A Conversation with William Patrick Patterson
The Monthly Aspectarian: How did you discover the Fourth Way? And will you briefly tell us the story of going through it.
William Patrick Patterson: At a very early age, I wondered what life was about. I couldn’t formulate it so precisely, but it was just a question for me: what was going on? I was looking for meaning … what are we doing here? I carried that sort of latent question and when I went to college, it took me into philosophy and psychology.
I was quite fascinated with these two branches of study, especially psychology, until the professor said, “All things being equal, this will happen.” I raised my hand and asked, “Well, when are all things equal?” He smiled and said, “Never.” So I [gave up on] psychology and philosophy. Every philosopher has the answer and one legitimately contradicts the other.Then I worked on Madison Avenue in New York, in advertising, and became disabused of that as well. One day I went into a bookstore and there must have been fifty thousand titles in there.
I had a strange experience. Every book I looked at, I knew what was in it — either by its title or by the way it felt to me visually. The manager came up and said, “What are you looking for?” And I said, “For a book I haven’t read before.” He looked at me as if I were crazy, because here’s fifty thousand titles, and I was only in my twenties. He said, “Oh. You want a seminal book.” I would have never used that word. I couldn’t understand what I was looking for, but that was what it was … something seminal, something from which everything else derives.
TMA: Close to the essence.
WPP: Right. So he pulled from beneath the counter Meetings with Remarkable Men by Gurdjieff, which had just come out. I went home and read it and felt that the author was trying to communicate — but at the same time was trying to hide information. That was the strangest experience I’d ever had in reading a book.
TMA: “Here’s all this information. Now you figure it out.”
WPP: Yes, right. So I went right back to the bookstore after work on Monday evening and I look in the window and the store is completely empty. A chill went up my spine. Was this real? Had I really bought this book? Had this bookstore opened just for me and then closed? Of course it was a coincidence, but at the same time, it really catapulted me into an expansive level of awareness. I wouldn’t have used those words at that time, but recognizing what the features are of it, I think that’s what happened.
So then I began looking for the Gurdjieff Work. At that time in the early ’60s, the new age hadn’t started, no one was talking about anything.
TMA: There was a Gurdjieff school in New York, yes?
WPP: Oh yes, but the Gurdjieff work usually does not advertise. There is a tenet in the book In Search of the Miraculoush by Ouspensky that says, “The first obstacle is to find the Work.” The Gurdjieff people took that literally and do not advertise or speak of it. At parties, when I would meet people that I thought were interesting, I would ask them about it but I never found anyone who could answer my questions. Then I read Search as you did and I was just overwhelmed. I realized these ideas came from a much higher level than anything I had read in philosophy or psychology. The ideas were simply beyond everything.
TMA: Much older.
WPP: Very much older, and in terms of scale, on a much higher level. Shortly after that, I ran a magazine and went bankrupt with it. It put me in a difficult place. Through a number of happenstances, I heard about Lord John Pentland, the man Mr. Gurdjieff had appointed to lead the Work in America. I made contact with him and it worked.
I spent twelve years with Lord Pentland. During that time, about three or four years into the Work, I had a dream in which I went to his apartment (I mentioned this in Eating the “I”) and he handed me an invitation. It was very large and white, like a wedding invitation. Lord Pentland said, “It’s an original invitation.” I opened it up. The name on it was Charles Fort. I had never heard of Charles Fort before. I was given to understand that I would be leaving the Work, and this was where I would be going. I was in tears … I didn’t want to leave the Work at all. I had no intention of doing so. He repeated, “It’s an original invitation.” In other words, I had to take it. I had to do this. When I woke up, I kept repeating the name Charles Fort to myself so I wouldn’t forget it. It was like being down thirty feet in a pool of water and as you’re coming up, the bubbles are coming out of your mouth. In this case, I was saying to myself over and over again, Charles Fort, Charles Fort. I got up to the surface, so to speak, and wondered who he was. Then I forgot about the dream.
Two or three weeks later I was in a bookstore and a book fell off the shelf … it was The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort. My stomach just turned over. What was this? What was I getting myself into? I read the book. It’s about all the factual appearances that according to science do not make any sense … so science dismisses them, doesn’t look into them, but they are recorded.
WPP: Yes, so he called it The Book of the Damned. He’s written a number of books about factual instances in life that just don’t add up and science doesn’t have a very good explanation for.
TMA: Such as the Sphinx being much older than the mainstream Egyptologists say?
