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William Patrick Patterson’s latest book is reviewed by John Robert Colombo
Hereinafter I will refer to the well-known author William Patrick Patterson as WPP, for in a sense these initials stand for more than the man. They represent a mini-movement he has led in the world of Work-related activities.
On the dust jacket of his latest book, WPP is described as “the author of six books on The Fourth Way and the director-writer-narrator of the award-winning document video trilogy ‘The Life & Significance of G.I. Gurdjieff.’ He is also the founder and editor of ‘The Gurdjieff Journal,’ est. 1992, and the founder and director of The Gurdjieff Studies Program. Mr. Patterson has practised the principles of self-transformation and self-transcendence for nearly forty years.”
Let me review some of his accomplishments as an author, editor, publisher, producer, and group leader. (Allow the latter term to stand unexplained for now.) As an author, he has these six, book-length publications to his credit:
1. “Struggle of the Magicians: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship.” I believe this to be his first and finest book; it is strong on research, documentation, and analysis. The author sees himself as a “one-time” student who has become a “now-time” teacher.
2. “Eating the ‘I’: A Direct Account of the Fourth Way – The Way of Using Ordinary Life to Come to Real Life.” This is an attempt to do more than scratch the surface of what has been called “spiritual materialism” – the supermarket approach to the religious quest associated with the New Age. Doing more involves doing more inner work.
3. “Taking with the Left Hand: Enneagram Craze, People of the Bookmark, & the Mouravieff ‘Phenomenon.’” In many ways this is the author’s most interesting publication, being rich in research-driven and informative, with many explorations and elaborations of activities on the “fringes” of the Work.
4. “Ladies of the Rope: Gurdjieff’s Special Left Bank Women’s Group.” I found this study of those talented women who comprised Mr. G.’s “special” study group in Paris to be a work of skill that shows a depth of insight, as well as a font of miscellaneous information.
5. “Voices in the Dark: Esoteric, Occult & Secular Voices in Nazi-Occupied Paris 1940-44.” This is an eye-opener of a book which includes never-before published transcripts of Group meetings held in the French capital during the direst of times, a learning situation situated between the forces of black and white “magicians.” It is Group vs. Reich.
6. “The Life & Teachings of Carlos Castaneda.” I have yet to see a copy of this book, though I have read much of its text in a succession of issues of “The Gurdjieff Journal.” Here WPP measures Castaneda’s indebtedness to G.I.G. and offers new and compromising biographical details about this popular “trickster” teacher.
7. “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time.” This is the current title, and in many ways it is the author’s most impressive and imposing book, though you would not know so from its title and subtitle. “Spiritual Survival” – could there be a more inflated title? “In a Radically Changing World-Time” – could there be a more baffling subtitle? The title and subtitle strike me as overblown and at odds with the book’s market: not directed at its likely readership, misleading to a wider readership.
Indeed, the word “survival” has been overused since the 1960s. There is that cliched exchange: “What did you do?” “I survived.” And the words “Radically Changing.” I suppose their opposite is “gradually changing” or “unchanging.” Then there is “World-Time,” which I suppose means “in our time, in our place.” The words “world-time” do appear in the text, but one of the hallmarks of the author is that overall he eschews technical-sounding terminology. These words sound like they come from a tome written by Oswald Spengler.
All of this is a pity, because the book is well organized and finely produced, as well as comprehensive and useful. It is principally an addition to the shelf of books devoted to the elucidation of the principles of the Work, and not in any sense of handbook for generalized “spiritual survival,” as I will attempt to show.
But before doing that, I want to refer in passing to WPP’s other activities. These I take to be six in number.
1. He is an author, editor, essayist, etc. See his six books mentioned above. These are all published with great care (editing, design, production values, etc.) through his own firm, Arete.
2. He is the founder and editor of “The Gurdjieff Journey.” I have subscribed to this bimonthly periodical since its inception in 1992. It is full of interesting articles – some bylined, some not. Some articles are serious contributions to the history of the Work and to consciousness studies in general; other articles are occasional columns and reviews of books and movies of interest, all viewed through the bifocals of the Fourth Way. The contributions of continuing interest have eventually become chapters in the above-noted books.
I plan to continue to subscribe to “TGJ,” though I do wish its publisher and principal contributor would suggest to the designer designer and layout artist that they treat the text differently: run the articles from page to page, rather than continue the article at the “back of the book” – respect the the natural rhythm of reading experience.
3. He is a documentary film researcher, writer, producer, director, and on-camera host. I should add “award-winning,” because WPP is that too. I genuinely admire his three-volume set of DVDs (originally videos) with the general title “The Life & Significance of G.I. Gurdjieff.” The three, hour-long films are titled “Gurdjieff in Egypt,” “Gurdjieff’s Mission,” and “Gurdjieff’s Legacy.” All three have won major documentary awards, which they richly deserve, for they combine original research, travel to foreign if not remote places, trenchantly delivered observations about the Work and the men and women who have contributed to its “introduction to the West.” WPP has a strong screen presence and delivers a clear and forceful message.
It has been a couple of years since I last viewed them, but what I vividly recall is the manner in which he patiently explains how Mr. G. had to “step down” his powerful ideas to make them applicable to men and women of our time in the West. Everyone who is interested in the Work itself, as distinct from treating it the way members of a congregation treat a church, should view these DVDs.
4. He is the director of “The Gurdjieff Studies Program.” This represents, at least for our purposes, the series of seminars organized and delivered by WPP in person. Weekends are devoted to talks and workshops held in quality hotels in cities throughout the United States. There may be four or more a year. They might be described as Work “intensives,” but I am in no position to know if that is so, because I have not attended any of them or talked with anyone who has done so. WPP is a seasoned communicator – teacher, writer, public speaker – so there is every reason why the seminars should be thorough and comprehensive and entertaining to boot.
5. He is the “spinning top” at the hub of Arete Communications. I am hesitant to suggest that WPP is solely responsible for Arete Communications, “Publishers of Self-Transformation books and videos,” though he may well be the sufficient cause, because in this endeavour he is assisted by other people, including his wife and editor Barbara Allen Patterson, as well as a designer, a researcher, a writer, a publicist, etc.
As for the definition of “Arete,” Google informs me that the word has a goodly number of meanings for many features and characteristics of “goodness,” including “quality.” Its opposite is Kakia, which means “badness.” In Ancient Greece, Arete and Kakia were goddesses. Certainly the concept of “quality” applies to the work of Arete Communications and the efforts of WPP to represent the Work in its current phase in the United States and the rest of the anglosphere.
Enough of WPP. Let me describe the new book. “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time” was published in January 2009 and as of April has gone into three printings. (There is no indication of the length of the press runs.) Physically it is stout volume, even a handsome one, with a maroon library binding with printed endsheets and lively head and tail-bands – though, sadly, the pages are glued rather than sewn (a process misleadingly known in the commercial printing trade as “perfect binding.”) There are xviii + 407 pages of quite readable type. The book may be ordered through Arete’s website.
I think the key to the book is the trinity of names that appears in this order on the dedication page: “To Mr. Gurdjieff / Mme de Salzmann / Lord Pentland.” What the author is doing here is declaring an allegiance and identifying a lineage. Elsewhere he described himself as a former school teacher with experience in the world of advertising, but also as a student who studied under John Sinclair, Lord Pentland, whom (after Orage) Mr. G. designated to be his representative in the United States. With the death of Pentland in 1984, WPP was cast adrift. But being resourceful he found safe harbour and became a teacher of the Work.
I have no idea if he has any affiliations with the Foundation, the Society, or the Institute. I believe he prefers to work alone, a cowan or a loner rather than a member of a coven or a group, to adapt terms from Masonry and Wicca. A cowan is always viewed with some suspicion, and this is certainly true of WPP, though personally I have no problem with his American-style promotion of the Work, if only because it seems to me to be well grounded and respectful of the form and the delivery of the Work. I will leave it to other people to decide whether the system of instruction of which he is the group leader constitutes a new line for the Work to take – indeed, if it is an instance of the influence of Arete or of Kakia.
“Spiritual Survival” is like Caesar’s Gaul and comes in three parts of unequal weight and interest. The titles of these are “Fourth Way Meetings,” “Fourth Way Probes,” and “Fourth Way Essays.”
“Fourth Way Meetings” consists of the texts of 324 questions and answers arranged in 36 sections. There is a certain arbitrariness to the arrangement of the material. No details are given as to where and when the exchanges took place. We are left to guess the questioners’ levels of life and Work experience. Yet the handling of the questions is deft enough to serve their original purposes and to be helpful to the questioners. The responses focus, at first, on observing the automatic workings of the body and, subsequently, on bringing these to the level of awareness, on beginning to cease to identify, on trying to identify one’s chief feature, etc.
There is not much that is new in this section and the exchanges are typically brief. A questioner complains, “I haven’t met the woman I am looking for.” The author responds, “My friend, this is not therapy. You need to bring real material.” Advice can be boiler-plate: “We can’t say hello to the new until we can goodbye … to the old.” There are some neat formulations here: “Our postures are our ‘clothes.’” “We are bioplasmic machines.” “The ‘joker-I’ has been robbing you blind for years. Take his role away from him. Intentionally joke.” “Thinking is not presence.”
There is satisfaction when routine matters are attended to without boredom or irritation. Yet I had hoped for some insights that have the depths of those of Jean Vaysse, Henri Tracol, Solange Claustres, or George Adie, but this was not to be.
WPP argues there is fresh urgency for work on self, an emergency really, because we have entered into a new epoch of some sort:
“We’re in a transition zone between the new world-time and the old. It began before 9/11, but that was the big shock point. History, in my opinion, will be divided between what is pre-9/11 and post. Understand that there is nothing you or I can do to change the world on the level of the world. We can work to change our relationship to the world, to become conscious receivers and transmitters of energy. In so doing, we help ourselves and the world.”
I am prepared to argue that this is overstated. What are “world-times”? What are the lessons of 9/11? Since the 1960s, futurists have been assuring us that the world is changing and that change itself is accelerating. Yet human nature does not seem to change very much. As a species we remain immutable, at least for the last thousands of years. The failure to take seriously the threat of global warming is an instance of how heedless we are as a species. As for society changing, someone once observed, “We do not change because we see the light. We change when we feel the heat.”
So much for “Fourth Way Meetings.” The next section, “Fourth Way Probes,” is the shortest of the sections, for it consists of only seven “probes.” Perhaps the choice of the word “probes” for these essays is ill-advised? When I hear the word “probe,” I recall the witty aphorisms of Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message,” “Globalism creates tribalism,” etc. McLuhan called these probes because they were insights and not propositions or arguments.
WPP’s probes are not like these, for each one of his is a discussion that extends over a couple of pages. They are described as “spontaneous,” and perhaps they originated as transcriptions of audio-taped impromptu presentations. A more descriptive name for his probe is homilie. Protestant ministers know homilies as “pulpit calls” for moral action based on situations that occur in everyday life. For instance, WPP’s probe called “Have a Soul, Make a Soul” ends like this:
“And so the aim: Being in the Becoming of life, and so to consciously eat the inertia and negativity, and to experience the peace and the harmony, and the joy and the pleasure, the creativity, the self-expression. But it must be worked for. Conscious life, incarnation, immortality – they do not come cheaply.”
These are fine sentiments, though they are not all that far removed from the spirit of New Thought or Moral Rearmament: “All out on the ice, boys!”
“Fourth Way Essays” is the soul of the book, as “Fourth Way Meetings” serves as its body. Here there are twenty-five essays, most of them reprinted from the columns of “TGJ,” but appeared elsewhere and will be new to subscribers. Because WPP is a writer and lecturer who is familiar with the vast literature of the Fourth Way, he has developed his own views on what he sees as the twin overgrowths of our time: religious fundamentalism and materialist scientism or spiritual materialism. In time, he might well add to these, as did P.D. Ouspensky, these opposites: scholasticism and sentimentalism. I see these as subsumed under the rubric “cerebralism” rather than rational or intellectual or emotional or moving.
This section includes the text of a landmark speech titled “Who Is Mr. Gurdjieff?” This cornerstone essay served as the keynote address of the first All & Everything Conference held in Bognor Regis in 1996. It is an all-round introduction to the Work, and it displays WPP’s characteristic features to best advantage: liveliness of expression, generosity of spirit, and a certain earnest innocence in exposition and expression, as these sentences show:
“Gurdjieff came to the West to establish a new teaching, ancient in origin, that was specifically formulated for individual growth in the technologized world. It was stripped of the past, stripped of all mysticism, philosophy, religious rites and dogma. It was, and is, the great bequeathing. It is a teaching that gives to contemporary man and woman the great gift – the gift of practical knowledge and techniques by which he can, by his own efforts and intention, transform himself, and, in so doing, free himself from the abnormal being-existence that is the soul-death signature of our time.”
That passage offers the reader the sum and substance of the book. The thirty pages of the book’s Introduction present his “take” on the plight of modern man in light of the struggle between attaining consciousness vs. succumbing to the cerebrations of the computer. Such is theoria; praxis is another matter. Perhaps in the privacy of the seminars there is instruction in spiritual practices. In the pages of this book, there are suggestions: shadows of shadows.
In other essays the author considers various theories about the source of the system which in the early days Ouspensky dubbed the Special Doctrine. He looks into the claims of Esoteric Christianity (derived from Egypt, perhaps “pre-sand Egypt”), Eastern Orthodoxy (from a certain monastery on Mount Athos), Shamanism, Manicheeism, Sufism (from the so-called Sarmoun monastery, brotherhood, or society somewhere in Central Asia), etc.
I do not recall any consideration being given to the possibility that the system was inspired by work underfoot in the Caucasus at the time – a movement known as Kebzeh. In the end TPP takes Mr. G.’s lead and opts for Esoteric Christianity, but this is a Christianity that predates Jesus Christ by centuries if not millennia. It is all very suggestive and mysterious.
There are other sections of “Spiritual Survival” – Introduction, Afterword, Notes, and Bibliography. There is no Index. If I had “time and tide,” I would describe or paraphrase the arguments of these, but it is my view that a review should leave much for the author to say and not try to displace the original text in the eyes of its future readers. WPP writes well and is worth reading on his own.
Here is a book that men and women somewhat familiar with the world of the Work will find worthwhile and rewarding as long as they are not expecting anything really traditional or really new. People unfamiliar with the Work who are mainly interested in exploring the expression of spirituality in the contemporary world will likely find it to be baffling and digressive.
