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Self Completion represents the summit of de Ropp's life work. It is also a literary achievement. It summarizes the experience of this master scientist, ecologist and philosopher.
"Anyone who is in an esoteric school needs to read it and study it carefully. Anyone who professes to be in the Work, no matter what the organizational affiliation or lineage, needs to read it at least three times and take it to heart. Anyone who professes to be a student of MINE, anyone who indicates to me a wish to enter the Work, had better read it several more times and not mechanically, not just to 'take notes'."
-- E.J. Gold
Robert S. de Ropp was a household name among the "counterculture" of the sixties: his book The Master Game burst upon a naive reading public carrying the data that there are schools in the West and there is access to mastery on the spiritual path from where we stand.
While the young were beginning to be captivated by shamanism in its most exotic and ethnic dress, of Native American, Asian, Australian practitioners, Robert de Ropp was already presenting his antidote to spiritual daydreams. His was a nitty-gritty, no-nonsense, de-mystifying, contemporary and scientifically-informed approach.
Most of the students who sought me out for serious guidance in the sixties and seventies had read and studied The Master Game. Astonishingly, the book sold several hundred thousand copies in paperback, because of the tenor of the times. An entire generation of readers who had not heard of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky from Colin Wilson or any other source--it was an insider secret well into the sixties that Europeans Gurdjieff and Crowley had achieved mastery on their own paths--first read these names in Robert de Ropp's book.
In the late eighties, all of that is forgotten. Literacy in general is on the wane, even as the alleged "new age" is on the rise. The Master Game is out of print. So are those other titles, Church of the Earth, Drugs and the Mind and Warrior's Way, Mr. de Ropp's own favorite. G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, Mr. de Ropp's original mentor, are now widely known, or widely subjects of lip service. So are all the 20th century living or dead Zen masters, Yogis, Gurus, Avatars, Swamis of every stamp.
Spiritual work, in fact, is "in" now. Meditation, transformation, levitation, clairvoyance, spirit communication--every psychic or hypnotic fantasy sort of superstition about other realities is current, chic. Only cogitation is still almost universally rejected and scarcely used. If anything, it is becoming further atrophied by the "new age."
In the midst of this revivalist fervor, Robert de Ropp's voice, from his hermitage on the mountainside, still sounds the same note. His message is distilled to its essence in Self-Completion. It addresses the same crisis he addressed in the sixties, with the same sense of urgency. More than a doomsayer, far more than a scientific observer, beyond the limitations of a utopian dreamer, Robert de Ropp speaks out with the integrity and acerbity of an old Testament prophet.
His message has aged like the finest wine, which is to say, it has achieved a superior bouquet for the eighties. This present summary is as candid and quintessential as any post-literate American could wish. It is addressed in particular to those already involved in spiritual work, a growing subculture. Every one on the spiritual path--no matter under what banner or practice--needs to read this book.
Anyone who is in an esoteric school needs to read it and study it carefully. Anyone who professes to be in the Work, no matter what the organizational affiliation or lineage, needs to read it at least three times and take its questions to heart. Anyone who professes to be a student of mine, anyone who indicates to me a wish to enter the Work, had better read it several more times and not mechanically, not just to "take notes".
If Mr. de Ropp's mental and emotional castor oil does not cause some misgiving--and if his summary of the beginning transformational work and the projection for possible success does not awaken some remorse of conscience in the reader--then that reader needs to examine his or her life.
Gnothe seauton -- one who is indifferent to Self-Completion and its ideas may be closer to walking death-in-life than he or she is willing to acknowledge. Robert de Ropp is gone, his writings and his work in this life are complete. But be forewarned: it may not be too late for you to choose life and assume the requisite responsibilities. Read this book at your own risk.
I am an elderly hermit who lives on the side of a mountain in California. I share this mountain with deer, skunks, opossums, rabbits, hawks, mice, vultures, redwoods, oaks, pepperwoods, grasses, not to mention about a zillion nematodes, fungi, bacteria. I am part of a complex ecosystem, a very small part I might add, a member of a trouble-making species, a naked ape that has become the bane of the biosphere because it has failed to find its proper place in the scheme of things.
In the basic construction of Man (1) something seems to have gone wrong.
