J.G. Bennett’s Witness

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J.G. Bennett was an interesting man. He had some worldly success in the military when he was posted to Turkey after the First World War, and later as a scientist working in the coal industry, but the main interest in his autobiography, Witness, is his spiritual experience, and maybe especially in his teacher, George Gurdjieff, whom I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

Bennett had been wounded in the First War and then demobilized. At just about the same time he was about to marry for the first time he heard the army needed volunteers to go to Turkey, but that one needed to be able to speak Turkish. Bennett didn’t, but wanted badly to go, though he didn’t know why. He managed to get accepted as a volunteer, and set about learning Turkish, with the result that he could speak it pretty well by the time he got there. This helped him to become head of Intelligence, first in Istanbul, then in much of the Near East at an almost absurdly young age.

He greatly enjoyed that, and says in his autobiography that he felt more at home there than in the England which had been the only country he knew before the war. He had left his wife at home, but brought her to Turkey for awhile, where she became pregnant. She didn’t want to deliver the baby there, so returned to England. Bennett says later in the book that at the time he had no idea what marriage was supposed to be, and felt in retrospect that he and his first wife were brought together because they were supposed to have a child together, not because they had much in common or understood each other. The resulting child he saw very little until she had reached adulthood, and said that though he had thought that best at the time, he later realized that she had needed him in her life, despite his imperfections.

He found being in a non-European country an eye-opening experience. One contrast he found was that Muslims took their religion much more seriously in general than almost any Christians he had known. He saw the whole city fasting during Ramadan, and attended a mosque on the last day, when there was a service at midnight in what had been the great Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia. He saw some 5,000 men prostrate themselves at the same time, and when their heads hit the floor at once, he says the whole building shook.

Though he was impressed with the seriousness with which Islam was practiced, he saw the same personality flaws in Muslims as in anyone else. He found some other interesting phenomena there, though.

There were various Sufi groups around Istanbul, and he went to some exhibitions they put on. One was the Mevlevi dervishes, who were inspired by the teacher and poet Jellaludin Rumi, an approximate contemporary of St. Francis. This is the group characterized as the “whirling dervishes”, a description that has found its way into Western literature, but which I think few of us know anything about.

The whirling is a physical exercise, but is also meant to concentrate the attention of the participant. Bennett says that he felt a deep sense of peace from watching the performance.

Another group he visited were the Rufa’i, or howling dervishes. The howling probably refers to the zikr, or mantra, that these would recite: another form of concentration and meditation. In this performance he witnessed people pierce themselves with knives, and one man even lie on the sharp edge of a scimitar, without any blood being spilled. Bennett found this most impressive too.

Istanbul then, about 1920, was full of refugees, particularly from Russia. The Russian Civil War was continuing, and many had come to Turkey to escape. Among these people he met P.D. Ouspensky, who used his apartment as a place to teach, and George Gurdjieff, who was Ouspensky’s teacher. Both men impressed him enormously, though he didn’t at first realize they were connected.

Bennett first met Gurdjieff through a Turkish friend, a Prince Sabaheddin, who was interested in religion and occultism, and had known Gurdjieff for many years. Bennett had been visiting Sabaheddin for some time to discuss things of mutual interest. When he met Gurdjieff they talked of hypnotism, in which Bennett had taken an interest, and which Gurdjieff knew a great deal about. They also talked about an out of body experience Bennett had had during the war. Bennett thought Gurdjieff to be extremely well-informed on these unusual subjects.

Ouspensky and Gurdjieff both eventually left Turkey for Europe, Ouspensky for England, where he began teaching what he’d learned from Gurdjieff; Gurdjieff first for Germany, where he hoped to establish his Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man. Germany as a location didn’t work out, so he went to England, and impressed a great many people with the lectures he gave. But he had evidently been involved with the Czarist secret service, which had enabled him to travel widely through Asia, and was therefore considered undesirable by the English government. So he went to France, found a property he considered suitable outside of Paris, and bought it.

Bennett meanwhile had resigned his commission, and was trying to get various properties returned to the royal family of the Ottoman Empire, which had ceased to exist as a government. He was unsuccessful at this, getting tangled up in all kinds of political problems, which was doubtless educational for him.

Possibly even more educational was translating at a political conference in England, where he got to see a number of the leading politicians of the day up close. He was impressed, he said, that these people seemed to be motivated by the same petty concerns as ordinary people. Few had any greater vision of helping not only their own nation, but mankind in general. Bennett said he realized then that another war was all but inevitable.

One of the high points of his story was his visit to Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleu outside Paris, where he stayed for a month. Bennett had the advantage of speaking Turkish, so he could speak with Gurdjieff directly, without having to use an interpreter. At this point Gurdjieff spoke very little English or French, having arrived in France without knowing any Western European language.

In his first interview with Gurdjieff, he was told that he knew too much, but knew it only with his intellect, and that knowledge was of little use if it wasn’t known with the whole body. Gurdjieff told him that he must treat his body as a servant, and not allow it to dictate to him. When he was able to get his body to obey him, his emotions would follow. Bennett said he took this very seriously.

He was started as a helper in the kitchen, and found he knew almost no practical skills. From there he transferred to work outside, helping to saw trees into boards with a six-foot two-handled saw. The sawing was done with one man in a pit and another man above. The man above bore almost the whole weight of the saw, while the man below constantly had sawdust falling in his face. All this during a blisteringly hot summer.

After work there would be a quieter time, used for study  or work on movements of the sacred dances Gurdjieff had collected from all over Asia (and possibly Africa) and was teaching his students. And sometimes Gurdjieff would give lectures–never at a set time, and one had to be alert to catch them. The students would get up early, work very hard, and stay up late. Many, if not most of these, were intellectuals, unused to physical work. Such teaching, it seems, often begins with the teacher taking students outside their comfort zone. Jellaludin Rumi is said to have devised the whirling exercise for his students because they were very phlegmatic in the place where he taught, and this was a way to make them physically express.

