Hugh Ripman, circa 1976

Gurdjieff International Review

To Give Is to Receive

By Hugh Ripman

The death of Gurdjieff was the beginning of a new phase in my search for understanding. I had gathered together a number of people who were interested in the ideas. I felt a responsibility towards these people, and I was given permission to try to share with them what I had understood.

I approached this task with mixed feelings. I realised that I owed a debt to those who had taught me and helped me towards self-knowledge. I could never repay that debt to them directly, but I could make some attempt to do so by trying to pass on what I had received to others, as my teachers had done to me.

There was also an incentive on a much bigger scale. I had lived through two world wars, and already in 1949 I saw that the seeds of a third might be contained in the fruits of victory. I felt that war was the manifestation of a sickness in men’s souls, and the only hope of lasting peace, of political sanity, lay in the possibility of men changing their values and replacing their illusions with truth.

This could not be a sudden change. It might well not happen at all, or only happen after centuries of continued suffering. One could not make men change their values by preaching at them. The Christian churches, for instance, had been preaching the gospel of love for centuries, and yet men had still gone to war praying God to give victory to their righteous cause, indeed had persecuted and slain one another in the name of Christ.

No, one could not change men by preaching. They had to feel the need to change themselves, and be prepared to pay the price of change. One could not do anything on a big scale to alleviate the suffering of mankind. But maybe one could lead a few people to find truth for themselves. How was it that the truth that I had seen for myself had reached me? From others, who in turn had been helped to find it by others. Truth could live on earth only in men’s hearts. Through the ages, there had always been some men in whom the truth lived. Perhaps this was one aspect of the meaning of life. Perhaps if this living truth died out of the body of mankind, then the whole experiment would be written off as a failure.

By the greatest good fortune I had come into contact with this line of teacher and pupil, which stretched back like a rope into the past. By myself I was insignificant: a single strand of the fibre, short and weak. And yet the rope was made of strands twisted together, and their intimate coherence gave it strength. However small my contribution might be, I had a duty to see that my strand was twisted tight with others at both ends. It was only in this way, if each person in whom a particle of truth were living passed the spark to others, to as many others as he could, that in the end, perhaps centuries or thousands of years from now, the sickness in the soul of mankind might be cured.

I knew that my capacity was limited, that I was undertaking a task for which I was not adequate. I knew that inner obstacles stood in my way. Pride, intolerance, impatience, blindness to other people’s needs—I had them all. The good memory which had made learning easy at school, the facility for formulation which had been developed in my letter-writing—these were two-edged weapons. As servants, directed by discrimination, they could be useful. But if they took the lead themselves, they could easily guide me along the path of least resistance, and I would become a professor, in whom the truth did not speak, simply a monkey imitating words that he has heard.

The difficulty of passing on understanding appalled me. The dangerous results of the mistakes I seemed likely to make discouraged me. During the past years I had brought many people into contact with the teaching. Since I felt myself to be getting so much profit from it, I persuaded other people to try it. In this early enthusiasm I had made many mistakes.

Experience had shown me how difficult it was to find people who could benefit. Some people came only seeking confirmation for what they already believed, and so could not hear anything new. Some people were repelled by the strangeness of the ideas and rejected them without testing their truth. Some people were filled with an initial enthusiasm, but as soon as it came to the point of making any effort for themselves, gave up at once. Some people demanded quick results. I came to recognise all the types symbolised by the seeds that fell upon different kinds of ground.

It was useless to argue with people, to try to persuade them. One had to discover people who had a need and were aware of that need, however inarticulately: people who were dissatisfied in a right way—primarily with themselves, but also with the usual aims of life. Some people were made restless by a feeling that some unknown element was missing from their life, without which life made no sense. Some people had succeeded in their ambitions, only to find that success did not bring either peace or happiness. Some felt themselves to be caught in a vicious circle, and realised how they repeated the same mistakes again and again in spite of all regrets and resolutions. Others were seeking something to satisfy their inherent need for faith, but had found nothing but disappointment and disillusionment.

By experience, by making many mistakes, I gradually learned what kinds of people to look for. It was not enough that people needed the healing and liberating power of the truth; they had themselves to feel this need, and had to be prepared themselves to sacrifice their well-loved illusions.

