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Archive for May 2010



About three months ago I reviewed Frank R. Sinclair’s book “Without Benefit of Clergy” and found that his memoir offered the reader an appropriately “frank” account of the life and experiences of the gentleman who is the current head of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City. Frank was named co-president in 2000, president in 2005. It is a one-year appointment, regularly renewed.

The memoir focused on Frank’s early years in South Africa, his interest in Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, and his account of the twenty or so years that he spent living and working at the Gurdjieff community of Franklin Farms, Mendham, N.J. Along the way he described his meetings with some of the stalwarts of the Fourth Way, notably Madame de Salzmann and Frank’s namesake John Sinclair, Lord Pentland.

I was late in reviewing “Without Benefit of Clergy,” which first appeared in 2005, largely because I was perplexed by its title. I had assumed the book had something to do with “clergymen” or with what once was called “living in sin.” Both of those assumptions proved to be wrong. Instead, the title has to do with the desire to dispense with the “the clergy” – that is, do away with the need for intermediaries between the wisdom tradition and one’s realization of it. That problematic title to one side, Frank’s memoir, with its three dozen black-and-white snapshots of life on the farm, is a publication that makes for thoughtful and informative reading.

The same is true of Frank’s successor volume, which is also written in an easy-going style, the style of the newspaperman that Frank was trained to be. But here Frank faced a problem: What do you write after you have written your memoirs? His solution was simplicity itself: You offer the reader not an account of your life but an account of your philosophy of life. And that is what he has done in “Of the Life Aligned.”

It was Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian-born essayist and social commentator, who popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of immersion in a discipline or a practice to master it, to make it one’s own. By that token, Frank is totally immersed in the Work, for he spent more than twenty years living and working at Mendham plus all those other years spent elsewhere. He knows the scene forwards – and probably backwards, too.

So here are his thoughts on what he calls at one point the “perennial philosophy” and at another point the “traditional wisdom.” He also refers to it as “the Source,” “the Great Work,” and “the Great Knowledge.” Indeed, he has a novel way of referring to it in the book’s wordy subtitle: “Reflections on the Teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff and the Perennial Order.” That’s right, the “Perennial Order.” That formulation is new to me. “Order” in the sense of hierarchy of being? “Orders” perhaps in the sense of monastic organization?

A few words about the book itself. The trade paperback is published by Xlibris Corporation in three formats (such are the times): hardcover, softcover, ebook. The work is fairly short, a total of 146 pages, with a preface, introduction, eight chapters, three epilogues, and an index. The attractive painting reproduced on the front cover, which resembles a icon-like cross, a mosaic of pastel colours, is the work of author’s late wife, Beatrice Sinclair. A dozen black-and-white photographs are scattered throughout the book, including the frontispiece portrait of the author, who seems to be giving the viewer a sly look.

I will refrain from commenting on the appropriateness of the title, which is a mouthful of words: “Of the Life Aligned.” The book is indeed an attempt to outline how one man sees the alignment of forces as the basis for a spiritual life in a secular society. His discussions and experiences will ring true for a good number of readers. But rather than second-guess the author and pontificate on such matters, let me offer the reader of this review a précis of the book’s contents, chapter by chapter (with a few extraneous observations thrown in).

In the Preface, Frank explains the book’s double genesis in two life-shattering experiences – what he artfully calls a “brush with the outer darkness” (in the form of a blocked artery that required the insertion of a stent with a serious staph infection to follow) followed by the death of Beatrice Rego, his wife of almost fifty years. These drew him closer to Gurdjieff’s teachings about “the Great Knowledge, ‘the powerful ancient stream of knowledge of being,’ or what is more commonly known as the perennial wisdom.”

I find these terms to be a little odd, in this context, but this is his book and he has spent some fifty years in the Work. He found himself close in spirit to the mystic Meister Eckhart, to Alphonse Levée, and to the non-dualistic thinkers of Hinduism. As for Gurdjieff, “his extraordinary influence continues to grow – and to be acknowledged.” Along the way he pays tribute to friends and mentors, notably philosopher David Appelbaum and Basarab Nicolescu, “theoretical physicist and transdisciplinarian.”

The Introduction finds Frank in a disarming mood. He wishes to be personal, but the personal is suspect: “Granted that the person, to the perennialist, is ultimately only a delusion of the intellect, I must warn the ‘gentle reader’ that this is nevertheless a very personal book.” How does one reconcile the personal with what is necessarily impersonal? You do it this way: “become more interiorized … I need to be still – in all the parts, not just in the head, but also in the body and in the feeling.” He effectively quotes Gurdjieff: “When I am not collected, I am simply a piece of meat.”

He follows this passage with an allusive account of the effects of a sitting: “And I begin to sense that I’m here to be the link between this current of life and this other, unknown vertical dimension. I need to respect that, and respect that in my neighbour.” It is being done “for Presence” (the noun is capitalized and italicized). For this to happen there must be “this new alignment between the head, the body, and the feeling.” There is no mention in this context of Madame de Salzmann who introduced the “sittings” to the Work – or re-introduced them.

In a roundabout way Frank admits to his own limitations and conceivably to those of the Work itself. He writes, “I am convinced that the aim of any real search is not simply to get ‘answers.’ Rather, it is the fact that one can enter into the process from which meaning is derived, to be part of the exchange of energies and the play of forces on so many different levels in which esotericism calls one.” This brought to mind the grace of Subud’s latihan rather than the effort required for self-observation and self-awareness.

Chapter 1: Who Is the Teacher? I have always felt that proceeding along the so-called spiritual path should be imagined as a journey that takes place within (à la Jules Verne’s “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth”) rather than as a journey that takes place without (à la Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”). The treasures to be found have been there all the time, not precisely hidden, but underfoot and unobserved, like the “termas” of Tibet.

Frank may feel the same way as I do. He differentiates between the Creator and “the Beyond-Being.” He writes, “To repeat: The ‘I Am’ is not the Absolute, but rather it is still the relative Absolute.” As for phrases like “the relative Absolute,” whenever I encounter them, I am reminded of the otherwise indescribable alien artifacts that are called “half-empties” by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky in their science-fiction novel “Roadside Picnic.” Half-empties? Relative Absolutes? The words may have some philosophical value, but they also partake of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt or “Distancing Effect.” The leave the reader wanting to concentrate on them rather than yearning to contemplate what they were coined to represent.

Some wise words are offered about the role of “the teacher,” as distinct from that of the “group leader.” He writes, “I was always struck by the way in which Madame de Salzmann, when we had truly worked and the quality of attention had been raised to an intensity in which our little egoisms no longer counted, would say that she felt ‘Mr. Gurdjieff is here.’” Another great teacher was Michel de Salzmann. The mother and son made possible “the underpinning of the return to the Source.” If this chapter can be summarized in four words, those four words are “Presence is the Teacher.”

Chapter 2: A Return to Tradition. The contents of this chapter come from an interview with the author conducted by Jeff Zaleski and Tracy Cochran published in “Parabola” (Winter 2007). Here Frank makes an important point about the nature of Gurdjieff’s contribution: “I did not know Mr. Gurdjieff. But the deeper I have explored his ideas and his principles as they have been conveyed to me by those who studied with him, the more I am convinced that he has indeed brought us ‘fragments of an unknown teaching.’”

He continues, interestingly: “It wasn’t that he collected bits and pieces from the great traditions and contrived some proprietary teaching. Rather, he seems to have been able to gain access to several primary sources and to make their knowledge authentically his own.” He adds, “He called it the Great Knowledge, ‘the powerful ancient stream of true knowledge of being.’”

