Willem Nyland

Gurdjieff International Review

A Remembrance of W. A. Nyland

In the Ear and Eye of the Beholder

by Terry Winter Owens

Willem A. Nyland, (Wim as he was called) was by profession a chemist and by avocation a gifted improvisational pianist. He was born in Holland in 1890, worked in Java in the earliest years of his career and then settled in New York in the 1920s. There he joined Orage’s group.

Mr. Nyland met Gurdjieff for the first time when Gurdjieff came to New York in 1924. It was Nyland who chauffeured Gurdjieff to Chinatown on Saturday mornings and helped Gurdjieff select dinner ingredients. Nyland and his wife, the artist and illustrator Ilonka Karasz, went to the Prieuré at least several times (although the dates and lengths of stay are unknown to me) and he recounted one motor trip to Paris with Gurdjieff. Wim and Ilonka Nyland were the first of the New York group to go to Paris to see Mr. Gurdjieff at the end of the war. Both the Nylands became group leaders in New York and Trustees of the Gurdjieff Foundation, although they did not conduct groups together as the other married couples of that generation did. Having worked under both of them, but to a much lesser extent with Ilonka, I can testify that their style of conducting groups and relating to their students was so different that never the twain would meet!

When I met Wim Nyland in the mid 1950s, the Orage “camp” and the Ouspensky “camp,” having recently formed an alliance, had not yet synchronized their respective approaches to the Work. Over the years the distinctions between those two significantly divergent camps gradually blurred. While the differences may not be very obvious today, they were unmistakable in the 1950s and 60s. Because of the limited scope of this remembrance, I shall not explore the historical and philosophical etiology of the divergence between the two or how they were ultimately homogenized, but it is a subject worthy of deep examination. For now, suffice it to say that W. A. Nyland’s role as a teacher of Gurdjieff’s system of ideas was permeated with Oragean influences. Nyland considered Ouspensky a lesser light and off the mark in many areas.

With the passage of half a century since the death of Gurdjieff, it becomes increasingly obvious that there now flourish a number of divergent threads of the Work each with their own understanding. They might be compared to spokes radiating from a central hub—although it should be allowed that some spokes may have only the most remote connection to the center. Others might be connected but rusty, splintered and damaged beyond repair. Where does W. A. Nyland fit in? He himself felt supremely confident that his approach was authentic and precisely in accordance with Gurdjieff’s system of ideas. Having been so deeply influenced by him in my formative years, I am not in a position to have an objective evaluation.

Other than passing mention in a few memoirs, nothing of significance has been written about W. A. Nyland, although he had a profound impact on many people. One of the few published works about W. A. Nyland, Irmis Popov’s book, Gurdjieff Group Work with Wilhem Nyland,1 is in my opinion not a significant source of information about Nyland’s approach to Work. It offers such a narrow slice of the pie that indeed no apple arrives on the business end of the fork! During the years covered in her book, Popov was in attendance only infrequently. When she did come, Nyland welcomed her as a “rara avis” a sobriquet emphasizing the long gaps between her appearances.

Focusing a lens on the past can produce a wildly distorted image. The subjectivity at the time the impressions were received combined with the unreliability of memory, a limited field of vision, fixation on the superficial, and a Pandora’s box of personal idiosyncrasies may skew the picture beyond recognition. Notwithstanding these perils, I have chosen to focus on what I remember and believe Nyland himself considered important: his unrelenting imperative to work on oneself and to do so correctly and in accordance with an accurate representation of inner effort and its relationship to the ideas as a whole.

Anecdotes about Mr. Nyland, like those about Gurdjieff, can be breath taking, enigmatic, funny, deeply moving and sometimes shocking. Anecdotes may appear to glitter with golden nuggets of the teaching. Without doubt, they have an undeniable appeal and sometimes are like pictures that are worth a thousand words. But for now I shall bypass the telling of anecdotes and focus instead on how Nyland taught, what he taught and what he stressed as essential. The mark of the man was neither his kindness nor his harshness, not his great intelligence and vast knowledge, and not necessarily in how any one of his students may have perceived his presence or his lack of it—but rather his dedication to the accurate presentation of Gurdjieff’s ideas and its practical application in daily life. He was critical, publicly vocal and sometimes strident about what he believed to be misstatements and misunderstandings on the part of his colleagues and would often devote entire lectures to such issues. He was neither a politician nor a diplomat but chose to “tell it like it was” at whatever cost. For example, when Work began to be described as a “new way of thinking,” he was dismayed and angry. He explained, at great length and with unassailable logic, that self-awareness was neither thought, feeling nor sensation but rather a new faculty of Being.

