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Azize Review: The Forgotten Language of Children

Joseph Azize

Joseph.Azize@gmail.com

The Forgotten Language of Children

Author: Lilian Firestone

Published: New York, 2010

{This is a reasonably lengthy article, as the book provides opportunities to discuss some significant issues: indeed, it almost demands serious discussion. I commence with an overview of the book and its contents. In Part 2, I outline the “Henry” story. Part 3 provides a critique. Part 4 includes some further ideas on being with children, while the final section, headed “Conscience”, is perhaps the most important part of the review. I then attach some brief extracts from Traherne’s “Centuries”. The length of the review will have been worthwhile if it introduces a few more people to Traherne’s writing. Joseph Azize, Joseph.Azize@gmail.com, 24 September 2010}.

1 Overview and Contents

This book is vivid and profound. It relates Firestone’s personal history of activities with children under the auspices of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. Because it’s also meant to be a point of departure for one’s own discoveries, it bears a certain promise. When one reads a record like this, one feels that because new understandings and ways of relating were possible for those people, something corresponding is possible now for us. Our experiences will not be identical to Firestone’s, but they may, nonetheless, be analogous in that they’re oriented towards “essence values”, in Gurdjieff’s terms. Like any good history, this one silently invites us to ponder our own histories, to challenge our understanding, and to be responsible for living what we’ve learned.

As the title indicates, Firestone believes that children have a language of their own, one which we adults have forgotten. The key to this “language” would appear to be that it’s a tongue where imaginative cues are more important than verbal ones. In Firestone’s words: “what touches them more than words are pictures and images” (p.71). Firestone’s insight may be an application to children of Gurdjieff’s “mentation by thought” and “mentation by form” (Beelzebub, p. 15). Appropriately enough, although the book hardly seems aimed at children, Firestone uses something of the language herself, not only in her simple, sensitive prose, but also in the many photographs. I suspect that she would like to think that the book may hold meaning for some of the children who then participated. Perhaps, too, the once-forgotten language can be a factor in vivifying our adult language, unduly neglectful as it is, at times, of the value of images.

As someone who is fairly painfully aware of how poorly he writes, I admire Firestone for the apparently effortless clarity of her writing. To my mind, the mark of a good writer is that the words on the page flow so easily that the reader receives the meaning as if hearing an ordinary conversation, that is, without having to strain at the formulations or even to be aware that the writer has exercised an art. By those criteria, Firestone is a good writer. Because her style is, as I said, vivid and feeling, I never felt that what she was describing was at all foreign to me. It’s this quality in her writing which invites an imaginative engagement.

The title is, perhaps, the key to the first theme of the book: external communication between adults and children. Firestone’s entire verbal and pictorial record describes a chain of experiments in communication between adults and children. The aptness of the title is an example of Firestone’s ability as a writer.

As I read it, the next theme of the book is internal communication between parts of oneself: higher and lower; emotional, intellectual and organic. We can aim to live more consciously in two directions simultaneously: within ourselves and with others. The two themes seamlessly fit together, and without that fit, one line alone cannot long continue to be productive. I can neither communicate more consciously nor more conscience-ly with children, or with anyone else, unless I myself am more consciously present.

In the end, as Mr Adie said, “all it needs is my presence”. If a person is present when they’re with children, they are bound to have some feeling of themselves in relation to those children. Human communication can and should be marked by increasing honesty, receptivity and respect. In a genuine relationship, our being is evoked, and there’s often a wonder at the mystery of the present, at the unfolding, and at the possibilities.

Forgotten Language” is carefully, even affectionately produced. It’s a handsomely presented hardcover, the cover slip being what I think of as crimson, with an endearing naive drawing of an elephant. The contrasting touches of gold and the banding behind the author’s name on the dust jacket complement the cover almost perfectly, having strength, without being at all overpowering. Just those shades of crimson, gold and white on the cover suggest quietly glowing embers tumbled down from a fire. A little short of 300 pages, well illustrated, and published by Firestone’s own Indications Press, it’s moderately priced at $US40; further reason to see it as a labour of love. I’ve passed it on to an impecunious friend of mine, married with a child, because I think that he’ll find it absorbing and useful, and friends do each other good turns.

It’s arranged around 15 chapters, each with a theme such as “In the Kitchen”, “Money”, “Impressions”, and so on. Each of these chapters has a special interest, and is reasonably self-contained, although one should begin by reading the first two chapters to obtain one’s bearings. As I shall mention, the last chapters have a continuity which close the book. There are sundry appendices and many pages of photographs.

Chapter 3, “Challenges”, is typical of the book. It opens with Gurdjieff’s wise advice to learn one new skill, craft or language each year; an advice which, so far as I know, he gave only to adults. Taking up this advice leads to a “struggle to learn” and a recognition that we’re prone to making “reflexive judgments” and hiding behind the mechanical pretext “I can’t”. In learning new things, they all had to leave “the safety of the known” (47-8), as Firestone says.

Yet, I wonder whether learning a new craft or language does really take anyone so very far out from the safety of shore. It is not, after all, as if they had gone to the Jordanian desert to learn falconry from the Bedouin. As we shall see in the next part of this review, when they had hardly left “the safety of the known” to camp out in Canada in the company of Henry the Micmac Indian, the adults scrambled back to shore as if drowning. I exempt Firestone from this: the account indicates that she struggled admirably against forces too great for her strength as it then was. So, speaking for myself, when I read such phrases as “leaving the safety of the known”, “Children’s Work”, and “leaning on the moment”, I find a certain low level grandiloquence. No matter, it isn’t painful.

As this chapter shows, a significant part of what Firestone and colleagues learnt came through the aid of Jeanne de Salzmann and Peggy Flinsch. De Salzmann advised them to “create an event”, to prepare a challenge, and, most importantly, to be there in the “moment”. In illustrating these events and moments, ample space is devoted to the children’s reflections. One remark which seems typical, was “At the Children’s Work … when you tried something new or from your imagination, nobody corrected you. Nobody said, “You’re wrong”, “You’re stupid” … Instead you were trusted to come up with something of your own, and the adults let you do it” (50).

A critical point came when, striving to understand de Salzmann’s advice to create special conditions, they saw that they themselves “were the special conditions on which everything depended” (52). They aimed for “a dual attention to oneself and the children” (52). This requires impartiality, and that led to an exercise where each would study one child to see whether mind, feeling or body were strongest, weakest, quickest and so on, in that child (53). After this, de Salzmann gave advice which approximates to Gurdjieff’s direction to see children in their potential (53-4). There is much more valuable material like this in chapter 3. Perhaps the acme is found in Jim Nott’s quoting Gurdjieff’s statement that we can repair the past, and that we can remember how we were as children, so coming to a sympathetic understanding of these children (54-5). I especially mention this because it points to a way forward for all of us.

Without repairing the past, we cannot, it seems to me, ever come to conscience. The royal road to individuality is to awaken conscience. And, as Gurdjieff said, behind real “I” lies God. What human aim would not be related to the beatific vision? Gurdjieff said as much in different terms when, in respect of the Third Series, he said that he aimed “to share the possibilities I had discovered of touching reality and, if so desired, even merging with it.”

My own view is that what readers can extrapolate from this volume will probably be more valuable as a new attitude, or even as a mood, than as statements of principle. And I say that knowing full well that the general principles cited from Gurdjieff and de Salzmann are, indeed, gems. I’ve made a list, probably incomplete, but you can find citations from Gurdjieff at pp. 16, 27, 47, 54, 97-8 and 127-130. The last of these opens with some profound stories told by de Salzmann. That redoubtable lady features at pp. 24, 27, 43, 48, 53-4, 56-7, 61, 63, 71-2, 92-3, 127, 132-3, 140, 145 and 196. Incidentally, comparing the de Salzmann who appears in this book with the de Salzmann of the recently published “Reality of Being”, is instructive. The “calendar speech” which spoils “Reality” for me is entirely missing from Firestone’s portrait. Perhaps de Salzmann’s forte was in exchanges and what we might call “life-engagements”, rather than philosophy. I would say that de Salzmann emerges in this book as a store of practical wisdom and controlled force. Peggy Flinsch is also an influence for impartial understanding in this book, see pp. 24, 35, 36, 55, 63-4, 77, 87, 111 and 130.

The material is well-written, clear, engaging, and has a feeling quality. I find that, excepting only a few passages, it is impossible not to have sympathy with the author, and to applaud her efforts, some of which came at the price of a certain sacrifice of egoism.

2 The “Henry” Story

The most important of Firestone’s experiences appear in the story which comprises chapters 12, “Difficulties”, and 13, “Remorse”. These chapters are the climax, too, in that they form a sustained closing note. Firestone’s experience began like this: they wanted to find “a worthwhile destination” for the children’s holiday, one which “offered new meaning” (p.173). While they were thinking this way, the adults and some children from the group attended a pow-wow, where she met Henry, a Micmac from a reservation in Nova Scotia (174-5). Henry was impressive: “His life story was the first of its kind we had heard. His direct way of speaking was so striking that the children remembered afterwards what he said almost word for word” (175).