Of this wrongness I have been aware since I was four. I was born in 1913, the last year of the Age of Optimism. I had scarcely been weaned before the proud tower of Western civilization, which many thought would enable mankind to ascend to a new heaven of health and material prosperity, collapsed with a crash. For me, a little child, that crash was symbolized by a piece of charred cloth which my father brought back to our flat in Chelsea, London. He was in the British Military Intelligence (he spoke English, French, German and Russian). He had been investigating the wreckage of a Zeppelin which had been shot down over London. He announced with a certain relish that the hydrogen-filled Zeppelins were death traps, specially designed to roast their crews alive. They served to prove, as he had always contended, that the Germans were fundamentally a stupid people, despite their major contributions to the arts and sciences.
His general comments passed over my head. My horrified attention was focussed on that piece of charred cloth, on the thought that a man's body had been in that uniform and that that man had been roasted alive. My father, instead of expressing grief, seemed to derive satisfaction from the fact.
As I gazed at the pile of Zeppelin wreckage spread out on our table the "terror of the situation" struck me like a physical blow. For three hours I wept, nor would any explanations my father offered (that the roasted Zeppeliner had been an enemy, that the Germans who made the raids were barbarous, and so on) banish from my childish soul the essential horror. For I realized at that early age that I had strayed onto the wrong planet in the wrong solar system, that the behavior of human beings was hopelessly and incurably weird, that I would always be an outcast among them, a "stranger in a strange land", an exile, an outsider.
Which indeed I was and still am. When Colin Wilson wrote his brilliant study, The Outsider I recognized at once how well that label fitted me. I had been an outsider from birth and would die an outsider. Never would I be able to accept gracefully or gratefully my membership of the human race. I would rather be a dolphin.
What are we, the outsiders? Are we the elect or the accursed? Are we the spiritual advance guard of the human race or a rabble of sorry misfits? We carry a heavy burden. We are the "sick souls" so well described by William James. (2) Our malaise can be summarized in the words of Cardinal Newman.
"To consider the defeat of the good, the prevalence of sin, the dreary, hopeless irreligion...all this a vision to dizzy and appall, and inflicts upon the mind the sense of profound mystery which is absolutely beyond human solution. And so I argue: If there be a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible, aboriginal calamity." (3)
Carrying the burden of this awareness, we, the outsiders, are always in danger. How many of us have voluntarily left the theater of life in disgust or despair, taking refuge in insanity or suicide? Like Ivan Karamazov we often hasten to give back our entrance ticket. We say to the Creator-God, "If this is the best you can do then I want out."
So it was with me. I was young, healthy, curious, a student of biology at the University of London, eager to do research. But the spectacle of the large-scale idiocy took away my appetite for life. God's creation, in general, seemed admirable, but he had evidently made a mess of things when he made Man. What I really wanted was to live in a man-free world. As this was impossible I decided that I would hand back my entrance ticket and hope to reincarnate in a species less badly constructed.
I might indeed have handed back the ticket had I not, at the age of twenty-three, met the man who was to be my teacher, P.D. Ouspensky. It was from Ouspensky I learned the vital secret. Man, as he is, is an uncompleted being. Nature provides for his development up to a point. He spends "twenty years agrowing and twenty years in bloom, twenty years declining and twenty years adying." He is a long lived mammal but does not understand why Nature has given him such a long life. Nature has not, generally speaking, made any attempt to provide him with this knowledge. Indeed she seems to have made every effort to conceal from him the real purpose of his existence.
But what we call Nature is a very mysterious force. It seems to operate at two levels, a lower and a higher. Lower Nature presides over Man's physical growth, brings him to maturity, turns on the sex urge that drives him to mate and, in due course, destroys him. But there is also a higher Nature. Higher Nature has given to Man the capacity to raise his level on the Great Chain of Being. In order to do this Man must first realize that he is not complete. It is part of his duty to complete himself. This work of self-completion involves two things, knowledge and effort.
To obtain the necessary knowledge, Ouspensky explained, and to use that knowledge for self-completion, was the proper purpose of human life. This was the magnum opus contra naturae, the "Great Work against Nature" of the alchemists. The alchemists had disguised their knowledge. They pretended that they sought a method of converting base metals into gold. But the real aim of alchemy was self-completion. This was "the Work". For those in the know, it was the only life game worth playing.
