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Interview with David Hykes
Q: I would like to start by thanking you for the practices you taught at the Easter retreat. I’ve incorporated them in my sittings and they’re so beneficial. I really look forward to my practice and the chanting is now something that I’m doing every day – even though I can’t sing! (laugh)
A: Me neither (laughs) but I'm working on it! I’m delighted to hear that the practices are helpful and that they bring you joy so that you look forward to practising.
Q: I would like to begin by asking you how you came to the Gurdjieff work?
A: Through magnetic centre. I had an amazing Philosophy and Western Civilizations teacher in high school who was one of those teachers who turns out to be a great influence looking back in life. This elderly, very distinguished gentleman had been sent Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson by a former student alongside with an enthusiastic ecstatic letter, and my teacher walked up to me one day and said “I have an amazing book and I think it’s for you”.
Now, I couldn’t make heads or tails of Beelzebub’s Tales, but Mr. Gurdjieff's photo was utterly transfixing, and I found a metaphysical book store in a suburb of Tacoma, Washington, in the USA where I grew up. I found In Search of the Miraculous and Kenneth Walker’s book "Study of a Teaching" and gradually some of the other books. In Search was my constant and steady companion over the next five years while I looked for some form of the Gurdjieff work in the world. I recall feeling what a shame it was that this great being had died in 1949 and I had missed him -- I felt bereft.
Eventually my interest in filmmaking (inspired already in high school by the same seminal teacher, and seeing underground films, as well as those of Peter Brook) and music took me to New York, where I went to hear an intriguing group sing and play Azerbaijani music -- from the Caucasus, Mr. Gurdjieff's "home territory." Magnetic centre signals started going through the roof. Through the young people in the group I met Lord Pentland and so I joined the Work in New York in 1975, when I was 22. The amazing coincidence, if such exist, is that I had found myself delightfully confronted with the harmonic world of sound at the same time. I had suddenly discovered recordings of central Asian music from Tibet and Tuva in Mongolia. This coincided with film work where I was trying to make what I call refracted or prismatic soundtracks. The work of some particularly inspired contemporary composers like La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and musician-filmmaker Tony Conrad were a source of great wonder.
So I got a mix of east and west, what I would call the perfect Om, and I found it utterly transporting. The contemporary composers I mentioned had quite a mystical slant which I related to very well, and I began to immerse myself in studies and practice of harmonics. From the eastern traditions came this tremendous sense of the work with sound as a support in contemplative and spiritual practice.
Q: How did you come to develop Harmonic Chant from that?
A: Well, I felt very drawn to immerse myself in those sounds and I planned a personal retreat in this soundproof room I built in my loft in New York. I listened to the very few recordings which I was able to find, including a very wonderful album from Tibet by Huston Smith, as well as an ethnographic musical recording from Mongolia. This retreat changed my life. When I came out a few weeks later, I was hearing different sounds in my own voice. I started calling up my friends, mostly people I knew from film making, saying "Listen to this!" and I founded the Harmonic Choir in the spring of 1975. Several of these friends later joined the Gurdjieff group in New York and other cities. I was really quite inspired in making a group because of the Gurdjieff work. Up to that moment I’d been more in the post-modern self-obsessed individualistic, western artist mode, and I thought having a group might be a way out. I also felt very strongly that the artist should embody their art. These are both really central points in how my "harmonic vision" came to life, as artist-composer-singer-practitioner, and then as a teacher sharing the Harmonic Presence work in retreats and seminars around the world over the past 35 years.
Q: Could you tell us something about your involvement in the film Meetings with Remarkable Men?
A: Another life-changing experience! At the time, I was a young whippersnapper in the Gurdjieff group in New York under Lord Pentland’s enlightened tutelage. As my first great mentor, he gave me incredible guidance and inspiration. He persuaded Mme. de Salzmann and Peter Brook to have me in the film. I felt incredibly honoured and grateful for that opportunity, and Lord Pentland took me with him on one of his trips to Paris to meet Peter, Mme. de Salzmann, Michel de Salzmann, Henri Tracol and other senior members of the group. I also met Alain Kremski and other inspiring "younger people" of my generation. Peter said that if I had met them a little earlier I could have gone with them to Afghanistan, but unfortunately it was too late for that -- they’d shot the movie. They did bring me to London, however, where I recorded the music in Mme. de Salzmann’s presence at Pinewood studios.