I began this new phase of my work and was immediately faced with my inability to convey to others what I felt I understood so well. To penetrate the meaning of one idea, one had to understand the meaning of many others. In the first few years with Ouspensky, I had come to see this. Each idea of the system illuminated the others and was illuminated by the others. They were all members of one consistent, organic body of knowledge. One idea could not be studied and understood in isolation, any more than one could understand a finger in isolation from the rest of the body. One started, of necessity, to study many different ideas separately, but as one grew to understand more deeply, one saw that each idea dealt with one aspect of the whole man. A symbol came to my mind to illustrate this: I saw the whole body of ideas as an enormous diamond. One started by studying the separate facets. Gradually one came to see how they were connected together, both by proximity and by their place in a pattern. But finally one had to penetrate the interior, where one could see at once all the individual facets and the unity of the whole.

I had grown to realise also that one always understood more or less about an idea, and could never say that one’s understanding was complete. Often I had experienced a sudden intuition, as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes, which led me to exclaim, for instance: “Oh, that’s what is really meant by sin!” But a year later I realised that it was only one aspect of the meaning of sin which had become clear. To believe that one understood all about an idea was to mistake the part for the whole, and this effectively blocked any further widening of vision.

This was why so many conflicting theories and philosophies existed, and why their adherents were often so fanatic. A man or group of men came to see one aspect of truth more or less clearly, but they were convinced that they had seen the whole truth. So they tried to explain everything in terms of what they had seen, and to deny or distort or disregard what couldn’t easily be explained in this way. Anybody who didn’t see things their way they regarded either as a fool or a knave.

Such conflicts arose, for example, in psychology. There were many different systems and schools, but no general agreement. How could this be so? After all these centuries, throughout which men of intelligence had studied the inner life of man, how was it that the laws governing that inner life had not been discovered and proved to the satisfaction of all? The answer, I saw, was that many men had seen one aspect, or several aspects, of man’s inner life clearly and truly, but believed they had seen the whole truth. Freud had seen clearly what an important part sex plays in determining human behaviour, but when he tried to explain all dreams in terms of sex, his explanations became strained and unconvincing.

The experience that I was now gaining, by trying to help other people to understand the ideas of the system, gave me many opportunities to see how each idea could be approached from many directions. Someone asked me a question. I gave an answer that I knew from my own experience to be true. But it was clear that this answer did not satisfy the questioner’s need to know. I saw more clearly why Ouspensky had often asked those who questioned him: “Why do you ask this?” Every question had many answers, all of them correct—but none of them complete. If someone asks you how to paint, you must know whether he wants to paint a house or a picture of a house, whether to paint a picture in oils or in watercolours.

It was also useless to give an answer which assumed that the questioner had had some experience which he hadn’t. If a man asks you how to mix glue, and you tell him to add water until the mixture is about the consistency of the sap that oozes from a rubber tree, he is no wiser if he’s never seen and felt sap ooze from a rubber tree.

There was another trap: the difficulty of answering “I don’t know.” Someone asked me a question. If I had been honest with myself, I should have replied, “I don’t know.” However, it was often easy to produce an answer that made sense and was perfectly true—but it was not an answer to that question; it was the answer to a related question.

I made innumerable mistakes and gradually learned from them. Often, under the stimulus of a question, new understanding crystallised in me; I saw connections between things which I had never seen before. I gradually learned to speak more simply. I learned, too, that a vivid example often struck home and remained in memory much better than an explanation that was clear but general. I learned the value of anecdote and parable, of symbol instead of label. Above all, I learned that my function was not to do other people’s thinking for them, but to find ways to make them think for themselves.

Often I would mention an idea, and it was obvious that my words conveyed nothing that was alive. Then one day I would say the same thing I had said many times before, and I could see from the way someone’s face lighted up that at last the idea had struck home. This was a very rewarding experience.

