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APPROACHING INNER WORK: Opie’s study of Michael Currer-Briggs

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John Robert Colombo Reviews James Opie’s biographical study of Michael Currer-Briggs and the Gurdjieff Teaching

  Some books may be described in a relatively straight-forward fashion. Other books, not so easily summarized, require much foreground and background information before they may be appreciated at all. “Approaching Inner Work” falls into the latter category. It requires information up front. But before providing that information, permit me to describe the physical appearance of the book itself.

A handsome publication, “Approaching Inner Work” bears the subtitle “Michael Currer-Briggs on the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Its author, James Opie, is a long-time student of the Work. The publisher is Gurdjieff Books & Music, an imprint and a distributor for Work-related materials. It is located in Portland and operated by the Gurdjieff Foundation of Oregon. The website is < info@gurdjeiffbooksand music.com >. The trade paperback measures 5 inches wide by 7.5 inches high, and it has xii +148 pages. The ISBN is 978-0-615-47529-5. The text consists of thirty-eight short chapters of commentary and interview, followed by an Appendix and an Acknowledgments. If I may risk a pun, this volume “speaks volumes.”

 So much for the easy part. Now for the detailed part! First, the Author. Second, the Subject. Third, the Book.

The Author: James Opie

  The “Opie” name is a respected one in literary circles, especially for the contributions of the well-loved, husband-and-wife team of English folklorists, Peter and Iona Opie. But the Opies are (as “Time Magazine” used to say) “no kin” to James Opie who describes himself as “a merchant and writer.” He was born in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1939, and is a graduate of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Despite his birthplace and residence in Portland, Oregon, he has become a recognized authority on Persian tribal rugs and the origin of tribal rug motifs – both of which sound like demanding undertakings! His two books in the field are “Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia” (1982) and “Tribal Rugs: Nomadic and Village Weavings of the Near East and Central Asia” (1992). The latter title has been translated into French, Italian, and German.

 Opie was introduced to the Work in the mid-1960s when a musician friend loaned him a copy of “All & Everything.” He joined a group under the leadership of Donald Hoyt who became a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation under Lord Pentland and then served as president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California. Lord Pentland himself was Opie’s teacher from 1974 to 1988. For fourteen years Opie was associated with Annie Lou Staveley of “The Farm,” later “Two Rivers Farm.” Mrs. Staveley was a direct student of Gurdjieff in Paris during his last years and also an associate of Jean Heap in London. Opie is now involved with Gurdjieff Books & Music in Portland.

 It was while he was in Afghanistan dealing in rugs that Opie met Peter Brook and Madame de Salzmann who were in the midst of filming “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” On the set he also met Michael Currer-Briggs. Briggs is credited with being of material help at a critical point in the production of this major motion picture through his extensive contacts in the fields of film-making and finance. “Meetings” was released by Remar Productions (“remar” is short for “remarkable”) and Briggs was granted screen credit as the film’s executive producer.

The Subject: Michael Currer-Briggs

 Opie refers to him as “Mr. Briggs” but I will shorten his name even further by referring to him as “Briggs.” He was born in 1922 in Leeds, Yorkshire, and died in 1980 in London, England. Briggs made his reputation in television production in the United Kingdom. He is credited as producer or director of over sixty-five television productions, largely episodes of popular mystery series. These were telecast between 1955 and 1970, so British viewers of a certain age might cast their memories back to such popular fare as “Boyd Q.C.,” “ITV Television Playhouse,” “ITV Play of the Week,” “Fraud Squad,” “Aces of Wands,” and “The Mind Robbers.”

 Briggs reminds me of Fletcher Markle, the distinguished Canadian television personality, who was once married to the actress Mercedes McCambridge. Markle’s skills as producer and director overshadowed his abilities as creator and artist. In other words, Markle and perhaps Briggs excelled as “arrangers” or “packagers” of other men’s ideas. Unlike Briggs, Markle had no special interest in spiritual psychology.

These days Briggs is not remembered for those British series, but for his role as executive producer of “Meetings with Remarkable Men,” which was released in 1979, thirty years following Gurdjieff’s death and one year before Briggs’s own death. Briggs had a background in the Work that took root in London in the 1940s where and when he met Jane Heap. As the result of Opie’s book on him, Briggs will have, additionally, a future in the Work.

 The Book: Approaching Inner Work

 The text of the book consists of a series of short chapters which consist of Briggs’s commentaries on “inner work.” They are based on interviews conducted by Opie with Briggs over the last years of the latter’s life. There are thirty-eight of these and they cover a range of interests. Each chapter of commentary is titled, and some of these titles are straight-forward and descriptive (“John Bennett,” “Madame de Salzmann and a Question about Money”), whereas others are analytical and work-related (“Self-study and Seeing,” “Like and Dislike”). Overall they bring to mind – to my mind, at least – the “commentaries” that comprise Maurice Nicoll’s “Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky,” a much-neglected, five-volume work that is a gold-mine (I almost keyboarded “gold-mind”) of aspects of the Work which now seem to be called “inner work.”

These “commentaries” are Briggs’s words, taken from conversations and interviews that have been deftly edited and sensitively arranged by Opie to cover subjects of current and continuing interest. In a way the arrangement reminds me of a book of “table talk.” It begins with a rhetorical question posed by Briggs: ” … what can I do? What is it, precisely, that does not happen automatically, but requires my intentional efforts? Doing depends on intentionality. Intentionality depends on sincerity. It depends on the presence of I.” The book is in effect a meditation on these words.

 The friendship began in 1977 in Central Asia, aka Afghanistan, where Opie was pursuing his trade in Oriental rugs and Briggs was visiting the set of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” then being filmed by Peter Brook under the tutelage of Madame de Salzmann. It seems Briggs with his industry contacts had a hand in ensuring the flow of funds from Lord Pentland, President of the Gurdjieff Foundation, to the production crew, no simple matter. History has a habit of repeating itself. Some decades earlier, Briggs was among the first visitors to Gurdjieff in newly liberated Paris to arrive with cash (presumably the first payment of Gurdjieff’s oil-well royalties!).

 One night over dinner in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, Opie raised the subject of miracles. Briggs described them in terms of the two rivers or streams. “There are two fundamental streams, an automatic stream moving downward, toward multiplicity, and a conscious stream flowing upward, toward unity and the source of all life. Highly unusual experiences which seem to be miracles may involve merely, if one dares use that word, a lawful and transitory merging of the two streams at a particular point or event.”

Briggs gave an illustration of a “miracle” in terms of a carrot growing in a garden. To the carrot the appearance of the gardener is miraculous; to the gardener the appearance of the carrot is mundane. Points of view and levels of being are relevant to miracles. This novel illustration brought to mind P.D. Ouspensky’s example of the baked potato being more “intelligent” than the raw potato. The discussions between Opie and Briggs reverberate with references to be found in the canon of the Work. This particular conversation on the subject of miracles concludes with Briggs’s caveat: Because of “habitual patterns” of thought and feeling and response, he wrote, “I dare say ‘miracles’ have been the ruination of some people.”

Another caveat is based on the effectiveness of effort when based on full knowledge and complete understanding, and its ineffectiveness when based on faulty knowledge and limited understanding. “The exercise of listening to those who would build professional careers around certainty can be helpful. How misguided are those politicians and other public figures who wish to impress others with their certainty.” This can be very instructive, Briggs reminds Opie. “Initially, our work is not to change what is seen, but to open to a new quality of seeing, wherein we directly experience the force of automaticity in our reactions.”

These thoughts lead to a discussion of the differences noted by Madame de Salzmann between the servant and the slave. When we shirk our own burdens, we increase the loads that need to be carried by other people; when we shoulder our own, we lighten their burdens. Briggs states that we should not be overawed by the immensity of the known universe because it is matched by the unknown worlds within man. “Here our small physical size, as human beings, can be deceptive. Within us are many potential levels, many possible hierarchies. The universe is not altogether an outer arrangement.”

 Briggs has a bent for vivid imagery. He suggests that there should be founded a new organization called “The Society for the Study of Self-love and Vanity.” He suggests that this kind of odd-fellows group could bring untold benefits to its members. As an aside he explains, “This is precisely what Mr. Gurdjieff outlined in his description of a ‘real group,’ which, he said, represents an exceptional level of achievement.”

He then traced the subsequent history of this impulse and how, over the years, it would metamorphose into its opposite. “Viewed from the outside, the buildings housing the Society may grow more impressive. But inside the buildings, decade by decade, the teaching descends to a level that is all-too-human.” This section of the book – about the devolution of this society and the impulse behind it – is called “The Unusual Society.” Although it is only a few pages long, it includes more than I can easily convey here. In fact, each of the chapters is quite expressive of the modulated expression of genuine insights.

The chapter titled “Madame de Salzmann and the Question of Money” deals broadly with values and evaluations and quotes Madame as making a pointed observation. “If students of Mr. Gurdjieff do not make a film based on this appealing title – Meetings with Remarkable Men – someone else will surely do so. We would then have to live with the consequences.” It is in Kabul that Briggs takes Opie to meet the Madame (a little drama all its own) and “the need to prepare a real question.” They chat with her on the film set and at one point Madame says, “When you first come, you hear and repeat ideas, with limited understanding. Later the ideas begin to live in you, and you have real questions. Now, your interest is superficial. But in time, perhaps it grows.”

