Gurdjieff International Review

Annie Lou Staveley

Toddy Smyth

A

nnie Lou Staveley (1906–1996) was a part of Jane Heap’s groups in London before and during the Second World War. At war’s end, it became known that Gurdjieff had survived, was living in Paris and that he was receiving people. She had been among those in Jane’s groups who made regular voyages to Paris and met with him, partook of the meals at his table, practiced movements at the Salle Pleyel and received special exercises. She referred to this period of her life as the “golden time” and wrote of it in her little book Memories of Gurdjieff.[1]

Mrs. Staveley was on holiday and in the midst of cooking a meal when she learned of Mr. Gurdjieff’s death. She related how she broke off her meal preparations, went outside and walked and walked. After the initial shock, unexpected anger set in, “How could he leave after having given us his help? We need his help!” Mile after mile went by until the following understanding appeared that became a living cornerstone for her work:

“Mr. Gurdjieff had given abundant help. How much had actually been put into practice? Help will not necessarily be given to those who ask for it and will not necessarily be given to those who need it. But help will be given to those who use it! First and foremost, I must put into practice the help which I have already received and do so to my utter capacity.”

This principle pervaded the way she transmitted what she had received and incorporated from Jane Heap and Mr. Gurdjieff to us, her pupils. We witnessed it in her moment by moment conduct, from the way she washed a dish, walked down steps, listened, answered the telephone, searched persistently, and to her observation of, and interest in, each and every one of us.

Of her upbringing and personal life, Mrs. Staveley revealed very little, but, over the years, she shared elements of her childhood in the dry country of the eastern part of the state of Washington. Her father was a postmaster, her mother worked at a local newspaper and kept the home. She attended a small one-room school until the head teacher told her parents that he had taught her all he knew and was at a loss as to what more he could teach her. Their solution was to set her to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, which she did. By a series of circumstances, she was then accepted into the prestigious Reed College in Portland, Oregon at the age of sixteen. And it was at that age, she realized, upon first glance of the popular visiting Professor from England, that he was to be her husband.

She moved to England in the 1920s and began a married life filled with children and the stimulating academic culture of the time. Questions that had begun to dog her since childhood not only persisted but began to intensify. When she received and read Ouspensky’s A New Model of the Universe, she immediately wrote to him beseeching him to help her find a group. He invited her for an interview where she was accepted into the next group he planned on forming, but, then, when the war broke out and Ouspensky went to America, her hopes were shattered. A profound disappointment followed until some concerned friends found the name of a woman, Jane Heap, in London who was teaching “Gurdjieff.” Mrs. Staveley joined her groups and flourished. Some years after Gurdjieff’s death, a time came when she knew she had to leave. Little is known about this circumstance—just that she knew and Jane knew. She returned to the States around 1960 and cared for her parents until their deaths. She then moved to Portland, Oregon and made her living teaching young children, for whom she had a great interest.

But Mrs. Staveley’s all-encompassing aim was rooted in work on herself, and, for this, she needed to work with others. A small number of people gathered around her and together they began with reading and striving to better understand and apply to themselves personally the teaching found in All and Everything, and in particular, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.[2] At first, they met at her home and then, as the numbers grew, in a rented space in town.

More and more people began to arrive, much younger than she had encountered in groups in England. Her response illustrates the fearlessness of this remarkable woman. She was willing to confront this ‘unexpectedness’ with fresh questions and risk departure from the established customs of group work.

One such question was, what conditions could assist these young, good-hearted people, inexperienced in practical skills and life responsibilities, to accelerate their incorporation of the teaching she had received from Jane Heap and Mr. Gurdjieff? This question resonated with her enduring question from Beelzebub’s Tales, namely, if we ourselves have created external abnormal conditions of ordinary existence and these conditions are part of the cause of our strange and degenerated psyche, then can we ourselves create more normal conditions? And so the purchase of a sadly neglected farm near the rural town of Aurora, Oregon took place.

At an advanced age and in delicate health, she left her comfortable home and moved into one room in a dilapidated farm house with no hot water and a toaster oven for cooking, insisting no work was to be done on her living area until the meeting room and movements hall were built.

From the first day, she used the condition of the neglected, ill-used property as a living reflection of our own poverty-stricken inner life—the repair needed in this arena served as a shock to see and incorporate the repair needed in ours.

When any one of us had a notion to initiate a new project, from growing an herb garden to establishing a small printing press, she would almost always give her full support. What more effective way to learn about oneself than by taking on a responsibility? The clash of the reality of one’s struggles with the responsibility of a practical task corrodes any grand imagination of one’s capacities with regard to becoming responsible towards one’s inner life.

