Rembrandt - The Kitchen Maid

When I worked at a psychiatric clinic in my youth, I convinced the supervising nurse at the hospital to hire a friend of mine, who I’ll call Thomas. Thomas had been studying Greek philosophy, particularly Plato, at university, but he had been forced to take a break because of lack of money. Like me he was interested in ancient and modern esoteric works and offbeat spiritual texts. At the time I was more excited about the work of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff than he was, but he had begun with what I considered a marginal fourth way book—I believe it was by Bennett—and had not been impressed. I told him that he should withhold judgment until he read In Search of the Miraculous.

With that in mind the next time we were in a bookstore together, I found a copy of Ouspensky’s book for him to buy. It was a used book, one of those heavy, gray Harcourt and Brace first American editions published in 1949. It was in good condition, but when Thomas paged through it, he objected. “Look.” he said, “It has underlining on ten or twelve pages.” He was somewhat particular about his books.

“Yes,” I said, “but it’s a good price, and if it really bothers you, you can erase the underlines. They’re in pencil.”

Soon after that we worked a shift together, which was fairly rare. We held the same position, called psychiatric technician, and because the supervising nurse liked to rotate everybody on staff between the three different shifts, it was unusual for Thomas and I to work at the same time. The shift was from midnight to eight, and Thomas, hoping it would be a quiet night, brought his copy of In Search of the Miraculous, thinking that he could begin reading the book, as well as erasing the underlines.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a quiet night. When we arrived, we found that one of our previous patients, Eleanor, had been admitted during the day. Eleanor was bi-polar—it was called manic depression back then—and she was in her manic phase. She was an unmarried, middle-aged woman with curly hair and a face that was almost always red, as if she were perpetually blushing. That night she spoke, almost without stopping, for the entire eight-hour shift. Her monologues were detailed accounts of her days. They were spoken clearly but at a great speed. Unfortunately Eleanor possessed little narrative skill, so we were never quite sure where she had been or where she was going. And a chance association could suddenly set her off into a different chapter of her life.

For the most part Eleanor stayed in the common room, called the ‘commons.’ She walked up down, sometimes sat, but she always talked. The staff that night consisted of me and Thomas and Annie, the shift nurse. Annie was a psychiatric nurse; that is, she had studied some psychology and was making a career out of working with mental patients. She was a small, compact woman with strawberry-blond hair and a fair, easily freckled complexion. The main feature of her essence was that she was always in motion. When she sat, she smoked, or paged through a magazine, or talked, or crossed her legs and kicked her foot up in a rhythmic way. On the ward she was hardly ever at rest.

The three of us took turns watching Eleanor. There were other duties that night, but there was also plenty of time for long breaks, especially as there were three of us. Ordinarily two people, a nurse and a tech, manned the midnight to eight shift.

Eventually Thomas took one of his breaks and went to the ward kitchen with his copy of In Search of the Miraculous. Twenty minutes later I happened to pass by the kitchen and found him having a heated discussion with a patient. The patient, who had some problems with depression and paranoia, had apparently been unable to sleep and had come to the kitchen to get a drink of water. He was a young man, somewhat overweight, and was standing over Thomas with his arms folded over his chest.

Thomas was saying, “I’m not trying to play with your mind. I’m not pretending to erase the words. Look, someone underlined certain sections in this book. Do you see? I’m erasing the underlines, not the words.”

The patient was not convinced. He imagined that Thomas was trying to further separate him from his sanity but acting erratically. It took the two of us some time to get the patient to go to his room. He did eventually go back to bed, but we were unable to talk him out of his conviction that Thomas’s strange behavior had been for his benefit and had no other aim except to confuse him.

An hour later Annie and Thomas and I were all sitting in the commons listening to Eleanor tell the story of what she had for breakfast that morning when Thomas stood and said that he was going to the office to read the charts. This was something we were expected to do on the night shift because, when we worked from midnight to eight, we lost touch with the progress or lack of progress of the patients who slept at night.

P D OuspenskyHe left his copy of In Search of the Miraculous sitting on an end table, and while he was gone Eleanor picked up the book, opened it at random, and began to read aloud. She read from chapter six, in the section where Gurdjieff asks the students in his Saint Petersburg group to define what they wanted; that is, what they hoped to gain by joining his work. Ouspensky says that he wants to know the future. Another says that he wants to be convinced that he will go on existing after the death of his body. Another wants to be that master of himself. Another wants to understand the teachings of Christ. The fifth says that he wants to help people, and the final person says that he wants to know how to stop wars. Gurdjieff then explains why being the master of oneself is the best aim and then goes on to talk about what is possible and impossible to achieve in relation to the other five aims.

When Eleanor began to read, my first impulse was to stop her, to simply take the book away from her. And I could have done this. I don’t think she would have reacted badly. I’m sure the material didn’t mean anything to her. Her talking and reading aloud were just an expression of her enormous energy. But I didn’t take the book away from her because I was curious to see how Annie would react.

By this time Annie and I had worked together for over a year. Though we were not actually friends, we knew each pretty well from all the time we spent working together on the ward. I thought of her as an intelligent and perceptive woman. She was also a woman who had studied psychology and, as a nurse, someone who had a definite wish to help people—this was something I had heard her state a number of times. I imagined that material would at least peak her interest.

