Pamela L. Travers, Gurdjieff, and the Father Figure Connection

Meetings With Remarkable Men

Pamela L. Travers was a lifelong follower of the spiritual teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a controversial spiritual teacher of the last century. She was first introduced to his teachings by his disciples Alfred Richard Orage, the editor of The New English Weekly, a publication to which Pamela L. Travers contributed between 1932-1949, and Piotr Damien Ouspensky.

Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, speculates in Mary Poppins She Wrote that Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual motivation was rooted in her snobbish nature and her desire to always set herself apart from others. Now this evaluation appears, at least in my opinion, to be superficial and judgmental, especially when Lawson never met with Pamela L. Travers. The real question is (if one truly wants to understand Pamela L. Travers) what in Gurdjieff’s teachings resonated so strongly with her inner being? This is a complex question on which I am still pondering, and sincerely I don’t know if I will ever find its answer. But, while reading Gurdjieff’s book Meetings with Remarkable Men an interesting observation popped up on the surface of my mind. However, before I share my personal observation, I will briefly expose the principles of Gurdjieff’s teachings for those who read this post and are not familiar with his Work.

According to Gurdjieff the average person is a sleeping machine endowed with a dormant essence, an embryo of a soul which has the capacity to grow and develop into its potential higher destiny. Gurdjieff warned his students that the failure to develop one’s essence would lead one to a harsh ending; he said that a man who fails to develop his soul would die like a dog and become food for the Moon. Now that is one strange idea …. One of Gurdjieff’s biographers, Tobias Churton speculates that maybe Gurdjieff’s aim was to scare his students and force them to take the Work seriously.

The Components of Gurdjieff’s System:

The Law of Three

The Law of Three expresses the natural interplay between the three essential forces that bring everything into manifestation in our world: affirming, denying, and reconciling or positive, negative, and neutral. Gurdjieff stressed that the third essential force often goes unnoticed.

The Law of Seven

All events that are brought to completion have seven distinct phases that correspond to the notes of the musical scale. Gurdjieff believed that at specific moments one must apply an appropriate shock or things will not manifest in the material world. These specific moments correspond to the transition between mi and fa and between si and do (if I understood this part correctly. In all honesty the Law of Seven and the Table of Hydrogens, which I am not even trying to summarize here, completely escaped my grasp. I will have to read some more…)

The Ray of Creation

The Ray of Creation follows the musical scale and the numbers corresponding to each world correspond to the number of laws governing each level. The higher we move up the less laws and more freedom. According to Gurdjieff’s classification, life on Earth is ruled by 48 laws and all act of free will is doomed to failure, only few can awaken from their sleep but only through tremendous effort and work on themselves.

World 1: The Absolute -do

World 3: All Worlds (the Universe) – si

World 6: All Suns (Galaxies) – la

World 12: The Sun – sol

World 24: All Planets (Planetary) – fa

World 48 Earth (Organic) – me

World 96 Moon ( Inorganic) – re

All life on Earth is influenced by planetary forces arising from All Planets, the level immediately prior to Earth.

Gurdjieff, with the help of Thomas de Hartmann, composed music based on The Law of Seven and choreographed dance exercises for his students.

The Seven Energy Centers

Gurdjieff taught his followers that all human beings possess seven energy centers.

  1. Higher Intellectual Center: the ‘wisdom eye’, the seat of the objective reason which is the ability to apprehend and understand reality directly, to see the truth of things. This center is non-operative in the average person.
  2. Higher Emotional Center: the higher aspect of the heart, ‘true love’. Dormant in most people.
  3. Intellectual Center: the average person’s typical cognitive processes.
  4. Emotional Center: the typical person’s emotional life
  5. Moving Center: the domain of the body-movement.
  6. Instinctive Center: the realm of unconscious body functions.
  7. Sex center: the domain of our sexual drives and behaviours. 

The technique of awakening practiced by Gurdjieff’s followers is called “self-remembering” a sort of simultaneous inner and outer awareness. Central to this idea is the practice of divided attention, which means to be simultaneously aware of both ourselves and what we are considering. Gurdjieff taught his students to delay their reactions intentionally while consciously observing themselves. He believed that the right crystallization begins to occur only when we make honest efforts to observe ourselves and struggle with our unconscious habits by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by them in an autopilot way.

The major barriers to awakening according to Gurdjieff:

Internal Considering: being caught in the fear of being judged and living in constant need of approval.

External Considering: shadow side of empathy, when we give sympathy that weakens the other person instead of applying appropriate backbone.

