The following is Chapter 18 of Dr. Needleman’s book, What is God?, New York: Penguin Group, 2009, pp. 193–201.
I wish now to speak about the community which made it possible for me to verify, through experience, things that I had never in my life believed could be capable of verification. This will perhaps enable me finally to say the unsayable about the experience of God. I wish with all my heart to succeed in this.
It so happens that this was the Gurdjieff community—as it existed in San Francisco, New York and Paris. Before going further, however, some background about Gurdjieff and his teaching is needed.
Of Gurdjieff’s early life we know only what he has revealed in the autobiographical portions of his own writings, notably Meetings with Remarkable Men. He was born, probably in 1866, to a Greek father and an Armenian mother in Alexandropol (now Gumri), Armenia, a region where Eastern and Western cultures mixed and often clashed. He relates how, as a boy, listening to his father recite myths and stories that were part of an age-old oral tradition, he had felt there was a profound wisdom embodied in them, the keys to which had been lost.
His wish to understand life soon led him to investigate everything he came across that might help him: orthodox religion, fortune-tellers, hypnotism, the teachings of modern science. But since everything he studied was full of contradictions, he determined to rediscover the lost wisdom himself. Bringing others together with him in a loosely organized group and overcoming countless hardships and dangers, he pursued his quest for some twenty years (1894–1912), seeking out holy men and inaccessible monasteries, mainly in Central Asia and the Middle East.
What was the result? Certainly, far more than a mere accumulation of texts, rituals and spiritual practices. His own subsequent life is strong evidence that he had found what he was searching for—a complete re-integration of the lost and forgotten wisdom within his own experience and understanding, which he then labored to express in language understandable to modern man. And which he devoted his life to transmitting to others, creating for future generations psychological and communal conditions for inner work unique in the modern world. It is those conditions, altogether constituting what has since ancient times been called an “oral tradition,” that have to some extent survived him, and upon which, in large measure, depends the future influence of his teaching in the life of our era.
Thus it was that Gurdjieff appeared in Moscow in 1912, bringing with him a teaching unlike anything known or heard of in the modern world. Both the man himself and his ideas about “all and everything” continue to astonish the mind and mysteriously touch the heart, or else remain invisible behind the curtain of assumptions about reality and human nature that govern the thought of almost all men and women in the modern world.
In nearly every aspect of thought, Gurdjieff’s ideas bring an unimaginably new perspective, which on closer examination at the same time echoes something enormously living and ancient.
His vision of the universe is of an all-embracing organic, purposeful reality both “horizontally” and “vertically” vast—vast, that is, both quantitatively in space and form and qualitatively in levels and degrees of conscious energy.
His vision of man on earth is of a being created to fulfill a great universal purpose of conscious love and intelligence who instead lives and dies mortally asleep to what he is meant to be.
Within this twofold vision, Gurdjieff’s thought encompasses in startling and often verifiable detail the history and fate of our planet Earth; the origins of life and of man; the rise and fall of civilizations; the purpose of art and its widespread degeneration; the tragedy of education; the structure and function of the human organism—and much else; the causes of war, the accelerating violation of the natural world; the illusions of technology, and—ultimately—the outline of the single thread of possibility that remains for us.
The shock of his ideas consists not only in the newness of their form, but also in their explanatory power. Many of his ideas both contradict certain fundamental assumptions of modern science and at the same time foreshadow many of its empirical discoveries about man, nature and the universe. But the deeper shock is what his teaching indicates to each individual about his or her own personal life. No doubt in some measure like the man himself, his writings and the accounts by his pupils shake our entire sense of ourselves while at the same time touching the last remaining nerve of hope within us.
But his essential legacy will surely be judged principally by the quality of the men and women who worked most closely with him and, further, by the inner quality of those who have come after them. It is necessary now to look more closely at what kind of human development we are speaking of when we say that the aim of his teaching is the creation of people.