Unfortunately this great truth was understood by only a few people in each generation. These people strove, as it was said, to "enter the Work". This involved finding a teacher and getting the knowledge needed to enable them to work on themselves.
The mass of mankind were quite uninterested in the Work. They lived in a manner unworthy of their spiritual heritage, in the satisfaction of animal appetites, in fear, vanity, distractions and amusements, in stupid sports, games of skill and chance, greed of gain, fear of loss, dull daily work, the dreams and hopes of the day. They moved in obedience to forces over which they had no control. As soon as they stopped obeying one force they began obeying another.
The civilization of our time, declared Ouspensky, was a pale, sickly growth that could hardly keep itself alive in the darkness of profound barbarism. The technical inventions of the modern age had probably taken away from civilization more than they had given. (4)
In their state of "waking sleep" humans voyaged from birth to death aboard a ship of fools. The captain was asleep, the steersman was drunk and the navigator had forgotten the aim of the voyage. Any fool on board could push the steersman aside and try to steer the ship. The great human agglomerates that called themselves nations were just as much at the mercy of the fools in their midst as were individual men and women. The technological Titanic, modern society, was proceeding full speed ahead into the fog, but there was no one in control. Under these circumstances it would not be surprising if the vessel hit a rock or an iceberg. The surprising thing was that it stayed afloat at all.
Ouspensky's teachings offered little comfort and at first I refused to accept them. But the crimes and stupidities of the "Dirty Thirties" compelled me finally to accept Ouspensky's view of the human predicament. By 1936 it was evident to any impartial observer that something had gone terribly wrong. I was half German, product of a long line of Baltic Barons (Germans with Russian souls). I had a large collection of German cousins. They were, whether they liked it or not, involved with the Nazis. Several were members of the Party. The tales they told appalled me. A whole procession of spiritually malformed monsters was emerging from the Teutonic collective unconscious. No crime was too heinous, no lie too preposterous for these new "supermen".
Obviously these monsters were a menace and needed to be chased back into the cesspool from which they had emerged. But the victors of World War I, British and French alike, seemed paralyzed. They did nothing. All the sacrifices of the first World War had been in vain. No one had learned anything. The whole idiotic war would have to be fought over again.
Our modern world, technically so proficient, was actually an example of the "theater of the absurd". The performance made no sense whatever.
So I studied with Ouspensky. I searched for a clue, for some way out of the "abyss of meaninglessness". Paul Tillich, at that time, had yet to write The Courage to Be but the thought he later expressed in that book described my situation entirely. "If life is as meaningless as death, if guilt is as questionable as perfection, if being is no more meaningful than nonbeing, on what can one base the courage to be?"
Everything P.D. Ouspensky taught centered around a system. It was not just any old system. It was the System. He had received the System from his teacher, G. Gurdjieff, but he considered it incomplete, "fragments of an unknown teaching". Either Mr. G., as he called him, had not known the complete system or he had chosen not to reveal it in its entirety. Ouspensky had broken with Gurdjieff and forbidden any of us to make contact with that teacher. If we wanted to find the missing parts of the System we would have to discover them for ourselves. (5)
The System, if one understood it fully, would explain everything, from the origin of the universe to the peculiarities of human behavior. Everything was linked to everything else in a chain of interdependent cosmoses which ranged from the megalocosmos to the microcosmos. Each cosmos was governed by its own laws. The cosmos above imposed laws on the cosmos below. Man, the microcosmos, lived under laws imposed by the cosmos above him. This cosmos was Earth's organic life, the biosphere. The biosphere as a whole lived under laws imposed by the Sun. The Sun was governed by laws imposed by the Galaxy and so on.
It was also true to say that the cosmos above was influenced by the cosmos below. In Man the cosmos below was the cell. Man as a whole imposed laws on his cells. His instinctive brain regulated their rate of division, differentiation, metabolism and so on. As long as his cells obeyed these laws there was harmony and order. If they refused to obey, as in a cancer, chaos resulted. Similarly, the individual organisms of the biosphere lived under laws imposed by this cosmos and had the power to damage that cosmos, perhaps fatally, if they refused to obey its laws.