It is said that a person has a chief feature. If a book may be said to possess one of these, the chief feature of this book is earnestness.
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. In his latest book of essays called “Whistle While You Work,” he has combined consciousness studies with Canadian references. From time to time he reviews Work-related publications for this website.
All & Everything Conference, Toronto 2009
A day-by-day account of events, impressions, and experiencesas reported by John Robert Colombo
Preamble and Confession
For decades I have been conducting a correspondence with Simson Najovits, a friend and fellow writer who since the 1960s has lived in Paris, preferring the City of Light to the City of Montreal where he was born. Little by little, from letter to letter, then from email to email, I began to realize that we shared certain metaphysical aims and interests and that, indeed, he was a long-time student of the Work.
After exchanging many letters, I learned that he had met and worked with Madame de Salzmann and Madame de Hartmann and that he was on a first-name basis with many of the French movement’s leading personalities. I will not mention their names but the names would be recognized if I did. Then I learned that after a decade and a half of experience of the Work, he had left it – though whether one ever leaves the work or ever could leave the work is a matter that could be discussed at some later time.
I remember telling Simson that, to my great surprise, the forthcoming All & Everything Conference, the fourteenth in the annual series that was launched in 1996, was scheduled to be held in the Canadian city of Toronto, and not in its long-time English venue, the Royal Norfolk Hotel in Bognor Regis. I invited him to visit Toronto and stay with me and my wife Ruth at our home, located about ten kilometres from the conference site. He declined the invitation. The idea of spending five days in Toronto did not excite him!
He noted, “While those on the outside may have interesting comments about the Work and ‘All and Everything,’ it is those on the inside, those who practice the Work, or those who were in the Work for a long time, who have the most apposite, the deepest insights about ‘All and Everything.’”
In another email I told him that I had been invited by the conference organizers to submit an abstract of a paper for possible presentation at the conference, but that I had declined the invitation. I explained that while I might relish considering myself “a companion of the book,” I was no way an authority on “Beelzebub’s Tales.” I explained that I knew my limits and preferred to remain safely within those boundaries.
I got a wary reaction from Simson, especially when I went on to inform him that I planned to attend all the sessions of the conference and report on the experience on a day-to-day basis for those readers of Sophia Wellbeloved’s website who would like to attend but would not be doing so – presumably the vast majority of its readers.
Simson said, “Ain’t that going to be a bit of a problem for you?” He pointed out that a year earlier I had admitted in an email to him that I had never read “Beelzebub’s Tales” and, later on, in one of the reviews carried by Sophia in her blog, I had stated that I had never read the magnum opus from cover to cover, not even once, not to mention the prescribed three times. As I made these points, I could see him, in my mind’s eye bristling like a porcupine.
I was admitting the truth. I pointed out that I had spent most of my undergraduate years surrounded by graduate students of English and French literature who had proudly boasted that they had read “Finnegans Wake” from cover to cover or “A la recherche des temps perdu” from covers to covers. I listened carefully to what they were saying about Joyce and Proust, and with equal diligence I read what they were writing about these masters and their masterworks, and about the world at large, but I had failed to detect any evidence that these marathon reading exercises had changed them for the better or for the worse.
Indeed, I have met students of “The Secret Doctrine” who have studied Madame Blavatsky’s book on Wednesday nights for years on end, taking only short breaks during the summers. They certainly knew more Theosophy – or more about Theosophy – than I ever did, but the exercise seemed not to have altered their personalities or their characters in any appreciable or apparent ways. I kept thinking of a line of Kipling’s that is a favourite of mine. It goes roughly goes like this: “Who knows England who only England knows?”
I am not going to take the next step and make the same point about students of the Work and their respect for “Beelzebub’s Tales” because I have no evidence, either pro or con, that immersion in the work automatically deepens or widens consciousness or sense of presence or does both together. I suppose the word “automatically” there gives away my position. One sentence read consciously is worth ten thousand sentences read mechanically. Of the transformative powers of works of the human imagination, expecially of works of scripture, I have no doubt. It depends on the reader.
“I anticipate no problem at all covering the A&E Conference,” I replied to Simson. “My position is analogous to that of the ‘rapporteur’ who attends all the presentations at a single-track academic conference and then on the final hour of the final day offers his own impressions: a cumulative but personal reaction to the discussion and the discussants. I have always marvelled at how well it may be done. Once I heard a scholar deliver his report brilliantly in rhyming couplets! (That I will not be doing, but believe me, I am tempted!)
“My intention is to describe the viewpoints expressed and paint the contours and colours of the occasion and catch the expressions of emotion and intellect. It was in that way that a few years ago I covered the three-day meeting of Traditionalists in Edmonton in a report published in the journal ‘Fohat’ and subsequently reprinted in my book ‘Whistle While You Work.’ I did so without being able to read Arabic or Farsi or most of the texts of the Traditionalists that were extolled during those sessions.
“At the same time, I have already read, with a fair degree of comprehension, almost all the proceedings of the previous A&E conferences, which I purchased (from By the Way Books) as they appeared, so I am prepared, up to a point. The point is that I will admit, right off, that I have a cursory knowledge of the contents of ‘Beelzebub’s Tales.’ I recall the statement made by A.R. Orage, following his break with Mr. Gurdjieff, that even he did not understand the text, despite having translated, adapted, edited, or rewritten much of it.”
I concluded by saying, “Simson, I am surprised that you would think that it is a problem. It is often useful to regard a subject from the opposite perspective: Would anyone who is an authority on the text agree to report on the event? Not likely. There are times when someone who holds no particular views and sees the big picture and is willing to learn has the advantage over the specialist who is ‘parti pris.’
“Anyway, we will see. I seldom bite off more than I can chew. While I did decline a possible invitation to prepare a paper at the conference, I did accept the kind invitation to speak briefly at the banquet, as I felt that there should be some input from the host country than might otherwise be the case. Anyway, reversing a well-known saying, ‘My “bite” is worse than my bark!’”
Simson was mollified and replied, “Well, I guess you’re right about a few things – it is unlikely that anybody who is an authority on the text would agree to report on it at the conference, it is so that quite often somebody who sees the big picture and is willing to learn has the advantage over the specialist and it is so that after his first reading of ‘Beelzebub’s Tales,’ Orage said that it was ‘unintelligible,’ although I think he changed his mind later.”
He went on to discuss his own early encounters with the book in Montreal before leaving for Paris for good. “I must note that after my first reading of the book I told Tom Daly much the same thing as Orage and he said, ‘It’s not unintelligible, wait and see,’ and after many more readings and countless diggings into the text (sometimes with the assistance of a precious gift you gave me many years ago, a copy of the first edition of ‘Guide and Index to G.I. Gurdjieff’s “All and Everything, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson”’), well, even if there are many bewildering things in the book and many others which are sheer nonsense or typical esoteric nonsense plus a hefty dose of religious silliness, on the whole ‘All and Everything’ is not only a fabulous book, and specifically ‘Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,’ a new way of writing mythology, it is understandable.”
All this took place in December 2008. I am recounting these exchanges now for the benefit of Simson in Paris as well as for the readers of Sophia’s website wherever they may live in order to set the record straight about my acquaintance with the text that is the centre of this inquiry.
In point of fact, like many people who have been attracted to the Work and who subsequently left, as a good many people do, I have acquired and retained both a general idea and a specific idea of what the book says and how it says it. I have read innumerable presentations, essays, and even other books about the big book, and I have come to the conclusion that it seems to me to be (on the one hand) an idiosyncratic epic poem in prose and (on the other hand) a shiny looking-glass that reflects back the characteristic features of its readers. Northrop Frye describes “scripture” as “literature plus.” I think “Beelzebub’s Tales” is “scripture.”
Like most people with a taste for the Work, I have read both “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and “Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am,’ in their entirety, a number of times, not to mention the withdrawn booklet “Herald of Coming Good.” It is with “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” that I have this on-again, off-again relationship. Anyway, for the purposes of what follows, I will refer to the latter publication as “Tales.” (My edition is the first one issued by Harcourt, Brace.) I will reserve the impressive words “All and Everything” for all three books of the canon: “Tales,” “Meetings,” “Life.”
The Venue and the Proceedings of the Conference
Toronto may not be the most picturesque of cities, but it has charms of its own, though not one of them is visible from the windows of the hotel at which the conference was held. This venue was The Days Inn located on Wilson Avenue near Jane Street northwest of the city’s downtown. Nor were any redeeming features of modern architecture apparent within the Inn. I felt a little sorry for first-time visitors to Toronto. Hardly anybody else but me expressed discontent, but I did hear one person say, “At least the hotel is cheap, and it’s located near the airport.” Nevertheless its Lady Hamilton Room with its four unimpressive chandeliers served quite well as the meeting room for the forty-five or fifty registered attendees.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009. 8:30 p.m. Forty-five chairs were arranged in a large oval and participants quietly took their seats. I scanned the group: thirty-five men and ten women. Casual dress. People were in their fifties and sixties in the main, with a sprinkling of younger and older men and women. Technically trained or professionally educated, I would guess. Mainly Caucasian. Thoughtful and courteous people, by and large.
This first meeting was a preliminary gathering, called for the night before the conference’s first session. Ian MacFarlane, the convener, a Canadian who works in England, in his patented quiet manner, asked us to introduce ourselves in a counter-clockwise direction. People spoke easily, though some were almost inaudible. I was surprised that so many participants – perhaps twelve in all – identified themselves as Canadians who were (like my wife Ruth and myself) attending this series of conferences for the first time.
I was also surprised to learn that perhaps two-thirds of the participants had associations with groups in the United States and the United Kingdom that had been founded by leaders whose names were familiar to me though I had never met them: Patterson, Nyland, Staveley, Popoff, Beidler, Bennett, etc. (I identified myself as someone who in 1957-59 had benefitted from a contact with the Toronto group that was then led by the Welches – Mrs. Louise Welch and Dr. William Welch. In passing I mentioned that I would be reporting on the proceedings for Sophia Wellbeloved’s website.) More than half the members had attended previous conferences in Bognor Regis and elsewhere, at least two having achieved the distinction of having attended all the earlier conferences. There were also participants from Greece, the U.K., Holland, the U.S., etc. The American visitors expressed pleasure that the conference was, once again, being held in North America.
I surmised that the people present were a studious and sincere students of the work whose lives had been enriched through repeated readings of the “Tales” and from association with work groups, though some members were currently inactive or “on leave” (as one person expressed it) from them. After everyone introduced himself or herself, Seymour B. Ginsburg, whom I met for the first time, inquired if the group would be interested in hearing a short account of how the A&E Conferences had begun. This suggestion was met with approval.
He sketched in how he and Bert Sharp and Nicolas Tereschenko, with input from James Moore and Paul Beekman Taylor and others, invite the people they knew to consider the merits of Russell Smith’s Cosmic Secrets which argued that the shocks in the enneagram were wrongly located, the mistake stemming from supposedly erroneous data in Chapter 39 in “Tales” titled “The Holy Planet ‘Purgatory.’” The seminar was designed to be an ecumenical one, beholden to no particular group or institute.
It was safe to say that nobody who attended that two-day gathering held in February 1996 in Bognor Regis expected that the initiative would launch a series of annual gatherings called the “International Humanities Conference.” But the group succeeded in dismissing the Smith thesis and the momentum was such that by now the conferences are fixtures in the world of Work. A.L. Staveley, dubbed the “godmother” of the conference, felt it should be named “The Brotherhood of the Book.” Later, briefly, it was called “Companions of the Book.” Finally it got its present name “The All & Everything: The International Humanities Conference.” The focus would remain, always, on the text of “Tales.”
Sy’s impromptu history was followed by some general discussion. After two hours, the preliminary session of the fourteenth conference was over. It seemed to me that the conference had been well and truly launched, with a sense of fellowship based on a commonality of interests and a willingness to listen and learn and speak. I resolved to describe all the sessions that I could attend, and note those that I could not attend. I was not staying at the conference hotel so I missed much of the informal chatter at breakfast, etc.
Thursday, April 22, 2009. 9:15 a.m. The conference hall was set up with a projection screen and chairs arranged in lecture fashion. Ian convened the first session of the fourteenth conference with another potted history. He pointed out that in no way was the conference a “work event” because it had no movements or sittings or individual instructions. It was meant to appeal primarily to the intellectual centre. It was run by volunteers and was independent of any group. Proceedings would be recorded, then transcribed, and then made available in MP3 format, on the conference’s website, and also in printed form – with modest payment through PayPal. The morning sessions would consist of two presentations with discussions, the afternoon sessions with two seminars focused on specific chapters of “Tales.”
The first presenter was Stephen Aronson, a clinical psychologist, who read a paper titled “Preparation for the Third Line of Work: Threading the needle Between Wiseacring and the Law of Hazard.” He read it faultlessly, but he has a quiet voice and a somewhat withdrawn manner, so audience members had to strain to listen. Stephen discussed the three lines of the work (for oneself, for others, and for the work itself) and the setbacks of “wiseacring” and the “law of hazard” (employing a phrase of Bennett’s). His thesis seemed to be that we can change worlds by making changes in our minds. Simplifying things: Aim facing hazard resulted in change of attitude and hence understanding. Humour is one way of avoiding the trap of wiseacring. He stressed Mr. G.’s advice: “Remember yourselves always and everywhere.”
During the discussion period, Stephen was asked, given his extensive experience with forms of psychotherapy, if Gurdjieff’s work was merely “another chapter” in some book of therapies. In reply, the speaker distinguished between two types of therapy and all rest of the techniques and theories. The two types that stand out from the rest are Jungianism and Psychosynthesis, for they encourage people to move toward boundaries, although they do not point out the presence of doors to other worlds. As for all the other therapies, they try to relieve the pain of those people who are asleep. “I can at least talk with Jungians more easily than I can talk with the others.” Therapy, it seems, means introducing patients to matter of a higher quality.
I had the feeling that I had missed the thesis of Stephen’s talk, so I asked him to lend me the text to read over lunch hour or to express in a couple of sentences the thesis that he wanted to present. He did both. From his text I selected the following interesting quotation: “Now, we begin to sense that the Work has us for Its use.” I will include some sentences from his hand-written comments:
“To serve the work from above, the transmission of the higher potential into the lower requires me to play my role as the bridge (objectively) and not “myself” subjectively.” “Plant the seed as the sower – with regard to the type and quality of seed and seasons and the apparent conditions of the soil. Then watch what happens. You are the role of sower, not the God of Nature.”
