Country Retreat, Pt. 3 – “School” Style Rejuvenation

Country Retreat Back Porch

Country Retreat Back Porch

This excerpt is the third in a series of Country Retreat posts, penned by blog-contributor Charlie Chaplin:

My memories of the few Country Retreats (hereafter referred to as CR) I attended blur and jumble together, such that I’m not even sure how many I ended up at (either three or four), or how many nights I slept over (I can only recall one). I am sure that my only Friday evening there was the first one I was invited to. Every other time, I drove up alone in the early morning on Saturday. Since my wife was either pregnant or taking care of our infant during this period, I insisted on being able to leave immediately, if necessary, and went up early Saturday rather than coming directly from work Friday evening. I couldn’t abide leaving my wife and child (soon-to-be or newly born) for two and a half days straight. As long as I arrived early enough for the full day’s work, they let it slide.

I enjoyed the solitude of those trips, driving down back roads through small Massachusetts towns, surrounded by the early morning mist. Groton particularly impressed me as quaint and lovely, where the speed limit slows to a crawl, allowing the opportunity to soak in the pleasant peacefulness of the town center. It served as a rough halfway point. The population density seemed to drop off after Groton, and the roads seemed to stretch and disappear into more wooded and mysterious realms. The return trip gave just the reverse impression, with Groton marking the emergence back into my everyday reality. One time, on my way home, I stopped at a roadside farm store for a fresh pie to to share with my wife. It was one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten.

While I can’t speak directly to the ways a typical Friday evening agenda differed from the one I experienced, my impression is that they were basically the same – dinner, then meeting and talking about the weekend’s work agenda.

The rest of the weekend proceeded according to a common schedule. Saturday began with a 6 AM wake up call, executed by designated students within each room or area of the house. On the occasion I remember, I was up without needing to be awoken, due to the unusual environment and the absence of curtains thick enough to block the early morning light. We all went to the main living room for a meeting at 6:15 to establish everybody’s work schedule. When each group had gathered at its designated location, everyone stated an individual internal aim in addition to the external group aim. A typical internal aim might include working fast, relaxing, working without resentment, being useful, etc. The group aim could be to chop and stack all of the wood in a particular pile within the next hour. Assignments included physical outdoor work, cooking, childcare, cleanup and creative work such as weaving. After the initial work period, we all ate breakfast together and received our assignments for the next work period, which lasted until lunchtime. With lunch came another meeting to discuss afternoon work aims, followed by another work period, after which we evaluated our work and noted what remained to be done the next day.

At this point, we had a chance to shower and get dressed up for our fancy dinner. We transformed the space by moving around and arranging a lot of tables and chairs and beautifying them with tablecloths and candles. It was very nice, though nowhere near as elaborate as the Christmas parties. The food planning and preparation generally fell on the shoulders of the same few talented chefs who had this responsibility whenever culinary expertise was required.

The Saturday dinner was generally quite pleasant and enjoyable, with excellent food and beautifully dressed fellow students. We were able to sit, eat and talk more or less casually about whatever we pleased. After dinner we met again to discuss our impressions of the day’s work as well as the reading we had been assigned (from Maurice Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which can be found at or downloaded for free here ). Four or five people made suggestions for the next reading, and Robert selected one upon consulting with the other teachers. Many of the older students had the entire six-volume set of Nicoll’s Commentaries in bound photocopies, which they had purchased from school. It was suggested, but not insisted upon, that we in the younger group might want to do the same. We each stated a CR aim to inform our work on ourselves until the next retreat. These aims were to be periodically said aloud, preferably daily, on the voice mail of our aim partners.

Sunday began as Saturday – 6 AM wake up, meeting, but only one work session. The remaining time was spent cleaning the houses and taking an inventory of food, drink, and supplies that would need to be replenished for future visits. We left the space as spotless as we found it, some students hauling away trash in their cars.

