I was seriously involved in the Gurdjieff Work in San Francisco for some 18 years. In “The Work,” as it was called (not to be confused with Byron Katie’s teachings), we worked with, among many other things, learning how to observe with absolute sincerity the energies and manifestations of mind, body, and emotions. And this work was not just a matter of listening to people speak, thinking about the teaching, and so on, but of actually testing our understanding and presence in the midst of intense activities with others, where, in fact, our corns were stepped on frequently. It wasn’t a matter of what we liked or didn’t like—in fact, Gurdjieff made clear that identification with our likes and dislikes was a big part of our inner slavery, our sleep. No, it was a matter of actually observing this process in action and, through these observations, discovering the power and clarity of consciousness itself. This was called self-observation. And the teacher did not just speak beautiful words and express great ideas while we listened (though that did happen), but also put us to the test in many ways. What was at stake was not just our mind but our entire being. Perhaps this little story will help convey a sense of what I mean.
I had been involved with the San Francisco Gurdjieff Foundation for three or four years, and I had gone to New York from San Francisco to take part in some special work activities there: group meetings, sacred dances, meditation, physical labor, and much more. Lord Pentland, who had worked with both P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff and was the president of the New York Gurdjieff Foundation, invited me to his home outside the city before the organized events began, as he often did. When I arrived, he immediately put me to work raking leaves in his rather spacious yard. He instructed me to take the leaves I raked and dump them over the fence in an adjoining vacant lot, which already contained many piles of leaves. He then told me in no uncertain terms that my inner task was to be present to myself as I raked the leaves, to actually sense and observe what was going on in my inner and outer worlds.
After a couple hours of working in this way, and having found a comfortable sensation and rhythm of raking while taking in the smells that reminded me of raking leaves when I was a teenager in Wisconsin, I suddenly smelled and saw smoke coming from the lot where I had been dumping the leaves. I quickly threw the rake down, ran over to the fence, and saw that the leaves were in fact on fire. I also noticed that there were some houses that seemed very close to the fire. In near panic I ran back to Lord Pentland’s house and pounded excitedly on the front door. It took him what seemed like an eternity to come to the door and open it. When I told him about the fire, he slowly took a couple of steps outside, peered at the smoke that was visible over the fence, looked calmly back at me, remained silent for a minute or two, and then in a very calm yet serious voice said: “I told you that your only task was to stay present to yourself as you raked the leaves. Continue raking but don’t throw the leaves over the fence. I’ll take care of the fire.”
In great turmoil, partly because of the fire, but also because I had become so completely identified with my emotions of anxiety and fear and didn’t want to be seen by my teacher as having “lost it” (though I realized that I had), I continued raking the leaves. And in the midst of all the impressions of both the turmoil and my wish to follow my teacher’s instructions, I was brought back to the reality of how little relationship there was between what my mind believed it knew and my actual understanding. I saw my functioning and my being as it actually was. Within a few minutes, a fire truck arrived and put out the fire, which, in fact, turned out to be a rather small one. The houses that I had thought were so close to the fire were never threatened and, when I looked later appeared now to be much farther away than I had imagined.
Now, of course, you, like me, might assume that Lord Pentland started the fire for my benefit. And perhaps he did. But I never asked him. What I had learned that day was far too valuable to link up with my ego belief that I was somehow special enough for him to take this action on my behalf. The fact is, I don’t know. After the event was over, I remembered some kids playing around in the space. Perhaps one of them started the fire. But it really doesn’t matter, for life itself is constantly providing shocks that can help us awaken from our sleep. But what is our attitude when these shocks actually appear? It is in the face of this living question that there is a possibility to see and welcome the truth that is being revealed now, and to discover that it is the welcoming itself, the willingness to receive impressions of life just “as it is,” that is who or what we are at the deepest level of being. For me, at least, when this welcoming appears there is a deep sense of returning home.
Copyright 2005-15 by Dennis Lewis