The subject of money is broached. Opie suggests the ability to make it is “dirty.” Madame disagrees. “Money, a talent for making money, is not a dirty thing. Money is the blood of society. Everything is touched by money, every relationship. No part of life is without this connection, and it brings reality to your life. When money is needed it is no longer just … idea.”

This chapter, although short, reminded me of the comprehensive talk that Gurdjieff delivered on the subject of “the Material Question.” It seems everything everywhere is material and that it really matters. Madame gives it a spin: “Your life has a pattern. You don’t see it yet, but little by little it begins to appear. Seeing the pattern of your life helps very much. If you work with a talent, it develops. Later you can teach what you have learned to someone else who stands where you stand now. Then, perhaps, you will go on to something else.”

 Briggs and Opie meet some months later at The Farm overseen by Annie Lou Staveley in Portland, Oregon. Here Briggs talked about the plan, subsequently abandoned, to cast some Work personalities as leading characters in the film. Apparently Henri Tracol was to play Father Giovanni. Briggs: “We attempted this briefly and the experiment totally failed. We saw that what each of these people had was their own. Nothing was acted. What they possessed, while genuine, was not what was needed. Films involve acting. Also, none of these senior people in the Work could take directions!”

 The next two chapters deal with the dangers inherent in the transmission of oral teachings and how the Work has proceeded following Gurdjieff’s death. Madame de Salzmann met with the leaders of the various groups and the influx of new followers and attempted to create a single approach. There were disputes. “These disputes could have disrupted relationships within and between groups. Madame de Salzmann listened more than she spoke, and, like Mr. Gurdjieff, became a still point in the center of activity. Her efforts with previously existing groups, with new centers, and with hundreds of individual members, helped clarify more advanced approaches to inner work.”

 The chapter titled “Roses and Thorns” looks at the opposites and how they must be accepted and how each person must accept responsibility. “Interest in this inner study begins to connect us with the stream of intentionality. At the outset, an impartial view of our manifestations may elude us. We have not yet learned to take the necessary step back to hear our own voices, to sense habitual bodily postures, or to experience repetitive emotional and mental patterns more immediately and viscerally. Others see much of this in us, but we do not. Yet, little by little, we begin to learn.”

Subsequent chapters consider the power of identification and the need for “self-study.” We must learn to distinguish between what is automatic and what is authentic. Briggs: “The primary change is the seeing and accepting what is seen, in the midst of our manifestations. Seeing without judging, with impartial interest, is a feature of consciousness and the stream of intentionality.” This is “a gift” that requires “preparatory work.”

“Wish and the Role of the Mind” is the first chapter in a series of chapters that deal with the role of “wish” (or “aim,” as it used to be called) in the Work. Gurdjieff’s words are quoted: “Wish can be the strongest thing in the world.” The role of man’s centres is discussed and Gurdjieff is quoted as saying that thoughts are “thinking in me.” The difference between justification and explanation is discussed.

Briggs: “When both my mind and feelings are identified with justifying or explaining, word-producing functions in the mind readily cooperate. But when there is real work to be done, this automatic part is silent. Will is called for, something intentional. A quite different part of the mind needs to appear.” Man is machinery. “Our work is to not attempt to withdraw from contact with this current. It is to learn, little by little, to relate to it with greater awareness.”

 “Emotions about emotions” is a new formulation for me and perhaps for some other readers as well. Briggs: “When my awareness of an emotion is sidetracked by an automatic reaction, by an emotion about the emotion, is it too late to work? For Jane Heap, it was never too late. We begin from precisely where we are. We come into awareness now, rather than waiting for a better moment, or the arising of more positive attitudes. Looking back at lost opportunities with regret rarely helps us. The moment to begin is now.”

A chapter is devoted to “the multiplicity of I’s” and it describes how during an afternoon Briggs assumed one identity after another, one set of responses after another set, with hardly a sense of any segues. He prefers or defers seemingly like an automaton, assuming one identity after another. Readers will find the experiences that he describes appropriate to their own everyday lives. What to do about this situation? “At every step we need peers …. Peers-without-quotation-marks can keep a person honest.”

“Risks in group work” is not the title of a chapter but it is the subject-matter of one interesting chapter, and it goes into detail about the tactics that people devise or evolve to deal with the natures of groups or schools and the natures of the people who attend them. “Jane Heap once said that Mr. Gurdjieff could see into the dark corners of all of us because he saw into all the dark corners in himself.” Briggs distinguishes between “remarkable attainments” and “unfortunate crystallizations.” At this juncture the role of “shocks” is discussed.

Here I felt the discussion was skating on thin ice, for Ouspensky had gone into much more detail, distinguishing, as he did, between the tramp and the lunatic. The former could not hold any single thought for any appreciable time while the latter could not entertain any thought but the one that currently obsessed him. However, Briggs does quote Gurdjieff: “Learn to like what ‘it’ dislikes.” There follows is a brief discussion of the role of “charm” and how it harms.

Students of the work will find the next two chapters to be of special interest – the chapter on Jane Heap of biographical and bibliographic interest, the chapter on Jean de Salzmann relevant to ongoing discussions of the drift or the direction taken by the Work since the 1960s. As Briggs explains, “Mr. Gurdjieff did not instruct Madame to continue everything in fixed and dogmatic ways. Her task was to sustain the clarity and expand the influence of the teaching, while helping relatively small numbers to experience a deepening inner engagement. Aside from exercises for beginning levels, such as you and I have discussed, Mr. Gurdjieff introduced approaches to silent work to a few people who had been with him for many years, and to others he considered prepared for this work. First among these was Madame de Salzmann.”

As Briggs expresses it, Asian teachings were making inroads in the West. “Madame de Salzmann needed to understand and assess these new influences in Western culture in relation to the Gurdjieff teaching, even as she responded to the demands of her special role. She never resisted speaking with teachers of established traditions, even traveling to meet them in their own institutions and behaving externally not as a teacher, but as a student. But the course of her work had been set long before, by Mr. Gurdjieff.” Elsewhere it is said that Madame attended the Bollingen lectures on Jung’s thought at Ascona and even journeyed to Cairo to meet the Traditionalist thinker René Guenon.

 Quite enjoyable are occasional references to Mrs. Staveley and the chapter devoted to the scalawag Fritz Peters. Briggs quoted Jane Heap on the latter personality: “In and out of groups, personal qualities are often mistaken for sincerity and truth.” A later chapter considers the special case of John Bennett, despite Briggs’s feeling that “it was difficult to discuss a figure possessing such useful skills, a great storehouse of intensity, and, from the viewpoint of those whom he influenced, a special and profound understanding of the Gurdjieff teaching.”

Bennett is seen as a man who placed “action” before “self-questioning” and risked the inadvertent mingling of all the traditions with which he was familiar with whatever one was at hand. Willem Nyland is also discussed. Had Nyland “gone off on his own” or had the rest of the followers “left the path”? As Briggs had little first-hand knowledge of Nyland, the point is not pursued.

 The chapter oddly titled “Rolling the Triangle” refers to the Law of Three, in general to the Active, Passive, and Neutralizing principles, with specific references to the Three Centres in man. Jane Heap introduced the notion to Briggs who explained how the “triangle” is “rolled” in the sense that each “role” is changed or rotated to create other bodily impressions through attention and wish. He concludes, “Inside us, potentially, are many orders of triangles.”

Later chapters refer to E.J. Gold, Idries Shah, Jan Cox, and Alex Horn, who tried to take the Work or at least its followers in directions of their own devising. A chapter is devoted to the so-called Fellowship of Friends led by Robert Burton. At one time his followers were dubbed “the bookmark people” because they were tasked to visit metaphysical bookstores and insert their own bookmarks into copies of books by Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and kindred writers. The bookmarks (handsomely produced; I own a couple) list telephone numbers of local groups. If there are still “bookmark people,” their bookmarks probably now include websites and email addresses. Briggs is surprisingly long-suffering and philosophical about these leaders and their groups: “Possibly a few people in centers led by such people sense something wrong and then look for more reliable sources.”

 The chapter “The Yen to Teach” is one of the few discussions of the role of the teacher or group leader that I have encountered, and it considers the responsibilities that leadership entails and the misconceptions that it generates. The discussion is brief but Briggs quotes a suggestive insight from his own teacher Jane Heap: “When you grab hold of something too tightly you press your own fingerprints into it.”

 The chapter “Our Final Face-to-Face Exchange” and the next one titled “Letters” describe Briggs’s failing health before he succumbed to cancer in England. They also include Opie’s importuning for guidance on how to regard the various centres, how they should relate to one another – not man’s inner centres, but the Work centres in the United States and in London and Paris. There was also what might be called the changing nature of the Work, or at least the change in direction or emphasis initiated by the Paris centre.

