The All & Everything Conference, Toronto 2009
Greetings from Canada
The All & Everything Conference, Toronto 2009
as reported by John Robert Colombo
Preamble and Confession
For decades I have been conducting a correspondence with Simson Najovits, a friend and fellow writer who since the 1960s has lived in Paris, preferring the City of Light to the City of Montreal where he was born. Little by little, from letter to letter, then from email to email, I began to realize that we shared certain metaphysical aims and interests and that, indeed, he was a long-time student of the Work.
After exchanging many letters, I learned that he had met and worked with Madame de Salzmann and Madame de Hartmann and that he was on a first-name basis with many of the French movement’s leading personalities. I will not mention their names but the names would be recognized if I did. Then I learned that after a decade and a half of experience of the Work, he had left it – though whether one ever leaves the work or ever could leave the work is a matter that could be discussed at some later time.
He noted, “While those on the outside may have interesting comments about the Work and ‘All and Everything,’ it is those on the inside, those who practise the Work, or those who were in the Work for a long time, who have the most apposite, the deepest insights about ‘All and Everything.’”
In another email I told him that I had been invited by the conference organizers to submit an abstract of a paper for possible presentation at the conference, but that I had declined the invitation. I explained that while I might relish considering myself “a companion of the book,” I was no way an authority on Beelzebub’s Tales. I explained that I knew my limits and preferred to remain safely within those boundaries.
I got a wary reaction from Simson, especially when I went on to inform him that I planned to attend all the sessions of the conference and report on the experience on a day-to-day basis for those readers of Sophia Wellbeloved’s website who would like to attend but would not be doing so – presumably the vast majority of its readers.
Simson said, “Ain’t that going to be a bit of a problem for you?” He pointed out that a year earlier I had admitted in an email to him that I had never read Beelzebub’s Tales and, later on, in one of the reviews carried by Sophia in her blog, I had stated that I had never read the magnum opus from cover to cover, not even once, not to mention the prescribed three times. As I made these points, I could see him, in my mind’s eye, bristling like a porcupine.
I was admitting the truth. I pointed out that I had spent most of my undergraduate years surrounded by graduate students of English and French literature who had proudly boasted that they had read Finnegans Wake from cover to cover or A la recherche des temps perdu from covers to covers. I listened carefully to what they were saying about Joyce and Proust, and with equal diligence I read what they were writing about these masters and their masterworks, and about the world at large, but I had failed to detect any evidence that these marathon reading exercises had changed them for the better or for the worse.
Indeed, I have met students of The Secret Doctrine who have studied Madame Blavatsky’s book on Wednesday nights for years on end, taking only short breaks during the summers. They certainly knew more Theosophy – or more about Theosophy – than I ever did, but the exercise seemed not to have altered their personalities or their characters in any appreciable or apparent ways. I kept thinking of a line of Kipling’s that is a favourite of mine. It goes roughly goes like this: “Who knows England who only England knows?”
I am not going to take the next step and make the same point about students of the Work and their respect for Beelzebub’s Tales because I have no evidence, either pro or con, that immersion in the work automatically deepens or widens consciousness or sense of presence or does both together. I suppose the word “automatically” there gives away my position. One sentence read consciously is worth ten thousand sentences read mechanically. Of the transformative powers of works of the human imagination, especially of works of scripture, I have no doubt. It depends on the reader.
“My intention is to describe the viewpoints expressed and paint the contours and colours of the occasion and catch the expressions of emotion and intellect. It was in that way that a few years ago I covered the three-day meeting of Traditionalists in Edmonton in a report published in the journal Fohat and subsequently reprinted in my book Whistle While You Work. I did so without being able to read Arabic or Farsi or most of the texts of the Traditionalists that were extolled during those sessions.
“At the same time, I have already read, with a fair degree of comprehension, almost all the proceedings of the previous A&E conferences, which I purchased (from By the Way Books) as they appeared, so I am prepared, up to a point. The point is that I will admit, right off, that I have a cursory knowledge of the contents of Beelzebub’s Tales. I recall the statement made by A.R. Orage, following his break with Mr. Gurdjieff, that even he did not understand the text, despite having translated, adapted, edited, or rewritten much of it.”
I concluded by saying, “Simson, I am surprised that you would think that it is a problem. It is often useful to regard a subject from the opposite perspective: Would anyone who is an authority on the text agree to report on the event? Not likely. There are times when someone who holds no particular views and sees the big picture and is willing to learn has the advantage over the specialist who is parti pris.
“Anyway, we will see. I seldom bite off more than I can chew. While I did decline a possible invitation to prepare a paper at the conference, I did accept the kind invitation to speak briefly at the banquet, as I felt that there should be some input from the host country than might otherwise be the case. Anyway, reversing a well-known saying, ‘My “bite” is worse than my bark!’”
Simson was mollified and replied, “Well, I guess you’re right about a few things – it is unlikely that anybody who is an authority on the text would agree to report on it at the conference, it is so that quite often somebody who sees the big picture and is willing to learn has the advantage over the specialist and it is so that after his first reading of Beelzebub’s Tales, Orage said that it was ‘unintelligible,’ although I think he changed his mind later.”
All this took place in December 2008. I am recounting these exchanges now for the benefit of Simson in Paris as well as for the readers of Sophia’s website wherever they may live in order to set the record straight about my acquaintance with the text that is the centre of this inquiry.
In point of fact, like many people who have been attracted to the Work and who subsequently left, as a good many people do, I have acquired and retained both a general idea and a specific idea of what the book says and how it says it. I have read innumerable presentations, essays, and even other books about the big book, and I have come to the conclusion that it seems to me to be (on the one hand) an idiosyncratic epic poem in prose and (on the other hand) a shiny looking-glass that reflects back the characteristic features of its readers. Northrop Frye describes “scripture” as “literature plus.” I think Beelzebub’s Tales is “scripture.”
Like most people with a taste for the Work, I have read both Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life Is Real Only Then, When “I Am,” in their entirety, a number of times, not to mention the withdrawn booklet Herald of Coming Good. It is with Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson that I have this on-again, off-again relationship. Anyway, for the purposes of what follows, I will refer to the latter publication as Tales. (My edition is the first one issued by Harcourt, Brace.) I will reserve the impressive words “All and Everything” for all three books of the canon: Tales, Meetings, Life.