Clarity about the ideas, about correctly applied effort, about aim and the Wish to Work were fundamental themes that played a role in every conversation, every question and answer, every lecture. Nyland insisted that his students know what the components of effort were, the “A-B-C of Work” as he called it, the three essential characteristics of self-awareness, the specifics of Do-Re-Mi of the first octave, how these concepts related to one another and to the cosmological framework of the ideas. Although he was a mystic and a religious man (but not necessarily church-going), he believed that the Work did not have to be discussed in vague, mystical language. He pooh-poohed the so-called “ineffable” nature of consciousness and instead he strived to define and express himself with appropriate words, images, metaphors and analogies. He rarely said nor implied “It cannot be said in words; It cannot be understood; It is essentially mysterious; We do not know; No one knows; We cannot know; We cannot do; We lie all the time.” Such expressions of essential unknowingness and incapability that cast the student in a perpetually exoteric posture were alien to Nyland’s way of working and to his manner of transmitting the ideas. He did not like the idea of stumbling in the dark to find the elusive key to a transcendental state. Rather he said that Gurdjieff explicitly gave us the necessary materials for actualizing consciousness and building a real I.

Mr. Nyland wanted us to learn how to fashion a key to consciousness and refashion it time and time again as our strength, our experience, our wish and our understanding grew, until it became a permanent, indestructible key. He did not minimize the difficulties and the obstacles, but he did not view them as impenetrable barriers. Nor did he allow his students to substitute a rote parroting of formulae and words for genuine effort—although many tried! More often than not, perhaps every time one of us spoke, he would unerringly zoom in on the weaknesses and flaws in their recounting of their efforts, not to humble the person, but to help them become clear about what was needed and to inspire them with greater wish. His answers were rarely brief. He liked to open a question into a broad perspective, sometimes far beyond one’s understanding. In responding to a simple everyday statement by a student, Nyland would recast it in the context of the eternal and the infinite. When a student admitted to being unable to work, Nyland would probe to determine whether the person knew how to work. He would repeat again and again and again what is involved in effort, what is meant by waking up and explained how wish could become materialized out of almost nothing. He said that there was more than sufficient material or energy in a thought or feeling or memory about Work to be translated into effort and suggested practical ways to self-produce a reminder to wake up.

Work was first, last and always about waking up, “To remember oneself always and everywhere” the ultimate goal. Digressions from that fundamental aim were not acceptable. Nyland never dismissed a question by ignoring it, no matter how foolish or irrelevant it might sound but would navigate the questioner into work territory. Personalized tasks to be conducted in everyday life were de rigueur and reporting on those tasks was supposed to be mandatory although some people evaded that responsibility. His repertoire of practical tasks was creative and voluminous.

Mr. Nyland’s group meetings (sometimes over an hour and half) were often in the form of lectures on particular themes or issues. They often dealt with how to Work and how to stimulate the Wish to Work, as well as with how to overcome obstacles or how to look at certain events in the world from a Gurdjieffian perspective—the assassination of John F. Kennedy for example, or the planetary alignment that set off waves of hysteria in people inside and outside of the Work.

At least several times a year, Nyland devoted entire meetings to the diagrams of the Work, some of which were at that time unpublished: the Diagram of Everything Living, the diagram of Jesus Christ, the Enneagram, The Ray of Creation and, to a lesser extent, the Table of Hydrogens. He showed how these diagrams were different ways of looking at the same phenomena—particularly how the Enneagram related to the Diagram of Everything Living, how these diagrams could be viewed from different levels and how they demonstrated the interaction of processes, substances and laws. For example, he drew elaborate analogies between the development of the fetus to the development of higher being bodies, showing intricate parallels in the digestion of the three being foods on different levels and how the centers interacted with the forces of Triammonia (an earlier word for Triamazikamno) in the movement of 1428571. Although these explanations could be extremely theoretical and difficult to follow, he would unfailingly relate them to practical Work, to the need to strive for greater and more exact effort, to the sounding of Do of first conscious shock, for the creation of impartial, objective self-awareness.

Notwithstanding the fact that lectures and writings of Orage and notes from other of Gurdjieff students make pointed reference to the value of saving energy by not expressing negative emotions, Mr. Nyland strongly promoted the point of view that the non-expression of negative emotions was an invention, or at least an exaggeration, of Ouspensky’s. The subject came up often, perhaps because many people were attracted to the Work or remained connected to it because of their intense desire to get the better of their so called negative emotions. Nyland suggested that all emotions issuing from a sleeping state were of the same relative value. He explained that the material produced by strong emotional reactions was too coarse to be used for Work. The transformer, intentional effort, was the critical element rather than the saving or storing of energy. Better, he said, to observe the emotional reaction in the “playground” of the body and perhaps, were one awake and impartial enough, to intentionally participate in the outward manifestation—of course within the bounds of common sense. His examples were persuasive and were coupled with many practical approaches to work that did not involve self-manipulation or the violation of the principle of objective self-acceptance. He was concerned that one could suppress one’s negative emotions and remain as dead-asleep and identified as a poker-faced card player. Along similar lines, he also criticized Ouspensky’s description of the double arrow of divided attention and other concepts presented in Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. (The Nylands referred to Ouspensky’s magnum opus as Fragments, its original working title, rather than the publisher’s eventual title, In Search of the Miraculous).

