Getting Religion



E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York © 1971



– 10 –




 (pp. 118-148)




“You better get a home in that rock, don’t you see?”


Tired, thinking about how many houses (if not homes) I had entered without finding one where I felt I could rest, I accepted an invitation one night to go to a meeting, about which I was told only that I would see something I had never seen before. Game, I drove across the Bay Bridge once more, into San Francisco, past the fairy-tale downtown, past the Hall of Justice, and coasted down Fell Street into the Haight-Ashbury.

In 1967 I had stumbled into the Haight for the first time, just in time for the initial Gathering of the Tribes in Golden Gate Park. Self-consciously mythic though it was, the day was full of the taste of something new. The petty constrictions of dying worlds had been cast off, and the infinite lay before us, a field of fight. Thousands of freaks-to-be stood together, many in costume, sharing food and drugs, chanting “Hare Krishna,” listening to the music. That day so many shared feelings – vibrations, they came to be called – conjoined to yield the euphoria of communal baptism. Nothing could hold us from ecstasy. We had been reborn, free: Revolution. Copulation. Liberation. No holds barred.


The day passed all too quickly, and Allen Ginsberg, cymbals on fingers, led the chanting that was to mark the end and a beginning. The sun sank slowly over the trees, a flock of birds winged before it, silhouettes, and the manifesto had been delivered. More jaundiced eyes might have doubted that such a day could be extended, or have noticed that the parachutist who dropped from the heavens of course needed a great deal of technology to carry off his stunt. Nonetheless, that day we were all ready for myth, and no one denied the miraculous.

Soon after, Superspade, a black dope dealer, was dead, murdered, the first clear and notable casualty of life in the Haight-Ashbury. It took some time for the terror to subside and then emerge as the new normality, but it came. Murder, the very word, changed everything.

Though the portents boded ill, no one wanted to confront what was sure to be true. Everyone said that they wanted to slow things down, to step out of that infernally dizzy pace that kept the straight robots going; everyone said that they wanted to feel, to have some quiet, some peace, but somehow the pace was ever faster, speeding more and more, careening out of control. Suddenly it was a foot race, and we were running madly to break clear, to burst that last barrier, but Death lost nary a stride even as he set the tempo.

Each day there was another mind-blowing inversion of what had to that moment seemed the inalterable nature of things; each day a form was resuscitated, revitalized, redefined, rearticulated, reborn, yet simultaneously another set of forces was pulling us down, grinding us down, bringing us to bay. Was it sabotage? Were they out to get us? Who were they? What did they want? Was it us?


Though in time I had learned to avoid the Haight, though I chided myself for coming so close to a scenario of such disappointment, I trusted the judgment of the person who had suggested that I attend the meeting. Parking, entering the hall, I saw a group of several hundred people of various ages and backgrounds seated in folding chairs, listening to a man who seemed to be talking about stars and the relation of stars to each life. Irritated with what seemed to be a discussion of games too often played, I moved to leave, and was just at the door when I saw the speaker rush to the forward edge of the assembly. The movement, so abrupt, so violent for the context, startled me, and I stayed to watch.

The speaker, a short bull of a man with a paunch, chunky arms and legs, wide face and a cowl of brushed curly hair, perhaps forty years old, was questioning a man who had just asked him a question. As the exchange progressed the room became quite still, the conversation one-sided, an interrogation conducted by the speaker.

“You ask me what my background is. What do you want?” This was the question put forth by the speaker, each word firm, forceful, direct, his eyes fixed on the man who had asked him for his credentials. Confused, the man tried to adjust to this turnabout. After several interminable moments of silence, he began to flush, only to hear a voice in the back of the room repeat the question (“What do you want?”), and remained silent, working within himself for an answer, some answer, unable to discern from the sudden shift in the situation, or from the intensity of the speaker’s voice (as if there had been some grotesque affront), what level of response to offer.

From another corner of the room the question sounded again: “What do you want?” Now he was on his feet, though no one had suggested that he stand, struggling for words, unable to get them out, guests to the meeting now wondering what in God’s name they would answer to this question. Just as he seemed ready to answer (or was it simply our hope?), women in long gowns standing throughout the room began to call out the question, strong high voices from every quarter, voice after voice, “What do you want?” “What do you want?” “What do you want?” He turned from voice to voice, staggered by the pace, trying to evaluate the meaning of the question and so formulate some reply.


Then one of the women, sweeping across the room moving rapidly but with control, began to question him.

“What is your name?”


“What did you mean when you asked Alex about his background?”

“I just wanted to know more about him.”


“Just to know, that’s all.”

“What would that give you – that information? What do you want?”

The man stood looking at her, trying to meet her eyes, and finally sat heavily as though she had forced him to the chair, mumbling that he didn’t know what to say. The speaker, whose name, I gathered, was Alex, was still standing just inches before those in the front row of chairs, not moving at all, still staring at the man. Time seemed suspended. Everyone in the room waited for him to say something, anything, somehow to give us more information so that we could handle this violation of protocol, this mayhem, given what we had considered the implied contract of such surroundings.

Still staring, the man called Alex abruptly began to laugh, a laugh that started as a series of chuckles and then began to shake his frame, laughter transforming the implacable stare, laughter washing through him and over him, his eyes now twinkling though still fixed, tears on his cheeks, the women in long gowns and various men in the room were laughing, too.


Though the laughter was deep and its cadences natural, though it seemed without malice, the change in mood was so sudden that the assembly was still quiet. Further, they could not yet fathom what was funny, from what concept of humor this laughter welled. The man who had given his name as Jack watched the speaker apprehensively, a nervous smile now on his lips, too willing to believe that some way out had been found.

All eyes were still on the speaker, waiting for him to give order to this yet stranger turn of events, watching him enjoy what he apparently found so comic. For his part he seemed to sense the very moment at which every person in the room attended his resolution, that instant in which every person present yearned for an answer, for an end to the outrage, and, exercising an unbelievable control, suddenly funneled the laughter into a tight smile, reached the side of the room without seeming to move, and began to talk with the man who had been so unfortunate as to ask him a question, talking at the man, through him, his every word infused with just a trace of irony and deprecation, as though there were some obvious joke he did not expect the man to understand.

