Reconnecting With The Source
P D Ouspensky’s death on 2nd October 1947 did little to clarify the confusion wrought by his final lectures at Colet House, where, to the consternation of his followers, he repudiated the System completely. The situation was not helped by the absence of any preparation or thought as to how Ouspensky’s groups might continue after his death. Reflecting on the aftermath of their teacher’s passing, Kenneth Walker wrote that:
There was nobody in England capable of taking his place, nobody even with enough authority to summon a general meeting. Nothing remained of the organization Ouspensky had built up except two large houses and the executive council that only existed on paper, the Historico-Psychological Society[i].
In a cloud of uncertainty they sought advice from the ailing Sophia Grigorievna Ouspensky in New Jersey. Her eventual response early in January 1948 was unequivocal: “Get in touch with Mr Gurdjieff in Paris[ii]”. This was to prove divisive. Some could not countenance breaking one of Ouspensky’s strictest injunctions and felt duty-bound to go on searching for “Higher Source”. Others, risking the termination of relationships with acquaintances, friends, and in one case even their personal physician, responded to their own spiritual needs and longing for being, regardless of the consequences. Gurdjieff, for so many years perversely absent in the narrative of so many followers of his ideas, broke into the disarray with a telegram that was blunt and to the point: “You are sheep without a shepherd. Come to me”[iii].
Not all who heard the message, sent in June 1948, responded to the invitation, but for those who did the next fifteen months, culminating with Gurdjieff’s death on October 29th 1949, would be the most intense and transformational of their lives. Even those who had read extracts of Fragments, with its mysterious and all-knowing “G.” could not be prepared for the experience that was to await them.
John Bennett, who had not seen Gurdjieff since 1923, was considering relocating his school to South Africa. He sought advice from Mme Ouspensky in Mendham:
I was invited to her room, and after enquiring about my wife’s health she abruptly asked me the question: “Now Mr. Ouspensky has gone, what will you do?” I learned afterwards that she had put the same question to several others. I replied that I had hoped to find Mr. Gurdjieff, but could not trace him. I supposed that he had either died, or, as someone had told me, had gone mad. She said: “He is not mad. He has never been mad. He is living in Paris now. Why do you not go to him?”[iv]
G I Gurdjieff
"You are sheep without a shepherd. Come to me"
Gurdjieff was living in a modest apartment at 6 Rue des Colonels Renard. Here, through the 1930s and the war years, he had welcomed a range of Seekers including the small, all women group “the Rope” and a young, fearless set of French groups which met in occupied Paris during the war. Now, in the last period of his life, the various tributaries of his teachings – France, Russia, America, England - were returning to him. The environment they entered was like nothing they would experience before or after. With curtains drawn and lights on at all times, Gurdjieff’s apartment operated like a psychological hermetic chamber, cutting one off from the outside world and one’s own forms of security and certainty. Here, there were no blackboards or lectures, only a large, elderly man with a red fez and discerning eye, whose presence was palpable and whose gaze seemed to sift and weigh each visitor and ask that they scrutinise as exactingly not him, but themselves. For the “Ouspensky people” this was a shock indeed. What were these serious people with “the chapel-going faces of Plymouth Brethren”[v] to make of injunctions such as “all who come to me, must have enema, each day” or the casual assertion that Hell “is only terrible for the first few days”[vi]? Kenneth Walker had no doubt:
For me, at any rate, Gurdjieff represented the last and only link in an immensely long chain of teachers stretching back into a distant and misty past[vii].
If the central medium of the Historico-Psychological Society had been the lecture, here, in the hot, crowded, stuffy apartment, it was the meal. The atmosphere Gurdjieff created was more than a laboratory for the application of theory to practice, it was a form of experiential learning par excellence; each day at lunch and dinner, with separate days for English and French groups, one encountered - could not escape from - a realised presence that could play whatever role necessary – the clown, the rogue, the volcano – for the purpose of helping someone to see and sense themselves without pretext or fabrication.
The size of the flat and the large numbers, some forty to fifty on occasion, was in itself an exercise in alertness. No moment, no space, was safe from the need for the mobilised, embodied attention that Gurdjieff demanded. Plans were made and abruptly changed, with phone calls and messages to wherever people might be to inform them of a lunch at a different time. Often meals were preceded by readings – up to several hours – from Beelzebub or Gurdjieff’s Deuxieme Serie, Meetings with Remarkable Men. Latterly chapters from Ouspensky’s own unpublished Fragments were also read. Then, with food prepared, a human-chain from the kitchen formed and the room would fill with aromas from plates of food and soup, one balanced atop the other, while Gurdjieff surveyed the enterprise and engaged in the serious activity of mixing salade.
Rina Hands, given the role of “Madame Egout [sewer] pour Sweet”, was tasked with finishing any desert Gurdjieff did not eat. Such roles often pushed one to the limits of comfort and beyond, but there was, from the many accounts, always a moment, an encounter with their master, in which the role and the perfunctory task took on a more individual significance. Rina, in her diary, makes reference to a change in a problematic attitude to eating after fulfilling her obligations in this role. And in advice on how to read aloud she sensed an altogether deeper lesson:
All the time he was talking to me, I felt strangely that a quite different conversation was taking place between us. He was really telling me what I wanted to know about objective love[viii].