Q: What about on the Mahabharata?
A: Having met Peter through the work on Meetings with Remarkable Men, I stayed in contact with him. He was a great artistic hero of mine from childhood – my parents took me to see his films, and I particularly remember Marat-Sade, King Lear and On the Beach. I was profoundly inspired by his movies and even though I was maybe too young to get very much from the stories, I remember a particular luminosity. Just a few years later when I started making films, I had this almost transcendental memory of the luminosity of Peter’s films. I was able to connect with him in Paris and I had the honour of working briefly with him in training his French cast for the Mahabharata.
Q: Could you explain the basic concept of harmonics?
A: The general undertitle that I use in retreats and seminars is The Music of the Spheres and the Harmonics of Being. Whether we approach harmonics from an artistic, spiritual, scientific, metaphysical, musical, cosmological or acoustical perspective, harmonic presence is everywhere throughout the universe. It is present in how nature, energy and form arise, remain, and disappear -- the wave-like, impermanent nature of all phenomena. The endless cycles… arising, remaining, disappearing… understanding this in all octaves is the key to our liberation -- to the awakening of our Buddha Nature, to the awakening within the Holy Sun Absolute. Pure primordial awareness free of identification… the spontaneous nature of the arising of all phenomena… how the transparent, immaculate original Seeing Light, embodying mind and space as one, gazes impartially on the phenomenal surge. How silent we are and how aware we are… these together can transform us so completely that we witness with profound feeling this omnipresent arising, remaining, and dissolving of all phenomena. Our pure perception can become a constant OFFERING, a constant ACCOMPANIMENT to "all that is."
On the human level, it’s an attempt to embody a music that includes the spheres of our own harmonic being, so that our FULL-SPECTRUM EXPERIENCE is that of being awakened "first responders in the present moment," through development of our pure vibrational qualities -- compassion, loving-kindness, tolerance, selflessness, humility, confidence, clarity, good will toward oneself and others, the capacity to listen to, attune to, accompany and harmonize with beings and phenomena in any octave, any moment in this "multi-tiered reality", as Lord Pentland once described it. The quality of our manifestations (or harmonic vibrations, if you prefer) is always equal to the spectral quality energy of which we are composed.
Simply in terms of "hearing harmonics" and "making harmonics", many people who get interested in this kind of sound have fairly specific associations, limited often to world music from central Asia -- Tuva, Mongolia, Tibet… That limited definition doesn’t work for me, because harmonics are the nature of all musical sound -- the DNA of all music, in every sphere. It is found at various levels, or octaves, throughout the universe. Just like light, heat, gravity… harmonic presence is universal.
Then there is the "healing sounds" approach -- which if I may be permitted a little friendly jab, has very largely inspired itself from our Harmonic Presence work since 1975. Some people consider that there is an automatic healing sound aspect to harmonics and I find that quite naïve, when it is without the necessary musical and spiritual and psychological knowledge behind it.
What is also necessary to understand is that harmonics are not just quantitative, i.e. something you measure in sound, whether in the cosmic microwave background or in the spectral analysis of musicology, or as those naive New Age snake-oil ideas about "magic frequencies," but something QUALITATIVE. There are subtle levels of vibration, subtle octaves, that go far deeper and further in ourselves than anything merely sonic. Only deep contemplative work can help us be in necessary harmonic state of being -- ever-more deeply silent, ever-more deeply aware, ever-more deeply spacious -- to "pass through the narrow gate" of our habitual, noisy, egoistic identifications -- the dead zones in the sea of being -- and truly find the pure primordial qualities of being. Since there are so many self- appointed "harmonic experts," "sound healers", etc. now, not to mention the shallow virtuosity problem of many harmonic vocal performers, it's really worth being careful about the trap of confusing one's local noise with anything of an authentically greater nature. The more "humble pie" we eat, the better. Period.
The study, practice and cultivation of harmonic qualities, the harmonics of being, the vibrations of being, is so much more interesting, vital and organically far-reaching inside ourselves, and in terms of how we relate to ourselves, to others, to life just as it is, to nature…
So, anyway, in the Harmonic Presence work, we try as best we can to practice in a way that includes these 3 main dimensions -- the music of the spheres dimension, the contemplative dimension, and the healing harmonization dimension. The point is to accompany with compassionate awareness the wave-like arising-remaining-and-dissolving of all phenomena, within and without. When thanks to the blessings of the teachers, the right relationship with the vibrational seed of all being is attuned, we are finally liberated, and we can joyfully serve anywhere, in any moment -- ACCOMPANIMENT.
