The following post is the first installment in a four-part series on a “school” phenomenon called “Country Retreat”. The writer is generously contributing his story at my request. (Thank you!)
I was first invited to participate in CR, or Country Retreat (though some mistook the abbreviation for Commentary Reading, for reasons that will soon become clear), in January or February of 2009.
By this time, class had moved from Belmont to Billerica, and was increasingly running well beyond the normal 9:30 PM end time. My wife was typically in bed before I got home on class nights. The next morning she would sometimes ask when I had arrived – not in a suspicious or accusatory way, simply out of curiosity. Nonetheless, I was feeling increasingly anxious about it. Every word I uttered as cover for school activities was feeling more and more like a lie. I had recently put in many late nights for choir and band in the months leading up the Christmas party, and often had random appointments for third line (recruiting), which I typically explained as “meeting
an old friend from work for coffee”. This didn’t make sense to me, so I thought it must seem strange to my wife. I had good friends known to her whom I hadn’t seen in months, so why was I meeting with random ex-coworkers she’d never heard of? Still, it seemed like the most
plausible explanation for these random appointments. One time I had to meet with my aim partner, and in trying to tell my wife (without telling her, of course) who this person was, I could feel my face flush red. I still see it as a minor miracle that she never expressed any suspicion.
One night at the beginning of class, several of us were taken aside for a private conversation where Robert proposed that we join some of the older students for a weekend in the countryside.
“It’s a chance to work together in a less formal setting and build your essence friendships in a new way,” he said, his voice just above a whisper because we were having a private meeting, but otherwise beaming with the magnanimity of his offer. We hesitated and glanced around at each other. Finally, Deanna (not her real name) asked, “Is this mandatory? I mean, we’re invited, but do we have to go?”
I was relieved to hear her give voice to her skepticism, thanking her in my mind. I mentally boosted her signal and perhaps even mumbled my own reservations. Robert’s face fell, brow knotted. “Well of course, it is an invitation. I thought you would all be excited about this
opportunity, but if you don’t want to do it, we don’t have to.”
Deanna said, “You could still do it without me. I’m just not sure I can add anything right now.” At this point, beneath the silence one could hear that a few others would surely decline if it were possible to do so without suffering disapproval. Deanna’s spoken resistance emboldened me, though I can’t remember if I expressed my reluctance or someone else did theirs.
Robert shook his head sadly and shrugged his shoulders. “Ok, we don’t have to do it. I thought you would be excited about it…” He walked away, leaving us to talk amongst ourselves.
We stood in a circle and looked at each other. Daria (also not her real name) said the retreat sounded exciting to her. It reminded her of the stories we had read about Ouspensky’s adventures with Gurdjieff’s group, how they experimented together for periods of time at a house in the country. Those stories painted a picture of sincere seekers making real progress in their work on themselves. Maybe this was just what our group needed – expanded time in a more relaxed
space, closer interaction with the older students, and the promise of a clear next level. Perhaps this could breathe new life into our collective and individual work. Some others agreed, and I began to
feel the potential value and importance of this event. Soon we were all, Deanna and myself included, talking about how we could make it work, it would be a good opportunity, it would be a good stretch, and so on. I’m not sure about everyone else, but by the time Robert returned I had fully bought in.
I can’t remember if it was Robert or Michael who told us what we would need to bring: a couple of changes of clothes that could get dirty, work gloves, and a set of nice clothes. The retreat would be in New Hampshire, about an hour away, at a property owned by the school. We would arrive in the evening on Friday and leave on Sunday. Some older students would take Friday off work and go up early, but since this was our first retreat we wouldn’t have to this time (though a couple of the women ultimately did). The weekend would give us the opportunity to use some of the school ideas in practical ways by working around the property and on creative projects, as well as provide a new kind of setting for meetings and discussions, a place to grow our being and our essence friendships.
Not much detail was given at that time. That initial discussion was just to get our buy in and come up with potential dates so they could plan the event. In the weeks that followed, we were involved in some of the planning, but they generally wanted as much as possible to be a surprise. Eventually we learned that the nice clothes were for Saturday dinner, where the school’s culinary all-stars would be responsible for the menu, fine food and wine. The only other key thing we learned about in advance was the commentary assignment.
We were each given a two or three page photocopy of an entry from Maurice Nicoll’s commentaries on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s teachings, which we were to read at least once per day leading up to the retreat. We were paired up into aim partnerships, so we could keep each other honest about reading the commentary as well as state aims that we would call into each other periodically. Aim partners exchanged voice mail numbers. By that time we all had private voice mail lines exclusively for school purposes. When writing down each others’ numbers, we would encode them in some way, such as reversing the last two digits. I would never add my aim partner’s number as a contact on my phone, even though it was going to be in my ‘dialed’ numbers list at least once per day unless I purged it (which just seemed too much like paranoid behavior).
Now I was paired up with my CR Aim Partner (in addition to my two LifeAim Partners), with a daily Commentary Aim (in addition to my five week Life Aim, my Self-Observation Aim, and our Third Line Aim), with an assigned commentary to read (in addition to other reading assignments). Almost immediately the excitement of this new opportunity was tempered by the anxiety of having one more obligation, and the dread of having to come up with a decent cover story for a whole weekend away. Within a week the excitement was all but overwhelmed.