The trail of Mr Gurdjieff
I first read about Gurdjieff in a book by Anne Bancroft entitled 'Modern Mystics and Sages, when I was a teenager. Incidentally it is a marvellous book. She is a miracle writer able to evoke the life of spirit of her subjects in short, concise and captivating chapters (I met Thomas Merton and Martin Buber here first too, and cannot thus be thankful enough).
I must have been sufficiently impressed as I bought my mother a copy of Gurdjieff's 'Meetings with Remarkable Men' This she read (and I did not) expressing disappointment, I recall, that it talked insufficiently of the content of the remarkable mens' belief and practice. I noticed that it had been made into a film by Peter Brook, which I have never seen (but which I have just ordered), in whom I was interested. Brook had directed the first serious play (Anthony and Cleopatra) that I ever saw on a professional stage (at Stratford) and I had heard him subsequently give a mesmerising talk on both the play and the craft of theatre.
For years any connection with Gurdjieff lay in abeyance. Until I went to work with Ann to help found the Prison Phoenix Trust. She had read him, his errant disciple, Ouspensky and two of his key collaborators: Maurice Nicoll and J.G. Bennett. The latter, I think, she had met. The one who most deeply impressed her was Nicoll (and I inherited her copy of Living Time and his Psychological Commentaries on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky). I have read 'Living Time' and Nicoll's books of commentary on the parables of the New Testament: 'The Mark' and 'The New Man' with great profit. They have a profound simplicity and a quality of depth that sings through the surface pedestrianism of their text. No literary artifice should distract from the seriousness of their message. It was here I first encountered the understanding of sin as a 'missing of the mark' of one's own being. We are all works in progress towards glory gone astray and there are ways of finding our way that are law like that, by their practice, open us to the ever presence of grace.
The whole nexus, however, disappeared again until last year I read Jacob Needleman's 'What is God?' where, for the first time to my hearing, Needleman described his own indebtedness to 'the Work' (as Gurdjieff described it) and his long term practice within a number of its groups. Retrospectively it explained a great deal of Needleman's preceding work: a kind of hermeneutical key explaining his attitude towards traditional spirituality - its value and yet being a value whose full worth is hidden, that is not immediately accessible to the mainstream of those traditions themselves. I re-read Nicoll's 'Living Time', de Hartmanns' 'Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff' and most recently Ravi Ravindra's account of his work with Jeanne de Salzmann (Gurdjieff's principal disciple).
It does not appear that life will allow me to escape this strand of thought (and practice) - even though (like perhaps any group over time), it possesses features (and people) from whom one recoils. The recoiling, of course, might say as much about you as it does about them!
There is, I feel, however, something 'here' - a kind of rigour about the importance of sustained practice, the stress on the body in practice that works in from movement and posture to states of mind and spirit, a way that does not inflate one with a spiritual ideal in such a way that you miss all the many fold ways you miss the mark of that ideal and yet, at the same time, a way that carries a high sense of what it means potentially to be human.
I do not think I am likely to 'be converted' but I will continue to pay attention and I notice, even this morning, when meditating in the prayer of the heart, certain things that de Salzmann had said to Ravindra were resonating with my practice and ever so gently adjusting it, and deepening its seriousness.
What reading de Salzmann has (re) convicted me of is the importance of attentive, regular practice. The form is analogous, yet different, but there is a sense that we are of the same party, much closer in what unites than in what separates.