The separate links in the chain of cosmoses were held together by the law of reciprocal feeding. Radiation from the Sun nourished the cosmos of green plants which in turn nourished the animals, including Man. Every cosmos was food for the cosmos above it and fed in its turn on products of the cosmos below.
For what, in this "Great Chain of Being" was Man the food? According to the System Man was potentially "food for Archangels". Just what these Archangels were was never explained. In any case Man rarely fulfilled his true function. To become food for Archangels Man first had to complete himself. Few human beings did this. Instead of being food for Archangels Man was more often merely "food for Moon".
In the System, as propounded by Ouspensky, a lot of emphasis was placed on the role of the Moon. In the "Ray of Creation" the Moon was the growing end of a branch. Far from being a cold, dead body the Moon was getting bigger and warmer. It grew by feeding. On what did it feed? On the organic life of Earth. Everything living on Earth was food for the Moon. All the movements and manifestations of people, animals and plants were controlled by the Moon. The mechanical part of a man's life was regulated by the Moon. Only those who developed in themselves consciousness and will could escape from its power. The Moon was the "outer darkness" of the Christian teachings, the end of the world where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth". (6)
Being in those days a starry-eyed believer I took this moon-myth seriously. I actually saw the Moon, hanging there in the sky, as a sinister man-eating monster sucking from Earth's organic life its vital juices, slowly growing and warming itself at our expense.
Later, disillusioned not only with Ouspensky but with most of the so-called System, I rejected the "Gurdjieffian Lunar Myth" as a piece of cosmological nonsense. How could anyone seriously claim that the Moon was growing and getting warmer? Men had travelled to the Moon, walked on its surface, brought back moon-rocks. The Moon was dead. There was not the slightest chance of its coming to life. The whole idea of the "Ray of Creation" was incorrect. The cosmos did not grow like a tree. New stars were formed out of the dust and gas in the spiral arms of the galaxies. Old stars died, the small ones shrinking into white dwarfs, the big ones exploding as supernovas. Out of the dust of those supernovas new stars were formed.
Of course it was perfectly possible to argue that the whole moon-myth was an allegory, that the entity "moon" had no reference to the Moon in the sky. It described all those forces that work to keep Man enslaved and which prevent him from seeing the truth about his situation. But why disguise the truth in such an elaborate allegory? It only served to confuse people.
So the System, as we received from Ouspensky, was a weird mixture. When it came to describing the predicament of Man, the forces that kept Man in sleep, the methods by which he could awaken, the System was wonderfully practical and down to earth. But when it came to describing the laws governing cosmic processes it seemed to lose touch with reality. It became woolly, a mish-mash of fantasy. It reminded me of the colorful myths that play such an important part in the writings of H.P. Blavatsky. Both Gurdjieff and Ouspensky claimed to despise Theosophy but I suspected that Gurdjieff had been strongly influenced by certain Theosophical ideas.
Another item in Ouspensky's teaching the truth of which I came to question concerned an entity he called "the inner circle of humanity". When I first met him he firmly believed that that circle existed. Its members were the custodians of the "culture of civilization" which was opposed to the "culture of barbarism" that prevailed in the world at large.
This idea of an inner circle was not new to me. I had come to Ouspensky heavily loaded with the jargon of the Theosophical Society of which, at the time, I was a member. Among the items contained in what I now call "The Great Theosophical Myth" was the concept of the Masters of Wisdom. It was the Mahatma Letters allegedly sent by one of those Masters (Koot Hoomi) that formed so important a part of the bag of tricks of Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society.
Ouspensky had nothing but scorn for Theosophy. "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole." But he did believe in the existence of the "inner circle". Members of the circle constituted a spiritual aristocracy. They were developed beings. They had will, inner unity, permanent I. They were self-directing entities, not mechanical dolls.
But if these marvelous characters really existed why did they hide themselves? Obviously they did stay hidden. They certainly made no effort to save mankind from the results of its folly.
Ouspensky answered this question by insisting that the members of the inner circle could only help those who wished to be helped. Nor could they help anyone who was not willing to help himself. The mass of mankind were slaves who did not know they were slaves and therefore had no desire to be free. Attempts to liberate them from their slavery often proved disastrous for the would-be liberators.
