We listen to our own thoughts when learning, therefore we cannot hear new thoughts, only by new methods of listening and studying . . .

Georgi I. Gurdjieff

THE AGE of Aquarius. The Post-Industrial State. The Me Generation. The New Age . . .

It is as though people were finally rebelling against the sensory overload of the media, were finding themselves numbed by the bombardment of television, magazines, Muzak, billboards, newspapers, telephone solicitors, street-corner handbill passers, lecturers, shouters and chenters, doorbell ringers who beg, demand, cajole, threaten or exhort.It is as though they were sick to death of bumper-strip philosophies and novelty-button politics - and of being maligned in the public prints as dangerously apathetic because they no longer respond to these puerile stimuli.

Whatever the reason, Americans and especially white middle-class, middle-in-come, middle-brow, middle-educated Americans are attempting to discover themselves amid the cacophony. They are re-inventing silence. They meditate, they center themselves, they discipline their bodies with yoga exercises in hopes of disciplining their minds. Instead of extending their vision outward via satellite television, they are learning to look inward through their third eye.

And, being American, they tackle the subject like . . . well, they tackle the subject. With the zest of a gadget salesman, they descend upon the ancient disciplines of the East. Like a tiger cubs they pummel and maul the Tai Chi Chuan, the yoga techniques, the Hindu practices that take a lifetime to master. They swarm to join classes, hear lectures, speed-read books that were a millenium in the writing.

In response, a vast variety of schools has sprung up, trying to meet them halfway, adapting, underplaying the difficulties of the Zen paradox and the non-rational ways of the Orient. Some of these schools seem to have taken up the classic American sriteria: They count their success by the numbers, they publish instant books, they advertise - only to become another voice in the cacophony.

Some others, however, tend to retreat from the hurly-burly. By counseling silence and discretion, they make themselves more mysterious than ever to outsiders.

One of these is the Gurdjieff movement.

What is Gurdjieff? people often ask. Until a few years ago the name was so obscure it appeared in none of the standard encyclopedias, and even today, with the literature available in most book stores, few people realize that George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff died as recently as 1949, and fewer still understand what he taught.

As with any System that calls for intellectual precision,, the problem for the Gurdjieff has been transmitting the teachings exactly as the master intended. His first great interpreter was a fellow white Russian, Peter D. Ouspensky. Others followed during Gurdjieff's travels through Tibet and from revolutionary Russia to the Caucasus, Constantinople, Berlin and France, where in 1922 he established an institute, the Chateau du Prieure, outside Paris. He visited America in 1924, returned for the last time in 1948, and died in Paris the next year.

One of the disciples he met along the way was an Englishman, Hugh B. Ripman, now of Washington, then a student at the London School of Economics. He renewed the acquaintance in 1948, and together they planned for his return in 1949.

"I had met Ouspensky for the first time in 1934," said Ripman, who retired in 1973 as director of administration for the World Bank after 25 years of service there as a financial expert."I never had the slightest doubt of Gurdjieff's truth, though he would often put people off and tell them, 'Don't believe a word I say; find out for yourself.' At any rate, he never did come back, of course, and I was left with these people I had collected for him to see."

So in 1949, Ripman, a resident here since the end of World War II, formed a study group of Washingtonians. He started with 30 people, now has "200 or 300." The numbers aren't important. There is no prosyletizing. There are no formulas or panaceas. The work is internal, and it is called the Work. The aim is self-knowledge and the release of energy that awareness can bring.

Do not expect here a capsule mastery of Gurdjieff. Even among 20-year students, fundamental differences of interpretation can arise, and in fact the Washington group is growing concerned over finding a successor to Ripman. But perhaps some basic ideas can be sketched.

The Gurdjieff teachings have to do with attention, "the great adventure of the search for self." They hold that individual human evolution is possible within a lifetime, and the first step is to become aware of one's imperfections. This can be very dispiriting, which is one reason for the insistence on working closely with a teacher.

Of all the illusions people are prey to, none is more common than the illusion that we know ourselves: that we choose the ways we react to events, that we carry out our intentions with completely free will, that we pass our waking hours in a state of clear consciousness.

"We don't see the need to develop these qualities because we think we already have them," Ripman said in a recent lecture. "But we have many different 'I's and they are contradictory."

For instance, for many of us the past is not the objective past, but an accumulation of our memories: how we felt about things. "We are prisoners of our own past. Our conscious state is a semihypnotic sleep. Our attention is not under our control. Our sense of self is constantly lost in all kinds of different things . . ."

The solution, then, is to increase one's self-awareness, learn to identify the many conflicting 'I's and to search out the real one.

"You've got to set up a silent witness in yourself," Ripman said, "not judgmental, just aware." Then you ask questions to learn the causes of your behavior. You see that the causes consist in your attitudes to your various selves, your different self-images.

The idea is to separate yourself from these attitudes so that you can observe and analyze them and eventually discover the true self beneath. However, as Ripman points out, "Enlightened self-interest is how one starts, but it's not enough. You must give service, work for yourself, for other people, for the organization."

Sooner or later these generalities begin to tantalize the interested outsider. The search for self is all very well, but what do you actually do? How does a new member confront the Work?

"The first thing is the collections," says Burkey Belser, who has been in the movement several years. "Every morning for five to 15 minutes you do your collections. You literally collect yourself, you concentrate and put yourself into your toes, then your heels and so on until you are holding your whole body in this state of awareness."

