Ingredients of transformation: a commentary on the work of J. G. Bennett
Copyright © Adrian Gilbert 2009.
G. I Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky are rightly famous for taking 20th century esotericism onto a new path. Together they introduced the western world to the concept of the ‘esoteric school’ as a place of not just learning but self-transformation. There had, of course, been many writers and teacherss of esotericism before this — one thinks here of men like Ramon Lull, Dr John Dee, Robert Fludd and even ladies such as H. P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant. However Gurdjieff, ably assisted by his amanuensis Ouspensky, brought a new modernity to the idea of ‘the work’. Together they presented a set of ideas that while seemingly ancient in origin were wholly modern in exposition. For whereas teachers like Blavatsky were essentially revivalists of ideas and traditions (such as her esoteric ‘Budhism’ and Egyptian mysticism) most of what they wrote was out of kilter with the modern world and therefore antagonistic to contemporary science. By embracing science (or at least scientific terminology) G & O were able to bring about a true esoteric Renaissance and not just a re-hash of old concepts and ideas.
Ouspensky died in 1947 and Gurdjieff in 1950, leaving behind them a legacy that while rich in content, lacked the stability to go on as a genuine ‘school’ (at least in terms of the strict criteria that they themselves described in their own written works). Viewed from outside and with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that their surviving pupils were faced with a central and insurmountable problem: none of them had been endorsed as ‘dauphin’ by either of their teachers while a number of them felt inside that this indeed was their destiny. The result was squabbling and the setting up of mutually exclusive cliques. Each of these successor ‘schools’ believed that their leader was the next teacher in the line set up by G and O and that their ‘sect’ preserved the true essence and purity of their teaching. What nearly all failed to realise or recognise is that real teachers do not ape their former master or derive their authority second-hand. To be a true master (and therefore worthy of wearing the mantle of the teacher) it is necessary to stop being a student and to yourself manifest the living work. For without this the leader of such a ‘school’ will be an impostor, even though he may be able to repeat parrot-fashion everything that he was taught by his own teacher.
One former student of G & O who seems to have genuinely understood this was John Godolphin Bennett. I had the great good fortune of meeting him on a number of occasions in the period from 1972 to shortly before his death in 1974. Bennett was by any standards a remarkable man. Of his early life he left no public record, beginning his autobiography ‘Witness’ with his own near-death experience when wounded in the trenches in 1918. He tells us that while recovering in hospital, (the ‘Great War’ nearing its end) he heard that a posting to Turkey as an intelligence officer was in the offing. Anxious to secure this, in a matter of a few months he learned enough Turkish to convince his superiors he was the man for the job. In Constantinople (the old name for Istanbul) and by now promoted to the staff rank of Lieutenant Colonel at the young age of 21, he became, by 1920, head of British Intelligence for the entire Near East! Over the course of the next fifty years he learnt numerous other languages and dialects including Greek, Armenian, Tibetan, Sanskrit and Indonesian. His period in Constantinople had other repercussion for it was whilst he was resident there that he met G & O for the first time, being instrumental in helping the former to get a visa to emigrate to England. During the Second World War Bennett was Director of the British Coal Utilization Research Association, which pioneered the development of more efficient fires and smokeless fuel. This work brought him into contact with such eminent scientists as Lord Rutherford. Already deeply interested in mathematics, Bennett’s interests in management theory progressed into the then new field of Computer Science and the development of ‘Systematics’. For most of us such busy-ness would be more than enough to occupy our time. However for Bennett these endeavours were only a distraction from his real work and passion which was ‘the work’.
I pass on this potted life-history not because I think we should idolise Bennett but rather to show that he was no fool. Following the death of first O and then G —both were his teachers at different times — he did not stay with the ‘Gurdjieff Society’ (a name which G himself would have mocked remorselessly) but struck out on his own. His journey took him into some strange by-ways and brought him into contact with quite a number of teachers and perhaps pseudo-teachers before he felt ready to start a school of his own: ‘The International Academy for Continuous Education’ at Sherborne House near Cheltenham. It was here that I met him for the first time, which is an event that I won’t describe here as I have written about it in detail in one of my own books: ‘Magi’.
