Theodore Nottingham Interview
Ted Nottingham is the author of
twelve published books in a variety of genres, including nationally televised
works. He is a publisher, television producer, translator and an ordained
minister. Many of his books are presented at GIG's Books section. To find
our more please visit his homepage.
GIG: When I first got to know you a bit better I suggested that you might submit some of your articles and reviews to us. All of a sudden you posted a great flow of articles and reviews, although you are fairly busy. Looking at what you are doing can you tell me first on how you find the time to be so productive?
Ted: I have learned over the last quarter of a century of being in the Work that Gurdjieff's concept of "super efforts" is a key aspect of spiritual evolution. This same idea can be found even more vividly expressed in the ancient teachings of Eastern Christianity where the teachers of spiritual awakening developed specific terms such "askesis" (practice), the Russian term "podvig" (daily spiritual struggle), and a host of other methodologies for psychological and spiritual effort in the moment that are fundamental to the process of living each day. In other words, making efforts above and beyond what the natural inclination might be, and done with a specific aim, becomes a regular part of one's life if a search for self-transcendence for the sake of greater meaning is significant.
GIG: It is interesting that you mention 'podvig' and translate it as 'daily spiritual struggle'. Not knowing Russian I have tried to find out the translation for this concept and in the absence of any decided that I might just as well call it 'Conscious Labour and Intentional Suffering'.
I am curious and would like to know what the expression 'ordained minister' means?
Ted: After some years studying the Work, I found the parallels in teachings such as are presented in "The Philokalia" as well as in the writings of the Christian mystics across the centuries. Contemporaries like Thomas Merton also helped to create a bridge into the inner teachings of Christianity, along with the insights of Maurice Nicoll. I pursued my studies by entering a seminary for a masters degree, and was then ordained into a Protestant denomination.
I am now a pastor and spiritual teacher within the framework of a community of faith. For those who understand the technical language of the Fourth Way, this provides exceptional Third Force for one's aims. More importantly, it allows me to live my outer life in conjuntion with my inner life. It is a rare privilege.
GIG: Tell me about your contact with the Gurdjieff Work. What brought you to it and did you and do you still take part in it?
Ted: Upon encountering the writings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky during an intensive period of searching for deeper meaning in life, my life was transformed into a "before and after". After that followed a time of reading all related materials and finding my way into a school where I studied for another four years or so. That was an important experience, yet one that paradoxically proved invaluable because I could "graduate" beyond it. Much could be said about the pitfalls of so-called schools and the limitations of the teachings presented therein. Gurdjieff made it very clear that one had to learn to think for oneself. It is my experience that the existing schools have done to Gurdjieff's teachings what fundamentalism has done to Christianity. I would also remind seekers that the primer "In Search of the Miraculous" was originally titled "Fragments of an Unknown Teaching" for a good reason. I suggest to you that there is a point in the Work that is left "unfinished" or without further elaboration for the very intentional reason that seekers must make the connections and find the next step for themselves.
GIG: I came across the Orthodox Work (as you know it is also called Work) before I learned about Gurdjieff, but it started to make sense only after a contact with the Gurdjieff ideas and a practical study of them. In my view the the Gurdjieff Work is a good preparation for the Orthodox Work - the "graduation" you pointed out. However, I know that this "graduation" is just as much possible within the Gurdjieff Work.
I agree that if one takes "The Fragments" to be the Gurdjieff Work then it is incomplete. I am surprised that you consider the Gurdjieff Work to be "unfinished". The group-work, working together in crafts, and taking part in the movements and having his own writings to support the studies, the Gurdjieff Work answers the needs of a person who is interested in self-development, a way to a higher level of consciousness. What is missing?
Ted: There is an entire dimension of Gurdjieff's own life and words that is generally left untouched or unspoken in the presentation of the Teaching. For instance, Gurdjieff said:
"You must pray with your whole presence and with all three centers concentrated on the same thing......From realizing the significance of your neighbor when your attention rests on him, that he will die, pity for him and compassion toward him will arise in you, and finally you will love him; also, by doing this constantly, real faith, conscious faith, will arise in some part of you and spread to other parts, and you will have the possibility of knowing real happiness."
