THE SCHOOL OF PHILOSOPHY
Although we were now fairly financially comfortable, this did nothing to alleviate my inner problems, my lack of self confidence and my shyness. I did have one or two friends with whom I went out, but there was no-one with whom I could share on anything other than a superficial level. Parties were torture to me and so I avoided them. I would read books purporting to overcome shyness, without success. And I had recurring periods of depression, which usually came in the autumn.
The huge range of self help books that we have now did not exist in those days, or certainly not in Brussels. So it was with great interest that I saw an advertisement in the Brussels Bulletin, an English language magazine, for the School of Philosophy. Drawing upon the teachings of all the world philosophies, it claimed that it could help you with your life’s problems.
I did not hesitate and in September 1970 I went to my first class at the School of Philosophy. Along with several others, I sat waiting expectantly. The first thing we were told was that we were all sound asleep and that we needed to wake up. I was introduced to ideas which were completely new to me, but which immediately aroused my interest. I felt I had had occasional glimpses of them in some of the books I had read. These ideas were based on the teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdieff, an esoteric spiritual teacher of Armenian Caucasian extraction, who lived in the early part of the twentieth century.
By the end of the first term, through an entirely logical process, I was led to believe in the existence of a Creator. The Gurdieff teachings were replaced by the teachings of an Indian holy man, the Shankaracharya of the North, who had left his post in order to devote himself to teaching the School.
We were taught about the Hindu concept of the Self, which is not born and never dies, but is eternal. This divine Self is in all of us. This idea was a revelation to me and I believed it implicitly. My whole view of myself began to change.
We were given exercises on self observation, watching our thoughts whilst carrying out mundane tasks. I began to notice how my thoughts were totally negative and how I constantly dug a hole for myself in the ground. I was my own worst enemy!
We were taught to sit still in the class, simply being aware of our bodies on the chair, aware of the sights and sounds around us, without thought. We were asked to practice this exercise at home, extending the time to ten minutes, and to see what effect it had on our day. We were also asked to pause between activities, even just a few seconds, so as not to carry on the energy from one activity into the next.
We were told not to accept anything we heard in the class as the truth, but to verify it from our own experience.
Another very interesting Hindu concept was that of the energies, which were called ‘tamas’, ‘rajas’ and ‘sattva’, the forces by which we were governed. In the simplest terms, ‘tamas’ could be described as inaction, ‘rajas’ as action and ‘sattva’ as the balance between the two.
‘Tamas’ could range from anything such as sleep, to sloth, inertia and torpor, whilst ‘rajas’ could range from normal activity up to rage, violence and destruction. ‘Sattva’ was a state of serenity, of calm and balance. I saw a beautiful description of it once as riding on the back of a large bird, seated between the two wings. Too much ‘tamas’ could lead to ‘rajas’, whilst an excess of ‘rajas’ would induce ‘tamas.’
It became an interesting exercise to try and observe these states within oneself.
The classes were held in a private house on the Avenue de la Couronne, a long, broad, straight avenue which led into the centre of Brussels. It was owned by the head of the School and his wife, who lived there and took the classes. Mr. Schoup, pronounced scoop!, was a well known Dutch journalist, and his wife, who came from Scotland, was also a journalist.
These classes became the highlight of my week and I would speed down the Avenue de la Couronne as though I were going on a date! At the end of the first term we were asked to volunteer for a second evening, either to help with preparing and serving coffee in the break, or preparing the lecture room and sitting in on the class to act as a secretary.
There were three forms of service we were told: service of the Absolute, service for others and service for ourselves. I was a willing volunteer and so on a second evening I was able to sit in a class and hear the teaching all over again.
I also found a confidante in Mrs Schoup, as we were able to ask for help and have an individual interview. Thus I came to see her regularly and would pour out my life story and all my troubles to her. She would sit very still, listening, occasionally making a comment. It was very much like a form of therapy, though I did not realize it.
My mother was bewildered by this new found interest of mine and somewhat suspicious. After all, it was not like a man or a religion, which she might have been able to accept. It was not something I could share with her or explain, as I knew she would not understand. This was something which touched me at a very deep level, at the level of my soul, and which I found intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I think, subconsciously, my mother saw it as a threat, as something which might take me away from her.