Back to Articles Home
Interview with Jacob Needleman by Kristina Turner April 2012
Q: You are both a distinguished academic and writer and a practitioner of a spiritual teaching. How do you reconcile these two aspects of your life, or keep them separate?
A: Well, thatís been a great question for my whole career. From the very beginning of teaching philosophy some fifty years ago, I saw that students come to philosophy classes, many of them, out of a personal, inner need.
Many of them have these two needs. One is the interest or need to study the academic field of philosophy including the skills and knowledge of writing philosophy. But at the same time they also come to philosophy with a personal, even spiritual need. Iíve always tried to search and question how I can honour both sides, honour both aspects of the studentsí needs. I try to be as academically responsible as I can on the one hand, and as sensitive as possible to their inner needs on the other, and I assure them from the very beginning that they are not going to be graded for their spiritual attainment. (Laugh)
My understanding of philosophy is that it has to do with opening up questions of the heart and mind-- the great unanswerable questions, which everyone who is a normal human being has about the meaning of their lives, the existence of God, about good and evil. These are the kinds of questions that we can never really answer, in our ordinary state of consciousness, but if weíre human we never really cease to ask and confront them in our lives.
So it is possible as a professor to balance attention to those two needs, as long as there is in oneself a question that one feels during the work of teaching, and as long as one keeps on the lookout for both sides. One needs to be responsible and to honour both sides of the studentsí needs. Academic expertise, skill and intellectual understanding are often part of what we call the outward direction of life, and the other questions of deep meaning are part of the inner life, the movement inward.
As long as I have that question in myself and feel that question as much as I can, I find some kind of balance begins to appear. When I forget that question, when Iím blind to what their (and my own) inner needs are, or what their academic needs are, then I sometimes (hesitates) fail, and that brings me up short and I then try to return to that kind of a question in myself.
I canít give you an answer saying how I do one or the other, except as to how I try; and I try to open myself and to begin to see. This maybe is where the balance comes in. I try more to deepen questions rather than to provide answers. Even when Iím providing answers given by the great philosophers, part of my real aim is to put the students in touch with ideas and thoughts and questions that open both their hearts and minds. I feel that aim rising in myself when I see a student actually being touched by; say the vision of a Plato, or the arguments of a Spinoza, or Immanuel Kant, or the Eastern philosophies, or the mystics, like Meister Eckhart. A certain unmistakable look appears in their face, in their eyes, often in their posture.
For example, once I gave a course in a great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who deals with these kinds of questions in a beautiful way. I was afraid at first, because he is such a gifted writer and so subtle. I was afraid that students these days wouldnít be able to follow him. But they loved it. When I asked them at the end why they liked it so much, one student said: ďIt brought me hope.Ē And everybody in the class agreed with that.
But what kind of hope did it bring? It wasnít so much the hope for good things that are going to happen, or anything of that kind, but it was because it brought them in touch with a part of themselves that they had forgotten about, that our culture doesnít touch very much. When that was opened up within them, they saw a possibility, not of any external event, but a possibility for themselves and for what they wanted from life
Q: Iím studying literature and the esoteric traditions at university here in England, and one of my personal aims is to try to find a language for speaking about the inner world of man in an academic context. The esoteric meaning of cultural expressions such as art, drama and poetry seems to be a blind spot for many academics. I can see it in alchemy and Rosicrucianism and Cabala, for example, and the way I see it alchemy and contemporary psychology are both paradigms for talking about the inner world of man. My question is really how can we help to get this recognized? Many academics donít even acknowledge that there is an inner world of man. How can one talk about it in an academic context, because you obviously can do it?
A: First of all, I probably have the advantage of teaching philosophy, rather than literature. The standard for studying literature may not lend itself quite so easily to this study, although if youíre dealing with the 17th century, itís full of that material. The cosmology, the vision of human life and of human nature is there.
Some philosophers Ė Iím not one of them Ė are not interested in whether things are really true. Iím interested in truth. Even some philosophers who donít seem to be like that can be approached from the point of view of the unanswerable questions, so I have every reason to go into the question of what is really true. What is the universe? Is there a God? Why is there suffering? That leads me to ideas that you and I are both acquainted with that are so important, like the idea of states of consciousness and how knowledge, all kinds of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, are relative to the state of consciousness of the knower. In fact, thatís a revolutionary idea. It blows the mind of everyone who hears it and begins to realize its significance: I mean the idea that the quality of human knowledge, no matter how brilliant it seems, is actually a function of our state or level of consciousness. In an awakened state of consciousness, a higher state than our usual, familiar level of awareness, we can see the world quite differently, much more truly as it really is. This is one of the points that I make that enables me to speak about these things, not using the ďtechnicalĒ language that you and I are familiar with, but using more ordinary language and trying to listen to the questions of the pupils.
