The following excerpts are taken from A Voice at the Border’s of Silence: The Autobiography of William Segal. Copyright © 2003 Marielle Bancou-Segal. Published posthumously and edited by Mark Magill, the book features over 275 photos and illustrations. William Segal’s life is explored through his own writings and artwork, and through interviews with D. T. Suzuki, Peter Brook, Robert Thurman, Ken Burns, Michel de Salzmann, Paul Reynard, James George, and many others. Reprinted by arrangement with The Overlook Press.
~ • ~William Segal: It’s interesting to go back to one’s first recollections of a meeting with a man of the stature of Mr. Gurdjieff. I recall his entry into the P. D. Ouspensky estate in Franklin Farms. There were a number of people waiting for him. One felt the movement of the atmosphere around him as he entered the magnificent hall. What struck me immediately was the presence. Then he did something that was very revealing to me. He looked around the table and he saw the lords and the ladies, the people who were preeminent in Ouspensky’s work at that time. And he said, “Who is in the kitchen? Bring out the people who are in the kitchen doing the work.” It struck me immediately as a demonstration of the democratic attitude of this really unusual character. He could size up people, a situation, the truth of the moment. One had to respect that. I was trained as a journalist, and I had the experience of meeting a number of spiritual characters around the world. But there was something very different about Mr. Gurdjieff. Absolutely no pretense. He was an authentic spiritual master. This was the feeling that I received on first contact. . . .
Michel de Salzmann: You, yourself, have been involved in this work for half a century.
De Salzmann: You’ve also helped hundreds of people to find their way in their search within themselves and also into a “real world,” as it is said. And in your heart, what would you say is there? In other words, what is the specificity of the teaching for you?
Segal: It’s to be related to the highest in one’s self. If one is capable of maintaining this relationship with this vibration, this other force, it will change the world as it changes the individual. It isn’t as if I will become a better painter or you will become a better physician in one great leap. But there will be another element brought into relationships and to one’s life.
Peter Brook: Can I pose Michel’s same question slightly differently? In what way is this a progressive teaching? Somebody arrives completely from the outside, having been touched remotely, deeply but without knowing why, and then that person enters into a process. As in every religion and teaching what in this work are the specific steps?
Segal: I would put it on a very down-to-earth basis. Here is a cup of tea. It serves its function. But with attention, with awareness, which is the bedrock of practice of every esoteric teaching, the range and the depth of impressions increases to a remarkable extent. I think that I was prepared to appreciate this specificity of the Gurdjieff teaching because of my early training as a journalist and a painter. I knew that if one could just look, a whole world comes into being. And from that point of view the inner world of one’s self begins to play a part in one’s everyday activities.
De Salzmann: Yes, and to come back again to the same question, that of self-remembering. You placed it at a very high level. The Supreme Identity, so to say. And at the same time, to reach that, there is a start, a self-remembering that is already meaningful in the beginning. And one sees this sort of progression that Peter speaks of. The steps are of self-remembering, so to speak.
Segal: I believe that self-remembering should be looked at from the view of different levels. There is a simple awareness. I know I am sitting in a chair. You and I are speaking. And then there is a widening, an inclusion of the body, of the atmosphere, of the surroundings, so that the impressions are richer. There is another dimension which begins to be added to our relationship. This relationship with this inner, (I call it the Savior), the center of God, the center of a higher element. When that is present, there is an opening towards a richer, freer relationship with one’s self, with others, with the world. I think we move towards our destiny as human beings when this relationship exists. Otherwise, I am dependent on a brain, the feelings, the body, the different minds and centers in my organism. But when this relationship is made, when one is able to include the other, another dimension enters. . . .
Brook: When I first heard of the work, they had a method called “the method.” First it was called “the method,” then “the system,” then “the teaching,” then “the Work.” It’s clear there is a very delicate balance between “methods” and the step by step progression towards the state when it is possible quite simply to hold a cup of tea and look at another person. How do you see the Work as a teaching?
Segal: From my present point of view, I see the immensity of the Work and its implications for the world. But the actual nuts and bolts practice is to be as present as one can at each moment. It’s Gurdjieff’s “remembering one’s self” and Zen Buddhism’s “every minute Zen.” They’re not very far apart. But there is no guarantee that there will be a leap to the other relationship. Gurdjieff’s teaching has one wonderful advantage in that it includes different sides of the human psyche. For some people, movements, for example, are very necessary. For some people it’s necessary to approach and to see the implications of the teaching through the mind. There are many different approaches in the Gurdjieff way, but always there’s a movement towards greater awareness. Any serious follower of the Gurdjieff teaching will arrive at that. . . .
De Salzmann: Your deep knowledge of Zen Buddhism, your friendship with many roshis and your frequent stays in Japan, all this goes well with the Gurdjieff teaching?
Segal: Yes. When Mr. Gurdjieff died, I was a friend of the Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki. He gave me letters of introduction to six different Zen monasteries and said “If you are really interested, here are the letters. Go there and stay as long as you want.” I felt the Zen people had something that we didn’t have. On the other hand, as I became more and more friendly with the different Zen masters, I saw the great respect they had for the Gurdjieff teaching and for Mme. de Salzmann’s way of conducting Mr. Gurdjieff’s work after he died. Almost unanimously, the Zen masters I knew were especially interested in the Gurdjieff movements, if they knew about them. Suzuki and I went to several movement films and classes together. He said, “You know, Zen and Gurdjieff are very close.” Speaking subjectively, being an American, I’m negative on robes and ceremonies. I respond very much to Gurdjieff’s approach of, “I’m just a doctor or I’m just a carpenter, I’m just a bus conductor. Meanwhile, I’m doing my meditation in life while I conduct this bus.” So, that part of it appealed to me, the indirect practice that is taking place if one really practices the Gurdjieff work. We’re at the point, though, Michel, Peter, where it’s really up to us to see what comes out of this deeper relationship with the inner world.
