A Woman's Work
With Gurdjieff, Ramana Maharshi,
Krishnamurti, Anandamaya Ma & Pak Subuh:

The Spiritual Life Journey of Ethel Merston

Mary Ellen Korman
Ethel Merston was one of those insufferable not to say indefatigable English women who set out early on to have a Meaningful Spiritual Experience and ended up meeting with the five gurus listed in what must be one of the longest book titles in all of spiritualdom.

Merston, born in 1883, lived damn near forever, and visited, studied with, and --- we might say --- collected all these famous masters as well as a host of other celebrities, including Gertrude Stein, Ruth Benedict, Hemingway, Brancusi, Lipschitz, Joyce, Ghandi, and both of the Cayces. She doesn't mention becoming a familiar of Jesus, but we assume that may lie further on in the book. We wouldn't know for sure, because we got lost there somewhere between Bhagavan Maharishi and Krishnamurti, just south of the Arunachalesvara Temple in Tiruvannamalai.

One thing that Merston was good at doing was exasperating the bejesus out of the various mystics she scared up. Only Gurdjieff seemed to know how to handle her, she being the product of the agonized, stuffy English upper class. She and Gurdjieff were at his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, in France, and he told her that she was in charge of the cows. Huh? She didn't know squat about cows, but there she was, at five in the morning, milking two large bossies and giving them feed.

Another time he said to her. "You grow rice." Ethel being Ethel complained that rice would not grow there in Prieure, but said, "If you really want me to sow rice, I don't care, I'll sow it, but it will just be a waste of money, for it won't come up."

She might have sewed a batch of basmati, but she didn't figure out what Gurdjieff was telling her even though she stayed on five years, showing an amazing obstinacy. It was said that Gurdjieff delighted in torturing his French devotees by demanding that they stick to a diet of red burgundy and bacon. We don't find out in A Woman's Work if Ethel participated in this sacrilege, but since she was from England, she probably didn't care all that much.

Finally Ethel left Europe and made her way to India, where she met with Krishnamurti, Anandamayi Ma et al. In one of his talks, Krishnaji spoke of breaking up "consciousness into the past, present and future" to create "choiceless awareness." Ethel responded to this by "going to Paris for a winter of painting in a studio." When she got back to India, she went on to Pondicherry, where she ran across Sri Maharshi. In a darshan, he said thinking is like watching a movie, and the self-realized master pays no attention to thoughts, "just as, to the screen, the changing pictures are immaterial."

    Quieting the mind and stilling the mind are different,

he told his followers. She didn't get the difference, nor do I.

Bhagavan also told her that thoughts could be compared to pigs. We have to protect the "mind-chamber" with a fence, and when suitably fenced, we can "chase out the pig-thoughts" and "a bush of Self will each time grow up." Neither Ethel nor I could figure this one out either, but at least she tried: "She felt the impulse to attend to the pigs." It must have been something like tending cows back there in Prieure.

Finally Bhagavan related a beautiful tale from his previous life, where a peacock "would come into the hall to the couch, spread its tail, and dance before Bhagavan, everyone watching as though it were a formal dance program." This reminded Ethel of another beautiful thought from Gurdjieff. "He said men are food for the Moon." That I got. God knows what went on in her mind.

Even if she died an unfulfilled woman as Korman claims, Merston left us some wonderful quotes, including Bhagavan asking, "How can you meditate to get peace of mind if you don't know what mind is?"

There are over fifty photographs here, including one of Ouspensky looking like a remittance man in London, Gurdjieff in a homburg, Maharshi clad in diapers reading letters, Sri Aurobindo glaring at the camera like an Old Testament god, and Krishnamurti looking like no less than a Bollywood star on the set, ready to break into song.

--- Lolita Lark
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