Back to Articles Home
Sy Ginsburg, USA
Symour B. Ginsburg was born in Chicago in 1934. A founder of the predecessor business and the first president of Toys R Us, he was for many years involved in commodities trading. In 1978 he found Sri Madhava Ashish in India and wrote 'In Search of the Unitive Vision' of his experiences. Ashish advised Sy to get in touch with Gurdjieff groups, which he did and later became co-founder of the Gurdjieff Institute of Florida. Sy Ginsburg is also one of the founders of All & Everything International Humanities Conference.
GIG: You describe in your book that your own search had its origins in the theosophical studies that took you to India and Ashish. When you studied with him you joined the Gurdjieff Work and also used channelling to assist your search. How do you manage to have interest in all these directions?
Sy: I shall have to back up a bit in time to answer your question. In 1978 when I first became interested in ideas of this kind, I was already 43 years old. I am told that this is rather late for people to come in touch with the work. But I had strong views on religion as a child, and these were negative views. As an eleven year old youngster, I declared myself an atheist because I did not believe a word of what was said in the religion into which I was born which happened to be Judaism. Nor did I believe a word of what was said in the Christian faiths of many of my friends. I concluded that all religion was fairy tale, made up by people who were afraid of their annihilation at death.
I was a product of education in the 1950s. This was a kind of straight and narrow time after the second World War when most people were interested in home, family, and a good job or business. The people I knew paid lip service to religion as did I, but really believed none of it. After schooling, I plunged into law and business with some success and I saw myself as part of the establishment. In those days I had no use at all for the so-called hippies of the 1960s who were beginning to explore Eastern philosophies with what to me were strange sounding names. Something significant had to happen to turn me around, as it were.
Such an event occurred with the sudden death of my young wife in 1971. It was the beginning of a major change in my world view. Her death caused me to think seriously about life and death and to question what our lives are all about. Eventually I began to ask the two big questions that all people coming to an inner search ask sooner or later: 1) who am I, and 2) what is the purpose of human life in general and of my life in particular. I learned later that J. G. Bennett characterized these as Gurdjieff’s questions.
Since I knew that I could expect no real answers from the traditional Western religions, I began with some reluctance to explore Eastern religions and philosophies and this led me to look, although somewhat askance, at groups with the strange sounding eastern names that I had formerly dismissed as just goofy hippy stuff.
One name and group that caught my attention from a listing in a new age magazine was the Theosophical Society. In spite of what I thought was a good education, I had never come across the word “theosophical.” Investigation led me to an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica complete with a photo of the Society's founder, Helena Blavatsky. The fact that the Britannica had written her up, gave her philosophy some respectability in my narrow view of things.
Investigating further, I discovered that Blavatsky’s magnum opus was a huge, thoroughly confusing and indecipherable book called ‘The Secret Doctrine’ published in 1889. But I sensed that there was something important in what Blavatsky was trying to say and I looked for books of commentary to explain her writings. My attention was drawn to two books of commentary on The Secret Doctrine, ‘Man, the Measure of All Things,’ and ‘Man, Son of Man.’ Their author was Sri Madhava Ashish. These books brought The Secret Doctrine to life for me and I wrote a letter of praise to Ashish in care of his publisher.
The fact that Ashish’s reply letter inviting me to visit him in India arrived on the morning of departure on my first trip to that country for an entirely different purpose was only one of many synchronistic events that occurred in the early days of my search. These synchronicities were so many and so extraordinary that I could hardly ignore them. They began to open me up to the possibility of the real existence of unseen planes of consciousness and reality. On that first trip to India I came across the name Gurdjieff for the first time, again through what can only be described as synchronistic events, and this was before I met Ashish. When I did meet Madhava Ashish at the end of that trip in what was an entirely unplanned meeting I asked him about Gurdjieff’s teaching of which I knew nothing. But Ashish seemed to know all about it, and sizing me up as a mainstream Western businessman who would be turned off by things Indian, he suggested that the Gurdjieffian teaching was the best method for me to follow rather than a more devotional Eastern philosophy.
