Archive for April 2009
All & Everything Conference, Toronto 2009
A day-by-day account of events, impressions, and experiencesas reported by John Robert Colombo
Preamble and Confession
For decades I have been conducting a correspondence with Simson Najovits, a friend and fellow writer who since the 1960s has lived in Paris, preferring the City of Light to the City of Montreal where he was born. Little by little, from letter to letter, then from email to email, I began to realize that we shared certain metaphysical aims and interests and that, indeed, he was a long-time student of the Work.
After exchanging many letters, I learned that he had met and worked with Madame de Salzmann and Madame de Hartmann and that he was on a first-name basis with many of the French movement’s leading personalities. I will not mention their names but the names would be recognized if I did. Then I learned that after a decade and a half of experience of the Work, he had left it – though whether one ever leaves the work or ever could leave the work is a matter that could be discussed at some later time.
I remember telling Simson that, to my great surprise, the forthcoming All & Everything Conference, the fourteenth in the annual series that was launched in 1996, was scheduled to be held in the Canadian city of Toronto, and not in its long-time English venue, the Royal Norfolk Hotel in Bognor Regis. I invited him to visit Toronto and stay with me and my wife Ruth at our home, located about ten kilometres from the conference site. He declined the invitation. The idea of spending five days in Toronto did not excite him!
He noted, “While those on the outside may have interesting comments about the Work and ‘All and Everything,’ it is those on the inside, those who practice the Work, or those who were in the Work for a long time, who have the most apposite, the deepest insights about ‘All and Everything.’”
In another email I told him that I had been invited by the conference organizers to submit an abstract of a paper for possible presentation at the conference, but that I had declined the invitation. I explained that while I might relish considering myself “a companion of the book,” I was no way an authority on “Beelzebub’s Tales.” I explained that I knew my limits and preferred to remain safely within those boundaries.
I got a wary reaction from Simson, especially when I went on to inform him that I planned to attend all the sessions of the conference and report on the experience on a day-to-day basis for those readers of Sophia Wellbeloved’s website who would like to attend but would not be doing so – presumably the vast majority of its readers.
Simson said, “Ain’t that going to be a bit of a problem for you?” He pointed out that a year earlier I had admitted in an email to him that I had never read “Beelzebub’s Tales” and, later on, in one of the reviews carried by Sophia in her blog, I had stated that I had never read the magnum opus from cover to cover, not even once, not to mention the prescribed three times. As I made these points, I could see him, in my mind’s eye bristling like a porcupine.
I was admitting the truth. I pointed out that I had spent most of my undergraduate years surrounded by graduate students of English and French literature who had proudly boasted that they had read “Finnegans Wake” from cover to cover or “A la recherche des temps perdu” from covers to covers. I listened carefully to what they were saying about Joyce and Proust, and with equal diligence I read what they were writing about these masters and their masterworks, and about the world at large, but I had failed to detect any evidence that these marathon reading exercises had changed them for the better or for the worse.
Indeed, I have met students of “The Secret Doctrine” who have studied Madame Blavatsky’s book on Wednesday nights for years on end, taking only short breaks during the summers. They certainly knew more Theosophy – or more about Theosophy – than I ever did, but the exercise seemed not to have altered their personalities or their characters in any appreciable or apparent ways. I kept thinking of a line of Kipling’s that is a favourite of mine. It goes roughly goes like this: “Who knows England who only England knows?”
I am not going to take the next step and make the same point about students of the Work and their respect for “Beelzebub’s Tales” because I have no evidence, either pro or con, that immersion in the work automatically deepens or widens consciousness or sense of presence or does both together. I suppose the word “automatically” there gives away my position. One sentence read consciously is worth ten thousand sentences read mechanically. Of the transformative powers of works of the human imagination, expecially of works of scripture, I have no doubt. It depends on the reader.
“I anticipate no problem at all covering the A&E Conference,” I replied to Simson. “My position is analogous to that of the ‘rapporteur’ who attends all the presentations at a single-track academic conference and then on the final hour of the final day offers his own impressions: a cumulative but personal reaction to the discussion and the discussants. I have always marvelled at how well it may be done. Once I heard a scholar deliver his report brilliantly in rhyming couplets! (That I will not be doing, but believe me, I am tempted!)
“My intention is to describe the viewpoints expressed and paint the contours and colours of the occasion and catch the expressions of emotion and intellect. It was in that way that a few years ago I covered the three-day meeting of Traditionalists in Edmonton in a report published in the journal ‘Fohat’ and subsequently reprinted in my book ‘Whistle While You Work.’ I did so without being able to read Arabic or Farsi or most of the texts of the Traditionalists that were extolled during those sessions.
“At the same time, I have already read, with a fair degree of comprehension, almost all the proceedings of the previous A&E conferences, which I purchased (from By the Way Books) as they appeared, so I am prepared, up to a point. The point is that I will admit, right off, that I have a cursory knowledge of the contents of ‘Beelzebub’s Tales.’ I recall the statement made by A.R. Orage, following his break with Mr. Gurdjieff, that even he did not understand the text, despite having translated, adapted, edited, or rewritten much of it.”
I concluded by saying, “Simson, I am surprised that you would think that it is a problem. It is often useful to regard a subject from the opposite perspective: Would anyone who is an authority on the text agree to report on the event? Not likely. There are times when someone who holds no particular views and sees the big picture and is willing to learn has the advantage over the specialist who is ‘parti pris.’
“Anyway, we will see. I seldom bite off more than I can chew. While I did decline a possible invitation to prepare a paper at the conference, I did accept the kind invitation to speak briefly at the banquet, as I felt that there should be some input from the host country than might otherwise be the case. Anyway, reversing a well-known saying, ‘My “bite” is worse than my bark!’”
Simson was mollified and replied, “Well, I guess you’re right about a few things – it is unlikely that anybody who is an authority on the text would agree to report on it at the conference, it is so that quite often somebody who sees the big picture and is willing to learn has the advantage over the specialist and it is so that after his first reading of ‘Beelzebub’s Tales,’ Orage said that it was ‘unintelligible,’ although I think he changed his mind later.”
He went on to discuss his own early encounters with the book in Montreal before leaving for Paris for good. “I must note that after my first reading of the book I told Tom Daly much the same thing as Orage and he said, ‘It’s not unintelligible, wait and see,’ and after many more readings and countless diggings into the text (sometimes with the assistance of a precious gift you gave me many years ago, a copy of the first edition of ‘Guide and Index to G.I. Gurdjieff’s “All and Everything, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson”’), well, even if there are many bewildering things in the book and many others which are sheer nonsense or typical esoteric nonsense plus a hefty dose of religious silliness, on the whole ‘All and Everything’ is not only a fabulous book, and specifically ‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,’ a new way of writing mythology, it is understandable.”
All this took place in December 2008. I am recounting these exchanges now for the benefit of Simson in Paris as well as for the readers of Sophia’s website wherever they may live in order to set the record straight about my acquaintance with the text that is the centre of this inquiry.
In point of fact, like many people who have been attracted to the Work and who subsequently left, as a good many people do, I have acquired and retained both a general idea and a specific idea of what the book says and how it says it. I have read innumerable presentations, essays, and even other books about the big book, and I have come to the conclusion that it seems to me to be (on the one hand) an idiosyncratic epic poem in prose and (on the other hand) a shiny looking-glass that reflects back the characteristic features of its readers. Northrop Frye describes “scripture” as “literature plus.” I think “Beelzebub’s Tales” is “scripture.”
Like most people with a taste for the Work, I have read both “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and “Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am,’ in their entirety, a number of times, not to mention the withdrawn booklet “Herald of Coming Good.” It is with “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” that I have this on-again, off-again relationship. Anyway, for the purposes of what follows, I will refer to the latter publication as “Tales.” (My edition is the first one issued by Harcourt, Brace.) I will reserve the impressive words “All and Everything” for all three books of the canon: “Tales,” “Meetings,” “Life.”
The Venue and the Proceedings of the Conference
Toronto may not be the most picturesque of cities, but it has charms of its own, though not one of them is visible from the windows of the hotel at which the conference was held. This venue was The Days Inn located on Wilson Avenue near Jane Street northwest of the city’s downtown. Nor were any redeeming features of modern architecture apparent within the Inn. I felt a little sorry for first-time visitors to Toronto. Hardly anybody else but me expressed discontent, but I did hear one person say, “At least the hotel is cheap, and it’s located near the airport.” Nevertheless its Lady Hamilton Room with its four unimpressive chandeliers served quite well as the meeting room for the forty-five or fifty registered attendees.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009. 8:30 p.m. Forty-five chairs were arranged in a large oval and participants quietly took their seats. I scanned the group: thirty-five men and ten women. Casual dress. People were in their fifties and sixties in the main, with a sprinkling of younger and older men and women. Technically trained or professionally educated, I would guess. Mainly Caucasian. Thoughtful and courteous people, by and large.
This first meeting was a preliminary gathering, called for the night before the conference’s first session. Ian MacFarlane, the convener, a Canadian who works in England, in his patented quiet manner, asked us to introduce ourselves in a counter-clockwise direction. People spoke easily, though some were almost inaudible. I was surprised that so many participants – perhaps twelve in all – identified themselves as Canadians who were (like my wife Ruth and myself) attending this series of conferences for the first time.
I was also surprised to learn that perhaps two-thirds of the participants had associations with groups in the United States and the United Kingdom that had been founded by leaders whose names were familiar to me though I had never met them: Patterson, Nyland, Staveley, Popoff, Beidler, Bennett, etc. (I identified myself as someone who in 1957-59 had benefitted from a contact with the Toronto group that was then led by the Welches – Mrs. Louise Welch and Dr. William Welch. In passing I mentioned that I would be reporting on the proceedings for Sophia Wellbeloved’s website.) More than half the members had attended previous conferences in Bognor Regis and elsewhere, at least two having achieved the distinction of having attended all the earlier conferences. There were also participants from Greece, the U.K., Holland, the U.S., etc. The American visitors expressed pleasure that the conference was, once again, being held in North America.
I surmised that the people present were a studious and sincere students of the work whose lives had been enriched through repeated readings of the “Tales” and from association with work groups, though some members were currently inactive or “on leave” (as one person expressed it) from them. After everyone introduced himself or herself, Seymour B. Ginsburg, whom I met for the first time, inquired if the group would be interested in hearing a short account of how the A&E Conferences had begun. This suggestion was met with approval.
