Appendix I: Interview with Peter S. Rhodes
Q. Peter, you've been interested in a certain Russian psychologist, Gurdjieff, for a number of years. Would you share something of this man's background, and then tell a bit about his teachings?
A. There are books that deal with his childhood and upbringing, but the main thing that interested me was that he had a tremendous interest in what he calls esoteric Christianity. He was searching for the truth, and his premise was that the truth has been lost over time so the further you go back in time, the closer you get to a purer form of truth. As a young man he organized a group called the "Seekers of Truth," and after a long time he came to a book in Tibet which he describes as being written before Egypt had sand. (I don't know how old that is, but it must be quite old.) He studied the book and formed an organization which started to bring these teachings to London, Paris, Russia, and elsewhere. I was introduced to his teachings through a book called In Search of the Miraculous, by Ouspensky, who was a student of Gurdjieff and who was undergoing a similar search. Ouspensky had immediately recognized that this man, known only to him as "G," had something he had been looking for. It was something entirely different than just a psychology or other various theories and philosophies that he had previously studied. There was something unique in what Gurdjieff had found and taught. His teaching helped me for the first time
to make a connection between what the Writings talk about and the thoughts, feelings and attitudes that I was becoming aware of in myself. I wanted to be free of many of my reactions to other people, my prejudices, anger, frustration and irritation, etc. This man was talking in ways that I could understand and he told of actual changes I could make by doing what he taught. A real change did take place in the way I responded in life.
Q. Would you give us an example of how this applied in your life?
A. I first came across Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and also Maurice Nicoll, a student of Gurdjieff who studied the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, when I was raising young children. Anyone who has raised children knows that a lot of the things children do produce very strong responses in the parent. The children may not be doing something that we would term "bad" in terms of motive - for instance, when a child inadvertently spills a glass of grape juice on a new rug. There's no evil operating in the child; the glass is big and his hand is small, and his coordination is just starting to develop. Nevertheless, as a parent who just purchased a new rug, you may have a lot of anger; irritation and frustration occur. The immediate mechanical response may be to discipline the child. "I told you to be careful! Can't you pay attention?" A lot of anger comes out and the child, of course, gets upset and cries, and there is a lot of negativity that takes place. Gurdjieff's first statement to any student was, "You must not express negative emotions." He says that you do not have the power to nothave negative emotions; you have no choice in regard to having negative thoughts and negative feelings, but a man must start by non-expression of these negative emotions. He also stressed that the negative response comes from within and is due to a man's "level of being" and only appear to be caused by the event, i.e., the child.
So I began not expressing negative emotions to my children and to observe that these negative emotions werein me. It became clear that any real change would come through a change in my reactions and not through trying to change my children or others. The child had just spilled the grape juice. The negative reaction was caused by the hells in the internal world, in my proprium trying to come through me to love of the world, in terms of the new rug, or love of dominion, etc. and if I gave in to negative responses I would see a live demonstration of the hells in me. I started to see what took place if the hells didn't operate through me. I saw the child and I could pick up the dropped glass, and be with the child. I could observe the tender emotions going on in him - his own concern, his own frustration, his own fear - and this would make a definite real change in my relationship to my family and others. This could only take place through what Gurdjieff calls, "the Work," i.e., work on oneself.
I remember one particular incident with my son. It was sort of like waking up for the first time, or coming out of water and seeing clearly through the air. I could see how young and how tender he was. He was just about to be very injured by emotions in me, and I could see very clearly that the hells were going to come out and interfere with my relationship with him, my love and concern for him. I could see what Gurdjieff says is the horror of the situation. Swedenborg talks about this a great deal. He says if you could see things the way they really are you would be horrified. I started to see that things that I took as natural (it's natural to get angry, frustrated, etc.) arenot natural. They are things the Lord has been telling us about. He really wishes His kingdom to come on earth, and He wishes His children to be raised by people who are open to His leading. But it takes a lot of conscious effort and work and it takes the understanding that we can only get from Revelation, or what Gurdjieff calls "higher influences." These things are not gained from natural reason but have to be explained to us by doctrine.
I experienced that through "the Work" real changes can take place in our internal world, for that is where all causes are, and the natural world is only the world of effects. Rev. Don Rose, in a doctrinal class, spoke of the serpent trying to convince us that all causes are external, whereas the Writings teach us that all real causes are internal. If we start to observe our own external life on a minute-to-minute basis then we will have many examples of causes being internal. Mr. Rose also stated that the Arcana can be summed up as teaching that man is not life but receives life. Gurdjieff teaches this also and how we can begin to live differently, from knowing and living this revelation.