There was a short coffee break. The second session began at 11:30. Dimitri Peretzi, dressed in black, spoke on the theme “Man Is Third Force Blind.” An architect and intellectual, he made good use of slides to illustrate his argument that “man is an incomplete being” in whom the effects of Kundabuffer have crystallized, and that First Force and Second Force meet on a two-dimensional plane; Third Force, their product, manifests in a three-dimensional cube. The Third Force is a force in its own right, but even more a process, at one and the same time a cause and an effect. The triad is not to be viewed as flat. The forces have homes in the human body.
Using Mr. Gurdjieff’s analogy of keys and locks, Dimitri spent some time equating Aieioiooa with “light of day” and remorse. The more he explained the relationship, the more complicated it seemed. He devoted time to the enneagram which, to my surprise, he turned almost on edge, to create a coil or spiral. (This recalled for me Northrop Frye’s observation that a circle is a compressed spiral.) He spoke in a lively, somewhat provocative manner. He began and ended with a quotation from Madame de Salzmann: “It is blindness that keeps one world separate from another.”
The sessions and discussions ended at 12:45 p.m. and were followed a light lunch. Everyone reconvened at 2:30 p.m. for the first of two textual discussions. This time the seating was arranged in an immense oval, so large that it discouraged any one-on-one exchange or debate. The hand-held microphones (necessary for taping the proceedings) reduced spontaneity. Those were the drawbacks to the seating arrangement. Its strongpoints were that the arrangement guaranteed that everyone was equal and that a sense of community was created. In point of fact, some senior group members worked as “resource people” (including Sy Ginsburg, Keith Buzzell and Nick Bryce) and commented irregularly though often at some length about the aspect of the topic being discussed.
After a one-minute “sitting,” there was a discussion of Chapter 25, “The Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash, Sent from above to the Earth.” In fact, much of the discussion, ably led by Nick, was about the phrase “sent from above.” Some participants found it puzzling. What I found puzzling was not the meaning of the arresting phrase itself, clearly based on John 4:9, but the fact that the group was ill-equipped to consider “the order of words,” the term used in literary criticism to account for word choice and allusion, if not meaning. I suggested that perhaps A.R. Orage might be credited with inventing some of the terminology and that he was aware of the allusions and reverberations of words like “sent.”
There was much discussion, enriched by comments by Sy and Keith, in particular, about how Ashiata Shiemash “neither taught nor preached.” That raised the question, Where does that leave today’s teachers or leaders? Time was spent on a discussion of the nature of spiritual hierarchy, and George Bennett (son of J.B. Bennett) noted the multiple groups of “brotherhoods” mention in “Tales,” one of which he said may well exist today.
The first discussion ended with a break at 3:50 p.m. Sy then led the second seminar on “The Terror of the Situation.” There was much discussion of legominisms and an apparent anachronism in the “Tales” with respect to the narrator’s prior knowledge of events that occurred later. The serious question was raised: “What is the terror?” Answers were wide-ranging, included loss of everything, loss of individual life, loss of hope, to a general malaise with life. Unfortunately I had to make an exit early, at 4:50 p.m., before the session was concluded, so I never did find out the consensus position. I would have liked to have learned what members of the oval individually and collectively felt about the word “situation.”
I left impressed with the quality of the facilitation and with the sincerity of the participants, though many of the participants were unfamiliar with the text and in awe of the senior members who graciously shared their very detailed insights. I kept trying to remember the Arabic term for a Muslim who has memorized the Koran.
Another disappointment was that I had to miss the piano recital of Elsa Denzey, which began at 8:30 p.m., who for fifty years has performed as a pianist of the Movements in Toronto, beginning with the well-remembered Alfred Etievan. This was particularly disappointing to me because, in November 2008, for this website, I reviewed Ms. Denzey’s tastefully produced CD titled “Gurdjieff / De Hartmann.” Her performances are marked by great delicacy.
I learned from people who had attended the concert that Mrs. Denzey was accompanied by members of two generations of her family and that the feeling was that this concert might be her final performance. A great one it was! She performed the compositions written for the Moments as well as some unfamiliar concert compositions. As one listener told me, “It lasted about one hour, but it was suddenly over, as if it had been only fifteen minutes in length, so moving was it.”
Friday, April 24, 2009. The first session began, after a one-minute sitting, with the presentation “Gurdjieff Exercises and the Three Brains” delivered by John Amaral who is an engineer by training and something of a polymath. What he did, with well-prepared slides, was discuss the function of the exercises identified with Gurdjieff and his followers that are used in work situations. They are transmitted from person to person and hence from generation to generation one-on-one or in small groups.
Can the exercises be described in words? They are not like recipes, easily summarized, or easily communicated, because they require a state of being and understanding that cannot be described or communicated except in person. They rather resemble sheet music, which very talented musicians can play, but others cannot. The training and skill of the musician is of paramount importance. Students are required to make them their own.
There are exercises for the various centres, for various types of people, for various times of the day, etc. Morning exercises are very important. There are exercises for various centres, for conscience, etc. John went into more detail than this and distributed two, many-paged printouts which I will pour over in the weeks ahead.
He said we live in an exciting and ecumenical time characterized by the availability of much material. That raised a question. Will the exercises disappear if they are kept under wraps, so to speak? Or should they be made more widely available, perhaps published or even made the subjects of multimedia presentations? Mechanical reproduction of them is as useless as mechanical performance of them. “If we wish to rise above the average, it is necessary to sacrifice sleep.”
I am not going to go into more detail than this because, as John pointed out, some people even object to referring to the exercises by name outside groups, though, interestingly, a senior work leader seated beside me turned to me and said, “Writers like you should be collecting them and publishing them.” So it is a controversial subject.
There was a lively discussion about Mr. G.’s view on dreams, comments from Maurice Nicoll, Margaret Anderson, and Ethel Merston. John said it should be possible to trace the “lineage” of the exercises based on their individual characteristics, though whether the effort is worth while is worth consideration. One member raised the subject of “Tasks” and it was suggested that a task is a time-reduced exercise. I remember this being discussed way back in the 1950s. The session ended at 10:45 a.m. with a coffee break.
At 11:00 a.m., Keith Buzzell spoke on “Do-Re-Me of Food, Air and Impressions.” He is a seasoned presenter and with slides and one handout related the Table of Hydrogens to the various types of “food” and ultimately the “coating” of higher being bodies. There is the food that grows on the surface of the earth, food that exists in the planetary atmosphere, and food that comes from the sun. One of his catchy phrases was “Only life can sustain life.”
Hydrogen 768 is the food of man, but the categories are “enormous.” In fact, while I did not conduct a word-count, I assume Keith used the word “enormous” twenty-one times to describe the categories on the Table, and quite rightly. He also turned his attention to the difference between “mass” and non-mass.” At times I thought I was attending a lecture on the Joy of Chemistry. Any dieticians in the audience would have been lost!
There was an interesting analysis of the role of proteins and how modern science is revealing the facts of digestion which are in line with what is discussed in “Tales.” We learn by analogy: “Higher hydrogens digest lower hydrogens.” The speaker suggested that there is “a way of understanding how our minds can transform our physical brains.” “The input of the three brains is the substrate of the spiritual body, the DNA of the kesdjan.”
During the discussion it was mentioned that there are ten bacteria for every cell in the human body. “We could not live without all our bacteria. We have to get along with each other.” Keith quoted a teacher who asked, “How can you expect to have extra knowledge if you don’t know ordinary knowledge.” The discussion ended with a discussion of magnetic vs. mechanical fields of influence and the human will and whether it can be suborned, followed by the differences between “body” and “centre.” It was 1:00 p.m.
At 2:30 p.m., after a brief sitting, Nick Bryce led a discussion of Chapter 27, “The organization for Man’s Existence Created by the Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash.” Nick is a veteran of these conferences, having attended all abut one of them. He is a resident of Ottawa and has a deep and comforting voice. More to the point, he has made “Tales” his own. I will not try to summarize the discussion here, as it seemed to me to consist of a number of “fresh starts,” but he elicited a high level of comments and observations discussing the “shocks” and two holy men whose names suggest Pondering and Sensing. The text was declared to be full of “analogies” and there was a useful discussion as to whether the text, at points, said what it meant, or meant more than it said.
Conscience was the subject of the passage, and what I learned is what one member of the group said is the difference here with respect to the “bite of conscience” and “the remorse” of conscience, two different things. Is conscience really buried or is it close to the surface? A student in the Bennett line suggested it is not all that deeply buried, but a student of a different line suggested that it is deeply buried. There seemed agreement that one’s conscience signals that “I have an alternative” and, thereafter, “I have no alternative.” It is not easily silenced. Is conscience part of essence? Is it outside essence? Is it part of the unconscious?
Nicoll was quoted as saying that acting against one’s conscience is “acting in a way unbecoming to three-brained beings.” The speaker suggested, “Every aspect of Gurdjieff’s teaching has to be reduced to some something that is practical and simple, otherwise it has no use for us.” The moderator introduced the image of Sleeping Beauty with the desire of the Prince to awaken her, i.e., one’s conscience. Discussion ended with the suggestion that “conscience never allows anyone to sleep in peace.”
The discussion ended at 4:10 p.m. with a coffee break, and I had to make a quick and quiet exit. This time I asked David Almon, a young man of the Bennett line, if he would accept a “task.” At first he was cagey, but then he agreed to do the best he could. Here is what he reported about the seminar on the topic of “The Chief Culprit in the Destruction of the Labours of Ashiata Shiemash.” It takes the form of a poem:
the chief culprit in the destruction
at all the very saintly labours of ashiata shiemash
to give is to receive
shall we replace one word with another?
Combine parts which blind names separate
reason substance in objects
presence knows where your water is
swim in it until the boat is Found
ride it towards the other
set sail together
let the light guide
lessons from these stars alight
fools asleep, the crew we need
be wary. For tales of lore
nature attests ocean to shore
all true inside
–from one of many inhabitants of this earth.
Elan Sicroff’s piano concert began at 8:30 p.m. Elan studied at the Julliard, met Bennett in 1972, and then worked at Claymont. (During one of the discussions he referred interestingly to some of his experiences there.) In all he performed twenty compositions and received a standing ovation. Three of the compositions had been written by Thomas de Hartmann in 1902 and two of them in 1953: the early ones were romantic in the manner of Rachmaninoff, the later ones dissonant in the manner of Stravinsky. Elan is planning to record these “unknown” De Hartmanns.
The other twelve compositions were parts from the following groups: Asian Songs and Rhythms; Hymns, Prayers, and Rituals; Music of the Sayyids and Dervishes; Hymns from the Great Temple and Other Selected Works.” He titled the program “Journey to Inaccessible Places” and indeed they were journeys to places both faraway and close at hand, with all their familiar overtones and undertones. He played these Gurdjieff-inspired compositions in a strong, masculine manner as music to move one’s muscles and then one’s emotions. In a brief commentary he explained that the writing of these collaborations took place between the two men in public gatherings at the Priory, so they partake of this “third force.”
Saturday, April 25, 9:30 a.m. George Bennett spoke on “Conscious Labour and Intentional Suffering: Being-Partkdolg-Duty.” George has a strong presence and a strong voice as well as a strong sense of organization. He based his comments on a paper delivered by J.B. Bennett at Sherbourne in April 1974 and through it distinguished various types of labour. Conscious labour is recognizing what is needed to be done, doing it without expecting a reward, and being content to serve the future. Intentional suffering is voluntarily accepting the situation; indeed, it is taking on the burden of a task knowing it will create a lot of trouble.
George made good use of slides and diagrams. One slide, to which he returned, was a photograph that showed a woman and a man working a handsaw with a child looking on, the child representing the generation of the future. He then discussed the twin figures of Choon-Kil-Tez and Chon-Tro-Pelj and the reasons for the world arising and maintenance and then perfecting of
“higher-being bodies.” He amusingly referred to Mr. Gurdjieff has having chutzpah in accepting all manner of hardships to make the Fourth Way known in the West, even delivering a lecture at Harvard.
Here are some of his remarks in passing, some made during the presentation and some made during the question period that followed the talk: “Egoism sows the seeds of disaster.” He discussed how a friend, apprized of inoperable cancer, said, “I’m going to live with the dying of it.” “All experiments are hazardous, otherwise they are not interesting.” “My debt to our existence must be paid.” He introduced a powerful notion: “We must be in the present, but at the same time we may make the present bigger.” I found this latter suggestion to be a “keeper.”
At 11:30, James George spoke on “What Does Great Nature Now Require of Us?” Dr. George – he holds the honorary degree from the University of Toronto of Doctor of Sacred Letters – is an elegant figure of a man, in his ninety-first year, who stood erect, consulted a script without squinting or without wearing spectacles, and shared his convictions with his audience. People paid rapt attention to the climate-consciousness thesis of his latest publication, “The Little Green Book of Awakening.”
He asked an interesting question: “What if George Gurdjief had never written ‘All and Everything.’” Suppose there had been no accident in 1923; suppose he had not felt compelled to redirect his energies from maintaining the Priory to putting words to paper. What would we have today? The question was never answered, for it is unanswerable, but it is striking.
He then introduced his theme and thesis: Global warming is the most challenging issue of the twenty-first century – and our survival as a species is at stake. “We humans have truly become the “biped destroyer of Nature’s good.” He said he was an ecologist “before it was fashionable to be green,” well before Al Gore became one. Gore has come around to the position that we need a new and different morality and spirituality. We must open our hearts to the unknown, to the future.
During the question period he was asked, “Do you see hope?” After deliberating, he said, “Yes, I do,” almost echoing Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes we can.” He then reminisced about his years at the United Nations, when Dag Hammarskjold was the Director General and was influenced by the Pakistan ambassador who was also head of one of the leading and enlightened Islamic groups. Jim’s suggestion was that we did not know of this current of influence then, and we do not know about it now, so we have no reason to assume that it does not exist today. “The awakening his a ripple effect. Now it is needed more than ever.”
He picked up on the suggestion of an earlier speaker that “faults are found on all levels, even the highest that we know.” On the acquisition of conscience: “We don’t acquire conscience all at once.” Once we acquire it, it is not necessarily there all the time. Asked about what might be called spiritual survivals from former civilizations unknown to history, he admitted there might be a “beehive” effect and that successive civilizations may have passed on to us their qualities, perhaps through our DNA. “Where does that take us now?” Scientists are only today discovering the neuroplasticity of our brains.