He sketched in how he and Bert Sharp and Nicolas Tereschenko, with input from James Moore and Paul Beekman Taylor and others, invite the people they knew to consider the merits of Russell Smith’s Cosmic Secrets which argued that the shocks in the enneagram were wrongly located, the mistake stemming from supposedly erroneous data in Chapter 39 in “Tales” titled “The Holy Planet ‘Purgatory.’” The seminar was designed to be an ecumenical one, beholden to no particular group or institute.
It was safe to say that nobody who attended that two-day gathering held in February 1996 in Bognor Regis expected that the initiative would launch a series of annual gatherings called the “International Humanities Conference.” But the group succeeded in dismissing the Smith thesis and the momentum was such that by now the conferences are fixtures in the world of Work. A.L. Staveley, dubbed the “godmother” of the conference, felt it should be named “The Brotherhood of the Book.” Later, briefly, it was called “Companions of the Book.” Finally it got its present name “The All & Everything: The International Humanities Conference.” The focus would remain, always, on the text of “Tales.”
Sy’s impromptu history was followed by some general discussion. After two hours, the preliminary session of the fourteenth conference was over. It seemed to me that the conference had been well and truly launched, with a sense of fellowship based on a commonality of interests and a willingness to listen and learn and speak. I resolved to describe all the sessions that I could attend, and note those that I could not attend. I was not staying at the conference hotel so I missed much of the informal chatter at breakfast, etc.
Thursday, April 22, 2009. 9:15 a.m. The conference hall was set up with a projection screen and chairs arranged in lecture fashion. Ian convened the first session of the fourteenth conference with another potted history. He pointed out that in no way was the conference a “work event” because it had no movements or sittings or individual instructions. It was meant to appeal primarily to the intellectual centre. It was run by volunteers and was independent of any group. Proceedings would be recorded, then transcribed, and then made available in MP3 format, on the conference’s website, and also in printed form – with modest payment through PayPal. The morning sessions would consist of two presentations with discussions, the afternoon sessions with two seminars focused on specific chapters of “Tales.”
The first presenter was Stephen Aronson, a clinical psychologist, who read a paper titled “Preparation for the Third Line of Work: Threading the needle Between Wiseacring and the Law of Hazard.” He read it faultlessly, but he has a quiet voice and a somewhat withdrawn manner, so audience members had to strain to listen. Stephen discussed the three lines of the work (for oneself, for others, and for the work itself) and the setbacks of “wiseacring” and the “law of hazard” (employing a phrase of Bennett’s). His thesis seemed to be that we can change worlds by making changes in our minds. Simplifying things: Aim facing hazard resulted in change of attitude and hence understanding. Humour is one way of avoiding the trap of wiseacring. He stressed Mr. G.’s advice: “Remember yourselves always and everywhere.”
During the discussion period, Stephen was asked, given his extensive experience with forms of psychotherapy, if Gurdjieff’s work was merely “another chapter” in some book of therapies. In reply, the speaker distinguished between two types of therapy and all rest of the techniques and theories. The two types that stand out from the rest are Jungianism and Psychosynthesis, for they encourage people to move toward boundaries, although they do not point out the presence of doors to other worlds. As for all the other therapies, they try to relieve the pain of those people who are asleep. “I can at least talk with Jungians more easily than I can talk with the others.” Therapy, it seems, means introducing patients to matter of a higher quality.
I had the feeling that I had missed the thesis of Stephen’s talk, so I asked him to lend me the text to read over lunch hour or to express in a couple of sentences the thesis that he wanted to present. He did both. From his text I selected the following interesting quotation: “Now, we begin to sense that the Work has us for Its use.” I will include some sentences from his hand-written comments:
“To serve the work from above, the transmission of the higher potential into the lower requires me to play my role as the bridge (objectively) and not “myself” subjectively.” “Plant the seed as the sower – with regard to the type and quality of seed and seasons and the apparent conditions of the soil. Then watch what happens. You are the role of sower, not the God of Nature.”
There was a short coffee break. The second session began at 11:30. Dimitri Peretzi, dressed in black, spoke on the theme “Man Is Third Force Blind.” An architect and intellectual, he made good use of slides to illustrate his argument that “man is an incomplete being” in whom the effects of Kundabuffer have crystallized, and that First Force and Second Force meet on a two-dimensional plane; Third Force, their product, manifests in a three-dimensional cube. The Third Force is a force in its own right, but even more a process, at one and the same time a cause and an effect. The triad is not to be viewed as flat. The forces have homes in the human body.
Using Mr. Gurdjieff’s analogy of keys and locks, Dimitri spent some time equating Aieioiooa with “light of day” and remorse. The more he explained the relationship, the more complicated it seemed. He devoted time to the enneagram which, to my surprise, he turned almost on edge, to create a coil or spiral. (This recalled for me Northrop Frye’s observation that a circle is a compressed spiral.) He spoke in a lively, somewhat provocative manner. He began and ended with a quotation from Madame de Salzmann: “It is blindness that keeps one world separate from another.”
The sessions and discussions ended at 12:45 p.m. and were followed a light lunch. Everyone reconvened at 2:30 p.m. for the first of two textual discussions. This time the seating was arranged in an immense oval, so large that it discouraged any one-on-one exchange or debate. The hand-held microphones (necessary for taping the proceedings) reduced spontaneity. Those were the drawbacks to the seating arrangement. Its strongpoints were that the arrangement guaranteed that everyone was equal and that a sense of community was created. In point of fact, some senior group members worked as “resource people” (including Sy Ginsburg, Keith Buzzell and Nick Bryce) and commented irregularly though often at some length about the aspect of the topic being discussed.
After a one-minute “sitting,” there was a discussion of Chapter 25, “The Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash, Sent from above to the Earth.” In fact, much of the discussion, ably led by Nick, was about the phrase “sent from above.” Some participants found it puzzling. What I found puzzling was not the meaning of the arresting phrase itself, clearly based on John 4:9, but the fact that the group was ill-equipped to consider “the order of words,” the term used in literary criticism to account for word choice and allusion, if not meaning. I suggested that perhaps A.R. Orage might be credited with inventing some of the terminology and that he was aware of the allusions and reverberations of words like “sent.”
There was much discussion, enriched by comments by Sy and Keith, in particular, about how Ashiata Shiemash “neither taught nor preached.” That raised the question, Where does that leave today’s teachers or leaders? Time was spent on a discussion of the nature of spiritual hierarchy, and George Bennett (son of J.B. Bennett) noted the multiple groups of “brotherhoods” mention in “Tales,” one of which he said may well exist today.
The first discussion ended with a break at 3:50 p.m. Sy then led the second seminar on “The Terror of the Situation.” There was much discussion of legominisms and an apparent anachronism in the “Tales” with respect to the narrator’s prior knowledge of events that occurred later. The serious question was raised: “What is the terror?” Answers were wide-ranging, included loss of everything, loss of individual life, loss of hope, to a general malaise with life. Unfortunately I had to make an exit early, at 4:50 p.m., before the session was concluded, so I never did find out the consensus position. I would have liked to have learned what members of the oval individually and collectively felt about the word “situation.”
I left impressed with the quality of the facilitation and with the sincerity of the participants, though many of the participants were unfamiliar with the text and in awe of the senior members who graciously shared their very detailed insights. I kept trying to remember the Arabic term for a Muslim who has memorized the Koran.
Another disappointment was that I had to miss the piano recital of Elsa Denzey, which began at 8:30 p.m., who for fifty years has performed as a pianist of the Movements in Toronto, beginning with the well-remembered Alfred Etievan. This was particularly disappointing to me because, in November 2008, for this website, I reviewed Ms. Denzey’s tastefully produced CD titled “Gurdjieff / De Hartmann.” Her performances are marked by great delicacy.
I learned from people who had attended the concert that Mrs. Denzey was accompanied by members of two generations of her family and that the feeling was that this concert might be her final performance. A great one it was! She performed the compositions written for the Moments as well as some unfamiliar concert compositions. As one listener told me, “It lasted about one hour, but it was suddenly over, as if it had been only fifteen minutes in length, so moving was it.”
Friday, April 24, 2009. The first session began, after a one-minute sitting, with the presentation “Gurdjieff Exercises and the Three Brains” delivered by John Amaral who is an engineer by training and something of a polymath. What he did, with well-prepared slides, was discuss the function of the exercises identified with Gurdjieff and his followers that are used in work situations. They are transmitted from person to person and hence from generation to generation one-on-one or in small groups.
Can the exercises be described in words? They are not like recipes, easily summarized, or easily communicated, because they require a state of being and understanding that cannot be described or communicated except in person. They rather resemble sheet music, which very talented musicians can play, but others cannot. The training and skill of the musician is of paramount importance. Students are required to make them their own.
There are exercises for the various centres, for various types of people, for various times of the day, etc. Morning exercises are very important. There are exercises for various centres, for conscience, etc. John went into more detail than this and distributed two, many-paged printouts which I will pour over in the weeks ahead.
He said we live in an exciting and ecumenical time characterized by the availability of much material. That raised a question. Will the exercises disappear if they are kept under wraps, so to speak? Or should they be made more widely available, perhaps published or even made the subjects of multimedia presentations? Mechanical reproduction of them is as useless as mechanical performance of them. “If we wish to rise above the average, it is necessary to sacrifice sleep.”
I am not going to go into more detail than this because, as John pointed out, some people even object to referring to the exercises by name outside groups, though, interestingly, a senior work leader seated beside me turned to me and said, “Writers like you should be collecting them and publishing them.” So it is a controversial subject.
There was a lively discussion about Mr. G.’s view on dreams, comments from Maurice Nicoll, Margaret Anderson, and Ethel Merston. John said it should be possible to trace the “lineage” of the exercises based on their individual characteristics, though whether the effort is worth while is worth consideration. One member raised the subject of “Tasks” and it was suggested that a task is a time-reduced exercise. I remember this being discussed way back in the 1950s. The session ended at 10:45 a.m. with a coffee break.
At 11:00 a.m., Keith Buzzell spoke on “Do-Re-Me of Food, Air and Impressions.” He is a seasoned presenter and with slides and one handout related the Table of Hydrogens to the various types of “food” and ultimately the “coating” of higher being bodies. There is the food that grows on the surface of the earth, food that exists in the planetary atmosphere, and food that comes from the sun. One of his catchy phrases was “Only life can sustain life.”