Q: Could you briefly explain the difference between the way a piano is tuned and harmonics?
A: How harmonic presence functions everywhere, including music, gives us a context for understanding the most common form of tuning in the world today: equal temperament or the tempered scale. It is a different scale than any of those possible through attunement to the natural harmonics present in musical sound.
This difference can be quite dramatic and the piano is a very good example. The piano is tuned in a variation of this equal temperament, which is based on a complicating mathematical factor. In music, the octave refers to the distance between one note and the next note higher up (or lower down) that is twice as high (or twice as low). So, if we take as a starting point a middle C at 256 cycles per second, its octave going upwards would be 512 cycles per second. The space of an octave can be described as the distance between a note which we can call One and its second harmonic which is Two. The Egyptians referred to this space between One and Two as where all creation takes place.
In all musical cultures and civilizations, the octave space is where notes of different kinds of scales are created. Sometimes cultures make scales that go beyond an octave, some cultures have scales of much less than an octave, but nonetheless the octave gives a very beautiful framing of one of music’s most basic spaces. There are beautiful and infinite variations in how we divide up this space. Most cultures position the notes according to the whole number relationships of the harmonic series. This means that wherever the notes are, those vibrations are in pure whole number relationships between the starting note, or Do, and its iterations up and down the scale of the octaves.
However, in tempered music, the octave space is divided so that each note (or each tone and half tone in the case of our twelve tone tempered scale) will be equally distant from the other tones. And here’s where the problem comes in. First, we have to divide that perfect space by two. To divide two equally we have to start right off with the square root of two, giving us a supposedly perfect spot in the middle of the octave where the notes to either side are absolutely the same. But, ai yi yi! This perfect division is based on the √2, an irrational number. There is no there there, as we say. Worse, there is no "hear" here! Meaning, when we have followed this irrational path and made 12 perfect little halftones in the octave, we have made 12 little 12th root 2 "irrationals." I don't mean to sound fanatic -- there is much beautiful tempered music, of course! But the fact is, nothing is really in tune, and nothing is any way truly – subtly --harmonious, except the octaves. In other words, no matter notes you choose, those vibrations will never dance together, so to speak -- the vibrations are never in phase, never really harmonize. They will always be out of phase and dissonant because their wave patterns can never coincide. So this fundamental discrepancy is propagated throughout the octave.
Again, if you want to divide the octave into three, you then have to take the third root of two, the fourth root of two, the fifth root of two and to get to the twelve tone equal tempered scale we’re going to have half tones that are most often the twelfth root of two. Unfortunately this is just as irrational as all the other notes that we make by dividing the square root of two. This applies to the piano, to the clarinet, to the guitar and to most contemporary instruments…
This is the mathematical answer to your question, but the point is that none of the intervals are in actual harmonic relationship in the tempered scale. Everything is a little bit out of tune, except supposedly the octave.
On the piano, another very typical late-stage earthling problem also arises and that is tension. The strings on the piano are too tense, too tight or taut and therefore the harmonics are actually pulled sharp. So for a higher octave to be in tune with a lower fundamental note, the piano tuner will normally have to stretch the octave.
Unfortunately the piano is an even stranger case in that its octaves are normally not in tune. Because nothing is in tune in the middle octaves where the music is played or sung, the harmonics above which would normally be resonating, converging and ringing out will not be in harmony and will actually cause the sounds to die out sooner and to ring less true. Similarly, in the octaves below where the music is played, instead of the sub-harmonics coinciding and enriching the sound, the base sub-harmonics will clash and die out sooner. So things not being tune in one octave does have a big impact on how sound is felt and heard in other higher and lower octaves.
This tempered kind of tuning is pretty much universal in the modern word but not in the world of traditional music. While the omnipresence of tempered tuning is a bit of a big deal, it’s not something to become fanatic about. However, there are three cases where the fact that everything in tempered music is a little out of tune is particularly unhelpful.