In support of his disagreements with Ouspensky, Nyland would often cite passages from All and Everything and relate it to instruction he received directly from Gurdjieff and Orage. He urged everyone to read All and Everything at least three times, as directed by Gurdjieff, and then to keep reading it and studying it. He said that All and Everything was a road map for Work. His lectures and answers to questions made frequent reference to concepts, laws, events and characters from All and Everything. He discussed the metaphors in the tales as guidelines for inner work: the Teskooano on Mars, the state of Purgatory, the perils of early interference, the triadic relationship of Beelzebub, Hassein and Ahoon, the role of the Captain on the interplanetary spaceship, the reflections of the lights of Karatas, to cite a few. Unless one had studied the book, the significance of those references might be missed, but his passionate references to them inspired people to struggle with this difficult book. Nyland’s insistence that Gurdjieff’s writings were primary source material rather than Ouspensky’s books and Nicoll’s Commentaries was reflected in his own intimate knowledge and continued reliance on Beelzebub’s Tales. Karatasian words, the native language of Beelzebub and his entourage, flowed musically from Nyland’s tongue. Under his supervision and hands-on participation, his groups produced a concordance/glossary to All and Everything, lovingly referred to as The Index. It was a monumental project that occupied many of us for quite a number of years. It was done in the days before Xerox machines and word processors (even before electric typewriters!) and a great deal of hand, heart and mental labor and money went into it. Nyland told us that he proposed the idea of such a concordance/glossary to Gurdjieff and that Gurdjieff was very enthusiastic and urged Nyland to create it in time to be published along with the first edition of Beelzebub’s Tales. In fact, it took many years to fulfill that wish of Mr. Gurdjieff. When The Index was finally completed, it was largely ignored outside of Mr. Nyland’s own groups. The production of The Index is a story in itself that should one day be told!

Mr. Nyland conducted groups four or five nights a week the year round (no vacations from Work!)—and sometimes he invited us to luncheon at midday. On Friday evenings, he played music, improvising for hours on the piano in his own non-Gurdjieffian harmonic style. His music was offered and largely received as a non-verbal transmission of ideas and an aural current of his presence. People packed the room to hear it, week after month after year. Several 33 RPM records were pressed, with beautiful covers by Ilonka Karasz Nyland and liner notes by the photographer Paul Caponigro. Mr. Nyland gave me the task of bringing his recordings to the general public. My first stop was G. Schirmer, the most prestigious music shop in New York. As it turned out, very little salesmanship was required. The manager was captivated by the music and the cover art. Some of Nyland’s records were sold at Schirmers for a few years.

The groups were also often invited to weekends and extended work periods at his country home in Brewster, New York. This magnificent house, originally only two rooms, was expanded as a work project by Orage’s group and further enlarged with the efforts of Nyland’s own groups in the 50s and 60s. There, his groups re-assembled and refurbished a pipe organ purchased from a nearby church. An enormous music room was built to house it. There, Nyland would play either the piano or the organ or a harmonium given to him by Gurdjieff. In the evenings, he would read aloud from the then unpublished Second and Third Series, somewhat different than the editions that were later published—at least to the best of my memory.

In 1965, Nyland issued Firefly,2 a personal statement about the nature and aim of inner work. The manuscript was privately circulated among his students. The metaphor of the firefly was one of many breath-taking poetic images that he used in talking about work.

In the mid 1960s, Nyland began to distance himself and his groups from the activities of the Gurdjieff Foundation. Later, he established a center for his work in Warwick, New York which he called Chardavogne Barn, and which later became formally known as The Institute for Religious Development. He also established groups in a number of cities across the country, many of which continue to this day.

Mr. Nyland died in 1975. It is difficult to assess the legacy of this man—only to hope that the clarity of his teaching endures as a living force in many individuals.


1 Gurdjieff Group Work with Wilhem Nyland. New York: Weiser; 1983, 72p., ISBN 0-87728-580-2. The book misspells Mr. Nyland’s first name which is Willem, not Wilhem.
2 Firefly. New York: Typed manuscript, 1965, 2 Volumes, 83p./113p.

Copyright © 2000 Terry Winter Owens
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2000 Issue, Vol. III (2)
Revision: April 21, 2003