I found very early a great discovery, it sounds so simple but it isnít, and it relates to the art of listening to a question Ė listening to the thought of a student, really letting the other person appear, waiting a few seconds and answering not just from my trained academic mind, but also from my inner feeling of the unspoken wish of the student and the greater, enveloping context of the question that may be invisible to the student. I donít cross any boundaries by doing that, and it enables me sometimes to respond to the question on two levels at once: on the level of academic learning, reliability and respectability, which is very important, and also in a less obvious way that opens up the deeper dimensions of the question.
In your case, in the study of English literature, how can you possibly read John Donne or any of the great figures you are interested in without discussing these unanswerable questions? So if you can bring the question of what is truth, what is man, into your research I think you will find that you can do more justice to the spiritual dimension than you might have thought?
Q: I will have to ponder what that means.
A: It takes a lot of practice and, of course, you have to be cautious and not push or start preaching or anything like that.
Q: No, thatís right. Iíve been told that you canít be a believer, that you canít practice an esoteric tradition and study it academically at the same time.
A: That is not true. That is simply not true. It depends on the school, and it depends on what is expected of you professionally. You have to take all that into consideration and not be foolish about it. If something is truly an esoteric teaching-- and there are a lot of things that seem like that but arenít-- it opens your intelligence and your sensitivity, it invites you to try to speak in two worlds at once, at two levels at one time.
In the beginning, in your enthusiasm, you might mix levels, but thereís a whole school of thought now called ďparticipatory scholarship.Ē This means that only a person who is actually involved in a teaching like Sufism or Christianity, while keeping their head about them, and simultaneously having a heart and knowledge from within, can quite often keep the levels separate enough while remaining engaged, so that they in fact become much more reliable than someone who is speaking merely from intellectual brilliance, associations, logic or superficial academic formalities.
Q: Absolutely. Many of the states described in various teachings are eminently verifiable, but you have to verify them for yourself. How can you write about something that you havenít even tried?
A: There are interesting academicians, some brilliant ones whom I respect enormously, who just have a gift in terms of human sensibility and have nothing to do with esoteric practices. They are full human beings and can sense, better than many of us can, when something serious is at stake. They might reject certain language without knowing what it really means, like the word Ďesotericí which is a poisonous word to many people, but you can feel in their thought, in their sensibilities, that they have to be respected and that they are protecting what they consider an important academic and scientific standard of truth. So you canít blame them, because thereís so much nonsense being written about mysticism and spiritual groups and cults. You have to respect such resonantly mature academic thinkers. You have to be able to occupy that world as well. There are many very successful scholars who havenít the faintest idea about genuine esoteric ideas and who judge them in print in a way that is just ludicrous. One has to find oneís way around that.
Iíve always been a little wary of speaking about things like this in my books, but I did speak about it recently in Why Canít We Be Good? Thereís a chapter about the figure of Hillel in Judaism, and towards the latter part of the book I speak about Hillel possibly being connected with an esoteric school for part of his life, maybe the Essenes. Scholars canít really judge this kind of thing unless they themselves have an intuitive understanding, or, even better, experience of it. Otherwise they simply dismiss it. In such cases, the whole concept of scholarly evidence has to be transformed.
Q: Thatís right, because itís like a scent, you sense it or taste it, you recognize it.
A: Yes, but you must be cautious Ė donít be foolish and donít try to push it down anybodyís throat. How you work at it requires great sensitivity on your part. And respect. We barely understand these things ourselves, so we canít expect everyone else to understand. So we have to find ways of speaking about it that really do honour and justice to the orthodox scholarly world. And itís possible.
Q: Thank you, thatís very helpful for me personally and hopefully to others as well.
Some senior figures in the Gurdjieff teaching have a reluctance to speak about their experience because it only adds to a mountain of words about something that must always be an oral teaching shared directly. What is your view?