The first relates to acoustical environments where sound resonates in a very open and reverberant way, such as in a temple, a cathedral, an open stone room or any space with generous acoustics. As the sounds move around and inhabit the space, these harmonic discrepancies can become not only audible but extremely unpleasant for the ear.
The second case relates to music of a contemplative nature where the sound practitioners and listeners are working with provides a support for meditative and healing practice. Here too, there is a quite basic and inherent contradiction if the sounds themselves are not in tune.
The third case relates to the aim to embody fully the fundamentally harmonic nature of sound, either as a listener or as a practitioner, when the out-of-tuneness can considerably reduce both the range and scale of the resonances of the music. This has acoustic, emotional, psychological and spiritual implications.
On a general cultural level it’s a shame that we learn music on the basis of false information. Its not good for the ear, and its not good for supporting the deeper presence of harmony and how important it is in our earthling lives.
Q: So how can I apply all this to my daily life, how can I apply harmonics?
A: It's not the harmonics, which are vibratory space, it's the awareness that is their ultimate nature… there are a number of ways where harmonic practice bears fruit in our daily life. One has to do with stabilizing in what you could call the chord of being in the practitioner. This relates to remembering that the work is not just based on producing outer sound and inner vibrations, but involves the harmonization of three essential aspects of our deeper being.
One is to cultivate an attunement, or listening to, the silent ground that is a realm of being behind, or upstream from, my usual activities. It even lies upstream from the realms of thinking, feeling and sensation, which are in the realm of created manifestations. One of the key aims of contemplative practice is to re-ground our awareness in silent being. And by silent is meant not just the absence of sound, but a primordial realm that is there “before” any of this has arisen, before any of my current perceiving or appearances that are interacting with the consciousness. This relates to learning to listen in to where all this comes from, or surges out of.
Taking that as the fundamental note, so to speak, of contemplative practice is very helpful, because then I have a kind of anchor.
From the silent ground 'stirs' the awareness -- all consciousness --, and from that arise all the vibrations -- all manifestation.
With these three notes -- the silent ground, the listening awareness, and the arising of all the manifest, vibratory phenomena – everything --, as a kind of immutable, inseparable, unified pyramid or triangular core, this gives rise to a very, very different kind of posture, or asana, or attitude, in terms of how I relate and attune to everything in the present moment.
Then in all kinds of moments and situations I'm much more able to attune to and harmonize with all kinds of phenomena and situations, on all kinds of different levels in life and the universe. And this is also utterly practical -- whether in the special realm of harmonic soundwork, of course, but also in daily life, in the myriad moments of listening, communicating, with family members or others, or listening to teachings, listening can be a very active way of being, not just a passive response to sonic phenomena.
Listening is a very active force in our being. Science loves to say “the observer changes the observed,” but the listener also changes what’s listened to. I find this fantastic to test in situations such as a difficult exchange where one or the other party is saying for example, you know, “you’re not hearing what I’m saying,” or where I’m reacting to what is being said to me or to what I am trying to say. I find that it’s possible to listen to the other person in a deeper sense quite simply by being in touch with listening. When I can be in touch with my own listening awareness when receiving impressions, when I’m not swept away by neither reaction nor agreement, that kind of listening it is a powerful presence in the exchange and does change what’s being transmitted or said.
When Lord Pentland became interested in work with sound, singing and chanting, he was giving incredible encouragement to me in starting this work. At one point somebody in one of the choir experiments in the US was lamenting to him that the person next to him was always out of tune and it was driving him crazy. He was asking what he should do, should he mention it, how should he work on himself? Lord Pentland just said: “No, no, no. You just have to listen to them even better”. I’ve never forgotten it, because its true that when we’re affirming or denying what we’re hearing it’s very hard to stay in touch with the silent side of our listening. To be present not only in our identified manifestation, but through inner awareness.
We are all in this together and that’s really one of the truths about the search for harmony. In the Harmonic Presence retreats I’m always reminded about the ‘school of fish’ or ‘flock of birds’ gene -- in the way that we earthlings are able to spontaneously harmonize, just the way flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of impalas, find the greater, flowing harmonic patterns of energy and movement. We are able to more deeply recognize and harmonize with the presence of others -- not only in personality, but much deeper. And this is so deep and so close to the heart of what we are and is so intuitive and spontaneous. It’s another aspect of why I hope this work is helpful.
