Working it out
[ people - september 04 ]
I first came across the names Gurdjieff and Ouspensky in 1975, through reading Colin Wilson's The Occult. I was 19 and living in New York City, playing bass guitar with the then unknown pop group Blondie. I was just getting interested in books about magic, the occult and esotericism, and I have to admit that in my first encounter with Gurdjieff, I was more interested in the reports of his remarkable powers than in his austere doctrine. He was as fascinating as the many other figures in Wilson's book, like Aleister Crowley, Rasputin and Madame Blavatsky, but I wasn't drawn to his teaching. Two years and many more books later, I had changed my mind. I had read Ouspensky's early work Tertium Organum as well as A New Model of the Universe and was impressed by both. I then read his account of his time with Gurdjieff, In Search of the Miraculous. It had a seriousness and urgency unlike most of the occult literature I was devouring. Gurdjieff's doctrine - that human beings have enormous powers of consciousness, which are obscured by a mechanical habit of "sleep" - struck me as self-evident. I believed that we experience only a fraction of what our consciousness is capable of, and that the aim of all occult or spiritual practice is to tap this hidden reservoir of power. I had made some attempts to do this on my own, and had interesting results. But after covering a lot of fascinating ground, in the long run I wondered if I was really getting anywhere. After a while, I had to admit I wasn't.
It was then that I wondered about Gurdjieff. I still had some resistance. I'm not much of a "joiner," and Gurdjieff's "fourth way" was based on the idea that one can do nothing on one's own; according to him, being in a group was absolutely necessary. This made me hesitate. Other elements put me off too. For example, I love books and music, and it was difficult for me to accept Gurdjieff's assertion that my favourite poets and composers were just as "asleep" as everybody else. But there was nevertheless something about his teaching that attracted me. It certainly stuck me as the most demanding and rigorous I had come across. As presented by Ouspensky it was lucid and almost scientifically precise, although I quickly discovered this was not the case with Gurdjieff's own books. But most important, it was based on experience and knowledge, and this meant that it was honest. In a realm where wishful thinking and self-deception were commonplace, this seemed important.
By the early 1980s, Gurdjieff, who had died in Paris in 1949, was experiencing a kind of revival. Many books about him were published. New memoirs and accounts by his students seemed to appear overnight. James Webb's definitive study, The Harmonious Circle, appeared then too. Gurdjieff's name was "in the air." Yet unlike today, it was difficult then to actually find a "school" practicing his teaching. When you pick up a "fourth way" book at a bookshop today, you'll more than likely find a bookmark inside advertising a "Gurdjieff and Ouspensky Center." There are dozens of websites dedicated to "the work," the homely name given to Gurdjieff's "system." Many of these are bogus, having no connection with Gurdjieff's original groups in Russia. Nevertheless, they show that Gurdjieff and his teaching have a much greater public profile today than was true when I first became involved in his "work."
My first encounter with people actually practicing the "system" was at a public lecture at the Barbizon Hotel on 63rd Street. I was surprised at the number of people who attended; apparently, I wasn't the only person in New York who wanted to "wake up." One speaker made a point of emphasizing the difference between "I" and "it;" he repeated a phrase several times throughout his talk: "Like what it does not like." "It" was our mechanical, habit-ridden self, that we mistakenly believe is "awake." "I" was our true self, submerged beneath layers of sleep and automatism. At present "it" dominates us, and a brief period of self-observation shows how little free will we really possess. The aim of the "work" was to study "it," to learn its habits and character, while at the same time, gradually making "I" stronger.
I returned to my apartment excited by what I had heard, wondering if I should call the telephone number on the flyer handed out at the lecture. The irony was that my entry into the "the work" was much closer than I knew. A friend who was interested in spiritual ideas knew I was reading a lot about Gurdjieff. We had talked about a variety of things: Jung, Kabbalah, Hinduism, Buddhism, and when I mentioned the lecture to him, he showed a great interest. A few days later he asked if I was really interested in getting involved in "the work." I said yes. "In that case," he said, "call this number," and he handed me a piece of paper. On it was a telephone number, but it wasn't the one on the flyer. "It's my teacher. I mentioned you to him, " he said. "He's expecting you to call. I've been working with him for about a year, but I wanted to see how serious you were before telling you about it. If you are serious I'd call soon."