Separate spiritual traditions meant little to Ashish whether it was Theosophy, Gurdjieffianism or the strict Vaishnavan sect of Hinduism in which he had become a monk. He was interested only in the truth and in helping others to discover it, as he himself had. It did not matter to him which path someone followed to discover that truth and, in so doing, to answer what Bennett called Gurdjieff’s questions.
Ashish had been immersed in all this since his coming to India with the British military during the second World War. He learned a great deal during his thirty-five years in India before I met him, and he seemed to have a comprehensive understanding of just about every spiritual path whether that path led through traditional religions or the many “new religions” that had come upon the scene. He once described all these paths to me as merely like spokes in a bicycle wheel. They may appear as separate but if they are real and not bogus, then at the core, they are all the same. So, over my years of search from 1978 on as I came across all manner of groups and traditions I would seek Ashish’s opinion of them.
I can tell you that Ashish saved me a great deal of time by steering me away not only from bogus paths, but paths in which it is easy to get bogged down in intellectual sophistry and in religious politics, thus losing sight of the way. Because of the many synchonicities and serendipitous events I encountered, I had become more open to the possibility that things like channeling could lead to real results, and over the years Ashish, who had become my mentor, guided me as I explored these many aspects of the search. Having become affiliated with the Theosophical Society, where I eventually became President of the South Florida branch, I encountered every sort of alternative spiritual tradition. This is rightly so because the key objects of the Society are to encourage the comparative study of religion, science, philosophy, and the unexplained laws of nature and powers latent in humanity. But as often as not especially in the early years before I had developed sufficient powers of discrimination, Ashish would steer me away from the sillier things that came to my attention. I have written about all this in some detail in ‘In Search of the Unitive Vision.’
GIG: Sri Madhava Ashish came from the West, but studied and taught in India. What role did his mastery of the English and his western origin play in your relationship?
Sy: I know many people who say that the ‘darshan’ of the guru, simply sitting in his presence for example, is sufficient. But for me that never would have worked. It was very important and I was very fortunate to have come upon the Englishman, Madhava Ashish (nee Alexander Phipps), a guru who became my mentor. Although adopting India as his country, he was, as another of his pupils described him: English to the tips of his toe nails. We had not only language in common, but a common culture.
GIG: Ashish knew Gurdjieff's teaching surprisingly well. Did he have any Work contacts and how did he arrive at the understanding he had of it?
Sy: Some Gurdjieffians are surprised to learn that one can come across and pursue what Gurdjieff taught, without any contact at all with the lineages of the Gurdjieffian teaching. But this is as it should be because as Ashish said, at their core, all true teachings are the same. We need to remember that when asked, Gurdjieff simply called his teaching, esoteric Christianity.
Ashish and his guru, Sri Krishna Prem (nee Ronald Nixon) another Englishman and Cambridge scholar, worked out the teaching for themselves in the years following World War II. In doing so, they saw that they could dispose of many of the unnecessary rituals of orthodox Vaishnava Hinduism and they did so. Although, they maintained the Hindu temple at the center of the Mirtola ashram which is essentially a farm, the practices they continued were in terms of techniques to enhance self-awareness. Ashish liked to call it, “being aware of being aware.”
I learned that over the years a surprising number of Gurdjieffians had made their way up to Mirtola, hearing in one way or another about these two English gurus, living in the Himalayas, who practiced their own form of the work. Among the more well known Gurdjieffians who visited Mirtola at one time or another were Olga de Hartmann, Phillipe Lavastine, Lizelle Reymond, Laurence Rosenthal, James George, and Bernard Courtenay-Mayers. Jeanne de Salzmann met Ashish in 1971, but that was in New Delhi, not at the ashram. Many other students of the Gurdjieff work whose names you would not recognize have also made their way up to Mirtola over the years.
GIG: You have been involved with the All & Everything Conference? What is it and is it of interest to our readers?
Sy: I hope the All & Everything Conference will be of interest to your readers because, in my view, the conference is the best hope for the Gurdjieff tradition to avoid the trap of becoming an institutionalized religion, susceptible to all the problems that go along with being a religion.
