We have posted this in memory of our old friend Oscar Yerburgh
who died on 29 October 2011
There are experiences in life which we feel to be undeniably true; I expect that everybody has them. But there are also experiences which many people do not have which seem to be of a different order. If you experience one of these and try to describe it to others you often get a blank stare (even a tapping of the forehead!) or an ‘I know exactly what you mean’, but you instinctively know that they don’t and that your ‘mystical’ (I feel compelled to use that word) experience is not describable in words.
Words are dualistic and need subject and object. We cannot therefore speak about Unity, or rather can only speak roundabout Unity or Oneness. No words are necessary when subject and object become one, which perhaps explains why great spiritual masters seldom disagree ― whatever path they are following ― and spend little time just talking. They live in the present moment and allow it to come to them.
Up to now, aged eighty-four, I have had three what one might call ‘other experiences’ which might be of interest to those trying to follow a spiritual path. None of these experiences in any way boosted my ego; all of them in fact gave me a wonderful feeling of increased strength and of the ego being momentarily removed.
The first experience was when I was seventeen studying piano at a very happy time of my life in 1943:
It suddenly ‘came to me’ one day that there is only one ‘I’, one ‘me’, in we humans and perhaps in other life forms as well. It suddenly seemed blindingly obvious that my ‘I’ is exactly the same one as everybody else’s. And it freed a part of myself. When I told people, however, they just said, ‘Don’t be silly!’ and went on with their separate ‘selves’.
As in nature, things mature slowly in their own time. And so it was that after five RAF years, some of which were in the 1939 war, and after rather serious dabbling in Advaita Vedanta at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre in London ― when my meditation consisted of a lot of trying to ‘get’ spiritual progress (I suspect that a lot of meditators do this) ― and after joining a Gurdjieff group in France, getting married, and starting a career as a pianist playing classical music, an extraordinary realisation just ‘happened’ both to me and to my wife at the same instant in the middle of lunch at our home in London:
A woman friend whom I had grown up with and who is a deeply committed Anglican Christian was working with the very poor on the Isle of Dogs in the Thames. I said to my wife, ‘I wish I were doing something useful and good like Marigold is doing on the Isle of Dogs’. Immediately, without any warning, something happened with the power and unexpectedness of a strong electric shock. The centre of my chest seemed to open like a camera shutter into the blackest of black darkness, and at the same time there was so much brightness and illumination that skiing on snow slopes in alpine sunshine would have seemed relatively dim.
I don’t know how long it lasted, but long enough for me to realise that this ‘opening’ went in far deeper than the 25,000 miles which I had once been told is the circumference of our earth. It was a total surprise. It was visual, without any ‘sensation’ ― except of immense speed and clarity ― and absolutely silent. I had never known such silence.
In this light-filled darkness I saw, with extra clarity and brightness, a group of people ― Marigold’s people on the Isle of Dogs ― and they were me and I was them. There was no question about it. It was such a surprise and such a shock that neither my wife nor I could move (because, as I said, she had simultaneously had the same experience as myself). This experience was infinitely more ‘real’ and vivid than anything I have experienced or imagined before or since. It was true, directly true, and factual like being told something.
Eventually we went upstairs to the living room, sat in two armchairs and were unable to speak for nearly half an hour. I don’t have eyes in my chest, so could it have been the heart-mind spoken of by Tibetan Buddhists? Could it have been a manifestation of the Third Eye illuminating the whole person? I remember writing when still at school ‘We are only separated by our masks’. When the masks go we are ONE PERSON (it has been found that a twisting and turning flock of starlings has no leader ― it has taken on a single identity). Wars are not possible if humanity is one, a stage which we have apparently not yet reached even if an evil leader like Hitler could induce it at his rallies. A unifying power of hate, not one of love.
Our simultaneous experience was imbued with a happiness and clarity, an exhilaration and a certainty completely new to me; a version, perhaps, of absolute truth and absolute certainty given to us ‘out of the blue’. But beware! Beware of the results of greed!
When I told the leader of our Gurdjieff group about this experience ― a strange lady who looked as if she was being breathed rather than breathing ― she said, ‘You can’t repeat that experience, so don’t try to.’ And she referred me to the passage in the Bible where the man without a wedding garment enters into the wedding feast and is cast into outer darkness ‘ . . and there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Spiritual experiences can be frightening and destructive if pursued with any degree of selfish greed. This lady had already told me that my ‘chief feature’ was greed! Certainly, my experience, unlike my wife’s, was for a while somewhat damaging to my equilibrium. I had touched another realm, something I was not sufficiently ready for like putting 3000 volts into a 30 watt bulb, and been shown something vastly bigger, and faster, than ‘ordinary life’.
Gurdjieff’s famous follower was the Russian scientist Ouspensky. As a musician, I read in his book, In Search of the Miraculous: ‘On the piano the Western musical scale has seven notes; the eighth note is the start of the next octave and its speed of vibration is exactly double that of the first note.’ I read the book many years ago, but I seem to remember he wrote of Jesus Christ as a man moving into the next octave at double the wakefulness.
The experience which my wife and I were somehow ‘taken through’ raised questions in my fallible human mind: What was the nature of St Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus? Perhaps love and understanding are the same thing?
I used to visit a little village in the Black Forest in Germany run on Christian and Buddhist lines by a marvellous man called Karlfried von Dürckheim. He used to say that when two people are really attuned to each other then a Third (the Christ) becomes present.
Dürckheim’s best known book is entitled Hara, the Vital Centre of Man. ‘Hara’ is more or less the Japanese word for stomach and it refers to the place in the human body about two inches below the navel where our power resides and where we should, ideally, be centred. After reading this book, I asked four friends where they felt ‘themselves’ to be in their bodies. Two, both women, pointed at their hearts; two, both men, pointed at their foreheads. Finally, I put the question to a very charismatic Hungarian woman pianist and teacher. She was someone who only had to walk into a room and everybody felt more alive. She pointed at her stomach where the Hara is and said, ‘This is where I live. This is where I am. Life is like riding a horse!’
I tried to convince her that most of her pupils were probably in their heads or hearts, and it is interesting to note that operatic heroines tend to plunge a dagger into their breasts, that suicidal men tend to shoot themselves in the head, and that Japanese commit hara-kiri.
My third ‘strange experience’ occurred when I returned to London after a tour of concerts in South Africa:
I had played the third Sonata of Chopin twenty-one times in eighteen days. It was certainly in my fingers. And I sat down at my piano to play through the last movement before going to bed. Suddenly I felt a force rising from my Hara and found I was being ‘taken over’ by a torrent of energy and carried ― as if on a powerful horse ― to the end of the Sonata.
If you read Zen in the Art of Archery you can see how mastery is made of years of repetition. A mediaeval monk is supposed to have said, ‘Progress means deterioration.’ In the West we seem to hang on to a linear idea of progress and to pursue uncontrolled ‘growth’ (which is the same principle as cancer). In the East it is, or used to be, more circular. (It is worth reading a marvellous short story by E.M. Forster called The Other Side of the Hedge.)
The fact that the above descriptions are of experiences which happened to me, in no way implies that they were more special than other extraordinary experiences which have been given to readers of these words; I merely felt I should write them down in case they are of interest.
[Chopin – Sonata No.3, Op.58 – 3. Evgeny Kissin]