So when I arrive at the New York Foundation movements demonstration on Sunday, May 21 at 3:30 PM, I bring the whole of my life into it with me.
My 85-year-old mother is here with my childhood friend Peter from Germany, someone I have known for over 50 years. Along with us are my daughter and her boyfriend; my stepson, his girlfriend; and a wide range of friends from the Gurdjieff work, many of whom I have known for thirty years or more. Not to mention the fact that my wife is taking part in the presentation.
I walk out of a bright, breezy, sunny spring afternoon into the darkened room of the Miller theater at Columbia University while contemplating—among other matters—business, travel, and the death of my cousin Elodie not three days ago from pancreatic cancer. Such are the current intersections of life, death, love, and family; and they all come together focused within this moment of great contemplation.
In this case, it’s a very special moment, because I have spent most of my adult life in the Gurdjieff work, and this is the first time in over 50 years that the movements have presented to the public. Objectively speaking, it's a moment long overdue. Because this is a public event, the room bustles with respectful, quiet understatement, the exchange of an audience before the event begins. We have, thank God, become perhaps just a wee bit more ordinary.
Eventually, almost seamlessly and without any jarring impression of transition, the event flows naturally into its opening the way that a stream of water reaches a larger body. Anne-Marie Grant, Jeanne Salzmann’s granddaughter (a statuesque woman if ever there was one) brings her own peculiar, quiet, and gathered dignity and delivers a candid, soft, and heartfelt introduction to the movements. She has the genius of the ordinary at work in her; and she carries it with humility. This a right thing. Her delivery is, in a word, perfect.
For most in the room, the movements perhaps need little explanation; yet in case we have forgotten it, she brings the question of attention, of consciousness, and what these questions mean to us.
Her remarks are intelligently brief; soon the room darkens even more, and we are offered a single Gurdjieff/deHartmann song, Song of the Fisherwomen, by way of introduction.
Those presenting the movements come out against a puritanical white background. It may be, I think to myself, a mistake... too severe?
Yet here we are. It is as it is.
The atmosphere is minimalist; there is nothing to focus on but the dancers, dressed in monochromatic white and ivory. The first range of movements they present are exercises of various kinds. But already, by the time the first one has passed, we move together into an octave where a sense of the sacred that’s been lost for many centuries in most places palpably enters the room.
It doesn’t come from above, from the sides, or from below; it emanates, which is to say it permeates and penetrates from all sides. This energy, which is brought down from a different level — yes, even though it does not come from "above" as we understand it, it descends — enters with a distinctive emotional quality.
One must perhaps be prepared, sensitized, to receive this particular substance, because it's refined and does not make itself available without intelligence, sincerity, commitment, and effort — all of which must exist before I demand their presence. In fact, demanding their presence is useless, because it is only their voluntary appearance that makes such sensitivity possible. Yet I sit here penetrated by this feeling – substance, which fills my whole being with a sense of understanding that is not available through the rational mind.
I’ll try to describe it.
I’m in an ancient temple, which has always existed everywhere and is here even now. This temple has been with mankind since the beginning of its history, and, like the kingdom of heaven, it is always inside us. If we are fortunate enough to discover it, we carry it around with us: and events like the movements, which represent the sacred expression of the rites of worship in this temple, are simply there to affirm and remind us of its presence.
When I enter this temple, I enter a timeless place of respect, compassion, and mercy that penetrate all of Being. I am within the sphere of influence of the ancient rites of initiation; I am within the memory of how love is passed from generation to generation, unstintingly, objectively, and without distinction. It seems impossible to understand, yet these movements express that love in their very order and simplicity. They have stories of the whole world in them: information of a subtle, ethereal kind that does not easily subject itself to rational analysis.
They are a container for the Dharma—for truth.
They look easy; yet I know that they are nothing like easy, having done them myself for many years. They request a love of relationship for the sake of relationship itself, and they express that relationship according to law.
A sacred feeling-impulse enters my body and flows irresistibly through me. It's one of gratitude and insufficiency, compassion and unknowing. All of these things are present; and our participation together as both dancers and audience allows this substance of feeling to flow most abundantly. Tears come to my eyes over and over again as I realize, through the medium of the movements and what they bring, how rich and extraordinary this life is, and how often we are given the opportunity to affirm both the life of our loved ones and families, our own life, and to confront the inevitability of death, which confers a different kind of sobriety upon us.
That sobriety, as well, is evident in the intent and concentration of those doing the movements. It's as though they understand that time is short and we must concentrate our efforts; that it’s never enough to just reach for God in an outward way, but that one must also reach inwardly in new and different ways that one has never thought of before. The movements themselves, in their own way, are an exact part of what one never thought of before; who could have thought such things up? They are extraordinary. Anyone can see that. While indubitably an absolute part of life, a hidden part of life, they are also apart from life and speak of an effort in life that requires a different attitude.
It's pointless to try and review these movements from an aesthetic point of view. One understands as the event progresses that they are designed to evoke a feeling-relationship that transcends our ordinary understanding of art. They are not art; they are a science designed to help us feel God. It is nothing like the science we expect or calculate; it is a science not of laws and formulas, but of movement and relationship.
Inevitably, the ordinary parts of me enter and blend in. I receive the higher material that the movements bring; yet I'm also judging, watching, criticizing. These two parts meet within my own area of consciousness. I'm not really able to eliminate the lower parts; I have to gently and lovingly tolerate their action within this context.
Yet one impression from the beginning of the presentation stays with me powerfully: the entire world is breathing a sigh of relief. This moment has been much too long coming, and is at the same time desperately needed. A representative moment in which the collective memory of mankind, which reaches back many thousands of years, is gathered together at a point of Being that we need to remember now, in this time of great trial for humanity.
One can only hope that this represents a point of departure from which more such demonstrations will be made, because it is so urgently necessary for these movements and the energy they bring to be shared, rather than hidden.
The process needs to enter the flow of ordinary life and percolate through our societies; the energy that the participation from the audience brings needs to be spread out, like fine tendrils and roots, into the world around us. This finer food, I sense, may feed things we cannot see and change events in subtle ways that improve the possibilities outwardly, as well as inwardly.
This, I think to myself, is a seed being planted; may it be watered well and grow.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.