Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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



photo Rockefeller Centre

A Take on the Talks of Lord Pentland by John Robert Colombo

Resting on my desk, on the right side of the keyboard of my computer, there are three thin booklets in uniform format but with card covers of different colours. One colour is green, one is blue, and one is red. The booklets have the same format (5.5″x 8″) and are close to the same in length: respectively, 24 pages, 32 pages, and 36 pages. The green one was issued in 2005, the blue one in 2006, and the red one in 2007. I wonder, “Will there will be a booklet for 2008? What colour will be chosen for that cover?”
There is a general series title: “Introducing the Ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff.” The author is identified as John Pentland. The work is copyright in the name of Mary Rothenberg. The publisher is given as the J.P. Society, an operation new to me. I suspect that Ms. Rothenberg controls the copyright of the works of the late John Pentland aka Henry John Sinclair aka Lord Pentland, and that in the works are plans to issue the texts of his many talks, speeches, and addresses, these three booklets being the trailblazers for the series.

John Pentland, who inherited the baronetcy from his father, the first Lord Pentland, a Scottish politician, is the last bearer of the title. He was born in Britain and his vital years are 1907 and 1984. He studied with Ouspensky, and later Madame de Saltzman having met Gurdjieff during the last years of Gurdjieff’s life. During the Second World War, from his office in Rockefeller Centre, he engaged in liaison work for the British and American governments. He served as the president of the Gurdjieff Foundation from its inception in 1953 until his death some thirty years later. He oversaw the founding of the Gurdjieff organization in San Francisco and over the decades addressed study groups throughout the United States.

I do not know if in his travels he ever visited Canada, but since its appearance I have owned a copy of his book “Exchange Within: Questions from Everyday Life Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California 1955-1984″ (published by Continuum in 1997). I found his writing style to be opaque, if somewhat misted over, but then I was reading in print what had been delivered orally in person. Had I heard him speak, I might have found his thought processes more enlivening and enlightening. Yet there is a subtle quality in his prose, an inherent humility and restraint, that I have come to identify with the French commentators Tracol, Vaysse, and Conge.

To judge by photographs, John Pentland was a cadaverous figure of a man, toweringly tall, with skeletal skull, bushy eyebrows, and beady eyes. He resembles an ascetic, say a Cistercian monk, but let me add that I never met the man and if any readers have accurate impressions of him, I would be pleased to hear from them. Enough about the man and the format of these booklets. What about their texts?

The green booklet is titled “Impressions of Truth in the Human Mass.” This is an oddly unidiomatic phrase for an English speaker to use, and as such it captures the sense of the opacity that I found in the prose of “Exchanges Within.” In the present instance, we have the text of a short speech he delivered in Los Angeles in 1960, followed by a record of the questions and answers that it generated. Here he addresses the question of how “to understand ourselves as a whole” and this requires that we experience impressions or perceptions (he uses the words almost interchangeably) of Being and Conscience.

He writes, “We have this incurable weakness for thinking about inner values on much too small a scale, giving up too soon and paying too little. Ouspensky called this inner search for reality a search for the miraculous. We always forget that what we are looking for is a miracle.” He mentions impressions, attention, self-observation, and understanding, and returns to these words later in the discussion. Asked about art, he makes the interesting statement that art is produced by “high machines in the artist” and not by “something that occurs in the artist himself.” Such is argument of the green booklet.

The blue booklet is the text of two talks that took place at Wagner College, Staten Island, New York City, in 1983. The first talk is really an address to precede the showing of the movie “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” Here he urges his audience to capture “a little taste of what Gurdjieff’s vision of man” is like. It is done by becoming aware of “levels of truth.” He argues that Marx, Freud, Jung, Teilhard de Chardin, and even “Star Wars” offer views of the state of man that are state-dependent: “but the vision is too simplistic, at too low a level to affect us and change us for long.”

The speaker notes that the younger generation is turning away from Darwin and Newton to the earlier visions of Augustine, Jesus, and Buddha. The earliest known vision is that of Zarathustra, the first teacher in a succession of spiritual teachers of mankind, who counselled men and women “that their inner life and inner attitude is just as important as their external behaviour.” A modern vision comes from Gurdjieff. The speaker then offers four characteristics for a spiritual teacher for our time:

First: “His thinking should be a service to the highest.” Here is a recognition of levels and Gurdjieff “restores to humanity an order of rank with an intelligent aristocracy at the top which is open to anyone who can learn to differentiate the different levels and the action of the energies on each other at each level.” Second: “A man with vision should think dangerously … truth must be his only ethic.” There must be no fear here. Gurdjieff stresses this. Third: “The thinking of a man of vision is from the heart as well as the head.” Referring to Gurdjieff, he says, “He used to say that we are like automobiles stalled on the highway of our search, and his ideas are like a repair car that comes along and give[s] us some gas to get started again.” Fourth: “We ask of a man of vision that his teaching should be complete and consistent in itself with no compromises, no exceptions and no self-contradictions.” This too is true of Gurdjieff’s teaching.

