I need a World Almanac, now, to discover what else, besides our meetings with Gurdjieff, went on during the last months of ’35 and all of ’36. Western society was in visible dissolution, every headline ominous. The fascist bombing of a Swedish Red Cross unit in Ethiopia, the Nazi reoccupation of the Rhineland, the abrupt resignation of Pierre Laval’s cabinet—the ninety-ninth to fall in the sixty-five years of France’s Third Republic. I know that I must have read each day’s threatening news, but I have no memory of reacting to anything that happened outside the magic circle of our group where Gurdjieff was preparing us for another kind of war. He himself seldom spoke of outer-world affairs.
It is not relevant to this personal memoir (nor would it be within my competence) to describe the Gurdjieff exercises for beginners. I believe that anyone who has struggled to shut off the mechanically racing mind through a sleepless night, or who has tried to pray for even half a minute without having associations drag one’s attention away, has had a taste, however small, of the kind of self-discipline into which he initiated us. It was a basic “spiritual exercise” aimed to help us build inner energy.
His final admonitions had touched me deeply “Be simple like a monk,” he had said, “a monk given a task. You do this exercise with faith, not with knowing ” he had touched his forehead, “but with sure-ing ” his expressive hand had dropped to his solar plexus. “Not knowing but sure-ing. Not with the mind but with the feeling.”
In early January of ’36, he drew four of our company together—Miss Gordon, Solita, Wendy and myself (four of the most contrasting types one could have handpicked from all Paris in those eccentric Thirties)—and formed us into a special work group, mutually supporting. In allegory he explained: we were going on a journey under his guidance, an “inner-world journey” like a high mountain climb where we must be roped together for safety, where each must think of the others on the rope, all for one and one for all. We must, in short, help each other “as hand washes hand,” each contributing to the company according to her lights, according to her means. Only faithful hard work on ourselves would get us where he wanted us to go, not our wishing.
“For wishing and doing,” he said, “man is made in two separate parts and such is the law concerning the operation of these parts that the more he may wish to do, with one part of him, the less he can do in the doing part—even with constant struggle. For a young person, Nature will help in the effort to do, so that person will not have to struggle as will a person of responsible age. After a certain age, this effort is very difficult, often impossible ”
He gazed at the quartet he had tied together on a metaphorical rope—a Canary, a Crocodile, a Thin One and a British spinster who always kept her hat on. We called our odd foursome “the Rope” among ourselves. We knew, I believe, even from the first day what that invisible bond portended. It was a Rope up which, with the aid of a master’s hand, we might be able to inch ourselves from the caves of illusory being we inhabited. Or, it was a Rope from which, with sloth and lip service, we could very well hang ourselves.
In Gurdjieff’s apartment, with all window shades pulled down (as he always kept them for reasons we never asked) and only one salon lamp lighted over his rug-covered divan, we were chambered in a strange kind of place-time neither night nor day, an ambience completely dissociated from the world outside the shuttered windows.
We always arrived punctually, dropped coats in the hallway, took our places in the small salon and read from his manuscript while he interviewed us singly, in a room apart, about progress with the exercises. My reports often faltered under his comprehensive glance which read my state of self-disgust while I was still hunting words short, simple and rooted in truth to describe it. Once, after a particularly barren confession, he nodded gravely and said, “It is not easy, Krokodeel what we wish to do.”
What we wish to do His use of the plural pronoun threw me into a momentary tailspin. It was as if he had implied that he too was tied to our earthbound Rope, striving with us step by tottering step toward the higher consciousness he already possessed to a degree that even my eyes could perceive. Was that “we” a calculated kindness to us in the beginning, to help us over the first hurdles toward detachment from our mechanical world—the only one we inhabited, the only one we knew?
Another day he used the first person plural while telling about a worldly problem that confronted him. We were aware how often his seemingly jocose remarks lifted suddenly to another level of understanding and listened attentively to his tale of a brand new car he might be able to get with no down payment whatsoever—a deal so unique that he thought he should have some help to see it through. He asked if any of us had a special saint to whom he might burn a candle, looking first to Miss Gordon, our senior, for a suggestion. She named a saint noted for granting requests, but the master shook his head. He knew all about that one. “No,” he said, “it must be a saint who would be indulgent for one of us.” One of us in the Work you, me Canary, Thin One his eyes searched our blank faces, then he shrugged.
