It is humbling to try to communicate what my experience has been knowing William C. Segal for more than thirty years. He opened doorways to perception for me when I was in my twenties, and he’s been doing it ever since.
For more than forty years, Bill has been interested in Eastern thought and meditation and has met, known and studied with many of the religious leaders of our times. Zen pioneers D. T. Suzuki and Paul Reps were personal friends. He studied with G. I. Gurdjieff in the forties and has guided others in the Gurdjieff teaching for many years.
Few people are born with the natural, physical, artistic and spiritual gifts of a Bill Segal. Relatively unknown, in many ways he is the hero Everyman. He has neither hoarded nor squandered his gifts, but has given generously to all those around him. He has learned and relearned the lessons of life, has accepted the difficulties and struggles.
Born in Georgia in 1904, Bill Segal migrated north to New York with his parents, a middle class working couple. Married in 1928, he found it difficult to support his family as a painter and took a job in trade publishing. He soon started his own publishing company, which expanded to ten publications by the end of the thirties.
He took chances with his publications. American Fabrics was the Fortune magazine of the textiles and garment industry. Gentry was an early avant-garde men’s magazine. He ran articles on Zen Buddhism, Eastern art, falconry, modern painting—whatever struck his fancy.
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My feelings for Bill Segal have changed over the years. In the early years I wanted to impress him, I wanted to be recognized by him and respected by him, and I suppose I feared him.
The awe and respect that he engendered in those days made me a boy to his man, but as I grew older, Bill’s real wisdom, quiet patience, intelligence and strength became more apparent and more and more a wonder. Spending time with Bill these days is not only fun and interesting as you listen to him, watch him, walk with him, eat supper with him—it’s almost a sacred experience.
In the summer of 1971, camping on Long Island with my sons, I received word that Bill had been in a terrible automobile accident. We packed camp and went to the hospital, where I found him with a broken jaw, broken hips, a tracheotomy, a patch on one eye and tubes in various parts of his body keeping him alive.
On the beach, I had found a weathered piece of wood with bark still on it. It resembled a small Japanese sculpture. In the hospital I placed it in the one hand Bill could move. He held it, turned it towards the light, looked at it intently and handed it back to me. He could not talk because of the tracheotomy, but in his gestures was a smile, a thank you, caring and communication.
At the time it appeared he would never walk again, but today Bill Segal’s life is more active than many men years younger. He paints, meditates and writes; he is a concerned husband, father and grandfather. He travels to three or four continents every year, and this fall will have a major exhibit of his paintings in Tokyo and Osaka.
DANIEL HESS: At the time of the accident, Bill, lying all broken up and knowing that you had a choice of dying or living, what thoughts went through your head?
WILLIAM SEGAL: Being confronted by death, seeing, being in the middle of it, changes a lot of things. Soen Nakagawa, a friend of mine, paid me a visit. Seeing me he grasped my hand: “Fine, fine, fine, lucky man,” he said, “One accident like the one you had is worth ten thousand sittings in a monastery.”
The night of the accident I recall intervals of going in and out of consciousness. I remember flashes of great, great pain, then I would pass out. Then someone was saying, “Well it’s okay, we’ve given him the last rites.” They thought I was dying, so they had some priest give me the last rites.
Somehow I knew then that if I had lapsed in a matter of attention, if there was any lapse in attention, any self-pity, any thinking, any thought at all, I would have died. So I decided that well, I’m going to try to live now. All I could do was to keep a sort of a thin thread of being there. That meant no refusal of pain, just staying right there. And I was convinced that this alone would pull me through.
So it seems that attention in the deepest way saved your life?
The cultivation of a capacity for attention is probably the most important thing a human being can do, because with developed attention one can come closer to knowing who one is, to knowing the truth about the fantasy of life around us. With attention, a world uncovers itself.
I think with attention, one can lead a creative life as a human being. With attention, one experiences the world as richer, more fascinating, more meaningful; without attention we are victimized, and we victimize others. We are “things” instead of participants in the cosmic game.