“You see, Jack, what the lady wondered was if you possibly thought that we were supposed to put on some show for you, if you entertained the idea that we would perform for you, or that you might listen to our answers and perhaps show us your understanding of life.”

The speaker began to laugh again, as if to himself, and then again abruptly channeled his laughter.

“Well you see, my friend, the question has little to do with us. It has, rather, everything to do with you, with what you really want. To tell you the truth, Jack, if you don’t know what you want from us then you have no business being here. Do you know what you want?”

The man was silent.

“Are you sure that you don’t know, Jack?” Still he was silent.


“Then why don’t you leave now, and come back, if you want, when you know what you want. Thank you.”

It was staggering. With a smile he was telling the man to go, and from the inflection in his voice, the precision and tightness in the last “Thank you,” there was no question that the man could stay. The visitor pulled on his coat, looked around the room, and walked out the door.

Overwhelmed by the sequence of surprises, the shifts in mood, the reversals, and obvious control of the speaker, the assembly sat quiet, trying to gain some perspective on what had just occurred. Even the assumption of familiarity in the use of the man’s first name, over and again, was disturbing, as if there were no distance between strangers. Just the disregard of social space was outrageous. And the whole encounter? It had been like witnessing a rape, so intimate was the questioning, so violent the insistence, so intrusive the pressure on what had proved to be so helpless a victim, one of us.

Even as the assembly worked back through the last few minutes in which so much had changed, the man called Alex had returned to his position in the front of the room, and had begun to speak again.

“We are a group that works together to build higher levels of being. We are all crazy, like you. We try to work together to help ourselves. This Work cannot be done alone. Together we attempt to follow the Masters. If you do not know what you want from us, do not return. If you think that there is something for you here, there will be another meeting, in this hall, next week at this time. Good night.”

With these words he sat down in a chair, back straight, hands on his knees, staring straight ahead, unblinking. Since no one now dared question him, the crowd filed out of the room, the more verbal (males, particularly) quick to dissipate the impact of the events in words, others silent, wending down the street. As I climbed into my bus, I could focus only on the man himself, his clarity, directness, and control, and concede that I had in fact never seen anything like him in my life. True, I had been shocked, but what stayed with me was the intentionality of the effect he had produced, the obviously purposive staging of the whole evening.


Like many others in the room, I had more or less presumed that I was to see a show, a spectacle perhaps, that the actors would be more than eager to please, that I would subsume the evening as yet another little taste of life to add to the larger mix, on all of which I alone would pass final judgment. Yet here was this man telling us, showing us, that we could do no such thing, and more, making us silent (and frightened?) accomplices in his pressuring of one of us, his turning of the tables. To cap it all, he had the effrontery to bind us together with him in a union that did not flatter: Like him, he had said, we were all crazy. Oh, it was enormous, and I was much impressed.

In the week which followed, I tried to explain to several friends what I had seen, but most of them assumed that I had simply gotten religion, or a little dose of it, like everyone else in Berkeley. It was, to be sure, a common phenomenon in those days to meet someone with whom one had shared a bond only to find that some new cause had restructured their perceptions, that the past was for them subsumed by the categories of the new faith, whether it was drugs, politics, or religion, all enthusiastically espoused, swallowed whole. Generally these commitments passed, and one learned to wait out the cycle.

In any case, religions were booming in Berkeley just then, other modes having failed. In the spate of gurus the jet-setting Maharishi, still in vogue, led the way, appearing with the Beach Boys, the blessing of the Beatles not yet rescinded (though sure and solid Ringo was back from the ashram – he didn’t like the food). His Holiness was not helped, however, by a well-publicized photograph catching his overwhelming delight at being given a ride in a helicopter. From a less un-American front, meanwhile, the moral warriors of the Campus Crusade for Christ had invaded Berkeley, bright-eyed and unsullied salesmen who were pleased to offer a Bible conveniently reduced to four easy-to-read pages.


Aside from these two well-organized faiths, both of which were selling briskly, Berkeley was blessed also with countless swamis, all with fervent bands of acolytes, and the normal number of Haight Street messiahs. 

Understandably, then, even as yet another instant anchorite passed by on Telegraph Avenue, I had difficulty communicating to anyone that I had seen more than the proverbial light. Moreover, in the process of trying to relate the experience, I only lost hold of it. Irritated, wondering what I had really seen, I resolved to return.

Unwilling to seem like easy game, I came late to the meeting, if only to show the man that I was under no spell, and entered the room, now overflowing, to hear him talking about working. He kept using the word work, and for him it seemed to be in capital letters. I could make nothing of it. He spoke also of higher and lower levels, and it all sounded like cult gibberish. Perversely pleased that there was nothing new under the sun, I was just congratulating myself on my perspicacity when the speaker suddenly wheeled toward a woman with a child, stared at her in angry silence for a moment, and then said: “Would you mind taking the baby out of the room? Its crying is disturbing what we are here to do.”

So violent was his tone that she gave him a long look of bitterness, and then, as if she feared for the life of the infant, wrapped her shawl around the child and went into an adjoining hall. Changing tone as he watched her leave the room, the speaker resumed his discussion of terms that had no resonances for me, and was just concluding an exegesis of some nuance when the girl returned with her child and sat down. Speaking on for a moment, he then turned to her.


“You probably think that I was wrong to tell you to leave the room, that your child gave you some special privilege not available for others. Let me say this. That is your child, not mine or the child of anyone else here. If you want to stay in this meeting, you will have to take care of what is yours. If not, if you cannot handle what is yours that much, then you intrude on what we are trying to do – and must go.”

She sat there, stunned, her jaw working, and then, bursting into tears, picked up her child and moved to the door. As she reached the threshold he sang out in a very clear, very strong voice: “Thank you very much.” The assembly sat silent for a moment, taking in this brutal attack, this unwarranted coercion of a helpless person (a mother with a child!), and then groups of visitors, sure now in their outrage, clear in their unwillingness to witness such bullying, smug with the confirmation of their worst suspicions, picked up their things and in relieved self-righteousness left the hall.

