A Stopinder Anthology
Edited by David Kherdian
Beech Hill Publishing (www.beechhillpublishingcompany.com), 2014. PP. 328 $13 Paper
Reviewed by Jeff Zaleski
That first generation of Gurdjieff’s students had undergone a sort of diaspora after Gurdjieff’s death. Many of them aligned with the Gurdjieff Foundations established by his longtime pupil Jeanne de Salzmann, but others decided to teach independently of that organization, in various locales around the globe. There was limited contact among the various parties, and occasional tensions surfaced.
The most public display of those difficulties was arguably a 1991 book by the future editor of Stopinder, David Kherdian. That book, On a Spaceship with Beelzebub: By a Grandson of Gurdjieff, detailed his and his wife Nonny’s several years studying at the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, their growing disaffection with the Foundation’s approach to Gurdjieff’s ideas, and their decampment to the Gurdjieffian community of Two Rivers Farm in Oregon, where they lived and worked under the tutelage of Annie Lou Staveley, one of Gurdjieff’s pupils who had chosen to teach away from the Foundations.
At the time, David Kherdian was a noted poet and author, and perhaps for that reason, On a Spaceship with Beelzebub was reviewed prominently in the New York Times. This public airing of grievances did little to heal differences between those in the Foundation and those outside. In subsequent years, further frictions arose over a new translation of Gurdjieff’s book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson and then over unfortunate accusations by some that de Salzmann had brought a radical new understanding of Gurdjieff’s teaching.
These kinds of disturbances may be inevitable in the dissemination of any genuine spiritual teaching, and in recent years the various parties have taken steps of reconciliation. This anthology can be considered such a step.
This is overall a benign offering, beginning with the foreword by Azize and then a brief introduction from David Kherdian, who concludes, “We know with more than just our heads that ultimately this Work cannot be done alone. We need each other for friction and for warmth. And for the new day that looms ahead.” Indeed, the book seems to extend a welcome to the worldwide Gurdjieff community, not just to a favored “lineage,” as Azize puts it, and for the most part any historic divisiveness is absent, although a few criticisms of the Foundations creep in here and there.
There is sincerity in these pages, as well as insight—into working with the Enneagram, the symbol Gurdjieff introduced to the West, into studying Gurdjieff’s sacred exercises and dances known as the Movements, into working with others and with teachers including, among others, Lord John Pentland, William Segal, George Cornelius, and J.G. Bennett. There is marvelous poetry by David Kherdian and an engrossing look at women in the work (from Nonny Kherdian), at the practice of “Writing an Icon” (from Toddy Smith), at the relationship of science and spirit (from Keith Buzzell), and more.
Perhaps most extraordinary is a remembrance by Marvin Grossman entitled “Thirty-five Years in the Gurdjieff Work, Part I” that displays in-depth understanding of both himself (“Most of my initial reactions to people were anxiety, hostility or aversion”) and of the help available to him (Grossman observes one fellow setting “aside his dislike” of Grossman to answer his question at lunch; the man says, “You want to go from here to there … Why not just stay here?”).
Unlike Grossman, many of the contributors to this volume were relatively young when they wrote their pieces, and so there surfaces an innocence that older readers may recognize in their own younger selves—the attributing to their teacher of magical powers, for instance, or declaring a sort of spiritual superiority (“the Work will produce real results…. Not much else will”). In evidence is the curious assumption that a teacher’s expertise in spiritual matters extends to other areas of life, such as career-advice or the running of a large enterprise; this attitude is punctured by Bob Engel, who writes with warmth and wit of “Remembering Being Forgotten by Mr. B” (“B” being Bennett).
Above all, these selections offer an instructive outpouring from a practical teaching beginning to transit from a traditional teacher-student paradigm to a more peer-oriented approach. Signs of that transition were visible in 2000; and so there are two reports here on conferences where peers could exchange material, a Stopinder conference and, more important historically, the All & Everything Conference, established in 1996 and still convening annually.
It is now twelve years since the last issue of Stopinder appeared. Much has changed during that time in the worldwide Work. Nearly everyone who worked with Gurdjieff is now gone. Kherdian’s “second generation” itself is growing old, and the Gurdjieffian generations following them may be smaller—the so-called graying of the Work. At the same time, the reach and influence of Gurdjieff’s ideas continue to grow. The veil of secrecy that for decades shrouded Work teachings and practices from public view is thinning. Many exercises and meeting notes once kept secret are now available to anyone in book form or on the Internet. And perhaps most dramatically, the hierarchies that structured the Work in so many ways for so many years are transforming.
Yet at the same time much remains the same, because the teaching itself endures, not primarily in organizations or buildings or structures, as valuable as those may be, but in the minds, hearts, and bodies of those engaged in its practices. As Gurdjieff wrote in the epitaph now on his father’s grave,
I Am Thou.
Thou Art I,
He Is Ours,
We Both Are His,
So May All Be For