May 1996 Meeting Report

"The Teachings of Gurdjieff"

presented by Roger House

Met Wednesday, May 8, 1996, 6:30 - 9 pm. Six people were present. Refreshments and hospitality were generously provided by Roger himself.

Roger's was a very personal and intimate presentation. In 1971 he came to live in the Occidental area specifically because of its active Gurdjieff community. After several years of spiritual work he decided that he did not have the "bulldog tenacity" required to attain higher consciousness.

The community's spiritual guide was Mr. Nylan, a Dutchman who had spent time with Gurdjieff in the 1940's and 50's just before he died. Roger spoke of Mr. Nylan with considerable reverence. "He had a field around him. You were drawn to him."

Glen Johnston clarified for us that this feeling went by the name frisson - a shiver in the presence of an enlightened being. Something that Glen had experienced in the presence of a certain Indian guru some years before.

Gurdjieff's major work has the imperious title, "All And Everything". It was printed in parts over the course of twenty-five years: 1950-1975. Roger's fine bibliography has the details. Roger summarized for us what he had learned of Gurdjieff's teachings.

Human beings are machines. They react to experience. They do not have free will. But it is possible to attain free will, to wake up to objective reality, to reach a higher level of consciousness. There are four levels of consciousness: being asleep, being awake or 'waking sleep', and then two higher levels. People without free will - without souls - attain only waking sleep. They are not fully awake. Fully awake is to waking sleep as the latter is to sleep itself - incomprehensible unless you have achieved it. Gurdjieff teaches how to wake up.

Roger confesses that he is not awake.

Considering the presence of so many skeptics, Roger's concise and passionate summary was a bold offering. It touched all present.

Don Farmer wanted more precise information. How does one know he is fully awake? Why should one pursue such a state? What does it have to offer?

Not having attained it, Roger could not precisely say. But his quest was driven by the need to improve himself. He believed himself lacking spiritually. He wanted to rid himself of undesirable attributes: laziness...

Few are perfect! Don confessed he has given up self-improvement. He came to recognize that all such attempts only leave him frustrated and unhappy. Of all the different people he had tried to be, his own self was the best.

Phil Sullivan addressed the issue of self-evaluation with an account of a medical school experiment from his student days. It was a double blind trial: one third of the class was given a depressant - 30 milligrams of amobarbitol - another third a stimulant - 5 milligrams of dexadrine - and the rest a placibo. But no individual knew which of the three anyone got. The task was this: by noting everyones behavioral symptoms, to deduce who received what.

Here is what happened. Those who became convinced they received a depressant became drowsy. Those who believed they received a stimulant became hyperactive. Each exhibited the symptoms of the potion they believed was in them. But, in fact, their deductions were largely in error. Their behavior was found to be unrelated to their dosages. It was related only to what they thought they took. Conclusion: Expectation is the more powerful potion determining behavior.

This story leads one to reflect on whether emotional reactions are accurate meters of reality. Evidently, they are sometimes not. Frisson can be staged.

Robert Skinner has lived in this area since the 1970's. Over this time, he said, he has met many Gurdjieffians. He found them very somber people, not much given to merriment.

Roger agreed. They were aware of it. Mr. Nylan encouraged levity. Roger recalled him admonishing his listeners, "Our work is serious, not somber".

As might be expected this thread led to the perennial puzzle: When all is said and done is it not happiness that is the goal? Is not the ultimate target 'to feel happy'? Does spiritual improvement equal personal improvement? If so, spiritual pursuits are quests for self-gratification! Spiritual success should leave one smiling. The matter of free will has been debated over the ages.

... men think themselves free inasmuch as they are conscious of their volitions and desires, and never... dream .. of the causes which have disposed them so to wish and desire ...
... as to saying that their actions depend upon their will, these are words to which no idea is attached.

Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza 1634-1677

Free will is something that nobody has - or that everybody has! 'That most have no free will but that some may achieve it' is surely a concept without meaning. Albeit the words have a compelling emotional impact - if you don't think about them. Like these words: "We fight against evil in a just cause." Opposing sides have both been motivated to kill each other by this totally meaningless phrase.

The meeting dissolved into wine, cookies and parochial matters.

Did Roger make converts? No.
Was Roger converted? No.

We parted happily; each with personal prejudices properly enshrined and comfortably in hand.

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May 1996
Marvin Chester


© m chester 1996 Occidental CA