Country Retreat, Pt. 2: First Visit

"School" Country Retreat

Country Retreat: Main Property

This excerpt is the second in a series of Country Retreat posts, penned by blog-contributor Charlie Chaplin:

The Friday of my first Country Retreat, I headed over to the Billerica space after work.  Several of us were meeting there to carpool and caravan.  Parking was limited at the New Hampshire space, and those of us who had never been there were to follow the veterans to avoid getting lost (entering the  address into a GPS device was naturally forbidden).  I was one of the drivers, because I was going to return home later that night.  The following morning my wife and I were traveling to New York, where she was to attend a wedding.  In fact, I had expected to exclude myself from the retreat entirely, but after discussing it with Michael I agreed to be there for that first evening until 10 PM (and of course pay the same $65 fee for the retreat as everyone else – our monthly tuition covered nothing outside of Tuesday/Thursday classes).

When I got to Billerica, Michael said we were waiting for two last-minute invitees.  One was my friend Jake (not his real name), who had joined the school a couple of years earlier after I brought him to a lecture.  He and the other late invitee had been in school for a much
shorter time than any of the rest of us.  I felt a slight prick to my sense of status, and some jealousy that Jake was going to have the full weekend experience without me.  I went from wishing I’d been able
to fully extract myself to wishing I were staying the entire weekend. At the same time, I was excited to share this inaugural experience with him and felt it added to our friendship.

To explain the surprise late additions, Michael mentioned that two of the initial invitees, both fathers with wives outside of school, were not coming.  Of one in particular Michael said, “his wife won’t let him come,” with obvious contempt.  Apparently this fellow’s wife was keen neither to allow him to take their three young children out of state for an entire weekend to some unknown place with unknown people, nor to accept being left to care for them on her own during his absence at this mysterious event.  In retrospect this seems entirely
reasonable, though at the time, I experienced a flicker of camaraderie with Michael as he implicitly invited me to join in questioning my fellow student’s manhood.

Robert had invited students with young children to bring them along, up to age ten.  He assured us (and insisted we assure our spouses) that during the retreat the children would be looked after by experienced caretakers.  Their time would planned and prepared to keep them entertained and well fed.  He described it as hearkening back to a time when communities were more tight-knit and people looked out for each other.  Our little group would be like a temporary village, and the children would benefit from this experience, so rare in contemporary American society.  I bought into this romantically nostalgic notion, only regretting that my own wife would not be able to experience it with me.  As I had many times before, particularly during Christmas parties and the work leading up to them, I envied those couples who were in school together, able to share these experiences and, most important, not lie in order to cover for them.

Jake rode shotgun for that first drive up, though I remember nothing of our conversation en route.  The trip took roughly an hour, much of it through winding back roads and small towns.  When we pulled into

Country Retreat_driveway

Country Retreat: Driveway to Property

the long, unpaved driveway and got our first glimpse of the location under the twilit sky, a definite energy filled the air.  The property
was beautiful and serene, typical New England countryside.  Twenty or
thirty people were there already.  We unloaded my car and helped
others unload theirs, then had some time to look around.

We had parked at the main house, mostly surrounded by woods with a clearing on one side, where a path led to the smaller second house.

School Country Retreat

Country Retreat: Secondary House

Both were nicely renovated and decorated, the results, we were told, of past aims by older students.  Each house had a kitchen, a living room and several bedrooms.  Most of these were dormitory style, designated for men or women, with two or three twin beds, one for each student who would sleep there.  The main house had more rooms and a much larger living room, where all of our full group meetings took place.  There were private rooms for married couples with children and rooms set aside for children with only one parent present.

