Archive for the ‘Gurdjieff’ Category
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“Doing” and “Not-Doing”
On 15 and 22 August 1990, Jim Wyckoff of the New York Foundation attended meetings at Newport. Mr Adie had died a little more than 12 months earlier. In May 1990, some of our people had visited Paris for guidance, and Michel de Salzmann had told them to try and work with Jimmy Wyckoff, as he was already coming to Sydney to visit the Foundation group there. And so Jim Wyckoff came to take questions at Newport. After that second evening, he asked me whether the meetings were being taped. He was not keen on the idea, and said that one should try and work in the present. However, he added, they have been taped and there is no need to destroy the records. Use the material, but as sparingly as possible. Some of what he said, for example, his answers to Stan and to myself have proved to have enduring meaning for me, and I think that the material may have value for others too. So let’s use the material … if sparingly. Here are a few questions from each of those nights, and then in Part Two, some comments.
15 August 1990 was the first occasion when Jim Wyckoff sat in front of a group at Newport. The Wednesday before, in a combined meeting (for this term see George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia), Ken Adie had brought an exercise from his father which involved making diary notes after the morning preparation. Now, having tried the exercise for a week, Basil brought an observation about how much it had given him, and how fresh it had seemed to him to sit quietly after his preparation and spend a little time digesting it, valuing his being, rather than hurrying off into life, as usual. Throughout the day he had found himself quieter, remembering his hourly appointments. He could see himself dragged out, but then he would recollect himself more quickly.
Yes, replied Jim Wyckoff, something simple like that can help me. But I see that I cannot “do” it, and it is not something I can gain or acquire. Maybe what I need is to give something up, such as my tension, my hurry, or my compulsive thinking, so that there is room for something else. I open and listen for my work. We are made of an energy which everything is made of, so maybe something in me can correspond to what it seeks. I don’t know, said Jim, but I can be patient. If I was watching an animal in the bush, I wouldn’t rush in … I would be quiet and watch, he said, dropping his voice. I can be patient like that, with myself. Not with “my” attention, but with “the” attention. It is not mine.
Then Esmeralda spoke. Like Basil, she had been with Mr Adie for many years, and he had a profound respect for each of them, even if he sometimes found some of Esmeralda’s ways exasperating. She spoke about how she was when with her daughter, realizing that there were difficulties in that relationship, and that she had done no work at all in respect of that for years. This is how things go, Esmeralda said, I pick something up, there is a result, and then I let it drop for a number of months or years until I return to the same situation, the same area of work. I never really make use of what I could make use of, she said. The possibilities seem so rich, and I know that things can change and be improved, but then I squander those possibilities. Even listening to the question some 20 years later, its truth still has an impact. And to her credit, she did realize that she had a tendency to “not deal” with things which needed to be addressed.
Well there’s a lot that needs to be done, replied Jim Wyckoff, but that still doesn’t mean that I can “do”, does it? I need to experience, I need to learn how to perceive. I try to perceive by going out, but to perceive I need to take in, I need to be. We live under laws, I start DO RE MI and then I go MI RE DO. I know it, but I don’t feel it. I think that if something starts it can be continuous, but Mr Gurdjieff tells us that the vibrations are discontinuous. This question of trying to do something about my situation is in my way. If I really understand that I know nothing, then I can learn something. But whatever I try and learn, I put it on top of what I already have. I am brought up to acquire something, and then I get graded on it. But when I see that I am simply an expression of life, like all of nature, then perhaps I could accept to simply experience myself through the sensing awareness of the body, which is the receiving of something, not a going out. Like that. Does that make sense to you?
Yes, Esmeralda replied, thank you. Then Stan, a talented young man, spoke of his jealousy, resentment and envy in relation to his wife. He could see how it affected both of them. Jim Wyckoff asked, are you saying that you are concerned about how she treats you? Yes, answered Stan.
You’re concerned about how she treats your image, your ego?
Well, is that all you are? Your ego? Now I am asked to try and see my SELF beyond the I in quotation marks. Am I the I in quotation marks who thinks he should be considered by his wife? Or am I something other than that, from which that other I is derivative? Study your body when you’re in that state. It’s tight, and closed, but I still have that spark of life. Then, if they want to consider me, that it’s alright, and if they don’t, then that’s alright too. Am I concerned about their opinion? That’s a load of nonsense, isn’t it?
But what about my feeling? I don’t mean my emotion, I mean the feeling, this reconciling force which Mr Gurdjieff speaks of? How can I look for that, how can I touch that? I can’t make it appear, because that will be more of the ego trying. Maybe it’s there. When you work you find that something changes. I don’t mean like a rearrangement of the furniture, but the quality is different. The sense of yourself and of time is different. I don’t say “I’m going to sense myself, as if I was the author”. I don’t have to be first and foremost. You are you. Listen with your whole self, your body, not just your ears. I listen and see that I am different. How did I attract that state, not how did I do it? My preparation is not to get that state, it is to be in such a way that that can come. It could be a very interesting study. Not how to overcome it, how to get rid of it, but how to see, is it possible that something can be transformed here, although it is not something I do. You know if you put an empty cup in a sink full of water, it will fill it. You don’t have to fill it, just put it in.
Loreto then brought a question: what can I trust? That is the question, replied Wyckoff: or perhaps I should ask, can I be trusted? I get very tight, but it doesn’t have to be like that. You know how you can get up and go to work, but you know you have an appointment at 5 o’clock, say you’re going to see Shakespeare, and you’re looking forward to it. You’re working all day, but you still have this sense of anticipation. It can be like that, but not hurried. I ask myself, who am I? What am I? (His voice dropped when he asked these questions.) I listen with that inner listening, and if I don’t find it today, then I don’t find it. And then there’s the question that maybe that force needs me. Instead of me finding something, I need to be found. That is enough from the first evening.
The next week, Andrea mentioned how she had been in a conversation with someone. The other person was seeking her help in respect of something, and it seemed to be a rather intimate and personal matter. Andrea was trying to console her, and as she sat there, she started to become aware of extraordinary sense that two human beings were in contact. She had rarely ever had this type of simple contact in a conversation before. It was a discovery for her.
And it can be a discovery the next time, too, replied Jim. Our relationships with other people tend to be based exclusively on “yes” and “no.”. But on occasions a force can appear which is neither “yes” nor “no”, but recognition. If I work in a certain way, it appears. When I work, I become different. I’m a different person, and this force recognizes me: we recognize each other.
I was the second person to speak that evening. I had been struggling with anxiety about a conflict with some people, when I had remembered Mr Adie’s injunction: “Never forget the Creator. Never forget the Creator of all that exists.” That had dissipated the anxiety. (I still vividly recall the moment: I was sitting in the bottom level of a rather over-heated train). That night I woke from sleep, the anxiety reappeared, and bang, right behind it was this other recollection, and I was present, free from anxiety.
You see, said Mr Wyckoff, the situation helped you. One tends be against such situations, because they are unpleasant and tire you. But it’s as if I need the opposition, as if I were a wrestler who needs an opponent to struggle against, so that I can grow. (Incidentally, wrestling is the only sport I was ever any good at, but I doubt Jim knew that.) What is the difference in me? It’s not just a different attitude: there’s a basic change in my body too. Be observant for it. Oh, he added, it’s a good idea, if you wake up in the night, whether anxious or not, to immediately work.
The third question was from Tim, who relayed, as often one finds in groups, a fairly bare if not even despondent account of realizing that some effort was made, but feeling as if he couldn’t make any. And in fact, despite his better knowledge, he had not made an effort. How he could move in such situations?
We’re all passive, replied Jim Wyckoff. We want outside stimulation, an interesting person, a book, a film, or an idea. Such stimulation moves the energy in me and I like that, so we go to parades, football games and so on. But that quality is not what we here are after. We have had a taste of a finer quality of energy that seems to appear from nowhere, and I’ve been told that if I work in a certain way, it appears. However, my habits and my armour hold me back. I need to know the difference by taste (he lightly stressed these two words), because I identify with the better feelings which appear. I need to begin again, even if I am feeling better. Never say “I’ve arrived”, because in the next breath it’s gone. Something may be looking for me, not just me looking for it, because it would not come if it did not recognize something. Like attracts like. The difference in me is recognized by this force. So wait, be patient. But actively wait. Actively be patient. For you never know when the hour cometh.
Then Samantha spoke. She had seen a feature in herself, she said which she wanted to change. She had attempted to do so before, and it had gone for single days, but had always come back. She knew, too, that something in her was indeed attached to it. She needed to but could not change her attitude. Was she perhaps not sufficiently serious? Was that clear enough, she asked?
“Yes”, Jim Wyckoff replied, “the difficulty of course is that I want to do something about it.” He emphasized the word “do”. I want to get rid of it, or change it. “I want to do something about it”, he reiterated with the same emphasis. But what I need is to study it, he said. I cannot do anything about it because I’m the one who allowed it in the first place. Take something like tennis, for instance. Say the coach tells you that you’re holding the racquet in the wrong way, or standing in the wrong position. You want to change it, but you can’t. The old way of moving is too strong. You see?
Samantha agreed. The same thing applies here, continued Jim. When it happens try and notice what takes place without reacting to it. We don’t see our habits, we just see their effects. But to see what goes on inside, for that I need patience and observation.
Then Lindy spoke. Yesterday she had initially been able to observe what went on during conversations with a difficult person at work, even when this woman became quite upset. Lindy had felt sympathy for her, but then this person had attacked her, Lindy, which upset her a great deal. Lindy could think of the work and of observation, but she could not move, she was frozen. She had held up her hand in a gesture of protest but had not been able to speak. What could she do when she was paralyzed like that?
I cannot control anything, replied Mr Wyckoff. One can speak of self-control, and one can squash something down, but then one can also speak of work and only have but the thought of it. What really counts is the memory of being in work without any notion of controlling anything or anybody, but simply to see what happens. What was really happening? You have pictures that you were doing something and she was doing something, but what was really happening – by way of force? There is something happening which I don’t see. I record it only after it has happened, although it’s so quick that it seems to be simultaneous. But when you’re more connected you’re in a different time, and you weren’t in that different time on that occasion, were you?
No, Lindy replied. So, continued Jim, I can remember that there is something I don’t see and I can draw back. It is like how if you’re looking at that picture and you’re standing right there in the corner of the room you can’t really see it and what’s around it. You need to draw back and then you can see it. Like that.
The last question I will deal with came from Esmeralda. She returned to her question of the week before. She said that she thought had understood what Mr Wyckoff had said, but when she came to put it into practice, it was a “complete mess”. She had been with her daughter while she was practising her violin, and she tried to have a certain state with her, but it was quite the reverse, she was worse than ever. It seems to me, said Esmeralda, that when you speak, I understand something and something responds, but tomorrow, this condition won’t be there.
