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. . . A THEOSOPHICAL SIDE-GLANCE

 

 

There's a passage in Camus's 'The Myth of Sisyphus' under the heading "An Absurd Reasoning" that describes more or less what happened to me in the Eighties:

"It happens that the stage-sets collapse, rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday... according to the same rhythm - this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the 'why' arises..."

A common enough situation. In fact, 'The Dice Man' encountered the same prospect - though his pioneering solution led to some hair-raising events which most of us would consider beyond the pale.

About ten years ago (~1993), by a fluke, and soon after reading Colin Wilson's 'The Outsider' (1956), I found in a junk shop an old copy of Colin's second book: 'Religion and the Rebel' 1957. At the front someone had pencilled, "Intellectualism - the shortest road to 'going nuts' is to digest the contents of this book!" How could anyone resist a book with a comment like that in it? I bought it straight away and pencilled underneath, "you should know!" It was as expected: superb. In the introduction Colin mentions precisely the problem cited above, suggesting that one can acclimatise to the gloom, or revolt - ie, the Outsider. Unlike his outsider, though, I have never disliked myself, only certain aspects of the world of Man around me - which I have often positively despised: its plethora of baubles and trinkets, its preoccupation with farcical competitive sport, its phoney carnivals, its insane murderous squabbles, its endless clamour for collecting - especially wealth and power. All cardboard to me.

When you begin a new job, everything is fresh and new. A year later the freshness has gone, but there is still a flavour of novelty. Five years on, familiarity is complete, you are fully established, a piece of the furniture. After two more years the "robot" is programmed, and Camus's "absurd" scenario begins. I was inclined to call this "disillusionment", a term that was applicable to my own circumstances in another sense: ie, the adverse political changes of the time and the declining morale they provoked. After the freedom and optimism that marked the 60s and early 70s, this reassertion of establishment power presented an abrupt and unwelcome development.

From here on, for nearly 10 years, I worked as an electronics engineer and operator at TV Centre in White City - a comfortable job, meeting interesting people, involved with interesting projects. On the other hand, I began reading Hesse, Kafka, Dostoyevsky and others, watched and was awoken by the late 80s "Great Explorer" series on TV (some of whose episodes I worked on), and was unable to ignore the fact that the London traffic was worsening by the day. Furthermore, Alasdair Milne, the DG, had been sacked for allowing several outstanding productions to reach the screen, which the government saw as subversive; and close on his heels went many worthy producers and other staff. And so began the decline: pre-production censorship of programme material, a trend towards an officious style of management, and so on. When I had joined, morale had been high, now it was at basement level.

At the end of 1988, in a bold attempt to begin a new life, I resigned. On my fortieth birthday (the same day and month, I later discovered, as Ouspensky) I bought a ticket to Miami. A few weeks later in Tallahassee I bought a car, and in the next six months drove sixteen thousand miles. Somewhere in his work Colin mentions a similar attempt to resolve the problem. He was about half my age at the time and he chose France. But the method failed for Colin because he was skint - he is certainly right about how practical details can intrude. I had £3,000 to draw on, and 6 months later ended up with £1,000 because mostly I slept in the car (an estate) or a tent, and food and fuel were cheap. But I felt free of all normal constraints, especially the "need" for security - perhaps our greatest obstacle - so my brain could free-run: no obligations, no plans, no concerns.

At this time I hadn't so much as heard of Colin. Eighteen months later, at a friend's wedding in Hobart, I was discussing literature with the Groom's brother. "Keep an eye out for anything by Colin Wilson," he said. Back in England, after a fabulous several months in the antipodes, which was almost as good as my trip in the States, I found Colin's 'A Criminal History of Mankind' in a second-hand bookshop. Until then I had forgotten my conversation in Hobart, but it all came back to me when I saw Colin's name emblazoned on the cover. Later, as I read it, I was particularly intrigued by the last chapter 'The Sense of Reality'. From then on I searched eagerly for other works by Colin, and within a few weeks had acquired several.

In 1993, having not found it second hand, I finally ordered a copy of his most famous book: 'The Outsider'. At first, it's apolitical and refreshingly authentic analysis was like a breath of oxygen washing through my brain. When I learned in detail of all the controversy that surrounded its publication - or rather, the events soon thereafter - the breath of oxygen was re-doubled. I guess that says more about me than Colin or 'The Outsider', but I'll return to this later.

Around that time a friend in Yorkshire enrolled on a theosophy course and he wrote to tell me about it. He described it as "fascinating" adding that courses were held in most large towns and that he thought I might be interested. I soon discovered that I could join a group in Hastings, which purely from curiosity I eventually did. The course was introduced as 'Practical Philosophy' to be later revealed as what had originally been the 'School of Economic Science' (S E S). I was to remain a member for two years, during which several interesting things happened.

