Archive for June 2009
Barbara and James in Colorado
I am sitting in front of my computer in North Toronto and Barbara Wright is sitting in front of her computer in downtown Toronto, a distance of perhaps eight kilometres. We are twenty minutes apart by car, yet our communication is via the a geostationary satellite, with the signal travelling back and forth perhaps 500,000 kilometres in one or two seconds.
I reside with my wife Ruth in our three-bedroom suburban house in the city’s North York district, which is unequally divided between the Italians and the Jews, to such an extent the district is locally known as the “Kosher Nostra.” (The New York essayist Richard Kostelanetz once called our place “Colombo Central.”)
Barbara Wright – I’ll call her Barbara, as she is quite direct in manner – lives with her husband James (Jim) George in their suite in a highrise in the city’s downtown area. The balcony offers a sweeping view of the city’s exclusive Rosedale district, which Jim has known since his childhood.
The view is new to Barbara who was born in Colorado. She made California her home state for decades, at least until her late marriage, four years ago in San Francisco, to Jim. They make a formidable couple and their surroundings are awesome. The suite is richly decorated with works of Buddhist and Hindu art: statues, mandalas, rugs, paintings, etc. There is even a framed photograph of the smiling couple with a giggling Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, taken last year during a private session at the time of his last public visit to the city.
Perhaps I should recall that Jim served as Canada’s High Commissioner to India from 1967 to 1972. During his years in New Delhi he befriended two youthful spiritual leaders of the Buddhist-Bon tradition: the Dalai Lama and Chögyam Trungpa. The American disciples of the latter “crazy wisdom” lama accompanied him when he shifted his ashram from Boulder, Colorado, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he established a thriving centre for Shambhala studies. Today Jim is regarded as one of the elder statesmen of the Work in Canada, a group that includes Ravi Ravindra and Tom Daly.
As for their ages – Barbara is in her seventies, Jim is in his early nineties – think nothing of it. Both are healthy and look great. Together they generate more energy than do the hydroelectric power turbines at Niagara Falls, an ninety minutes south of Toronto by car.
Barbara and James with HH the Dalai Lama
Barbara has kindly agreed to my request to reproduce this photograph taken with the Dalai Lama who, years earlier, contributed the foreword to Jim’s recently reprinted book, Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual / Ecological Crisis. Jim’s current book is “The Little Green Book on Awakening,” a kind of primer on the climate crisis and work on consciousness. She has also agreed to answer one dozen questions. So here are my statements and questions, with her responses and answers.
Q. Three cities: Boulder – San Francisco – Toronto. Although I could connect these three cities with a straight line on a map, it would not occur to me to do so, but for the fact that you have an association with these three North American cities. Let’s begin with Boulder, which by synecdochy I associate with the rest of Colorado. I understand that you were not born in Boulder, a spiritual centre in Colorado, but that you were born in the city of Grand Junction. Were you educated there? Do you see yourself as a “midwesterner”?
Boulder is important because it’s in Colorado and my younger daughter lives there. Also, there is a Gurdjieff group there which I have visited regularly for over twenty years, and during that time, I have gotten to know the people in the group very well, and value them very highly. It’s true that Boulder is a kind of spiritual center, and we are very aware of that. In fact, by coincidence or whatever arranges such events, my visits often coincide with special Buddhist gatherings. For example, the Dalai Lama was in Denver once when we were having a special weekend; and last year, the new Karmapa was there at the same time that the Boulder group worked together over a four-day period of time.
Last May, since some of our people were interested in studying Chogyam Trungpa’s ideas on work in life — and since the Gurdjieff Work is described as “a work in life” — invited several friends of mine, who live in Boulder and practice Buddhism, to join us. That made for an interesting time. So we feel very lucky to be in such a place, which is not only a spiritual center, but very beautiful. In only a few minutes, we can be walking uphill on a mountain path. My husband, Jim, sometimes goes with me to Colorado, and he loves the mountains; even though he was born in Toronto, he has climbed the best and highest mountains. Of course, I love the mountains because they are an essential part of me. I was born at an altitude of a little over 5000 feet.
I was born in the city of Grand Junction, which is on the other side of the mountains from Boulder, on the Western Slope of the Rockies. Though it has about the same mile-high altitude, it had a different feeling from Boulder, Denver, or Colorado Springs, which are located on the Eastern Slope and are related to the Great Plains in the central part of the United States. It felt a little less sophisticated and possibly more genuine. A little more desert prospector or sheep herder and less like the gold or silver barons. This is in the process of changing now as the powerful homogenous force erases those kinds of differences. Now, Grand Junction is becoming well known for its wineries; the thought of which would have horrified the members of the twelve to fifteen Protestant churches in the city when I was growing up. (I believe that the members of the one large Catholic church did have a glass of wine from time to time, and probably more Protestants than we knew of did also.)
Grand Junction is high-desert country, only a few miles from Utah and its fantastic canyons and rock formations. Two rivers meet there, and the valley they form is fertile and known for its warm climate. It’s also quite a beautiful valley, surrounded on three sides by completely different and completely amazing landscapes. In fact, on a recent visit, I felt quite strongly that the beauty and grandeur of that valley somehow comprise my heritage.