When the room had quieted down once more, the speaker resumed his presentation, and strangely, was even more forceful than before, as if he had gained by having some of those present leave thinking he was a monster, as if he could now speak more directly to those of us who remained, presuming a closer bond between us.

“We are a group doing the Work. Many of our teachings come from George Gurdjieff. We learn also, as he did, from any higher man. We have a ranch, and each weekend we work on the ranch. We have a fourth-way school, that is not the way of the yogi, the monk, or the fakir, but a school in life, a school to build being. It costs two hundred dollars a month for each person to work, payable in advance. If there is something you want from us, you may come, but do so only if you intend to get your money’s worth. Otherwise, you will only waste your time and ours.”


He then said that he would answer any questions, and was immediately asked by a male in hip garb why he was so harsh on people, why he was not more loving. Listening intently to the phrasing of the question, looking steadily at the man until he had finished, the speaker allowed several long moments to pass before responding in a gentle voice that was full of warmth.

“You know, I am sure, that we can all read the words of Christ and other inspired men. Many of us do. Yet after all is read we do not act on these words. We aspire to something finer but do not approach it. Our premise here, then, is that we must first confront the worst in ourselves, our mechanicality, our sleeping state, and then, perhaps, hope to find our way to love. It is of course our being-obligation to care for others. Yet here, now, we cannot, even as we try – we do not know how to begin. With luck, with Work, we will be perhaps no more than part-time killers, liars, cheats, and fools. With the help of others in this Work, we may be able to remember ourselves, to work to our finest part, but we can do nothing before confronting, fighting, and accepting what we are now. We begin at the beginning.”

His response to the question was in many ways a traditional answer to a traditional proposition. One could take any stand on so large an issue. What was striking about the speaker’s response was the overwhelming softness of his words in their simplicity and directness, a softness as extreme as his anger, moments before. The longhair, hearing the tone and message, perhaps himself unsure after preaching love as a way of life, whether or not it was practicable in the form he proposed, nodded and sat down.

Fielding further questions, the speaker then explained where the ranch was located, who Gurdjieff was (“a man who taught the Work, a man on a higher level”), and procedures for meetings. One girl, raising her hand, said that she wanted to join the group, and, picking up on the terminology he had used, said that she wanted to do the Work.


He smiled at her, his eyes engaging hers, and in strong even tones asked her where the money for the group would be found. Quick to reassure, she said that her father gave her money, that she had more than enough to use. Still smiling, the speaker replied that she could not use that money, that she could return only when she had earned the payment herself. Answering the question just forming on her lips, he said: “You probably think that your father owes you something, this money perhaps, or you might even think that he is glad to give it to you and that you should accept. Nonetheless, since the money is no more than a token of payment you cannot render in any other form at this time, you will be unable to invest if the price can be so easily met. From nothing comes nothing. At this time you have nothing to offer. Why don’t you go, and come back, if you want, when you have something with which to pay?”

Again, those in the assembly were stunned. One could assume, until then at least, if one sought some fault, that the speaker was doing all this for the money. Two hundred dollars a month, per person. The mention of payment had for the moment provided an out. But now, in this move, the speaker had made it appear that there were other concerns, that he had no shortage of applicants, that there were other terms to meet. Even as I realized that it was a good gambit, to turn one away and so attract ten others, I was impressed. If the man were no more than a charlatan, he knew a lot of tricks, and played them consummately. Or he might be, as he said, crazy (though the word seemed for him a definition of mankind rather than a term for aberrants), but he played out his madness with great dexterity. In any case, he had presented more than a simple shell game.

The questioning was terminated, and he then said that those who wanted to join the group would have to decide by a week hence. The meeting would begin promptly at eight. No one would be late. And then, closing the proceedings, he said: “If you come you will pay me to pay yourselves. If you join us you must get what you want. If you do not, do not stay. There are many other ways. Here we try to get past self-pity, we try not to live in our imaginations, we try to do our being-duty. Here we try to become conscious, to be intentional actors, to choose. We may not succeed. If you come you may wish that you had never heard of this Work. I warn you that we are all lunatics. Good night.”


Again, I drove across the Bay Bridge, moving smoothly above the water, lulled by the steady procession of lights, easing past the toll booth and off the freeway to home. I kept thinking about his remarkable display of energy and purpose, his overwhelming control and intensity. Though I had met my share of committed individuals, I had never seen anyone whose faith translated so directly into palpable energy, whose beliefs seemed to yield such presence, such authority, such power. He was an incredible force. Though I was wary of being gulled, proud as I was, I was impressed, and I remembered his words about getting what we wanted. Perhaps his motives and ambitions were not the question at all.

He had awakened me in a strange way, with that force and that authority, reminding me of some part of myself I felt occasionally but never seemed able to hold. Hearing him, seeing him, I felt rejuvenated, as though he not only had this force but in fact was offering us a way to tap it. That energy, that directness, that clarity, it was hard to feel and not covet it for oneself. And though he offered no more than an opportunity to struggle, there was an exemplum, in himself, of what was at stake. There was a man.

During the next week I tried to make an inventory of what was going on and where I was vis a vis the flow. Having entered a new world two years before, having learned the various lingos, having experienced what the lingos meant, I had found no larger whole that could sustain itself. Over and again I had been amazed, educated, turned on, but the lessons did not cohere, not in the terms they were offered. Further, something in the progress of those years had made me hunger for a coherence. I was tired of the fragmentation of lives, the separateness, the everlasting competition, the monoliths and tight dyads that set up such great walls. Though several major efforts at cohesiveness on a large scale had failed, I was left with the idea, and, almost inevitably, with the hunger.


I now knew, I thought, what had to be left behind. Who wanted war, who wanted to hassle, who wanted to compete, who could abide the technological wonders that bombarded potentially sound minds? Who wanted to lose himself in defiance, who wanted a lonely peace?  But to stop the war, to get some freedom, to stay alive even quietly, kept implying fights, more strife, in which it became hard to remember what was being affirmed, in which the contamination of combat made even the hopeful resemble their adversaries. Who wanted to struggle with the beast any longer, yet how was one to cut the ties to war without cutting the ties to life? Still and all, it was time to find the way.