But first, so you can see why anyone might be attracted, I'll reproduce here the leaflet introducing the course:


12 Discussions on Practical PHILOSOPHY

Those seeking an understanding of human existence and the world in which we live are invited to attend a course in Practical Philosophy. The course is centred on an enquiry into the underlying unity behind all the diversity and change in our daily lives. There are opportunities for further study in depth and introduction to practices in relaxation and meditation.

Week 1: Philosophy: the love of wisdom. The need for self knowledge. Observation and its degree of accuracy. A practical exercise in the refinement of observation.

Week 2: Activity and the underlying peace. The human condition. The need for presence of mind. The waking, dreaming and sleeping states and highest state of consciousness.

Week 3: Movement and rest, activity and stillness. What am 'I'? The need to awaken out of day dreams.

Week 4: Purposeful activity, the emotional claim we put on activity. Negative thinking. The real nature of Man. Being yourself. The potential of the human being to develop.

Week 5: The subtle aspect of Man and the creation. Beauty at the gross, subtle and causal levels. Refinement of the mind and heart. Increasing the moments of awareness. The door to the finer world.

Week 6: The three basic constituents of the creation. Knowledge of the play of creation. Letting go.

Week 7: Identification with the creation and its effects on body, mind and emotions. The unchanging 'I'. The principle of observation. Discrimination between the transient and the eternal.

Week 8: Observation on identification with the creation. Freedom from doing, achieving, striving, etcetera. Man's capacity for language and reason. The imaginary 'me'.

Week 9: The true use of the intellect and the mind. The purpose of philosophy. The circle of life and death.

Week 10: Observation on the functioning of mind. Work at the subtle level.

Week 11: Incessant thinking. Negative feelings.

Week 12: Dissolving negative feelings. 'Know thyself'.

Students are asked neither to accept nor reject any of the ideas, however appealing, but rather to test them for themselves in the light of their own experience. No previous knowledge of the subject is necessary.

TERM STARTS 27th & 28th APRIL 1994

Enrolments fifteen minutes before start of lecture. To allow students to attend week by week on the evening of their choice, the same lecture is repeated on Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7.30 p.m. (Refreshments served). The fee for the term is £35.00; concessionary rate £25.00.

THE SCHOOL OF ECONOMIC SCIENCE Mayfield House, 24 Holland Road, Hove, East SussexAlso in HastingsEnquiries Brighton 302387 or 775846The School of Economic Science, 90 Queens Gate, London 5W7 5ABRegistered Education Charity. Established 1937

Was it the second sentence of Week 8 that particularly attracted me? To begin with, I was determined to approach the whole subject with an open mind, which meant I had to ditch the somewhat cynical outlook I developed as a kid and had consolidated over 20 or so years in industry. This, surprisingly, turned out to be simple enough. In fact, the very purpose of the course was to soften such states of mind. Within a few weeks I was inclined to think that my cynicism had indeed been… well, not so much misplaced as pointless. Instead of confining it to, for instance: tradition, politics, commerce, and the Orthodox Christian Church - which I had dismissed as humbug before I was 12 (a view I retain - though this should not be confused with the alleged teachings of Jesus) - I had applied it to virtually everything. In fact, I had attributed almost every human activity to some ulterior and entirely selfish motive: power, wealth, vanity, sex, etc: (ie, Russell: "Expect little of others... they also have an ego."). This had never troubled me because I had grown up with it and took it for granted. But once exposed to the ideas of theosophy I began to sense a glimmer of the evolutionary potential that Colin discusses in the last chapter of his 'Mysteries' 1979, and in this context cynicism seemed entirely irrelevant.

At the outset, students were led to believe that the school's aim was to comprehensively examine the work of prophets and philosophers throughout history and to take from it whatever could be applied in practice to help us all lead more fulfilling lives. We were invited to offer suggestions and given hand-outs containing quotes from Plato, Shakespeare, Mozart, the Upanishads etc.

As the course developed, this broadness of vision was subtly narrowed by our tutor - though only I seemed to notice this (or was concerned about it). Being a little outspoken, I posed questions that tended potentially to frustrate this narrowing. In response, our tutor cheerfully referred to me as the Gadfly! I took this as a compliment (ie, Socrates had acquired this soubriquet), but my questions were serious and they remained essentially unaddressed.

