In the autumn of 1971, John G. Bennett inaugurated the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne House, Gloucestershire, England. From that time until his death three and one-half years later, he worked with groups of up to ninety students at a time who enrolled for ten-month courses, in a residential school environment. The organization and the curriculum of the school were based on his experience with the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff at his school at the Prieuré in France, and researches at Bennett’s own earlier community at Coombe Springs near London. A fundamental technique was the use of a weekly theme. On Monday morning the entire community would meet and Bennett would introduce a theme for the week, which was described as something to ponder and think about when one’s attention was not needed elsewhere; a focus for self-observation. On the following Friday evening, the community would meet again and students would report on their observations from the week. The following article is a transcription of two sessions which occurred in late May of 1974, during the latter months of the Third Basic Course. It consists of the Monday presentation and the Friday discussion of students’ observations. —George Bennett
In Gurdjieff’s book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, in the chapter entitled “The Organization of Man’s Existence,” Gurdjieff has Ashiata Shiemash1 say to his disciples that only he will deserve to be called, and be in the true sense, a son of God, who has in himself Conscience. And in this chapter the whole message is this: that one can live with Conscience in one’s ordinary state and this will liberate one.
Now the time has come when we should set ourselves to understand what this means; what the word Conscience means, and what it stands for. I don’t want to give any explanations. I want only to remind you that we have spoken about Conscience many times; we’ve heard it referred to many times in readings and you probably can easily recall some definitions of Conscience. Let us take one example from Beelzebub’s Tales. When Beelzebub’s grandson Hassein asks him what is right and wrong for people, Beelzebub says, “Right is that from doing which one’s conscience is at peace and wrong is that from doing which one’s conscience makes one suffer.” But that has an awkwardness about it because it can come simply from the suggestion that something is wrong. The way morality works is to condition us to be afraid of certain kinds of behavior, and to suffer if we fall into them. We suffer because we’re conditioned to think of them as wrong. This is a false conscience, because it is imposed on us from outside, by people who may not have any objective awareness. That kind of so-called conscience is fixed; it has no freedom to discover the particular requirement of a particular situation. True Conscience is the other way round.
I’m saying that you should look at Conscience now because this has begun to stir in most of you, but you don’t yet properly recognize it. However, if we speak about this on Friday, maybe between us all we shall come to something that will really throw light on it for all of us. It would be far better that we should arrive at this by what we all can say about it, rather than by my trying to give you some more explanations, or even give you exercises which would perhaps bring this out.
Student Massimo: This week’s theme has helped me to keep going, because whenever I felt that I didn’t want to do something, or when I was going to fall again into the same trap of being dishonest in my relationships with others, I saw how I was behaving, and I’ve been trying to do my best, and to keep going. I don’t know if that can be called Conscience, or if it is related to the theme.
John G. Bennett: Conscience is like a guest, a noble guest who comes to your house and you don’t recognize him. You make him very uncomfortable, because he is a very sensitive guest, and because you don’t recognize him you behave in front of him in a way that’s very painful to him. Then a moment comes when you begin to see that this guest is yourself, and you begin to feel this discomfort, and you feel ashamed because you’ve not treated this guest properly.
It is true what you say, that you are blind. When you were speaking, this picture came into my mind of Conscience as a guest whom we don’t recognize. There is that difference: that he can see and we can’t see. He sees who we are but we can’t see who he is. Then when you begin to realize that this guest is present in you, you begin not to want to offend him or make him suffer. This is this state that you described this week.
Student: I think I saw more clearly this week than I have at any other time that what Conscience really wants is not goodness or decency or civilized behavior, but perfection; it really wants everything. When you do something right, something it wants, everything is glaringly clear for a time. You are very clear, and so are your faults. You see so much that you don’t ordinarily see of what you could do, and what you should do, and there’s such a split feeling about it. One has the feeling of really wanting to listen to Conscience and just be its servant, and there’s also that tremendous aversion to it as well—not wanting to hear anything. It seems to me that when you cut yourself off from Conscience, when you don’t listen for a while, that you can’t really hear it clearly any more and you have a sort of dull, unhappy, ashamed feeling all the time. But it’s a kind of nebulous feeling, as if Conscience is still talking but I no longer can hear.
