ART AND REALITY

Seeker of faery gold, what has set fire to your eyes?
– A bridge of colours seven, and I ride to Paradise.
Seeker, the bridge is faery, and bears neither steed nor men
    – I ride seven years and a day, for I will cross it, and can.
Seeker, your vision is true, and your high-held heart is wise,
    But you must walk under the bridge if you would find Paradise.
(The Bridge by Ernest Page 22nd May 1946)

PART ONE – ENCOUNTERS

On two occasions I found my ordinary life as a painter crossed paths with individuals who claimed to represent a ‘higher art’. These were the Kabbalist Anthony Potter, and the Australian spiritual teacher Barry Long. I became involved in their teachings and drew and painted both men. This is a very personal account of these encounters, and an inconclusive exploration of the issues they raised for artists. It includes some glimpses of the individuals and their teaching, and some technical details of exercises in self-observation which might be of interest to anyone sufficiently motivated to read the whole article.

In the mid 1960s I met Tony Potter who ran an esoteric group in Highgate called The Society of the Hidden Life, dedicated to what he termed The Work. There was a preponderance of former art students in the group, but Potter seemed to question the significance of art in the light of ‘The Work’. Conversely, The Work was very significant to me and to the other artists.

Potter’s teaching was in the partly unwritten, oral tradition of Kabbalah, though that did not become apparent until well into the course. I was in the group until the early 1970s and it was a most intense educational experience. It resonated through all aspects of my life, including painting, which I abandoned in the early years of the group, but later resumed.

Tony Potter never promoted himself as a world teacher, but as the vehicle of a teaching that was always in the world. Behind a rather conventional and conservative exterior he was, none the less, a most unusual individual.

In April 1982 I was invited to a meeting with another mystical teacher, Barry Long, whose portrait I also eventually painted. Barry had previously worked with a closed group of twelve people but this was his first talk with a wider audience. It had been arranged by Clive Tempest, who at the time worked for the Arts Council of Great Britain. The audience consisted mostly of directors, actors, mime artists and contemporary plastic arts practitioners, as well as some scientists. I attended meetings till about 1984. In 1986 he moved his base to Australia. Barry’s teaching was more public than Tony Potter’s, and centred on his individual significance as a world teacher, though, like Tony Potter in the years I knew him, he disclaimed a religious label. Barry’s teaching, like Kabbalah, had an all-embracing cosmology and cosmogony, but he regarded his teaching as original.

During my time in both groups I maintained a critical objectivity, and in both cases I realised that, despite being intensely interested and more than somewhat involved, I was never going to be Tony’s right-hand man or Barry’s – not because of any criticisms or disillusion, but because my rôle, or my ‘calling’ as I was later say to Barry, was otherwise. Barry might well have been disappointed, as he had come to refer to me kindly as his ‘straight-eyed artist’. When, in 1983, I announced that I would stop attending his meetings, I offered no reason, but did not return.

BEING STRAIGHT

Being Straight was something Barry strongly encouraged, but questioning Barry, or being critically clear-eyed towards the teaching was not always easy. His original small group had found him a hard taskmaster, and those formative meetings had been particularly fiery and argumentative.

That alone was challenging, but more importantly a central aim both in The Work and The Truth was the suspension of thought, aiming in Barry’s teaching at permanent cessation of discursive thinking. Far from needing to continually search for truth in a universe of dialogue, Barry claimed to have direct awareness and access to ‘The Truth’. This meant argument with or criticism of him was implicitly superfluous except as an expression of one’s own need of enlightenment.

For Tony, the Work was not purely an intellectual pursuit but had to be continually practiced and verified ‘in one’s own experience’. Barry, too, exhorted one not to believe anything he said but to ‘listen for the ring of truth’. So what if you heard not the ring of truth but a cracked bell? Well you better be straight and say so – but the chances were you would be advised to look within for the sources of your own resistances and ‘hang ups’. Thus in practice, while one could readily testify to a totally irrational realisation, an intuitive doubt could seem difficult to justify.

