Michael Kell, M.D., Ph. D., interviewed William Patrick Patterson on his weekly radio show Mind, Body, Senses over VoiceAmerica: Health, Wellness Network. Here are extracts.
Michael John Kell: Today we’re going to be talking to William Patterson, a longtime student of Lord Pentland, who was a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. And we’ll be talking about his new book, Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time, The Fourth Way and Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff didn’t write that much, but his students really did.
William Patrick Patterson: Well, he wrote All and Everything, three series of books. The first book is 1,248 pages, so that’s fairly long. But what we need to understand with Mr. Gurdjieff, I think, is that at a very early age he came to what he called “a complete sensation of myself.” In other words, Being. And he looked around and he saw all the suffering, all the misery, and violence. And the question dawned on him—“What is the sense and significance of life on Earth and human life in particular?” He felt that the ancient wisdom societies understood this question and had the answer. And that was the reason he went to Egypt. He said he was initiated four times into the Egyptian mysteries. And he recognized that there was, as he said, “a Christianity before Christ.” And it is this that Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way teaching is based upon—the ancient prehistoric Egyptian religion, which was the religion of Being.
Now over time elements of that teaching spread northward, so Gurdjieff made a second journey into the Hindu Kush and Tibet and gathered various elements and reformulated them into the teaching he called The Fourth Way.
MJK: I am curious about the references to esoteric Christianity, “a Christianity before Christ.” Did people ever press him harder about this, force him to be more explanatory?
WPP: No, no one did. But the basis of the Work is that we’re not here, consciously, though we think we are. We’re mechanical and we don’t realize this.
MJK: Gurdjieff was really saying you have to get yourself into the physical world, so you know you’re in your body, know what you are doing right now.
MJK: Now it may be automatic or it may not but it’s really like entered-into physicality.
WPP: But the question is how to we get there? We get there through attention. So where is our attention normally located? It’s located in the head brain. We’re always talking to ourselves about ourselves, future-izing or dwelling on the past. If we can redirect the attention down into the body and then breathe into that and sustain it, then the body will start to come alive. We’ll be embodied. We’ll have an anchor in physical reality.
Otherwise we’re just a thought, a feeling, an impulse and those are all changing. So once we’re anchored in physical reality then we can observe what is actually going on. This is called self-observation in the Work. I divide my attention between the inside and the outside (usually the attention is either all outside or I’m all inside). So this takes an act of will, and it opens us to a new level of consciousness. And then I begin to observe my reactions. Usually they are not in accord with my self-image.
MJK: I know I don’t need to tell you about Buddhism, but I’m fond of some of the Buddha’s sayings. He had the habit of not answering questions unless forced. People claimed he didn’t answer, but he actually did answer; they just didn’t understand the answer. Like the statement that the world neither exists nor does not exist, it’s both at the same time. People thought he was talking nonsense.
WPP: The Buddha also said that emptiness is form and form is emptiness. Now what perceives that? That’s the third thing, which is what is usually missing. You know, I feel empty or there’s all form, and so the idea of emptiness as form and form as emptiness I understand on a psychological level. But the next level is the consciousness of emptiness is form, consciousness of form is emptiness. And that takes a relatively silent mind that is disabused with my personal story.
MJK: Gurdjieff used to make the distinction between physical suffering and unnecessary psychological suffering. It can actually become a place of objective reasoning if one is aware. In a sense I guess we could say at least one meaning is to finally see the world as clearly as it can be seen by a human being, which means it is not going to be exactly the same for everyone, but it’s the clearest we can do.
WPP: But we have to realize…
MJK: …instant perception?
WPP: …reason is anchored in the awareness of the body. So the talking to myself stops and I go beyond what Gurdjieff calls the “formatory apparatus” into the silence of Mind. There what the Buddha is saying makes perfect sense because you’re experiencing it as you perceive it.
Now, just to go back a minute to the teaching that Gurdjieff brought, he said its origin was “prehistoric Egypt.” Therefore it is before Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. There are certain correlations between Buddhism and the Gurdjieff teaching. But Gurdjieffians would say that Buddhism was simply taking elements of what was originally The Fourth Way. But whether that’s true or not, the aim in Buddhism is for what Tibetans call the “mere I” to realize itself as shunyata, full solid emptiness. Whereas in the Gurdjieff Work the aim is to become an individual, a sacred individual. So those are two different orientations.
MJK: From my perspective I think that the Buddhists had misinterpreted what the Buddha said because it was added to. Adding always makes it more complicated and things are never complicated in nature. Emptiness is not the emptiness that people think of.
MJK: Emptiness is not a psychological concept.
WPP: Emptiness is not alienation, right? That’s a psychological experience.
MJK: Right. It seems to me that the truth of the matter is there is the physical world and mind uses the physical brain, but mind is not something in itself, it’s the offshoot of the brain. Awareness and physicality are the two primary forces, and awareness actually disseminates matter, in our case the brain.
WPP: What if all is Mind and within Mind the brain is appearing and operating. What if it’s just the reverse [of the Mind being an offshoot]? That we’re living in Mind but we’re not conscious of it. We’re conscious of the contents of consciousness but not of consciousness itself.
MJK: That’s definitely true. Awareness as an independent force, you know, not a force but an energy.