The Conference will be meeting for its eighth year in 2003. What was initially seen as a one time event when it began in 1996, seems to have staying power so there must be a need for it. It began because a student in Texas, Russell Smith, had written a provocative book, ‘Gurdjieff: Cosmic Secrets,’ giving a different slant to the laws of world creation and world maintenance written about by Gurdjieff in ‘Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson.’ Russell’s view of the nature of the changing of the stopinders by Endlessness was at odds with how most students of the Tales understood what Gurdjieff had written. An old friend of mine, Nicolas Tereshchenko of France, along with me, and another student, Bert Sharp of England, met through the pages of Gnosis magazine (no longer published) and continued our discussions by correspondence. We eventually decided to get together in England to discuss Russell Smith’s book and his ideas, and we invited Russell to join us. Another friend, James Moore who has a great many Gurdjieffian contacts became involved, and before we knew it, more than fifty people participated in that first conference.
The need was such that the first conference led to a second, and then to one each year after that. Over these years many problems have been encountered and resolved in such a way that the conference has remained ecumenical. It is not a group work event and does not include work on Movements or on exercises that are related to personal or group work. The conference is a four day event at a charming hotel on the south coast of England during which papers on aspects of the teaching are presented and seminars are organized around subjects and chapters of ‘Beelzebub’s Tales.’ It was recognized almost from the beginning that Gurdjieff’s writings under the title ‘All & Everything’ were the common thread by which people from different lineages or no lineages could usefully meet and share their perspectives. Personally, I have found that meeting other people with the same common interest is the most rewarding part of the conference, and it is structured so as to encourage time for dialog and the developing of personal relationships.
The conference is not held under the auspices of any Gurdjieff group or umbrella organization, Indeed, there is no organization that actually plans and runs the conference. It is put together by a group of volunteers, a planning committee, which at the moment numbers eight participants of which I am one. They are supported by an advisory board of prominent academicians and Gurdjieffians who presently number nine. The makeup of both the planning committee and the advisory board change in number and composition from year to year. I think the conference very much fits in with Gurdjieff’s ideas and criticisms about organizations, as it attempts to meet those criticisms.
GIG: I am sitting here in Denmark and in spite of the 'remoteness of this corner of the planet' have a fairly wide view over what takes place outwardly in the Gurdjieff world as a result of the undertakings of various individuals. I am not cut-off as much as before due to the work on the Gurdjieff Internet Guide. Internet is for me a kind of 'observatory' which makes it possible to see these things. The Gurdjieff Foundations etc. that were established by Madame de Salzmann fairly soon after Gurdjieff's death seem to-day lack this co-ordinated leadership that was continued by Michel de Salzmann after his mother's passing away and looks almost like it has come to an end when Michel died. It seems that the development in the direction of openness is gaining ground rapidly. Your All & Everything Conference and the work done by Gurdjieff-movements.net headed by Wim van Dullemen are two examples of this 'New Age'. How do you feel about this development and what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages for those studying Gurdjieff's ideas and aiming to get to know themselves?
Sy: I replied to your first question with a fairly lengthy answer. This question which has several parts also requires me to reply at length.
Wim Van Dullemen is a good friend who I met through the All & Everything conference several years ago. I cannot speak from personal experience about the work of his Gurdjieff Movements initiative because I never participated in one of his movement seminars. But knowing Wim, and having seen some of his movements work, I think it must be first rate. A member of a Gurdjieff group that I help facilitate in Illinois attended Wim’s movements seminar during the summer of 2001, She told me that she got a great deal out of it. It was especially useful for her because we do not do movements in this Illinois group, so this was an opportunity for her to experience movements as given by a competent movements instructor. Although, I participated in movements classes for several years during my early days in the Gurdjieff work I never saw myself as competent to give the movements. One must learn from one who knows.
Gurdjieff brought his teaching in many different forms and he would change his modus operandi from time to time. Bennett suggested that Gurdjieff has given us a great smorgasbord like table from which we are to take what suits our type. “If Take, then take”, said Gurdjieff. I know people who receive extraordinarily from engaging in the movements and yet they will never crack open ‘Beelzebub’s Tales.’ Conversely, others get a huge amount from studying the Tales but nothing from doing the movements. Still others do neither the movements, nor study the Tales, but they work on themselves through participation in a group that meets usually weekly and in which they report their experiences of engaging in self-awareness tasks given from week to week.