Asked for his thoughts on Barack Obama, he reiterated he does have hope. It was observed that “barack” means “presence” (or perhaps “grace”), and the new U.S. President has changed things, by creating an atmosphere of hope in the entire world. “Why not hope?” We need new energy sources, “a new Manhattan Project” to find them to cast aside coal-fire plants, adopt the least damaging technologies, and take a closer look at the ill-effects of electricity, especially on children. There is hope in zero-point energy. Another reason for hope is that life has a fourteen-million (or fourteen-billion?) year history. Do not underestimate the force of love in guiding the evolution of life.
At 2:40 p.m, the seminar focused on Chapter 5, “Mr. X or Captain Pogossian,” of “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” It was led by Nick who told us that the popular work was originally called “Portraits.” Thereafter, for me, it was downhill all the way. I had last read the book half a decade ago; many who were present had not read it at all. It was the classic case of a knowledgeable and patient discussion-leader and a dull, ill-prepared class. There were some exchanges on the nature of spider-venom. The question was asked, “What makes Pogossian remarkable?” Is he remarkable because he always wants to work? How does his body resemble the machine-engines that he tends? Is the ship a metaphor for his own body? The question, “Are the portraits of the people described in the book based on real people?” elicited the reply, “Does it matter?”
I could not remain for the second seminar, scheduled for 4:15 p.m., which was devoted to “Egoism” and facilitated by Dorothy Usiskin, but attentive to my duty to report on the proceedings, I turned to the young man who was seated to my right and asked him if he would accept a task and prepare for me a synopsis of the discussion. After all, he was preparing to spend three months in a “Residential Practicum” in Massachusetts run by Ben Bennett. He hesitated and then agreed. He wrote a poem and requested anonymity. Here it is:
whose will might help you out of your gaolishes?
does humour shake them off?
what feels this laughter?
juggling worlds states the jester to king
for the house his dance pleases
content to be the word then
as eyes on sheep keep wolf at bay
–from the hole of these spring
That was the last formal session of the conference. The banquet commenced at 7:30 p.m. that evening with Ian delivering some announcements. There were some toasts, including a sweet one to the memory of Mr. Gurdjieff’s wife. Then the banquet speaker was introduced. The speaker happened to be me, so I turned the tables on Ian by presenting him with a copy of one of my books (I had cleared this with Ian first), making the suggestion that he regard it as the gift of the thirty-five or so people present.
The audience took its cue and stood up to applaud Ian, who then did the gentlemanly thing of acknowledging the help he had received from his advisory board, the reading panel, and the planning committee. As for the banquet speech, I cannot meaningfully describe my twenty-minute talk, delivered without notes – but I will draw the attention of the reader to the supplement this report, where a fuller version of the speech appears.
The menu offered a choice of dinners: rubber chicken or pseudo vegetarian stew, so the food was not much, though the desserts were of the tasty, store-bought variety. The white wine was light, the red heavy. No one gained weight on the food and no one got drunk on the wine. Yet I wondered, because it seems there is a custom at these conventions that people throughout the meal “let down their hair” – not the “hair of the dog,” mercifully – and tell bawdy jokes. Now, one of my occupations has been that of joke-collector, and my occupational hazard is hearing recycled jokes. I had heard all of these jokes before, though only a few were funny enough to be revived. Yet most of them were told with some gusto.
Sunday, April 26, 2009. “Where Do We Go from Here?” sounds like an existential question, but it was really a practical question in line with an academic “post-mortem” coupled with a planning session for the next conference. There were twenty-four attendees seated in a circle, and the session was moderated most adeptly by Ian. It consisted of a series of animated discussions on the subjects of next year’s conference, beginning with should there be one, followed by where should it take place. Thereafter the group discussed the quality or lack of quality of the present programming, the introduction of ways and means to increase awareness through physical movement, the need to rethink the format of the seminar part of the program, and the added attraction of local tourism.
Everyone was in favour of holding the fifteenth conference, and about three-quarters of the participants indicated they would attend next year’s event. As no conferences had yet taken place in South America, one of the participants who lives in Mexico suggested Buenos Aires or Lima as cities that have the advantages of international airports and proximity to sites of interest like Machu Picchu which members might wish to visit.
It was stressed that the choice of the city might be based on whether or not it is the home of group members who would attend in numbers and contribute to the cause by helping to make arrangements, etc. It was felt that Toronto had been a success in that it had attracted many new members who had travelled from at least four distant Canadian cities to attend.
Another reason why this conference was interesting was that it attracted a goodly number of participants of the Bennett lineage, one of whom presented (and did it well) a major paper. No decision as to the site of next year’s conference was taken, as the organizers were open to suggestions and offers, though one idea was that the site of next year’s conference might be … Toronto again! While I think this is unlikely to occur, I can see why that decision would be popular with the American participants, as Canada shares a border with the United States (now an armed one, alas!) and Toronto has many conference hotels that are modest in price.
The group agreed that the quality of the papers was high, some higher than others, and that the number of papers (four) was “about right.” Yet it was noted that proposals for about six additional papers had been entertained but could not be accommodated. There was inconclusive talk of including an additional day for papers and seminars, i.e., making it a four-day affair rather than one of three days.
There was general agreement that the seminars, as distinct from the talks, were not as productive as they could be. This agreement surprised me, as I had come to the conclusion that I was the only participant who was “exasperated” with them. Also to my surprise was the fact that even the facilitators of the seminars expressed some discontent. It was felt that while much had been gained, opportunities had been lost.
Various remedies were suggested: Breaking the big oval into three small ovals; distributing in advance a PDF of a page or two of the text and then focusing on it, perhaps with a list of questions and a list of terms; introducing ways and means of enhancing powers of concentration and encouraging contributions to the discussion.
On the latter subject, there was a debate between what I saw as a disagreement between those who viewed the seminars as study sessions and those who viewed them as sittings. Proponents of the former recommended the limited introduction of standard psychological techniques used by profession presenters in the fields of business and personal empowerment. Proponents of the latter felt that the sessions should be allowed to flow, as participants made their own connections – or not. It was suggested that I might prepare a list of some suggestions of procedures that could be used by facilitators to enhance the empower the audience. I agreed to draw up such a list.
There was a debate as to whether or not specific exercises used by group leaders should be introduced. The argument against their introduction stemmed from the description of the conference as a non-work activity. On the same basis, it was argued that there was no place here for the Movements. It was even suggested that the two evenings devoted to the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann were extraneous. Counter-arguments were heard. There was no resolution.
Members from Norway, in particular, were concerned that the conference should remain true to its aim of bringing together “people who share an interest in plunging into the book.” They were bothered that social activities (including performances of the de Hartmann music) were a distraction, and were against connecting the conferences with tourism and exotic locales. It was suggested that a tourism component could be an “add on” for those participants who wanted to experience the city they were visiting. Many members felt that the conference in Greece was worthwhile both in itself and for the tourism component.
It was agreed that the call for papers should include a call for seminar leaders, as the latter was often done on at the last moment on an ad-hoc basis. It was felt that the conferences, in addition to meeting the needs of its regular participants, should “add new blood,” i.e., attract new members. Concern was expressed that some organizations were telling their members to avoid the A&E Conferences.
I felt a sense of loss when we began to shake or wave hands and say “au revoir but not goodbye.” Over the four days I had learned (yet again) not to judge people by their appearances – indeed, the fellow in motorcycle garb turned out to be eminently thoughtful and friendly, whereas the person who looked like an office manager turned out to be disorganized, and the woman who seemed self-contained was somewhat scatter-brained. People showed unexpected enthusiasms and smiled and were so friendly. People were friends. Indeed, everyone seemed so … alive!
But the big shock came when I left the hotel and drove to our local shopping plaza to buy some groceries. I entered our busy supermarket, only to sense that the crowd of shoppers was a flock of people who were asleep.
Greetings from Canada
Here is the complete text of the speech that I delivered at the banquet of the All & Everything Conference held in Toronto, Saturday, April 25, 2009.
It is a dream come true for me to attend an A&E Conference, for I have been reading the conference’s annual proceedings from the first conference held in Bognor Regis fourteen years ago. It is “two dreams come true” to be invited to address the audience at the banquet. It is a most unexpected honour.
I was desirous of attending all the sessions and of saying little, as I have no detailed knowledge of “Tales” and I did not want to make a fool of myself. I know my limits. But I immediately accepted the invitation to address the banquet because I was worried that there was no “Canadian content” in the proceedings at all. Aside from facilitators – Ian, who was born in Niagara Falls, and Nick, who lives in Ottawa – no presenter was a Canadian. (This was before I learned to my delight that Jim George would be taking part in the program.) I worried for about three minutes what I could possibly and meaningfully say to “the companions of the book.” But I knew in my heart’s core that I could convey my particular enthusiasm for the conjunction of consciousness studies and Canadiana.
In the past it was customary to envisage “fragments of a unknown teaching” in terms of geographical locales, and there are insights to be gained from establishing such vantage-points. Traditional values in Crotona, Southern Italy, may not be traditional values in Crotona, Southern California. Indeed, a chain of cities links the Work, starting or restarting in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but beginning much earlier, prehistorically perhaps, at some lost locale in Egypt or Ethiopia or the Caucasus or some remote monastery of Central Asia.
Given such exotic locales, I am sorry that you are anchored to this location: an unpromising non-neighbourhood in this city of functioning neighbourhoods. Toronto has many charms that you will not experience. There is an old saying attributed to a former mayor: “No one should ever visit Toronto for the first time.” So come back again to savour the city. Let us find out what is at hand. Around the corner from this hotel is a mosque. Five blocks south of here is a Mormon temple that has a direct and unique connection with the Mormon founder Joseph Smith. I could go on ….
I often escort people on a tour of the city, focusing on locales associated with writers who once lived here – Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Wyndham Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Robertson Davies, etc. Insulin was first synthesized here. Sigmund Freud did not live here, but his brother, a furrier with a shop on Spadina Avenue, did. As did Isaac Bashevis Singer and the anarchist “Red Emma” Goldman who died here. Elan Sicroff, who is here today, would enjoy seeing the sites associated with the eccentric but brilliant pianist Glenn Gould. There is also some outstanding architecture represented by I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind, and Frank Gehry (who was born here), as well as a rare public sculpture by Frank Lloyd Wright and innumerable Henry Moores. Gehry’s remodelling of the Art Gallery of Ontario is a work of great art and the Thomson Gallery with its magnificent Lawren Harris canvases (inspired by Theosophy) approaches objectivity.
Let us begin in the world of imagination and symbology. I would like you to stare beyond me, beyond the cream-coloured wall behind me, and look into the distance, for three seconds. Each of you should ask yourself, “What do I see?” I will do the same. What did you see? I saw with my “improved binoculars” into the far reaches of the country. I saw the North Pole and the Magnetic North Pole. Did you see them? They are part of this country and they exert a tremendous influence on us and on our civilization. I could speak for an hour about the myths and legends of Canada’s and the world’s most northern point. (Rest assured I won’t.)
Instead, I will ask, “Do you remember what P.D. Ouspensky wrote about the Pole?” References to the “polar regions” occur repeatedly in Ouspensky’s talks: “We live in a bad place in the universe – near the North Pole.” Not good news! I need not remind you that in “Tales,” Gurdjieff himself writes about the Eskimo who is one of four contemporary initiates – I assume the Eskimo in question is a long-lived Canadian citizen. In fact, I might even supply his name.
Now I would like you to turn around, for three seconds, and tell me what you see? Do you see what I see? (I am writing this script so it is unlikely that you saw what I saw: Niagara Falls.) This mighty cataract is one of the world’s most familiar natural sites, and it marks the nation’s boundary with the United States. I could talk for an hour about the lore and mystery of the falls – I won’t – but I will share with you one of the best observations ever made about the falls. It was delivered off-the-cuff by Oscar Wilde when he visited the place in the 1880s, when it was known as “the honeymoon capital of the world.” A reporter asked him for his thoughts on the matter. He quipped, “It’s the second major disappointment in the life of the American honeymooning couple.”
Let me talk about Toronto for a few minutes. Neither P.D. Ouspensky nor G.I. Gurdjieff ever visited Toronto – or Canada for that matter. Even Niagara Falls held no attraction for them, although it did fascinate Aleister Crowley the occultist who in 1904 travelled across the country and wrote in his memoirs he wanted to spend the rest of his life meditating beside the mighty cataracts. (The falls “thunder” about 130 kilometres from here – you can see the spume or at least the spray from the top of the CN Tower.) Crowley visited Toronto and called the city “a calculated crime against humanity.”
T. Lobsang Rama (remember him of “Third Eye” fame?) also delighted in the Falls, though he chose to live in Montreal’s Habitat and then spend his last years in a high-rise in Calgary. The Madame – Blavatsky this time, not de Saltzmann – visited Quebec City where she pow-wowed with Indian elders about their “wisdom tradition” – she complained they told her nothing but instead absconded with her newly purchased pair of expensive leather boots.
You have now looked both North and South. Now I want you to do more than look West and East. In fact, I want you to board the bus that I have chartered and take a journey with me.
All aboard the bus. We drive along the Highway 401 and in about thirty-five minutes we note that exit for Guelph, Ontario. We do not take the exit, but I want to point out that here was born the IMAX projection system with which I am sure you are all familiar. It has developed here though its roots go back to Expo 67 in Montreal and to the National Film Board of Canada where Tom Daly was its leading producer-director. You will hear Tom’s name again, soon.
The next exit is for Kitchener. Again, we do not stop, though if we had the time I would take you into the city and show you the childhood homes of my wife Ruth and myself. But let us continue. It’s an hour since we left Toronto behind, but ahead of us is Kitchener’s twin city of Waterloo. Here we will turn off the highway and pause in front of the campus of the University of Waterloo, which boasts the largest computer science department in the world, not just in Canada. It is sometimes said that there are more IT millionaires under the age of thirty in Waterloo than anywhere else on the globe. I think that is an overstatement, but what follows is not.
Waterloo is the birthplace of the BlackBerry, developed here by Mike Lazaridis, who then went on to found the outstanding Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics. Here there are twenty or so resident scholars who are determined to understand the formation of the cosmos. Health permitting, Stephen Hawking has agreed to spend the summer in residence here. I find cosmological thinking like this exciting, though I can make no contribution to it.