Language is considered and Gurdjieff is compared to William Blake (perhaps for the first and last time) for his neologisms and for giving new meanings to old words. The word “search” is one of these. “The search begins more from a part of myself that I don’t know, it begins in spite of myself as I know myself, more than from the part I do know.”

The word “consciousness” is another concept to consider, but as the word has become voguish, the author prefers another word. “I’d rather use the more modest word, awareness, or simply seeing.” He writes, “Seeing is taken as the energy aspect of material, not the forms aspect.” In Gurdjieff’s theory and practice, psychology, cosmology, metaphysics, ontology, etc., come together in man all at once. “Either I’m seeing myself or not.” Self-observation leads us “to work for more and more of these moments, recognizing them and verifying them by their taste, which is a strange taste of like and dislike, at the same time, of freedom and mechanicalness, good and evil of going upstream and going downstream together.” The right work of the three centres is necessary “to open the possibility for a higher conscious energy to enter my presence and allow a new conscious level of vision.”

The author asks, “What is a real question?” and then responds with eight questions of his own, to prime the pump. These are ignored. His listeners, instead, ask twenty-six questions of their own. Here they are in summary form: The first one is knowing which “school” is for any one person. The answer is that you will know. The second one concerns the discontinuous nature of the work: “Things start to go down as soon as they stop.” The third one has to do with “octaves” and recognizing their “laws.” The fourth one has to do with “one of the very first liberating experiences, which we can each have, is being able to differentiate between the direction from the highest downwards and the direction from below to return to oneself.”

The fifth one concerns “sleeping man” and “awake man” and their differing expectations. The sixth one permits the speaker to contrast “getting stuck” with recognizing how we “change the direction” without recognizing it. The seventh one concerns the realization that “there is no ‘I’.” The eighth one leads to an elaboration which concerns inability to do but how we “simply begin to see” and ponder the possibility of control. The ninth one focuses on “free will” and “some choice.” Do we have “the choice to break a law”? The tenth one examines “this little bit of free attention that I have” and how “these new experiences come at first just in glimpses.”

The eleventh one examines decision-making, how we attach ourselves to one decision instead of another, and how we can “stay quiet in front of this question of whether to go right or left.” He says, “And our work of study is to free myself all the time from this kind of attachment.” It seems “the taste of the ego” expresses itself, now one way, now another. If a person is able to remain awake, he may engage a “conscious struggle, that means a struggle of which I’m conscious,” and the problem disappears. The twelfth question concerns what to do when “you find yourself in front of something,” so “the question is whether you stop living and decide, or whether you just go on living.” Since choice is a concern for the future, a person should eschew it because “I wish to live in the present moment.”

The thirteenth question leads to “the power of suggestion.” A questioner asks, “What distinguishes Gurdjieff from, let’s say, Krishnamurti?” The speaker answers, “In this particular sense, not very much.” The speaker points out how bodily sensations keep one within oneself and one’s basic physical energy, whereas one’s thoughts lead one away and astray. The answer to the question, “Who am I?” is “I am.” This works “like a purge” of the ill winds that blow from “the pressures around, in business, in politics, international politics.” The fourteenth one asks how to remain “in the present.” The answer is, “We study how we lose it.” Observation of impressions is essential, and new impressions are necessary, but we must not become attached emotionally to them. “Sleeping Man wants permanence … Awake Man wants impressions.”

The fifteenth question concerns how “shocks” produce “hydrogen.” “Our whole work is the work of study, of consciousness. It’s not a work of doing.” The sixteenth question concerns the nature of shocks, first from plants and animals. The seventeenth question concerns the baleful influence of the moon and how “part of us when we die goes to feed the moon.” Taking a space craft to another planet changes nothing. Everything costs. The eighteenth question inquires about the nature of evil. “Evil was originally part of God.” Then it became separated and “becomes unhealthy. There has to be mechanicalness, evil. People are so made that to a large extent they have to serve the mechanical ends of Nature.” Then the gap between consciousness and mechanicalness becomes too great to be bridged, so “a wise man had to be sent in order to show people how to bring the evil mechanicalness more inside and work with it.” “It is through the negative, the affirmative appears, through the evil, the good appears.”