My education in Grand Junction gave me a pretty good start in life. We lived close enough that I could walk to and from school and come home for lunch each day, so the 3 schools I attended from grade 1-12 seemed like an extension of home life. Many of my teachers were highly educated in the now old-fashioned classics, probably similar to a Canadian education. And, I read a lot and was outdoors a lot.
For a town of around 28,000 people there many riches. For example, growing up in Grand Junction at that time provided special opportunities for anyone to study classical music that probably don’t exist now. Every elementary school, and the junior high and high school had an orchestra, a concert band, and a marching band, with very good teachers — several just back from WWII and one at least, a veteran of the Paul Whiteman orchestra that played for silent movies. I started piano lessons at five and violin at ten, and by the time I was in high school, I was taking violin lessons at the local college, playing in two symphonies, and performing chamber music in a string trio.
As to being a “midwesterner.” Very early in U.S. history, my ancestors moved from the British Isles, Germany, and Switzerland to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and points farther east, and then to Missouri and Iowa and finally, just after the Civil War, to Colorado, leaving the southern part of the Midwest behind. Like them, I was and am a Westerner. Quite a different animal. Although I lived for six months in Iowa once long ago — and Iowa is definitely the Midwest — and I live now in Toronto — and Toronto is definitely the East — I remain a Westerner.
Q. Where and how did you first encounter the Work? Could you describe how its ideas and emotions initially affected you? Did it suddenly seem to you to answer your questions about life or did it gradually meet your inner needs?
I first encountered the work ideas in Grand Junction. A friend lent me a book by Kenneth Walker and I happened to notice the name Gurdjieff in it. Noticed and was galvanized. That’s the one, I thought. There was no reason; I simply seemed to recognize his name, just as I simply seemed to know that the ideas were true when I read them later on. The first work book I read was “Venture with Ideas” by the same Kenneth Walker, and while reading it, I really learned that I was asleep. While I was reading in the living room, too completely engrossed by new ideas and new possibilities, the water had been used up in the vaporizer I’d left running in my daughters’ bedroom, and it was beginning to overheat and starting to smoke. That was a definite shock. A wake-up call.
Another strong moment I remember was reading “In Search of the Miraculous” while waiting to have surgery the next morning. That book, and the particular passage I read that evening, also served as a call for a new way of living. Curiously, Jim and I are reading through “In Search of the Miraculous” with a small group of people, and a few weeks ago we read that very same passage. Again, a strong moment.
And I was lucky that my introduction to “Beelzebub’s Tales” was oral. The same friend who lent me the Walker books read the first chapter, “The Arousal of Thought,” out loud to me while I was ironing. It was amazing. To hear the words first rather than reading them was a very lucky event. Of course, I then read the book, as fast as I could, unintentionally reading it the way I would ordinarily read any book, in fact as Gurdjieff suggests.
Those books changed my life. The ideas seemed completely familiar, as if they spoke to my own experience and knowledge that had been forgotten. So many of my questions about my own and other’s behavior were addressed and the grandeur of creation and the living universe, which I had experienced myself in special moments, was evoked. I would describe the experience of reading these books as the experience of coming back to life. Of course, as the years went along, I discovered other needs within myself because the work gave me something in relation to those needs.
Q. San Francisco is the next city. What year did you move there? Did you raise your family there?
San Francisco was my home for forty-five years. It was there that I joined a group, met Lord Pentland and many other remarkable people, and of course, made many close friends in the work community there.
I moved to San Francisco in 1961, after going back to college in 1960 — I was one of two single mothers with kids, a rarity at the time — and getting a teaching certificate. My two young daughters and my twenty-one year old sister went with me. I was twenty-eight. In early September, we pulled a small trailer from Grand Junction to San Francisco across the desert and the Sierras, crossed over the Bay Bridge while reciting a little Hart Crane, and stayed the first night in a motel right on the beach south of San Francisco.
In the next few days, we found a place to live, a school for my older daughter and a babysitter for the younger one, and a job for my sister. I began my teaching career in a 6th grade classroom and felt very close to that class. We went to our first meeting on October 10th, with Lord Pentland and the leaders of the San Francisco work. Some notes from that first meeting are in the book Exchanges Within. That was the beginning of my work with the group in San Francisco.
Hopefully, my daughters were helped by our connection to the work. I had remarried, to an older man in the work, and we were very busy with groups and work activities. There were many people in and out of the house, and we were away a lot. But, we had music and crafts at home, and two dogs. Also, the city of San Francisco offered many cultural opportunities. There were many interesting people around our dinner table during those years. They never had what they considered a “normal” family life, but as adults they’ve realized that there is no such thing as the ideal, perfectly normal family. I’m hoping now that they feel their lives were very special, in good ways.
Q. I know you are a woman who cherishes family connection. Tell us the names of your children and grandchildren. Where do they live? Were they surprised when you informed them that you and Jim would live in Toronto?
My older daughter, Claudia, still lives in San Francisco and, along with her husband, is quite active in the Gurdjieff Foundation there. She is quite a good pianist and also quite a good poet. They have two daughters, Anne, just receiving her MSW from UC Berkeley in May, and Clara, an artist / poet who lives in Santa Cruz and is very active in community organizations. My younger daughter, Kristine, lives in Boulder with her husband. She is a healer, and uses flower essences, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and psychic healing to great and good results. Her daughter Jessamyn is finishing her third year of college and studying international law.