Hydrogen 768 is the food of man, but the categories are “enormous.” In fact, while I did not conduct a word-count, I assume Keith used the word “enormous” twenty-one times to describe the categories on the Table, and quite rightly. He also turned his attention to the difference between “mass” and non-mass.” At times I thought I was attending a lecture on the Joy of Chemistry. Any dieticians in the audience would have been lost!
There was an interesting analysis of the role of proteins and how modern science is revealing the facts of digestion which are in line with what is discussed in “Tales.” We learn by analogy: “Higher hydrogens digest lower hydrogens.” The speaker suggested that there is “a way of understanding how our minds can transform our physical brains.” “The input of the three brains is the substrate of the spiritual body, the DNA of the kesdjan.”
During the discussion it was mentioned that there are ten bacteria for every cell in the human body. “We could not live without all our bacteria. We have to get along with each other.” Keith quoted a teacher who asked, “How can you expect to have extra knowledge if you don’t know ordinary knowledge.” The discussion ended with a discussion of magnetic vs. mechanical fields of influence and the human will and whether it can be suborned, followed by the differences between “body” and “centre.” It was 1:00 p.m.
At 2:30 p.m., after a brief sitting, Nick Bryce led a discussion of Chapter 27, “The organization for Man’s Existence Created by the Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash.” Nick is a veteran of these conferences, having attended all abut one of them. He is a resident of Ottawa and has a deep and comforting voice. More to the point, he has made “Tales” his own. I will not try to summarize the discussion here, as it seemed to me to consist of a number of “fresh starts,” but he elicited a high level of comments and observations discussing the “shocks” and two holy men whose names suggest Pondering and Sensing. The text was declared to be full of “analogies” and there was a useful discussion as to whether the text, at points, said what it meant, or meant more than it said.
Conscience was the subject of the passage, and what I learned is what one member of the group said is the difference here with respect to the “bite of conscience” and “the remorse” of conscience, two different things. Is conscience really buried or is it close to the surface? A student in the Bennett line suggested it is not all that deeply buried, but a student of a different line suggested that it is deeply buried. There seemed agreement that one’s conscience signals that “I have an alternative” and, thereafter, “I have no alternative.” It is not easily silenced. Is conscience part of essence? Is it outside essence? Is it part of the unconscious?
Nicoll was quoted as saying that acting against one’s conscience is “acting in a way unbecoming to three-brained beings.” The speaker suggested, “Every aspect of Gurdjieff’s teaching has to be reduced to some something that is practical and simple, otherwise it has no use for us.” The moderator introduced the image of Sleeping Beauty with the desire of the Prince to awaken her, i.e., one’s conscience. Discussion ended with the suggestion that “conscience never allows anyone to sleep in peace.”
The discussion ended at 4:10 p.m. with a coffee break, and I had to make a quick and quiet exit. This time I asked David Almon, a young man of the Bennett line, if he would accept a “task.” At first he was cagey, but then he agreed to do the best he could. Here is what he reported about the seminar on the topic of “The Chief Culprit in the Destruction of the Labours of Ashiata Shiemash.” It takes the form of a poem:
the chief culprit in the destruction
at all the very saintly labours of ashiata shiemash
to give is to receive
shall we replace one word with another?
Combine parts which blind names separate
reason substance in objects
presence knows where your water is
swim in it until the boat is Found
ride it towards the other
set sail together
let the light guide
lessons from these stars alight
fools asleep, the crew we need
be wary. For tales of lore
nature attests ocean to shore
all true inside
–from one of many inhabitants of this earth.
Elan Sicroff’s piano concert began at 8:30 p.m. Elan studied at the Julliard, met Bennett in 1972, and then worked at Claymont. (During one of the discussions he referred interestingly to some of his experiences there.) In all he performed twenty compositions and received a standing ovation. Three of the compositions had been written by Thomas de Hartmann in 1902 and two of them in 1953: the early ones were romantic in the manner of Rachmaninoff, the later ones dissonant in the manner of Stravinsky. Elan is planning to record these “unknown” De Hartmanns.
The other twelve compositions were parts from the following groups: Asian Songs and Rhythms; Hymns, Prayers, and Rituals; Music of the Sayyids and Dervishes; Hymns from the Great Temple and Other Selected Works.” He titled the program “Journey to Inaccessible Places” and indeed they were journeys to places both faraway and close at hand, with all their familiar overtones and undertones. He played these Gurdjieff-inspired compositions in a strong, masculine manner as music to move one’s muscles and then one’s emotions. In a brief commentary he explained that the writing of these collaborations took place between the two men in public gatherings at the Priory, so they partake of this “third force.”
Saturday, April 25, 9:30 a.m. George Bennett spoke on “Conscious Labour and Intentional Suffering: Being-Partkdolg-Duty.” George has a strong presence and a strong voice as well as a strong sense of organization. He based his comments on a paper delivered by J.B. Bennett at Sherbourne in April 1974 and through it distinguished various types of labour. Conscious labour is recognizing what is needed to be done, doing it without expecting a reward, and being content to serve the future. Intentional suffering is voluntarily accepting the situation; indeed, it is taking on the burden of a task knowing it will create a lot of trouble.
George made good use of slides and diagrams. One slide, to which he returned, was a photograph that showed a woman and a man working a handsaw with a child looking on, the child representing the generation of the future. He then discussed the twin figures of Choon-Kil-Tez and Chon-Tro-Pelj and the reasons for the world arising and maintenance and then perfecting of
“higher-being bodies.” He amusingly referred to Mr. Gurdjieff has having chutzpah in accepting all manner of hardships to make the Fourth Way known in the West, even delivering a lecture at Harvard.
Here are some of his remarks in passing, some made during the presentation and some made during the question period that followed the talk: “Egoism sows the seeds of disaster.” He discussed how a friend, apprized of inoperable cancer, said, “I’m going to live with the dying of it.” “All experiments are hazardous, otherwise they are not interesting.” “My debt to our existence must be paid.” He introduced a powerful notion: “We must be in the present, but at the same time we may make the present bigger.” I found this latter suggestion to be a “keeper.”
At 11:30, James George spoke on “What Does Great Nature Now Require of Us?” Dr. George – he holds the honorary degree from the University of Toronto of Doctor of Sacred Letters – is an elegant figure of a man, in his ninety-first year, who stood erect, consulted a script without squinting or without wearing spectacles, and shared his convictions with his audience. People paid rapt attention to the climate-consciousness thesis of his latest publication, “The Little Green Book of Awakening.”
He asked an interesting question: “What if George Gurdjief had never written ‘All and Everything.’” Suppose there had been no accident in 1923; suppose he had not felt compelled to redirect his energies from maintaining the Priory to putting words to paper. What would we have today? The question was never answered, for it is unanswerable, but it is striking.
He then introduced his theme and thesis: Global warming is the most challenging issue of the twenty-first century – and our survival as a species is at stake. “We humans have truly become the “biped destroyer of Nature’s good.” He said he was an ecologist “before it was fashionable to be green,” well before Al Gore became one. Gore has come around to the position that we need a new and different morality and spirituality. We must open our hearts to the unknown, to the future.
During the question period he was asked, “Do you see hope?” After deliberating, he said, “Yes, I do,” almost echoing Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes we can.” He then reminisced about his years at the United Nations, when Dag Hammarskjold was the Director General and was influenced by the Pakistan ambassador who was also head of one of the leading and enlightened Islamic groups. Jim’s suggestion was that we did not know of this current of influence then, and we do not know about it now, so we have no reason to assume that it does not exist today. “The awakening his a ripple effect. Now it is needed more than ever.”
He picked up on the suggestion of an earlier speaker that “faults are found on all levels, even the highest that we know.” On the acquisition of conscience: “We don’t acquire conscience all at once.” Once we acquire it, it is not necessarily there all the time. Asked about what might be called spiritual survivals from former civilizations unknown to history, he admitted there might be a “beehive” effect and that successive civilizations may have passed on to us their qualities, perhaps through our DNA. “Where does that take us now?” Scientists are only today discovering the neuroplasticity of our brains.
Asked for his thoughts on Barack Obama, he reiterated he does have hope. It was observed that “barack” means “presence” (or perhaps “grace”), and the new U.S. President has changed things, by creating an atmosphere of hope in the entire world. “Why not hope?” We need new energy sources, “a new Manhattan Project” to find them to cast aside coal-fire plants, adopt the least damaging technologies, and take a closer look at the ill-effects of electricity, especially on children. There is hope in zero-point energy. Another reason for hope is that life has a fourteen-million (or fourteen-billion?) year history. Do not underestimate the force of love in guiding the evolution of life.
At 2:40 p.m, the seminar focused on Chapter 5, “Mr. X or Captain Pogossian,” of “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” It was led by Nick who told us that the popular work was originally called “Portraits.” Thereafter, for me, it was downhill all the way. I had last read the book half a decade ago; many who were present had not read it at all. It was the classic case of a knowledgeable and patient discussion-leader and a dull, ill-prepared class. There were some exchanges on the nature of spider-venom. The question was asked, “What makes Pogossian remarkable?” Is he remarkable because he always wants to work? How does his body resemble the machine-engines that he tends? Is the ship a metaphor for his own body? The question, “Are the portraits of the people described in the book based on real people?” elicited the reply, “Does it matter?”
I could not remain for the second seminar, scheduled for 4:15 p.m., which was devoted to “Egoism” and facilitated by Dorothy Usiskin, but attentive to my duty to report on the proceedings, I turned to the young man who was seated to my right and asked him if he would accept a task and prepare for me a synopsis of the discussion. After all, he was preparing to spend three months in a “Residential Practicum” in Massachusetts run by Ben Bennett. He hesitated and then agreed. He wrote a poem and requested anonymity. Here it is:
whose will might help you out of your gaolishes?
does humour shake them off?
what feels this laughter?
juggling worlds states the jester to king
for the house his dance pleases
content to be the word then
as eyes on sheep keep wolf at bay
–from the hole of these spring
That was the last formal session of the conference. The banquet commenced at 7:30 p.m. that evening with Ian delivering some announcements. There were some toasts, including a sweet one to the memory of Mr. Gurdjieff’s wife. Then the banquet speaker was introduced. The speaker happened to be me, so I turned the tables on Ian by presenting him with a copy of one of my books (I had cleared this with Ian first), making the suggestion that he regard it as the gift of the thirty-five or so people present.