Much of the rest of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of “a return to Tradition.” The names of Augustine, Michel Conge, Eckhart, Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, and Nicolescu are mentioned in this context. So are words familiar to practitioners of the Fourth Way: conscience, “merciless Heropass,” remorse, intention, “Obligolnian Strivings,” “His Endlessness,” “a centering element,” as well as the “first exercise,” which is “I Am.”

Intriguingly, some light is shed on “Gurdjieff’s warning about the use of electricity – the whole planet is ‘wired’ now.” What are the consequences? Another area of interest is “sitting practice” which is mentioned in the context of Zen and Vipassana. “One can experience, especially but not exclusively in sittings, that a certain alignment can appear through one’s active participation but only if there is no attempt at ‘doing.’”

In the back of Frank’s mind is the need to make a major distinction: “His whole extraordinary cosmological teaching appears to me to point to the timeless, perennial understanding that beyond God is the Godhead, which is the unfathomable source of all.” I find this need to be a little odd in that there are now posited two levels of being rather than one, and about one of them nothing may be known or said! However that may be, if there is a succinct message in this chapter, it too may be expressed in four words: “To be more interiorized.”

Chapter 3: A Glimpse of the “Outer Darkness.” This chapter is a gripping account of Frank’s angioplastic procedure followed by a very serious staph infection. His period in intensive care was characterized by “a variety of subterranean and subconscious recollections … that I could explain only in terms of G.I. Gurdjieff’s psychological teachings.” He shared some of them with his medical specialist who implied that they were imaginings of a writer’s mind.

Frank engaged in imaginary conversations and had “impressions being registered by, and in, one or other part of what Gurdjieff referred to as the three-brained structure of the mind, the body, and the feeling.” He found, intriguingly, that these impressions “were being experienced, registered, often with extraordinary clarity,” while unconscious. He concluded that “functions can exist without consciousness.” This is a sensation that has been widely reported in the literature of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and analytic psychology, and it does seem ominous in its implications.

There were as well dreams and delusions and these may have been caused by the prescribed SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and they may have contributed to what he felt were Bardo-like states. One delusion of his “addled mind” was that a psychiatrist friend was imagined to be a “Prince of the Church.” As Frank concludes these pages of self-appraisal: “The staph infection can be a murderous and totally disorienting thing.” It took some courage to write so openly about disorientation and its possible orientation to other dimensions of reality or consciousness.

About his inner state at the time, Frank found there to be three elements: “dark energies,” “myself,” and “a silent witness. The third element was “a dispassionate presence, unintrusive and unmoving, and totally impartial to this incredible struggle.” Was the second element (“myself”) a “second body”? Was the first element (“dark energies”) a scattering of drives like those recognized by Freud? Subsequent pages are devoted to some discussion of the self and the soul, the centre, etc.

Beatrice is relieved that Frank is “back to normal,” but he returned with something new, a gift from the “dark energies” that came “unbidden … a sense of Presence.” During convalescence, he described catching an episode of “Nova,” the popular-science television program, and being astonished to learn that when scientists super-cooled atoms, the atoms slowed down to “their lowest energy state.” Frank identified this state with the “dark forces” he had experienced. He concludes, “I have absolutely no doubt about the authenticity of my experience.”

His infirmity left him with “two overarching understandings and imperatives.” One understanding is “a deepened sense of awe at the vast cosmic scheme of creation that Gurdjieff outlined.” The second understanding is the need to work for “perfection in the sense of being.” He refers to the latter as “the sense of verticality … the need for … a return to the Source.”

I found this chapter to be quite moving. It even includes a touch of humour, black humour to be sure. This is evident when he parallels his own misfortunes with those of the late William Segal who barely survived an automobile accident with multiple, life-threatening injuries. Segal practised Zen and was visited by an old roshi who said to him, “One car crash is equivalent to 10,000 sittings.”

Chapter 4: Instruments of the Spirit – I. This chapter is divided into three sections, and the first section is titled “Inferences of a very personal nature about life and death.” Frank’s health was one matter, the death of his wife Beatrice quite another. This chapter focuses on the latter and introduces the name René Guénon (though the index omits this reference on page 37). This surprised me. I seem to recall reading that it was considered bad form for Madame de Salzmann to attend a series of lectures delivered in Switzerland by Jung or Krishnamurti. (Did she even travel to Cairo to confer with Guénon?)

Garnering insights from the Traditionalists seems a little odd to generations of readers influenced by Ouspensky. So I wonder if it will be considered bad form for Frank to mention René Guénon in a non-negative context. After all, the French metaphysician’s followers have nothing but foul words for Gurdjieff. Yet Frank seems to have been influenced by the Traditionalists, the Primordialists, the Perennialists – call the followers of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon what you wish. Indeed, Guénon is described as “the pioneering Traditionalist of the modern world.”

The second section is titled “To Live in Emptiness.” Beatrice’s suffering and death were followed by his own suffering on her behalf and this is the subject of the present section. He considers the notion of “emptiness” and quotes Madame de Salzmann to the effect that Gurdjieff himself admitted to her that in the wee hours of the morning he gnashed his teeth and wept bitter tears. To suffer is to be human. Or better: To be human is to suffer.

The third section is called “To ‘A Man of the Cloth,’” and it consists of a letter about Beatrice’s death that Frank wrote to one of their mutual friends in India. The friend is a guru with a long last name: Swami Jyotirmayananda. Frank discusses the notion, popularized by Spiritualists in the late nineteenth century, that “there is no death.” He sees this in terms of being able to receive finer influences, energies of a higher level, and to regard with equanimity the deterioration of bodies and even coatings of bodies. He quotes the words that Gurdjieff wished for his father’s grave: “I am Thou, Thou art I, we are His.”

What I missed in this chapter, as well as in the relevant chapters of the earlier book “Without Benefit of Clergy,” is a pen-portrait of Beatrice, Frank’s companion for almost fifty years. She was surely a patient and positive woman in her own right, his helpmeet in the months of his greatest stress.

Chapter 5: Instruments of the Spirit – 2. This chapter has the subtitle “On the Invocation of the Name,” and it begins with a reference to a legominism that Frank found in Beatrice’s writings. He approaches it by way of “the metaphysical order” (quoting Alvin Moore Jr.) and man’s “very great purpose,” “the need for being-partkdolg-duty,” or “being efforts.” By this route he finds the invocation “I Am” (in italics) to be a vital component of “the true traditions.”

He writes, “In its broadest possible meaning, I Am is All and Everything, the ultimate, although not exactly the absolute Absolute …. ” He recalls that Gurdjieff had said that “I Am” was “the first exercise in the work to remember oneself (more properly, perhaps, to remember one’s self).” To this end he refers to the “real Christmas present” that Gurdjieff presented to his followers on December 25, 1948, at the Hotel Wellington in New York City. There follows a brief discussion of what took place at that memorable dinner.

Frank’s half-century in the work pays dividends in unexpected ways. He recounts how Michel de Salzmann give him a variation on the “I Am” exercise: “On the slip of paper which he had handed to me with what I recall was a one-sentence description of the exercise as being ‘food for the astral body’ were one or two other numbered exercises attributed to Gurdjieff. So it was authentic, from the source. This was not something that Dr. de Salzmann had made up.” These pages are rich in speculation and association, best read as he presents them rather than in a paraphrase.