Back on the bus. In twenty-five minutes we are on the outskirts of Brantford, Ontario, which is known as the birthplace of the greatest-ever hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. But Brantford is distinguished in the world of communications, too. Brantford is described as “the birthplace of the telephone,” though Alexander Graham Bell, its father, denies this. He said, “The telephone was conceived in Brantford but born in Boston, Massachusetts.” Yet we will visit his family home and examine the exhibit that celebrates the fact that here was placed the world’s first long-distance telephone call, between Brantford and nearby Galt via the telegraph line that runs through Toronto, just as today’s telephone calls are bounced off geostationary telecommunication satellites.
The telephone is indicative of the world of communications. What is indicative of the world of traditionalism is what we will find on the outskirts of Brantford. As Northrop Frye noted, “In Ontario the Precambrian and the Postmodern are side by side.” Here is the Six Nations Indian Reserve. Clayton Jacobs who is here lives on this Reserve’s sister Reserve of Caughnawaga just outside Montreal in Quebec. He will attest that the Christian Mohawks lives at Caughnawaga, whereas the pagan Mohawks live at the Six Nations.
I use the word “pagan” but I really mean “shaman,” because here are preserved ancestral traditions from the remote past. Here is recited the traditional Great Peace. Especially honoured is the world’s most famous Indian. His name is … Hiawatha, and he is believed to have been a real person, born near Deseronto, Ontario. He dedicated his life to the service of his great but semi-mythic chief, Dekanahwideh, who instituted the Great Peace. It lasted four hundred years, until the arrival of the White Man. Its oral laws influenced the U.S. Constitution. The American Eagle, perched at the topmost branch of the Great Tree of Peace, comes from Dekanahwideh’s constitution.
It is with reluctance that we cut short our visit to this Reserve and reboard our bus, but we are heading now for our last stop: London, Ontario. In the nineteenth century, it was known as “London the Lesser.” We are now about three hours west of Toronto. See that cemetery? It holds the moral remains of one of the world’s leading metaphysical writers: Richard Maurice Bucke. We will drive past but only to pay homage to this remarkable man at the London Psychiatric Hospital which has a treaching centre named in honour of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke.
In the late nineteenth century he was one of the continent’s leading “alienists” or psychiatrists. He died in 1902, the Superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane. He is the author of the first biography of Walt Whitman, whom he knew personally and brought to Canada for a three-month visit, and he is the author of that classic in the world of mysticism known as “Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.” It is a comprehensive anthology of first-person accounts of mystical experiences.
Dr. Bucke was a friend of the English socialist Edward Carpenter, and I had the honour of typing out fair copy of Carpenter’s original letters written to Dr. Bucke. Between them the two men may lay claim to having coined the term “cosmic consciousness” to refer to what Freud memorably referred to as “the Oceanic Experience.” Ouspensky devoted the final chapter of his book “Tertium Organum” to the theories of Carpenter and Bucke, and in those pages he argues that Bucke was on the right track but the mistake that he made was in assuming that the evolution of “the cosmic consciousness sense” was automatic and mechanical, whereas Ouspensky argued it was the fruit of “conscious evolution.” Bucke was a Darwinian; Ouspensky a Skinnerian.
Our bus will now speed us back to Toronto, where we will head north again, past York University, just north of here, where Dr. Graham Reed in its Department of Psychology popularized the term “anomaloous experience.” It is now now embedded in consciousness studies, and is used by psychiatrists in place of “abnormal experiences.” It is too bad Dr. Bucke did not have access to Dr. Reed’s book, published in 1988, called “The Psychology of Anomalous Experience.” But let us drive on.
Our next stop is just outside Orangeville, where I will point out to you the world’s largest Daoist Tai Chi centre. Beside the Daoist temple, the big building is a rehearsal and demonstration hall where 1,000 people may perform the 108 steps of Tai Chi at the same time. Ruth and I are students of the discipline and hope one day to perform the set there.
Now settle back in the bus for we have a drive of at least four hours to take us to Sudbury, Ontario, the site of the world’s largest neutrino laboratory, which Stephen Hawking once visited. Sudbury is set in a crater and here the Apollo astronauts rehearsed the geological portions of their moon walk. We are headed to Laurentian University where we will meet Michael Persinger, a cognitive psychologist, who will show us a device he invented: his so-called Magic Helmet. It is a hockey helmet (a Canadian touch!) with electro-pads – to reproduce these “anomalous experiences” on demand. Specifically, his low-frequency wave-generator can generate “the entity experience” in the mind of the participant. One participant was Susan Blackmore, the psychologist, parapsychologist-turned- sceptic, who has written at length about the experience and even appeared in a television special that culminated in her appearance at Dr. Persinger’s psychology laboratory.
Back to Toronto! This time we turn East and drive about twenty minutes into the suburb of Scarborough where we will climb a hill, Taber Hill Park, a powerful Ojibwa Vision Site. The city considers it a municipal park. But it is clearly a vision site, on the hill of which young men spent nights under the stars, met their spirit-guides, and returned to their people as warriors. Its magic works, even today.
If I had the time I would describe the site in detail, but we have to board our bus again and in an hour and a half we will pass through the city of Peterborough and then past the Indian reservation at Curved Lake and beyond it where we will behold the magnificent Peterborough Petroglyphs, where there is an outcropping of rock that is carved with perhaps eight hundred fascinating images. Here is the domain of “rock art.” This too is a vision site, though not so described in the tourist literature.
If that is not enough, on to Rice Lake where we will visit the peculiar land-forms at Serpent Mounds Provincial Park which is under excellent First Nation management. I think these low-lying mounds are a maze or a labyrinth where thanksgivings were made to the spirits of nature. Shamanstrvo is alive and well in Ontario.
That is as far east as we will go, so let our bus sprout wings and fly us back to Toronto, a city with a population of 3.3 million, one-tenth the population of the country. Every second person who lives in Toronto is foreign-born, and many more were born elsewhere in the country. It has been called the city that gave the word “multiculturalism” to the world.
Toronto has one Anthroposophical society, two Theosophical Societies, and four Gurdjieff groups. (There was a saying, popular during the Cold War, that went like this: “God loved Germans so much he made two Germanies.”) I can understand why there might be four separate groups, but it makes no sense, to an outsider like myself, that they should not work together. For instance, I exchanged emails with Joseph Azize; he could have visited the city and spoken here, had the groups been able to work together to invite him. (It is usually said there are three societies, – but only at the price of excluding those working in the Bennett tradition.)
The history of group work in Toronto is an interesting one. There were followers of Bennett, including Sheila and Paul Bura, who were active in the city in the very early 1950s. But the Toronto group per se was founded by Madame Olga de Hartmann with her husband Thomas in 1954, one year following the foundation of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City.
At the time the couple were residents in Rawdon, Quebec, where they were waiting for their U.S. immigration papers. There they met members of the Daly family, including young Tom Daly, who brought them to Toronto on a visit. It is said that Madame de Hartmann wanted to lead the Toronto group, but the Foundation was responsible for shifting that burden onto the shoulders of Mrs. Louise Welch. Once a month for thirty or so years, she flew between New York City and Toronto, sometimes in the company by her husband Dr. William Welch. I met them in 1957 and dedicated my earliest book of poems to her – as well as my latest book of essays to her memory.
Here is a rundown on the groups: One, “The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: The Experimental Group.” Two, the publishing group (officially “Toronto Gurdjieff Group”). Three, “The Society for Traditional Studies.” There is also a fourth, non-affiliated group, taking into account the active Gurdjieff Bennett Group. To confuse matters still more, there is also Dolmen Meadow Editions, a fine publishing imprint. The main group owns property: a two-storey midtown building as well as a farm at Tyrone. There does seem to be some element in “wisdom traditions” and “universal brotherhoods” that gives rise to turf-wars.
Traditional Studies Press (which is incorporated within “The Society for Traditional Studies: The Gurdjieff Foundation”) issued the first-ever “Guide and Index” to “All & Everything.” This was an immense undertaking, especially in pre-computer days, work and one that is in line with the spirit of scholarship. We Canadians have a genius for mammoth mosaics. At the present time there are massive editorial projects underway, including the multi-volumed collected works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Erasmus of Rotterdam, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli, Florence Nightingale, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Lonergan, A.M. Klein, Northrop Frye, and every text ever written in Early Middle English.
Another huge editorial project was the typesetting and the publication of the Russian-language edition of “All & Everything.” This undertaking is particularly astonishing given the fact that the Russian text was keyboarded by computer indexer Jack Cain who knows not a single word of Russian. But he did learn the Cyrillic alphabet and hunted-and-pecked his way through the work. It took him three years of part-time, conscious labour to keyboard the text for the future benefit of the book’s Russian readers.
Many of us have benefitted from another major undertaking, J. Walter Driscoll’s mammoth “Bibliography.” I have yet to meet Walter, who though Toronto-born lives on the West Coast, but I admire his work of assembly and commentary, which makes it possible to have between the covers of one thick tome all the serious English-language references to the Work.
Let me look at some living people. The country’s ranking Gurdjieffians – if I may describe them in this way – are three in number: Ravi Ravindra, Tom Daly, and James George.
Ravi is a charming Hindu-born scientist and humanist who lectures widely on the Work, Krishnamurti, Theosophy, Yoga, and comparative religion. He has written a wonderfully warm book about Madame de Saltzmann titled Heart without Measure. He is based in Halifax. I covered one of his addresses and described him as bearing a marked resemblance to Mohandas Gandhi, but I backed down when I realized that what he really looks like is the Mahatma as played by Ben Kingsley.
Tom Daly is the distinguished producer of documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada. I mentioned him in connection with IMAX. One of his many films is a masterpiece with a cosmological sense of wonder – Universe is its title, and the thirty-minute documentary takes the viewer on a tour of … the Ray of Creation.
It was Tom’s mother who brought the De Hartmann’s to Toronto. Tom subsequently settled in Montreal where he is the executor of the estates of the De Hartmanns. He has done much to preserve their memory and arrange for the recordings of the musical compositions inspired by Mr. Gurdjieff. A Toronto friend of Tom’s, Peter Colgrove, oversaw Madame de Hartmann’s final years near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Last September about sixty of us helped to celebrate James George’s ninetieth birthday, and as you can see the elder statesman remains hail and hearty. I will spare Jim the embarrassment of praising him in his presence. But in the 1960s he served with distinction as Canada’s High Commissioner to India. There he befriended the present Dalai Lama and helped His Holiness with the pressing problem of preserving the precious manuscripts that he had brought with him from Tibet into exile. They could not to be read by anyone but a high lama. Jim convinced His Holiness that surely they would go unread in the hands of a Canadian microfilm technician who knew neither Sanskrit, Tibetan, nor Hindi. So the documents were copied in the official Canadian residence in New Delhi. This may constitute a world first!
A lively account of this incident appears in Jim’s fine memoir “Asking for the Earth.” His current work, about which he spoke so movingly earlier today, is called “The Little Green Book of Awakening.” Jim George is married to Barbara Wright, whom I always describe as “dynamic” for that is what she is. No man should describe any woman as “experienced,” I guess, but she is “experienced” in the ways of the work, having enjoyed a long association with the work in San Francisco. Barbara and Jim make an impressive team!
A few other names could be mentioned: Ian MacFarlane, one of the organizers of the Conference, was born at Niagara Falls. I am meeting him for the first time. Bernard Courtney-Myers, born in Vancouver and a McGill medical graduate, has enjoyed a long work history, and at one point served as Gurdjieff’s personal physician. Paul Bura was active with Bennett at Coombe Springs before carrying on that work in Toronto well before the arrival of the De Hartmanns. Peter Colgrove, whom I knew when he taught at Forest Hill Collegiate here, cared for Olga de Hartmann during her last years in New Mexico. I am ever anxious to learn of the contributions of other Canadians who are involved in the Work.
Is there strength in numbers? I have no certified information about the numbers of students of the Work in the country. (I am not one of them myself, for I regard myself as a “fellow traveller” – if pressed, as “an unreconstructed Ouspenskian.”) There are groups or centres associated with the Foundation in New York City in at least seven Canadian cities. Here is an estimate of their numbers.
Vancouver has about 35 members. Edmonton perhaps 15. Toronto over the decades has always had about 100 members. Ottawa, the nation’s capital, perhaps 15 members. Montreal maybe 40. Saint John likely 20. Halifax perhaps 40. There is some activity in other cities like Victoria. With the adding machine at hand, I come up under 300 people. Add say 100 “fellow travellers” like myself – Sputniks is the Russian word for them – and we have a population of perhaps 400 scattered across a country with a general population of 33 million people. I do not know whether this is “bad” or “good.” It is probably not a saving remnant.
Let me conclude with my gift to you. I gave a book to Ian; I have a present for each one of you. As the author of the “Book of Ecclesiastes” counsels us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But there are a few new things under the moon. The one new thing that I will share with you is an old word – the one, quintessential, all-purpose, all-Canadian word. I doubt that you have yet heard it here, though it could prove to be useful in social occasions in the future.
The word is “Chimo.” Chimo is a word of mixed Indian-Eskimo origin that has a goodly number of meanings, including “hello,” “greetings,” “to your health,” and “goodbye.” For the purposes of this audience and for this evening, let me suggest that the word C-H-I-M-O is actually an acronym, an acronym that stands for five key concepts: “Conscious … Harmonious … Inner … Meetings … Octaves.”
So my final word to you is … “Chimo!”
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is known for his dictionaries of Canadian quotations, his collections of Canadian jokes, and his anthologies of told-as-true ghost stories. Type his full name into Google and it will will take you to his two websites.
After posting the latest from Joseph Azize, see below, I saw there was a link to the Adbur Rahman site with this poem and so I am posting it here.
A Riderless Horse
Breath in my lungs,
sunlight upon my face.
O Beloved! These are gifts fine and beautiful.
Let me then breathe gratitude,
I am a riderless horse.
Let my every breath be
‘Welcome, Rider, I am glad You have come’
(Abdur Rahman, 20th August 2007)
click on image of Helen & George Adie to enlarge
In this post, I wish to try and bring something which may be of continuing practical value, although it is perhaps most accessible to those in Gurdjieff groups. In June 1980 the Adies set their groups a task: submit a written report, retaining for yourself a copy, stating: (1) what you feel you have gained from the work, (2) what you feel you now need, and (3) your plan to acquire what you need. Even if one were not engaged in the Gurdjieff “work”, the task is pertinent. One can substitute for “the work” the name of one’s path, or simply the word “life”. But anyone can take this as a task. The transcripts below may provide some assistance.
