Praxis Early History - Christopher Clark
A personal memoir by Christopher Clarke, Bristol, UK, November 22, 2021
Copyright 2021 by Christopher Clarke and Praxis Research Institute, Inc.
WEATHERALL and MORE - A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
BY CHRISTOPHER CLARKE
Where did we come from? Why are we here? Did I exist before I was given this body and where will I go next?
Questions like this would fill my childhood mind and I was certain there were answers- but where?
I looked around me and all I saw in my childhood home and in the street outside, in my school and in the woods and fields where we played- offered no solutions to these mysteries.
Cycling with my sister up and down the driveway to our new home meant taking turns and every few minutes I would wait while she took her turn on the circuit.
Each time I waited, I would become aware of the simple fact that I was “here”, an awareness soon forgotten until the next time I had my turn of waiting, when once again my awareness of being there, “now”, came to me - “I wonder if other people know this, that our awareness of being . . here . . now . . is a fleeting thing.”
“I am here, now, in this place”, had a special feeling to it, partly because this experience, by contrast, was lost so easily and it seemed that everyone around me spent most of their time (like me!) in a state of sleep, of forgetting, rather than of awareness, were only half alive. It seemed as though we had to deliberately switch ourselves ‘on’! Years later I would learn, from further experience, that man’s awareness is a fleeting thing, and that he loses his awareness of the world while he is lost in his thoughts, feelings and actions.
In later life these unshared private thoughts came to me when my life was filled with sorrow and unwelcome and unavoidable rejection.
Teachers went on strike and as a teacher, I found myself at home, digging a new garden.
I contemplated relief from the sadness I found in life, by the thought of starting a group to answer all my questions with an invited speaker. I was looking for the key to happiness and possibly greater wisdom.
“Perhaps such a group already exists in nearby Birmingham,” I thought.
I paused my digging and stood wondering whether such a group committed to finding the meaning of life, already existed. If so, then I might find it advertised in the “Personal column” of the Birmingham Evening Mail that I had seen at my parents’ home.
Later, with my mug of coffee in hand I poured over the newspaper and took a break from the digging.
Soon my gaze fell upon the words - “The Psychology of Man’s evolution. Robin Amis (presents?) the common ground of Zen, Yoga, Kabbalah and P.D. Ouspensky” (or something very close to this wording).
Looking for the COMMON GROUND and finding it in my EXPERIENCE. That is what I wanted.
When our young creative head teacher called us into the city to meet with him to discuss the strike, I took the opportunity to visit the Central library and skimmed through several books on the above subjects. Later I decided to attend my first group meeting with Robin. It was the middle of January 1970.
As we were introduced to different modes of attention, I knew that our speaker was working on the right ground for me and Robin later confirmed that he valued practice and experience as a means of discovering truth, as I did myself. In fact, we would listen, occasionally read a book or paper, then practice followed by the experience and later begin to understand. Many of our group of about 12-15 would sense change in themselves and we valued stillness and warmth of heart and pondered the existence of mysteries and forgotten or hidden powers.
Later that year I visited Robin in his home at Castlebar Road, Ealing, near London. We talked about stillness which was too simple for me to grasp straightaway. You simply cannot grasp stillness with an agitated or nervous mind but I was getting there!
I met Robin’s friend Alan Bain (Soho Cabalists) and together with Robin they set about trying to shed a little light in my direction to help me see what they were working with and to what end. I did not realise at the time how significant this time was for us all, but especially for me. I could put very little into words, but I was certain there was something to be discovered and it wasn’t simply about happiness.
Meanwhile, after I had told them that I was a teacher working in a Special School in Birmingham, Robin explained that in order to pursue their line of work it wasn’t necessary to help the poor and needy in the sense of doing ‘good charitable works’! By implication teaching mainstream (normal) children was creditable in its own right. The popular idea was that if you wanted spiritual development or to practice your religion, you needed to serve the poor and needy.