I do very much cherish family connections. After my mother’s death, I remembered conversations we’d had and after finding notes she had made in various books, I realized that my life, which had been so much about a search for meaning, was a continuation of hers. As is my sister’s. Now, as I get older and watch my daughters, and their daughters, becoming more and more wise, this continuity seems even more apparent. And, I wish for them all, wish that their own lives and their inquiries into the purpose of life can bring more freedom, wisdom, clarity, daring, and so on. The good things.
There were various reactions to my announcement that I was thinking of marrying Jim George. Surprise, certainly, because it all happened very quickly. Reactions ranged from excitement to opposition. A very positive Tarot reading from one granddaughter, a “Go for it, Grandma” from another, and a “You’ve got to be kidding!” from my younger daughter. Now, five years later, we’ve visited them and they’ve each have visited us in Toronto, and I think everyone agrees it’s been a good arrangement.
Q. Was it in San Francisco that you began your work as a Feldenkrais instructor? Are you still a practitioner?
In the late 70s and early 80s, Lord Pentland began using Feldenkrais lessons as part of his teaching. I believe that he could see that without real changes in the body, self development was mostly mental. Moshe Feldenkrais had been influenced by Gurdjieff and his teaching is highly appropriate for Gurdjieffians or for anyone interested in the development of the whole person. Those first lessons were astounding. I still remember the whole sensation and feeling of myself, of my whole self, as I walked down the hill after the first one.
About the same time, with his encouragement, I began to have lots of body work, which continued into the 90s. There was a double motive for this. Partly for deepening awareness and partly to improve a bad back that was the result of an early fall off a horse.
In 1992, I started my career as a free-lance editor, not only making a decent amount of money but also setting my own hours. By 1994, it seemed the time and the funds were right for me to take the Feldenkrais training in the Bay Area north of San Francisco. Again I was lucky. My trainers were excellent. They were Buddhists and tuned to the awareness aspect of the work. After four years more or less on the floor at least once a week and for longer periods several times a year, my back was many times better. Hopefully, the awareness was better also.
I graduated from the four-year training in 1999, and had quite an active practice, teaching classes in several locations, with a good number of private clients up until the time I moved to Toronto, but it’s been difficult to keep it going here. It takes time to be married! I taught some classes that met here in our condo for several months, substituted a bit at the Feldenkrais Center, and taught one at the Institute of Traditional Medicine on the Art of Sitting, in which I combined lessons for the body and sitting quietly together. I have had a few private clients, including a man who comes regularly when he’s visiting from San Francisco. Eventually I would like to be teaching more. The Feldenkrais Method is amazing.
Q. How long were you associated with the work in San Francisco? By the way, do you know Jacob Needleman, the philosopher who has published many work-related books?
I was associated with the Work in San Francisco for forty-four years — from 1961 to 2005, and I still travel to San Francisco and attend group meetings there when I can. I will probably always be related to the work in San Francisco. The San Francisco groups were begun by Lord Pentland around 1954 to 1957, shortly after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. He continued almost monthly visits to San Francisco from New York, where he lived and where he headed the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, the primary North American foundation.
The New York foundation had been organized by Gurdjieff himself during his last visits to the United States. Especially in the 60s and 70s, most of the leaders in the New York foundation were pupils of Gurdjieff. At the same time, there was a frequent exchange between New York and Paris, and Madame de Salzmann, and other pupils of Gurdjieff. Several times a year, some of us made trips to New York at Pentland’s invitation, usually when Madame de Salzmann was there. Often when he came to San Francisco, he brought people along with him from other work centers, like New York or Los Angeles, London or Paris. It was easy to feel part of a great, living organism, complete with a thriving circulatory system. The years until his death in 1984 were rich with opportunity to learn, study, explore and engage along with a group of like-minded, and like-hearted, people.
After 1984, at least once a month and for longer periods in the summer, Paul Reynard continued to visit San Francisco, until his death a few years ago, bringing his sensitive inner work in movements and with the ideas. He had worked as a very young man with Gurdjieff in Paris and has led the movements work in North and South America under Madame de Salzmann’s direction since the late 60s. I feel that the groups in San Francisco were given more than most of us can ever really make our own, and probably much more than we can share with others. This seems to be a theme of mine: we received many riches.
Jacob Needleman has been a friend since 1965. I value any opportunity to work with him, and admire him deeply. He has been able to find ways to bring finer, higher ideas into the main stream of life through his books and talks, and I know he continues this effort.
Q. The third city in your life is Toronto. I know why you came to this city: the catalyst was your marriage to Jim in 2006. Did you meet him in San Francisco at a Work function?
We were married on January 1, 2005, and it took me about six months to get things together for a final move to Toronto. As the third city in my life, as you put it, Toronto is very important to me, because this is the city where I live now, where my husband was born and grew up. It provides me with the opportunity to know a different set of human beings and to explore the ways they are the same and yet different from the people who live in San Francisco, New York, or Colorado. I have met some wonderful people here — especially some outstanding women, who are bright and intelligent — and have had the opportunity to widen my friendships to those not in the Gurdjieff work, which has been very good for me.