These words take us beyond the diagrams, the cosmology, the ribald behavior, to a man of authentic and deep spirituality. There are anecdotes from persons close to him, such as J.G. Bennett, that further confirm this fact: there was a side of Gurdjieff that was not known or shared with his students. This man took care of Russian refugees, assisted the local addict and prostitute in his Paris neighborhood, was related to the Russian Orthodox Church to such an extent that the priest was at his side when he died.
This was a man who valued real faith so greatly that he had no tolerance for superficial piety or social club religion. Therefore, he took an entirely different approach to share the Teaching, one especially suited to early twentieth century agnostics who were in search of something that could not be identified with external religion. In this way, he was able to reach people who would never have made their way into a transforming spirituality. He bypassed old associations made with the ideas of Christ which automatically cut the seeker off from the life-giving teaching behind the words.
I have found this issue of students not understanding the true direction of their teacher's inner life to be true for Karlfried Graf Durckheim. Many of his followers stayed with his early writings dealing with eastern thought and refused to acknowledge that the last ten years of his life -- the apex of his wisdom -- ended up being founded on the spiritual teachings of Orthodox Christianity (particularly the Jesus Prayer) and brought to his work a fullness and completion that was lacking in the early days.
The same is true with Gurdjieff whose nature was profoundly spiritual and rarely understood by his western students who were looking for esoteric lore and self-empowerment rather than genuine transformation leading to humility and goodness. Also, most people of the west know nothing about the form of eastern Christianity that was part of Gurdjieff's world. The break between Rome and Byzantium in 1054 has continued to this day, although these ideas are beginning to surface.
Students who reject any relationship between Fourth Way teachings and spiritual wisdom are generally focused on personal power and elitism. That is a dead end as is clearer demonstrated by the state of being of many such persons.
It must also be said that Gurdjieff was a man of many sides and certainly did not fit into anyone's image of a "holy man". Bennett observed that, at the very end of his life, Gurdjieff's face carried the saddest look he had ever seen. Nevertheless, his contribution is extraordinary and has impacted many lives.
GIG: There are many examples in the different writings of Gurdjieff's relation to Christianity. Before Ouspensky met Gurdjieff Sir Paul Dukes heard him sing The Lords Prayer and saw the results of his work with a priest in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra on chanting; Dr. Stjörnval thought he was 'Christ himself' etc.. James Moore in his biography asks: '...was Gurdjieff ever tempted to present his teaching explicitly in Christian terms?', but does not pursue the question further. I think you gave an answer to this question when you said that Gurdjieff bypassed old associations by putting the Teaching in a new form. This form works still to-day.
It does sound like you are dissatisfied with the way the Gurdjieff Work is carried on. Are you referring to the secrecy about the Work and that it has been kept to only a few who happen somehow to find it?
Some self-proclaimed experts on the matter (G.'s infamous "haznamus") have locked the whole system into the events that occured between 1918 and 1949 and seem obsessed with exploring that bygone era. They have utterly confused the message with the messenger.
It is interesting to note how few of these organizations make use of Maurice Nicoll's brilliant and highly applicable Commentaries which enable students to do real Work on themselves.
GIG: There are many who say they teach Gurdjieff's system or the Fourth Way. I was referring to the only line of the Gurdjieff Work that I have personal experience of. Mine did not have the elements you mention (at least not to an extent that it would have disturbed me). I have met many people who certainly have not been 'crystallized' in the wrong way. Being in their company has given me a 'lift' and these moments are still live and clear in my memory. Nicoll's Commentaries were quoted often by my group leader, Sam Copley, who was a long time student with Nicoll.
To give you one example: I was invited to lunch at Jimmy's, which was a Greek restaurant in an unused underground tunnel in Soho. My friend met me in the company of a young man who was interested in joining the Work. We walked from Piccadilly Circus through the busy streets and had our meal in the noisy restaurant. I can recall details of all this to-day over 30 years later. I lost the thread and went back to sleep after the meal when I walked back on my own and have no recollection of walking to my office in Oxford Street.