Chapter 6: Instruments of the Spirit – 3. There are two sections to this chapter: “Of Presence and Prayer” and “Dear Sir, ‘I Am.’” Frank writes, “As so often in my experience, the confirmation of the transformative possibilities inherent in the Gurdjieff Work – and in the invocation of I Am in particular – have come to me in the most unexpected moments.” What follows is a vivid account of “a new inner alignment … myself aligned to the ‘flow.’” He is not only surrounded by but also suffused by the sense of presence. Then he takes possession of it by adding a vivid two-word sentence of his own: “It shimmered.”

To prove his point, he quotes from the privately circulated yet influential letter addressed by Michel de Salzmann to the groups in Israel in 1999: “Mr. Gurdjieff reminds us at every moment that we are created BY, and created FOR, this PRESENCE, that we were meant to live under its influence and to gradually become true human beings.”

The feeling I had reading this section is that Frank is elbowing his way into the province of prayer. Indeed, it is difficult to read this chapter’s second section without that word hovering over the account of “sensations” which stress how “a higher or a finer quality of energy” needs “in turn to reverberate or resonate in harmony with the other parts – the mind and the feeling – as a cohesive whole.” The discussion here leads me to believe that some day Frank may take the time to compose his own glossary of spiritual terms, as he is a clear writer, a fair philosopher, and a serious seeker.

Chapter 7: Instruments of the Spirit – 4. This chapter consists of two sections, “The Practice of the Presence of God” and “A Message from Beyond the Grave.” Frank refers to these sections as his “personal meditation on life and death and the role that we humans are called to play.” Here he discusses how Beatrice, who was raised a Roman Catholic, found solace in the writings of Brother Lawrence, a lay brother of the Carmelites in Paris in 1666, whose spiritual handbook bears the provocative title “The Practice of the Presence of God.”

Frank missed his calling – he could have been an event planner – because he found great meaning in planning the program for Beatrice’s memorial service . I will spare the reader the details of the Order of Service, which took place at the Presbyterian Church, Palisades, N.Y., on 6 September 2008, except to note in passing that all the passages that were chosen to be read on that occasion remain specially resonant to followers of the Work.

Frank finds that he has “the need to understand the relation between the immensity of I Am and the ‘non-inherent existence’ of the human being. What is it that enables the spirit to become a force that quickens?” Beatrice’s answer to this question was an observation made by Madame de Salzmann in 1990: “When we receive this grace, we are no longer alone.” Frank concludes, “‘This grace’ could only be that of Presence.” To make his point, he quotes from Guénon, Sri Anirvan, and Ravi Ravindra.

Chapter 8: Intimations of Grace. The author’s own struggles with defining “the comprehensive reality of the Godhead as distinct from the Creator, and the evident need in the great scheme of things for instruments of the spirit – instruments of ‘the multiple states of the Being.’” References are made to Alvin Moore, Jr., Meister Eckhart, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and Gurdjieff.

Along the way he discusses how the public views Gurdjieff, knowing nothing of “a quickening spirit.” He then discusses what Gurdjieff has to say about the spirit in “Tales” and enters into deep waters when he quotes Gurdjieff as saying that “fishing in the stream of time” one could catch enough to “become enduring.”

Epilogue – 1: G.I. Gurdjieff’s Teaching in the Modern World. This chapter is something of an anti-climax (following the deep sea fishing of the previous chapter). It takes the form of an interview conducted by Tony Lahoud, editor of the website The interview is a model of its kind, a leisurely introduction to various aspects of the work, including a brief discussion of Gurdjieff’s indebtedness to Sufism. Frank makes his characteristic point: “His teaching is not a new religion. Rather, it is a return to tradition.” There is even a discussion of “schools,” harkening back to Ouspensky’s certainty of the need for them.

Epilogue 2: Some Principles of the Return. This section, too, is an interview, one with the radio producer Jim Metzner. There are mentions of “levels of being” and references to the insights of Michel Conge. Frank talks about “the growing sense of community – of a sacred community” that grows out of the process of the purification of the centres. “Every great teaching begins with a central revelation of the Uncreated Source. Gurdjieff is clearly an exemplar of this overarching lineage.”

Frank raises the issue that “there is always now the danger in Gurdjieff’s teaching that things become stratified, almost ecclesiastical in their forms.” Automatically he returns to the question, “Who is the Teacher?” His answer this time is surprising: “It was a dramatic discovery for me to realize that, in the absence of the prophet, or the master, or the messenger from above, it is Presence that is the teacher.” He is hesitant to call it “the presence of God” because “there are gradations of Presence – from the Ultimate Uncreated itself down to where we find ourselves in this vast range of being. But Presence, I am convinced, is the guide – it’s the evidence of the Higher.”

It is difficult to argue with such conviction – as well as fruitless. Offhand I would add that it is also difficult to distinguish this emphasis within the Work from the Vipassana Movement of Theravada Buddhism or from the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy of Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. No doubt practitioners of the Work know that there are intentional differences, but Frank does not spend time discussing these.

Frank does refer to the description of “the so-called sittings” as “an Alice in Wonderland dispensation,” quoting James Moore in doing so. He defends the “sittings” of the charge, adding that he values “the people who are challenging those of us who are quietly labouring in the mainstream, compelling us to work ever more rigorously and objectively.”

Epilogue – 3 reprints the Order of Service for the “Memorial Program for Beatrice Sinclair.” After reading Frank’s two books, I still have but the haziest idea of what Beatrice was really like. (He shares this unwillingness to go into detail with Dante.) There is an Index but an incomplete one.

The larger issue is that of the purpose of the vehicles for the teaching: the Institute, the Society, and the Foundation. The teaching has been in the West for a century now, which is a long time for any particular theory and practice no matter how “traditional.” How much has it changed? Is it changing now? Will it change much more in the future? Will the Gurdjieff Work survive? In what form or forms?

Frank answers a couple of these questions in his own distinctive way: “That is why I believe that, in spite of the seemingly inevitable ‘institutionalizaton’ and even ‘churchification’ and ‘religionification’ of the Foundations, it is there that the Gurdjieff teaching probably has the best chance of being kept alive.”

Let me add, as a reader, based on the wealth of experience recorded in “Of the Life Aligned,” that Frank is probably right, and that he is probably the fellow who is best constituted and positioned to tackle the task of keeping it alive, if that is an aim that may be realized in our day and age (aka “merciless Heropass”). If not him, who?

John Robert Colombo has been called “Canada’s Mr. Mystery” for his compilations of the country’s ghost stories, as well as “the Canadian Bartlett” for his collections of “quotable Canadiana.” With Dr. Cyril Greenland, he recently compiled “Walt Whitman’s Canada,” which examines the American poet’s friendship with the Dr. R.M. Bucke, Canadian alienist and author of the book “Cosmic Consciousness.”

‘”Our Imbalances All Balance”: George Adie 1980


Our imbalances all balance”: George Adie, 1980

I’ve been preparing the blog for the anniversary of Mr Adie’s death on 29 July, and had thought these questions might be suitable candidates. However, I’ve since come across some more promising material. I think that while what Mr Adie says here might strike some as so obvious as to need no reinforcement, others might find them useful, as I did. Whitsunday 23 May 2010 is as good a day as any to release them. All come from a meeting held on Tuesday, 1 April 1980 at Newport.