I learned patience, and I began to see what it was possible to give people. One could sometimes, by speaking from deeply felt emotion, stir up other people’s emotion. This could be useful, but emotion passed; it did not last. And beyond a certain point, it was not useful to arouse people’s emotions like this. It tended to make other people rely on my emotional force, and rely in quite a wrong way on me personally, instead of relying on the truth that they had found for themselves in their own experience. This danger existed even when I myself was very much aware that the force which was channelled through me was not my own force at all: I was merely a vehicle through which it acted. I had no wish to gather round me spiritual parasites. Many people came to me wishing unconsciously (or even consciously) to find a man whom they could trust, a man on whom they could rely, a father figure in whom to put their faith. In this they were of course disappointed. Some people were able to understand that it is foolish to pin your faith on any man, that the only sound basis for faith is your own experience of truth. They understood the saying of Buddha:

Therefore, Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves,
     be ye a refuge to yourselves.
Betake yourselves to no external refuge.
Hold fast to the Truth as a lamp;
     hold fast to the Truth as a refuge.
Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourselves.

I saw the ideas like a set of carpenter’s tools. The only things I could give people were tools and advice on how to use them. But I could never use the tools for other people, and I could never be sure what use people would make of them. Some people put the whole set of tools in a glass case and showed them off to visitors: “Look at all these wonderful tools I have! You won’t find tools like this everywhere!” To such a man the tools were worse than useless, because their possession made him think that he was superior to other people who didn’t own such tools.

Others did at least try to use the tools, but they didn’t want any instructions. They thought that they could teach themselves how to use them. Their way must be the right way. So they used wood chisels to try to cut stone, they used screwdrivers as levers, they left their tools to rust in the rain. This sort of thing was dangerous. Accidents happened—sometimes quite serious accidents. Then they would come to the donor of the tools and say: “Look what you have done to me!” They were, of course, right to some extent: one should not give sharp tools to a self-willed child.

Others realised that the best way to become a good carpenter is first to serve under a carpenter as an apprentice. They sought instructions on the use of their tools and the way to keep them sharp and clean. They submitted their work to the carpenter’s inspection and listened to his criticism. They made mistakes, but gave the carpenter a chance to correct their mistakes before they had crystallised into bad habits. They learned to use the tools properly.

My responsibility, I saw, was first to try to find people who seriously wished to become carpenters (not just as a hobby, but as a means to livelihood) and who had the capacity to develop the necessary skills. Then I had to try to teach them to use the right tools in the right order, and to give advice from my own experience when they had problems. But I was not responsible if people didn’t follow instructions or heed warnings. They might become good carpenters or they might not. I could never make them good carpenters.

Almost from the beginning of this period I began to write again. I was forced to do this. Many times, people’s questions showed me gaps in my understanding. To some extent I could seek guidance from others wiser and more experienced than myself. But I had no right to take up too much of their time, and most of my problems I had somehow to solve myself. This required difficult and protracted pondering, and I still find that for this purpose I have to sit down with pencil and paper, in order to put my thoughts in coherent order, and to prevent them from straying too far into by-paths. In addition, people have addressed their personal problems to me in the form of letters, and as I had done previously in my life, I used the occasion of answering these letters to clarify my own understanding.

During this same period I have been called upon to shoulder progressively greater responsibilities in my professional life. I have met these responsibilities to the best of my capacity, not because of any ambition for advancement, but because I still feel as I did in 1934: namely, that the ordinary circumstances of daily life, with all its pressures and problems, provide the battlefield for the inner warfare, and give challenges and opportunities that are necessary for progress. Ouspensky said in one of the early meetings, and repeated many times afterwards: “These ideas can be taken philosophically, or theoretically, or practically. It is only if they are taken practically that a man obtains any benefit from them.” The test of practical benefit cannot come from ruminating about the ideas in an ivory tower; it can only come in the way one meets the ordinary demands of one’s life and work.

So gradually I am coming to appreciate what Ouspensky meant when he used to say: “One learns by teaching, and one teaches by learning.” I know I am inadequate to meet this responsibility; but I also know that I have a duty to carry it out, and that in trying to help others I am helping myself, in a way that is indispensable, to advance along the only road I wish to travel.

~ • ~

Taken from Chapter Four of Search for Truth, by Hugh Brockwill Ripman, Washington, DC: Forthway Center Palisades Press, 1999, pp. 52–60.

Copyright © 1999 Christopher Hugh Ripman
This webpage © 2003 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2003 Issue, Vol. VI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2003