Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970. Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and most recently the October 2018 "Fall of California Redux.")

According to Burton, Armageddon still looms in our future and when it finally arrives, non-believers shall perish while, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (recently expanded to 81 angels, including himself and his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci), Burton and his followers shall be spared, founding a new and more perfect civilization. Read more about the blog.

Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On verification and trusting yourself

"Former Long-Time Student" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, December 19, 2006:
Anonymous’ post is a most thoughtless and unnecessary twisting of ‘X’s thoughts and is an excellent example of what Gurdjieff called “formatory thinking”. The fact that ‘X’ is aware of the commonplace that “group think” tends to destabilise one’s own individual perceptions to the point even of delusion (and that this is happening in the Fellowship of Friends) does not automatically mean that his own perception of this well-known fact must be deluded. Having spent years in the Fellowship, I cannot but agree with him.

There is a psychological process that one undergoes in order to adapt to the culture of the Fellowship. One can be either more or less aware of it (the more aware of it one is, the less comfortable one will be, and the more need there will be to suppress it). The human tendency in group situations is towards conformity of thought and behaviour, as in any long-term group dynamic, religious or secular. It is often necessary to buffer the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that arises when one’s own values are different from or even antithetical to those of the group if one wishes to stay or is frightened into believing that one will be thrown out with no where else to go.

This is certainly the case for many in the Fellowship at one time or another. The problem for students is that they are taught categorically, and reinforced socially, that any doubts, criticisms or problems they have with the Teacher or the School are unsound. These perceptions are not only unsound, they are positively diabolical, and said to emanate from that part of the “machine” [the "Lower Self", or "King of Clubs"] which is the enemy to awakening and which seeks to sabotage one’s work. Some students are finally able to regain trust in their own capacity to see the truth (this often takes years of painful soul-searching), and see that what they were believing in or have outgrown is now clearly seen as one’s participation in one’s own self-deception, not to mention that in doing so, one has succumbed to a less than wholesome teaching.

But until students see this they will also be like the person who is at the stage of full indoctrination: they can only have one response to themselves and to others: if one doubts or perceives that something is “evil,” it is their enemy, their “king of clubs” speaking, and that, as yet unawakened beings, they are incapable of determining truth, as such “negative” perceptions are indicative of a lower dualistic level of consciousness (interesting how even people who discover non-dualistic Advaita or Buddhism still recognise when people are behaving badly and how this is directly connected with real spiritual level). In any case, trying to talk to a person fully in the grip of this fundamentalism is like talking to the person who has heard of the psychological term “denial” and uses that concept in order to nullify everyone who disagrees. E.g., “You want to leave because you’ve fallen prey to your own limited ego, but that’s where you’re deluded.” Response: “No, I’m saying that I have seen that I’ve been deluded and now I’ve woken up.” “No, you are in denial. You’re not qualified to say what’s delusional and what isn’t, since you’re not awake.”

That, my friends, is a subtle trap. You must trust yourselves. What you have made into your enemy (your own conscience and your own common sense) is your best and finest friend. This common sense is your integrity, that unity that you have been seeking and which needs to grow. In the pursuit of higher consciousness and mystical states, one must not lose sight of one’s full humanity.

The problem with closed-systems of thought is just that: they are closed. In the Fellowship, as in most, if not all fundamentalist cults or sects, there is never any good reason to leave. This is an assumption underlying the intolerant and ignorant attitude held by some (not all) students, an attitude taught and cultivated by RB. It follows that if there can be no good reason to leave, there can only be bad reasons. The worldview is conceived in black & white. Especially for Fourth Way students, this extreme dualism should be a flag of the chief characteristic of formatory thinking: “either/or”. ‘X’ has clearly ‘verified’ for himself that one is in danger of losing one’s common sense, one’s ability even to perceive truth if one becomes too psychologically, socially, and materially entangled in the Fellowship.

Many students have found that they have had to make significant adjustments to their ideas of good and evil, to the serious detriment of truth and wisdom and the peace of their own consciences. Students will have to reconcile what they see as cruel, arbitrary and aberrant behaviours with grand, artistic, mystical, and psychologically perceptive words. It would be good for them at some point to understand that there is and must be a harmonious connection between mystical ‘states’ and ethical actions. This is what people understand in their heart of hearts when they seek a spiritual teacher; otherwise they will be accepting second best; this pure perception of goodness is what they stand in danger of losing if they put their moral compass in the hands of one who cannot exemplify real ‘higher love’, a higher love which is not disembodied, for that is far too easy, but thoroughly embodied in consistent acts of kindness and humility.

