Gurdjieff International Review

Irmis Popoff

Juanita Ratner

I

rmis Popoff was born Irmis Barret de Nazaris on October 22, 1900. Her father was a Venezuelan diplomat whom she respected very much. When she was young, her family had to flee Venezuela because of a political coup, coming to New York in about 1913.

One story she liked to tell from her childhood was about a formal dinner with a foreign diplomat, who when presented with a bowl of hot lemon water to wash his hands, drank it instead. Without missing a beat, her father took up his own bowl and also drank it, and the family quickly followed suit as if this was their everyday custom. This exemplified one aspect of Mrs. Popoff’s teaching: her familial love and compassion for others.

Fluent in Spanish, French, and several other languages, Mrs. Popoff worked in the translation department at the Morgan Guaranty Bank for 35 years. She met her husband, Victor Popoff, sometime in the late 1920s. They had one child, Frank, but the marriage dissolved early on. However, during their marriage—trying to learn Russian so she could better communicate with her husband—she came into contact with a community of Russian immigrants and took on the responsibility of helping some of them.

Mrs. Popoff met P. D. Ouspensky during a public lecture in 1941 and soon began working with him, eventually serving as his secretary. She took many notes during this period that were later approved by him. From time to time, she would refer to these notes during her work periods. After Mr. Ouspensky died in 1947, she met and worked with Mr. Gurdjieff himself.

Mrs. Popoff also spent time at Mendham with Madame Ouspensky and participated in group work with Mr. Nyland, serving for some time as his secretary. She later wrote a book, Gurdjieff Group Work with Wilhem Nyland,[1] where she writes, among other things, about Mr. Nyland’s practice of delivering introductory lectures on the Work to new people. In later years, Mrs. Popoff also worked with Lord Pentland, Madame de Salzmann, John Bennett, and Michel de Salzmann. She also visited groups conducted by Nathalie de Salzmann and those established in Mexico by Christopher Freemantle.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Madame de Hartmann encouraged her to write about her experiences with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky,[2] and to work with the growing number of young people who were finding their way to the Work. It was this prompting that led Mrs. Popoff—and her close friend and companion Serge Kosuhoff—to purchase the former Pinnacle Hotel in Sea Cliff, NY, as a center for the transmission and practice of the Gurdjieff Work.

Initially, she offered rooms to some of her Russian immigrants. But later, around 1970, as her role as a group leader became more established, she gathered a small community of students who lived with her at the house, including some who had taken the course from John Bennett at Sherborne. Her groups remained fairly independent from the Foundation and other work lineages, although Mrs. Popoff continued to work closely with Lord Pentland. “He trusts me,” she would say, regarding the loose sense of his supervision. During the years I worked with her, work periods were offered at the Pinnacle on weekends, with longer, 10-day sessions in the summer.

There was something special about Mrs. Popoff, something of her being, that attracted us young students. The first time I met her was in 1977. I had come to the Pinnacle for a work period with some trepidation, having heard a story of a chess match that took place a year earlier. It was held outside on the lawn of the Pinnacle in the hot New York summer. The chess pieces were students, who stood motionless for long periods until directed to move. The match was a fundraiser for a local charity. After hearing tales of that event, I could not imagine participating in something such as that. So I arrived terrified that some nearly impossible effort would be asked of me or that I would receive some Gurdjieff-style shock.

We gathered in the living room, where we would meet for morning sittings in many work periods to come. Mrs. Popoff sat in an antique chair and as I looked at her, I perceived her as an entirely different order of person from anyone I had ever known before. Although, looking back from this vantage some forty years later, I guess what I perceived was actually a combination of qualities that made up the fineness of her presence: an open heart and an open attention firmly grounded in sensation while taking us all in very precisely. In other words, I was encountering something clearly beyond my own level of being and even perhaps my ability to understand.

Mrs. Popoff invited each one of us to ask a question. To this day, I remember my question as well as the response she gave, so pungent that even now I cannot bring myself to share the exchange. I was stunned. Should I leave now? Did I not belong to the Work? Trying not to panic, I struggled to be present, to receive her response with some openness and even an attitude of unknowing. Perhaps there was a deeper message, a more positive message, in what she had said. I sat quietly, trying not to show my struggle to others. After the meeting some of us retired to the basement dining room for coffee, tea, and cake with Mrs. Popoff. I went down and as we gathered, Mrs. Popoff walked by and patted my shoulder. “Don’t be afraid,” she said, gently, “no one can hurt you.” Her gentleness in that moment canceled out all my pain and opened me up in a new way. And that’s how Mrs. Popoff gave shocks. With the precision of a surgeon, you would always be left with the feeling of being both seen and loved.

Mrs. Popoff was well grounded in the ideas of the Work. At the first work period I attended, there was a reading from her notes on Mr. Ouspensky. The reading discussed the relationship between the law of repetition and our level of being. When we meet some form of resistance or situation and respond mechanically, we remain under this law of repetition. We circle back again and again through the same types of experiences. However, if such moments are met in a moment of consciousness, one can, at that moment, choose to respond differently, and the circle could become a spiral, lifting one slightly higher into new possibilities. This is when the enneagram multiplies.