But the pioneering methods and understanding of my head teacher were an inspiration and led me to discover that there was a subject we could call “human development” and I am thinking of the development of ‘being'. Humans were here to develop, both in a worldly sense and in a spiritual sense. But what was the content of spiritual growth and development, I wondered? It certainly wasn’t simply about acquiring more knowledge.
Members of our group were an interesting lot. We would talk over coffee after the meeting, but always Robin tried to steer us away from losing all that energy and awareness we had found.
One day he announced that we had the opportunity to work together on a project. Dan, one of our members, had contact with St Chads, the Catholic Cathedral in the city center. Robin suggested that we spend a day working and eating together. I signed up and about a dozen of us, plus one or two from other groups that Robin led, swept and cleaned the crypt where the homeless had food and shelter.
Of course this exercise was used to practice attention and we were encouraged to work as the tasks demanded without unnecessary actions, words and thoughts. We were learning to control ourselves without the idea of a reward. It made sense to me and I was keen to take it further on a different occasion.
I should also add that ‘remembering’ played an important part. It is easy to forget to practice but remembering is more subtle and effective when we recognise the expanded change of consciousness that occurs at the same time. A change of feeling during the day occurred for me as I relaxed into what I was doing and it became easier then to practice without the resistance of thinking one wanted to be elsewhere.
I soon recognized that Robin had what I now call ‘presence’, though I wouldn’t have used this word at the time. What I mean is that when I was in his company I felt energised and there was a growing stillness inside me. He himself seemed well controlled with deep awareness and a peaceful disposition. Whilst I could also see that occasionally he showed his human side complete with limitations. I felt that providence had dealt me a “better hand” with his friendship and the trust that he evoked in me.
The first of our workshops, at St Chads, yielded some useful results. Robin outlined what he saw as a gradual shift in people’s attention and inner control, from superfluous activity to a state of calmness, a more peaceful submission to the tasks, a greater willingness to participate and greater self control . A change I think we all recognised. A change which would become more familiar to most of us, as we repeated such activities on later occasions.
Robin seemed interested more in the changes within participants than the activity of charity to others.
Before long, Robin was offering a more extensive project requiring greater commitment and involving travel. He proposed to take his launch, Aslan, up the Thames towards Oxford. Group members were invited.
We met one night at the end of July 1971 in London to discuss the logistics of the trip and to offer resources and plan our individual responsibilities. I remember transporting Lillian home afterwards with Nicholas, her three year old son and having pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast the following day.
A group of 12 to 15 young people (20 to 30 years of age). signed up” and found tents and bought food but there were a few who seemed to be fellow travellers and were really there only for the fun. It wasn’t long before Robin pulled up to the bank and we were all told to disembark. Robin was not happy with the casual uninvolved manner of some people who behaved more like a group of hippies enjoying a free holiday on the river than those on a quest for spiritual knowledge! He listed many jobs and many ways we could help by coiling ropes not in use, keeping the decks free of personal possessions, offering to cook, clean and even to helm. He was looking for a greater sense of responsibility and mature commitment. But “if folk wanted an easier time” then he could turn around and we could head back to Richmond!
I remember how something inside me balked at the thought of this discipline, more by habit than anything else, for in the next moment I was considering that if I really wanted to break fresh ground in my spiritual journey then it made sense to put myself fully into the part I could play on “The Boat Trip”. So in that moment I made an important decision to give myself fully and with full attention to the task in hand, even to watching my thoughts and feelings and turning away from any that I knew intuitively were out of place on this ‘journey’. I also recognised a growing feeling of love for others which helped!
Each evening, when we had finished eating the main meal of the day we would meet with Robin, often in a “bell tent” and Robin would talk on a particular subject that might last for two or three days. I remember the “hydrogens” and the “cosmoses”. These gave me a greater sense that I was not my body or any material thing but the one who observed all around me and within.