What does that mean—the creation of people? For myself at least, it is here that the whole question of the existence and nature of God is hidden. The accumulated experiences and reasoning of my own life had shown me, semiconsciously, that in order to know Truth, or God, it cannot help past a certain point to look in philosophical proofs or sacred books or at art or even at nature and the sky in all their grandeur. It was only when I was systematically and repeatedly touched by a specific influence that could at one and the same moment be physically sensed, emotionally perceived, and mentally acknowledged that, after some years, something or someone stirred in that cave of absence—in that metaphysical subconsciousness which since childhood had remained walled off from my everyday existence and understanding. I have come to the conclusion that this quality of influence can exist, and in our modern culture perhaps can only exist, through the intentions and actions of inwardly developed people.
Let me put it bluntly, leaving aside some important qualifications and exceptions: It is only in and through people, inwardly developed men and women, that God can exist and act in the world of man on earth. Bluntly speaking, the proof for the existence of God is the existence of people who are inhabited by and who manifest God.
Furthermore, this proof, this evidence, is strictly speaking not perceived simply by means of reasoning or emotionally reacting to such people. This evidence is perceived by means of what their presence evokes in oneself. Our society is not like certain cultures that may possibly have existed in other lands or eras in which the presence or even the idea of a higher purpose or consciousness (call it God or Truth or Nirvana, etc.) inhabits the very air one breathes—that is to say, where language, social customs, ritual forms, scientific discovery, music, art, contain influences that have originated through inwardly developed people. Gurdjieff obviously understood this very well and therefore sought to create a kind of subculture in which more-conscious influences could support the exercise of a man or woman’s inherent, but undeveloped, capacity to work on him- or herself. Modern culture by itself could never offer that overall support.
Many such communities—schools, “brotherhoods,”—have no doubt emerged at critical points and places throughout history, although it is difficult from the outside to know which have been authentic and which imitative. Here and now, such a community may be thought of as a subculture in that almost all the personal relationships within the community are meant to exist solely for the sake of supporting the impulse of remembering and returning to the “I am,” the Self. Such a culture or communal organization is based on values unlike the values underpinning the modern world as a whole, which despite surface claims to the contrary are rooted in egoism, greed, fear and the pleasure principle.
One essential aspect of this subculture must be emphasized. It does not and was apparently never meant to exist apart from our modern world, such as it is. Examples of this kind of community can be found throughout history. I have heard such a community spoken of as “a monastery in the midst of life.” That is to say, the aim of the inner work involved the capacity for a full-hearted engagement in the everyday life of the world, culminating in the capacity to love and serve the genuine needs of man and the earth.
These special conditions comprising a metaphysical subculture, taken together, constitute what I have called the second essential factor that enabled me to discover my own capacity for inner work.
But here is an essential point. These special conditions in my case were in their all-important specific details created and maintained by Lord Pentland, whose own mission was, along with the nucleus of other pupils who had worked directly with Gurdjieff, to transmit the teaching to others. It was his direct influence that gave these “special conditions” their force and effectiveness. From the very beginning of my contact with this group of men and women, I recognized as coming from Lord Pentland something I had never seen or felt in any human being.
I wish to be quite clear here because upon this quality that I sensed in him lies the basis in my own life for the conviction I have formed about the question “What is God?”
What was it about him? As the years passed, I had more and more contact with him. And more and more I felt and sensed his uniqueness—not only in him, but in myself as a result of contact with him. From the very beginning I knew that he cared most of all for the inner development of all the men and women who worked with him. But I couldn’t at first find the word or fact that would designate this ability or personal care he had for others. There was something paradoxically impersonal and mysteriously warm at the same time; something both rigorous and unpredictable.
And also something extraordinarily intelligent. As an academician and professor, I felt secure (perhaps foolishly) in my ability to judge another person’s mind. Perhaps in my better moments I would never pretend to judge another person’s spiritual development or sincerity of intention, but I knew a good mind when I saw it. His was by far the best I had ever encountered.
