We Begin Where We Are

Parabola - October 31, 2016 By 

Traffic circle in Recke, Kreis Steinfurt, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Traffic circle in Recke, Kreis Steinfurt, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

A Gurdjieff Group in the world

In his book All and Everything, G.I. Gurdjieff presented what he called the “Obligolnian Strivings,” directives intended to instill in the consciousness of those who practice them—said to be engaged in the “Work”—the “divine function of genuine Conscience.” For several years, I have been involved with group efforts to manifest the Strivings. Below are the Strivings as Gurdjieff presented them, along with a report on some of those group activities.

First Striving: to have in one’s ordinary being-existence everything satisfying and absolutely indispensible for the planetary body.
Second Striving: to have a constant and unflagging instinctual need for self-perfecting in the sense of Being.
Third Striving: the conscious striving to know ever more and more about the laws of world-creation and world-maintenance.
Fourth Striving: from the beginning of one’s existence the striving to pay as quickly as possible for one’s arising and individuality, in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father.
Fifth Striving: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred “Martfotai,” that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.

Traffic Circle Transformation

Afew years ago, our group wished to have a focus for our practical work. In another group, I had participated in clearing a traffic circle, a planted mini-rotary to calm and slow traffic in my neighborhood. It had been under the care of a woman up the road, but her son had been paralyzed in a traffic accident and so it had been let go to weeds and brambles. Many of my neighbors had seen that a group gathered every other week at my house. Since I am active in my neighborhood, talking to people, allowing the children to play in my yard and being in general a “safe house” for them, the neighbors accepted this with good grace. Then one day, we showed up as a group and began working to clear the weed-infested traffic circle.

At the end of the work day, all weeds were gone, new soil was added, plants were planted and a mulch on top. Everyone then went home. I went out later to add some plants from my garden and one by one, the neighbors came out to look at the circle. Some asked if they could plant something. Of course, I said. Two of the children asked if they could dig the holes to put in the plants I was holding. The nearest neighbor offered to water the circle. One house down the block began to plant vegetables and pumpkins for the children in the neighborhood to carve as jack-o’-lanterns (some were later stolen!). The whole circle became a focus for neighbors to gather at, weed, water, and enjoy. Even neighbors from farther away came to pick strawberries and raspberries planted there. People talked to one another and grew to know one another more intimately. The neighborhood became a friendlier place.

This coming together in my near neighborhood was not “our doing.” But a change in the physical space made some things more possible and I could observe the outcome. We have done many traffic circles since then (we call it “Traffic Circle Transformation,” you can find us on Facebook) and I cannot testify that others had such outcomes. I do know, however, that changing the physical surroundings to the better can bring about results we cannot know. Our group had wished to manifest, through practical work, what the world would be if it were a perfect world. Of course, garbage would be gathered from the beaches (and the streets and the seas and the forests) and every traffic circle would be full of free flowers and vegetables. This is akin to changing our inner state, which we all know can ameliorate bad situations and promote understanding. We bear the manifestations unpleasing to ourselves, the quintessential intentional suffering, not for ourselves but because we can choose not to add friction to an already volatile and unhappy situation. And so it is possible to bring that struggle, to change our inner reality, without ego or identification, and manifest a better way to be in the greater world. This is the heart of the fourth and fifth Obligolnian strivings. These kinds of manifestations are the “afterwards” spoken about in the fourth, to bring into the visible, palpable world a small aspect of how it is to be otherwise.

The Graves Project

The Graves Project

Our Work group has also taken part in what was known as “The Graves Project.” A local group that supplied headstones to deceased indigent veterans had taken on a cemetery attached to the local asylum. All the inmates, due to the shame of mental illness in the past, had been buried with numbered markers. One nurse, over her long career, had kept a list of names attached to the numbers. Our task was to map the marker numbers, find the names on the list and set new personalized headstones, with names and dates of birth and death, a task that had a large feeling impact on all members of the group. There was a sense of reclaiming the humanity of these unfortunate fellow residents of the earth, whom we probably would have avoided if encountered. The first time we had done this alone with the leader of the project. The next time, however, was different.

The community has a “Volunteer Day” and The Graves Project was one of the projects available. Our group had sat together beforehand and taken the task of foregoing unnecessary talking. We worked as quietly as possible while other members of the community, making it a social day as well as a service day, chatted around us. We tried to keep a thread of awareness among ourselves as we worked in different quarters of the cemetery, smiling when spoken to and answering any questions in as few words as possible. A friend had come down from Canada to join in. After the morning was over, a local pastor gathered us together and began to speak about service. Then she asked each of us in turn why we were here. Members of the community talked about what fun it was to do something together, have a day out and a picnic afterwards. When it came to group members, we merely said that it was to be of service. People began to see that we had come together, and one could see them begin to question what we were about. When our friend, Harold, said that he had come from Canada to be here, one could feel the questions gather and a wonder grow that people would come from so far to do something in the community. We left before any explanations could be called for, thanking the organizers. But I saw a glimmer on the faces of people as they awoke to a different kind of presence. There was a definitive manifestation of wonder, a sense among the participants that something new had entered.