Q. Could you tell us how we should intelligently react if someone next to us does not know this and does allow the hells to attack him and in turn is attacking us?
A. Gurdjieff's teaching is that we always turn around and observe and work on our own response and not on the neighbor or "apparent cause." Observing our response does not necessarily change our response. He stresses that for years all we can do is observe our proprial response. It's not that by observing, you respond differently at once. It can, on the other hand, make it obvious to us that the hells through our proprium are in charge. He calls it being mechanical. Swedenborg tells us that we are servants to the hells, that our spirit may be in hell and may be captive. Through observing these things objectively a transformation starts to take place. It's like a new skier - he may get upset when he falls, but if he can realize that falling gives him the same amount of information as not falling - then he can learn. But if he gets angry and frustrated at not being a good skier, then it's going to take a longer time for him to become a good skier. So the first thing we observe is that we derive our life through our proprium and love of self and of the world. We respond to other people by reacting in anger, etc. Observing these things starts to bring about change. If you immediately observe your response to a person, you will have a picture of your place in the spiritual world. This will show you your level of being, giving you some idea of what loves are operating within you, so you can see where you are, compared to where you wish to be. Before observing their reaction, people believe that another person running into their car causes their anger, and that their anger is justified. At that point, according to Gurdjieff, you are "asleep." You're not even free to work because you don't even know what work is. Observation just brings you to the point of choice where you may wish to work or change your "level of being."
Q. Since we know we can't really change our own feelings - they just inflow from the other world - and we want to change, and we want the Lord's help, how do we go about seeking the Lord's help to bring about a positive reaction, and eventually to get heaven flowing in instead of hell?
A. The first step explained by Gurdjieff and Nicoll is that through observation one starts to see that one's reactions, one's feelings, are not good. The Writings tell us that whatwe think is good, is often evil. And what we think is true, is often false. We might say, "Well, I've learned to be very assertive," or "I've learned to be aggressive, and now that I express these feelings I'm starting to get my car repaired on time." We justify it, feeling this anger is justified. So, as long as we think that these are good responses and that our thoughts are true thoughts, no change is possible.
The beginning is that through observation one starts to see the real nature of feelings and of his thoughts. Then comes an awareness that they are not in fact good but evil. Through observing, we come to the possibility of not expressing what we observe. What Gurdjieff says is that it becomes possible to not identify with it and not to respond from it. We think evil, we feel evil, but we refuse to do it. Once we recognize it for what it is, and refuse to do it, then we are available to higher influences, heaven can begin to flow into us. We must first empty the cup before it can be filled with something.
Gurdjieff talks about how to participate in the process of becoming nothing. (Swedenborg tells us that of ourselves we are nothing.) We start to sacrifice our moods, our mechanical or proprial responses. For instance, if we are so wrapped up in love of self that we have envy of the neighbor, or hate, or irritation, or contempt, then we certainly couldn't feel love for the neighbor, or have what Gurdjieff calls "external consideration." But if we feel contempt and see that it's within, that it has nothing to do with the neighbor, and refuse to go along with that feeling, then at that time we may be able to feel for the first time some compassion, some love, some joy in relation to the neighbor. So Gurdjieff is really talking about the first process, which is emptying the cup. Then positive emotions become possible for the first time.
There's a long process and many techniques and exercises that Gurdjieff talks about. But it all comes down to the same thing, which is to give up one's own will, and to do so actively through conscious effort and attention. Then we become available to an influx from something higher. We make a place for heaven to enter.
Q. Peter, you said something earlier about learning from your experience in, for example, skiing - that falling down can be a learning experience. Would you elaborate further on that? I know that you are a teacher of diving. Does this apply there?
A. Well, I certainly use it in teaching diving. More and more, psychology has come to observe that the process of learning does not have to be between failure and success. They have observed children learning to walk or to talk, when the child's too young to know about success and failure. In taking a step, if he falls, given he doesn't hurt himself, the information he gains is as valuable as if he didn't fall. Swedenborg says that if man wouldn't attribute either evil or good to himself, regeneration would be very easy. And that's why Gurdjieff talks about objective observation. He says, if what you observed causes you to feel guilty or feel upset or impatient, then what you're doing is interfering with the information you could have received through your observation. When you observe that you have anger or irritation, that shouldn't be any cause for further negative emotions. It just helps verify and confirm that what the Writings say is accurate and true.