For dinner, pasta was set up buffet style on tables in the kitchen. This was prepared mostly by the older students who had taken off work to arrive early.  We all gathered and ate together.  After the children were put to bed, we had a meeting with the entire group to talk about plans for the weekend, discuss the assigned commentary and have the opportunity to ask for help.  The whole evening seemed enlivened by a spark of vitality and sense of community, everyone happy to see each other and dine together, and our meeting had a sense of lightness and good humor that often seemed lacking in our regular classes – finer vibrations, as we would say.  As a newcomer to the retreat, I felt welcomed by the older group and sensed their excitement at having us there with them.

When I left, between 10 and 10:30 PM, the meeting was still going, and I felt awkward about walking out of the assembled group.  I felt some disappointment, like I was missing out, leaving the party early, but I
was also happy to be getting home, and enjoyed the drive through the dark back roads, listening to music on the way.

The next Tuesday evening before class in Billerica, a few of us gathered in the small office room to receive copies of the newly assigned commentary.  A couple of other students told me the aims they had stated over the weekend, and I stated one for myself.  These aims were multi-part, with two or three specific internal efforts, incorporating something in the spirit of the commentary.  For example, if the commentary focused on worry, one part of an aim could be to observe and separate from worry.  The other parts might be to
externally consider one’s spouse, and to make intensified efforts at self-remembering or relaxation.  In this way I suppose the aims resembled daily affirmations.  Since we had never stated multi-part internal aims like this, they felt substantial, and I was hopeful that remembering my aim every day would yield positive results.  The others also seemed to feel this hope, and appeared to enjoy heightened states of mind after the weekend they had just experienced.  I felt I had missed something really fine and worthwhile.  Michael told me he wished I had been there for the whole event, and that he was sure I would have just loved it.  I expressed regret and said that I probably could have stayed if I had really pushed it.

I was determined to get the full experience at the next opportunity.

Country Retreat, Pt. 3 – School Style Rejuvenation

The Five-Week AIM

The Five-Week AIM

“Your AIM is your GOD.”

aim/ām/

Verb: To point or direct (a weapon or camera) at a target

Noun: A purpose or intention; a desired outcome.

Synonyms:

verb.  direct – intend – point – level

noun.  purpose – goal – object – end – intention – target

When a lost soul finds “school”, the institution offers AIM almost immediately. Much like the idea of intention, AIM is a counter  to the human tendency to give up on the things we wish for, set out to do, accomplish, have. “School” teaches that when we set out to “do”, we hit intervals where the progress slows down, or even reverses. Most people tend to give up during these intervals.

Repeatedly “school” will remind you that as you are (you and anyone without “school”) you are aimless. Without awareness of Aim, a little known law, man is simply a jumble of reactions with little true will toward a clear end.  It’s difficult to have true aim even with this knowledge, but impossible without “school.” Most “students” can verify their aimlessness readily. Most people can cite when they’ve given up on things in frustration — changed their mind once starting a project, or lost interest.

From the beginning of your tenure, you will state “five-week” AIMS. At first your aims will be driven by your wishes and desires, and you will hear aims from fellow students that will range from writing books, to getting more exercise, to cleaning out the basement, to learning how to cook.  Since you will be surrounded by support and accountability, you will likely experience a significant increase in accomplishments, new experiences, a new level of persistence.  Your life will appear to open up and you may be amazed at how it is changing.  Therein lies the hook; you become more willing to listen to and heed “instruction.” Soon you will come to believe that without school you can not “do”. “School’s” persistent reminders that “As s/he is, woman/man cannot do” shores up this fear and thus the umbilical chord is implanted and fed.

Fast forward two years, school’s  “higher AIM” will start siphoning away your aims, though “school” won’t divulge its AIM.  “School” insinuates that it shares more of its super-secret knowledge with you when you are “ready” ( i.e. sufficiently indoctrinated). Despite being kept in the dark about so many things, your own Aims will begin to be geared towards “instruction” you’ve gotten in school, or to the increasing school obligations.   The longer you are “in”, the more the instruction and obligations insert between you and your internal wisdom and deeply-held wishes, which you will soon come to doubt. “School” will begin to dictate your emotional reactions, your thoughts, your time, and your daily activities by its allegedly higher doctrine. This doctrine will fall under the title of “school’s” AIM. And at this point, it has driven this idea into your psyche:

“Your AIM is your GOD.” Translation – “SCHOOL is your GOD”.

