Review, Tilo Ulbricht “Recollections” (Pt 6, final)

This shall be the sixth and last post devoted to the contents of this book.  I now have a better overall picture of it and its significance. It seems to me that its chief value is as a window onto the history of the Gurdjieff tradition. Sadly, it is, to a considerable extent, a testimony to the impoverishment of the Gurdjieff tradition, at least as practised in the Foundation Groups (including the London Society). It gives me no pleasure to say this. I have a personal regard for some of the people in that group, and there is one at least whom I consider to be a person of great spiritual achievement. Part of the sadness I feel is that Ulbricht himself comes across as sincere.

But he also comes across as naive. Consider this: in 1993, he and some others met with two group leaders who attributed their increasing disaffection with the Society and its direction to their perception that the de Salzmann sitting “had changed the Work; it was no longer a question of struggle. (We) disagreed, affirming, from our experience, it was a natural extension of the Work and was in accordance with the exercises given in the small groups which we had with the French teachers” [216]. I was not in London at the time and the period leading up to it, neither do I know what the French teachers did, but it is significant that Ulbricht did not assert that there was no change, only that it was a “natural extension.” It begs the question to say that it was in line with what the French had done in small groups.

Ulbricht later writes that one of the dissidents said the Work had changed through the sittings and also by the “American translation of Beelzebub.” However, he says: “these two things were completely unrelated.” [285] How simplistic. Did he even think about it? It was apparent to Andrew Rawlinson, an outsider, that what these changes had in common was the dilution of the call for struggle.

The question is whether the idea of “struggle” had changed. Ulbricht does not address that. Now, a “struggle” is not the same as a “demand.” In 1985, he expressed despair about his participation in Movements, saying that he “could not …” She firmly replied: “But you could.” … For a long time we just sat looking at each other. I did not reply. For the first and only time, I did not believe her. It was not possible.” [161] She affirmed that something was possible, but it did not eventuate for him until, more than ten years later he experienced freedom in a Men’s Movements class. I find that fascinating: the Men’s Movements were inaugurated by Gurdjieff, but why have they been disappearing? I was told that there was one in L.A. until Paul Reynard simply declared that it was to stop, giving no reason. The person who told me was truthful, but whether they had misunderstood something, I cannot say. I have no magic way of knowing what made that Men’s Movements class special for Ulbricht, but I am not surprised that it occurred when using some of the unique conditions Gurdjieff had brought.

So, let me sum up. To me, it seems that Ulbricht’s narrative is rather without purpose: it is fundamentally a chronological record of sound-bytes, chiefly from Jeanne and Michel de Salzmann, Pentland, Lannes, and Deselle. I cannot, with the best will, discern the way which Ulbricht says he was following: only the identities of the authorities whose words he quotes.

Apart from the centrality of aim (which I deal with in Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises), and aim is not central in this book, Gurdjieff also had people produce programmes for practical work during the week. This is from the meeting of 17 August 1944:

Give yourself your word; seated, relaxed, make a programme, for example, for a week. Do it once, tranquilly, clearly seeing all the (different) things.

You decide then, you establish a programme, that for more certainty you can even write out if you like. In a moment of tranquillity and relaxation, you decide seriously what you choose to do, and you write down your decision. Afterwards, for one week, or for two, you must have more faith in the state of that moment, for your states are always changing. You have faith in your paper and in your talisman. This talisman, it is you in a quiet moment, an active moment, an impartial one. Hold yourself to this decision. Any (other) suggestions, everything which is inimical to this (decision), you reject. It is not you. But this paper, it is you in your active state.

There is a temptation to quote more from this extraordinary meeting, because it goes to the critical importance of struggle, and the development of will by using reason, logic, and a programme. A little later, Gurdjieff told Dr Blano that his negative emotions and feeling of emptiness would change when he had an aim.

It is this which is missing from this book, with the other practical ideas, such as “self-remembering.”

I have been critical, but I would rather stress the soundness of the ideas, methods, and traditions which were displaced by the New Work. The fundamental practical idea of Gurdjieff’s system was, I think, making efforts to remember oneself, an idea which also supplied a possible aim in life. “I wish to remember myself” is a prayer or invocation which reminds me that I must be present to myself with all three centres for it to have any meaning, and not be “a vulgar poke with words,” as Mr Adie memorably said.

Gurdjieff taught an extraordinary series of contemplation-like exercises, “transformed-contemplation” or “Aiëssirittoorassnian-contemplation,” as he said. These have a certain logic. There is reason to think that Gurdjieff brought them in an order which was not random, but had deliberate elements. But he never said: “do them in this order,” rather, he taught how to discern which ones to use at which time. Having said that, I think I can discern four octaves of those exercises: the most important octave is the “Collected State Exercises,” which he brought in several different forms. This is a basic, simple form of an exercise to help one remember oneself. The preparatory exercises, chiefly for relaxation and sensation comprise the first octave, and the advanced exercises such as the Four Ideals which call upon higher energies are the third octave. There is what I would call a fourth octave of exercises beyond even these. I believe that Gurdjieff did not teach these to people like the Bennetts and the Adies because they had only just learnt the first three octaves, and he judged it too dangerous to move them prematurely to the fourth octave. But he had taught the fourth octave to Jeanne de Salzmann and some others (see the references to the exercise of “separation” in the 1944 transcripts). Why did she not pass it on?

My view, for what it is worth, is that if a person has learnt the exercises of the four octaves, one can see how to bring the second octave, the Collected State Exercises, because one has experience of collecting one’s state, and losing that, then recovering it, and so on. Seeing how others go, one can then decide whether to return to a preparatory exercise (e.g. because a person has trouble distinguishing sensation from feeling), or to proceed to a third octave. After sustained efforts with the third octave, and when one is satisfied that the person or persons learning the exercises are stable, one might – I would say should – try the fourth octave. The fourth octave exercises put everything else into perspective, and accelerate one’s development.

These exercises become an opium if they are not intimately linked to efforts made in the world. I would go so far as to say that the very material of those exercises, the necessary Holy Denying, is the stuff of our sleep: identification (especially as false self-love), considering, negative emotion, and so on.

Hence the absence from this book of terms like “identification,” “self-remembering,” “appointments,” and, above all, the de-emphasis of aim let alone the necessary task of formulating an aim, strikes me as symptomatic of its shortcoming and those of the New Work.


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