The Thematic Technique
When Mr. Bennett began working with themes at Sherborne House he gave the introduction reproduced below. Reading the presentation and discussion of themes, without having worked on them oneself, can create the illusion of understanding. It is important that the reader should try to grasp and take seriously what Mr. Bennett says about the thematic technique.
The technique of theme consists in this: in persistently and with great determination occupying one's mind with a specific clear notion so that one can penetrate into it in depth. There are various techniques that involve this persistent directing of the mental attention towards one object. There are various kinds of meditation. There is the Zen Koan exercise where the attention is persistently directed towards something incongruous or impossible and because the incongruity and impossibility of the Koan is clear, the mind can be occupied with it with less risk of wandering off into imaginary solutions to the problem. Another kind of persistent occupation of the mind is described in the talks I had with the Shivapuri Baba in Long Pilgrimage. He said; "Think of God alone, put every other thought from your mind. Think only of God and then eventually you will come to the realization of the meaning of life".
The way we shall work with this particular technique, which is one of very great value and which, when combined with the other things that we shall be doing can be very fruitful indeed, is that every Monday morning I will put before you one theme with which you should, as far as possible, occupy your attention during the week, when your attention is not required for the external activities in which you are engaged.
There are subsidiary benefits of this thematic technique. For one thing, you have something positive to put in the place of the idle associations that ordinarily occupy our minds. You have something to which you can turn your attention when you find you are disturbed, irritated. But these are, as I say, subsidiary benefits. The main purpose is to go through the verbal and conceptual level of understanding to a direct perception of the real world to which it belongs. I use the words "real world" because we can look at it in this way: there is a gradient between states of subjective illusion where one is connected with no reality except the immediate transient experience, passing through various states of awakening to contact or full realization of the meaning of life and one's own real being. These gradations do correspond to different worlds. Ordinarily people speak about 'this world' and the 'other world', but in reality there are more than two worlds. each one so different one from another that all we can know about one world does not prepare us for the experience of the next world.
The next world is not like the popular idea of somewhere we shall enter into after death. It is the next world here and now. It is only closed to us because we have become almost totally conditioned to living in the world of these sense perceptions and the thinking, as we call it that is derived from our sense perceptions. Although this is, in the full sense of the word, an illusory, that is, not even an existing world, nevertheless while we are in these bodies we have to come to terms with it-not merely because it would be awkward for us to disregard the requirements of our bodies, but because we have an obligation to do so. We are not here in these bodies for nothing, simply to escape from them, but to use them for a definite purpose for which this existence was given to us. We cannot learn this purpose nor can we fulfill it so long as we are wholly imprisoned in this world; wholly conditioned to it.
Some degree of liberation is needed in order to see, first of all, what it is like to orientate oneself in the physical world. The ordinary state of man is like flatland that is, having only flat dimensions. He has no real experience of height and depth, only an illusory experience coming from his emotions and the interaction between his different functions. A real awareness of height and depth is in the sense of a transition from one world to another. This seldom happens to people and when it does happen, they misinterpret it. But we have to set ourselves to be able to add a dimension to our experience, to be able to be aware of the height and depth of experience and not merely of its successiveness and its spread around us. Therefore, the really important objective in the thematic technique is that it should give us the power to move in depth. For this we have to accept and be convinced that there is depth, that there is more in simple things than meets I the eye, or more than can be described in our conceptual language. It is inherent in this, that everything, however simple, has its own dimension of depth, its own significance. As Blake said: "Everything that lives has meaning and needs neither suckling nor weaning". This means we neither have to put anything into it nor have we to extract it out of its environment; it is where it is. This we have, first of all to be convinced of and then, Afterwards, to learn to perceive. As we ourselves live in a flat world, we also see everything around us as flat. The theme is to run through all the other activities of the week, as something independent of the other activities. Although activities will impinge on one another, and we will doubtless find material in our other activities for enriching our understanding of the theme. and the theme itself will throw light on the other activities. they must be kept independent of one another. The theme is part of the Work in its own right. One important feature of the way of using the thematic technique as I shall do here is that themes will only be given for a limited period of time that is for one week. This is quite unlike, Let us say, the perpetual meditation on the meaning of life that the Shivapuri Baba recommends. as it is quite unlike what a Zen Master would do for a disciple in showing him a Koan exercise or some meditation theme. But it has a special advantage of its own, and that is that it is circumscribed, set within limits. What you can get from it, you must get in one week. after that you have only the distilled results of your own efforts. The next theme will then have to occupy your attention to the exclusion of everything else. This principle of circumscription or limitation is one that enables an activity to be a completing cycle that is to correspond to a completing octave. What is open-ended without an end to which it is directed produces certain other kinds of experiences and possibilities. but it does not give the opportunity to carry through to completion.
You have to set the theme before yourself in this way - that from Monday until Friday night is the time that you have got to penetrate into the theme that I shall give you. Then Saturday and Sunday you can either think about it or not, there is no obligation to put it entirely out of your mind, though there is a certain benefit in doing this, so that you will approach the next theme on the following Monday without the momentum of the previous week. So in the five days from the Monday morning to Friday evening, we try to complete the cycle of penetration into a particular theme. I advise you to picture it to yourself in this way: that what you are looking for is really a world that you are not, in your ordinary state in contact with: a world which is beyond our ordinary state. In our ordinary state we can see and touch things. we can think about them. we can reason with ourselves about them. we can compare our memories. This is not enough.
If we were fresh, wholly natural people, we should be able to move from that into the depth of things but, as it was said in one of the readings we have had recently, man is unable to perceive, to see, to hear or to think anything new after childhood. By the time he reaches seventeen, eighteen, twenty, twenty one years of age, he becomes closed and he is only a collection of gramophone records. This is a hard thing to accept, but it is really like that, and therefore you cannot accept it yet, but sometime this will begin to really break into you, showing that all your processes are just automatic results of external influences acting on what has already been formed in you, which it is already too late to change. The only hope of escaping from this situation is to be able to penetrate into another world. The situation in this world is as it is. But as it is said in "From the Author", although it is possible to cross over from the stream that leads to nothing into the stream that leads to the "boundless ocean" it is not so easy. It is not enough "just to wish and you cross", for as Gurdjieff said, a long preparation and a great deal of hard work is required. This is what we have set ourselves to undertake here. It is not at all easy for people to understand that the way of life which is dominant in the world leads to nothing at all. The whole of it is now illusion. This is impossible, not merely difficult, but impossible, for people to grasp until they have had experience of looking at it from another world and seeing it how it is. My hope for you all is that during this time you will have gained this vantage point where you will be able to see for yourself and never again lose this understanding. Really, only that can give us the strength and persistence to endure what is necessary, in order to transfer into and establish ourselves in the stream of real life.
JOHN G BENNETT
Material Objects: The Sherborne Theme Talks Series – 3
Coombe Springs Press 1977