Gurdjieff International Review

Rodney Collin

A Man Who Wished To Do Something With His Life

Terje Tonne

Since I first came into contact with Rodney Collin’s writing, his simple and honest approach to life and the Gurdjieff Work has always struck me deeply. Whether it is in his books, collected notes, unpublished manuscripts or his personal letters—it’s always there.

Rodney Collin-Smith was born on the 26th of April 1909 in the coastal town of Brighton, England. His father, Frederick Collin-Smith, had retired early from his business as a general merchant in London and after traveling in Europe and Egypt had settled down in Brighton. There Rodney’s father married Kathleen Logan, much younger than he and the daughter of a local hotel owner. Kathleen was a member of the local Theosophical Society and had a strong interest in astrology, possibly the source of some of Rodney Collin’s later interests. She also worked extensively with transcribing books for the blind.

After boarding school at Ashford Grammar School in Kent, Rodney Collin studied at the London School of Economics, where he received his Bachelor of Commerce degree. He worked as a freelance journalist supplying articles on art and travel to the [London] Evening Standard and the Sunday Referee. In 1930, on a pilgrimage organized by the Christian organization Toc-H, he met Janet Buckley. That same year he read Ouspensky’s A New Model of the Universe. Four years later, Collin and Buckley married in London.

In 1935 Collin and Buckley attended some lectures given in London by Maurice Nicoll. After meeting Ouspensky in September 1936, Rodney Collin knew instantly that he had found that which he had been looking for in his extensive reading and traveling. Robert de Roop, at that time also a member of Toc-H, was most likely a source for their developing interest in the Work ideas. Regardless of what perspective one assumes for a description or interpretation of Collin’s work, it is not possible to overstate both the direct and the indirect influence of Ouspensky. Their approaches seem inseparable.

Ouspensky’s role, actions, understanding and level of being have often been the subject of debate. Historical data can be contradictory and the facts are often disputable. A bystander’s experience may collide with rumors, speculations, half-truths, slander and historical investigation. An unpublished manuscript by Rodney Collin, given to me by the daughter of one of Ouspensky’s older students, indicates that some published interpretations may be incorrect. After their 1936 meeting, Rodney Collin became regularly engaged in Ouspensky’s activities, with the exception of certain periods during the war when Collin was working for the British Government service. After 1945 he dedicated himself entirely to the work with Mr. and Madame Ouspensky.

When Ouspensky left America for England in early 1947, Rodney Collin joined him at Lyne place. When Ouspensky arrived, he asked right away that arrangements be made for his return to America. Detailed preparations for his departure began in the middle of July. Then, in the early morning of September 4, 1947, a truck with baggage travelled down to a ship at Southampton and was brought on board. At about four o’clock Ouspensky called the people that were to travel with him, each in turn, and said: “I cannot go in these conditions.” To Rodney Collin, Ouspensky added: “I thought to take a holiday, but I decided not.” All activity at Lyne and Mendham came to a halt. This incident has historically been interpreted as if Ouspensky changed his mind because of his medical condition. Rodney Collin saw it differently.

Not only did Collin recognize Ouspensky’s decision as a general stop to the impetus of arrangements in both England and America, but also as a test that Ouspensky created for every individual concerned: “As a result of this general test and the sudden interruption of all activity, the stage was automatically set and the characters arranged for what he later proposed to do.” That this event was part of a larger play became more obvious when their automobile was leaving the docks of Southampton with Rodney Collin sitting in the front. Ouspensky leaned forward and said very directly to the four people in the car: “You know I never intended to go to America—not for a minute.”

During the whole summer and autumn, Rodney Collin stayed with Ouspensky until Ouspensky died in his arms on October 2, 1947. This period was a critical one to Collin who was an eyewitness to the changes that took place in Ouspensky up to the moment of his death. No historical investigations can negate the account of Collin’s eyewitness experience. Their relationship grew extensively as Collin’s attention moved from Ouspensky’s oral teaching to his demonstrations of the Work.