Henry emerges as probably the most practical and common sense actor in the whole book (Firestone not excluded, as she candidly shows in the “tins of food” story where she could, it seems to me, have just told a spoiled child that canned “food” was no substitute for fresh food, and refused to allow her to buy tins). When the children asked Henry whether he could sleep on the ground without a blanket, he answered: “Sure, if I haven’t got a blanket” (176). When they couldn’t light a fire because the kindling was damp, he used what he called “the Indian way”: he ignited it with kerosene. Firestone frankly discloses that the “work people” disapproved; but Henry pointed out that common sense is the Indian way (176-7). And so it was, in general, with Henry. He was efficient and capable, but if there were no jobs, he rested. “He never looked busy, never pretended” (177).

Henry told them that because the Indians had found the white man to be a hypocrite, they described him as speaking with “forked tongue” and as having “two hearts”. Henry related his stories of betrayal with impartiality, and without reproach. Firestone hoped to show him that, contrary to his experience hitherto, white people could act with “friendship and honour” (177). Henry invited them to the Canadian reservation. They agreed to come for ten days. This was to be the “worthwhile destination” for the children’s holiday. Peggy Flinsch could not make it, but they were nothing daunted: one of their leaders spoke of “adventure and responsibility”. So, off they set. When they arrived at the reservation, Henry led them to his mother’s house (178-80). His mother taught Firestone what she (Firestone) regarded as a valuable lesson, when she persuaded Firestone to let a small boy sleep on after the others had risen, rather than be awakened before he was ready. At this point Firestone says “The Indian way is about living with the reality of what is” (180). At least, I would say, that is the Indian way at its best.

But the “men on the team were restless”. There was, they said, no plan for the children, and Henry’s Indian friends had not yet arrived “to instruct the children”, who were running around playing in the woods and the lakeshore (181). In the meantime, Henry’s mother showed the girls how to make skirts from leaves. When Henry’s friends arrived that afternoon there was still no plan, and, they apparently said, there cannot be one: it isn’t their way (181-2). However: “the men on the team became irritated and gave Henry hard looks. They found an unstructured day hard to bear, but the children were happy” (182). In the course of that day, Henry and his friends showed the children how to make a “delicious, real, fresh bread” but one “of our men” asked why they hadn’t explained the process. Henry’s reply was, again, common sense: “The children can see; what’s the use of talking?” (183)

That night a musician played what they described as “traditional Indian music”. The music turned out to be Irish and English folk tunes. The children were happy, but “the men” were not. “This is not the Children’s Work”, one said, and the capitals are in Firestone’s book. I can well believe they were in the intonation, too. They decided to leave the very next day, just walking out on the Indians. Firestone alone dissented from this plan. She became bewildered: “How did principles apply?” (185)

Firestone was troubled, saying: “It was wrong to break our word to Henry. I could hardly bear the thought that, like all the others, we would betray him” (185). But, as she notes, Peggy was not there (185). Peggy Flinsch, for those who do not know, was a personal pupil of Gurdjieff. One of the leaders, Ben, told the children they had to leave immediately, and another, Bill, told them “not to ask any questions” (187). This produced a situation where “most of the children, still not understanding the adults’ cold abruptness, were resentful and afraid” (187). The children’s log stated:

From the first day, a gap seemed to form between the adults and us. The adults were always stressing responsibility. Hacking was so frowned upon that we felt guilty every time we laughed. There were few minutes of fun. … None of us wanted to go; we could see Henry was hurt. And again the adults were cold and demanding. (188)

Back home, Firestone realised that she could not “give” her conscience “over” to anyone, not even to “her” team. As she concluded: “Any group can lose its way” (197). In relating this tale, I’ve used more direct quotes than usual, in case it might be thought that I’m guilting the lily (to adapt a line).

3 Critique

Sometimes, when reviewing, I’ll make substantial comments because I find that a book has substantial value. In other instances, a long critique might be needed to justify an unflattering appraisal. This book invites comments because of its depth. You could assess foundations as being really solid but still wish to do a little more work, even if just to hose them down before building upon them. Something similar is the case here. It’s because the volume is so good that I think there’s a use in addressing what I see as a flaw in the execution. In principle, the book is great. It’s a firm, even inspiring foundation. But the surface of the foundations wants sweeping, at least in my view.

The volume could be tidier in this respect: I think that it’s too long. It seems to me that Lillian Firestone has written one and a bit books with two different if related aims inside one cover: (1) a narrative, of satisfying length, which could stand by itself as an interesting and instructive autobiographical fragment, and, (2) in the appendices titled “Themes” and “Some Principles”, a how-to-Work-with-Children manual, to use New York capitals.

My sense is that had these short appendices been omitted, and the offering of principles been left to the voices of Gurdjieff, de Salzmann and Flinsch, the principles would have been more effectively conveyed. The minor statements of principle in the text are not offensive or even distracting: some reflection, some philosophy, is often necessary. Many of Firestone’s own short meditations, if I can call them that, are very good indeed: for example, her conclusion to the Henry story. But while some salt seasons the dish, too much seizes the throat.

The book challenges conventional ideas of drilling “the right way” into children’s heads. It stands, to use Gurdjieff’s terminology, for the imperatives to be present, to remember oneself, and to manifest from “consciousness and conscience” (perhaps a hendiadys, perhaps not). The how-to manual is maybe more than simply a departure from this: it seems to me to be inimical. Firestone says that children should be allowed their own experience. I would agree, so far as one can agree with such a statement. At the least, we adults too often wish for children to share our own experience, and to accept our valuations. We often show too little respect for the child’s individuality. But why not let adult readers have their own experience, and leave the appendices out? Still, being at the back of the volume they don’t interfere with the narrative, and so the sound foundations, so to speak, remain intact.

That is my major reservation. Let’s now turn to another matter: the so-called “Children’s Work” with capitals. If we call an activity “work”, there is at least a danger that we’ll assume that we’re working simply by virtue of being on a “work team”, and the phrase will keep suggesting that back to us. And so we glue assumptions into our language. The word “work” stands for something very high: rational, connected efforts in the direction of a chosen aim. We have to earn the right to say that we’re working, especially working as a man would, with all three centres. Gurdjieff said a good deal about suggestiveness, an aspect of Kundabuffer, and the force for illusion which it represents in our lives. We would be prudent to avoid words which might feed suggestion. Again, it’s another mild aspect of grandiloquence, but it’s significant, because I tend to see it as supporting our evil inner god “self-calming”.

Thankfully, there is an easy solution. I see no reason to employ any special sobriquets. If the children are working on a pond, call it “the pond team”. If some are in the kitchen, then they’re in “the kitchen crew”. Where there is a legitimate need to distinguish, one can refer to the children in the theatre troupe, or the adults in the gardening outfit, and be none the poorer.

To return to an example from “Forgotten Language”, in the case of the spoiled kid that insisted on buying tinned food and not fresh food, it might have been possible, if in the right state, to tell her that her proposal was misconceived for the simple reason that fresh food is more nutritious than canned food-substitutes. Of course, we want to explain this without any feeling of condemnation, just addressing the matter in hand. If I can be impartial, and feel supportive of the child while speaking, something of my inner state has a chance of coming through. The other may refuse to be mollified, but I don’t believe that they do not know at some deep level what is going on, and that they’re being wilful.

By the way, Gurdjieff groups should be insisting on fresh food (organic and, I suspect, without genetic modification where possible) and freshly prepared meals. Ordering in sandwiches or pizza, and eating “sweets” is anti-essence. We should, so far as possible, banish processed carbohydrates like sugar, bread, pizza and white rice. Solanges Claustres reports that Gurdjieff said that because inner efforts use the sort of energy they do, it’s essential to at least try and give the body the most nutritious food. Gurdjieff, de Salzmann and the Adies did not know that sugar was a poison. Okay, but we do, and they wanted us to pursue truth rather than limiting ourselves to what was known about nutrition in their day.

I will end this critique by mentioning another factor I’d like to “challenge”, to use Firestone’s term. That is the material commissioned in the foreword and the testimonials. The foreword is by T.R. Thurman, and praises the “firm but kind realism of the adults” (ix). The praise for the volume, for Gurdjieff, de Salzmann and the adults is fulsome, very fulsome. I wonder Firestone did not find it embarrassing. Then, Thurman relates how the Dalai Lama, when receiving an honorary degree, said “so powerfully as to penetrate the stone pillars” that to educate the brain but not the heart is to create a danger. Thurman adds: “The assembled dignitaries nodded approvingly, but subsequently I didn’t notice any change in the curriculum” (x).

What changes to the curriculum did Thurman expect to see? What changes did he himself make? What changes did the Lama indicate? The fact of the matter is, as reported, the Dalai Lama made a platitudinous statement which could mean almost anything. Thurman was identified with him to the extent that he even imagined the pillars hearing his voice, and now shares his fond fantasy with us. Once more, I call it grandiloquence. A more humorous and softer phrase might be the Australianism “cosmic wombat”.

