In August, Lisa informed me that a new class was beginning. So one Tuesday, I met her in Cambridge’s Fresh Pond area and followed her over to the Belmont Lion’s Club. We entered a space with hardwood floors and built-in benches lining the periphery. A number of reverent souls sat in silence, reading Plato, or the Bible, or whispering to each other in hushed tones. Some were laying snacks out on a corner table. Drawn curtains sheltered this super secret activity from the outside world.
I yakked nervously at Lisa, who introduced me to a bald, tall man named Matt, saying, “Esther is going to join us.”
A “teacher” named Michael, appeared from a small room and announced, “Get ready for tai chi.”
Reverent, silent souls lined up and began the tai chi form. Michael took me aside with the two other “new students” and introduced himself. A fly on the wall may well have found this scene creepy. Perhaps the part of me that was yakking incessantly at Lisa did, but I ignored it for the most part. My hope got the better of me.
Michael asked if we had practiced tai chi before. I mentioned my tai chi school, and he smiled as though familiar with it, and then we began our lesson. I was not impressed. At some point afterwards, Robert asked me about the tai chi I had learned outside the hallowed halls, saying, “Michael is a good teacher” and my immediate thought was, “not really.” But in the spirit of the “five-week experiment” I went along with it, as I did so many other things. Eventually, I would see Michael as “ a good teacher” as Robert suggested.
After tai chi, another “teacher” gently corralled the three new students into a small room, while the reverent rest filed back to seats in the big room. At this point my memory gets fuzzy, but I know Robert arrived, and introduced a number of ideas:
- Humans are multiplicities; we are not “unified”. There is no one “I”, only several “I’s” who are, on one hand, all jockeying for the steering wheel, and at the same time, are wholly unaware of each other.
- An “evolved” man or woman can become “unified”; but it is nearly impossible to do so and definitely impossible without significant “help”.
- Three psychological elements make up men and woman: essence, personality and false personality.
- Our essence(s) descended from “the starry world”, because each of us has a “chief weakness” and a lesson to learn. Each essence chose a set of parents and, once born, developed a personality, and on top of that, a false personality for protection.
- Over time personality and false personality took over and we “fell asleep” to essence; we “forgot who we are”. Our false personalities started to “crystallize” or become fixed. In school, we “awaken”, we “relax”, we melt the false personality away; we “remember ourselves”.
- People lie. Every time we begin a sentence with the word “I” we are lying because we are not unified. We have no single and unified “I”. The “I” who says we will wake up early the following morning is not the same “I” who hits the alarm and decides to sleep in.
- We “don’t know ourselves” and therefore need “help” to do the work of “evolving and awakening”.
- We would soon receive a “very strange phone call” from a “sustainer”.
We would begin our journey by stating a “5-week aim” — a clearly defined and measurable task that would be completed in the next five weeks.
For the most part, these ideas originated with Russian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff, who established what he called “The Fourth Way.” For most of this “school’s” existence, beginning in the 1970’s, Gurdjieff’s ideas and the work of various “thinkers” who were in line with these ideas were front and center as the foundation of the school. The writings of all these “thinkers” were source material from which to hold discussions. “This is a Fourth Way School” students were once told.
By the time I arrived in 2006, school omitted Gurdjieff’s name from its teaching. It went as far as to copy and redact an entire published book so that it contained no names or clear references to geographical locations. The book became a collection of Xeroxed pages bound beneath a black cover. We referred to it as “The Black Book”. We were told this is an “oral” teaching, passed down from teacher to student. My “sustainer” once said, “You won’t find these ideas anywhere else. You are lucky.”
Imagine my surprise when I later discovered the exact text in P.D. Ouspensky’s book In Search of the Miraculous, an account of the years he spent under Gurdjieff’s direct tutelage. From there I found Gurdjieff’s books on Amazon.com for less than $5 a pop. Many ex-attendees believe that the reason for this blatant copyright infringement is that the Internet came on the scene. “Students” could now do a Google search and potentially come across damning information about the “school” when the browser scooped up all references to Gurdjieff or Ouspensky or Fourth Way.
But as a naive seeker, in her first “class”, I was experiencing a magical miracle. Robert wrapped it up with an assigned reading, which was either Hans Christian Anderson’s, The Shadow, or Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The main characters in both stories hand their lives over to that which is malevolent and evil. Without explicitly saying so, school presents these as cautionary tales: without school this could happen to you. You probably are already selling your soul to the devil.
On the other hand, a more awake and savvy seeker might see school telling the new student exactly what it is up to: yep, we are molding and preparing you to hand over your time, energy, talents and money to school.
I was not so savvy. These ideas aligned perfectly with inexplicable things I had sensed as far back as I could remember. As a woman who has never felt that earth was home and had been aware of her internal shifting cast of characters and those around her for many years, I was the perfect candidate. How liberating that my inner sense of the world-at-large as crazy could be validated. I had come to calling my ex-boyfriend, Mr. Hyde, so reading Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde seemed serendipitous beyond the beyond.
But “Aim” was the most exciting idea. One of the most, if not THE most repeated questions in class was, “What is your aim?” The idea seemed a chance to lock onto a vision for ourselves and get constant support and guidance getting there. “School” would often infer that its lineage included souls such as Rembrandt, Mozart, Shakespeare and Hans Christian Anderson. “It was said that (fill in brilliant person’s name) was in a school”, some teacher would say.
Maybe, just maybe, my life would finally become more than an endless circular course, going nowhere. Maybe I will find the ever-elusive direction I desperately seek. Maybe I will actually become the writer, the songwriter, the guitarist, the fiddler, the performer I have always felt inside but never manifested outside. Maybe I will finally find the “help” I need to nail down a career and earn some money. Maybe my life will become a facet in a bigger purpose – one that lifts this world, our society, out of its present state and makes earth a kinder and more beautiful home.
Tuesdays and Thursdays
From that point on, every Tuesday and Thursday night, between the hours of (roughly) 6:30-9:30ish my soul got to taste “something meaningful”.
A typical “ class” included:
- Arrive at least on time, preferably ten minutes early.
- Observe ten minutes of meditative silence – no “unnecessary talking”.
- Practice thirty minutes of teacher-led “tai chi” or something called “body work” (a flailing free-for-all involving “moving all parts of the body in circles at once!”).
- File in silence to the “classroom” — again, no “unnecessary talking”.
- Discuss ideas until a teacher brought class to a close and gave an assignment.
- Observe an “hour of silence” after class to “seal off any leaks” of this precious teaching.
“Teachers” lorded over the “classroom” presenting “ideas” and orchestrating the discussion. Students would obediently stand to indicate s/he had something to contribute and wait to be called on. Sometimes students waited a long time, only to be cut off mid-sentence. Sometimes teachers allowed students to rattle on. But most often these discussions were interesting, lively and inspiring expositions on fascinating ideas– though not always.
This classroom also included the opportunity for students to ask for “help” school style. Say a particular student was fighting with his/her spouse. S/he would stand and say, “I need some help with my marriage.” A teacher would respond, “Go ahead.” S/he would supply the details and the teacher would provide “help” in the form of a response that was informed by “The Work”. “Being work” was another version of “help” which involved a student sharing some insight on a personal weakness to which the teacher would often give an instruction to work against this “weakness”.
Needless to say, “teachers” doled out and control the portions of soul food, deciding what, and how much, its students should and shouldn’t ingest. As “less evolved” beings, students defer to the judgment of the “more evolved” teachers.