But something will be there, maybe, said Jim. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I don’t know what’s going to happen in five minutes, and the moment I say that, it puts me in a different place. I assume that work is only up to me … well there’s a job for me, but what comes to me, I don’t create that. I open to it, so it’s a big work. My effort is up to me, but when I allow a place that corresponds to this other force, it comes, doesn’t it? When I try and do something about it or think about it, I close. I’m ordering my life, I’m ordering the universe, even. But I wonder what’s going to happen today when we play the violin? It’s different. I don’t just listen o the violin, but to my body, because that’s where I hear the music, not just in the ears, but in the body.
To my mind, at least, Jim Wyckoff had some substantial insights. He also had a good quiet style in groups, and while he spoke, one felt a confidence that much was possible. But in retrospect, I think that Esmeralda’s experience over those two weeks was everyone’s, whether they would concede it or not. With him, we felt that it was simple. We were getting in our own way. But when it came to using his advice in daily life, then like fairy gold which glittered by night there was only dust in one’s pocket by daylight. People may disagree, but that is my view. Wyckoff could indeed deliver moments of uplift: no doubt at all. But these left little trace. However, there are techniques, there are methods: many of them. But Jim Wyckoff only really understood the use of sensation, if indeed he understood that, because he did not see that even for this, an aim is needed.
Mr Wyckoff had some tremendous flashes, and he had some follies. His answer to Samantha is an example: it was nonsense to say that a tennis player cannot change his grip or stance. They do it often. I have even checked with a tennis player who gave me some interesting information about the different grips and stances and how while older people might find them unusual at first, or awkward, he had never met anyone who could not with some attention change either. It is formatory to say one cannot “do”: incidentally, one could look up George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia in the index under “change”, “doing (do)” and “formatory (as in “formatory thought”) to see what the authentic teaching of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Adie was in these regards. Gurdjieff even said: “A man who works is always seeking for means to do.” (3 August 1944). But the concepts of change and doing are related to aim: aim must come first. The ability to do, Gurdjieff said, is the ability to attain a projected aim (see George Adie, p.56 and the materials cited there, see also the lectures “The Point of Doing” and “Doing” at pp.112-20 of that book).
If I cannot “do”, and it is so absolute as that, then neither can I study. Neither can I listen. There is no point in his advice: which is what Esmeralda effectively said. “Learn by doing”, said Gurdjieff, “repeat, repeat, repeat. Work until the sweat runs neither only from your brows but also from your heels”. “I cannot work”, said Jim Wyckoff, “I am worked.” Which sounds more inviting?
I do not say this to abuse him or his memory, but the fact is that “aim” is something Jim Wyckoff simply did not understand. As I mentioned in my earlier blog: “Did Gurdjieff Found the Gurdjieff Groups?”, he rebuffed a question about it by telling me not to think in terms of aim.
The concept of doing is distorted if approached in a formatory way. As I show in George Adie, “do” and “cannot do” can be reconciled. One needs a third force: an aim, or at least a motive, perhaps new knowledge, perhaps a new understanding. We even see people in life, with no connection to the Gurdjieff groups let alone to any religion, who change their lives. We see drug addicts beat their dependencies, we see people leave grudges behind, we see reconciliations. How could an intelligent man arrive at Jim Wyckoff’s conclusions?
I think the answer is that Wyckoff himself did not “do”: he was fortunate to come under certain conditions, and he had a mind capable to insights. But he was a rather feckless person, who never learned to think: he never acquired an ability for logical-confrontation. He saw deeply, but I never saw evidence that he could analyse. His books support me: whatever virtues they have, analysis and logic are not among them. In The Lost Continent of Atlantis (1968), he narrates Plato’s myth, with little discernable added value. He mentions that “Atlantologists” say that “Gadir” is the only surviving name in the Atlantean language (p.20). Jim would be helpless in the face of such an assertion: he would not know how to test it. But this is in fact a well-known Phoenician word, as many books on the Mediterranean would have told him. This would have lead to a more fruitful line of enquiry: the relationship between Phoenicia and Greek mythology. Typical, also, is his ending on p.92, that when man has found Atlantis, he may have found “something of himself. Maybe then he will know then who he really is and why he is here on earth.” Sounds good, may even sound great. But nothing whatever in the book has lead up to this. It is just a portentous statement he added at the end of the book. Jim certainly did not know why we were here, as he said (see below).
Then, in Wilhelm Reich: Life Force Explorer (1973), consider the statement at pp.120-1 that in “a sick world” anyone who is sane is bound to seem mad. What is madness, Wyckoff rhetorically asks, but that area where we place our devils, our enemies and our God? I read this to a friend of mine, a doctor (meaning, a physician). Oh no, she said, madness exists alright, and it is a horrifying thing. She was speaking from experience in the mental health wards of Sydney’s hospitals. Even from my limited exposure to genuinely mad people, I would say that Wyckoff’s statement is once more, big sounds, no content, and certainly no attempt to justify it. We place God in madness? What in heaven does he mean? It is not even undergraduate level. I could continue with other parts from the book, but you have the picture.
I suspect that Mr Wyckoff’s real passion was not Gurdjieff, but Reich. I think this is why Jim would mention “armour” (Reich referred to “body armour”), why he placed so much emphasis on sensation of the body, and why his real strength in the Gurdjieff work was in the movements, but certainly not in the ideas. This would explain why “aim”, “chief feature”, “essence”, “higher being bodies” and similar concepts from Gurdjieff meant nothing to him; why in fact he eschewed them.
Jim Wyckoff’s crypto-Reichianism is why he hardly ever read Beelzebub. He did not understand it, and it was a world away from Reich, with its Most Most Holy Absolute, its angels and its discourse on the reasons for man’s existence. I once heard Jim ask rhetorically: “Why are we here? Who cares, I don’t want to know. All that matter is we are here”. Well Gurdjieff cared. It was the reason for the entire panoply of ideas and techniques and his answers are the heart of his book. It is ironic that Wyckoff expresses the wish that Reich be studied without “distortion” (p.136), because that is what I feel he brought to Gurdjieff: distortion.
It seems to me now that the big problems for the Gurdjieff groups emerged in the 1960s, and it is no coincidence, perhaps that the Catholic Church went through what can only be fairly described as a process of Protestantisation during that period. Catholic theologians came very close to Luther’s idea of salvation by faith alone, and certainly not human works. The same thing happened with Gurdjieff: “work”, “aim”, “doing”, were all very hard and de-emphasized, if not done away with altogether.
Did Jeanne de Salzmann effectively Protestantise the Orthodox teaching and methods of Gurdjieff? It is an intriguing line of thought: the Gurdjieff exercises were no longer needed: one just called down higher energy. The old rituals with their rules and stately order were discarded, yet Gurdjieff had said that “every ceremony or rite has a value if it is performed without alteration” (Miraculous, p.303). So why were his exercises not performed without alteration? Look at what happened with the movements. No longer did one study the movements in detail, learning them, getting them into the body, reading the book which was there. As Gurdjieff said, “a ceremony is a book in which a great deal is written.” (p.303). Rather, as Wyckoff would tell us, one just works on the floor. One would do a bit of a movement, leave it for weeks, come back, maybe do bits of another movement for a few weeks, but then not again for a year. With Mrs Adie, however, we learned four movements regularly over the period of nine to ten months, and entered into the mystery. It is not enough to have the experience: it must be digested, as Gurdjieff said.
The next blog shall have more to say about Jeanne de Salzmann. It is time to end this one. Those who cannot bear the critique of Jim Wyckoff can simply cut and paste Part One into another document. It is unique, some of it is excellent, and I cannot see anyone else making available material by him. For those who have the stomach, however, to try and consider the facts impartially, Jim Wyckoff was a man of great talent, but he never met anyone who could help him develop his talent and whose help he would have accepted. He did meet Mr Adie, but he despised him. In the end, it was his loss, but many other people lost out too, because Jim Wyckoff played a large role in the destruction of Mr Adie’s school.
When he came to Newport, he made no attempt to find out what we had there. He just started doing things his own way. Even the new manager of an office doesn’t do that: they enquire, they go softly and see that is there, and then make changes as they think they are needed. Not Jim: no interest, not the least curiosity as to what Mr Adie had brought, who we were or how we were. He just had to bring the two groups under his direction.
It is ironic. He said so often that we know nothing. Maybe five minutes ago I knew something, but not now, he said (it’s on the tapes). But he did not live this. He was quietly cocksure of himself and his approach. Yet his mind gave out. Perhaps he had a condition I do not know of, but it seems to me that his last years, which were spent in senility correspond to his passive, indeed overly passive dispensation. This idea that I cannot keep it, I can only have moments, is insidious. This formula “not my attention but the attention” is a play with words. It is just not right: I can keep something of it, as Gurdjieff said, and as many have proved. One can change, one can coat the higher bodies, one can save one’s soul. In the end, although he did have something, Jim fulfilled his teaching: he could not do, he could not change, he did not know who he was, he could not even remember, and he died like that.
“Behind Real I Lies God”
“Behind real I lies God”, said Gurdjieff. And one possible expression of the feeling-quality of the relationship between real I and God is indicated by the prayer “Lord Have Mercy”. This was an important prayer to Gurdjieff: it is in exercises he gave Mrs Staveley and also the Adies in the last years of his life. It features in some of his very last movements. It is even found in Beelzebub. It is worth pondering. If one uses the method of continuing prayer I mentioned in the blog on the Prayer of the Heart, one can take it into life, and even into the Gurdjieff preparation. Then one can experience both “Lord Have Mercy” and “I AM”. Two separated but related impulses which lived together bring an almost miraculous experience.
This statement attributed to Gurdjieff, “behind real I lies God”, and which lands with the force of a revelation, was preserved by Maurice Nicoll (Selections from Meetings in 1953 at Great Amwell House, Eureka Editions, 1997, p.14). Nicoll went on to explain that it follows that Real I can be placed on the Ray of Creation around the note “si”, just beneath the Absolute. That volume has many interesting references to Gurdjieff: see pp.105, 110, 123, 126, 146, 173, 180, 188, and 202-3 (the last two pages are from Nicoll’s very last group meeting).
Then, in another book of miscellaneous meeting notes, it is related that Nicoll had said that when he and his wife were at the Prieuré, their two year old baby Jane fell sick. Gurdjieff kept the members of the Institute up for most of the night doing unusually difficult exercises “in order to create the force which he was able to use to cure Jane … He and Mrs Nicoll always felt that he had in this way saved Jane’s life.” (Informal Work Talks, Eureka Editions, reprint of 1998, p.82). This book, too, contains other Gurdjieff anecdotes and maxims: see pp.3, 6, 17, 48 (x2), 51, 93 and 113-4.