JGB: First of all, it is right to connect Conscience with clarity. When we put Conscience aside we do not see clearly, and this makes it possible for us to live in a way that otherwise we couldn’t bear to. There is a part of us that doesn’t want to be seen, that can only let itself go when there’s no one looking. This is really the negative part of us, the part of us that wants to be separate, that doesn’t want to accept other people because anyone or anything that sees it is somehow a hindrance to it.
There are things we do—all of us, everyone—that we wouldn’t want anyone to see us doing, but Conscience is more penetrating because it sees not only our outward actions, but it also sees our inward thoughts and our states. This part of us that doesn’t want to be seen by others, of course doesn’t want to be seen by Conscience.
Student: One thing about it that I don’t really understand is that when you are in that state when you can see yourself more clearly, unfortunately you see it about other people as well, and you are more critical.
JGB: This is very true. It is another way of escape, another way of what Gurdjieff called “self-calming”; “Yes I’m like this but other people are like it too.” This is one great get-out: “Yes, perhaps I am corrupt, I do certain things, but then everyone else in my position does the same.” And at the same time this is also necessary. We do need to see other people and not deceive ourselves about them, any more than we should deceive ourselves about ourselves.
But closely connected with Conscience is also Compassion, because we mustn’t think that Conscience is critical of us. This is simply how it feels to us. If you put yourself in the position of parents whose child is behaving badly, you can see that they turn a light on the child so that it should see. This doesn’t mean that they’re hostile to it; on the contrary it’s because they love the child that they do this. It is the same with Conscience. The child doesn’t want its parents to know, it wants to hide from them what it has done. It tells lies, it does various things to conceal, but this is all foolish because its parents are not going to stop loving it. It’s the same way between us and our Conscience.
When this really happens, when we see clearly, and we look at people and see through the mask of their personality—what they want to present to us—and we see them without their mask as we see ourselves without our mask, then we come to realize one most necessary thing, and that is that we are all in the same boat. As long as we feel that we’re different from other people, whether we think we’re better than they are or worse, it is blindness. We’re not better or worse than other people, we are one. This is what Conscience can do to us.
It can bring us towards realizing that we’re not separate from other people, by showing us what is behind the mask; that it is the mask that separates.
Student: I found out a lot about what Conscience isn’t. It isn’t a question of trying to act as I think other people would want me to act, either because that’s the way I’ve been trained by society, or because I want people to like me.
JGB: What you say is true, that society acts as a kind of pseudo-conscience. It acts like conscience because it uses the same ability to see us. The power of Conscience is in its seeing. It is not given authority to do, because as I described it, it is a visitor to the house. The visitor is not entitled to give orders in the house; it is his presence that changes things. But if we don’t know that he’s present, or if we don’t recognize him for what he is, then even his presence changes nothing. That is how it ordinarily is. But we turn things upside down and instead of living by this inner seeing, we live by outer seeing.
It’s a very strange thing when you realize that the way society acts on you isn’t through authority. It’s not through its laws, or its power to reward or punish you; it is simply by seeing. We find ourselves behaving in front of people and society, as you say, from the desire to please them, but the peculiar thing is this: it’s what they see that matters.
Very often people are really at a loss to understand how it is that their behavior changes as soon as some people look at them. They do things when they’re not seen that they would never do if they were seen. It is necessary here to understand this peculiar power that comes from seeing. In that sense it may be true what you say about the substitute conscience teaching us something.
This false conscience is illustrated in Gurdjieff’s explanation of the compassionate idiot2. He describes the “antipathic” compassionate idiot, who manifests compassion only if there’s somebody watching him. This has nothing to do with social conscience. This peculiar thing about us, that our behavior is influenced by whether people see us or not, must be very thoroughly understood. We need to understand that this is turning things upside down. We don’t mind what our Conscience sees inside, even quite disgusting things, but we mind terribly if other people see quite trivial things.
Student John: I’m thinking in particular of a night that I shared a bottle of whiskey with some friends and I got the sudden impulse to go down to the kitchen and make some cinnamon toast. And as I was doing it, I was thinking, “Well, the theme this week is Conscience,” and I could see myself doing it only because there wasn’t anyone else around. I could see that, and say, “There’s something not right here,” because it’s as if I had no Conscience at all.
