Gurdjieff International Review

Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan

Isabel Portas


athalie met me as I entered the world, having told the nurse to call the doctor immediately because my mother was not—as the doctor had assured her the last time he checked—ready for the final push. As it turns out, Nathalie was right and the doctor was not.

How did she do it? By practicing being, here and now, with all her three parts together with the same force. Did she talk about it? Yes, to others, tirelessly, for years, but she never explained how to do it. Instead, she taught by showing that she was doing it, right then, as she spoke. Indeed, I remember her saying, categorically, “When you are trying to be with yourself, there is no room for anything else.”

Nathalie was the original, and truly real, fairy godmother. The warmth and joy that emanated from her when she saw you—and the huge pile of presents you were sure to receive from her on birthdays and at Christmas—attest to the most generous soul I have ever met. I was fortunate to have her close by, as my parents were best friends and neighbors with her and her husband, Jacques. Their daughters and my sisters and I made the best of playmates throughout our childhood.

Her house was open to all who wanted to see her, and up until the death of Jacques in 1973, meals were banquets, conversations were deep and interesting, no one went unnoticed, and no one wanted this moment to end—even if one were an adult man ordered to finish the vegetables on his plate! Her subsequent homes also featured these lengthy repasts, but the magnet of charm and humor went away with Jacques’ passing. His death was the first and only time I ever saw her cry, and with such sadness. If you were at loose ends, she’d invite you to stay with her for as long as you needed. If your marriage was making you unhappy, she’d talk to you until, magically, you felt that you could try something, anything, once more, that there was always hope.

She channeled this magnificent life force into the service of bringing the Work to Venezuela, and, along with other wonderful people, spread it to other Latin American countries. I would like to mention two aspects of her imprint in this respect. The first was her establishment of work periods in Venezuela—the “Fifteen Days,” as we called them originally. Yes, fifteen whole days (and nights) in seclusion, with strict (and demanding) conditions, and, as of 1980, held in the Caracas Foundation’s property in Paracotos, where conditions were even more challenging as the buildings and facilities were themselves built during those early work periods.

Upon hearing about these work periods, people would invariably ask, shocked, some version of this question: “You mean you pay to go clean toilets and sleep in a flooded tent?” How do you make others who are not in the Gurdjieff Work, particularly your closest relatives, understand that in order to find your true self, you must lose what you think is you? So, the conditions, the first and foremost of which is simply to be with other people trying the same things as you, plus the equally uncomfortable accommodations for all, the strict schedules, the mandatory and labor-intensive chores and activities—all of which you voluntarily submit to—either break you (in which case you get the heck out of there) or, after much suffering, you are transformed (briefly, alas) into the rightful you, which is the usual happy ending. And as the years go by, and you decide once again every year (never an easy moment) to engage in this struggle between your fears and laziness and your true self, you cannot help but wonder, again and again, how the power of the Work took root in those who embraced Nathalie’s way. You cannot help but see and feel what a wonderful vessel she was for the ideas of Gurdjieff—a living example of these ideas, embodied in her way, in her being.

The second aspect of her imprint on the Work in Latin America, and the one that was most uniquely hers, was the creation of schools for children. How does one imagine such a school based on Gurdjieff’s ideas? A place where all the teachers are in the Work? A method that mass produces children who grow up and then join the groups? A curriculum that includes the teaching of Movements? A utopian environment in which teachers and students alike sense themselves at all times? When I started working in the first school that Nathalie founded in 1974—a very small pre-school in her own house in suburban Caracas—I seem to remember quite a bit of doubt and confusion regarding exactly what kind of school we were meant to be. Many group members had “ideas” about it. And, of course, other people had other ideas. While they discussed and debated the best way to proceed, a small group of us began to learn. We weren’t even qualified teachers, except one of us who was immediately assigned as the school’s director. And we had to learn everything from the ground up. Year after year, we had to discover, process, and apply all that was needed both spiritually and economically to create a stable, sound, and dependable institution that would attract children and gain their parents’ confidence.

During the first years, Nathalie would come and talk to us almost every week. The questions that started all our “learning” were always the same: “So, how was your week? What were the problems and difficulties?” And, boy, were our answers abundant and overwhelming! I never, ever heard any “idea” being discussed; it was always about what efforts we were going to make in a given situation with a child, co-worker, parent, ministry official, etc. And each one of us shared the same trials, misgivings, and troubles as any teacher at any school, in any country, at any time. But for us, “the solution” was always inside of ourselves—in what we wished to be in life, in consciousness brought about by our own and each other’s efforts, and, of course, by Nathalie’s direction of those efforts, by what she told us to try. Her enthusiasm, her practicality, her knowledge of herself and others, were all focused on this task: to educate the conscience. A teacher can only teach what he or she is, which is just what she did—she taught by being. She didn’t teach anything; she “showed” herself. She was. And for that, no ordinary school or college will fit the bill. This way of being has to be learned through life and with the correct influences, such as those that Nathalie received from her parents and from her childhood with Mr. Gurdjieff.

