y initial encounter with the ideas of G. I. Gurdjieff took place in the late sixties. At that time, many people had an unquenchable thirst for understanding life’s big questions. The war in Vietnam was in full swing and there was inner and outer discord in the air. Search took many forms and people were striving for something.
One night at a party I overheard a conversation—a friend’s brother had found a sense of peace after reading a book, and this seemed to surprise my friend. The book was by P. D. Ouspensky. I was very curious about my friend’s story. The next day after visiting some bookstores in Philadelphia, I found one of the books, read it, and later found others. The ideas and questions created a hunger for more.
Roughly a month later, a small notice in the library at the University announced a series of talks about the ideas of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. I reserved a place and went. More than what was said during these talks, the intensity and radiance of the speaker is forever etched in memory. The speaker was Cynthia Pearce.
Mrs. Pearce had a strong presence and striking appearance. A quite tangible feeling, one could not daydream when with her. She had a surprising youthful vitality, even though she was older and suffered from an injury long ago where she had fallen from a horse and broken her back. She was intensely alive and was speaking and exploring the ideas and questions that also interested me. And it was apparent she lived them.
After one of the talks, I approached Mrs. Pearce to ask, “Is a group really necessary?” Her reply was kind, had force and contained more than the words from the books. She looked up, sitting in a chair, elbows on her knees, a deep steady clarity in her eyes, and after a few moments of taking me in, she replied, “on your own, you may find it very difficult.” Simple strong words that I felt were from her experience. I was drawn to work with her.
I started attending her group the following fall in New York. Later the group found a home in Philadelphia. In the group, she was clear and direct. Her words could arouse many feelings, some deeply buried, some difficult to face. The feeling of trust was stronger than any difficulties. When she looked at you, it could stop you in your tracks. No longer able to speak from the typical place, a question might appear that you didn’t know you had before you spoke. She had a force that called upon those with her to strive for their best. There was much laughter at times, at other times we were called to actively face our fears or look to see what was behind our actions. She called on us to be good householders (meaning the responsibility of managing our ordinary lives), to be strong in the world as well as in the Gurdjieff Work. These meetings directly spoke to our needs and gave a strong direction.
Mrs. Pearce had a property in the Caribbean where we would go to work, sometimes multiple times a year. Besides heavy physical demands, there was time to explore and study ideas, write, practice the movements, and listen to music. From the quiet work came moments of a profound silence and the feeling of being more alive. It became clear how much she cared for the Work, and we knew she pushed us because of that care. As difficult as it could be, we began to find a love for work and for working together.
During this time, Mrs. Pearce encouraged us to study the Laws. She spoke of the forces and the centers, of how one alignment might be creative, another might take us in the opposite direction. Questions from these talks are still alive.
Some found her difficult to be around, thought her austere, stayed a while and then did not return. Others thought she had the qualities of a dragoness from a myth, fierce while also protecting that of true value. She had a very inquiring mind and might say something quite strong or thought-provoking which could bring one’s mind into laser focus. She brought a vitality in questioning everything and that quality was infectious.
Mrs. Pearce once said, “I wonder if love might travel faster than the speed of light.” A strange but at least for then, unverifiable idea. She called us to “collect” our attention. The word “collect” was difficult to understand at first but later it proved an accurate description of a process needing persistence. She used the word “Why” so often that her grandchildren thought that they should inscribe it on her tombstone.
Once asked about how to go about change, her reply was, “the only thing that you can change is your attitude.” Other sayings that remained with me were, “Strong in life makes it possible to be strong in the Work.” “Praise is Poison.” “Love is Attention.” “We eat impressions and excrete behavior.” A Scorpio, she once said “the scorpion has to eat its tail and digest its poison.”
At Christmas time or early in January the group would spend all day preparing, cooking and decorating for an annual celebration. At one of these magical candlelit dinners, along with drinks and toasts, music and stories, she told us her teacher once said that leaders should not get attached to the people in their groups. She smiled at us and said she couldn’t help it. The feeling that night was joyous and full. My guess is that most of us also couldn’t help feeling our attachment for her.
Mrs. Pearce at one time had back surgery and apparently refused painkillers. She said she had to spend a lot of time arguing with doctors over that. She remarked that pain had given her some of the most interesting experiences of her life. She shared a rhyme, “Pain is only pain; it’s like the falling of the rain.”
On one occasion when someone tried to rob her, she yelled, calling him “every name in the book,” and he ran off empty-handed. Such force coming from this frail, nearly-blind older woman likely created an unforgettable experience.
Cynthia Pearce was born in 1900 into a wealthy family. She seldom spoke about her life or her past. There are few details about the time when she encountered the Work and Mr. Gurdjieff. Quite significant during that time was the loss of her son. He was with the Royal Armoured Corps and killed in action during World War II. Kenneth Walker introduced her to the Work ideas, and later she worked with Henriette Lannes in London. When she finally did meet Mr. Gurdjieff, she was already in her forties. She said that we were lucky to have discovered the Work sooner in life than she had. We know she gave up much to work with Mr. Gurdjieff, then later went to great lengths to share that work with us.
Driving her back to her hotel one evening, she told a story of an experience she had with Mr. Gurdjieff. She was in a caravan with him in France, following behind his car, when her car broke down. After being towed, the cost of the repair was more than she had. As she very much wanted to continue on the journey with Mr. Gurdjieff, she took what money she had and went to a nearby casino. After a short time, she won what was needed for the repair. Having been brought up in a proper British family, she considered it extremely rude to get up and immediately leave the table after winning. But, that’s what she did, then continued the next day on the journey with Mr. Gurdjieff. She later said that after being with him for some time she felt very full, “like a horse that ate too much corn.”
What influenced me most strongly was Mrs. Pearce’s common sense, coupled with her strength, silence, and atmosphere. She called us to be diligent, to bring our best attention to whatever we were doing, whether studying ideas or sweeping floors. Everything could be a practice. She taught us to question everything, not permit self-indulgent stories, wallow in self-pity or be satisfied with past success.
Some attitudes she helped establish often resurface by themselves, others are rediscovered only when we have a more active attention. She asked us to try to see things as they are, to face life with strength. Her lessons helped create a grounding in ordinary life, while allowing and supporting the search towards the extraordinary. My memory of her continues to be an inspiration.
Possibly the most important thing she shared was that whenever we see we have fallen short of our aims, or notice that we are lost, it is important to remember to return to a simple action, to begin again.
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James Ehlers lives in Philadelphia. He encountered the ideas of Gurdjieff and met Cynthia Pearce in 1969, and continues to work with groups and Movements in Philadelphia and New York.
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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 1, 2019