It is unfortunate that Bennett died in December 1974 at a time when his experimental school was still in its infancy. However he did leave behind him a considerable legacy of written works, most (perhaps all) of which I have read. His books even more than his lectures do, I think, mark him out as the greatest British philosopher of the 20th century. He was, in my opinion, head and shoulders above charlatans like A. J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell who, for reasons more to do with their politics than the quality of their ideas, are still lionised by the British media. Bennett, by contrast, was not just an intellectual living in an ivory tower but someone who had achieved much both in the outer world (soldier, administrator, author, teacher) and in his inner world. His works, some of them very complicated in the language they use, reach out for a new paradigm. More to the point, he took the embryonic ideas of G & O (what the latter himself refers to as ‘Fragments of an Unknown Teaching’) and brought them to maturity. For this we should all be grateful.
Now I was never one of Bennett’s pupils — not in the normal, esoteric sense of guru and disciple — but I did attend a number of his public talks that he gave in London. During these, delivered almost in a whisper, he stated that his work was not intended for his own time but would be better understood by future generations. Well, 35 years on we are a different generation. Those of us who were young at the time he delivered his talks are now ourselves approaching retirement age. It now behoves us to take on the responsibility for progressing the work into the 21st century and this is the main reason that I have set up this Invisible College. I think (or at least I hope) that Bennett would approve of what we are doing. Himself a pioneer of the mathematical basis of computer systems, he would have been, I am sure, extremely interested in the way the internet has enabled us to break free from the censorship of the mainstream media to further ideas of self-development and transformation worldwide.
It is in this spirit that I want to talk now about what I believe to be in many ways his most important book. Called, simply, ‘Transformation’ it is one of his shorter works and actually very simple in language and construction. Unlike his Magnum Opus the four volume ‘Dramatic Universe’, it does not make use of long words and special constructs. Straight forward and to the point it is written with the general reader in mind and is therefore accessible to us all. The Transformation he speaks of in the title is the alchemy by which we humans can change ourselves, over the course of our lives, from the base-metal of ignorant savages to the gold of illumination. It is a hand-book of self-development that is quite unlike any other that I have read. He does not, for example, provide prescription remedies of ‘cook-book’ techniques for gaining power, wealth or love. What he does provide is an outline philosophy for us to fill out ourselves according to our own temperaments and needs. Now I am not going to go into the book in detail as it is still in print if you wish to read it. However, I am going to sketch out the general principles he presents for us as they are highly relevant to our own work in the Invisible College.
Bennett states that for Transformation to be successful, there are four ‘sources’ (I prefer to label these as ingredients) that need to be recognised and kept in balance. These are Knowledge, Struggle, Help and Sacrifice. If you want to be astrological about this, these correspond roughly with the elements of Air, Earth, Water and Fire. Because of our own make-up and personality we will each one of us be more attracted to one of these four aspects than the others. This, however, is a mistake. We cannot make much progress if we restrict ourselves in this way: we need all four cylinders to be firing for us or our engines won’t generate the power that we need. So let’s now take these in order.
Well I think we can all agree that this is a fairly obvious ingredient. If you want to be successful in any endeavour, then you need knowledge. To this end we read books, watch documentaries and attend lectures. However we need also to exercise some discernment in what we take in. We may think we have knowledge but it can turn out that this knowledge is either wrong or has been superseded. This is actually one of the main problems we have. The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin scientia meaning knowledge. Yet science itself is always going out of date and constantly having to be re-appraised. So to be a true scientist we must be flexible and always willing to learn something new.
This may seem obvious and perhaps it is when we are talking about material science. However most people are much less flexible when it comes to ideas concerning religion. We tend to form our religious ideas in childhood or during the period of our early twenties and then stick with these for life. People will say they are a life-long Catholic, Muslim or even Atheist not realising that they have maybe not even considered any alternative for twenty, thirty or even fifty years.
Those of us on the path cannot afford to be stuck like this. We need to keep our minds open and alert, aware that the ideas and attitudes that served us well in one period of our lives may very well be inappropriate later. We cannot afford to take the religion of our infancy as an immutable fact when we are forty or we may easily find ourselves regressing rather than progressing.