The first question was from Mick: “Mr Adie, for some time now, I’ve noticed a lack of force and direction in my work, and a readiness to accept excuses not to work. I find a confusion. I really don’t know how to make my efforts. And though sometimes I realise my position and what I must do get out, to change things, the impulse I get from these experiences very oftens immediately disappears, and I get lost in excuses.”

“Can you really can say you get an impulse to animate yourself?”


“What does that tell you?” Mick did not respond at once. Mr Adie addressed the group: “This is very important for everybody. Everybody has exactly this difficulty, amongst many others.” He returned to Mick: “Yes. What does it tell you?”

“That something is possible?”

“Yes, but for how long?”

“Just at the present.”

“It tells you that you have to respond quicker. There can’t be a gap. So where does that lead you?”

After not too long a silence, Adie said: “It leads you to your preparation.”

“You’ve got to prepare yourself when you’re willing to work, because the situation of confusion you describe is a confusion life. You get a reminder and then you don’t respond to it. But in your preparation, you can prepare to come to a place where you really find a wish when you get a reminder to respond. That is your wish.”

After a slight pause, he added: “Your attitude is that this is material, whatever your circumstance. If you have the attitude, then you’re ready.”

“What other way could there be? It’s very obvious, it’s very simple.”

“Of course, you’ll fall. You’ll get led away, covered over. But if you put that element into yourself, then there’s a possibility that when it’s not like that it will be touched immediately it’s needed.”

“That’s the work. You try and create an animated, responsive feeling centrality. It just gives more … point to your preparation.” He lightly stressed the word “point”.

I am omitting two exchanges, and passing to Tony’s question. “Mr Adie, I’m confused about the difference between being aware of myself and being present and self-remembering. Yesterday morning, I was talking quietly with my wife, and she asked me a couple of questions which were basically to do with trust in our relationship, and I immediately felt had feelings of my skin drawing together, and tensing up, particularly in the face.”

“You felt under attack?”

“Yes, yes. But I also felt very present. I was very much aware of myself. I was aware of her at the same time, but there was a complete focussing down, and I wasn’t aware of anything else at all. Yet it seems to me that if I was in a situation of self-remembering, it wouldn’t have been that way. I’m a little confused about being so aware of myself and a state that is different to that of self-remembering.”

“They’re not two solitary, labelled items. There are shades of intermingling from complete absorption to complete freedom,” said Mr Adie.

“But there is something else to learn here. We have habits, attitudes based on old happenings, and they can lead us into mistakes and then into a habitual routine. For instance, supposing someone is in the delightful habit of using an umbrella to beat their little boy. Every time she goes for the umbrella he thinks he’s going to get a beating. One day she’s going out and she’s heard that there may be a late change, so she takes the umbrella out. He thinks he’s going to get a beating. She has no such intention at all. But he’s sure she is, and he can’t see any clouds, so he reacts just as if he’s going to get a beating.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Well, that’s happening all the time to us. The force of habit in our reactions is tremendous. We’ve got an incredible number of routines of habit, and little accidents of association. Now, with that information, I have a possibility. It’s no good telling me it’s not like that, I know that it is like that. But if am present to that knowledge, I may catch sight of a few of these routines, and I know where they lead to. I get a chance.”

“And you’re right, it’s not self-remembering to anything like an ample degree, but something is there that remembers. The question is respond more quickly, so that they recollection can awaken the parts of me which are sleeping. This takes us back to Mick and his confusion.”

“So now, where are you are now? You prepare, you want to see. It would be very useful for you if you could really see where the landslide started, as it were.”

“There must have been a predisposition to slide that way before this little remark of hers just set it off, then there was a landslide, very quick. It shows that you must have been all ready for it. It’s a condition of predisposition, built up in relative sleep, which we are. There’s also an instinctive sensing of proximity and possibilities. Something in me knows that this type of conversation can lead to arguments, crying and what not. And perhaps a little bit of head is telling me it’s fine, it’s alright. All this is quietly presenting itself, and that is the bubbling condition which I experience as a confusion. And then in one moment, off it goes.”

“Again, I have to prepare: not to escape from that, but to see what’s going on. If I were to escape from that now, I would never overcome my predisposition to it. I would escape a few times, I would think I was alright, and then it would be worse than ever. I really have to see, and go through, I have to accept, and then I can learn.”

I will interpose that these last two paragraphs, especially the last one have been of great assistance to me in coming to an interest in seeing, and in having some patience. Tony then asked his final question: “My position v is, then, how can I prevent myself from reacting in the habitual way?”

“Well, all your work will be towards that, that you will be able to help yourself. And you give thanks that you can learn. When consciously, you know how to move, that’s different. Until you understand how, you will react. So, say, alright, I’ve got to learn, so long as something in me can react like that. I need all these examples. And really, that gives you a concept, an idea of how very fair everything is: there’s nothing unfair in it. Something in us believes firmly, most of the time, in our bad treatment. I receive the most diabolical treatment, ‘it just can’t be true.’ But it is, and everything is very fair. I need just that.”

Later that evening, Joni said: “Mr Adie, I have a question, I have recently experienced a hardness inside myself that I sense very close to my inside, and … I’ve tried to think about it in order to understand more about this hardness … and I realised that I’ve been using it as a self-preservation sort of …”. Her voice trailed off. Joni had had very serious issues, literally life threatening, and these were known to Adie. Therefore, in reading his answer, bear in mind that her problems were beyond the average.

“That’s what you tell yourself,” replied Mr Adie.” Something in you’s been making a sort of excuse for it, that it’s necessary. Not very clearly, but in the background. It accepts it in a way, as acceptable and justifiable, and even, at the moment, rather necessary.”

“Yes,” Joni agreed. ”But I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been experiencing a lot of negativity around me, and I’ve felt that this was a sort of place where I wouldn’t become negative.”

“If I’m in the circumstances where a lot of that is going on, I will be affected. I can’t expect not to be. But I have to know my measure. Something is possible. If I am there I can tell if it is more than it’s advisable for me to endure, and if it is, I take myself away, or I take measures.”

“If I have a certain wish to be in the right attitude, to deal with things in the right way from the point of view of serious consideration, I will find that I have a measure. We each have a definite measure. It’s no good trying to jump over your own knees, because you never can. You realise what it means to jump over your own knees, don’t you?”

There was no answer.

“Spare a little time to think about jumping over your own knees. How would you do it? The higher you jump the higher would your knees come, don’t you think?”

Still no response, and he was clearly waiting for one.

“It’s no good trying the impossible. No good trying to kiss your own elbow. You just can’t do it, not even you. You have your measure, and you make your efforts for so long. But you’re intelligent, and if it is too much, you look for a suitable out, not in order to escape, but because you’re following what’s going on, and you see that it’s time to withdraw.”

“That helps a lot, a good deal, but I’m also wondering further on, what is the next step in understanding this sort of log in there?”

“Well, you have to be present to it, but you don’t stay too long. You can go back again. There’s plenty more coming, you’ll have a lot more opportunities, and you’re interested to see what. Start with relaxing. If nothing else comes into your head, don’t surrender to the confusion. Relax. You try and let the belly fall down, and if your head’s hanging in the same old way, move it. And then I have to be upright but neither stiff nor rigid.”

He continued: “And what about the source of the irritation? I have to be available to it, if I’m trying to do anything. If a person’s badly wounded, I must be there confronting this horrible mess: if I’m not, I’ll never help, and that is my job. I may have to run off and be sick, but doesn’t matter, I have to come back if I’m going to do anything.”