The Venue and the Proceedings of the Conference
Toronto may not be the most picturesque of cities, but it has charms of its own, though not one of them is visible from the windows of the hotel at which the conference was held. This venue was The Days Inn located on Wilson Avenue near Jane Street northwest of the city’s downtown.
Nor were any redeeming features of modern architecture apparent within the Inn. I felt a little sorry for first-time visitors to Toronto. Hardly anybody else but me expressed discontent, but I did hear one person say, “At least the hotel is cheap, and it’s located near the airport.” Nevertheless its Lady Hamilton Room with its four unimpressive chandeliers served quite well as the meeting room for the forty-five or fifty registered attendees.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009. 8:30 p.m. Forty-five chairs were arranged in a large oval and participants quietly took their seats. I scanned the group: thirty-five men and ten women. Casual dress. People were in their fifties and sixties in the main, with a sprinkling of younger and older men and women. Technically trained or professionally educated, I would guess. Mainly Caucasian. Thoughtful and courteous people, by and large.
This first meeting was a preliminary gathering, called for the night before the conference’s first session. Ian MacFarlane, the convener, a Canadian who works in England, in his patented quiet manner, asked us to introduce ourselves in a counter-clockwise direction. People spoke easily, though some were almost inaudible. I was surprised that so many participants – perhaps twelve in all – identified themselves as Canadians who were (like my wife Ruth and myself) attending this series of conferences for the first time.
I was also surprised to learn that perhaps two-thirds of the participants had associations with groups in the United States and the United Kingdom that had been founded by leaders whose names were familiar to me though I had never met them: Patterson, Nyland, Staveley, Popoff, Beidler, Bennett, etc. (I identified myself as someone who in 1957-59 had benefited from a contact with the Toronto group that was then led by the Welches – Mrs. Louise Welch and Dr. William Welch. In passing I mentioned that I would be reporting on the proceedings for Sophia Wellbeloved’s website.)
More than half the members had attended previous conferences in Bognor Regis and elsewhere, at least two having achieved the distinction of having attended all the earlier conferences. There were also participants from Greece, the U.K., Holland, the U.S., etc. The American visitors expressed pleasure that the conference was, once again, being held in North America.
I surmised that the people present were a studious and sincere students of the work whose lives had been enriched through repeated readings of the Tales and from association with Work groups, though some members were currently inactive or “on leave” (as one person expressed it) from them. After everyone introduced himself or herself, Seymour B. Ginsburg, whom I met for the first time, inquired if the group would be interested in hearing a short account of how the A&E Conferences had begun. This suggestion was met with approval.
It was safe to say that nobody who attended that two-day gathering held in February 1996 in Bognor Regis expected that the initiative would launch a series of annual gatherings called the “International Humanities Conference.” But the group succeeded in dismissing the Smith thesis and the momentum was such that by now the conferences are fixtures in the world of Work.
A.L. Staveley, dubbed the “godmother” of the conference, felt it should be named “The Brotherhood of the Book.” Later, briefly, it was called “Companions of the Book.” Finally it got its present name “The All & Everything: The International Humanities Conference.” The focus would remain, always, on the text of Tales.”
Sy’s impromptu history was followed by some general discussion. After two hours, the preliminary session of the fourteenth conference was over. It seemed to me that the conference had been well and truly launched, with a sense of fellowship based on a commonality of interests and a willingness to listen and learn and speak. I resolved to describe all the sessions that I could attend, and note those that I could not attend. I was not staying at the conference hotel so I missed much of the informal chatter at breakfast, etc.
Thursday, April 22, 2009. 9:15 a.m. The conference hall was set up with a projection screen and chairs arranged in lecture fashion. Ian convened the first session of the fourteenth conference with another potted history. He pointed out that in no way was the conference a “work event” because it had no movements or sittings or individual instructions. It was meant to appeal primarily to the intellectual centre. It was run by volunteers and was independent of any group. Proceedings would be recorded, then transcribed, and then made available in MP3 format, on the conference’s website, and also in printed form – with modest payment through PayPal. The morning sessions would consist of two presentations with discussions, the afternoon sessions with two seminars focused on specific chapters of Tales.
Stephen discussed the three lines of the work (for oneself, for others, and for the Work itself) and the setbacks of “wiseacring” and the “law of hazard” (employing a phrase of Bennett’s). His thesis seemed to be that we can change worlds by making changes in our minds. Simplifying things: Aim facing hazard resulted in change of attitude and hence understanding. Humour is one way of avoiding the trap of wiseacring. He stressed Mr. G.’s advice: “Remember yourselves always and everywhere.”
During the discussion period, Stephen was asked, given his extensive experience with forms of psychotherapy, if Gurdjieff’s work was merely “another chapter” in some book of therapies. In reply, the speaker distinguished between two types of therapy and all rest of the techniques and theories.
The two types that stand out from the rest are Jungianism and Psychosynthesis, for they encourage people to move toward boundaries, although they do not point out the presence of doors to other worlds. As for all the other therapies, they try to relieve the pain of those people who are asleep. “I can at least talk with Jungians more easily than I can talk with the others.” Therapy, it seems, means introducing patients to matter of a higher quality.
I had the feeling that I had missed the thesis of Stephen’s talk, so I asked him to lend me the text to read over lunch hour or to express in a couple of sentences the thesis that he wanted to present. He did both. From his text I selected the following interesting quotation: “Now, we begin to sense that the Work has us for Its use.” I will include some sentences from his hand-written comments: “To serve the work from above, the transmission of the higher potential into the lower requires me to play my role as the bridge (objectively) and not ‘myself’ subjectively.” “Plant the seed as the sower – with regard to the type and quality of seed and seasons and the apparent conditions of the soil. Then watch what happens. You are the role of sower, not the God of Nature.”
There was a short coffee break. The second session began at 11:30. Dimitri Peretzi, dressed in black, spoke on the theme “Man Is Third Force Blind.” An architect and intellectual, he made good use of slides to illustrate his argument that “man is an incomplete being” in whom the effects of Kundabuffer have crystallized, and that First Force and Second Force meet on a two-dimensional plane; Third Force, their product, manifests in a three-dimensional cube. The Third Force is a force in its own right, but even more a process, at one and the same time a cause and an effect. The triad is not to be viewed as flat. The forces have homes in the human body.
