This is a memoir of work in Tony Potter’s group, written by the painter John Pearce.
THE TEACHINGS OF TONY POTTER
by John Pearce
THE WORK –
I first met Tony in 1964 or 65. Group meetings were held at his flat in Claremont Road, Highgate. The Group was called ’The Society of the Hidden Life’, and dedicated to ‘The Work’. 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 ‘Paths’ which linked them. A fifth principle, ’Harmony’ was mentioned as an integrating centre acting on a higher level.
One was given a specific exercise to be practised ‘during the week’. Each of the principles and paths had positive and negative characteristics, and progress was made by stopping, identifying the principles at work in a given situation and discriminating between positive and negative action.
When working on the paths we kept notes of exercises and observations, which were duly handed to Tony. 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 large (2litre?) cans of Charington’s, and the undercover work of stops continued, presumably to the incalculable benefit of humankind.
After 12 lessons the text of the Society Course was put aside in favour of an ad-libbed sequence of lessons, in which Tony unfolded the Cabalistic background to The Work, and the ‘principles’ were seen to correspond to sephiroth on the Tree of Life. The notion of ‘going through the veil’ in the central sephira of Tiphareth, (corresponding to ‘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 Self.
Similarities were drawn between other teachings, particularly those of Carl Gustav Jung and The Work. Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, ’Subud’, and even Scientology, were more likely to be mentioned in the Pub than in the context of class meetings, but some members of the group had experience of them or read about them. Potter rather discouraged reading, beyond certain recommendations – these included Dion Fortune’s ‘Mystical Qabalah’, and Jung – in favour of first-hand experience.
Western civilisation was portrayed as stuck in the principle of thinking, and needed to balance it with feeling. The path between these two principles (Hod and Netzach) was called the Path of Mars and symbolised by the Tarot card The Tower. No civilisation had managed to traverse this path, and few individuals did so, and it would take great honesty, courage and unselfishness, but Tony seemed optimistic that it could and would be achieved, given the insights of Jung and others.
Crossing the Path of Mars, balancing the left and right, female and male pillars of the tree was significant in all conflicts, and also in relations between man and woman, and was an essential step on the way to Tiphareth, or Harmony, beyond the veil.
The Work now continued in terms of the Tree. The paths and sephiroth were explored in waking dream exercises which had to be meticulously written down. Apart from its value as a record to be read by Tony, this was also a safety device in bringing the attention down to earth. ‘Earthing’ was always considered 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, and some of us equipped ourselves with copies of Aleister Crowley’s 777 and read books by Israel Regardie et al.
TOWARDS TIPHARETH –
Stopping and looking meant awareness of thinking, the ability to suspend and even dispense with thinking, and to see reality in terms of a truer, non-rationalised order. Explanations, reasons, identifying and naming, were all the work of the ego. (I wonder, looking back, whether there was actually very much real understanding of ‘feeling’ although the negative aspects, such as self-pity, were recognised and rightly forbidden.)
The very first essential step on the road to Tiphareth, was the individual becoming as independent and economically self-sufficient as possible, and that meant leaving home and mother, and was part of being ‘earthed’. One’s material life was said to be an indication of progress in the work, and Potter respected competence. What happened to you was held to be a reflection of yourself: ‘Attitude attracts environment’. But, while it encouraged one to take responsibility, this attitude sometimes led to people being unfairly judged in the light of their illnesses and misfortunes. Potter himself once spectacularly fell down a flight of stairs at a party. When criticised for this, he replied that there had been a malignant energy present in the atmosphere which his fall had ’earthed’.
Tony once described magic as the ability to operate with and to control subjective states. An example might be the ability to deliberately not think about something, or to think of a cat without thinking of the word ‘cat’. To take 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 movement was avarice, and thus 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 – a ‘Master of the Temple’ in Golden Dawn language, 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, 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 really the be-all-and-end-all 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’.
The Work has been of great value and influenced me. Paradoxically I remember Tony as somewhat conservative and conventional as well as rare and extraordinary. His effect has been incalculable.
John Pearce December 2015
Note: There is more information about Tony Potter and the Society of the Hidden Life on John Pearce’s website at https://johnnpearceartist.com/art-and-realityart-and-reality/.