De Salzmann: I wonder, is there a rigor, and what is it, the rigor of the Work of Gurdjieff?
Segal: The rigor of the Work is to be continuously listening, listening to another vibration while going about one’s everyday activities. That’s the real rigor for me. It’s not movements, and it’s not groups and it’s not the writing of pamphlets or books. It’s the capacity to encompass the inner world, which we have very little knowledge of, and the everyday world. The world of form and the formless.
De Salzmann: How does this capacity, so essential, develop?
Segal: I think the Gurdjieff method can serve your wishes. There’s a balance that’s as effective as we can have in the ambiance of our present civilization. I believe the average citizen of the western world is in a bad spot. He’s harassed by many things. All he can do is to take in so much at a time, by going to groups, going against oneself, trying as one knows in one’s own way to remember one’s self, to be aware, to practice sensation, and so on. All these ways may seem slow and indirect, but I think they will eventually lead one to the brink where you leap over the precipice and you make your own discovery. Eventually the teacher is in one’s self. . . .
De Salzmann: It’s about forty years ago that you met Mr. Gurdjieff. You were engaged in worldly action. What did you learn from this meeting?
Segal: This is a question which is frequently asked. In all candor, I would say that the most important thing I learned from Mr. Gurdjieff was in the Turkish bath.
De Salzmann: How?
Segal: He had a custom of going regularly to the Turkish bath accompanied by several of the older men. To this day I remember the picture of Mr. Gurdjieff, walking in the atmosphere of steam. It was from his back, from the way he walked that I learned something. Which, perhaps is not possible to explain. Something of the true nature of an enlightened person if you wish. But not in those words at all. Some time ago in Japan I paid a visit to the widow of an old Roshi friend of mine, Kobori. The new Roshi was there and I asked him the question, more or less the way you asked me, “What did you learn from your master? How do you know that you will be capable of carrying on the teaching of Roshi Kobori?” He turned his back and said, “When I’m able to impart the teaching with my back.” I was struck by the curious similarity of Mr. Gurdjieff’s back imparting teaching in the West and this Roshi saying the same thing.
De Salzmann: What he said is wonderful.
Segal: It’s a strange coincidence. But, of course studying the ideas of Gurdjieff and verifying them through one’s own experience is essential. It always struck me that there was something quite different about Mr. Gurdjieff. After all, he didn’t say anything. But to me, directly, he said a great deal through his Work. So, it must be that he had a relationship with his inner world that was so strong, that it emanated, reached and touched others. . . .
De Salzmann: You say that what makes a man is the capacity of his questioning.
De Salzmann: You said, “Who am I?”
De Salzmann: And one could see that when someone had a question, maybe not as deep as that one but in the direction of that one, this is when Gurdjieff was really glad. Hearing that in a person. In other ways, giving attention to the person and letting him feel that this was right, that he was touching something true.
Segal: Yes. Of course, when one thinks of it, isn’t it the most absorbing question that a human being can have? To know what we’re here for. One can choose to be a banker or teacher, but the question for a human being that’s the most absorbing one is, who are we? It’s a fascinating study. Why do we go into art, music and poetry? Why are we interested in all the things that make up the human existence? Love, eating, drinking. Inevitably they are all directed, I believe, towards the question of who we really are.
De Salzmann: What I want to say is that what makes a man is his ability to question himself. And when someone at Mr. Gurdjieff’s table really did that in front of him, you would see him smile with a special kindness emanating from him, because an authentic question had arisen. Really, that is what sustained him the most.
In a further conversation William Segal was asked about his role in the introduction of “sittings” as part of the Gurdjieff Work.
James George: I was going to ask you, to start with, about your role in helping the introduction of sitting as part of our Work. This needs clarification for posterity, and you might like to comment on the sameness and the difference between traditional sittings say, in a Zen-do, and a Gurdjieff sitting.
Segal: My view is that Mme. de Salzmann, in an effort to help the sittings become truly effective, took a most indirect approach. In first introducing the sittings to Group One, for example, she refrained from announcing that any formal or structured sittings were taking place. We gathered together and she would speak of the importance of correct physical posture. She would make comments as to the necessity of relaxing and so on. At no time, as I recall, were sittings as meditation labeled as such.
So this was a very indirect introduction to the idea of sittings. After a while, we realized that sittings needed some guidance, especially for people unfamiliar with them. She provided the guidance in the form of taking our mind off the “self-conscious sitting.” In other words, we find today that in many people who take up meditation, there’s a self-conscious element that interferes with a true sitting.
I think sittings often take into account the outer forms, but a true sitting is very difficult. A true sitting, in my estimation, would be a choiceless seeing of what is taking place as moment by moment passes. A true sitting means an unflagging attention coming from a still place in oneself. There’s no judgment, no grasping. There’s no wishing even, just sitting. I don’t suppose that in this respect our sittings differ very much from what advanced Zen meditations would be.
Perhaps the difference between Zen and Gurdjieff sittings lies in our recognition that people need guidance. The mind needs a little help in being tethered. One speaks of being able to stop thoughts and control the mind, but this is very difficult. So while the attention is on the words of the guide—the man or the woman guiding the sitting—there is less tendency for the mind to run off.
I would say that, apart from the guided element, there’s not much difference in sittings of the Gurdjieff people and the Zen people.
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Featured: Fall 2003 Issue, Vol. VII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2003