WPP: Yes, or in the movie Magnolia, the frogs falling out of the sky. That was one thing I remembered from that book.
At the end of the 1970s, I lost my job and had always wanted to come here to California. Once again, before I left, I’m in a bookstore and once again, from the shelves this book falls into my hands — someone must have bumped the bookshelves from the other side or something — it was The Crest Jewel of Discrimination by Sankara, which is the Advaita Vedanta teaching of non-dualism.
I had always been interested in Alan Watts, [the Zen philosopher]. He had a houseboat in Sausalito. When I got out here to California, I found a notice in the newspaper that this rare-born mystic, Sunyata, was to speak aboard the Watts houseboat. I wondered, “What is a rare-born mystic?” I knew what sunyata was because I had been briefly interested in Tibetan Buddhism and had met Chogyam Trungpa when he first came over to the States. (I studied with Trungpa for a brief amount of time.) The word sunyata means full, solid emptiness; the void beyond the psychological void. But I didn’t know what a rare-born mystic was and it interested me, so I went to see him. Sunyata was a very unusual person. One couldn’t tell whether he was a man or woman, he dressed in a turban and spoke with a lisp. And he seemed to repeat himself endlessly. But at a certain point he looked up at me and said, “The witness is a very high state, but it’s only a state.” It really totally shocked me. When I came home, my wife said, “Where were you?” I said, “Well, I went to see this man.” And she said, “You ought to go back.” I asked why, and she said, “Well, you’re just glowing.”
I continued in the Work and also going to Sunyata’s meetings. It came to a point where he changed his meeting to the meeting night of the Work, and I had to make a decision. I realized the decision was already made for me. Although I was still strongly connected with Lord Pentland and the Work, my heart’s energy had gone to this man. I flew to New York and told Lord Pentland what I was going to do. He said, “People always come into the work by the front door and leave by the back. You should leave by the same door you entered.” I thought that was very important. He had put all these years of work into me and was sorry to see me go.
I don’t think Sunyata had graduated from high school; he was a Dane but since 1930 had lived most of the time in the Himalayan hill town of Almora, India at the invitation of the Hindu poet, Tagore. He lived there until 1978, when students of Alan Watts brought Sunyata, [a sage of Advaita Vedanta], to America to live. He would always speak about “mere knowledge.” I remember once trying to explain some Work ideas to him and it seemed just ridiculous … they seemed so ephemeral in terms of his being.
Two years before his death, Sunyata moved in with me and my family. Because of what had done in the Work itself with Gurdjieff, I was able to take advantage of what Sunyata was presenting that other people who didn’t have my training seemingly could not. That is, I had already established myself in the body in terms of sensation. I had already actualized that, and I understood making discriminations with the three centers that Gurdjieff speaks about, the mental, the emotional and the instinctive. It was like the Work had brought me up many rungs on the ladder.
TMA: You were prepared.
WPP: I was very prepared for this. People would say, “What is the difference between Advaita Vedanta and the Work?” My reply to them was, “The basic teaching of the Work is self-remembering. What is the self? If you can answer that question, you will understand Advaita. There isn’t really a differentiation between the Fourth Way teaching and Advaita, there only seems to be.
Sunyata lived with us for two years before his death. He had read a book Neither This Nor That by M, by Jean Klein, a European Advaita master, and he brought it to me and said, “Here, you’ll really like this. I never knew anyone who could put it into words.” I read the book, and I was once again enthralled. I said to Sunyata, “We’ll never meet him; he’s over in France.” That was May, and in June, he turned up in Berkeley. [laughs] These things seem to have a magical correspondence sometimes. So Sunya introduced me to Jean and I became very interested in his approach. The teachings were the same, but the approach was somewhat different. Jean was a medical doctor, he spoke five languages, was well traveled. I studied with Jean until he died two or three years ago.
Lord Pentland had said to me when I was in the Work three or four months, “Someday you’ll write a book about the Fourth Way.” He said it in a very casual way, but the way he said it was like a sword that went right into my stomach. Since then, I had written a book four times, but I had never published it. I said to Jean one night, “How is it that some people are always able to do what they want to do? I’m a writer but I’ve been writing about computers and artificial intelligence and food, things I have no interest in at all. When can I write about something that I’m truly interested in?” He just looked at me, and the moment really opened up. I realized the premise from which I was asking this question. And I realized that something had to happen to me, someone had to knock on my door, someone had to call me. I don’t know where I got that assumption, but there it was — and then I realized I had to make it happen myself! With that, I quit my job, took a year off and finished the fifth and last rewrite of the book, Eating the “I”, which was essentially the story of my experience in the Work.
