The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff

The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff

Seymour B. Ginsburg
Wheaton: Quest, 2010. xi + 307 pp., paper, $18.95.

Seymour B. Ginsburg has written a useful book that might have been better titled “Notes on the Path to the Higher Self.” In fact there are no masters here, and they do not speak. What we have is the story of Ginsburg’s progression toward the higher Self. Beginning as a businessman (he was the first president of the Toys “R” Us chain), Ginsburg found himself increasingly dissatisfied with the “ruthless competition in the business world.” Finally, the shock caused by the death of his young wife in 1971 led him to question the foundations of life.

Ginsburg’s search initially led him to the writings of H. P. Blavatsky (he has long been involved in the Theosophical Society in southern Florida). In 1978 he journeyed to India, where he met Sri Madhava Ashish, a Scotsman (born Alexander Phipps; 1920–97) who had become a Hindu monk and was living in a small ashram in the foothills of northern India. Ashish is best known to Theosophists as coauthor (with his teacher, Sri Krishna Prem) of Man, the Measure of All Things, a commentary on the Stanzas of Dzyan in The Secret Doctrine. Writing on his own, Ashish also produced a sequel, Man, Son of Man. Ashish’s letters to Ginsburg over the following nineteen years form the core of The Masters Speak.

Around the time of his meeting with Ashish, Ginsburg was drawn to the ideas of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff (1866?–1949). Gurdjieff was born of a Greek father and an Armenian mother and brought up in Kars, an area on the Turkish-Armenian border then recently incorporated into Russia and inhabited by a mixture of peoples: Greeks, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, each with its traditions, folklore, and faiths. As a young man, he traveled in search of wisdom to the Middle East and especially to Central Asia. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, he went to Moscow and St. Petersburg and started speaking about what he had learned.

Much of Central Asian Sufism—a likely source of Gurdjieff’s teachings— is expressed through sacred dance. Gurdjieff disassociated the dances from their Islamic context, but not from their aim of self-awareness and self-observation. In regard to this approach, Ashish advised Ginsburg: “Your loyalty must be to the goal itself and nothing more or less. The ancient wisdom is nothing if it is not present here, present as a living reality and not merely as a series of texts and mouthed words. It is nothing to you unless you find it in yourself. . . . Dances, postures, movements, and other exercises may provide opportunities for identifying particular states of mind that will help you on your path, but you will not travel further by seeking out new exercises. All that you need is already in you.”

The Gurdjieff “Work” (as it is called) sets out some techniques for moving toward the higher Self. Gurdjieff was once asked what it would be like to have higher consciousness, and he replied, “Everything more vivid.” Since in Gurdjieff’s view the higher Self is a “more vivid” version of the lower self, it is with the components of the latter that the higher must be reached: the body, the chakras, the emotions, intuition, will, and the mind. The physical body is the most concrete of these components, and thus it is used as a starting-point for much of the Gurdjieff work, as the mind is often the starting- point for many Buddhist schools. Despite these differences, there is wide agreement that, as Ashish advised, “The path is inward, inward into the heart of your own being, the center of your own being. . . . When in doubt, go to the source—namely meditate, cultivate awareness, hold back from unnecessary activities, don’t let the mind run on recriminations and self-justifications. . . . Seek for the thing where it is—within.”

The passage to the higher Self is usually gradual. For some, there can be a dramatic breakthough, such as a powerful dream or an experience of wholeness and unity. But for most people, segments of the old Self will fall away more gradually: the emotions are refined; intuition becomes clearer, the will more focused, the mind a better servant. As Ashish writes, “When the condition of the Higher Self is reached, the individuality does not vanish; personality is illuminated in every aspect and can play its true role, which is to bend and adapt to every changing need.”

The Gurdjieff groups with which Ginsburg was associated discouraged members from following more than one path at a time as well as from speaking about their experiences, doubts, or sentiments with those outside the group. Such prohibitions can lead to a sectarian approach, and in such a context one can easily become locked into a system. In response to these issues Ashish wrote to Ginsburg: “You’ve found the path. Travel it. Don’t let yourself be pulled away from it. Once you can get your aim clear, problems about how to live, what to do, how to reconcile the outer life with the inner, etc. begin to get straightened out. This is why I try to get people to clarify their inner aim first. . . . Our work is so difficult that we need every bit of help we can get. It really does not matter where or from whom we take help, provided that we have enough intelligence and a clear enough view of our goal to be able to take help that is consonant with our aim and to reject those components that are contrary to it.”

It is always useful to follow the story of the spiritual development of others. This is no substitute for one’s own steps on the path, but it is always helpful to know that one is not alone.

René Wadlow

The reviewer is editor of the online journal Transnational Perspectives, which focuses on world politics and social policy.