A: It depends on the question. And on the questioner. I think we have to find ways of speaking that will help people understand, without pretending that the world is one big group meeting. It isnít Ė have you noticed? (Laugh)
And you know what the phrase Ďexternal consideringí means, right? Communication is largely about external considering. Even to make that connection is liberating, because you have to take into account the conditions of the listener, their background and their subjectivity. You can speak a little bit about something, go a little way, but you have to consider the other personís sensibilities, otherwise you wonít communicate anything. People will just imagine they understand what youíre talking about and it will be damaging for you, for them and even, to some extent, for the community of the work.
Iíve been trying to do this for years in my books and itís always a challenge to my own sense of what can really be understood. I try to write books about great ideas largely drawn from the work, but not entirely. I try to write them in a way that makes the reader feel the value of the ideas, even if I donít even mention where they come from. So you have a responsibility in your publication on the web to not assume that it is automatically a good thing to speak completely openly about things that require a certain amount of background in order to be understood.
Ouspensky has this wonderful image in A New Model of the Universe, in the first chapter ďEsotericism and Modern Thought,íĒ where he speaks of certain esoteric ideas as being dangerous. To speak about them too openly can be like putting a child in the cabin of a powerful locomotive and allowing him to drive it.
The Gurdjieff ideas are great ideas with great power, and if theyíre cheapened or people take them in way that is too superficial, not only can they be lost in the great world but they can actually cause harm. They can lead people to make quick judgments about them and try to act on them, and believe even that they can transmit them, in which case they can really hurt other peopleís possibilities.
But on the other hand, we need to consider how not to be foolishly secretive either, and how not to get behind a wall that everyone knows is a wall! This only provokes resentment and a kind of hostility because a secret is not a secret when people know you have a secret.
I learnt that from Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard describes what he sees as something essentially secret, his idea of faith, and his idea of Christianity. It took me nearly fifty years before I finally began to understand what this means. He wrote it in a way that works at many levels. To keep a secret is to keep it in a way that people donít know that you have it.
Q: Thatís difficult
A: Yes, I think you have a challenge in your website in helping people to know that this extraordinary and precious teaching exists without spoiling it for them.
Q: There must be a door to the unseen, a point of contact with something else.
A: And I would imagine that you need help, that people can help you by looking at what youíre doing critically. One of the central points of the teaching is that we need to work with others. To try to do it all on oneís own is an invitation to some kind of diversion, a deviation. That sounds too judgmental, but itís necessary to have trust in companions that can help you evaluate what youíre doing.
Q: What are your thoughts on the different lineages of the Gurdjieff teaching? How do you see the future of the Gurdjieff work?
A: I havenít become too acquainted with some of these other lineages so I canít make any judgments. I feel that to some extent it may all be part of one large, diverse family, all part of one family, or maybe even some kind of a subculture. The few people I know personally from other lineages are very serious, honourable people. Knowing them has shown me that there can be and perhaps needs to be communication at some level among all people who are honourably drawn to the Gurdjieff work.
The Gurdjieff teaching doesnít belong to any one lineage or one person; it now belongs to the world. Gurdjieff wouldnít have written the way he did if he didnít envision his ideas as in some way, some day, entering into the whole world. That doesnít mean that we violate our own privacy, our own interiority, which applies to all the lineages, or the ones that I know of somewhat anyway. You need the ability to keep within a certain space so you donít lose your energy, or go entirely outside of the forms, outside of the people and the community that youíre working in.
Every group, every community, has that right, and there may be reasons for not immediately exposing everything to just anyone. If there can be arranged, in good conditions of mutual trust, a kind of exchange, where each one describes how they understand what theyíre doing, thatís something that should be done. I donít know if itís possible yet but itís a desirable thing.
How to do that without compromising anything? Itís wrong automatically to assume that people in a lineage other than oneís own are not serious and that they do not wish for what we all wish for, and itís also wrong to assume that people are holding back something or keeping private something for any other reason than that they sincerely feel it could be damaged if they didnít keep it private.
This world being what it is, especially with communications, the moment things get out a little bit, theyíre out all over the world. When theyíre out all over they can be misapplied, distorted and actually work against the help the Gurdjieff work can bring to the world.
Itís a question of needing to go into an exchange together. The present need is to search for quiet conditions and for the time and space for at least some of the lineages that seem to be honourable to be able to speak together and hear each other. Itís a question of people coming together who can work at really listening to each other.