“To remain, to remain. Only learn from the present. Always the present.”

“Well I think that what you’ve been speaking about is very necessary and very good for you. Couldn’t have been better, really, what you needed to see. Your own evidence of your own inner hardness. This is the wonderful thing , because you begin to see where it is, it’s localised here. You know that. And then it’s related to other things, you know how we work. It won’t be confined to that. It will affect all the outer surfaces, how it will affect the “I”s, how it will affect your facial expression. Mmm? Good. And the voice, the tone, and everything. All different points can be included, gradually.”

The next question was from Hunter. His boss had accused him of being a slack tradesman, and that was not his own opinion. This had taken place before his colleagues. His reaction had been to put his head down and shut off. He could hear the boss’s voice was coming in, but only barely recognised his words. His hand moved a pencil up and down on a sheet of paper as if it had a life of its own. He was raging inside, and every muscle in his body was “locked in”.

“You felt your own inner rage?” Mr Adie confirmed.


“Then what is the aim there?”

Hunter did not reply.

“There are two aims there, broadly. There’s the aim to adjust and somehow satisfy or rectify the job and the relationship of workman to overseer, and a totally different thing, your own inner work of being and so on.”

“Surely from that point of view, your own inner work, you really need to be quite open to any external criticism. And be available to it, and to ascertain, if possible, what degree of truth or correctness there is about the criticism. It could be very interesting for you in that state of feeling, to find out how right or how wrong he was. In a feeling of rage, you can’t find anything out, and everything he says is impossible and unjustified. But obviously he’s not a complete monster, he doesn’t live and get up, have his breakfast with the idea of terrorising you. When he arrives there, something takes place, and an incident happens. So, in such a circumstance, if I haven’t got my aim, well, I’m going to be relatively at the mercy of what’s going on.” Mr Adie stressed the word “relatively”.

“See, I’ve received a lot, I’ve heard a lot, I’ve tried things in easier circumstances … and now, I’m under attack. Can I not look at that from the point of view of my aim? Actually, of course, my aim has disappeared entirely. Could I have aim there? If I haven’t, I shall never have any purchase on it. I shall be forced into a furious immobility, and be completely ineffective. You see? So it illustrates that under that circumstance you can lose your aim and direction. And in a way, you need that again. It’s very difficult to understand, but you need just that. Some good insults. As long as they can make you absolutely disappear, that is what you need. Because I cannot afford to be disappearing.”

“I can’t appreciate with any intelligence what he says. He goes off without any satisfaction. He says: ‘Oh hell. that man, I tried!’ You haven’t said anything to relieve him at all, or explain anything. You’ve been completely unable. So from a worldly point of view, it’s not any use either.”

“It’s very, very difficult to fulfil. But there’s no alternative. Either I try, not in order to do the job, but because I realise that such circumstances can serve me. And I need them. However bad they are, I need them. It’s a stick with two ends. If I can take this situation – and accept it – I get the good end of the stick. And the result is I learn. If I reject it then I have the bad end of the stick, and I suffer. Think like that. Is that clearer to you now?”

Rather weakly, Hunter answered: “Yes.”

“ It is? Good …”

Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.

The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.

“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.



May 23, 2010 at 6:36 pm



looks at the publications of     SEYMOUR B. GINSBURG

The thought of G.I. Gurdjieff comes to mind whenever I drive into a shopping plaza where there is a sign that says Toys “R” Us. There are almost two dozen of these toy supermarkets in the Greater Toronto Area, where I live, all of them “reminders” of the man and his message. Canada alone has a total of seventy outlets at the present time. If you live in the United States, there are 860 occasions to remember Mr. Gurdjieff, but only seventy-six if you live in the United Kingdom. Non-U.S. outlets around the world offer an additional 716 opportunities for remembering.

All of this may seem a little sly or silly but for the fact that Toys “R” Us acts for me as a reminder to remember myself and it could do the same for other people too. The reason it comes to mind is that there is an interesting connection between the toy store chain and Seymour B. Ginsburg, whose contribution to the Work is an important one. As unlikely as it might seem, Ginsburg was the co-founder of the parent company and the first president of the company we know as Toys “R” Us. That was decades ago so I assume that he is no longer involved with running the highly successful chain of outlets.

Here is some background on the man, all taken from published sources. Sy Ginsburg (as he is usually greeted) was born in Chicago in 1934 and studied accountancy and law at Northwestern University. In addition to his success in the world of commerce, he has made his mark in at least five related fields of endeavour.

First, he served as President of the Theosophical Society in South Florida. Second, he was a co-founder of the Gurdjieff Institute of Florida. Third, he and his wife Dorothy Usiskin have been mainstays of the series of annual All & Everything Conferences, now in their fifteenth year. Fourth, he has drawn attention to the spiritual contribution of a modern-day Indian guru known as Sri Madhava Ashish. Fifth, he is the author of a number of books that are not only interesting but significant.

There is no way for me to survey all of these fields of accomplishment. Instead, I will describe Sy’s publications and focus on Sy Ginsberg’s relationship with “Ashishda” (as he is known). I will do so out of chronological order; I will also note that I met Sy at the A&E Conference held in Toronto in April 2009 and hence took the opportunity to observe him in action. I found him, unlike many students and practitioners of the Work, to be direct and dynamic. He knows his own mind and he understands precisely what he is doing.

These features are characteristic of his most important if overlooked publication, the one titled “Gurdjieff Unveiled.” There is a subtitle “An Overview and Introduction to the Teaching” as well as a sub-subtitle “For the beginning student, for the inquiring seeker, and for the simply curious.” The sub-subtitle covers a lot of ground, as does the text itself. It is a short work, not more than 150 pages in all, and the paperback copy that I purchased  was published in 2005 by Lighthouse Editions, and is still in print on demand format ISBN 1-90499801 0.

From time to time I am asked to recommend a book on the Work. When that happens I automatically nominate P.D. Ouspensky’s “The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” for it is short, straight-forward, and uncompromising. Along with its companion book “The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution,” it certainly captures the essence of the Work in Europe in the interwar period. Knowledgeable people often recommend books that convey the “taste” of the spirit of the Work since the 1950s, memoirs written by participants like Henri Tracol.

From now on I will recommend Sy’s “Gurdjieff Unveiled” as not only an introductory work but also as a “continuing” work. I recommend it despite its title which I assume reflects the author’s interest in Theosophy, and while I may yearn to behold “Isis Unveiled” (the reference is to H.P. Blavatsky’s major book written prior to “The Secret Doctrine”), I have never lusted to see Mr. Gurdjieff “unveiled.” It certainly offers information on the ins and the outs of the Work in clear and contemporary prose. Indeed, it is something of a handbook.

The work is dedicated to Nicolas Tereshchenko, “A serious seeker, a true scholar, a friend.” In addition to tables and diagrams and four appendices, it offers the reader six chapters, quaintly called “Lessons.” For general interest, I will list the titles of the chapters so the experienced reader will see at a glance where the book begins and ends.

Lesson 1: Who am I?

Lesson 2: The Expansion of Consciousness

Lesson 3: The Transmutation of Energy

Lesson 4: The Conservation of Energy

Lesson 5: Meditation

Lesson 6: Gurdjieff Groups

In these chapters I found considerable information with insights that I had not encountered elsewhere, at least in this form. Fresh material also appears in the four appendices. The first appendix tries to answer the question “Who are you Mister Gurdjieff” and includes detailed information on how the Mahatma Letters, identified with the Theosophical Society, were edited at the Priory at Fontainebleau. The second appendix breaks new ground in relating “the study of dreams” to the Work and offers techniques for remembering dreams, approaches that do work.

