Needled: Why I Left The Work

[This is the twelfth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

As I analyzed things later in life, the guru Gulliver showed many characteristics of a cult leader, as cult is understood in recent times. Cult once meant only “A system or community of religious worship and ritual, especially one focusing upon a single deity or spirit.” Not anymore. Today, cult evokes memories of Jonestown and Waco, where excessive devotion to and control by a “spiritual leader” led to tragedy on a grand scale. Such cults have given religious devotion a bad name.

American coffee was the preferred drink at Dulcinea, not Kool-Aid, and there were no group suicides. Still, Gulliver employed techniques of destructive cult leaders. These included sexual manipulation of his followers, both homosexual and heterosexual, and the undermining of the nuclear family. I recognize that these are serious charges, and I take them seriously. I believe that they are substantiated by the three excerpts linked here. I state categorically, once and for all, that the events described in these three excerpts occurred very much as I have described them.

I left Gulliver for another teacher of Gurdjieff in Massachusetts. The second teacher, unnamed here, did not demonstrate quite the same cultish characteristics. But he had a fatal flaw, in my opinion. Through this second teacher I was introduced to world leaders of the Gurdjieff Work, also unnamed. These were remarkable men and women, and meeting them was an honor and special opportunity. However, when my second teacher began to believe that these higher-ups might undermine his authority over us, his local group, he quickly terminated contact with them.

This is another characteristic of the cult leader, in the recent sense. He co-opts and modifies a system of thought, then makes himself its sole teacher. Like sexual manipulation and family control, this third technique results in control of a student’s mind, body, and soul.

When I became disenchanted with my second teacher of the Gurdjieff Work and left him to pursue my own family and business commitments in the late 1980s, you might think I would have left Gurdjieff as well. But after two failed experiments, I still thought “the System” had value. It took me time to realize that the Work, even divorced from the cult leaders who misused it, was not for me. The best way to capture my dissatisfaction with the Gurdjieff system is the following excerpt about a book by one of the leading spokesmen of that system.

During this era, I read Jacob Needleman’s Lost Christianity, a book that pitted Gulliver’s esoteric spirituality against my father’s old-time religion. It was a watershed in my journey, a personal continental divide. Reading Lost Christianity, I seemed to climb Gurdjieffian letters to their peak, but when I came down again and shook my head to clear the cobwebs, I found myself in Canaan. By losing my Christianity, I started getting it back.

An esteemed professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, the Harvard- and Yale-trained Needleman had become a leading interpreter of Eastern spiritual traditions. What only Gurdjieffian insiders knew was that “Jerry” Needleman was privately engaged with the Work as a teacher and wise elder statesman. Like Peter Brook in theatre, Needleman was a notable intellectual engaged in the Work while seldom uttering the master’s name.

Needleman’s first major book, The New Religions (1970), interpreted the “new understanding of religion” brought to America’s attention “in the tumult and ferment of the late 1960s.” That was just when I was losing my religion at The Cilley Academy. Our school minister had said, “Religion involves a willingness to be open to what’s going on around you, being willing to go below the surface into the area of life which is the depth, which is not superficial, which is not shallow, which is not stereotyped. It also has something to do with being willing to identify what are your concerns, and ultimately what is your final concern? Your goals in life will be a logical consequence of your concerns.”

Needleman effectively said the same. He wrote that religion was being freshly viewed “not as a belief system, not as a moral code, not as a political force or as a source of ethnic and cultural identity,” but as “a practical method of deep inner change, nothing less than the transformation of our being.”

Focusing on self, not God, my Cilley pastor had paved the way to Jerry Needleman.

Lost Christianity wowed me the first time I read it. Needleman, a Jew, proposed to help Christians rediscover what they had “lost.” With his Work toolkit, he offered nothing less than an overhaul of Christian thought and practice.

Christianity has “degenerated,” according to Needleman. It has lost sight of the primary truth that “salvational knowledge can only be acquired in a specific state of consciousness.” Needleman was nothing if not bold: “Not even God Himself can help a man who has no attention.” The assertion smacks of the aphoristic Mr. Gurdjieff. As a card-carrying Gurdjieffian, I understood what Needleman was saying: We cannot hope for objective consciousness without passing through the gate of self-remembering.

The sources Needleman cited to substantiate his position ranged from the fringe of orthodoxy to the patently imaginary. Most amusing were Father Vincent and Father Sylvan, two priests Needleman claimed to have encountered in his spiritual travels. Almost certainly they were confabulations of the author. Sylvan, a “Christian monk” who met Needleman in an airport cocktail lounge, sent the author a mysterious manuscript containing the key to “real” Christianity. Needleman quoted this manuscript liberally, but never divulged Fr. Sylvan’s identity. This may be because Fr. Sylvan was a fictional code name for George Gurdjieff.

By the end of Lost Christianity Needleman had done nothing less than redefine the soul while asserting that Jesus and the church he founded were wrong to command human beings to love. Remember the Ten Commandments? Remember Christ’s “first and greatest” commandment, and the second “like unto it,” to love your neighbor as yourself? Forget about them. Love, Needleman wrote, “[can] not be commanded. Or, rather, if . . . commanded, it can only be within the context of a precise and complete method of inner development.” Without the tools of the Work, in other words, you could give up any hope of being an authentic Christian.

I was impressed by Lost Christianity the first time I read it, but doubt seeped in. What the hell, I wondered, would the ordinary Christian make of Needleman’s approach? What would a saint like Thomas More say? Does Needleman’s “truth” invalidate the saints and their experience? Did Needleman’s “scholarship” wipe away the errors of two thousand years of Christian prayer and sacrifice and tradition? Could Christianity only be “found” again with the key Needleman offered?

The loud questions continued rumbling inside me while I soldiered on in the Work. One question I might have asked myself but didn’t, at least not consciously, was: By trying to sell the Gurdjieff system as the one true way to the kingdom of heaven, had Jacob Needleman actually brought me closer to the Christianity of my childhood, the faith I had lost by following Gulliver out of church and into the Work?

[To draw a general conclusion from this short excerpt, I became increasingly disenchanted with the “esoteric” claim that mainstream Christianity cannot lead a person to happiness, enlightenment, salvation. The claim seemed arch-preposterous to me when made by a Jewish intellectual who, by his own admission in Lost Christianity, did not practice his religion and looked scornfully at priests and even rabbis. More and more, Needleman’s posture seemed to be that of the New Age. Anything is better than mainstream Christianity, the New Agers seem to say, so try anything but. Seeing the proud emptiness of that claim, I began to take another look at Christianity as ordinary “exoteric” people practice it.]

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Ammie: Catholic Grandmother,” click here.

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