It was during the week following his teacher’s death, while he locked himself up in Ouspensky’s dressing room refusing to come out, that Rodney Collin felt he really came to an understanding of how to Work. What he had received from Ouspensky had to be reconstructed within himself. Joyce Collin-Smith, Rodney’s sister-in-law (with whom I was very close the last 13 years of her life) told me that during this time, Rodney received in a vision many interpenetrating levels of existence which he later presented in his book, The Theory of Eternal Life. He also told her, years later in Mexico, that during his period of solitude in Ouspensky’s chamber, he had a constant inner experience of extraordinary power and depth and that he knew that he must not be disturbed until it was over.

In her book, Call No Man Master (Bath England: Gateway, 1988), Joyce refers to some papers that Rodney showed her in Mexico in the 1950s. These papers contained certain details of his relationship with Ouspensky that are not public knowledge and that she presumed were destroyed. Some years ago these papers were, for some reason, given to me. I sent a copy to her which she read with interest. Although it appeared clearly in some of the compiled notes in The Theory of Conscious Harmony how important the circumstances around Ouspensky’s death were for Rodney, the unpublished manuscript gives a more immediate sense of intensity and depth of the event.

~ • ~

When in May 1947 Ouspensky “abandoned the system” and urged people to “reconstruct it all,” Rodney Collin, who was then his most intimate pupil, concluded that this was a necessary shock “forcing people to penetrate to what they really understood and wanted in their hearts.” Others saw this “abandonment of the system” as an expression of Ouspensky’s stagnation, while some took it to be a signal for the necessity to look elsewhere for what they believed was missing.

Rodney Collin took the reconstruction to mean: “abandoning old forms, penetrating to the truth which lay behind those forms, and creating new forms for that truth—which in their turn must one day be abandoned also. Abandoning and recreating seems to me the only way of keeping alive the hidden connection which lay behind the system. If one clings to the old, it fossilizes, with oneself inside. The idea of reconstruction seems to be endless.” Here Collin not only illustrates how truth survives through change and renewal and portrays fundamental pitfalls, but he also indirectly points to the essence of form; its nature is to carry content.

Rodney Collin felt little surprised when Ouspensky rejected the old language, the method and the System, that he hardly looked for an explanation. To him, the “System” had become so overwhelming and so complete, that in many cases, including his own, it had begun to strangle his deep inner curiosity and his struggle with the unknown. To Rodney Collin “the abandoning” was an incomplete phrase. He himself heard Ouspensky later say “Yes, I said abandon, not destroy.” It has become clear from this unpublished material that many of the incidents that have been taken as indications, and even proofs of Ouspensky’s unstableness and degeneration, were in fact forms of preparation for himself and his closest circle.

It is difficult to say when these preparations started, most probably before he left America, but definitely by the beginning of April 1947, when Ouspensky started to spend more time in his rooms at Lyne, only seeing a small group of people. From Rodney Collin’s unpublished material, we can see how this group formed and grew both in awareness and understanding: “Yet there was something rather strange about this isolation. Before leaving America, he had written to Lyne saying that he was coming to see certain people ‘whom he would choose.’ On the very day of his arrival he did in fact invite one or two people to come and sit with him or to dine. But curiously enough, after the first invitation, nearly all these people found themselves too busy to respond. Some had unavoidable duties on the farm or business in London, which they regarded as Work—and so were never available when called for. Others came once, but finding that nothing was said or done, felt it rather a waste of time. Unaccepted invitations were not repeated.”

It was through Ouspensky’s ever increasingly economy with words, and his turning of the small group’s attention to seemingly insignificant things—the turning of day and night upside down and the long hours of silence—that Rodney Collin describes what can be recognized as the growth of an extraordinary sensitivity: “O. would say little or nothing, but from time to time point to the cats, as though directing attention specially to them. Sometimes he might ask for something, or wish a dish set aside or a pie placed by his soup. But with such economy of words that ‘Go,’ ‘Take,’ and ‘Put’ seemed to cover almost all eventualities. If something were not required, the rest had learnt to remain still, both outwardly and innerly curbing any impulse to move, suggest or interfere—until the solution showed itself.”

Collin further describes how this atmosphere of sensitivity gave access to a more objective view: “For many hours at a stretch they became used to sitting in the Green Drawing Room with him, saying nothing, doing nothing. One’s eyes fell with pleasure on the bright spots of Persian and Indian miniatures against the restful green and gold walls, or on the chestnut tree beyond the window, on which day by day buds gave way to flowers and these to clusters of nuts. Nothing else was apparent. And yet in some way one’s whole attitude of life changed at such times, all impatience vanished and one became content to exist definitely in the present. This, it later became clear, was a very definite preparation.”