In my opinion, however, the very best and most useful material from Nicoll’s groups is to be found in Notes Taken At Meetings January 18, 1934 to April 28, 1934 (Eureka Editions, 1996). What Nicoll writes there about the internal parts of centres, and other topics, is – to my mind – astounding. So precise is it, that one receives a shock from merely reading it. One of the bizarre diagrams in the hardcover edition of Views (p.218, omitted from the paperback, possibly because it was considered too opaque) is found in almost identical form in Notes Taken At Meetings. Nicoll’s explanation of it is complementary to Gurdjieff’s, and illuminating. In effect, one can see that it graphically and vividly illustrates an insight into our position as individuals and in the cosmos.
Although there is some excellent material in the far better known Psychological Commentaries and in The New Man and Living Time, as a whole, Nicoll’s best and most unique insights come in the three slim volumes of informal notes. Further, they often put ideas in a better form than that of the Commentaries. I have sometimes encountered something in one of these books, and then researched that topic in the Commentaries. It is perhaps significant that Nicoll did not revise these volumes of notes: had he done so he might have ruined them.
Nicoll was an immensely talented individual, and he had the advantage of spending many mornings with Gurdjieff, working at carpentry. Gurdjieff, too, clearly thought a great deal of Nicoll, and invited Nicoll to him after the death of Ouspensky, but Nicoll refused. However, I think that when Nicoll wrote he took too much care to express his meaning. His Commentaries are Talmudic in inaccessibility. Invariably prolix and didactic, they repeat themselves to little advantage, even in the one paper. I not infrequently have the sense of being reprimanded by a schoolmaster. The many references to the Gospels are not always enlightening: too often they just import a sense of preachy self-righteousness. And Nicoll has an awful habit of writing about “the Work” as if we all knew what it was, and it spoke in a clear and strident voice. “The Work” tells us this, and the “the Work” tells us that. Of course, the work in so far as it can be personalised tells us nothing. But Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and especially Nicoll, said a good deal. The Commentaries need condensation: for example, the anecdote about “Real I” is found there, at page 1647. Not too many readers have made it so far into the volumes, as evidenced by the fact that it is never cited.
The same deficiency in Nicoll’s “polished” work and the comparative vigour of his raw product is found in the two “New Testament” books, The New Man and The Mark. Nicoll had completed and published New Man in 1950, three years before he died, but he did not complete Mark. Yet, in my view, that is easily the best of the two books, even if it does to an extent assume the ideas in New Man. Lacking the “official Nicoll style”, New Man is more engaging and convincing. It also features the wonderful essay “The New Will”, perhaps the best thing Nicoll ever wrote, although it does not provide commentary on the New Testament.
Then, there is Pogson’s biography, Maurice Nicoll: A Portrait, republished by Fourth Way Books, 1987. One can receive an entirely new impression of Gurdjieff and the Prieuré from that volume. It is extraordinary that later researchers have under utilised these pages. It is not a “great” biography. Pogson’s approach is rather naive in some respects, and with her I always have a faint sense of the “prim and proper”. She describes how Nicoll moved his group to various stately English mansions and taught the New Testament, and she often says how wonderful and moving various events and talks were, but leaves it at that, as if the reader can share in the moment by reading of her own emotional exaltation. It is not so. Pogson could have made some attempt to bring together important ideas. Even the reference to Jane Nicoll’s illness does not mention how Gurdjieff asked people to make super-efforts to provide an energy. But why not? Pogson knew of this, and it exemplifies a principle, which others can experiment with.
Overall, then, I think that there is some very good and useful material in Nicoll’s legacy, which has too often been overlooked. But the difficulty is that it has been badly edited and passed on. Creed’s volumes of notes are very poorly put together, with the same illustrations and diagrams in each, and he has a habit (especially in his two volumes of shamefully muddled Fragments) of mixing together valuable and rare material with excessive quotation from Miraculous and the Psychological Commentaries. Like Pogson, but even more so, Creed’s talent is for collection. And we must thank him for that.
But anyone who made their way through these books and put together a single volume of about 200 pages called “Nicoll’s Approach to Mystical Philosophy”, systematically synthesizing Nicoll’s teaching rather than cutting and pasting from various sources, would be performing a public service. For example, the statement about real I can be expanded by reference to the diagram on p.41 of Notes Taken At Meetings, but this sort of research and editing is, sadly, beyond any of the commentators and editors Nicoll has found to date.
Nicoll is something of an outsider in certain Gurdjieff circles. For example, he does not appear in the Foundation-sponsored Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections, yet a good deal of what I might politely call material of little enduring value does, side by side with some powerful material. And the feeling is reciprocal: Nicoll’s people have their own canon of acceptable teachers: Ouspensky, Nicoll and Pogson. And, from what I can see, that is about it. Yet, as I have written elsewhere, I am more certain than ever that Gurdjieff intended his pupils, yes, even Jeanne de Salzmann, to learn from each other. He gave many of his pupils something unique and helped them to develop their own material: how could this not have been deliberate?
The question is: will Gurdjieff’s pupils ever start to reach over institutional walls and learn from each other? Will they ever be able to come together for any purpose? Why could the Foundation, the Bennett people, and others, perhaps in the USA, not come together on a Nicoll project, and invite Lewis Creed?
After I had written this blog, but before posting it, I was reminded of something. It was in November 2003, and Mr Adie’s group had a time away with the “Sydney Foundation” group in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. Since that time, I have left the Adie group and it has joined the Foundation people. But at this week away, I was on the Adie group’s council, and I said at one of the meetings that it was difficult when the two councils got together because the Foundation group had 12 people on theirs. We had five. Let us say that my comments were not warmly received.
Afterwards I spoke to one of our people and remarked that he knew that what I had said was right, so why did he not support me? He was not happy with me: he was glowering behind his beard. Yes, he stated, tetchily, you are right, but nothing will come of it, so why raise it? As I say, he was not happy with me.
Then, at our very next meeting, David from London made the surprising announcement, looking in my direction, that “for once I had sympathy with one of your outbursts”. Further, he had spoken to the lady in New York with responsibility for that group or had someone speak to her. I cannot quite recall which, but it may have been both. She had agreed, and the council of 12 was being replaced by a council of five persons, but the lineup would rotate from time to time.
I felt like asking David when I had given way to outbursts, and perhaps should have, as to refrain seemed to encourage him in his belief that he possessed “gravitas” and ‘auctoritas”. But, conscious that I was with others of my group, I did not. Yet, I have to say, that one of them could have supported me. However, they did not.
I also felt like pointing out to the one I had spoken to that indeed he had been wrong: the change was made. So my raising it was not forlorn. In fact, it had been the catalyst to David contacting New York and introducing some practicality into their council’s arrangements.
Why do I raise this? Because in the Gurdjieff groups people often feel inhibited from raising matters they think will be unpopular. Be ever so sane and balanced as you like, the fact that you are not doing the done thing is sufficient to set you up as a bringer of outbursts.
Well, the moral of my story is, the ideas and the methods are real. The groups, and often the group leadership are not. They are illusions. if you are in a Gurdjieff group, and even in the Foundation itself, do be not afraid to be wrongly seen as making outbursts. Be centred, and speak. You have nothing to lose but your illusions.
G. I. GURDJIEFF
P. D. OUSPENSKY
Did Gurdjieff found the Gurdjieff Groups?
from Joseph Azize
Did Gurdjieff found the Gurdjieff groups? No, of course he didn’t. He was their inspiration, but he certainly did not found them. They were founded by Ouspensky, even down to the format of weekly group meeting and movements on week nights with days of “work” each Sunday, and regular recesses. Ouspensky had this very sensible and successful formula down pat before Gurdjieff started his regular groups in Paris during the war years, groups which he had discontinued at least 18 months before his death. Neither did Gurdjieff found the Institute which bears his name, let alone a Foundation. It is hard to imagine the word “Foundation” sitting in Gurdjieff’s mouth, unless spiced with the pepper of satire. Surely he would have sensed the “philological peculiarity” of this heavy word. Mr Adie, who was also sensitive to tones and nuances, did not find it at all corresponding to the feeling required; he much preferred the exclusively human reference of “Society”. After Gurdjieff’s death, Jeanne de Salzmann effectively found herself in charge of the bulk of Ouspensky’s English groups, which simply continued his format. To her credit, she copied that format with its “weekend works”. In fact, for all we know, Ouspensky set the pattern which Gurdjieff followed in his own war time groups, for, so far as is known, Gurdjieff had never held regular groups beforehand. Nor did Gurdjieff continue any type of group or meeting for terribly long.
There is a much overlooked part of the teaching to consider in this respect. It was disclosed in that remarkable period when Gurdjieff showed Ouspensky “the beginnings of all the methods, the beginnings of all the ideas, their links, their connections and directions” (In Search of the Miraculous, p.346), although Ouspensky takes it out of turn in his magisterial treatment. Gurdjieff told them that they took the idea of groups “too theoretically … You ought to have known more by now. There is no particular benefit in the existence of groups in themselves and there is no particular merit in belonging to groups. The benefit or usefulness of groups is determined by their success” (Search, p.232).
Note just how precisely Gurdjieff conveys his meaning: they ought to have known better after barely two years with him. It should have been staring them in the face: there is no magic in groups. They have taken the whole idea of Fourth Way groups too theoretically, they should, rather, be practical. The purpose, the aim, comes first. Assess the group. Is it successful or not?
Now if Ouspensky’s model was sensible and successful for transmitting the ideas and the methods, then like every stick, it had another end. And that end, I think, is this: one can become too dependent on a group. One can identify with them. Many people, myself included, believe that this is why Gurdjieff orphaned so many of his pupils, like Ouspensky, Orage, the de Hartmanns, the de Salzmanns and Jane Heap (although Jeanne and Jane were allowed to return).
Just as with a train, one must know when to get off. If I stay on the train after my stop, I have lost at least some of the benefit of the trip. Maybe if I wake up shortly afterwards, I can walk back to where I had wanted to go, and the trip may have saved me a great deal of time. Or maybe I have to wait only half an hour for another train back. But it is easy to imagine worse scenarios: what if I have to wait hours, days or years for another train? What if I cannot find any trains back? Or even worse: what if instead of alighting when I have reached my home station, I stay on, and make the train my home?
How does one know when to get off the train? First, and most obviously, one must know the destination. If one has no aim, it is impossible. Mr Adie insisted that one formulate one’s aim: the formulation might not be perfect, it might even be known to be imperfect, but one had to attempt it. (see George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia, under the indexed word “aim”). Without an aim, he insisted, everything is equal. Aim alone, he would say, can give meaning. Incidentally, St John Cassian gave exactly the same advice. The spiritual life is not a question of mandates and orders: these are all to serve its aim, an aim which each aspirant must freely choose.