Knowledge, therefore is important and I would go further: so is a flexible attitude to Faith. We should not confuse faith with dogmatism. We need to keep our faith flexible and adjustable so that it can change as we change.
The second ingredient is just as important as the first. It is not enough to know a lot, in order to change we have to make ourselves different. This will inevitably produce friction within as our new intentions at self-improvement clash with established habits. One of the first aspects of the work is to become aware of who we are: that is to say our strengths and weaknesses. Gurdjieff writes that when dealing with new students he would look for where their bunions are and then stamp on these very hard to see how they behaved. This might seem cruel but what he is talking about is finding out what their areas of ‘soreness’ are: their points of friction. Thus at his famous banquets he would instruct the tea-totallers to drink alcohol and the alcoholics to abstain. For the individuals the struggle of doing this would produce in sharp relief their areas of weakness. The first group, the way they maybe shrink from contact with sociability, the second how they are dependent on a drug in order to ‘be themselves’.
Now we don’t have to do what he did to bring these things to our attention but we do need to struggle with our bad habits. Curiously enough, because these always stem for the nature of our patterning —partly through heredity, partly from the astrology of our birth but also maybe a legacy of past-lives — the major temptations in our lives never change. This is what we mean when we say that ‘people never change’. Actually they do (if they are developed that is) but what doesn’t change is the type of things that tempt them. Poor old George Best couldn’t resist a drink and others can’t resist sex, gambling, stealing, telling lies, laziness or vaunting arrogance. These are character traits and we have to struggle with them. It is a battle we will never entirely win on this side of the grave but in struggling with our habits we create heat and this enables us to crystallise our higher bodies. More on this subject in a later essay.
In order to be successful we need help. We cannot, any of us, do it all for ourselves. We see this around us in daily life. It is because mankind learnt how to cooperate with one another and pool resources that we have been able to achieve more than subsistence living. We need to help each other but we also need help from other sources too. There are many of these available but mostly they are unseen. There are, for example, angels and other higher beings who can help us on our way. There are subtle energies: what is called by Christians ‘Grace’ and by Jews and Muslims ‘Baruch’ or ‘Baraka’. We need to avail ourselves of these energies, which can be contacted through prayer, mediation or also by visiting places of sanctity.
This, actually, was the purpose of pilgrimage in the old days. People used to visit the shrines of saints so that they would come into contact with both the spirit of the saint himself and the special energies in the atmosphere of his shrine. We can still do this now.
Later, as we progress with the work, we can learn how to access these energy sources directly and how to invoke atmospheres that can be of help to our work. The principle, however, is the same and so is the requirement. We must first overcome our pride and admit that we do indeed need help. That in itself can be a major hurdle for some people, especially if they associate a need for help with personal weakness. In order for our work to be successful we must get over such useless attitudes and admit the obvious: we are all of us weak in one way or another and we all need help from time to time. In this work help is essential.
This is in some ways the hardest ingredient to understand. We are not here talking about sacrificing to imaginary gods or slaying animals in atonement for sins. Sacrifice is really about breaking our attachments, about letting go. Ouspensky tells a story in one of his books about how a lady student asked him what she should do to progress. He told her she must break one of her prized tea-cups that she had inherited from her mother. The set was very expensive and it had great sentimental value, so much so that she found she couldn’t break the cup. This, he said, was what was holding her back.
Now the lesson here was not that she should break something beautiful but that her attachment to her tea-set was perhaps symptomatic of other attachments. It is good to have things but if we are too attached to possessions, then they possess us. It is the same with our relationships with people. Real love is not the same as desire for possession of someone else’s body. We have to be ready to let go: for example to give our children space to grow and be themselves, our life-partners to express themselves in ways that may not even involve us. All this can cause pain but it also brings about release. Often the pain is felt prior to the release and then there is a transformation from bondage to freedom. This is a very necessary ingredient for one day we must each of us break all attachments we may have to everything we have ever owned on earth. We cannot bring our tea-sets with us into heaven and it is better that we learn this lesson now while we are still here on earth.
This, then is a very brief outline of Bennett’s book ‘Transformation’. I would recommend that you all read it, for such books are food sources for our minds and souls. We need to avail ourselves of such help while we still can.