Country Retreat: The Invitation

Country Retreat

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.

Part 2: First Visit

23 thoughts on “Country Retreat: The Invitation

  1. Odysseus says:

    Thank you for posting this.

    CR does seem like a new adventure at the start, just as you describe. But then it gradually becomes just another part of the multitude of ways we were all ensnared. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to spend time together and deepen essence friendships? Who wouldn’t want to work more intensively and more purposefully?

    And in conception, CR IS a great idea. It’s in the niggly little details of execution and the heavy-handed “help” that comes along with it that the problems show up. It’s not really “expanded time in a more relaxed space, … and the promise of a clear next level.” At least not in my experience.

    I never understood how anyone could maintain a marriage with someone who was not also in the cult. There were some, but it seemed far more usual for people in that situation to either leave (sometimes due to issues of privacy) or to divorce and then wind up in a “school marriage”. Looking back, I think that this was intentional, as it is much harder for someone to leave if they are entangled in a “school marriage.’ I am glad for you that you got out with your marriage intact.
    It is interesting how Robert played on Deanna’s sense of guilt by making it an all or no-one thing, with her becoming responsible for depriving the others of a wonderful experience. That’s a new one for me, and I thought I’d seen almost everything.

    I am curious – were you eventually told to buy the commentaries, or was it always a photocopied handout? When I started CR we had to buy them, and it’s a considerable investment. Although, many of the people already at CR when I started had photocopies of each whole volume.

    You mention realizing how many “obligations” were being imposed on you. Only since leaving, have I come to realize how big a part of the “school” experience this is. I think that in a genuine esoteric school, this would probably be a real help, but in our reality, it became a web of what someone on the other blog termed “psychic indebtedness”, with each obligation serving to keep us in “school mode” and each failure serving to make us feel our lack and our need for “help.”

    By the way, at the time you describe, did you know it was Gurdjieff and Ouspensky you were emulating? Or did you learn the names after leaving?

    Thank you again for writing this. I look forward to the continuation.

  2. The funny thing about this story is that I can hear Robert extending this invitation in that hushed voice – the one that tells you that you’ve graduated to some unspoken level – and I can see his face kind of beaming out pride as he extends it. I can also see his face fall when students don’t greet his invitation with unbridled enthusiasm.

    And yea, it is interesting to look back on that dynamic in which the one who speaks up (in this case Deana) becomes responsible for holding every one else back.

  3. charlie chaplin says:

    Thanks for your comments Odysseus! Some of what you say (particularly about marriages in / out of school) will be addressed in the next two installments. To be fair, I’m not sure the whole thing would have been scuttled had Deanna declined to attend. I got the sense that others would also decline if Deanna “got away with it”, otherwise I’m not sure Robert would have felt the need to pressure her. There were a couple of others who did end up skipping out (stay tuned for part 2).

    We were told later that we could purchase the commentaries (from school, photocopied and bound of course), and when I arrived many older students did have the full set, quite a pile of paper. I never did buy them. I kept a backpack at work with all of my school reading materials, and it was getting quite stuffed as it was.

    As for the obligations, I was most conscious of those that required me to cover for random blocks of time, as that brought on the most fear, anxiety and regret. I had certainly come to resent the sheer volume of the more invisible obligations (self-observations, checking in with aim partners, reading assignments, morning prayer / self-sensing, etc), but at that time I saw this as my own failing. I told myself that if I had the will or being to accomplish these tasks consistently without resentment, I would see their great benefit. It was only later, after leaving school, that I realized just how crowded my head had become.

    One point of contrast would be my five-week aims. While I can’t remember many of them, there are some that I do remember and remain grateful for having had the structure and motivation to carry them off. For the most part, these aims truly came from me. One thing that happened over my time in school was the balance slowly but dramatically shifted from help in doing things I wanted for myself to demands that I do things for school (while still calling it “my aim”).