So only by reference to aim can one judge how long to remain in a group. This, I think, is the deep reason why the concept of aim has been downplayed in the “new work”. That way, one never has cause to leave, one is forever searching from scratch. Jim Wyckoff, however, from the New York Foundation, advised me not to think in terms of aim (advice which I ignored even then). It was, he said, too rigid. I know that some of his pupils think in terms of “orientation” but are resistant, if not hostile, to the concept of “aim”, or at least were when I knew them. An orientation can keep you in the Foundation forever … and then there were other methods of inducing perpetual dependence, which I may come to in a later blog.
But if, as I have written elsewhere, search only has meaning because of the possibility of finding, how does one know when one has found enough in the groups? I think the answer is simple: it is when one can see and understand how to approach one’s aim. And I think all conscious aims have this in common: when one can balance the work of the three centres, one can make one’s own way towards aim. One then can and perhaps even should try in life, without a group. For as I have written in that book, the one condition a group cannot ever give you is the condition of being without a group. The group does, and by its nature must, come between the seeker and life. For a time this may be good, even desirable, and even necessary. Certainly, I tend to think that to individually acquire what we had with the Adies, I would have needed 300 years of experience. I compare it to learning a skill from someone who knows it. But an apprentice who stays an apprentice forever is a bad apprentice, and has a poor master.
I repeat, when one can bring the three centres into some balance, when one can come to a state where neither intellect, feeling or organic instinct predominate, that is, when one can act reasonably on a fairly reliable basis, despite the inevitable errors and misjudgments, then, I would say, it is time for one to strike out alone. Maybe not forever, or maybe not too far away. One may wish, for example, to contribute to the group. Such maturing, moving away, and returning is shown on the enneagram. It is the natural order of life. The parents raise the child and then the child become an adult cares for the parents in their need.
But before one returns, one must have established one’s own. What is the point of school if there is no graduation? If I am in a “school” all my life, I am institutionalized. We have to test ourselves in life. And it is not the Fourth Way if one is never alone in life.
the Prieuré where Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man was housed
(fully functional from 1922-1924)
photo with thanks to Gilgamesh Pictures, click on image to enlarge.
Fasting in Christianity and Gurdjieff
17 March 2008
2. Fasting: Definitions and Reasons
3. The Constantinople Notes of Mr. Ferapontoff
4. “Palm Sunday”, the Tchekhovitch and Nott Lists
5. Fasting at the Prieuré
6. The Account of Fasting in Beelzebub
7. Mme Claustres on Fasting
8. Prince Ozay
10. Final Comments
There is reason to explore the possible relationship of Gurdjieff’s ideas and practices to those of Christianity. I will here just take one particular topic: fasting. Eventually, we may be able to draw some larger conclusions. As Ouspensky said: “We are not trying to found a church or a sect, but simply to promote a method of education and study” (Daily News, 19 February 1923, p. 1). There need not be any conflict between Christianity and the use of Gurdjieff’s methods.
To anticipate, the value of fasting can, I think, be expressed in Gurdjieff’s terms thus: fasting causes changes in the tempo of the body’s metabolism, and hence upsets the long-established coordination of intellectual, feeling and organic instinct (the “Zoostat”, see the chapter “Hypnotism”, p. 559). This shock to the Zoostat presents an opportunity, but only an opportunity, for “real notions” to pass to the subconscious (which ought to be our real consciousness and to become active in the entirety of a man, pp. 24-5 and 579). The shock also allows impulses in the subconscious, such as conscience, to play a role in our lives. Gurdjieff also refers to the health benefits of fasting.
However, as a general rule, there is no fasting in the contemporary Gurdjieff tradition, although attention is paid to how one eats, and to oneself as one eats. Here Christianity can take something which is consistent with its own traditions from Gurdjieff, and the Gurdjieff students could, and I would say should, take something from Christianity.
The reader could closely consider pp. 71-4 of Solange Claustres’ Becoming Conscious with G.I. Gurdjieff. She relates Gurdjieff’s teaching that concentrated attention consumes a good deal of energy and material substance, therefore, anyone engaged in such work “should eat the best quality foods, nutritious and rich in vitamins.” (p. 73) If this is so, and I believe from experience that it is, then people on any religious path could give more consideration to the quality of their food. For example, I would contend that both on the grounds given by Mme Claustres, and because it goes against essential values, we should not eat refined sugar, industrially processed foods, or smoke. Gurdjieff gave indications in the chapter “America”, which are not always followed in the Gurdjieff groups. Then there are serious questions of how the growers, reapers and producers of the food have been paid for their services. The Gurdjieff groups are well placed to conduct research into this and to organize food supplies which would not offend against conscience.
In the final analysis, the questions of food itself, what to eat, how much and how to eat it, and production, are all related to the question of fasting, which is how Mme Claustres treats them. And abstinence from food and drink is also related to abstinence in other ways (such as of the senses). As we shall see, Gurdjieff also related fasting to other topics such as repentance and confession, and this is correct. There is a very real connection between these issues.
2 Fasting: Definitions and Reason
What is fasting? The Catholic tradition distinguishes fasting from food and drink from abstinence. The law of abstinence, in a relatively recent formulation, bound all Catholics from the day after their fourteenth birthday, to their death. The law of fasting bound all adult Catholics (generally from their eighteenth birthday until the age of 60, i.e. until midnight completing their fifty-ninth year.)
The law of abstinence forbade the use of meat, but unlike the Orthodox tradition of fasting, which forbade eggs, animal fats and olive oil, the Catholic law of abstinence allows all these. Fish and cold-blooded animals such as clams are always permitted in the Catholic rules of abstinence, even if they are not recommended. Water, and even milk and fruit juices are always permitted, even when fasting. So the law of abstinence does not restrict the amount of food one eats, but only the type.
There is a distinction between the Western (Latin) and the Eastern Catholic traditions of fasting. The Latin Catholic law of fasting allows but one full meal a day, which is generally the mid-day meal. Should a person desire, they may have small collations, generally something very modest like a piece of toast, at breakfast and evening. Some recommend nothing more than a small collation in the evening, should it be needed, so that sleep not be entirely impossible. However, the size of the collations depends upon local custom. The Eastern Catholic law of fasting allows no food whatsoever, but only water before noon, and from noon there is no restriction.
In the Catholic discipline, if one fasts one also abstains. Hence, on days of fasting, when Catholics eat, they may have fish. In the Eastern rites, however, partly perhaps because of the scarcity of fish, but not only for that reason, vegetarianism is preferred on days of fast. However, this preference is, I am informed by Orthodox friends, disappearing.
When, then, does one fast? The general rule is that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the first and last days of Lent, are days of fasting. It is also recommended, and in the Eastern churches it is or at least was essential, that one fast throughout the whole of Lent. Then, there are other smaller fasts, too, which vary from rite to rite. One of these, the Fast of Nineveh, seems to be named after the fasting Ninevites of the Book of Jonah. These fasts were associated with other feasts, such as Christmas and the Assumption.
Why fast? To start with, the physical benefits of prudent fasting are apparent. A study of the Mormons, who fast on the first Sunday of each month, missing two meals, showed substantial health benefits. Another study of what we would call abstinence in the Greek Orthodox Church, showed that abstinence had significant value. This is important, and should be of importance to the Gurdjieff tradition. The first Obligolnian striving relates to the care of the body. In the scenario of the Struggle of the Magicians, the pupils of the white and black magicians are distinguished by the health of their bodies and their postures. The physical body, after all, is part of essence. It should be cared for. Here, both the Christian and Gurdjieff traditions agree, at least in theory, although in practice too little is done. Incidentally, Mr Adie used to take very great interest in the health of his pupils, and I know that he would recommend to overweight persons that they lose weight: however, he did all of this counselling in private. In all the time I knew him and in all the tapes of meetings I have heard, he never once raises these issues in groups. So far as I know, he never used fasting. However, Leon MacLaren most definitely did.
Physical benefits would be sufficient to raise fasting as a serious matter for research within both traditions. But there is more.
3 The Constantinople Notes of Mr. Ferapontoff
I refer here to a privately published 17,530 word document held by Mr Adie, titled the “Constantinople Notes of Mr. Ferapontoff”. These notes were made by Boris Ferapontoff, a pupil whom Gurdjieff evidently considered to be one of his finest (he was named as one of the assistant instructors and did in fact take movements, de Hartmann, Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff: Definitive Edition, pp. 177 and 210 ). They appear to be Ferapontoff’s notes of the lectures which Ouspensky commenced giving in Constantinople in 1920 (Miraculous p. 382). However, they are clearly not verbatim and so would appear to be the intellectual property not of Ouspensky but of Ferapontoff. Of fasting, these notes say the following, which is consistent with, but expands what Ouspensky records in Miraculous at pp. 357-8. At pp. 30-1 of the manuscript, we read:
Fasting. It cleans off the rust. The machine works at a greater speed. At times it produces unhealthy excitations, visions, voices. Some kinds of ecstasy pass through strange forms. If as a rule a man uses a great deal of food, then while fasting he must work still  more. He should saw wood for about five hours a day for as long as a week. Eating nothing will do no harm if it is possible to work, otherwise one would be poisoned. An outlet should be found for the substances which are secreted for the digestion of food. If a starving man is alone, he will die.
Under the influence fasting secret sides of a man may be aroused. What he had dreamt about. Another cannot take this into account.
Fasting is used as an experiment, for self-study, for hygiene. To learn not to use superfluous energy for digestion. But neither fast nor starvation change the habits of the stomach. The momentum is still greater. It is only in the beginning that the organism may appear to have learnt something.
The first sentence, “it cleans off the rust”, might be understood in terms of Gurdjieff’s teaching prior to the experiment in fasting at Essentuki, that the centres work in a disordered unison. A definite activity of the intellectual centre necessarily brings a definite work of the other centres, and vice versa. Therefore, unless the work can touch all parts of a person at once, the results of efforts will be temporary and lopsided (pp. 347-8 Miraculous). The point is developed there, but also in other places, such as in the “First Talk in Berlin” in Views from the Real World. However, Gurdjieff stressed this at the time he introduced the fasting exercises.
The idea can be developed in this way: we are accustomed to take certain postures of thought, of emotion and of body. An example was given to me recently by a friend who described how when her husband even recalls how he was bullied as a child, he hunches over, and she can see that he is actually fearful. The intellectual memory brings a certain set of postures, and these, of course, limit whatever thoughts and emotions might be available. These thoughts, emotions and organic instincts can be thought of as “rusted” together into place. That is, his psychic freedom is limited by the accretions of time. Our organic feeling of ourselves is conditioned by nothing so much as our foods: our eating and drinking, breathing and perception. Changing the intake of food and drink will immediately upset conditioned networks of reaction.