I had noticed Jim at various work functions and conferences over the years, but we had hardly had a conversation until 1999 when we were at the same conference in New York and had an opportunity to talk. Perhaps he noticed me earlier, but I wasn’t aware of it. Later, two of our granddaughters got to know each other and it was through this that Jim and I got better acquainted.
Q. You would expect that Toronto, a multicultural city with a population of more than three million people, close to half of its residents born somewhere else, would be particularly receptive to new ideas. In the 1920s it was hospitable to Theosophy. A Gurdjieff group was founded in the city in the early 1950s under the personal direction of Madame de Hartman. It was responsible for the publication of an index to “All and Everything” and also the Russian-language edition of that mammoth text. In the 1960s the city was recognized as the intellectual home of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Currently groups like Theosophy and Anthroposophy are languishing here. It is common knowledge that in the city the Gurdjieff work, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided in three parts, if not more than three. Did this scattering of energies take you by surprise? Can you offer any reason for it? Is the situation likely to remain fragmented in the future?
Because the last split happened so soon after I moved here, it did take me by surprise. It also makes me sad whenever and wherever a separation takes place — and it does take place too often within work groups — and within many other groups, even one as small as two people, such as in a marriage. There is a small, sad statement about human beings in “Beelzebub’s Tales,” in the chapter about the destruction of Ashiata Shiemash’s labors: “And gradually, as it also usually happens there, almost everywhere beings became divided into two mutually opposing parties…. ” I’m reminded of a brilliant Aldous Huxley essay entitled “Usually Destroyed” that speaks to similar human proclivities.
Also, one could talk about the problem of the ego, and I’m tempted to talk about the male ego in particular. But, having a philosophical bent, I would have to say that the underlying reason for divisions, in the Work or in religions or families or nations, is the inexorable quality of the great laws of “world creation and world maintenance,” which must govern all of life. Implicit in these laws is the fact that everything happens, and no intentional result comes about automatically. In a simple way, one can see that effort is almost always required in order to carry out any real intention. Anyone who’s married knows this, at least if they are interested in keeping their marriage intact and thriving. It takes work.
A Gurdjieff group is not immune to the pulls and pushes of life. Individual initiatives can become all important. Individual power can become all important. The need for recognition, for place, and so on — all the ordinary desires that we know too well — all that becomes important. Surely every one of us can speak about that from our own experience in many different situations, but I hope that some of us have some experience of intention, and really working toward something.
Will it ever change here in Toronto? Each of the three groups has many wonderful people, and many wonderful initiatives. In my experience with each group, I could say that the work is alive in each one. Most separations remain separations. Some separations were obviously meant to be, just as some marriages seem destined for divorce and some for a fifty-year anniversary. One hopes that areas of mutual co-operation or mutual need might arise, and this might happen someday. I hope it doesn’t require a great emergency for this to happen. However, it’s important to remember that, in my experience, the movement toward unity is always uphill. It’s neither easy nor automatic. At the same time though, the tastes we have of wholeness or unity begin to reveal to us that this work is in fact a great service. That realization helps in the ongoing attempt to struggle with the arising of individual initiatives, in myself and in others.
Q. Over the years has there been a single teacher or a specific book that has been particularly meaningful to you? Is there a musical composition that you find yourself humming in tense moments – if you have tense moments?
There have been several teachers who have been meaningful to me, starting with my fourth grade teacher and going on through college. In fact, I consider myself pretty lucky in this respect. As a college freshman, I enrolled in three consecutive Humanities classes that Neal Miller Cross taught, using a book he coauthored called “The Search for Personal Freedom.” That was just what I needed at that point in my life. I was also lucky later on to take history courses with a man named Peter Szymanski, a brilliant, Russia-educated, French-trained Polish professor who was by his choice hidden away in the high mountains of Colorado.
From childhood, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories and Zane Grey’s novels, and read and reread a dazzling little book called “The Hidden Hand,” written in the late 1800s — don’t ask me why — I still enjoy it. When I was twelve or thirteen, I read that huge, shocking, and thrilling book, “The Brothers Karazamov.” It made a huge impact on me and inspired a certain rapport with Eastern Orthodoxy, which persists to the present time.
I have many tense moments, but no particular musical compositions come to mind. There is very often a melody humming around in my brain, but usually the one of the moment is the one I listened to most recently, or most recently played on the piano. The Gurdjieff-de Hatmann music is particularly haunting. I do love Schubert, Bach, Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms for humming. But also I like contemporary music. For example, John Adams’ operas, and most anything by Elliot Carter. Amazing, but not too hummable.
Q. You have traveled quite widely and visited Work groups in numerous countries, for instance, England, France, and Australia, in addition to the United States and Canada. Do you find characteristic types everywhere? From your perspective, are there national or cultural differences in the Work to be detected?
First of all, I would like to say that in my opinion people who are attracted to the work often — very often — have certain similar characteristics. Keep in mind that this is only my opinion, which I’ve shared with many groups over the past few years. I suppose someone could do a kind of survey someday to see if my opinion holds any truth. So, in my opinion, there are a lot of good-looking people in the Work, no matter what country they live in. The women don’t always let their beauty shine out, but still, the beauty is often there. In addition, I notice that people in the Work are very often intelligent and well-educated, artistically talented, and often creative and resourceful. They are generally very good at washing dishes, too, and figuring out how to get one hundred people in a space that really only holds sixty. But these are my very subjective observations.