Q: Yes, I think thatís a wonderful direction and a possibility. There are smaller gatherings of people that I have attended around the world, and it has been very interesting to see how the Internet has changed things. When I first came to the work in Sweden there were no groups at all, and I was pretty much isolated. Now thereís chat group after chat group all over the Internet, people purporting to be in the work or being interested in work ideas. The problem with speaking over the Internet is that it tends to degenerate into an argument about who is more right. But when youíre present in person, thereís more of you present, and you canít just turn into an intellectual winner of arguments.
A: Yes thatís what we need, to be in the same room together, to sit down together. I agree with you that chat groups, arguing about who is more right, suggestions that someone is selfishly hiding something or mean-spiritedly keeping it for themselves-- this is of no interest whatever.
Q: How do you engage with Beelzebubís Tales? How do you think we should use the writings available to us?
A: The literature of the work is vast and growing constantly, but Beelzebub remains the great source in my opinion. It protects itself. Nobody is going to take Beelzebubís Tales and persuasively make it into something merely intellectual. It is meant to act on the deep levels of consciousness that we donít ordinarily have access to. Itís meant to work from within ourselves.
I think itís an indispensable instrument of the work-- to listen to it, to read it again and again, to hear it and to ponder. Itís a huge injection of silence into the world. You might say, how can you call a book like that silent? With its 1,200 pages of extraordinary words? Itís silent in the sense that it doesnít explain anything to my superficial mind with its egoistic intentions.
It does attract some parts of the ego, but not very much. You read it, and you suffer it, you struggle with it, you try to understand it. And above all, you must come to it with the intention of knowing oneself. Otherwise, as John Pentland has said, without the intention of self-knowledge, the book remains incomprehensible.
You try to observe all your reactions to it: the anger, the humour, the awesomeness, the impatience, the terror, the joy, the love Ė all of it is there. If you are aware of yourself as youíre reading it as quietly as possible, with other people present perhaps, you will find that it gradually begins to act on us. Two or three years later you pick it up and suddenly you realize that some parts of it that were so obscure, so opaque, so frustrating, are as clear as clear can be. Years pass and you read it again, and you say: this is written in the most lucid prose I have ever seen; itís exactly the right words! It keeps opening up like the petals of an infinite rose, opening and opening, and opening. And we need to protect that, not to fool around with it too much. People will, but in the end it really protects itself.
You canít mess with Beelzebub because if you have any kind of honesty you realize youíre just making a fool of yourself. How the book came into being we donít know exactly. The different versions, some of which are considered ďauthentic,Ē while others are said by some to be less authentic, are all pretty much similar in the depth, the subtlety, the complexity and the greatness of it. That book is a tower of the work. I think it will be a long time before people can fool around with that book. In the Hebraic tradition it is said: Build a fence around the Torah. Beelzebub has built a fence around the ideas of the work and I think thatís very necessary.
Other great books of the work are also very difficult even though the surface may be relatively simple. Meetings with Remarkable Men has a very accessible surface and is very beautiful in many ways, but also it is enormously subtle. And itís the same with the Third Series, which is the most inaccessible of all to people who havenít really worked. I would say: guard the books, without too much wiseacring, and try to work.
There are a few other books that are important in the work, with regard to ideas, in a more explicit way. In Search of the Miraculous in my opinion remains the greatest of these. It is in a class by itself. It is a great, great masterpiece of spiritual thought. It has an incredible balance between feeling and intellectual precision in the way the book is structured and ordered, the experiences that he speaks about and the ideas as they are stated, and the sequence of feelings and what chapter follows what. Itís all very carefully done. It will probably never be exceeded.
The only thing that exceeds it is Gurdjieffís own books. In Search of the Miraculous is never going to be out-dated in my opinion, even though so many people think it no longer is as useful. That is a book in a class by itself.
Q: Iím very glad about what you said about In Search of the Miraculous because I agree about its emotional subtlety, that is what touched me when I first read it, and it still does. It is falling out of favour it seems, as many people reject it as merely intellectual, but for me there is a great deal of feeling in that book as well.
A: I think to say that it is intellectual, only intellectual, or too intellectual, is in itself a superficially intellectual statement. I think the book is deeply emotional. Deeply. But the emotions are not ones of excitement, agitation. Itís moving, it touches your heart very much. Itís complex on the surface and some people canít relate to that.