In spite of the regimentation of time and extraordinary physical demands, I found many aspects of the weekend exciting and invigorating, particularly the work sessions. It felt good to work hard physically, at least to a point, and to spend time out in the woods. In general, my opportunities to work outside with tools are pretty limited, and I found it satisfying. One weekend we chopped wood, and I felt a special delight in landing the ax in the just the right spot to make the wood magically split apart with no apparent resistance. Another time we built a shed from scratch, and I enjoyed climbing on top of the half-built structure with a hammer and pounding in nails to attach the plywood roof. Sometimes the biting flies were incredibly frustrating, but we tried to see it as an opportunity to separate from our mechanical responses to them. At times the work itself was just taxing and unpleasant, such as when we had to move large, heavy pieces of wood uphill through the forest while being shouted at to hurry up and finish before we ran out of time to make the aim. In that afternoon’s meeting, Paul said that he had assigned that task knowing that it was impossible, which added to our sense of accomplishment for having succeeded. The atmosphere was mutually encouraging and congratulatory. I cannot recall anyone being called out for insufficient effort.

At one of my first retreats, we were cleaning up after an ice storm. There were split branches laying on the ground, or in some cases dangling limply from the trees, requiring us to climb up and detach them. These we collected and pushed through a gas powered mulching machine. I remember lifting branches over my head with my work gloves and shoving them into the machine, scratching up my arms. One branch backfired into my chest and left a bruise. I didn’t mind any of it and saw the bruises and scratches as physical evidence of having worked hard. There was a close call when the pile of mulch built up enough to surround the exhaust from the machine, and by the time anyone noticed, smoke was beginning to rise from the pile, which was damn near fully ablaze. We doused it with water and moved the machine away from the pile, relieved that we had averted what could have been a disastrous fire.

I remember mainly feeling amused by this potential calamity. I felt no harm could befall us while working on a school event, as we were somehow mystically protected. This was the same feeling I had several times while riding the school-chartered bus down to New York City for the Christmas party in near-blizzard conditions. While I was anxious about my own deception and fearful of negative repercussions with my wife, I can’t recall any practical fear that our bus could crash or any number of other entirely plausible misfortunes could occur on our various school adventures. Something about that promised protection altered my cognition, not by a lot, but enough to tilt the balance in favor of what now appears a kind of foolish wishful thinking, or at least faulty risk-assessment. I suppose there was something of this same mechanism at work in evaluating the potential for damage to my marriage – the sense that so long as I was laboring for a higher good, what I cherished most in life would not only be protected but enhanced by forces working in the “invisible world”.

Country Retreat, Pt. 4: The Grande Finale

10 thoughts on “Country Retreat, Pt. 3 – “School” Style Rejuvenation

  1. agalia says:

    Oh yes, that “magical thinking” that as long as we were in school then nothing that was harmful could happen to us. We were “protected” in some way by finding the work and by our association with Sharon and Robert. The universe favored us over all the other people on the planet… No matter how long we worked and how tired we were when we drove home at 2 AM, we didn’t need to worry about crashing our car if we fell asleep because we were being looked after. We were only open to being unsafe if we left school where we would not longer be under the protective influence but prey to the same things as the other mortals around us.

    Not true, there were rumors that some people did crash their cars after all night work sessions or had heart attacks after working hours upon hours. There was the story (reported on the esotericfreedom blog) about the NYC Ballet dancer, Joseph DuelI, who apparently took his own life after a particularly bitter critique of his dancing by his “teachers” in school. I certainly remember someone in Boston who suffered a stroke while working nights at Robert’s suggestion. After the stroke, they went totally overboard in being kind and supportive of him and his wife. I always felt that they were acting so abnormally solicitous towards them so that no one would think they might be at fault.

    It all reminds me of the Dylan song “With God on Our Side”:

    In a many dark hour
    I’ve been thinkin’ about this
    That Jesus Christ
    Was betrayed by a kiss
    But I can’t think for you
    You’ll have to decide
    Whether Judas Iscariot
    Had God on his side.

  2. Hi Agalia – I’m so glad you commented on the magical thinking, because to me, this is the most important part of Charlie’s post … it is that thinking that keeps “students” most vulnerable to “school” seduction. One of the blog contributors wrote about a woman named Veronica who died mysteriously; she was one of a group of students tasked with rehabbing a new school space. Apparently, she had many health problems, but that didn’t stop “school” from hoisting its demands on her. It’s sinister, really. I’m glad I got out before my experiences got so extreme.