Work at the Pinnacle was practical and grounded, with a deepening and expanding focus on both sensation and presence. After working along these lines for some time, Mrs. Popoff introduced a new idea, an invitation to reverse sensation. She referred to this kind of effort metaphorically as “reversing the glove,” i.e., rather than seeing, one could experience being seen; instead of touching, one could be touched. This had a deep effect on our inner work and opened pathways for a deeper presence, an understanding of how to allow a presence to fill us, rather than seeking it as something I “do.”

Mrs. Popoff frequently used daily activities as teaching opportunities. The preparation of soup was a daily ritual during work periods at the Pinnacle. Leftovers were ferreted out from the many small refrigerators by those on the kitchen team and presented to Mrs. Popoff. She would refuse some of the offerings that didn’t seem to combine well and accept others. This was an art she claimed to have learned from assisting Mr. Gurdjieff. The event took on proportions of a teaching and would be peppered with insights and comments that kept all the cooks struggling to maintain presence. One could feel a direct link to Gurdjieff’s rooms at the Wellington Hotel. Indeed, the impact of her work with Gurdjieff—and each individual teacher with whom she had worked—was palpable.

Because of the history Mrs. Popoff had with significant figures within the Gurdjieff Work, she would sometimes share impressions and reminiscences about them. We heard that Ouspensky did not want to take on anyone before the age of forty, before they had enough life experience. Mrs. Popoff would recall staying up so late at night in meetings with Gurdjieff at the Wellington that all she could do was to grab a nap in chairs in the lobby before heading to her job.

There was work with many of the diagrams from In Search of the Miraculous. The last few years I attended work periods with Mrs. Popoff, there was a drawing of the lateral octave on a cupboard in the dining room. Mrs. Popoff posed questions: in particular, why there was no lower do. At times like this she would goad us, “Think, Think! Get the blood circulating in your cerebral cortex!” Working on her book, The Enneagrama of the Man of Unity,[3] she gave us a task to create an enneagram of a process and present, or write a description of, our understanding. Some of these were collected into the book. She advocated deep thinking on many questions and challenged us to use both our intellect and the intellectual part of our emotional center.

Service was another important aspect of Mrs. Popoff’s teaching. It was both a path of transformation and an outcome itself. Our group in Maine organized annual yard sales to benefit the local animal shelter. The first year we were given a task to beg door to door in our neighborhoods for donated items, remembering all the time, “All life is holy.” We cleaned cages, we painted the shelter, and we raised money. We worked against our self-centeredness and, in the process, we learned how to organize an event. Later, we made a quilt to be auctioned-off at another sale to raise money for one of Madame de Salzmann’s movements films. Mrs. Popoff, herself, donated precious items: her veil from her first communion, fine tablecloths she had crocheted as a young woman, and other treasures, many of which were bought by her students. Through her example, she transmitted to us that living a life of service is an attitude that you carry in your heart.

No memoir of Mrs. Popoff would be complete without commenting on the cats. Mrs. Popoff had taken in many strays and continued to leave food out on the porches for others. Some sixty-odd cats (yes, this is not a typo!) lived at the Pinnacle. Cat feeding and tending was an early morning and late afternoon ritual, including carefully washing dishes and scooping litter, all once again used by Mrs. Popoff as a teaching opportunity. One felt her concern and relationship with each cat, and it instilled in many of us a feeling of responsibility toward animals. She would not go to sleep at night until all the cats were safely back inside the building. Knowing that Gurdjieff said that we don’t have the being to be compassionate to our fellow man so we should start with animals, I believe this served as an important step for many of us.

Years later, knowing she was moving toward her own death, Mrs. Popoff emphasized that work must remain balanced. As our work deepens, new ideas should be introduced, along with exercises that will help one access the experience. We need to monitor our work so that we do not become psychologically unbalanced. This is an axiom that remains with me.

Despite merciless shocks, I knew Mrs. Popoff believed in me. She recognized my strengths before I did, asking me to keep notes of work periods and giving me a book on music and vibrations long before I had any idea I would someday be playing for Movements classes. She gave me lots of personal advice and helped me through many periods of growth. She will forever be my spiritual mother, someone who ‘loved me into being.’

Mrs. Popoff died at the Pinnacle on October 13, 1984, surrounded by many of her students.

~ • ~

Juanita Ratner has participated in Foundation groups in Maine and Colorado. She currently lives in Denver, and is a member of the Gurdjieff Studies Foundation and plays for Movements classes.


[1] Irmis B. Popoff, Gurdjieff Group Work with Wilhem Nyland (1983) York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser. The book title misspells Mr. Nyland’s first name which is Willem.

[2] Ibid. Gurdjieff: His Work On Myself, With Others, For The Work (1969) NY: Vantage Press.

[3] Ibid. The Enneagrama of the Man of Unity (1978) New York: Samuel Weiser.

 

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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 1, 2019