There were three tutors at the Hastings meetings, each of whose group was at a different stage. The tutor of the group I belonged to made his living as a solicitor, specialising in litigation, so was adept at dealing with awkward questions. Moreover, he knew his subject well, and ingeniously (and surreptitiously) defended the school's position and direction. His most effective defence, though, was that he was an extremely nice man - which deterred me from persisting. I was aware too that in any exploration of this kind, disposing of redundant data as one homes-in on the most practical ideas, is bound to cause narrowing; and properly so. My contention was in the selection, which had obviously been prescribed.

The source of prescription, it turned out (though I had no idea at the time), was a mysterious figure called Leon McLaren (a former colleague of "Ouspensky's English follower Dr Francis Roles..." 'The Strange Life of P D Ouspensky' p 114, Wilson 1993) who, it was reputed, followed instruction from his Indian Guru the Shankaracharya (who trained with Marharishi of 'Beatles' fame). Interestingly, these instructions, according to Peter Washington in his 'Madam Blavatsky's Baboon' (pp 370 - 5), were richly embellished with Mr McLaren's personal and somewhat eccentric - some would say bizarre - tastes.

OUSPENSKY

ouspenskyMuch later, perhaps a year, it became apparent that the course was loosely based on the work of Gurdjieff and to a lesser extent Ouspensky - neither of whom, strangely, were overtly mentioned by the tutors. It took some careful probing to extract this and certain other details about the School. But after that first year they began to "open up" a little. The name McLaren was mentioned, and the Shankaracharya, and 'Meetings With Remarkable Men' - Gurdjieff's autobiographical masterpiece.

 

GURDJIEFF

gurdjieffAll this time I continued to work my way through whichever of Colin's books turned up in the second-hand bookshops, and some from the library, and was becoming increasingly intrigued. I noticed clear contradictions between the Gurdjieff of the SES and the Gurdjieff I was reading about. The SES seemed to imbue him with an air of mystery, as if little was known or that they were trying to hide something. All the same, the motive of the tutors seemed genuinely altruistic, both in theory and practice. They seemed almost to regard their students as members of their family, presumably in this case the "human family".

My tutor took another group in Brighton, where his wife was also a tutor - the only female tutor I knew of. The male/female ratio, however, was about even throughout the school. Occasionally they held a party at their house in Brighton where several groups would come together. There would be an abundance of excellent, splendidly prepared food, and wine would flow freely, as did conversation. These were splendid affairs, no doubt based upon Gurdjieff's extravagant dinners so evocatively described in Colin's biography of him 'The War Against Sleep' 1986. No expense seemed to be spared. Students were allowed to bring friends, and the tone was one of remarkable openness and freedom. One got the impression that even gate-crashers were welcome. Yet it all had a very middle-class flavour.

Then there were concerts. I remember one in particular where I sat only a few feet from the pianist, David Ward. This was in a huge elegant room which was part of a Victorian crescent just off Brighton seafront. There were perhaps more than a hundred people in the audience - all members of the SES. Mr. Ward played magnificently; first Mozart, then Haydn and finally Bach, on a beautiful reproduction seventeenth century piano (with black and white keys reversed) which sounded almost like a harpsichord. Between each piece he said a few words that related the music to the work of School. And in the interval I had a chance to converse with him - he was extremely charming and natural. Ample free wine and quality refreshments were provided in the interval, and the three hours seemed to vanish in no time.

Sometimes "study days" were held in Brighton - usually on a Saturday or Sunday. These would combine our Hastings group with its Brighton equivalent. We would all sit in a large semi-circle facing the tutor and after "the exercise" (explained shortly) he would introduce some idea or ancient quotation and a lecture or discussion would begin. The venue was a stylish Victorian flat owned by the head of the Brighton School, Brian Joseph, a short plump man in his late sixties who was highly revered and rarely seen. We had to arrive early, and if anyone was late they would have to creep in as unobtrusively as possible (or wait for someone to let them in). Just as with the evening course, these supplementary all day meetings would always begin precisely on time. Part of the afternoon would be dedicated to cleaning and polishing, and students were instructed to rest their attention on the "subtle" working surface. If this was intended to simulate the work at Fontainebleau (Gurdjieff's famous School), it fell drastically short of the mark - for us, everything was comparatively easy (and temporary). I believe there was concern that students might resent such work, which indeed some did; in such instances they would either carry on grudgingly or (in only one case I remember) stand aside. As ever, impressive refreshments would be provided, to which everyone was invited (but not obliged) to contribute, and the tutor and his wife who had furnished most of the refreshments would insist on doing the washing up afterwards. Without doubt, they were a sincere and charming couple. They were in their early fifties, had two grown-up children, were very middle-class, accents etc, but never flaunted an aloof posture.

