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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 > .