TMA: And since then you’ve published four subsequent books.
WPP: I’ve published four more books and a video.
TMA: For our readers’ sake, just what is the Fourth Way and how is it different from the other three?
WPP: The first is the Way of the Body, hatha yoga. The second is the Way of the Monk, the way of the heart, and the third is the Way of the Mind, the way of the raja yogi. These three ways have been with us for many, many years. The Fourth Way is a classical way but it is not traditional. It appears and disappears depending on the aim of the moment. I’ve traced its history back to Ethiopia and it was really the foundation of the Egyptian religion of thirty-five hundred BC. Gurdjieff had found this. (You can see that in the video.) He believed that the ancient civilizations must contain the real answers to life and set out in the 1890s on a trek to find [proof of] this.
Gurdjieff had come into great being as a young man but he didn’t have knowledge. He looked around and asked himself, “What is the sense and significance of life on earth and human life in particular?” His search inevitably brought him to Ethopia and the teaching of the Fourth Way. He is quoted in In Search of the Miraculous, “It will seem strange to you when I say that the teaching of Jesus Christ was known long before Jesus Christ lived.” The Christianity he is talking about is the Christianity before Christ, as strange as that may sound. A lot of people think that the Fourth Way is relatively new because Gurdjieff appeared in Russia in 1912, but what he did was to reformulate and reassemble the teaching for contemporary times, and he brought it to the West. The reason he gives … as he said, “Unless the wisdom of the East and the energy of the West — not the science, but the energy of the West — is harnessed and used harmoniously, the world will destroy itself.” He felt the only way that could be averted was for people to wake up to conscience and the truth. He brought the teachings for that reason.
What he brought was a teaching that used the impressions of ordinary life to bring one to real life. The insecurity, uncertainty, shocks, negativity, everything that everybody ties to avoid — and which are why so many people leave life and go to the mountaintop or the monastery — the Work uses these impressions to raise one’s consciousness.
TMA: Whatever you’re uncomfortable with must be examined.
WPP: That’s right. But before you examine it, you must absorb it. You can’t use your mind on it because the mind in itself is what Mr. Gurdjieff calls the formatory mind … we don’t know the real mind because the mind we usually use is already conditioned.
TMA: Which is why he would seemingly go out of his way to put people into the circumstances that made them experience their discomfort.
WPP: Yes, to shock them out of that mind, to shock them into stillness where there is just pure awareness. One, the Fourth Way works in ordinary life, and two, it works in all three centers at the same time rather than just working on the body, on the emotions or on the mind. It’s a very rich and practical teaching.
I would say the essence of it is to recognize, by your own self-remembering, that you are a conditioned being, using only a small part of yourself and living in habit. All of this is what might be called borrowed meaning. As one actualizes the body through the use of attention, one begins to really stand in their own shoes. Most people live life in their heads. They don’t really have a body.
TMA: And they’re even further removed from their emotions.
WPP: Right, they don’t know what they are or where they’ll take them.
TMA: They’re often messy.
WPP: They can be. But as Mr. Gurdjieff says, once you’ve established a field of sensation of the body, then you can rightly absorb emotions and transmute that energy to a higher emotional center.
TMA: A higher emotional center?
WPP: The emotional center that most of us are living out of is mechanical. It’s conditioned, biased, limited. It’s in the throes of our desires and imaginary life.
TMA: And to have them properly would be?
WPP: It’s a great boon. As you say, for most of us it’s very messy because we haven’t really known true emotions. The emotions most people meet are usually met in some sort of captivation.
TMA: They’re automatic and out of control.
WPP: That’s right. And they’re based on polarity and many people meet them after drinking a lot or doing something to excess. They’re taken over by them and then they wake up in the morning and say, “My goodness, what have I done?” They say, “I don’t want to feel any more if this is what happens.” But when the Buddha spoke to his monks, he said, “O sentient beings” — in other words, O feeling beings. He didn’t say, “O rational beings.” That comes much later. Most people are not truly rational. Their logic is mechanical.
TMA: I would say that most people have never thought about thinking. What is it that occurs when you think? “Who’s there when you have silence?”
WPP: And, “Is it a who or is it a what?”