Almost anyone who is a serious person who reads that book will find parts of it where the great, almost supernatural, wisdom of Gurdjieff shines through. Even a little of that should give one cause to stop and say: ďWell, maybe the part that I donít like or canít relate to, maybe Iíll just set it aside for the time being and come back to it later, because anyone who can be so insightful and deep, like some of the psychological ideas, anyone who could bring such a new level of knowledge maybe isnít a fool, and maybe the rest of the book also is right. But I donít get it just yet.Ē Thatís OK, you donít have to. But donít make a sweeping judgment because there are a few diagrams that you canít follow, or there are a few words that are too complicated.
Q: How does the basic Christian message differ from the message of Mr Gurdjieff?
I understand that he said that he wanted to bring a new conception of God to the world.
A: My book What is God? (pauses) What is your understanding of the basic Christian message? Could I ask you?
Q: (hesitates) Well, I guess I would say that the basic Christian message is about the transformation of man, the inner transformation from something lower, from an animal nature, to something higher, and itís like a guidebook for that. If youíre really asking me, thatís what I would say.
A: I agree with you. If you take that as the basic message of Christianity, the Gurdjieff work is very correspondent to that. But the footpath that leads to it, that takes people towards that central idea, the language, is different from conventional Christian language. The deeper you go into the Gurdjieff work, the deeper you go into the Christian tradition Ė you see convergences. How can you read the Philokalia for example, how can you read the early desert fathers, how can you study Meister Eckhart and not feel that Gurdjieff and these great teachers are moving in the same direction?
On the surface, and with regard to certain kinds of religious feeling and religious assumptions, they do seem different, very different. Nevertheless if you study it and go into it and read it more Ė Iím not talking about superficial readings of Gurdjieff or Christianity Ė it really goes back to the question of how do you speak about the idea of esotericism.
You have to be very considerate externally; you have to realize peopleís subjectivity. You have to realize that some of the things are intentionally shocking for a conventional Christian, and they were made intentionally shocking, I think, by Gurdjieff. The truth that doesnít shock is not the truth.
Tread lightly. Consider these people. Consider everything. Gurdjieff provided the shocks; weíre not here to do that. We can try to help people to approach it, and respect it, and not necessarily feel that they have to agree with it or not.
Q: Do you think that esoteric Christianity, as expressed in the Philokalia for example, and which is found in some Orthodox monasteries, will become known to those who consider themselves Christian?
A: I think more and more it will become known. Thereís a lot of interest in it and some recent expressions of it are more accessible now. I think it will become known. Christian mysticism is becoming more known, people like Thomas Merton, people of that calibre who really see their own tradition in a deeper way. I think that will be a great help to many Christians. I have great hopes for that.
There are a lot of emotional issues for some Christians who will never accept it, but thatís to be expected. But in certain places, among certain people, what you and I call esoteric Christianity will become better known and better respected.
Q: Why do you think that is happening or how? What is happening?
A: Look at the books, the whole thing about publication. Look at the fact that the Philokalia which was a very private book, very guarded, very much part of an inner work that wasnít spoken about, is now widely published. Or The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Fifty, sixty years ago, you would have had to climb the Himalayas to get to it Ė now you can find it in many bookstores! Not to mention the internet.
People are searching, people are hungry and great ideas are trying to get into the culture, which is largely awash with toxic ideas, ideas that are not awakening at all. But there is desperation in the world, in young people especially. They are very open if they are presented with these things in a considerate way.
Q: How did you find the Gurdjieff teaching? How did you come to it?
A: I graduated from a very distinguished university, Harvard. I was a ďvery smartĒ guy. A friend of mine was telling me about this woman he was seeing, whose mother was in a group of some kind and he handed me a book called The Psychology of Manís Possible Evolution by Ouspensky. As a philosophy major I had studied philosophy and I said ďthis is nonsenseĒ and I threw it across the room. That was the beginning.
Then I met a very interesting person shortly after that who spoke of this man called G., and I said that I knew all about that, but he suggested that I take a look at In Search of the Miraculous. I had nothing else to do at the time and I started reading it, fully expecting to find even more nonsense. Yet as I read it, I could not escape the feeling that the man who was called G. spoke with an incredible authority, in the very best sense of that word. Something began to touch me as I read it. Many of the things I was reading, I thought: ďthis cannot be true, this is not so.Ē At the same time, I was being touched down deep in the chest and in the heart about this particular book and I couldnít put it down.
I wrote to my friend to try to find out about the group, which was in New York, and he gave me the address and I met one of the pupils of Gurdjieff. This was in 1956 and she impressed me as quite a remarkable person. I started going to a group and then after a few months or so I left that group, and I left the work.