Briggs takes a long-range view of the effects of time and tide. “Few realize how much the Work moved during Gurdjieff ’s time in Europe in so far as he changed the way of passing on the Ideas a number of times. One period was all Movements, another his period of writing, another the intense work at the Prieuré, another work with very small groups, another a period of preparation during the war, and the last a period when in his declining years he himself had no more need and only cared for the people who came to him for their own sakes.”

Such changes or interchanges require greater efforts at cohesion. “Now we are coming to face a loneliness, where we have to take the responsibility, we have to draw closer together. This can only be done by exchange – by sharing – by watching – by remembering – in true openness. Relaxed and free and clear in our heads and hearts. What we do now we must do together and not alone. We are too weak to go it alone.”

The last chapters describe some of the ways in which Opie’s own life was affected by his friendship and fellowship with Briggs. Through Briggs, Opie grew close to Lord Pentland before the leader’s death in 1984. Then there is the almost elegiac sense that for efforts to take effect people must work together. This is expressed most clearly in one of the last letter that Pentland addressed to Opie: “I begin to see more clearly and without judgment or hostility that there is some chief weakness in our minds, in each of us, which so far we have all failed to conquer and that the Work’s future really does hang on some of us facing and sharing this individual difficulty with each other.”

It is reported that Briggs’s dying words were appropriate: “It’s all one.” And Opie’s book “Approaching Inner Work” is a work that is all of one piece. I have quoted substantially from the book, principally Briggs’s words and not Opie’s, because the latter is more than willing to step back to grant his subject the main speaking part. The book is very readable, very agreeable. In its pages I found a few facts and formulations new to me, and they may be new to other readers as well, but the principal value of this book lies not so much in what it reveals as in the demonstration of the fact that “inner work” continues, as long as we ask, in a heartfelt way, “What can I do?”

 

 

 John Robert Colombo, a Toronto-based author and anthologist, is mainly known for his work in the field of Canadiana. But he has a long-standing interest in mysteries and the paranormal. His forthcoming book (from Dundurn Group) is called “Jeepers Creepers” and it consists of fifty told-as-true paranormal experiences of Canadians with psychological commentaries. He is an occasional reviewers of books about the Work for this blogsite. For information on Colombo’s other books, or to be alerted to the appearance of forthcoming reviews and commentaries, email him at his website: < www. colombo. ca > .

Sufism and the Way of Blame: Azize review

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Joseph Azize Book Review

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Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology, Yannis Toussulis, with a forward by R.A.H. Darr,

Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois and Chennai, India

(264 pp. including glossary and bibliography).

This is an important book: it is the most accessible serious living study of Sufism I have read since Reshad Feild’s The Last Barrier, which features Feild’s teacher Bulent Rauf (under the pseudonym “Hamid”). I say “living” study, because it strikes me that its chief aim is not so much to “detail the relationship between Sufism and the controversial way of blame”, as the preface might indicate, as it is to communicate some taste of the life of contemporary Sufism. Toussulis achieves this when he presents the interview in chapter 8 with Mehmet Selim Öziç Bey, which demonstrates that there exists in today’s Sufism a beneficent and tolerant spiritual dimension which is suited to the needs of the time. The rest of the book could be considered as background, setting the stage for this interview. Bey is the only living successor, of Mahmut Sadettin Bilginer (p. 150), while Toussulis is Bey’s pupil (a photograph of them can be found at http://www.sufism.org/society/album/selim.html). Bilginer, in turn, was the youngest son of Haci Maksud Hulusi, a Naqshbandi shaykh who was initiated by Pir Nur Al-Arabi (140). On Toussulis’ account, Pir is the pivotal figure in the modern development of the malamatiyya, which is a way of referring to those who follow the way of blame. As Toussulis states, Pir exemplified the “adaptability of Sufism and Islam to contemporary conditions” (118). The icing on the cake, as it were, is appendix 1, the eight page Risala i Salihiyya or “Testament of the Righteous” by Pir himself, translated by Öziç and Darr.

 

The entire book, therefore, builds up to presenting the formidable figures of Pir and Öziç. Toussulis makes no small claims for them, especially for Pir. Before his death in 1888 (136), Pir Nur Al-Arabi declared that he was a qutb or “pole” (134), meaning that he was the spiritual axis of his own time, at least as far as some Sufis are concerned. Toussulis believes, reasonably enough, that this was critical in his attempt to “unify all the malamatiyya under his own direction” (134). The significance of this appears from chapter 7 of the “Testament”, where Pir writes that the highest station (or “achievement”) possible for anyone is that of qutb. Pir writes of this station: “… I am neither able to explain it, not can you grasp it through anything I might say of it. This station is called ahadiyya al-ayn, or the Station of Muhammad. This station belongs to the Pole of the Age (al-qutb al-zaman). … We are prohibited from striving for it. However, if the Prophet of Allah personally initiates us, it can be tasted, Otherwise it is impossible.” (This passage at 216 is also dealt with and interpreted at 191-192 in the text). {“Ahadiyya al-ayn” literally means “oneness or unity of eye” and “oneness or unity of essence”; the word “3ayn” (the 3 indicates an Arabic letter without European equivalent) means “eye”, “spring”, “source”, “essence”, etc.}

 

The deepest rationale is to present Öziç and his teaching, at least so far I can discern. This is not simply an academic study for Toussulis. His web site states that he: “is the current director of The Center for Human Inquiry in Emeryville, California where he teaches and conducts research in the practice of cross-cultural negotiation, leadership skills, and contemplative practices. … (he) combines academic qualifications … with practical expertise gained from his thirty-year long experience in Mental Health Services. (He) conducts a separate private practice as a family psychotherapist … http://resume.itlaqfoundation.com/Resume.html. So he is an interesting character and is attempting to take his Sufism into areas of broader life where it can have an effect on people who are not themselves Sufi. As I have often said in this blog, I think that more “esotericists” should be making this effort.

 

But the book attempts to also project a new picture of the relationship between Sufism and the way of blame. In doing so, it aims to reconfigure our picture of what we might expect to find within Islam (along with those elements more in the public eye). The book is both a scholarly study and an accessible account of one aspect of modern Sufism. It therefore combines readability with a solid, directed focus. Unlike most scholarly works on Sufism, it is not too dry; and unlike most popular books on Sufism, it is not too weak on content. There is still profound knowledge in certain areas of modern Sufism: and Toussulis has managed to convey something of this.

 However, the heart of it really is the interview, and sadly, I don’t feel that I can do that justice without lengthy quotes. It means that the review will be a little lopsided, but there are other issues I can cover where I think other reviewers are less likely to speak, and so, while stressing the book’s value and the significance of the interview with Bey, I shall pass on to four matters: Toussulis’ treatment of Sufism in general, of three modern mavericks (Gurdjieff, Schuon and Shah), of the way of blame, and the title.

 

Sufism 

Toussulis states that: “The core of Sufism … is to discover one’s non-existence in the face of something more convincingly real” (6). This is a plausible interpretation, but of course, it is very vague: this is true of other systems. Also, I find “non-existence” more misleading than phrases such as “inchoate reality”, or even “relative” or “uncompleted”, because it is not right to say that we don’t exist. But it is true to say that we don’t exist as we could. So, what is specific to Sufism? Toussulis does not address other philosophies and systems, and when he speaks of Gurdjieff, he wrongly sees him as a Sufi of sorts, so Toussulis does not answer this question. If I could garner an answer from this book, it would probably be the Islamic dimension makes Sufism specific, especially, perhaps the position of Muhammad (who features prominently as a visitor in dreams and visions, a matter which I find unhappily redolent of Leadbeater and the “masters”).

 

I think that there’s a problem with Toussulis’ definition of Sufism: as he very correctly states: “… Sufism is a multiplex phenomenon and … the essence of Sufi spirituality can never be fully examined outside of its varying interpretations and sociohistorical contexts” (8, a point he makes again at 31 and 36). This being so, one cannot really speak of the core of Sufism, but only of the core of a particular strand of Sufism. If Toussulis can see an anomaly here, he does not directly deal with it. This brings me to what I perceive as the major weakness in Toussulis’ treatment of Sufism: I do not accept that “Sufism” is a homogenous entity, although everyone speaks about it as if it were. I doubt that it is even as coherent a phenomenon as “socialism”, for example. Indeed, it seems to me that “Sufism” is as often as not a misleading term. Some Sufis are little more than Islamic-political groupings, and others are effectively magician/exorcists within Islam. Some Sufis, on the other hand, cannot really be called Muslim at all: Frithjof Schuon whom Toussulis seems to see through but fails to expose (20), was one. Other Sufis are genuine mystics, and so on. All that these various Sufis have in common is the name. To think that all Sufis, sharing the one name, must share some essential quality is to believe in words.