JGB: That’s a good report. The question does come, and it has to be looked at: how is it that we can see ourselves doing things, but this seeing doesn’t change anything? I said that Conscience is like a visitor; it can’t give orders in the house. First of all, what you said illustrates just exactly what I mean by this, and seeing this is really the key to understanding the working of Conscience. Conscience is not given the power to use force; egoism is given the power to use force. In the struggle between Conscience and egoism it is really the struggle between light and darkness, only the weapons that are allowed in the two cases are different. The weapon of Conscience is light; the weapon of egoism is darkness. What John has just described, which everyone undoubtedly can recognize, is something every one of us has done. Every one of us has even done this in this very week, and if you think you haven’t, you simply haven’t observed yourself.
Once we begin to see in this way, then the egoism is in danger; sooner or later the light will become too much for it. Conscience can’t turn the light on our own egoism. We can’t see our own egoism; what we see are its manifestations, and particularly its manifestations in our personality. Our egoism remains safely in its own darkness. The conquest of egoism is a very great thing. In the Great Prayer movement3, this comes at the third stage, after very great transformations. After the initiative has passed from the personality to the essence, and you become a real being, still this egoism remains, but little by little the light becomes too strong for it and at last you’re forced down on your knees and the egoism goes out of you. It’s very good to see and hold onto the kind of thing that John has just described. You can realize quite well that you wouldn’t have been at all pleased if I’d walked into the kitchen when you were making this toast. I say that because it is really important that we should understand the power of seeing, and understand the profound meaning of talking of the powers of darkness and the powers of light.
Student: It seems that whenever I see you look at me, I immediately see myself and what kind of state I’m in. I walked into this room a little bit late and you looked at me and I immediately flashed on what kind of state I was in, which was completely empty, unaware. After I realized that I’d walked in late, in the middle when Massimo was speaking, I felt really bad because I felt he was saying something really important to him, and I felt disgusted with myself for just coming in.
JGB: I don’t know if you remember Gurdjieff’s comparing Man to a house full of servants4. We have, first of all, this idea that we have many “I”s, and each of them has different impulses. They are constantly changing, and none of them is fit to be the “Master” of the house. Their very nature is that they can’t be, because in other ways they can be said to be the different elements or facets of our personality. There is a Master, but the Master is away, and cannot come into the house while it’s in this state of disorder. If he sees that this house has an intention of getting into order then he may do something about it, but how does this come? When some of the servants begin to find the disorder intolerable, they make one of them into the temporary or “deputy” steward. He acts as if he has the authority of the Master behind him, and he does a certain amount of work to bring the house into order. This corresponds to what I was saying about Conscience; Conscience can’t work in us until something has already been prepared. But when it has, then the Master sends the real Steward, who is not from the servants but from the Master, not from the conditioned but from the unconditioned. That Steward is Conscience. He has come into the house, and if he is recognized he is very much honored because he is sent by the Master.
The deputy steward is not always inside us; there can sometimes be someone outside of us who helps to get things into order. I can play a useful role for you in this, but I cannot be Conscience. I am not your Master’s representative; your Master’s representative is within you. But I can be like one of the other servants, who knows that the one thing that matters is that you should have your own Master’s representative, or your own Conscience, in you. But it is a very poor substitute. In the long run the only thing that will get us right is Conscience. Not anyone outside of us; nothing else, no person can ever make this inner light for us, where this uncompromising seeing takes place. When this really takes hold, when you really go through the time when Conscience is awakened, then it is really a very agonizing experience. If it comes over you for a long time when you really do see yourself, and can’t help seeing yourself, then you will never be the same again.
Student: You asked us to take a time to be quiet, and when I did the feeling came through that Conscience was oneness, and everyone. And I don’t know whether because of the theme or because we paused regularly on the hour, this week I couldn’t stop working, trying to stay in one moment. And then today it all gave way. This has happened a number of times but it actually happened almost physically in the morning sitting. A gray veil seemed to appear and then it just collapsed on me, and after that the whole day was gone.
JGB: Which do you think is more profitable? The first five days or today?
Student: There’s no question.