As for how to do that, well, I looked for someone to guide me, fallible as I was, someone who still had purpose at a time when people were being burnt out at a prodigious rate. It made good sense to surrender to the terms of a life that considered this one profane, if present, to become a novice once again, to unlearn what only got in the way, to deal with the enemy within oneself and so subordinate the world outside. And though the group promised no easy times, it was all the more attractive for just this reason, since too many panaceas had failed after presuming certain and easy victory. It satisfied to read the task as hard, even violent. Surely that was the way of the world, surely that made the goal worth working for, surely there was something to be won, something beyond all the tribulations of this world, some larger mission to pursue no matter what the price, and to hell with the pagans. Surely this man was someone to emulate. That much was certain.


We had failed to hold the center. Mars, blood red, was on the horizon. It was time to strip oneself naked, to go for broke, to hurl one’s way forward in full acceptance of one’s ignorance. Get a new master, get a new man.

In the months that followed I paid my money, cash on the line, and took my chances.  It nearly killed me to hand over two hundred dollars, since I could think of so many things to do with the money, though I understood how little pleasure it would buy. The night I went to join, the man before me first tried partial payment. “I only have a hundred dollars with me,” he said; then offered a check (postdated, for sure), and, finding no way to hedge his bet, left. Any ploy I had thought of long since abused, I paid, wincing even as I fundamentally shared the speaker’s opinion that I had nothing to lose. To even entertain his proposition made that clear.

Coming to the West from an environment in which everything was rule-bound, tight, high in cost, I had spent two years learning why life should be looser, that things should be free. Free food. Free people. Free streets. In this period I had schooled myself in a loosely defined socialism, humanism, and anarchism; Hedonism, too. Now I went to school again, to learn that nothing was for free, that I was owed nothing, that I could look for no free rides, that I had to do it myself or not at all, with, of course, the help of some very special friends. And though it would be hard, I was to have the comforts of limits beyond limits, mandates quite clear if impossible to attain, and the blessing of being able, nay, compelled, to rise above the worldly travail that occupied the efforts of others, to remove myself to another frame, far from the causes in which so many lives had been mired.



Between the earth and sky, thought I heard my Savior cry.


It began with classes, Alex ringing an invisible bell, sometimes making us dance, sometimes leading us in exercises (“What are you so proud of, you fool; you’re just an idiot like the rest of us”), talking, listening, teaching. “The Work is to go beyond life, to build being. Chief weakness, when converted, is chief strength. Do your being-duty. Begin with self-remembering. No one is special. Don’t live in your imagination. Feed the wolf. Break the recurrence. Measure, don’t judge. Choose. Get what you want. Pass false personality to essence. There is no stronger energy than from a man who chooses to do something.”

Slowly I began to learn the language; slowly I began to taste the lessons, not simply to hear them or to read them, but to “eat” them raw. Throughout, Alex was the prime force, always a brilliant performer, hungry for a large role, shifting postures, moods, volume, tone, begging, prodding, cajoling, bullying, fighting, trying to make us understand, trying to make us act on our understanding, trying to make us keep up with him. And he was in a hurry.

We were all nothing, worthless. Self-knowledge is the beginning of understanding, and we were ignorant. We had no inner unity, we were reactors, reflexive, a function of every random stimulus that came our way. Yet our effort was the key, the attempt to transform ourselves, this most unwilling flesh, to make the effort honest within our limits, to suffer the humiliation and the pain, to beg to be taught. We were all inferior but equal, all and everything and completely nothing, slaves working to be free. There were, as Alex said, no guarantees, but the imperatives drove us on. We were possessed.

Early in my life in the group, I was telling a story to one of the women as we waited for the next meeting, and while I was in the course of recounting it, a big man who had been sitting at the table rose abruptly, gave me an angry glance, and walked away. I fell silent. The woman looked at me for a moment, saw that I did not intend to continue, and started laughing. I stared at her, confused, and finally, still laughing, she spoke. “You probably think that you did something wrong. How funny. You can’t believe for a moment that it was not your fault, can you?” I confessed that I had and did. “No,” she said, “like us all, he is confused. Let him straighten out his problems.”


In time he did, coming over to apologize. I didn’t know what to make of the whole incident, but from it the man and I teamed up for a while. He was Phil, a huge moose of a man who shuffled through life as the perennial fall guy, the oversized buffoon, the morose giant who constantly implied that he was afraid of his own strength, who had never tested it since a day long ago when he had been made to feel out of proportion. He was easy to read, and I was flush with the opportunity to tell it like it was, he wanted (was obliged) to hear what I had to say, so we spoke. It was, after all, my duty to help him do his Work and so my own, to learn and profit from that part of him which resembled me.

Somehow I still assumed that I was immune from the kind of criticism or simple blunt evaluation that was part of the Work. This criticism (really only description) resembled Synanon or group-therapy techniques in some ways, but here the process was underscored and motivated by a cosmology, a religious frame in didactic form, the goal of which could never be said to have been realized. There was no hiding place. In spite of this I hardly looked for lessons or trouble from Phil. I had him pegged.

As we spoke he listened to what I had to say, and, finally, began to make his points to me. The message was simple: I blamed others for what I did to myself. It was a simple point, to be sure, but I accepted the contract between members of the group and did not throw up a quick defense. I listened, he spoke, and I began to feel in the most painful way how many modes I had devised for avoiding responsibility, how many others there were to blame. As Phil said, I chose to be me, from the very start. That was who I was.


The metaphor most used was that we were stars, that from the stars we chose a life on earth. Whatever the point of origin, whatever the metaphysic, the idea was staggering. Just when did one become responsible for himself? When did the society, one’s parents, friends, economic conditions, the weather, when did all this become secondary to one’s own choices? I was done with Freud, the tortured maze-maker, I was done with sociology and its pretensions to explanation, I was worn with political analyses. I was my own man. I always had been.

I knew it was platitudinous, this idea, but I heard it; it made sense. So close is the distance between truth and truism, so hard is it sometimes to see what is just before one. Scales fell from my eyes.