"Traveler" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, March 5, 2007:
Bedouin (117) : Well said.

Somebody (137) Says: ‘Dear Traveler, I am thankful for this description of a “dogma”. I want to hear some more on this subject. What’s wrong with it? Many Christians still believe in Jesus Christ and Paradise-Hell. How do we know? What if it IS true?’

Dear Somebody, I hope you are kidding. But to give you the benefit of the doubt, I will assume this was a serious and sincere question and you really want an answer.
I didn’t actually define dogma in my previous post, so let’s do it now: dogma: a doctrine or code of beliefs accepted as authoritative and true without proof.
As human beings, we have been given the gift of reasoning and critical thinking. For some strange reason in this modern day we feel that employing thinking and reasoning is just not spiritual (this can be a dogma in itself!). This is because we seem to believe that reason and spirit are in fundamental conflict and can’t exist alongside one another, so we make the illogical conclusion that rational judgment is to be abandoned in spiritual pursuits. We become humble sheep in the name of following a shepherd who knows better, and claims that what he says is true, although many of the things he says can’t be verified. Robert Burton specifically solves that dilemma by just stating claims as if they had been verified by all, and speaking on everybody else’s behalf, so people start repeating it and voila, before you know it, they think they really verified it.

“Somebody” asks – how do we know, maybe there is a paradise and hell, what if it is all true? What’s wrong with dogma? Somebody, what if I claimed to be a spiritual authority, a guru, and I told you about the supreme Flying Spaghetti Monster ( Since there is no way of proving the non-existence of an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster who created the universe (neither is there an absolutely conclusive way to prove the non-existence of anything), I just might be right. And if you don’t start praying to the Flying Spaghetti Monster right now, you’ll go to hell. Oh wait – but you better start praying to Allah, appeasing Zeus and worshipping Ahura Mazda as well, because any of these religions could be right. Right?

Please, good people, trust yourselves sometimes and turn on your bullshit meters. You do have a spiritual compass even if you are not a completely realized being. A rule of thumb is to turn away when you see a person who believes that his truth is the only true truth in the world and nobody else has a clue. Most of the outlandish claims Robert makes are accepted on the basis of another belief that we try hard to convince ourselves into: that he is a conscious being with insight into higher worlds. Sometimes it’s useful to ask yourself what is the origin of a belief.

The following information is collected from another site.

In 1971, Teacher and a student were riding in a relatively new Dodge Dart along Highway 1 near Carmel. Teacher was 32 years old at the time. They were listening to a baseball game on the car radio. As the odometer of the car hit the mileage number “1954″, they passed a mailbox which had the name Thompson on it. Teacher indicated that this was a shock, as in 1954, Bobby Thompson of the New York Giants had hit a famous home run in a playoff game (which Teacher had apparently heard on the radio). 44 miles later as the odometer hit 1998, the mailbox on the side of the road showed the number 41211. Teacher indicated that THIS was also a shock which meant that California was going to fall into the Pacific Ocean in 1998 on April 12th at 11 am.”

Burton believed that the oil company that used the advertising logo “UNION ’76″ was a sign from C Influence that he, Burton, would “crystallize into a man number six” in 1976.

And this trend continues with ancient Egyptians also leaving messages for him to decode.

OK now, RB may be consciously communicating with gods in this way, but, if you didn’t already know ahead of time that he was conscious, and these interpretations were coming from the guy next door, wouldn’t they strike you as kind of… well… delusional and grandiose?

I have an open question for our readers. Advanced students have always told me that they had verified Robert was conscious. I never quite understood what that meant. And the best explanation I could come up with was that he was so weird and different from other people you knew, that it must have meant he was conscious. That’s my understanding, but I was never close to Robert. So I’d like to hear some others how they understand “verifying that Robert was conscious”.

The gift of critical thinking is generally neglected in the Fellowship. That is, there is plenty of self-observation and examining one’s individual unconscious attitudes, replacing them with more useful attitudes (translative spirituality). However, when it comes to the institution as a whole, it seems to have no external realistic perspective on itself and it instead basks in its self-promotion.