If I am correct, Gurdjieff is saying that man realises new possibilities of free movement through the unaccustomed feeling of hunger, and, I would add, the unaccustomed impression of depriving oneself of food and perhaps drink. Through fasting, the rust which holds the man-machine to a small repertoire of habitual arrangements is partially cleared away. This would explain why in “Palm Sunday” he said that fasting was a means of cleansing. It cleanses the machine of what I call “the unwanted accretions of time”.
I am not the only one who finds that fasting brings an unexpected but wholly welcome sense of freedom, not only physically, but in the feeling and the intellect, too.
Ferapontoff’s notes coincide with what Gurdjieff said in “Palm Sunday”, i.e. “Fasting is used as a means of altering our metabolism and, consequently, of altering the tempo of life and movement in us.” The machine comprises all the centres, except of course for the higher intellectual and emotional which are connected to, and permeate, but are not of the machine. Even small experiments with fasting provide more perceptions, finer feelings, and a smoother working of the moving and especially the instinctive centres. The role of the instinctive centre is of critical importance in spiritual development, but it is dangerous to interfere with it. Therefore, one does not directly tamper with it, but uses the other centres, and this has an effect upon the instinctive centre. For instance, it is important to sleep well: as Gurdjieff often said, sleeping and waking are inextricably bound, although the relationship is not simply one to one. Fasting improves sleep: I speak as someone with a lifelong history of sleep apnoea, related to my facial bones and secondary effects.
How should one fast in order to have these results? One fast a year will not yield lasting results. And the extent of the fast will differ from person to person: a fact on which both the Christian ascetics and Gurdjieff agree.
The next sentences in Ferapontoff might be rephrased: “At times fasting produces unhealthy excitations, visions, voices. One can experience a kind of ecstasy, which takes strange forms.” Certainly, many people feel light headed when they initially start fasting. I have no knowledge of anything beyond this.
By and large, the sentences on working while fasting do not add anything to the comments in Ferapontoff or Miraculous, but they make sense. Personally, I do not change my daily routine in the least when I fast, and in fact find that fasting seems to make physical exertion (e.g. in the gym) more delightful. Finally, to these sentences was added in the words “If a starving man is alone, he will die.” I suspect that what is meant is that a fasting man is in greater danger of starvation if alone. This may well be true: St John Chrysostom did permanent damage to himself by his fasting when he was alone.
But I suspect there is more than this: one should not change one’s impressions by going off alone while fasting. Impressions are a food, and if one is used to being around people, one should fast in the accustomed circumstances.
There is always the imperative of common sense. Gurdjieff’s comments should not be taken absolutely. For example, I would say that one should not drive while fasting if one becomes in the least light headed while fasting, and if there is any danger of being held up in heavy traffic without food or drink which one may require.
The question is, how to judge what is needed? Fasting may help us sense how much food and drink we need. With food, pleasures and sleep, said Gurdjieff, there is a limit to what is necessary, and immediately after this point has been reached, sin begins. “A sin”, said Gurdjieff, “is something which is not necessary.” And this must be true: sin is not necessary. But then, for Gurdjieff “Sins are what keeps a man on one spot if he has decided to move and if he is able to move.” (Miraculous p. 357). For people who are not on the way or approaching it, there is no sin simply because they are not going anywhere. As we shall see in section 9, this is similar to the teaching of St Maximos the Confessor.
So, there is a question as to how much one eats even if one is not fasting. Christianity speaks of Gluttony as being one of the seven deadly sins, and I am sure every religion has the same concept.
I would paraphrase the final pertinent comments from Ferapontoff’s notes thus: “Under the influence of fasting secret sides of a man may be aroused. Dreams may take on reality for him. Another person cannot take this into account, and so the fast should be moderate.” If this is a fair rewording, then I suggest that a man always be ready to break his fast if he feels that it may be necessary, whether because he will otherwise faint and he is alone, or because he is losing the ability to distinguish dreams from reality.
Finally, note that Ouspensky says that fasting can be used in three ways:
1. as an experiment,
2. for self-study,
3. and for health reasons.
Further, he says, fasting may help us to use only the energy we need when we digest food. You will not change the stomach’s habits, but you will make it easier for the stomach to more intelligently regulate itself after it has been fasting. One should not break a fast with an expansive banquet.
4 “Palm Sunday”, the Tchekhovitch and Nott Lists
We now come to Gurdjieff’s comments in the privately published “Palm Sunday, 19 March – 1 April 1923” and the Ferapontoff notes. The “Palm Sunday” talk or talks took place in the Prieuré years (see the chronology in Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff, Astrology and Beelzebub’s Tales, p. 235), when Gurdjieff was using fasts.
These notes open with Gurdjieff advising his audience to learn some words by heart, these were:
10. Death, and
Then, concerning fasting, he said that fasting in itself did not have meaning. Rather, fasting was used as a means to other ends: the ends of altering the metabolism and thus altering the tempo of life and the tempo of movement in those who fast.
This is an extremely significant statement. Anyone who has grasped what Gurdjieff intends to convey in Beelzebub and especially in the chapter “Hypnotism” will understand that the change of tempo of metabolism is, to him, a key in the change of consciousness. Gurdjieff continued, stressing that fasting was not for the sake of anybody else, and certainly not in honour of saints. This would seem a trite point, but he was stressing that “It is necessary to fast with an aim and intention”, and that these had to be for oneself. Parenthetically, it is interesting for me to remark how often Gurdjieff spoke of the necessity of aim, something to which Mr Adie returned time and again, insisting that without aim all is equal, that without aim, talk of evolution is a farce.
Gurdjieff then made a puzzling statement: he asserted that people now fast because they have fasted before, but as to why, practically no one has thought. This is just plain wrong: there is abundant evidence that throughout the last two and a half millennia fasting has never been without a rationale. It is an odd comment. What was Gurdjieff’s purpose in saying something both so palpably and gratuitously incorrect? Anyhow, he continued, saying that fasting was a means of cleansing, and could be effective only if during the fast certain conscious measures were taken. Then, the section on fasting abruptly ends, and the very next word is “Prayer”. I will mention briefly his interesting definition that prayer is thinking in a certain definite direction. He then moved to passion, saying that passion is a state similar to the gnawings of conscience. By the way, Ouspensky is recorded as having attempted, unsuccessfully, to define “passion”. Gurdjieff then spoke of “repentance” and “confession”, which he described as “something very good and very essential. It is impossible to do anything without confession …”
According to the notes, Gurdjieff then returned to the topic of fasting, saying that real Christians fasted in Lent by eating nothing at all for the first three days, and that these days were called the fast of St Theodore, for he was the founder of the Christian pre-Easter fast. However, for a week before the fast of St Theodore, they were to stop eating anything which might stick in the teeth, such as meat. Fish, he stated, could be eaten only twice throughout Lent. I shall return to these comments later, as they tie in with his statements in Beelzebub.
Lists are also produced by in C.S. Nott’s Teachings of Gurdjieff and in Tu L’Aimeras by Tchesslav Tchechovitch. Except in presentation, the French volume is superior to the English (Gurdjieff: A Master in Life), which tidies up the random order of chapters, and publishes some excellent photographs. But that hardly atones for the omissions which sometimes are clearly to make the book more palatable for the public, e.g. the story of the spectral appearance of Katherine Mansfield after her death is expunged from the English. But other omissions seem senseless. One such is that Tu L’Aimeras concludes with some words without commentary. Here they are with my translation and a note of where each word comes in the Palm Sunday list. In the right hand column:
1. La vie Life (11)
2. La jeûne Fasting (1)
3. La prière Prayer (2)
4. Le péché Sin
5. Le remords Remorse = Passion (3)
6. Le repentir Repentance (4)
7. La confession Confession (5)
8. Le rachat Redemption
9. Le pardon Forgiveness (7)
10. La communion Communion (6)
11. LA VIE LIFE (11)
“Life” appears twice in this list, but “sin”, “remorse” and “redemption” do not appear in the Palm Sunday list. That list has words which are not found here: passion (3), suffering (8), tranquillity (9) and death (10). Perhaps “remorse” is the equivalent of “passion”. In “Palm Sunday” Gurdjieff referred to “passion” as the “gnawings of conscience”. In French, remords is formed from re + mordre, “again to bite”. So I consider that a safe equation. “Tranquillity” may be equivalent to “redemption”, but that is not quite as clear.
I cannot discern a clear progression in the sequence of terms, although I can see, for example, why confession might follow repentance. However, perhaps terms 2-10 can be taken synchronously as events, processes and occurrences which must fill the gap between “life” and “LIFE”. Tchekhovitch’s list commences with life at one level, and is completed or fulfilled by a new or greater life, hence the capitals in the original. It is important that both in Gurdjieff’s list “fasting” comes first, while in Tchekhovitch’s it would be first but that he has reproduced “life” beforehand.
And, in my view, for the reasons adumbrated above, fasting is important because it can kick-start spiritual development from the ground up. it is a means of directly affecting the tempo of the body, for a conscious aim. It provides us with a shock, and hence a chance to disturb our mechanicalness, for a transcendent purpose. It is therefore a form of what Gurdjieff called “hypnotism”, or more precisely, can lead to hypnotism, meaning that it can open a channel of communication between our deeper consciousness and our “waking consciousness”, and even to higher faculties. It can also act as a catalytic agent for the transformation of reproductive energy.
Now, let us deal with Nott’s words from p. 72 of Teachings. Without any real introduction or attempt to date it, Nott says that Gurdjieff wanted them to think differently about familiar words:
This is very similar to the Palm Sunday list, but Nott omits “Passion”, “Communion”, “Forgiveness”, “Suffering” and “Tranquillity”. Nott also adds “Sin”, “Supplication”, “Atonement”, “Submission” and “Resurrection” which are not in Palm Sunday.
Nott’s list differs from Tchekhovitch’s in that it omits “Remorse”, “Redemption”, “Forgiveness” and “Communion”. To Tchekhovitch’s list it adds: Supplication”, “Submission”, “Atonement”, “Death” and “Resurrection”. Of course, some of these words may be equivalents, e.g. “Communion” for “Atonement”. But unlike the list in Tchekhovitch, both Palm Sunday and Nott explicitly include “Death”, and both of these follow “Death” with “Life” or even with “Resurrection” and “Life”.
Each of these terms, says Nott, has a psychological application. For example, fasting can purify the body and alter its metabolism, but beyond this, it can refer to abstention from “useless unwilled manifestations (and) the constant giving way to negative emotions.” Nott links fasting to abstinence, that is, fasting in the intellectual and emotional centres. This, too, is known in Christian monastic writings, as we shall see. However, Nott does not deal with the other words, but moves straight on to telepathy.