On 25 June 1980, Mrs Adie said in response to a question by someone who found it difficult to formulate a plan: “…you could take one habit, for example, watching t.v., or smoking, and try and change it. But it is very important to remember why you are doing this. To stop watching t.v. or to cut down smoking will create a friction and a suffering. It can easily become an ordinary sort of misery, but the recollection of your aim is a factor which can prevent the suffering becoming an ordinary misery.”
After this reference to aim, Mrs Adie came to a related topic – wish.
“We have to realise much more our wish. Most of the time there is no truth to our wish, one could even say that there is no wish at all. That is why so little happens. But there are moments when there is some wish active in us. And the most important moment is in the morning preparation. If it is done sincerely and with a certain amount of will and force, the feeling comes from it. Feeling comes as a result of making an effort, there is no doubt about it, but it is not going to last. So it has to be repeated in some way, but it won’t be repeated unless – at that moment – I plan for the next moment.”
“But at that moment there is a wish. During the day I may remember. During the day I may get a guilty feeling, but there is no wish. Yet only that wish will produce a result. One sees more and more in all the questions that is the main difficulty, really. At some time a shock is received and a fresh impulse appears. There is a wish. But that does not stay by itself, it must be reinforced.”
Part of the significance of this statement is that wish, the wish for conscious evolution which is essential in all of us, “resides”, as it were, in feeling. “Feeling” and “emotion” are different things. Feeling is in essence, and always brings a sense of myself in relation to reality. It is always permanent, not in the sense that the feeling lasts forever, but that the truth of the experience is permanent. If love turns to hate or vice versa, this is emotional love not feeling. If I experience love in my feeling, that feeling is always true for me. I can never deny it or say that I had been deceived or was wrong. Gurdjieff says that from the result of experiencing love, “we can blissfully rest from the meritorious labours actualized by us for the purpose of self-perfection.” (Beelzebub, p. 357) This love never fades: it is always remembered as an immediate being-reality. While emotions can be very violent, and hence believable, they can be blown away. Feeling is always deeper, immeasurably deeper, but feeling is always quieter. Indeed, a correlation can be made between feeling and a certain kind of silence. But the opposite does not necessarily hold: silence, the cessation of sound, does not always point to feeling.
The feeling of “Wish” is a great mystery. In Life Is Real Only Then, When “I Am”, Gurdjieff speaks of the three impulses “I Am”, “I Can” and “I Wish” as being “sacred for man”, and as “Divine impulses”. (p.136 in both the privately printed 1975 edition and the 1999 paperback). In the critically important chapter “Hypnotism”, Beelzebub refers to the “sacred being-impulses” of faith, hope, love and conscience. It seems to me that there are correlations between these two sets of impulses such that one may even think of faith as approximating to I Am, hope to I Can, and love to I Wish. I do not say that the terms are interchangeable: but if one holds these concepts side by side in thought, the experience may be enlightening.
To complete the reporting of the meeting of 25 June 1980, Mrs Adie stated in reply to a question: “It is very interesting. It has often been said “Don’t work for results.” But it’s also said that every effort has a result. But it’s not always what we expect.” She was going to develop this thought, but the person who brought the question cut across her.
From the same period, comes this edited transcript of the meeting of Wednesday 18 June 1980, taken by both the Adies. The task was the one mentioned above: the report with three aspects. But some of the people also referred to an exercise which the Adies had from Gurdjieff in 1949, and which I call the “Clean Impressions” exercise. In my experience, to date, this is the king, as it were, of Gurdjieff’s exercises.
The first question came from Basil, who asked about his troubled younger son, and how he could not relate to his son except in the “normal fatherly way” of advising him to think of himself and others. He finds, however, that this achieves no lasting result. Perhaps, said Basil, he needs to accept the situation as it is. However, he added with real honesty, he found it very difficult to accept the situation without disapproval.
“Well unless you do”, replied Adie, “you cannot help him. If you refuse to accept the reality, you can’t understand. Everything being as it is, then you have to agree that this is the situation. As for leaving a more permanent effect, this is a big doing. Unless I have this actual transformation going on in me, how can I leave anything at all enduring in anybody? What more permanent impression can I achieve in myself?”
“Take yourself: you are the operative factor. You wish to affect him, You wish to minister unto him. But can you minister unto yourself? Because what is to do the ministration?”
“Yet”, added Adie, “this is what we need to do to come to the point of our lives.”
In this idea of the point of our lives, something very deep is touched, which having been sounded, will be picked up again later in the meeting. At this point, however, Adie referred to the task which had been given: “All the answers to these questions show this up tremendously clearly. Almost every answer, almost every one, begs the question. It says “I have to do this”. But it does not say how. It says “I have to make a plan,” but it does not say how, almost exclusively. In one or two instances there was a very theoretical one, “I must have a higher thought”. Of course I must. But how? This is the great difficulty: it stands out now from all the answers. We are not in very intelligent contact with the world we live in, or with the bigger world. See after 10, twelve or fourteen years, what is our contact with life on a bigger scale? Where is the sense of obligation or duty … or meaning? Where is the meaning of life? Have I got a duty? And whom would that duty be for?”
Let me just interrupt once more: I think this is terribly important for the future not only of each individual, but also of the Gurdjieff tradition as a whole: what is its contact with life on a bigger scale? What is the contact of each group with life? Gurdjieff used to feed the poor and support the needy. I shall one day collect the references to this, but it is sufficient here to refer to Tchekhovitch and to Conge. I hope that the same can be said of today’s Gurdjieff groups, because if it cannot, this points to a deficiency in their work. To return to Mr Adie’s answer:
“Well, I think everybody ought to study their answer and see. Some of the things which were said were perfectly alright, but they have to be taken further. In that respect, there is little difference in anybody’s answer. They all go round about. Time and time again, someone says what they need, and then they state the furthest need, “I need to remember myself”, yes, but alright, then what am I going to do about it? “I am going to try and remember myself.” It’s almost as banal as that. Almost.” He turned to Mrs Adie and asked for her opinion. She agreed, saying:
“I was thinking that there were one or two good ones among them, but most of the answers could have applied to anybody. People have not written about their particular difficulty. But everybody is different in some way: we all have our own subjective weaknesses and ways. They were left too general.”
“Interestingly”, said Mr Adie, “the answers which we had received from people who had only just come were better. At least they saw quite crisply that this was an obstacle. This specific thing. They really felt something about their lack of will, their lack of control. It came out. They felt that this they needed, and that’s why they came to the work.”
“See, we’re in front of a great challenge there. We need the influence of the far off, but we need to experience it, not as a tale that is told but as an actual fact. What is it that stops that, and how could I have that experience more often? Someone would say by remembering their far aim, yes, but how am I going to achieve this increased recollection? Practically no one cited anything that they had got to give up. Almost no one said “I have to sacrifice this”, or that they had to acquire that specific thing in order.”
“This relates to what you’re saying, Basil. How to come to be useful in this situation. One finds people who will say, “you must do this, and try to realise that”, all these wise man responses, very sage, very salutary. I think we don’t realise the necessity of getting down into the same situation. I don’t mean getting down from a condescending point of view, but standing side by side. If there were something wrong with a motor, would I sit in my chair and tell him to go outside and fix it? Or do I sense his need, leave my chair, and have a look with him? Maybe I can’t exactly do that verbally, but if I’ve got it in my feeling, then I could even remain mute and yet share his situation, and that would be much more lasting. If only I could feel myself in relation to him. You refer to your son, I can refer to one of our sons, and there there is great difficulty. From the ordinary point of view it is heartbreaking. But what is shared sometimes is a quality of feeling, and that certainly is an enduring thing.”
“Just a certain little while, shared in a wordless way, even just cooking a meal together, or getting something from the shop, because words never satisfy, they always go the wrong way, while feeling is a more permanent influence. But to have a result … ah, that’s a different matter. We have to settle for the possible, and even to be grateful for that, and to see that the other is beyond our power. But if something is exchanged there, in our presences, then that remains a recollection possible for him. Mmm?”
“One does not know what stage people are at, what point in this enormous long life, they are at. Do you know John Bunyan’s remark, when he saw the fellow led off to the gallows. He wasn’t being mock-humble, he just realised that everybody is exposed to these tremendous forces, and that there was one being led off to the gallows. “There, but for the grace of God go I, John Bunyan.”
“But too often, for us, other people present a bleak prospect, and for us it is unacceptable. Certainly, as you yourself say, acceptance is absolutely essential. That means, really, in practice, in this case, an absence of negative criticism. You don’t have to say, oh yes, it’s alright. You have to be free of blaming – in your feeling. You can realise how ghastly and costly it is. But in your feeling you don’t blame.”
Mr Adie then turned to Paul, who in his report had said that he found a good state but he could not find the words:
“And Paul wrote, certainly from the most sincere place that he could, but still you have to come to an answer, you cannot leave it unanswered, because our work is on this level. Facing that higher state, I am wordless, I cannot know. I am in challenge totally, but if I am going to work, I have to come to some kind of an answer, I have to work to it. So I go forward. Maybe you come to something trite, it doesn’t matter. You cannot remain in that exalted state for long, you return … and then you follow. Try and take it further. Don’t be satisfied with this formulation. I have to work to do. With the benefit of this, whatever it is, I go and find the work.”
Mr Adie then noticed Richard, who had not handed in a report. Why, he asked him, had he not submitted one? Well, Richard replied, he did not think it had to be submitted.
“Nonsense”, retorted Adie. “You fail. Next time you do not come if you do not bring it. You are not entitled to be here, if you are not serious.” After a pause he added: “Somebody speak about work. Let us get away from this dead spot. See what we’re speaking of is the real interest. If nothing is going to change, if we’re not going to get any of these powers, then what is it about? Our understanding is not adequate, therefore we have to work to increase our understanding. So, we’re always lacking, but if we can see our lack and go on, then that is the way of the work.”
I would relate this to what I have earlier blogged about the “romance of the search”. If there is no possibility of finding, the “eternal search” is farcical.
Someone asked about negative attitude, and surprisingly, perhaps, Adie replied: “I don’t think you need to ask about that.” My sense is that Mr Adie thought the person’s difficulty lay elsewhere. “Try and work to make it very practical for you. You, like everybody has, to some extent or other, a real possibility of playing a part in the work of the universe … it’s an enormous concept … but what is a responsible being, a man in life that one could respect for a moment?”
“What is it one respects about that man? He has some stature in humanity. He contributes something. He brings something, he works. In a way, he leaves a mark. It may not last very long, but it isn’t as if he never was.”
“He doesn’t pass like a shadow. He passes like a being with some meaning. But we have no meaning, see, when we have no aim we have no meaning. A person without any meaning is a sort of shadow, just a phantom.”
There was a silence. Even on the tape it sounds like a strong silence in which these powerful words were absorbed. Remember the reference to aim, especially if you attempt the task of the report, and recall what Mrs Adie said on 25 June. It is aim which is the catalyst which raise efforts beyond the meaningless.
Eventually, Alwin asked a question: “Mr Adie, there’s many times during the day when I get a reminder, but I simply do not want to make use of it when I could. I might be preoccupied or in a negative state or whatever. I cannot overcome that, even in the smallest instant, and I would like to make some progress.”
“You have to bring yourself to face that time and time again. The need for that. That is practical.”
“But I can only find that in retrospect.” Alwin was fond of an argument, and fond of being at a loss. Often, I find, people would much rather have the attention which comes with having an intractable problem than they would have the solution.
Adie, however, was not to be deflected: “Do it more often and find the wish in retrospect. And then the next time it may be that you get the echo of that wish. But if you only remember it from the point of view of negative failure, you only have the recollection of negative failure. With this attitude, you don’t face it out long enough to really bring your being in contact with it. Because if you do, then when it comes again, your being contact will also come. Surely you can see that?
“Yes, but –”
“Yes, but this is the way. It’s then we can work in our confrontation. That is the preparation. Don’t think we can just change, suddenly become aware and find responses extempore like that. Of course not. We have to make the response, if there is to be one, now. When the time comes, if it has been made, there shall be the response! Which will help me then to hear the message and take some action.” Alwin kept arguing. Adie replied: “Something sees, but you are not there in the right form. But some I keeps reminding you of the work. You say you keep remembering during the day. This is a useful I, if you can connect yourself to it.”
“I have to bring myself and my feeling, and then it gives me a whole different field of work, because I can tell something about my feeling from my manifestations. I can’t make love and cut a throat at the same time – and if I am manifesting negative emotion, or pride, I will not be able to remember what I need. But my wish to respond will bring me to a moment, and then maybe I see these very definite things, and I work.”
Ian now brought a contribution. Ian saw himself not as Adie’s equal but as his superior. He did not even like to say that he had followed Adie’s suggestion. He tried to make it look as if he independently had the same idea. “I tried for myself over the break, to come to something very similar to what you asked.” What he found difficult, he said, especially while he was away by himself, was to overcome the “great inertia” in his thought.
“And a momentum. There is a momentum to our thought.”
Ian pushed on: There were two definite occasions, he said, when he was by himself, when he had a breakthrough, and he wrote some notes down in a restaurant, but now he finds that he cannot bring that feeling he then experienced into his thought.
“But if you read your question while you are present to yourself, surely it gives some kind of connection”, Adie said. “All sorts of different levels co-exist within me, and I remember clearly a level I would glad to be on. I seemed to understand, to have less doubt at that moment. I felt some wonder, not just ignorance. And I would like to be connected with that again, not to have it exactly like that, but to get the influence of that level. This is what you’re talking about, isn’t it?”
Yes, Ian replied, it was.
“I don’t see how you can expect more than that. Then, from that, there can be another experience. It won’t be the same, it doesn’t have to be. It’s a good thing it isn’t. If it was the same it wouldn’t be a birth, it would be a repetition. Every birth is a unique thing, and in a way, a momentary act is a birth, if you like. It is a unique act, every second.”
Adie then addressed the fact that Ian had then been overseas: “When you’re away like that, your possibility of sensing your own reality is greatly enhanced, because you are taken away from many of the customary stimuli: the family is not there, the climate is different, the jobs are different, the timetable is different, and one is helped to bring to oneself one’s own reality. You are operating in a rather different medium, and you have constant impressions of the new medium. I have to decide a little bit more often: even breakfast is different. It always raises different little questions. I can’t even pick my hairbrush up from the same place. All this stimulates my self-awareness in a way. And I have a sense of self-responsibility – maybe very very little, but very useful..”
