Sunday 12 August 2018

Letter to Mr. Gurdjieff

Last week the upcoming Dark Mountain: Issue 14 on place and belonging went to Bracketpress to be typeset and designed. After months of forging its pages and the new sparkly website, I am finally posting an essay I wrote for the spring journal, set in the Wyre Forest in the depths of the winter solstice (in very different weather!).

‘I teach that when it rains the pavements get wet.’
Dear Mr. Gurdjieff – I don’t know why exactly I am writing to you today in the stillness of midwinter, except the sound of your name came, like a train whistle, pulling me into the kitchen where I first heard it:


I am standing on a Navajo rug looking at one of Peter’s paintings, tens of thousands of coloured dots on a long vertical canvas, and behind me, Carmen is lighting a Mexican votive candle as she did each evening on her return from Cochise County Library.

‘Gurdjieff taught we were bombarded by the influences of the planets, pulled in all directions by cosmic forces inside ourselves, and we needed to be able to handle them.’

And now, here in this darkness in an English forest, years later, watching the sparks of a midwinter fire fly up into the canopy, dressed in a black overcoat and a hat covered in oak leaves, I felt an urgent desire to recall everything I knew about you.

I wasn’t interested in your complex cosmic system then, but I liked Carmen’s stories about you: how you would send your students into restaurants and instruct them to leave without paying, how you gleefully went about stepping on everyone’s corns. I liked that you drank and made everyone else drink and cook and dance. ‘Everything in the Universe is material!’ you said about your worldly practice, a method of self-transformation in ordinary life, made famous by the mathematician and thinker, P.D. Ouspensky, as The Fourth Way. Carmen was part of a Gurdjieff group that had been running in the hills above Tucson for years: she played your compositions on her grand piano in the old miner’s hotel, and tried to dance your sacred steps, until she twisted her knee and had to stop.

‘I am too rigid!’ she would wail and didn’t sound too pleased about the  metaphor. On the Day of the Dead she would bake three small cakes, pan de los muertos, for her Three Gs: you, George her old mentor, and God. She wasn’t pleased with any of you either and battled with all of your pronouncements and demands for a spiritual life. Sometimes I would find her pushing a broom with an intense look in her eyes. ‘I am focused on the task,’ she would say. I raised my eyebrows. I was not into gurus, and still am not into gurus, or temples, or being a follower of anything or anyone. Sometimes I’ve avoided the transmission – or thought I have – in my own annoyance with humans grovelling at the feet of great holy masters and their emissaries.

When we returned from America at the turn of the millennium, we found ourselves without direction in a place where we knew no-one, and during that first winter we stoked up the fire each evening with elm and birch wood and read the whole of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. It was a long book, over a thousand pages. Mark read out loud, I listened, the fire roared in the grate.

‘We have to make ourselves at home’, I said. ‘We have to start again.’

Being Effort is required.

You see, even though that was 15 years ago and I no longer have your books, I can remember the language, its strange and yet familiar terms, how they helped us do what seemed impossible at the time. Here by another fire, in the dead of winter, I felt I needed to make an account.Only this time it’s not personal. Perhaps it never was – I just didn’t see it at the time, wrapped up in my own seeming exile and grief. It had felt like the end of the world.

Bobbin-kandelnost – the force that exists in the three centres ofthinking, feeling and moving within the self; that acts like a coiledspring and can lose momentum and run out by overuse (see also‘Die like Dog’).
You wrote that three-brained beings don’t want to wake up to the terror of the situation, the realisation we are all asleep and stuck in automatic behaviours, our minds and personalities all over the place, reacting to outside events and never coming from within. The book, the ‘First Series’ of your All and Everything trilogy, opens with a description of a bellringer in a town, who curses the populace each morning as he climbs out of bed, so that their curses would deflect away from his work in the belltower. No one wants to wake up, get out of bed, do the thing they are supposed to do, to be a live conscious being in a difficult time. Fewer still want to ring that bell.

You wrote your masterpiece in the twenties, as the world rocked towards the Depression. You had arrived in Paris with the mass psychosis of the Russian revolution at your heels. People may say, with the clarity and dispassion of historians: well, it wasn’t so hard then to be awake, there was less to consider planetarily speaking. But it is always hard, the burning issues of the day are always the burning issues of the day, whether the spectre of another war in Europe or a climate catastrophe. You can be awake to that moment in the way poets in the trenches and gulags were awake, you can sacrifice yourself nobly to a cause to change the destiny of people, or you can be awake and not comply with the orders to stay asleep. You can embody an intrinsic inner move that can break the machine.

