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.")

But 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.

Many regard Robert Earl Burton a narcissist and sociopath, surrounded by a largely greed- and power-driven inner circle. The following pages offer abundant evidence supporting that conclusion.

This archive draws from official Fellowship publications and websites, news archives, court documents, cult education and awareness forums, the Internet Archive, the long-running Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the (former) Fellowship of Friends wikispace project, the (ill-fated) Fellowship Wikipedia page, and the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship. Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Friday, June 15, 2007

"Traveler's" story

"Traveler" posted the following on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog:
It’s pretty simple really. Kind of obvious looking back on it now, from a bird’s eye perspective. There was this youngling, misfit, who had always felt different from other people, freshly arrived to the big city and living independently for the first time. Many people’s story. I’d always been ashamed of my spiritual interests, which I’d been attracted to since age 12 and maybe in some form before that. My parents were comfortable in their formal religion, they did not feel pressed to investigate it further, merely to conform. It seemed to me that no one my age could relate to spirituality, that all they cared about were parties, drugs and drinking. I had tried to get integrated into the youth culture, but then, with almost no social skills, I decided I didn’t want it anyway. It was too painful, false and unnecessary. So I felt very special and above it all. Yeah, I was better than all of “them”.
I’d been in contact with several spiritual groups, not too many. It was very exciting to come to the city and find out that there are people here who actually use words like ‘karma’ in their everyday conversation and seem to share the same spiritual orientation as me. I was desperate for approval. Once I saw a poster for an open meeting of Gurdjieff-Ouspensky centers, that was it. I hardly knew anything about Gurdjieff or Ouspensky, but I had seen their bookmarks in books that I liked, and so I thought it must be something really good. “Now accepting students”, it said, creating the impression of a short window of opportunity. In retrospect I was very proud of myself for noticing such a small inconspicuous black-and-white poster among all the flashy advertisements. I felt I must have been fated to see it. But I was a perfect match, looking for something secret and quiet, existing alongside the current of humanity unnoticed. Like me. I remember feeling that, whatever happens, I have to go to this meeting, because it would change my life.
Everything they said instantly made sense. People react mechanically; identification is loss of identity, negative emotions are not necessary, obstacles to being awake, don’t believe but verify. I was quite self-conscious about how mechanical I must appear to these refined beings. I knew I was joining, I knew that I had been fearing all my life and that for once I needed to trust. I bought the appropriate attire and with 20% of my total income showed up for the first meeting. 15 minutes early.
I was a pretty scared little creature back then. Thinking back, it must have been scary to be around me, nervous as I was. I guess I just needed a mother. And the center directors and older students adopted me, encouraged me, hugged me, sustained eye contact without judgment or expectation. I was loved. And I was soaking it like a sun-dried sponge. For the first time in my life, I belonged. These people were my family. Heh, I can’t believe it, I still want to cry as I write this. I suppose it’s obvious that I didn’t have a very good relationship with my own parents. From a young age I had been told that God only knows where I came from, because I was nothing like them. So I quite identified with being weird and deviant and isolated. I was tough on the outside, but boy, was I squishy on the inside. I just melted when these people accepted me in their little circle. They did not respond to my false and vain acts that I had built up over the years to facilitate some sort of limping interaction with people, and that was a mountain off my shoulders. I knew I didn’t have to pretend any more. I was home.
In that first year, several striking shifts in perception happened where I knew that I was “seeing myself objectively” for a few seconds. I had been taught that this was the third state of consciousness, and it reaffirmed for me that the whole system we are learning must be correct and that the school must be right. In later years, I wondered why that didn’t happen any more if I was progressing in the work, why is everyone talking about third states that they’re having all the time, if I know I had them and they are extremely rare. It could not be that I was not making any headway, so I eventually and grudgingly came to accept the explanation that my overall state must by now be so close to the third state that when third state happens, I don’t perceive it as such a huge leap any more.
I noted after several months that I had been able to accept myself, that I was now quite happy with who I was, and that the meetings which used to be so full of revelations were now a place where I could sleep and snore, listening to the same points of view over and over. I had come to the realization that to stay in the school, I must change my aim. Must find a better aim. I’m not sure if I clearly defined it but I think it had something to do with serving the school.
It was a small center and within months I was made bookkeeper and given another important “third line octave”. One or two traveling teachers praised “my work” and “my essence”. I was beginning to lead meetings. The oldest student in the center, bless her heart, mentioned that she felt if anyone was going to become conscious, it was going to be me. My vanity and self-importance flourished.
The first time I accidentally discovered the money and sex situation of the Fellowship was after 8 or 9 months in the school. My world started spinning. What I believed to be the ultimate good, what had given me so much and had proven so true, was staring me in the face as corrupt at its core. I was not able to view the positive and negative aspects of the Fellowship as separate. I wanted to defend it all, and yet I was afraid I was supporting the wrong thing.
I felt I needed to take the matter up with the older student who I was closest to at the time. He gave me no real answers but rather expressed dismay at why I was asking those questions. I went home and wrote all the I’s out on paper. Then I slept on it. And in a couple of days, I was able to revisit these I’s and see them all as “just negativity”, “only I’s”, “judgment”, “identification”, all these things I was taught not to have. It was a relief, I didn’t have to do anything. I concluded that if I had such an extreme reaction, it must be because there is some material there for me to work on myself, some identification to transform. External reality was to be neglected, internal reality was all that mattered. Especially because there were all these good people around me who knew all the same things, even joked about them, and yet they found it valuable to stay in the school. If they can, so can I. After all, where was I going to go to, back to life where people were strangers that I couldn’t relate to?
