Gurdjieff International Review
In the autumn of 1971, J. G. Bennett inaugurated the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne House, Gloucestershire, England. From that time until his death three and half years later, he worked with groups of up to ninety students at a time who enrolled for ten-month courses in a residential school environment. The organization and the curriculum of the school were based on his experience with Gurdjieff at his school at the Prieuré in France and researches at Bennett’s own earlier community at Coombe Springs.
A fundamental technique was the use of a weekly theme. On Monday morning the entire community would meet and Bennett would introduce a theme for the week, which was described as something to ponder and think about when one’s attention was not needed elsewhere; a focus for self-observation. On the following Friday evening, the community would meet again and students would report on their observations from the week.
The folloing article is a transcription of two sessions which occurred in mid-June 1974, during the latter months of the Third Basic Course. It consists of the Monday presentation and some of the Friday discussion of students’ observations. The talks are also published in a collection of theme talks under the title, The Image of God in Work, and earlier, as Sacred Influences. –Ben Bennett
od and Love; how can we use these words rightly? It is terribly hard. It is so easy to project into them characteristics of our human experience, and then we have the absurdity of imagining God to be some being or other, as we are some being or other, and also of imagining Love to be like the sort of love we experience. We cannot put our kind of experience aside and come to these things directly. Or, it is hardly possible, unless there is a special extraordinary change in us, when we can see God and Love as they are. We must be realistic about this.
If I said to people: “See the Spirit of God, or the Love of God,” who could do it? It is beyond what is possible for most people. I can say that for me, Life, Nature and the Spirit of God are the ‘same’ but people cannot readily see this for themselves. But we can all come to something if we accept that Nature is nearer to God than we are. We put so much in the way, and we are not able to give as Nature gives, but we are within Nature. There is the manifestation of Nature around us, in the life and air that surrounds us and supports us. Nature is here, and we are able to experience that Nature loves us.
We cannot come to this if we remain attached to what we call ‘our love of Nature’—our love of trees and animals and living things. Our love is our love, and it is a restricted, self-centered kind of experience. We need to look at it the other way around—to see that we are loved by this Nature. We talk of Mother Nature, but this is nowadays thought of as just a figure of speech. We need to take it literally.
Nature is our Mother and loves us as a mother. It is really like that. Gurdjieff spoke of Mother Nature in this way, especially in the chapter ‘From the Author’ in Beelzebub’s Tales. We should try and take what he says literally. Nature makes it possible for us to receive the help and energies we need. Nature assists us in our work; Nature is far from indifferent. She is actively concerned with the good of mankind and of each one of us personally. The love that Nature has is not an abstraction, but a concrete thing for each one of Her children.
The love of a mother is practical; the mother works for her children, provides for them, watches over them, gives them support. We are able to see the Love of Nature for us here and now. It is an amazing thing, and it will teach us more than anything else how unthinkable is the Love of God.
The Mother has forbearance. For all the power Nature has, we are not crushed for what we do. Nature goes on giving and allows us to take, even in the sinful way we do. Men still talk of ‘conquering Nature’ as if She were a horrible force to be overcome and subjugated to our will. But if Nature were to lift one little finger, the whole human race would come to an end. If Nature were to shake herself a little, the human race would wake up to its utter helplessness. Nature remains generous and, paradoxically, it is this unceasing action of giving that enables Man to believe himself to be a separate power.
We can open ourselves to what is coming into us from Nature, and it is a kind of work to be receptive to this. What comes is not just ‘good vibrations,’ it is as if we become aware of being looked upon by the compassionate eye of Nature who is aware of our difficulties and of what a task has been laid upon us. No matter how much we destroy, the compassion does not weaken.
We must realize that we are not only part of Nature, but we have the special privilege of knowing that this is so. This privilege is really an obligation. Many years ago, I had a talk on this very subject with D. T. Suzuki, a wonderful man who did so much to introduce Zen Buddhism into the West. He visited us at Coombe Springs and spent a few days with us. One evening we were sitting together, and he said that he found the brilliance of the English green—it was about June—very hard to stand, and that in Japan they did not have the force of such strong colors. For some reason I said, “Everything is Buddha.” He answered me: “Yes, everything is Buddha, but we people have the right to be conscious of that, and if we do not exercise this right, we are not as we should be.”