There is a moment in the Tales that struck me: you are sitting in the Paris cafe, where you are writing in several notebooks, dressed in a vanilla-coloured overcoat and a red fez. There is a bottle of brandy on the table and you are surrounded by the clatter of cups and knives and forks to hone your  mentation, your absolute focus on the matter at hand, as you turn your Saturnian face, with its drooping moustache, towards a woman greeting a group of friends. You suddenly see this scene at the table played over and over through time, through every civilisation and city, and still here the same petty relationships, the rivalries, the posturings of society, the things that take up the minds and hearts of people and no progress made at all, in spite of everything that has been said over and over again by poets, by mystics, by philosophers, by you.

Bored Secretary – the challenge of thwarting the associative mind that goes into the mental filing cabinets for facts or trivia; the pursuit of busyness out of superficiality and lack of rigour.
Most people remember the dramas and the gossip: whether you were or were not the last magus of Europe, or a carpet dealer and charlatan who slept with your students, whether your teaching really did come from the ancient Sarmoung Brotherhood in the Hindukush; or they mention your famous quarrel with Ouspensky, or how Katherine Mansfield died in your care at Le Prieuré, and a string of anecdotes and quotes and photographs of people in white tunics in elegant dance salons.

I am not a storyteller, I told Lucy and the women as they melted into the darkness tonight. I come from a line of engineers and lawyers, I have a forensic mind and love of structure. We have come here to initiate a network that will connect the women and the trees of these islands. It is a bold project. I know what needs to happen won’t take the shape of a narrative that we might already know, that to change really, truly, deeply, we have to let go of all those happy-ever-after stories of romantic love, of reconciliation and redemption. We need a rigorous practice that will break us open. A shock that will push us in another direction.

Your esoteric teachings were all about the musical scale and though I know now how your name should be pronounced (Gurrr-jeff, gruffly like a Russian bear), I cannot pretend to know their intricate meanings, any more than I understood how all those dots related in Peter’s painting. Yet the impression of a cosmic map remained, and one point shone outward  like a star you might recognise in the night sky: there is a stage as you increase your knowledge and practice and ascend the scale, where something has to come in from the outside to boost your inner transformation.

These encounters come but we are not ready for them, or they knock us over, or we forget to make the move. I thought I would never get over my exile from that desert place, from Carmen’s kitchen, from my life on the road – so I put a hand out and found a book and that’s when you came in with your convoluted metaphors, with your rants about tinned food, with your strange vocabulary, part-Armenian, part-English, part-Russian, for a transmission that I was open to without even knowing I was open to it.

I was born six years after you were buried in the Île-de-France, and the circumstances of my arising and my own nature would mean, even if I had been of your time, I would never have come to one of your packed lectures in New York, or danced a sacred dance in a white tunic, even with Carmen playing the piano. But here I am, having worked on self-pity and inner-considering and contending with everyone else’s. We still live in times of mass psychosis. The experts continue to wiseacre. The world is still asleep.

Being-Partkdolg-duty – twin methods of soul-making and waking up: conscious labours (also known as being effort) and intentional-suffering, the greatest of which is the ability to endure the ‘displeasing-manifestations-of-others-towards-yourselves’.
This wood is made up mostly of coppiced oak trees. An industrial forest in the 18th and 19th  centuries, the Wyre sits between the green hills of  Wales and the manufacturing sprawl of the Midlands. Sooty-faced charcoal burners once built great pyres in the clearings and made the charcoal that fuelled the iron forges of Birmingham, the smelters of a revolution that would rock the world. Until the discovery of coal, only the high temperatures of charcoal could melt the metal, and even now it is the favoured fuel of blacksmiths and sword makers.

Now the wood has become a neglected monoculture of oak trees, some streaked black with disease, with no space for them to branch out or for other trees to grow. They are sleeping, the curator said when I arrived, and told me his plans for restoration. Except for the yews. The yews stand there like red-armed sentinels from another time, some of them over 800 years old. When the snows came this winter, herds of deer sheltered underneath the white roof oftheir branches. This morning I stood in their hoofprints and listened to the rain fall quietly around me, listening out for an ancestral tale I might tell around this fire that might spark another kind of revolution.

Charcoal makers lived in the woods in shacks, feared and despised as ‘the devil’s men’. The work was hard and long and dangerous. They built up a pile of logs and covered it with soil and turf. The process took days and sometimes weeks. The gases produced were highly toxic and still are where Charcoal is now made, mostly illegally, for modern barbeques, in the forests of Africa and South America. The work for the women in the forest was also hard, as they stripped the bark from the coppiced trees for the tanning of leather.