Certainly every country has its characteristics. For instance, the Australians are even more independent than Americans. It’s the island — and a fairly isolated island at that — mentality. Self-reliance is the thing. There surely must be Canadian characteristics, as well as Latin American, French, English, and so on. But everywhere one goes there are similar types: the natural leaders, the real seekers who find a work for themselves, the ones who find it difficult to speak, the ones who are only interested in the Ideas and the ones who are only interested in the Movements, those who proclaim their devotion to the search and who disappear without warning, the silent ones who after years explode in anger, the drinkers, the dutiful wives or husbands who sometimes end up more devoted to the Work than their partner, the Martha types and the Mary types, and so on. Probably any group has most of these types. When you are in a community for a long time, you get to know people pretty well. In fact, you know their kids and often their parents, you go through deaths and marriages, and you all get old together, so everyone goes on being an “older” person or one of “the young ones.”
Most important though is the experience I’ve had again and again of the similarities. The serious questions are the same, almost word for word; the feeling tone of the meetings are the same. There is a kind of taste or flavour, like a delicate scent that lingers in a room, which is the same in meetings in many of the groups I’ve visited, when the serious work appears, no matter where they meet.
But a little more on differences. Usually the main difference comes from which Gurdjieff pupil first brought the work to a group. There is loyalty to that person, of course, and a kind of imprint in the mind and heart from the way he or she presented the ideas and the work. This connects to your next question, because people in the Work need to find ways to work together in spite of quite natural loyalty and fealty, which is perhaps more often unconscious and therefore stronger than we think. We need to beware of imitation.
Q. Do you have a clear idea where the Work is heading, that is, where it will be in ten years time or in fifty years? Still alive and still working are some people – Paul Beekman Taylor and Patty de Llosa spring to mind – who, as children, recall meeting Mr. Gurdjieff. I keep meeting people who knew John Bennett, but I think Joyce Colin-Smith is the only person I know who actually met Mr. Ouspensky.
This is the question that keeps me up at night. I don’t have a very clear idea where the work is heading but I can share some rather muddled thoughts about it. Some of the best people I’ve know in the Work have branched out to fortify their work using other disciplines. Patty de Llosa is a good example. She has a very serious work with the Alexander Method, which seems a good support to her work with the Gurdjieff groups. Also, as she mentions in her book, she has a serious practice of Tai Chi, and in this way, she can share her knowledge and experience with a wide range of people, using knowledge and experience that is very much influenced by her years in the Gurdjieff work.
Others use their knowledge of science or the religions to find avenues toward explaining the ideas and practices of the Work. Of course, there is always the danger of diversion or of dilution. This can happen when other traditions are brought in to help deepen or broaden the understanding. Although the study of the specificity of the Gurdjieff Work is an interesting one, it’s not easy. It’s easier to say what it resembles than what it is, so this study is too often neglected now. It requires knowing the ideas in the books as well as in the memory of the oral teaching, and you could say, it requires real thought, which is pretty scarce these day. And often, people get too interested and leave the Work in order to practise one of those other traditions.
There are others still alive who met Gurdjieff, but surely the future of the work does not depend only on having met him or Ouspensky. The future of the work will depend on what has passed from person to person. Gurdjieff uses the image of a staircase, and you can’t go any higher on this stairway until you’ve placed someone on your step. And that person must place someone on his step, and so on. Of course, we hear this and think it’s simple and straightforward.
The problem I’ve encountered is that one really does not know what that next higher step will entail, what will be required of one, having placed someone else and having moved up a step. We forget that each step is new territory, and I suspect that it is the shock of finding oneself in new territory, alone, so to speak, that may stop the development needed to help everyone ascend. It’s too easy to drift along using past methods. Imitation only works up to point. I have been very glad to hear reports about the next generation in San Francisco. It sounds like they learned something over the years and now feel the obligation to pass it along.
Up to now the Work has served as a kind of pollinator. Hundreds of people have passed through its groups and back into life. When I look at old group lists, it’s quite amazing how many people have come and gone. Once in awhile, in San Francisco, I was stopped by someone on the street who would say he or she used to be in my group twenty-five or thirty years ago, and is “still doing the morning work and / or reading ‘Beelzebub.’” The Work will probably never be huge, but I do very much wish and hope that it remains alive, even in people who no longer attend groups. It’s very much needed.
Q. That’s eleven questions. My twelfth question is the following: Is there a question I should have asked you but didn’t which you yourself would like to ask and answer?
I’d like to paraphrase Gurdjieff and be asked, Have you met any remarkable men or women through your association with the Work? The answer is yes, indeed. I never met Gurdjieff himself, but like so many of my generation, through a close association with two remarkable people who had worked with him, I felt something of the unique and specific force that Gurdjieff generated.
Since moving to San Francisco in 1961, many special people moved through my life. Some I met in the Work, others I met because of the Work, usually at special events — luncheons, lectures, and so on. Laurens van der Post, Carlos Casteneda, James Hillman, and Father Thomas Keating are only a few of the latter group who come to mind. There were many others, and many other remarkable men and women who had worked with Gurdjieff.