I could make comments about the testimonials on the back cover, but time is limited. Suffice to say, if you esteem gushing praise, yes, they’re good. But why “ache” for what you didn’t have? What could such an “ache” be but imagination? Does Firestone need this sort of marketing? This book is a dedication to life and consciousness past, present and future before it’s a product, and to market it like any ordinary book, with the sort of testimonials Gurdjieff satirized in “Meetings” … well, I can’t conceive that it was necessary, especially as it’s her own press and she has no external publishers to compromise with.

4 Further Thoughts on Children

I have no children of my own, but I was a child. One of the rarest insights I’ve ever heard about children was said by my late grandmother. “Children,” she said, “know who love them.” An intuitive knowledge is available to them in many ways. At some level, children, especially small children, know. They know what’s going on and what’s taking place in the people around them. My clear recollection, and it’s something we all shared whether we remember it or not, is that as a child I was very often quite impartial. I recall looking around me with the sort of feeling-impartiality that Thomas Traherne describes in his “Centuries”, and having a respect for other people as being miracles equal to myself. In book 3.3. of the “Centuries”, Traherne wrote:

Aged men seemed as venerable and reverend creatures – young men seemed glittering and sparkling angels. and women strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty. Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing. were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die, but all things bided as if in their proper places eternally.

I recall that I was centred, that my mind was crystal clear, and my feelings were positive. The memories are absolutely crisp. I did not then realise that I was centred, but then again, perhaps I did. By imperceptible degrees, of course, this state of natural, innocent blissful perception was lost. But the realisation that I then had, effectively of the truth of the Beatific Visions, has never been lost, although for periods, sometimes for long weary periods, it has lain unremembered.

As an aside, the very first time I read In Search of the Miraculous, I at once saw that what Gurdjieff was teaching was a method for restoring the lost vision, but at a higher level, one which would relate our perception to our will, and not merely our circumstances. It seemed right that the path would lie through conscience, but never had I remotely guessed that that could commence through something as simple as becoming conscious to my own reality, beginning with physical sensation. Yet how obvious, after all, that the road to reality should begin in the one certain place available to everyone, our own individual being-reality? I tried to bring some of that understanding to Mr Adie’s book, especially the chapters “The Joy of Creation” and “The World in Amber”.

To return to our theme, Traherne saw that this tale of infant paradise and the fall is true of everyone. Children are more in essence than we are, and, as I shall mention below, the working of their centres is more united. Traherne’s writing on this subject is significant, and too little appreciated. In an appendix to this review, I attach some more brief quotations from book 3 of Traherne’s “Centuries”. But there is no substitute for purchasing a volume of his poetry, and making your own acquaintance with this profound mystic.

To return to my grandmother’s words, I think that the first effort with anyone, but especially perhaps with children, is to open to feeling. By “feeling” I mean positive emotion of myself, not mere “emotion” (see p.61 of “George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia” for the critical distinction.) I won’t delve into it now, but it’s natural that such an effort extends downwards into presence of sensation and above into presence of aim. This is another reason why I think there needs to be more attention paid to the awakening of feeling, and less to intellectual formulations such as “leaning on the moment”, which to me paints a humorous picture of leaving smudges everywhere. A moment is a breath. You can’t “lean” on it, even metaphorically. But to the degree that I am present, higher emotional centre operates with its richer time, and it as if corridors of dimensions are added to the experience of the moment. Once more, contact with feeling proves to be the gate.

In small children, the centres function more closely together. Children are both more sensitive and stronger than they will be as adults, more in essence, and so we are accordingly more responsible for our manifestations in their presences. Incidentally, I heard this from Mr Adie, but the same idea is recorded in Ouspensky’s “The Fourth Way”, so I am pretty sure it came from Gurdjieff. At p. 74 is this fertile line: “In small children centres are not divided.” At p. 121, Ouspensky answers a question as to whether a child is nearer to self-remembering than an adult. “No, not quite”, said Ouspensky. Remembering oneself, he explained, comes from one’s own conscious and intentional efforts. While children have moments of consciousness, these moments come by themselves because the emotional centre is more active in children.

So it seems to be this: the younger the child, the less division there is likely to be between the centres. One can even see from embryology how the mechanisms of the centres start to appear. The different scale of time in higher centres and higher parts of centres explains why our sense of time is different when we’re children. As Traherne said of his experience as a boy: “All time was eternity and a perpetual sabbath.” My own guess is that the operational division of centres which has begun in infancy does not end its octave of development until puberty, and is aided, or at least given its characteristic form, by the development of personality which starts to cover essence.

So it isn’t so much that images and pictures mean more to children than words: that will depend upon which images, picture and words, and which child. It is more that every word will resonate with images and pictures, and vice versa, because the intellect and the feeling are closer together. The very young don’t make the hard distinction between words and pictures that we do: that, at least, I can remember from childhood.

And of course, it follows from all this, that the higher parts of centres are more available in children, and so the mystic element of a child’s experience must be respected, and allowed space. If a person is present with a child, especially a small child, that person cannot be impatient without remorse of conscience.

Now, if children cannot make conscious efforts the way that an adult can, they yet have the possibility, even the heightened possibility, of receiving impressions of our conscious and intentional efforts. Those impressions can become active later when personality is smothering essence. It could be that neither then nor later will they be aware of having received any such impression. Impressions can be so weak as to be negligible. But no conscious effort made with someone is ever wasted, either for oneself or for the other.

Further, the effort with anyone – adult, baby or youth – should be impartial and unconditional to the extent we can manage, and maybe even beyond that. One does not make such efforts in the hope of evoking gratitude from the other. That would be manipulation, and it always, it seems to me, backfires. It leads, in other words, to revulsion, if not to outright revolt. There are no guarantees: there are children who knew Gurdjieff and even had the experience of children’s movements, who did not turn out at all brilliantly.

There are very few rules and perhaps even fewer guarantees. Corporal punishment is looked upon as barbaric today. But sometimes, Gurdjieff would spank a child on the bottom, and say that it was a good reminding factor. Olga de Hartmann relates that Gurdjieff shouted at her once in the presence of her father. That good man was appalled, until Gurdjieff explained to him that because he, the father, had not shouted at Olga, now he, Gurdjieff, had to give her that experience. And he, according to Olga, saw the wisdom in that. The late Michael Smyth recounted to me a story he had heard from Paul Beekman Taylor. I think I have it right: a child was proud of its toy watch. Gurdjieff beckoned the child over, obtained the watch, and then deliberately crushed it beneath his foot. The story did not end there. The next night, Gurdjieff called the child over to himself. The child was reluctant, but the parents helped the child over to Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff then presented the child with a real watch. No one I know would dare to do such a thing, but it may have been beneficial to the child: I don’t know, and I don’t know how to judge it.

So there are very few rules. We just have to use our individual being-reason, and in using it, develop it.

5 Conscience

The key to work with anyone, children or otherwise, is, I would now say, conscience. There is a special connection with children, and not only because our time of childhood was absolutely critical for our development. As Jesus said, we must become like little children if we’re to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Traherne refers to this in “Centuries”:

Our Saviour’s meaning when He said that whoever would enter into the kingdom of heaven must be born again and become a little child, is far deeper than is generally believed. It is not only in a careless reliance upon divine providence that we are to become little children or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger, and in the simplicity of our passions: but in the peace and purity of all our soul, which purity also is a deeper thing than is commonly apprehended – for we must disrobe our selves of all false colours, and forsake self-will. All our thoughts must be infant-like and clear, the powers of our soul free from the values of this world, and disentangled from men’s opinions and customs. [“Centuries” 3.5]

To be concise, my personal view is that Jesus meant that we must come to conscience.

To be with and to understand children, we must be with and understand our own childhoods. This both requires feeling, and brings us to feeling. If feeling is awake for long enough, this leads to conscience.

Let’s relate this to an example from “Forgotten Language”. Recall that before they walked out on Henry, someone declared: “This isn’t the Children’s Work”. How could people aiming to “work”, to become more conscious, hurl the Indians’ hospitality back in their faces, implicitly reproaching them for failing to provide the exotic but safe adventure they had dreamed of? We should never consent to compromise our innate human sense of principle: it is asphyxiation of conscience. But they were ensconced as leaders of the “Children’s Work”, and, apparently, they didn’t feel the earth-level realities of their “hard looks” and similar actions. How is this possible? What is the point of years in Gurdjieff groups if we never change?

Take that phrase: “it isn’t the work”. How can anyone confidently announce what is and isn’t “the work”? We would need to know the other person’s condition and need so fully that we could dismiss something as not being work for them. But our position and needs have so many individual aspects that I can only see in this phrase a laziness of thought yoked to a desire to have the last word. And that means that conscience is fast asleep.