The audience took its cue and stood up to applaud Ian, who then did the gentlemanly thing of acknowledging the help he had received from his advisory board, the reading panel, and the planning committee. As for the banquet speech, I cannot meaningfully describe my twenty-minute talk, delivered without notes – but I will draw the attention of the reader to the supplement this report, where a fuller version of the speech appears.
The menu offered a choice of dinners: rubber chicken or pseudo vegetarian stew, so the food was not much, though the desserts were of the tasty, store-bought variety. The white wine was light, the red heavy. No one gained weight on the food and no one got drunk on the wine. Yet I wondered, because it seems there is a custom at these conventions that people throughout the meal “let down their hair” – not the “hair of the dog,” mercifully – and tell bawdy jokes. Now, one of my occupations has been that of joke-collector, and my occupational hazard is hearing recycled jokes. I had heard all of these jokes before, though only a few were funny enough to be revived. Yet most of them were told with some gusto.
Sunday, April 26, 2009. “Where Do We Go from Here?” sounds like an existential question, but it was really a practical question in line with an academic “post-mortem” coupled with a planning session for the next conference. There were twenty-four attendees seated in a circle, and the session was moderated most adeptly by Ian. It consisted of a series of animated discussions on the subjects of next year’s conference, beginning with should there be one, followed by where should it take place. Thereafter the group discussed the quality or lack of quality of the present programming, the introduction of ways and means to increase awareness through physical movement, the need to rethink the format of the seminar part of the program, and the added attraction of local tourism.
Everyone was in favour of holding the fifteenth conference, and about three-quarters of the participants indicated they would attend next year’s event. As no conferences had yet taken place in South America, one of the participants who lives in Mexico suggested Buenos Aires or Lima as cities that have the advantages of international airports and proximity to sites of interest like Machu Picchu which members might wish to visit.
It was stressed that the choice of the city might be based on whether or not it is the home of group members who would attend in numbers and contribute to the cause by helping to make arrangements, etc. It was felt that Toronto had been a success in that it had attracted many new members who had travelled from at least four distant Canadian cities to attend.
Another reason why this conference was interesting was that it attracted a goodly number of participants of the Bennett lineage, one of whom presented (and did it well) a major paper. No decision as to the site of next year’s conference was taken, as the organizers were open to suggestions and offers, though one idea was that the site of next year’s conference might be … Toronto again! While I think this is unlikely to occur, I can see why that decision would be popular with the American participants, as Canada shares a border with the United States (now an armed one, alas!) and Toronto has many conference hotels that are modest in price.
The group agreed that the quality of the papers was high, some higher than others, and that the number of papers (four) was “about right.” Yet it was noted that proposals for about six additional papers had been entertained but could not be accommodated. There was inconclusive talk of including an additional day for papers and seminars, i.e., making it a four-day affair rather than one of three days.
There was general agreement that the seminars, as distinct from the talks, were not as productive as they could be. This agreement surprised me, as I had come to the conclusion that I was the only participant who was “exasperated” with them. Also to my surprise was the fact that even the facilitators of the seminars expressed some discontent. It was felt that while much had been gained, opportunities had been lost.
Various remedies were suggested: Breaking the big oval into three small ovals; distributing in advance a PDF of a page or two of the text and then focusing on it, perhaps with a list of questions and a list of terms; introducing ways and means of enhancing powers of concentration and encouraging contributions to the discussion.
On the latter subject, there was a debate between what I saw as a disagreement between those who viewed the seminars as study sessions and those who viewed them as sittings. Proponents of the former recommended the limited introduction of standard psychological techniques used by profession presenters in the fields of business and personal empowerment. Proponents of the latter felt that the sessions should be allowed to flow, as participants made their own connections – or not. It was suggested that I might prepare a list of some suggestions of procedures that could be used by facilitators to enhance the empower the audience. I agreed to draw up such a list.
There was a debate as to whether or not specific exercises used by group leaders should be introduced. The argument against their introduction stemmed from the description of the conference as a non-work activity. On the same basis, it was argued that there was no place here for the Movements. It was even suggested that the two evenings devoted to the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann were extraneous. Counter-arguments were heard. There was no resolution.
Members from Norway, in particular, were concerned that the conference should remain true to its aim of bringing together “people who share an interest in plunging into the book.” They were bothered that social activities (including performances of the de Hartmann music) were a distraction, and were against connecting the conferences with tourism and exotic locales. It was suggested that a tourism component could be an “add on” for those participants who wanted to experience the city they were visiting. Many members felt that the conference in Greece was worthwhile both in itself and for the tourism component.
It was agreed that the call for papers should include a call for seminar leaders, as the latter was often done on at the last moment on an ad-hoc basis. It was felt that the conferences, in addition to meeting the needs of its regular participants, should “add new blood,” i.e., attract new members. Concern was expressed that some organizations were telling their members to avoid the A&E Conferences.
I felt a sense of loss when we began to shake or wave hands and say “au revoir but not goodbye.” Over the four days I had learned (yet again) not to judge people by their appearances – indeed, the fellow in motorcycle garb turned out to be eminently thoughtful and friendly, whereas the person who looked like an office manager turned out to be disorganized, and the woman who seemed self-contained was somewhat scatter-brained. People showed unexpected enthusiasms and smiled and were so friendly. People were friends. Indeed, everyone seemed so … alive!
But the big shock came when I left the hotel and drove to our local shopping plaza to buy some groceries. I entered our busy supermarket, only to sense that the crowd of shoppers was a flock of people who were asleep.
Greetings from Canada
Here is the complete text of the speech that I delivered at the banquet of the All & Everything Conference held in Toronto, Saturday, April 25, 2009.
It is a dream come true for me to attend an A&E Conference, for I have been reading the conference’s annual proceedings from the first conference held in Bognor Regis fourteen years ago. It is “two dreams come true” to be invited to address the audience at the banquet. It is a most unexpected honour.
I was desirous of attending all the sessions and of saying little, as I have no detailed knowledge of “Tales” and I did not want to make a fool of myself. I know my limits. But I immediately accepted the invitation to address the banquet because I was worried that there was no “Canadian content” in the proceedings at all. Aside from facilitators – Ian, who was born in Niagara Falls, and Nick, who lives in Ottawa – no presenter was a Canadian. (This was before I learned to my delight that Jim George would be taking part in the program.) I worried for about three minutes what I could possibly and meaningfully say to “the companions of the book.” But I knew in my heart’s core that I could convey my particular enthusiasm for the conjunction of consciousness studies and Canadiana.
In the past it was customary to envisage “fragments of a unknown teaching” in terms of geographical locales, and there are insights to be gained from establishing such vantage-points. Traditional values in Crotona, Southern Italy, may not be traditional values in Crotona, Southern California. Indeed, a chain of cities links the Work, starting or restarting in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but beginning much earlier, prehistorically perhaps, at some lost locale in Egypt or Ethiopia or the Caucasus or some remote monastery of Central Asia.
Given such exotic locales, I am sorry that you are anchored to this location: an unpromising non-neighbourhood in this city of functioning neighbourhoods. Toronto has many charms that you will not experience. There is an old saying attributed to a former mayor: “No one should ever visit Toronto for the first time.” So come back again to savour the city. Let us find out what is at hand. Around the corner from this hotel is a mosque. Five blocks south of here is a Mormon temple that has a direct and unique connection with the Mormon founder Joseph Smith. I could go on ….
I often escort people on a tour of the city, focusing on locales associated with writers who once lived here – Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Wyndham Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Robertson Davies, etc. Insulin was first synthesized here. Sigmund Freud did not live here, but his brother, a furrier with a shop on Spadina Avenue, did. As did Isaac Bashevis Singer and the anarchist “Red Emma” Goldman who died here. Elan Sicroff, who is here today, would enjoy seeing the sites associated with the eccentric but brilliant pianist Glenn Gould. There is also some outstanding architecture represented by I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind, and Frank Gehry (who was born here), as well as a rare public sculpture by Frank Lloyd Wright and innumerable Henry Moores. Gehry’s remodelling of the Art Gallery of Ontario is a work of great art and the Thomson Gallery with its magnificent Lawren Harris canvases (inspired by Theosophy) approaches objectivity.
Let us begin in the world of imagination and symbology. I would like you to stare beyond me, beyond the cream-coloured wall behind me, and look into the distance, for three seconds. Each of you should ask yourself, “What do I see?” I will do the same. What did you see? I saw with my “improved binoculars” into the far reaches of the country. I saw the North Pole and the Magnetic North Pole. Did you see them? They are part of this country and they exert a tremendous influence on us and on our civilization. I could speak for an hour about the myths and legends of Canada’s and the world’s most northern point. (Rest assured I won’t.)
Instead, I will ask, “Do you remember what P.D. Ouspensky wrote about the Pole?” References to the “polar regions” occur repeatedly in Ouspensky’s talks: “We live in a bad place in the universe – near the North Pole.” Not good news! I need not remind you that in “Tales,” Gurdjieff himself writes about the Eskimo who is one of four contemporary initiates – I assume the Eskimo in question is a long-lived Canadian citizen. In fact, I might even supply his name.
Now I would like you to turn around, for three seconds, and tell me what you see? Do you see what I see? (I am writing this script so it is unlikely that you saw what I saw: Niagara Falls.) This mighty cataract is one of the world’s most familiar natural sites, and it marks the nation’s boundary with the United States. I could talk for an hour about the lore and mystery of the falls – I won’t – but I will share with you one of the best observations ever made about the falls. It was delivered off-the-cuff by Oscar Wilde when he visited the place in the 1880s, when it was known as “the honeymoon capital of the world.” A reporter asked him for his thoughts on the matter. He quipped, “It’s the second major disappointment in the life of the American honeymooning couple.”
Let me talk about Toronto for a few minutes. Neither P.D. Ouspensky nor G.I. Gurdjieff ever visited Toronto – or Canada for that matter. Even Niagara Falls held no attraction for them, although it did fascinate Aleister Crowley the occultist who in 1904 travelled across the country and wrote in his memoirs he wanted to spend the rest of his life meditating beside the mighty cataracts. (The falls “thunder” about 130 kilometres from here – you can see the spume or at least the spray from the top of the CN Tower.) Crowley visited Toronto and called the city “a calculated crime against humanity.”