Since the movements are such a specialized form of the teaching, the Gurdjieff community is fortunate to have people like Wim and others competent in the movements who make themselves available for periodic seminars. It is especially valuable for those students for whom movements suits their type but who do not have access to weekly movements classes. If one lives near to Wim or someone like him who can act as a regular instructor, or is involved with a group in which movements are given regularly, this would be ideal for such a type.
With respect to the All & Everything Conference, we need to remember that the conference is not a Gurdjieff group, nor is it a substitute for a Gurdjieff group. Its purposes are as I have stated them earlier. In my view the conference provides the best forum to date for the ecumenism that is essential if Gurdjieff’s teaching is not to degenerate amongst its followers into the kind of infighting that has plagued the differing Christian church movements through the centuries. For me the most important aspect of Gurdjieff’s teaching is the insistence upon the value of a group that meets regularly, usually weekly. I have learned from personal experience that a group really does provide a ‘will’ which most of us do not have. The obligation to attend a weekly meeting and to report on ones work for the week has served as a prod to me and I think to most everyone in such a group to really try to remember ourselves always and everywhere using the agreed upon task as a tool for self-awareness. I have heard hundreds of ‘confessions’ by people coming to a group that confirms this. They say something like, “I only remembered the task this morning, but I have worked on it all day.”
But a group does not have to be a big formal affair. Madhava Ashish, in fact, warned me more than once that leaders who go for numbers lose their way. It is the obligation to meet and to work on oneself, inspired by the group will, that is important. A group can be as few as two people, although three would be better. You, for instance, sitting in Denmark in your ‘remote corner of the planet’ can more than likely find another person or two or more with whom to meet. Perhaps you are already involved with such a group. I recently had an email from someone in Delaware who I do not know, describing that she with her husband and another couple, are meeting weekly to read and discuss Beelzebub’s Tales. By simply adding an agreement to undertake a self-awareness task during the week and reporting their results at their meeting, they would then be a Gurdjieff group whether they realize it or not.
There are a few people who, for geographical reasons, cannot attend the group meetings that I am involved with either in Florida or in Illinois. So, I send them the task we are doing by email and ask them to respond with their observations if they wish. But I also encourage them to find at least one other person to meet with and, in fact, to then make up their own weekly tasks. The Gurdjieff Foundation in which I participated in group work for a number of years serves many pupils in many important ways. Again, the most important aspect in my view, are the group meetings. I knew both Jeanne and Michel de Salzmann, if not well, then at least sufficiently to know that they were both dedicated to their own work on Self and to helping others with their work. The passing on of one or another group leader is always a sad event for their friends and students, but the work does not change. The Gurdjieff Foundations have many competent group leaders who are able and willing to share their understanding. But ones work is always ones own work, and as I have said, what we see in another person is that which is in each of us but which we have not yet discovered. The rapid development in the direction of openness about which you remark is, of course, a good thing. I think the tradition of secrecy that has marked so many legitimate Gurdjieff groups may have emanated from Ouspensky more than from Gurdjieff. But they were both conditioned by the yoke of Soviet Bolshevism, and secrecy must have been a political necessity, especially in those early groups. Unfortunately, the tradition of secrecy has carried down to some contemporary groups when it is no longer needed. This has allowed the springing up of bogus groups often led by the rogues and charlatans out to fleece people, about which Gurdjieff warned, because people coming across the ideas and not being able to find a legitimate but secretive group, would fall into the hands of those advertising their wares.
Good common sense is a hallmark of someone equipped to engage in the work. It is a hallmark of the good obyvatel. So perhaps not getting ‘suckered in’ to some bogus group is an indication of that good common sense. With all that is available through the Internet and other modern communications no one with good common sense need get fleeced today. We need to be good obyvatels.
GIG: When I look at the picture of Ashish on your book cover I have a sense of knowing him. Does this sound strange to you?