After several years of graduate study and taking a job in San Francisco (the work was very, very private then, very few people knew about it), I happened to mention Gurdjieff to a class I was teaching, a class about Gnosticism and mysticism. I just mentioned it in passing, and a student came up to me, very serious and in a very quiet whisper asked me if I knew about this book and showed me a copy of Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff. I took the book and didnít take much interest in it.
Then one evening I picked it up and started reading it and I noticed a very unusual thing. I felt it was a very clear, clean but somewhat simple book, and I noticed it had the effect of making me quiet inside, which very few things do. So I thought: ďthis is special.Ē Then I picked up In Search of the Miraculous again after having ignored it for six or seven years and it was like being struck by lightning.
Then I started the work in earnest, especially after meeting John Pentland, Lord Pentland, who was coming to San Francisco to help the group there.
Q: Do you study Beelzebubís Tales? Do you try to fathom the gist?
A: Yes, Iíve been reading it every day for the past 50 years. What would you like to know that I canít answer? (Laugh)
Q: I would like to hear how you engage with it. Itís a bit of a controversial topic. Some people say that you shouldnít study it; you shouldnít try to understand it, as youíre just doing it with your ordinary mind. Iím probably a bit of a man no. 3 myself, a bit of a head-brain person, but I get a lot from sharing and exchanging with other people, not trying to pin it down in saying that it means this, or that, but to work with it, to get deeper into it, and to connect with it, and for it to connect with more parts of me. Do you just let it fall on you as rain or do you try to engage with it more directly?
A: Well, I think itís written in a way that allows many, many types of people to approach it in many different ways. The first thing that I would say, which sounds really obvious, except it isnít obvious, is simply: read it! Read it. Pass your eyes over the words, in any way you like, just try to be observant of how youíre reacting to it, try to hold to your aim of self-observation. You may find that it evokes practically every kind of reaction in the world. I couldnít make head or tail of it in the beginning. As I started reading it, and rereading it, I began to try to observe my own reactions to the book. I was frustrated, angry, delighted, I laughed out loud, I was touched deeply, I was terrified, I felt a sense of great hope. Thatís what that book evokes in us. After all, it is All and Everything.
Sometimes in talking about it and discussing it with other people you may get the taste that youíre making too much of a head-trip about it, and that by itself I think will quiet one down, and then you begin to have an exchange more from the heart, more from being. The point is, if I keep exposing myself to it, it enters into the deepest part of our psyche and it stays there and reminds me. The action of that book is very special.
It reminds me of a story that has helped me a great deal in regard to this book. There was a Jewish rebbe, and the pupil asks the rebbe about a passage in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 6, I believe, where it says, at least in the translation that I think is the most accurate, ďLay these words upon your heart.Ē The pupil asks the rebbe, who is more of a Hasidic master than a ďclergyman,Ē why does it say ďLay these words upon your heart? Why doesnít it tell us to put them in our hearts?Ē In many translations into English it does say ďin our heartsĒ but in others it says ďupon our heartsĒ, in the King James Version for example. Iíve got a Rabbi friend whoís gone over it with me and he said that the preferred translation would be ďupon our hearts.Ē The rebbe answers in a way that I think you may find very beautiful: ďIt says Ďupon our hearts,í not Ďin our hearts,í because as we are, our hearts are closed and the words cannot enter in. And there they stay upon our hearts-- until one day the heart breaks. And the words fall in.Ē
I think Beelzebub is like that, although I wouldnít put it quite like that, with the heart breaking, but the words, the ideas, the teaching of Beelzebub stays there. As we work on ourselves and get exposed to the conditions of the work, and our comrades, and the exchange and struggle with ourselves, little by little, it becomes our own and enters into us, and then it begins to become absolutely lucid. You realize after many years of working with it that it couldnít have been said in any more lucid way than it is. Thatís my experience.
Q: What do you consider your role in the work to be now?
A: Thatís a good question. I donít think we know that. That is something we all have to keep discovering over and over again. Depending on many things, our role in the work first of all is just to work. But the main aim, I would say, is to try to help, in a way where we try to begin to open ourselves to this other level of life that Mme. de Salzmann speaks about, that other level of force, of consciousness, of energy Ė whatever we wish to call it.
This other level is the one thing that not only we as individuals need, but the world itself needs. I mean by the world human civilization and also the planet. This conscious energy needs to enter into people and through people to somehow enter into the living Earth. Anything that we can receive from the work in that direction we need to make our chief responsibility.