The third appendix examines the Exercises in genuine detail and in doing so offers lists of words for human concerns and failings keyed to passages in “Tales.” This is a feature that I have not seen elsewhere in the Canon. As well there are Notes, Bibliography, and a detailed Index. The book is quite a handful, hence I call it a Gurdjieff handbook.

On another occasion I may draw attention to some of the insights that appear in the pages of “Gurdjieff Unveiled,” but on this occasion I want to note Sy’s other books. But even they deserve more time and space than I have at hand. Here goes. The author’s first book bears the daunting title “In Search of the Unitive Vision” and is subtitled “Letters of Sri Madhava Ashish to an American Businessman 1978-1997).” It is a compilation with a commentary and it appeared in a handsome, trade paperback published in 2001 by New Paradigm Books of Boca Raton, Florida.

The text of almost 300 pages consists of the above-mentioned letters but also descriptive passages, narrative accounts, diary entries, personal essays, and a series of questions and answers about spiritual matters. In fact, the book is indexed and I assume that pretty well every subject of interest to the student of consciousness studies is mentioned at some point in these pages.

Sy spent almost twenty years in contact with Madhava Ashish, making annual visits, beginning in the year 1978, to Ashishda’s ashram at Mirtola, near Almora, in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India. Indeed, it was Ashishda who directed the young “American businessman” to seek out the teachings of Gurdjieff. The book is a record of their friendship, not so much between equals as much as it was and remains between fellow-seekers, one of whom was in a position to inspire and direct the other.

To confuse matters a little, “In Search of the Unitive Vision” has been reprinted with another title and subtitle: “The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff.” This is brand-new edition, well printed, published in 2010 by Quest Books: Theosophical Publishing House of Wheaton, Illinois. The differences between the two editions seem minor, mainly matters of presentation.

Whichever edition is used, the portrait that emerges of Ashishda is one that is “in the round.” Judging by the descriptions and photographs that are reproduced in these pages, Sri Madhava Ashish was Central Casting’s ideal guru: tall, dark-haired, handsome … and English. Ashishda was born Alexander Phipps (1920-1997) and educated in English public schools. On a trip to the subcontinent he met and became a disciple of Sri Krishna Prem (1898-1965), another Englishman, this one born Ronald Henry Nixon, a Theosophist in background.

Prem and Ashishda, both sannyasins of the Vaishanava tradition of Hinduism, became influential spiritual leaders, thinkers, and practitioners with much to offer to those Westerners who were drawn to their ashrams. They themselves had been influenced by Theosophy, as is apparent when one reads the essays in “What Is Man?”

“What Is Man?” is subtitled “Selected Writings of Sri Madhava Ashish.” This is another handsome publication, issued in 2010 by Penguin Books, New Delhi. It is also about 300 pages long and begins with a Foreword contributed by Dr. Karan Singh who goes unidentified (but whom Wikipedia informs me was “the last ruler of the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu” and served as India’s Ambassador to the United States in 1990-91). It is a perfunctory Foreword.

The Preface, anything but perfunctory, was written by Sy along with three other compilers: Satish Datt Pandey, Seán Mahoney, Pervin Mahoney. They quote a passage from one of Ashishda’s letters to Sy: “Give me all the teachings about man and the universe and I will accept them only if I can be shown one man who embodies and validates these teachings. One follows the teachings back to their source in the man whose truth affirms the truth of the teachings.” I am sure that most people instinctively feel the same way: validation of the tradition lies in its embodiment and expression in the human being. On this basis, Ashishda is one such embodiment and expression.

The texts are organized in four parts. Part I, called “Introduction,” consists of Ashishda’s appreciative memoir of his teacher, Sri Krishna Prem. Part II is titled “The Path” and it collects seven essays on such subjects as “The Value of Uncertainty” and “The Sadhu in Our Lives.” Part III has been titled “The Inner Inquiry” and contains of eight miscellaneous essays including one called “Big Dreams” and another intriguingly titled “Quacking Oranges and Cloned Einsteins.” Part IV, “The Doctrine,” brings together five essays that will be familiar to Theosophists, notably “‘The Secret Doctrine’ as a Contribution to World Thought” and “The Fifth Race.” Finally, there is an two-page appendix of some historical, textual interest devoted to Madame Blavatsky’s “The Stanzas of Dzyan.”

The well-written copy on the back cover of “What Is Man?” notes how unusual is the message in this book: “It has little to do with conventional religions, but can be called secular spirituality. It points out the folly of viewing the cosmos in material terms alone, encouraging us to open our minds and see that our lives are not restricted to the closed box of purely physical existence.” The copywriters mercifully avoided the words “New Age.”

There is a clarity to Ashishda’s prose is reasonable and at the same time reassuring. He composes the sort of prose that I can imagine Aldous Huxley enjoying or Gerald Heard writing. At times it verges on being a sermon; at times it reminds me of the inspired and inspiring “talks” of J. Krishnamurti. It is a prose addressed to man’s best nature and it resists quotation; there are no high moments, for there is a general level of elevation. It is timeless prose if by that description is meant that it is sounds somewhat old-fashioned.

The essay “Man, Son of Man” sounds this note: “Columbus would never have discovered the Americas had he not disbelieved in the flatness of the world, nor shall we discover this other New World if we do not challenge the equally ‘flat’ world view of our present-day science and set out on a voyage of discovery in a direction and dimension where science sees nothing to discover.”

In summary: Seekers and readers have reasons to be grateful to Seymour B. Ginsburg for his many-fold contributions, including writing a spot-on introduction to the teaching called “Gurdjieff Unveiled” and for introducing readers in the English-speaking world to the traditional yet timely message of Sri Madhava Ashish. Driving past a Toys “R” Us outlet brought all of this to mind!

John Robert Colombo, known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana, reviews books for this blog on “consciousness studies.” Scheduled to appear in the fall is “The Sumuru Omnibus,” his compilation of the five novels written about the villainess Sumuru the English mystery-story writer Sax Rohmer.

THE MASTERS SPEAK: a Joseph Azize review

The Masters Speak”

The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff, Quest Books, Wheaton, Illinois and Chennai, India, 2010 (Originally published as In Search of the Unitive Vision, 2001. (305 pp., including bibliography and index)


Let us suppose you meet a master of the spiritual life, someone who has approached the beatific vision, and who feels the oneness of existence in the embrace of God. This person has necessarily walked in your shoes, and can help you find your way. Would you have a question? What might you ask? And when the master spoke, how would you listen? If the master gave advice which went against the grain with you, how would you respond?

Sy Ginsburg lived through such questions, meeting Sri Madhava Ashish on many occasions, and corresponding with him. Ashish challenged his fundamental ideas of himself, and guided him to his own direct experience of inner reality. Now Ginsburg shares his experiences with us, generously providing the abundant quotations from Ashish which alone would justify the re-publication of this book now that In Search of the Unitive Vision is out of print. Consider this, for example:

One may say that you are certain that you have (a soul). But you have not yet identified it. Until you have found it and are living in its presence, you do not know its qualities. It is far greater than you – you in your limited state of ego-integration. Until you have found it, it is other than you – not you. Even when you find it, you will find that its powers are not “yours”. However, they are, as it were, available to you. (p.66)

If the concept of “living in the presence of the soul” touches you, this book will support and deepen that feeling, because one of the strengths of a well-told biography is that it sets ideas in a narrative context and illustrates them from life. When the thought is brought to life, it is not received simply as an abstract idea: it’s presented in an informative landscape, and therefore we more readily understand and relate to it. Further, wihtout wishing to sound maudlin, I always find that the aging and eventual death of the main figures adds a feeling element. If it is handled lightly, as it is here, sickness infuses one’s reading with a soft autumnal poignancy, and the book swells to its inevitable human climax. Death is always the master’s final teaching.