The sparks in the fire come from old spruce fence posts and some birch, but mostly felled oak, where they are making space for other things to flourish here. ‘Who are we doing it for?’ asked the curator. For the nature lover who values butterflies, for the runner who likes to run along a straight path, for the forester who likes good long planks for carpenters to work with, for the charities who own it to make it pay its way when the subsidies run out, which they will surely do someday soon?

When you don’t know what to do or what you are doing life for, you build a fire, and you wait for something to spark you alight again. We are in the time of the winter solstice, the day that breaks the circle of the year, between its last outward breath and the first inward pull of air: the place of no breath.

After your first car crash, at the point when Le Prieuré, your school in Fontainebleau, was faltering, you pushed everyone aside and went into the forest and made up a great fire, and for days you sat in front of it. The fire remade you.

How heated do things have to become until we can reforge ourselves,to work the iron in our soul? If we fed the fire all our stories, everything we needed to die to, could we reforge the world into a different shape?

Inner Considering – the act of chewing over incidents which you feel guilty about or wish had been otherwise; to be replaced by outward expression (see also ‘Remorse of Conscience’).
What you need, above all, is the courage to face the terror that feels like annihilation. There are almost no words to describe that feeling because it is happening in a place that no one has working words for: as if you are being crushed by air or engulfed by flames that devour your memory; as if you are being dragged downwards into a pit and a force is sucking all the awareness and sweetness out of you.

When I returned I needed a techne to restore myself. I fed the fire my travelling story: I fed it my capacity to love a certain place on Earth that felt like home, my capacity to love certain people, my companions. These things wouldn’t happen again in my lifetime. Afterwards I found myself in another position, holding the reins of a carriage in my hands.

To get our horse and carriage into shape was core to your teaching. In order to behave like a human being, rather than a machine, we had to gather our wits about us and become fully conscious. The horse was our emotional body, the driver our mind, and the carriage our physical body. Only when these three parts of ourselves were working together could the passenger alight. Not to hail us occasionally like a hackney cab, but to be fully on board.

The techne of consciousness is hard, on-the-edge work. You have to persuade the horse not to bolt at every turn, you have to instruct the driver to have a feel for the horse and the bumpy road ahead. The
carriage needs to be roadworthy, kept in good nick. These three parts of ourselves need to work together. Otherwise we are not able to carry the passenger.

Who is the passenger? It is our conscious awake self, our spirit, our intelligence. The ‘being-I’ who knows what is going on and what we are doing together in this English forest, as the longest night holds us in its embrace and the owls call to each other from the canopy.

In those desert years I had climbed down and worked with the horse. I had become a whisperer of my own feeling being. We are held hostage by our feelings and, like the nervous, imaginative creature who has borne us loyally all these years, remember every blow received, so that when we see a shape we associate it with a dark presence we once knew, we rear up, or we refuse to move. Somehow, we have to unlearn all that fear and trust the driver. The driver has to walk beside the horse, repair her will which has been broken over thousands of years.

I let the horse lead me to regions that were not on the map: to reclaim my heart lost in childhood nightmares, into the forgotten kingdoms of trees and birds and sea to recover my place on Earth.  Most seekers focus on the driver and become too controlling, hampering the horse with bridle and whip; others work on the carriage, becoming obsessed with paint and cogs and springs. But I knew we go nowhere in the land of fire without the horse.

Mr. Self-Love and Mrs. Vanity – self-importance; twin attributes of self-obsession which lock human beings inside themselves and prevent influences both bad and good from entering (to be distinguished from the Self Love of essence which brings freedom– see Life is Only Real Then When I Am).
 The moment of solstice is exact. The pause between the expiration of the year and its great inhalation. There are ancient stories I can tell about this moment, how the oak changes place with the holly tree, the robin with  the wren, how in my country in the east, the men with blackened faces come over the marsh holding firebrands, and the women with hats draped with ivy, who back them playing the music of fife and drum. The dance is slow and heavy, their boots stamping the earth awake, the sticks clash and click like antlers, like flint against flint.

But most of all this is a techne for showing that life can begin again, so  long as we relinquish  everything we know in this moment of no breath, so long as we can admit none of us know what is going to happen or how. The techne comes through the mouths of people you don’t even respect, or a book that falls into your hands in a second-hand store that you open without knowing why.

Or now, as I find myself clicking two sticks of rainforest wood Aurelia gave me that spring night in Oaxaca for a performance we called the Earth Medicine Show. As she drummed and Mark sang, I danced and Julianne told us her heart that had frozen over in the Minneapolis winter had suddenly melted, and afterwards the five of us went out to dinner arm-in-arm to the square. That rooftop performance was our first and our last, and even though we rehearsed and talked about it for years, only now do I understand that it wasn’t the right time for shows. My carriage was robust but the horse was too nervy, the driver prone to flights of fancy. My eye was not on the road.

