sadly, our charioteer almost always follows his own compass. This should be his common sense, but it often isn’t. By ignoring this, he also ignores the guidance the horses provide when they can move at a peaceful pace, because from a deep natural intuition and instinct, horses sense which path to take and at what speed. The horses, through their healthy feelings, have intuitive contact with the Occupant, which, however, can easily be disrupted by external circumstances and the charioteer’s stubbornness. Furthermore, they are untrained and were given the wrong food.

So these horses could inherently do a lot of good on their own?

Absolutely! The horses, our feelings and desires, can find their way quite effectively if they can travel peacefully and are given the right guidance. Horses sense potential dangers on the path, like a snake, much earlier than the charioteer because they’re always alert. The charioteer needs to pay close attention to the horses and listen to their signals. Healthy horses can navigate almost naturally and need very little guidance.
Our feelings sense a lot because they possess a form of rapid intelligence. However, when we ignore our feelings, causing increasing unrest, emotional turmoil may erupt. Only our reason, our intellect, can change this situation, but it must act from true knowledge.

How does our ego fit into this story?

Our ego hasn’t been addressed in this metaphor until now. Let’s delve into it. If we are not connected to our Self, we act inadequately or whimsically, causing the charioteer to use the whip or make other unwise decisions, escalating the unrest. This is our ego: a stubborn charioteer who, unknowingly and lacking true knowledge, mishandles or fails to guide the horses, even agitating them. He identifies with various stubborn traits, saying “this is me” to them. Identifying oneself with something makes it our identity even when it cannot be. Thus, the system follows its own separate ego-driven path, no longer on the track of the Present, running into obstacles or sinking in quicksand. It’s clear that our body-carriage can suffer from this, becoming sick or even dying. Needless to say, both our reason-charioteer and our motivation-horses will suffer from this.

What do you mean by obstacles and quicksand?

The obstacles and quicksand represent all external and internal circumstances we encounter and to which we respond conditionally in thought, feeling, and action. Simply because we do not keep our attention in the Present, but get bogged down in projections of a bygone past and an imaginary future. This causes us to identify and project, leading us into mechanical thinking, which we can experience as a grind in our head. Our attachments, desires, and all other unnoticed mental drivers like assumptions and prejudices keep our attention imprisoned in a non-existent reality. They dominate, get us into trouble, and push out the natural experience of happiness.

Good heavens… What a story!
So, looking at how mankind stands, things don’t look good…

You’re right. Humans are operating far below their potential.
Mainly because our mind is not clear and due to all the turmoil that mechanical thinking and feeling bring about, we keep identifying with everything and forget that there’s Someone inside the carriage who we truly Are. That we are our Self.
Our so-called ‘healthy’ reasoning has become unhealthy due to sleep, disinterest, stubbornness, and a permanent sense of being separated.
Our feelings, detached from their natural intuitive connection with our conscience, have become unhealthy because we don’t listen to them, preventing old feelings and pains from being resolved.
Our body has become unhealthy, defective, addicted, emaciated, or obese, endangered because it doesn’t receive proper nourishment and care.

Is our charioteer truly wise and guiding? Or is he stubborn and asleep?
Do our horses naturally find ‘the way’? Or are they stressed or numbed?
Is our carriage still strong and vital? Or is it slowly collapsing?

And what about the Occupant? The Self?

To be honest, the Self couldn’t care less; it knows neither struggle nor ambition and merely observes. The Self is always at peace. The Self knows no opposition. It Knows. This knowledge is always available to those open to it. True Knowledge will always guide the carriage out of the quicksand of identifications and the rugged terrain of undesired circumstances back to the balance of the track, to the Present. Always. The Self is in us because we are It. We, as individualized beings, just need to follow it.

What’s our first step then?

We need to become ‘radical’ for ourselves, a term derived from the Latin radix which means root. And focus on the ‘root of liberation’ that keeps us out of the discord of the mind, the dissatisfaction of our heart, and the disease of our body.

I get it! I see the whole picture now. A famous person once said that you only start to see when you understand. Nice! Thank you so much!

You’re most welcome, my dear.

Georgi Ivanovitsj Gurdjieff (1866 – 1949) was a Greek-Armenian philosopher, mystic, writer, and composer.

© Michiel Koperdraat