Blind-Spot by James Opie
Two New Books by Jacob Needleman
The Man from Lebanon
“Blind-Spot” by James Opie
Note: The text that follows was written by James Opie who has a long association with the Work. He is the author of a remarkably interesting book titled Approaching Inner Work which is subtitled “Michael Currer-Briggs on the Gurdjieff Teaching” (Portland, Oregon: Gurdjieff Books and Music, 2011). My review of his book (originally written in 2011 and published in Sophia Wellbeloved’s blog) appeared in the present blog (in Issue 28 — July 2019). After my review of James Moore’s biography of Lord Pentland appeared (in Issue 27 — 15 November), Mr. Opie contributed a short corrective essay which was published (in Issue 28 — December 2019). After my review of Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s The Garden of Truth appeared (in Issue 15 December 2019), Mr. Opie made some insightful statements and suggestions that I take to heart so they appear in the current issue. I believe that readers of his essay will find his words helpful as well as insightful. I know that I am grateful to Mr. Opie for sharing the insights of “Blind-Spot” with all of us. — JRC, 15 Dec. 2019
You recently shared my remarks pertaining to “personhood” and “essence,” and the view that the personality often holds onto and distorts influences designed for the further reformation and growth of essence. Given your familiarity with that perspective, you may appreciate my conclusion that we all have a “blind-spot,” and that effective spiritual development, engaging the growth of being, does not, in itself, reveal a blind-spot’s existence and contents. In other words, we can grow, but still not see essential barriers within us. There may even be a hidden danger in “growth,” since it can occur contrary to Mr. Gurdjieff’s emphasis on “harmonious development,” perhaps even engaging unfortunate “crystallizations.”
While endeavoring to see my own difficulties relating to the all but unseeable, in better moments I have come to view others as “innocent” in this way. That is, no one intends to not see what they do not see. They (we) do not seek to distort anything or anyone. We simply cannot help effecting these ends, since we do not see, and begin to study, mischief issuing from within our individual blind-spots.
While inner examples, from my own work, may be best, here is an outer one: evidence suggests that Idries Shah engaged in deeply shady stuff in relation to the Gurdjieff teaching, with exhibit-A his pseudonymously authored: Teachers of Gurdjieff. Yet we needn’t see this as coming from a person filled with schemes and malice, but, rather, from one within whom, along with unusual developments, thrived a substantial “blind-spot,” disabling relevant self-questioning.
In short, and parallel with a remark ascribed to Jesus: He did not know what he was doing.
For me to suggest that Seyyed Hossein Nasr or Frithjof Schuon, major contributors in the past half-century’s spiritual world, suffered from unseen blind-spots may suggest a blind-spot of my own, run wild. However, small-fry that I am, I have an advantage over both Nasr and Schuon – also Whitall Perry – in relation to a subject of interest to them: G. I. Gurdjieff, who he was and wasn’t, what he knew and didn’t know, how “authentic” he was, and so on.
As one of many who have been in and near “the Gurdjieff Work” for fifty years, is it so absurd to suggest that I may know something about this path, and even about a person regarding whom these Traditionalist figures took a look and found wanting, but did not know? Which matters more, my decades of experience touching on “Gurdjieff,” or the Traditionalists merited authority, and perhaps their proximity to God? Does my experience in relevant areas mean nothing if Nasr and others achieved statures I can only admire at a distance? However we answer these questions, I cannot dismiss their sour take on Gurdjieff simply because I disagree with them.
Yet, I have experienced what I have experienced, including being in classes of Gurdjieff’s “movements” during these decades, and encountering in those settings the unbiddened thought: “Only a spiritual genius with astounding capabilities, and equal measures of generosity, even love, could devise, or renew, an art form such as this, designed for us in the West, in which individuals may strive together in such engaging and revealing ways.”
Surely Professor Nasr and his Traditionalist colleagues also brought more than ideas to the West. Perhaps they, too, brought something calling simultaneously to the mind, the body and the feelings, such as Dervish “dances” or similar forms within which individuals, working with others, may strive attentively, not only in relation to the external forms at hand, but also to observe . . . all there is to observe, inside. If they, too, have contributed in these ways, and not only through ideas, I might still challenge them to participate in a mature movements class for a year or two — or ten — in one of the lineages existing now in the Gurdjieff Work. As engaging and significant as Gurdjieff’s ideas are in this critical period in human history, and as impressive as some of his first-generation students were, the final proof of his stature and uniqueness, for me, is in his “movements.”
Blind-spots thrive in areas wherein we lack, and do not seek, relevant experience. Experience sheds light not only on the theater of experience itself but also, if we are observant, on our attitudes, and distortions issuing from within them. Until time runs out for us, we could broaden our experiences, but biases incubating in our blind-spots tend to push us back to the known. To address these challenges we need help – I need help. If the work of seeing into “blind-spots” has concluded harmoniously for some, it has not ended for me, as my attitudes about others, in and out of “the Work,” reveal each day.