The nineteenth one elaborates and suggests “you wouldn’t need the good unless the evil came up.” The speaker points out: “Growth is growth of the mind. Evolution is evolution of understanding. So evolution depends on understanding the two together.” “We’re all the time trying to have a less negative view of the negative. And in that way our lives can be normal, which means positive.” The twentieth one turns on how to not “let the evil bog you down.” The twenty-first question is about beginning. “You have to begin now. There’s no other way. In five minutes you’ll be thinking of something else.” Another point: “Of course we each need to make our own experiences. There’s absolutely nothing that anybody can experience for me.”

The twenty-second one discusses “the experience of oneself” and “the outward pull and the inward pull.” The twenty-second one looks at “free energy” and “automatism” and how they morph into a consideration of how when consciousness and “the automatic parts” work together so that “my Self, an intelligence not in words, begins to work.” The twenty-third one is about the nature of this “intelligence”: “It’s the kind of thought that can choose associations.” The twenty-fourth one alludes to “intentional suffering” which is described as “intentionally putting yourself in situations in which you know you will suffer in order to have the observation of how this affects your energy of attention.” The twenty-fifth one alludes to simple exercises (like using the left hand instead of the right) to increase one’s sense of working. The twenty-sixth one turns on attachment. There is a brief reference to the relationship between the book and the movie “Remarkable Men.”

That question also elicits the answer that one may become free of attachment one of two ways: “by austerity” (”the energy is not available for being attached, so one can have glimpses of a higher level of looking”); “by self-observation” (”by coming in touch with a more desirable energy and this is the energy with which I see … the more I wish to see, the less energy there is to be attached”).

The speaker alludes to “a very little known procedure … I can’t demonstrate here” to bring this about, one that is mentioned by Jean Vaysse in “Toward Awakening.” The speaker than introduces the topic of “negative emotions” and adds, “Looking at an emotion throws light on it and changes it. And little by little I can wish to throw more light, and that’s all the time taking away the attachment to the emotion.” Enough is enough! “I think we can stop here,” he says, “but this is very important.” “It’s simply a question of looking, the quality of my looking. And that way one doesn’t cut oneself off stupidly from all the suffering there is, but one suffers much more consciously, much more intentionally.” So ends the blue book.

The red booklet consists of two talks, the first delivered at San Francisco in 1976, the second at New York University in 1980. The first talk examines “the possibility or the study of human growth,” and it is a difficult possibility, “even in California.” The opportunity exists but the ideal of growth is difficult to measure. How to measure growth is to ask, “Is he or she more unified?” What is meant is the following consideration: a unity of the senses, head, heart, and purpose. Starting is difficult. The work is both an art and a science. Gurdjieff: “He’s a trailblazer in giving self-knowledge scientific clothing.”

There is a brief discussion of behaviourism with its rewards and reinforcements and threats and punishments. We need “a lasting wish to grow.” Our progress must be evolutionary, not involutionary. “We put much less emphasis on the method and technique than on establishing a contact with the essence or with the parts of myself that naturally wish to grow.” Also, “The idea that we are interested in is the formation of a will, which would be in correspondence with what happens, which would not be fighting all the time the central impulses in myself.” The will is “the awareness of who all this is happening to.” And also, “The point is now, the point is what can we do now, what can we exchange now.”

A slew of general questions followed this short presentation. One question had to do with whether the inquirer was passionate or not passionate and how passion is generated not by belief but by desire, “something irrational.” Another question turned on finding assistance: “Look around until you find somebody who is growing. You know you can tell with people …. ” There is a discussion of the nature of “a reliability that is true.” The speaker notes, “A thought is brought to paper-over the vision of my own dividedness.”

Then there is an interesting consideration of the role of fear in life. “We need to be open, to be vulnerable …. We need to have a strong taste for the truth.” Fear and paranoia are discussed in light of the text of “The Life of Milarepa.” “To be hollow – to have no contact at all with the ground of my existence – this is the state of affairs for almost all of us most of the time.” The manifestation of this may be put to good use. The roles of discipline and respect are considered, as well as finding what inspires one so that a transformation is possible. A frequent refrain is the author’s question, “Do you follow me?”

The second talk introduces Gurdjieff as “a Master who dealt in his own particular way with all the myriad aspects of human existence, life and death.” The speaker confesses that this is the first time that he has introduced the Work to people unacquainted with it, so he begins with generalizations and some biographical details absent elsewhere. The speaker suggests of Gurdjieff that “he was able to bring some kind of reconciliation between the oriental teachings like Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam – that have been popular in the last fifteen years – and the western religions and western science and western psychiatry.”
John Pentland was a young engineer in London in 1936 when he began working with Ouspensky. “The first thing that struck me was the certainty with which Mr. Ouspensky spoke about ideas, the wholeness, sureness and certainty with which he formulated for us one by one, in a particular order, the ideas of Gurdjieff.” He found parallels between Ouspensky and himself. He did not meet Gurdjieff for another twelve years.