Barry had great charm and charisma but he was no pushover. His lengthy meditation sessions were not entirely silent – he would, after a while, ask each person present to speak about one’s meditation and one’s life, and he would speak at great length himself, often about himself. When he claimed to be ‘The Bhagavad’ (The Divine Lover) or informed us he was the Greatest Intelligence in the Universe, few were inclined to disagree. After all, these were a group of sensitive, intelligent, well-meaning people sitting round trying to ‘let go’ of past and emotion (emotion – bad; passion – good), and to suspend thought – and, a sceptic might say, trying to think themselves into not thinking.

Tony Potter, like Barry, was a persuasive talker. One immediately became aware of his soft, resonant tones on entering the saloon bar of The Red Lion and Sun in Highgate Village, which was his particular stamping ground and an ‘earthing point’ for ‘The Work’. He was capable of effective put-downs, but seldom raised his voice or lost his cool. ‘The Work’ was not meant to be openly talked about outside the circle, but it could and should be practiced anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps Tony’s hinting at his time in the secret services helped him foster a glamour of secrecy.

Barry, who was more reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet (though every inch an Australian), often did raise his voice, and could speak with passion or even anger or frustration, and once he’d made the career move of going public, he didn’t mind who knew he was a spiritual teacher. Even so, away from the group circle, his adherents were sensibly discreet about their devotion to The Truth, and Barry even tried to restrict discussion among group members.

BREAKING ATTACHMENTS

Both Long and Potter encouraged breaking the attachment to the family and the past. Potter said it was essential for his young students to leave the maternal home and become materially independent. With Barry not ‘the past’, but ‘past’ was treated as a sort of misplaced, clogging substance. Both teachers emphasised individual responsibility. Barry would roar ‘You have no right to your unhappiness’ but could be as purringly hypnotic as he was severe. He explicitly discouraged what he called ‘discoursing’ among his adherents, and advocated that such dialogue should be exclusively ‘on a radial’ between oneself and him.

One can see parallels in revered contexts, such as Christ’s moving metaphor of exchanging all one’s possessions for the ‘pearl of great price’. There are also less edifying examples of cults in which young people burn their boats and become brainwashed into subservience to highly dubious or blatantly destructive causes. The Maoist cult leader Aravindran Balakrishnan, who was recently given a twenty-three year custodial sentence for imprisoning and abusing female members of his commune, imposed an almost identical stricture to Barry’s. Any discourse should be ‘vertical’ – i.e. between himself and commune members, and restricted amongst the ranks. Such need for control could have its reasons, or imply an autocratic paranoia.

ART

Both Tony Potter and Barry Long regarded ‘The Work’ or ‘The Truth’ as a higher form of art, and seemed wary or even jealous of the esteem the ‘outer world’ usually accorded to the arts, as though they were distractions from the true art. Barry maintained that no art-form could lead to enlightenment – unless of course it was explicitly informed by ‘The Truth’, or ‘The Work’. (I thought it significant that Barry and Tony both liked Salvador Dali.) Potter’s doubts seemed to be less explicit and more about art school education. When it came to music, however, he saw different historical movements – mostly classical, apart from Traditional Jazz – to be conformable with progress on the lower branches of the Tree of Life, Kabbalah’s famous symbol of human and cosmic reality. Tony enthused about Mahler’s eighth symphony, with its settings of the Veni Creator Spiritus and Goethe’s Faust (‘Alles Vergängliche Ist nur ein Gleichnis’ ). In terms of the Tree, he considered Holst’s Hymn of Jesus to be advanced, whereas atonal music, modern Jazz and pop music represented a regression, though Potter – himself an occasional folk singer – particularly admired Joan Baez. Personally I took issue with Barry Long’s view of the arts, but I must admit that some of my artist colleagues, who may never have been involved in an esoteric group, often share the view that an art form such as painting can never by itself enlighten anybody.