Hers is not an isolated account. John Bennett writes of experiences that changed the path of his life utterly, while Kenneth Walker, musing on the difference between Ouspensky and Gurdjieff observed that the chief difference was himself. Ouspensky had been a strict disciplinarian, who tended towards didactic autocracy: “nothing was ever left to a pupil’s discretion”, which meant tasks were completed assiduously but without much initiative. Here, beneath Gurdjieff’s gaze, he began “to develop; a sense of personal responsibility and to experience a new sense of freedom”[ix].
For pupils who had only recently heard Ouspensky repudiate Gurdjieff’s teaching this was rich fare indeed. For some, like Melissa Marston MacLeod, it was too much. Finding the atmosphere oppressive and the heat stifling, she slipped away one lunchtime. Even among the throng of new faces Gurdjieff noticed her absence. She arrived at dinner full of excuses and apologies but he brushed these aside, repeating several times “your loss”. Here too, the master demonstrated his ability to deploy a phrase with scalpel-like precision. In her memoir she wrote that “I never forgot his words, although I never saw him again and no amount of heat or other difficulties kept me away from anyone or anything of value”[x].
An inimitable feature of the meals was the toasts, predicated on Gurdjieff’s hierarchical Science of Idiotism. Great importance was assigned to it and each newcomer was required to select from a choice of types. A “round idiot”, for example, was one who avoided blame, while a zigzag idiot “goes this way, that way. Takes different I’s for reminding factor. Struggles against the merde he knows he is…”[xi] Gurdjieff maintained that number 21, Unique Idiot, denoted God alone, and 17-20 represented spiritual developments of a very high order. With toasts arranged for categories of idiots and an accompanying quaff of vodka or Armagnac, an ambience was created in which even the seemingly absurdist conception of “subjective” and “objective” “Hopeless Idiots” could have a signal resonance for whichever individual Gurdjieff concentrated on at any one time:
No description can convey the terrifying reality of this distinction as it was conveyed by Gurdjieff, with the burning eyes and the vibrant tones of a Jeremiah. I saw old men break down and sob who perhaps had not been so moved since their childhood [xii].
Gurdjieff confronted the evident lack in Ouspensky’s version of the teaching, now reflected in his pupils; “You must feel” he told them, “…you must feel, your mind is a luxury. You must suffer remorse in your feelings.”[xiii]
There were gentler times and more intimate ones too. For those who had regretted the loss of contact with Ouspensky as the number of students increased, the chance to go into Gurdjieff’s “office”, actually his stacked pantry, redolent with aromas of exotic spices, and there to sit, take coffee, smoke and to talk with him was not simply a treat or an honour, it could be the pivot of the master-pupil relationship. Here Gurdjieff would dispense specific exercises “This that I tell you is for you alone…”[xiv] , or discuss a private matter, and for a moment one was not in a pantry in Paris but any one of a number of exotic, distant places. These conversations had profound effects with the listener struck by the fact that his words “…seemed to be backed, not only by his own wisdom, but by the authority of a long line of unseen and unknown teachers”[xv].
Movements classes were held almost daily, with Gurdjieff choreographing his new “39 series”. In a spirit of reconciliation and integration, some pupils from England were included in the troupe of 18 people going to America to demonstrate the new Movements in New York.
Hotel Wellington - where Gurdjieff stayed and taught in New York
In the relatively short space of time between the death of Ouspensky on 2 October 1947 and the death of Gurdjieff on 29 October 1949, a significant number of former English and American pupils of Ouspensky were exposed to the living embodiment of the teaching they had been trying to follow, and the effect was transformational. It seems hard to credit that despite the reports they must have received from their erstwhile colleagues, those who had refused to heed the advice of Mme Ouspensky continued with their search for “Higher Source”?
Under the guidance of Dr Francis Roles, a new organisation was established: ‘The Society for the Study of Normal Psychology’ (commonly known as ‘The Study Society’). But it was not until 1960 that they found what they believed to be the source of the teaching; Advaita Vedanta. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Swami Shantananda Saraswathi introduced Roles to elements of this teaching over a period of years; Roles became convinced that this was indeed the source they had been seeking. Later he also incorporated a form of Dervish Turning into the programme - leading to the Study Society’s current eclectic teaching.
[i] Venture with Ideas, Kenneth Walker, 132-133
[ii] Ibid, 134
[iii] Harmonious Circle, James Webb, 461
[iv] Witness, J.G. Bennett
[v] Venture with Ideas, Kenneth Walker, 157
[vi] Witness, J.G. Bennett, 75
[vii] Venture with Ideas, Kenneth Walker, 157
[viii] Egout pour Sweet, Rina Hands, 78
[ix] Venture with Ideas, Kenneth Walker154-155
[x] My Life: A Spiritual Quest, Melissa Marston MacLeod, 66
[xi] Gurdjieff: Anatomy of a Myth, James Moore, 354
[xii] Witness, J.G. Bennett, 253
[xiii] Journey of a Pupil, C.S. Nott 2
[xiv] Venture with Ideas, Kenneth Walker, 157
[xv] Ibid, 157
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