I heard Krishnamurti speak twice and feel fortunate to have witnessed his presence and clarity in person. I had a life-changing exchange with Muktananda in northern California, a special introduction and conversation with Chogyam Trungpa in San Francisco, and a surprisingly live connection with Lama Zopa. Also, more recently, through Jim, I have met the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa’s son along with several well-known Canadian persons of importance.
Even more important though are the people I’ve “grown up with” in the Work. There are maybe 150 people, in various locations, whom I know and care for — people I’ve worked with and now their children — and almost every one of them is remarkable.
All in all, so far, a rich outer life. As to the inner life, it is filled at best with many questions, and at worst with dreams of all that has gone before and that which will come later. But there’s always room for more.
No more questions … thank you!
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. In his latest book of essays called “Whistle While You Work,” he has combined consciousness studies with Canadian references. From time to time he reviews Work-related publications for this website.
William Patrick Patterson’s latest book is reviewed by John Robert Colombo
Hereinafter I will refer to the well-known author William Patrick Patterson as WPP, for in a sense these initials stand for more than the man. They represent a mini-movement he has led in the world of Work-related activities.
On the dust jacket of his latest book, WPP is described as “the author of six books on The Fourth Way and the director-writer-narrator of the award-winning document video trilogy ‘The Life & Significance of G.I. Gurdjieff.’ He is also the founder and editor of ‘The Gurdjieff Journal,’ est. 1992, and the founder and director of The Gurdjieff Studies Program. Mr. Patterson has practised the principles of self-transformation and self-transcendence for nearly forty years.”
Let me review some of his accomplishments as an author, editor, publisher, producer, and group leader. (Allow the latter term to stand unexplained for now.) As an author, he has these six, book-length publications to his credit:
1. “Struggle of the Magicians: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship.” I believe this to be his first and finest book; it is strong on research, documentation, and analysis. The author sees himself as a “one-time” student who has become a “now-time” teacher.
2. “Eating the ‘I’: A Direct Account of the Fourth Way – The Way of Using Ordinary Life to Come to Real Life.” This is an attempt to do more than scratch the surface of what has been called “spiritual materialism” – the supermarket approach to the religious quest associated with the New Age. Doing more involves doing more inner work.
3. “Taking with the Left Hand: Enneagram Craze, People of the Bookmark, & the Mouravieff ‘Phenomenon.’” In many ways this is the author’s most interesting publication, being rich in research-driven and informative, with many explorations and elaborations of activities on the “fringes” of the Work.
4. “Ladies of the Rope: Gurdjieff’s Special Left Bank Women’s Group.” I found this study of those talented women who comprised Mr. G.’s “special” study group in Paris to be a work of skill that shows a depth of insight, as well as a font of miscellaneous information.
5. “Voices in the Dark: Esoteric, Occult & Secular Voices in Nazi-Occupied Paris 1940-44.” This is an eye-opener of a book which includes never-before published transcripts of Group meetings held in the French capital during the direst of times, a learning situation situated between the forces of black and white “magicians.” It is Group vs. Reich.
6. “The Life & Teachings of Carlos Castaneda.” I have yet to see a copy of this book, though I have read much of its text in a succession of issues of “The Gurdjieff Journal.” Here WPP measures Castaneda’s indebtedness to G.I.G. and offers new and compromising biographical details about this popular “trickster” teacher.
7. “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time.” This is the current title, and in many ways it is the author’s most impressive and imposing book, though you would not know so from its title and subtitle. “Spiritual Survival” – could there be a more inflated title? “In a Radically Changing World-Time” – could there be a more baffling subtitle? The title and subtitle strike me as overblown and at odds with the book’s market: not directed at its likely readership, misleading to a wider readership.
Indeed, the word “survival” has been overused since the 1960s. There is that cliched exchange: “What did you do?” “I survived.” And the words “Radically Changing.” I suppose their opposite is “gradually changing” or “unchanging.” Then there is “World-Time,” which I suppose means “in our time, in our place.” The words “world-time” do appear in the text, but one of the hallmarks of the author is that overall he eschews technical-sounding terminology. These words sound like they come from a tome written by Oswald Spengler.
All of this is a pity, because the book is well organized and finely produced, as well as comprehensive and useful. It is principally an addition to the shelf of books devoted to the elucidation of the principles of the Work, and not in any sense of handbook for generalized “spiritual survival,” as I will attempt to show.
But before doing that, I want to refer in passing to WPP’s other activities. These I take to be six in number.
1. He is an author, editor, essayist, etc. See his six books mentioned above. These are all published with great care (editing, design, production values, etc.) through his own firm, Arete.
2. He is the founder and editor of “The Gurdjieff Journey.” I have subscribed to this bimonthly periodical since its inception in 1992. It is full of interesting articles – some bylined, some not. Some articles are serious contributions to the history of the Work and to consciousness studies in general; other articles are occasional columns and reviews of books and movies of interest, all viewed through the bifocals of the Fourth Way. The contributions of continuing interest have eventually become chapters in the above-noted books.
I plan to continue to subscribe to “TGJ,” though I do wish its publisher and principal contributor would suggest to the designer designer and layout artist that they treat the text differently: run the articles from page to page, rather than continue the article at the “back of the book” – respect the the natural rhythm of reading experience.