The scary thing is, we don’t even realize the slow and gradual process of embracing a dogma is happening within ourselves through social reinforcement. Well, some part notices, but other parts prefer not to know. For example, most of us feel an unease or fear at the thought that one of our friends might leave the school. This I think is because we have tacitly come to accept the proposition promoted by Robert that when you leave the Fellowship you are as good as dead and your lower self will destroy you. There is no life outside the FOF, we believe subconsciously. And that’s what’s wrong with dogma.

"Traveler" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, March 3, 2007:
Here is something else to think about so the discussion doesn’t have to be ‘all about the sex’: :)

There are two kinds of spirituality. One is called translative and another is called transformative.

Translative spirituality is one that gives the separate self a sense of meaning and of being connected to something higher, or larger than itself. The self is given a new way to think and feel about reality. It is given a new belief, perhaps more holistic, or centered on forgiveness instead of blame. This spirituality offers practices that allow the self to make sense of and endure the events of life. It consoles the self, fortifies it, defends it and promotes it. The self learns to translate its world in terms of the new paradigm, new belief or new language. These new enchanting translation acts at least temporarily alleviate the terror in the heart of the separate self. As long as the myths are believed, prayers are mouthed and the dogma is embraced, the separate self will be saved – either now, in the glory of being favored by a deity, or in an eternal after-life. This kind of translation is a necessary and crucial function for the greater part of our lives in order to make sense of the world.

At some point, though, translation simply ceases to console. Not a new belief for the self, but the transcendence of the self altogether, is the only path – another kind of spirituality, which is called transformative. This does not console the separate self but rather shatters it, creates a radical transmutation of the seat of consciousness. The separate self is inquired into and transcended. With transformation, the process of translation itself is challenged, witnessed, undermined and eventually dismantled. Transformative spirituality is not a matter of belief but a death of the believer.

So which is at work here in the Fellowship? Maybe both, depending on who you’re talking to, and it’s wonderfully baffling and unformatory.

On the one hand, we have the following dogmas promoted by Robert and some orthodox students:
  • The FOF is guided by 44 spirits who have become immortal after their life on earth, including Lincoln, Buddha, Vivaldi, Queen Elizabeth, Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Leonardo da Vinci personally woke up Robert Burton.
  • Robert Burton is the only conscious being alive on Earth today (and by extension, salvation comes only through him).
  • These spirits tend to hover in rooms where we congregate and personally communicate with Robert Burton, telling him in which direction to guide the school.
  • The world was going to end in November 2006 in a nuclear holocaust (this was communicated to RB by the 44 spirits) and FOF members will be the only survivors, left with the task of creating a new human civilization from scratch. (Don’t know of any recent updates to this theory after the non-event.)
  • After completing their tasks on Earth, FOF members will be taken to limbo where they will await their next conscious role, after which they will be taken to the celestial city of Paradise with its 30.000 inhabitants to live forever as gods, presumably.
  • All the rest of humanity that does not make teaching payments to RB will be eaten by the Moon upon dying unconsciously.
Etc. There are a number of students that have found these kinds of dogmas a little embarrassing (myself included).

So, at first you learn to translate the world into these terms: everyone in the world is mechanical and asleep, except a handful of us who are trying to wake up and making efforts to achieve this goal. I must control my mechanical manifestations and not allow them expression. Your identity is supposed to move from observing I, to deputy steward, to steward… to higher centers? Not sure if I got the order right. Anyway, there is always a controller, some type of super ego, behind the machine.

I found it quite enlightening when No person said something like that in the FOF we work on the side effects of consciousness. We control the expression of negative emotions etc. while remaining a separate self who has to control, battle, defeat something. In this way, presence eludes us, it remains an object to be reached.

Many people have been saying how silly the sequence is. I also don’t buy into all the complications and mythology that Robert surrounds the precious sequence with. But I have tried to use it in good faith. What I’ve observed is that people are not getting anywhere with it because of this separateness, this feeling of here I am, making an effort to DO the sequence, which is something else, to produce a state, which is something third. And we get stuck this way. In fact, a change of state can emerge that approaches the feeling of losing this separate self and simply becoming the sequence, and all is well. Not sure yet how to place that into the big picture of things.

I would appreciate points of view on this translative-transformative distinction, and also on the temporary nature of states that are pursued.