Attention helps to bring about organization of energy and refinement of energy, otherwise there would be randomness in the universe as well as around one’s self.
When I am speaking to you, when I’m listening to you, I hope that I’m related and linked to an element of vibration which is equivalent to what one is related to when one sits in meditation. So there is no difference. There is the form and the non-form, which are both in some paradoxical way, one and the same thing.
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We’re in Chester, New Jersey, Bill’s retreat where he’s painted and meditated for more than forty years. He is preparing for the one-man October show in Tokyo, where some 50 of his paintings will be exhibited. Bill’s working on a self-portrait triptych as I walk the studio. He looks up at me as a filmmaker might, framing a shot. Neither of us talk. This concentration is intense. He starts painting early every day and stops just for lunch. He paints with a great sureness. He seems to tackle painting problems almost without hesitation.
The connection between no hesitation and painting and meditation. How do you see that for yourself?
I believe it’s related to freedom from what one could call “identification,” or ego-centrism. I begin to see that this form that paints is simply a transient form which is here, and the energy that occupies this form is free, in the true sense of the word. So whatever presents itself, I meet, without thinking too much about it, giving the subject all my attention, but being a little freer from the ego which spoils any enterprise.
I don’t hope or wish for glory, for fame, for money. I do it because I paint, or I cut wood, or I drink my coffee, knowing that this transient form is going through these motions and it has its place, it has its duties and it fulfills them. I think that’s why I can go directly to any job uninhibited.
As a painter, how do you see the connection between art and meditation?
The question may be one relating to awakedness. The relationship is the same as when one chops wood or drinks a cup of coffee—one is awake or asleep in the sense of an inner relationship. Great art, like great music or poetry, is a tribute to the human spirit.
Does being “awake” come into your paintings?
Most of us go through life without being fed by subtle impressions of sights and sounds. We don’t see the beautiful greens in nature. When we don’t see the cup, don’t taste the tea, we deprive ourselves of the rich food of impressions.
Yes. There are moments of insight where the blind is dropped from one’s eyes or one’s feelings or one’s psyche, and you see the world as richer, more complex, different than one thinks. And this is reflected in the artist and in his work.
The difference between the meditator, the poet, and the painter is that there’s probably no difference, except I think the adept lives that way at almost every moment, whereas the poet has a moment of inspiration.
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Later, Bill stops as we’re walking up the little hill to his quiet house. Many years ago it used to be a chicken house until a few of us raised it on stilts, put in a new floor, a stained-glass window at one end, and it became a quiet house, with black cushions and benches to sit on. Bill stops to pick up a broken branch near his pond. He looks at it, slowly turning it this way and that, seeing how the light falls on it. He smiles at me. Every aspect of his life has been simplified. And in the simplicity there is beauty and purity.
At 88, Bill still dresses in a signature style, as he always has. He often wears elegant linen vests with work clothes. In all the years I’ve known Bill, I’ve never seen him arrogant, nor falsely modest. He speaks about his own accomplishments in a direct way.
When Bill speaks, he looks directly at you; his tone is quiet, soft and smooth, his emphasis is in changing cadences, rather than in volume. He talks clearly and directly, pausing occasionally. His mind never strays when he is talking. Sometimes he will stop talking and not need to talk for a period of time.
Going back, the very special combination in your life of publishing and commerce with the esoteric, meditative side is unusual. How did one feed the other and how did you integrate them?
Whether you’re making a magazine or making shoelaces or building a house, there’s always an intrusion/interpenetration of different levels of energies, of vibrations. Wouldn’t you agree with that?
Right, OK. Well, I had about 10 publications, and I had an advertising business and a lot of people working for me, so I had a lot of leisure.
We’re talking now about the end of the thirties? You published Gentry,American Fabrics and other magazines in the post World War II period. At what point did the ideas of something other than the commercial world, other than the material world, begin to come in?
One day I remember, it was a sunny morning and I was walking slowly down Park Avenue, and I said, “What am I going to my office for? I have all the money I want. I have a beautiful wife, lovely home, everything, but why am I working? I should be doing something else.”
