The Gurdjieff Journal—Fourth Way Perspectives

Book Review
A Work of Attention
Exchanges Within: Questions from Everyday Life Selected from Gurdjieff Group Meetings with John Pentland in California 1955–1984

Continuum Publishing Company, 395 pp.


(#) Parentheses indicate footnote number

In a beautiful riverside cemetery in Valhalla, New York, on a hillside under a tall spreading tree stands an unusual gravestone of granite. Carved into the rose-tinted stone is a design, medieval in style, of two entwined dragons' bodies, one with a lamb's head, the other a wolf's. Between the two heads is a fish looking as though it had just escaped from water. The heads and fish forming a triad, the whole symbol in granite is enclosed by a Celtic interlacing of lines. The inscription reads:

Lord John Pentland 1907–1984

And below, the admonition:

Commit thy work to God.

This is the last earthly statement, so fitting, of the man G. I. Gurdjieff chose to lead the work of The Fourth Way in America. For shortly before his own death in 1949, Gurdjieff told the then forty-two-year-old Lord Pentland, "You are like Paul, you must spread my ideas."

And that Lord Pentland faithfully did. President of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York from its inception in 1953, he also founded the Gurdjieff Foundation of California, and was instrumental in the creation and development of study groups in various cities. During his lifetime he personally acted as a teacher to hundreds of students who sought to genuinely awaken from the automatism of ordinary life.

Not only did he unstintingly work to spread the teaching, Lord Pentland also strove to preserve it in its original form so that its seminal value and power as a sacred way could be passed on to later generations. For as Gurdjieff taught, in time, all is deflected from its original aim if the deflecting forces are not adequately resisted. In Lord Pentland's day—as ours—the predominant deflections took the form of syncretism, eclecticism and other isms. These tendencies he stood resolutely against and so was cast by some as being "too severe, too doctrinaire." But he was a warrior in that term's best sense, and personal considerations, such as the dislike or disagreement of others, never dissuaded him from the task he had been given.

Prehistoric Teaching

To appreciate the immensity and burden of Lord Pentland's task—the scale of its importance—we first must appreciate what the teaching represented for Gurdjieff, what it was that he was passing on. The Fourth Way teaching, Gurdjieff told his St. Petersburg-Moscow groups, actually predates the four principal ways: Hebraic, Egyptian, Persian and Hindu. It is "completely self-supporting and independent of other lines," he declared, "and it has been completely unknown up to the present time."(1) Completely self-supporting...independent of other lines...completely unknown. The statement is strong and unequivocal—clearly the teaching is not fragmentary, incomplete, or a mixture of some previous teaching or teachings.

For example, with regard to Christianity, Gurdjieff declared: "The Christian church, the Christian form of worship, was not invented by the fathers of the church. It was all taken in a ready-made form from Egypt, only not from the Egypt that we know but from one which we do not know...prehistoric Egypt [which] was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ, that is to say, that the religion of prehistoric Egypt was composed of the same principles and ideas that constitute true Christianity."(2)

These statements are astonishing. If true, they indicate that The Fourth Way predates all Western teachings: the elements of the teaching found in contemporary Christianity, in Sufism, in the Kabbalah and so forth, are in fact derived from The Fourth Way—and not the reverse! That elements of the teaching can be found in other teachings is the result of deflections of The Fourth Way, not the opposite. The change of perception required of us is Copernican in its magnitude.

Preparation for the Task

Now we can begin to see what an onerous task Gurdjieff gave to Lord Pentland. Fortunately, it was a task for which he was uniquely prepared. Born Henry John Sinclair near London in 1907, he lived from the ages of 5 to 12 in India, where his father served as governor general of Madras. At 18 he inherited the title of Lord Pentland and studied engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge. He traveled widely and had entered the worlds of politics and business when in 1937 he first heard P. D. Ouspensky's lectures on Gurdjieff's teachings. For the next twelve years, he studied with Ouspensky and his wife, Madame Ouspensky, at Lyne Place outside London and later, when the Ouspenskys moved to America, at their estate in Mendham, New Jersey, undergoing an arduous preparation on both the theoretical and practical sides of the teaching by two of its prime expositors.

After Ouspensky's death in 1947, Lord Pentland said, "it became clear to me that even after all those years with Ouspensky I hadn't arrived at anything: I came to nothing." The devastation of such a realization can only be known by one who has walked that lonely bitter road to its end. Yet, contrary to external appearances, the recognition of one's nothingness—"The recognition," as he says, "that almost everything that has been normally regarded as hope is misunderstanding"—is in fact the necessary precondition for the real ignition of being and is the essential fulfillment of the aim of sincere work on oneself. So, presenting himself to Gurdjieff, Lord Pentland received the direct transmission of the teaching and was charged with his life's task.

A Work of Attention

As Gurdjieff was for Lord Pentland, Lord Pentland was for his many students—the primary spiritual influence in their lives. Now, with the publication of Exchanges Within, containing selections from meetings he led in California from 1955 to 1984, a new generation of seekers may be introduced to an inspiring level of self-sincerity and keenness of observation. Of course, what no printed word can convey is the extraordinary penetration of the man's consciousness, his being. As with all great teachers, there was a potency that radiated throughout his meetings. An unprepared reader, one whose attention still tends to be totally identified and not yet receptive to more subtle levels of vibration, approaches this material, as it were, "dry"—having no inner support other than his own interested attention.

The reader's task—that of keeping his attention on what he is reading—is made no easier in that, while the material has been selected and arranged to achieve a certain purpose, it has only been lightly edited. Little to no attempt has been made in translating the living experience of the spoken word to that of the printed word. The resulting demand may so erode one's ordinary interest that one is soon stripped to the bedrock of "raw attention."

This, in itself, if recognized, is an experience of real value. As Lord Pentland responds to a questioner, "You see you are unable to bring all of your attention onto what you're reading. Can you follow that or not? You see that while you are reading you're thinking about something else."

The major portion of this review first appeared in Gnosis magazine, Fall 1997.


Notes

(1) P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 286.

(2) Ibid, p. 304.


For the remainder of this article, please order The Gurdjieff Journal Issue #15

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