J. G. Bennett

Gurdjieff International Review

John G. Bennett

The Struggle to “Make Something” for Oneself

by George Bennett

In 1971, less than four years before he died, J. G. Bennett established the International Academy for Continuous Education, an “experimental” Fourth Way school. The academy at Sherborne, England was the culmination of a spiritual search that had begun more than fifty years earlier, at the time of his first meeting, in 1920, with the Russian teacher and philosopher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.

At Sherborne, in courses lasting only ten months, Bennett took on the task of trying to pass on—to one hundred students at a time—the fruits of his own lifetime’s search. He considered it to be a task he had been given and that there was a real need, especially among younger people, for the kind of practical knowledge and deep spiritual wisdom that he had earned during his eventful life. It was a hazardous undertaking. Bennett didn’t know whether it would be possible to convey anything of substance in so short a time, and he had neither candidates nor material resources. But, in the summer of 1971, these quickly came together.

His teaching method was based on that developed in the early 1920s by Gurdjieff at the “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man” at Fontainebleau in France. Students undertook practical work in the house and garden; they attended talks in which Bennett developed his own ideas; there were readings from Gurdjieff’s writings and classes in his psychology, as well as intensive work on Gurdjieff’s “Movements,” an extraordinary repertoire of sacred and ritual dances. In addition, Bennett worked with Sufi techniques that he had learned directly from masters in the Middle East.

Bennett referred to Sherborne and the “ideal human society” he envisioned in the last year of his life as “experiments.” This word expresses his understanding of “hazard” as a factor that permeates all existence and gives it its “drama”—thus he titled his great four-volume work The Dramatic Universe. Bennett understood hazard to give the danger of failure along with the possibility of progress, but he was not afraid of either one. In the course of his long search to make sense of the world and man’s place within it, he tried many methods and consulted many sources of wisdom. Practical by nature, he was prepared to use these methods if he found by his own practice that they bore fruit, or to abandon them if they did not.

The oldest of three children, J. G. Bennett was born June 8, 1897, of an American mother and an English father. His mother was from an old pre-Revolutionary New England family and his father was a correspondent for Reuters, the international news agency. Though Bennett makes little reference to his childhood in his autobiography, Witness, he acknowledges elsewhere that he owed his mother a great debt for instilling in him the virtues of hard work and tolerance.

Spending his early childhood in Italy, he learned to speak Italian before he spoke English. This laid the foundation for an extraordinary facility with languages, which later in his life enabled him to talk to many spiritual teachers (Gurdjieff among them) in their native tongues and to study Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian sacred texts in their original forms. Formal education for Bennett stopped at school. He never took up the scholarship in mathematics that he won from Oxford University, for circumstances propelled him into life so fast that he never had time to go back. He was an excellent sportsman and captained the school rugby football team. He went on to play for the army against such redoubtable opponents as the New Zealand national team. He broke his arm once and his collar bone twice in that robust sport, and he maintained that these experiences gave him, at an early age, a valuable freedom and indifference toward his own body.

In the First World War, at the age of twenty-one, Bennett became a captain in the Royal Engineers, with responsibility for signals and telegraphy. Reading his letters of the time, one is struck by a surprising indifference to the dangers he faced. One letter, to his fiancée, was written even as he took shelter in a bomb crater from a two-way bombardment that had caught him on open ground. The war, however, led to one of the seminal experiences of his life. Being badly injured in the head and lying unconscious on an operating table, he experienced an “out of body” state that convinced him there is something in man that can exist independent of the body.

While convalescing, Bennett was invited to join a course in the Turkish language because the army needed intelligence officers in the Near East. Throwing himself wholeheartedly into the task, as was his nature, he eventually found himself, at an absurdly early age, in Constantinople holding a very sensitive position between the British and the Turks. Fluency in Turkish made him the confidant of many high-ranking political figures there, and it allowed him to develop the knowledge and love of Turkey that would remain with him all his life. More importantly, he began to understand other modes of thought than European.