  3. moishe3rd says:

    I really enjoy reading these recollections of what you all were doing. it has echoes of familiarity with, for instance, building the ranch houses in Montana or other retreats. But, we were never that regimented. The whole “scheduling” thing -aims; chores; discussions; whatever, didn’t exist. We just did stuff. The same kind of stuff but without the agreed upon schedules.
    I thought about writing of my experiences for your blog here, as i do enjoy writing from time to time. But… I am fully aware that my particular views of things are highly aggravating to some.
    However, for what its worth – during my five years in “School” way back then, people were constantly getting hurt overextending themselves physically. One fellow nearly cut a limb off of himself with a chain saw while cutting logs for the Montana cabins.
    Personally, I totaled two vehicles and almost ran another one into a truck while driving “asleep” with my eyes wide open…
    One late night after a late class, Bob asked me to drive home because he was afraid he was going to fall asleep. It was about a 1/2 drive. I fell asleep at the wheel and ended up on the guardrail of the highway… Bob was kind of pissed.
    Another time, I had a late night clandestine meeting with Bob about business (he had theoretically been “kicked out” of “School” at that time) and, as usual when Bob and I got together, some alcohol consumption was involved. When I drove home at about 3 AM on Boston’s roundabouts, I fell asleep at one and drove through a highway sign and a light pole.
    (The happy ending to that story was that when I was reporting what happened to the nice policeman who was filling out the accident report, he said: “No, you didn’t fall asleep.”
    I said, “What?” – afraid that he knew that I had been drinking.
    He said: “You see that light pole? If you fell asleep the insurance company is not going to pay and you are responsible. And, that highway sign? Same thing. And, your car? It won’t be covered either…
    I think that you maybe hit a patch of black ice and just skidded into the roundabout…”
    I said: “Okay.”
    Nice man.)
    Anyway – people got hurt all the time. I gashed my head running into a prop backstage in the dark in one performance and, when we were touring in Israel and Europe, I fell off a stage and had to use a cane to get around for about a week.
    Many folk got damaged by scenery or props and, there were others like me who got into car accidents due to exhaustion.
    Although we too had magical thinking that “The Work” would protect us superior mortals, there weren’t much magic there…
    Other places, like in the woods in Montana, yes… I can deeply sympathize and identify the joy of building a cabin floor in sub zero weather at 3 AM in the wilds of Montana… That was kind of cool…
    As long as no one died – which some of us came close to doing…

  4. agalia says:

    Ahh Moishe,
    You didn’t die but it sounds like you came close a few times but you were there under their “protective” influence. You seem to really enjoy living on the edge and engaging in what psychologists have termed “thrill-seeking behaviors.” Risky behaviors have been associated with dopamine levels in the brain which is maybe something that all of us who were in school might have in common. Maybe it’s not really so mysterious. Others, however, were not so lucky as you…

    I think you are correct that as time went on, things became far more regimented. Since Robert is “alone” in Boston running the show, he probably felt (and still feels for that matter) that he needs to keep a tighter rein on things so that there are no serious accidents. All of this has got to be a lot easier on him if he keeps a tighter control over everything.

    In my day, CR was also a lot looser even though there was a schedule (always subject to change.) The schedule was designed by the two students (one male and one female – kind of like head boy and head girl) who were teacher wannabe’s and ran the show. Frequently, after we arrived Friday night and had a hasty dinner, the chores began. I remember going out to do the shopping for the weekend at the local “Stop and Shop” around 1 AM so it was quite late by the time we got our three or four shopping carts of stuff picked out, paid for, put in the car, loaded out of the car and put away at the house. Wake up Saturday morning was always at a different time depending on what we had to get done during the day. 6 AM seems kind of like sleeping in to me, Charlie!

    Saturday morning was always a long Commentary meeting about our past month’s experiences and Sunday morning was always picking a new Commentary to read, a discussion about it and then stating of new aims for the next month based on the new Commentary and our experiences over the weekend. Commentaries were to be read every day over the course of the month and we were to speak with our CR aim partners (different from our regular school aim partners) every day as well. Yes, we did state our aims out loud to our partners but also discussed our progress (and anything else we wanted.) CR aim partners changed every month.

    Charlie, I LOVE the fact that the Commentaries are on line and free for everyone to read!!! I am so glad that you shared that link with us. We all had the original books (covered of course) published by Shambhala or Weiser’s – another copyright infringement although since they are free on the web now, they must have gone into public domain.