WPP: Let me ask a different kind of question. What world-time do we live in, which is what I begin with in Spiritual Survival. How can you ask a question about what you’re in? It’s like a fish in water asking that question. But if we look back in time, we’ll see that past world-times were those of the hunter-gatherer, then the agrarian, the industrial, then at the turn of the 20th century we had the scientific-industrial, and now what I would call the Technological.
Each of these world-times organized man in a certain way and contributed to his identity, what he thought of himself, the purpose of life, and so forth. Where we are now is at the cusp of the Technological, but some of the industrial world still exists. But what is this Technological world-time? Is it different than us? Aristotle said that “Man is a rational animal.” So there are two sides to our nature—rational and animal. And I would suppose at some point prehistoric man (if it was a man) was watching lightning hitting a tree and igniting and suddenly he made the intuitive leap to rubbing two sticks together and thereby making friction to produce the spark of fire and so using his brain in another way. And from that moment on we have the application of the rational to Nature which over time has resulted in our Technological world-time.
Technology, for many people, is very threatening. And I think understanding what Technology is will enable us to spiritually survive this Technological world-time, for Technology is really just the rational part of the mind developed to an extraordinary degree. So if I can understand my own mind then I can begin to understand Technology in itself, and I’ll be able to relate to it rightly. Otherwise, we can be taken over by our identification with Technology and we could lose our spiritual possibility and heritage.
MJK: That’s a very good point. Gurdjieff talked about man maybe going the way of the social insect. Was he seeing that technology was the issue in those days or was it something else? I remember that he talked about the bees and the ants once being an advanced race.
WPP: When we look back at what the seminal spiritual figures have said, there is Moses with the 12 commandments and sin, Buddha with life is suffering, Christ with divine love, and Mohammed with all is Allah. And here Gurdjieff comes saying from the very beginning that man is a machine. That is, we are already what we most fear. And he was saying that in 1912. We operate mechanically and we don’t know it. It doesn’t mean we’re not intelligent, it doesn’t mean we don’t have talent and skills. But it means things are operating mechanically; we are being lived rather than actually living.
MJK: When you first heard that man is mechanical did you actually revolt against it, or did you say I can see why this is true but I’ve got to research it more to make sure?
WPP: I believed I wasn’t mechanical but everyone else was. [Laughs] Everybody rejects that the moment they hear it. But if you really observe yourself, for example, people who are listening now are probably sitting down, they are not standing. Well, did we intentionally sit down in the chair or were we sat down by the instinctive center? And the way we’re sitting now, did we choose that or did the instinctive-moving center choose this because it’s most comfortable for us?
MJK: The question is, having had the experience are you aware of the experience? Whether it’s true or not true, it doesn’t matter. The fact is, you know you had an experience and whether it’s psychological or not is not important, so we don’t have to answer the question. All your centers were working and you learned something.
WPP: Right. As Gurdjieff would say, we not only live mechanically, we live in false personality, and the growth of essence, he says, stops at around eight or nine years of age. So we’re all really very young in terms of essence. So as I become more and more aware of myself, the ideas that I have about myself—which are rooted in false personality—weaken. And that gives space for essence to grow. And behind essence is Being.
I begin to recognize the difference between consciousness and the contents of conscious. And I see how the attention so quickly identifies with the foreground—the contents—and not the background. And so if I can train myself to have awareness of both at the same time, then the conscious absorption of the impressions of the physical world can begin to raise me to a higher and higher level of the experiencing of consciousness. Of course it’s not me that is experiencing it, consciousness is experiencing itself.
It’s like most people appear to have bodies, but they’re rarely aware of them. They’re only aware of the body when there is desire, fear, lust, sickness, and as soon as that passes we’re back up in our heads talking to ourselves.
But what’s happened is that consciousness has gotten trapped in the various centers. And whatever center works the best—instinctive, emotional, intellectual—that’s the center we most identify with. And that’s where we build our identity, and our self-image—who we think we are. So it’s the extraction of consciousness from the identification with centers that leads to real being.
It’s like the Hindu idea of the goose in the bottle. How does the goose get out of the bottle? Because any way it tries it’s going to break the bottle and kill itself. It has to realize, as consciousness, it’s never been in the bottle.
MJK: I had this dream as a kid that Frankenstein caught me. And I laughed and told him that he can’t kill me. He asks why. I tell him because I’m awake and you’re not. It seemed very logical in a dream, you know, but it can’t be. I can’t be the goose.
Now let me ask a final question I’ve been wondering about: did Gurdjieff ever pick a successor? It doesn’t appear to me that he did. His student J.G. Bennett, for example, tried but didn’t quite pass the test.
WPP: It isn’t in the lexicon of the Work to appoint someone. It’s with the students themselves—after the teacher has passed—that one of them is strong enough to lead and the others accept it. And in this case it was Madame de Salzmann, who had been with Gurdjieff since 1919 in Tiflis and was an assistant group leader with him through the 1940s. So the mantle of leadership passed to her.
Before he died Gurdjieff said to Lord John Pentland, my teacher, that “You will be my Paul, you will spread the teaching.” And that’s what he did; he spread the teaching in America. So when the teacher passes…then the student steps up.
First printed in The Gurdjieff Journal.
William Patrick Patterson is the author of seven books on The Fourth Way, the latest of which is “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time.”