Michel Conge was a physician and a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff in Paris in the 1940s. After Mr. Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, Mr. Conge continued the Gurdjieff work under the direction of Mme. de Salzmann, with groups of people who gathered around him, in Paris, Strasbourg, Reims, Vichy, and Clermont Ferrand. There were also groups in Brazil and Israel who were in contact with Mr. Conge through his elder pupils. This testimony of a young man, who met Michel Conge in the years 1981–84, does not pretend to give a full picture of him. A broader view of him and his work can be found in his writings, and his music.
PRELUDEAt the beginning of my army service, when I was about eighteen, I happened to meet a master for the first time. He was Japanese. I don’t know his name even now, but I remember him well. He represented the Zen tradition in Israel, and received visitors in his house on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
When we met, I was a new soldier in uniform. He looked at me and said, “Be what you are right now. If you are a soldier, be a soldier.” (I had, in fact, a great resistance to the military establishment.) “When you pee, do not think about anything else, just pee.”
In this apparently simple suggestion there was immense force, the force of an active inner attitude in the face of life’s events. What matters is not what I do or what I think about it, but how I live. To be there in what I do; not thinking about life, but living it. It is very simple and basic, not to think about anything else when I pee.
He spoke unpretentiously, with no criticism or attempts to persuade, without doctrines or dialectics. He related to the person who was in front of him at the moment, with warmth and tenderness, although he made no show of affection.
I ask myself what brought me to an inner search. There were certain things in my childhood that awakened me to the presence of another kind of influence. My father told me stories about Haifa under the rule of the Ottoman Turks; one of them was about a dervish family who lived in his neighborhood—a tailor and his sons, living their daily life like ordinary people, quiet and hardworking. He recalled the processions of the various orders of dervishes that were held sometimes, when the quiet, modest tailor would leap high in the air in an ecstasy of faith. The impact that this event made on my father also impressed me deeply.
And then there were the years I spent at the commune of Yodfat in the Galilee, where a group of people were trying to “live seriously” in a wide framework of communal living, agriculture, and inner search.
THE FIRST MEETINGI had heard about Mr. Conge through P–, a French pupil of Mr. Conge. P–visited Israel regularly to direct the Gurdjieff groups here. This group assembled in the late 1960s as a result of a short visit of Mr. Conge to Israel, and was composed of people from Yodfat, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv.
I had been participating in these groups for several years, and became well acquainted with P–. I spoke with him about the possibility of working with Mr. Conge in Paris. P–’s deep commitment to Mr. Conge resonated in his words; he held him in great respect, as one who had revealed to him a great secret. Among other things, P– asked me to study Turkish in preparation for the trip to Paris. I understood why only later.
P– knew that my mother was Turkish, but he didn’t know that I had spent many childhood summers in Turkey, and that it was part of the world that had formed me: an ancient and archaic world, a little frightening to a foreign child, with strange, inviting tastes and smells, and stories of cruelty and indifference to life and death. The ancient past, full of legends about sultans and heroes, veiled women and harems, was still alive. Roasted chestnuts sold on the street, thick yogurt made from water buffalo milk, morning mists pierced by minarets on both sides of the Bosphorus, and the hawking of street merchants: Istanbul.
The Turkish language has a unique inner logic, enigmatic, yet exact and concise. I enjoyed learning the language, and as practice, I translated the stories of Nasradin Hodja with my mother. She was pleased that I took an interest in her language.
On one of my last visits to Turkey, I had asked my grandmother to accompany me on a trip to Konya and the tomb of the Sufi master Jalaladin Rumi, who founded the Mevlevi Order of dervishes in the thirteenth century. At the time I was there, the Turkish government was still rather hostile to the dervish orders. Konya in the 1970s was a backwater town; we arrived from Ankara by a dirt road. In a remarkable way, the day passed in an atmosphere of enchanted quiet. Even my grandmother, an impatient woman, had an unusual inner calm.
I wrote Mr. Conge a short letter, although my French was rather poor, asking to join his group in Paris. I asked someone to correct my errors, but I insisted on my own formulation. It was just after my father had died. I was living for a short time with my mother and writing my master’s thesis in agriculture.
I awaited the move to Paris and meeting Mr. Conge with anticipation, but also some apprehension. I thought, or at least I told myself, that I could begin to know myself through my contact with him, but I also suspected I would encounter great difficulties, about which I had heard hints here and there.
After a while, an answer arrived from Mr. Conge. It was typewritten, short and to the point, and to my surprise, friendly. Mr. Conge invited me to join his groups in Paris.
I prepared for the trip in a rather haphazard way. I postponed my departure date several times, and finally realized it was going to be difficult. I sensed that significant adaptations would be required, and that I could not remain as I was. I did not consider backing out; going was the right thing to do.