In 1921, in the aftermath of the Great War and the Russian Revolution, Constantinople was the center of great ferment and change. It was also the funnel through which many displaced persons passed on their way to the West, and it was part of Bennett’s job to monitor their movement. Among these were two most extraordinary men with whom circumstance brought Bennett into contact: G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky. Bennett met Gurdjieff through a close friend in the Turkish royal family, Prince Sabaheddin, a reformist thinker and a profoundly spiritual man. Bennett’s intermittent meetings with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky in Constantinople shaped the direction of his later spiritual search. But when they moved on to Europe, Bennett remained in Turkey, fascinated by the labyrinthine political and social developments that finally led to the overthrow of the sultanate and to the establishment of the Turkish republic.

His immersion in Turkish affairs and his relationship with Winifred Beaumont, an English woman living in Turkey, completed the growing estrangement from his first wife, Evelyn, who had remained in England. Bennett had married young—too young, perhaps—immediately after the war, and despite the birth of a daughter, Ann, their marriage didn’t last. After the divorce, Bennett married Mrs. Beaumont, a woman twenty years his senior, and they remained together until she died forty years later. When Bennett returned to England, he was consulted by the government as an expert on the Middle East, and he acted as an interpreter at the London Conference in 1924, which was supposed to settle matters between Turkey and Greece. He could have then taken up a career in public life and was invited to stand for parliament, but it was already clear to Bennett that his spiritual search would take priority.

In the summer of 1923, he renewed his connection with Gurdjieff and spent three months at Gurdjieff’s Institute in France. Despite his short stay, Bennett was shown things that convinced him that man is capable of spiritual transformation and that Gurdjieff had profound knowledge and understanding of the techniques by which this could be achieved. Gurdjieff told Bennett that he could help him make significant progress if he would spend two years at the institute. It seems strange that Bennett nevertheless felt obliged to leave, for he was very short of money and felt he needed to put his affairs in order. He expected to return to Gurdjieff soon, however, they did not meet again until 1948.

Back in England, Bennett joined P. D. Ouspensky’s groups studying the “system,” which Ouspensky had learned from Gurdjieff. Bennett remained with Ouspensky for fifteen years, during which time his professional life took several bizarre turns. He was involved in various brown-coal mining ventures in Greece and Turkey, which, although ultimate failures, nevertheless gave him an expertise in mining and the chemistry of coal. He spent four years based in Greece and was involved in protracted machinations involving land claims of members of the deposed Turkish royal family. During this period, Bennett led something of a buccaneering existence, but by the mid-1930s, he was back in England and involved in the coal industry once again. In 1938, he was asked to head Britain’s first industrial research organization, the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA). BCURA grew in importance with the start of World War II, and research concentrated on finding a coal-based alternative to oil. BCURA developed coal-gas-powered cars, a coal-based plastic, and, more significant if mundane, efficient fireplaces that gave more heat for less fuel. All this time, Bennett continued to work with Ouspensky and the ideas and methods of the “system.”

By 1941, when Ouspensky left England to live in the United States, Bennett was running his own study groups and giving his own lectures. Throughout the Second World War, and in spite of it, the groups continued and expanded in London while Bennett began writing and developing his own ideas as well as writing about those of Gurdjieff. But it was not until 1947, when he was fifty, that Bennett published his first book, The Crisis in Human Affairs.

People who came to hear his public lectures and those who joined his private groups found a tall, imposing figure, blue eyed and younger looking than his age. Essentially a shy man, not given to small talk, he possessed an intellect that some people found intimidating. When he began lecturing he was nervous, but very soon he abandoned the use of notes and thereafter always spoke spontaneously. As he grew older his lectures became one of the principal ways in which he developed his ideas. He was literally “thinking on his feet.” Several of his books began as lecture transcripts, and the talks Bennett gave at Sherborne House in the few years before he died produced some extraordinary insights.

In 1946, Bennett bought Coombe Springs, a seven-acre estate a few miles southwest of London with several buildings and an Edwardian villa on it. He and his wife acquired the property with the intention of starting a small research community. They moved in with ten of his closest pupils, and for twenty years Coombe Springs became a center for group work, attracting hundreds of people.

