Gurdjieff International Review

Dorothea Dooling

David Ulrich


ith great respect, fondness, and gratitude, I often reflect upon D.M. Dooling, my group leader and teacher in the Gurdjieff Work for nearly twenty years. She was known by us as “Mrs. Dooling,” or later, the more familiar, “Doro.” A direct student of Gurdjieff from 1942 until Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, Mrs. Dooling led the groups in Boston, of which I was an active part, from 1973 until her death in 1991.

Each of the direct students of Gurdjieff embodied the teaching by showing evidence of the experiential light of presence and each had distinctive gifts through which they explored and transmitted Gurdjieff’s teaching. What touched me deeply about Mrs. Dooling and inspired and challenged my inner work repeatedly was her incisive and wide-ranging mind, ever in search of a living truth. Her thought was sharp and luminous, many angled and dimensional, capable of cutting through non-truth, and both reflecting and focusing the light of understanding.

Ellen Reynard, Mrs. Dooling’s daughter, wrote that Doro’s doctor described her as a woman of “appropriate passion,” and that “throughout her life, she expressed this passion in her relentless quest for understanding.”[1]

At the age of 65, Mrs. Dooling served as the founding editor of Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition, a quarterly journal that explores singular questions and ideas through the lens of the world’s great wisdom traditions. She was also very active with writing and translating Work texts for the Gurdjieff Foundation. Ellen Reynard recently compiled and edited a comprehensive selection of Mrs. Dooling’s writings and talks, published under the title of The Paths I Found.[2]

During “work-days” in Boston, when group members would assemble to participate in crafts, household maintenance, and other activities, all necessary for helping us in translating the Work ideas into daily life, most members of Group One would retire with Mrs. Dooling to a meeting room and explore ideas. At first, I sorely missed the chance to engage in physical activities with other group members, but later recognized the unique opportunity that Doro offered: to engage the craft of thinking, and moreover, the powerful work of thinking together.

The sharpness and discipline of her mind was tempered by much emotional warmth. Quick to smile with an easy laugh, she dispelled the common notion that followers of Gurdjieff are a humorless lot. With a conspiratorial glance, Doro made us feel special, a part of something, as she ushered us into her sphere of exploratory, expansive thought. This same feeling of powerfully looking at a question together carried through all of the issues of Parabola in which she had a guiding hand.

Mrs. Dooling would raise different questions, often ones that mirrored upcoming themes in Parabola, such as wholeness, attention, creativity, addiction, relationships, family, and trinity, as well as discussions of the aim and direction of the Boston groups. She had the uncanny ability to engender deeper thought and, with a stern yet generous and warm discipline, remind us when we were responding in formulaic ways or attempting to answer a question rather than opening it towards greater inquiry and understanding. Through Doro, I learned to live with the uncomfortable ambiguity of leaving a question open, of seeking kernels of understanding, all the while recognizing that we stood on the edge of the abyss, that our unknowing far surpassed our knowing. In this state of unknowing, we learned to find insight and inner direction to our thought, and we learned to respect the immensity of a living universe that our minds alone were too small to grasp. Through trying to stay in the body, and exploring ideas with the feelings as well as the mind, we learned to touch moments of our potential wholeness. She trusted the mind as an instrument. By encouraging us to try to feel and sense and think all at once, she supported our search for our individuality and human possibility: the unification of our triadic intelligence of heart, body, and mind.

She wrote: “Gurdjieff taught that there is another quality of mind, a real vision, that is accessible to us—but not without effort. It seems it cannot be attained without the participation of real feeling and real presence. Then understanding appears that is of a different nature, and attitudes and perceptions change and widen. This new understanding accepts the question, accepts its own unknowing and inability to know, accepts that it is not the place of the part to comprehend the whole. It rejoices in the hugeness of what it can never reach at the same time that it weeps because it can never reach it. Gurdjieff’s teaching is for those who can truly face this paradox.”[3]

As a young photography professor, I took cues from my teacher, Minor White, and would often bring tools and exercises into the classroom derived from both the Zen tradition and the Gurdjieff Work. Doro would relentlessly take me (and Minor) to task with this practice by raising the question: “What serves what?” “What is lower should always stand in service of what is higher, not the other way around,” she said with great force and conviction. “What is higher should never be ‘used’ to serve lower ends.” Indeed, I observed many students opening to luminous understanding, while others faced inner places of darkness and difficulty—with insufficient preparation to handle the consequences of working with genuine esoteric tools. At the time, I did not understand the right inner relationship of forces. If we look at Doro’s question deeply, it resonates in so many ways. Our lives and pursuits can serve our search and nourish our wish, rather than using the Work to better our life conditions. I now employ the teaching of photography to assist students to come closer to home, to themselves and their authenticity, and to employ the medium to engage a work towards wholeness, relevant for any belief system.

Doro frequently emphasized the idea of levels: that we seek to serve the higher, and it—or God or the angels—descends toward a receptivity in us to make its action known on earth in the form of a wisdom that can manifest itself through us. Any wisdom or intuition that we are privileged to receive is not for ourselves alone, not for feeding the ego. As she put it: “Without an intuition of the same laws acting, echoing, and re-echoing on different levels, ‘self-knowledge’ and ‘work on oneself’ are reduced to the plane of ‘self-improvement’—‘more’ and ‘better’ of the same thing. Transformation, actual change of being, which is the goal of all true teachings, is forgotten.”[4]

Doro prepared us well for the time soon to come, marked by the inevitable passing of all the direct students of Gurdjieff. By contemplating ideas together and striving towards presence in listening and speaking, moments of deeper understanding can descend through the collective atmosphere. The group itself, composed of different personalities possessing various kinds of knowledge and expertise, but all engaged in a common search, can become the teacher. I will never forget her emphasis on the fact that as human beings we stand between different levels, partaking in both the upward aspirational current and the downward, involutionary passage of forces. In reference to the vast energies of creation, she was prone to say, “I am a part of it; and it is a part of me.”

I remember a lunch with the Boston group several years before she died, when Mrs. Dooling addressed those assembled at the table, maybe forty of us, all core members of the group. She was speaking again of levels, an idea she explored in many ways. She commented that, in her estimation, one of the principal maladies of modernity related to how we bring everything—great ideas, cosmological truths, wisdom teachings—down to our own level so that our narrow, limited mindsets can grasp their meaning, rather than reaching upward and standing in front of our unknowing, facing a question that is too large for our current understanding.

She then made a prescient comment that, over the years, I have come to recognize as holding much truth and indeed many challenges for my generation. She said with obvious feeling: “It has not been my fate to have to deal with the inevitable dilution of these ideas in my lifetime.” She then looked at us intently, and said, “It will be your fate.” □

David Ulrich is a professor and co-director of Pacific New Media Foundation in Honolulu. A photographer and writer, his photographs have been exhibited internationally and he is the author of several books as well as a consulting editor for Parabola magazine.

[1] Draper, Ellen Dooling. “Focus.” Parabola XVII, No. 1: NY, February 1992.

[2] Reynard, Ellen Dooling. The Paths I Found, forthcoming from The South Forty Press.

[3] Dooling, Dorothea. “The Ladder of Evolution.” Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching, edited by Needleman/Baker, NY: Continuum, 1996.

[4] Ibid.


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Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: August 20, 2020