Just then a man I knew comes across the street. He says, “Bill, I’ve been thinking about you. You notice the change in my physique?” And I said “Yes you look much better, Ted.”
“You really should do what I do,” he replied. “You used to be an athlete but you’re getting fat now.” I really wasn’t getting fat. “Well, what are you doing?” I said. “I’m doing yoga.” So I said I’ll do yoga, too [laughter]. We went right to the yoga class that morning and I took up yoga.
Then sometime later at a gathering someone said, “Hey, there’s a man named P. D. Ouspensky [Gurdjieff’s principal student who had just moved to New Jersey from England]. He’s a very interesting man. You ought to meet him.” So we got into our car one night and went to Mendham, NJ and met him.
What was your work with Mr. Ouspensky at that time?
It was mostly on knowing oneself. Not knowing who we are, we’re victimized by life, we fall short of being true human beings.
How did Ouspensky explain the genesis of his ideas?
Well, he clearly attributed them to a certain Mr. G. who had studied in Eastern schools—in Tibet, India, Japan, and so on.
And you still had not started sitting?
No. In 1947 I met Dr. D. T. Suzuki who suggested that I practice at a monastery in Japan.
It was on that Japan trip that you began sitting?
I don’t think I ever sat before. Did I or did I not?… No, I had experience with yoga where you sit doing breathing exercises for a long time.
In Japan I went to three monasteries during a trip of about six months. And coming out of a very intense period, a long sesshin, I said, I’ve had it now, and I’m going back to Tokyo.
And I remember waiting at the railroad platform, and I was leaning against the wall, and I’d bought a box of strawberries for a penny. Beautiful strawberries for a penny, and I was munching the strawberries and suddenly aaaaah, and I felt absolutely free. And I thought, so this is what it’s all about. And I laughed and laughed. And that was right after I got out of Eihei-ji, a monastery in Fukui Prefecture. From then on I began to sit.
I’d love to hear about your experiences personally with Gurdjieff, how you met him and what you felt about him.
He came to Mendham, [a 350-acre mansion/farm, New Jersey home of Ouspensky] and I’ll never forget him. He made the biggest impression on me. It wasn’t what he said. I don’t remember much what he said. But he was an astonishing force when he walked in. He just came in and looked at people and sized them up and you just felt something very, very different. He was a man who radiated something. Something very great, and at the same time, very kind—very strong and very kind.
I would say that he must have been in touch with something that most people are not in touch with. And he had a gift, a faculty, of making your time stop. Everything would stop. And one would have sort of a picture, a panoramic view of oneself.
You felt that there was something beyond the life that we know that was going on around him. And you wanted to be part of that. And it’s nothing you can speak about or put into words easily.
From what I’m hearing there was a sense of presence that he had that cut through our normal thought patterns.
It was beyond the sensing of the material or the form. One could experience that there is another energy/vibration which we’re not ordinarily in touch with. In his presence you felt this presence/vibration and you didn’t know what it was.
You felt the truth that you are not you, and things are not what they seem, and perhaps we have things upside down. We only see the surface of the form. And with him you felt that. You felt a new light in the life that we knew around him.
From what I know you began to synthesize Zen meditation and the teachings of Gurdjieff for yourself, which is perhaps very different from what a lot of other people had done. How was it for you in guiding/helping other people?
A teacher or guide doesn’t impart knowledge exclusively. The way he is, or she is, is what registers and begins to open up new vistas for young people. One learns something from watching a master—that may not be teachable through books or through words. There is a sense of presence that cuts through normal thought patterns, a sense of what is beyond the material or the form.
The experience of self is not describable. Still the experience is possible for anybody at any moment. What is more difficult is to have the experience throughout one’s day, throughout one’s life, to see yourself, hear yourself, remember yourself. If this could be carried by people it would change many things.
Zen, Gurdjieff, Tibetan Buddhism and Sufism are disciplines with great knowledge; with due deference, each is headed towards the experience of being here, being aware. Ultimately, though, one is on one’s own.