While publicly Bennett continued to expound Gurdjieff’s ideas, privately his inner life was in turmoil. Ouspensky had repudiated him in 1945, which proved very painful, and he had lost touch with Gurdjieff—whom he had long regarded as his teacher—believing him to be dead. So the discovery in 1948 that Gurdjieff was alive and living in Paris was highly significant. In the remaining eighteen months before Gurdjieff died (on October 29, 1949) Bennett took every opportunity to go to Paris—usually during the weekend—despite his heavy professional schedule (at Powell Duffryn, the coal company for whom he now worked) and his responsibility for group work at Coombe Springs.

In the summer of 1949, he spent a month working intensively with Gurdjieff in Paris, and this experience laid the foundation for a significant transformation in his life and spiritual work. It was a turning point, and in the remaining twenty-five years of his life Bennett became more approachable and more compassionate. Considering how little actual time he spent with Gurdjieff, it is extraordinary how much he made of the opportunities. Gurdjieff’s death was a serious blow for Bennett, as it was for all of Gurdjieff’s followers. For a while they were able to work together, but gradually factions appeared—partly derived from Gurdjieff’s own tendency to sow confusion by giving conflicting authority to his closest associates. In Bennett’s case, the conflict was exacerbated by his own willingness to take Gurdjieff’s ideas and develop them further and, as he put it in the introduction to his book on Gurdjieff, to struggle to “make something of them for himself.”

In 1950 Bennett gave up his professional life, subsequently resisting several attractive offers to return to a career in industrial administration and research, and concentrated instead on the group work at Coombe Springs. He lectured frequently about Gurdjieff’s system, trying to fulfill a promise he had made to Gurdjieff to do all in his power to spread the ideas and make them understood. In 1953, he undertook a long journey to the Middle East, which brought him into personal contact with the religion of Islam and various Sufi orders.

When he returned to England, he initiated a project to build a large meeting hall at Coombe Springs. The unusual nine-sided architectural design was based on the enneagram, an ancient symbol presented by Gurdjieff as embodying the fundamental laws of nature. The building took two years to complete, and at the opening in 1957, Bennett commented that the real value of such a project was in building a community rather than the building itself. And there certainly was a great deal of energy at Coombe Springs at the time.

Then, in 1957, Bennett shook the whole place up with his unexpected involvement in Subud, a spiritual movement that had newly appeared from Indonesia. For a number of reasons, Bennett felt that Gurdjieff had expected the arrival of a teaching from that country, and, having tried the Subud spiritual exercise himself, he threw himself with characteristic energy into helping Pak Subuh, the movement’s founder, disperse his teaching. He traveled extensively to spread the Subud message, both with Pak Subuh and on his own. He learned Indonesian and was so able to translate Pak Subuh’s lectures into various languages. Bennett’s own introductory book, Concerning Subud, sold thousands of copies worldwide.

Some of Bennett’s pupils were dismayed, and his enthusiasm for Subud deepened the divisions with some of the other Gurdjieff groups in London and Paris. Subud—with its emphasis on submission to the will of God and its reliance on a single practice, the latihan—seemed to some to be the antithesis of Gurdjieff’s methods for spiritual awakening, and many people left the Coombe Springs groups. Others, however, came in large numbers, and for several years Coombe Springs was the headquarters of the Subud movement in Europe. It attracted serious seekers and sensation seekers as well as unsolicited newspaper headlines. But by 1962, after devoting himself selflessly to its growth and expansion, Bennett left the Subud organization, feeling that a return to the Gurdjieff method was necessary.

With a small group, Bennett began to work once again with Gurdjieff’s system. He resumed work on the final volumes of his magnum opus, The Dramatic Universe (the first volume had been published in 1956; the second appeared in 1961). In early 1963 he presented a plan to the council of the Institute for Comparative Study of History, Philosophy, and the Sciences—which actually owned Coombe Springs and which Bennett had founded in 1946—proposing a renewal of the community which while still open to Subud members would be primarily one where people would be dedicated to spiritual transformation along the lines of the Gurdjieff system. Although he maintained to the end of his life that he had derived great benefit from Subud, it was now the turn of Subud members to be dismayed, and many turned against him.