“AIM” (i.e. “School”) as God will soon wedge in between you and what is called your “little life” by certain illustrious teachers. When “AIM” is God, it justifies plowing over anyone or thing that will keep you from “making your AIM”. If a spouse wonders why you are never home, or a friend asks why you are so busy, if your child is starting to act out, they must either be appeased by your fine vibrations, or shoved out of the way for the more worthy efforts of the “3rd line of work” (i.e. “work for school”): throwing parties, inviting lost souls to “presentations” and recruiting new students to join the masses, keeping phone lists with encoded names and numbers, “setting meetings”, attending the meetings, keeping notes to be used for the intended student’s dossier, phoning in your latest successful or failed recruiting efforts to your “aim partners” etc. Your efforts feed the higher calling of shoring up Sharon Gan’s retirement and Park Plaza condo fund. A fund, by the way, that no one in school would ever divulge to you. You will be told, however, that your efforts serve to further your personal evolution.

In having been an unknowing cog in the Sharon Gans income-generating machine, I have learned this: If AIMS are not internally driven, if your AIMS are dictated to you, rather than generated from a deep place within you, then your aims are not your own and, therefore, not “YOUR GOD”. They therefore will only suck you dry, rather than serve your betterment. This is especially true when the “aim behind the aim” is in reality simply a sinister and cynical soul-sucking machine, constructed to benefit a woman you might meet once or twice.

It is likely, though, that you won’t meet this “highly-evolved teacher”. Because my limited Sharon Gans encounters revealed a crazy-looking, nonsense-spouting, mean queen. She was escorted into the room with such over the top pomp and circumstance, that the reverence surrounding her was worthy of that which bowed to King Tut. Of course “school” offered no explanation for its theatrics.  It inferred her royalty through presentation. Her unannounced surprise entrance with Robert, doting and glowing, escorting her and her flowing gowns, bright blue eyelids and heavy black eyelashes on his arm to her throne was meant to be a “shock” and awakening of sorts; the students tasked to serve refreshments tumbled over themselves to cater to her every need. Robert then turned to the “class” and grandly announced, “Ask your questions” without introducing this strange creature.

The first time I was privy to this dog and pony show, Sharon’s first act of higher teaching was to accuse a “student” of lying and throw her out. This woman was saying something about yoga and angels and Sharon ripped her to shreds verbally, followed by “Why don’t you just leave.” I was one of the “youngest students” at the time and I briefly  woke up and considered walking out the door with the damned. But, instead I sat in cowed silence, uncomfortable and increasingly disgruntled, tolerating the rest of that night’s “class”.

I did notice that, at a certain point, the bi-annual Boston-area Sharon circus no longer came to town, so several of the classmates who came after me, knew nothing of this queen’s existence. Whether you know of her or not, though, the longer you are “in” school, the more your “little life” is treated as an insignificant sidebar to her, “school” and its secret higher AIM, as described above. And if you are “in” you may never learn the truth about the “highly-evolved royalty” that your life has now been sublimated into serving, with the idea of AIM as GOD leading the way.

Your God is your temple within. What your life serves should come from that temple, fueled by clarity and love. Your job is to stop and listen to the still, small voice whispering to you from that inner sanctuary. S/he will and should dictate your true aims and purpose. And you certainly won’t access this temple or hear the still, small voice when scrambling around to meet those unspoken school aims fueled by fear and secrecy.

Country Retreat: The Invitation

Country Retreat

The following post is the first installment in a four-part series on a “school” phenomenon called “Country Retreat”. The writer is generously contributing his story at my request. (Thank you!)

