Comments With Book In Hand

– for Richard Dillon –

Fritz Peters, Boyhood With Gurdjieff, Penguin Books, 1972 edition

1) When Fritz at the age of 12 met Gurdjieff he was assigned the job of mowing the lawns around the Prieuré (Gurdjieff’s The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man). There were several large lawns – the task seemed impossible. But Gurdjieff told the boy to mow the lawns no matter what / under no terms whatsoever was he to shirk that responsibility / etc. “You must promise that you will do this thing no matter what happens.” There soon came a time when after an accident Gurdjieff was on apparently on his death’s bed and everyone at the institute wanted Fritz to stop mowing because of the noise / and the assumption that it could not possibly be good for Gurdjieff – in fact he was ordered to stop by the woman in charge. This continued for several weeks – the boy persisted against the admonitions of his fellows / against the impact of being shunned by them. Gurdjieff got better.

On September 11, 2001 there was a catastrophe of a sort in New York City. I was in Brooklyn when it happened. It must have been a Tuesday because it was the day for group therapy – I made my way through the events of that day and their impact on the city to the therapist’s office on 34th Street. There was one person (maybe there were two) in the offices – but my therapist was not there nor were any of the members of the group. The next week when the therapist learned that I had gone that day there was a nod of something slightly more than assent (almost approval).

I am reminded of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s frequent direction to “Just do it.”

2) I’m ennobled – even today / reading this story – by Fritz’s strength in getting through the ostracisation for mowing.

3) When Fritz told Gurdjieff that he was now able to complete the mowing of the lawns in three days instead of the five it had originally taken – Gurdjieff said – “Must be able to do in one day. This important.” The boy was overwhelmed. When he was able to report that he could do the mowing in one day – Gurdjieff took him and showed him a scythe and a field and told him that he would be responsible for mowing the lawns every day and for scything the field once a week. It was only the look in his eyes, serious and pained, that prevented me from making an immediate, angry, tearful protest. I simply bowed my head and nodded, and then walked with him, slowly, back to the main house, up the stairs and to the door of his room.

My first therapist was Dr George Breitbart – a psychiatrist trained in the Freudian tradition / but unconventional in almost all respects – who I saw from my age of thirty-five to forty. I was always having trouble with my girlfriend / especially around the matter of my own jealousy / but also with our individual depressions and other emotional problems. I frequently went to him unable to speak about what was on my mind because I couldn’t (or thought that I couldn’t) bear the pain of it. And I frequently went to him on the verge of tears. One day I went to see him – and talked at length about my girlfriend-problems and my total despair (which I really did very much feel) relative to them. He said to me – “You’re a young guy. You’re handsome and have a lot going for you. You’re not married. You should have ten girlfriends!” I felt something in me split apart.

4) Fritz was away from the Prieuré over the winter months (1924-1925). When I saw him again Gurdjieff put his hand on my head, and I looked up at his fierce moustaches, the broad, open smile underneath the shining, bald head. Like some large, warm animal, he pulled me to his side, squeezing me affectionately with his arm and hand, and said: “So . . . you come back?” It was phrased as a question, something a little more than a statement of fact. All I was able to do was to nod my head against him and contain my explosive happiness.

How I wish that I had had someone like that in my life at that age! The first close facsimile (someone with whom I could at least identify) was Alec Garland who taught us French and English Literature in high school. No one else until that time.

5) Fritz tells the story of Gurdjieff’s absolute rage with (and at) one of his star pupils (indeed someone who taught somewhat in Gurdjieff’s name) – A. R. Orage – a sustained outburst that Fritz heard from the corridor as he was on his way in to deliver coffee and brandy. He was not able to hear the content of the outburst. When he entered the room – Suddenly, in the space of an instant, Gurdjieff’s voice stopped, his whole personality changed, he gave me a broad smile – looking incredibly peaceful and inwardly quiet – motioned me to leave, and then resumed his tirade with undiminished force.

Eido Roshi – one of only two Japanese teachers in America in the Rinzai tradition in America – has a reputation for sternness. (His compatriot Sasaki Roshi has a similar reputation.) I have seen Eido Roshi sternly rebuke students – usually for not being clear about what they’re doing / or for not being clear about who they are in the moment in which he’s addressing them (for not being present). At the group meeting which follows morning practice students live in fear of his rebuke. But he has never said an unkind word to me / has always been enormously helpful and encouraging in interviews / and has treated me with respect. I don’t believe that I’m “better” than his other students – but that has been my experience. Also – I have seen him be compassionate toward all and sundry / flexible in his dealings with people / friendly during tea breaks / generous with his favorite foods / and so enormously dedicated to what he is doing that it is beyond words (literally). And (and) he has a great sense of humor.

