BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Watching others' searching ...

I guess I always need to learn things the hard way. A year or two back, when I'd been attending talks at the local Gurdjieff Foundation, I got into a discussion about the ever-expanding number of Fourth Way books out there, and was steered away from most on principle … in that the majority of these “new” books were things that had never been intended for publication by their initial authors. However, their descendants (personal and organizational) saw these materials as having a certain market value, and had been variously going to print with them. Despite this warning (a very clear example of this is the recent collection of Madame de Salzmann's journals), I've have plowed through a handful … with little to show for it.

Like the de Salzmann book, John Pentland's Exchanges Within: Questions from Everyday Life (material “Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California 1955-1984”), there is a sense of inappropriate voyeurism here. In the former, one has the “dirty” feel of having snuck off with someone's diary, and in this, well, it's a bit like going over security tapes (I hate to think of what was on the parts preserved from these meetings that did not make the cut for being “selected” for the book). Interestingly (to me, at least), both of these books were very difficult to slog through … with my nodding off constantly while attempting to read them (this took me nearly nine months to finish … a brutally slow pace), indicating something – I'm not sure if it's avoidance, or simply the lack of any “arc” across the material making it hard to keep up with.

Lord Pentland (actually Henry John Sinclair – of, I take it, those Sinclairs), had encountered the teachings of P.D. Ouspensky in his 20's, and spent the next couple of decades working quite closely with the Ouspenskys, even living in Madame Ouspensky's houses in the UK and America. Following Ouspensky's death (and a journey to India), he was introduced to Gurdjieff, and worked with him quite closely over the last year of Gurdjieff's life (1949). Remarkably (in that he was only a recent student), Pentland was tapped to head the Gurdjieff Foundation by Madame de Salzmann when it was established in New York in 1953, and he was President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California from 1955 on.

I was unable to ascertain the exact situation in which the material of Exchanges Within was accumulated … I have to assume that these sessions were tape-recorded and later transcribed, as “live” transcription (ala a court reporter) would have been quite an undertaking, as well as a significant distraction. In any case, this volume covers the period from the establishment of the California foundation in 1955 to Pentland's death in 1984. The book is in three sections, 1955-1968, 1961-1977, and 1977-1984 (and, no, I don't have any idea why there's that over-lap between parts one and two). In these are chapters which contain from three to well over a dozen exchanges on particular topics, in the form of a person raising a question, and Pentland discussing the subject.

Again, the feel here is quite voyeuristic … and somewhat without context. The vast majority of the questions are individuals wrestling with some aspect of The Work or another, but with very little information on what they're doing, how much they've studied, etc. … and in most cases Pentland simply acts as a counselor, helping them to maybe re-frame what they're doing … and perhaps provide actual teaching regarding that issue. The following is one such exchange, from fairly early on:
QUESTION: In asking myself the question of who I am, it was as though I saw some symbolic representations through glass, having the feeling I am power, I am will.
LORD PENTLAND: Not wrong. But not satisfactory. We all have experiences that we can call of a higher kind – the question is how do I act towards such experiences? It is what Gurdjieff's teaching is all about. These pose a question. What is the meaning of such experience in my life? Most of us don't face this question. We collect experiences like butterflies and pin them in a book and at the end have only a book of dead insects.
      Gurdjieff says man could be able to feel a relationship with everything around him, could actually be a part, play a part, of the surroundings. We see in respect to such experiences that we try to catch them, prize them. After a time, there is a satisfaction in having experiences – getting, then not understanding them – because experiences prove we are linked with something higher. We must understand our ordinary functions, which lead us to catching these experiences and pinning them in a book.
This is one of the more accessible/useful exchanges … the initial question is reasonably coherent (many of these are “whiny”, dealing with various things the person's not able to do or has not been able to achieve), and the response is pretty straight forward … and there isn't any follow-up (frequently these float into a back-and-forth between Pentland and the questioner). Here Pentland deflects the ego-enhancing elements of the question and steers the attention to the dynamics of what one does with these. Many are no where near at this level … as an example:
QUESTION: I have a great opposition to being present. It seems like there's something that's stronger in myself that creates this feeling of “Don't be present, don't be present.” It seems like my flying around with my imagination is a lot more fun.
Unfortunately, much of the book is Pentland taking this sort of thing and trying to turn it into something constructive (in this case he ended up doing several paragraphs about “attention”).

At one point, very late in the book, Pentland does something that I really wish he'd done all throughout ...he takes a question (which was a long paragraph of prattling navel-gazing) and turns it into a chance to do some serious exposition on The Work … several pages of really awesome focused text addressing key concepts … here's how it starts:
I would like to take advantage of your question and say something about the work on intention, which doesn't seem to have been brought into the work of the groups enough here, in my opinion. I think the work on self-observation is the best starting point and has been more or less received by all of you as the starting point for this work, and although there's a lot further to go in order that the idea of studying myself and observing myself might become fixed in me as an attitude, and although it's probably still not apparent to all of you how this idea of self-observation underlies the whole of the work as presented in In Search of the Miraculous, and even is constantly being referred to, both literally and metaphorically, in Beelzebub's Tales, still the work of self-observation and, beyond that, of receiving impressions of ourselves, hasn't been adequately brought into view.
... which is followed with a highly cogent detailing of things such as shocks at intervals in the octave, etc. I really, really, wish this book was more of that, than “peeping in the window” at the author helping to steer individuals along paths that are not ours, and for which we have very little info!

There is a lot of very interesting instructions dealing with The Work in here, but it's presented in such a manner that one has to sieve and sieve and sieve to find what is generally applicable out of what is specific to the individual questioner's situation. It is certainly an interesting document from the era following the deaths of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, but one feels like a investigator going through innumerable hours of traffic camera videos, looking for particular pedestrians (or some such) while reading this.

If you are interested in getting a copy of Exchanges Within this is a very good time as, while it is still in print (and so should be available from your local esoteric book seller), the on-line big boys have it (at this writing) for a whopping 79% off of cover price! I got my copy from the new/used vendors, but this is an awesome deal if it sounds like something you'd want to check out.

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Tags: book review
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