“What you say is partially true,” allowed Ian.
“I am glad of that,” Adie said softly, and everyone laughed. Everyone but Ian: “I find, in general, there is a great deal of agitation inside.”
“Of course,” replied Adie, “but agitation is real, too. I may be a in a spin, but nevertheless everything is different, it’s calling me in a different way. I notice my perturbation much more. If it’s the same old dreary perturbation, I don’t notice it so much. But I can’t always be away, so how can I make use of that strange fact? Connects at once, doesn’t it, with the idea of making strange essence tasks? Of having something that’s different, something that will intrude a little on my customary automatic routine. How could I do that?”
“You see, to begin with one makes little experiments, one finds one cannot do, and then gives up the ghost. But now after ten or 15 years we should be approaching the point of doing, of inner doing. It then gives point to these small things again. There’s a connection.”
Samuel then asked about his experience at work. He had taken as a line of work his identification with certain matters which gave rise to some rather serious grievances. One of these related to a colleague who had been mistreated, and undergone a complete mental collapse. In both instances, the employer had been deceitful. Yet he planned to be neutral and take no sides. Yet, he said, he had felt very angry, and had “disappeared into it completely.” He was now despondent.
“Yes, but don’t you see,” said Adie, “that you were deeply identified even in the task you choose. Where was your objectivity before you went? There’s an idea to be impartial, but that’s an enormous word, because it doesn’t mean that I cease to care. And if this person is callous and his policies dangerous, then surely you should take a side, at least against such behaviour.”
“That’s true,” said Samuel.
“Impartial does not mean that I cease to care. It does not even mean that I try not to do anything about this awful situation. But my first task is internal. I free myself from righteous indignation. But you choose something where you almost know you can’t do it before you start. So now go on, and try and separate yourself in your representations about it. There was something naive about the preparation. Now you see that it has to be wiser. Try and take a measure. Try and be realistic in it. Give up the dream. The dream can even help me if I listen for one moment, and then remind myself that that’s a dream … of a kind of a higher level. Okay, now I’ve got work to do here.”
“Just the same as you, Paul, you’ve come to that point, which is something. You feel it, the presence of a question you can’t answer. But I have to then come away from that at the right time, and come back to the point of practicality. I cannot continue indefinitely there, otherwise, without my knowing it, still sitting in the Buddha’s seat, I am doing some idiotic thing.”
Now Ian spoke of the “Clear Impressions” exercise. “I saw one thing in the preparation you gave, the new one you gave us, in the second part of it, in particular, where it seemed that it was possible, not continuously, to come back to the state where instead of looking I just received impressions. And, I think it was two mornings ago, I found a sort of seductive element trying to come into this. This is quite enough … well it was interesting to see the thought come, and to see it in that light. I found it difficult to look out but not think about it.”
“In a flash, you’ve lost everything, but in a flash it’s back again, differently. I am glad you’ve had that. Did anyone have this experience, of a fine division of time?” Adie paused. “We think that our measure of understanding is to say “chair” when we see a chair, and “painting” when we see a painting. But can one look at a wall without putting words on it? What can it mean without words? I am in front of a mystery, straight away. But I start looking and it becomes subjective. Why would I have to describe it? How can I hold myself in front of the wonder of everything?”
Someone then brought a similar observation from the exercise, about looking but trying “not to give any thoughts out to it.” Indeed, he said, he had tried to “blank out” all thoughts.
“Could you say how you tried to do your blanking?” asked Adie. “If you do it at all, it’s by a sort of tension, which isn’t good. Let the thoughts do what they like, but don’t have anything to do with them. If you start blanking them out, you become tense and you really increase the thought. You simply get a long tense impression, that’s all. You’re bound to get impressions of everything if your eyes are open. Receive the impression, and be present to that, but don’t resist anything.”
“The point is I wish to experience myself relatively free from thought. That force which usually gets taken in these speculations becomes mine. I need that to reinforce my being-conscious–reality for a moment or two.”
Sarah then mentioned that she had been able, in the exercise, to sit with her eyes open, receiving impressions, “I found that I am able to be in that room, take in the impressions, and the external noises without a reaction. There doesn’t seem to be a shock. I hear it, but I remain stable. It helped me during the day.”
“We have to really try and remember the finer divisions of time, and the very very fine impressions of higher thought. A higher, finer matter which is moving at incredibly faster vibrations than normal. As we begin to tune in to those a little, to receive a fraction from that, we begin to experience a totally different time, with a totally different effect. That’s one of the elusive things. Until one gets to a certain point, one does not understand this and its value, the vast differences between my time and the sun’s time. But here it now begins to become practical. If we really work during this ten or 15 minutes, there is a great amount of time there. But then one can open one’s eyes after 30 minutes and find that nothing has happened.”
Adie then gave instructions for the experience of “a different kind of physical functioning”, something essential to the practical method as he had it from Gurdjieff. After he had given the instructions, he added: “Keep on. Don’t be put off it’s a bit uncomfortable. Use it. Pass a certain point of discomfort. If you get to what you think is the limit, go for another half a minute. I think we’ll stop there.”
GEORGE ADIE; A GURDJIEFF PUPIL IN AUSTRALIA
This foreword to the book is by Andrew Rawlinson, author of The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions.
It befits the Work that the accounts of it are so many and varied. Here is one that goes back to George Adie, an Englishman who met Gurdjieff in Paris in 1948 when Adie was forty-seven years old. The tenor of the man- clear, direct and above all, caring â€“ resonates throughout the pages. Two examples will suffice.
Joseph Azize â€“ young, eager and out of his depth â€“ is aghast that Adie wants him to finish his studies before joining Adieâ€™s group. Doesnâ€™t objective consciousness help you pass your exams?
There was the briefest moment of silence, silence with the quality of an acknowledgement, before his good, golden laughâ€¦This was the purest and deepest joy that I have yet heard: the laughter of a compassionate man.
In 1951, when Adie was fifty, on the advice of his doctors, he had one lung and part of the other removed. But it was found that there was nothing wrong with them. For the rest of his life â€“ thirty-eight years â€“ he was often unable to move from his bed and frequently had to pause in mid-sentence to apply the oxygen mask. But he never told anyone that the operation was unnecessary. His digested the grief and did not allow himself any complaint.
This is as good an example of intentional suffering as one is likely to find. It is the opposite of negative emotion, when we make ourselves â€˜realâ€™, solid, by letting our feelings flood out. Intentional suffering is an emotion of sadness which we experience with our real feelings. We have the sadness but also the sense of our own presence: the sadness is an element in our self-consciousness. This suffering calls me to myself and is eventually transformed into sensitivity in my essence.
Adie learnt this from Gurdjieff and tried to remain true to what he had received. The struggle to be true enabled him to be his own source for the work, and what he says about it is deeply noble.
The work promises that if we sincerely wish to see ourselves, we will. There is very little in it for the personality. Itâ€™s free, yes â€“ but free from stupidity, to which we are so much wed. But give it up and something begins to flow: a finer substance which is not only fine in itself but has a special place in creation. â€œIf I am partaking, it is like nothing else.â€ We begin to perceive, and move amongst, divine laws.
This is a great teaching: that there is an objective truth, a quality of the creation itself. But we cannot grasp it in our present state of consciousness.
What, then, is required? The courage to be present as I am. This allows some awareness of myself: freedom from fear, openness. If I am free form the false â€˜Iâ€™, then I receive strength, grace even. There is the possibility of exchange, of relationship. Negative emotions will no longer devour us. â€œWhen I become present, the dreams tend to go,â€ as Adie put it.
And what do we find? A fine delight. That faith, hope and love are all one, whenever they are manifest. These are sacred being-impulses, in Gurdjieffâ€™s words, and to encounter them is to enter directly into the joy of creation.
Heady stuff â€“ but of course, never separate from work and struggle, the need to wake up. Without self-consciousness there is only mechanics, the suffering of false doing.
These ideas are familiar to anyone who has turned his attention towards the work. They are presented here with force and elegance. I love the image of the dalek and the dervish. We are both. The dervish is inside our dalek â€“ the mechanical invention â€“ but we donâ€™t know it. We have been hypnotized into believing that we really are daleks. If the dalek-human once realized that he was a dervish trapped beneath heavy armour, he could learn to shatter the shell and emerge to stride the horizons of Persia. Wherever the dervish finds himself, he is always beneath an endless sky in which the sun, moon and stars endlessly shine. But time is limited. There is only so much air inside the dalekâ€™s enclosed world. At some point, the dervish will suffocate and then he will fuse with the dalek and become machine through and through. Then, should a spear pierce the dalekâ€™s armour, it will not draw one drop of blood but only strike sharp sparks.
Similarly, we have two lives: one under the sun and one under the stars. To live two lives simultaneously provides us with the power of choice and the ability to be and do. This notion can be presented in a rather hard-edged form, expressed in terms of obligation and responsibility. Adie took a softer line:
At the end of his days, by what shall a man be judged? What will his image reveal? Surely it will reveal every secret thing.
Well, all the angels will come home one day.
There is only one question: â€˜Are you ready?â€™ No one whose head is up, whose eyes are open, can say â€˜Noâ€™. And the creation is asking nothing else.
George Adie heard the question, responded, and asked it in his turn.
While I am preparing the documents I referred to in the earlier post What did Gurdjieff Leave Unfinished?, and there are many documents to consider, I thought I might share this material from Mr Adie. It is something he wrote on 19 March 1953. It deals with an issue we often encounter: we receive a reminder but then the reminder seems to go no further. For example, a thought might not develop beyond an intellectual recognition that I am in a low state. How can we make the best use of these moments of opportunity?
Higher Nature, Lower Nature, and the In Between
I wish to give in a few words my conception of some of the keys and main points of the line of work which we have been following, and from this to try to formulate a point concerning the development from a moment of partial self-remembering to deeper self-remembering. I find that when I work invariably I am brought to a sense of immediacy – to a sense of the expansion of a moment of time and its contents.
The line we have been working on has shown our duality, and the necessity of recognizing this division. It has shown the necessity of observation, and the weakening of wrong manifestations of our lower centres in order to be able to come into touch with our true lower nature and the higher nature which is present with it.
A first infallible approach to our true lower nature is by relaxation and having sensation of our body, a real part of our true lower nature. By directing his attention and discriminating between his substantial body and his turning thought or chameleon manifestations he becomes truly more conscious of his lower nature.
Without division of attention, what comes from my higher nature can almost at once be lost and lead to fantasy if not balanced by a simultaneous consciousness of my lower nature.
There is a gradual work of becoming more aware of something in-between the higher and lower nature, just that something from which a man can most surely find a representative “I”, and the place from which he can most surely work.
I have felt consciousness of I in that ‘between place’. I have felt unquestionable separated contact between my higher nature and my lower nature; held apart by very relaxed and subtle effort, when there has also occurred a simultaneous approaching consciousness of these as one, as a whole. There is the possibility – and necessity – of gradually increasingly experiencing, through our work, the nature, weight and place of the two natures and the between force. Then one constates “I” in these three places separately and yet also simultaneously as a whole.
One can not hold a sense of the higher nature so deeply in unquiet circumstances as in special quiet preparatory times, nor in life have such deep sensation and experience of one’s lower nature as in quiet moments. But, one can for the briefest second in life make the effort of recollection.
By the reduction in wrong manifestation of lower nature, I have come to establish a contact with it, and discovered its willingness to obey the higher nature, and observe as it becomes imbued with the higher nature.
Many attempts have been made to come to a clearer statement of our higher nature, but it must be emphasised that this can never be defined.
If I have sensation of my body there is no doubt of this, but about higher nature also I wish to become equally certain, and for me the necessary concept, the vital true compass is my AIM. By direct experiencing of my physical being I can approach my lower nature. The lower nature becomes, as it were, active. This approach brings with it also the higher nature but, as it were, the higher nature is passive. Awareness of AIM changes the polarities, and makes the higher nature active. Between higher and lower nature, held apart by an impartial awareness, is the seat of REAL I.
I see that I can immediately test and recognize what is truly pertaining to and of my higher nature by relating it to my AIM. It must relate to my AIM otherwise I know that my attention is attracted, and that fantasy will ensure rapidly, or else that I am simply mistaken. I find that the relationship of my AIM to my higher nature is a key of approach and discrimination.
And the recollection, realisation, visualisation and sense or awareness of the reality and weight of my aim gives an approach to the place and experiencing of my higher nature.
By my aim I can find the most reliable expression of and experience of my higher nature.
By my aim, I may be more alive relatively in the higher nature than in the lower nature, or my attention may be relatively more attracted towards the higher than, as it normally is, attracted towards the lower.
Let no man speak of his higher nature when he has forgotten his aim.
A reminder, a spark of self-consciousness, an impression, may be in the higher, lower or between. Quickly, before the chance departs, recognize which is being touched, and how the attention must be divided, directed and collected. And so time becomes longer, impressions deeper and in the gradually awakening centres, the deposits can be laid down.
By discriminating in regard to his AIM, a man can know he becomes truly more conscious of his Higher Nature.
By consciousness of lower nature, higher nature, and between, he can simultaneously be conscious of these three as one, as a whole, and he then surely knows that he becomes truly conscious of REAL I.
MELVIN B. TOLSON
Dr Jon Woodson reviews the film: The Great Debaters with reference to Tolson’s involvement with Gurdjieff’s teaching.