That seemed true enough. Look what had happened to Jesus! See what a mess the priests had made of his teachings! You start with a religion of love and end with Inquisitors who burn their fellow men alive. The history of Christianity offered a horrendous example of the workings of the Theater of the Absurd.
Members of the inner circle, said Ouspensky, were far too intelligent to let themselves get mixed up in this ridiculous performance. They stepped back and watched the show. If a few people wanted to do more with their lives than take part in a drama of absurdities they might approach the inner circle, assuming they could find it. After a long period of work on themselves they might become worthy to enter the circle. It was no easy understanding.
"It takes a long time to enter the Work. One must be patient."
Thus spake P.D. Ouspensky one foggy December afternoon in the fateful year 1936.
I write now in January 1987. Fifty years have passed since I heard Ouspensky's words.
"It is hard to enter the Work. Many start, few arrive."
This question echoes through my head. Why is this inner Work so difficult? Have we, in our materialistic culture, blocked ourselves off from certain life-giving influences that could help us? There surely are such influences but they seem to reach only a very few people. These people know a great secret. They know they are unfinished being and that it is up to them to complete their own evolution. They see mankind as the choice fruit of the Tree of Life on Earth but they know that, in most cases, the fruit falls from the tree unripe. Man, who should become food for higher beings, becomes instead food for worms. He drifts down instead of rising up. He fattens his flesh instead of nourishing his soul.
Those who receive these influences have the opportunity, if they so desire, to enter the inner circle of humanity. They are the gnostics, those who know. But their knowledge will accomplish nothing unless it provides a basis for action. Actually it is better to be ignorant than to know and do nothing with one's knowledge. But what must one do?
This is the vital question. One must know and one must do. In order to do one must generate power. Power is developed by effort, but there is right effort and wrong effort. There is also pseudo-effort. Our capacity for self-deception is very great and it continues to operate after we have, as we imagine, "entered the Work". Instead of engaging in the real Work we enter the fantasy Work. We deceive ourselves. Our last state is worse than our first.
This, after fifty years of observation, is the conclusion I have reached. The fantasy Work tends to replace the real Work just as, according to Gresham's Law, the bad money tends to drive out the good. The fantasy Work is everywhere. It proliferates like a cancer. It is subtle. It takes many forms. It generates new systems of delusions to replace the old ones. It brings the real Work to a halt and offers dreams in its place. Many people gladly accept those dreams. The dreams save the dreamers from making serious efforts to awaken because they dream that they are already awake.
All I can do at this late stage of my life is to offer a guide to those who need one. With the help of this guide they may be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. It is hard for those who have contacted only the feeble remnants of an enterprise that once had life and vigor to understand what real Work is. It is even harder for them to put that understanding into practice. There is not much we can do about this. The vital influence that the Sufis call baraka is now shut off from us by the fog of insane materialism that has enshrouded our culture. Our huge, unbalanced economy is a house of cards which will surely collapse. When it does the fog may clear and the vital influence may encounter fewer obstructions. Until that time we must do what we can with what we have and strive to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
(1) In this book the word Man (with capital M) is used to designate the species Homo sapiens; man (lower case) is used for a male member of the species.
(2) James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience
(3)Newman, J.H., Apologia pro Vita Sua
(4) Ouspensky, P.D., A New Model of the Universe
(5) Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and the System: When I met Gurdjieff in New York City in 1948 he was already approaching the end of his life. He was living in a way which was obviously very unhealthy both for himself and for his "tail of donkey" (a phrase he used when referring to his followers). Members of the "tail" were crowded into the rather small room he used for his meetings in the Wellington Hotel. The air was thick with tobacco smoke and alcohol fumes. Readings either from Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson or In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments from an Unknown Teaching went on interminably. The food at supper was, for my poor stomach, indigestable. The endless toasts to the various categories of idiots drunk in Armagnac made my head swim. Worst of all was the atmosphere of concentrated guru worship that pervaded the assembly. As one cynical observer put it, "They seem to be having a competition to see who can kiss Gurdjieff's ass most obsequiously".
All this resulted in a negative reaction on my part. "If this is really the way to awakening I'd just as soon remain asleep."