T. Lobsang Rama (remember him of “Third Eye” fame?) also delighted in the Falls, though he chose to live in Montreal’s Habitat and then spend his last years in a high-rise in Calgary. The Madame – Blavatsky this time, not de Saltzmann – visited Quebec City where she pow-wowed with Indian elders about their “wisdom tradition” – she complained they told her nothing but instead absconded with her newly purchased pair of expensive leather boots.
You have now looked both North and South. Now I want you to do more than look West and East. In fact, I want you to board the bus that I have chartered and take a journey with me.
All aboard the bus. We drive along the Highway 401 and in about thirty-five minutes we note that exit for Guelph, Ontario. We do not take the exit, but I want to point out that here was born the IMAX projection system with which I am sure you are all familiar. It has developed here though its roots go back to Expo 67 in Montreal and to the National Film Board of Canada where Tom Daly was its leading producer-director. You will hear Tom’s name again, soon.
The next exit is for Kitchener. Again, we do not stop, though if we had the time I would take you into the city and show you the childhood homes of my wife Ruth and myself. But let us continue. It’s an hour since we left Toronto behind, but ahead of us is Kitchener’s twin city of Waterloo. Here we will turn off the highway and pause in front of the campus of the University of Waterloo, which boasts the largest computer science department in the world, not just in Canada. It is sometimes said that there are more IT millionaires under the age of thirty in Waterloo than anywhere else on the globe. I think that is an overstatement, but what follows is not.
Waterloo is the birthplace of the BlackBerry, developed here by Mike Lazaridis, who then went on to found the outstanding Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics. Here there are twenty or so resident scholars who are determined to understand the formation of the cosmos. Health permitting, Stephen Hawking has agreed to spend the summer in residence here. I find cosmological thinking like this exciting, though I can make no contribution to it.
Back on the bus. In twenty-five minutes we are on the outskirts of Brantford, Ontario, which is known as the birthplace of the greatest-ever hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. But Brantford is distinguished in the world of communications, too. Brantford is described as “the birthplace of the telephone,” though Alexander Graham Bell, its father, denies this. He said, “The telephone was conceived in Brantford but born in Boston, Massachusetts.” Yet we will visit his family home and examine the exhibit that celebrates the fact that here was placed the world’s first long-distance telephone call, between Brantford and nearby Galt via the telegraph line that runs through Toronto, just as today’s telephone calls are bounced off geostationary telecommunication satellites.
The telephone is indicative of the world of communications. What is indicative of the world of traditionalism is what we will find on the outskirts of Brantford. As Northrop Frye noted, “In Ontario the Precambrian and the Postmodern are side by side.” Here is the Six Nations Indian Reserve. Clayton Jacobs who is here lives on this Reserve’s sister Reserve of Caughnawaga just outside Montreal in Quebec. He will attest that the Christian Mohawks lives at Caughnawaga, whereas the pagan Mohawks live at the Six Nations.
I use the word “pagan” but I really mean “shaman,” because here are preserved ancestral traditions from the remote past. Here is recited the traditional Great Peace. Especially honoured is the world’s most famous Indian. His name is … Hiawatha, and he is believed to have been a real person, born near Deseronto, Ontario. He dedicated his life to the service of his great but semi-mythic chief, Dekanahwideh, who instituted the Great Peace. It lasted four hundred years, until the arrival of the White Man. Its oral laws influenced the U.S. Constitution. The American Eagle, perched at the topmost branch of the Great Tree of Peace, comes from Dekanahwideh’s constitution.
It is with reluctance that we cut short our visit to this Reserve and reboard our bus, but we are heading now for our last stop: London, Ontario. In the nineteenth century, it was known as “London the Lesser.” We are now about three hours west of Toronto. See that cemetery? It holds the moral remains of one of the world’s leading metaphysical writers: Richard Maurice Bucke. We will drive past but only to pay homage to this remarkable man at the London Psychiatric Hospital which has a treaching centre named in honour of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke.
In the late nineteenth century he was one of the continent’s leading “alienists” or psychiatrists. He died in 1902, the Superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane. He is the author of the first biography of Walt Whitman, whom he knew personally and brought to Canada for a three-month visit, and he is the author of that classic in the world of mysticism known as “Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.” It is a comprehensive anthology of first-person accounts of mystical experiences.
Dr. Bucke was a friend of the English socialist Edward Carpenter, and I had the honour of typing out fair copy of Carpenter’s original letters written to Dr. Bucke. Between them the two men may lay claim to having coined the term “cosmic consciousness” to refer to what Freud memorably referred to as “the Oceanic Experience.” Ouspensky devoted the final chapter of his book “Tertium Organum” to the theories of Carpenter and Bucke, and in those pages he argues that Bucke was on the right track but the mistake that he made was in assuming that the evolution of “the cosmic consciousness sense” was automatic and mechanical, whereas Ouspensky argued it was the fruit of “conscious evolution.” Bucke was a Darwinian; Ouspensky a Skinnerian.
Our bus will now speed us back to Toronto, where we will head north again, past York University, just north of here, where Dr. Graham Reed in its Department of Psychology popularized the term “anomaloous experience.” It is now now embedded in consciousness studies, and is used by psychiatrists in place of “abnormal experiences.” It is too bad Dr. Bucke did not have access to Dr. Reed’s book, published in 1988, called “The Psychology of Anomalous Experience.” But let us drive on.
Our next stop is just outside Orangeville, where I will point out to you the world’s largest Daoist Tai Chi centre. Beside the Daoist temple, the big building is a rehearsal and demonstration hall where 1,000 people may perform the 108 steps of Tai Chi at the same time. Ruth and I are students of the discipline and hope one day to perform the set there.
Now settle back in the bus for we have a drive of at least four hours to take us to Sudbury, Ontario, the site of the world’s largest neutrino laboratory, which Stephen Hawking once visited. Sudbury is set in a crater and here the Apollo astronauts rehearsed the geological portions of their moon walk. We are headed to Laurentian University where we will meet Michael Persinger, a cognitive psychologist, who will show us a device he invented: his so-called Magic Helmet. It is a hockey helmet (a Canadian touch!) with electro-pads – to reproduce these “anomalous experiences” on demand. Specifically, his low-frequency wave-generator can generate “the entity experience” in the mind of the participant. One participant was Susan Blackmore, the psychologist, parapsychologist-turned- sceptic, who has written at length about the experience and even appeared in a television special that culminated in her appearance at Dr. Persinger’s psychology laboratory.
Back to Toronto! This time we turn East and drive about twenty minutes into the suburb of Scarborough where we will climb a hill, Taber Hill Park, a powerful Ojibwa Vision Site. The city considers it a municipal park. But it is clearly a vision site, on the hill of which young men spent nights under the stars, met their spirit-guides, and returned to their people as warriors. Its magic works, even today.
If I had the time I would describe the site in detail, but we have to board our bus again and in an hour and a half we will pass through the city of Peterborough and then past the Indian reservation at Curved Lake and beyond it where we will behold the magnificent Peterborough Petroglyphs, where there is an outcropping of rock that is carved with perhaps eight hundred fascinating images. Here is the domain of “rock art.” This too is a vision site, though not so described in the tourist literature.
If that is not enough, on to Rice Lake where we will visit the peculiar land-forms at Serpent Mounds Provincial Park which is under excellent First Nation management. I think these low-lying mounds are a maze or a labyrinth where thanksgivings were made to the spirits of nature. Shamanstrvo is alive and well in Ontario.
That is as far east as we will go, so let our bus sprout wings and fly us back to Toronto, a city with a population of 3.3 million, one-tenth the population of the country. Every second person who lives in Toronto is foreign-born, and many more were born elsewhere in the country. It has been called the city that gave the word “multiculturalism” to the world.
Toronto has one Anthroposophical society, two Theosophical Societies, and four Gurdjieff groups. (There was a saying, popular during the Cold War, that went like this: “God loved Germans so much he made two Germanies.”) I can understand why there might be four separate groups, but it makes no sense, to an outsider like myself, that they should not work together. For instance, I exchanged emails with Joseph Azize; he could have visited the city and spoken here, had the groups been able to work together to invite him. (It is usually said there are three societies, – but only at the price of excluding those working in the Bennett tradition.)
The history of group work in Toronto is an interesting one. There were followers of Bennett, including Sheila and Paul Bura, who were active in the city in the very early 1950s. But the Toronto group per se was founded by Madame Olga de Hartmann with her husband Thomas in 1954, one year following the foundation of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City.
At the time the couple were residents in Rawdon, Quebec, where they were waiting for their U.S. immigration papers. There they met members of the Daly family, including young Tom Daly, who brought them to Toronto on a visit. It is said that Madame de Hartmann wanted to lead the Toronto group, but the Foundation was responsible for shifting that burden onto the shoulders of Mrs. Louise Welch. Once a month for thirty or so years, she flew between New York City and Toronto, sometimes in the company by her husband Dr. William Welch. I met them in 1957 and dedicated my earliest book of poems to her – as well as my latest book of essays to her memory.
Here is a rundown on the groups: One, “The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: The Experimental Group.” Two, the publishing group (officially “Toronto Gurdjieff Group”). Three, “The Society for Traditional Studies.” There is also a fourth, non-affiliated group, taking into account the active Gurdjieff Bennett Group. To confuse matters still more, there is also Dolmen Meadow Editions, a fine publishing imprint. The main group owns property: a two-storey midtown building as well as a farm at Tyrone. There does seem to be some element in “wisdom traditions” and “universal brotherhoods” that gives rise to turf-wars.
Traditional Studies Press (which is incorporated within “The Society for Traditional Studies: The Gurdjieff Foundation”) issued the first-ever “Guide and Index” to “All & Everything.” This was an immense undertaking, especially in pre-computer days, work and one that is in line with the spirit of scholarship. We Canadians have a genius for mammoth mosaics. At the present time there are massive editorial projects underway, including the multi-volumed collected works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Erasmus of Rotterdam, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli, Florence Nightingale, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Lonergan, A.M. Klein, Northrop Frye, and every text ever written in Early Middle English.
Another huge editorial project was the typesetting and the publication of the Russian-language edition of “All & Everything.” This undertaking is particularly astonishing given the fact that the Russian text was keyboarded by computer indexer Jack Cain who knows not a single word of Russian. But he did learn the Cyrillic alphabet and hunted-and-pecked his way through the work. It took him three years of part-time, conscious labour to keyboard the text for the future benefit of the book’s Russian readers.