What does it mean to say that something is or is not the work? Does it not mean that certain ideas, feelings, emotions, actions or omissions cannot lead to, be material for, or contribute to someone’s efforts to become more conscious? So much of what we try is experimental that we should be slow to say that others are in a dead end. But that remark is inherently loaded in the direction of being arrogantly slighting. It could be uttered in sadness, but I think that if one had feeling one would choose a different phrase. I never heard Mr Adie say it, and I’ve never heard that Gurdjieff used it. To be perfectly blunt, it sounds to me as if someone in what I think of as “the group executive” used to say it, other people heard it, it sounded impressive, and it’s been parroted ever since. Here, I’ll briefly note that “work” itself is often a hiding word. It’s a valuable exercise to sometimes try and find another word or phrase to use in substitution: this exercise brings us right up against our mental laziness.

I would have far more sympathy if a person could say that they felt something was right or wrong, or that they could sense that, for them, it led away from conscience. Conscience is the issue for all of us. I hope I’m wrong, but I think that today, both in groups and outside of them (especially outside of them) some people implicitly see themselves as “beyond good and evil”, or something equivalent to that, tolerating all sorts of selfish or even predatory behaviour, their own and other people’s, and excusing it with platitudes like “who are we to say?”, “they’re adults”, or “it’s all good”.

While we should always try and grasp the other end of the stick, “Beelzebub is replete with commandments of the Creator, and Gurdjieff himself approved this principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If someone falls short of a standard, it is sometimes right and appropriate to say so. Sometimes, a direct statement is the best statement. It’s always a matter of judgment. Although we may not be sure what conscience would direct, we can be sure if something aggravates the black hole in us where conscience should be.

In other words, for a long time we may not positively know conscience as the source of light it is. But, if we’re honest, we do know the absence of conscience. And, also if we’re honest, we can tell when the sense of absence is made worse. We can feel a certain hardness in us.

Firestone spoke of handing over her conscience. I wonder. Is this like the assumption about “Children’s Work”? Although it’s not meant literally, it’s assuming that we have a conscience, and that the group, any group, can take delivery of it. Fear of being on the outer of the group can actually anaesthetize the feeling of myself which leads to conscience. There is an extent, I would say a significant extent, to which group work is or by law can become antipathetic to the individuality which Gurdjieff wished for his pupils. His knowledge of that fact was, I think, the deepest reason why he pushed people out on their own, even if he re-established contact in those instances where they’d made something for themselves. (I refer to Jeanne de Salzmann, Sophia Ouspensky and Jane Heap. He wished to re-establish relations with P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage and Maurice Nicoll, although they all refused his invitations.)

Two more points from the Henry saga. When they packed up, Bill told the children not to ask questions (187). Firestone does not consider how this relates to their own stated principles about how they would deal with children’s questions in the children’s work (16-8). Was it ever discussed? If not, why not, I wonder? If a group cannot discuss such matters, what sort of group is it? Gurdjieff, of course, like any sane person, was always on the side of conscience, never of conformity.

Then, of equal importance, what was Firestone’s follow up? Did she make contact with Henry by letter or phone? Send him an apology, or a greeting? A little present? Or a big present? We just don’t know. Mr Adie said once of someone who had said something quite unfeeling, and later apologized: “It was good that having said what he did, he later said something else to be added to it.” Mr Adie would sometimes mention that it was important to judge when having left impression, we should then say or do something so that when that first impression was recalled, the second would be there, too, to mitigate its effect. When I had unintentionally confused someone, he told me that I should have explained my situation as soon as possible. I felt that he was right, and asked him how to deal with the fact that I would have to say something about other people. “You don’t have to”, he said. “Just keep it simple and speak of yourself.” And he was right. As a general rule, the simplest statements are the most credible.

There is a clear criterion as to whether our efforts towards the awakening of conscience are on the right road or not: we shall be suffering, and suffering remorse in respect of our manifestations towards our parents and others. You can read any of the good material on conscience, whether in Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Staveley, and they will support this in whole or in part. This also emerges from Firestone’s own account. To have a conscience one needs to suffer analogously to how Christ suffered in his passion. As Gurdjieff was reported to have said in an unpublished talk titled “Palm Sunday”:

… the word “passion” is applied to that state in us which is called the gnawings of conscience. Whoever understands the gnawings of conscience will understand the word “passion”. To most people the taste of this function is unknown. For most people this state might not exist and they understand it only theoretically. For a final definition of the word “passion” it is necessary to add the word similar to the gnawings of conscience, since the expression gnawings of conscience is used by us too often and we are accustomed to take its meaning too superficially. Passion is a state similar to the gnawings of conscience.

Appendix

Excerpts edited from book 3 of Thomas Traherne’s “Centuries”:

All appeared new and strange at the first; inexpressibly rare and delightful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted with innumerable joys. My knowledge was divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my apostasy I collected again, by the highest reason. I knew not that there were any sins or complaints or laws. All time was eternity and a perpetual sabbath. Is it not strange that an infant should be the inheritor of the world. and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold? [from C. 3.2]

Wheat in the fields was the immortal grain of the rising sun, which never should be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold. The gates of the city were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me; their unusual beauty made my heart to leap almost mad with ecstasy, they were so strange and wonderful. [from C 3.3]

Eternity was manifest in the light of the day, and some thing infinite behind every thing appeared, which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The streets of the city were mine. The people were mine. Their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skin and ruddy faces. The skies were mine and so were the sun and moon and stars. I knew no bounds or divisions until with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world; which now I unlearn, and become as it were, a little child again, that I may enter into the kingdom of God. [from C 3.3]

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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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JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO INTERVIEWS BARBARA WRIGHT


The John Robert Colombo Page

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J&B in Colo 2004

Barbara and James in Colorado

I am sitting in front of my computer in North Toronto and Barbara Wright is sitting in front of her computer in downtown Toronto, a distance of perhaps eight kilometres. We are twenty minutes apart by car, yet our communication is via the a geostationary satellite, with the signal travelling back and forth perhaps 500,000 kilometres in one or two seconds.

I reside with my wife Ruth in our three-bedroom suburban house in the city’s North York district, which is unequally divided between the Italians and the Jews, to such an extent the district is locally known as the “Kosher Nostra.” (The New York essayist Richard Kostelanetz once called our place “Colombo Central.”)

Barbara Wright – I’ll call her Barbara, as she is quite direct in manner – lives with her husband James (Jim) George in their suite in a highrise in the city’s downtown area. The balcony offers a sweeping view of the city’s exclusive Rosedale district, which Jim has known since his childhood.

The view is new to Barbara who was born in Colorado. She made California her home state for decades, at least until her late marriage, four years ago in San Francisco, to Jim. They make a formidable couple and their surroundings are awesome. The suite is richly decorated with works of Buddhist and Hindu art: statues, mandalas, rugs, paintings, etc. There is even a framed photograph of the smiling couple with a giggling Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, taken last year during a private session at the time of his last public visit to the city.

Perhaps I should recall that Jim served as Canada’s High Commissioner to India from 1967 to 1972. During his years in New Delhi he befriended two youthful spiritual leaders of the Buddhist-Bon tradition: the Dalai Lama and Chögyam Trungpa. The American disciples of the latter “crazy wisdom” lama accompanied him when he shifted his ashram from Boulder, Colorado, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he established a thriving centre for Shambhala studies. Today Jim is regarded as one of the elder statesmen of the Work in Canada, a group that includes Ravi Ravindra and Tom Daly.

As for their ages – Barbara is in her seventies, Jim is in his early nineties – think nothing of it. Both are healthy and look great. Together they generate more energy than do the hydroelectric power turbines at Niagara Falls, an ninety minutes south of Toronto by car.

barbara, james and DL

Barbara and James with HH the Dalai Lama

Barbara has kindly agreed to my request to reproduce this photograph taken with the Dalai Lama who, years earlier, contributed the foreword to Jim’s recently reprinted book, Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual / Ecological Crisis. Jim’s current book is “The Little Green Book on Awakening,” a kind of primer on the climate crisis and work on consciousness. She has also agreed to answer one dozen questions. So here are my statements and questions, with her responses and answers.

Q. Three cities: Boulder – San Francisco – Toronto. Although I could connect these three cities with a straight line on a map, it would not occur to me to do so, but for the fact that you have an association with these three North American cities. Let’s begin with Boulder, which by synecdochy I associate with the rest of Colorado. I understand that you were not born in Boulder, a spiritual centre in Colorado, but that you were born in the city of Grand Junction. Were you educated there? Do you see yourself as a “midwesterner”?

Boulder is important because it’s in Colorado and my younger daughter lives there. Also, there is a Gurdjieff group there which I have visited regularly for over twenty years, and during that time, I have gotten to know the people in the group very well, and value them very highly. It’s true that Boulder is a kind of spiritual center, and we are very aware of that. In fact, by coincidence or whatever arranges such events, my visits often coincide with special Buddhist gatherings. For example, the Dalai Lama was in Denver once when we were having a special weekend; and last year, the new Karmapa was there at the same time that the Boulder group worked together over a four-day period of time.