Gurdjieff and Ouspensky both adopted unhealthy lifestyles. Both treated their physical bodies very badly. Both smoked which, in view of my personal loathing of the tobacco habit, seemed to me a serious defect. In spite of which I feel enormously indebted to them both. Had it not been for the support offered by the System at a certain critical moment in my life, I would probably have "left the theater" in my early twenties. The System offered me a way out of the Abyss of Meaninglessness. It gave me a valid life aim without which life was worthless.
For many years I fed on the ideas of the System. Ideas carry enormous power and can entirely alter the shape of people's lives. Ideas can launch crusades, start wars, save people, destroy people, build civilizations or wreck them. Ideas form an important part of the Lattice of Karma of any man or woman who lives above the animal level.
So what about the System? Is it dead? And what about the bringer of the System, that "great enigma", Mister G. Gurdjieff? Was he an avatar, an incarnation of the highest of the Mind Force? Was he a magician-hypnotist who used his powers for his own profit? Was he a behavioral psychologist who experimented with humans rather than rats? Was he just one more player of the "world's oldest con game", offering a new religion to true Believers in exchange for their worship and a considerable flow of cash?
Perhaps he was all these things - and more. One thing is certain. He possessed a certain something that set him apart from the ordinary run of human beings. In this age of the mass-man, when humans seem increasingly to resemble articulated dolls stamped out of sheets of plastic by computerized robots, he was unique. Looking at him as he sat there, his red fez on his bald head, playing weird melodies on his lap organ, the impression struck me that this was a king in exile who belonged to a different, more heroic age, a ruler of men forced to wear a humble disguise and to move unrecognized among the plastic dolls.
A king he undoubtably was, nor could one have any doubts about his state of exile. Like his "Mr. Beelzebub" he was "far from the place of his arising". But was he, as his followers are fond of asserting, a great teacher? Perhaps he was for a few, a very few. Those few constituted a small group of men and women strong enough and self-reliant enough not to be completely dominated by the aura of power that surrounded Gurdjieff.
J.G. Bennett, in his book Gurdjieff: A Very Great Enigma has given to this power the name hvareno, a word taken from the old Zoroastrian teachings. It could be translated as "the royal touch" or "kingly power". Does possession of this power make a man or a woman a great teacher? Not necessarily. In fact it may very well turn its possessor into a very bad teacher. These natural kings move among ordinary men and women as a wolf moves through a flock of sheep. It takes a very high level of self-control if that wolf is to resist the temptation to take a nip now and then out of the hides of the poor woolly fools with which he finds himself surrounded.
Now Gurdjieff is dead. Ouspensky is dead. Bennett is dead. One by one the members of the old circle have fallen by the way. What about "the System"? Is it also dead?
The answer I give to this question is yes. It is dead in the rigid forms which various commentators have given it. It is dead in the "Ouspenskian Version" (published as In Search of the Miraculous). It is dead in the "Oragean Version" (published privately by C. Daly King). It is dead in the "Bennett Version", formulated mainly in Gurdjieff: Making a New World But what about the "Gurdjieffian version" of the System? Is that also dead?
It is not, for the simple reason that Gurdjieff never published a System. He used instead the traditional Sufi method of transmitting ideas by the Teaching Story (see Idries Shah, A Perfumed Scorpion Both Gurdjieff's books, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson>Meetings With Remarkable Men are collections of Teaching Stories. By presenting the material in this way Gurdjieff avoided fossilizing the teachings in rigid forms like the dogmas of the church. A Teaching Story may have many interpretations and contain meanings at many different levels. To find the hidden meanings the student has to abandon his or her habitual patterns of thinking and learn to think in other categories.
This is illustrated by the famous teaching story called "The Elephant in the Dark" Each of the sages who examined the elephant in the dark formed a different idea of what the beast was like. The one who grabbed its tail said it resembled a rope. The one who took hold of its leg thought it resembled a pillar and so on. So each sage published his own version of the elephant. There was the "tail version", the "leg version", the "trunk version". The real form of the elephant eluded them all because, to see the elephant as a whole, one had to turn on the light. This was exactly what the examining sages could not do.
(6) Ouspensky, P.D., In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments from an Unknown Teaching