This awareness was an influence from a man, who was present, if not all the time, at least most of the time. My friend is now over 70, taking Gurdjieff groups and teaching the movements.
Your experiences of the Work are very different from mine and I am puzzled. This is an important issue for both people who are 'looking for something' and also for people who have found some form of the Work. The different organisations teach the Work based on their understanding and experience of it; some have more some have less. Can you put your finger on this problem?
Ted: I think some of the reasons for our different experiences of people in the Work are the following:
-- I entered some twelve years after you. Already the first generation had died off and was down to a very few.
-- I entered a school which seemed very sophisticated and powerful in regards to the teachings. It is international now in scope, but overshadowed by serious misdeeds of the Teacher. This is where the really dark side came in.
-- I think that in the U.S. it is often easier for organizations and charlatans to turn something into a profit making operation. Also, young Americans are possibly more naive than Europeans and others like yourself and therefore more easily taken advantage of.
-- We are now fifty-two years away from the "sounding of those first notes". This is a different era and a different octave for the Teaching. G. was dealing with 1920's intellectuals. Now the secret teachings of Tibet that he found on his own through colossal effort are in bookstores on sale for less than the price of a sandwich.
Things have turned over several times in human history since then, even since the seventies. Humanity is different. I am not alone in the intuition that the Work cannot exist in a vacuum, disconnected from all other teachings. But it is going to take the ability to leap over great paradoxes and the overcoming formatory mind. This is why there are so few who discover the link between Orthodox Christianity and the Fourth Way.
I'm sure there are good people seriously doing the Work now. But there is alos degeneration afoot, especially --as you know well -- with the influence of the Internet.
I have found many people to learn from, both in the Work and beyond it; people of joy, light, and deep consciousness, but mostly from the side of mystical religion. The Goettmanns, key students of Durckheim and teachers for many years in their own right in Europe, whose books I have translated, are such examples.
The issue is that, as in all things, the octave has hit an interval and for those who reject the new energy (making connections), then it can only begin to degenerate. Truth and spiritual evolution, by definition, cannot be the exclusive domain of anyone.
GIG: In a recent interview I asked Dr. Sophia Wellbeloved about some of the ideas that she puts forth in her 'Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts'. One idea that cropped up was if the future of the Work could be making it into a new tradition. If you were in charge how would you like to see the Gurdjieff work to develop?
Ted: There is only one tradition, and that is the evolution into enlightenment which creates people of compassion, maturity, wisdom, and self-transcendence. Every generation must discover the paths that lead to authentic transformation. It isn't about creating new tradition, but about being genuine in one's effort to reach one's highest potential.
GIG: You "graduated" and found contacts that worked for you in the Orthodox circles in France. If you started to look for a teacher, or an elder, where could you think of finding one?
Ted: There comes a time when one no longer seeks for a teacher, but becomes one. The aim is to learn for oneself and become what one is meant to be, not to linger forever at the feet of another person. As for those just beginning the journey, there is only one answer: "Seek and you will find". The intensity of the desire or the yearning will produce results.
GIG: What I know of your own Work is through your homepages and your books. Are you teaching apart from your Ministry and if you do what form it has it taken?
Ted: The form that my teaching has taken now is through the medium of being the pastor of a community. The messages that I share on Sundays are all rooted in practical work on oneself and the effort toward spiritual evolution.
This sharing extends to personal counseling, writing for local newspapers and other media, spending time with people in crisis, and reaching out to
seekers whose "magnetic centers" can respond to what they hear from me.
The Work is not for the elite (the word esoteric means inner not secret), but for anyone who has a sincere desire to reach connected with a deeper part of
themselves that opens on to encounter with that which is greater than themselves. Emotional healing and purification, self-transcendence,
conscious effort, awakening from sleep are the birthright of all who "hunger and thirst" for Truth and right action in the world.