    As for your last question, yes I did know about Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. When I first joined, we were given paperback copies of The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution. A couple of years later, we were given the “opportunity” to purchase copies of In Search of the Miraculous. Even when we received (again, purchased) photocopies of The Theory of Celestial Influence, the title page was intact and we openly discussed the author and his relationship to Ouspensky. It was only a few years later, after some defections and increasing paranoia about security, that the sources for these materials were hidden.

    Again, thank you so much for your response. It really helps me figure out what to address in the next posts. I welcome all questions, comments, and for anybody who was present at anything I describe, I also welcome challenges and contradictions, recognizing that my memory is both subjective and extremely fallible.

    • agalia says:

      Purchasing a photocopy of the Commentaries from “school” is a copyright infringement. Just one of many illegal and amoral things that they advocate.

      Many years ago, we were all told to purchase all of the books – well, actually all of the “approved” books. There were a number of books by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, etc. that we were only allowed to read if we had “permission” to do so (and others that were never mentioned at all.) There was for many years a “reading list” of books you could read – Shakespeare, Plato, Chekhov, etc. I bought whatever I wanted and read whatever I wanted anyway (bad student.) Every book had to be “covered” however so that no one would know what you were reading if you happened to be on the subway. Of course, if someone was reading over your shoulder, they could see what the book was. When I left, I had about three cartons of “school books” – that was between myself, my husband and my husband’s ex-wife. I took most of them to a used book store and just dumped them. Some of them were hard covered copies of the Commentaries and earlier editions of “All and Everything” that I had bought either at the Strand Bookstore or on the street and I sold them on Amazon and got quite a bit of money for them.

      Yes, let’s talk about the freedoms we are guaranteed in the Constitution: freedom of speech, freedom to read what you like, freedom to post what you want on the internet…

      • agalia says:

        p.s. Love the photos!

      • Hi Agalia – Thanks for your comments!

        As I read them, I am again reminded by how easily I gave my freedoms away – looking to get “permission” on what to read, to say, what to think … even whether or not to write in a journal and I am endlessly astonished. I am also endlessly grateful that I left “school” and – in doing so – I am able to look back and see its true nature as esoteric prison.

      • Survivor 2 says:

        I’d meant to leave my comment below as a reply to this one. I won’t repeat it here, but it’s a separate comment at the bottom – dated the same as today 10.15.2012. Thanks for sharing your stories!

  4. Hi Charlie,
    In response to …
    “While I can’t remember many of them, there are some that I do remember and remain grateful for having had the structure and motivation to carry them off. For the most part, these aims truly came from me. One thing that happened over my time in school was the balance slowly but dramatically shifted from help in doing things I wanted for myself to demands that I do things for school (while still calling it “my aim”).”

    It’s serendipitous that you mention how aims morph from being internally inspired to dictated by the “school” machine and it’s eternally evolving demands. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about just that. It is waiting in draft mode at the moment. But maybe I’ll post it because it echoes what you wrote here.

  5. Grateful says:

    Not sure if this should be posted, because of Robert el al read this they might instruct the sustainers to lie, but one of the things that made me realize the group was not worth it (before I learned its true nature) was when my sustainer told me her best aim project was a dress that her own sustainer helped her with. She couldn’t really remember any aims after that. It was nearly 20 years before, and I had a sense aims after that involved only the school, and not her own projects. I thought, no thank you. I was already suspicious about what was happening to our tuition, figuring Robert was living in some spiffy condo with that money….

  6. You know, I can understand your hesitation around making this comment public, but I think we should make as much truth public as possible. Since “school’s” entire infrastructure is based on lies, omissions and distorted “knowledge”, its leadership is going to have to do a lot of scrambling around to keep covering their asses. That being said, I think I will post the Five-Week Aim post. It’ll be the intermission entertainment while we await Country Retreat, Part 2.

  7. Odysseus says:

    I agree about making as much truth as possible public. The only reservation I have is names. I have no problem naming those at the level of Sharon, Robert et. al. But people who have never been in a leadership position don’t merit having their privacy invaded, in my opinion. I still consider most of those people to be my friends and I sincerely hope that they will find their own ways and reasons to leave. That seems less likely if they feel they are under attack from those of us on the outside.