We need to get beyond subjective ways of picturing things. There is great value in practicing the Vayu Prana meditation, in which we come to see air not simply as a combination of material gases, but as nourishment of our inner being. When we go further, and see the unlimited and the giving nature of air, this is a spiritual perception. This tells us more than any description of spiritual realities ever could. It is like this with the contemplation of Nature, only Nature is much more personal than air; it is a mother and has the feelings of a mother.
The important thing is to become aware of receiving help. We are ordinarily very blind to this, which prevents us from receiving what we could. Becoming conscious of the Love of Nature is a very big step, but we can make this step if we allow ourselves to.
In a series of talks published s The Sevenfold Work, J. G. Bennett talks about the enabling role of gratitude in relation to the help we receive from Life and Nature. In the chapter, ‘Fifth Line of Work—Receptivity’, he says: “Life and Nature are a source of help. There is an energy of contact with life that we can receive. Great Nature is a power that is a vehicle of Wisdom, and to be open to Her is a very great thing. It is totally different from having an emotional reaction to a piece of scenery. It is standing in the presence of Her and allowing oneself to become part of Her Wisdom. How this is done is very interesting. It depends on the exercise of gratitude. Our part is to be grateful for what we have received: it is this that enables us to receive; it is the truly enabling part that we have to play in the whole action.” –George Bennett
Student Observation: A student reported an experience of receiving something from a tree. She was trying to enter into the essence of the tree; she was opening herself to what was there between her and the tree. As she was standing in front of it, a voice spoke to her and told her to write something and this went on until the voice said that it was finished. When she later came to read what she had written, it was like a piece of wise advice, written in a manner she would never write from herself.
J. G. Bennett: In this experience, something is received from the spirit of the tree. As I have said on another occasion, part of the experience belonging to the New Epoch will be the re-awakening of perceptions of the spirit world and the spirits that reside in living things. But the spirit of the tree cannot speak in our language. You opened yourself, and love came from the tree and the tree wanted to say something. It could not understand your problems, so what could it do? It reached that part where words and ordinary thoughts are not needed and asked this part, the higher self, to do something.
Nature can talk to us by communicating a perception to our higher self, which is then able to reach us. Something descends from our higher mind, or the ‘supramental,’ which is at home with the spirits of Nature. This is beautifully expressed in Sri Aurobindo’s, Savitri.
It requires a step to come into the perception that is required. When we approach something of this kind it is similar to trying to understand what being a circle is like. Initially, it is almost impossible to have an idea of the circle except by being at the center, because we are so used to relating ourselves to everything as if we were the center of it. It is very interesting to try and be aware of the circle from the circumference, for then there is no privileged point, no place in which I can isolate myself—for being the center is special, and therefore separated or isolated from the whole. It is a totally different experience for us when we are not obsessed by being at the center. Then the center is everywhere and we see differently.
Nature is not sentimental. We can learn a great deal about this by working in the garden. We have to destroy many living things in order to have a garden.
Observation: A student reported that she was thinking of giving and taking, and how Nature gives. She said that she was attacking the creeping plant convolvulus, angry with it for running all over the place and choking the plants. She was tearing at the weed. Then someone came by and looked at the white flowers it has and said, “Oh, how pretty.” She carried on, then saw that what she was doing did not get the roots out, and that she had to use as much care in taking the convolvulus out as she would in planting seedlings. Then somebody else came by and said, “Oh, good! Can you collect it all up and bring it to the goats? They love it!”
J. G. Bennett: You glimpsed something of a whole picture. You saw how the convolvulus needs to live, and is of use. When there is an event like that we can enter into a different world of perception—as long as we do not fasten on to just one thing, or satisfy ourselves with an easy conclusion. Both our thought and feelings are liable to interfere with what we can see.
The convolvulus—or bindweed as it is called in the country—has often been taken to represent being dependent and how this is destructive. One need hardly say that this applies to human life.
It really is egoism that attaches us to our own feelings towards Nature. We cannot come to the perception required by lying in the fields and indulging our feelings. The reality is so much deeper. But there is a spontaneous perception that is joyful. It comes in the moment.
One morning I was looking out of the window and just then the sun was rising and catching the elm tree opposite me. The leaves were dancing, and I was convinced that these leaves were putting on their beautiful dance just for me! I could not get away from this feeling and I thought, “How nice of them!”