I did. The man's voice on the other end was steady, deep, and to the point. Would I like to come next week and have a chat? Then he gave me the address.
The building was on the upper East Side, the meeting place a small apartment on the second floor. A woman answered the door and I was ushered into a small room and asked to sit down. The apartment was decorated in an "eastern" fashion. There were Persian carpets and wall hangings, Oriental ornaments and object d'art. There were also many paintings; these, I later found, were the work of my host. After a few minutes the man I had spoken with came in and introduced himself. His name was Paul, and I later discovered that he was one of the principal teachers of the Gurdjieff "movements," the extremely difficult "sacred dances" that Gurdjieff claimed he had learned at the mysterious monastery of the Sarmoung Brotherhood. Whether this was true or not remains an open question, but a few years later, when I began practicing the "movements" myself, where they came from seemed irrelevant. What was clear was their ability to evoke unusual states of consciousness.
Paul was the most composed person I had ever met. I was impressed by his movements; he seemed relaxed yet alert, and carried himself with an economy of action. He had "presence." After introducing himself, he sat there for a few moments, untroubled by the nervousness most people feel in these situations and which they usually relieve through talk. Then he asked me about myself, what I did and why I was interested in "the work." Although I was only twenty-four, I already had a few achievements under my belt. By that time I had left Blondie and started my own group. One of my songs had been a top ten hit. I had been on television and radio and had been interviewed for magazines and newspapers. I was playing to large crowds and making a comfortable living. All this meant very little to Paul. I could have said I was recently elected President of the United States for all my accomplishments had impressed him. He took it all in, nodded, and then asked why I was interested in joining his group. It was an unexpectedly difficult question. In the end I fumbled and lamely said that I wanted to "wake up." "Yes," Paul remarked. "But that will take time." He told me how the "work" required seriousness and commitment, and he wondered if I could make that kind of commitment. I said I could. "Well," he said, "I have a group for beginners that meets once a week. You can come to that and we will see." He wrote down the address and handed it to me, then said "Please come on time."
Paul's group met in a basement apartment on a side street between Lexington and Park Avenues. That first meeting set a pattern for the rest. The group sat on hard wooden chairs in a bare room, the only other furnishing being a wooden table on which rested a vase of flowers, a pitcher of water and some glasses. Paul sat in front of us; occasionally there was an another chair beside his, and another teacher would join him. There was no lecture. We sat in an uncomfortable silence until someone found the courage to speak. General questions were frowned upon; remarks had to be focused on practical matters, relating to the exercises Paul had given. This is how things carried on for the next several months. The group had been given an exercise, and after that first meeting, Paul taught it to me as well. It was called "sensing your body." Sit in a chair with your legs slightly apart and your hands on your knees. Then "sense" your right arm, starting at the shoulder and working down to your fingers. Continue with the right leg, then left leg, and left arm, and then start again, this time with the right leg, then left leg, and so on. After completing a cycle and returning to the beginning, one was to "sense" the top of the head, then the face, then neck. Finally, you were to "sense" your whole body. It was difficult at first to understand what was meant by "sensing," but after a time I experienced a curious tingling, as if I a slight drizzle was falling on me. After some weeks, I was told to end the exercise by standing up and taking a few steps, while maintaining my "sensation."
Although Paul tried to keep us focused on the exercise, people would invariably bring up personal matters during the discussions. One of the reasons Gurdjieff emphasized the need for groups is that he knew different personalities would grate on each other, creating the "friction" he believed was necessary for "work." I was often impatient when people brought up some personal crisis and subjected the group to a long monologue about it. I realize now that this is probably why Paul let them do it: it provided an opportunity to see your own shortcomings. After one such meeting my displeasure must have been very evident, because Paul took me aside and in true Gurdjieffean fashion gave me a brisk talking to, informing me that I would never get anywhere as long as I thought I knew better than anyone else. Sadly, I've failed to profit as much as I might from this advice.