The Story

What’s in this story? It’s basically the tale of Sy Ginsburg’s relationship with Ashish, the Scotsman Alexander Phipps, who went to India during WWII, where he settled and became a Vaishnav monk, gradually achieving wide recognition as a guru. Ginsburg travelled to meet Ashish in Mirtola, India, in 1978, remaining in contact with him, in person and by correspondence, until Ashish’s death in 1997. So it is partly Sy’s autobiography and partly a biography of Ashish, or at least of those parts of their lives which came into contact along the road of pilgrimage.

Early on, Ashish advised Ginsburg to join a Gurdjieff group in the USA, which Ginsburg did, meeting some of the senior identities in the international Gurdjieff groups, and eventually co-founding a new one, the Gurdjieff Institute of Florida. This is the narrative spine of the book, while it’s fleshed, so to speak, with Ashish’s letters to Ginsburg and four of his essays (these occupy the entirety of chapters 5, 10, 14 and 15).

In addition to Ashish’s own writings, now made more accessible than before, some motifs dominate the book. Perhaps the most apparent theme is that of the “master”: who or what is a master, and what relationship is possible with one? Here the answer is sketched, rather than defined, as it were. We watch the master as he gently undermines Ginsburg’s notions of his own identity. Few of us will have had the worldly success which Ginsburg did, but that doesn’t count for much in this context, as his confident assumptions are scrutinized in the light of Ashish’s transcendent perspective and values. If we share Ginsburg’s aspirations to pierce the veils of the world, we can share in his search, and perhaps even sense that we, too, are living in a “limited state of ego-integration”. Ginsburg makes no claims whatsoever to have transcended that state. Neither does he claim to be humble. He just tells his story, leaving interpretation and judgment to the reader.

Perhaps the real question in this book is: who is the true Sy Ginsburg? Because of what I’ve already said about the nature of biography (and, of course, autobiography), the question applies to each one of us, too, if we will accept it. The issue has many aspects. One dimension of the search is potently summed up in a quote by Sri Krishna Prem (born in England as Ronald Nixon), Ashish’s guru, thus:

Rebirth there is, but whether he who is reborn is you is for yourself to judge. The stream of life is one, ebbing and flowing, weaving through many lives, with other streams, the Pattern of the Whole. That stream which was yourself, which, if you like, is still yourself, flows forth … (p.260)

This leads directly to what Ashish called “the whole game of finding the true person, the true identity, not the personality of this life only, but the identity with what has been there through the whole series of lives.” The letter continues, stating that the mind cannot serve two masters: “It either serves Sy or it serves the Self.” (p.132). In 1981, Ashish wrote to Ginsburg about his pursuing a spiritual goal. The lines blaze with an almost acid illumination: “Seymour Ginsburg will never find it. Seymour Ginsburg is a tissue of sensations and memories.” (p.59). I’d like to pause for a moment here: it’s ideal not to rush past such a question.

Am I, too, a “tissue of sensations and memories”?

And if I’m not, what am I?

A worthwhile answer can only come from my own experience.

Ashish’s Reasoning

One of the very most critical significance of this book is the extraordinary quality of Ashish’s thought on, it seems, any topic that came before him. It is not just that Ashish wrote well, although he certainly did that: “Security is an inescapable factor, but I would prefer a risk of robbery to living in a bank vault.” (p.99).

Ashish’s thought had a rare quality: he could follow a thread of thought over the years, and not lose sight of it. The thread he held in mind was the challenge he addressed to “Sy” to question the motives and understanding from which he was manifesting, and to reconsider from a more impartial perspective every position he would find himself in. The entire book tells that tale.

Time and again, Ashish displayed his formidable way of cutting through intellectual conundrums and come to the central issue of doubt and certainty. In 1987, he wrote to Ginsburg:

It seems you are going through a crisis of doubt. You are taking your doubts seriously at their own level, which is rather foolish because they cannot be answered within their own coordinates. (p.101)

Many people seem lamed by useless doubts, and because, as Bennett said somewhere, certainty is not necessary. If it were, we would not get out of bed (and in extreme cases of doubt, a person can be so crippled as to be unable to leave bed, at least for a while

In respect of the seemingly indefatigable scepticism which Ginsburg felt, and which probably saved him from pursuing some rather pointless avenues, Ashish had a fabulous line: “The intellect is a lawyer who argues in behalf of the person who pays him” (p.60, and don’t miss a different approach to the same line of thought at p.147). For another memorable formulation, see the “mamba bite” quip at p.139: it is as true as it is witty.

Ashish and Gurdjieff

Let us briefly look at Ashish’s perspectives on Gurdjieff and the Gurdjieff movement. We could start with this surprising, almost startling sentiment:

… I (i.e. Ashish) try and get people to clarify their inner aim first. On the other hand, current G groups appear to knock people around and shake up or demolish their socially conditioned assumptions about themselves and the false values they have adopted, while giving exercises that should bring the individual essence into real existence … (p.58)

This struck me for the simple reason that Gurdjieff himself also insisted that one should start with aim. In Paris in 1949, Gurdjieff said that everyone needs an aim, and suggested one which anyone could take “without wiseacring”, that is, the aim of dying an honourable death (this is movingly related in Bennett’s prologue to his Talks on Beelzebub’s Tales). I am not saying that Ashish was wrong. But it does a raise a question: could a Gurdjieff group omit to help a pupil develop a three-centred understanding of their aim, and yet remain a true Gurdjieff group? Ashish was also critical of the Gurdjieff groups in 1984, saying that:

The G groups offer a method of changing … but offer no reason why anyone should want to change, except out of a sense of the meaninglessness of life as it is. No resolution is made merely by mixing two poles. While G himself was there, he provided the “something extra”. If Theosophy has degenerated into a new religion, so has the G work. Rare individuals may exist in both movements, but this does not prove anything. They also exist within Christianity or any other religion (p.97).

Analysis of another line is offered by Ginsburg’s question about the notion present in his Gurdjieff group that one needs a connection directly with the “inner circle of humanity”, and that this connection was available through the groups because their “hierarchical leadership” is itself (still) connected with Gurdjieff (p.135). Ashish’s observation was succinct: “It’s complete bosh! These are things which get put out in the vested interests of the hierarchy …” (p.136).

Ginsburg wrote to Ashish in 1983 that many people in Gurdjieff groups had conceded that they had attained nothing, “even after many years of the Work …” (p.66). Yet, Ginsburg gives some particularly deft descriptions of the practical methods at pp.53, 101-2 and 113-5. From whence comes, then, this lack of a harvest when the field is rich and the tools are available?

Ashish stated, quite truly, in 1981 that “one has to be able to stop thought”, and that if becoming aware of sensation helps one to do so, then one should use that technique. But he also stressed the need for awareness of thought (pp.43-4), (I might add, confident that Ashish would agree, awareness of feeling).