I don’t like to think that every radical move I’ve made in these years has been caused by outer shocks’. To be inwardly free – the ultimate goal  of Gurjieffian thinking – you have to transform the world’s hostilities and not submit to them. Because I was thrown out of America, because I underwent my own financial katabasis and had to face the reality of the job centre, because I had to suffer, more-or-less consciously, the ‘nullities emitting atmospheres of unendurable vibrations’ telling me I was worthless, knew nothing, or ignoring me entirely, I am here now dancing by the fire.

Self-calming – an act of deception we practice to pretend everything is all right when it is not; false assurances that prevent reality from being perceived.
When I think of you now I see your flat in Paris, where you spent your last years with the curtains drawn. For some reason I imagine it is one of those ateliers, with a crammed larder of jars and sausages swinging from hooks, though it was probably grander than that. You have given up on the world you say and now only teach a small band of women, mostly lesbians, called The Rope. When the Occupation is over you host great dinners and toast the idiots with glasses of vodka. You insist that everyone has to read your work at least three times to understand it.

I don’t know the 17 kinds of idiot you need to be totally awake (what is a round idiot, a square idiot?). It took me a long time to realise that an idiot was not an idiot, but that in different moments of awakening you appear like an idiot to everyone else in the status quo, to your family, to your best friend, to your culture and nation and history, that to be ready for the passenger to hail you is a great and noble task because you are doing it for the forest and the deer, and all who flourish under their branches. That is no small thing.

I have been a compassion idiot, a seeker idiot, a relinquishment idiot, a community activist idiot, a real democracy idiot. At each turn I imagined that if everyone woke up, got conscious, the world would turn around. Even though when I go to the city (which is not often) it looks as though we have become more like automatons than ever, our attention captured by small lit-up screens. And then I remember that this Earth is a chance to start again and, every year, time gives us that possibility, this moment.

In many ways I too have closed my curtains on the world and stocked up my larder. I have spent too much time chasing Mrs. Serious Problem (as you called the demands on you to secure funds) and the book I wanted to write is unfinished. But one thing you learn from being a writer: you are good at waiting, you are good at holding out, you can weather the moment of no breath, knowing that one day the spark will happen, the sentences will tumble out, and that they are only good if the form of their creator is newly-smelted. You wait for a long time, until the fire is hot enough to burn you without consuming you, to suck the moisture and then the oxygen out of you.

You wait for the opportunity, and when it arrives you toast all the idiots you have met whose common presences have helped shaped you, put the reins back into your hands. You look at them across the table, on the other side of the fire, and you raise your glass:

Salut Carmen, salut Peter, salut Aurelia, salut Lucy, salut Mark, salut George Ivanovich!

Kundabuffer – invisible organ that controls perception and turns any encounter with a disturbing reality upside down; a force that prevents you from seeing the truth when the truth would cause you to lose hope; a filter that requires dismantling.
In 1918, women in Britain finally won the right to vote (though only if  you were a householder over the age of 30). In 1918, the young men of Britain did not return to the Forest from the trenches of Flanders. Those who survived went instead to work in the factories of the Black Country. In 1918, your father was shot amongst the throng in the Armenian genocide in your home city of  Alexandrapol, and, posing as a scientist, you left Essentuki with a band of family members, companions and pupils and walked through the Caucasus Mountains. It was the beginning of a long journey west that went through Georgia to Istanbul to Paris.

You wrote that humanity was at a standstill and that ‘from a standstill there is a straight path to downfall and degeneration’, that nothing pointed to our evolution. And 100 years later it seems women are no more emancipated than human beings are more evolved. We have the vote, some of us are kinder to animals and some of us realise the effect of our actions on the living planet – but as a species we appear to be as stupid, cruel and greedy as ever. Our technology has evolved but we are
less vigorous, less alive, more timid, more pursued by ghosts and the trauma of history through generations, at a standstill where we feel responsible for everything and nothing at all; where our key fault is still our passivity and suggestibility – our lack of ability to think for ourselves and to handle those forces that battle for supremacy inside and outside ourselves.

Our buffers allow us to say one thing and do another: we lament deforestation while sitting on teak chairs, lament the state of the ocean whilst eating its disappearing fish, we think we are enlightened because we have read books, and pretend the slave trade is over when it is worse than ever. We’re still stuck in patriarchy, in a dualist Babylonian mindset – the cause, you once said, of all wickedness in the world – and we continue to nurture the ‘artificial, the unreal, and what is foreign, at the cost of the natural, the real, and what is one’s own.’