I was first invited to participate in CR, or Country Retreat (though some mistook the abbreviation for Commentary Reading, for reasons that will soon become clear), in January or February of 2009.

By this time, class had moved from Belmont to Billerica, and was increasingly running well beyond the normal 9:30 PM end time.  My wife was typically in bed before I got home on class nights.  The next morning she would sometimes ask when I had arrived – not in a suspicious or accusatory way, simply out of curiosity.  Nonetheless, I was feeling increasingly anxious about it.  Every word I uttered as cover for school activities was feeling more and more like a lie.  I had recently put in many late nights for choir and band in the months leading up the Christmas party, and often had random appointments for third line (recruiting), which I typically explained as “meeting
an old friend from work for coffee”.  This didn’t make sense to me, so I thought it must seem strange to my wife.  I had good friends known to her whom I hadn’t seen in months, so why was I meeting with random ex-coworkers she’d never heard of?  Still, it seemed like the most
plausible explanation for these random appointments.  One time I had to meet with my aim partner, and in trying to tell my wife (without telling her, of course) who this person was, I could feel my face flush red.  I still see it as a minor miracle that she never expressed any suspicion.

One night at the beginning of class, several of us were taken aside for a private conversation where Robert proposed that we join some of the older students for a weekend in the countryside.

“It’s a chance to work together in a less formal setting and build your essence friendships in a new way,” he said, his voice just above a whisper because we were having a private meeting, but otherwise beaming with the magnanimity of his offer.  We hesitated and glanced around at each other.  Finally, Deanna (not her real name) asked, “Is this mandatory?  I mean, we’re invited, but do we have to go?”

I was relieved to hear her give voice to her skepticism, thanking her in my mind.  I mentally boosted her signal and perhaps even mumbled my own reservations.  Robert’s face fell, brow knotted.  “Well of course, it is an invitation.  I thought you would all be excited about this
opportunity, but if you don’t want to do it, we don’t have to.”

Deanna said, “You could still do it without me.  I’m just not sure I can add anything right now.”  At this point, beneath the silence one could hear that a few others would surely decline if it were possible to do so without suffering disapproval.  Deanna’s spoken resistance emboldened me, though I can’t remember if I expressed my reluctance or someone else did theirs.

Robert shook his head sadly and shrugged his shoulders.  “Ok, we don’t have to do it.  I thought you would be excited about it…”  He walked away, leaving us to talk amongst ourselves.

We stood in a circle and looked at each other.  Daria (also not her real name) said the retreat sounded exciting to her.  It reminded her of the stories we had read about Ouspensky’s adventures with Gurdjieff’s group, how they experimented together for periods of time at a house in the country.  Those stories painted a picture of sincere seekers making real progress in their work on themselves.  Maybe this was just what our group needed – expanded time in a more relaxed
space, closer interaction with the older students, and the promise of a clear next level.  Perhaps this could breathe new life into our collective and individual work.  Some others agreed, and I began to
feel the potential value and importance of this event.  Soon we were all, Deanna and myself included, talking about how we could make it work, it would be a good opportunity, it would be a good stretch, and so on.  I’m not sure about everyone else, but by the time Robert returned I had fully bought in.

I can’t remember if it was Robert or Michael who told us what we would need to bring: a couple of changes of clothes that could get dirty, work gloves, and a set of nice clothes.  The retreat would be in New Hampshire, about an hour away, at a property owned by the school.  We would arrive in the evening on Friday and leave on Sunday.  Some older students would take Friday off work and go up early, but since this was our first retreat we wouldn’t have to this time (though a couple of the women ultimately did).  The weekend would give us the opportunity to use some of the school ideas in practical ways by working around the property and on creative projects, as well as provide a new kind of setting for meetings and discussions, a place to grow our being and our essence friendships.