A further important point is that these three extraordinary lists show how closely aligned Gurdjieff’s teaching really was to the traditional Christianity of the monastic and eremitic mystics. After all, he is more likely to have found references to confession, communion and resurrection in Christianity than in Islam or Buddhism. That the ideas are in a talk titled “Palm Sunday” seems quite appropriate. These considerations make sense of the statement attributed to Gurdjieff that Christianity was the ABC of his system (James Webb, The Harmonious Circle, p. 520). Taking all three lists together, we now have the following words:
5. Passion = Remorse,
8. Communion = Atonement,
13. Redemption = Resurrection, and
Once on a weekend work at Newport, after Mr Adie had died, we tried to make use of the technique of keeping the mind occupied by learning lists of foreign words. Gurdjieff used this at the Prieuré: entire pages of Orage’s notebooks are filled with some of these lists, and may still be viewed at the Brotherton Library in Leeds. However, for whatever reason, our attempt proved to be a disappointment. My sense at the time was that we did not persevere with sufficient understanding. Perhaps we could have read the chapter “Yelov”, where Gurdjieff speaks about how learning languages can keep the intellect usefully employed.
But, also, I think, there is a connection between such a task and fasting: both restrict and direct the activity of a centre. We might have had a different result if we had combined the word list task with a fast. If the list is of the type which Gurdjieff gave his pupils on Palm Sunday 1923, and which both Nott and Tchekhovitch found useful, then the aim and purpose of the fast, and of one’s life, is evoked. The fast is more than a physical exercise. It becomes a physical exercise which changes the tempo of the metabolism and the orientation of the entire person. For all we know, the use of a list of words, and especially such words as these (in English or in some foreign language) aids a beneficent type of hypnotism to work its magic. Bennett said that the fast at the Prieuré was followed with mental exercises combined with manual labour (Witness, p. 89), which would seem to support this suggestion.
The use of such lists can be a massive influence, every bit as much as taking a medicine. But they cannot just be used one day as a sort of curiosity and then put aside. They need to be used by people who understand something of what this progression from life to resurrection to LIFE means, and have awakened religious feeling. Then, perhaps, the steady use of such material could affect a life, and not just a part of it.
5 Fasting at the Prieuré
How did Gurdjieff use fasting at that time? Dr Mary C Bell, in the poorly organized and often superficial notes she wrote (available online and in the Gurdjieff International Review) states that the fast at the Prieuré “excited us a great deal.” While it was voluntary, the great majority of people chose to undertake it. First, they prepared themselves with enemas (why, I do not know). For two days, she said, they were allowed water, but on the third day, no water at all. Then, on day four, they were allowed the juice of one orange and on the fifth the juice of two oranges. Some people were taken off the fast at the end of a week, which they found disappointing (sic), while others continued for as long as three weeks. Dr Bell was required to weigh everyone and to take their pulse twice or even thrice a day. People generally, she said, lost a kilo a day for the first four days, then remained stationary, with some even putting on a small amount of weight.
Bell’s final remarks were that through the fast physical work and exercises in the Study House continued as usual. This is consistent with Gurdjieff’s advice to Ouspensky that when fasting one had to work and perspire in order to use up the substances elaborated by the body for the digestion of food (In Search of the Miraculous, p. 358). When the fast was completed, Bell continued, “the intake of food during the first twenty-four hours was carefully restricted.” Also, people’s complexions “vastly improved.”
Bennett’s account is a little different, and I suspect, more accurate where it conflicts with Bell’s. Bennett reports that Gurdjieff said the fast must be undertaken voluntarily and “without fear”. It was intended to effect a change of metabolism, and “to be of any benefit the first preliminary was an enema.” (Gurdjieff: Making a New World, p. 146) Bennett continues that the fast was individual: most were allowed to drink water only, but some began with prostokvasha (Russian sour milk) and others were allowed “oranges in plenty”. Some, he says, were allowed to fast only for one day, some for two, some for three days and others up to a fortnight. Bennett also says that the fast was broken over two days: on the first day strong bouillon was given, and the next day, beef steak. As with Bell, he notes that the usual heavy manual work continued (p. 146). When one reads this, one wonders why Gurdjieff ever ceased using fasting.
I will pause here to note that according to the report in the Daily News of 16 February 1923 reported on the front page, under the heading “New Life Cult for ‘Harmonious Development’, Feasts and Fasts”:
… M. Gurdjieff, who, believing in the value of many Eastern methods, while rejecting others, may enjoin upon an advanced student a fast of as much as three weeks. About a month ago he asked for volunteers for a fast. Fifteen students responded and went without food for a period, under medical care, while continuing to perform their usual heavy manual labour.
Every detail here, except for the number 15 can be corroborated. Therefore, it is likely that Gurdjieff did indeed experiment with fasting on 15 volunteers as stated. This may indicate that Gurdjieff was experimenting with fasting. Why should we today not do so? Incidentally, Christian ascetical writers also insist on the use of individual fasting regimes. As we shall see, Gurdjieff used fasting even in the War years in Paris, and here, too, his fasts were individual.
6 The Account of Fasting in Beelzebub
In Beelzebub Gurdjieff makes some extended comments on fasting, but they are chiefly critical. In the chapter “Beelzebub in America”, he comes to fasting from his discussion of Christianity and Islam. Christianity possessed good customs “for the preservation of health and for the maintenance of the foundations of morality necessary for a happy life …” (pp. 1010-1011). Of these, he says, nothing remains but the “custom of periodic fasting, that is, of abstaining at certain times of the year from the consumption of certain edible products.” (p. 1011). However, even this custom is disappearing, and where it is maintained, its observance is so changed that “no shock is obtained from it for the fasters”, although the shock is the reason for its institution (p. 1011). More than five pages are then devoted to a satire of the Russian Orthodox attitude to fasting: it is simply an occasion to improve their cuisine by eating interesting fish dinners.
It seems rather a long time to spend on parody when nothing has been said about the nature of the desired “shock”. Gurdjieff initially gives the impression that the fast was instituted by Jesus (p. 1016), but then goes on to give another laboured account, this time of the institution of fasting in 214, at the “secret Kelnuanian Council”. The issue there was the virtues of vegetarianism. The details are found at pp. 1016-22. The result, however, of this Council was that it was decided to institute abstinence from meat at certain times of the year. The problem I have with this type of material is that it is impossible to test it for oneself. And this, of course, runs counter to Gurdjieff’s stated principle that he does not give “in a prepared form … the opinions of another” so as to allow one’s own “logical confrontation” (pp. 1165-6). What logical confrontation can there be with such stories? A great deal in Beelzebub is of a different form, and one can engage with it, and test it within one’s own experience. But these tales? I confess, I am disappointed that in 13 pages Gurdjieff said nothing of significance about this important question of fasting: how to fast, what its purpose is, and why. There is more in Ferapontoff and Palm Sunday’s brief accounts than in Beelzebub. I note that there seems to be no entry in Alan Poole’s concordance for “fast” and “fasting”.
7 Mme Claustres on Fasting
Solange Claustres’ Becoming Conscious with G.I. Gurdjieff is under-estimated. In it she recounts some of the most important material I have seen since In Search of the Miraculous. In one short chapter she mentions that a small group which was working intensively on inner exercises with Gurdjieff was given “some phases of fasting” (p. 71). The fasts were said to take different forms for different people. She herself had to leave half of her food uneaten on her plate. Then, one day Gurdjieff had her break her fast by eating a hearty meal and finishing each plate. This would seem to break the rule that one does not beak a fast with a banquet, but then her fast had not been complete. After that meal, she was to return to her fast. Gurdjieff had not wanted her to get used to fasting. I suspect that this means that people can become accustomed even to the effects of fasting.
At this time, Gurdjieff told Mme Claustres that the movements were a medicine. As we have seen with Ouspensky, comments Gurdjieff made at the same time as giving his students fasts seem to shed a light on fasting, even if not directly related. One evening with Gurdjieff, fatigued and troubled, and not having eaten during the day, she ate everything on her plate, her fast quite forgotten (pp. 71-2). Gurdjieff ordered her to cease her fasting.
Now Mme Claustres provides the material with which we can make a connection between movements, fasting and eating. One must learn, said Gurdjieff, to discriminate in our feeling of impressions, air and food. The food of impressions includes “human relationships, business, leisure interests, reading …” and so on (p. 73). As mentioned above, we need the very best and most nutritious foods. In the movements, we can make a “conscious choice in receiving impressions”. The head directs, and we choose to bring sensation of one part of the body to consciousness, and thus make a connection between thought and body (p. 73). The movements are complex, the sensations and feelings associated with them are not imaginary; and thus, she adds, if one does not pass beyond simply remembering and performing the movements, the “real work of this teaching” is not applied (p. 74).
The connection, perhaps, is that fasting is a form of impression and a source of impressions (e.g. of the absence of food and the desire for it). One receives new impressions of one’s body and psyche. The faster cannot but be aware of his hunger or thirst: there is a possibility for a deeper connection between thought and body. Fasting provides an endless number of “reminders given by my body”, as Mr Adie would say. By being able to restrict one’s intake of any food at all, one is perhaps more capable of refusing to eat bad food. It is simply not necessary to eat confectionary, and there are many reasons why one should not eat it. That, however, is the subject of a different essay.
More than we know, we are slaves to our appetites. One can say that fasting is not necessary to break this slavery, and theoretically that is correct. However, my own experience is that nothing at all helped break mechanical habits half so effectively as fasting.
8 Prince Ozay
We must mention Paul Duke’s The Unending Quest which, some believe, narrates meetings with Gurdjieff under the name “Prince Ozay”. I have not seen that volume, but only the booklet of extracts from it, titled On A Single Breath. The “Indications Press” do not tell us which pages they have used, nor do they provide the references to Ouspensky and Gurdjieff which are to be found in that volume. There have been, to my knowledge, two good treatments of the “Ozay material”, that of James Webb in The Harmonious Circle, and an unpublished essay by Paul Taylor. Moore seems to uncritically accept that Ozay are one and the same, despite the fact that Webb aptly queried that the equation. As Webb said, there are striking similarities between the Ozay story and the tale in Glimpses of the Truth, and it seems hard to imagine that there would have been both an Ozay and a Gurdjieff in Russia at the same time (pp. 85-7). In his paper, Taylor demonstrates that the Ozay account cannot simply be a straightforward relation of a meetings with Gurdjieff under an assumed name. My view is that we do not know the whole truth. Dukes was a friend of Ouspensky (Webb, p. 84), and Ouspensky revised Glimpses. I think the likeliest hypothesis is that the Ozay episodes are a disguised record of Dukes’ meetings with Gurdjieff, and that Ouspensky had a role in the disguising, possibly providing Dukes with Glimpses. I suspect that Ouspensky had a hand in its writing, for it strikes me as being like a chapter of Miraculous. It certainly is on that level.
However, it is still not possible to say that these ideas were those of Gurdjieff, and leave it there. Yet, they are extremely powerful ideas, and demand to be treated before we turn to Christianity. I shall give page references to On A Single Breath.