"Traveler" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, March 3, 2007:
Happy says: There are no “dogmas promoted by Robert and some orthodox students”. One must verify everything — and, more importantly, remember what you verify.

Dear Happy: there are a number of statements that Robert puts forward that are unverifiable, so students either give him the benefit of the doubt and think of it as a “working theory”, or if they can’t live with themselves in the state of uncertainty, they embrace them as fact because Robert presents them as fact. 
These latter are the people I call “orthodox students”. Don’t tell me you’ve never met any.

Please tell me, did you personally verify for example the following: “Most students are in their eighth lifetime.” “Mother Theresa is going to the moon.” “There are angels in the room right now.” “Ancient Egyptians meant to leave messages for us so we could decode them into the sequence.” “I am a man number seven.”
And if you have verified any such statements, how did you manage to do it?

Something that might serve as an illustrative example of Robert’s attitude to verification:

One of the many young men got invited to travel with Robert, but not yet to have sex with him. During the travels, Robert approached him and asked: “Do you know who I am? I am a goddess in a man’s body.” (Apparently a famous pick-up line of his.) Our young student, suddenly startled by direct communication with the Teacher, comes up with an answer and tries to answer the first part of Robert’s question – do you know who I am – with: “I hope so.” Oooops. It came out as sounding ‘I hope you really are a goddess that you say you are’. You don’t talk that way to your teacher. Robert replies: “Well you’d BETTER BELIEVE it, because it’s TRUE!”

"Anonymous" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, May 14, 2007:

From the guidebook for centres. Sept. 06

“During the last year the Teacher asked that we move away from the system as presented by Gurdjieff-Ouspensky with which the school began, and move towards the “Classical Knowledge” of the ancient schools.” [ed. - A move away from "verification" towards "faith".]

"Opus 111" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, January 22, 2010:
The forum on verifications on Greater Fellowship has pretty much ended.

The way I see the topic in relation to FOF is that ‘verification’ worked to a certain extent in the beginning (roughly prior to 95), but has since become but a word. In those years new members were given a set of ideas (4th way) and ‘invited’ to experiment with them. Yes, the ideas had a strong undercurrent of ideology and its potentially evil authoritarian attributes, but one of the premises was that the ideas were largely empirically derived (from observations). So members could go about their activities and try to observe others and themselves, share and discuss observations with others and have a chance to reflect on it. The leader, REB, was largely invisible to the masses and mostly occupied in developing his money and sex trade, delegating the running of operations, including ‘teaching’, to selected members. Hierarchy was present, at times suffocating, but one could say there was opportunity for ‘verification’, within the provided system of ideas and without (the structural make-up of FOF). Steady outflow of members occurred during these years, from ‘verifying’ that these so-called 4th way ideas lead nowhere, that FOF is a dangerous cult, that REB is a sociopath, or combination of all.

After 95 and after REB dodged the second major sex scandal of his tenure, he (REB) must have realized that he probably could get away with much more than what he was trying to some extent to hide until then: multiple sexual partners and funneling of funds for his private rewards. After 1995, he seems emboldened to do more, to become more visible. Playing on the adulation of his members, he sells dinners, artistic ‘events’, videos of dinners and events, recycled at auctions artifacts that were acquired with membership money, etc… In 2000, he starts leading meetings again (he had stopped in 78), for a fee, a large fee. His intellectual limitations become rapidly evident (evident but rarely discussed, if at all), as he tries to expand on the ideas of the 4th way from his own, supposedly that of an enlightened being. In 2004, he moves to obscurantism, first with ‘keys’ to interpret the bible, then to an ever more obscure distillation of the world wisdom, all for the benefit of the chosen few, at a very large fee. During these later years, the narrative goes from 4th way ideas to a new, wacky brand of religion, where verification has no place (by definition) but when used, meant as alignment to the dogma, to the spoken word and the authority (REB and his flying monkeys as aptly named by Bruce). Members are no longer allowed to speak at meetings, they are basically asked not to eat during dinners and to study the spoken word, all the while the leader is piling up sexual partners and spending lavish amount of money to travel to exotic locations. By then, the FOF has moved from a group concerned with personal, empirical, spiritual search to a devotional organization where the retention of the revealed word is the only allowed ‘intellectual’ activity.
One could say that the recent wave of member departure was largely, and literally from ‘disbelief’.