    Saturday night dinner was as you described in most respects but dinner was generally at 10 or 11 PM and by the time we were done and cleaned up and everything put back in it’s place, it was another 2 or 3 AM evening with a 5 or 6 AM wake up on Sunday. Look at all the cult literature: no sleep, lots of carbs in the diet, it goes on and on…

    • Charlie Chaplin says:

      Thanks for your feedback agalia & moishe! Hearing that people enjoy these recollections or find them useful is pretty motivating. I’m finding it helpful for myself to remember and write these, but it adds to the pleasure of the task to know that someone else might get something out of it also.

      Speaking of recollections, I have to admit that my memory is in some cases imperfect and uncertain. For example, it may be as you said agalia, that the commentary selection was made on Sunday rather than Saturday at the CRs I attended as well. I do think we managed to have dinner earlier. That might have been a concession to we “younger” students, since we were not as accustomed to perpetual feats of endurance as the “older” group. My understanding is that even their normal Tuesday / Thursday classes regularly went (go, I guess) well beyond 1 or 2 am. Glad I never graduated to that group!

      As for our CR aim partners, we were meant to report that we had read the commentary and state our aims, and also say a few words about anything of significance that had come up in our work, but we generally did not have direct contact with each other – only voice mail. There was a time when we did have direct numbers for our life aim partners, but this was restricted after an episode when one student made a public statement and left the group after handing his number out to several others, and multiple people were contacted by those dastardly “disgruntled ex-students” (of which I suppose I would currently qualify as one, though I feel much more grateful than disgruntled).

      • In response to your comments, Charlie, about “disgruntled ex-students” … I was much more disgruntled when in “school”. Like you, I am grateful. I am grateful to have had the experience and to be done with it. Grateful for what I learned both from “school” and what I learned after I left. Mostly, I am grateful to have found my own source of direction and wisdom that I may not have found without the school experience, and certainly would never have found if I’d stayed in its hallowed halls. It’s funny, at work I was discussing The Wizard of Oz with a bunch of elders today – you know, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” 😉 Like Dorothy, I guess I always had the power to return home. I just didn’t believe it. Now I do.

  5. moishe3rd says:

    You know, I try not to be too snarky when reading people’s anger at whatever it is of they disapprove but..
    “You didn’t die but it sounds like you came close a few times but you were there under their “protective” influence. You seem to really enjoy living on the edge and engaging in what psychologists have termed “thrill-seeking behaviors.””
    Whereas 70 is the new 30 nowadays, my body pains currently tell me that I am quite a bit older than I was 30 or 35 years ago. I am certainly older than I was 35 or 40 years ago when indulging in all sorts of interesting drugs; sex; and other thrill seeking experiences appeared to be the norm for people of my age.
    I would humbly suggest that ridiculing or attacking whom somebody was a relatively long time ago, is not a useful method for trying to have people listen or read what you might consider pertinent or relevant points…
    Just sayin’… y’know?

  6. agalia says:

    My comment was not ridiculing you or attacking you.
    Read the next sentance in my comment: “Risky behaviors have been associated with dopamine levels in the brain which is maybe something that ALL of us who were in school might have in common.” (i.e. we like high dopamine levels in our brains and will do lots of things to increase those levels.) I was including myself in the remark and perhaps hinting that we may all have something in common (besides having been in school.)
    School was a wild ride and there was something we all loved about that aspect of it. Disliking that aspect of it can coexist with the attraction to it.
    I have not gotten to 70 myself but I engaged in many more risky behaviors when I was younger than I do now – I think that just comes with the territory.
    There are certainly many people who are your age who were in school with you and who are still in school now and continuing to participate in those kinds of behaviors that almost got all of us killed. As well as younger people who are loving the ride but don’t really get what it’s all about yet.

  7. Che says:

    I came across this the other day and was fascinated.
    It’s called the “Power and Control Wheel” and is used to explain some types of behavior and tactics used by batterers to isolate, control and overpower victims of domestic violence. Take out the pronoun “her” and most of what is talked about is exactly what happens in school.
    It doesn’t have to be “domestic” violence to be violence.

    Compare to the Equality Wheel which illustrates types of non-violent behavior which promote equality within a relationship:

  8. Hi Che – Thanks for posting these two articles. I’m having some weird technical problems and can’t open pdf files (grrr) but will read as soon as I can.

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