While Eleanor read to us, Annie paged though a magazine. I don’t think she actually read an article. The turning of the pages just seemed to be something, like smoking, to keep her moving center busy. She stared down at the magazine occasionally, but always kept one eye on Eleanor.  I was curious to see her reaction to what Gurdjieff had to say because I thought it would at least catch her attention and make her stop and think, ‘What?’ But what I saw instead was that she took Gurdjieff’s words on the same level as what she saw and read in the magazine. To her there seemed to be no difference.

What I saw was that Annie didn’t have a magnetic center. She was unable to distinguish between B influence ideas, represented by Ouspensky’s book, and A influence, represented by the pictures and articles in the magazine.

It’s clear why Gurdjieff called this ability to distinguish influences ‘magnetic.’ This is the way it feels. You read or hear about an idea or you meet someone, and you immediately feel, ‘Yes, this is right. This is what I’ve been looking for.’ You are attracted by what you hear or see. It’s an emotional, not an intellectual, response.

In the past each time I moved to a new city, I began to form a map in my moving center that connected the places that I visited. At first it was very basic. I connected the apartment where I lived to a grocery store and perhaps a library. But the more I traveled around the city, especially walking or driving or riding in a car—subways make this process much slower—the more complete this map became. I began to know where the bookstores were, where the museums and concert halls were, and where my friends lived. And the longer I stayed in the city the more I saw how all these places were connected to each other. This capacity to form an internal map is a faculty that we all possess to one degree or another. In some people it is well developed; in others, not so well developed. A magnetic center is a bit like this. You discover ideas and people and states and begin to connect them. You accumulate not only information, but also experiences and realizations. In a sense you begin to form a map of how conscious evolution works. You begin to understand that if you want to have a higher state (or connect to higher centers) you need to bring certain understandings and emotions to the forefront of you consciousness. And the more material you accumulate the easier it becomes for you to distinguish ideas and people and emotions that feed magnetic center.

Part of the reason that I was shocked to see that Annie didn’t respond to Ouspensky’s book was that it was one of the first times that I understood that the vast majority of people, including most of my friends and family, were not going to get this work. And I’m not only talking about the ideas; I’m talking about the whole concept of conscious evolution; that is, the idea that through effort we can not only change our state, but also change the essential nature of our identity. It hit me that I had been collecting B influence since I was a child. At first my magnetic center was so small that when unusual states happened to me, I didn’t connect them to the idea that it was possible for me to create these states, but I did quickly begin to see that a higher state was a place that I periodically returned to. In other words there was a place in me where I remembered that I had experienced the same state before.

In my first years at school I sometimes had very clear moments of higher centers. They just happened. Once it happened when I was in the school cafeteria. I must have been in second or third grade. I was waiting in line to buy milk to have with my lunch. I was holding my lunch, which was in a brown paper bag. Other children were sitting at long tables. It was a big room, and it was noisy with the screaming and talking of children. There was bright sunlight coming through the windows on my left. The windows were up high and the room was sunk down like a basement. As I stood there in line I suddenly became aware of myself in a way that caught my attention. It was an awareness of that moment, surrounded by those particular children, while holding my lunch in a brown paper bag and feeling the warmth of the sunlight shining through the windows. I had no words for this state, which was strange and at the same time familiar. I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel this way all the time. I wanted to know why I didn’t ordinarily feel the passing of time and the strangeness of simple events. But when I tried to examine these sensations, a boy in back of me, pushed me. “Come on,” he said, “move the line along.” And when I moved up, the state vanished.

Georges GurdjieffBut that same day it happened again. This time I was sitting at my desk. One of my teachers, an elderly nun, was at the front of the class explaining some basic arithmetic. They were problems I had already figured out. It seemed quite elementary to me, so I daydreamed about what I was going to do after school. But in the middle of my reverie it happened again. Suddenly I was everywhere in the room and felt the physical presence of all the other children, as if my identity was not confined to my body. Again I tried to think about what was happening to me. I asked myself: Why is this different than what I ordinarily feel? What does it mean? But while I was trying to put it into words, the teacher asked me to solve a problem she had written on the chalkboard. I heard her, but I was afraid to move because I thought that the state would disappear if I didn’t remain completely still. But the teacher didn’t let it go. She walked to where I was sitting and slammed her wooden ruler on my desktop. I faced her. “What’s the answer?” she demanded. I looked up at the chalkboard and gave her the answer.

From the point of view of forming a magnetic center what’s important about these two early experiences is that I was able to connect them. Everybody has higher states, but there are some people who collect these experiences and examine them. And more than that, they value them. Not everybody who finds himself in a higher state wants to discover a way to repeat what he experienced. Some people find higher states frightening or confusing. Not everybody finds that it is only through the experience of higher centers that their lives have meaning, but some do.

That day at the hospital it was a little sad for me to realize that Annie couldn’t distinguish that the knowledge that Gurdjieff gave his students in Saint Petersburg had a different origin than majority of the ideas that we discussed and argued about at staff meetings and in the break room at the clinic. It made wonder why some people, like Thomas, collect B influence, and other don’t. It made me begin to look at all the people I knew in a different way.