If a school is committed to this goal, it must be guided by three non-negotiable principles which will guarantee its continuance. The first principle is that it be supported, nurtured, and guided by the entire Gurdjieff group in its location, that the members of the group consider it to be a manifestation of the Work itself, and, as such, subject it to the same soul-searching rigor they apply to their own lives. The second principle is that it should operate with all the “normal” features of any school in the area and that it be economically sound. The third principle is that it is not, and should not be, a one-person enterprise. The thing about a school is that it cannot just “go away” if one is tired, discouraged, or loses interest. Kids go to school every day of the school year, and that is the surest way of making a group of people work; after all, not everyone will be “down” at the same time!

So, do children (and teachers and parents) flock to the Work once they graduate from one of these schools? Of course not. Having a school doesn’t change the ways and laws of the world. But the very real influence—the impressions—are there, objectively present in the atmosphere of positive vibrations, and cannot but touch all who participate in such an environment.

Nothing that happens in such a school as this is new. Good schools, great teachers, and excellent educational enterprises all share the same goal, feel the same way, and exist in many parts of the world. I think that the essential truth that binds all of them, if it is practiced every single day by several people together, is what Nathalie told us all the time: “attention is love.” And don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s easy. It is the most difficult thing in the world because it means you have to be trying (a lot) to be present here and now, surrounded by the whirlwind of life force made up of children and human conditions.

The idea for the schools had the full support of Nathalie’s mother, Jeanne de Salzmann, and brother Michel de Salzmann, who always underscored and valued what he called Nathalie’s “true generosity.” Among the papers that Nathalie left on education, there is an unsigned typewritten essay about why education as we know it only perpetuates the very poor endeavors humans practice in the awakening of consciousness of themselves and their offspring, and about how the principal aim of educating should instead be to feed our “other nature” that every human being possesses at birth so that it develops his or her true self. The article explains how, inadvertently, we kill this “seed” of the soul of our children because we are unaware of our own, and because we only give food to thoughts, mechanical ones at that, with no simultaneous regard whatsoever to the other parts of ourselves. Nathalie “wrote” a book about her experiences and thoughts on education after the schools were created. But she didn’t sit down to write: someone else transcribed while she spoke to teachers and parents about what she wanted and energetically made it possible. The book’s title says a lot about Nathalie and the aim of her schools, A Sense of Wonder When I Do Not Know.[1]

Nathalie also wrote a book about the relationship of couples, but this one was never published in English. The Spanish title reads, You Made Your Bed, Now Lie in It.[2] This was also compiled after the fact, and the material comes from her sessions in different countries with married couples in the groups. All who participated had rave reviews for the incredible moments she had them go through, making them really work on their marriage. My peer group friends are a fine example of, and testimony to, how she brought the ideas of Gurdjieff into everyday life—again with the accent on what love can be in a “conscious” relationship, without theorizing, and with plenty of very practical and down-to-earth advice.

Another thing that needs to be mentioned as uniquely hers was Nathalie’s relentless insistence of always including children and young people in her work sessions. Not only that, but she gave all manner of responsibilities in the Work to young adults, preparing them very early on for eventually taking over when the older people “retired” or passed away. This created a generation of group leaders and movements instructors who, even to this day and even in a dying country like Venezuela, have not only kept the Gurdjieff Work alive but have made it the provider of very positive influences, of a meaningful environment, to all who seek that in their life.

Around 2007, Nathalie’s health issues finally took hold of her. She had a stroke and couldn’t talk. Sitting with her in the hospital, one could tell that she was already in a higher place. I remembered what she would say of Mr. Gurdjieff, that being next to him one could feel this warmth, this wonderful warm presence. When I saw Nathalie for the last time, I could feel that with her and, unforgettably, as she couldn’t speak words, a look so filled with love that cannot be described. I felt, in that moment, what true love is. □

Isabel Portas, daughter of Joe and Carola Nyland Portas, grew up in the suburbs of Caracas, Venezuela. She lived just up the hill from her godmother, Nathalie, and Jacques Etievan.

[1] A Sense of Wonder When I Do Not Know, Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan (2008) Caracas: Ganesha, 210p. An English language edition of No Saber es Formidable (1989).

[2] Tal como uno hace su cama, se Acuesta, Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan (2000) Caracas: Ganesha, 164p.


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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 15, 2020