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Remaining in or Leaving a Group

Of course, “every stick has two ends”. Involution and evolution wrap around each other like a caduceus. What goes up can certainly also come down. When the Higher meets with the Lower, a rising up to a higher Middle is not guaranteed. The Lower can also pull the Higher downward. There needs to appear a reconciling factor to appropriately blend them.

If the “Gurdjieff Work” represents a “school”, then do people ever graduate? What would that mean? Who decides?  Paraphrasing a story related by C. S. Nott about a conversation he overhead at the “Prieure”, Gurdjieff was asked by a visitor, what he did at the Institute. Gurdjieff is reported to have replied that the school was like an automobile repair shop. “Here we take broken cars and repair them.” “And what happens Mr. Gurdjieff, when they are repaired”? “They can then drive off into life in a state of repair.” [Teaching of Gurdjieff: Journey of a Pupil]

J G. Bennett offers a number of practical suggestions about choosing groups and teachers. He also observes that after sufficient time in a group or school, if the student doesn’t feel they are learning and growing in a direction that interests them, not moving in the direction of their aim for self-development, then it is time to leave and look for something else. Either, the program is not offering what they need, or they are unable to assimilate the material as offered, or it was helpful for a while but now the pupil has reached a state in their development where something else is required. [ J.G.B. Transformation p.113-135]

Of course, the pupil may also leave for the wrong reasons. Hopefully, the elders of such a group have the maturity and wisdom to help the pupil make this discrimination …  if the pupil has the respect and sincerity to seek their advice before departing. People sometimes leave because they are finally approaching more difficult confrontations in their psychological world, and they do not have sufficient desire, capacity, motivation, or stamina to appropriately assimilate and digest their own material. In this case they “run-away” and may then bad-mouth the group to cover their own weakness. Or, the exiting student may exalt the group, but put themselves down as unworthy or inadequate and leave in a diminished state. This is tragic. It is the leader’s responsibility to try to facilitate the departure so the pupil leaves in a healthy state and able to continue their travels in the “valley of search” for an approach more appropriate to their nature and destiny. Unfortunately, when some people leave, they often just stop coming without explanation. This is a lost opportunity to clarify ones’ aim and summarize the learning up until that time. Some group leaders will reach out to a departed student to understand the reason for their leaving.  Other’s do not make this effort.

Sometimes, the leader may lose interest in the pupil for a number of reasons. This is a regrettable situation. A leader is obliged to expend the effort and time to find a suitable replacement or guide for the student, as well as a safe environment.

Many people believe that the journey to ‘enlightenment’ is only filled with beauty and peace. The reality is often is very different. The inner work requires a clear-eyed objective exploration and acceptance of one’s weaknesses and failures on the way to purification of the emotional detritus picked up along the rocky path of life. Students have to be prepared for this difficulty

Pitfalls for Groups on the way to Deterioration

Deifying the Teacher or Founder

It is not uncommon that as time goes by, the special significance of the founder of a movement, or the disciples, can become the focus of a community, gradually replacing the development and transformation of the individual. Instead of the challenging and often uncomfortable work of self-confrontation required for growth of understanding and Being, instead increasing focus on the history, qualities and stories of the master and disciples can replace the challenge of the actual practice brought by the founder. This phenomenon is characteristic of exoteric expressions of the teaching but can come to pre-occupy what should be the focus of a mesoteric community hoping to go deeper. When this happens, the group can devolve into an exoteric expression without the members realizing the change.

The manifestations of these special, inspirational people may very well be useful models for followers to attempt emulation and often become part of the teaching. However, direction may begin to drift towards deifying these individuals to the point of distracting from the challenge of individual confrontation.  Then, a teaching becomes a religion.  It is more useful for adherents to focus on what the founder’s message and methods can show them about themselves, than for followers to believe they are changing themselves by turning their attention towards their imaginings about the teachers motivations, personal life, contradictions, short-comings or unusual strengths. I suspect true teachers would be saddened to see their students become more focused on hero worship and hagiography than freeing themselves from dependency and illusion.

Eating the Map

Years ago, I was told the following story. Once upon a time there was a colony of ants. Every day, scouts would venture out to look for sources of food and return with news of their find and its location. The colony would then decide how best to exploit this information. One day, a small scouting party came across a picnic area.  The amount and variety of foods were astounding. With great excitement, they returned to the colony with the news and suggested the entire colony should follow them in order to bring back the enormous supply. As they tried to describe such abundance, they were met with skepticism by the colony elders. They were accused of exaggerating or outright falsehood.  “Bring us proof of this ‘discovery’ of yours” demanded the elders. “Prove to us the justification for us all to make effort in this direction.”

The scouts returned to the picnic site and taking a piece of paper (that humans would call a napkin) they sketched the layout of the picnic table and dragged the drawing home to the colony where again they were met with disbelief. “You said the amount of food was so large that we should all go”, exclaimed the elders. “A dozen of us can fit on this entire picture. We see nothing here to justify moving the entire colony to this site.”

In frustration, the scouts returned to the picnic. Now they gathered all the pieces of paper they could find and, putting them all together, they drew a gigantic outline of the entire table with all the food laid upon it to scale.  Carefully folding the huge, life-size map into a long tube, they dragged it back to the colony and unfolded it before the astounded reaction of the elders and all their companions.  Now the reaction was respect, admiration, and great excitement.  All the ants began to crawl over the enormous drawing.

“This is amazing” they all exclaimed. This must truly be the paradise our legends have told us about.  It is miraculous that it actually exists and after all these generations of hearing legends, we now find that it is true and accessible to us.” The scouts were praised and told to return to the picnic site and prepare for the arrival of the colony.  This they did. With a sense of accomplishment, they themselves began to enjoy the delights of this paradise.

After some time, they realized the colony should have arrived.  What could be detaining them? Several of them left their happy colleagues at the picnic and retraced their steps towards home.  On arrival, the found that the colony had never left to follow them to the actual location.  Instead, they were all crawling back and forth, back and forth, again and again over the drawing, chewing and tearing and devouring the picture.  They had remained where they were to eat the map, mistaking it for the real!

A danger for spiritual groups is the possibility of mistaking the sacred writings, instructions, words of the leader for the actual destination being pointed towards, rather than being a map that one must follow inside themselves. This tendency can manifest as a lifetime search for the way to a deeper reality by reading more and more books in the hope that somewhere, in one of them, will be the answer that makes the way clear …  or … that participating in the life of a group year after year, that this dedication alone will open up the hidden world being sought.

My experience informs me that the esoteric cores of all traditions point to a way of exploring one’s interior world in such a way that both the search and the searcher are ultimately transformed.  It is this transformation that opens the door to the promised kingdom hidden within each of us. The answer ultimately lies inside, not in the outer forms of practices, readings, rituals. When this recognition is not realized, nor actually tasted, there is danger that groups and individuals will become stuck eating the map and not actually finding a way to go on the journey.