15 Dec. 2019
Two New Books by Jacob Needleman
I have long admired the books written by Jacob Needleman who is Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State College in California. During his productive career, the scholar and writer, now in his seventies, has devoted books to a variety of subjects of relevance, including the nature of democracy in America, the object of philosophy, the role of the physician in society, the characteristics of money, the features of goodness, new religions, ancient and modern technologies, etc. He has been the director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and he has served as general editor of the Penguin Metaphysical Library and the same for Element Books.
He has been a busy man, and the above activities do not take into account his work in the domain of the Work itself. Among his most useful publication is Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching (Continuum, 1996) which he compiled with George Baker. He has now produced two more books in this field – or might I say one full book and one booklet? The book is The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work (2008) and the booklet is Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work (2009). Both are published by Morning Light Press of Sandpoint, Idaho, which has a fine catalogue of books about modern-day spirituality. That catalogue is accessible through Google.
Let me describe the little book titled Introduction to the Gurdjieff Work. It measures four inches wide by five inches here and it is only sixty-two pages long. So it is a gift book, the kind of miniature publication like those displayed beside cash registers in book stores. It consists of Needleman’s necessarily brief essay on the Work along with a useful, annotated bibliography that lists books, music, and a feature-length film. (Yes, the film is Peter Brooks’s Meetings with Remarkable Men.) There is nothing remarkable about Needleman’s essay, though it is written with clarity and concision and it focuses on the pivotal role of conscience in the life of modern man. It downplays what has been called the “psychology” and the “esoteric” sides of the Work. It is a conscientious introduction to the Work.
The appearance of the essay in this form is an instance of how Needleman recycles his material because the essay is based on two earlier essays of his, one of which he included in Modern Esoteric Spirituality (1922) which he compiled with Antoine Faivre, the other of which he wrote as an entry for Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (2005) edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. More to the point, the essay is reprinted verbatim as the Introduction to the principal book to be examined here: The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work.
As I mentioned, Morning Light Press publishes fine books, and the present volume is no exception. It is especially sturdy. It measures 6 inches x 9 inches and in length consists of xxxii + 356 numbered pages. The design and layout are a delight for the pages are easy to read and it is a handsome package to hold. It includes a surprise. It begins with the above-mentioned essay and it ends with the above-mentioned bibliography – along with a DVD of a film. (Yes, it is Brooks’s Meetings with Remarkable Men.)
The Inner Journey is one of eight books in Morning Light Press’s “Parabola Anthology Series” under the general editorship of Ravi Ravindra. Many readers of this review will be familiar with Parabola, the quarterly publication that is now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Founded by the late D.M. Dooling in New York City in1976, it is published by The Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition. It is the locus (it says) “Where Spiritual Traditions Meet.”
The series has volumes devoted to the “traditions” of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, as well as “Views from the Gurdjieff Work,” “Views from Native Traditions,” and a potpourri titled “Myth, Psyche & Spirit.” It seems the general editor, Dr. Ravindra, a retired professor of both Physics and Religion from Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., has been busy overseeing this mining operation of the last twenty-five years of quarterly issues for relevant texts. It is quite a job.
For a year I held a subscription to Parabola, and while I admired and still admire the spirit and style of each issue of the well-illustrated periodical, I felt and feel the “mosaic” approach to be rather static and essentially bland. It consists of reprinting “snippets” from the standard books in the fields, though some original essays are commissioned and informative interviews are conducted. Pictorially issues are well illustrated, but outright contradictions are denied and rough edges are smoothed over.
The “transcendent unity” of religions is one thing, but one often learns more about spirituality by probing the elements of man and society that are not “transcendent” and are unrelated to “unity.” So I find Parabola to be very much a quality general publication, rather New Agey, not really more than that. Nobody ever said to me, excitedly, “Did you read such-and-such an article in the latest issue of Parabola?”
It fell to Jacob Needleman to compile The Inner Journey: Views from the Gurdjieff Work and given the chunks of prose he has had to work with, he has done a decent job of erecting a reasonable structure. In all there are sixty passages, and all of them are reprinted from well-known texts known to serious students of the Work. They were written by twenty-three contributors, including the editor. Here is a rough breakdown of the contributors.
The first tier of contributors consists of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage, Maurice Nicoll, and Jeanne de Salzmann. The second tier includes Peter Brook, Rene Daumal, John Pentland, Henri Tracol, and Michel de Salzmann. On the third tier we have Pauline Dampierre, Margaret Flinsch, Chris Fremantle, Jacob Needleman, and Ravi Rabindra. That leaves the fourth tier: Henry Barnes, Martha Heyneman, Mitch Horowitz, Roger Lipsey, Paul Reynard, Laurence Rosenthal, William Segal, P.L. Travers, and Michel Waldberg.
Here are the names of some people who go unaccounted for (almost at random): J.B. Bennett, Henriette Lannes, Patty de Llosa, James Moore, C.S. Nott, Fritz Peters, Paul Beekman Taylor, Jean Vaysse, James Webb. I guess their writings did not appear in the pages of Parabola.