Bennett said that he took Gurdjieff’s admonition to push his body very seriously, and when an illness of recurrent dysentery returned, he tried to ignore it, and work just as hard as anyone else. As days went by, this became more and more difficult, until one day he felt absolutely wretched, and thought he would take the day off, but found himself getting up and going to work.

At lunchtime he felt unable to eat, so just rested. After lunch Gurdjieff began teaching a particularly difficult movement. The group was outside, it was a particularly hot afternoon, and students began dropping out of the group. Bennett kept going, and noticed Gurdjieff watching him. He felt that he had to go on if it killed him.

At that point he felt a sudden infusion of energy. His sickness left him, just as the group broke up, and everyone else scattered. He had an unprecedented feeling of well-being and strength. To test this, he picked up a shovel, and began digging as fast as he could, and said he kept this up for over an hour, pointing out that even the strongest man can dig extremely fast for no more than a couple of minutes ordinarily. After that he went for a walk in the forest.

There, he said, he saw the primal pattern of each tree or other plant, and how each individual thing varied from its pattern moment to moment. He thought of something Ouspensky, whose lectures he had been attending, said about emotion: that we think we can control our emotions, but this control amounts to nothing more than suppression. No one can, for instance, feel astonished at will. To test the state he was in, he decided to feel astonished, and at once was amazed by everything around him.

Then he decided to feel fear, and found everything sinister and threatening. Then love, and he found love both deeper and more subtle than he had ever imagined, but after some time found he couldn’t stand it any longer, and thought of a passage of William Blake’s, in which the poet remarks of sometimes having wished for hell from being tired of heaven. Bennett was convinced that Blake must have experienced this particular state.

He then met Gurdjieff in the forest, who explained to him that there are collectors of energy in the world where one can, if knowing how to do it, obtain extra energy to do otherwise impossible things. That one who had experienced this had the responsibility to work on himself until he could obtain the energy at will.

Bennett never speaks again of an experience quite like this one, though he mentions quite a number of unusual things in his life. He was obviously a talented and energetic man, but was also acutely aware of his own flaws. Gurdjieff wanted him to stay in France to work, but he didn’t do so, and didn’t see Gurdjieff again for 25 years, then spending much of the last year of his life with him, and learning a great deal.

He probably wrote more about Gurdjieff and what he taught than any other person, but others involved with Gurdjieff didn’t think highly of him. In his book he says of himself that he felt it necessary to add to what he learned from Gurdjieff, though he could understand that others didn’t, and that his way of dealing with people was often to agree with them, then do something else entirely, so that he could understand people getting exasperated with him. Just what the facts are, I don’t know, but several of his books have resonated with me.

This, his autobiography, follows him as far as the late 1960s at least, which was near the end of his life. Just what his impact on the world was is impossible for me to say, but his books have certainly made it clear to me that this world and life are much deeper and more complex than we ordinarily think. I haven’t experienced the kind of things he writes about, but his experiences and thoughts have become part of my mental landscape.

Experiences and thoughts about death indicate that it too is far more complicated than we ordinarily think. Gurdjieff, for example, helped him to help his mother, who had died a year or two previously, through Gurdjieff’s mother, who had died more than twenty years before. Gurdjieff, perhaps uniquely, said that humans are not born with an eternal soul, but have the potentials to acquire one through “conscious labor and intentional suffering.” He also said that humans have “a certain something” that does survive after death–for awhile. One of his dictums was that we are intended to develop in as full and balanced a manner as possible, and implied that this development continues after death.

One of the strange experiences that Bennett has came after World War II. A friend who had been active in the French Resistance was staying with him and his wife, and was very troubled, probably because of his experiences during the war. Bennett went for a walk one day, and found himself near the school from which he’d graduated, and had never visited again. When he saw memorials to all the graduates killed in the First World War, he realized that he hadn’t visited because it was so painful to have lost so many friends in the conflict. As he thought about this he suddenly had the feeling that somehow these soldiers had survived, with all their potential intact. He had no understanding of this, but was nonetheless convinced. He went home and spoke to his friend, also mourning the friends he’d lost, and told him, “They are all right.” His friend believed him, and his guilt left him.

In the last year of his life Gurdjieff tried hard to train as many people as he could. He was unable to finish the job as completely as he preferred, but worked strenuously at this until his final illness. He had struggled to bring his teaching in an effective way to the western world, and hadn’t succeeded as completely as he’d wished, but had strongly influenced a great many people, and left writings explaining much of what he’d learned, veritable cornucopia of ideas and techniques for  a very  high and demanding form of education.Leaving aside the personal powers he was able to command, his message contradicted much of what we usually believe, and provided a very broad and deep view of mankind and the universe. Bennett later traveled in the Middle East  and found a number of holy men who taught him valuable things, but said he nowhere met anyone with Gurdjieff’s deep understanding of psychology.

As one might imagine, the people associated with Gurdjieff were largely at a loss as to how to continue after his death ,but many did. Bennett wanted to work with these, but found that he was pulled towards learning new things. One of these was Subud, which provided an experience that complemented what he’d learned from Gurdjieff, and, he said, opened his  heart as it never had been before. His first wife died, happily, and he said that he never felt separated from her afterward.

But he remarried, had children with his new wife (something he’d never expected to experience), and found that happy beyond what he’d ever found before.

He continued to search, though, to learn from new people and undertake ambitious projects. When he died he had begun a school of the sort that Gurdjieff had undertaken, and was optimistic about it, but was unable to bring it to fruition. Whether it was as positive as he’d hoped is debatable.Others thought it wasn’t.

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