This leads us to our responsibility of contributing in some way to helping the process of transmission to others, and giving to those who are younger in the work, which is where the future of the work exists. Thatís a very difficult thing, but itís absolutely critical that we try to give, because in giving we actually receive, and in receiving we are able to give.
Whatever conditions we find where we can do that, whether itís sitting quietly in a meeting, or speaking in a meeting, writing books, or showing the movements or doing interviews, but most of all keeping the integrity of the Gurdjieff community, is our role. A very important thing for the world is that there exists on this planet a real school of inner work. Anything that can support that, however we can be part of that process, which is our place.
Q: One of the reasons that I wanted to work on Gurdjieff Internet Guide is to make and maintain these kinds of connection between people around the world, and to support each other.
A: We have to sustain each otherís work in some way or other. Weíre all finding our way here, now. Itís such a privilege to be part of this process, to be in the place where these ideas and this kind of work can be given. What a remarkable privilege.
We need to measure ourselves so that we donít weaken it for other people. That takes a real act of conscience Ė to know how to speak about it and to whom. How to help people appreciate it and help get the name of Gurdjieff known in the right way. We need each other to help to criticize each other and to support each other, those two go hand in hand.
Q: Yes, thatís right, so as not to dilute it. Itís a question Iíve asked myself many times, what is the purpose of publishing interviews and materials, why am I doing this, is it just for my own ego? Thereís always the danger of doing it for those reasons, because now some people know who I am because Iím talking to these interesting people, but itís not just that, itís like you say, to try to offer the multiple perspectives.
A: I donít think it can be just that. In doing what you describe one sees the ego; in seeing the ego, one suffers; in suffering, one begins to wish; in wish, one begins to come in touch with something more authentic, and then something more authentic comes through the exchange.
Q: What is attention? How can we engage with a finer attention?
A: Do you work at the movements? One needs to get a taste of another attention. One needs direct experience, even if it was just a momentary taste, a momentary experience. One needs to really have that taste engraved in oneís mind, oneís heart, oneís being. Thatís how we know how to measure our work. There are things that lead toward that experience: the ideas, contact with other people and the mysterious process of self-observation.
For a long time it comes from the mind, from the head, from the thought, which provides us with very precious psychological information about ourselves and our failures and our mechanicalness and all the illusions that we have. There then comes a point when thatís not enough, and weíre helped to see this by other people with more experience: there is another level of self-observation. And that canít be discovered alone. One really needs help from people who are more experienced and compassionate and who can put us in conditions where this other level of attention touches us for a moment.
Itís hard to speak about and Iím struggling to speak about it because I canít say that Iím an authority on this, that would be nonsense, but there is a link, a relation between the thought and the body. It opens the work to another level of observation. If the mind and the body can harmonize with each other even a little bit, then the observation doesnít simply get swallowed by the mind. One can stand in front of the thing that one is observing, whatever it may be, and at the same time maintain some kind of fine contact with the life of the body and then a new kind of attention can appear in my life, in my self. I can receive the impression much more deeply than just through thought alone. I can sacrifice the thought a little bit and just receive the impression as energy.
Then you have another level of work that I think weíre all searching for. Beyond that there are many, many, other levels that we have no idea about, but that we sometimes touch so that we know that the quest never ends. It gets deeper and deeper, and the deeper the question gets, the more the answer really is given.
Thereís a lot more to be said, and a lot more to be silent about.
Q: Thatís right, because there are all sorts of inner experiences coming up, all sorts of things going on inside of me as you talk, and of course inside of you as well. Thatís the great thing about actually speaking to someone Ė you can share more.
I work to make contacts with different people in the Gurdjieff teaching and to build bridges between different groups, whether youíre Ďfree rangeí or youíre part of the Foundation or the Society, thereís a connection, because weíre all trying something.
A: Yes, absolutely. I think perhaps he envisioned something that was not widespread in any ordinary sense of the term, but that had an influence throughout the world, not secretly but privately, and perhaps only sometimes much more openly. At the same time we all recognize the need to have our own private quiet work, without letting ourselves be drawn too far out.
Q: What is your experience of contact with conscience?
A: I canít answer that question! When you are touched by it, you know what it is. It destroys every illusion for that moment and it puts you in your place. You know what it means really to see yourself, as you are. Itís very deep and absolutely necessary, and in a way all our work is preparation for opening to conscience. Men and women of conscience are what the world needs more than anything.