The sixty passages of prose (and some of Daumal’s prosy poetry) are arranged in six sections. These are called chapters and given headings. For the record here they are: Chapter 1: Man’s Possibilities Are Very Great. Chapter 2: Remember Yourself Always and Everywhere. Chapter 3: To be Man Who Is Searching with all his Being. Chapter 4: That Day … the Truth Will Be Born. Chapter 5: Only he Will Be Called and Will Become the Son of God Who Acquires in Himself Conscience. Chapter 6: The Source of That Which Does Not Change.
Try as I might I could not find much of a relationship between the chapter headings and the contents of the chapters, but try as I might I could not come up with a better plan of organization. (I find it odd that the book ends with Ouspensky’s outline of “the food factory.”) We have here a “mosaic” (not a “collage”) and individual voices predominate. It is no surprise that the two leading contributors (with eight pieces apiece) are Gurdjieff and Ouspensky with familiar passages from their familiar books, though if the books have yet to be read the passages are unfamiliar to the novice rather than to the veteran reader.
The editor did the best he could with the material at hand, yet the overall effect is that of reading Reader’s Digest (which used to plant wordy articles in popular publications so its editors could “digest” them) or present-day issues of Harper’s whose editors selected excerpts from current books and periodicals. So the present book is a box of all-sorts. There is material here aplenty for sermons and talks. If the Gospels are “good news,” these are “good thoughts.”
Everyone will have his favourite familiar passages, but for my taste the most rewarding contribution to the anthology – the one most worthwhile to reread – is “Footnote to the Gurdjieff Literature” written by Michel de Salzmann. With great taste (and some distaste), he surveys the writings of students, scholars, and imaginative writers, and he finds most of them wanting. He takes as a given the principle and practice that the Work cannot be conveyed or even described in words, but that it must be experienced to be realized in one’s everyday life.
While Dr. de Salzmann’s words continue to ring true, if words may be described as rungs on the ladder of life, the pages of The Inner Journey offer the reader sixty rungs that go up that ladder. They offer “views” of the variety (though little of the contrariety) “from the Gurdjieff Work.” Yet they should assist the reader in attaining “views of the real world.”
18 Dec. 2009
This Man from Lebanon
One of the first books of poetry that I ever saw on a store’s shelf was a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. The word “poetry” should be taken in the context of inspirational prose and the store in question was not a book store but a stationery story on the main street of a middle-sized industrial city which stocked copies of it and similar books in its gift department.
I soon discovered the beautiful, black-bound book, printed on quality paper with deckled edges, which bore the imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, a respected publisher of books of distinction in both text and illustration, was also available and free of charge at the local Carnegie Library not far away where I borrowed it.
It tells the fable-like story of Almustafa, “the chosen and the beloved, who was a noon unto his own day,” a mysterious, Christ-like figure who appears among his own people dispensing wisdom in the guise of advice. I remember “Let there be spaces in your togetherness” which is a widely quoted line from The Prophet which I read with alacrity in those far-off days.
Rummaging through cartons of old books that I have had around for decades, I came across a copy of one of the successor volumes, the one called The Garden of the Prophet, published ten years later than The Prophet, in 1933. It was once a work in demand. The copy I have in front of me right now is identified as the eleventh printing, April, 1946. A note adds “reprinted nine times.” I have no doubt it has been reprinted many more times since then to keep up with the demand of buyers of Gibran’s books.
The page opposite the title page – sometimes called the card page – lists ten of the author’s works issued between 1913 and 1934. It also includes an appreciation of the author by the printer and writer Claude Bragdon (an Rochester-based architect and co-translator of Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum) who says the following: “His power came from some great reservoir of spiritual life else it could not have been so universal and so potent, but the majesty and beauty of the language with which he clothed it were all his own.” Well expressed in this instance.
I will not review this book other than to state that the prose is poetic and out of fashion these days, being quasi-biblical in construction and high-toned, and the plates that appear throughout are pencil sketches by the author that are moody and indistinct. The scenes remind me of the etchings of William Blake but without the latter’s firm outlines. Gibran’s figures are androgynous, the males vaguely female, the females vaguely male, set in the imaginary landscape of an expressionist’s dream world. The setting is “the city of Orphalese” and beyond, vaguely Greek, possibly Lebanese, certainly Mediterranean. The author did come from Lebanon.
I could quote some of Almustafa’s maxims, but they are best heard spoken and pondered. This prophet-like figure speaks poetically, sharing with his loving people the lofty wisdom of his own experience, applicable in all occasions. Yet I cannot resist quoting the following utterance: “Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.” It is hard not to think of the present President of the United States. Prophecy indeed has come true. At the same time the peace of Lebanon is long in the past.
The copy that I have is in fine condition and was once owned by Mary Alice Neal whose ex libris is pasted on the front end-sheet. At the time she was Mary Alice Newbury. Alice assisted me in many of my editorial labours. She was moved by The Garden of the Prophet and by Kahlil Gibran’s writings in general. And so, in a way, am I.
I find myself wondering if there are stationery stores that today carry slim inspirational books like those composed and illustrated by “This Man from Lebanon,” to recall the title of a biographical study of this unusually inspired poet and artist.