Last May, since some of our people were interested in studying Chogyam Trungpa’s ideas on work in life — and since the Gurdjieff Work is described as “a work in life” — invited several friends of mine, who live in Boulder and practice Buddhism, to join us. That made for an interesting time. So we feel very lucky to be in such a place, which is not only a spiritual center, but very beautiful. In only a few minutes, we can be walking uphill on a mountain path. My husband, Jim, sometimes goes with me to Colorado, and he loves the mountains; even though he was born in Toronto, he has climbed the best and highest mountains. Of course, I love the mountains because they are an essential part of me. I was born at an altitude of a little over 5000 feet.

I was born in the city of Grand Junction, which is on the other side of the mountains from Boulder, on the Western Slope of the Rockies. Though it has about the same mile-high altitude, it had a different feeling from Boulder, Denver, or Colorado Springs, which are located on the Eastern Slope and are related to the Great Plains in the central part of the United States. It felt a little less sophisticated and possibly more genuine. A little more desert prospector or sheep herder and less like the gold or silver barons. This is in the process of changing now as the powerful homogenous force erases those kinds of differences. Now, Grand Junction is becoming well known for its wineries; the thought of which would have horrified the members of the twelve to fifteen Protestant churches in the city when I was growing up. (I believe that the members of the one large Catholic church did have a glass of wine from time to time, and probably more Protestants than we knew of did also.)

Grand Junction is high-desert country, only a few miles from Utah and its fantastic canyons and rock formations. Two rivers meet there, and the valley they form is fertile and known for its warm climate. It’s also quite a beautiful valley, surrounded on three sides by completely different and completely amazing landscapes. In fact, on a recent visit, I felt quite strongly that the beauty and grandeur of that valley somehow comprise my heritage.

My education in Grand Junction gave me a pretty good start in life. We lived close enough that I could walk to and from school and come home for lunch each day, so the 3 schools I attended from grade 1-12 seemed like an extension of home life. Many of my teachers were highly educated in the now old-fashioned classics, probably similar to a Canadian education. And, I read a lot and was outdoors a lot.

For a town of around 28,000 people there many riches. For example, growing up in Grand Junction at that time provided special opportunities for anyone to study classical music that probably don’t exist now. Every elementary school, and the junior high and high school had an orchestra, a concert band, and a marching band, with very good teachers — several just back from WWII and one at least, a veteran of the Paul Whiteman orchestra that played for silent movies. I started piano lessons at five and violin at ten, and by the time I was in high school, I was taking violin lessons at the local college, playing in two symphonies, and performing chamber music in a string trio.

As to being a “midwesterner.” Very early in U.S. history, my ancestors moved from the British Isles, Germany, and Switzerland to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and points farther east, and then to Missouri and Iowa and finally, just after the Civil War, to Colorado, leaving the southern part of the Midwest behind. Like them, I was and am a Westerner. Quite a different animal. Although I lived for six months in Iowa once long ago — and Iowa is definitely the Midwest — and I live now in Toronto — and Toronto is definitely the East — I remain a Westerner.

Q. Where and how did you first encounter the Work? Could you describe how its ideas and emotions initially affected you? Did it suddenly seem to you to answer your questions about life or did it gradually meet your inner needs?

I first encountered the work ideas in Grand Junction. A friend lent me a book by Kenneth Walker and I happened to notice the name Gurdjieff in it. Noticed and was galvanized. That’s the one, I thought. There was no reason; I simply seemed to recognize his name, just as I simply seemed to know that the ideas were true when I read them later on. The first work book I read was “Venture with Ideas” by the same Kenneth Walker, and while reading it, I really learned that I was asleep. While I was reading in the living room, too completely engrossed by new ideas and new possibilities, the water had been used up in the vaporizer I’d left running in my daughters’ bedroom, and it was beginning to overheat and starting to smoke. That was a definite shock. A wake-up call.

Another strong moment I remember was reading “In Search of the Miraculous” while waiting to have surgery the next morning. That book, and the particular passage I read that evening, also served as a call for a new way of living. Curiously, Jim and I are reading through “In Search of the Miraculous” with a small group of people, and a few weeks ago we read that very same passage. Again, a strong moment.

And I was lucky that my introduction to “Beelzebub’s Tales” was oral. The same friend who lent me the Walker books read the first chapter, “The Arousal of Thought,” out loud to me while I was ironing. It was amazing. To hear the words first rather than reading them was a very lucky event. Of course, I then read the book, as fast as I could, unintentionally reading it the way I would ordinarily read any book, in fact as Gurdjieff suggests.

Those books changed my life. The ideas seemed completely familiar, as if they spoke to my own experience and knowledge that had been forgotten. So many of my questions about my own and other’s behavior were addressed and the grandeur of creation and the living universe, which I had experienced myself in special moments, was evoked. I would describe the experience of reading these books as the experience of coming back to life. Of course, as the years went along, I discovered other needs within myself because the work gave me something in relation to those needs.

Q. San Francisco is the next city. What year did you move there? Did you raise your family there?

San Francisco was my home for forty-five years. It was there that I joined a group, met Lord Pentland and many other remarkable people, and of course, made many close friends in the work community there.

I moved to San Francisco in 1961, after going back to college in 1960 — I was one of two single mothers with kids, a rarity at the time — and getting a teaching certificate. My two young daughters and my twenty-one year old sister went with me. I was twenty-eight. In early September, we pulled a small trailer from Grand Junction to San Francisco across the desert and the Sierras, crossed over the Bay Bridge while reciting a little Hart Crane, and stayed the first night in a motel right on the beach south of San Francisco.

In the next few days, we found a place to live, a school for my older daughter and a babysitter for the younger one, and a job for my sister. I began my teaching career in a 6th grade classroom and felt very close to that class. We went to our first meeting on October 10th, with Lord Pentland and the leaders of the San Francisco work. Some notes from that first meeting are in the book Exchanges Within. That was the beginning of my work with the group in San Francisco.

Hopefully, my daughters were helped by our connection to the work. I had remarried, to an older man in the work, and we were very busy with groups and work activities. There were many people in and out of the house, and we were away a lot. But, we had music and crafts at home, and two dogs. Also, the city of San Francisco offered many cultural opportunities. There were many interesting people around our dinner table during those years. They never had what they considered a “normal” family life, but as adults they’ve realized that there is no such thing as the ideal, perfectly normal family. I’m hoping now that they feel their lives were very special, in good ways.

Q. I know you are a woman who cherishes family connection. Tell us the names of your children and grandchildren. Where do they live? Were they surprised when you informed them that you and Jim would live in Toronto?

My older daughter, Claudia, still lives in San Francisco and, along with her husband, is quite active in the Gurdjieff Foundation there. She is quite a good pianist and also quite a good poet. They have two daughters, Anne, just receiving her MSW from UC Berkeley in May, and Clara, an artist / poet who lives in Santa Cruz and is very active in community organizations. My younger daughter, Kristine, lives in Boulder with her husband. She is a healer, and uses flower essences, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and psychic healing to great and good results. Her daughter Jessamyn is finishing her third year of college and studying international law.

I do very much cherish family connections. After my mother’s death, I remembered conversations we’d had and after finding notes she had made in various books, I realized that my life, which had been so much about a search for meaning, was a continuation of hers. As is my sister’s. Now, as I get older and watch my daughters, and their daughters, becoming more and more wise, this continuity seems even more apparent. And, I wish for them all, wish that their own lives and their inquiries into the purpose of life can bring more freedom, wisdom, clarity, daring, and so on. The good things.

There were various reactions to my announcement that I was thinking of marrying Jim George. Surprise, certainly, because it all happened very quickly. Reactions ranged from excitement to opposition. A very positive Tarot reading from one granddaughter, a “Go for it, Grandma” from another, and a “You’ve got to be kidding!” from my younger daughter. Now, five years later, we’ve visited them and they’ve each have visited us in Toronto, and I think everyone agrees it’s been a good arrangement.

Q. Was it in San Francisco that you began your work as a Feldenkrais instructor? Are you still a practitioner?

In the late 70s and early 80s, Lord Pentland began using Feldenkrais lessons as part of his teaching. I believe that he could see that without real changes in the body, self development was mostly mental. Moshe Feldenkrais had been influenced by Gurdjieff and his teaching is highly appropriate for Gurdjieffians or for anyone interested in the development of the whole person. Those first lessons were astounding. I still remember the whole sensation and feeling of myself, of my whole self, as I walked down the hill after the first one.

About the same time, with his encouragement, I began to have lots of body work, which continued into the 90s. There was a double motive for this. Partly for deepening awareness and partly to improve a bad back that was the result of an early fall off a horse.

In 1992, I started my career as a free-lance editor, not only making a decent amount of money but also setting my own hours. By 1994, it seemed the time and the funds were right for me to take the Feldenkrais training in the Bay Area north of San Francisco. Again I was lucky. My trainers were excellent. They were Buddhists and tuned to the awareness aspect of the work. After four years more or less on the floor at least once a week and for longer periods several times a year, my back was many times better. Hopefully, the awareness was better also.