Using Mr. Gurdjieff’s analogy of keys and locks, Dimitri spent some time equating Aieioiooa with “light of day” and remorse. The more he explained the relationship, the more complicated it seemed. He devoted time to the enneagram which, to my surprise, he turned almost on edge, to create a coil or spiral. (This recalled for me Northrop Frye’s observation that a circle is a compressed spiral.) He spoke in a lively, somewhat provocative manner. He began and ended with a quotation from Madame de Salzmann: “It is blindness that keeps one world separate from another.”
The sessions and discussions ended at 12:45 p.m. and were followed a light lunch. Everyone reconvened at 2:30 p.m. for the first of two textual discussions. This time the seating was arranged in an immense oval, so large that it discouraged any one-on-one exchange or debate. The hand-held microphones (necessary for taping the proceedings) reduced spontaneity.
Those were the drawbacks to the seating arrangement. Its strongpoints were that the arrangement guaranteed that everyone was equal and that a sense of community was created. In point of fact, some senior group members worked as “resource people” (including Sy Ginsburg, Keith Buzzell, and Nick Bryce) and commented irregularly though often at some length about the aspect of the topic being discussed.
After a one-minute “sitting,” there was a discussion of Chapter 25, “The Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash, Sent from above to the Earth.” In fact, much of the discussion, ably led by Nick, was about the phrase “sent from above.” Some participants found it puzzling. What I found puzzling was not the meaning of the arresting phrase itself, clearly based on John 4:9, but the fact that the group was ill-equipped to consider “the order of words,” the term used in literary criticism to account for word choice and allusion, if not meaning. I suggested that perhaps A.R. Orage might be credited with inventing some of the terminology and that he was aware of the allusions and reverberations of words like “sent.”
There was much discussion, enriched by comments by Sy and Keith, in particular, about how Ashiata Shiemash “neither taught nor preached.” That raised the question, Where does that leave today’s teachers or leaders? Time was spent on a discussion of the nature of spiritual hierarchy, and George Bennett (son of J.B. Bennett) noted the multiple groups of “brotherhoods” mentioned in Tales, one of which he said may well exist today.
The first discussion ended with a break at 3:50 p.m. Sy then led the second seminar on “The Terror of the Situation.” There was much discussion of legominisms and an apparent anachronism in the Tales with respect to the narrator’s prior knowledge of events that occurred later. The serious question was raised: “What is the terror?” Answers were wide-ranging, included loss of everything, loss of individual life, loss of hope, to a general malaise with life.
Unfortunately I had to make an exit early, at 4:50 p.m., before the session was concluded, so I never did find out the consensus position. I would have liked to have learned what members of the oval individually and collectively felt about the word “situation.”
I left impressed with the quality of the facilitation and with the sincerity of the participants, though many of the participants were unfamiliar with the text and in awe of the senior members who graciously shared their very detailed insights. I kept trying to remember the Arabic term for a Muslim who has memorized the Koran.
I learned from people who had attended the concert that Mrs. Denzey was accompanied by members of two generations of her family and that the feeling was that this concert might be her final performance. A great one it was! She performed the compositions written for the Moments as well as some unfamiliar concert compositions. As one listener told me, “It lasted about one hour, but it was suddenly over, as if it had been only fifteen minutes in length, so moving was it.”
Friday, April 24, 2009. The first session began, after a one-minute sitting, with the presentation “Gurdjieff Exercises and the Three Brains” delivered by John Amaral who is an engineer by training and something of a polymath. What he did, with well-prepared slides, was discuss the function of the exercises identified with Gurdjieff and his followers that are used in work situations. They are transmitted from person to person and hence from generation to generation one-on-one or in small groups.
Can the exercises be described in words? They are not like recipes, easily summarized, or easily communicated, because they require a state of being and understanding that cannot be described or communicated except in person. They rather resemble sheet music, which very talented musicians can play, but others cannot. The training and skill of the musician is of paramount importance. Students are required to make them their own.
There are exercises for the various centres, for various types of people, for various times of the day, etc. Morning exercises are very important. There are exercises for various centres, for conscience, etc. John went into more detail than this and distributed two, many-paged printouts which I will pour over in the weeks ahead.
He said we live in an exciting and ecumenical time characterized by the availability of much material. That raised a question. Will the exercises disappear if they are kept under wraps, so to speak? Or should they be made more widely available, perhaps published or even made the subjects of multimedia presentations? Mechanical reproduction of them is as useless as mechanical performance of them. “If we wish to rise above the average, it is necessary to sacrifice sleep.”
I am not going to go into more detail than this because, as John pointed out, some people even object to referring to the exercises by name outside groups, though, interestingly, a senior work leader seated beside me turned to me and said, “Writers like you should be collecting them and publishing them.” So it is a controversial subject.
There was a lively discussion about Mr. G.’s view on dreams, comments from Maurice Nicoll, Margaret Anderson, and Ethel Merston. John said it should be possible to trace the “lineage” of the exercises based on their individual characteristics, though whether the effort is worth while is worth consideration. One member raised the subject of “Tasks” and it was suggested that a task is a time-reduced exercise. I remember this being discussed way back in the 1950s. The session ended at 10:45 a.m. with a coffee break.
There was an interesting analysis of the role of proteins and how modern science is revealing the facts of digestion which are in line with what is discussed in Tales. We learn by analogy: “Higher hydrogens digest lower hydrogens.” The speaker suggested that there is “a way of understanding how our minds can transform our physical brains.” “The input of the three brains is the substrate of the spiritual body, the DNA of the kesdjan.”
During the discussion it was mentioned that there are ten bacteria for every cell in the human body. “We could not live without all our bacteria. We have to get along with each other.” Keith quoted a teacher who asked, “How can you expect to have extra knowledge if you don’t know ordinary knowledge.” The discussion ended with a discussion of magnetic vs. mechanical fields of influence and the human will and whether it can be suborned, followed by the differences between “body” and “centre.” It was 1:00 p.m.