Rodney Collin’s growing understanding of how instinctive and mental habits hide insights and “quite new points of view” can also be found in an experience described in his unpublished manuscript: “O. seemed to find it difficult to sleep long and after two or three hours rest would wake again about 9:00 or 10:00 PM, take breakfast coffee, rise and begin another day. This would mean that Miss R. must serve lunch sometime after midnight, after which they might sit together for an hour or two and then go back to bed again. Next day O. might wake at 10:00 AM, there would be a second lunch at 2:00 PM, supper at 6.30 PM; then he would retire once more and so on. In this way, two complete days were compressed into 24 hours.”

One of these nights, after a midnight lunch, when “Miss Q. lay on the sofa and went to sleep and W. too was dozing,” Rodney Collin describes how he “for some reason remained alert and was filled with a strange awareness sitting there, the whole house asleep in this curious pause of the small hours, facing O. for hour after hour, the two of them quite silent and quite still. Awareness mounted and mounted in the silence and then suddenly gave out, drowsiness falling until hours later the dawn whitened the cracks in the shutters. It was strange, too, falling completely out of step with ordinary life; and curious when early or later ceased to have meaning because there was nothing to measure by. Was a meal a late lunch or an early supper and were they late retiring on Friday or early to bed on Saturday? All such ideas and, in fact, all ordinary ways of looking at the routine of life and passage of time were revealed as simply habits of thought. If a man was strong enough to create circumstances which break such habits, quite new points of view become possible.”

Collin found it more and more difficult to describe what was taking place because at this point he felt it necessary to admit the existence of miracles. They began to understand things which Ouspensky wished to convey to them without being told. In a single sentence and phrase they would see some extremely subtle and illuminating significance, which they knew very well they could have never invented for themselves. Moreover, they began to feel every gesture and situation as meaningful, as if they were in a play, where nothing is introduced which does not relate directly to the plot. Sometimes people and even common objects seemed to demonstrate the laws of three or seven. They gained the impression that Ouspensky was, in some inconceivable way, moving, arranging, combining and experimenting with human material without any visible or audible direction.

In such a situation there could be no countercheck. Each individual stood on their own experience of what happened, they could be believed or disbelieved, but nothing could be proved. If one were asked whether he had been told something by Ouspensky, he could not in the ordinary meaning say “yes,” and yet at the same time he knew very well that it was so. When those not present later asked, “What did O. say?,” it was impossible to answer because his broken phrases, if repeated verbatim, would have seemed nonsense to anyone not in the specially prepared state experienced by those who were present.

Indeed, the fact that nothing could be officially recorded, no pronouncement or plan attributed to Ouspensky, seemed an essential part of the intention. Everything had a tremendous range of meanings, which no one version could begin to exhaust.

~ • ~

Passing through the remarkable circumstances of this time, Rodney Collin gives several examples of what he found to be definite stages in a process of initiation conducted by Ouspensky, as when “personality was brought to the surface and accentuated to the highest degree, preparatory to being destroyed.” Collin observed himself beginning, “to act and pose with extraordinary arrogance, ‘Like a cross between an Indian rajah and the Grand Lama,’ as someone expressed it.” Another feature and capacity was his ability to record. When this feature was controlled by personality: “it gave rise to pride of authorship, intense belief in his exclusive way of interpreting scenes and events and thus to lying and the coloring of accounts to justify himself and bolster his own importance.”

Collin saw how he himself, and others, had three ways of meeting these temptations and opportunities. One either 1) fell into the temptation where personality took advantage of “what it liked,” or 2) recognized the temptation and tried to resist it more or less successfully, or 3) recognized that by accepting the temptation without reservation it became transmuted and brought an insight that was his “true course, the one for which he existed.” This third way he found possible only when personality was stripped as a result of one’s numerous experiences.

