An Interview with Girard Haven

An interview taken from the website with Girard Haven, a longtime member of the Fellowship, and an author of several spiritual books, including Creating a Soul and The Prize is Eternity:

I noticed that the school you are a part of has a website called “Living Presence.”  Can you please explain what being present means, and why a normal person should try to be present?

Being present is the art of focusing one’s attention in and on the present moment. It is being aware of what one is doing, why one is doing it, where one is doing it, its possible effects on others and on one’s various aims, and its relation to higher forces.

Thus, it is possible to think of the past or the future, or to imagine solutions to a problem while one is being present, but only if one can maintain an intense awareness of the fact that one is doing that and the purpose for it. Without such an intense awareness of oneself in the moment, our lives pass us by as if in a dream, and it is simply better to be awake than asleep.

Other spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and Sufism, speak of the importance of being present. What distinguishes the Fourth Way from these other traditions?

Rightly understood, all spiritual traditions stress the importance of presence as the gateway between the human and the divine. Where they differ is in the methods and techniques used to develop presence. The Fourth Way, and in particular the Fellowship of Friends, incorporates methods particularly suited to the times in which we live.

With regards to this, many people find easier to be present while they are doing some physical activity, and more difficult while they are at the computer (that is the biggest part of their day). Do you have any special suggestion for promoting presence while we are at the PC?

The struggle to be present is fundamentally the same at all times and in all places, and we must grateful for, and make use of, the various opportunities for work which are provided by different circumstances. The particular opportunity which is provided by using a computer is to practice divided attention, and one of the most effective ways to do this is to introduce voluntary suffering.

This involves making yourself a little uncomfortable, for instance, sitting a little too close to the computer or a little farther away from it, or in a slightly uncomfortable position, or dressing a little too warmly, or having your belt a little too tight. The idea is to create just enough of an irritant to be give oneself something to be aware of in addition to the computer, but not so much as to cause harm or even to interfere with one’s work.

One can also use impressions, such as actually listening to music (music one does not like can introduce a little voluntary suffering as well) or making the environment more beautiful. And a pop-up program can be used to periodically interrupt identification and bring one back to the present. In short, there is no easy answer. As Rodney Collin wrote, “Work is work, and from a larger point of view it is merely a question of who will try to do what is required. The delicacy of the excuse is not taken into account.”

I heard that the stroke that you had in 2000, when you had been in the school for several decades, was an important event in your spiritual evolution. Can you say how you “profited” (as Gurdjieff called it) from this situation?

Before the stroke, I would awake in the morning, do what needed to be done during the day, and then go the bed. After the stroke, except for some changes in the details of what needed to be done, it was exactly the same. In other words, my body suffered a stroke, but I was unaffected. Whether I profited from the stroke or not, I do not know, as I have no idea what my life would be like if the stroke had not happened.

The left half of your body paralyzed, is that right?

Actually, it is the right half of my body, and it is only partially paralyzed. To go back to your previous question, other people seemed to be more shocked by the stroke than I was. To me, it was merely another event in my life, and since the events of my life are the material I work with for my evolution, the stroke merely provided something else to work with.

At the same time, I am certain that everything is arranged by higher forces, and they provide the necessary material for me to work with. If it had not been a stroke, it would have been something else. Whether that would have been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ would depend on my attitude toward it and the way in which I used it, just as was the case with the stroke.

In the school you are part of they speak of the “transformation of suffering.”  Can you explain what this is?

Suffering results from a wish that things could be other than they are, which is, of course, impossible — what is, is. This is true even of most instinctive discomfort or pain: one does not object to the “suffering” of a long, hot drive if one really wants to get where one is going and there is no choice — and one does not have imagination about air conditioning!

Thus, the first level of gaining freedom from (in contrast to cessation of) suffering is acceptance of what is, that is, the first step is presence. But true transformation is more than neutral acceptance; it is actually wishing things to be exactly as they are. This requires, first, enough will with respect to one’s emotions to disallow any other emotions, and second, a sufficient verification and understanding of higher forces to have a complete and unquestioning trust that they have arranged everything for the greatest good. In this way, what we call suffering can be transformed into the state of divine love.

Why do you think that a school often attracts strong, even vehement, opposition?

The aim of a real school is not to help one become a better person (although that does happen); it is to help one to become an altogether different being. Most people are actually afraid of becoming truly different, and what people fear, they usually oppose.

In Italy, Gurdjieff is seen as an extraordinary figure – an “awakened” being. This is not the case for Ouspensky, who is even seen as having abandoned his teacher. You seem to think highly of Ouspensky, and consider him awakened as well. Can you please speak about Ouspensky to the Italian readers to help them understand why, according to you, he is an awakened (conscious) being?

The real question is not whether someone was awakened himself; it is whether he (or his teachings) can help me to awaken. I have verified through my own experience that my Teacher is such a man, and he, in turn, has said that Ouspensky was such a man. What I have verified is that, under the guidance of my Teacher, Ouspensky’s works have been extremely valuable. Why, then, should I doubt what my Teacher has said about him?

Your school often uses art and the contemplation of beauty. In which way can this be a spiritual activity?  Why does exposing oneself to beautiful impressions help in "creating a soul," as you have titled one of your books?

Without question, the state of presence is a beautiful experience. Consequently, appreciation of beauty allows us to experience an aspect of presence through experiences which are normally available to us. Moreover, in our age we have an unprecedented ability to choose the impressions with which we surround ourselves.

Magnificent reproductions of the world’s greatest art and natural beauty can be hung on our walls, or be found in books or on-line. Our food and clothing are no longer limited to what can be produced within a few miles of our homes, and we can hear performances by the world’s best musicians whenever we wish.

By taking advantage of these possibilities, students in a twenty-first century school of awakening can manipulate their experience in ways that were not possible for the schools of the past, and we are actively exploring those possibilities.

It is said that your school recently abandoned the system, as Ouspensky did in the last months of his life. Is that true? What is the new form of your school? And by the way, did Ouspensky really abandon the system, according to you?

One way that I think about “abandoning the system” is that the system — or any teaching, for that matter — is like a scaffolding used in the construction of a building; once the building is complete, the scaffolding has served its purpose and is abandoned. Another analogy is provided by the forms which are used for pouring concrete and then removed once the concrete hardens.

And one can also view it in terms of the foundations for a building, which are then hidden by the subsequent construction. In any case, Ouspensky’s statement does not imply that he had any doubts about the system, but only that he no longer needed it.

Similarly, for a little over the first thirty years of its existence the school of which I am a part focused on those aspects of Ouspensky’s system which our teacher found most practical. However, in the last decade, we have moved beyond that. The easiest way to explain the change is in terms of Ouspensky’s analogy of the steward and the master in a large household.

At first, the house is in disarray and the steward must set the servants into their proper places doing their own jobs, so that the house will be ready for the master when he comes. The system, at least the part we used, is about the development of the steward and the ordering of the house.

Now that those tasks have been sufficiently taken care of, the school has turned its attention to the question of the steward’s responsibilities when the master is in residence. In other words, everyone is expected to know the ‘system’ — that is, what their role in the right work of the household is — and now they simply need to concentrate on doing their job.

Dropping the analogy, the focus now is no longer on the question of promoting right work internally and engaging presence, but on that of supporting and prolonging presence. Study of the system can be abandoned — or left behind — in favor of training in its practical use.