At 2:30 p.m., after a brief sitting, Nick Bryce led a discussion of Chapter 27, “The organization for Man’s Existence Created by the Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash.” Nick is a veteran of these conferences, having attended all abut one of them. He is a resident of Ottawa and has a deep and comforting voice.
More to the point, he has made Tales his own. I will not try to summarize the discussion here, as it seemed to me to consist of a number of “fresh starts,” but he elicited a high level of comments and observations discussing the “shocks” and two holy men whose names suggest Pondering and Sensing. The text was declared to be full of “analogies” and there was a useful discussion as to whether the text, at points, said what it meant, or meant more than it said.
Conscience was the subject of the passage, and what I learned is what one member of the group said is the difference here with respect to the “bite of conscience” and “the remorse” of conscience, two different things. Is conscience really buried or is it close to the surface? A student in the Bennett line suggested it is not all that deeply buried, but a student of a different line suggested that it is deeply buried. There seemed agreement that one’s conscience signals that “I have an alternative” and, thereafter, “I have no alternative.” It is not easily silenced. Is conscience part of essence? Is it outside essence? Is it part of the unconscious?
Nicoll was quoted as saying that acting against one’s conscience is “acting in a way unbecoming to three-brained beings.” The speaker suggested, “Every aspect of Gurdjieff’s teaching has to be reduced to some something that is practical and simple, otherwise it has no use for us.” The moderator introduced the image of Sleeping Beauty with the desire of the Prince to awaken her, i.e., one’s conscience. Discussion ended with the suggestion that “conscience never allows anyone to sleep in peace.”
The discussion ended at 4:10 p.m. with a coffee break, and I had to make a quick and quiet exit. This time I asked David Almon, a young man of the Bennett line, if he would accept a “task.” At first he was cagey, but then he agreed to do the best he could. Here is what he reported about the seminar on the topic of “The Chief Culprit in the Destruction of the Labours of Ashiata Shiemash.” It takes the form of a poem:
at all the very saintly labours of ashiata shiemash
to give is to receive
shall we replace one word with another?
Combine parts which blind names separate
reason substance in objects
presence knows where your water is
swim in it until the boat is Found
ride it towards the other
set sail together
let the light guide
lessons from these stars alight
fools asleep, the crew we need
be wary. For tales of lore
nature attests ocean to shore
all true inside
–from one of many inhabitants of this earth.
The other twelve compositions were parts from the following groups: Asian Songs and Rhythms; Hymns, Prayers, and Rituals; Music of the Sayyids and Dervishes; Hymns from the Great Temple and Other Selected Works. He titled the program “Journey to Inaccessible Places” and indeed they were journeys to places both faraway and close at hand, with all their familiar overtones and undertones.
He played these Gurdjieff-inspired compositions in a strong, masculine manner as music to move one’s muscles and then one’s emotions. In a brief commentary he explained that the writing of these collaborations took place between the two men in public gatherings at the Priory, so they partake of this “third force.”
George made good use of slides and diagrams. One slide, to which he returned, was a photograph that showed a woman and a man working a handsaw with a child looking on, the child representing the generation of the future. He then discussed the twin figures of Choon-Kil-Tez and Chon-Tro-Pelj and the reasons for the world arising and maintenance and then perfecting of “higher-being bodies.” He amusingly referred to Mr. Gurdjieff as having chutzpah in accepting all manner of hardships to make the Fourth Way known in the West, even delivering a lecture at Harvard.
Here are some of his remarks in passing, some made during the presentation and some made during the question period that followed the talk: “Egoism sows the seeds of disaster.” He discussed how a friend, apprized of inoperable cancer, said, “I’m going to live with the dying of it.” “All experiments are hazardous, otherwise they are not interesting.” “My debt to our existence must be paid.” He introduced a powerful notion: “We must be in the present, but at the same time we may make the present bigger.” I found this latter suggestion to be a “keeper.”
He asked an interesting question: “What if George Gurdjief had never written All and Everything.?” Suppose there had been no accident in 1923; suppose he had not felt compelled to redirect his energies from maintaining the Priory to putting words to paper. What would we have today? The question was never answered, for it is unanswerable, but it is striking.
He then introduced his theme and thesis: Global warming is the most challenging issue of the twenty-first century – and our survival as a species is at stake. “We humans have truly become the biped destroyer of Nature’s good.” He said he was an ecologist “before it was fashionable to be green,” well before Al Gore became one.“Gore has come around to the position that we need a new and different morality and spirituality. We must open our hearts to the unknown, to the future.”
During the question period he was asked, “Do you see hope?” After deliberating, he said, “Yes, I do,” almost echoing Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes we can.” He then reminisced about his years at the United Nations, when Dag Hammarskjold was the Director General and was influenced by the Pakistan ambassador who was also head of one of the leading and enlightened Islamic groups. Jim’s suggestion was that we did not know of this current of influence then, and we do not know about it now, so we have no reason to assume that it does not exist today. “The awakening his a ripple effect. Now it is needed more than ever.”
He picked up on the suggestion of an earlier speaker that “faults are found on all levels, even the highest that we know.” On the acquisition of conscience: “We don’t acquire conscience all at once.” Once we acquire it, it is not necessarily there all the time. Asked about what might be called spiritual survivals from former civilizations unknown to history, he admitted there might be a “beehive” effect and that successive civilizations may have passed on to us their qualities, perhaps through our DNA. “Where does that take us now?” Scientists are only today discovering the neuroplasticity of our brains.
Asked for his thoughts on Barack Obama, he reiterated he does have hope. It was observed that “barack” means “presence” (or perhaps “grace”), and the new U.S. President has changed things, by creating an atmosphere of hope in the entire world. “Why not hope?” We need new energy sources, “a new Manhattan Project” to find them to cast aside coal-fire plants, adopt the least damaging technologies, and take a closer look at the ill-effects of electricity, especially on children. There is hope in zero-point energy. Another reason for hope is that life has a fourteen-million (or fourteen-billion?) year history. Do not underestimate the force of love in guiding the evolution of life.