Dukes observed to Prince Ozay that “prayer is not a physical thing, it is spiritual”. Ozay replied: “Where is the borderline? If prayer has nothing to do with physical functions, why should all the great religions, including those founded on your Bible, insist on the association of prayer with fasting? … prayer in its highest form would seem … to have something to do with the digestion, and even with the quality and circulation of the blood.” (p. 23) Dukes asked whether he would have to fast. The bemused Prince replied that he would, but not right then (p. 27). For the Prince, Dukes learned, chanting was bound up with everything else, including physique, physics and philosophy (pp. 32-3).
On another occasion, Dukes asked why the Lord’s Prayer besought God to give us this day our bread if it is connected with fasting. “You’ve got it wrong”, the Prince replied, “It isn’t with the Lord’s Prayer that fasting is tied up, but with the discovery of the note on which such prayers should be chanted. Without fasting you can’t discover the Name.” (p. 34) Which name?, asked Dukes. The Prince replied with a question: what does Dukes understand when he prays “Hallowed be thy name”? Having stumped Dukes, Ozay connected the “name” in that prayer with the logos of St John’s Gospel. The logos, he explains, is the first sound, “What you might call the world’s tonic note.” It can only be felt, as it is inaudible. But an echo of it can be heard, for each sound is replicated on a different level by the law of octaves (p. 35) “The function of prayer”, according to Ozay, “is not to beg or to extol, but to attune.” It is the body and the soul which are attuned by prayer (pp. 35-6) (Incidentally, attuning, begging and extolling are not necessarily exclusive concepts, but surely attuning would have priority if the petition or the adoration is to reach a higher level than the ordinary.) We are instruments, said Ozay, even musical instruments, hence the importance of fasting and other exercises, for:
… you can’t possibly reflect finer vibrations when your body – or soul, if you prefer – is loaded with a lot of food gurgling in the stomach, or while the blood makes a din chasing about in the veins and arteries. … Fasting is one branch of the art of prayer … but it is also an art in itself and needs to be studied systematically, not in an amateurish or haphazard way. (pp. 36 and 38)
On another occasion, and Dukes makes the point that it was a different occasion, Ozay said that God could be “achieved” not by activity but by “cessation of activity. Cessation to the utmost limit of diet, breath and sex. These are the three pillars on which prayer is built.” (pp. 38-9) Each of these has to be disciplined by restraint. Then, and only then, insisted Ozay, can one “begin to act consciously.” (p. 39) The physical body has to be trained to be a “fit temple of the spirit.” (p. 40) (I note in parentheses that the use of organs and instruments in churches was described as crippling and debasing, p. 43)
One can see why, except that this is more overtly religious than what we are accustomed to from Gurdjieff, it is strongly reminiscent of his key concepts. I think Ouspensky had a role in it: the quality of this thought is extraordinary.
Jesus fasted for forty days: Matthew 4:2, and expected that Christians would fast in the future: Matt. 9:14-5; Luke 5:33-5. The most important statement on fasting is the one in Matthew 6:16-8, effectively not to identify with fasting, and not to try to impress with one’s fasting, i.e. not to consider. It is difficult to deal with any statement by Jesus, one should really set these statements in context, and so many issues are involved. For example, a full treatment of fasting in the New Testament would also take into account Jesus’ mysterious statement in Matt 6:22-3 about how the lamp of the body is the eye, and if the eye is single all the body is full of light. I do not think the placing of these passages is accidental: we are before a mystery, and perhaps are well advised to admit it.
However, we can say more from the patristic tradition. As is so often the case, perhaps the most important material is found in St John Cassian. In On the Eight Vices, reprinted in the Philokalia, vol. 1, he states:
… about how to fast and what and how much to eat … the Holy Fathers … have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies. They also found a day’s fast to be more beneficial and a greater help toward purity than one extending over a period (of up to seven days). Someone who fasts for too long, they say, often ends up by eating too much food. The result is that at times the body becomes enervated through undue lack of food and sluggish over its spiritual exercises …
Cassian went on to relate fasting to all forms of moderation and temperance, that is, like Gurdjieff, he saw fasting as a form of abstinence which may be generalised into other areas. Similarly, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John Climacus said:
Step 14, 33 Fasting is the coercion of nature and the cutting out of everything that delights the palate, the excision of lust, the uprooting of bad thoughts, deliverance from incontinence in dreams, purity of prayer, the light of the soul, the guarding of the mind, deliverance from blindness, the door of compunction … a cause of stillness … health of body, agent of dispassion, remission of sins, the gate of Paradise and its delight.
St John Climacus did not agree with Evagrius that one should fast on bread and water (a blanket prescription which Cassian also explicitly states in wrong): that, he said, is like telling a child to climb a ladder in one stride. Rather, he held, when we seek different foods we seek what is proper to our nature. One should not deny all foods at once but only different foods at different times: now fattening foods, now heating foods, or omit pleasant additives. But we should always allow ourselves satisfying and digestible food (Step 14, 12) Similarly, St Thalassios the Libyan said that “To fast well is to enjoy simple food in small amounts and to shun other people’s esteem.” (On Love, Self-Control … IV 31, in Philokalia vol. 4, p. 327) As with Gurdjieff, fasting is associated with more than simply abstention from food: it has a psychological side. In respect of moderation in fasting, St Maximos the Confessor wrote in the Four Hundred Texts on Love, IV 63 that we should practice ascetic disciplines only to the measure appropriate to our body’s strength.
As adumbrated above, St Maximos the Confessor said something similar to Gurdjieff on the concept of proper or necessary enjoyment of things and sin. He wrote in the Four Hundred Texts on Love, III 86, Philokalia IV p. 97:
Food was created for nourishment and healing. Those who eat food for purposes other than these two are therefore to be condemned as self-indulgent, because they misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things misuse is a sin.
This does not mean that one can take no pleasure at all in food: for “appetites and pleasures which are in accordance with nature are not reprehensible, since they are a natural consequence of natural appetency,”, and thus satisfying hunger or thirst will naturally produce a legitimate pleasure, but the intellect can transcend such pleasures: it is not controlled by them (Various Texts on Theology II 90, Philokalia IV p. 206). Perhaps in Gurdjieff’s terms one could say that we are not identified with them.
Fasting was associated with the weakening of sensual desires (e.g. St John Climacus, and St Maximos the Confessor) but whether it was solely because the body was weaker or because one practised fasting of the sexual appetite, too, is often ambiguous. As we have seen, in fact, one is not necessarily weaker when faster. I suspect, and I put it no more highly than that, that fasting affects people differently. For some, the feeling of having less food and drink than usual may indeed of itself weaken the sensual appetite.
But fasting should also go with what one might call the chastity or the discipline of the eyes. Certainly, the monastic and eremitic fathers said that it was to be used with other means, e.g. St Thalassios the Libyan said that “Moderate fasting, vigils and psalmody are natural means for achieving a balance in the body’s temperament.” (On Love, Self-Control … III 35, in Philokalia vol. 4, p. 321) That is, keeping awake praying and chanting the psalms helps to harmonize our bodies. The body is, in other words, responsive to these combined influences more than it is to their single influence.
10 Final Comments
Bennett makes some very deep comments on fasting in Witness, although I do not agree with them in their entirety, they are worth pondering and it is essential to bear them in mind. First, he notes the extreme value fasting has in Islamic lands (pp. 27 and 79-80). Fasting does, he says, influence the relationship between mind and body: although he practised it regularly, he never became accustomed to it, but dreaded his weekly fast of about 36 hours. However, Bennett wrote, he gave it up because it engendered an inner sense of superiority, and he wanted people to notice that he was fasting. Even if one hides the fact of fasting, he said, it leads to pride (pp. 79-80).
Of course, as he has stated it, there is a lack of common sense here: on this basis no one would make any effort in any religion and certainly not in the Gurdjieff tradition.
Who can ever vouch that an effort they make is unaccompanied by something impure? Bennett does, however, make a better point when he says that when the fasting is undertaken by a community it is different: it is then an obligation (p. 80). I would say that while fasting by a community can be good, it can only be good – or bad – for individuals. There is no reason known to me to think that it does not make the rich more attentive to the poor. Personally, too, I suspect that Bennett’s fast of 36 hours was too lengthy.
I think that what comes from this is that there is no reason why an intelligent person could not experiment with moderate fasting. If you are unsure, seek medical advice. If you feel confident, you could take the eastern Catholic diet of no food before 12 noon on one day, but allowing yourself as water or even tea and coffee. And one should make an exception when promising to oneself to take a fast: if one becomes too lightheaded, one will eat something modest.
The thing is, however, to have a conscious aim or a religious intent (which comes to the same thing) and to use common sense and intelligence.
photo: Jeanne de Salzmann sitting left with Helen Adie at the piano, London
to enlarge click on image
Joseph Azize addresses this questionion the first part of a continuing enquiry;
“Everything” indicated that Gurdjieff’s work remained “unfinished”, Michel Conge told Ricardo Guillon. Dr Conge was a direct pupil of Gurdjieff, and quite close to Jeanne de Salzmann. When he went on to say that “we” had decided to continue “Gurdjieff’s task”, it would seem that he was speaking of the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris. De Salzmann herself told Guillon that the transmission of the teaching can proceed outside of groups, and in other “movements” including religions (Record of a Search, 93 and 100-1). Some who knew her have disclosed what was in any event clear, that de Salzmann introduced new techniques into the Gurdjieff groups (Ravindra, Heart without Measure, 128-9 and Segal, A Voice at the Borders of Silence, 196-7). Segal says that it was only after Gurdjieff and Ouspensky that “the true sense of the Work” even began to be understood (A Voice, 216).
If Gurdjieff did not finish his task, if what he did bring had to be supplemented, if even then it could be carried on in other religions, and if it could not be understood in a “true sense” while he was alive, then how can we understand Gurdjieff’s methods and teachings now? The short answer is, perhaps we cannot. If so, then the honest course would be to admit this, and its repercussions for the Gurdjieff groups.
However, my thesis is that it is not Gurdjieff’s task which was unfinished, but his pupils. First, the methods must all be used in their integrity: and some such as the inner exercises were wrongly abandoned by de Salzmann. Next, properly understood, the Gurdjieff methods and ideas are most effective when ancillary to a person’s aim or faith. The ideas will illuminate and even influence these, but they cannot supply a motive where a person has none. Where teachers such as the Adies, the Andersons, the Bennetts, Mme Claustres, the Conges, the Courtenay-Mayers, the de Hartmanns, Jane Heap, Henriette Lannes, the Nicolls, the de Salzmanns and Mrs Staveley (and there were of course others) embodied what I will call “faith”, the Gurdjieff methods and ideas could have a profound effect, if the pupil was in sympathy with their teacher. However, in many of the continuing groups there has been a tension between the institutional and the individual health of the group. It seems to me that the tendency has been for the various institutions to ossify and narrow, especially since de Salzmann remade the Gurdjieff methods to suit her strengths.
