Through the heavy cloud of diesel exhaust on the bus, the faint smell of lavender was a whisper in the July heat. Somehow the sweating bus driver knew to leave me and the others at the end of Tracol’s unmarked driveway. Prominent journalist and photographer Henri Tracol had been a close ten-year pupil of George Gurdjieff and now his farm compound in the south of France was a center for the study of consciousness. He welcomed groups for a week of communal living to practice how to come alive in the middle of ordinary life. My life. I had questions and hoped Tracol would have some answers.
When we pulled our rolling cart into his courtyard Tracol stood by the door waiting to greet us. He was slight of stature, no longer young, gentle, kind, not an imposing “guru” figure. In his khaki pants and a neatly pressed short-sleeved shirt he looked like a typical retired villager, until you looked into his eyes. Then he was no ordinary villager but a man of great compassion. Seeing him again after almost a year made me feel no time had passed. Maybe time did not really exist after all, I thought, and there was only this endlessness. A smile and flash of recognition: “I’m glad you could come” he said. I felt reassured and welcomed.
The property, an old farmhouse, had been gradually remodeled to include a large meeting hall, a tightly spaced dining room, and a spacious farm kitchen. Various outbuildings and sheds around the main courtyard were turned into dormitories and workshops for carpentry, sewing, woodworking, pottery, stained glass. Tracol was also a sculptor and a grove of his large shaped stones faced us and each other. Like ancient monoliths, maybe they could tell me something, but only if I was willing to be patient. Whenever I had to cross the yard I felt the full force of the fierce Provence sun. I was not willing to bear the weight of the heat beating on my head so I hurried past.
There were other mysteries. This week of work was no “retreat” but a forward march towards an awakening that had to be to fought for moment-to-moment.
The day started early. Tracol always watched the sun rise and many of us followed his example, though I had never before stood stock still to witness this event: it was cool pre-dawn. I shivered, the local birds tweeted in a frenzy of exaltation, the pre-dawn wind suddenly become still, everything was suddenly quiet yet it seemed forever before the actual liquid lip of the sun appeared. Then suddenly everything grew bright. What did it all mean?
We returned to the main hall to meditate in silence. Sometimes my silence held for a while and at other moments I despaired of ever getting free of my pointless revolving thoughts. My tiresome emotional stories also followed one another like donkeys on a grinding wheel, and so rut-deep I had to wrench myself back again and again to the present moment.
Tracol always offered an anchor, something to put against the force of inertia. At one morning gathering he only asked: “Ready?” then added, “Never ready” and left us to our work.
It was possible. There was a higher source of attention worth struggling for. What I wanted to know was why the harsh events in my life kept repeating. What did it mean to repair the past?
Since everyone could speak to Tracol personally, I also wanted time to see him alone. I waited anxiously to be called to his private office, a small low-ceiling room smooth-plastered in the local style. Finally it was my turn.
He motioned me to a sit down across from him and waited in silence for me to begin. I felt included in his awareness, something reassuring, compassionate but not sentimental. This was an objective look without judgement. I could be my most honest self, and be accepted.
“You have a question?” he asked gently, unfailingly polite.
How to begin? Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life? Why these parents? Why this mother? How to repair something that did not exist? But that seemed like philosophy, I had to be practical.
“I have not been able to do the exercise you gave me…” I said “Mr. Gurdjieff says I’m supposed to love and honor my parents. But I can’t…mine were very… difficult. All I can do…my aim…is not to inflict my childhood on my own children… not to repeat what was done to me…to let the buck stop here. That I can do. When I remember how my parents spoke, what they said, I try intentionally to say the opposite…every day by intention and whenever I catch myself. It’s working. They are ok. But I can’t do the exercise you gave me.”
He asked me to tell which exercise I was talking about.
“To meditate for half an hour on a photo of my father. I can’t—it’s too hard. I remember too much. I don’t want to forgive my father, I want to forget him.”
“Of course…to forget seems the easier path,” Tracol agreed. “but that doesn’t conform to reality. Time is not as we understand it. The past is not past. Today exists to repair yesterday and prepare tomorrow. If we continue to do nothing now, we will miss this opportunity….”