At 2:40 p.m, the seminar focussed on Chapter 5, “Mr. X or Captain Pogossian,” of Meetings with Remarkable Men. It was led by Nick who told us that the popular work was originally called Portraits. Thereafter, for me, it was downhill all the way. I had last read the book half a decade ago; many who were present had not read it at all. It was the classic case of a knowledgeable and patient discussion-leader and a dull, ill-prepared class.
There were some exchanges on the nature of spider-venom. The question was asked, “What makes Pogossian remarkable?” Is he remarkable because he always wants to work? How does his body resemble the machine-engines that he tends? Is the ship a metaphor for his own body? The question, “Are the portraits of the people described in the book based on real people?” elicited the reply, “Does it matter?”
I could not remain for the second seminar, scheduled for 4:15 p.m., which was devoted to “Egoism” and facilitated by Dorothy Usiskin, but attentive to my duty to report on the proceedings, I turned to the young man who was seated to my right and asked him if he would accept a task and prepare for me a synopsis of the discussion. After all, he was preparing to spend three months in a “Residential Practicum” in Massachusetts run by Ben Bennett. He hesitated and then agreed. He wrote a poem and requested anonymity. Here it is:
does humour shake them off?
what feels this laughter?
juggling worlds states the jester to king
for the house his dance pleases
content to be the word then
as eyes on sheep keep wolf at bay
– from the hole of these spring
That was the last formal session of the conference. The banquet commenced at 7:30 p.m. that evening with Ian delivering some announcements. There were some toasts, including a sweet one to the memory of Mr. Gurdjieff’s wife. Then the banquet speaker was introduced.
The speaker happened to be me, so I turned the tables on Ian by presenting him with a copy of one of my books (I had cleared this with Ian first), making the suggestion that he regard it as the gift of the thirty-five or so people present. The audience took its cue and stood up to applaud Ian, who then did the gentlemanly thing of acknowledging the help he had received from his advisory board, the reading panel, and the planning committee. As for the banquet speech, I cannot meaningfully describe my twenty-minute talk, delivered without notes – but I will draw the attention of the reader to the supplement to this report, where a full version of the speech appears.
The menu offered a choice of dinners: rubber chicken or pseudo vegetarian stew, so the food was not much, though the desserts were of the tasty, store-bought variety. The white wine was light, the red heavy. No one gained weight on the food and no one got drunk on the wine. Yet I wondered, because it seems there is a custom at these conventions that people throughout the meal “let down their hair” – not the “hair of the dog,” mercifully – and tell bawdy jokes. Now, one of my occupations has been that of joke-collector, and my occupational hazard is hearing recycled jokes. I had heard all of these jokes before, though only a few were funny enough to be revived. Yet most of them were told with some gusto.
Sunday, April 26, 2009. “Where Do We Go from Here?” sounds like an existential question, but it was really a practical question in line with an academic “post-mortem” coupled with a planning session for the next conference. There were twenty-four attendees seated in a circle, and the session was moderated most adeptly by Ian.
It consisted of a series of animated discussions on the subjects of next year’s conference, beginning with should there be one, followed by where should it take place. Thereafter the group discussed the quality or lack of quality of the present programming, the introduction of ways and means to increase awareness through physical movement, the need to rethink the format of the seminar part of the program, and the added attraction of local tourism.
Everyone was in favour of holding the fifteenth conference, and about three-quarters of the participants indicated they would attend next year’s event. As no conferences had yet taken place in South America, one of the participants who lives in Mexico suggested Buenos Aires or Lima as cities that have the advantages of international airports and proximity to sites of interest like Machu Picchu which members might wish to visit.
It was stressed that the choice of the city might be based on whether or not it is the home of group members who would attend in numbers and contribute to the cause by helping to make arrangements, etc. It was felt that Toronto had been a success in that it had attracted many new members who had travelled from at least four distant Canadian cities to attend.
While I think this is unlikely to occur, I can see why that decision would be popular with the American participants, as Canada shares a border with the United States (now an armed one, alas!) and Toronto has many conference hotels that are modest in price.
The group agreed that the quality of the papers was high, some higher than others, and that the number of papers (four) was “about right.” Yet it was noted that proposals for about six additional papers had been entertained but could not be accommodated. There was inconclusive talk of including an additional day for papers and seminars, i.e., making it a four-day affair rather than one of three days.
There was general agreement that the seminars, as distinct from the talks, were not as productive as they could be. This agreement surprised me, as I had come to the conclusion that I was the only participant who was “exasperated” with them. Also to my surprise was the fact that even the facilitators of the seminars expressed some discontent. It was felt that while much had been gained, opportunities had been lost.
Various remedies were suggested: Breaking the big oval into three small ovals; distributing in advance a PDF of a page or two of the text and then focusing on it, perhaps with a list of questions and a list of terms; introducing ways and means of enhancing powers of concentration and encouraging contributions to the discussion.
On the latter subject, there was a debate between what I saw as a disagreement between those who viewed the seminars as study sessions and those who viewed them as sittings. Proponents of the former recommended the limited introduction of standard psychological techniques used by profession presenters in the fields of business and personal empowerment. Proponents of the latter felt that the sessions should be allowed to flow, as participants made their own connections – or not. It was suggested that I might prepare a list of some suggestions of procedures that could be used by facilitators to enhance the empower the audience. I agreed to draw up such a list. [See reference below.]
There was a debate as to whether or not specific exercises used by group leaders should be introduced. The argument against their introduction stemmed from the description of the conference as a non-work activity. On the same basis, it was argued that there was no place here for the Movements. It was even suggested that the two evenings devoted to the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann compositions were extraneous. Counter-arguments were heard. There was no resolution.
Members from Norway, in particular, were concerned that the conference should remain true to its aim of bringing together “people who share an interest in plunging into the book.” They were bothered that social activities (including performances of the de Hartmann music) were a distraction, and were against connecting the conferences with tourism and exotic locales. It was suggested that a tourism component could be an “add on” for those participants who wanted to experience the city they were visiting. Many members felt that the conference in Greece was worthwhile both in itself and for the tourism component.
It was agreed that the call for papers should include a call for seminar leaders, as the latter was often done on at the last moment on an ad-hoc basis. It was felt that the conferences, in addition to meeting the needs of its regular participants, should “add new blood,” i.e., attract new members. Concern was expressed that some organizations were telling their members to avoid the A&E Conferences.