I suspect that the roots of tension go back to Gurdjieff himself, who by closing his own Institute, inadvertently provided an opening for the formation of a new institute (the Institut Gurdjieff in Paris) which developed a goal of self-preservation in a way which is inimical to the preservation of Gurdjieff’s methods and the spreading of his ideas. The other error which I believe he made was to place so much trust in de Salzmann and to encourage others to look up to her. Gurdjieff cannot have realised what she would do.
Others will disagree with all this: but I can see no real difference between most members of the Gurdjieff groups and most members of churches or even devotees of a philosophical life. The differences, such as they are, seem to me in superficial behaviour: members of Gurdjieff groups tend to be more self-conscious and controlled. Mr Adie used to say that considering and politics were worse within the groups, and he died in 1989. I think the situation has deteriorated since his day. There are exceptions. But such exceptions are found elsewhere, too. In fact, apart a few second-generation Gurdjieff pupils in Europe and the USA, the most impressive people I have met over the years since Mrs Staveley’s death in 1996, have been monks, priests, or people who have left Gurdjieff groups.
I know of persons whom I can recommend; who can pass on a living and transformative tradition which has come down from Gurdjieff. But even where these persons run formal groups, the groups do not bear names, or if they do, they do not have the words “Foundation” or “Institute” in them. Indeed, my view is that if you wish to lose your faith in Gurdjieff’s methods, then you should make friends with your closest Gurdjieff Foundation.
Scepticism about the enduring value of Gurdjieff’s efforts is not palatable to those with an institutional interest in the Gurdjieff name. Sinclair’s desperate efforts to prove that de Salzmann’s “new work” is in perfect conformity with Gurdjieff’s are doomed to failure, contradicting Ravindra and Segal’s avowal of innovation. Sinclair invests a great deal of capital in Gurdjieff’s instruction to “steal” the energies which the faithful direct to Jesus, as demonstrating continuity with de Salzmann’s approach (Without Benefit of Clergy 146, 157, 230-1). However, Sinclair actually demonstrates discontinuity: Gurdjieff gave at least two fully developed exercises for appropriating these finer materials. I find it difficult to believe that de Salzmann did not know at least one of them. Why did she not teach them? Why did she abandon the preparation exactly as Gurdjieff had brought it? (see Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, under “New Work” and “New Work Terminology” and on diversity within the broad Gurdjieff tradition, appendix 2).
The only answer, I think, can be that de Salzmann had too little confidence to continue with those methods, but she built her authority on what she was and what she did have confidence in. In itself this was not bad, but it was not a complete and impartial representation of the Gurdjieff tradition. At some point, it seems to me, de Salzmann had to compromise fidelity to Gurdjieff’s methods and ideas in order to buttress her authority. That is, she felt that in order to maintain her position as the leader of an almost global movement, she had to possess authority. She could only enjoy this authority by emphasizing those areas where she was pre-eminent, chief among these being perhaps the movements and the “sitting”. Where she did not possess the greatest qualifications, such as with the ideas, or with the inner exercises and in understanding Beelzebub, these had to take a secondary place. It is rather as if the leader of cards club banned all games other than those at which they themselves excelled, so as to preserve their own position.
More than this, those who did not uncritically accept her authority were marginalised (e.g. Mrs Staveley). I call this “initiatism”: the attitude that unless one is a trusted member of the group, little or nothing should be allowed to them. Consider the secrecy which now surrounds the movements to the extent where many Foundation movements demonstrators do not wish the pupils know the movements in detail. The emphasis now is on “protecting” the movements and “working in the moment on the movements floor”. For example, after Mrs Adie died, our Foundation demonstrators such as Jim Wyckoff from New York prohibited us from practising movements at home: something the Adies had encouraged (I shall perhaps later set out why I believe that the Adies’ attitude is the better). Another demonstrator from the Foundation, let me call him J., specifically told us not to divulge the names of the movements, as it made it harder for people to take the movements elsewhere. I have it on good authority that the Foundation had their lawyers threaten someone with a suit should they publish the Struggle of the Magicians, which begs the question, why has the Foundation itself not published this remarkable piece? Why are so many documents “privately compiled” and never released? It is a standing rebuke to the Foundation that the maverick Patterson published some of the of the surviving Gurdjieff group meetings. This is “initiatism”.
And now that de Salzmann has gone, with the astonishing force she could manifest, the Foundation has been left depleted of authentic Gurdjieff exercises, and with a bowdlerized Beelzebub, but following her model of authority and “initiatism”. And this is the root fault of the groups. The groups exemplify what Gurdjieff said about the law of seven, and how the line of development can veer into different and even hostile directions, while preserving the former name. Many of the Gurdjieff groups have not an exoteric but a cult mentality: in is good and out is bad.
Like de Salzmann, the Foundation groups de-emphasize the ideas and Beelzebub. In a transcript which I have, de Salzmann is reported as having been critical of the efforts of the Toronto group in putting together an index of Beelzebub. Once at Bray, Mme Lannes stated that there is to be no discussion of Beelzebub in the official groups, one just reads it for oneself. This is the position de Salzmann took in the transcript. And why? Once more, the only answer can be a lack of confidence. Although she had taken a major role in the rendering of a French translation, she was unhappy with the English, and had it revised by the New York group. And yet, Gurdjieff had spent many years with that text, and given meticulous attention to even small details, as Orage and Toomer noted. As Mrs Staveley said, Gurdjieff allowed himself to die when the book was sent to the presses. How could anyone, even de Salzmann, claim to understand Gurdjieff’s intention better than he did? The question is, what did she think the book actually was?
Staveley was of the view that the book was a legominism. When Gurdjieff describes legominisms, he gives only general principles. In the chapter “Art”, when he speaks of legominisms in dance, one is perplexed: how could anyone today decipher such a legominism? One would need to know where the feet, for example, should in principle be placed before being able to ponder why they have been placed otherwise in any given dance. However, there are legominisms in Beelzebub. By that I mean that there are at least two places where I believe Gurdjieff has deliberately used the wrong word. I believe, on the basis of my own experiencings, that the word “X” should be “Y”. Further, the substitution of “X” and not “Z” for “Y” is itself significant in both instances. The statements make perfect sense, but they are simply not correct, and from other indications, it is clear that the correct statement is “Y”. On one occasion, “Y” includes certain words which have been left out, but are to be found nearby. Gurdjieff refers to something like this method in an unpublished piece called “Palm Sunday”. While the reader may be wondering what I am referring to, I cannot give the examples because I respect Gurdjieff’s method. When I realised that these passages, which had always struck me as enigmatic, were legominisms, I received a shock. The realisation brought a simplicity and depth of understanding I would not have thought possible. The moments of illumination seem to me to have become a part of myself. Were I to disclose these legominisms, I would be robbing others of the chance to discover them. Gurdjieff could easily have stated these propositions in prose: but he chose not to, so that when they were deciphered, they burst into understanding, with feeling attached to them.
But the point is this: these experiences prove to me that de Salzmann did not realise that the English Beelzebub, as a legominism, is not simply a translation. No one who worked on either of the new translations can have understood this. Gurdjieff said of Beelzebub that it contains “all that exists, all that has existed, all that can exist … all the secrets of the creation of the world …” (Voices in the Dark, 118). Does one see a corresponding valuation of the book in the groups? I don’t, except perhaps in Mrs Staveley’s group (Mr Adie possessed this valuation, but his group has folded). It means that the high noon of the Gurdjieff work has already passed, as this understanding is not to be found where it should by rights have been nurtured.
To conclude, many of the groups, but perhaps not all, have narrowed the Gurdjieff ideas to a caricature which they can control.
The Romance of the “Search”
A special section has to be written for the romance of the search, which exemplifies, for me, “the new work”. Mr Adie would speak of the necessity of the search. “Do not put a full stop there … go on,” he would urge. But he did so understanding that a search has no meaning unless there is a possibility of finding, and Mr Adie had found something. Rather than introduce a polemical tone into George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia, I placed entries for “certainty” and “doing” in the index. Beelzebub is replete with examples of how knowledge was gained, and later developed or lost. If Beelzebub does not say that real knowledge can be obtained, and passed on in endless ways, even through words, then it says nothing. Knowledge is not enough: Gurdjieff told Hulme to work at her task like a monk, not “knowing” but “sure-ing”, with a feeling understanding (Undiscovered Country, 90). But some knowledge is a good start. If one knows nothing, as people from the Foundation so often said to us in absolute terms, then why do we make any effort at all? One might as well end one’s life in narcotic-induced bliss. But there is such a thing as knowledge, and it can reveal its own limitations. This, after all, is what a scientist or scholar does: he acquires a knowledge which leads him on to and into the unknown – and he follows it with gratitude.
In no other area, perhaps, does Mr Adie’s fidelity to Gurdjieff appear in greater contradistinction to the “new work”. Certainty of myself is the aim of our work, said Adie (George Adie, 222), and he had us prepare our activities, and then review them, and learn any lessons. Accustom yourself to do things well, said Gurdjieff, prepare them in advance with all your faculties, and “never fail” (Voices, 173). Jim Wyckoff, on the other hand, would say “when I know it I kill it”, which can be true but can also be untrue, and he would be forever tearing up plans and making people revisit what they had decided. It was a good way of keeping the group dependent on him. We had a period at Yerrinbool with him. The groups had prepared menus for each day. Wyckoff had the cooks dispense with the menus. Go out and work the people, he said, try and feel what they need, rather than impose your pre-set menus on them. The result was chaos, and what was worse, potato soup. At one meal, when the now chronically unprepared kitchen did not have enough food on hand to prepare whatever the inspiration of the morning had “told” them was required, one of the women in the kitchen sent back her plate for a larger serving. The others had to do with smaller servings. True, Jim Wyckoff was a “New York hippie”, forgetting his umbrella, whose books demonstrate his intellectual mediocrity. But, in my assessment, the efforts of the group remains at a lower level than the level of life: and that is inimical to the Gurdjieff work.
More broadly, this spirit is certainly still a part of the “new work”. Roger Lipsey wrote of the Gilgamesh epic that it tells us that neither success nor failure matters, only the search (Search: Journey on the Inner Path, ed. J. Sulzberger, 41). This is silliness both as a statement in itself and as a reading of Gilgamesh. The whole point of Gilgamesh, as they very opening words of the epic tell us, is that he did indeed see the “all”, and attained knowledge. He understood the role of mortal human life in the great universe. If this seems anticlimactic, it has much in common with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Perhaps the point is to accept the obvious facts of life: that is, there a deeper acceptance is possible for us.