Paperback • 364 pages
Examines the life and legacy of one of the world’s great thinkers and spiritual teachers. This very personal biography follows MacLaren from his youth through to his last days, casting a light on the teachings, the man, and the profound influence both had on thousands of supporters and adherents who were part of the movement he began: The School of Economic Science. Building on the ancient mystery schools and the legacies of the great G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, MacLaren finally met his true master HH Shantananda Saraswati. From this great spiritual teacher, MacLaren received the ancient knowledge of Advaita Vedanta, or the underlying single universal consciousness, a pillar of his future teachings.
A Review of The Power Within by Dorine Tolley
by Joseph Azize
At the outset, I have to declare that I have counted the author, Dorine, as a friend for some years; and that I was in her Gurdjieff movements class for about two years. I cannot say that this personal and pleasant acquaintance has not influenced my deep appreciation of her book, which is partly her autobiography and partly a biography of her teacher, Leonardo (Leon) da Vinci MacLaren (“LM”). But, trying to be impartial, I am inclined to think that it is the other way round. Rather than liking her book because of our friendship, we are friends because of her qualities, and those qualities abound in this book. Further, there is a safeguard for the reader. I shall carefully disclose what I have found in the book, so that at least you will have a description of the contents. Then, you will know whether it is worth your while to purchase the book for its scope, which is unique, even if you suspend judgment about my view of its quality.
The heart of the book is the story of Dorine’s 22 years as LM’s personal assistant from 1973 to his death in 1994. Importantly, the volume is a joint product of LM and Tolley: there are some lengthy quotes from him, but more than that, Dorine herself is, as it were, a quill which LM trimmed to its point. She writes that she felt as if he were looking over her shoulder as she wrote. Really, Dorine’s life started running in the same channel as LM’s from 1973, and by the time he departed, LM’s life was running in the same channel as Dorine’s. So this comes from one pen but from two authors: it is the matured fruit of a mutual ripening.
There are 19 relatively short chapters. This makes it easy to navigate your way through the book, and eases the reading. Dorine’s style is agreeable, straightforward and candid. One could even say that her style is “cordial”. The only difficulties, and these are rare, are those which flow from the reader’s desire to rise to the elevated concepts under discussion. That is, when we read LM’s own thoughts about the Self (capital S), one often pauses and re-reads slowly, not because it is poorly expressed, but because it is a well-expressed, and one wishes to penetrate and absorb.
This book will interest those who knew LM; those who had some acquaintance not with him but with his pupils or the school; those with an interest in Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, or in Advaita in its Western manifestations; and students of esoteric and even “New Age” movements; and the merely curious. All of these people will find something new here. And perhaps most of all, this is the first book I know of dealing with LM and his achievement by someone with first hand knowledge. Another feature of the book is the photographs (which I have seen in an exhibition) and the extracts from LM’s letters at the back of the book.
Let us pause for a moment: Dorine not only knew LM but was perhaps the closest person in the world to him for his last 22 years, and was his mainstay in the year or so leading to his death. She provides other first hand evidence: photographs of LM and his associates, and text straight from LM himself. I refer here not only to the letters at the end of the book, but also his narration of how the school began, and other materials. This is simply not available elsewhere. The only other accounts of LM known to me are hostile and prejudiced. Neither Dorine nor LM attempt to justify himself or anything he did, or to appeal to the nobility of his motives: they say what was done and provide information. Of course, they have selected the material they present, but read Dorine’s book, and see if you do not agree with me that she has set out to provide a balanced picture. When one reads the unflattering things mentioned, one can only wonder what has been left out if this is a whitewash.
We should also be clear that LM and his school were, and are, in purely numerical terms far larger than the Gurdjieff Institute and Foundations. Precise numbers are not available, but while each Foundation numbers its members in the low hundreds, LM numbered his in the low thousands. For example, the Amsterdam group, for which Dorine’s parents were responsible, had over 3,000 members at one time: probably twice as much or more as the Paris, London and New York groups combined under De Salzmann, Lannes and Pentland.