I felt a sense of loss when we began to shake or wave hands and say “au revoir but not goodbye.” Over the four days I had learned (yet again) not to judge people by their appearances – indeed, the fellow in motorcycle garb turned out to be eminently thoughtful and friendly, whereas the person who looked like an office manager turned out to be disorganized, and the woman who seemed self-contained was somewhat scatter-brained. People showed unexpected enthusiasms and smiled and were so friendly. People were friends. Indeed, everyone seemed so … alive!
But the big shock came when I left the hotel and drove to our local shopping plaza to buy some groceries. I entered our busy supermarket, only to sense that the crowd of shoppers was a flock of people who were asleep.
Greetings from Canada
Here is the complete text of the speech that I delivered at the banquet of the All & Everything Conference held in Toronto, Saturday, April 25, 2009.
It is a dream come true for me to attend an A&E Conference, for I have been reading the conference’s annual proceedings from the first conference held in Bognor Regis fourteen years ago. It is “two dreams come true” to be invited to address the audience at the banquet. It is a most unexpected honour.
I was desirous of attending all the sessions and of saying little, as I have no detailed knowledge of Tales and I did not want to make a fool of myself. I know my limits. But I immediately accepted the invitation to address the banquet because I was worried that there was no “Canadian content” in the proceedings at all. Aside from facilitators – Ian, who was born in Niagara Falls, and Nick, who lives in Ottawa – no presenter was a Canadian. (This was before I learned to my delight that Jim George would be taking part in the program.)
I worried for about three minutes what I could possibly and meaningfully say to “the Companions of the Book.” But I knew in my heart’s core that I could convey my particular enthusiasm for the conjunction of consciousness studies and Canadiana.
In the past it was customary to envisage “fragments of a unknown teaching” in terms of geographical locales, and there are insights to be gained from establishing such vantage-points. Traditional values in Crotona, Southern Italy, may not be traditional values in Crotona, Southern California. Indeed, a chain of cities links the Work, starting or restarting in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but beginning much earlier, prehistorically perhaps, at some lost locale in Egypt or Ethiopia or the Caucasus or some remote monastery of Central Asia.
Given such exotic locales, I am sorry that you are anchored to this location: an unpromising non-neighbourhood in this city of functioning neighbourhoods. Toronto has many charms that you will not experience. There is an old saying attributed to a former mayor: “No one should ever visit Toronto for the first time.” So come back again to savour the city.
Let us find out what is at hand. Around the corner from this hotel is a mosque. Five blocks south of here is a Mormon temple that has a direct and unique connection with the Mormon founder Joseph Smith. I could go on ….
I often escort people on a tour of the city, focussing on locales associated with writers who once lived here – Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Wyndham Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Robertson Davies, etc. Insulin was first synthesized here. Sigmund Freud did not live here, but his brother, an investor, did. As did Isaac Bashevis Singer and the anarchist “Red Emma” Goldman.
Elan Sicroff, who is here today, would enjoy seeing the sites associated with the eccentric but brilliant pianist Glenn Gould. There is also some outstanding architecture represented by I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind, and Frank Gehry (who was born here), as well as a rare public sculpture by Frank Lloyd Wright and innumerable Henry Moores. Gehry’s remodelling of the Art Gallery of Ontario is a work of great art and the Thomson Gallery with its magnificent Lawren Harris canvases (inspired by Theosophy) approaches objectivity.
Let us begin in the world of imagination and symbology. I would like you to stare beyond me, beyond the cream-coloured wall behind me, and look into the distance, for three seconds. Each of you should ask yourself, “What do I see?” I will do the same. What did you see? I saw with my “improved binoculars” into the far reaches of the country. I saw the North Pole and the Magnetic North Pole. Did you see them? They are part of this country and they exert a tremendous influence on us and on our civilization. I could speak for an hour about the myths and legends of Canada’s and the world’s most northern point. (Rest assured I won’t.)
Instead, I will ask, “Do you remember what P.D. Ouspensky wrote about the Pole?” References to the “polar regions” occur repeatedly in Ouspensky’s talks: “We live in a bad place in the universe – near the North Pole.” Not good news! I need not remind you that in Tales, Gurdjieff himself writes about the Eskimo who is one of four contemporary initiates – I assume the Eskimo in question is a long-lived Canadian citizen. In fact, I might even supply his name.
Now I would like you to turn around, for three seconds, and tell me what you see? Do you see what I see? (I am writing this script so it is unlikely that you saw what I saw: Niagara Falls.) This mighty cataract is one of the world’s most familiar natural sites, and it marks the nation’s boundary with the United States.
I could talk for an hour about the lore and mystery of the falls – I won’t – but I will share with you one of the best observations ever made about the falls. It was delivered off-the-cuff by Oscar Wilde when he visited the place in the 1880s, when it was known as “the honeymoon capital of the world.” A reporter asked him for his thoughts on the matter. He quipped, “It’s the second major disappointment in the life of the American honeymooning couple.”
Let me talk about Toronto for a few minutes. Neither P.D. Ouspensky nor G.I. Gurdjieff ever visited Toronto – or Canada for that matter. Even Niagara Falls held no attraction for them, although it did fascinate Aleister Crowley the occultist who in 1904 travelled across the country and wrote in his memoirs he wanted to spend the rest of his life meditating beside the mighty cataracts. (The falls “thunder” about 130 kilometres from here – you can see the spume or at least the spray from the top of the CN Tower.) Crowley visited Toronto and called the city “a calculated crime against humanity.”
You have now looked both North and South. Now I want you to do more than look West and East. In fact, I want you to board the bus that I have chartered and take a journey with me.
The next exit is for Kitchener. Again, we do not stop, though if we had the time I would take you into the city and show you the childhood homes of my wife Ruth and myself. But let us continue. It’s an hour since we left Toronto behind, but ahead of us is Kitchener’s twin city of Waterloo. Here we will turn off the highway and pause in front of the campus of the University of Waterloo, which boasts the largest computer science department in the world, not just in Canada. It is sometimes said that there are more IT millionaires under the age of thirty in Waterloo than anywhere else on the globe. I think that is an overstatement, but what follows is not.