Itís a very deep state that is sometimes given to us all by itself and itís unforgettable, but we also have to work to make ourselves available to it. It takes a tremendous amount of sincerity and preparation of the mind, of the body and the feeling.
Gurdjieff practically defined his work by the creation of conditions where people, through an experience of conscience, could become aware of their manifestations and what their level of being is. That was what he hoped to bring to the whole of the work. In several places he speaks about how important that is, but it is in a way really beyond words.
All the really important questions are unanswerable; theyíre answered by a state, not by words. There are some wonderful essays by Michel de Salzmann, and in one book called On the Way to Self-knowledge which I edited, thereís a talk by Michel de Salzmann and you should read that.
Even more to the point is an essay by Dr. de Salzmann which was published in the journal Material for Thought ( ďSeeing: The Endless Source of Inner Freedom, ĒFar West Editions, #14) a number of years ago. Every issue of that journal is worth studying.
Q: What do you consider to be the importance of the sittings or inner exercises?
A: The way Iíve come to understand it, itís a kind of preparation for life. Itís a way of coming in touch with our possibilities, with our situation, a really deep impression of our inner situation, and deep impressions of our possible development in a way that gives us a great direction for living, for working in the midst of life.
For most of us, itís only in the midst of life that we really can develop and the work is for that. The sitting can show us these energies and how impressions can really deeply enter into us. It can show us the laws of the work, such as the more we face your failure, our lack, the greater can be the opening to something very great inside of us.
Opening more and more deeply to our lack, to our inability, our self-deceptions, our mechanicalness our identifications, opening more and more to those shattering impression of ourselves Ėit is that which leaves a space for this deeper energy which is waiting and waiting to come into our lives, to be seen. And then one begins to know why one is working and what the work is for, and indeed what our whole life is for in the midst of our everyday lives.
So the sitting, as I understand it, can be extremely important but itís not an end in itself. I think that should be stressed. Itís more a profound support for the real work, which is in the midst of life.
But, of course, there are surely levels of experience in the work of sitting that are far beyond anything that most of us have yet touched.
Q: Sometimes when I havenít done my sitting, when Iíve missed it for a couple of days and I feel like things really arenít going well, then suddenly this state can appear from somewhere else, at another time when I wasnít expecting it at all. Itís incomprehensible. There doesnít seem to be any cause and effect
A: I think thatís a very good point. Itís so incommensurate with what we are at the moment it appears. At the same time, one can be pretty sure that the work one does every day that seems to have no result, when one is trying, and trying and trying with no results, something very likely is deposited within us that stays inside of us. So even though our work doesnít seem to go very deep sometimes, for a long time even, weíre trying, and something is deposited inside of us. We donít know the laws of that energy thatís deposited-- those substances, the impressions-- but at some point all that gathers together and appears in us with no apparent relationship to anything weíve tried, but you can be sure, almost certainly, that the day-to-day work is what brings that kind of an opening about. The thing to take from that is what weíve heard so often, no effort is wasted.
Q: Where can we find the truth?
The truth? Iím tempted to sayÖ (long pause) Ö nothing. (Laugh). And Iím not going to resist that temptation.
I think you know how to answer that as well as I do, or not to answer that as well as I do. But Iíll tell you a story of the Mullah Nassr Eddin, and an explanation of that story by Meister Eckhart. Meister Eckhart is one of the great Christian mystics and if you donít know him you should go out right away and read some of his sermons.
In this well-known story of the Mullah Nassr Eddin, his friend comes along one night to visit the Mullah and finds him on his hands and knees searching and scrounging around a lamppost. The friend says: ďMullah, what are you doing? What are you looking for? Can I help you?Ē The Mullah answers: ďYes, come and help me, Iíve lost the key to my house!Ē And his friend bends over and looks over every square inch, carefully searching for it on his hands and knees, and after several hours his friend says: ďMullah, are you certain you dropped it here?Ē And the Mullah says: ďOh no, I dropped it over there, in the bushes.Ē And his friend exclaims: ďWell, you idiot, why are you looking for it over here?Ē And the Mullah says: ďBecause the light is much better here.Ē
Meister Eckhart says in one of his great sermons that we need to look for God precisely where we lost him. If we substitute the word Ďtruthí for ĎGodí that would be as good a way as any to answer your question.