Listening, attuning, harmonizing, ACCOMPANIMENT… In America we call the people who first get to the scene of an accident or dramatic situation first responders. They are the first to arrive and quite simply try to help. And I think this is one of our basic duties, or something that we can aspire to, in trying to be helpful and to make a difference. We can learn to be first responders in the present moment -- by really listening in to the situation, attuning, and trying to harmonise with it.
To me, this is to be an accompanist, to be helpful in accompanying the present moment, accompanying life. I have found that in this way everything I work on in music and in my daily life really come face to face with each other, because it’s exactly the same thing to try to be in tune with music as to try to be in tune with life. To find one’s place and to be a part of a collective movement. It’s all spontaneous, in the present moment and on the level of the senses, which are innate and yet so dormant and atrophied that we’re obliged to cultivate them in a new way.
Q: When you saw me off on the train after the retreat, I got on and I sat down and as we were approaching Paris more and more people were getting on and I was just in such a wonderful, wonderful state. This woman came on with two little children and she was making her way down the aisle of the train and the children were crying and not staying with her. I saw her and all the people on the train, and everything was so crystal clear. I just got up and moved over and she sat down with her children. It was so simple, but I was really in tune with that whole moment, everyone on that train had a position to fill and my place was to get up and move.
A: Amen, that’s beautiful.
I feel that when we’re able to do that, one feels grateful to just have been in the right place at the right time. We always are, of course, although I’m usually a little too deaf to hear how it should be.
This spontaneity is so important and this is what impresses me whenever I experience again one of life’s greatest joys: being around awake people. Just the knowing in the moment and this art of listening to the essence causes so much noise to just fall away…?
Otherwise with us it’s like the light from the stars -- it can be very interesting but its from a very long time ago. (laugh) My latest thought has actually been on its way into my surface consciousness from long ago perhaps -- whereas if I look around right here, right now, I might possibly find a better way to serve.
Once I was coming back from a work retreat in Switzerland and I took the overnight train back to Paris. I woke up in my couchette in the sleeping car and there was nobody in the upper bunk which I’d folded up. I was doing my morning exercise on the lower bunk bed when there was some vibration from the train and the upper bunk slammed down on my head and gave me like a super-Zen whack. I fell to the floor and on my hands and knees I painfully pulled myself up using the window ledge. As I looked up we were going through Avon. You know, the town where Gurdjieff’s stone tomb is.
A: Lord Pentland once took me to see Gurdjieff’s apartment in Paris and outside many French apartments there’s a little sign by the door bell which says ‘sonnez fort’, meaning ‘ring loudly’. Ever since I first saw that in Paris it inspired me to consider that music could be a way to better hear the call. He knocked on the door very strongly; I could hear the echo throughout the apartment… I'll never forget…
Q: According to James Moore’s book Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (pp 74-75), “Gurdjieff demonstrated the Lord's Prayer as a breathing exercise, chanted on a single even breath. A low, rich musical bass note about G2 below middle C, began to sound in the room pure and dry...Gurdjieff's entire torso was vibrating, inducing....something 'like a mild electric current’.” What do you think this phenomenon is? What is it for? How does it work?
A: Yes, I also wrote about that in my article, "The Search for Awakened Listening." The short answer is: Sacred chant practiced by an awakened being. Other aspects include the fact that the resonance of sacred sound is truly a multi-octave experience. It is also, under certain circumstances, a form of real transmission. And, as it is sometimes said in the liturgical world, to sing sacred songs is to pray twice as strong.
I’d like to say a little bit more about some so-to-say esoteric aspects. Let’s say you see a still photograph of somebody in one of the Movements positions, during the movements. You’re looking at the picture and maybe you can’t tell which way the movement is flowing, you don’t know if they’re moving to the right or to the left.
I now want to apply that metaphor to sound. When we’re chanting or playing music or singing, or when we’re hearing chanting or music being played or sung, we have a kind of habitual conditioned sense of direction as regards the sound current, the vibratory current. Let’s say I'm chanting a mantra or the Lord’s prayer. I might habitually think that the sound is “coming from me” and streaming out of me, but I think that a more subtle understanding comes when we almost experience the moment of chant as a sort of steady state moment, like or photograph. In that kind of flow pattern, gazed at so to speak, it’s not so obvious. Yes, some of the sound energies are flowing “out” and “outside of us”, but that’s not necessarily where the vibration is coming from. Some of the energy might also be going in a quite different direction -- into the network of inner channels...