Waterloo is the birthplace of the BlackBerry, developed here by Mike Lazaridis, who then went on to found the outstanding Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics. Here there are twenty or so resident scholars who are determined to understand the formation of the cosmos. Health permitting, Stephen Hawking has agreed to spend the summer in residence here. I find cosmological thinking like this exciting, though I can make no contribution to it.
Back on the bus. In twenty-five minutes we are on the outskirts of Brantford, Ontario, which is known as the birthplace of the greatest-ever hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. But Brantford is distinguished in the world of communications, too. Brantford is described as “the birthplace of the telephone,” though Alexander Graham Bell, its father, denies this. He said, “The telephone was conceived in Brantford but born in Boston, Massachusetts.” Yet we will visit his family home and examine the exhibit that celebrates the fact that here was placed the world’s first long-distance telephone call, between Brantford and nearby Galt via the telegraph line that runs through Toronto, just as today’s telephone calls are bounced off geostationary telecommunication satellites.
The telephone is indicative of the world of communications. What is indicative of the world of traditionalism is what we will find on the outskirts of Brantford. As Northrop Frye noted, “In Ontario the Precambrian and the Postmodern are side by side.” Here is the Six Nations Indian Reserve. Clayton Jacobs, who is here, lives on this Reserve’s sister Reserve of Caughnawaga just outside Montreal in Quebec. He will attest that the Christian Mohawks live at Caughnawaga, whereas the pagan Mohawks live at the Six Nations.
I use the word “pagan” but I really mean “shaman,” because here are preserved ancestral traditions from the remote past. Here is recited the traditional Great Peace. Especially honoured is the world’s most famous Indian. His name is … Hiawatha, and he is believed to have been a real person, born near Deseronto, Ontario. He dedicated his life to the service of his great but semi-mythic chief, Dekanahwideh, who instituted the Great Peace. It lasted four hundred years, until the arrival of the White Man. Its oral laws influenced the U.S. Constitution. The American Eagle, perched at the topmost branch of the Great Tree of Peace, comes from Dekanahwideh’s constitution.
In the late nineteenth century he was one of the continent’s leading “alienists” or psychiatrists. He died in 1902, the Superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane. He is the author of the first biography of Walt Whitman, whom he knew personally and brought to Canada for a three-month visit, and he is the author of that classic in the world of mysticism known as Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. It is a comprehensive anthology of first-person accounts of mystical experiences.
Dr. Bucke was a friend of the English socialist Edward Carpenter, and I had the honour of typing out fair copy of Carpenter’s original letters written to Dr. Bucke. Between them the two men may lay claim to having coined the term “cosmic consciousness” to refer to what Freud memorably referred to as “the Oceanic Experience.”
Ouspensky devoted the final chapter of his book Tertium Organum to the theories of Carpenter and Bucke, and in those pages he argues that Bucke was on the right track but the mistake that he made was in assuming that the evolution of “the cosmic consciousness sense” was automatic and mechanical, whereas Ouspensky argued it was the fruit of “conscious evolution.” Bucke was a Darwinian; Ouspensky a Skinnerian.
Our bus will now speed us back to Toronto, where we will head north again, past York University, just north of here, where Dr. Graham Reed in its Department of Psychology popularized the term “anomalous experience.” It is now embedded in consciousness studies and is used by psychiatrists in place of the words “abnormal experiences.” It is too bad Dr. Bucke did not have access to Dr. Reed’s book, published in 1988, called The Psychology of Anomalous Experience. But let us drive on.
Our next stop is just outside Orangeville, where I will point out to you the world’s largest Daoist Tai Chi centre. Beside the Daoist temple, the big building is a rehearsal and demonstration hall where 1,000 people may perform the 108 steps of Tai Chi at the same time. Ruth and I are students of the discipline and hope one day to perform the set there.
Now settle back in the bus for we have a drive of at least four hours to take us to Sudbury, Ontario, the site of the world’s largest neutrino laboratory, which Stephen Hawking once visited. Sudbury is set in a crater and here the Apollo astronauts rehearsed the geological portions of their moon walk.
One participant was Susan Blackmore, the psychologist, parapsychologist-turned-sceptic, who has written at length about the experience and even appeared in a television special that culminated in her appearance at Dr. Persinger’s psychology laboratory.
If I had the time I would describe the site in detail, but we have to board our bus again and in an hour and a half we will pass through the city of Peterborough and then past the Indian reservation at Curved Lake and beyond it where we will behold the magnificent Peterborough Petroglyphs, where there is an outcropping of rock that is carved with perhaps eight hundred fascinating images. Here is the domain of “rock art.” This too is a vision site, though not so described in the tourist literature.
If that is not enough, on to Rice Lake where we will visit the peculiar land-forms at Serpent Mounds Provincial Park which is under excellent First Nation management. I think these low-lying mounds are a maze or a labyrinth where thanksgivings were made to the spirits of nature. Shamanstrvo is alive and well in Ontario.
That is as far east as we will go, ignoring the Masonic city hall in Winnipeg, the imposing “medicine wheels” on the Prairies, the monster sightings in Penticton, and the myriad marvels of coastal British Columbia. So let our bus sprout wings and fly us back to Toronto, a city with a population of 3.3 million, one-tenth the population of the country. Every second person who lives in Toronto is foreign-born, and many more were born elsewhere in the country. It has been called the city that gave the word “multiculturalism” to the world.
Toronto has one Anthroposophical society, two Theosophical Societies, and four Gurdjieff groups. (There was a saying, popular during the Cold War, that went like this: “God loved Germans so much he made two Germanies.”) I can understand why there might be four separate groups, but it makes no sense, to an outsider like myself, that they should not work together.
For instance, I exchanged emails with Joseph Azize; he could have visited the city and spoken here, had the groups been able to work together to invite him. (It is usually said there are three societies, – but only at the price of excluding those working in the Bennett tradition.)
At the time the couple were residents in Rawdon, Quebec, where they were waiting for their U.S. immigration papers. There they met members of the Daly family, including young Tom Daly, who brought them to Toronto on a visit. It is said that Madame de Hartmann wanted to lead the Toronto group, but the Foundation was responsible for shifting that burden onto the shoulders of Mrs. Louise Welch.