Many of us have benefitted from another major undertaking, J. Walter Driscoll’s mammoth “Bibliography.” I have yet to meet Walter, who though Toronto-born lives on the West Coast, but I admire his work of assembly and commentary, which makes it possible to have between the covers of one thick tome all the serious English-language references to the Work.
Let me look at some living people. The country’s ranking Gurdjieffians – if I may describe them in this way – are three in number: Ravi Ravindra, Tom Daly, and James George.
Ravi is a charming Hindu-born scientist and humanist who lectures widely on the Work, Krishnamurti, Theosophy, Yoga, and comparative religion. He has written a wonderfully warm book about Madame de Saltzmann titled Heart without Measure. He is based in Halifax. I covered one of his addresses and described him as bearing a marked resemblance to Mohandas Gandhi, but I backed down when I realized that what he really looks like is the Mahatma as played by Ben Kingsley.
Tom Daly is the distinguished producer of documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada. I mentioned him in connection with IMAX. One of his many films is a masterpiece with a cosmological sense of wonder – Universe is its title, and the thirty-minute documentary takes the viewer on a tour of … the Ray of Creation.
It was Tom’s mother who brought the De Hartmann’s to Toronto. Tom subsequently settled in Montreal where he is the executor of the estates of the De Hartmanns. He has done much to preserve their memory and arrange for the recordings of the musical compositions inspired by Mr. Gurdjieff. A Toronto friend of Tom’s, Peter Colgrove, oversaw Madame de Hartmann’s final years near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Last September about sixty of us helped to celebrate James George’s ninetieth birthday, and as you can see the elder statesman remains hail and hearty. I will spare Jim the embarrassment of praising him in his presence. But in the 1960s he served with distinction as Canada’s High Commissioner to India. There he befriended the present Dalai Lama and helped His Holiness with the pressing problem of preserving the precious manuscripts that he had brought with him from Tibet into exile. They could not to be read by anyone but a high lama. Jim convinced His Holiness that surely they would go unread in the hands of a Canadian microfilm technician who knew neither Sanskrit, Tibetan, nor Hindi. So the documents were copied in the official Canadian residence in New Delhi. This may constitute a world first!
A lively account of this incident appears in Jim’s fine memoir “Asking for the Earth.” His current work, about which he spoke so movingly earlier today, is called “The Little Green Book of Awakening.” Jim George is married to Barbara Wright, whom I always describe as “dynamic” for that is what she is. No man should describe any woman as “experienced,” I guess, but she is “experienced” in the ways of the work, having enjoyed a long association with the work in San Francisco. Barbara and Jim make an impressive team!
A few other names could be mentioned: Ian MacFarlane, one of the organizers of the Conference, was born at Niagara Falls. I am meeting him for the first time. Bernard Courtney-Myers, born in Vancouver and a McGill medical graduate, has enjoyed a long work history, and at one point served as Gurdjieff’s personal physician. Paul Bura was active with Bennett at Coombe Springs before carrying on that work in Toronto well before the arrival of the De Hartmanns. Peter Colgrove, whom I knew when he taught at Forest Hill Collegiate here, cared for Olga de Hartmann during her last years in New Mexico. I am ever anxious to learn of the contributions of other Canadians who are involved in the Work.
Is there strength in numbers? I have no certified information about the numbers of students of the Work in the country. (I am not one of them myself, for I regard myself as a “fellow traveller” – if pressed, as “an unreconstructed Ouspenskian.”) There are groups or centres associated with the Foundation in New York City in at least seven Canadian cities. Here is an estimate of their numbers.
Vancouver has about 35 members. Edmonton perhaps 15. Toronto over the decades has always had about 100 members. Ottawa, the nation’s capital, perhaps 15 members. Montreal maybe 40. Saint John likely 20. Halifax perhaps 40. There is some activity in other cities like Victoria. With the adding machine at hand, I come up under 300 people. Add say 100 “fellow travellers” like myself – Sputniks is the Russian word for them – and we have a population of perhaps 400 scattered across a country with a general population of 33 million people. I do not know whether this is “bad” or “good.” It is probably not a saving remnant.
Let me conclude with my gift to you. I gave a book to Ian; I have a present for each one of you. As the author of the “Book of Ecclesiastes” counsels us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But there are a few new things under the moon. The one new thing that I will share with you is an old word – the one, quintessential, all-purpose, all-Canadian word. I doubt that you have yet heard it here, though it could prove to be useful in social occasions in the future.
The word is “Chimo.” Chimo is a word of mixed Indian-Eskimo origin that has a goodly number of meanings, including “hello,” “greetings,” “to your health,” and “goodbye.” For the purposes of this audience and for this evening, let me suggest that the word C-H-I-M-O is actually an acronym, an acronym that stands for five key concepts: “Conscious … Harmonious … Inner … Meetings … Octaves.”
So my final word to you is … “Chimo!”
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is known for his dictionaries of Canadian quotations, his collections of Canadian jokes, and his anthologies of told-as-true ghost stories. Type his full name into Google and it will will take you to his two websites.
John Lennon: Essence and Reality Part 11: “Imagine”
Lennon was pragmatic enough to know that, at some point, people who seek freedom will need to act. He was sufficiently experienced to know that music can inspire people to act. And he was wise enough to know that the first act to liberation is one of the imagination. Freedom is, first of all, a liberation of consciousness. But freedom for what? All these issues, and more, Lennon addressed in three minutes and six seconds in his tour de force, “Imagine”.
“Imagine” is, without doubt, Lennon’s signature song, his anthem: a call to an idyllic world of benevolence and peace. But every force evokes an opposite reaction, and so does every torch song. “Imagine” is also his most widely detested song because of its opening line “Imagine there’s no heaven”, which effectively, of course, means no Christian god, for as the Lord’s Prayer says, our father is in heaven.
Lennon himself remarked that the song was anti-religion and anti-capitalist, but that it was ‘accepted’ because it was ‘sugar-coated’. And this is largely, although not entirely, true. Many people who cherish it as an anthem do not really think about what the song says, although they understand what it’s about. While the lyrics could hardly be any clearer, the “unspoken lyrics” of the music, to put it that way, are yet clearer and louder. I am not taking a position for or against the song, but an exploration would repay the effort, because there is something very big, even massive, in “Imagine”. I think that people are attracted to this, the big spirit that breathes through the song as a whole.
First of all, some context. The Beatles had split up only about a year before Lennon started working on this song and the album of the same name. His reputation had suffered: for example, he was variously decried as a ratbag, a hypocrite, a fool, and even naive. Oddly, it seems that the accusation of naivety was the one which hurt him the most. People can disagree on morality, or even on what constitutes wisdom or its opposite, but to call someone naive is to deny them adult status, to refuse to take them seriously. I think that we all doubt ourselves, to some extent and in some areas, and so to be mocked out of a fair hearing is painful because it confirms our secret fears, based as they are upon our own criticism of ourselves.
It’s as if we all have a custom made wound between our shoulder blades, and the knife which fits the wound is “ridicule”. Lennon would pretend not to be bothered by it, but he was, and so, thankfully, he stopped performing “bed-ins”, appearing in a bag in the name of “total communication”, or growing his hair for peace. Lennon adopted all the trendy left-wing political postures, and hob-nobbed with the “yippie” Abbie Hoffman and his ilk. Yet, even during this period he produced what is, to my ear, the rock and roll album without parallel, John Lennon /Plastic Ono Band. Despite the excess of one track (“Well, Well, Well”), it is still easily the deepest single piece of music produced in the last 50 years, at least so far as my knowledge extends and my taste discerns (see my blogs on “God” and “Remember”).
But that record had not met with the popular success Lennon believed it deserved, and for which he craved. So he did what he later would when his Some Time In New York City double album was a spectacular flop: he changed tack to something he fancied would be more in tune with the market. After Some Time, he produced Mind Games, which was received with relief, although not the sales he had hoped for. After John Lennon he produced Imagine, and that was a success. The only track on it that most people find hard to listen to today is “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier”, a wailing, indulgent anti-war piece, which thankfully ends side 1, so that in the days of vinyl one could simply lift the needle off early.
Now, I am not saying that the song “Imagine” was insincere, or that it was contrived to meet the market. It in fact has roots deep in Lennon’s artistry, and is his authentic voice. But I think that the song was produced so as to maximize its popular success. One could compare it to “Love” from the John Lennon album. There, the melody is almost achingly beautiful, something Lennon was proudly aware of, and it was given a beautiful production which was simplicity itself, care of none other but Phil Spector, who was celebrated for his large productions. However, it was the sort of treatment which only the cognoscenti would really appreciate: for that type of song, the record buying public tends to prefer strings. And so “Imagine” had strings. But it had more: its very first line, considered apart from its soft musical treatment, was either startling or confronting, depending on your point of view:
Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try;
No hell below us, above us only sky.
Imagine all the people living for today – ah ah, aye.
At the Catholic school I attended at the time of this song’s release, Brother Terence, our class teacher, played us “Imagine” and “Gimme Some Truth” as contemporary songs we could profitably ponder. He was not threatened by any of its concepts, and what is more, he entered into the spirit of the lyrics. The thing was, he said, to actually imagine it. To stop, get other things out of your mind for three minutes, and try to see it. And that really is the song in a nutshell. But let’s go back.
First of all, the piano lead in is stately, even hymnic. It was intended to, and it does have an anthemic quality. On another version, released only posthumously on the four volume Anthology, this aspect is even more strikingly emphasised, because the chief accompanying instrument there is an organ, on which decidedly churchy stops have been pulled. Given the anti-religious sentiments of the lyrics, this is almost ironic. But there is a point to this, because it means that the song aspires to ideals usually associated exclusively with religion. This, I am sure, is true to the paradox of Lennon. In 1980 he told an interviewer (David Shef) that he was a religious person, and went on to say that he had no problems with what Jesus had taught, but that people were mesmerised by Jesus, not his message. Indeed, during that interview Lennon made frequent reference to Jesus, and his miracles such as the loaves and fishes! Lennon was marked by ambiguity and love/hate. In the early 1970s, Lennon was still in two minds as to whether the real issues were political and social, or psychological and perhaps even spiritual. After Mind Games, he would retreat from overtly political statements and concerns, and turn more innerly.