On the occasion of my first meeting with Barry he undertook to guide us in penetrating more deeply into the unconscious. His credentials, he claimed, were that he Loved God and spoke the Truth. Then, to establish common ground with his predominantly artistic audience, he described his own view of artistic activity, using an image reminiscent of the prisoners in Plato’s cave who could only see shadows on a wall. In some ways it was more striking than Plato, but basically meant that whereas the artist’s back is turned to reality, the man or woman, as distinct from the artist, has to face reality. Art was for the delectation and edification of the world, but you as a human being do not exist for that purpose.

In my childhood and youth, art experiences had been among my most formative, therefore I disagreed with what struck me as an uninformed, homespun view of art, despite that Barry’s imagery was itself eloquent. I considered the aim of art to be more serious.

Also, I could not see how his own use of words, ideas and imagery was really any different from any other area of culture including art. Listening to him we were still ‘backing in’ towards the reality which he described as hidden deep within the unconscious. Barry’s answer was that, unlike the artist, he faced reality and knew what he was doing. Also his was a form of art that had no other medium than the human being, man and woman. By contrast other artists are unconscious of the reality of what they do, and cannot answer the question as to why they do it.

When he asked me, rather forcefully, why I painted, I struggled for words. I replied it was to find a unique flavour, a taste of reality which can only be got by doing that. If I wasn’t a painter I would only have words, mathematics or whatever and that would not give that particular flavour of reality. Barry seemed to think that was evasive.

When I pressed him to answer the same question about his own ‘art form’, he really couldn’t answer it either. It became apparent that, while the artist could at least offer something tangible to be judged by, Barry could only convey his ‘truth’ to a person who followed his teaching, which could mean devoting endless time and taking a great deal on trust or suspension of disbelief. Barry asked me repeatedly why I painted. Listening to the recording of the event (all Barry’s meetings and public encounters were recorded and there is also a considerable documentation on YouTube) many, though not all, might say I won the argument, but perhaps it was less an argument and more a sort of verbal pas de deux around the truth.

Barry repeatedly challenged me to say for what purpose I painted and my answer was oblique – I  would probably say the same if similarly challenged today and consider it is absurd and often disastrous to try to explain or justify one’s art. Sometimes what isn’t said is far more eloquent, and if an art-work doesn’t speak for itself it is as pathetically pointless to explain as a joke that didn’t get a laugh. If someone has not seen a particular unique colour combination, experienced a certain pain, heard a certain birdsong, or tasted a certain exotic fruit you can talk round it all you like, but you cannot re-create or convey the experience. Art is more than referential. It seeks to extend experience – as something in itself, not just as a reflection. But all culture is the same. It becomes a factor in reality.

With relation to words, art is there to put non-verbal pressure on language precisely to question and extend its categories which can so easily become dogmatised, narrow and oppressive. All tyrants want to oppress or control the arts as much as they do free speech.

PORTRAYAL

In 1982 I was looking for a subject to paint for the National Portrait Gallery’s recently established Portrait Award exhibition. Since Barry had such a powerful presence, at one or other of the early meetings at Avenue Road I suggested he sat for his portrait. In view of his teaching on meditation, he could hardly complain about sitting still for long periods. At the time his wife Julie was seriously ill, and it was some months later, after her death, that he agreed to sit.

Barry had an idea of his own for the painting: It would be entitled ‘The Myth Maker’.

Barry Long, The Spiritual Teacher. Oil on hardboard, 40″x30″ 1982 (J.N.P.)

It would incorporate a naked couple about to make love, with Barry’s face confronting the viewer, and at the same time concealing the more intimate parts of the couple’s anatomy. The challenge for the artist, as he saw it, would be the look of love on the man’s face. Relations between man and woman were a central concern of Barry’s teaching. He regarded the confused or misunderstood nature of sexual relationships to be a major cause of human bondage.

Maybe it was a pity, but I did not want an imaginative or symbolist work. I wanted to paint from direct observation and to convey a powerful sense of presence in the moment, and of an awakened human consciousness on the surface of the planet. I don’t find the finished work easy to look at. It is not without faults, but ’Barry Long The Spiritual Teacher’ embodies my experience of that time at his home in Kingsley Place in Highgate. It included the view from the window to give planetary scope.