I practiced "sitting" in the morning, and "self-remembering" during the day, making "appointments" with myself when, no matter what I was doing, I would try to feel a full awareness of myself. This may sound easy, but it wasn't. Going about your affairs, to suddenly pull yourself out of the stream of events and remember that "you" are "here" cost considerable effort. Gurdjieff's basic idea was that we do not "remember ourselves," that we are habitually sunk into a kind of "half-dream" state that we mistakenly accept as consciousness. This being so, it was difficult enough to remember my "appointments," and even harder to work up a real sense of my being, especially if I was with someone else at the time.
People in "the work" celebrate Gurdjieff's birthday on January 13th, and for my first celebration I was invited to a gathering in a house outside the city. Along with a few other people, I drove out with my friend who had introduced me to Paul. It was a long drive, over an hour, and most of it was in silence. When we arrived I was impressed at the house - it was much more a mansion - and by the number of people. It was an odd gathering; although there were many people, the atmosphere wasn't festive. Neither was it solemn, although there was certainly an air of seriousness. After someone took our coats, we were invited to move into a large room and to take a seat. Then I was introduced to Gurdjieff's ritual of "toasts," accomplished with some powerful vodka. We were each given a tumbler, and after an appropriate "toast," were obliged to empty it. This happened several times. I hadn't eaten yet and the effects came on quickly. This added to the oddness of what happened next. Someone announced that in honour of the occasion, we would be treated to a special performance of the Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh. That in itself was unusual, but no preparation for what followed. I looked to the center of the room where a small stage had been erected and recognized the actor Bill Murray, from Saturday Night Live. I had no idea that he, like myself, was interested in "ideas," nor that he was involved in the same organization that I was. I enjoyed the performance, but it was difficult after my "toasts" to keep a straight face whenever I heard him say "Enkidu."
In 1982 I left New York and moved to Los Angeles. Before leaving I asked Paul if he could put me in touch with "the work" there. He gave me a telephone number and said to say he had suggested I call. By this time a good friend who lived in LA had got into "the work" as well, and when I visited her recently she introduced me to some other people she had met. The four of us became a kind of "work" clique, a circle of friends who, for a time at least, shared a common goal.
My involvement with "the work" became deeper and more intense in LA. I joined a group and also started attending "ideas meetings," when sections of In Search of the Miraculous or Gurdjieff's jawbreaker of a book, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, were read and discussed. My friends and I were reading as much "work" literature as we could find: Maurice Nicoll, JG Bennett, Rodney Collin, and other "fourth way" writers. I also started attending "work weekends." At a large house in the Valley - the area of Los Angeles north of the Hollywood Hills - people from different groups would gather for intensive "work days." These would begin with a morning talk, followed by a new exercise, which we were asked to perform throughout the day. As Gurdjieff had at his Prieure in Fontainbleau, students were given physical tasks to perform: gardening, cleaning, preparing meals, carpentry. The task itself and how well it was done wasn't the aim of the exercise: the idea was to remember oneself, to focus on the work at hand and to perform what Gurdjieff called "conscious labor." A famous story about Gurdjieff's Prieure involved the editor AR Orage, who arrived there in 1923, expecting to receive words of wisdom from the esoteric master, and was instead handed a shovel and told to dig. Orage dug until his back ached and he was in tears, and was then told to fill the hole in again. He wondered what madness he had got himself into until one day he found himself enjoying the digging, and feeling no pain at all: he had forced himself beyond his artificial limits and broken through to his hidden reservoirs of energy. I received a lighter version of the "Orage treatment" when, after spending an afternoon painting a long wooden fence, I was informed that it wasn't the right color and had to paint it all over again. I was indignant, until I realized that the painting wasn't the point, but the insights that I got while doing it. On another occasion, while raking leaves, I had what I believe to be an unalloyed moment of "wakefulness." Reaching down to scoop a batch of wet leaves into a trash bag, I found myself staring at them in amazement, as if I had never really seen a leaf before. I remembered how fresh and clean the world seemed as a child and for a few moments I enjoyed that same clarity. It was then that the whole idea of "sleep" and "mechanicalness" became real to me, not just an idea. It was also around this time that I started practicing the "movements." At first they were impossible: the old game of trying to rub your stomach with one hand while patting your head with the other gives some idea of what's involved, but that is a hundred times easier than the "movements." About a dozen students would line up in rows and, to the accompaniment of a piano, would throw themselves into contortions, like puppets with their strings cut. Often I would drop out in disgust with myself. But on one evening I persevered and after ignoring my dismay I found myself doing the "movements" with ease and confidence. I experienced a sudden rush of power, and at the end I was so full of energy that I wanted to get in my car and drive non-stop to San Francisco, an eight hour trip.