I graduated from the four-year training in 1999, and had quite an active practice, teaching classes in several locations, with a good number of private clients up until the time I moved to Toronto, but it’s been difficult to keep it going here. It takes time to be married! I taught some classes that met here in our condo for several months, substituted a bit at the Feldenkrais Center, and taught one at the Institute of Traditional Medicine on the Art of Sitting, in which I combined lessons for the body and sitting quietly together. I have had a few private clients, including a man who comes regularly when he’s visiting from San Francisco. Eventually I would like to be teaching more. The Feldenkrais Method is amazing.

Q. How long were you associated with the work in San Francisco? By the way, do you know Jacob Needleman, the philosopher who has published many work-related books?

I was associated with the Work in San Francisco for forty-four years — from 1961 to 2005, and I still travel to San Francisco and attend group meetings there when I can. I will probably always be related to the work in San Francisco. The San Francisco groups were begun by Lord Pentland around 1954 to 1957, shortly after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. He continued almost monthly visits to San Francisco from New York, where he lived and where he headed the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, the primary North American foundation.

The New York foundation had been organized by Gurdjieff himself during his last visits to the United States. Especially in the 60s and 70s, most of the leaders in the New York foundation were pupils of Gurdjieff. At the same time, there was a frequent exchange between New York and Paris, and Madame de Salzmann, and other pupils of Gurdjieff. Several times a year, some of us made trips to New York at Pentland’s invitation, usually when Madame de Salzmann was there. Often when he came to San Francisco, he brought people along with him from other work centers, like New York or Los Angeles, London or Paris. It was easy to feel part of a great, living organism, complete with a thriving circulatory system. The years until his death in 1984 were rich with opportunity to learn, study, explore and engage along with a group of like-minded, and like-hearted, people.

After 1984, at least once a month and for longer periods in the summer, Paul Reynard continued to visit San Francisco, until his death a few years ago, bringing his sensitive inner work in movements and with the ideas. He had worked as a very young man with Gurdjieff in Paris and has led the movements work in North and South America under Madame de Salzmann’s direction since the late 60s. I feel that the groups in San Francisco were given more than most of us can ever really make our own, and probably much more than we can share with others. This seems to be a theme of mine: we received many riches.

Jacob Needleman has been a friend since 1965. I value any opportunity to work with him, and admire him deeply. He has been able to find ways to bring finer, higher ideas into the main stream of life through his books and talks, and I know he continues this effort.

Q. The third city in your life is Toronto. I know why you came to this city: the catalyst was your marriage to Jim in 2006. Did you meet him in San Francisco at a Work function?

We were married on January 1, 2005, and it took me about six months to get things together for a final move to Toronto. As the third city in my life, as you put it, Toronto is very important to me, because this is the city where I live now, where my husband was born and grew up. It provides me with the opportunity to know a different set of human beings and to explore the ways they are the same and yet different from the people who live in San Francisco, New York, or Colorado. I have met some wonderful people here — especially some outstanding women, who are bright and intelligent — and have had the opportunity to widen my friendships to those not in the Gurdjieff work, which has been very good for me.

I had noticed Jim at various work functions and conferences over the years, but we had hardly had a conversation until 1999 when we were at the same conference in New York and had an opportunity to talk. Perhaps he noticed me earlier, but I wasn’t aware of it. Later, two of our granddaughters got to know each other and it was through this that Jim and I got better acquainted.

Q. You would expect that Toronto, a multicultural city with a population of more than three million people, close to half of its residents born somewhere else, would be particularly receptive to new ideas. In the 1920s it was hospitable to Theosophy. A Gurdjieff group was founded in the city in the early 1950s under the personal direction of Madame de Hartman. It was responsible for the publication of an index to “All and Everything” and also the Russian-language edition of that mammoth text. In the 1960s the city was recognized as the intellectual home of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Currently groups like Theosophy and Anthroposophy are languishing here. It is common knowledge that in the city the Gurdjieff work, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided in three parts, if not more than three. Did this scattering of energies take you by surprise? Can you offer any reason for it? Is the situation likely to remain fragmented in the future?

Because the last split happened so soon after I moved here, it did take me by surprise. It also makes me sad whenever and wherever a separation takes place — and it does take place too often within work groups — and within many other groups, even one as small as two people, such as in a marriage. There is a small, sad statement about human beings in “Beelzebub’s Tales,” in the chapter about the destruction of Ashiata Shiemash’s labors: “And gradually, as it also usually happens there, almost everywhere beings became divided into two mutually opposing parties…. ” I’m reminded of a brilliant Aldous Huxley essay entitled “Usually Destroyed” that speaks to similar human proclivities.

Also, one could talk about the problem of the ego, and I’m tempted to talk about the male ego in particular. But, having a philosophical bent, I would have to say that the underlying reason for divisions, in the Work or in religions or families or nations, is the inexorable quality of the great laws of “world creation and world maintenance,” which must govern all of life. Implicit in these laws is the fact that everything happens, and no intentional result comes about automatically. In a simple way, one can see that effort is almost always required in order to carry out any real intention. Anyone who’s married knows this, at least if they are interested in keeping their marriage intact and thriving. It takes work.

A Gurdjieff group is not immune to the pulls and pushes of life. Individual initiatives can become all important. Individual power can become all important. The need for recognition, for place, and so on — all the ordinary desires that we know too well — all that becomes important. Surely every one of us can speak about that from our own experience in many different situations, but I hope that some of us have some experience of intention, and really working toward something.

Will it ever change here in Toronto? Each of the three groups has many wonderful people, and many wonderful initiatives. In my experience with each group, I could say that the work is alive in each one. Most separations remain separations. Some separations were obviously meant to be, just as some marriages seem destined for divorce and some for a fifty-year anniversary. One hopes that areas of mutual co-operation or mutual need might arise, and this might happen someday. I hope it doesn’t require a great emergency for this to happen. However, it’s important to remember that, in my experience, the movement toward unity is always uphill. It’s neither easy nor automatic. At the same time though, the tastes we have of wholeness or unity begin to reveal to us that this work is in fact a great service. That realization helps in the ongoing attempt to struggle with the arising of individual initiatives, in myself and in others.

Q. Over the years has there been a single teacher or a specific book that has been particularly meaningful to you? Is there a musical composition that you find yourself humming in tense moments – if you have tense moments?

There have been several teachers who have been meaningful to me, starting with my fourth grade teacher and going on through college. In fact, I consider myself pretty lucky in this respect. As a college freshman, I enrolled in three consecutive Humanities classes that Neal Miller Cross taught, using a book he coauthored called “The Search for Personal Freedom.” That was just what I needed at that point in my life. I was also lucky later on to take history courses with a man named Peter Szymanski, a brilliant, Russia-educated, French-trained Polish professor who was by his choice hidden away in the high mountains of Colorado.

From childhood, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories and Zane Grey’s novels, and read and reread a dazzling little book called “The Hidden Hand,” written in the late 1800s — don’t ask me why — I still enjoy it. When I was twelve or thirteen, I read that huge, shocking, and thrilling book, “The Brothers Karazamov.” It made a huge impact on me and inspired a certain rapport with Eastern Orthodoxy, which persists to the present time.

I have many tense moments, but no particular musical compositions come to mind. There is very often a melody humming around in my brain, but usually the one of the moment is the one I listened to most recently, or most recently played on the piano. The Gurdjieff-de Hatmann music is particularly haunting. I do love Schubert, Bach, Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms for humming. But also I like contemporary music. For example, John Adams’ operas, and most anything by Elliot Carter. Amazing, but not too hummable.

Q. You have traveled quite widely and visited Work groups in numerous countries, for instance, England, France, and Australia, in addition to the United States and Canada. Do you find characteristic types everywhere? From your perspective, are there national or cultural differences in the Work to be detected?

First of all, I would like to say that in my opinion people who are attracted to the work often — very often — have certain similar characteristics. Keep in mind that this is only my opinion, which I’ve shared with many groups over the past few years. I suppose someone could do a kind of survey someday to see if my opinion holds any truth. So, in my opinion, there are a lot of good-looking people in the Work, no matter what country they live in. The women don’t always let their beauty shine out, but still, the beauty is often there. In addition, I notice that people in the Work are very often intelligent and well-educated, artistically talented, and often creative and resourceful. They are generally very good at washing dishes, too, and figuring out how to get one hundred people in a space that really only holds sixty. But these are my very subjective observations.

Certainly every country has its characteristics. For instance, the Australians are even more independent than Americans. It’s the island — and a fairly isolated island at that — mentality. Self-reliance is the thing. There surely must be Canadian characteristics, as well as Latin American, French, English, and so on. But everywhere one goes there are similar types: the natural leaders, the real seekers who find a work for themselves, the ones who find it difficult to speak, the ones who are only interested in the Ideas and the ones who are only interested in the Movements, those who proclaim their devotion to the search and who disappear without warning, the silent ones who after years explode in anger, the drinkers, the dutiful wives or husbands who sometimes end up more devoted to the Work than their partner, the Martha types and the Mary types, and so on. Probably any group has most of these types. When you are in a community for a long time, you get to know people pretty well. In fact, you know their kids and often their parents, you go through deaths and marriages, and you all get old together, so everyone goes on being an “older” person or one of “the young ones.”