At one of these "study days" students were invited in advance to bring a short story or parable that they thought might offer useful material for discussion, and which they would be allowed to read out. I took along Kafka's 'Before the Law' and his 'An Imperial Message', both of which I thought suitably profound and appropriate. It turned out that no one else had bought anything. In complete silence I read the first of these. To my astonishment the response was cold to say the least, as though not a word had been understood. In the tense silence that followed, I sensed, from frowns and expressions of displeasure, that what I had read was "inappropriate". Noticing that the tutor was about to break in, and surmising that I may not be given another chance, I mischievously decided to launch into the second parable before he could do so. I had gathered long before that there was some curious rule that forbade interruption. All the same, the result when I finished was that the meeting continued as if I had said nothing, as if time had paused - which left me feeling somewhat bemused. Not a single person made the vaguest reference to my renditions. I realised that one or two of the Hastings group would have felt a bit "lost" and that others were shy among people they hardly knew, so were disinclined to speak out. The story reading idea was never repeated.

But all this is peripheral. Within the course itself, particular emphasis was given to self-awareness, being conscious of the senses, each of which was treated in turn. At one meeting a bowl of fruit was handed around. The fruit had been cut into suitably sized chunks - apple, pear etc - and we each had to take a piece and "rest our attention" on the taste. Not, note, "concentrate" - always "rest the attention". The word "concentrate" was virtually outlawed.

We were to practise the "
lamppost trick" which meant that when walking along the road one would use the lampposts as a reminder to observe and not daydream. This would free the mind of the usual internal chatter that tends to preoccupy us to the distraction of surroundings and the input from the senses - a kind of self-remembering exercise: feel the pressure on your feet, the air or on your face and hands, listen to the sounds, smell the smells and observe the scenery; be constantly alert to the moment.

Emphasis was also placed on the Shakespearian "all the world's stage...". We were actors playing our special role in the Great Game, and the acting had to accord with some mysterious script which would be automatically deciphered when the mind was still. The temptation to write the script for ourselves, we were advised, led to discord and "wrong action" which would (as happens in normal life) put ourselves at odds with the Great Scheme, so that progress is impaired, not just for us, but for the whole universe.

We were introduced to a well-known relaxation technique but with certain modifications. This was called simply "the exercise", and was to be practised three times a day for three to five minutes or more. One begins by going through the senses and relaxing muscles, though keeping a good posture: back straight, head level, hands on knees - never with fingers entwined. Then with eyes closed and after directing the attention in stages from feet to head, relaxing each section in turn, one would pay particular attention to listening. This would begin with the nearest or loudest sounds and end up beyond the quietest, remotest sounds detectable, so that one became aware of the great "backdrop" of silence against which everything takes place and which represents the true state of things. In doing this, one would endeavour to clear the mind of all thought. Again, this was done by 'directing the attention' away from any thoughts that might drift into view. Any sort of concentration was to be avoided. As I have said, every meeting began with this exercise, without fail - and on time, even if some members were clambering late up the stairs. And all junctures were accompanied by a pause, or "mini-exercise", to clear and refresh the mind.

We were visited once at Hastings by Brian Joseph (who at all times was to be referred to as Mr Joseph - never Brian, not even amongst ourselves in private). This was regarded as a most special occasion. All the groups came together and we were allowed to put questions. In replying to one question (from me!), Mr Joseph declared in his gentle voice that even at the heart of a nuclear explosion there existed total tranquillity. (Was he referring to some kind of parallel universe untouched by the one we customarily know?). He gave an impression of childlike simplicity, almost naivety - perhaps a little like the Dalai Lama. But he certainly emanated a curious kind of energy and an unusual composure, something akin to that of Gurdjieff, I suspect, though doubtless to a rather lesser extent.

The essence of the course was to seek an affinity for (or complete acceptance of) the unalterable "is"; and to learn how to adopt a state of inner calm from which one will act (or respond) "appropriately" in any situation. This kind of action, as I think Colin noticed when he discovered the Bhagavad-Gita, is indeed generally more appropriate than one that is calculated or premeditated. My reading of Kafka's parables has served no one, it fell utterly flat - presumably I had "calculated" intellectually (using my left-brain) so my action was almost bound to be "inappropriate". And this, supposedly, was because I had not achieved the stillness of mind that puts one "in tune".