Once you have got it all together, so to speak, you may achieve a feeling of separation from yourself, as though you were an impartial witness to your own antics in the dance of life.

Another exercise is to observe constantly, during one week, a single specified part of your body, say the left hand, watching its behavior for clues to your unconscious actions and mannerisms. (Do you clench it? With the thumb under? When exactly? Do you wave it when you talk? Do you cover your mouth with it? Why?) Later you might observe several parts at once, and in time you learn to study your entire body as a kind of guinea pig in a laboratory.

"First, you discover the things you do with your posture, your use of hands, the physical cues to your emotions," Belser said, "and to most people these are a revelation - they had no idea how many mechanical, patterned actions they were into - and gradually your observer self grows, becoming more aware, while the automatic knee-jerk gestures subside."

Only when the waters of a pond are stilled, he said, can you see yourself in reflection.

After the first year, students get into the Gurdjieff Movements, a series of gentle exercises through which one learns to divide the attention (as with patting the head and rubbing the stomach) and thus control it better. Gurdjieff, known to some scholars primarily as the man who introduced Sufi dancing to the West, experimented with dance throughout his career.

A difficult point in the teaching is the concept of negative emotions, as for instance, jealousy, are seen as a waste of energy and are to be struggled against along with the meaningless gestures.

"But once you learn to control and concentrate your attention to direct all the energy you've saved by not wasting it, then you're unbeatable," she said. "This is what the Work is aiming at."

Group meetings are held weekly, with 15 to 30 people sitting in a circle, and they start with collections, then listen to a talk by the leader and finally tell of their own discoveries. The group owns property in Vienna, and members regularly spend a day there working and observing themselves.

"There's not much humor in the group," said Belser, who has called Gurdjieff "the Anglican church of spiritual movements," referring to its quiet gentility, its lack of exhibitionism or outlandish public practices. "It's not nouveau-spiritual. It doesn't go out proselytizing: You are brought in by a sponsor. And you are asked not to talk about methods too freely because they've afraid to spreading misinformation."

This line was established by Gurdjieff himself when he first met Ouspensky in Moscow and said the Work is like a scientific experiment that you don't talk about until it is completed.

Today the Washington area group, which has members from as far away as Richmond, consists of seven chapters, a handful of 20-year veterans and an increasing number of new students. The fees run to about $25 a month, Belser said.

Some longtime members, asked how Gurdjieff had affected their lives, agreed that they had gained a serenity in dealing with the unexpected and a better understanding of others.

"After seeing so many variations in my own inner sleves," one man said, "I can accept the variations in the people I meet."

Another theme was that the Work had given direction to their lives, "not based on philosophies or beliefs but on accumulated direct experience."

"I have been given a conviction that there is a central purpose of life," one said, "and a means to fulfill it. Most of us sense something like this in the universe, but that's a long way from having experience of it."

A curious thing about this remarkably straightforward program is that it has always had an air of the esoteric. Partly this comes from the complex personality of Gurdjieff himself.

For example, he was concerned with the occupational hazard of teacher-workship or guruhood. To counter this he would deliberately make himself disagreeable or unreasonable or merely baffling to a favored pupil.

"Mr. Gurdjieff made us all repeat gestures and grimaces which he made," writes an early follower, the composer Thomas de Hartmann. "Suddenly he shouted "Stop!" and everyone froze with the grimace which he wore at that moment. My wife and I did not know then about this 'stop exercise' and others of this kind, but we stopped also, and Mr. Gurdjieff called to me to notice of her face without thinking about how ugly she looked."

Another pupil, the noted physicist John G. Bennett, writes that Gurdjieff "was sensual, loving food, women and beauty, impatient, subject to fits of rage and passion. Moreover, he was ready, in order to satisfy his thirst for knowledge, to be quite unscrupulous in the way he would get it. On the other hand, he never at any time was really interested in possessions or in fame."

His headquarters in Manhattan was a coffee shop where he would sit by the hour answering importunate questions with conundrums in an accent that changed with his mood.

Some students are put off by the occult side of the teachings, and much of the writing connected with Gurdjieff is difficult, to say the least. His own books range from the accessible "Meetings with Remarkable Men" to the interminable and obscure "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson," three volumes worth.

His years of search for wisdom in Tibet add to the exotic reputation. Friends spoke of a mysterious group, The Searchers After Truth, of whom Gurdjieff wouldn't talk but whose members supposedly included Karl Haushofer, the man who incorporated geopolitics into the Nazi ideology and to whom Gurdjieff allegedly suggested the inverted swastika as an emblem.

On the other hand, he is said to have influenced Frank Lloyd Wright, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler, the critic Orage, actor Louis Jouvet, the writer Katherine Mansfield and others of the social and intellectual elite in the Western world. (incidentally, he attempted to cure Mansfield's terminal tuberculosis at the Prieure institute by having her lie on the couch suspended above the cattle stalls in the barn.) In Washington, his followers tend to be upper middle-class, intellectually sophisticated, perhaps chic.

Some will say that it was this occult strain which made Gurdjieff fashionable in the '20s and is bringing him to the attention of religious cultists again today. It seems to be, rather, a matter of personal style, to be emphasized in one's approach or largely ignored. The basic substance of his teachings does not appear to be esoteric at all but sounds a refrain common to a great many philosophies of East and West over the centuries.

The last of the 38 aphorisms written in a private alphabet on a wall at the institute goes like this: "Here there are neither Russians nor English, Jews nor Christians, but only those who pursue one aim - to be able to be."