Even as Phil watched me run the idea through my mind, he had another lesson for me, bound up in his discussion of blame and choice. He said that I set myself above others. He knew that I thought that I was quite unlike him. But the Work said that he was, like me, quite lost, and that I, like him, was only a machine, someone so bound up in roles that I had no real sense of myself, perhaps more successful in life’s little games, but essentially the same. We resembled each other more, certainly, than we resembled, for example, a dog or a god. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and, fool that he was, he knew that I had it coming.

After these initial exchanges Phil kept an eye out for me, filling me in on protocol. It was on my first night at the ranch, seeing people choose places to sleep, that I mentioned my desire to bed down on a hill so that I would be close to the full moon. Phil had to break the news that in the Work the moon was a blood-sucker, a viper, drawing energy from the sun, without vital force of its own, thus nothing to seek out. It did not take me long to see the moon in a new light.


The next morning I labored with Phil in the vineyards, watering the plants, clearing the fields for more crops. It was a wonderful day, and I was pleased with the effort and companionship in the task. The day included a sequence out of Shane – getting that giant stump. When we finally triumphed, huge roots beside a gaping hole, a young boy who had been watching (the children of group members also came up to the ranch) came over to us. “You probably think,” he said to me, “that your task was to pull the stump. It wasn’t at all. It’s how you do, not what you do. You were just a fairly good machine. That’s not the Work.” Phil just sat silent, sweating and smiling.

Though the taste of the day had been taken away, a good meal in the company of the hundred other members of the group and a swim with naked others in the pool left me with the feeling that there was time to figure everything out. The weekend was over, and it was time to return to life, to feed that part of ourselves that lived in the world below.

At the next meeting, in San Francisco, Alex gave us a parable, a Sufi story. A man lay dying of thirst in the desert. A rider came by, on horseback, and the dying man called for water. The rider swung at and struck him with a stick. “No, you don’t understand,” the beaten man cried, “I need water.” Again the rider hit him. Nearly dead, the man begged for water once more, and again the rider hit him, but this time a snake came from the man’s mouth.

As always, the parable was a preface for group work. Through group criticism, through the Zen technique of shock through shifting levels, through the didactic precepts, Alex was out to have us, and himself, get past the snake in ourselves. There was the wolf in us, too, which had to be fed so that it would curl up and lie by the fire, but this night Alex was on a snake hunt.

Mike spoke first after Alex finished, telling us how hard he found it to live in the world and still do the Work. Group members listened, sometimes saying something. Mike rambling on, open-faced, head stiff, proper, clean, a straight arrow, persistent in his complaint that he was too pure for a world like ours.


As he was talking Alex interrupted to ask Mike where he was from. He said, “Brooklyn.”  “You don’t say,” Alex replied. “Well then, why don’t you go back to Brooklyn and be one of the boys for a while, check out the action, if you know what I mean, cut those apron strings.” Alex said all this with a leer, coarsely, smiling as Mike drew back from so crude a suggestion. Still smiling, in no hurry to resolve the implied threat (that Mike go back to Brooklyn, that is, leave the group), Alex handed Mike a cigar. There was no choice. Mike started puffing.

I remembered that weeks before, Mike had said that he came to the group to find enlightenment, satori. Alex had only rolled his eyes. Now Mike was going to have to give up that holier-than-thou pose if he wanted to stay. Always willing to undercut pomposity, quick to spot those who wrote off life’s little sins too easily, ever ready to shock with profanity or a poke in the ribs, Alex allowed no sanctimony in the group. Holiness would have to be earned, the lessons often beginning with learning to play life to better advantage. Renunciation was not the goal, not, in any case, abnegation by those who sought to foreswear what they had not tasted.

Mike busy with his new form of prayer, Alex asked what else we had to say. Joe, a man of about thirty-five, a school teacher, said that the presence of new members made him uncomfortable. Impatient, Alex told him to say what was on his mind. Joe’s story was about life in the church.

“I was in a monastery, you see, and there were of course no women, and we did a lot of unnatural things.”

By now Joe was in the center of the circle, and a woman told him to continue, to get to the point (much laughter).


“So in the monastery we had sexual desires and we sinned. Brothers fornicated with brothers, and I myself went to the sheep and goats.”

The secret told, Joe stood waiting for some reaction. Though it was not unusual for group members to react to what another member said, no one in the group had a feeling for how to respond to Joe’s confession. It was Alex, laughing, who had the answer.

“Jesus, Joe,” he said, “if screwing  sheep and goats is what you want, then how can we help you get more?”

Joe stood silent.

“But I tell you, Joe, if you really want my advice, I suggest you try some cows. Women, moo for the gentleman.”

The women mooed.

“You see, Joe, you’ve got a herd right here. Give them a chance. And in any case, tell me, Joe, do you wear shoes that fit? Get the idea? Think it over.”

And then, perfectly mimicking Joe’s troubled voice, he said over and again, between laughs, “sheep and goats, sheep and goats, sheep and goats.”

Joe, however, was not easily relieved of his sins, and remained certain that there was much more to say about his monastic misadventures. He continued with stories about how celibacy led to promiscuity until one of the men in the group told Joe that he was never celibate, that he was constantly fornicating, in this case getting the pleasure of making us listen to his stories while he brought himself to a climax with the telling.

And then Alex was right in front of Joe, telling him to say something honest, just one clean word. Joe faltered, and Alex hit him hard with one quick punch to the heart, slapped him backhand across the face, and said: “Joe, straighten up or get out.”


We all sat silent, feeling the blows, for even beautiful people like ourselves were not so unlike Joe. Even we had our snake, even we tried to turn a profit on our nightmares by seeking company in our humiliation. So it was from Joe, that lowly creature, that we were to learn. In the symphony Alex conducted, there was a need for Joe’s sound too. But not for long. He was only an exemplum. There was no time for self-pity, there was no time for unnecessary suffering, for those who were determined to make the worst of the worst. As Alex said, every stick has two handles, and it was up to the individual to choose which one he would hold. No interest here in the specifics of the neurosis. Just a feeling that every problem was simply another manifestation of ignorance, nothing to linger on except as a point from which to proceed. How could anyone identify with actions so absurd? It was, in any case, Joe’s choice whether to let this part speak for his whole or not. He had only to decide where he chose to live.