We were told that we were forever poised a hair's breadth from the "Atman" - Oxford Compendium: Hinduism. 1. the real self. 2. the supreme spiritual principle. [Sanskrit atmán 'essence, breath']. All the same, the being "in tune", which I consider I had experienced on occasions - perhaps it is related to (or actually is) Maslow's "peak experience" that Colin frequently analyses and discusses - struck me then as having always existed at the edge of my mind, almost but not quite out of reach. All I had to do was make that small extra effort and grasp it to find the Atman. (I'm reminded here of 'A Sense of Reality' - the final chapter previously mentioned of Colin's 'A Criminal History of Mankind'). Had I simply ignored this possibility because, according to my observations, almost every human action (from that of friends to heads of state) seemed to contradict it - which tended to provoke an equally contradictory, even when merely reflective, response? And was it this that had led to my cynicism?

stairsFor me at the time, being "in tune" was basically intellectual, a matter of combining a full awareness of circumstances with a kind of unconventional common sense ("appropriate" sense, perhaps). Conventional "common sense" often doesn't work, as both Einstein and A.S. Neill, for instance, would surely have affirmed. (A. S. Neil is the author of "Summerhill" - where, I recall, at Lyme Regis Colin records a "peak experience"; did the "vibes" of a happy school have an inference?). For the tutors, on the other hand, being "in tune" had an entirely spiritual foundation, and was supposed to lead not merely to "right action" (ie, "appropriate" action) but also to a sensation called "bliss" - was this the real "peak experience"? Bliss, incidentally, is an appropriately named character in Isaac Asimov's remarkable and simply written 'Foundation and Earth' which belongs as much with my books on Buddhism as with those of science fiction. It pains me not to summarise the story (or for that matter to expand on various other issues as I would like to do) as Colin would have, but unlike Colin I'm not writing a book.

But here I became sceptical because coming to my notice at the same time certain details from Colin's work augmented and, as I shall explain, eventually supplanted this whole philosophical experience. In fact, not withstanding the parties, as I proceeded to learn more both from the course and from Colin's books (and the works they directed me to) I began to feel increasingly distanced from the school, if not disillusioned with it. As I have said, I was discovering similarities between the course and the books: some things contradicted and others complemented. Moreover, the course was moving into areas I found difficult to relate to - for instance, the chanting of Sanskrit vowels and various esoteric references to "body" and "earth" and so forth. So with my affinity for the perspectives outlined in Colin's work growing while those for the course were diminishing, I saw that I would soon be forced to switch over, as it were. At this point, however, we were informed that we were about to be induced into meditation.

I was reminded of when, as a kid, I had been confirmed in Church. I had consented out of curiosity and to please my mother, though I have always, from as far back as I can remember, been an atheist. So, one Sunday, we made our way to London, to a terraced house in Hugh Street at the back of Victoria station. This was the 'School of Meditation' which I believe is what became of Frances Roles's 'Study Society' (see later) after he split with Leon MacLaren. There seems to be an ambiguous relationship between these two schools, but apparently the SES "hires" the meditation induction service. After giving my envelope containing what cash or could afford (in my case £50 - the stipulated minimum of one week's income), I was led to the top of the building where a little ceremony was individually conducted by a man who bore a striking resemblance to Anthony Hopkins (in his unwrinkled late-thirties) and whose name was Mr White. He went through a procedure involving flowers and a new white handkerchief which we had to supply, burning incense and uttering Sanskrit, and then quoting the school's mantra "Rama" which was not thereafter to be repeated aloud. Because no one had been able to discover in advance what it was, the mantra seemed to grip everyone's imagination. It was the secret of secrets that everyone was eager to know. According to a Eknath Easwaran in his book 'Meditation' Rama was the mantra that Gandhi used and which means "rejoice", though our tutor insisted that it meant nothing and we should not attach any meaning to it.

I could go into so much detail about everything. The skills of selection seemed to evade me.

On the two occasions when I privately mentioned Colin to my tutor, he promptly changed the subject, just as he did after briefly addressing one of my awkward questions. It was as if I had touched a nerve; and this was true for a number of authors and topics - Peter Washington, in particular, evoked a very severe frown. I had noticed in Washington's book that the SES had fairly recently acquired a somewhat dubious reputation, and Washington describes precisely the experience I witnessed in the selected "narrowing" - and much else besides. So taken together, especially with Colin's books, these things helped me to extricate myself from the group - it is astonishing how attached one can become; yet, paradoxically, "detachment" was one of the things the school preached! But I didn't leave before discussing some of Colin's work with several of the students who shared a definite interest. And to my surprise my tutor, in all sincerity, invited me to attend any future meeting on spec at any time. I think he enjoyed my impishness, as if I was emulating Gurdjieff's eccentric methods of keeping people awake; though in many ways I behaved as a model pupil, otherwise the situation would have been pointless.

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SEE ALSO Wilson