 

Our ignorance does not end there. Although Toussulis is of the view that “Sufism is … rooted in, and shaped by Islamic thought” (201), the fact of the matter, at least as I see it, is that we do not know the true origins of Sufism. “Sufism” is a congeries of currents: each must be separately studied. Some – even most – Sufis are rooted in and shaped by Islamic thought, but not all. Attempts to locate Sufi origins within Islam are tendentious: many dogmatically declare this to be so. Even Hans Küng, in his study of Islam, accepts the standard line. But the Muslim accounts of the origins of Sufism are late, and even these associate it with characters such as “Suleiman the Persian” (note that he bears a Jewish/ Christian name and hails from outside Arabia) and other mysterious personages. Attempts to link Muhammad with Sufism are simply unpersuasive. Too much which is well-established about Muhammad tells against this. I do not believe that a mystic could have massacred the Jewish tribe of the Qurayza, as Muhammad did. True, I have a particular view of what is involved in mysticism, and I should be prepared to be surprised: but I am not prepared to be that surprised, Gurdjieff’s puzzling view of Muhammad notwithstanding. Julian Baldick amongst others sees Isaac of Nineveh and Syriac Christianity as having been instrumental in the origin of Sufism. I have some sympathy with their position, but although his Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism, easily demonstrates that historical strands of Sufism have owed tremendous debts to extra-Islamic sources, such as shamanism, he does not demonstrate Isaac’s influence. As matters stand today, we do not know what the origins of Sufism were. We can only describe various people and movements who either called themselves Sufis or were called that by others. However, the type of Sufism I find interesting is the type which is not exclusively Muslim. One of Toussulis’ chief goals is to promote this Sufism. For his treatment of Sufism and Islam, and the possibility of “supraconfessionalism” where Muslims and Christians combine in one Sufi order, refer to pp. 42, 116-117, 132, 149, 187-189 and 202-203.

 

Three Mavericks: Gurdjieff, Schuon and Shah

 

Unfortunately, Toussulis is not a historian, and his account if Gurdjieff is flawed. The bibliography lists only one book by Gurdjieff (Meetings) and none by Ouspensky. Without reading Gurdjieff’s own material, especially Beelzebub and (for the practical side) the lectures in Life Is Real, with Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, it is not possible to have a sound idea of Gurdjieff’s ideas. Toussulis relies too much on Moore, who while competent and confident, is not always reliable. If one is to use Moore, one should have regard to Taylor’s New Life, which corrects most of Moore’s errors, but Toussulis does not.

 

Even so, some of Toussulis’ mistakes cannot be laid to Moore’s account. Toussulis states that the film of Meetings opens with “the young Gurdjieff traveling throughout the Near East with a group called the ‘Seekers of Truth’ (44). But when it opens Gurdjieff is with his father: the Seekers come sometime later. The Babylonian period does not date to “ca. 2500 BCE” (45): it is at least 700 years later. Gurdjieff did not assume “that all of humanity was gradually evolving into a new form of consciousness” (49). In fact, I have no idea how this idea comes to be associated with Gurdjieff. I see no similarity between Gurdjieff’s idea of a “unified I”, and anything in Freud (50). Gurdjieff did not say that there are “seven form of self” (51). However, he did give a seven-fold definition of man (Miraculous 71-73) which is not at all “directly derived” from the Sufi maqamat: Gurdjieff’s concern is with entirely different categories. Toussulis affirms a Sufi origin for some but not all of Gurdjieff’s movements (46). I will grant that point for the Mevlevi turning, and that he called some of his movements dervishes, but the strange thing is that no dervishes are known to have used them. I would like to see some evidence, for the “dervishes” and especially for the Obligatories, the most basic movements of all.

 

The assertion that Ouspensky grafted Theosophical ideas into Gurdjieff’s system (48) is baffling. Ouspensky was a purist. He meticulously noted where ideas he taught came from other sources. The only significant examples of this I know are his use of the Philokalia and his idea of recurrence. Neither of these are “theosophical”. In fact, Ouspensky was an arch-critic of Theosophy, having good words for very few of their productions. It is unfairly dismissive, to say that “Madame de Salzmann, Madame Ouspensky and others continued to spread remnants of the method” (58). What does Toussulis mean by of “remnants” of the method? Toussulis implies a sort of second-rate blind continuation of a barely understood legacy. I am far from being an uncritical admirer of de Salzmann, but this is cavalier treatment of someone who, from what I can see, had understood Gurdjieff as well as anyone else and better than most. To my mind, these women were towering figures.

 

Toussulis described Shah as “hardly an impostor” (56). Then, why does he provide some good grounds (54, 57 and 59) to say that Shah was fully a fraud? Even on Toussulis’ account, Shah comes across as deeply cynical and miracle-mongering. Unfortunately, after Gurdjieff’s death, Bennett was in a very emotional state, and already disposed to believe that “all his geese were the Archangel Michael” as he said once, and so he was vulnerable to Shah’s impostures. But this line is rather sad: the real shame is that Gurdjieff and Shah are tangential to Toussulis’ central point. He could, and should, have left them out, and said more about Pir and his direct predecessors and successors. The deeper reason, perhaps, for Toussulis’ interest in Gurdjieff is that – it seems to me from the slender indications in this book – that Toussulis came to Sufism through reading Bennett (63).

 

But Gurdjieff is not within Toussulis’ areas of expertise. Toussulis does not refer to Random’s essay on Gurdjieff and the way of blame in Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections. The lure of including Gurdjieff and making the book more comprehensive led Toussulis astray, and more is the shame.

 

I am also puzzled by Toussulis’ take on Schuon and his Maryamiyya. In Sufism: Veil and Quintessence, if I remember correctly, Schuon makes the most extraordinary blatantly racist comments about the “rich poverty” of Islam and Semites in general as contrasted with Aryans (if you can believe it!), and, as I recall it, rather casually made a defamatory remark about Semitic spirituality. I do not have my library with me, but when I read that, I felt that he had to be unbalanced, at least. What I later learned about the “sacred nudity” of the Maryamiyya, vouched to me by someone who had been a member of that movement, confirmed my opinion. Incidentally, a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation once told me, at least a trifle amused, that S.H. Nasr had expostulated to her when she asked a question about Schuon, that Schuon was “most certainly the predecessor of the Mahdi”. This makes me wonder how sincere Nasr can be in saying that the tariqa or spiritual way can be reached only through the shari’ah or Islamic law (21). Nasr must know that this is untrue.

 

The Way of Blame

Toussulis presents a new picture of the way of blame. He basically sees it as that aspect of Sufism where one is prepared to be critical of oneself. He summarises Ibn al-Arabi as follows:

 

malamatis … were called blameworthy because their rank, or spiritual station, did not reveal itself. They did not appear different from ordinary people because they did not make a show of religious devotion, nor did they crave any miraculous powers. Instead, they remained focused on removing the slightest taint of egoism from themselves. … they “blamed”, ceaselessly critiqued their own egocentricity for obscuring their access to God” (41, see also 73, 82, 84, 113 and 189).

 

The idea that all malamatis were heterodox and performed shocking or socially unacceptable acts is noted (84), but Toussulis explains why that is not true of all the movement. I found that very interesting, especially the role of Hallaj in this (79), but I am not convinced. Material available on Wikipedia, states that: “According to Annemarie Schimmel, ‘the Malāmatīs deliberately tried to draw the contempt of the world upon themselves by committing unseemly, even unlawful, actions, but they preserved perfect purity of thought and loved God without second thought’ (Schimmel 86). Schimmel goes on to relate a story illustrative of such actions: ‘One of them was hailed by a large crowd when he entered a town; they tried to accompany the great saint; but on the road he publicly started urinating in an unlawful way so that all of them left him and no longer believed in his high spiritual rank’ (quoted in Schimmel 86).” The book the anonymous Wikipedia refers to is Schimmel’s classic Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The quote is one that I more or less remembered, because, I cannot see that Gurdjieff – or Toussulis’ teachers – fall within just that tradition.

 

So, how do we reconcile the two? If the way of blame is nothing but being prepared to be critical of oneself, it differs from no other religious system. Every religious and spiritual system demands self-understanding, although how they express this may differ (examination of conscience, etc.). In the end, it seems to me that we’re speaking about two different things, but calling both of them the way of blame. In this respect, Toussulis’ treatment is similar to his approach to Sufism. The new theory of the way of blame is interesting, but too weak to cover all the people assigned to it.

 

Incidentally, I have never been convinced of Hallaj’s spiritual understanding, and it is typical of Toussulis’ strengths that he feels the need to balance out some of Hallaj’s extreme statements (bottom 80). That is, the common idea of “union with God without distinction” is not the whole truth. As Toussulis states, there is a necessary separation of the individual from God both before and after these experiences. I am surprised that Toussulis attributes this sensible and accurate qualification to Muhammad, and disappointed that he provides no reference for this. In reality, as Gurdjieff said, there is no complete and true union with God, although I can well imagine that – as Gurdjieff said – daydreaming associated with intense work of the emotions may produce a sensation of “cosmic consciousness” (Miraculous 116).

 

The Title

I am not sure about the subtitle. No spiritual psychology emerged with real clearness, at least not to my mind. There are references to the many selves and to human faculties, but these are not major themes. It could have been subtitled “spiritual visions” with as much if not more justice. Neither were the sources really “hidden” so much as abstruse.