Another connection between Gurdjieff and Ashish lies in his approach to service. On 7 July 1989, Ashish stated the principle with full clarity, and made a fresh connection with Gurdjieff’s ideas:

Remember G’s saying that one has to put someone onto the step one is standing on before one can move up to the next. This is not to be taken too literally. The point is that dedication to all that inheres in the unity of being will result in a sort of altruism which leads one to help others – who are oneself. Helping others, even before one has that transcendental perception, helps to attune one to its truth (p.139).

Ashish actually practised service, and he did so in more than spreading ideas and practices, good as such work is. Similarly, Gurdjieff ran his own soup kitchen from his back stairs, where he fed a stream of paupers. Gurdjieff also, I believe, hid people from the Nazis (I think I have only read a general reference to this in Gurdjieff: Anatomy of a Myth. If anyone has more detailed evidence of this or any of Gurdjieff’s charitable works, I would like to hear from them at Ashish’s service, as disclosed in this book, was in sustainable agriculture. He started on his own property, and then helped people around him. Ashish also addressed a wider audience about these matters through his writings (p.35). So Ashish’s efforts embraced the two necessary spheres of altruism: those who are near myself and those who are further away.

In any service, we need to balance effectiveness and practicality on the one hand with aspiration on the other. To this I would add what Catholics call “the principle of subsidiarity”. That is, aid should be delivered as closely as possible to the intended destination, by people as close as possible to that destination. Part of subsidiarity is that there should be a minimum of brokers and co-betweens. Overall, the best aid is that which directly and effectively helps people to help themselves. Too often, charitable schemes are rather like arranging for the people in one city to brush the teeth of people in another city.

Gurdjieff had the insight that I first need to learn how to brush my own teeth. Then, perhaps I can help others. But I think that Ashish’s statement “Helping others, even before one has that transcendental perception, helps to attune one to its truth” provides a necessary balance to Gurdjieff’s “become a good egotist first”. My own involvement in charitable work has convinced me of its truth. I have seen people becoming more available to feeling, more sensitive, through doing such work. Often we do not appreciate the need for it until we do it. Certainly, I did not really appreciate this until I started the hands-on work of helping the handicapped. Once, while feeding someone with cerebral palsy, I had the feeling-realization: “this man is like me and I am like him, the differences are trivial”. I almost felt that I was him and vice versa.

This is a truth which I think Gurdjieff’s emphasis on first becoming a good egotist may have had the unwitting effect of obscuring. I doubt that Gurdjieff meant for people to pass from being “good egotists” to becoming “damn wonderful egotists”. And it would be remiss not to mention that in certain cases the Gurdjieff groups have in fact proceeded beyond “good egotism” to altruism, chiefly by establishing schools (such as in Oregon, where Mrs Staveley established one on the group property). I will be glad to hear from readers of any instances where they are involved in say, hospice work, or assisting the homeless.

Miscellaneous Points

There are many odd points I would like to discuss, but the review would end up as long as the book. The book is very well written. Ginsburg does not intrude himself and his personality, but his sound intellectual portfolio is everywhere apparent.

If you are interested in what Ashish and Ginsburg have to say about dreams, and I would suggest that the interest is worthwhile, you could do worse than read pages 39, 59 and 95, in addition to those tagged in the index.

Ashish’s comments on knowledge in his letter of 6 March 1981 are priceless (p.59).

I relish the wry understatement of this comment from 1986: “Contrived symbolic buildings are usually flops” (p.99).

Ashish’s comments on the development of “mental sciences” strike me as true to what I know of them. His statement of the true value of studying insanity is both deep and extraordinarily well phrased (p.124, he says that studying the insane can show us tendencies in ourselves which were so slight that we could not have identified them without first seeing them writ large).

A Further Hesitation

Generally, I have praised this book its style, and its contents. I have one hesitation, which arises tangentially, yet should still be addressed. Some, whom Ginsburg refers to, such as Sathya Sai Baba, are given to saying that they are God. In this respect, Ashish wrote in 1978:

I personally accept Sai Baba’s status as a man of spiritual attainment. … his status ‘shows through’ his words: it is not in his words as such. As to his statement that he is ‘God’, it is true that in his essential nature he stands united with the divine unity. So do we all. As he himself says, ‘I know it. You don’t’.

Ashish went on to add the important rider that “if he is God, he is God in a limited vehicle.” (p.25) Nisarga Datta is said to have likewise claimed that like all of us, he is God, but whereas he knows it, we are ignorant (p.27).

As stated, this is of course an obvious nonsense. If we were all God we would have to know it: no ignorance could exist in us. God in a limited vehicle and ignorant is no longer the “God” which appears at the start of this sentence. The only way such paradoxes can be true is to rob the word “God” of all meaning and have it signify something like “substrate”. The statement isn’t so interesting that way: “I am substrate. You are substrate, too. But I know it whereas you don’t.”

When young, we were almost drunk on such high-sounding phrases, but I think it’s a sign of immaturity to remain mesmerised by them. Far more real and truthful was Gurdjieff’s attitude which insisted that such as we are God is very far from us, and that while we may be in relation, we always remain separate. As for being God, when Zuber told Gurdjieff that he “created” films, Gurdjieff roared at him: “You? You create nothing!”, if he did not use stronger language (I don’t have the volume Who Are You, Mr Gurdjieff? with me). In languages with a developed sense of the sacred, such as biblical Hebrew and Syriac, the verb “to create” can only be used of God. And rightly so.

Ashish’s willingness to “accept” Sai Baba’s status strikes me as anomalous, especially given his forthright comments on Jung (“… he is writing arrant nonsense”, p. 236). I could explain why in some detail, but this review is already long enough. It suffices to cite two pieces of proverbial wisdom. From the English language, “You don’t have to taste the whole sea to know that it’s salty”, and from Lebanese, “maa metit, bus shifit meen mairt”, or “I haven’t died but I’ve seen (those) who have died”. I would make exactly the same comments in respect of channelling (chapter 11) and “masters” of the Koot Hoomi variety. I don’t like to be so dismissive, it can come across as arrogant. But that is how I see it, and if that’s arrogance, I shall have to wear it. I accept that Sai Baba has done a tremendous amount of philanthropical work, and he deserves full and unstinted credit for that. I’ll leave the topic while I can speak well of him.


I noted two minor typographical errors at pp. 79 (‘Fontainebleu” for “Fontainebleau”) and 136 “Its ridiculous” for “It’s ridiculous”).

Finally, the technique Gurdjieff taught, and which Ginsburg refers to at p.221, did indeed become known as the “sitting”, and some, like Ginsburg, call it “meditation”. But I believe that Gurdjieff himself referred to it as a “preparation”. Certainly, George and Helen Adie did, and Dr Sophia Wellbeloved tells me that Henriette Lannes, who taught that technique, did so too. This is not an insignificant point. “Sitting” and “meditation” import practices well known from Hindu, Buddhist and other traditions. In Beelzebub, Gurdjieff refers to “Aiëssirittoorassnian-contemplation”. He could have said “sitting” or “meditation”, but he didn’t. And it is not the same as any other practice I have ever come across. If I am correct that Aiëssirittoorassnian-contemplation is the foundation of Gurdjieff’s practical teaching, then to assimilate it, even by subliminal suggestion with different practices, should be avoided.


Ashish’s wisdom and writings changed my prejudiced view of what I could expect from a Scotsman living in India. Beyond that, I feel that in reading this book I received an education. It’s a solid book. It’s very good, indeed.


Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.

The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.

“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.



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