Not much detail was given at that time.  That initial discussion was just to get our buy in and come up with potential dates so they could plan the event.  In the weeks that followed, we were involved in some of the planning, but they generally wanted as much as possible to be a surprise.  Eventually we learned that the nice clothes were for Saturday dinner, where the school’s culinary all-stars would be responsible for the menu, fine food and wine.  The only other key thing we learned about in advance was the commentary assignment.

We were each given a two or three page photocopy of an entry from Maurice Nicoll’s commentaries on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s teachings, which we were to read at least once per day leading up to the retreat. We were paired up into aim partnerships, so we could keep each other honest about reading the commentary as well as state aims that we would call into each other periodically.  Aim partners exchanged voice mail numbers.  By that time we all had private voice mail lines exclusively for school purposes.  When writing down each others’ numbers, we would encode them in some way, such as reversing the last two digits.  I would never add my aim partner’s number as a contact on my phone, even though it was going to be in my ‘dialed’ numbers list at least once per day unless I purged it (which just seemed too much like paranoid behavior).

Now I was paired up with my CR Aim Partner (in addition to my two LifeAim Partners), with a daily Commentary Aim (in addition to my five week Life Aim, my Self-Observation Aim, and our Third Line Aim), with an assigned commentary to read (in addition to other reading assignments).  Almost immediately the excitement of this new opportunity was tempered by the anxiety of having one more obligation, and the dread of having to come up with a decent cover story for a whole weekend away.  Within a week the excitement was all but overwhelmed.

Part 2: First Visit

The January Exodus Continued …

Another ex-student who left in January, 2012, wrote the following post describing her experience and decision to end her “school” tenure. She departed independent of the  mass exodus. Her story was posted on esoteric freedom, so it disappeared when the blog was illegally removed:

Several months ago, I was asked to help lead a Bible study program at my church. It’s on Tuesday nights. When I was asked to do it, I felt this amazing surge of relief. I at last had a reason, other than money, to walk away from school. And I do have the academic credentials to do it, even though I felt those were diminished by our teachers. I did four years of continuing education in Hebrew and Christian scripture, church history and theology through the Sewanee School of Theology, associated with a university in the south. I’d read the Gnostic Gospels long before Robert assigned it to me and told me not to be “literal.” I am not literal in my view of any of the Bible.

I said yes to leading Bible study, but that I couldn’t do it until the beginning of the year. I felt committed to the Christmas party. Then I started wobbling. Maybe I would tell the church I couldn’t do it after all. But a meeting with my financial planner in early January, and the knowledge that I was not going to be able to come up with the next month’s tuition when it was due, sealed the deal.

I walked out of school the night of January 5 totally disgusted with ‘help’ that Robert gave a couple of people. I got home from work on Friday and had a message to call Carol right away. She wanted to know if I had seen a sheet of paper that was being passed around among some students and she made some remark about the “no fraternization policy.” I said I hadn’t seen it and she hung up.

Then I sat down at my computer and started googling “OSG esoteric.”

The esoteric freedom web site came up immediately. And soon I was looking at Robert’s face and reading that he’d been married to Jeannine once and more recently (perhaps still) to someone else associated with school. And he wasn’t alone in this “creatively insincere” interpretation of “no fraternization.”

I was curious about the sheet of paper that had been passed among some of you and toyed with the idea of coming to class one last time on Tuesday, Jan. 10 to see what it might have been about. But what I read Friday night and continued to read over the weekend made me realize I couldn’t sit in the room with Robert ever again.

I spent that entire weekend almost unable to tear myself away from esoteric freedom and the “Robert Klein Pages.” I was mesmerized and horrified.

I was hoping that someone of you would be able to find me since my first name is not usual. And somehow, someone did and (student x) called me. I was thrilled!

Tonight I’m missing Bible study so I can listen to the State of the Union and maybe see the Northern Lights. It was nice to know I could call my co-leader and tell her I wouldn’t be there without fear of consequences.

I’m sure those students who remain in the old mill building have been told we were all asked to leave for some transgression or other. I hope they can see through the charade.