I FIRST MET MR. CONGE when he was already very ill with Parkinson’s disease. When I arrived in Paris, it was sunny; not the gray skies I was expecting. On the way to Mr. Conge’s farm in the countryside, we stopped to pick up a friend whom I knew from Israel, who was also in the Paris groups. She was surprised to see I had a moustache, which made me look rather Turkish. She told me that “le Docteur” (this was how we referred to Mr. Conge; it seems to me that Gurdjieff called him by this name) did not like beards and moustaches, probably because it is possible to hide behind them. I was convinced. Within a few minutes, my moustache flowed down the drain into the Paris sewers.
The same evening we arrived in Vichy, an elegant city known for its therapeutic spas and mineral waters. The next morning we went to meet Mr. Conge at his small farm. A rather large group of people was assembled there. I saw a tall man with big wide ears, bowed, but not stooped by his illness; a look, a smile, in spite of the pain. I did not understand his look; it was different from anything I knew. He saw me, through the mantle I wore to guard from seeing myself; he knew everything and was silent.
Afterwards, I defined the look (and maybe I should not have) as an all-encompassing seeing of who I am, with all my illusions and possibilities, without any discounts and without criticism. A look that could not be imitated, with an impartiality that gave it its power.
Mr. Conge asked me if I was Israeli, and I quickly replied yes. He suggested, calmly, that I looked more Syrian or Egyptian. I did not understand, and he continued, “Be suspicious of yourself.” At that time, I did not understand at all what he meant.
Years later, I saw that it was connected to a complex inner division. The same naive illusion tells me that all of me really wants to know myself and to work on myself. There is in me, perhaps, a part that really wants this, and a part that only pretends to want it. There are those parts of me that are not interested at all, and there are those that use this energy to further my standing in my own eyes and in the eyes of others around me.
After the morning meeting, there was work at various activities until noon. I went with several others to a small forest on a hill, where we pruned the undergrowth. Some people whom I knew from Israel were there, including P– and his wife, N–.
N– asked me what was different here from what I knew of “work sessions” with the groups in Israel. I said something. Not satisfied with my answer, she said that here, there is the presence of Mr. Conge. Also this, I understood only years later.
After lunch, Mr. Conge called me for a private conversation in a small room. His wife was seated next to him. He spoke unclearly as a result of his illness, and his wife helped me understand him when I had difficulty.
He asked simply—what is my question? In spite of the directness of his demand, I felt I was being tested, and did not give myself time to listen to the moment itself.
I asked him, “What is attention?”
I remember even now the taste of disappointment with myself for asking a question that had already been prepared and formulated in my head, something that sounded right. I had run away from the encounter.
He answered, with the same simplicity, that attention is energy, the finest energy that we have.
This also I did not really understand for many years.
He asked me how many years I had been working in the groups in Israel. I answered with confidence, “five years.” I thought it was a long time. He smiled and patted me on the shoulder in encouragement. Later, in a group meeting with him, one of his helpers, a relatively young man, said, “There is someone here who has become five years younger today.”
The meeting with him seemed simple, but was really quite remarkable. He did not ask me at all who I was, my life history, what I did, or what my family status was. He took an interest in me as a person who, perhaps, bore a question. The fact that I did not know how to express my question was entirely legitimate.
We returned in a crowded car to Paris, a ride of several hours.
Back in Paris, a week of organizing my daily life awaited me: a visit to the Pasteur Institute where I was to work, looking for a place to live, and first acquaintances. My French was ludicrous. But there was something light in all this. I was very happy that I had dared to jump into the water. For several days I remained in this atmosphere of simplicity, without my usual self-image that I knew from within myself, and that was reflected to me by the reactions of others around me.
The weekend work sessions with Mr. Conge were held in Lesiau, a farm on a large piece of land in a rural area. There was a small farmhouse that had been enlarged, a vineyard, a barn, a tool shed, and a small vegetable garden. Places had special names, reminders of the aim of the work at the farm. For example, the entrance driveway was called “Le Chemin de Rappel” (“The Way of Self- Remembering”). After the long ride from Paris, by car or train, we would arrive at Lesiau, and almost always, the remarkable process of self-remembering occurred. At that instant, we would recall, or reconnect with, the need that had prompted us to start out on the long journey in the early hours of the morning. It had been in the background all through the ride; we knew, of course, where we were going and why, but something central had been forgotten. And suddenly, the renewed contact with the place, the living reminder in Mr. Conge’s look, the silence, my need to be in touch with this.