JGB: It is so. Fullness is emptiness and emptiness is fullness. Being able to do produces nothing; to be powerless to
do can produce everything. Then something else has a chance. You always have to remember this, that Conscience is not the Master; Conscience is the one who goes before the Face of the Lord
to prepare His Ways. It is all represented in the Gospels where St. John the Baptist represents Conscience and Jesus represents the Master. When everything collapses in us and we become aware of emptiness, something in us also is aware that this emptiness is necessary. There are times when one has this emptiness without the awareness that it is necessary. This is where one needs a friend, someone who has been through this, and knows. I know when this has happened with people, when they have become really aware of emptiness, without being able to see for themselves that this emptiness is the necessary opening that allows the other to enter.
It’s easy enough to talk about this, but when one is in that state it is not at all so easy, because one doesn’t know how to distinguish between emptiness and darkness. It is at this point that Conscience really becomes our friend. Until then it seems that Conscience is, if not an enemy, at any rate a stern admonisher whose presence just makes us suffer. But when we become empty then we see the other side of it. We see that, really, Conscience is giving us the guarantee that there is someone behind; that something will come. This is why I repeated the story of the servants and the Steward. When the Steward is there, and you recognize him for what he is, then there is a guarantee that the Master will come.
Student: I went to Oxford on Wednesday and I thought I would just go to the doctor’s appointment and hitch-hike right back, but I knew that a bunch of other people were going to meet at a restaurant and so I decided to get a ride back with them. We sat in the restaurant for two hours, and it was very nice but I had this feeling that I had to come back and work on the cookbook [a student project during the course]. It was as if there was a hole, a space that I should have been in, and I was being pulled towards that, that I just couldn’t be in the moment of being with my friends in this restaurant. I was not really there because I was here, and this was where I should have been. As soon as I came back I started working on the book. Then it all settled down again and then I could be here, just at that time.
JGB: This is a very interesting report for understanding about time, understanding about how there are different lives, and that we can be aware that we are in the wrong life. There are different lives, and there are lives that that keep us in this mechanical world. It is certainly true that one of the things that Conscience does for us is to show us which life we should be living. From the point of view of time and eternity you are in two places at once, but one of them is a ghost place and the other a real one, the place where you actually are. You are actually sitting in the restaurant but your ghost is doing the cookbook and you feel this awkwardness of being separated from your own ghost. Then you come back. Your ghost gets in again and you feel comfortable but this is perhaps not quite so easy to understand.
Student: For the hourly stops I was working with a particular feeling, “accept,” and I wondered whether it might be useful in developing Conscience. Would you say something about that?
JGB: This is artificial because you’re bringing cause and effect into a region where it doesn’t work. It is true that the feeling “accept” is associated with Conscience, and you say, “If I work on this, will this help Conscience to develop?” It sounds very sensible, but it misses the point. This is difficult for people to grasp, because they expect to see results arising from causes in this spiritual life, but it doesn’t work in that way. When we spoke about causality last week, we said that causality is the lowest of all the forces that work in the world. Always try to remember this. In the spiritual world it is the unpredictable, the unexpected that happens. It is the realm of freedom. It is spontaneity. If you try to import into it cause and effect—doing things in order to get some result—you’re keeping yourself away from that world.
Why do you think it’s so constantly said in the Bhagavad Gita, “Act without looking to the fruits of action”? Why is it always taught, “Never look for results, never expect”? Because as soon as you expect, you close the door to the spiritual world, you put yourself under the very laws that you want to escape from. Of course this doesn’t mean that you must do nothing. What it means is that you must do your part, but count and trust that the Work will do its part, and give the result that corresponds to your need, which you can’t know.
1 In his magnum opus, All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1950), Gurdjieff describes the activities of a mythical “Messenger from Above”—as he calls all the great prophets, including the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad—named Ashiata Shiemash, whose mission was to awaken “objective Conscience” in all people.
2 Gurdjieff presented various types of person, and stages in their spiritual development, through what he called the “The Science of Idiotism,” an ancient teaching that he claimed to have discovered in a Sufi community. The “compassionate idiot” was one of these, and manifested in one of three ways, as referred to by JGB. A fuller explanation is given in his book Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper& Row, 1973), chapter 6.
3 The Great Prayer is one of the great ritual “movements,” or sacred dances, developed by Gurdjieff as a means of teaching, and of representing spiritual ideas through dance. The Great Prayer can be seen as representing the various stages of spiritual transformation.
4 See P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1949), p. 60.