When the next new student came along saying that she had “friction” with what people say about our school and about Robert, I found myself defending my choice as reasonable, by claiming how she can plainly see that all those people who have left the school and are complaining, are just negative and identified, and have lost the basic principles of the work. And she has found it useful to this day to resort to that attitude, and so we all proceeded to tacitly conspire that we would perform self-calming for years to come.
I must have bought into this “conscious being” thing at some point. I remember first meeting the teacher after 2 years, being invited to a dinner with him – this was back when you still got invited and didn’t have to pay 200 dollars to attend. The whole charade with evening gowns and tuxedos and concert before the dinner and expensive china embarrassed me, it was not an environment I knew how to behave in. I spent the evening mostly ashamed that I could be so mechanical and instinctive to actually want to eat the nice food while the others were enjoying the teaching to the extent that food was irrelevant, all being in a higher state except me. Oh boy.
I don’t remember anything that Robert said, but I remember trying to not have “mechanical reactions” to his I’s, and trying to stop thoughts and be awake. When I got back I was asked if I had verified that he was conscious, and I responded – “Is that a joke?” Though I did have my fears how, when he kissed my forehead, he would be able to see with his all-mighty God-like perception all the bad judgment I had about him. But mostly I felt guilty that I was not impressed by meeting Robert. So I spent the following years going to his events and hoping that one day I would get it, one day I would see how great and brilliant he was, thinking that it was just me and my sleep preventing me from seeing the truth and experiencing the wonderful states that everybody enters when they are around him. I actually envied those students who were able to say that they verified Robert was their teacher and what a high being he was and so forth. It made their life so much easier.
I had, let’s say, some “authority issues” when meeting Robert. Still have them to some extent. Anyway, as “struggle” is built into the system and “going against the machine” is fundamental to the fourth way, I persevered in order to become free from my subjectivity. I made myself believe that we were a conscious school, and at those times I felt good. As soon as there were any true experiences of deeper understanding and love, I hastened to ascribe them to the influence of the Fellowship and the great fortune of being in a school, to reassure myself that it was worth it, to repeat what everyone else was saying about how beautiful Apollo is and how we are evolving. The teacher had some crazy ideas, but it was better not to think about them too much and focus on what’s relevant for your work. In any event the Fellowship provided a fairly safe environment where I could experiment with being human and entering relationships with a variety of other humans who were not supposed to hurt me, an experience that I would not have had in my regular lonely life before the school.
Early on my center director once asked me what my biggest problem in life was. After some thought, I had formulated it as “I don’t know what I want”, and that has been a recurring theme in my Fellowship career. To get down to the core of it, I did not trust myself, so I always needed other people to tell me what was good for me, what I should want and do. “They” always knew better. “They” even knew what my feelings were and told me what I was experiencing, and I totally believed it. With no direct experience of reality to compare against, how will you know what’s true?
Eventually I landed in the role of center director (as I believe Shelley likes to say, at the ripe old age of 24, wise beyond my years), and I got to tell other people what they should and should not do. Being the voice of the School for everybody, expressing opinions I did not hold, deep down, and delivering requests that made me cringe, but that was not important, I had to serve the school and fulfill my role. “They” knew better, and I was just an instrument. The best way to lie is to make yourself believe that you’re telling the truth. So I applied a thick paint of coat over my conscience and convinced myself that it was good. Here we were, all trying to make the best of the situation, to be creative within the framework of the material that was given to us. We needed to make the center come together and produce work. We had some good times and sharing, as long as we kept focusing on all that was positive about the school. And fortunately we were fairly relaxed as a center.
I asked myself many times over the last few years what was keeping me in the school and always came to the conclusion that it was habit and fear of being alone. I knew it was not healthy. But I didn’t have the courage to turn my life upside down. I kept trying to find reasons why the Fellowship is useful, and hanging on to those. But the contradiction was making me sick. And it was making me depressed. I’m not surprised to hear how many people take anti-depressants in the Fellowship; depression happens when you freeze yourself from experiencing feelings and thoughts that you think you shouldn’t be having. Not wanting to look deeply at what’s wrong but continuing to pretend that everything is fine.
I honestly tried to apply Robert’s dualistic good-and-evil teaching in an attempt to make it fit and find value in it. It’s hard when you force your own insights onto another man’s scaffolding, especially if he’s coming from a completely different place psychologically, and you don’t realize it. For a while I had my own work I’s that helped inspire me, based on what I knew about myself. I dropped them because I was told that Robert’s 30 work I’s are objective knowledge applicable to everyone. And then I struggled and kept believing in the 4th way maxim that struggle is good.
This blog was the last stone pulled out of the dam that released the flood. We can all stop pretending now. The emperor is naked, and what a relief. No, you don’t have to be impressed by Robert, and no, you don’t have to believe that what he’s saying is objective knowledge. Yes, you can finally trust yourself. You’ve grown up and you have the authority to allow yourself to put away childish dependence on a divine leader. No need to keep looking over your shoulder when he will catch up with you. When the optical illusion reveals itself and you can see both the vase and the faces at one time, there is no going back.
Still digesting and integrating the experience, as you can see, but meanwhile I’m packing my bags. Well, thanks for reading, if you did.
Good luck
[ed. - Excerpts from "Song of the Open road":]
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road. …
Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial. …
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine. …
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me,
Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me.
Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth. …
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,…
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.
- Walt Whitman

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