We didn’t reach Oxford but travelled as far as Goring. We visited this picturesque town for shopping and while we waited aboard for the shoppers to return, I recall feeling very still. The whole of life at that time seemed like a meditation and I grew more and more content inside, despite our somewhat primitive accommodation. I recall an image in my mind of what I felt were the final steps of my meditation, that it was like arranging the small ‘lenses’ in a microscope in a straight line and fixed distances one from the other, so that the divine creator would emerge. I would label the ’lenses’: total contentment, perfect stillness of mind, freedom from distraction and no sense of ‘I’ or ego- just total submission. I would later discover “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” and then realise that I had made some discoveries like “single-pointed attention”: proof that I could be led by experience before being led by doctrine.
Later that day, we moored Aslan, out of town and on the river bank at the edge of a field with a small church nearby. We planned to have an evening meal and then gather for our usual meeting.
However, it was announced that the meal was going to take longer to cook and so the meeting would be held first of all. I remember the disappointment because I was hungry, but the feeling came to me that I should not part from my inner work, instead I should cultivate a feeling of acceptance and even gratitude for this wonderful two week opportunity rather than fuss over a meal.
We sat facing Robin’s chair in the bell tent. A growing stillness pervaded the damp riverside air and it seemed that we were all in a state of peaceful readiness but not knowing what was really before us.
After sitting and meditating, Robin led us through more of the material on the hydrogens. I have already said how this helped me to find an identity, the real I(?) away from my bodily self and my thoughts.
I fixed my attention solely on his words and the tent seemed to be filled with a pure unruffled stillness. Robin asked if anyone had a Bible with them. Dan passed his copy to Val who found St Paul’s words on love in the First book of Corinthians- “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels . . .” I Corinthians xii 31.
My breathing grew very steady and shallow as I dived deep into the stillness. Robin said that we might reach a stage, when we could offer words of gratitude into the stillness. I responded in a heart-felt manner and then looking at a tiny blade of grass at my feet I became aware of a rosy glow in the tent as if somewhere there was a fire burning, which of course there wasn’t. The pink glow seemed more real than all the people and all the bags and bottles, chairs and grass. I kept my attention on a small black spot on the blade of grass, inwardly offered myself to the cosmos and then found myself to the rear of my body looking, as it were, through the back of my head and bathed in the rose-gold light. Released from my body, I felt my view-point move back even further and I was looking at rays of golden light spreading outwards and forwards through rose-coloured flames. This must have lasted for about two minutes and all the while I ignored the thoughts that hovered on the edge of my awareness. This had to be the most beautiful experience I had ever had. No longer any doubt, just a beautiful resignation. I remember later feeling that for a few moments I no longer existed as a separate isolated person but had found a unity with the cosmic intelligence.
When the meeting was over Robin said that he would be taking a walk along the river bank and if anyone wanted to share anything with him they could join him. I was the only one who responded and I tried to describe what I had experienced, but I could see it was impossible, but Robin focused on my attempt and together we shared a very precious moment together. He went on to say that he thought he had been a monk in another lifetime. Why this came up I have no idea!
However, the following day I was tired from a misguided excitement. I found that the crying of a small baby in our group was “getting on my nerves”. So I was brought down to earth by our domestic scene. “I shouldn’t be feeling like this,”I thought to myself. “I have received a beautiful gift and out of gratitude I must learn to live with this.” Later I would learn that I can accept my own reaction, my own feelings and pray to be reunited with the cosmos as I prayed for the small child to feel love and peace. It was important for me to realise that the child was also a part of the cosmos and to restore that essential unity in my perspective.
The following day brought a wonderful surprise: I had the beautiful feeling that “I was loved” by everything in creation and that this love was the nature of the cosmos. It welled up into my heart and flooded my mind with a fresh understanding. I beheld a cosmos that was ageless and infinite and loving of everything and everyone and every being that had been created. A cosmos that made all our petty issues and unhappiness dissolve into insignificance. What I was experiencing did not make intellectual sense. It was life itself, love itself.