TMA: When one first attains silence in the mind and discovers that they are yet there, I think, is one of the most important awakenings.
WPP: Right, because only then, you see, can you ask the question, “Who am I?” Only when you’ve come to the silence of the mind knowingly, without the knower … then when a thought comes, the thought is alive. It has to be. Then you can genuinely say, “Who am I?” Who-am-I is who is thinking this thought, right? But to use it very early in meditation leads to nothing; it leads just to the dream world. The Gurdjieff Work has all these incredible practices that prepare one, that set the stage for this crucial discrimination. And the question is raised — not simply out of the mental state, but out of the actualization of the body. So many people are speaking about these high level teachings and giving these meditations to people who are simply in their minds. They haven’t established themselves in their bodies yet. They’re creating what I would call a spiritual dream world — which becomes very difficult to get out of … because once you accept the premises of any world, it’s real for you.
TMA: How, then, does one become established in their body?
WPP: The only way I know is the Gurdjieffian way, which is to redirect the attention out of the head-brain into the body. I would say, start with your feet. Start with your right foot. If you say to someone, “Do you have a right foot? Can you experience it?” They would say yes. But if you say, “Did you experience before I said this?” if they’re truthful, the likely answer is no. What they were aware of, if they were aware, were their thoughts, not a true sensation of their body. So when emotions and thoughts come, they’re taken over because there’s no strength in the body, no sensations in the body to absorb it.
TMA: I remember from the days when I was reading the Gurdjieff material — “Yes, if I choose to, I can feel the toenail on the little toe on my right foot.” But so what? I mean, yes, I can feel any part of my body that I want to, but then what?
WPP: Now, doing that, you’ll see you’re not likely to be able to keep your attention directed on your foot because after the first brief impression of sensation, there is no information there for the mind. The mind gets bored and will want to leave.
TMA: After a few seconds, a distraction will pop in.
WPP: That’s right. But let’s say that you have moved past the point where you’re going to be taken by distraction. You’ve raised the amperage of the sensation of the body up to the level at which it’s living for you. Now a shock comes. Either an emotional shock, a mental one or an instinctual shock. What happens to that sensation in the body?
TMA: It’s easy to forget all about it.
WPP: But you may not. If you can absorb the shock, you will raise the sensation of the body, the amperage. If you don’t, the energy of the body will be taken by the shock. So it’s the defining moment. As I see what really takes me, I realize that’s my stuff, that it’s what I have to work with. It isn’t your stuff. What takes you is yours. So I begin to see where I’m caught. Not from a mental point of view, but from the point of view of energy.
TMA: And when one has a pretty good handle on the physical, as we’re talking about, do you move on to the emotions?
WPP: It isn’t divided up like that. It’s always all one. We’re not adding, we’re dividing, I’d say. That’s self-remembering. Self-remembering is dividing the attention. It’s only when I divide that I multiply. That is, the impressions coming in double in their force so that I can see and hear and feel them. Then, when I see that I’m wrongly related to these impressions, I can subtract that belief or that wrong stance. Bit by bit, I begin to free myself from my compulsions and addictions. It’s all from the basis of the actualization of the body-mind in the moment. In the immediate, is what I call it. I don’t like to say “moment” because that suggests time. This is what I do with my students: I stress the immediate always and not the analytical, going back in the past.
TMA: You might substitute “now” for “immediate”?
WPP: Yes. The reason I do that is that I think the word “now” is worn out and it associates with time as well.
TMA: It begins to appear that the Fourth Way would be the same for everyone and yet different for everyone.
WPP: It is the same, and yet one’s work is always unique.
TMA: Because of the uniqueness of the individual.
WPP: That’s right.
TMA: This reminds me of some of my own formative thinking from a long time ago. If you had asked me now, even before this conversation, I would have said, “Oh yes, everybody needs a slightly different combination of things because everybody’s different.” And now I’m remembering where I get that from.
WPP: Yes, right. We’re not only different in our essences, but we’re different in our mechanicality, you see. Usually when we speak about our uniqueness, we speak about it in a positive light. But we’re all uniquely conditioned and uniquely mechanical.
TMA: How did you come to be teaching the Work?