Buffers: Defense mechanisms such as lying, repression, projection, rationalization, and sublimation.

Gurdjieff organised meetings in which he discussed his ideas and answered the questions of his students. And since the subject of his teachings and his persona are fascinating to me, I will write more about them in future posts on this blog. Now, back to Meetings with Remarkable Men and my personal observation.

Although Meetings with Remarkable Men is not a faithful account of Gurdjieff’s life but a parable of his spiritual awakening, the first chapter contains authentic autobiographical elements. In that chapter Gurdjieff talks about his childhood and his relationship with his father. This made me think about Pamela L. Travers’s childhood and her relationship with her father. And I noticed certain similarities.

As young children both Gurdjieff and Pamela L. Travers were raised in a religious way, although in very different cultural settings, and both seem to have been sensitive, extremely perceptive, and spiritually inclined children. The fairy tales and myths they heard from their respective fathers left permanent imprints on the blank slates of their imaginations.

Both their fathers were poets at heart. Gurdjieff’s father was an ashokh “the name given everywhere in Asia and the Balkan peninsula to the local bards, who composed, recited or sang poems, songs, legends, folk-tales, and all sorts of stories.” Gurdjieff accompanied his father to contests where ashokhs competed in front of a large public. This is Gurdjieff’s description of such contests:

One of the participants in the contest, chosen by lot, would begin, in singing an improvised melody, to put to his partner some question on a religious or philosophical theme, or on the meaning and origin of some well-known legend, tradition or belief, and the other would reply, also in song, and in his own improvised subjective melody.

Gurdjieff recounts that in Alexandropol and Kars, the towns where he lived with his family during his childhood, people often invited his father to evening gatherings in order to hear his stories. And on Saturday evenings his father would tell stories to Gurdjieff and his siblings, stories “either about ancient great peoples and wonderful men, or about God, nature and mysterious miracles, and he would invariably conclude with some tale from the Thousand and One Nights, of which he knew so ma y that he could indeed have told us one whole tale for each of the thousand and one nights”. These stories served for Gurdjieff as “spiritualizing factor” and made him understand the immense significance of legends and myths in one’s life as a gateway to primal spiritual truths.

Very much like Gurdjieff’s father, Travers Goff, Pamela L. Travers’s father, loved to tell his family and friends tales of ancient Ireland, stories inhabited by elves, fairies, and pixies. Pamela recalls being “nurtured on the Celtic Twilight, Yeats and all”. Her memories of her father are somewhat romanticized and embellished but, nevertheless, these memories led her to Ireland and George W. Russell and form then on, on the path of myths and fairy tales and to Gurdjieff.

It seems possible that the minds of Pamela L. Travers and Gurdjieff shared certain consonant traits which  were coincidently paired by similar traits in the characters of their fathers.

It is interesting to note that both fathers struggled to make ends meet and both Pamela L. Travers and Gurdjieff seem to have had an inner drive (conscious or not) to redeem their fathers. This too could be an interesting subject for a separate blog post.

However, there is one major difference between Gurdjieff’s father and Pamela L. Travers’s father. Gurdjieff’s father used his knowledge of fairy tales and myth to draw strength and resilience in the face of harsh realities, where Pamela L. Travers’s father used it as an escape route. Gurdjieff remembers “all the grandeur of my father’s calm and the detachment of his inner state in all his external manifestations, throughout the misfortunes that befell him…..which poured upon him as though from the horn of plenty, he continued to retain the sole of a true poet.”

While Pamela L. Travers recalls : “But I’ve come to know he was melancholy and sad and that he needed someone to understand him. His melancholy was the other side if his Irish gaiety.” Lawson reports in Mary Poppins She Wrote that Pamela L. Travers talked to her dead father and even tried to comfort him and tell him that everything is all right and that he doesn’t have to be so unhappy.

So, this is how the use of myths and fairy tales by two fathers made of one child a spiritual teacher and from the other a spiritual seeker.

Well, this is it for this blogpost. Only my musings, my mind making connections, just as Pamela L. Travers said, thinking is linking.

*All quotes in this post are from Meetings with Remarkable Men and Mary Poppins She Wrote.

 

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The Miraculous in Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Miraculous

As children, we readily believe in magic without any need for explanations. Then, as we grow older, we begin to question the world around us, and no matter how vast and mysterious this world may be, most of us fall into the trap of labeling, categorising, defining, and shrinking the infinite to our human and limited capacity of understanding. In a way, we can’t help it. The fact is that the day comes, for all of us, when we realize that wishful thinking does not solve our problems. Some of us lose the connection to the miraculous gradually, walking down the stairs of life’s small disappointments. For others, the loss is sudden and traumatic. 