In late July, after assembling all he had understood in connection with the enneagram, Rodney Collin recognized that his own writing “was taking a line of its own,” very different from what he had planned. Extraordinary ideas and connections with their implications became accessible to him. He soon came to the conclusion that he himself could not lay claim to the ideas that entered his mind. He recognized them as broad abstracts, and that from his own mind and knowledge they took a form and developed. He did not have a theory regarding the source of these ideas and did not make any conclusions or attribute them to Ouspensky, although when he told Ouspensky of all of this he seemed to know very well.

Dr. Roles, who was one of Ouspensky’s old followers and undoubtedly one of his important assistants, was also regularly at Lyne at this time, but seemingly not taking part in what was revealed to the more intimate group. On October 1st when Roles found Ouspensky on the landing dressed and ready to meet the others, he protested: “I beg you not to go.” Ouspensky looked straight through him and pulled him down the stairs. After, when the group had gathered in the Green Drawing Room and had been sitting in silence for some time, Dr. Roles broke the silence saying: “Many want to know how to understand reconstruction.” Ouspensky did not answer. In the unpublished material, Collin states that some of them saw in this moment that the meaning of reconstruction would grow clear only when all that was happening was understood, and that this understanding would grow from the unity of those present. They continued to sit in silence for a very long time. Then Dr. Roles asked again: “How are we to make demands on ourselves?” in answer to which Ouspensky made some indefinable gesture. Collin says in his notes that he felt that Miss Q. had expressed their feeling when she eventually said: “Perhaps it would be better just to sit and understand, rather than ask questions.”

From Rodney Collin’s perspective, it was obvious that what took place at Lyne was understood very diversely by the different people there. I also think that this meeting illustrates some vital aspects of why later, after Ouspensky’s death, many of his followers were to gravitate toward either Dr. Roles or Rodney Collin.

~ • ~

The many car journeys undertaken by Ouspensky in the last months of his life have been wrongly attributed to Rodney Collin’s inventiveness. According to the unpublished material, these journeys (except for the trip made on Thursday, September 11th) were clearly made on Ouspensky’s own initiative. His decision to go for car journeys was already apparent in the evening of Thursday, September 4th after arriving at Lyne from Southampton, when he refused to leave the car: “Eventually he got out with Miss R., climbed up to the hall, took off his hat and coat and then very deliberately walked back to the car again and got in. ‘This is not the right Lyne,’ he said, ‘let’s go and find another.’” Nobody seemed to understand, and after some time he said in a very pleasant way to Rodney Collin: “Well what is the matter?” Collin replied: “I don’t seem to be able to think of anywhere better to go at the moment.” Ouspensky then said: “Let’s go anyway.” The chauffeur was roused up, and they went to Chertsey and came back after 20 minutes.

On Friday, September 12th they set out for a trip to Wendover. This time Collin sensed that there was “a greater air of purpose about the whole expedition” and that he “tried hard to become sensitive to any hints and suggestions which might be given.” That night after the trip Collin wrote: “There is some special problem to be solved here. We have not solved it yet. But this is the most extraordinary time: all kinds of barriers are crumbling and almost anything is possible.”

On Saturday, September 13th Collin was called to Ouspensky’s bedroom and Ouspensky asked if they could start very early the next morning. They left early Sunday morning for Dymchurch and after returning at 8:30 PM, 12 hours later, Collin observed that Ouspensky’s ‘unreasonable’ strivings turned his companions against him: “For this was a test of them and to bring them to a state where they could give up every impulse of self-will and accept all. Only when one observed, was it seen that every ‘unreasonableness’ and every test was at the cost of his own suffering.”

It was through these frequent car journeys that reconstruction, to him, came to mean reconstructing the whole of man’s life, all his experience, all that he has been told and learned and encountered. He also came to a deeper understanding of ‘will’ as a force by which man can do the impossible.

~ • ~

After Ouspensky’s death, the household at Lyne place grew anxious when Rodney Collin, locked up in Ouspensky’s adjoining dressing room, refused to respond to any attempts of contact. After several days suddenly the bell from Ouspensky’s room rang in the kitchen. Janet, Rodney’s wife, was the first to enter the room and found Rodney sitting cross-legged on Ouspensky’s bed. She found it very difficult to communicate with him and told Joyce later that he looked very strange and childlike. In Mexico, years later, he told Joyce that Ouspensky had invaded his being and that he received direct messages of extraordinary power and depth. The basic structure of the four interpenetrating levels of existence in his book, The Theory of Eternal Life, was perceived in this solitary period.