As I prepared to leave that night Alex called me over and asked me, in a casual voice, why I wore corduroy levis and denim shirts. I replied that I found them cheap and comfortable. Smiling – a little smugly, I thought – he asked me to wear a suit to the next meeting. I said that I would. Years of wearing coat and tie behind me, I wondered if he thought that I would find the assignment difficult.

Busy through the week, I put his request out of my mind until the appointed night. Just as I was about to leave the house, I remembered, searched in my closet, pulled out a suit, found an only slightly wrinkled shirt, had to settle for socks that did not match, and ran a rag over shoes that badly needed shining. The tie was beautiful. All in all, it had been a long time since I had worn this kind of costume, and I felt pretty snazzy. Nothing to it. At the end of the meeting Alex came over, looked at me, asked me to turn around, and, when I had completed the pirouette, said: “I assume that you know your pants are ripped in back, along the crotch – I suggest that you do your Work tasks more carefully.”


My life in the group progressed in much this fashion, a steady certainty on my part that such incidents were not my norm, and a constant stream of exemplums to show me why I was wrong. As time passed it became increasingly difficult to function as before during the five days each week in the world below. At the very least, the concerns of my friends no longer seemed so vital. What political changes were coming down, what apartment someone found, what films were playing, who was with whom, none of this resonated as before.

Similarly, the way people matter-of-factly spoke of themselves as a whole, as one single responsible entity, no longer made sense. It had taken hold on me, from the group, that people had many different parts of themselves, that each part had its say, that it was obviously ludicrous to try to justify a given part of oneself with one’s whole being. My friends, however, whether they did something well or made an error, insisted on taking full credit or blame, whichever seemed appropriate. They alternated between vanity and self-pity.

In any case, I was busy with one set of people, and a new vocabulary and set of resonances. Beyond this, the group had as a postulate that one had to become an intentional actor, and was to begin this by the process of self-remembering, that is, by an impartial review of one’s life each day as if seeing a film, and to move from that overview to a choice about what to encourage and what to deny. This self-consciousness, this remembering of self, set me apart from my friends, most of whom were simply running at breakneck speed, and made conversation and friendship ever more difficult.

Meanwhile, life in the group had a lot to recommend it. A huge sailing boat had been purchased, and the group now had a new vehicle for the Work. In terms only of the chance to work on a boat (feed the wolf) I was pleased, and as a metaphor the boat carried good feelings. We had found our vessel. In time the boat proved to be full of holes, and the group had to give it up (the boat later sank, owner aboard). But I was impressed with the capacity of the group to engage in such grand projects, whatever higher purpose was intended, and was moved with the collective enthusiasm and energy.


Though the boat passed out of our hands, we had to live with the inevitable lesson. As Alex said, we had been too greedy, too piggish, and had destroyed the purity of the boat. If we learned from the loss, one thing also was salvaged from our experience with the boat. A group member who had fallen overboard had been rescued from certain drowning by other men in the group. Speaking later about the incident, Alex asked the man if he did not agree that he was the type who always fell overboard and drowned. The man nodded, and was in fact someone who was forever sending out distress signals before recurrent calamities. This time, however, he had been saved, with the help of those in the Work. The circle had been broken, he had ended the recurrence, and, if he were willing to do the Work, he could go on, he could ascend to and commence Work in a higher octave. He was free to progress.

The idea of recurrence was one of the primary concepts of the Work, describing as it did the hopelessness of human beings who forever found themselves in more or less the same situation, again the same trap, the faces and time changed, the essentials similar. It was the plight of those forever asleep, those who identified with roles that had nothing to do with their essence, those who were unconscious. If one was willing to pay he had the possibility of making changes in his being. The price, however, could be high. Ouspensky, for example, Gurdjieff’s Boswell, provided volumes of exegesis of Gurdjieff’s Work, yet would not yield his intellectual stance, whatever the subject and verse of his writings. As much as he spoke of the Work, he perhaps never surrendered the more fundamental posture, his scholasticism, and so missed the essence.

We in the group were bent on breaking the recurrence, and Alex enjoined us to be prepared to pay. As if to mark the end of a stage in our collective effort, open meetings to recruit new members were no longer held. Perhaps Alex felt that there was now enough money each month for our projects, perhaps he had decided that he could now count on a cadre that would survive the tests to come. In any case, the group was now closed, and Alex began to accelerate the pace of commitment.


We were told to study the Book of Exodus, and it was clear that Alex saw himself as a Moses, for the present gathering of people who would wander with him in the wilderness. Each weekend on the ranch he read aloud from Gurdjieff, one hundred and more of us sitting on the ground before him, sky clear, stars above, poplar trees bending in the wind, Alex giving each word full force.

In the same period he announced a redefinition of his own role. He was no longer a group leader – he was a Teacher of the Work, like Gurdjieff. He had new responsibilities to us, and we to him. He needed us, he said, but only those of us who were really prepared to do the Work. It was a kind of spiritual trading, in which we were to give him a certain material that he would use and transmute, he in turn providing us with a good return on our investment so that we also could progress, and on we would go. We were told that the Work would be more difficult, and given time to gauge our desires. At one meeting, taking a reading of our determination, he asked if we were ready to join him. Hands went up around the circle, person after person, testifying to a desire to push ahead, whatever the price. Some were still silent.

Though Alex did not press the issue just then, it was becoming clear that whether or not the teachings spoke of the Work as a fourth way, with its disciples living in the world, the group and its Work was becoming a full-time occupation. Not only were there meetings during the week, but extra tasks were assigned, beyond the general effort one was to make each day by himself. Moreover, the stress on the idea that each individual was a lunatic, without intentionality or consciousness, made it increasingly difficult to relate to those who were, by definition, profane. Contact with those outside the group implied a constant double-entendre on my part that I could not sustain. A time of choice was approaching.