6) It had been impressive, enlightening and even amusing to watch him, at close range, when he reduced people to a pulp, as he had done in the case of Mr. Orage, in my presence. But was it not also significant that Mr. Orage had left the Prieuré shortly after that and had not returned? I had been told that he was teaching the Gurdjieff “work” in New York since that time, and it may have been that whatever Gurdjieff had done to Mr. Orage had been necessary; but, finally, who was to determine that?” Yes – (even not so ultimately) – who?

Eido Roshi is said to have had fallings out with some of his senior students (at least one of whom he had given transmission to) / or they had fallings out with him / or a falling apart had in some way occurred between them. I wasn’t there – so I can’t report more than that. But I think that sometimes the little birds have to be kicked out of the nest in order to learn (finally) to fly for themselves. Particularly in these types of student/teacher relationships – a great deal of interdependence often develops / and it can become a sort of codependence until it is severed. Usually I think the student is ready to have that happen when it does happen (although they may not be aware of that).

7) He did whatever he did when he wanted or needed to.

There is a Zen saying – “When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.”

8) He was invariably concerned with others, and considerate of them. He never failed, for example, to thank me and to apologize to me when I had to bring him coffee, half-asleep, at three o’clock in the morning. I knew instinctively that such consideration was something far more than ordinary, acquired courtesy. And, perhaps this was the clue, he was interested. Whenever I saw him, whenever he gave me an order, he was fully aware of me, completely concentrated on whatever words he said to me; his attention never wandered when I spoke to him. He always knew exactly what I was doing, what I had done. I think we must all have felt, certainly I did, when he was with any of us, that we received his total attention. I can think of nothing more complimentary in human relations.

The only people from whom (with whom) I have had that experience are Zen Master Seung Sahn and Eido Roshi – and (to a lesser extent) with some of their students. I believe it is something that only the East can inform fully (in Gurdjieff’s case his nearness to it and his learning from it) – we haven’t got it yet.

Dr Breitbart had a comparable kind of presence – a Western version you might say. I’ve known few people who could match his compassion / and who could be counted on for it. He was always completely present – when he was completely present! – but there were times (if you had nothing to contribute to the session) when he might nod off from listening to you (he saw patients from 7am to 7pm five days a week – and often a couple more on the weekends / as well as occasionally spending weekends with patients at his country home). You might say that his attention was complete – but very relaxed. I never felt for a moment (even when he was resting) that he was elsewhere. He was always there for me – all I had to do was ask.

9) He began by asking me about the exercise that had been given to all of us to do, and which I referred to previously as “self-observation”. He said that it was a very difficult exercise to do and that he wanted me to do it, with my entire concentration, as constantly as possible. He also said that the main difficulty with this exercise, as with most exercises that he did – or would in the future – give to me or to any of his students, was that to do them properly it was necessary not to expect results.

And later –

When speaking about the state of well-being that might be experienced as a result of doing his exercises – He said that while such a state of exhilaration was proper to the correct and serious performance of such exercises, one danger lay in our misconception of “results” or “progress”; it was necessary to remember that we should not expect results at all.

The Heart Sutra says (among much (or little (depending upon how you look at it) else)) –
No attainment,
With nothing to attain.

10) Gurdjieff told Fritz – “Even your religion – western religion – have this phrase ‘Know thyself’. This phrase most important in all religions. When begin know self already begin have possibility become genuine man. So first thing must learn is know self by this exercise, self-observation. If not do this, then will be like acorn that not become tree – fertilizer. Fertilizer which go back in ground and become possibility for future man.”

What does it mean to know your self? Who is doing the knowing if the self is (as yet) unknown? There are many more questions that could be asked / and that impinge on this important matter of our development as human beings. Seung Sahn’s major teaching was – “What am I? Don’t know.” This “Don’t know.” was not strictly speaking “I don’t know.” – it was “Just don’t-know.” / the absence of knowing / the absence of an I / the omnipresent big question. Others have taught that there is something to know (some self) – and the best of them have gotten very close in their teachings to Seung Sahn’s teaching / they have approached it from the other side and left any division between the teachings paper-thin / word-thin (at most).

11) Gurdjieff went to America for a prolonged trip and left a Miss Madison in charge. Miss Madison had a little black book in which she kept a tally of each student’s (and most were adults) offences. When he returned there was a meeting at which she read the contents of this book – listing all the wrongs of each of the students. When Fritz was called forward and had admitted to each and every one of his wrongs (he had the most) – With another sigh, and shaking his head at me as if he was very much put upon, he reached into his pocked and pulled out an enormous roll of bills. Once again, he enumerated the number of my crimes, and then laboriously peeled off an equal number of notes. I do not remember exactly how much he gave me – but when he had finished counting, he handed me a sizable roll of francs. Gurdjieff proceeded to award each of his students in the same way – and according to the number of their wrongs!

This matter of being paid for your crimes – instead of paying for them – struck me as an acute form of justice / as something I had never encountered (we were always liberally disciplined for our “failings” when children) – and as a rather poetic form of justice at that!