3. He is a documentary film researcher, writer, producer, director, and on-camera host. I should add “award-winning,” because WPP is that too. I genuinely admire his three-volume set of DVDs (originally videos) with the general title “The Life & Significance of G.I. Gurdjieff.” The three, hour-long films are titled “Gurdjieff in Egypt,” “Gurdjieff’s Mission,” and “Gurdjieff’s Legacy.” All three have won major documentary awards, which they richly deserve, for they combine original research, travel to foreign if not remote places, trenchantly delivered observations about the Work and the men and women who have contributed to its “introduction to the West.” WPP has a strong screen presence and delivers a clear and forceful message.
It has been a couple of years since I last viewed them, but what I vividly recall is the manner in which he patiently explains how Mr. G. had to “step down” his powerful ideas to make them applicable to men and women of our time in the West. Everyone who is interested in the Work itself, as distinct from treating it the way members of a congregation treat a church, should view these DVDs.
4. He is the director of “The Gurdjieff Studies Program.” This represents, at least for our purposes, the series of seminars organized and delivered by WPP in person. Weekends are devoted to talks and workshops held in quality hotels in cities throughout the United States. There may be four or more a year. They might be described as Work “intensives,” but I am in no position to know if that is so, because I have not attended any of them or talked with anyone who has done so. WPP is a seasoned communicator – teacher, writer, public speaker – so there is every reason why the seminars should be thorough and comprehensive and entertaining to boot.
5. He is the “spinning top” at the hub of Arete Communications. I am hesitant to suggest that WPP is solely responsible for Arete Communications, “Publishers of Self-Transformation books and videos,” though he may well be the sufficient cause, because in this endeavour he is assisted by other people, including his wife and editor Barbara Allen Patterson, as well as a designer, a researcher, a writer, a publicist, etc.
As for the definition of “Arete,” Google informs me that the word has a goodly number of meanings for many features and characteristics of “goodness,” including “quality.” Its opposite is Kakia, which means “badness.” In Ancient Greece, Arete and Kakia were goddesses. Certainly the concept of “quality” applies to the work of Arete Communications and the efforts of WPP to represent the Work in its current phase in the United States and the rest of the anglosphere.
Enough of WPP. Let me describe the new book. “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time” was published in January 2009 and as of April has gone into three printings. (There is no indication of the length of the press runs.) Physically it is stout volume, even a handsome one, with a maroon library binding with printed endsheets and lively head and tail-bands – though, sadly, the pages are glued rather than sewn (a process misleadingly known in the commercial printing trade as “perfect binding.”) There are xviii + 407 pages of quite readable type. The book may be ordered through Arete’s website.
I think the key to the book is the trinity of names that appears in this order on the dedication page: “To Mr. Gurdjieff / Mme de Salzmann / Lord Pentland.” What the author is doing here is declaring an allegiance and identifying a lineage. Elsewhere he described himself as a former school teacher with experience in the world of advertising, but also as a student who studied under John Sinclair, Lord Pentland, whom (after Orage) Mr. G. designated to be his representative in the United States. With the death of Pentland in 1984, WPP was cast adrift. But being resourceful he found safe harbour and became a teacher of the Work.
I have no idea if he has any affiliations with the Foundation, the Society, or the Institute. I believe he prefers to work alone, a cowan or a loner rather than a member of a coven or a group, to adapt terms from Masonry and Wicca. A cowan is always viewed with some suspicion, and this is certainly true of WPP, though personally I have no problem with his American-style promotion of the Work, if only because it seems to me to be well grounded and respectful of the form and the delivery of the Work. I will leave it to other people to decide whether the system of instruction of which he is the group leader constitutes a new line for the Work to take – indeed, if it is an instance of the influence of Arete or of Kakia.
“Spiritual Survival” is like Caesar’s Gaul and comes in three parts of unequal weight and interest. The titles of these are “Fourth Way Meetings,” “Fourth Way Probes,” and “Fourth Way Essays.”
“Fourth Way Meetings” consists of the texts of 324 questions and answers arranged in 36 sections. There is a certain arbitrariness to the arrangement of the material. No details are given as to where and when the exchanges took place. We are left to guess the questioners’ levels of life and Work experience. Yet the handling of the questions is deft enough to serve their original purposes and to be helpful to the questioners. The responses focus, at first, on observing the automatic workings of the body and, subsequently, on bringing these to the level of awareness, on beginning to cease to identify, on trying to identify one’s chief feature, etc.
There is not much that is new in this section and the exchanges are typically brief. A questioner complains, “I haven’t met the woman I am looking for.” The author responds, “My friend, this is not therapy. You need to bring real material.” Advice can be boiler-plate: “We can’t say hello to the new until we can goodbye … to the old.” There are some neat formulations here: “Our postures are our ‘clothes.’” “We are bioplasmic machines.” “The ‘joker-I’ has been robbing you blind for years. Take his role away from him. Intentionally joke.” “Thinking is not presence.”
There is satisfaction when routine matters are attended to without boredom or irritation. Yet I had hoped for some insights that have the depths of those of Jean Vaysse, Henri Tracol, Solange Claustres, or George Adie, but this was not to be.