Then, there are the few, who even after losing their childish understanding of magic, and despite all the surrounding madness, remain connected by some invisible thread to an inner belief; a particular combination of knowing and feeling all at once, that despite all the chaos of our outer world there still remains the possibility of encountering  the “miraculous.” Somehow, they can embrace the elusive, unpredictable and unexplainable phenomena that links us to a larger reality, to an expansive consciousness, which if we could connect to it, has the capacity to enhance our experience of life and maybe give it meaning. The question then becomes, what is this unknown reality and how can one find the miraculous in everyday life?  In which direction should one go? What path should one take? Or perhaps any road can lead to the miraculous? P.D. Ouspensky offered a beautiful definition of the miraculous:

The ‘miraculous’ is very difficult to define. But for me this word had a quite definite meaning. I had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road, unlike anything hitherto known or used by us. But where this new or forgotten road began I was unable to say. I already knew then as an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us. The ‘miraculous’ was a penetration into this unknown reality. (1)

However, beautiful as this definition may be, it remains a subjective attempt to define the indefinable. How can one define the unknown and inexplicable? Yet, if experienced, it needs to be shared with the rest of humanity.

Our ancestors realized the imperfections and the limitations of our ordinary language to convey inner insights. So, they demised a way in which to use language for the purposes of transmitting experientially acquired inner knowledge. Essentially, they found the language of the heart. They began to tell stories. They gave us myths and fairy tales.

Pamela L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, although she did not like being called her creator nor assuming that role, (she felt, very much as C. S. Lewis, that she was merely mixing the elements she was given by the one true creator from which we all emanate (2) )  walked on the road of myths and fairy tales. She lived and breathed myth. As Staffan Bergsten, who knew her personally and studied her work said, she experienced reality as a mixture of everyday realism and a form of mythical stylisation where the everyday occurrences blend with mythical allusions (3).   And this is probably why Pamela L. Travers succeeded in conjuring for us Mary Poppins, a fictional character who embodies the essence of the “miraculous,” and of its manifestation in our ordinary life. At the same time, the Mary Poppins stories illustrate our innate capacity as children to both rejoice in and accept the miraculous without the need for any logical explanations. 

Mary Poppins arrives unexpectedly into the Banks family at the exact moment when she is most needed. No one knows where she comes from although it is clear that she existed before the beginning of the adventures in the books. Her ways of being in the world defy all known natural laws: she slides up banisters, speaks with animals, dances with the Sun, glues stars with a brush on the night sky, is able to shrink her size at will and go into plasticine parks and pictures drawn with chalk, just to name a few of her magical abilities.

The strength of her magic resides precisely in the mysteriousness of these faculties. Truth is, if Mary Poppins explained, all magic would have disappeared. Once explained, the miraculous becomes mundane and mechanical. Its power to expand our consciousness consists in its mysterious nature and in its hints of infinite possibilities. Let’s hope that there is no other way, no end to expansion, no end to growth, no end to the mystery. One uncovered secret shows us the infinite vastness of what remains to be explored; it gives us breath and spaciousness.

When Walt Disney decided to make the Mary Poppins books into a movie, he entrusted the project into the hands of the Sherman Brothers (Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman) who were confronted with the contemplative, dreamlike states of the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. They saw the books as “an incredible treasure trove of delightful characters and wonderful incidents” (4) that somehow needed to be weaved into a story line, which of course from a movie making perspective makes sense, but by doing so the power and meaning of these stories were reduced to mere entertainment. Mary Poppins was scaled down to fit the American pop-culture understanding of magic: entertainment and a temporary escape from mundane realities.

The movie industry is dabbling now more than ever in the making of modern myths, exploring a mixture of science and magic, and using today’s technologies for visual feasts.  Sadly, our modern myths appear to be quite one dimensional. Maybe that is because few of us today are interested in symbols, paradoxes, and multiple layers of meaning. Who has time for contemplation? Serious matters need to be attended to, but what are these matters that we chose to label as “serious?”

Endnotes:

  1. P.D. Ouspensky. In Search of the Miraculous. Harcourt Inc., 2001, p.3
  2. Brian Sibley, P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins, a recoding of P.L. Travers in conversation with Brian Sibley.
  3. Staffan Bergsten. Mary Poppins and Myth. Almqvist & Wiksell International Stockholm – Sweden, 1978, p.32.
  4. Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell, Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It. Disney Editions, New York, 2007, First Edition, p.33