But maybe a standstill is a place to start from. Maybe if we just stopped here together, sat with the disturbing reality of that fact, something  else would kick in. Maybe if we shifted out of our predilection for stories, away from our desire to grovel at the feet of shiny saviours and patriarchs, our obeisance to the genetic mummy-daddy-baby machine,our longing for the community to love us, to succeed, to be a star, to be left alone – maybe some awakening would happen.

We would need to go against nature and against god as you once said – not against the Great Nature of the glacier and the tiger but our own propensity for passivity and suggestibility; not the solar and cosmic forces but the violent gods we worship and pray to in blind faith, instead of engaging in The Work that would make us function at higher vibratory levels, and thus the world, that would break us out of the prisons of our mind and from all our gaolers. That could allow us to be grander and kinder and more intelligent than these small rooms allow us.

Solioonensius – a time of solar or planetary tension which energises the Earth so people strive for freedom – then turn that striving for freedom into war or revolution, into destruction; a time when old ideas can no longer move the world and new ideas have not yet gained momentum; when certain new directions can be implanted into general culture.
Sometimes I remember what lay outside Carmen’s kitchen and I can feel the blue sky arching forever, and the empty roads that go on forever, the way in late March the flowers of the ocotillo lick the air like the flames of epiphany, and the scent of chaparral permeating the world after the rain. How I used to feel with the women in Mexico, as we sat beside the water, our colours and laughter and fluidity. I remember the space and that feeling of freedom I can never sense in my own country. How this lightness, this liberation, is what we all look for and yet here we are on this crowded island, in this sleeping forest, my muddy lane with its power possessor driveways and toxic runoff from barley fields, threats of development on all sides. Dispossessed, precarious, unnecessary. This is the territory I have to wrestle and contend with after the hope-for-something died in the high deserts of America.

You have to make yourself matter, become an active agent in the fabric of the world. If you are versed in myth and story, in the beauty of the bird and the flower, it is easy to feel at home on the Earth, but being at home amongst your fellow human beings is a task once you forgo the lullabies and cradle songs of Empire, and awake to find a bell rope in your hands.

We wield great terms above our heads like axes – social justice, transformation, shift of consciousness, power of community – ready to split enemy heads apart with their force. But still we are asleep, reacting, neglecting The Work down among the people in the petty shops and tearooms, enduring the unbearable vibrations of the office bully, the personages that control the boardrooms and parliaments.

A network is not a community, I told the women. We stand on miles upon miles of mycelium networks, connecting the forest, nourishing the roots of all beings underground. The community gathers the people together round the fire, it looks inward. The further you are inside it the warmer and more connected you feel. Outside a cold wind blows and you push and jostle to be in the throng.

A network is not concerned with belonging. It is self-directed and interested in the connections it makes. It works outwardly, focused on the matter at hand. The more the network is resonant and alive, the stronger it feels. Living networks depend on living breathing plants and creatures and microbes that are everywhere around us. We are an industrialised, neglected wood – asleep – but there are networks communicating beneath our feet and ancient yews amongst us, and men who make space for other things to happen. And here a band of women unafraid of the dark, standing with the forests, with our sisters of the world, and one of us, remembering you, in the flicker of a fire.

And if time is the great mystery of these islands, of this Earth, we are surely not alone in this moment, in this time of destruction, because if we step into this ancestral moment, in the presence of all beings, all creatures, all trees though time, then this is the moment that things can turn around.

Outside, the Earth waits in the stillness, as glaciers crack and tigers move across the snowline, as the roots of everything are ready to stir in the cycle of the year. Of itself, Great Nature can do nothing to effect our change, except we awaken, open to the spark of the sun inside ourselves. Of itself, the sun can effect nothing, except that we allow it into our physical forms, let it mould our selves anew.

After the fire, I will follow the women back up the track to the barn, as we feel our way with our feet in the dark. Tomorrow we’ll get up at dawn, light the stove and move out into the orchard in silence. We will stand under dripping hazel trees at the edge of the Forest, with the apple trees in front of us and the oaks standing behind us, and pay attention to the moment. Somewhere deep in the forest a deer will wait underneath a yew tree, as she has waited since the Ice Age in these borderlands. The sun will rise, even though we will not see it through the cloud.

The light shifts imperceptibly and a hawk flashes past, its scimitar wings cut the air. We hold our breath.

All images from Dark Mountain: Issue 13: Rock art for cover by Caroline Ross; Stepping Out by Bruce Hooke; The Night You were Reborn into the Eternal Home by Ilyse Krivel.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13 is on sale here. 
Editorial for the issue (and other extracts can be found on on the Dark Mountain website)