Barry was working on his ‘Origins’ book, but he made himself available whenever I wanted him to sit for the painting, and as I had guessed, he proved a very patient sitter. My conversation with him was general and usually entertaining and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of painting Barry Long, despite the painting going through some alarming crises during which I was at pains to conceal my discomfiture in front of Barry, and to appear in control. I liked Barry, but talking tended to make my drawing go astray, so there were also longueurs of stillness and silence.

The painting was entered for the 1983 John Player Portrait Award and exhibited, with the title ‘Barry Long the Spiritual Teacher’, in the National Portrait Gallery, London from June to August. Barry’s book, ‘The Origins of Man and the Universe – The Myth That Came to Life’ was completed around the same time and published in 1984 by Routledge and Kegan Paul. 

PART TWO – THE SOCIETY OF THE HIDDEN LIFE 

I am not writing as an esoteric teacher, or as a scholar. My only authority, if any, is as an artist – and a human being. But every human being is some sort of artist, because we are all creative, and esotericists are no exception. Tony Potter’s teaching was certainly derivative, and typically drew veils of secrecy. He drew parallels and implied a wider erudition, as well as esoteric sources which, apart from Kabbalah itself, he didn’t name. Nevertheless, his teaching had original features – for example his version of the STOP exercise, and the critical importance he gave to the 27th Path – the so called ‘Path of Mars’ – albeit resting firmly on the Golden Dawn astrological and Tarot attributions. In other ways his teaching echoed Zen and others such as Gurdjieff’s. Fundamentally, he defined magic as the art of effecting outward change by operating with subjective states.

Tony Potter – ink & guache 1967 (J.N.P.)

“…an unruffled, open mind is the natural state for the human psyche…the hectic chasing of one unproductive thought after another is a pathological state which we have allowed to become our normal condition.” (Anthony John Potter)

By the time I met Barry Long I was a full-time school teacher, married and had a daughter. Art had become a serious occupation, and my work as an observational painter influenced my engagement with both Barry’s and Tony’s teachings at least as much as they influenced it.

When I first met Tony Potter in 1964, introduced by a fellow art student, I was, by contrast, very uncertain as to my path in life. Tony Potter ran a group in Highgate in north London called ’The Society of the Hidden Life’, dedicated to something called ‘The Work’. I used to turn up late to the meetings and sat at the back, saying nothing. Potter clearly considered me a singularly ill-equipped individual, as well as somewhat arrogant.

At the time we knew little of the group’s origin. It had in fact been developed in the 1950s, by a few individuals emerging from National Service and finding themselves adrift in Soho. I and other ex-Hornsey art students in the group were of the first post-war generation not to have been called up for National Service. There was quite an age-gap and Tony Potter seemed to us a man of the world as well as an esoteric initiate. While his wife Rosemary was of the art world, working in the fabric department of Hornsey College of Art, Potter  himself had a down-to-earth scientific mind, and was the editor of an advanced computer journal. 

THE SOCIETY COURSE

The weekly lessons were read from a text called ’The Society Course’, which introduced the STOP exercise, and self-observation in terms of four Principles: Reflex, Instinct, Thinking and Feeling, and the so-called ‘Paths’ linking them. A fifth principle, ’Harmony’ was mentioned as an integrating centre acting on a higher level (see the ‘Glyph of Principles and Paths’.) 

One was given a specific exercise to be practised during each week. Each of the Principles and paths could have positive or negative expression, and progress was made by STOPPING, identifying the principles at work in a given situation and discriminating between positive and negative action. In general, the Stop exercise was/is not meant to be carried out with any particular anticipation of result, but for its own sake. In that sense it is like art, and in my experience the STOP is a characteristic of involvement in genuine art. Personally I find the Society Course teaching of Stop to have been the most important aspect of The Work. The rest – learning to tackle things, as Potter put it, ‘tree-wise’, is all very significant, but is in itself mental paraphernalia, ultimately dispensable. The aim was/is to attain a permanent ‘stop’ state. It probably goes without saying that I don’t claim to be in that permanent ‘stop’ state, but stopping helps me to observe myself ‘reacting’, and to break inappropriate repetitive cycles. In my opinion our teachers in the group didn’t always remember to Stop either, but that doesn’t detract from the value of the exercise.