There Is More To Life Than Picking Up Garbage

Beach cleaning, Mozambique, 2009

Beach cleaning, Mozambique, 2009

Shortly afterwards, I had the opportunity to be with a friend who had gone to a week’s Work seminar in Wales, at a place called Stackpole, a lovely setting on the Pembroke coast. He shared with me a story that also had the flavor I had experienced in The Graves Project. The normal practical work at Stackpole was to remove invasive trees from the surrounding woods but this day, the participants had gone to the local beach to pick up garbage. The beach always has its share of tourists in August, and this August was no exception. The group began to pick up the trash and, having been given an inner task for self-remembering, paused every fifteen minutes to recollect and refresh the exercise. The reminding factor was a bell. This, of course, caught the attention of the holiday-makers. One woman asked my friend what this was all about and what were they doing. He answered “We’re picking up garbage.” “Yes,” she replied, “But why are you stopping with the bell?” His answer was “to remember that there is more to life than picking up garbage.” To this she said, “Well, there is something to that, isn’t there?” As the group went on with the task, they began to be joined, first by the children and then others, who also paused when the bell rang.
I am quite sure that no one on the beach that day will forget the incident. It had the flavor of an entry into another world, not just for those who have taken up the Work, but the larger community.

Guitar Craft

J. G. Bennett, who studied with Gurdjieff, postulated a stage of development in those who had become psychokinetic, seeking transformation in their lives, that of the “specialist.” Specialists have developed some methodology they can use to manifest in the world in a manner that attracts others. They are important, according to Bennett, by their visibility. They are in a unique position to awaken those individuals in the psychostatic group. Specialists may also rise to the position of councilor, functioning beyond their use in inspiration and serving also the aims of the Work in general. Part of the human function, according to Bennett, is to act as a conduit between an unseen sphere, that of values, and the manifest world.

If we were to imagine a better world that this, what values would become manifest? The first step to answering this question is the ability to attend in the present moment, to be aware of one’s role in the whole and to act when possible. How does one teach this ability? The best way is to not teach directly but through finding a path in which the individual has more personal goals to pursue. Music is an example. Robert Fripp is a guitarist perhaps best known as a member of the progressive British rock band, King Crimson. He has played with David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Peter Gabriel. He could have become extremely wealthy in this pursuit but came under the influence of Bennett.

In 1985, Fripp began to offer guitar workshops under the umbrella name of “Guitar Craft” (GC). Using techniques of attention and decision learned at Sherborne House, Fripp introduced Guitar Craft as a way to learn music and connect with oneself. After a run of twenty-five years and over three-thousand graduates, GC morphed into the Guitar Circle. A local Guitar Circle, here in Seattle, began a children’s guitar school, teaching children to play with attention not just to the music but to posture, sensation, and attention and a connection to others in the circle. As one individual said, “It took me five years in GC to figure out it wasn’t about playing the guitar.”

owing the Seeds. Probably by Mihály Mankovics. Greek Catholic Cathedral of Hajdúdorog, Hungary

Sowing the Seeds. Probably by Mihály Mankovics. Greek. Catholic Cathedral of Hajdúdorog, Hungary

I have had the good fortune to attend two of the “children’s concerts” put on by this guitar school. The first was small, for the benefit of the children and the parents, but the second had the added component of having seventy-five practiced guitarists from around the world, in town for a performance of The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists, surrounding the children to support them. Showing presence and attention, the children played their pieces with gusto and enthusiasm. There was a special quality of presence from the adult guitarists that was palpable to all, an illustration of where this practice of music as an outer aim—and attention, to oneself and others, in a group as the inner practice—could lead. What continued benefit throughout life could such a training have?

We cannot know, but such a training can easily be seen in what Bennett called “the Master Parable,” that of the Sower and the Seed. The Sower sows because he must and the seed lands sometimes on stony ground, and yet sometimes in rich soil where the effort is returned a hundred-fold. The potential future benefit of such a training may be lost to some but many others may use the techniques in other fields—the seed having been sown, the future of its growth is unknowable. We can hope that the future for these children will be one of growth of presence and being.

Guitar Circle as a group comprised of individuals brings this manifestation into the world through specific aim. On the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists website, Robert Fripp writes:

“How does Intelligence act in and through many individuals, coming together as one? What if a high level of Conscious or Creative Intelligence needed to enter this world, what kind of body or vehicle would it need?


“A group comes together in service of an aim. At a particular level, each member of the group is that group, and the group may act in and through that person. This is the level where societies act in the common interest; where global solutions are found or, more accurately, present themselves to be discovered.

How may 100 people act as if they were one person?

This does not happen by accident, nor by chance: it is an intentional undertaking. Group, social, national, international and global action in service of the planet is not likely to happen quickly. But this is no reason we should not begin.

How? We begin with the possible and move gradually towards the impossible. The impossible is already available, because it has to be. A practical difficulty is, we have not yet addressed the possible.

So, where to begin? We begin where we are. But we begin today.

And so, knowing that the world needs people of good will who can work together, why delay? ♦


From Parabola Volume 41, No. 4 “Generosity & Service,” Winter 2016-2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.

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