Gurdjieff International Review

Michel de Salzmann

The Gurdjieff Institute of Geneva

The reflections and memories at the heart of this text have been contributed by the Swiss pupils of Michel de Salzmann (1923–2001), many of whom discovered the Gurdjieff teaching under his direction in the early 1960s. In their experience, he incarnated the Work unforgettably. This memoir is a collective homage from those who still follow the path on which Michel was trail blazer, guide, and companion.

M

ichel de Salzmann’s special link with Geneva was certainly rooted in the familial link to the city of his mother, Jeanne de Salzmann. The first Geneva group, later the Gurdjieff Institute of Geneva, was formed in 1957 with her encouragement. She entrusted initial responsibility for the group to Lizelle Reymond (1899–1994), who with Madame de Salzmann’s agreement quickly turned to Michel to animate and direct the work of the group. Lizelle helped him with unsparing devotion.

Far from Paris, Michel seemed to benefit from more space to search for a voice and approach capable of touching a new generation of pupils and sustaining their work. Called by the need to give meaning to their lives, that generation began to arrive in large numbers at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. Coming to Geneva for one weekend each month, Michel also spent many summer weeks in Chandolin, a village in the Valasian Alps at an altitude of 2000 meters. Work sessions there for members of the Geneva group attracted guests from all over the world.

We were to discover many facets of Michel in his role as a teacher. Little by little, with much tact and patience, supported by his undeniable charisma, he succeeded in awakening in us a lasting and deep interest in the Work.

What immediately struck us about him was that he truly loved life, loved it in all of its forms. Always ready to seize occasions as they arose to open our eyes to our reality, he manifested a creativity and freedom that fascinated us. Whether in a group or in private conversation, we could be pierced in an instant by the sacred force of his words. But then he might take up a completely different topic—and finish with a remark evoking laughter and smiles.

There could be no doubt about the seriousness required by our engagement in the Work, but a formal tone and dogmatic rigidity had no part in how Michel was with us. His great mobility of thought and resourceful intelligence reflected his interest in all things human. This allowed him to explore new forms whenever he glimpsed the possibility of fanning the flames of our thought or feeling.

He would show us how an intentional act could produce a new intensity and thereby call us to an extraordinary energy. We had the impression that he understood what was needed to transform a given situation into a moment of exploration and work, just as he could know the inner state of one or another of us and help us develop our attention and free ourselves from obstacles.

In fact, everything served to provoke friction and confrontation with oneself. In addition to initiating various workshops in Geneva and sometimes herculean construction projects at Chandolin, he continuously introduced the most diverse activities: theater improvisation, translation projects, vocal studies, memorable journeys (Mount Athos, Iran, Afghanistan), studies of the Work Ideas, conferences on contemporary scientific themes. Nothing was off limits if it could serve the Work, nourish our questions, and permit those who rose to the challenge to better understand how they functioned and, as well, to see their lacks.

In response to our heartfelt questions, Michel would invite the questioner to come back to himself and in that way better see what was at stake. He never preached or dramatized. This approach to Work, so light and subtle, belonging to him alone, bore witness both to his genuine humility and to his respect for the candidate-seeker who took the risk of coming out of his rut. He didn’t hit us over the head with truths; he made us feel that it was up to us to discover or rediscover and, above all, verify them. So doing, he created the taste of a living search, free of all considering—an indispensable preparation for real initiation, which one can only receive from oneself.

Michel was an awakener. Depending on the situation, he could encourage the seeker by a look or word, or, on the contrary, like a Zen master he could shake you unsparingly, administer the needed blow with the stick, so to speak, and the scales would instantly fall from your eyes. He kept watch so that we too might remain aware for as long as possible, but when he saw that we were lost in a whirl of associations, he would seek us out directly, address us personally. Waking up was painful then.

Some of us, in moments of shared silence and receptivity, experienced the sudden discovery of an entirely new dimension of reality, an authentic revelation, confirmed by Michel through an almost imperceptible expression, and leaving the pupil profoundly shaken.

Faced with tenacious subterranean suffering, he could offer a quality of restraint nonetheless full of compassion. This is what came to pass during a summer session when a seemingly innocuous event prompted him to question the person concerned. She was a reserved, discreet, silent individual with a painful past from which one felt that she had not yet been able to free herself. After an exchange of a few words, Michel said to her with profound empathy: “We are not responsible for what our parents did.” He said no more and looked at her with great gentleness before closing his eyes. A long silence ensued that absorbed all questions.

In his approach to teaching, Michel rarely came across as authoritarian. In general, he preferred indirect means to activate our vigilance through his own actions, essentially by example. Seeing him double-check the condition of all of the buildings and spaces just before the beginning of a session allowed everyone attending camps at Chandolin to understand that he neglected nothing and that nothing should be neglected. There is no end of anecdotes about his “inspections” of the kitchen and of the pantry where all the supplies needed for meal preparation were stored. He could spend hours, surrounded by companions sometimes beside themselves, arranging in minute detail all the different food supplies—emptying, refilling, arranging, rearranging without end containers of all sizes. What was the meaning of this ritual at the beginning of each camp, when a thousand other aspects of the organization of the week were urgently waiting? By dint of watching him act without stress or haste, seeing him question himself about the soundness of this or that change, weighing each possible option, his imperturbable activity succeeded in putting an end to our impatience and perplexity, and opened us to a new understanding: everything has its importance, nothing should be neglected, attention embraces everything, excludes nothing, every detail counts and has its place in the unfolding of each and every situation. It was a memorable lesson for us—and in thinking about it, was it not perhaps for Michel also a way of preparing for what was to come?