Our return downstream led to further discoveries. While our boat was moored alongside Cookham churchyard, one or two of us, sad to see so much litter spoiling the small meadow and with Robin tucked away on board with his typewriter, decided to pick up the litter and convey it to a nearby waste bin. We worked voluntarily and silently for at least an hour. I began to reflect on what had become a change in my outlook and experience of everything. I felt very peaceful, there was nothing I especially wanted. There came a flash of understanding- “ Everything is possible. How could this be? I just knew this was true.” I kept this to myself, but later that evening, Robin had been reading his latest paper in which were the very same words that had come to me- “ Everything is possible.” Another miraculous moment! However it would be difficult to explain to others what was meant by this. It had something to do with context and the spiritual goals we set.
A week later, a final meeting on the “Boat Trip” with Robin in which he “read” Tarot cards, led to him saying to me- “I imagine your ideas have changed quite a bit and things are beginning to make more sense now?” And he went on to add a helpful “tit bit” - “But you don’t know the devil in you yet!”
We were a little behind our schedule. Of course there was no schedule, but I had arranged to meet my wife at a hotel in Scotland where we used to go pony trekking together and Andy, a student friend, needed to be in Newcastle the day before. So I agreed with Robin that I would catch a bus from Chertsey to Robin’s home in Ealing to collect my car, before returning to the boat where Andy and I left our good friends and headed north.
Soon after our departure I found myself drifting mentally among the thoughts and memories enjoyed during the two weeks of the trip. I had taken some personal satisfaction in what “had been achieved” before a flash of something which felt very unpleasant, perhaps even evil, passed through my mind and I realised that perhaps the devil Robin had spoken about was loose in me and with some humility I prayed for forgiveness, conscious of my own potential for error and disturbance. “Now the work has really begun,” fifty years ago!
Following the Boat trip and my later holiday in Scotland I returned to our group meetings in Birmingham. I recall Robin was absent from the meeting and had sent word that he would need help and support financially if he were to continue. I could see this was a test for all of us and it was followed by his sharing plans concerning the purchase of a large property in the west of Gloucestershire.
Eventually we learned that Robin and Lillian would be getting married in the Spring. First though, Robin sought a commitment from members in each of the groups. There were those like myself who were eager to attend weekend retreats we would call “Working Weekends”. But there were also those who felt that the weekend retreats would take energy from the weekly meetings. The latter folk tended to avoid travel or have difficult circumstances. Robin asked for a commitment of one weekend per month, but there would eventually be a second alternating weekend. With a family at home, only occasionally did I attend a second weekend, but was always present on the first.
The Wedding was a beautiful day with the bride dressed in a wedding garment, created in 1972 and designed by Lillian herself. After the service some of the group members provided the Wedding Breakfast at Castlebar Road, Ealing, Robin’s home. Later that Day, Robin and Lillian headed for the West Country where they stayed in Wells for a while and visited one of Robin’s favourite Abbeys with its famous scissor arch.
One more Working Weekend at Castle Barr road saw Robin’s home, given a face lift by an eager group of decorators. On this occasion service was not followed by a prepared meeting and our Birmingham group arrived home late on a Sunday evening- a sacrifice for those with a family, like myself. This was a matter we discussed among ourselves: “How much could Robin ask of people not sworn to the rules of a monastery?” This was after all a Fourth way initiative. But Robin talked over the matter and I felt there was a fair understanding and also that he wanted us to develop commitment which meant sometimes “sailing close to the wind, domestically!” But we continued to question this subject.
Following the wedding, Robin and Lillian held an open day at the large country house. The house was returned to its original name of Weatherall and was about two hundred years old, perhaps a little older. Over the front door was a specially sculpted and painted “All seeing eye”. I think this suggests divine protection associated with many different religions and spiritual paths. The eye seemed impersonal and radiating from its centre were numerous rays of light. It reminded me of the event I had witnessed in the tent.
