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G. I. Gurdjieff's teaching, research, books, conferences

JR COLOMBO REVIEWS PATTERSON’S SPIRITUAL SURVIVAL


The John Robert Colombo Page

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Patterson

SPIRITUAL SURVIVAL?

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.

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Written by SOPHIA WELLBELOVED

June 19, 2009 at 5:52 pm

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