I will only quote the following by way of explanation – “What you not understand,” he said, “is that not everyone can be troublemaker, like you. This important in life – is ingredient, like yeast for making bread. Without trouble, conflict, life become dead. People live in status quo, live only by habit, automatically and without conscience.”

This matter of friction as a valued thing evokes the metaphor of the sand that makes possible the pearl.

There was an older man who lived at the Prieuré who Gurdjieff valued for this reason also. He was said to be a somewhat wealthy merchant – but Gurdjieff paid him to live there because he invoked hostility in everyone. “Rachmilevitch grown man and not mischievous, like you, but have such personality that he constantly cause friction whatever he do, wherever he live. He not make serious trouble, but he make friction on surface of life, all the time. … Without Rachmilevitch, Prieuré is not same; I know no one person like him, no person who just by existence, without conscious effort, produce friction in all people around him. … Nowhere else can his personality perform such useful work.” We all create friction – at least some of the time / for some people. Seung Sahn used the example of washing potatoes – saying that the best way to wash them was not to take each one and clean it individually but to stir them in a pot of water together whereby their rough edges would clean those they came in contact with. I once volunteered for kitchen duty at the Zen center in Cumberland and started to wash the potatoes one by one – clearly it would have taken a great deal of time with about sixty people to feed! – and I was laughed at gently by the head cook – who reminded me of Seung Sahn’s teaching and who showed me without words how completely practical it was.

12) “Real man also sometimes feel happiness, real happiness; but he also feel real suffering, he not try to stop this thing in self. He accept this because he know is proper to man. Must suffer to know truth about self; must learn suffer with will. When suffering come to man must make intentional suffering, must feel with all being; must wish with such suffering that it will help make conscious; help to understand.”

This is something that I must say I still do not accept – that we must know suffering to know the end of suffering / pain to know pleasure / sadness to know happiness / despair to know joy / and so on. Buddha also said – “I came to teach two things; suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Perhaps it is because I feel that I am still (and always (always (and always))) learning only the first of these lessons that I can’t accept the implied dialectic in the formulations offered. I believe that from suffering we learn only suffering / from happiness only happiness / and so on – and that there’s no reason why these things have to exist in the pairs in which we (apparently) experience them (or in which we choose to experience them).

13) “Nature of woman is very different from that of man. Woman is from ground, and only hope for her to arise to another stage of development – to go to Heaven as you say – is with man. Woman already know everything, but such knowledge is of no use to her, in fact can almost be like poison to her, unless have man with her. Man have one thing that not exist in woman ever; what you call ‘aspiration’. In life, man use this thing – this aspiration – for many things, all wrong for his life, but must use because have such need. Man – not woman – climb mountains, go under oceans, fly in air, because must do such thing. Impossible for him not to do; cannot resist this. Look at life around you: Man write music, man paint pictures, write books, all such things. Is way, he think, find Heaven for self.”

When someone did object that the sciences and the arts were not, after all, exclusively confined to the world of the male, Gurdjieff laughed: “You ask questions about woman artist, woman scientist. I tell you world all mixed up, and this true thing I say. True man and true woman not just one sex – not just male or female. True human is combination of these things: active and passive, male and female. Even you,” he made a sweeping gesture covering all of us, “sometimes understand this because sometimes you surprised when you see man who feel thing like woman, or woman who act like man; or even when in self feel feelings proper to opposite sex.”

This is sexism. Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex; attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

Perhaps women are in some ways different from men – but to fail to see that that is (in many significant ways) the result of society and its conditioning is a gross oversight. If we look from culture to culture and see how these things vary – we see that at a glance. These things also change over time. Karen Horney’s introduction of the cultural variables into the field of psychoanalysis helped to begin to clarify these matters. We can see that some of these apparent differences (and some very real ones as well) are things that we have made / that they are not inherent – and that in many cases we need to unmake them if we are to live kindly / and if we are to go forward as a race.

I myself feel neither male nor female – nor do I feel particularly an amalgamation of traits thought by others to be typical of either of the two. I think there are as many sexes as there are individuals – and I know (and feel) that even within that limitation I am always changing. I’m a different sex (if you want to waste your time discerning that) depending upon the situation / upon who I’m with / upon my mood / upon what I want / and so on.

We have to stop living with these dichotomous limitations. They cause pain. Each thing is just what it is – it doesn’t gain allure or meaning on competition with something else (that is only the western way – and even then not for all of us).

14) There is a lot to suggest that Gurdjieff was an arrogant and meddlesome rascal. Even with animals he could be unkind – pushing against the legs of a cow on the road with the bumper of his car. When the car shat on the hood of the car he pulled over and sat reading and writing while his students cleaned up the mess.