Within a short while after Ouspensky’s death, Janet and Rodney Collin decided to leave Lyne Place and moved to St. James’s Street in London, where he, without delay, shut himself up in his study and started the writing of The Theory of Eternal Life. The inner changes that had taken place subsequently to the experiences he had undergone were remarkable. An innocent, childlike and trustful temperament dominated his mind-set and his dealings with others. An increasing number of people were seeking him out, and his wife held the many callers at a distance so that he could work uninterrupted.

After this intense period of writing they decided to move to Mexico. Several people from Ouspensky’s former group wanted to join them. Dr. Roles who had taken command of the group found it apparently regrettable to see how people were drifting away. However, Joyce Collin-Smith told me on several occasions that Rodney was never seeking disciples. People were attracted by his being, his mild and gentle manners, and his knowledge. He was very clear about not imposing anything on others, and only explaining when people asked and really wanted to know for themselves, and he stressed the necessity to answer only from one’s own understanding and one’s own examples.

After settling at an old hacienda in Tlalpan, Mexico with those that had followed him from England, the group was soon outnumbered by people from the local community and the meetings were, before long, held in Spanish. Among the many activities Rodney Collin initiated, varying from mining, weaving of classical Aztec blankets, establishing the first English bookstore in Mexico City and arranging for his books to be published in Spanish, he started the building of a planetarium at Tetecala in the high hills 20 miles outside Mexico City. The planetarium was meant to be an architecturally symbolic construction with chambers for movements, lectures, theatre performances and a library for Work-related activities.

For a man to whom it has become obvious and clear that only the heart can reconcile inconsistencies, serving becomes a necessity. In his lectures, Collin focused the attention more and more toward the need of giving service to the people of the world and the needs of the planet. Recognizing the lack of health care in the local area, his wife Janet set up a clinic and employed a doctor. Never sparing himself physically, Rodney Collin was in much demand, answering questions from individuals and conducting groups. The focus was constant growth of being, and awakening of consciousness. As a result of the Work-literature being translated into Spanish by Sol Edicon, groups were started in Argentina, Peru, Chile and Uruguay. Ever vigorous, Collin helped and supported whenever and wherever he could. Regularly people flew in from America and Latin America to see him. Amongst them were Hugh Ripman and Robert de Roop. He also kept an extensive and profound correspondence with many people from all over the world. Joyce Collin-Smith told me that she thought he was not getting enough rest and that she had told him, but he had simply said: “One has to do what one can.”

In the midst of March 1956, Rodney Collin made every effort to settle all his business affairs; nothing should be unresolved. He told his wife: “All debts must be paid before moving on to something new. And I know that something new has to begin. The trouble is that I don’t know what it is. I can’t see clearly how to begin anything.” He added: “This journey to Peru is tremendously important. There, something very big is going to begin.” One month later on April 24th they left Mexico for Peru together, with John Grepe and Mrs. Dickens.

After a week in Lima, on May 2nd, the Collins went by plane to Cuzco. During the flight in an unpressurized plane that went up to 19,000 feet, Rodney Collin fell asleep and lost the mouthpiece that supplied oxygen. Janet, who was seated in front of him found out by accident and helped him, and the oxygen soon woke him up. This incident and the fact that Cuzco has an altitude of 11,500 feet might explain why in the next 24 hours, to his wife’s surprise, Collin took several doses of coramine drops (a stimulant used widely at that time to treat altitude sickness). With the exception of aspirin, he never took any medicine whatsoever.

After a short rest at the hotel, Rodney Collin went for a walk and said he would be back at 3:30 PM for a planned sightseeing tour. Janet went downstairs at 3:30 to meet Sr. Spinoza who was to take them to some ruins. He told her that Rodney was in a shop across the street dressing up a poor crippled boy he had come across. Afterwards she was told by a newsvendor who was so impressed by Rodney’s attitude toward the boy that he had followed them to see what would happen. The newsvendor told her that they went to the public baths where Rodney had washed the boy and dried him with his own shirt. As they came out of the shop, a crowd of people that had gathered outside followed them. At a certain moment Rodney turned and faced the crowd and said: “This boy is your responsibility. He is yourselves. You must pray to Our Lord to make him well. If you pray enough he will be healed. You must learn to give, to give. You must learn to look after each other. You must learn what is harmony.” A voice in the crowd said: “That’s all very well for you, you are rich.” Rodney Collin said: “Everyone can give something. Everyone can give a prayer. Even if you can’t give anything else you can always give a smile. That doesn’t cost you anything.”

