hose members of our generation who found the ideas and work groups of Gurdjieff in the 1970s received something essential and special from Lady Pentland. She helped us find the real, practical truth in Gurdjieff’s teaching. The Los Angeles Gurdjieff Foundation was started in the late 1950s through Lord Pentland, President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York.
Lady Pentland began visiting Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, coming at least four times a year and staying one or two weeks at a time. Her visits were always preceded by much preparation. Lists were compiled of people who could come for the long weekend, menus were planned, themes to study were thought about, in general all the plans for work together were started. Lady Pentland’s arrival always intensified the atmosphere. Under her guidance—a tireless approach to thinking and planning—our efforts would attract some of the inner meaning of Gurdjieff’s ideas, you could say, a living exercise in what Gurdjieff called “work in life.”
Lady Pentland had a quality about her from years of inner work. A study of oneself—the experience of searching to “see” oneself—could take place just by being near her. The primary dictum by Gurdjieff to verify the ideas directly was what she hoped we could find. And naturally she was with us as a guide and practitioner in this effort. She was impersonal in the transmission of work. There was no escaping your inner situation when you were with her. Lady Pentland gave the Work through example. She said she decided early in the Work to try to find her own words, not to just repeat what had already been said. When someone asked a question, all of us waited for the response. A silence could be “heard,” so strong that a quiet relaxation could appear. Then we could ask more sincerely, “What is it that I am?”
Of course, this deeper questioning was prepared through all kinds of practical work. Days of pulling weeds in the gardens, cooking meals for 100 people, scraping and painting the houses, continual maintenance of the property and then, in the evening, we would try to listen to a reading that went on for an hour or so. Late at night, because Lady Pentland never went to her room until midnight, more questions would appear, more waiting for a response. We would go to our beds tired, and then find ourselves wide awake.
The changes in our state came from a way of living together that Lady Pentland actively pursued and wished for us. And somehow, we were able at the right time to ask about her early life with Ouspensky and then Gurdjieff. For the most part, she did not answer these questions. Often there was silence, then waiting and waiting for her response. This sequence of events put us in front of the nature of our questions.
Lucy Elisabeth Babington-Smith, a young, single, British woman, born to a prominent family, felt that something was missing in her life. She longed for a way to find more meaning and purpose. An acquaintance invited her to attend a lecture given by P.D. Ouspensky in London. She recognized something important in his words and began attending meetings regularly. From this participation she remembered moments in her childhood that she clearly felt were what Gurdjieff called “impressions” of a different quality. These new “impressions” were the beginning of her real search—particularly when she saw her own “identifications.” One evening, she told us that Ouspensky had given her an exercise that she had practiced through all the many difficulties and struggles of World War II—the bombings and restrictions—and then her move to America. Those of us with her at the end of her life heard and saw that she continued to work with this exercise.
At a talk given in New York in 1999, Lady Pentland was asked to speak on the topic of “The Way of Mr. Gurdjieff.” The following is an excerpt from that talk:
I will begin with, as the most direct, two of my own impressions from the time I was with Mr. Gurdjieff for a few months in Paris in 1949.
The first was that the ideas, the laws, were real for Mr. Gurdjieff. He was living them. I don’t know how I came to that impression. I was young, and had not been long in the Work; and, thinking of it now, it must have been received in some subconscious way.
The second was of being all the time brought to my limits, to feel at my limits, in the little events of daily life, which of course brought moments of failure. For example—this was on the ship coming to France from America—he asked me to get his cigarette lighter filled up, and to bring an avocado from his cabin to the dining room at lunch time. At that time after the war there were restrictions on alcohol, and it was scarce; so, after searching the ship and finally finding some in the nurses’ dispensary, coming back in triumph—he was not in his cabin but in the dining room—I brought him the lighter, and he said, “But where is the avocado?” That moment of failure still remains in me as an impression of the kind of attention that is needed.
Then there were other failures. When going on a trip to the south of France, he gave us money to buy presents for the people who could not come. We would drive till late at night, then be called to leave unexpectedly early the next morning. It was Sunday; all the stores were closed. We found no way to buy presents. You could say that is real teaching.
Little by little over the next few years, a group of us spent more time with Lady Pentland. At first cooking meals and then living in the house with her when she came to visit. She helped us to learn how to think by sitting with us while deciding on topics for our Ideas Meetings until late at night—putting us in front of our limits. Even in setting up a room for a meeting she brought a demand to be our best, although we could see our failures, shortcomings and lack of understanding. She supported this truth and the necessity of facing all the different sides of ourselves. She mostly would not say anything directly, but with great patience, she waited and eventually enlarged our thought. She was determined in this effort with us. “Rightly conducted self-observation” as Gurdjieff put it, would give a profit. We still experience the truth of that.
Another important concept that became visible because of Lady Pentland’s efforts was Gurdjieff’s idea of putting another in your place. She helped so many of us to overcome negativity and misunderstandings—moments where we would ordinarily come to a stop. She explained that, in this subtle work toward real being, each generation had to help the next.
Once, when one of us asked her about Gurdjieff, saying that he seemed like a myth, because we never met him or knew him directly, she answered that he was a man. A man who followed his own search so intentionally, and unceasingly, that he was able to give us the possibility of another level of living—toward awakening.
We learned from Lady Pentland how to wait—not to “wait” in the usual way: daydreaming, squirming in one’s chair, surreptitiously glancing at one’s watch—but to truly wait in the highest sense of the word. In her presence, to “wait” meant to attend, to have an active and quiet mind, to be prepared to receive what was needed, not to rush to solutions only in order to move on to the next something or other. In the end, all sacred teachings lead just to this—the development of a willingness to actively submit one’s mind to a higher mind that can only really be known in the present moment. By her example and guidance, this was Lady Pentland’s gift to us who worked with her here in Los Angeles, and for it we owe her a great debt of gratitude.
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These recollections of Lady Pentland were assembled by a team of older members of the Los Angeles Gurdjieff Foundation that was led by Barbara Ryan and Dr. Richard Sandor.
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Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: October 1, 2019