 

There are hidden sources for Sufism, but this book does not refer to them, and I think that one has to respect their decision to remain hidden, and not publicize them.

 

A miscellaneous point: there are some minor errors, for example, on p. 19 Schuon died in 1984 while on the next page he died in 1998, the accurate date. Falcons will find typos on pp. xx, 11, 91, 131, 137, 189, 191 and 205.

 

Conclusion 

As I have said, the book is the best work on Sufism I have read in a very long time. Toussulis aims to, and succeeds, in presenting an attractive and stimulating picture of the modern strand of Sufism to which he belongs. But Toussulis’ strength is making positive statements. His is not a particularly discriminating intellect, and when he deals with people like Shah and Schuon, he seems to feel that if he is intellectually critical, this will mean that he is giving in to negative emotion. But this is not so: as Ouspensky correctly said, we have so many negative emotions because we do not have a sufficiently negative attitude to them. If someone suggests rape, pillage and murder, the only sane response is robustly negative. So, too, Toussulis has not, in my opinion, sufficiently critiqued the materials before him.

 

Sufism is not a unity, in any sense of the term. And Toussulis has all the knowledge needed to see this, but he does not sufficiently follow through his own research and findings. The same issue means that he does not see that the way of blame is not a unity: which has the unfortunate result that, in the weakest chapter of the book, he wrongly assigns people like Gurdjieff to it, when it would be better if he left the “mavericks” out and told us more about Turkish Sufism, and covered people like Rauf and Feild.

Joseph Azize (Joseph.Azize@gmail.com)

 

 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.

 

SOME THOUGHTS ON HENRI TRACOL


John Robert Colombo considers the Frenchman’s life and work


I have a confession to make about a silly little habit that I have. I like to discover the meaningful anagrams that are based on common words and peoples’ names. By rearranging their letters, I am able to change their meanings and associations. For instance, the motto on my coat-of-arms reads “Alert.” Anagrammed, the letters spell out two different words. These are “Later” and “Alter.” They may or may not shed light on my resolve to be “alert”!

Since I discovered the presence of the free “anagram generators” on the World Wide Web, I have spend less time “generating” anagrams than I once did, with the result that now I have the time to anagram more words and names! What is gained on the swings is lost on the slides.

I have long had a fascination with the name Henri Tracol. It seems so neat! Those four syllables and eleven letters look and sound so straight-forward, yet they are memorable for a number of reasons. In fact, once seen or heard, they are unlikely to be forgotten. In this way, by all reports, they resemble the man. In short, I have always felt that the Frenchman was well and intriguingly named.

I am not aware that the word “tracol” has a specific meaning in the man’s native language, but once I had anagrammed his name, I found out that it harbours a number of associations. The letters HENRI TRACOL spell out innumerable anagrams – more than one thousand of them in English alone; additional ones may be available through a French-language anagram generator. Here are four of the better English anagrams, ones that “make sense.”

Henri Tracol bulks large in the world of anagrams for he is either a CHARTER LION or a NICER HARLOT. (To be frank, these two anagrams seem to me to be non-starters, given the man’s retiring nature!) Yet there are two other anagrams over which I will pause, and these are REAL CORINTH and LINEAR TORCH. Could these words be meaningful in the circumstances. Let us see if they could.

First are the words REAL CORINTH. Whenever I think of Corinth I think of the Greek port city, second only to Athens in importance, and I recall that its inhabitants had pagan ways, which persisted well into the Christian era, as was evident in their appetite for a sense of fashion and for displays of wealth.

What also comes to mind are the First and Second Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. These are letters of instruction that Paul (or someone calling himself Paul) addressed, more specifically, to the members of the Christian church of Corinth. As epistles, now scriptures, they are suitably obscure, fraught with numerous mysteries and multiple meanings. The first epistle is the source of such memorable phrases as “through a glass darkly” and “when I was a child, I spoke as a child.”

The second epistle, although less obscure, is reprovingly moral. Its message seems to be: “Christians, let there be no backsliding!” Together these letters comprise the seventh and eighth books of the New Testament. Christianity would be different had they been lost or never written on parchment. So, in brief, the letters of “Henri Tracol” bring to mind the REAL message for CORINTH, which I take to be the need to be aware and to be aware of one’s limitations.

Second are the words LINEAR TORCH. We speak about passing the “torch of learning” from generation to another, or of carrying the “Olympic torch” from one place to another. There is a sense in which Henri Tracol is passing along a “torch,” one ignited by G.I. Gurdjieff, and that he is doing so in a linear or direct fashion; nothing here is helter-skelter. It is not “everything for everybody,” but chosen things for the select few. So it is but a short step to describe his message as a “linear torch.” Henri Tracol is indeed a torch-bearer.

So much for my taste for anagrams. I also have a taste for the writings of Henri Tracol. Having “a taste of things” – or “the taste for things” – is an expression that is never far from the man’s lips.

In his day, Henri Tracol (1909-1997) wore a rack of many hats. He died thirteen years ago and today is fondly remembered as one of the leading French follower of Gurdjieff. By profession, he was a photographer and a journalist. He sold articles and news photographs to popular magazines like Vu. Like so many other free-thinking journalists in the 1930s, he filed field-reports from Spain. It seems he was an anthropologist, as well, and wrote reports on conditions in South America for the Musée de l’Homme. For some time he was married to Henriette H. Lannes, Madame Lannes, the leader of the Work in England. In his free time he devoted himself to an early love, sculpture.

But he had little free time at his disposal, for he spent ten years in the company of G.I. Gurdjieff. With the latter’s death in 1949, he became one of the leaders of the French group, working with Madame de Salzmann and other senior members. He assisted in the French translations of Gurdjieff’s writings. He had a strong influence on many students of the work, including biographer James Moore. Tracol was eventually appointed director of the l’Institute G.I. Gurdjieff, the first of the four member bodies of the International Association of The Gurdjieff Foundations, the other groups being those in London, New York, and Caracas.

The photographs of the man that are reproduced in the literature of the Work are head-and-shoulder shots and give no indication of his height and weight. I judge him to be a short person of slight build. In those photographs, his facial features appear to be emaciated, and his physiognomy brings to mind the head of an ostrich or that of a giraffe. I do not mean any disrespect: ostriches and giraffes have big eyes and presumably see much and miss little.

A number of the man’s talks have been transcribed, collected, and published in book form. I would call them “pure gold” except for the fact that the contributions of Henri Tracol (along with those of his colleagues Solange Claustres and Jean Vaysse) represent the “platinum standard” of writings in, from, of, within, or about the Work.

If someone, somewhere, has compiled a list of Tracol’s publications in French and in English, I have yet to see that list. Here is my make-shift bibliography for books in English and French (with a few other items thrown in). I have copies of a few of these publications in my study.

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: Man’s Awakening and the Practice of Remembering Oneself. Bray, England: The Guild Press, 1977. [This publication is so short – a mere nineteen pages in length – it is presumably the text of a talk by Tracol.]

Rencontre avec deux hommes remarquables. Paris: Stock, 1979. [Meeting with Two Remarkable Men. The men are Gurdjieff and Oscar Ichazo The contributors include Jeanne de Salzmann and Tracol.]

Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? Paris: Editions Pragma Vers, 1983. [Why do you sleep, Lord?] The title is based on the question posed in Psalm 44: 23: “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?” Enlarged and reissued as La vraie question demeure (Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996).

La vraie question demeure. Paris: Editions Eoliennes, 1996. [The real question remains] Enlarged and reissued edition of Pourquoi dors-tu seigneur? (1983).

Lord, Why do you Sleep [Expanded as The Real Question Remains (Wind Publishing, 1996).]

The Taste for Things that Are True: Essays and Talks by a Pupil of G.I. Gurdjieff. Shaftsbury, England: Element Books, 1994.

The Real Question Remains: G.I. Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Paris: Aeolian, 1996. [Preface by Jacques Lacarrière]

Buscador de Nacimiento – La llamada de G.I. Gurdjieff. Caracas, Venezuela: Caracas, 1999. [Wikipedia offers through Google Translate an oddly affecting if slightly ungrammatical translation of Spanish bookseller’s description of this book, presumably based on the original publisher’s catalogue copy. It goes like this: “It is a compilation of articles, interviews, conferences and exchanges in the group comprising more than 50 years time. Displays the hard work of a man to look sharp and bright, which above all is required to unravel and shred the apparent until closer to what lies behind, what is vital, always with humility, without ever conclusively boast about their discoveries. “The teacher (Gurdjieff) inherited a rigor that faculty had nothing, but it opened to a requirement of truth.” Life, by vocation, a real search, the man, a form of birth.]

The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call. Sandpoint, Indiana: Morning Light Press, 2009. [This edition is discussed below.]

In addition to these books, the texts of a handful of talks delivered by Tracol over the years to select groups have been translated into limpid English and published in Parabola and The Gurdjieff Review. The text of a major address appears in James Moore’s Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (N.Y.: Continuum, 1996). In one of these contributions Tracol has set forth his belief that “what is unique in any path of spiritual search is its own particular way of approaching and perceiving reality. And this teaching offers us a feeling of just that: something which goes beyond suggested forms of experience and investigation.”