Melvin B. Tolson had attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. When, as an instructor of English, I first walked into the campus bookstore in 1968, I found about twenty copies of Tolson’s long poem, Harlem Gallery(1965), piled up in the back. I had been reading Ezra Pound’s Cantos since the age of fifteen, having come upon it in the stacks of the Washington, D.C. public library. My discovery of a dense, obscure, and vexing long poem by a shadowy African-American motivated me to resolve then and there that if I ever went on to further study, I would write my dissertation on Melvin B. Tolson. In 1971 I did exactly that. Along the way many things happened but few were of any real significance with respect to my understanding of Tolson: the chief event was that I was given a box of esoteric books by an avant-garde poet who had mastered their contents and moved on to phenomenology and Wittgenstein. At some point I read the entirety of the little library that my friend had given me, and one fortuitous afternoon it dawned on me that so had Melvin B. Tolson. And it was clear that P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous was an important influence on Tolson’s long poems: there are many renderings in cabala of Ouspensky’s name in Tolson’s poetry, but my favorite is “…or / tight / like ski pants at the ankle” (lns. 1969-72). The esoteric level of Harlem Gallery also generates the poem’s drollery. At the time I little realized the difficulties that finding that Tolson was an esotericist would make for me: I entered into research with boundless energy, optimism, and determination. I applied myself to the careful disclosure of Tolson’s use of esoteric lore, and in 1978 I finished my dissertation, ¬ A Critical Analysis of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson. Following that two very odd things happened: Wilburn Williams, Jr. published his dissertation The Desolate Servitude of Language (1979) and Robert Farnsworth published a biography on Tolson (Plain Talk), 1984). Williams’s dissertation asserted that Tolson’s poetry was intricate nonsense, vapid imitations of T.S. Eliot. Farnsworth wrote that he had thought about my dissertation a little and concluded that Tolson had not been interested in Gurdjieff’s system, as I had mistakenly supposed. From that time on Farnsworth had the definitive word on Tolson, and further scholarship assumed with Williams that Tolson’s writings were inconsequential, though that somehow did not prevent scholars from writing about him as a “great” poet and including him in authoritative anthologies. For the few scholars who wrote on Tolson, it was perfectly sensible that a poet would spend a lifetime producing nonsense, if the alternative reading was that he was an occultist.
An examination of studies of Tolson’s work demonstrates that the scholarship by the followers of Farnsworth and Williams is laughably inadequate. There is simply nowhere any work that deals with what is on the pages that Tolson wrote: the readings ignore every feature that Tolson labored to create. Here is a typical instance.
Behind the curtain, aeon after aeon,
he who doubts the white book’s colophon
is Truth’s, if not Laodicean, wears
the black flower T of doomed Laocoon.
[Libretto 338- 340]
Williams interprets line 339 above in the sense of “white papers” though Tolson actually wrote “white book’s colophon”—that being more convenient, since Williams does not know what the white book is. However, the real deficiency is that the common run of students of literature are simply lacking in the information that would allow them to read Tolson intelligently: they know nothing of Tolson’s real subjects. For instance, the surface of Harlem Gallerycontains the name of many famous alchemists. He even uses the word cabala, the name of the code in which alchemical texts were written. He uses the word “cipher” in the poem five times, “secret” six times, and even uses “esoteric” twice. But because he supplies a cover text that is grounded in science, this surface-oriented reading has prevailed—though the science has been interpreted as merely pseudo-learning. What I am emphasizing is that it is not required that one penetrate to the deeper levels of the codes in the poems to encounter material that really should not be there if Tolson is who Williams and Farnsworth said that he was. But if the reader is narrowly educated and incurious (because there are other types of keys that also should raise questions about how the poem is to be read), there is going to be no recognition of the poem’s inner content.
My own work was just as troubling to me as it was to my detractors. Eventually, I worked it out that Tolson was not alone in his approach to esoteric modern writing. His Master’s thesis The Harlem Group of Negro Writers is a key text that supplied the missing link. Tolson had gone to New York for a year in 1931 and 1932 (to study literature at Columbia University), where he had fallen in with the New York disciples of G. I. Gurdjieff—though at first I did not recognize them for who they were. It took me several years to clear away my own unwarranted assumptions, until I was finally able to realize that there are no texts by Tolson that are not esoteric. Even his thesis contains a hidden level. Most mysterious to me of all of his books was his unpublished “Marxist” epic: only recently was I able to see that while the poems in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits may be read at face value as a social realist exercise, the table of contents is written in code. The title renders Gurdjieff’s name as the title of one of the poems: “Jesse Seegar.” (Improbably, the Harlem Gurdjieffians were obsessed with the politics of the Gurdjieff movement—the Orage-Gurdjieff rivalry, and its details haunt their writings. Thus the title of Tolson’s Marxist epic is in code, insisting that Gurdjieff is a traitor, an assertion that reflects Tolson’s allegiance to the A.R. Orage-C. Daly King group after Gurdjieff “excommunicated” Orage in 1931.) Another of my findings was that it was C. Daly King who was at the center of Tolson’s esoteric school in Harlem: King (using the name Robert Courtney) had initiated the American school of Gurdjieffian writing in 1927 with Beyond Behaviorism [The Butterfly]. King, who had organized groups after the death of A. R. Orage in 1934, had written a series of detective novels— Obelists at Sea (1932), Obelists en Route (1934), and Obelists Fly High (1935). The word “obelist” indicates that something is spurious, a puzzling usage unless one realizes that the titles of King’s novels indicate that the surface levels are “spurious” and that the novels require an esoteric reading. King was imitating Gurdjieff, attempting to write a legominism—a coded text. A legominism is, according to Gurdjieff, “one of the means of transmitting information about certain events of long-past ages through initiates.” Following King’s lead, the members of what Tolson labeled the Harlem school of Negro writers produced a long list of “obelist” texts—an enterprise that I described in my book, To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff , Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance (1999). My latest research reveals that there were other participants in this endeavor, the most surprising being James Agee, whose experimental documentary study of poverty during the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men(1941), is a “obelist” text that substituted the name George Gudger for Floyd Burroughs, the actual name of the man on whom the book was based.
Now we have a major motion picture about Melvin B. Tolson, The Great Debaters. The story takes place in Marshall, Texas in 1935. Tolson is featured in this film in the first place because he was seized upon as a role model, a figure of racial uplift who is allowed to get off only one good speech. The film spends a lot of time building Tolson up as a leftist political organizer, wearing a disguise and organizing a farmer’s union that dangerously combines blacks and whites. This allows for scenes of frenzied violence and hair-breadth escapes. When the film finally gets back to the debate theme, Tolson is confrontationally asked about his own father by one of the obstreperous debaters that he was training. Tolson replies with a terrifying description of the historical ur-lynching, as it was performed by its supposed originator, Governor Sir Thomas Lynch of Jamaica. Tolson tells his debate team that the spectacle of the torture-murder of slaves was designed to rob slaves of their minds, while effectively putting their bodies at the disposal of their owners. Tolson passionately declares that his goal is to return to his students their minds. Crucially, Tolson’s speech flies in the face of Marxist theory. The Marxist term for the condition of the students is “alienation”: “Under capitalism, those who work harder increase the power of a hostile system over them. They themselves, and their inner worlds, become poorer. ‘The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things’” (Cox). The use of Marxism as a cover or code for the Work is witty, in that Gurdjieff’s teaching is known as the Work (the name is taken from Alchemy which was known as the Great Work) and so references to the ‘workers’ would be understood by Gurdjieff students to refer to themselves as ‘workers’ i.e. those who are working on themselves for their own inner transformation.
What Tolson proposes to do is not encompassed by Marxist thought: “Lifestyles and leisure activities cannot liberate us from alienation, or even create little islands of freedom in an ocean of alienation. As alienation is rooted in capitalist society, only the collective struggle against that society carries the potential to eradicate alienation, to bring our vast, developing powers under our conscious control and reinstitute work as the central aspect of life” (Cox). This contradiction is not and cannot be dealt with in the film. As I show in To Make a New Race, it was the strategy of the New York Gurdjieffians to seek to use Communism as a means to “shock” the masses in order to eventually recruit a very small number of individuals to their own group. Here is how Wallace Thurman (the subject of the thirteenth chapter of Tolson’s Master’s thesis) expressed this idea: “Gladly would I urge the Negro masses to take an active part in the revolution, just to see them, for one moment emerge from their innate sluggishness, massacre their ministers, and perhaps, in the interim, give birth to a few exceptional individuals capable of arising the mob, Communism, Christianity, and all other such doctrines to become master intellects and creative giants.” Tolson uses a title in the table of contents of A Gallery, “Aunt Tommiezene,” to tells us that he “ain’t commie.”
The character of Tolson that the film presents is, in the final analysis, inexplicable and unaccountable. Tolson, an African-American college English teacher, is eccentric, secretive, and brilliant. The film does not deal with his poetry at all. He has two activities, organizing farmers as a Communist agitator and leading a championship debate team. The film makes no attempt to harmonize these contradictory activities, so by the conclusion of the film, we have no real idea of who Tolson was or what he was doing. He is perhaps a new type of black man, a sort of Indiana Jones, combining derring-do and intellectuality. Thankfully, the film does not try to develop Tolson’s radical activities. He is presented as a mysterious figure that is beyond our everyday categories. Yet, Tolson had not meant for this condition to have come about. He inserted Gurdjieffian terminology in everything that he said and wrote, providing a way into his inner activities. This is borne out by a recent article on his teaching methods by David Gold, “`Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock’: The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson.” [CCC. 55.2 (2003): 226-253.] Gold is unable to account for Tolson’s use of the importance of the “shock” in education, and he does not admit that this usage is unusual. The “shock” is an important concept that Tolson derived from Gurdjieff, though it is at the same time one of great complexity, so that we do not immediately know what Tolson meant to communicate by employing the term beyond his awareness of the teachings of Gurdjieff. (We do get some insight from the title “Ben Shockley” [A Gallery] in that it suggests that one must get shocked in order to “be.”) But if we can become aware of the nonconformity of Tolson’s assertion that “Nothing educates us like a shock” we may be able to track down its source. For example, Ouspensky, (1949, 221), writes that shocks must be given to man, to help him ‘wake up’, by someone whom he ‘hires’ to wake him, while Tracol (1994, 113), one of Gurdjieff’s senior pupils, writes that Gurdjieff shocked pupils out of blind worship by his language and the calculated contradictions of his behaviour.’ for further references see Wellbeloved (2003, 191-192).
The trouble is that even in an article that calls attention to Tolson by citing his interest in “shocks,” in the final analysis Tolson is reduced to a serviceable pedagogue: Gold concludes that “Tolson demonstrates that it is possible to instruct students in the norms of the academy without sacrificing their home voices or identities.” Again, though Gold appreciates Tolson’s dedication to the creation of illusions, he does not seem to grasp the implications: Gold states that “…Tolson had a complex understanding of rhetoric’s epistemic functions. He was keenly aware of the difference between the private and publicly constructed face. He celebrated the hypokrinesthai in Greek theater—”the speaker’s stage voice instead of his real voice” (Letter to Partisan Review). Time and time again he insisted that art, scholarship, and even “being human” were all “unnatural.” “To be natural on the stage is to [be] unnatural. . . . A naturalistic work is unnatural” (Tolson Papers). “A work of art is an illusion of life” (“A Poet’s” 187). Indeed, creating an illusion of naturalness was to him the essence of being human. He therefore disavowed totalizing philosophies of race and human nature.” Like many other Gurdjieffians, Tolson was simply imitating Gurdjieff: “Gurdjieff [disguised himself] …with layers of acting, multiple personas, irony, sarcasm, ambiguity — with rumors of scandalous personal conduct intentionally encouraged, … with a misty, shadowy, mythologized, fairy-tale past” (Tamm). The first time we see Tolson in the film, he unhesitatingly strides across furniture and stands on a desk, from which vantage he begins to recite poetry.
Of course, The Great Debaters is removed from Tolson’s direct influence, so that it allows no access to Tolson’s motivations. Presumably, it was required for his development that he traveled. In the film we see a teacher determined to make a name for his debate team. In actuality, Tolson was a sophisticated modernist poet and esoteric initiate stuck in a remote town in Texas, with no means of escape. By organizing the debate team, Tolson had a presumptive reason to travel, and his victories even provided funds for further contests. The film even points out that Tolson cheated by writing the arguments for the students, thus making sure that his teams were victorious. In the film’s version of the story, the students only come to write their own speeches once Tolson is prevented from traveling with them because of some legal troubles that he became involved in. Tolson had written his Master’s thesis in the early 1930s, though he did not finish his degree for many years, until June 1940: this also provided an excuse for travel—to do more research. However, what we know of his travels departs greatly from what the movie depicts. Tolson mentions only one trip in his thesis, to Portage, Wisconsin, to visit Zona Gale, and he does not connect it to a debate. His biographers (Flasch and Farnsworth) place the trip in 1932 and show that it concurs with a trip that he made with his debaters. This is doubly interesting. Zona Gale was a wealthy novelist who took a correspondence course from Gurdjieff. And, though Gale supposedly contributed information to Tolson for his thesis, the only member of the Harlem Group that Gale seems to have supplied information on was Jessie Fauset, despite the fact that Jean Toomer had married Gale’s protégé and that Toomer had used Gale’s Portage land for Gurdjieff group work in the late 1920s. Even though Toomer was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance and a direct linkage to Gurdjieff, Tolson does not write about him in his Master’s thesis. The one mention of Toomer contains a series of mistakes (see Mullen, 85) that suggests that Tolson was employing the Gurdjieffian technique of lawful inexactitude. The fact alone that Tolson ignores Toomer is for me an indication that his thesis is not to be taken at face value, but the provocative treatment of Gale is a further alert that he was up to something. All of this is very suggestive. Somehow Tolson came into contact with a great deal of esoteric information: his poems are testimony to wide reading, but the record of his books has not yet come down to us. It remains to be worked out who else he might have visited while traveling as a debate coach.
Jon Woodson is a Fulbright scholar and Professor of English at Howard University. His To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance explores the influence of G. I. Gurdjieff on Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman and through them his influence on American literature.
Cox, Judy. “AN INTRODUCTION TO MARX’S THEORY OF ALIENATION.” Issue 79 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM, quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) Published July 1998 Copyright © International Socialism.
Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B. Tolson, 1898–1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy, 1984.
Flasch, Joy. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Gold , David. ”Nothing Educates Us Like a Shock”: The Integrated Rhetoric of Melvin B. Tolson. CCC 55:2 / DECEMBER 2003. 226-253.
Mullen, Edward J. The Harlem Group of Negro Writers by Melvin Tolson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group 2001. 182 pp.
Ouspensky, P.D. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949.
Tamm, Eric. Robert Fripp. http://www.progressiveears.com/frippbook/ch07.htm
Tolson, Melvin. Harlem Gallery. With an introd. by Karl Shapiro. NY: Twayne [1965- ] v.1.
Tracol, Henri. The Tase for the Things that are True,: Essays and talks by a Pupil of Gurdjieff, Dorset: Element, 1994.
Williams, Jr., Wilburn. “The Desolate Servitude of Language: A Reading of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson,’ Yale University, 1979.
Wellbeloved, Sophia. Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, New York: Routledge, 2003.
Woodson, Jon. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.