Meanwhile, Bennett had made an important contact with a Hindu saint living in Nepal: the Shivapuri Baba, who was 135 years old when Bennett visited him in 1961. Bennett went again in 1963, and once more he undertook the promotion of the ideas of another. The simplicity and the rigor of the Shivapuri Baba’s teaching appealed to Bennett, who was later to refer to the old saint as his teacher.

By the mid-1960s, although the work at Coombe Springs had gathered new momentum, Bennett was ready to make yet another change. He and his groups had become involved with Idries Shah (who is now very well known as an exponent of Sufism but who was then just establishing himself in England), and once again Bennett offered his help. Along with the Institute for Comparative Study, he proposed giving the whole property of Coombe Springs over to Shah. It seemed a ridiculous notion, for the land was becoming very valuable, but, nevertheless, in the spring of 1966 the gift was made. After Bennett and some of the Coombe Springs residents had moved into a house in the neighboring town of Kingston-upon-Thames, Shah, quickly, sold Coombe Springs for a housing development!

Many thought Bennett had made another big mistake. But, in truth, Shah had performed a real service—quite the opposite of the way it appeared—by helping Bennett to become completely free of this place to which he had devoted twenty years of his life. Without that sacrifice, it is doubtful whether Bennett would have been able to embark on the last and perhaps most significant project of his life: the inauguration of an experimental Fourth Way school for the passing on of techniques for spiritual transformation. This new school was not established immediately. For the next four years, Bennett lived quietly with his family: he had married Elizabeth Howard in 1958 following the death of his second wife and now had two sons and two young daughters.

With a small group of scientists, he was developing “Systematics,” a practical analytical method based on his own researches—and ultimately on what he had learned from Gurdjieff—into the laws governing processes in the natural world. This research led to an ill-fated attempt to market a structured learning method, but it is clear, with hindsight, that Bennett was waiting to see what his next task should be. All the while, he continued group work with his pupils and made new contacts with teachers in the Near East.

After becoming very dangerously ill and nearly dying in 1969—this experience is described in the last edition of his autobiography—he took another important step in his spiritual life, one that appeared to change him fundamentally. Shortly after this bout with death, he became very interested in the condition of young people, especially those who surfaced after the social and cultural turmoil of the 1960s with serious questions about the significance of life. As part of his research into the way they were feeling, Bennett even attended the huge rock music festival on the Isle of Wight (off the southern coast of England) in 1970. He soon thereafter established an “academy” to teach some of what he had learned during a lifetime of trying to discover the “sense and aim of life, and of human life in particular.”

Initially, he thought in terms of two dozen students working in Kingston, but soon realized that work on the land—an essential part of any program to teach people about the proper relationship between mankind and the rest of creation—would require a larger number. And, then, there was a huge response to his proposal—particularly in the United States. Very quickly, he attracted one hundred pupils, and in the fall of 1971, with the support of the Institute for Comparative Study, he inaugurated “Sherborne,” the International Academy for Continuous Education, in the village of Sherborne, Gloucestershire, England.

Bennett proposed five, ten-month courses, “as an experiment.” These proved fruitful, and many people have continued to work with the ideas and methods he presented. His aim was to run the courses and then—in characteristic fashion—to do something else. However, he died shortly after the start of the fourth course, on December 13, 1974. That course and the fifth were completed by his wife, Elizabeth, working with a few of his most experienced pupils.

What he would have done had he lived another decade is a matter of conjecture. In the months before he died, Bennett worked hard to establish an experimental “ideal human society” embodying the methods and ideas that he had developed and derived from Gurdjieff. He made big efforts to overcome the rifts that had grown between different groups of Gurdjieff’s followers, and, what is most intriguing, he was beginning to talk about the development of new forms of worship appropriate for the modern world.

J. G. Bennett left a legacy of selfless giving and unrelenting inquiry into the mystery and meaning of existence. He published numerous works (many unfortunately now out of print), inspired hundreds to seek reality at the expense of self-centeredness, and stimulated the formation of groups of students who have continued to work with the ideas and methods he passed on at Sherborne and Coombe Springs. These people are continuing to this day to learn from his example that, if one wants to follow a system of ideas of spiritual transformation, one has to work with them and try to make something of them for oneself.

Cave Junction, Oregon,
October 1989

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