He has further noted of the Work that “it also allows the individual to discover and realize certain hidden possibilities, by means of simultaneous and coordinated engaging of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities toward a voluntary concentration upon the struggle which takes place within the self between one’s positive and negative tendencies.”

At last I am on firm footing because I am now in a position to describe the latest book, which is certainly his best single work in English. It is called “The Real Question Remains: Gurdjieff: A Living Call.” I find the subtitle and the sub-subtitle to be a little awkward, in English anyway, but that is about all that is awry with this book. The translators have made extra-human efforts to catch the man’s way of speaking and his insights and outlooks.

A trade paperback published by Morning Light Press in 2009, it measures 5.50″ x 7. 75″ and has xiv + 228 pages. Alas, the book is glued rather than sewn – unlike the Dolmen Meadow edition of the correspondence of René Daumal, which I reviewed recently, which is well sewn – but it is easy on the eyes and a pleasure to hold in one’s hands. (Morning Light Press’s website offers further details.)

The text consists of a Preface, an Introduction, a Foreword, and an Editor’s Note – and while this may seem a little excessive, each of these elements is informative – plus the texts of twenty-six short talks (some of which end in question-and-answer sessions). The texts are thematically presented in five sections: Disillusion and Dissatisfaction; Studies and Questions on Culture and Traditional Perspectives; The Discovery of a Teaching; An Afterword; The Real Question Remains. The book concludes with Notes (five pages of sources and notations).

Where did these talks first appear? A note on the copyright page answers that question. The majority of the talks first appeared in “Pourquoi dors-tu Seigneur?” published by Editions Pragma in 1983. The text of that book was translated as “The Taste for Things That Are True” issued by Element in 1994. Also included are portions of “Further Talks, Essays and Interviews” issued by The Guild Press in 2003, as well as selections from the columns of the periodical “Parabola.” Tracol’s texts are being lovingly collected and recycled.

It is good to have so much material between the two covers of a single book that is in print as an affordable paperback. Here there is, as the saying goes, “material for thought.” In a short review it is impossible to do this work justice, and Tracol does not help the reviewer, for he is in no way a flashy writer. In fact, he is not much of a stylist at all, certainly no literary artist like René Daumal. Nor is he much of a philosopher or historian, though he is something of a sociologist.

As an inveterate quoter, I find myself lost in his fields of words. Very seldom does he find or even search for the “bon-mot.” (No bon-bons for him!) Instead, he is a thinker and a feeler. You can almost feel him thinking as he is speaking or writing, and he does have a distinctive voice: curiously hesitant yet surprisingly assertive.

Gurdjieff in “Meetings with Remarkable Men” talks about Brother Sez and Brother Ahl. The sermons of these travelling monks affect their audiences in decidedly different ways. Listeners stand in awe when Brother Sez speaks, but thereafter remember nothing of what he has been saying. But when Brother Ahl speaks, listeners are embarrassed for him and at a loss to figure out what he is trying to say, but later they find that they participated in his process of exposition, were deeply moved, and are able to recall much of what he said that they did not know they knew. Tracol is Brother Ahl – not that he is the model for this travelling monk. (I will show restraint and forbear the identification of any Brother Sezes among us!)

Let me offer a synopsis of the preliminary matter. The Preface is signed by Michel Peterfalvi who expresses “a certain awe in speaking about a man of great spirituality whose influence continues after his death.” He goes on to say there is “the impression of a great inner strength emanating from him in contrast to his frail appearance, and a great simplicity in his relations with other people.”

The Introduction, signed Jenny Koralek, makes the point that Tracol’s “only currency is conscious effort.” No sooner has she said this than she hedges her bet by qualifying it with a passing reference to “the grace of God.” Now grace is considered to be “unmerited love,” so it may or may not be directly related to “conscious effort.”

The Foreword is contributed by the author himself who admits to the influence of Elie Faure, the distinguished art historian and philosopher who is as well the author’s uncle. Tracol distances himself from authorship. Indeed, the texts in this book consist of addresses, articles, essays, interviews, talks, questions and answers, and “writing.” It is a mixed bag, what the Ojibwa of Ontario call “a nunny bag” (with full knowledge that a sacred “nunny bag” is a “medicine bundle” with undisclosed contents and unfathomable powers).

The unsigned Editor’s Note discusses the notion of “the master,” a term that is familiar in the East, relatively unfamiliar in the West, which Tracol uses to refer to Mr. Gurdjieff. A “master” is not so merely the teacher but also the embodiment of the teaching. (I could not help thinking that the words “life coach” express the outward but not the inward part of what is meant, and that the vogue in the 1990s for “practical philosophers” suggests the need for the inward part.)

So much for the preliminary matter. I said earlier that Tracol is not given to telling instances, but he does retell a story that I find characteristic of all of his work. The story is used to illuminate the notion of the search: “This cannot but remind me of my last meeting with an aging friend who was about to undertake what he sensed would be his last journey to sacred places and wise men of the East. Bidding him good-bye, I said, ‘I hope you will find what you are seeking.’ He replied with a peaceful smile, ‘Since I am really searching for nothing, maybe I shall find it.’”

Like his aging friend, Tracol is searching for nothing. Instead, he is living his life now, entering into the experience of how all of us really live through the harmonious balance of our centres or faculties. “It is not something to be spoken about, it is something to experience.” He adds, “I am reminded of what I have been granted to experience – for a purpose.”

In another essay he states, “We are much more concerned by the relationship between mind and body, feeling and body, and by the presence of that which bears witness to their unity.” On these foundation stones he offers his views of the world at large in two remarkable addresses, “Individual Culture: Its Possibilities and Its Demands,” delivered in Mexico City in 1961, and “In Search of a Living Culture: Present Perspectives of Culture and the Problem of Universality,” delivered in Axe-en-Province in the same year. They are remarkable as critiques of Western values.

In “Individual Culture,” the Mexico City address, he discusses the “natural authority” of one’s family and society, but also “how indispensable it is to awaken in everyone, from childhood on, that movement of withdrawal, of standing back to question and ponder what is proposed, in order to counterbalance adequately the tendency to passive acceptance and blind conformity.” He sees culture as a controlling mechanism that turns us into creatures who are incapable of the act of “self-interrogation.”

The influence of Western culture on the world’s traditional peoples has been disastrous: “For the sake of transistors and pocket calculators they exchange what was most precious to them – a way of living duly adapted to the specific conditions of their natural environment, in harmony with their own culture and their sense of taking part in the life of the universe.” Here he speaks like a Traditionalist, before the publication of Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations,” is such that these days the more traditional the society, the more it is mired in poverty, disease, and strife.

In his sociological and Traditionalist analysis, Tracol focuses on the pre-emptive effects of cultural conformity, but in this essay he fails to fix his attention on the possibly redemptive power of civilized values. Everyone participates in one culture or another, but not everyone embraces civilized values. Rather than the Highest Common Numerator, people are encouraged to settle for the Lowest Common Denominator. To do otherwise takes effort. Instead, in the passage here, he is anxious to note their equivalence or mutual dependency:

“Here lies the reconciliation between authority and search: they need each other. They attract one another mutually in this movement of unending renewal through which the life of culture perpetuates itself.” Elsewhere, as if to drive this point home, he discusses sleep and waking consciousness. “Such is the law of this equivocal situation: without sleep, no awakening; without oblivion, no remembering.” I will add that it seems the human condition mirrors the cosmic condition: As above, so below. No sun without shade. Dualism under the Sun.

In an interpolation, Christian theologians discuss the Fall of Adam in terms of “the fortunate fall” (for without it there would be no need for the Incarnation) and “Good Friday”in terms of what is necessary (what is “good” about it is that Friday’s Crucifixion sets the stage for Sunday’s Resurrection). In one of his novels Samuel Beckett suggests that what we need to do is “fail better.”

Elsewhere Tracol explains that “the born seeker” cannot “escape from the labyrinth” of this world. Salvation (if the Christian term is not amiss in this context) comes from the individual’s realization that the most the seeker can do is to be “moving further toward the center of his own mystery.” This action alone confers meaning upon the individual’s search.

In concluding this address, Tracol describes the individual’s aim as “to work always according to his being, in order to affirm himself at each movement, in constant submission to the demands of the life of the universe.” He calls this “the authentic art of living.”

In the address “In Search of a Living Culture,” delivered in Aix-en-Province, he returns to the negative aspects of culture, including its “periodic decay” and its “sclerosis.” Here he raises the deferred notion of “civilization,” mentioned earlier, but he does not distinguish its individualized values from culture’s generalized values. Instead, he examines the nature of knowledge and how it swamps us, despite the fact that there are parallels between the physicist’s discoveries about the characteristics of subatomic particles and what Buddha said about the states of the human individual after death, an insight that he derived from the writings of the atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

If Tracol has found an ideal man, it is the person of A.K. Coomaraswamy, “the great Orientalist,” son of an English mother and an Indian father, who was an outstanding curator and is regarded as one of the pillars of Traditionalism. He quotes with approval a remark made in 1932 by Coomaraswamy: “In all its diversity, Asia remains nevertheless a living spiritual unity which embraces, at the very least, half the cultural heritage of humanity … without some knowledge of Asia no civilization can reach maturity, no individual can consider himself as ‘civilized’ not even be clearly aware of what properly belongs to him.”