I remember Michel de Salzmann saying something like, “Electricity is so interesting. Most of the electrons are going along the wire in a certain direction, but a pair of electrons in the core of the wire are always marching in the other direction”. I found this really fantastic because it’s also true with sound and its relation, in a yogic sense, to the inner channels of our being. It’s quite different to how we usually think and is based on a finer focus of listening and a finer understanding of how vibratory energy circulates.
So how does it work? I think there are two really important aspects. One is compassion or devotion, or higher emotional centre. Because of it’s importance I would like to include that first, because we’re not only interested in the mechanics of chant. I wish to move towards the goal of awakened being through practice. That wish is centred in my heart, and working with the heart is not really a ‘how to’, except in terms of just remembering that it’s the essential thing.
Then I need some knowledge regarding in which direction to fly, so to speak, on the wings of the song of the heart. At this stage it’s good to know how it works, so I’m not "working in the dark" -- the quality of the practice is more important than the quantity; how we practice is more important than what we practice… How it works has to be based on the qualitative meaning, the state of being that I aspire to and from where the practice actually comes. It can’t work unless the knowledge aspect and the feeling aspect are united; then the body of the practice has real weight.
Q: I am wondering about chanting the Lord’s prayer or something that’s more familiar to me than the sounds that we were doing at the retreat. Could it expand my practice if I used a prayer more familiar to me? Would it be better to use words that I recognize?
A: That’s a very important question. Sacred language does have a different source, meaning and effect than ordinary speech, or speaking that’s ordinary. Because ordinary speech can be totally amazing, such as if somebody awake says “David, could you get that package for me?”. I remember Lord Pentland saying things to me at certain moments, and I felt it reverberating in my whole being even though it could be the simplest of everyday things. At the end of a project, His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to some of us that had been volunteers and he just said “never forget the compassion, it’s so important in every moment”. (pauses) …
Back to this sacred vocabulary, sacred words. I feel that what’s very helpful to remember is that the power of truly sacred sound or speech did not originate in this world. It resonates and travels through this world but comes from a source that is absolutely outside ordinary mechanical, even cosmic processes. And yet it is present in everything still, right now. Immersion in the sacred stream of that kind of initiative or primordially sacred sound can be a tremendous help. Regardless of what tradition of sacred sound it is, it’s like a canal or a channel, and being in that channel changes everything. It’s like having a radio, if you’re tuned to the station you’ll hear the music, if you’re not tuned into the station you don’t hear the music. Tuning in and the music go together and we feel transported. These sacred channels help with the tuning in, and with embodying the message.
The second key point is that we’re so top heavy, in the sense of being in our heads so much that we rarely feel our feet on the ground, our constant contact with Mother Earth. There is a risk of going off into the conceptual side, or becoming so bored with the conceptual side, that its no longer a being practice. I’m just going through the motions. So that’s the problem with words.
Another aspect is that the point of this kind of practice is to restore direct contact with the vibrational message that’s in the words, that’s in the body, that’s in the sound field. Whether I get back to this through mantra or sacred texts or without them, the main thing is that it be not just an outer conceptual auditory practice. The point is that I find it grounding and transporting, and that it helps open the heart, all the channels, all the windows of my being and that I’m really able to go on that voyage.
I remember the first time I visited Lord Pentland, I brought some Tibetan recordings and we sat and listened. There were several people there, and at the end, after we’d listened to quite a long piece of Tibetan chant that his friend David Lewis recorded, or Huston Smith, Lord Pentland said: “It’s like going on a voyage, you get on, you go with the music, and then at the end you’re at your destination”. He also said, "It's like being a guest in your own house."… And it really felt like that.
Q: I know you spoke earlier about naïve faith in healing practices, but when I arrived at the retreat I was run down and I had this painful mouth ulcer. It was gone within about 24 hours and the symptoms of a long-running bacterial infection disappeared completely during the retreat and for about four or five days afterwards. Is this something you’ve heard of before, can you offer some explanation?
