Adam Curle: Tools for Transformation

REVIEWS, 31 Mar 2014

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Adam Curle, Tools for Transformation, (Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press, 1990)

So we must discover how to recognize
and then up-root the weapons in the mind:
the hates and irritations, fears and cravings
for petty things that change to monstrous lusts
that mobilize the hates, stir mobs to kill,
and blight the tender flowers of compassion.

Adam Curle, basically a sociologist first concerned with education in newly independent Africa in the 1960s, became the first chair of the School of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK, in the early 1970s.  He had been active in mediation efforts in conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, usually on behalf of the Society of Friends (Quakers). He stressed the need to train mediators, and as he points out, one of the first steps for a potential mediator is to look deeply into one’s self, into one’s values and experiences.  He must ask himself in a coherent way what are the elements in the philosophical-religious traditions which have influenced him that can be of use to his work as peacemaker? What are the weaknesses of these traditions and can these weaknesses be  by using strands of thought from other traditions? What in his life experience has made him sensitive to the needs, drives, and emotions of others? How can he best build upon these experiences? As he has written “There is no box of magic peacemaking tricks. All depends on love and concern informed by experience and understanding.”

Yet mediators need to be trained even if mediation work is more than just a set of techniques.  “Certainly there are a number of techniques to be learned: how to listen, how to avoid forms of speech which are covertly aggressive (as many of ours are), how to negotiate, how to disagree without offending, how to state a case etc.  However, the most important aspect of mediation, as of other forms of peacemaking, are attitudes of mind, particularly respect, concern and compassion for all other human beings…What is needed, and is always needed by all of us, is the fullest possible development of our humanity, our potential as human beings.  This means becoming able to escape from the mindless automatism that governs so much of our lives, from senseless worries and fears, from ego cherishing and irritability, from vanity, from illusions of guilt and badness, from belief in separate existence.”  As Curle notes “Ahead lies the vital question of how these largely inward developments can be  made applicable within the framework of appropriate policies and structures : legal, social, economic and political.”

There are three related but separate strands in Adam Curle’s thinking.  The first is an early participation in the work of Gurdjieff through Ouspensky and his London circle. (1)  Gurdjieff drew on Sufi techniques as well as the Tibetan form of Buddhism as taught by Mongolian Lamas in Central Asia where Gurdjieff was living.  Gurdjieff dropped the religious labels from his teaching in Paris in the 1920s as few in the West were aware of Central Asian Sufi thought or Tibetan Buddhism.  For Gurdjieff, it was more important to stress what is universal rather than what is exotic.

There are two concepts taught by Gurdjieff that are of use to the mediator.  The first is the need for awareness.  The mediator must be awake. He must understand how ideas and emotions arise within himself (and thus within others). He must be aware of how words, information, body movements influence others.

The second idea of Gurdjieff is on the nature of active, neutral and passive energies. The mediator must sense the type of energy present in a conflict and know when to press ahead because the opposing energy is weak and regressive, when to fall back because the opposing energy is aggressive and to oppose it will create greater tension, and when energies are neutral, relatively equal and at rest.  In such an energy situation, new ideas can be presented as there is no strong opposing force.  While the idea of energies has now been popularized in many New Age writings, the concept must be refined in a more structured way for conflict resolution efforts.

After Gurdjieff, the next influence on Curle’s thought and work comes from the Society of Friends.  At a practical level, the Quakers have a long history of mediation work.  Many political leaders had contact with Quakers through relief programs, seminars for diplomats at the United Nations and Quaker educational institutions.  The Quaker peace tradition opens doors for mediation work without having to build up a reputation for legitimacy, and Quakers have been willing to fund innovative mediation activities.

On the intellectual-emotional level, the Quakers provided Curle with the central belief in the ‘divine core’ within each person and the need to still the outer self through silence.  There is a Quaker emphasis on the inner light and the potential for goodness in each person.

There is, however, a Quaker reluctance to develop insight into theory.  The emphasis is on ‘putting into practice’ rather than developing a structured holistic approach.  Moreover, there is little in Quaker writings to explain why people act in irrationally destructive ways.  This Quaker style is evident in Curle’s writings: the short chapters resembling more the verbal sharing in a Quaker Meeting for worship than university lectures.

The third influence in Curle’s thought is Tibetan Buddhist teachings which stress both the causes of suffering (a false sense of our independent being which gives rise to ignorance, hatred and craving) and techniques for overcoming this sense of the separate self.  Tibetan Buddhism also places great stress on the nature and flows of energies, taken up also in Gurdjieff’s approach.

Curle’s starting point is the well-known saying of the Buddha contained in the Dhammapada “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” Thus it should be possible with our thoughts to make a world of happiness, positive energy and joyful labor. But the Buddhist tradition also stresses that our thinking is full of fear and anger, desperation and alienation.  Our lives reflect these elements masking our true nature of wisdom and compassion.

Curle uses the Tibetan Buddhist image of the three poisons: ignorance, yearning and jealousy.  These three drives are closely interrelated, and one leads to the other in a perpetual motion.  In Tibetan thanks − the paintings which serve as one guide to meditation practice − these three drives are symbolized at the center wheel creating the motion of the world.  In Tibetan teaching, progress is made by first delinking the three drives and then reducing the power of each individually.  As Curle notes, “the crucial poison is ignorance − ignorance of the potential of our nature.  However, ignorance can be overcome and with it the proclivity for violence.” Curle stresses two aspects of overcoming ignorance: the growth of awareness and overcoming the identity crisis. (2)

The development of ever deeper levels of awareness is crucial for mediation work.  Thus Adam Curle also draws attention to the work of modern psychotherapists such as Thomas Yeoman’s Soum Wound and Psychotherapy ,Eric Fromm’s Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and Felicity de Zulueta’s From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness.  Readers will be stimulated by Adam Curle to think through for themselves the relations between their beliefs and their peace actions. The title Tools for Transformation is somewhat misleading.  There is only one tool for transformation − what some call the Spirit and others the Tao − that which lies behind diversity and yet which gives rise to diversity. We must each examine ourselves and develop our own capacity for autonomous thought and action, for only when people begin to do this can their full creative potentialities be revealed. Curle calls upon us to feel, to think, to mediate − a crucial agenda for peace.


(1) For a useful biography of Gurdjieff see James Moore Gurdjieff (Shaftesbury, UK: Element Publishers, 1991) For a biography of Ouspensky and his London circle, see Gary Lachman In Search of P.D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2004)

(2) For an understanding of the ways in which non-Tibetan schools of Buddhism work for conflict resolution and development in Sri Lanka where Adam Curle worked see Joanna Marcy Dharma and Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement (Kumarian Press, 1985)


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Mar 2014.

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