Tracol calls this “absolutely true” because it calls into question the “advanced” views that are held in the West: ignorance of the cyclic rather than the linear character of time; the illusion of an indefinite progress; the conviction of belonging to the most “advanced” period in history; holding on to a “superiority complex”; and equating people outside this matrix “uncivilized.”

He supports these points with references to Sir J.G. Frazer, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Ruth Benedict. He paraphrases the remark of his Orientalist friend Paul Mus and writes, “We can say that the balance between culture and civilization is broken and that the most salient characteristic of our time, this subordination of pure science to a program of absolutely dizzying technical ‘achievements,’” is alienating ourselves from ourselves. In effect, data is dumbing us down.

Tracol concludes, “The man who is in love with real culture aspires to a transformation of _himself_ through knowledge. All knowledge seems pointless to him if it is not first and foremost _self-knowledge_. For it is only inasmuch as he knows himself that he knows how to choose his nourishment according to his real needs.”

I have now reached page fifty-one of “The Real Question Remains.” That is about one-quarter of the way through. I am afraid I would tire the reader of this review if I carried on in this fashion. So far Tracol has hardly mentioned Gurdjieff, but the name of the “master” appears frequently in the last three-quarters of the book. If there is interest I am prepared to summarize the rest of the author’s argument, to the degree that it may be summarized without being reduced to platitudes, as Tracol’s writing forms a whole and is addressed to people immersed in the Work. To read a little is to gain a lot. I urge the reader to share this experience with him by reading this book, and not with the present reviewer who is reviewing that book. Tracol needs only a translator – not an interpreter.

One final point: Tracol is not a seeker so much as he is a finder, a man who sought nothing outside himself that he could not first discover within himself. In this way he resembles his “aging friend” who yearns to go on more pilgrimages. Yet Tracol was assisted on his non-way by finding and receiving a “master.” I will conclude this account by quoting one sentence from the last essay, the one titled “Some Reflections on What Is Specific to Gurdjieff’s Teaching.”

Here Tracol is discussing the “adventure” of the Work: “It keeps alive in us the evidence of a _secret continuity_: consciousness never ceases to offer itself to us.”

John Robert Colombo is known as “the Canadian Bartlett” for his dictionaries of quotations. Two of his recent publications are “Richard Maurice Bucke: The New Consciousness” and “Walt Whitman’s Canada.” He is co-editor of a publication to appear this fall: Volume 14 in the series of annual Canadian science-fiction anthologies called “Tesseracts.” If you want to receive notice of forthcoming reviews on this blog, email the reviewer < jrc @ ca . inter. net >.

JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO reviews

FRANK R. SINCLAIR’S   “OF THE LIFE ALIGNED”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE


J R COLOMBO REVIEWS FRANK R.  SINCLAIR’S MEMOIR

‘WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY’

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Neither the Work nor the expression of the Work in any given time and at any given place is sacrosanct or immune to the ravages and revelations of time. Its demystification involves, in a way, its remythologization, and this is proceeding apace in our time.

Part of the process is the shedding of light on its early history through historical research, and on its recent past through the publication of books of studies and memoirs. The historical classics are “The Harmonious Circle” written by James Webb and the two books by Paul Beekman Taylor titled “A New Life” and “Gurdjieff’s America.” Among modern-day classics is the amazing tome titled “‘It’s Up to Ourselves” written by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth. (I celebrated the publication of the latter volume, largely a scrapbook with a multitude of snapshots, on this blog – Sophia Wellbeloved’s blog – a month or so ago.)

None of these works (or others like them) has ever attain the scriptural status of “All and Everything” or even the canonical status of “Meetings with Remarkable Men” and “In Search of the Miraculous.” Yet the light they shed on the Work is a human glow which does not bathe it in a sense of wonder as much as it does imbue it with a sense of personal gratitude for assistance received and services rendered. Frank R. Sinclair has contributed two books to this class of publication: “Without Benefit of Clergy” and “Of the Life Aligned: Reflections on the Teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff and the Perennial Order.”

I have yet to see a copy of the second of these two books, but after reading the first one I will certainly read the second. The book at hand, the first one, is badly titled and poorly subtitled, but my criticism ends there – at the title page. The other 295 pages are fine by me, anecdotal in the extreme, as I will demonstrate later.

It is a trade paperback. It measures 8″ x 5.5.” and it has a full-colour cover and there are close to forty black-and-white photographs, mainly snapshots, almost all of them new to me and to most readers. The volume has been attractively designed and issued by Xlibris. There are two editions, the first in 2005, the second in 2009, which is the one that I purchased.

The title is “Without Benefit of Clergy.” The subtitle is “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Both title and subtitle give me pause. The title attracted my attention (as should all good titles) so I decided to determine why I feel it is inappropriate. I have always associated the phrase “without benefit of clergy” with immorality – living together in sin, without the sacramental blessing of the church – and I was partially right in doing so, as well as partially wrong.

In English jurisprudence, members of the clergy were not subjected to secular laws, whether criminal or civil, but were permitted to demand to be tried under canon law. This immunity was abolished centuries ago. In 1890, Rudyard Kipling employed the phrase “without benefit of clergy” for the title of a short story set in India about the Englishman named Holden and the Muslim woman named Ameer who “shack up” (1950s expression; the 1980s expression still current is “living together”) and how their unsanctioned union brought wrack and ruin to both conservative communities. The plot proved sufficiently potent and the phrase so popular that in 1921 it became the title of a the silent movie “Without Benefit of Clergy” that starred Boris Karloff, of all people. So my original reaction to the phrase – sexual congress outside the bonds of marriage – is probably that of most people unschooled in the intricacies of English jurisprudence.

I am not convinced that the title of this book of memoirs sheds any light at all on the subject of these memoirs. Is the author telling us that his memoirs are scandalous or shocking? If so, then he is wrong. And then there is the matter of the subtitle which also irks me: “Some Personal Footnotes to the Gurdjieff Teaching.” Is the world of footnotes divided between those that are “personal” and those that are “impersonal”? Not that I am aware. Who would enjoy reading a book of footnotes? (Well, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges may. Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science-fiction writer, may. James Moore, the precisian, who is the author of “Gurdjieffian Confessions: A Self Remembered,” may, as well. But surely not the general reader with a taste for the world of the Work.)

I have done a lot of carping. It is time now for some celebration. Although I have yet to meet the author, I will take the liberty of referring to Frank R. Sinclair by his Christian name. The back-cover photograph of Frank shows him with a straw hat perched on the back of his head, rather like the humourist Stephen Leacock. It seems to give the reader leave to refer to him as Frank. If it does not do that, I have only to turn to the prose itself which is informal and off-the-cuff enough to confer permission. In fact, at one point – when Frank was asked to give the reading from the Bible at Lord Pentland’s funeral service (held in a Roman Catholic church, oddly) – he refers to himself as “a nonentity of the first order.” Now that is excessive!

In this memoir there are thirteen chapters, two pages of acknowledgements, prefaces to the first and the second editions, not to mention three appendices and one index. All of these sections are of some interest. But in the interest of brevity, I am going to short change the first half of the book and concentrate on the second half for it is largely devoted to pen portraits of personalities in the Work who have had an influence on Frank’s inner life and his outlook on life.

Readers who are interested in the early life of a journalist who was born in the shadow of Table Mountain in a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1929, and who found some twenty-eight years ago that his spiritual quest had taken him to Franklin Farms at Mendham in New Jersey, and Armonk in Westchester Country in New York State, and at the Gurdjieff Foundation on Manhattan Island, will find these early pages to be a treat.

In a sense he never did leave these sheltered communities, yet he emerged in the 1980s as the successor of Dr. William Welch as the President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. He has headed the Gurdjieff Fountain since 2009 and lives at Grand View-on-Hudson, a town of some 300 people with a high median income north of New York City. Its most notable inhabitant after Frank is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

From the age of eight, Frank experienced “a blaze of light” while questioning the nature of God. Thereafter he had a few near encounters with death. He graduated from the University of Cape Town, majoring in philosophy, and spent eight years as a journalist with the Cape Times afternoon newspaper. He writes about his feelings of “anguish and heartaches and sufferings” at the time, but these came to an end, symbolically at least, when he encountered an essay by J.G. Bennett called “Living in Five Dimensions,” was assigned to review Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider,” studied “In Search of the Miraculous,” and identified with the verses of the deaf South African poet John Howland Beaumont, who had a mystical connection with nature: “I did but sleep – ah me, I dream, I dream!”

About 1956, Frank resolved to seek out the source of “the teaching” in a surprisingly direct way. He placed an advertisement in the personal columns of the rival Cape Argus afternoon paper to “make contact,” and to his surprise a reader of the paper mailed him a copy of “All and Everything” along with a note: “From one human being to another, that both may have more of themselves to give.” The benefactor’s identity remains unknown to this day.