“If you cannot suggest such a one,” he said, “I could just as well take my own saint—Saint George. But he is a very expensive saint. He is not interested in money, or in merchandise like candles. He wishes suffering for merchandise, an inner-world thing. He is interested only when I make something for my inner world; he always knows. But such suffering is expensive ”
We did not need a post-meeting discussion that time, to understand exactly what he meant. We knew through dismaying experience. The cost to one’s ego and vanity of discovering the inner emptiness seemed sometimes unbearable, even with such self-discovery coming, as it did, only in briefest flashes, only after intensive efforts with the exercises. Flashes white-hot and blinding, like lightning, that left you shaking in the dark afterwards, glad they were over.
I believe that Gurdjieff, out of his own powerhouse of consciously accumulated force, must often have fed us some sort of strength that helped sustain us in our first attempts. To reach the “inner world of Man” was the goal he made us desire with impassioned intensity. Once, he painted it for us:
“Man has three worlds. One—the outer world, world of impressions, of everything that happens outside us; two—the inner world of the functioning of all our organs, the totality of organic functioning; and three—the Soul, that is the world of the Soul which was called by the ancients the World of Man. Three worlds Man has ” (and you can choose which one you wish to live in, his glowing eyes seemed to say). “This exercise is exercise for the inner world of Man, the world of the Soul.”
A few weeks later, in a seemingly by-the-way association that flowed from a totally different subject, Gurdjieff referred again to my smoking denial. He had driven to Rouen that day, making the one hundred sixty-eight-mile round trip in his customary record time. He was back in the Café de la Paix by seven-fifteen that evening where the Rope was waiting for him. He dropped into the banquette with a sigh of pleasure and began talking about “roses, roses ” how he felt. He had consummated a successful business transaction which put off for one week a certain financial reckoning. Then, he told us, instead of “roses, roses ” there would soon be “thorns, thorns ” But thorns in one’s outer world were good, because then there were roses in the inner world.
“It is law,” he said. “For one dissatisfaction, always there must be one satisfaction.” Over his coffee he asked us which we thought he would rather have—roses in his inner world, or in his outer world, then decided he had posed too complicated a question. “Better that I tell you one thing,” he said. “This will make you rich for life ” He raised his index finger, held it pointing up in the teaching pose.
“There are two struggles—inner-world struggle and outer-world struggle, but never can these two make contact, to make data for the third world. Not even God gives this possibility for contact between inner- and outer-world struggles; not even your heredity. Only one thing—you must make intentional contact between outer-world struggle and inner-world struggle; only then can you make data for the Third World of Man, sometimes called World of the Soul. Understand?”
On November 17 we began a Third Series of exercises under the master’s guidance. The new work was complex and required a sustained inner attention beyond anything ever before attempted. The kind of “being efforts” we struggled over, he told us, had been called “self-beatings” by the adepts of an old monastic order he had visited in the days of his searchings. “Self-beatings” perfectly described our intensified efforts to dominate the recalcitrant selves. There was never any feeling of masochism, such as “self-beatings” seemed to imply. There was, to the contrary, the deepest inner satisfaction any of us had ever known—the “earned pearl,” as Gurdjieff expressed it, that lay in the center of our beings after each session of work. A work on the self that now went beyond the self.
Gurdjieff had given us a pledge to say each time before beginning the new exercise—that we would not use this for the self, but for all humanity. This “good wishing-for-all” vow, so deeply moving in intent, had a tremendous effect upon me. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was truly doing something for humanity as I strove to make my own molecule of it more perfect. The meaning of this Work, which at first had seemed quite egotistical and self-centered, suddenly blossomed out like a tree of life encompassing in its myriad branchings the entire human family. The implications of it were staggering. By my single efforts toward Being, I could help sleeping humanity one hairsbreadth nearer to God. I believed this. Every time I said the pledge before beginning my exercise, I believed that if I made something for my own inner world, I would be making it for “all humanity.” It was my first experiencing of the Mystical Body of Christ of which I knew nothing then, but would encounter many years later like a familiar concept though always shrouded in its immense mystery.
~ • ~
These excerpts are from Kathryn C. Hulme’s, Undiscovered Country: A Spiritual Adventure, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1966, Chapter Seven, pp. 88–116. The second edition with variant title, Undiscovered Country: The Search for Gurdjieff, Lexington, Kentucky: Natural Bridge Editions, 1997, is still available and can be acquired directly from the publisher at 859-255-3936, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Featured: Fall 2003 Issue, Vol. VII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2003