Sy: It might have sounded strange back in the 1960s when as a corporate executive I was not open to mystical experience. Things are different for me now, and I do not think your sense of knowing Ashish is strange at all. Ashish has written that “in the unitive vision the identity of the individual with the universal is experienced.” In other words, we are really all one, and what you see, especially looking at his eyes is that flame or spirit that perhaps burns more brightly in him but which you and I seek in ourselves. It is there in each of us because in essence we are all one.
GIG: It turned out that we were both 'searching something' in Geneva at the same time in 1979 and met Lizelle Reymond. You went to Mirtola with Lizelle to meet Ashish. Can you tell me more about this?
Sy: Although by that time I was active in a Gurdjieff group in south Florida, I met Lizelle not on that basis, but because she had spent five years living in the ashram of her guru, Sri Anirvan, only about twenty miles away from the Mirtola ashram of Madhava Ashish. Lizelle had written about this in a book that I happened to pick up (another synchronicity), and realizing that we had at least a geographical commonality in visiting India, I looked her up during a business trip to Geneva, Switzerland, where she lived. It was only after we became good friends that I learned she headed the Gurdjieff work in Switzerland. Since I was visiting Ashish annually, I invited her to come along with me to India. Of course, she had met Ashish and Prem when she lived near to Mirtola earlier, but she had not been there in many years and was hankering to go back. Although she was rather robust for a woman in her seventies, it was helpful for her to come along with me. Getting to Mirtola, in its remote Himalayan location, is an experience in itself.
GIG: What is your advice to people who are looking for a teaching or a teacher?
Sy: Ultimately, our real teacher is within us. But as I said before, we may see something in someone, the unity of all being, which is what we are really looking to discover in ourselves. While it is not essential to have an external teacher and some of the greatest saints have never had one, most of us need some external guidance and usually some form of spiritual discipline. On one occasion Ashish told me that I was lucky in that the two disciplines I was pursuing: Theosophical teachings which I stumbled upon, and Gurdjieffian teachings which Ashish recommended I pursue, were shorter paths to the truth than many other systems. Based on this, I would recommend that someone looking for a teaching would do well to pursue either or both of those paths. Personally, I have found the Gurdjieffian teaching more useful because of the emphasis on practical work on oneself.
I would be inclined to look for a teaching that suits my makeup rather than for a teacher. It might be Theosophy, it might be Gurdjieffian, it might be a teaching through one of the traditional religions or it might be through one of what I have called the new religions. You have surely heard the expression that when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. This really does happen and you will when you are ready come across someone within the framework of whatever teaching you are pursuing who will act as your mentor, just as Ashish did for me. He or she can warn you around the crevice you do not see while your gaze is on the distant mountain. And that person, I would prefer to call him an older student rather than a teacher, may be just a little further along the path of understanding than are you. Remember what Gurdjieff said: that a man who is not worth a brass farthing will have no other than Jesus Christ for a teacher. Gurdjieff also pointed out that you are as important to that older student as he is to you because his level of understanding cannot increase until he has brought you up to his level. He cannot take the next step until he puts you on his step. A word of caution is in order here. Gurdjieff wisely said that payment is necessary because certain expenses need to be paid and more important, we do not value what we do not pay for. But use your good common sense. Outlandish demands for money are a sign that one is dealing, not with a teacher or an older student, but rather with a charlatan or a rogue.
GIG: How is Sy Ginsburg to-day and how is his Self?
Sy: There is no Sy Ginsburg, at least not in the real sense. Ashish once told me that Sy is merely a tissue of sensations and memories. This was tough for me to swallow when he told me that back in 1981, but I have come to see that he was right. This applies to all of us. You are real, but it is the essential you, the individualized essence, which is the Self. This journey, this quest is not about attaining anything, it is about discovering who we really are and that is the Self, the Absolute or Endlessness, if you like.
There is a wonderful quotation that Helena Blavatsky wrote to end a very short book entitled, “The Voice of the Silence.” She ends that book by reminding the student who he/she really is : “Thou art thy Self, the object of thy search.”
Copyright © Seymour B. Ginsburg, Gurdjieff Internet Guide