A: Yes, I have heard of it before. There have been a few cases of spontaneous healings. I'm proud to say that I have never once made any claims on any level! (laugh) I naturally became very interested in the healing dimension simply because when we get together many of us have health issues on some level or another. I’ve had the honour of working with very ill people and I’ve found that utterly transforming and opening for me. The honour of accompanying people in their healing process, or dying process, relates to how we can accompany the transformative process in ourselves and with others -- to get to know all the cycles, that is the essence of the study of vibrations…
There was a woman who had very serious back issues, disc issues, who was suddenly healed during a concert in Arizona and she wrote about it. I want to say that I feel that it’s a question of atmosphere and this theme of harmonic presence. The idea is to bring together a whole chord, or opening ourselves up in a way that allows certain pure influences to reach us. I think it’s very simple. Just by being more open, more helpful healing, transforming and harmonizing energies can come in. We lower our defence a little, take off some of the masks and armour, and the body relaxes and we become more open to natural healing influences.
I remember once someone was in a car accident while acting as one of lord Pentland’s chauffeurs, so the question was quite a burning one for them. This person said to Lord Pentland in a meeting: “I was so impressed by the forces of Holy Denying and how easily our lives can be destroyed”. Lord Pentland replied: “Yes, but look, you survived, so obviously the Holy Affirming forces are even stronger”. I think that’s good to realize because things are so difficult. Things are difficult, and the individual, family, community, social, international and global challenges we face are incredible, as are the cosmic challenges, and in relation to these challenges this light of Holy Affirming is very strong. This is not to ignore or deny the challenges we face, but losing sight of this powerful light of Holy Affirming is something that we must be careful about. There are profoundly transforming energies at work and if the difficulties increase those other energies must increase also. They are there if we can open to them.
Q: How did you come to leave the Gurdjieff work, if that is indeed what you did?
A: I call it an extended sabbatical, and I also have a little aphorism which is: “You can take the earthling out of the work, but you can't take the work out of the earthling”. The most honest reason is that I just didn’t feel I was working. There were also more personal reasons. I was going though quite a traumatic divorce and just felt completely messed up. I found the way personal things resonated in the sometimes rather closed and intense conditions of a spiritual community quite difficult to bear. As I said when I discussed it with my teachers, it was also just something that was happening and I really didn’t have any inner explanation for it.
I've remained in close contact with a number of Gurdjieff practitioners. I still feel incredible respect and gratitude for the wonderful beings that I met, especially Lord Pentland and Michel de Salzmann, and many others. It’s certainly a school of spiritual learning which continues to guide me. It’s not where I am as a formal practitioner now, but I certainly am not amongst those who slammed the door. I just felt that for whatever reason I was unable to conscientiously participate in the forms of work that I was participating in.
Q: So what is your formal practice now?
A: I’m a practitioner of Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism. I’ve taken the refuge vows, also the Bodhisattva vows, and have received a number of formal initiations. I’m a student of the Dzogchen, also called Ati Yoga or Mahasandhi lineage, which comes from the third turning of the wheel of the Dharma by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. For the same reasons that I joined the work in my 20s, I just simply felt tremendously drawn. I am profoundly inspired by the level of being of the teachers I have met. I find the teachings related directly to my personal needs and challenges. There are also particular dimensions of the universal teachings that I find helpful to practice. I wasn’t able to quite find certain aspects in the Gurdjieff work, such as the emphasis on compassion and achieving the awakened state for the benefit of all sentient beings.
I don’t think its ever a matter of saying that one teaching has something that another teaching hasn’t. I’m not on a level to participate in that debate. I’m just saying that I found certain being-teachings that I felt it necessary to practice. I could more easily relate to these when expressed in the form of Tibetan Buddhism. Of course, the ultimate attraction is the non-dual teachings level… that's our historical moment now…
Q: Your Harmonic Visions are moving colour image works generated by the live harmonics as you sing or chant. Do you see their role as being something more than beautiful?
A: Yes, I do, but I’m perfectly happy to be a devotee of beauty with a capital B, or true Beauty. I find many things in nature and many aspects of our true human nature quite beautiful. The ideal fusion for me would be truth and beauty together. I find the visions incredibly revealing, in the same way as harmonics, of certain underlying cosmological principles concerning form and the creation of form: the way form arises, remains and dissolves. I found it quite helpful for contemplating the flow and transformation of being, how being arises from non-being and then dissolves. This relates to studying the waves of creation, which I think is the ultimate path implied by this work. We can only leave this samsaric prison, if that's what it is, by knowing how it works.