Mrs. Staveley’s door was always open to us. For many of us, the fullness and power of her listening was the closest experience of impartial love ever known. We came with our prepared thoughts, questions, complaints and her response was to something else she saw within us, and, to this, she gave her full attention. To be listened to like this was almost overwhelming. Finally, finally, here was someone with whom one did not have to lie. The brittle, lifeless skin of the make-believe person melted away. Almost always tears began to flow, and then, the real questions appeared, the ones we had given up asking because no one would hear them.

At the same time, her immense kindness could be a razor-sharp shock when a stick was needed, for the conditions she established were like a hot box of the inevitable friction of inter-relationships. Never once did she support a personal objection about another. But more than that—she found a way to turn our objections into a wish to search within for the source of the friction. She reminded often, “Always give others the benefit of the doubt, but, with oneself, be merciless.”

Her capacity of receptivity extended to all her pupils and all visitors who showed up at her door, for whom her hospitality was extended with carefully prepared rooms, farm-grown food, her full attention, and an invitation to participate in many of the group activities. Once she was admonished by some of her peers in her welcoming a young man whose conduct had been denounced. Her response was: “Why shut the very door that may help?”

Her constant question was, “What is needed now that will also assist those who come after us?” She did not see that a potent transmission would come from any one individual, rather that it would be in the working of a group of individuals. From this, and in cognizance of her pending death, she began to withdraw from her active role in front of groups, and other practices, and began to prepare us to recognize and meet that need.

She was keenly aware of the lack of effective connection between the many ‘lineages’ of Mr. Gurdjieff’s first-generation pupils. In her conviction that the whole of Gurdjieff’s teaching could not be found in any one lineage, she encouraged lively circulation between the various groups and put forth that the teacher of the future would be recognized as the writings of Gurdjieff––as she put it, “Beelzebub is our teacher.” When the revised 1992 edition of Beelzebub’s Tales was published, she realized the original 1950 edition had gone out of print. Despite threats of lawsuits, she initiated the publication of an exact facsimile of the 1950 edition, which remains in print today.

One of the most potent manifestations of her fearless vision was to encourage the young parents among us to establish a children’s school. From the first, she exhorted the teachers to provide balanced conditions for the more normal growth of the moving, feeling and thinking parts of the child, but not by focusing on “teaching them something” but rather on, “letting them be children,” and seeking to recognize their possibilities, their potential and so guide and nourish from behind, so to speak. In their sincere and common striving to seek the welfare of the children, the teachers embody a palpable reconciling force.

For many who placed themselves in the sphere of Mrs. Staveley, the words Beelzebub expresses towards his “first educator” and “creator of my genuine being-existence” impeccably expresses our relationship with her:

The being-impulse of gratitude ... is still inextinguishably maintained.[3]

From the Writing of Mrs. Staveley

The greatest thing I have learned in my life—and not just once, but many times—is the importance of work on oneself. In fact, it is the only important thing in anyone’s life. Everything else vanishes, almost without a trace, sooner or later. Only work on oneself leaves results which can be returned to, which do not change. Only work on myself is truly work for myself and can become work for all.

The Work is not movements. It is not sittings, nor exercises. It is not self-observation or tasks in external self-study. It is not sitting in a study group, nor in front of it. These are activities of work, parts of the method for learning to work on oneself. Again and again we are told—and again and again we forget.

This task is change—change of being, not of doing, change of, not the outer, but, the inner life, change of attitudes and not of behavior alone, a letting go rather than getting or grasping.[4]

Direct your aim to what is above, to what is ahead. Waste no more time trying to correct your past which you cannot do anyhow. You are the sum of all your experiences, the essence of them. Start from there. Look to your own star, to what you are meant to be. The light that comes from that will show you what needs to be transformed—not all at once, but very little by very little.[5]

~ • ~

Living in Aurora, Oregon, Toddy Smyth is an editor for the Fifth Press based in Salt Lake City, Utah and writes icons. Her good fortune to become a student of Mrs. Staveley began in the early 1970s.


[1] A. L. Staveley, Memories of Gurdjieff (1978) Aurora, Oregon: Two Rivers Press.

[2] G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1993) Aurora, Oregon: Two Rivers Press, an exact facsimile republication of the first edition as prepared for publication by the Author.

[3] Ibid, p. 658.

[4] A. L. Staveley, unpublished writing by kind permission of the Estate of A. L. Staveley.

[5] Ibid, Aim and Wish (1997) Aurora, Oregon: Two Rivers Press, short pamphlet, p. 7.

 

Copyright © 2019 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: October 1, 2019