Though I nodded in agreement, inwardly I temporized…maybe I could get something easier?
Tracol interrupted my gloomy thoughts. “Mr. Gurdjieff once told me a story” he said, repeating it to me:
The First Emperor of China used to send an important delegation to the cemetery of the ancestors of an official whenever one was promoted to Imperial Minister. Facing the graves of the new minister’s ancestors the delegation beat drums and clanged cymbals:
“Because of you…” they chanted, “because of what you did, your descendant today has the honor to be named an Imperial Minister. You must feel great pride and joy. Because of you!”
The day a criminal was to be hung, the same delegation was also sent to the cemetery of his ancestors. In front of the graves of his forbearers they beat drums and chanted:
“Because of you, because of what you did, your descendant will be shamefully executed today. You must feel great grief and shame. Because of you!”
If things were transmitted forward could they also be directed back? Is that what was meant by repairing the past?
There was no point in asking Tracol to explain, he would not deprive me of a struggle to understand. I needed to try to make sense of what I heard from my own experience.
I suddenly remembered reading another version of Mr. Gurdjieff’s quote about repair: “…do not do today what you have always done.”
What was I repeating?
Later that afternoon Tracol sent word that I could join him to watch the sunset. The back wall of the farmhouse had a discreet set of iron straps set into the brick that I hadn’t noticed before. Clinging to each rung I reached the roof and found a flat terrace invisible from below. There Tracol, his wife, and a few others were quietly seated. I found a chair behind them and waited. We looked out over the endless sea of lavender fields with an unobstructed view of the horizon. As if for the first time I saw the radiant shades of pink and orange interpenetrate the blue of the sky. The sun was still visible—it was possible to look at it directly since its diagonal rays could do no harm. I realized that it would soon plummet; nothing could hold it back. I felt deeply connected to it and wanted it to stay but slowly it slid further and further into the earth. Nothing could stop it, no wishing, no prayers. Suddenly it was gone. I felt bereft as soundless unwanted tears began rolling down my face. I was glad Tracol could not see me. But he turned to face me and smiling said:
“The sun is still shining”
That was so unexpected my tears stopped.
I had to broaden my vision, not to identify so much with outer things. Evidently the radiant sun faithfully obeyed its path, and I too had to search for my path, going from careening comet-like across the sky to finding an orbit that reflected another design, more planet-like, more obedient to something higher. I had to find the hard path.
Tracol had many obligations, others waiting to speak to him. It was time for me to leave.
I wanted to ask him for more direction, more help. Maybe I could not give up the hope that he would tell me what to do. I remember every word he said, and sometime later found my notes confirmed in his book.
In his book The Taste of Things That Are True, he would later write:
Beyond the lure of time in succession we have been given the idea that endlessly we come back and come back and come back, that we are born again and again. So we have a sense of recurring time which can be perceived even in a very simple way through breathing in air and breathing out, through waking again and again to the alternation of day and night, the round of the seasons and so on. Of course there is decay and there is death, but what in my work is my experience of rebirth? I cannot just sweep this idea away. It is something I am offered to welcome—being born again. I have been absent for hours and all of a sudden I wake up: I am born again. Where I am born again? In this body.
“Do you mean that my work now helps my ancestors…when I remember them?”
“Exactly,” Tracol said. “ I repeat Mr. Gurdjieff’s words, ‘All your family past and future depend on you…you must work more to repair the past.’”
I had to follow this riddle wherever it led and whatever it cost. With a determination that seemed not to come from “myself” but from something unknown within me, I began a quest that later proved the truth of all I had heard.
Lavender’s small, scanty petals ride on a thin stem; it lacks the glamour, the allure of a rose. But growing closely together its families yield an oil that is said to be a remedy for anxiety, insomnia, depression, restlessness, minor burns, and even bug bites.
As we were leaving at the end of our week, each one of us was given a small bouquet of lavender. ◆
This essay appears in Parabola’s Summer 2022 issue, “Ancestors”, which is available to purchase on our online store.