As Alex said, one could not sit between two stools. He himself knew what he wanted, and had set out to be a man of Gurdjieff’s level. He sought the consciousness of Christ, that member of a school which deliberately created the first Passion play to shock mankind into awareness. He too would present a Passion play, and each of us, if successful, would choose a role. Slowly, as I read teachings of Gurdjieff, as I read accounts of life with Gurdjieff, as Alex taught, I began to have some small inkling of what was at stake. It was so simple. We were asleep. Could we but awaken, we would be alive, truly alive. We were puppets, controlled in each moment by external forces which were or might as well be random. The question was how to become masters of our lives, the vision of a promise of what might be.

And Alex, taking our energy, promising to do something with it and give us something back, to help us stop being the victims of ourselves? Ah, he was a man both pious and crude, active yet thoughtful, scornful and kind, tyrannical and gentle, public and secretive, a man urgent to get something perhaps unrealizable, a person made of this earth yet most ambitious for his soul, a man who sought the power to be. With us he lived in an atmosphere nearly despairing, at the same time endowed with boundless energy for the struggle.

Hence the haste, the iconoclasm, the search for essence and mockery for appearances, the shocks, the imperatives. How else break himself and us from the habits that left one only half-alive? Hence the pain of those trying to awaken. Hence the disdain, for if others were machines, how not to use them as such?  Hence the evasiveness, the contradictions, the jokes, the contempt, the exhilaration. I try to imagine what must have been in his mind as he looked over us, searching for those who might possibly have the courage and grace to build a soul.


What images I have of that time. Alex in a Jaguar XKE, and why not? Or Alex listening as a woman spoke of her joy of what she so briefly glimpsed and to which she aspired. Or Alex fighting with us to the death, for it was in his world a question of nothing less, and that was certain.

In this period Phil left the group. He could not hold a job to earn the money for his next payment.  More power to him in his weakness, he did not try to beg a place or avoid the member of the group who kept the books. He simply did not show up one day, and I realized what pain and confusion he was tasting. For the experience could be shared only by those in the group – there was no translation possible. Alex had forbidden us, after a certain point, to speak about the Work to those outside it. The enjoinder was not devised to keep them from us, but rather to enable us to hold to ourselves what little we had. For Phil it must have been hell, wanting to return, not wanting to return, sitting in cafes, watching people pass, living now already with memories, still unable to bring himself to get another job, watching himself lose each moment he had spent, perhaps getting into a conversation, coming to the subject of his malaise, and trying to explain to someone, anyone, what he had been part of.

For seekers still in the group the pace increased again, and now it was clear that there was no place for those who did not subordinate all else to their Work tasks. One night, dealing with one of the married couples in the group, Alex asked the husband what he most wanted. “To be free of my wife,” he responded. “Then go,” Alex replied, “and come back to us when you are ready.” After he left Alex turned to his wife and asked her what she thought. She was pleased, she said. Nodding, Alex asked her what she was going to do now that she was free of the man who had tied her down, for whom she had given up so much. Well, she had to care for the children.


For the next hour and more, group members argued with her, trying to bring her to the point of accepting responsibility for herself. Where was she to get money? From her husband. No, Alex said, she would have to provide for herself. But she could not work, she said, since she was busy caring for the children. And the children? Yes, they were of school age, but she could not entrust them to a sitter, even for a few hours a day.

So it went, group members arguing with her, striving to have her understand that she used the children as an excuse, as she had used her husband, that she was now on her own and would have to care for herself. Still she resisted, backing away, dodging, side-stepping, throwing up the most paltry excuses. It was monstrous, it was foul, but we saw ourselves in her, and fought all the harder to make her come clean, the pace of our collective struggle ever more rapid.

Finally, at just the point when it seemed that she would have to open her eyes, that there was no place left to hide, she said that she could not begin to work until her cousin came. And that cousin? Of course, someone she had not seen for years, about whom she cared very little.

No time left to waste, perhaps concerned that we might identify with her, Alex stepped into the circle and grabbed her by the wrist. She pulled away. He held her tight and, with the greatest deliberation, hit her very hard, once, and then again. She screamed, she cried, and in a delirium of vitriol, pain, and outrage, she ranted about her father and the man who, years before, had told her how much she resembled the Virgin Mary. And then, with a great effort, she broke loose, ran to and crashed through the glass door, and stumbled to the street, calling for help.

Two men started to go after her, but as they rose Alex said, “Stop!”  They froze, we all froze, and, as we held the positions of the moment of that call, Alex ordered us to do our Work. We did, even as her sobs and cries reached the room from the street below.


The next weekend Alex predicted that the group would soon be smaller. Some took it as a new standard, but most understood that Alex was only preparing us to realize what had been developing since we began. After dinner that night the men and women met separately, and as we spoke I could hear the women singing, in high thin voices, “May the Circle Be Unbroken.” Fear and excitement ran high, and one man presented to us his proposal that we undertake the building of race cars to replace the boat. In a year, he said, we could have the finest racing team in the world. We knew we could, just as we knew that our collective purpose and energy could bring us to whatever vehicle we chose to carry our mission. Though his proposal was set aside, he spoke well for our feeling that in the Work no task in life was impossible.

In this period I, like the other members of the group, had been weighing my future with the group. Like the others I had been taken by the struggle, and I had been moved by the efforts of others who shared the same energy and directness. Like the others, I believed that Alex was a Teacher, a man, whose equal I would not see again. Like the others I had a vision of doing the Work with him, to the end, to whatever end.

At the same time, I yearned for the world below, for its sloppy comforts, for its confusion, for its quick rewards, for its very mechanical humanity. Remote, it was even more attractive. Further, I had read about Gurdjieff’s school, autobiographical accounts of those who were his pupils, and felt how dangerous their search had been, how risky their endeavor, how lost they were when he died. I knew too his last words to them: “What a fine mess I leave you in.”

I did not feel up to the Work, I did not feel I could do the Work; I had come too late, or too soon, or, it just was not to be, not then. I wanted to be, for sure, but I also wanted to let things be. I could not give up the world below. There was too much to try, and I harbored the thought that I could always return to the Work at the right time and place. I knew also that I could do no such thing.


I went to Alex and told him that I was going away for a while. I could not bear to phrase it more strongly. He looked at me without surprise and said: “You will not come back.” He knew that I understood that he was not stopping me, he was simply telling the truth.