The importance of this book, therefore, in understanding Gurdjieff’s legacy after his death can hardly be underestimated. It is the first fair glimpse into the entire west wing of the castle.
The first chapters of the book introduce us to Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, then to LM himself and his father, who was instrumental in founding the School of Economic Science. We meet other persons who made significant contributions, even if their story are quickly told, such as Dr Francis Roles, who succeeded Ouspensky in London, and Dorine’s parents – evidently remarkable people in their own right. Dorine has an eye for the interesting, but does not overplay her hand. For example, one of her forebears in Java, Jeremias van Riemsdijk, the Governor General of the Dutch Indies in 1777, purchased the land which became a graveyard. The locals spoke of going to “the land of Jas”, and eventually he was made into a semi-divine patron of graveyards. Shades of Gurdjieff’s “Holy Mountains”!
Everyone who exercises any independence has issues of some degree with their parents. LM’s difficult relations with his father are sensitively recounted, and their eventual reconciliation is paradigmatic. Dorine tells her stories in such a way that one can see their point and their application. But she never preaches, rather, she allows the facts to speak for themselves.
As I read of the contributions of Dorine’s parents, LM’s father, and his Indian teacher, Swami Saraswati, I started to sense that this was the story of a spiritual family, and that had even one of these people not been as they were, the whole would have been considerably different, and diminished.
So who was Leon MacLaren, and what does Dorine say about him? It is sufficient for this review to indicate that he was a teacher of a spiritual way. The way he taught could be considered as an offshoot of Ouspensky’s teaching, and less directly, of Gurdjieff’s. But really, although the Advaita influence becomes paramount, I see LM as being of the same species as all of these, but of a unique genus. Like Bennett, but I suspect with less meddling with the traditions he received, LM infuriated those who sought a clear settled line, and could not understand him. But for those who could receive, I have no doubt whatsoever that LM could keep an inner octave true: he had direction and he could give direction, helping people over the hurdles.
Even when LM made errors, and Dorine does not air-brush these away, there was an integrity in his errors: they were all according to principle (such as the idea of staying up once you have woken up, at whatever hour of the night).
What emerges, to my mind very clearly, is that LM could relate anything in life to the largest and highest purposes. To put it another way, he seems never to have forgotten his aim.
One of the beauties of Dorine’s approach is that it is loving, understanding and impartial all at once. Dorine describes LM in such a way that one appreciates his individuality, and yet sees that it cannot be imitated. If individuality cannot be imitated, yet it can inspire us to seek our own individuality. “Individuality” and “idiosyncrasy” are two different things. Individuality, in a spiritual tradition, is the development of our unique essence possibilities; it is the first step towards fulfilling the aim for which we were born. Idiosyncrasy, on the other hand, is the subjective exaggeration of our personalities. Cultivating idiosyncrasy is self-will, and is always in reaction against other people. It is bondage to the small self, egocentricity, and emptiness.
Dorine shows how LM came to bring a unique teaching, even if it was based on Gurdjieff and Advaita. Thus, she demonstrates how vital and alive these teachings are. And the extraordinary thing is that LM’s exposure was not to Gurdjieff or Ouspensky but to Roles, one of Ouspensky’s pupils. I have to confess that I cannot feel any warm sympathy for the Advaita approach. It is not that I think there is nothing in it. There is, indeed, a great deal there, and there is much of benefit in it. But it is not my way either by inclination or by belief. It is a measure of Dorine’s achievement that even someone like myself can see something of the value of Advaita and LM’s approach.
Finally, the treatment of LM’s death is given the weight it deserves. When reading a good biography, I can never fail to ask: how did they live so as to die? When they died, who departed? As Gurdjieff said, anyone can take as an aim the goal of dying an honourable death, not like a dog.
It seems to me that LM did that. And with the aid of this book, one can follow the course of this man’s life, a man whom I would not hesitate to say was one of “Ashiata’s renewals.”