Learning to Stop – A meeting in The Society of the Hidden Life – oil pastel on paper, 1964, by Stanley Green © 

As taught in Tony Potter’s group, the Stop was a technique of instant meditation and self-observation to be practiced in any and every situation. Unlike other meditation techniques, it did not involve time-consuming detachment or special poses. Nor did it mean suddenly freezing physically. It was a way of stilling the mind, becoming inwardly aware of the body, breath and heartbeat as well as surroundings. Outwardly unobservable, inwardly time was suspended.

When working on the paths we kept personal notes of exercises and observations, which were duly handed to Tony and occasionally discussed. After each lesson the class repaired to the saloon bar of The Red Lion and Sun in Highgate Village, where the group mingled socially and theory was put into practice, with the benefit of Tony’s proximity and influence. At weekends The Group, en-mass, arrived at a local party, clutching 2 litre cans of Charrington’s, and the undercover work of STOPPING continued, presumably to the incalculable benefit of humankind.

CABALA AND THE TREE OF LIFE

After 12 lessons the text of the Society Course was put aside in favour of  ad-libbed lessons in which Tony unfolded the Cabalistic background to The Work. The ‘principles’ were seen to correspond to Sephiroth on the Tree of Life and approached through their attributes and attributions. The dynamics of any life situation should be understood in terms of the Tree. The notion of ‘going through the veil’ in the central sephira of Tiphareth (‘Harmony’ in the Society Course) was introduced as being a critical point in one’s awakening. It was death and rebirth and loss of ego – or rather a reconstruction of the relation between ego and a greater Self.

The Work continued in terms of the Tree, and another type of ‘Pathwork’ was introduced, in which the paths and Sephiroth were explored in a ‘waking dream’ state. Meticulous written notes had to be kept – not only as a record to be read by Tony, but as a safety device in bringing attention down to earth. ‘Earthing’ was always considered

The Cabala Tree of Life

important. As time went on the Hebrew alphabet, numerology, gematria & notaricon, colour schemes, musical sounds, astrology and the Tarot were introduced and related to the tree consistently with the Golden Dawn system of correspondences, and some of us equipped ourselves with copies of Aleister Crowley’s 777 and read books by Israel Regardie et al.

Potter encouraged a Zen-like ability not to think about something at will – to un-think as he put it. At the same time it was to be understood that Feeling was often contrary to thinking-based rationality. Suspending thought was appropriate to life’s challenges, and so was taking action which might appear irrational, or entertaining illogical explanations. One paid heed to coincidences – events that were significant without being causally linked. In so doing one was beginning to work with Harmony, the ‘impartial third’. Although this, Tiphareth, was seen as being at a higher point in the scheme, the focus of The Work was still down-to-earth, moving attention away from intervening rationalised interpretation and allowing reality to address one in her own unpremeditated terms:

All things ephemeral are seen as symbols;  insufficiency becomes meaningful event; The indescribable is accomplished; The Eternal Feminine draws us upward. (Goethe Faust Part II : “Alles Vergängliche Ist nur ein Gleichnis; Das Unzulängliche, Hier wird’s Ereignis; Das Unbeschreibliche, Hier ist’s getan; Das Ewig-Weibliche Zieht uns hinan.”)

THE TOWER

The teaching focused particularly on the path joining Thinking and Feeling, both in the ‘waking dream’ Pathwork and in what one might call ‘real life’ situations. Though the STOP exercise involved suspension of thinking, the Thinking Principle corresponds, like the other Principles, to one of the ten Sephiroth on the Cabbala Tree, the essential structure of the cosmos and the human psyche (see diagram). However, despite the attribution of Mercury to this Sephira, ‘Thinking’ may be an inadequate description. The Aramaic name ‘Hod’ הוד is usually translated as Glory or Majesty. The issue, however, is of the imbalance of western civilisation in this Principle, and the need to balance technological marvels and science with Feeling (Netzach נצח, meaning Victory or Endurance). In the teaching the path between Hod and Netzach was called the Path of Mars and symbolised by the Tarot card The Tower. 