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It’s a grey day on Fire Island, a community near New York, as our talks continue. Bill’s beach cottage—grey, clapboard and windburned—is a studio for himself and his wife, Marielle Bancou. He has lived here for more than five decades, painting landscapes and seascapes.
There is a country comfort to Bill’s homes, with clear signs of the artist and the mediator all around, all working together. Marielle paints wonderful illustrated books and will be having a show of her work in Paris next year. Suki, a green parrot and a member of the Segal house for many years, screams on the deck to join us as we begin lunch.
Bill, in this day and age, everyone seems to be having tremendous difficulties with relationships, and yet, I’ve known you for a long time and I’ve known you with two wonderful women in your life. (Bill lived with his first wife, Cora, for forty years until her death and has been married to Marielle for twenty.)
The whole trouble, I think, lies in a kind of mass delusion. People are not quite what they think they are. I am not only this old man or this young man or this woman or this child. I am that, but I am also the other, and the other is the substance. If people would realize there is a reality behind the seeming reality, it would alter relationships. We would be more compassionate, more generous, less grasping. Women are generally superior to men in this recognition of what is beyond the form.
To love the reality, not the illusion of reality, would mean love based on a realization that you and I are the same. My suffering is your suffering and your suffering is my suffering. With love between the sexes based on that realization, there would be attenuation of the ego-centrism that spoils all relationships.
How do you approach time, death, impermanence for yourself?
Just the way I’m saying it. After all, I’m 88, I have to face being dead tomorrow or the next day, a year, two years, a few years at the most. I’m here, I always was here. I was a little boy with shiny black hair and red cheeks and I changed. I was a middle-aged man and I changed. But always, I am. So, I am is forever—I think.
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When he is at home, Bill Segal is a family man, when he paints he’s totally at ease, relaxed and extremely attentive at his easel and with his subject. When Bill sits he is a Zen monk. Quiet, still, alert, alive, his posture perfect.
You still sit almost every day. Why are you still sitting?
Sitting allows what is ordinarily hidden to be more operative, to be more available. One is able to touch different levels with practice. You think you’ve reached the maximum of being here, and you hear something else. There is the silence that deepens. And then there’s a silence beneath the stillness. There are many layers that can be touched with practice of sitting.
In sitting, sometimes you get a glimpse of the possibilities for being more balanced as a human being. You’re home free for a few seconds, and you say well, maybe I can broaden, or deepen it. Then the question is how to deepen it?
If I sit, the clouds clear, skies open. Other times, well, why not sit. It’s pure joy sometimes just to sit. This light which is very weak, the weakest force in the world, is also the strongest force in the world. It’s our salvation.
When you say salvation, what do you mean?
Living without being dominated by one’s ego. Because you can sit for 100 years and still say, oh yeah, I feel good.
How does enlightenment come into your thinking?
Well, the word enlightenment is already a big story. What is enlightenment? Enlightenment must be just the word, the root of light. It’s awakening. Awakening to light, to one’s self. Suddenly one awakens to another reality, something that is more real than I am. I think that’s what enlightenment is. I don’t know what enlightenment is.
Do you still fall asleep or are you awake all the time now?
Let me put it this way. Certainly I’m not awake all the time, but there’s always a thin thread. It may be thin and perhaps it’s not very strong, but I hear the voice, behind this voice that you’re hearing.
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William Segal’s life has been devoted to the harmonious development of the mind. He lives as a balanced human being, in quality of mind, quality of body and quality of feelings. And one experiences this in his presence. He summed it up:
“One attribute of the human being is the potential to keep on growing, to keep on developing. And I think there’s room in each of us. I hate to hear someone say, oh well, that man or that woman is sixty or seventy or eighty or ninety or a hundred, so he’s finished. There’s always something that can be transformed on the upward spiral.”
|Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2000 Issue, Vol. IV (1)
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Daniel L. Hess is an accomplished producer and director of a wide range of award-winning documentary, educational, and industrial films. His work has been shown widely on television and at festivals and museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His latest project The Peace of Paper, a delightful, instructive introduction to Origami, is available from World Information Videos, 310 Riverside Drive, Suite 2025, New York, NY 10025.