It seems to me that most criticisms of Christianity and Christians, and Lennon’s is no exception, are in fact taking aim at a lack of Christianity, at a failure to live like Christians. With relatively few exceptions, it is not Christianity that people object to but the lack of Christianity, and this is of course harder to accept when there is hypocrisy in the equation. What Lennon is getting at in “Imagine” goes beyond this: he is not attacking Christianity by name, but rather religion and concepts such as God and hell, anything which takes one away from “living for today”, as he puts it. The song goes on to then erase other fixtures of our mental furniture:
Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too.
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.
Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.
On a live performance, he would sing in the final verse “a brotherhood and sisterhood of man”. He did not correct his sexism by altering “man” to “people” or something less redolent of machismo.
But all that side of things is a distraction: what is critical about this song is an insight which he took from Yoko Ono, and that is this: envisaging a possibility and imagining its reality are the first steps to making it a reality. This can be a trite statement, but it can also be profound, even revelatory. So many of our limitations are accepted by us simply because we cannot imagine an alternative. It is astounding, even horrifying, in a way, to wake up and realise that we are limited in our reactions and our responses simply because we have never seen anyone react in any other way. That is, we see that “X” always “makes” people get upset, and something in us, something which is so deep as to rarely be in our awareness, has a sense that there would be something wrong if we, too, did not upset when “X” happened. I shall develop this idea further in a future blog, when I deal with “How?”, also from the Imagine album. In “The Daphne Blossom”, also available on this blog by kind permission of Carl Ginsberg, one can read how Ginsberg, a Feldenkreis practitioner, cured a problem George Adie had with swallowing food, by inducing him to imagine the existence of the lung which had been surgically removed almost 40 years earlier: and what is more, it worked, almost like magic.
And perhaps imagination and magic are related. This, I think, makes sense of much of Yoko Ono’s art, although, as I have said before, I do not pretend to understand that redoubtable woman and her approach. Imagination, in the sense of consciously forming an image and introducing it into one’s thought and feeling as an active element, was a stable of her art, as even a cursory glance at her book Grapefruit will show. What Lennon and One were saying is that we receive all sorts of influences through the media and society. Most of these, as the correctly saw, were based on unthinking prejudices and attitudes. Most of these are were needlessly crass and low, hence on “Working Class Hero” from John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, he sings: “you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see”. But, and this is why Lennon and Ono were so excited, one has a choice: one can choose to look for better influences, and what is more, everyone can create such influences by using their minds creatively.
We are forever manufacturing our own present and future through our imaginations. This, I think, is the essence of what Yoko Ono brought Lennon, and it was a lesson for which he had long ago prepared the ground: see my blog on “There’s A Place”. Any comment on Lennon’s relationship with Ono which does not take this into account, is, in my view, hopelessly superficial.
To return to the metaphor of the magician, the wizard and the witch (as Yoko referred to John and herself on “You’re The One” from Milk and Honey) have to visualize what they desire, but then they have to have sufficient knowledge. Some things can be effected merely by thought: methods of self-suggestion work on this basis. But other things cannot be so easily dealt with: and there is the issue. People who have learned of the power of the mind tend to become overly enthusiastic and imagine that there are no limits to it. This is absurd as imagining that nothing can be effected by creative visualisation. Lennon had some insight into this: he saw that it is not just a case of thinking about something like peace. Lennon realised that it needs to be pictured as a reality, and pictured clearly and distinctly desired. That is why he sang: “some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.” What cannot be done by parliaments, or United Nations can be done by people: as he sang on “Only People” from Mind Games: “only people know just how to change the world.”
And for what is this freedom desired? So that the world may live as one, sharing the world, in peace. It would be easy to critique this as naive or as amorphous, and to show that belief in heaven, hell and religion are not the problem, but rather, as I have said, lip-service and hypocrisy, that is, insufficient practice of religion. As for the idea that eliminating possessions would also spell the end of greed and hunger – well this is naivety of an almost criminal level. What could Lennon had been thinking? Was he merely reciting hoary old Socialist opium dreams?
But I do not particularly want to take a shot at “Imagine” today. The deficiencies in the lyrics are somewhat made up in the music, and the nobility of what he was aiming at: the transformation of negative emotions into positive, what Gurdjieff called the second conscious shock (see In Search of the Miraculous, p.191). I have no evidence that is even suggestive that Lennon was acquainted with Gurdjieff’s ideas, and yet, that is what I hear in “Imagine”: the conviction that hatred can be transformed through consciousness, and that divisions can be overcome by a positive impulse. All that is lacking is an understanding of the necessity of the first conscious shock: that is, that we cannot bring a conscious influence to our emotions unless we first of all remember ourselves. But Lennon had started to move towards this insight, realizing that for years he had forgotten himself (see the first Lennon blog). And I think that some form of this insight may lie behind the reference to people “living for today”. Is it too hopeful of me to see Lennon saying that we need to be present?
There is far more one could say, but I shall return to what I see as the crucial points in future blogs, where I shall take other songs as my point of departure. But I shall end this one by pointing out elements of continuity and development in Lennon’s artistic career. As has been noticed before, the first words of “Imagine” were foretold, as it were, in “I’ll Get You” from 1963, where Lennon sang: “Imagine I’m in love with you, it’s easy ‘cos I know, I’ve imagined I’m in love with you, many, many, many times before.” (e.g. S. Turner, The Beatles: The Stories behind the Songs 1962-1966). However, what Turner does not note, is that in 1963 Lennon went on to sing: “It’s not like me to pretend …”. In 1971, not so long afterwards, Lennon saw that imagination was a tool in the technology of consciousness.
He had indeed, come a long way. But he had further to go, and in the next blog, I’ll consider one of his final songs, where he showed that, without any doubt, his feet were finding their place on the earth while he had lost nothing of his idealism: “Clean Up Time” from Double Fantasy.
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
The Little Green Book on Awakening
A New Book by James George is Reviewed by John Robert Colombo
Barrytown / Station Hill Press is the imprint of a lively book publisher that has hitherto escaped my attention. This publishing company is located in the town of Barrytown in New York State’s historic Dutchess County, a comfortable distance north of New York City. The only surprising feature of Barrytown, besides hosting this lively publishing house, comes from the fact that the town, as small as it is, serves as the seat of the Unification Church’s Theological Seminary!
Here is how founders George and Susan Quasha describe their operation on the company’s website: “The mission of our Press is to seek out and publish exceptional, innovative, often ground-breaking works which challenge and expand conceptions of the possible by offering human alternatives in the arts, philosophy, alternative health and healing, eastern, western and shamanic spirituality, and social and ecological studies.”
The website arranges its numerous recent trade paperback publications in some thirty categories, ranging from Alternative Medicine to Women’s Issues. Here, almost at random but in alphabetical order, are the names of some of its leading authors: Paul Auster, George Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, John Cage, Robert Duncan, Clayton Eschelman, James Hillman, Anslem Hollo, Spencer Holst, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Osip Mandelstahm.
In listing these names, I find I almost neglected to mention the arresting name of the author of “Journey to the Ancestral Self.” Amazingly, the author’s name is … Tamarack Song! The catalogue describes Mr. Song in these words: “When Tamarack Song is not out communing with The Mother, it’s a pretty sure bet he’s either researching, writing, or talking about it. He and his family have a primitive Wigwam camp on a lakeshore in the Northern Wisconsin Forest.” And so on.
In the category of Poetry, there are original volumes by Cid Corman and Rosmarie Waldrop, and various reprints, including “America, A Prophecy,” an influential and important anthology edited by Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha (coincidentally the co-publisher), I was disappointed when I checked the category of Sexuality. I found it empty, blank, nada! A strange (and I hope temporary) lapse.
Featured in the category for Ecology & Environment is a reprint of James George’s “Asking for the Earth” (originally issued by Element in 1995) as well as a brand new book of his which bears the title “The Little Green Book on Awakening.” I will review this new title, after offering some background information on its author.
James George is a distinguished Canadian career diplomat. In the 1960s he held the posts of High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal. After taking early retirement from the Department of External Affairs, he has devoted his energies and talents to the causes of environmentalism and ecology. I see him as being “our ambassador to the world of values.”
He has been no armchair activist, for he is actively involved in a number of relevant undertakings. He is a founder of the Threshold Foundation and former President of the Sadat Peace Foundation. He served on the International Whaling Commission, and he led the Friends of the Earth’s international mission to Kuwait to assess the post-war environmental damage. Here are some other achievements and associations: Lieutenant-Commander, Royal Canadian Navy; Chairman, Harmonic Arts Society; founding member, Rainforest Action Network, etc.
At junctures throughout his life he studied with Dzogchen masters in India and with Madame de Salzmann in Paris. While in the Far East he befriended the present Dalai Lama, then as now in exile in Northern India, and the two became fast friends. The Tibetan leader contributed an introduction to his first book.
One of his lesser-known accomplishments in India was arranging for Canadian technicians to microfilm unique manuscripts that had been secreted out of Tibet. The microfilming was done at the High Commissioner’s official residence in Delhi, no less! This is one of the many interesting stories told by Mr. George in his earlier book “Asking for the Earth” (the one reprinted by the present publisher). I believe the incident deserves to be widely known, if only because it shows everyone – Mr. George, the Dalai Lama, the Canadian Department of External Affairs, the Government of India – in a good light … everyone, that is, except the Chinese government.
The author is now in his ninety-first year, tall and erect, hale and hearty, with a razor-sharp mind. He has not let his head of flocculent hair and his abundant beard, as white as Ivory Snow, to slow him down. He travels widely to meet with study groups throughout North America. His home base is the eyrie in a Toronto condominium which overlooks the Rosedale district of the city where he was born the year the Great War ended. He is one of the three “grand old men” of the Work in Canada, the two other men being scientist and humanist Ravi Ravindra and veteran film-producer Tom Daly.
At his side stands his wife, Barbara Wright, whom I like to call “dynamic” because she is a force to be reckoned with in her own right. She is a veteran of Group Work in San Francisco. It is a shame that the Work scene in Toronto is so fragmented – otherwise it would engage the full resources of this formidable couple.
Mr. George’s prose is more descriptive than dramatic, more explanatory than expressive, though it cannot be bettered for its clear, unencumbered, reasonable, and sturdy style. Chogyam Trungpa called him “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman.” Indeed, like the man, his writing is statesman-like: designed to convey a position, express conviction, allay doubts, and win friends. That is certainly the case with the prose of “The Little Green Book on Awakening.”
But before I describe the book’s contents, let me report on its physical appearance. It is a trade paperback, 5.5 x 8.5 inches, x+176 pages, ISBN 978-1-58177-112-1. It has a handsome cover that is green in colour – not to recall St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) but to celebrate Earth Day (April 12). It will be officially published to mark Earth Day. The list price is US $15.95.