The Path of Mars, balancing the left and right, female and male pillars of the tree, was to be seen as significant in all conflicts, as well as in relations between man and woman. It was an essential step on the way to Tiphareth, or Harmony, beyond the veil.

This path is one of the three which unite the left and right, male and female pillars of the Tree. Tony Potter’s teaching (like Barry Long’s) was crucially concerned with relationships between the sexes. He took the traditional view (not uncommon in 1965) that women are more feeling-orientated and men more intellectual so that the sexes misunderstand each other. In terms of The Work, self-knowledge is gained by each recognising his or her reflection in the other, usually involving an encounter with what Jung called ‘The Shadow’, and and its recognition as a part of the self.

Paradoxically, at this level of the Tree, the Thinking principle, associated with the planet Mercury, is on the female (left hand) pillar and the Feeling Principle, associated with Venus, is on the masculine (right hand) pillar. In general it seems counter-intuitive that the ‘Pillar of Severity’ on the Tree is classed as feminine. 

According to Tony Potter, no civilisation has successfully traversed The 27th Path, and few individuals succeed in doing so, but he seemed optimistic that it could and would be achieved in our time, the influence of Jung being particularly significant. The principle of Harmony (Tiphareth תִּפְאֶרֶת usually translated as Beauty) represents the level of consciousness which thought and feeling come from, and which reconciles them, combining the essence of both while being neither.

TOWARDS TIPHARETH

The very first essential step towards Tiphareth was the individual becoming as independent and economically self-sufficient as possible, which meant leaving home and mother, and was part of being ‘earthed’. For me at the time this was indeed a matter of ‘reality’, beside which any artistic ambition I might have seemed irrelevant.  

The Work exercises were not aimed at particular results, but at the same time one’s material life was said to be an indication of progress in the work. What happened to you was a reflection of yourself: ‘Attitude attracts environment’. This encouraged one to take responsibility, but sometimes led to people being unfairly judged in the light of their misfortunes.

Tony Potter once described magic as the ability to operate with subjective states, for example controlling or suspending thought. However, taking the first step in one’s psyche away from mechanical inertia was virtually impossible on one’s own, for the simple reason that to desire self-improvement is itself a form of avarice, the vice of the first path, the path of Saturn. One needed esoteric help which could only come by way of an adept acting from Binah (The Third Sephirah – coloured black in the Tree diagram) who was able to operate objectively in terms of the neophyte’s subjective experience.

That is explained, technically, by the fact that the paths refer to subjective experience while the Principles, or Sephiroth are objective, and that the Principles above the veil are reflected in the paths below, and vice-versa. This is borne out in the Golden Dawn astrological attributions, so that Binah and the 32nd (1st) path are both signified by Saturn.

Thus with help from the silence and stillness of Binah (Understanding – The Supernal Mother), the first step on the path could be taken with the purest of motives, or none at all, and it possibly explains why the STOP is significant at every level of The Work.

‘Ascending the tree’ was implicitly growth in consciousness, but the critical, and dangerous, point in Tiphareth is the ‘flipping’ of object and subject, conscious and unconscious, and experience of a state where ‘you are everything, everything is you’.

I once asked Tony to recommend a useful career for an artist in terms of The Work. He suggested wallpaper design, since no one notices wallpaper yet it influences everyone in the room. I try not to design wallpaper, but Potter’s influences have been incalculable.

Tony Potter died in August 2001. I wondered what he would have made of the subsequent “9/11” events, considering the images of burning towers and falling victims were so poignant and so reminiscent of the Tarot. On September 11th 2001, I was in a North London garden exploring the interplay of cool greens of reflected light and warm greens of transmitted light in the grass and foliage, bearing witness to the alchemy of photosynthesis, and symbolising the interplay of  reflective intellect and involved feeling in the painting process:

“Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.”

Brambles in a North London Garden, 2001, oil on canvas 40″x30″ (J.N.P.)