Power does (or at least can) tend to corrupt. Stories of spiritual teachers taking advantage of their position for financial gain / for sex / and for other reasons proliferate. It’s too easy for the teacher then to explain it away as part of the teaching / as being for the student’s own good.

Fritz adored Gurdjieff (it is probable that he was for him both a father- and a mother-figure) – and almost all that he writes paints him in a wonderful light / as a great and benevolent human being. What he did do was at least provocative, unpredictable, irritating and, usually, interesting enough to arouse questions, doubts, and controversies. But there are also the incidents where the cunning and manipulation seem to have been without reason – other than Gurdjieff’s enjoyment of them.

15) Except for Madame Ostrovsky, his deceased wife, I could think of no one other than Gurdjieff himself who had “commanded” any sort of respect by the simple fact of their presence. One thing that a great many of the other, older students did have in common was what I thought of as a kind of “affected serenity”. They managed to look composed and controlled or unruffled most of the time, but it was never quite believable. … Their control seemed to me to be achieved by repression or suppression – I always felt that these words were synonymous – which I could not believe was desirable or worthwhile as an aim, other than socially.

I’m reminded of some of the students of Oriental Zen Masters that I’ve known (many of them very well). Often they don’t seem to “quite have it” – whatever “it” might be thought (or made) to be in that context. But that “it” is always there in the presence of the Zen Master himself (the ones I’ve known have been men) – and it is against that background that we see (and perhaps judge) their students. I’ve often found their students to be rather stilted versions of “the real thing”. But Zen people talk about both sudden and gradual enlightenment as possibilities – and some argue for one and some for the other. Some see the process as involving both – so that one possibility would involve a moment of sudden enlightenment (or maybe a succession of moments) followed by a gradual ripening of that realization. In that view we are perhaps sometimes catching the student at an inopportune time (as it were) – when there is lots more of that awakening to be undergone. I have seen some students undergo just such a process – whereby after having been given transmission they slowly ripened into a more complete and genial version of “the real thing” (and that largely through the practice of being (of having (having (of having))) to be that thing).

16) He said that there were various important exercises having to do with “self-remembering” which was a very important aspect of his work. One of them was to consciously and with all one’s concentration, try to remember, as on a movie film, everything that one had done during each entire day. This was to be done every night before going to sleep. The most important thing in the exercise was not to let the attention wander – by association. If one’s attention did wander from the focus upon the image of oneself, then it was absolutely necessary to begin all over again at the beginning each time this happened – and it would, he warned, happen.

In Alcoholics Anonymous (and other twelve-step programs modeled upon it) they talk about “taking a personal inventory” – this is something that one should only do of oneself / and many people make a habit of doing it at the end of every day. The fourth of the Twelve Steps reads – “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Step eight – “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” And step ten – “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Here the process of recovery – analogous in at least some ways to Gurdjieff’s teachings about developing as a human – returns to this matter of paying attention to yourself / of constant awareness.

Many Zen teachings question the existence of a self – but even they enforce constant attention as a way toward that realization. The practice of zazen (sitting meditation) which is what Zen is at its base – stresses this kind of attention very much as Gurdjieff spoke of it. One basic practice involves counting your breaths from one to ten / and then starting over again at one – and anyone teaching the practice will tell the meditator that if they lose their concentration (their count) they should immediately begin by counting again from one. A Buddhist practicing with visualization (say of a mandala) might work in a similar way. A student meditating on a koan would always bring their attention back to that koan if it wandered away (and – like Gurdjieff – I can assure you that it does!). So regardless of notions about the self – whether there is one or not / and if there is one what it is – there is an emphasis on constant attention / awareness / in and of the moment (if there is (is (if there is)) a moment).

17) In relating the observation of the body to love, he again used the example of the two hands or arms, saying that love could be defined as “one hand washes the other”. As the word again implies – G had elsewhere used this metaphor (or ones like it) to explain his thinking. He did speak of man as having three parts (or centers) – but when doing so suggested that it was a struggle between (or for) the first to parts to attain the third. The problem there I think is that to make a third characteristic out of the two leads to a further dichotomy – and so on – when the real resolution is to do away with the dichotomy entirely.

My own experience tells me that this kind of dichotomous thinking is at the basis of many of mankind’s problems. Because we think of self versus “other” (or us versus them) we kill / because we think of man being different from woman we treat one or the other with disrespect / because we think of right versus wrong we are intolerant of the views and beliefs of people / because we cling to our likes and dislikes we make unhappiness for ourselves / because of the things we want and don’t want we treat other people unkindly / and so on.

Everything is just what it is / and nothing else. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to teach by saying – “This and this (eg an apple and a brass bell) – are they the same or different?” Whatever a student might say or do – Seung Sahn’s answer was to bite into the apple or to ring the bell (or both). If we learn these lessons we have a chance of saving the world – one thing (as just-what-it-is) at a time.