Way back in 2004, in Sunday Talks at Coombe Springs: Practical Themes for Human Transformation, Ken Pledge and a team published some 41 talks which Bennett had delivered at Coombe Springs. Often the talk is followed by a transcript of questions and answers. The great bulk were given between 1963 and 1965, but one of the most powerful, “Hasnamuss” is from about 1950, “Whole-heartedness” is from about 1962, and two others are of unknown date. This is one of the most significant books in the Gurdjieff tradition. When I say it is “in” rather than “about” the tradition, I mean that it gives little new information about Gurdjieff and what he taught, but rather, by having assimilated the teaching for himself, and speaking from his understanding, Bennett teaches, develops and continues what he had received. To say that the contents of these talks is within the Gurdjieff tradition is not to exclude them from the Bennett tradition. Bennett was a pupil of Gurdjieff, true, and to have been a true pupil of Gurdjieff was something. But I think now of Bennett as also having been a successor to Gurdjieff as a teacher, maybe even a prophet. Gurdjieff was his most important teacher, but what he eventually developed was nonetheless significant in its own right.
In an email to some friends, written partly under the influence of reading this book, I ventured: “The standard view of JGB in Gurdjieff Foundation circles is that JGB was a maverick who strayed into less than fruitful paths. I did have something of that idea, or at least was infected by it, although I always thought that his books were full of insight, and that if had been something of a maverick, nonetheless, he had been true in other ways, and had handed on teachings from Gurdjieff, such as the Decision Exercise, which would otherwise have been lost. I am now seeing things in a fundamentally different way: it seems to me that JGB was developing a wide and penetrating approach to the mysteries of human existence, history, and potential. It is in real continuity with Gurdjieff’s, but goes beyond it in some ways. I am discovering now how it is in continuity and how it goes beyond. To put it another way, to say that JGB was a pupil of Gurdjieff is very true, and yet if it means that JGB was unoriginal, it would be very untrue. This does not make him less of a pupil: a good pupil does continue the master’s research. It is hard to indicate this all with any precision.”
This is an important point which is true to Gurdjieff’s own teaching: in the talk “Using our Instruments,” Bennett recalls: “I once heard Gurdjieff say, “I am only bridge; when you have got over the stream you can kick me away” (252)”. Gurdjieff is clearly trying hard to bring the point home – after all, who ever kicks a bridge away when they have crossed? They just move on. And that is what Bennett did, I now think.
To return to the book – it has some good black and white illustrations: the interesting picture of JGB with FLW is in the volume, and appears below, I trust, in the link to a YouTube clip about the Djamichunatra. The Foreword by George Bennett is one of those rare accomplishments: a foreword which helps one to prepare to read the book. But its purpose is only to pave the road for the extraordinary materials between the covers. The talks are not given in chronological order, and I, likewise, shall hop around the book. My purpose here is quite limited: to indicate something, at least, of its value. I am trying to say enough to demonstrate the depth of the insight, as an inducement to your own study of the book; but not so much that anyone feels that this 1,000 words renders the book obsolete.
Let me take but one example of the fresh perspectives JGB provides on the teaching. One of the most critical of Gurdjieff’s ideas, and one of the hardest to realise, is that of “repairing the past.” In the talk “Understanding versus Knowing,” someone asks about the power of “I” to change the past. Bennett replies that the past leaves a trace, and by that we are connected with it. But the connection with the past is dynamic. He continues: “Suppose there is some incident in my past which I refuse to accept … by realizing “I did this” … That past event is in a state of tension with me and although it is past, I am certainly connected with it. If anything tends to remind me of it I shall be tense and upset … If you can once grasp the fact that the reality of anything is your connection with it, then you can see that if you change this connection then you change its reality” (288-289). In this context, “remorse is what enables you to be aware of the nature of your connection” (289)
There are provocative and pregnant comments on most every page, e.g. “We men are not destined to be either angels or devils, we are destined for something more difficult than the task of a devil – which is a very hard one – because we have to be the representatives of God which is the hardest task of all” (40). There is a very useful exercise for helping one to remember oneself, blending will and focussed sensation, at pp. 245-246. I will not even attempt to set out a sample of these. Important comments on fear are found at pp.114, 125, 189, 290, 294 and 310 on something related to the fear of God. There are statements about Christ at pp. 161, 197 and 239. His interpretation of the teaching “Love your enemies” is profound (133). I would also draw attention to his comments on will (206-207).
When I was younger, there was a considerable extent to which I would fill my head with information. It did turn out to be useful, but for too long, somethng in me was too avid for it, and it could get in the way of lived experiences. It is not the quantity of the information, it is the quality that counts, and the application of it in life, to test and prove my learning, turning it into understanding. If you are seriously interested in the practical application of Gurdjieff’s ideas, this book would be most helpful, indeed.
Joseph Azize, 30 November 2019, St Andrew’s Day
The Djamichunatra at Coombe Springs was destroyed, in an arrogant act of barbarism, by Idries Shah, an action pointing the way to the future vandalism of his compatriots, the Taliban. As a spiritual teacher, Shah was a fake. As a selfish cynic, he was the genuine article. The Djamichunatra was one of the wonders of the world.