WPP: After I wrote the book, Eating the “I”, I went around speaking in bookstores. There were a number of people who wanted to work with me. They wrote letters to me. I had been getting intimations that I should begin to teach the Gurdjieff Work. My teacher, Lord John Pentland, had died eleven years before, and a number of things happened to me that suggested that I should teach. I had been resisting this, but in meeting these people, I was very impressed with their interest and earnestness, and their energy. I began to meet with a few of them and after doing that for six or seven months, I realized they needed a group. Then things became very organic. I was in bookstores again and I met other people, and this has grown. I’ve been working with people for seven or eight years and I have a number of people below me who are teaching and we’ve developed a school which we call AreteTelos. Arete is the inner excellence that Aristotle contemplated. Telos is the ultimate end. We believe that we are transmitters/receivers of Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. I lead groups here in Northern California and give two public seminars a year. We have a website and a Fourth Way study program for people who are not in this area. [See information at the end of this article.]
TMA: Do I remember correctly: Gurdjieff was insistant that [the teachings] needed a school and that it would be folly attempt to do the Work on your own?
WPP: Yes, absolutely folly, because if I’m asleep, how can I wake myself up? I’m asleep in my habits and my beliefs. For example, the deep belief I had that something had to happen to me for me to do what I wanted to do. I don’t know where I got that crazy idea.
TMA: Well, books fell off the shelves, and you met people by accident. Things came from the outside.
WPP: [laughs] That’s true, there were many things that did come to me from the outside. It came to a place where I had to do something, and I suppose I was ready to do it.
TMA: If one knows they are asleep, are they asleep?
WPP: I think you wake up to higher and higher levels of sleep. It’s like growing up. You know much more at twelve years of age than you did at five, right? But you don’t know what you’re going to know at twenty. You have to keep open to that. Like Carl Jung, when he died, his last words, apparently, were “I don’t know.” Now here’s a man who knew a great deal. He was intelligent and experienced enough to realize that he didn’t know, enough to keep open.
TMA: It’s said that when you realize that you don’t know anything is when you start to know something. My independent spirit was mildly offended to think that I had to submit to being part of a school. At the same time, I was recognizing that it’s in a school that you’re going to get the teaching.
WPP: I would say that in the main, the people who are attracted to the Gurdjieff work, and possibly the spiritual life itself, are to some degree rebels. They haven’t been hypnotized by all the carrots of ordinary life. They have instinctively or intuitively or intellectually known it doesn’t end in anything, so they’ve been searching for an answer. Part of being a rebel has allowed them that search. But then you find a teaching or a teacher and it’s time to put your rebel away for a while. Ouspensky had a difficult time doing that. I think most people do — I did — but it’s a measure of your own sincerity and a recognition of the practicality that you cannot wake yourself up.
TMA: Another thing I remember that stayed with me was this idea that humans are not necessarily inherently possessing of a soul … but rather have the need to develop one.
WPP: That’s one of the cruxes of the Gurdjieff work.
TMA: That really runs counter to most people’s thinking.
WPP: Oh definitely. But if you go back to ancient Egypt, thirty-five hundred BC, they believed at that time that only the Pharoah had a soul. In some instances, they believed that only the Pharoah could work to develop a soul. Then, because all knowledge tends to disintegrate over time, it extended itself to only the Pharoah and the nobles had a soul. Then you have the Pharoah and the nobles and everyone has a soul. So today, people just cavalierly talk about having a soul. From the Gurdjieff point of view, they don’t, and that one of things we’re primarily doing is making a soul.
TMA: How, then, would one account for reincarnation?
WPP: There are a number of different bodies that are formed. We all have a physical body, but as I was saying earlier, we don’t inhabit it. We haven’t actualized it. We’re only in our heads, right? So by actualizing your physical body with your attention and sensation, you then magnify your energy so that you grow another body, which Mr. Gurdjieff calls a kesbjan body, which one could say is more or less like the astral body. When the physical body dies, you are there now with an astral body if you have one. The astral body will decompose in time, so it must find another body to be born in or it will decompose as the physical body did. Then there’s the emotional and mental body and the soul. Only the soul, according to Mr. Gurdjieff, is immortal within the solar system. Every one of the other bodies, in time, will disintegrate. The time may be very long. It’s the idea of self perfection. It’s only when you come to having a soul that you have perfection. He goes even further in saying that there is an area that he speaks about as purgatory, where those people whose souls that aren’t completely purified work on themselves in order to be accepted by what he calls The Holy Son Absolute, or God. So for people who have no souls there is only this life and they die with the death of the physical body. Those who have worked on themselves and have come to the level of the kesbjan body can withstand the shock of physical death. There’s something there, you see, and that can reincarnate.