    And, in today’s world, anyone who gets named in a context such as this might well suffer negative consequences in the job market. I certainly do not wish that for my old friends.

  8. Odysseus, I am very uncomfortable publishing names – except, obviously, those of teachers. To be clear, when I say truth, I specifically mean experiences in “school” and the subsequent impact of those experiences.

  9. Survivor 2 says:

    I love reading all the comments and different students’ experiences. Thank you all so very much! I was in the NYC branch of the cult back in the day (taking a cue from someone else and no longer referring to it as “school” – calling something by its proper name – powerful) anywhoooo – I have a box in my basement with all five volumes of the Nicoll commentaries, various other Gurdjieff and Ouspesnky volumes + a MANUSCRIPT of one of Alex’s awful plays! I was part of a “special” group that worked with Alex on reworking one of his writings. (Bascially it meant I got no sleep for a month). Hmm… Wonder what all that’s worth on Amazon? I think I’ll look into it.

    • charlie chaplin says:

      I must admit I’ve been on the fence about whether to refer to OSG as “school” or “cult” or something else. I settled on referring to it as “school” in these writings mostly because I’m trying to recapture what I experienced at the time, and at the time I definitely thought of it as school. As for now, I am still on the fence. A large part of me still thinks of it as school, as I did learn new models to employ in thinking about my own psychology and cosmology – models which varied greatly in their useful stuff to bullshit ratio, but then I could say the same of stuff I learned in high school and college. The difference, of course, is that whatever I learned in OSG was entangled with the more destructive, cultish aspects, such as requirements for deception and the gradual relinquishing of my own reason and point and view in the attempt to “verify” the truth of all the ideas and the wisdom of the “teachers”. (As a side note, a whole post could be written on the statement, “This teaching doesn’t ask you to believe anything, but rather to verify everything.” The result is a kind of striving for self-deception, much more powerful and difficult to overcome than deception by another.)

  10. Hi Charlie Chaplin –

    I’ve finally read this comment and I also want to add to your list of cultish aspects the lack of GRADUATION. Once you are in and have committed to striving for the allusive and nearly impossible “aim” of “evolution”, you are committed for life. Of course, your friendly recruiter isn’t going to tell you about the lifelong commitment at $350/month.

    I welcome your thoughts on the statement “this teaching doesn’t ask you to believe anything, but rather verify everything.” Consider this an invitation for a future post on that topic. I’m sure many of us have opinions about that particular manipulation.

    Thanks for all of your hard work!

  11. Odysseus says:

    The lack of a graduation is a very important thing. Back when I was a fresh-faced recruit, still thinking everything was true and real, I sometimes had thoughts about what it would be like when I was ready to lead my own branch. Of course, that was never in the cards.

    Instead, they string people along for as long as possible, while extorting as much money as possible from them. Most people eventually leave. But those who are truly hooked for life (as it would seem to be for those who have been in for 20+ years) will never graduate. And the thought of dutifully going to class 2 nights a week, along with all the other commitments when I am 60 or 70 is truly horrifying.

    One wonders what will happen when people reach retirement age and realize that there is no way they can retire and still meet all the financial demands. And that is assuming many of them will actually be in a financial position to retire after giving thousands of dollars a year to support Sharon’s insatiable need for more red bathtubs.

    • Survivor 2 says:

      Regarding retirement – I suspect (purely conjecture) that the exit strategy for the senior organization is already in place for when Sharon dies. They’ve been squirreling away all that cash for years and years and years. Back in the day, when a theatre project came up requiring funding certain “trusted” students would be handed $10,000 in cash. Told to deposit in our own accounts and then write a “donation” to some quasi-legit organization. The idea was that cash transactions of $10K and under wouldn’t trigger automatic inquiries by banking authorities (or, whomever is in charge of such things).