Most important though is the experience I’ve had again and again of the similarities. The serious questions are the same, almost word for word; the feeling tone of the meetings are the same. There is a kind of taste or flavour, like a delicate scent that lingers in a room, which is the same in meetings in many of the groups I’ve visited, when the serious work appears, no matter where they meet.

But a little more on differences. Usually the main difference comes from which Gurdjieff pupil first brought the work to a group. There is loyalty to that person, of course, and a kind of imprint in the mind and heart from the way he or she presented the ideas and the work. This connects to your next question, because people in the Work need to find ways to work together in spite of quite natural loyalty and fealty, which is perhaps more often unconscious and therefore stronger than we think. We need to beware of imitation.

Q. Do you have a clear idea where the Work is heading, that is, where it will be in ten years time or in fifty years? Still alive and still working are some people – Paul Beekman Taylor and Patty de Llosa spring to mind – who, as children, recall meeting Mr. Gurdjieff. I keep meeting people who knew John Bennett, but I think Joyce Colin-Smith is the only person I know who actually met Mr. Ouspensky.

This is the question that keeps me up at night. I don’t have a very clear idea where the work is heading but I can share some rather muddled thoughts about it. Some of the best people I’ve know in the Work have branched out to fortify their work using other disciplines. Patty de Llosa is a good example. She has a very serious work with the Alexander Method, which seems a good support to her work with the Gurdjieff groups. Also, as she mentions in her book, she has a serious practice of Tai Chi, and in this way, she can share her knowledge and experience with a wide range of people, using knowledge and experience that is very much influenced by her years in the Gurdjieff work.

Others use their knowledge of science or the religions to find avenues toward explaining the ideas and practices of the Work. Of course, there is always the danger of diversion or of dilution. This can happen when other traditions are brought in to help deepen or broaden the understanding. Although the study of the specificity of the Gurdjieff Work is an interesting one, it’s not easy. It’s easier to say what it resembles than what it is, so this study is too often neglected now. It requires knowing the ideas in the books as well as in the memory of the oral teaching, and you could say, it requires real thought, which is pretty scarce these day. And often, people get too interested and leave the Work in order to practise one of those other traditions.

There are others still alive who met Gurdjieff, but surely the future of the work does not depend only on having met him or Ouspensky. The future of the work will depend on what has passed from person to person. Gurdjieff uses the image of a staircase, and you can’t go any higher on this stairway until you’ve placed someone on your step. And that person must place someone on his step, and so on. Of course, we hear this and think it’s simple and straightforward.

The problem I’ve encountered is that one really does not know what that next higher step will entail, what will be required of one, having placed someone else and having moved up a step. We forget that each step is new territory, and I suspect that it is the shock of finding oneself in new territory, alone, so to speak, that may stop the development needed to help everyone ascend. It’s too easy to drift along using past methods. Imitation only works up to point. I have been very glad to hear reports about the next generation in San Francisco. It sounds like they learned something over the years and now feel the obligation to pass it along.

Up to now the Work has served as a kind of pollinator. Hundreds of people have passed through its groups and back into life. When I look at old group lists, it’s quite amazing how many people have come and gone. Once in awhile, in San Francisco, I was stopped by someone on the street who would say he or she used to be in my group twenty-five or thirty years ago, and is “still doing the morning work and / or reading ‘Beelzebub.’” The Work will probably never be huge, but I do very much wish and hope that it remains alive, even in people who no longer attend groups. It’s very much needed.

Q. That’s eleven questions. My twelfth question is the following: Is there a question I should have asked you but didn’t which you yourself would like to ask and answer?

I’d like to paraphrase Gurdjieff and be asked, Have you met any remarkable men or women through your association with the Work? The answer is yes, indeed. I never met Gurdjieff himself, but like so many of my generation, through a close association with two remarkable people who had worked with him, I felt something of the unique and specific force that Gurdjieff generated.

Since moving to San Francisco in 1961, many special people moved through my life. Some I met in the Work, others I met because of the Work, usually at special events — luncheons, lectures, and so on. Laurens van der Post, Carlos Casteneda, James Hillman, and Father Thomas Keating are only a few of the latter group who come to mind. There were many others, and many other remarkable men and women who had worked with Gurdjieff.

I heard Krishnamurti speak twice and feel fortunate to have witnessed his presence and clarity in person. I had a life-changing exchange with Muktananda in northern California, a special introduction and conversation with Chogyam Trungpa in San Francisco, and a surprisingly live connection with Lama Zopa. Also, more recently, through Jim, I have met the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa’s son along with several well-known Canadian persons of importance.

Even more important though are the people I’ve “grown up with” in the Work. There are maybe 150 people, in various locations, whom I know and care for — people I’ve worked with and now their children — and almost every one of them is remarkable.

All in all, so far, a rich outer life. As to the inner life, it is filled at best with many questions, and at worst with dreams of all that has gone before and that which will come later. But there’s always room for more.

No more questions … thank you!

Barbara less memory

Barbara Wright

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John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. In his latest book of essays called “Whistle While You Work,” he has combined consciousness studies with Canadian references. From time to time he reviews Work-related publications for this website.

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JAMES GEORGE’S NEW BOOK, REVIEWED BY JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO


The John Robert Colombo Page

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little-green-book

The Little Green Book on Awakening

A New Book by James George is Reviewed by John Robert Colombo

Barrytown / Station Hill Press is the imprint of a lively book publisher that has hitherto escaped my attention. This publishing company is located in the town of Barrytown in New York State’s historic Dutchess County, a comfortable distance north of New York City. The only surprising feature of Barrytown, besides hosting this lively publishing house, comes from the fact that the town, as small as it is, serves as the seat of the Unification Church’s Theological Seminary!

Here is how founders George and Susan Quasha describe their operation on the company’s website: “The mission of our Press is to seek out and publish exceptional, innovative, often ground-breaking works which challenge and expand conceptions of the possible by offering human alternatives in the arts, philosophy, alternative health and healing, eastern, western and shamanic spirituality, and social and ecological studies.”

The website arranges its numerous recent trade paperback publications in some thirty categories, ranging from Alternative Medicine to Women’s Issues. Here, almost at random but in alphabetical order, are the names of some of its leading authors: Paul Auster, George Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, John Cage, Robert Duncan, Clayton Eschelman, James Hillman, Anslem Hollo, Spencer Holst, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Osip Mandelstahm.

In listing these names, I find I almost neglected to mention the arresting name of the author of “Journey to the Ancestral Self.” Amazingly, the author’s name is … Tamarack Song! The catalogue describes Mr. Song in these words: “When Tamarack Song is not out communing with The Mother, it’s a pretty sure bet he’s either researching, writing, or talking about it. He and his family have a primitive Wigwam camp on a lakeshore in the Northern Wisconsin Forest.” And so on.

In the category of Poetry, there are original volumes by Cid Corman and Rosmarie Waldrop, and various reprints, including “America, A Prophecy,” an influential and important anthology edited by Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha (coincidentally the co-publisher), I was disappointed when I checked the category of Sexuality. I found it empty, blank, nada! A strange (and I hope temporary) lapse.

Featured in the category for Ecology & Environment is a reprint of James George’s “Asking for the Earth” (originally issued by Element in 1995) as well as a brand new book of his which bears the title “The Little Green Book on Awakening.” I will review this new title, after offering some background information on its author.

James George is a distinguished Canadian career diplomat. In the 1960s he held the posts of High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal. After taking early retirement from the Department of External Affairs, he has devoted his energies and talents to the causes of environmentalism and ecology. I see him as being “our ambassador to the world of values.”

He has been no armchair activist, for he is actively involved in a number of relevant undertakings. He is a founder of the Threshold Foundation and former President of the Sadat Peace Foundation. He served on the International Whaling Commission, and he led the Friends of the Earth’s international mission to Kuwait to assess the post-war environmental damage. Here are some other achievements and associations: Lieutenant-Commander, Royal Canadian Navy; Chairman, Harmonic Arts Society; founding member, Rainforest Action Network, etc.

At junctures throughout his life he studied with Dzogchen masters in India and with Madame de Salzmann in Paris. While in the Far East he befriended the present Dalai Lama, then as now in exile in Northern India, and the two became fast friends. The Tibetan leader contributed an introduction to his first book.

One of his lesser-known accomplishments in India was arranging for Canadian technicians to microfilm unique manuscripts that had been secreted out of Tibet. The microfilming was done at the High Commissioner’s official residence in Delhi, no less! This is one of the many interesting stories told by Mr. George in his earlier book “Asking for the Earth” (the one reprinted by the present publisher). I believe the incident deserves to be widely known, if only because it shows everyone – Mr. George, the Dalai Lama, the Canadian Department of External Affairs, the Government of India – in a good light … everyone, that is, except the Chinese government.