In the summer of 1983, a "work" friend and I decided to set out on our own mini "search for the miraculous," taking a trip to Europe. Along with visiting Stonehenge, Avebury, Chartres Cathedral and other sacred sites, we visited Gurdjieff's Prieure in Fontainbleau, then an abandoned chateau. In Paris we also tracked down Gurdjieff's apartment on the Rue des Colonels Renards, near the Étoile, where, during the German occupation, he conducted his secret groups, and where he spent his last days. A year or so later, on a trip to New York, my friend, whose parents had been in the "work", took me and a few other friends on a visit to Franklin Farms, in New Jersey, where Ouspensky had had his own version of the Prieure during his years in the US. My friend's parents had worked with Ouspensky and, walking on the grounds of the farm, I was fascinated to hear their stories about their time with him.
Yet, it was on my return from Europe that my doubts about my place in the "work" began. I have always had an eclectic mind and while absorbing all I could about Gurdjieff's ideas, I was also taking in a great deal of other material. Comparison was frowned upon, but I found it difficult not to put Gurdjieff's and Ouspensky's "system" in context with other thinkers' work. I saw no point in denying that many of Gurdjieff's ideas had parallels in the work of other philosophers and psychologists and that, although his presentation and practice were startling and very different, his basic ideas were not as unique as his more convinced students believed. There was something about the superman in the way many people in the "work" viewed Gurdjieff, and although he was without doubt one of the most remarkable men to ever live, he was not, I believed, infallible. More to the point, it struck me as dangerous to consider any teacher infallible, whether it was Gurdjieff or anyone else. Other things too led me to feel less eager to continue. For one thing, I found it difficult to understand why Gurdjieff treated Ouspensky, his best pupil, in the questionable way he had; in fact, the mystery about this remained with me long after I dropped out of the "work," and twenty years later, I wrote a book about it. It was difficult not to be impressed with Gurdjieff, but I began to wonder about his motives. I was also less than unequivocal in my appreciation of his Beelzebub's Tales, the bible of the "work." I found it unreadable and couldn't fathom why he would want to make his ideas purposefully difficult to grasp. My other reading had raised many questions; although at first I was scornful of any criticism about the "work," I now could see how many people that I considered intelligent and insightful would be repelled by it, and could understand why they would feel that way. And although I had had some results, I felt that after four years I was pretty much where I started. This seemed to be the case with other people too, although it struck me that for many the "work" had become something of a "life-style," more than, as it originally was for me, a means of achieving an end. And the teaching itself, for all its rigour and discipline, struck me as curiously lacking a positive content. The impetus behind "working" was the negative one of "escaping" from sleep. In other writers I found more positive, optimistic goals, but when I brought this up during meetings, I was advised that these were only ideas, simply another form of sleep.
These ideas, however, were increasingly giving me much more incentive than the now routine "work" repertoire. They provided a much needed carrot to complement the Gurdjiffean stick and I was not about to drop them. I stuck with it for a while and experienced some profound soul-searching, but in the end I thought it was dishonest to continue with so many reservations. After some weeks of indecisiveness, I announced to my teacher that I would be leaving. At first I felt at something of a loose end, but soon a feeling of freshness and freedom surfaced and to this day I consider it the right decision. I had learned a lot from the "work," and I have a lot of respect for its practitioners. But in the end it was not for me. It was not for Ouspensky either, at least in the form it was taught by his master, and in my book, In Search of Ouspensky: Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff (Quest Books, 2004), I have tried to understand why that was so.