The site was long and narrow. The road from Coleford, our nearest town, ran along the length of the site. To the front of the house was a long ornamental garden and lawns with flower beds which would draw Lillian's artistry for many days to come. At the rear of the house we eventually started a vegetable garden and there were also small barns and outbuildings that eventually housed a pottery, photographic studio and a woodturning workshop.
It was the deep and ever-deepening stillness that drew me inwards. The beauty and unsophisticated charm of the garden, the rustic character of the workshops and the brick yard outside, the ecclesiastical stone arch leading from the kitchen yard to the garden gave an almost monastic look to the rear of the house.
Inside, the house was comfortable, well worn, very friendly and inviting. We added an Aga cooker to the kitchen and a large, very solid wooden table and also another folding table. This was where we cooked and ate our meals and also prepared fruit and vegetables for storage or freezing. There are many happy memories associated with this room as well as lessons learnt. For example I had very little cooking experience and with perhaps just the two of us we found ourselves learning very quickly how to cook for 20 to 30 people. I remember the day I tried roasting carrots like potatoes! Robin enlightened me.
Whereas some preferred to augment their experience by reading and the further use of their intellect through discussion, I found that the practical tasks, especially meetings with Robin, meditation and the sharing of space with others, as well as the household and outdoor chores, were all I really needed or wanted, in order to feel I was growing and developing experientially.
I seemed to do much of my learning through intuition: I would have a feeling about something, such as how to use odd moments of time to find and dive into times of stillness. It was as if Weatherall had been tailored to provide the right conditions for experience and growth. Although there was the opportunity to learn the language of a system such as Ouspensky’s Fourth Way or the Sanskrit and Advaita Vedanta of HH Shankaracharya, of Jyotir Math in Northern India (1953 - 1980)both of which I followed, but I really favoured my own intuitive exploration of situations and experiences first of all, but to tread a doctrinal path afterwards. It seemed as though what I needed was already within me and my task was one of recognition, remembering and attention. Most important of all was the practice of attention and what we would call watchfulness today.
I felt very much at home and I know most of my friends did too. These were from the Birmingham group and included Ros, Peter and Alan as regulars and from time to time others would join our weekend group. We travelled by car meeting after work on a Friday evening and would reach Coleford between 8 and 8.30 pm in time for a meeting with Robin to do some of the planning for the weekend's activities.
For the most part we slept with our own sleeping bags on a mattress on a carpeted floor. I never felt concerned by the primitive nature of our circumstances, such as going out in the middle of a cold December night to an outside toilet when I slept in a wing over the craft workshops.
There was a special feeling that came with remembering oneself, a feeling that was part of the Weatherall scene. A feeling that comes to me now many years later, impossible to put into words that sprang from the people, our commitment and of course the place - a true spirit of place. To be there is to practice, is to feel the stillness and the presence of many souls that supported our work.
We would meditate together in the living room at about 7.00 am, before sitting down to breakfast in the kitchen at about 8.00.
On Saturdays we would meet again in the living room together with those who either arrived in the early morning or who came perhaps for only a single day. The latter arrangement was one Robin liked to avoid. We discussed the details of the days’ work then we started. I enjoyed the work outside which initially was re-decoration and repair. I recall learning how to rainproof and re-tile a lean-to roof outside the workshops. Collecting firewood from local ditches and waste land was a favourite.
Whatever we did, the instruction was to give full attention and pause regularly to savour the stillness both within and without and not to squander time and energy on idle conversation. Perhaps a recent ‘meeting paper’ provided a helpful quotation. Collecting firewood, though it seemed a softer or less demanding option did not provide the challenge that one felt in the kitchen. Here, every aspect of work would be tested on the plates of one's friends. Rosy cheeked and perhaps a little stressed at times, I learned a great deal in the kitchen, especially how to move a little faster than my habitual self learned at home!