This perception has a connection with reality. It has a creative element—it is ‘fanciful’ in the old sense of the word—and we have to be very gentle, and not attempt to make anything out of it, else it turns very quickly into indulgence. To know how not to indulge is very important. When the spontaneous ‘fanciful’ perceptions come they enable us to be in tune with Nature, and to see that there is a creative self-expression which is not brought in from our subjectivity.
Observation: A student spoke about Nature as sometimes almost threatening.
J. G. Bennett: We experience Nature in many ways, and not all of them are joyful. What is this about?
We have to realize that in front of Nature we are before something very great. In the chapter ‘From the Author,’ in Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff refers about a dozen times to Great Nature, Mother Nature or Nature as ‘She.’ She has a task to perform and if any part of life—ourselves included—interferes with this task, She must put the task first, but She never fails in compassion towards life, towards every form of life, including us people.
Gurdjieff says that we all have to serve a great objective Purpose and this is the lot of ‘every breathing creature.’ This is not for the whole of existence, but only for that which breathes, that is alive. We have to serve this purpose ‘willy-nilly,’ but we can do so either consciously or automatically, like a man, or like an animal. It is serving the purpose consciously that gives the experience of a real Man.
It is very important to realize this. Sometimes people say, “But if we have to serve this purpose anyhow, then what is the point of all this working and effort?” The truth is that if we do not serve the universal purpose through work, we do not serve it in the human way, but in the animal way. Of course, Nature is the Mother of plants and animals as well as She is the mother of Man, but we have the obligation of becoming aware that it is so.
In these passages Gurdjieff never speaks about God, or says that some supra-terrestrial power ensures that the great universal purpose is accomplished. As far as the Earth is concerned, this is the responsibility of what we call Nature.
How do we come to see this? It is not by passivity. We must work in Nature and with Nature. It is the only way to establish a link which can enable us to be conscious of what Nature gives to Man and each one of us. Our bodies are essential. When we work through our bodies with Nature we can come to see. We become part of the whole working of Nature and can become aware that She is working. Every tree, every living thing, works. We must consciously become part of that community of work; then we can see.
We must understand how it is that when we work with Nature there is something that goes beyond subjective experience. Action is deeper and more concrete than reaction. When we react to Nature, however strongly, there is a division between subject and object. We may feel a sense of unity and wonder and so on, but it is still not free from subjectivity, and therefore comes from our egoism. The overcoming of separateness is not through a change of subjectivity. This is a mistake often made in connection with mystical experience.
In the Eucharist prayer, which is a relatively recent introduction, something significant is said about the need for an action in overcoming separateness. This is through the wine and the bread, and in the sacrament Man, God and Nature are brought together by an action.
There is something missing in the doctrine of oneness of being. It seems to be a very pure and lofty doctrine but it is, in reality, static. The truth is that it is the action which is the primary thing; what we separate out of action is lifeless. What we can see in subjective experiences of the beauty of Nature and so on is just the pieces, and the spiritual bond is missing. There is a big error in supposing that we overcome separateness by a change of state—by cosmic consciousness or something of that sort—and that no action is required. Life is action; life is more than experience.
What is important is an action going beyond perception, to service. Nature is our mother by what She does; the words ‘Mother Nature’ would otherwise have no meaning. But what love She has! We have committed sacrilege on this planet. Few people can be really aware that this is so—it is not a matter of sentimental feeling—yet Nature continues to love us, to give to us and to care for us.
There is more to come to than the enjoyment which is a response to the beauty and liveliness of Nature—in the leaves dancing or the lambs playing. We can be thankful. This is a feeling of gratitude that enables us to receive in the right way, and enter into the action of life in the right way.
 Coombe Springs was an experimental spiritual community a few miles south-west of London, England, which lasted from 1946 to 1966, and where J. G. Bennett was director of research.
 John G. Bennett, The Image of God in Work (1976) West Virginia: Claymont Communications.
 John G. Bennett, Sacred Influences (1982) UK: Coombe Springs Press Ltd.
 Ben Bennett is a son of John and Elizabeth Bennett.
 G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950) NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
 John G. Bennett, The Sevenfold Work (1979) UK: Coombe Springs Press Ltd.
 George Bennett is a son of John and Elizabeth Bennett.
 Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol is an epic poem by Sri Aurobindo based upon the theology from the Mahabharata.
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Featured: Winter 2019/2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (1)
Revision: August 13, 2020