This also relates to a dimension of the Gurdjieff work that I love, that we learned how to build houses and dig ditches and stay up all night doing wiring for the movements hall. I loved that gung ho aspect. I think it's quite profound and I miss it.
I think one can approach other aspects of creation in the same way, to go into the nature of vibration. To really try get to know and understand the universe very deeply, from inside out, from top to bottom, from here to there and back. I have found the work with the harmonic visions to be a way of going deeper and deeper into the relationship in the consciousness of the universe in terms of form and function.
I use three sound sources: pure Harmonic Chant, mantra, and the singing of people's names. The latter came about because a dear friend of mine in New York came down with cancer and I wanted to do something for her, offer something. It was a very serious illness and I was asking myself how to respond… It was one of those moments of being in question, of how to be with this strong feeling of a fellow being's suffering… I found myself chanting, sitting there with the Harmonic Vision program and chanting her name. I started making some kind of 'healing imagery' this way, as an offering to her healing process. You offer something based on the vibration of the person's name. It’s a form of wishing, basically. So for that reason, too, I find that the Harmonic Vision works are more than just an aesthetic exercise. It’s also a way of embodying a wish, by embodying the vibration in a form.
Q: You pointed out that Mr. Gurdjieff’s original name for the Institute at the Prieuré was for the harmonic, not the harmonious, development of man. Why do you think Mr. Gurdjieff chose this word?
A: I think that’s an intriguing mystery and of course I can't answer that. But I've discussed this with various Gurdjieffians and it led to some very interesting and insightful exchanges. For me, it has to do with the difference between using the word ‘harmonious’ in a superficial, outer, way and a deeper understanding. The kind of ‘harmonious’ that might be associated with smiling and pretending everything’s ok. The statement: “I had a harmonious day” could mean that I was in deep existential interaction and that there was a transcendent quality, or it could mean that nothing happened… What I’m getting at is a superficial connotation to the word ‘harmonious’, whereas ‘harmonic’ to me implies real integral relationship. It implies harmony related to deep structure and significance, not things just rolling along.
There are many moments in the work that are the opposite of harmonious. The key is how the word ‘harmonic’ has resonances of direct relation or true relationship, whether harmonious or not, rather than things just going along smoothly. However, when we do find true harmonic relationship in ourselves and in our relationships with others and with life, I think that things are much then indeed more harmonious and do go more smoothly. Life is like a wind tunnel - until we figure out the aerodynamics we tend to be blown all sorts of ways. I think the aerodynamic structure for ‘harmonic’ is really about getting the sails set correctly. There is a saying: “God brings the wind, but we must set the sails”. And setting one’s sails is working with the harmonic wind of life. It is a very, very fine art. There’s the sails, the wind, and there’s also prana, the very life energy. The harmonics, the harmonization, of that is a very, very fine art.
Q: With the perspective you have now, with your experience of other teachings, what do you consider to be the key feature of the Gurdjieff work?
A: The aim of complete freedom from identification. Work with attention. And I have to add another one: levels of sensation.
Q: Freedom from identification -- isn’t that same as non-attachment?
A: Yes, quite close, but you can be working with non-attachment and still have a false, or intermediate, sense of ‘I’. Not completely attached, but not completely free either. So I could be working towards non-attachment but still have some self-attachment.
I find it very difficult to dissociate these aspects of attention and especially non-identification. Having been involved in Tibetan Buddhism over the last 13 years and having been encouraged in my formal Gurdjieff years to participate in active study and voyages exploring Tibetan Buddhism from a work point of view, I find that this very mysterious aim of non-identification is incredibly far-reaching. If we could follow that theme of not being identified, this would be attaining the Absolute. Only Holy Absolute is free of all trace of identification. In my humble opinion.
I have one more thing to add, from Lord Pentland’s teaching on sensation. Lord Pentland emphasised finding an even sensation. Only through 20 years of harmonic presence work have I come nearer to truly understanding what he was getting at. Work with sound, vibration, listening awareness, qualities of silence and qualities of sensation are a fantastic help for understanding this very deep instruction about finding evenness in sensation. When sensation is really even there’s no longer any boundary between inside and out. And then we’re back in the great universe which we’ve never really left in spite of our sense of isolation and separation.