Let me now qualify one point that I made above: that the “writing is statesman-like.” While that is true of the writing itself, the form that the prose takes in this book is that of the sermon. Here is a series of sermons or homilies rather than a sequence of essays or a succession of chapters of a book.
These are addresses that could be delivered to attentive and educated members of congregations in Anglican or Episcopal churches. The intent is high-minded, the tone is hortatory, and the anecdotes, insights, quotations, and references are such that they are meant to gently persuade audiences that the speaker knows and feels what is talking about and senses the urgency of his message.
And he does know his own mind, he is master of his message, and he is sincere. I have a few reservations about what he says – the reservations I have are mainly about what goes unsaid – but I am prepared to give Mr. George top marks for doing exactly what he has set out to do. If this book does not result in a multitude of converts to the cause of environmentalism, it will at least strengthen the resolve of the host of readers who were already converts.
In the title of the book, there is one word that gives me pause. That word is “little.” There is nothing little about this book. In fact, it is quite long, intelligently organized, seriously presented, and devoted to a subject of considerable, present-day importance. It is a “big” book the same way that “Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered” is a big book. I am referring to the influential work by E.F. Schumacher, the German-born, English economist and theorist, whose 1973 study did so much to supply a new, cultural context for the energy crisis that was then facing the Western world.
Mr. George is very much a latter-day Schumacher. who went on to publish “A Guide for the Perplexed” which places science and society in the context of the sacred. Schumacher was influenced by the thought of G.I. Gurdjieff; in a major way Mr. G.’s thoughts and practices are the underpinnings of Mr. George’s life and his work. It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that Mr. George wants to do for the ecology crisis what Schumacher did for the economic crunch of the 1970s.
If I am able to summarize this book in one word, that word is: “awakening.” But I can do better by summarizing it in six words: “awakening to consciousness and climate change.” This summary should come as no surprise to those people who know Mr. George who will read this book – or who are now reading this review of it.
As I read it, there kept reverberating in my mind that touchstone line of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “You must change your life.” The only point Mr. George might add is the following sense of urgency:”Thereafter you must change your world – and quickly!”
Rilke goes unquoted in these pages. Indeed, literature plays hardly any role in the arguments of this book, which is one way for me to make the observation that the role of the human imagination in the construction and deconstruction of the world – in its enchantment and disenchantment – is barely noted. Maya and sleep and illusion and imagination go hand in hand. The author uses other than literary arguments to make his points.
I think the book will be reassuring to those readers who wish to be reminded of the relevance of spiritual values to the salvation of souls, but more urgently perhaps to those vitally concerned with the precarious state of the world today, politically and ecologically. The natural world is being threatened as never before. The author’s vocabulary is contemporary and up-to-date – replete with references to “tipping points,” the brain’s “neuroplasticity,” Mother Teresa, Al Gore, Lester Brown, quantum physics, implicate order, Gaia, etc.
Allow me to compress the book’s arguments, to convey a sense of the ground that is covered. There are eighteen chapters, so here are eighteen sentences, one to summarize each chapter:
1. Our inner life and our outer life need to be reconciled through “the WAY of NOW.”
2. Man’s spiritual crisis is the root-cause of the social and environmental crises that today threaten all life-forms on our planet.
3. We are asleep to ourselves and our world; unless we awaken, we accomplish nothing.
4. Global warming threatens our very survival; we must reign in our self-serving selves.
5. The ecological crisis is at core a spiritual crisis.
6. Conscious evolution will occur through a coalition between thinking ecologically and thinking spiritually.
7. Only a sense of presence will “unbury” our conscience.
8. Science will have to develop a paradigm that allows for the evidence of scientific research along with the testimony of personal experience.
9. We need to release through inner work the potential powers of love, both affectionate and amative.
10. The ecological urgency, facing our generation in particular, is such that we have no fall-back position.
11. The grand evolution of consciousness in the cosmos requires on this planet the burgeoning of human consciousness.
12. The effects of global warming may be mitigated by efforts of international co-operation, inspired by an innovative thinker like Adam Douglass Trombly, a follower of R. Buckminster Fuller.
13. We must learn to be responsible for the problems we have created, and we should be aware of possible assistance from “off-planet cultures” identified with UFOs.
14. Scientific thinkers regard consciousness as a byproduct of man’s brain, whereas spiritual thinkers regard Consciousness as proof of the wholeness of man, nature, and the cosmos.
15. We have yet to appreciate that the field of Consciousness engulfs us all, a ground or plenum called by Ervin Laszlo “the Akashic Field.”
16. Real change follows recognition of the seven levels of Consciousness from the highest to the lowest.
17. There seems to be among mankind today an increasing acceptance of the paradigm of interconnectedness with the greater whole.
18. Yes we can, if we work together.
Then there is an epilogue about “awakening awareness” and the text of Al Gore’s 2007 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, followed by a reading list and a viewing list.
By reducing each chapter to a single sentence, I risk turning Mr. George’s arguments into a series of clichés, but I assume the reader will take my word for it that the expected conclusions are not haphazardly handled, but are intelligently (perhaps consciously) evolved, so that reading the book is rather like turning the pages of a primer or a handbook on the relationship between (very generally) state of mind-spirit and state of society-nature.
If there is a sentence that epitomizes the argument of the book as a whole it could well be this quotation from Mohandas K. Gandhi: “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for anyone’s greed.” If there is a problem that the book presents, it is the fact that while many desirable principles are stated, with intellectual backing and with a commendable sense of urgency, all the counter-arguments are absent.
Now I am not knowledgeable enough about ecological thought to have at my fingertips the counter-arguments of the nay-sayers to global warming – Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were always inviting scientific scoffers or critics of global warming to visit the White House – but their names (or more important their arguments) do not cross these pages.
Yet I do have at my fingertips the counter-arguments behind the intriguing chapter that deals with “off-planet cultures” identified with UFOs. The chapter opens with a well described account of the author’s experience (shared by one other person) at his cabin on McGregor Lake, Quebec, late summer of 2002. There they observed the play of a mysterious light in the night sky, a light that seemed to be responsive to their thoughts. Later, the chapter closes with the suggestion that there exist “Extra Terrestrials,” intelligent alien entities or powers that may be in communication with us, a form of extra-solar grace or baraka, I suppose.
Between the author’s personal account and his tentative conclusion, there is information about UFOs taken from public opinion polls, word-of-mouth, television producers, former Ministers of National Defence, etc. But there is no critical literature cited, despite the existence of interpretive studies of all aspects of the UFO phenomenon by astronomer Carl Sagan and other physicists, psychologists, and sociologists.
Indeed, the sense of interacting with a light, a big star, or a “circular craft” is not unknown in ufology – or in the literature of Polar exploration, where the Inuit and explorers have described how they felt themselves in communion with nocturnal lights that were responsive to their thoughts – they would snap their fingers and the lights would be extinguished, etc. Psychologists have reasoned explanations for such phenomena, and also for the sense of personal elation it generates.
I am pausing over this chapter, admittedly a personal and a speculative one, is because it illustrates how it is possible to advance agreeable positions without weighing the pros and the cons of the relevant research on the subject. Assertions are fine on their own, but only become super-fine when accompanied by reasoned argumentation.
That single qualification aside, “The Little Green Book on Awakening” should take its place on the shelves of books written by Schumacher, Eckhart Tolle, Barbara Ward, R. Buckminster Fuller, Jared Diamond, and Al Gore … not to mention the works about the Work.
There is an old Ontario folk-saying that I recall from my childhood. It goes like this: “Disaster precedes reform.” I hope that there are enough readers of “The Little Green Book on Awakening” so that it is not necessarily so.
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist whose latest book is a collection of poems titled “A Far Cry.” This fall will see the publication of “The Big Book of Canadian Hauntings,” the companion to the already published “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.”
Where are the Gurdjieff Groups Heading?
Gurdjieff brought a promise: the fourth way would transform people who were prepared to work (meaning here “make a practical study the ideas and methods, applying them in their lives”. Pupils of the fourth way would be in a school, and in these schools there would be esoteric knowledge. His people would be an ascending people, a people co-operating with the forces of evolution, climbing the stairs to the divine vision explicitly spoken of in “Beelzebub” and implicitly in “Miraculous”. Individual efforts would even have planetary and cosmic effects, a side given some emphasis by Jeanne de Salzmann. In addition to this there lay a social dimension: with his ideas and methods, Gurdjieff would make war on the old world of lies, suggestibility and “reciprocal destruction”, and forge a new one.
The vision which we had when we came across the Gurdjieff ideas was that it would be possible to become something like what Gurdjieff had been like: vigilant, aware, resourceful, capable of working in many fields, full of knowledge and feeling. The picture of Gurdjieff in the books, especially Ouspensky, de Hartmann and Nott, is of someone always connected with a higher level, so to speak. A life like that would surely be glorious whatever hardships came along, for unconscious suffering would be made conscious. Further, the entire group would be a leavening agent, an esoteric society of brothers and sisters within a host body. And I would be one individual in such a group, collaborating for a mutually understood higher purpose.
And why not? There had been extraordinary people in history, and here was Gurdjieff, clearly another one. And besides, religion required so much, and yet did not offer the means to carry it out. To me, being a Christian was like being in a French class where no-one could actually speak French, just deliver lectures about the theory, but forgot what they had just said or learned as soon as they left the classroom. As a young person, I never saw a single person change their character for the better except by effluxion of time or after massive shocks, such as a close escape from death. or by leaving the world, perhaps to become a monk or nun. This did not seem right: surely there must have be something tranformative there, otherwise, it was a farce, a mockery.
Gurdjieff promised to deliver in reality. And when I met George and Helen Adie, I realised that even after his death he could deliver. There was no doubt about that all, and I still have no doubt about that.
But did even the Adies ever preside over such a school of ascending individuals growing in consciousness and wisdom? Although the Adies had a great effect on literally hundreds of pupils, not one of us, not excluding myself, is at their level. My experience of the Foundation groups in New York and London, while not the most extensive is still sufficient for me to be sure that it is almost always those who knew Gurdjieff himself who had achieved the most for themselves.
It is as if the power left the Gurdjieff groups with Gurdjieff himself. And that is the fact, at least as I see it.
So, I repeat my question, where are the Gurdjieff groups going?
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.