At the end of the path, between the parking area and the house, stood JPF with a small jar in which each one put five francs for expenses. He stood there, already related to the atmosphere of the place. He represented the presence of Mr. Conge, a gate between worlds—between the outside world and Lesiau. He always had a friendly morning pleasantry.
From there we went to a short meeting to begin the day. Mr. Conge was there, seated in the small kitchen, and we stood around him. He gathered us for a moment with a quality of attention that spread out from him into the whole room. For that moment, the room was filled with a kind of substance, something above us all, but in which we all took part, a moment out of time, for a moment. Each of us was given, for that moment, the possibility to be attentive to himself. We lived that possibility together; we participated in the same experience.
He observed us, and received us into his world, a world of quality and subtlety, of presence, of a completely different attitude towards myself and others.
At the same time he was very ill and suffering. He did not complain, not from warrior-like toughness, but from the gathered attention of a finer energy. Sometimes he asked someone or another how he was, or gave a greeting.
There was a theme for the day which he, or another of those present, proposed. The theme gave a direction for self-observation during the day.
The teams for the various tasks were read out, and a reminder of the hours of meals. During our work there was also a task of studying foreign languages, Spanish, English, and Turkish, with the aid of papers that had been prepared by different people.
From there we went off to work, getting our tools on the way.
During all this, somewhere inside us, the impression of the moment of penetrating silence, of presence, of the question “who am I?” continued to work.
WORK IN THE VINEYARD was an ongoing task. It was an old abandoned vineyard that we maintained and weeded by hand over the years. The amount of wine the vineyard produced was negligible and the quality was mediocre. This lack of results provoked a reaction and a question.
There were all kinds of rules concerning the environment, such as a taboo on killing snakes.
Now and then there were breaks during which we studied languages, conversed, and got to know each other. Throughout all this, there was a continued effort on several planes: an experience of being attentive while doing physical work; the relationship between free attention of the thought and the body, balanced with being open to the other and attentive to what is around me.
There were people of all ages, some of whom had been coming continually for more than twenty-five years. They were like a milestone; they had a quality accumulated in them during long years of experience and fidelity. They worked conscientiously, did not chitchat, and were serious without being heavy. Generally, they were patient with the sometimes lightheaded young man that I was.
I once shared a ride from Paris with an elderly French doctor, whom I did not previously know. He had participated in the Work under the guidance of Mr. Conge for decades. During the long ride we sometimes spoke, sometimes we were quiet. I asked him about the effect of the years, of accumulated work on oneself. He answered me seriously. He said there was a sort of difficulty, or absurdity, that when I remember myself it is only that moment, and thus the years have no meaning. On the other hand, there is an accumulation of experience that with the years makes the meeting with such moments different. He spoke of Mr. Conge with warmth, and said that what he is, is out of the ordinary. He spoke of his special smile. The sound of his voice carried a deep emotion that touched me. We felt a shared experience, like a comet that passes through our lives. We were silent together.
DURING LUNCH there were discussions centering on the theme that was given that morning. Those who wished shared their experiences and questions with the others. A panel of elder people in the Work tried to broaden the experiences that were brought.
Mr. Conge was there. Sometimes he made a comment, which had to be repeated because of his speech impediment. He looked at us with a look that had the capacity to change the atmosphere.
There were all manner of little tasks: serving the meal, serving beverages, making coffee. One of the first times I was there, I was asked to serve drinks. I was given detailed directions about how to do this, including instructions on how to fill Mr. Conge’s glass during the meal. He drank with the aid of a straw because of the trembling of his hand from the disease, and I was supposed to refill the glass before it was empty. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do. But when the moment came, I stood up, looked in his eyes, and filled his glass with quiet confidence. I was not worried. I was present, within myself. I had a clear feeling that he saw all this, directly, and from then on my relationship with him was simpler and more comfortable.
Sometimes he made a toast. Making toasts was one of Gurdjieff’s teaching methods. Once he toasted the land, blessing it with the same peace as reigned in that room. This shed light on the relationship between a small group of people in a certain place at a certain time, and the world and the cosmos. Our small scale experience together, which was made significant by Mr. Conge’s look and by the seriousness of the experience, was part of the world.
After several months, the winter got worse. Our feet froze while working outside. Frost covered the farm. Mr. Conge, who was extremely cautious (it was said he never drove because he was so cautious), would warn the drivers before our departure to drive carefully. Now he asked for a break for several
weeks in the activity at Lesiau. During those long cold weekends, the difficulty of being alone in Paris suddenly struck me. I wandered around, sometimes going to the courtyard of the Pompidou center, where there were shows with gypsies and bears. ♦
Part Two can be found in Parabola Volume 34, No. 4, “The Future,” Winter 2009. This issue is available to purchase here.