Revelation teaches us that regeneration is a gradual process. The frustration and irritation at not becoming immediately a new person is really the impatience of the hells, our love of our own understanding, because we tend to think we can regenerate ourself. This is impossible. In the beginning all we can do is observe the hells in us, and refuse to go along with them. This is the process by which we are being made new by the Lord. Non- critical Self- observation is extremely hard to do, because we tend to identify with those things we observe. The Writings call it attributing them to ourselves. Gurdjieff explains the conscious process of drawing our feelings out of what we observe and how that starts to bring about change. It's much easier to teach people who are willing to learn from any response they get. I think that's true even in the process of transformation, repentance or regeneration.
Q. Is it possible, Peter, to make this a pleasant learning experience as we gradually withdraw from the influence of the hells, recognize false ideas, evil feelings, and invite their opposites?
A. Initially I think it's a lot to ask, to want it to be a pleasant experience. Of course, the stage where one starts to become aware of positive loves and new feelings, real appreciation of, and love for the neighbor, would be positive. But on the other hand, I think it's difficult to say that being aware of one's jealousy, anger and frustration, etc., is pleasant. There is a certain excitement that exists in observing that something that has been told to you is actually taking place in your life. When the Writings start to talk directly to you in regard to experience, then there's an excitement.
I was reading recently something that Bishop de Charms had written about the rational not being a cold and purely objective thing, but that it's actually the love of truth for truth's sake. So there is part of you - what Gurdjieff would term Work 'I's'- that can be very excited about observing things taking place. There's also an excitement when actual changes start to take place in the relationships that are important to you, whether it be with your spouse, a child or a very good friend. When you start to see, even to a small degree, that these relationships improve, that's very exciting.
Q. Temptations are often associated with despair and anxiety and we are keenly aware of those, but how do you relate Gurdjieff's teachings to the peace and tranquility that come at the end of temptations?
A. Fortunately we don't have to regenerate all the way in order to have the process take place in relation to one particular state. Often Gurdjieff talks about big angels and big devils, and little angels and little devils. There are states, or what he would call "mechanical" reactions, that we refuse to respond to and thoughts that we refuse to think and emotions that we refuse to identify with and with which we struggle. Over time - and time varies, depending on the size of the state you're dealing with - you start to feel less and less identified with these thoughts and emotions. You start to feel a distance from what you are resisting. Then separation takes place; the hells may rage but the feeling of who you are is separated from those hells. There begins to be a tranquility in regard to that particular state, and a freedom that you realize was brought about only by something that is higher than yourself. You know the Lord is doing it, and that tranquility in regard to that particular evil encourages you to continue working on other evils. You may see the storm raging, even be surrounded by its fury, but you may still feel peace. A friend gave me a pillow with the words on it "Serenity is not peace from the storm, it is peace amid the storm." There's a peaceful place, a safe harbor available to us at all times, if we really want it. It's where the Lord dwells.
Q. Would you say a word to our readers about how they might introduce themselves to this remarkable man through his books - titles and where they can get them?
A. The first thing I would recommend is a book by Maurice Nicoll, who studied under Gurdjieff. I was searching for about five years and was coming to the end of reading everything I had seen written by or about Gurdjieff. I was reading a book called The Mark by Nicoll and near the end of my reading was a phrase suggesting to me that if the reader had further interest in these things, he could consult the tremendous work on the internal sense of the Old Testament by Emanuel Swedenborg. Of course that brought me back to where I had been all the time and hadn't realized it. I went to the Writings and for the first time understood them in a way I could apply to my life. Nicoll's five-volume work titled Psychological Commentaries on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky represents his effort to teach Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to his students. At the same time he was writing these works, he was also a student of Swedenborg. Between the first and the fifth volumes he started to make the transition from the terms Gurdjieff used, to Swedenborg's terms. I personally find them extremely applicable and easy to understand. Many people may have already read The New Man by Maurice Nicoll, which explains the internal sense of the parables. One might start with that - it's a very small work. If you find that applicable you could certainly go to his five-volume work, The Psychological Commentaries. If you have a further interest in more pure Gurdjieffian work there certainly are other works that I could direct you to - In Search of the Miraculous by Ouspensky would be one of them.
Q. If you have the Writings, why would you be studying this philosopher?
A. I remember going through math class in high school, and I tried to learn as much as I could. I had the books, I had excellent teachers, but there was some connection that wasn't being made in my mind. I guess I was a slow learner. Then I took "Zero Math" with Ken Rose, and for the first time understood what the books and teachers had been saying. It wasn't that they hadn't taught correctly; in fact, they were very correct. It was my ability to understand that was lacking. I found the same process in reading the Writings. I understood intellectually what the Writings were saying, but not until I read Nicoll did I understand how to apply them to my life.
LRS: It has been a most inspiring interview, Peter, and I thank you for introducing our readers to this intriguing subject.
Interview of Peter S. Rhodes by Rev. Lorentz R. Soneson, New Church Home. 1987