He eventually met an English gentleman named B. Fairfax Hall who was an enthusiast for private printing. In England in 1930 he had founded and operated The Stourton Press, named after the family’s house in Westminster. Hall was a member of P.D. Ouspensky’s circle before he immigrated to South Africa. In 1947 he began to print books, including Ouspensky’s “A Record of Meetings,” in an edition of twenty copies in 1951, and “The Struggle of the Magicians,” in an edition of ten copies in 1957.

Frank already knew about editorial matters; from Hall he learned how to operate an Albion printing press, which served him well when he began his own private printing at Armonk, N.Y., using the imprint Antic Press. Hall, who had compiled “The Fourth Way” from Ouspensky’s lectures, arranged for Frank to reside for two months at Madame Ouspensky’s 300-acre estate at Franklin Farms. Frank left South Africa in 1958 and did not return for some twenty years.

Frank worked and studied at Franklin Farms and there met a young woman named Beatrice Rego, a teacher, and they married. No description of the bride is offered, but there is a long account of Frank’s out-of-body experience immediately prior to the wedding ceremony. There is also a long account of life at the residence, with a fleeting reference to Madame Ouspensky (who remained in her bedroom chamber so he never set eyes on her while she was still alive) and Madame Olga de Hartmann, who came and went and once referred to him as “a piece of furniture,” but there is a very detailed account of the first visit of Madame de Salzmann.

“Here, for the first time in my life, was someone who spoke to my deepest concerns, who undeniably had an inner presence (a thought that I had no way of articulating at that time) and at the same time actually ‘included’ me in that presence, who listened in some unfathomable way, and who actually ‘saw’ me before her and spoke to me as a real human being.”

In many ways the heart and core of the book is the account of the experiences that occurred to the impressionable young South African at Franklin Farms, experiences that are unhesitatingly described as “profound and miraculous.” One such experience, following an altercation with Madame Ouspensky’s unstable grandson Lonya Savitsky. It was accompanied by intense mortification:

“But lying there prone on the floor, I suffered terrible remorse and shame at having behaved as I had done, _and at the same time_ I was witness to the miraculous appearance in me of this brilliant, golden being. It glowed in a surrounding vivid blaze of light.” He calls it “the phenomenon of the golden embryo.” Pages are devoted to examining the experience, with its configuration of the Kesdjan body, from the vantage-points of different religious and cultural traditions.

This takes us to Chapter 6 which is a departure from the norm, for it consists of the account kept by Frank’s wife Beatrice of her impressions of the various appearances of the elderly Gurdjieff in New York. Her brief memoir is full of interesting details. Overall she found Mr. Gurdjieff to be a man of “tremendous energy; anything in this life seemed possible.”

Chapter 7 is a remarkable tribute to a veteran of the Work named Martin W. Benson who is a jack-of-all-trades and someone who seems to be “all essence.” Originally a puzzle to Frank, Benson became what might be called a “best friend” for his twelve years of apprenticeship at Mendham and Armonk.

Chapter 8 is in many ways the counterpart of Chapter 7, for it is a sustained tribute to Frank’s friendship with Thomas Vivian Forman, a Cambridge-trained specialist in agriculture as well as military intelligence. In many ways, too, Forman is the counterpart of Benson – a balance between personality and essence. Frank’s love of people glows in these portraits.

Chapter 9 is titled “Annals of the Antic Press” and it describes Frank’s work in the icehouse at Armonk where, among other books, a small band of editors, designers, compositors, and press operators printed “Pronunciation Guide for Words Invented by Gurdjieff” in 1984, the forerunner of the much expanded edition issued by the Traditional Studies Press in Toronto.

By now it should be apparent that Frank is an appreciator of people. To my mind the outstanding section of his memoirs is Chapter 10 which is titled “John Pentland: The Lordly Line of High Sinclair.” Lord Pentland, chief of the clan and a scion of the illustrious Sinclair line (which seems not to include our author Frank Sinclair), was Mr. Gurdjieff’s appointee to oversee the Work in the United States. In these pages the author describes a number of the close and almost accidental encounters that he had with Pentland between 1958 and the latter’s death in 1984.

The author has no problem with Pentland’s rapier-like wit, for he felt, intriguingly, that when Pentland glared at him and wielded it, Pentland “gave him ‘his work.’” It is an interesting passage and perhaps it hinges on the somewhat off-the-cuff statement that Pentland was “old enough to be his father.” It seems Lord Pentland was the grandson the Marquis of Aberdeen, the seventh Governor General of Canada, as well as part of the family of the Earl of Elgin, an even earlier Governor General. Perhaps it was from this aristocratic tradition that he learned the arts of diplomacy – certainly of use in Work circles!

I feel that this chapter about “this remarkable and unusual man” is the “still point” of the memoirs. The next two biographical chapters are anti-climaxes, though they do have interesting dimensions. Chapter 11 is devoted to “Bill Segal: The Radical Reorientation,” and it presents this multi-talented man as “a class act.” Segal was the epitome of the active man, and even after being nearly crushed to death an automobile accident, he emerged almost as active as ever. Sinclair writes, neatly, that Segal was “humbled both in his pride and in his prime.”

Chapter 12 is titled “Jeanne de Salzmann: A Compelling Call” and it seems to me to be an apologia for the second half of Madame de Salzmann’s life. “The Unknown does not yield itself through abundant description,” Frank writes, so the reader who does not have prior knowledge of her life and work will be at sea when it comes to understanding what Frank is writing about.

I take it that he has two themes: the first is the role of the institution vis-à-vis the individual; the second is the espousal of the role of grace rather than effort and of flow rather than effort – to express it directly – that is represented by her from the death of Mr. Gurdjieff at a probable age of eighty-three in 1949 and Madame’s death at the ripe old age of 101 in 1990. Madame can do no wrong.

“I dare say,” he writes gingerly, “that when her own notes are collated and published, there will be surprising indications of the precision with which she followed the movement of the attention and the work for Presence.” As it happens, extracts from Madame’s notebooks are about to be issued by Shambhala Publications under the title “The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff,” so we will have the opportunity to judge for ourselves.

Frank is obviously devoted to Madame and he accepts her direction for the work, its “single grand verity,” which he takes pains and pages to trace back to Mr. Gurdjieff’s talks in New York, the first one on Dec. 19, 1930, and the second one on Dec. 25, 1948. The exposition in these pages is more associative than it is disciplined, so there is little doubt that he feels that what she was doing she was doing consciously and with authorization. “Madame Jeanne de Salzmann brought neither a New Work nor an Old Work, but only Gurdjieff’s Work.”

I will pass over Chapter 13, “Some Random Inferences,” because the contents are indeed random (to describe them would be to try to herd cats) and they turn out to be elaborations of points made earlier in the memoirs. The one new element that I spotted is the effort that Frank is making to enlarge to conception of the Work to include the thoughts of some new-comers along with some overlooked old-comers (to name a few men and women in alphabetical order): Joseph Azize, Michel Conge, Martha Heyneman, James Moore, Jacob Needleman, Ravi Ravindra, Sophia Wellbeloved.

Also given some recognition is the contribution of the annual International Humanities Conference (better known as the All & Everything Conference) as well as Traditionalist thinkers like Titus Burkhardt and their semi-annual publication, the Vancouver-based “Sacred Web.” This is close to an ecumenical touch, and perhaps it is a daring one.

Throughout Frank retains his modesty and the projects the air of constant amazement associated with Alice in Wonderland. “I did not drink Armagnac with Gurdjieff,” he writes, amusingly. “I belong to the post-Gurdjieff era, not even remotely a Saul among the Apostles, but a fellow traveler, feeding from those who, like Madame de Salzmann, had been before.”

The second edition of the memoirs ends with three appendices as well as a nominal index. Two of the appendices consist of reviews of the first edition of the book. The first review is a once-over-lightly appreciation by David Appelbaum. It originally appeared in “Parabola,” as did the lively interview with Frank on the subject of “Who Is the Teacher?”

The third appendix consists, surprisingly, of a review amusingly titled “The Guide for the Perplexed” and posted on Amazon.com by its author, biographer James Moore. I found it to be one of the book’s highlights, in the sense that its tone and style are totally at odds with Frank’s. Yet it hits the right note when in an impish mood Moore describes Frank as “a regular-kinda-guy whose pride in his modesty attains oxymoronic heights.”

Had Frank been born under the shadow of the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, rather than in the shadow of Table Rock, South Africa, I would be inclined to describe him as “a bloke.” Whatever the description, he is a sensitive fellow and “Without Benefit of Clergy” is certainly an entertaining and I believe honest account of one man’s rather unusual spiritual quest. He demystifies by remythologizing.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is known across Canada for his popular reference books. He writes about Work-related publications for this blog. His latest publication is “Walt Whitman’s Canada,” a book-length, documentary-style account of the American poet’s tour of Central and Eastern Canada in the Summer of 1880. Colombo’s website is < www . colombo – plus . ca >

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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