But that was not yet the most essential thing about him. It was something emanating from him. In order to communicate the nature of that something essential in him, I am obliged again to be quite personal. Some of the details of what I am about to say may apply only to myself and my particular subjectivity. At the same time, I am certain, quite certain, that in its essence it applies to every man and woman in the modern world. Only in this way will I be able truly to offer my present understanding of what it was about him that was so remarkable and to offer a precise name for it.
I will begin by saying that what I experienced from Lord Pentland was an attitude toward me that I had never encountered from anyone or even imagined. He seemed bewilderingly unimpressed by almost everything I said or did, and yet at the same time he seemed greatly interested in me. He responded to my questions often by showering down insights based on the Gurdjieff ideas that were clairvoyantly relevant to my personal life and which one after another erased or eclipsed everything I thought I had understood. I—Professor Jacob Needleman, who could, so to say, hold my own more or less with Plato, Hume, Kant and even the God of the Bible—I could not hold my own with the mind of this strangely intelligent man. Almost every time I spoke with him I experienced—on my very own turf of the intellect—the simultaneous deflation of my mind and exhilaration of the taste of Truth, the glimpse of a higher understanding. That was one aspect of my repeated encounters with Lord Pentland.
But it was only one aspect and by no means the most important one. Even more important was the emotional atmosphere that he created in the community of people who came together to put the teaching into practice. I have already mentioned the awakening of conscience that is one of the far and fundamental aims of work, an experience which Lord Pentland, with no mean hand, projected into the life of the whole community. I’m speaking here about an atmosphere of suffering that, overall, had no basic negativity about it. On the contrary. A suffering in front of the awareness of one’s own illusions about oneself and in front of one’s own egoism, awkwardness, fear, sentimentality—a suffering about one’s own essential failure to be ... to be what? To fail ... how? By what ... measure? What standard? And the sharing, the communality of this suffering of seeing oneself and, at the same time, detecting the subtle background sense of liberation, impersonal liberation, a shared community of faintly liberated men and women, always falling away into the sleep of humanity, and at the same time, struggling to embrace the utter truth about oneself, the truth that included the light of possible liberation always waiting in the back of one’s being, so to speak. Almost one hundred percent of the men and women there, myself included, experienced this atmosphere in and around Lord Pentland as a quality of—I have no choice but to use this word now—a quality of love.
With surgical precision the conditions he created, and the personal “something” that he emanated, put one just an inch or so in front of the fundamental illusions about oneself within which one conducted one’s ordinary life and which together formed one’s sense of everyday identity. Within an inch of the final acknowledgement of what was right before one’s eyes, the final receiving of the impressions being offered as a special kind of unknown food uniquely for human beings, impressions of the truth about oneself which, as we later understood, were precisely what was needed for the growth of one’s being. But that final inch always had to be taken by oneself, by an act of one’s will and intention. Nothing in this sphere could ever be forced. This is what I have been speaking of as the capacity to struggle, to work. The struggle was not against anything but one’s unwillingness to see the truth, a struggle supported eventually by the knowledge that this seeing was the first step toward the liberation one dreamt of, the first step in the movement toward becoming a real human being.
All this was suffering that radiated joy: the joy of voluntary suffering in front of truth. Not the suffering of the egoism, but closer to the honorable suffering of the human condition—not neurotic suffering, but on the way to essence-sorrow; a unique suffering and struggle to see and accept one’s distance from what one was meant to be and from what one imagined oneself to be. Again and again, on the individual and communal level, Lord Pentland brought his pupils into the honorableness of the struggle to pass from nonexistence, humanly speaking, to being. And each individual man and woman, in his or her own way, loved this man and trusted his guidance.
One had read such things about how the pupils of Gurdjieff deeply loved and trusted him, even though many outside observers saw nothing they could value and created many fantastic rumors.
Now I can use the word that, I believe, accurately—at least in part—names what it was that Lord Pentland emanated. And it is this “something” that will lead us in thought, as it led me in experience, to the idea and the experience of God.
That “something” is attention.
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