      When you think about it – it was really just a way to raise money for their theatre projects. Elaborate and complicated – but really kind of lazy.

      I was interested to hear the rumblings of one the hedge fund guy and his alleged connections to Sharon and the others. I have a purely speculative notion that he’s managed to rig the accounting in such a way so as to “launder” all those cash funds and make them look like legit earnings. I’ve always wondered if they paid income tax on all that. You know Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion. That’s all the Feds could get on him.

      So – back to retirement – I sometimes imagine (and I don’t think about this very much or very often) that Minerva and the others are all secretly praying for the day Sharon dies and they can finally walk away. I don’t know if they’ve lined up successors or not. Certainly David walked away. Does anyone know if Michael Horn (Alex’s son) is still involved?

  12. Hi Survivor 2:

    Gad, the more I learn about this institution of higher calling, the more appalled I am. I shouldn’t be surprised at anything anymore, but I suppose I still have some starry-eyed dreamers in me, hoping that the supposed leadership had maintained a wee sliver of integrity. Not so. So “school” handed wads of cash to certain students for safe keeping; how heart warming and evolved.

    Here’s to those of us who left. Cheers!

    • Survivor 2 says:

      To be clear on the cash – we didn’t keep it. It was “laundered” through our bank accounts. We’d be handed the cash and immediately write a check out for the exact amount as a donation to the theatre production company that fronted Sharon & Alex’s projects. That way it looked as if the production company was receiving donations and they’d get the funds they needed to pay for things like a normal production. It was like angel investors – except it was all funded by cash “school” fees.

      • Survivor 2 says:

        Also – in the interest of over-explanation – this only occurred in preparation for a big public-facing project – like Sharon directing an off-Broadway play or a European theatre tour. This wasn’t an everyday event. I don’t know what they do with all the cash these days – it may be successfully laundered through that hedge fund that’s owned by someone in Sharon Gans’ circle – you know – the one who successfully sued to get a certain blog taken down.

  13. Ah, money laundering. That’s so evolved.

  14. Survivor 2 says:

    So – reading your blog has started a trip down memory lane. I am an inveterate keeper of things. I pulled out my date books from the early years of my involvement and found the hedge fund manager’s name and phone #. I thought he sounded familiar. The no last names, no phone #’s, no law enforcement connections rules came into being in early 1986 after a younger student freaked out and told her cop brothers about the group she was involved with. After that the teachers all changed their phone #’s to unlisted ones. There was one phone # with an answering machine attached where we could leave messages in the event of an emergency.

    Anyway – I want to compliment you on the tone of your blog. I appreciate that you frame your posts (and the guest posts do the same) in terms of your own experiences, and with great compassion for yourself and your fellow students. I think the other blogs that are still up have a certain hysteria to them on occasion. The way you tell your story is much more useful, and powerful. Thank you.

    • Hi Survivor 2:

      Thanks for your kind comments. Recently I listened to an interview with Kenny Rogers – some NPR show. The interviewer asked him why he sang other people’s songs more often than not. His response was that he is not a writer. Writers “need to write,” he said. “I don’t need to write.”

      All of this is to say I guess I’m a writer, because I needed to write my story. I told a fellow ex-student recently that writing this blog has provided me the separation that “school” told me self observations would provide. But often, the writing of my story feels like an exercise in self indulgence. So it makes me happy to see that you and others are finding it useful and powerful.

      Keeping the tone of this blog sincere is important to me. I know of no other way to do this than to tell my story in the most honest way that I can. That means exposing the irony, the ridiculousness, the humor, the longing in me that allowed this cult to suck me in, the sadness that there are so many intelligent and creative people who are vulnerable to this kind of deception. And rather than focus on bringing “school” down, I’d rather focus on encouraging myself and others to learn how to trust our inner guidance. I guess I had to learn how to do that the hard way – but learn I did, when I decided to leave. And I can thank “school” for my now finely-tuned bullshit detector.

      Anyhoo, Survivor 2, I welcome your comments and look forward to hearing more from you!

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