So I left this man, this Teacher, this person who struggled so hard to earn his godhead. A magician, a magus, he was the modern man, working with timeless teachings long after the continuities had been broken. I had little idea of his background, I never learned his credentials, but I believe that his search was honest. Or, if it was not, he in any case gave me some understanding of a man who realized that he might corrupt the vital teachings to which he aspired, or, so few were his guides, that he might create the opposite of what they sought, so finely drawn was the line between success and failure in that fourth dimension he sought to enter.

It was not at all that he was Faust. It was simply that each period of time has a character, like each man. In these times, only fragments of the teachings can be found, only teachers who were themselves no longer sure if their preparation was adequate, even Alex understood his recklessness. But he wanted to be free. Who can judge him?

So I left the group and descended to Berkeley, there to rejoin God’s plenty. People asked where I had gone. I gave them answers, and soon lost the taste of what had been. They had many opinions. Oh, they had heard about the group, about how it destroyed people, how it made slaves of them, how the leader was out to use them and get rich, how he was a force of darkness, Satan incarnate, a charlatan, a con man, a shrewd manipulator, a fool, the anti-Christ. I responded quietly to them that I had got my money’s worth, but they did not hear my words; nor did they stop to remember that he who speaks does not know, that he who knows does not speak.


Perhaps Alex stood a chance, if no more than a chance, of becoming a man of a higher level, of reshaping his most fallible flesh. If he sought Christ, I had turned to Chaucer, and that was my choice. Though I prided myself on being tough, I was not tough enough for the Work, and sought the path of the heart through ways I thought I could handle.

To remind myself of another level even as I began to speak of this one, I took the name Beelzebub from Gurdjieff (one of his books was entitled All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson). Perhaps what I had in mind was Gurdjieff himself in Paris, an old man, approaching his death, knowing already that his time was past, knowing too that men would have to live in this most imperfect world, very bad luck indeed having precluded the emergence of a better one, if only for the time being.

In the period of transition, I heard Alex’s voice over and again: “You will wish you had never heard of this Work.” And then I passed out of his reach, rejoined the rhythms and melodies of the larger flow, and hurried to have my share of the vanities, foibles, whims, conceits, caprices, hopes, dreams, illusions, and insistent mortality of those who could live no other way.

No, nothing was for free. Yes, I would pay. But I would stay with the groundlings, spared perhaps, perhaps not, from that overriding ambition which made such redoubtable prisoners of those who tried the Work. With a confidence born of ignorance, I chose to make my own way. And, for so many reasons, some very good and some quite bad, I faced the old religious question and decided that we all, willy-nilly, have a soul, no matter what we try to do to it, and that there are many paths to the spirit immanent in us; I had begun to feel that it was the process of living that alone redeemed us.


In any case, home again, I had seen a man whose existence I would have doubted, a mission I would not have believed. Nothing to write home about, really, but a life and cause that would linger with me as I rode the waves of the Berkeley sea.




Two versions of the Sufi tale mentioned on page 135:




The Horseman and the Snake


There is a proverb that ‘the “opposition” of the man of knowledge is better than the “support” of the fool.’


I, Salim Abdali, bear witness that this is true in the greater ranges of existence, as it is true in the lower levels.

This is made manifest in the tradition of the Wise, who have handed down the tale of the Horseman and the Snake.


A horseman from his point of vantage saw a poisonous snake slip down the throat of a sleeping man.  The horseman realized that if the man were allowed to sleep the venom would surely kill him.

Accordingly he lashed the sleeper until he was awake.  Having no time to lose, he forced this man to a place where there were a number of rotten apples lying upon the ground and made him eat them.  Then he made him drink large gulps of water from a stream.

All the while the other man was trying to get away, crying:  ‘What have I done, you enemy of humanity, that you should abuse me in this manner?’

Finally, when he was near to exhaustion, and dusk was falling, the man fell to the ground and vomited out the apples, the water, and the snake.  When he saw what had come out of him, he realized what had happened, and begged the forgiveness of the horseman.


This is our condition. In reading this, do not take history for allegory, nor allegory for history. Those who are endowed with knowledge have responsibility. Those who are not, have none beyond what they can conjecture.


The man who was saved said: ‘If you had told me, I would have accepted your treatment with a good grace.’

The horseman answered: ‘If I had told you, you would not have believed me. Or you would have been paralyzed by fright. Or run away. Or gone to sleep again, seeking forgetfulness. And there would not have been time.’

Spurring his horse, the mysterious rider rode away.


Salim Abdali (1700-1765) brought down upon the Sufis almost unprecedented calumnies from intellectuals for claiming that a Sufi master will know what is wrong with a man, and may have to act quickly and paradoxically to save him, thus incurring the fury of those who do not know what he is about.

This story Abdali quotes from Rumi. Even today, there are probably not many people who will concede the claims inherent in the tale. Yet this statement has been accepted in one form or another by all Sufis. Commenting upon this, the master Haidar Gul says only: ‘There is a limit beyond which it is unhealthy for mankind to conceal truth in order not to offend those whose minds are closed.’


P. 140 in TALES OF THE DERVISHES: Teaching-Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years by Idries Shah (1970)




The Horseman in a Hurry



Once upon a time there was a man who was asleep and who swallowed a venomous creature, which stuck in his throat.

He got up in a sort of delirium and started to cough and shake himself, to try to get rid of the affliction, which he did not fully understand.

At that moment a man on a horse, happening by, saw at a glance what had happened.

He immediately raised his whip and started to beat the man black and blue, raining down upon him blows without mercy.

The half-crazed patient tried to cry out for him to stop, but could not get the words out.  As he ran, or writhed on the ground, or rolled over, he found that he was always sustaining a hail of pitiless blows.

The horseman said not a word.

Eventually, with a mighty heave, the poisonous animal was thrown up by the protesting stomach of the afflicted man.

It fell to the ground and slithered away.

The horseman, without a word, spurred his beast and rode away.

Only then did the other man realize that what seemed to him an unjustified assault in his misery had, in fact, been the only way in which he could be rid of the creature before the venom was injected into his system.



Much travel is needed before the raw man is ripened.  Proverb



P. 182 in Caravan Of Dreams by Idries Shah (1988)