Here is a rundown on the groups: One, “The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: The Experimental Group.” Two, the publishing group (officially “Toronto Gurdjieff Group”). Three, “The Society for Traditional Studies.” There is also a fourth, non-affiliated group, taking into account the active Gurdjieff Bennett Group. To confuse matters still more, there is also Dolmen Meadow Editions, a fine publishing imprint.
Traditional Studies Press (which is incorporated within “The Society for Traditional Studies: The Gurdjieff Foundation”) issued the first-ever Guide and Index to “All & Everything”. This was an immense undertaking, especially in pre-computer days, and one that is in line with the spirit of scholarship.
We Canadians have a genius for mammoth literary and publishing mosaics. At the present time there are massive editorial projects underway, including the multi-volumed collected works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Erasmus of Rotterdam, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli, Florence Nightingale, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Lonergan, A.M. Klein, Northrop Frye, and every text ever written in Early Middle English.
Many of us have benefitted from another major undertaking, J. Walter Driscoll’s mammoth Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography (1985). I have yet to meet Walter, who though Toronto-born lives on the West Coast, but I admire his work of assembly and commentary, which makes it possible to have between the covers of one thick tome all the serious English-language references to the Work.
Let me look at some living people. The country’s ranking Gurdjieffians – if I may describe them in this way – are three in number: Ravi Ravindra, Tom Daly, and James George.
Tom Daly is the distinguished producer of documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada. I mentioned him in connection with IMAX. One of his many films is a masterpiece with a cosmological sense of wonder – Universe is its title, and the thirty-minute documentary takes the viewer on a tour of … the Ray of Creation. It was Tom’s mother who brought the De Hartmann’s to Toronto. Tom subsequently settled in Montreal where he is the executor of the estates of the De Hartmanns. He has done much to preserve their memory and arrange for the recordings of the musical compositions inspired by Mr. Gurdjieff. A Toronto friend of Tom’s, Peter Colgrove, oversaw Madame de Hartmann’s final years near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Last September about sixty of us helped to celebrate James George’s ninetieth birthday, and as you can see the elder statesman remains hail and hearty. I will spare Jim the embarrassment of praising him in his presence. But in the 1960s he served with distinction as Canada’s High Commissioner to India. There he befriended the present Dalai Lama and helped His Holiness with the pressing problem of preserving the precious manuscripts that he had brought with him from Tibet into exile.
They could not to be read by anyone but a high lama. Jim convinced His Holiness that surely they would go unread in the hands of a Canadian microfilm technician who knew neither Sanskrit, Tibetan, nor Hindi. So the documents were copied in the official Canadian residence in New Delhi. This may constitute a world first!
A lively account of this incident appears in Jim’s fine memoir Asking for the Earth. His current work, about which he spoke so movingly earlier today, is called The Little Green Book of Awakening. Jim George is married to Barbara Wright, whom I always describe as “dynamic” for that is what she is. No man should describe any woman as “experienced,” I guess, but she is “experienced” in the ways of the work, having enjoyed a long association with the work in San Francisco. Barbara and Jim make an impressive team!
A few other names could be mentioned: Ian MacFarlane, one of the organizers of the Conference, was born at Niagara Falls. I am meeting him for the first time. Bernard Courtney-Myers, born in Vancouver and a McGill medical graduate, has enjoyed a long Work history, and at one point served as Gurdjieff’s personal physician. Paul Bura was active with Bennett at Coombe Springs before carrying on that work in Toronto well before the arrival of the De Hartmanns. Peter Colgrove, whom I knew when he taught at Forest Hill Collegiate here, cared for Olga de Hartmann during her last years in New Mexico. I am ever anxious to learn of the contributions of other Canadians who are involved in the Work.
Is there strength in numbers? I have no certified information about the numbers of students of the Work in the country. (I am not one of them myself, for I regard myself as a “fellow traveller” – if pressed, as “an unreconstructed Ouspenskian.”) There are groups or centres associated with the Foundation in New York City in at least seven Canadian cities. Here is an estimate of their numbers.
Vancouver has about 35 members. Edmonton perhaps 15. Toronto over the decades has always had about 100 members. Ottawa, the nation’s capital, perhaps 15 members. Montreal maybe 40. Saint John likely 20. Halifax perhaps 40. There is some activity in other cities like Victoria.
With the adding machine at hand, I come up under 300 people. Add say 100 “fellow travellers” like myself – Sputniks is the Russian word for them – and we have a population of perhaps 400 scattered across a country with a general population of 33 million people. I do not know whether this is “bad” or “good.” It is probably not a saving remnant.
Let me conclude with my gift to you. I gave a book to Ian; now I have a present for each one of you. As the author of the “Book of Ecclesiastes” counsels us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But there are a few new things under the moon. The one new thing that I will share with you is an old word – the one, quintessential, all-purpose, all-Canadian word. I doubt that you have yet heard it here, though it could prove to be useful in social occasions in the future.
The word is Chimo. Chimo is a word of mixed Indian-Eskimo origin that has a goodly number of meanings, including “hello,” “greetings,” “to your health,” and “goodbye.” For the purposes of this audience and for this evening, permit me to suggest that the word C-H-I-M-O is actually an acronym — an acronym that stands for five key concepts: “Conscious … Harmonious … Inner … Meetings … Octaves.”
Note: This record of the impressions and the experiences that I had at the All & Everything Conference, held in Toronto in 2009, along with text of the Banquet Address (an original compilation of references to metaphysical aspects in the Greater Toronto Area), were written and presented as an exercise of some sort for Sophia Wellbeloved and appeared in her Gurdjieffbooks blog on the date which appears above and subsequently in Volume II of The Notebooks of John Robert Colombo (2018). I am aware of no other such survey of the proceedings of any of these Conferences (soon to be twenty-five in number) to appear in the public print (though transcripts of the proceedings are published and readily enough available). The reference made above to the report that I drafted for the use of standard procedures to conduct conferences, seminars, etc., is also available. If fact, it appears in this blog: Workbooks for the Fourth Way, Issue 18 — July 2019: “Facilitation Techniques.” Clicking the Issue numbers (lower left) will take you there –eventually.