He speaks about approaching the work not as an object of study, like philosophy, but as “a teaching for the keeping of a community together and for understanding relationships between people …. But I think the best approach is the approach from this angle of self-study, self-observation, investigating all the facts that come to one’s attention …. ” He moves on to note “the word ‘secret’ comes from the same root as ‘sacred.’” Then he offers his listeners an overview of the different levels or qualities of knowledge. There is understanding or wisdom, which is superior to “the knowledge which can be written down, put into words, held in the memory, in the head, and printed, distributed in different languages in books.” Understanding how to make a cup of excellent coffee is instanced.

“Gurdjieff held that this unconditioned knowledge is a substance, and only a limited amount of it exists in the world at one time …. ” It is necessarily handed down from generation to generation, from mouth to mouth, from teacher to student. This is oral transmission and it is used to relate “a kind of secret about bringing my attention onto myself.” “It cannot be given indiscriminately or democratically without risk.”

Some time is given over to self-observation. The listener is advised to listen to hear the words he is speaking but also to overheard his own thoughts “to see how part of your attention is toying with something else besides listening to what I’m saying …. ” The aim is “a more continuous self-awareness or consciousness.” Some simple exercises are imparted to bring about a realization of “the first of Gurdjieff’s ideas, which is that we live in a state of sleep.” We live between two levels. “And so I, not very often, emerge from this kind of subaqueous sleep in which we live into the plain and healthy air of being awake.” He adds, “In other words, the only possible change is in a small way to go against the mechanicalness of my sleep.”

A brief description of Gurdjieff in his late years follows. “He wore a red tarboush, a red fez, and a welcoming smile which had in it also a certain amount of irony, a certain amount of disillusionment and a compassion which enabled one to look directly in his eyes and feel at once no fear, some kind of common ancestry, some kind of common humanity.” Some biographical details follow. The speaker quotes Colin Wilson’s description of the Work as”the greatest single-handed attempt in the history of human thought to make us aware of the potential of human consciousness.” The speaker adds, however: “It’s ambitious, but I’d like to make a more sophisticated judgment of his ideas than the one I just quoted from Colin Wilson. His ideas are formulations of some indestructible wisdom which is mercifully available to human beings on this planet at all times and which exists since ancient times in other formulations.” Then he adds, uncharacteristically because poetically, “These ideas are like the shadows of birds above us that leave traces on the emptiness and enable us to know how to go on.”

Some interesting comments follow on such human ideals as mercy, truth, humility, etc., and the compromises man makes with them. A passage from the last chapter of “Beelzebub” follows. Then there is a scattering of questions. The first one comes from a Professor Carse who introduced the speaker and he wants to know if the oral transmission is knowledge shared by esoteric communications in other traditions, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism. The speaker answers this by distinguishing between “orders of knowledge” and “orders of being.” He adds, “Maybe one can have a little inkling of that if one sees some great master in India or in America or in South America; these people must exist somewhere. And there must be some kind of attraction between them, and so on at lower levels.”

In answer to a question about self-observation, the speaker discusses “the momentary experience, the gift of suddenly seeing oneself caught in the middle of a complete lie, for instance …. ” “It’s as if I were between two different stories of a house, or between two different levels in a big department store. And there’s an escalator going up and an escalator going down, and in a sort of vague way all this is going on and suddenly I see it, and there I am getting angry with somebody and at the same time there’s something telling me more and more I ought to stop, and I feel I’m like a field in which all this drama is going on and I’m entirely helpless; it’s all going on involuntarily. Do you understand?” The talk ends with the speaker agreeing “to stay for a few minutes to answer individual questions.” Thus ends the red booklet.

These three booklets, which fall under the rubric “Introducing the Ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff,” may or may not be available through regular commercial channels; if not, they should be. They offer the reader, whether novice or veteran, a view of John Pentland, a formative influence on the Work in the United States. The view is an impressionistic sketch rather than an elaborate, full portrait.
Pentland himself offers the reader a good sense of how a sensitive and intellectual man has absorbed Work impressions or perceptions and in turn interpreted them for Americans, centring on a sense of presence and the need to strive for awareness not tomorrow but right now. He repeatedly asked his listeners, “Do you understand?” I am sure that they did understand.

John Robert Colombo has taken an interest in Ouspensky and Gurdjieff since the late 1950s. He is an Associate of the Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto. His latest books are a study of the Canadian broadcaster and globetrotter Gordon Sinclair and a book of poems called “End Notes: Poems with Effects.


February 29, 2008 at 8:35 pm

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