Later the same day the Collins went by taxi to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo together with the boy (whose name was Modesto) and Sr. Spinoza. Outside the church a little girl was crying loudly. Rodney went up to her, but left her and gave her no more attention when he observed that she was crying out of temper. They then all went into the church where Rodney led them to the rail before a side altar where they knelt. He said: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost we pray that this boy may be healed.”

The following night he woke up Janet and said: “I am afraid. I think I have done wrong. It seemed so important that the boy should be healed that I offered my own body in exchange for his. Now I realize that I was prepared for other work.” She told him: “If God has other work for you, do you think that some words you said will make Him change His plans?” He told her: “If you invoke the name of the Holy Trinity, as I did, what you ask will be done.”

In the morning Rodney went alone to communion. After breakfast John Grepe, Mrs. Dickens and the Collins were going to see some ruins outside town. As they were about to enter the car, Modesto came up saying he wanted to show Rodney where he lived in the belfry of the cathedral. They all drove to the cathedral, where Rodney Collin and Modesto went up the stairs to the belfry joined by John Grepe. Later, returning from the tour, they went back to the hotel. After lunch they went to their room to rest. Janet fell asleep, but became vaguely aware that Rodney had got up and gone out.

She woke suddenly hearing the clock in the cathedral strike. She looked at her watch, it was 3:15 PM. She went downstairs and out onto the steps of the hotel looking for her husband. Mrs. Dickins and John Grepe joined her as they were all going to visit some other Inca ruins. A man came up to them asking if they had been with the Señor Collin. He told them to go to the hospital as there had been an accident. When they came to the hospital they were shown into a small room. Rodney Collin was lying on his back on a stretcher on the floor. His broken right leg was drawn up in exactly the same form as the crippled boy’s.

Janet was later told by a man that as he was driving across the cathedral square, he had slowed down his car and looked up to verify his watch, and had seen Rodney Collin fall as the clock began to strike at 3:15. According to a woman who also saw him fall, he had fallen upright with his arms stretched out as a cross, with his head back as if looking up. Later the bell-ringer in the cathedral gave an account of what had happened. According to the boy, Modesto, Rodney had come to the belfry to tell Modesto that he was going to arrange for a doctor to operate and straighten his leg. As they were sitting and talking together, Rodney, leaning his back to the belfry arch, suddenly stood up with a gasp, hit his head on a beam, and then fell over the edge of the tower.

Rodney Collin was buried in an old church wall in Cuzco. On a flat stone is written the prayer he wrote one month before he died:

I was in the presence of God,
He sent me to earth,
I lost my wings,
My body entered matter,
My soul was fascinated,
Earth drew me down,
I reached the depth.

I am inert,
Longing arises,
I gather my strength,
Will is created,
I receive and meditate,
I adore the Trinity,
I am in the presence of God.

~ • ~

Terje Tonne came into contact with Gurdjieff’s ideas in the early 1970’s. Together with his wife, he has led a group in Oslo for 30 years. He has had a long and close relationship with professor Meredith Thring and George Cornelius. He is the author of The Gurdjieff Puzzle Now, Nevada City, CA: Gateway Books, 2001. He is a conservator with expertise in fire damaged paintings.

Publications by Rodney Collin-Smith

Palms and Patios: Andalusian Essays, London: Heath Cranton Limited, 1931.
The Theory of Eternal Life, London: Limited edition of 600 copies, 1950; Cape Town: Stourton Press, 1950.
Hellas: A Spectacle with Music and Dances in Four Acts, Cape Town: Stourton Press, 1951.
The Theory of Celestial Influence, London: Vincent Stuart, 1954.
The Theory of Conscious Harmony, London: Vincent Stuart, 1958.
The Mirror of Light, London: Stuart & Watkins, 1968.

Copyright © 2015 Terje Tonne
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Revision: October 25, 2015