WPP argues there is fresh urgency for work on self, an emergency really, because we have entered into a new epoch of some sort:
“We’re in a transition zone between the new world-time and the old. It began before 9/11, but that was the big shock point. History, in my opinion, will be divided between what is pre-9/11 and post. Understand that there is nothing you or I can do to change the world on the level of the world. We can work to change our relationship to the world, to become conscious receivers and transmitters of energy. In so doing, we help ourselves and the world.”
I am prepared to argue that this is overstated. What are “world-times”? What are the lessons of 9/11? Since the 1960s, futurists have been assuring us that the world is changing and that change itself is accelerating. Yet human nature does not seem to change very much. As a species we remain immutable, at least for the last thousands of years. The failure to take seriously the threat of global warming is an instance of how heedless we are as a species. As for society changing, someone once observed, “We do not change because we see the light. We change when we feel the heat.”
So much for “Fourth Way Meetings.” The next section, “Fourth Way Probes,” is the shortest of the sections, for it consists of only seven “probes.” Perhaps the choice of the word “probes” for these essays is ill-advised? When I hear the word “probe,” I recall the witty aphorisms of Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message,” “Globalism creates tribalism,” etc. McLuhan called these probes because they were insights and not propositions or arguments.
WPP’s probes are not like these, for each one of his is a discussion that extends over a couple of pages. They are described as “spontaneous,” and perhaps they originated as transcriptions of audio-taped impromptu presentations. A more descriptive name for his probe is homilie. Protestant ministers know homilies as “pulpit calls” for moral action based on situations that occur in everyday life. For instance, WPP’s probe called “Have a Soul, Make a Soul” ends like this:
“And so the aim: Being in the Becoming of life, and so to consciously eat the inertia and negativity, and to experience the peace and the harmony, and the joy and the pleasure, the creativity, the self-expression. But it must be worked for. Conscious life, incarnation, immortality – they do not come cheaply.”
These are fine sentiments, though they are not all that far removed from the spirit of New Thought or Moral Rearmament: “All out on the ice, boys!”
“Fourth Way Essays” is the soul of the book, as “Fourth Way Meetings” serves as its body. Here there are twenty-five essays, most of them reprinted from the columns of “TGJ,” but appeared elsewhere and will be new to subscribers. Because WPP is a writer and lecturer who is familiar with the vast literature of the Fourth Way, he has developed his own views on what he sees as the twin overgrowths of our time: religious fundamentalism and materialist scientism or spiritual materialism. In time, he might well add to these, as did P.D. Ouspensky, these opposites: scholasticism and sentimentalism. I see these as subsumed under the rubric “cerebralism” rather than rational or intellectual or emotional or moving.
This section includes the text of a landmark speech titled “Who Is Mr. Gurdjieff?” This cornerstone essay served as the keynote address of the first All & Everything Conference held in Bognor Regis in 1996. It is an all-round introduction to the Work, and it displays WPP’s characteristic features to best advantage: liveliness of expression, generosity of spirit, and a certain earnest innocence in exposition and expression, as these sentences show:
“Gurdjieff came to the West to establish a new teaching, ancient in origin, that was specifically formulated for individual growth in the technologized world. It was stripped of the past, stripped of all mysticism, philosophy, religious rites and dogma. It was, and is, the great bequeathing. It is a teaching that gives to contemporary man and woman the great gift – the gift of practical knowledge and techniques by which he can, by his own efforts and intention, transform himself, and, in so doing, free himself from the abnormal being-existence that is the soul-death signature of our time.”
That passage offers the reader the sum and substance of the book. The thirty pages of the book’s Introduction present his “take” on the plight of modern man in light of the struggle between attaining consciousness vs. succumbing to the cerebrations of the computer. Such is theoria; praxis is another matter. Perhaps in the privacy of the seminars there is instruction in spiritual practices. In the pages of this book, there are suggestions: shadows of shadows.
In other essays the author considers various theories about the source of the system which in the early days Ouspensky dubbed the Special Doctrine. He looks into the claims of Esoteric Christianity (derived from Egypt, perhaps “pre-sand Egypt”), Eastern Orthodoxy (from a certain monastery on Mount Athos), Shamanism, Manicheeism, Sufism (from the so-called Sarmoun monastery, brotherhood, or society somewhere in Central Asia), etc.
I do not recall any consideration being given to the possibility that the system was inspired by work underfoot in the Caucasus at the time – a movement known as Kebzeh. In the end TPP takes Mr. G.’s lead and opts for Esoteric Christianity, but this is a Christianity that predates Jesus Christ by centuries if not millennia. It is all very suggestive and mysterious.
There are other sections of “Spiritual Survival” – Introduction, Afterword, Notes, and Bibliography. There is no Index. If I had “time and tide,” I would describe or paraphrase the arguments of these, but it is my view that a review should leave much for the author to say and not try to displace the original text in the eyes of its future readers. WPP writes well and is worth reading on his own.
Here is a book that men and women somewhat familiar with the world of the Work will find worthwhile and rewarding as long as they are not expecting anything really traditional or really new. People unfamiliar with the Work who are mainly interested in exploring the expression of spirituality in the contemporary world will likely find it to be baffling and digressive.
It is said that a person has a chief feature. If a book may be said to possess one of these, the chief feature of this book is earnestness.
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. In his latest book of essays called “Whistle While You Work,” he has combined consciousness studies with Canadian references. From time to time he reviews Work-related publications for this website.