The author is now in his ninety-first year, tall and erect, hale and hearty, with a razor-sharp mind. He has not let his head of flocculent hair and his abundant beard, as white as Ivory Snow, to slow him down. He travels widely to meet with study groups throughout North America. His home base is the eyrie in a Toronto condominium which overlooks the Rosedale district of the city where he was born the year the Great War ended. He is one of the three “grand old men” of the Work in Canada, the two other men being scientist and humanist Ravi Ravindra and veteran film-producer Tom Daly.

At his side stands his wife, Barbara Wright, whom I like to call “dynamic” because she is a force to be reckoned with in her own right. She is a veteran of Group Work in San Francisco. It is a shame that the Work scene in Toronto is so fragmented – otherwise it would engage the full resources of this formidable couple.

Mr. George’s prose is more descriptive than dramatic, more explanatory than expressive, though it cannot be bettered for its clear, unencumbered, reasonable, and sturdy style. Chogyam Trungpa called him “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman.” Indeed, like the man, his writing is statesman-like: designed to convey a position, express conviction, allay doubts, and win friends. That is certainly the case with the prose of “The Little Green Book on Awakening.”

But before I describe the book’s contents, let me report on its physical appearance. It is a trade paperback, 5.5 x 8.5 inches, x+176 pages, ISBN 978-1-58177-112-1. It has a handsome cover that is green in colour – not to recall St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) but to celebrate Earth Day (April 12). It will be officially published to mark Earth Day. The list price is US $15.95.

Let me now qualify one point that I made above: that the “writing is statesman-like.” While that is true of the writing itself, the form that the prose takes in this book is that of the sermon. Here is a series of sermons or homilies rather than a sequence of essays or a succession of chapters of a book.

These are addresses that could be delivered to attentive and educated members of congregations in Anglican or Episcopal churches. The intent is high-minded, the tone is hortatory, and the anecdotes, insights, quotations, and references are such that they are meant to gently persuade audiences that the speaker knows and feels what is talking about and senses the urgency of his message.

And he does know his own mind, he is master of his message, and he is sincere. I have a few reservations about what he says – the reservations I have are mainly about what goes unsaid – but I am prepared to give Mr. George top marks for doing exactly what he has set out to do. If this book does not result in a multitude of converts to the cause of environmentalism, it will at least strengthen the resolve of the host of readers who were already converts.

In the title of the book, there is one word that gives me pause. That word is “little.” There is nothing little about this book. In fact, it is quite long, intelligently organized, seriously presented, and devoted to a subject of considerable, present-day importance. It is a “big” book the same way that “Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered” is a big book. I am referring to the influential work by E.F. Schumacher, the German-born, English economist and theorist, whose 1973 study did so much to supply a new, cultural context for the energy crisis that was then facing the Western world.

Mr. George is very much a latter-day Schumacher. who went on to publish “A Guide for the Perplexed” which places science and society in the context of the sacred. Schumacher was influenced by the thought of G.I. Gurdjieff; in a major way Mr. G.’s thoughts and practices are the underpinnings of Mr. George’s life and his work. It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that Mr. George wants to do for the ecology crisis what Schumacher did for the economic crunch of the 1970s.

If I am able to summarize this book in one word, that word is: “awakening.” But I can do better by summarizing it in six words: “awakening to consciousness and climate change.” This summary should come as no surprise to those people who know Mr. George who will read this book – or who are now reading this review of it.

As I read it, there kept reverberating in my mind that touchstone line of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “You must change your life.” The only point Mr. George might add is the following sense of urgency:”Thereafter you must change your world – and quickly!”

Rilke goes unquoted in these pages. Indeed, literature plays hardly any role in the arguments of this book, which is one way for me to make the observation that the role of the human imagination in the construction and deconstruction of the world – in its enchantment and disenchantment – is barely noted. Maya and sleep and illusion and imagination go hand in hand. The author uses other than literary arguments to make his points.

I think the book will be reassuring to those readers who wish to be reminded of the relevance of spiritual values to the salvation of souls, but more urgently perhaps to those vitally concerned with the precarious state of the world today, politically and ecologically. The natural world is being threatened as never before. The author’s vocabulary is contemporary and up-to-date – replete with references to “tipping points,” the brain’s “neuroplasticity,” Mother Teresa, Al Gore, Lester Brown, quantum physics, implicate order, Gaia, etc.

Allow me to compress the book’s arguments, to convey a sense of the ground that is covered. There are eighteen chapters, so here are eighteen sentences, one to summarize each chapter:

1. Our inner life and our outer life need to be reconciled through “the WAY of NOW.”

2. Man’s spiritual crisis is the root-cause of the social and environmental crises that today threaten all life-forms on our planet.

3. We are asleep to ourselves and our world; unless we awaken, we accomplish nothing.

4. Global warming threatens our very survival; we must reign in our self-serving selves.

5. The ecological crisis is at core a spiritual crisis.

6. Conscious evolution will occur through a coalition between thinking ecologically and thinking spiritually.

7. Only a sense of presence will “unbury” our conscience.

8. Science will have to develop a paradigm that allows for the evidence of scientific research along with the testimony of personal experience.

9. We need to release through inner work the potential powers of love, both affectionate and amative.

10. The ecological urgency, facing our generation in particular, is such that we have no fall-back position.

11. The grand evolution of consciousness in the cosmos requires on this planet the burgeoning of human consciousness.

12. The effects of global warming may be mitigated by efforts of international co-operation, inspired by an innovative thinker like Adam Douglass Trombly, a follower of R. Buckminster Fuller.

13. We must learn to be responsible for the problems we have created, and we should be aware of possible assistance from “off-planet cultures” identified with UFOs.

14. Scientific thinkers regard consciousness as a byproduct of man’s brain, whereas spiritual thinkers regard Consciousness as proof of the wholeness of man, nature, and the cosmos.

15. We have yet to appreciate that the field of Consciousness engulfs us all, a ground or plenum called by Ervin Laszlo “the Akashic Field.”

16. Real change follows recognition of the seven levels of Consciousness from the highest to the lowest.

17. There seems to be among mankind today an increasing acceptance of the paradigm of interconnectedness with the greater whole.

18. Yes we can, if we work together.

Then there is an epilogue about “awakening awareness” and the text of Al Gore’s 2007 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, followed by a reading list and a viewing list.

By reducing each chapter to a single sentence, I risk turning Mr. George’s arguments into a series of clichés, but I assume the reader will take my word for it that the expected conclusions are not haphazardly handled, but are intelligently (perhaps consciously) evolved, so that reading the book is rather like turning the pages of a primer or a handbook on the relationship between (very generally) state of mind-spirit and state of society-nature.

If there is a sentence that epitomizes the argument of the book as a whole it could well be this quotation from Mohandas K. Gandhi: “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for anyone’s greed.” If there is a problem that the book presents, it is the fact that while many desirable principles are stated, with intellectual backing and with a commendable sense of urgency, all the counter-arguments are absent.

Now I am not knowledgeable enough about ecological thought to have at my fingertips the counter-arguments of the nay-sayers to global warming – Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were always inviting scientific scoffers or critics of global warming to visit the White House – but their names (or more important their arguments) do not cross these pages.

Yet I do have at my fingertips the counter-arguments behind the intriguing chapter that deals with “off-planet cultures” identified with UFOs. The chapter opens with a well described account of the author’s experience (shared by one other person) at his cabin on McGregor Lake, Quebec, late summer of 2002. There they observed the play of a mysterious light in the night sky, a light that seemed to be responsive to their thoughts. Later, the chapter closes with the suggestion that there exist “Extra Terrestrials,” intelligent alien entities or powers that may be in communication with us, a form of extra-solar grace or baraka, I suppose.

Between the author’s personal account and his tentative conclusion, there is information about UFOs taken from public opinion polls, word-of-mouth, television producers, former Ministers of National Defence, etc. But there is no critical literature cited, despite the existence of interpretive studies of all aspects of the UFO phenomenon by astronomer Carl Sagan and other physicists, psychologists, and sociologists.

Indeed, the sense of interacting with a light, a big star, or a “circular craft” is not unknown in ufology – or in the literature of Polar exploration, where the Inuit and explorers have described how they felt themselves in communion with nocturnal lights that were responsive to their thoughts – they would snap their fingers and the lights would be extinguished, etc. Psychologists have reasoned explanations for such phenomena, and also for the sense of personal elation it generates.

I am pausing over this chapter, admittedly a personal and a speculative one, is because it illustrates how it is possible to advance agreeable positions without weighing the pros and the cons of the relevant research on the subject. Assertions are fine on their own, but only become super-fine when accompanied by reasoned argumentation.

That single qualification aside, “The Little Green Book on Awakening” should take its place on the shelves of books written by Schumacher, Eckhart Tolle, Barbara Ward, R. Buckminster Fuller, Jared Diamond, and Al Gore … not to mention the works about the Work.

There is an old Ontario folk-saying that I recall from my childhood. It goes like this: “Disaster precedes reform.” I hope that there are enough readers of “The Little Green Book on Awakening” so that it is not necessarily so.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist whose latest book is a collection of poems titled “A Far Cry.” This fall will see the publication of “The Big Book of Canadian Hauntings,” the companion to the already published “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.”

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