The Fourth Way
[Today's guest post comes from Mark McGuinness.]
“Remember yourself always and everywhere.”
These words were inscribed on the walls of the study house of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Château Le Prieuré, Fontainebleau-Avon, the home of the esoteric teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. They summarised the essence of his teaching and were written there as a reminder to his students.
Gurdjieff taught that human beings are divided into two parts: Essence and Personality.
Essence in man is what is his own. Personality in man is what is ‘not his own.’ ‘Not his own’ means what has come from outside, what he has learned, or reflects, all traces of exterior impressions left in the memory and in the sensations, all words and movements that have been learned, all feelings created by imitation …
Essence is the truth in man; personality is the false. But in proportion as personality grows, essence manifests itself more and more rarely and more and more feebly and it very often happens that essence stops in its growth at a very early age and grows no further.
(G.I. Gurdjieff, as reported by P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous)
In other words, Personality is made up of the rules, conventions and expectations of the world around you; Essence is the real you. A bit like the white pebble.
By definition, Personality is hard to resist, since it carries the weight of the world’s expectations. It’s easier to go with the flow, to fall into step with those around you, to do as you’re told, at the expense of who you really are. But doing the easy thing comes at a price:
Moreover, it happens fairly often that essence dies in a man while his personality and his body are still alive. A considerable percentage of the people we meet in the streets of a great town are people who are empty inside, that is, they are actually already dead.
According to Gurdjieff, we can only avoid this fate by staying in touch with our Essence and helping it to grow and develop unhindered by the shackles of Personality. The chief way of doing this is through an activity he called Self Remembering. In ordinary life, he said, we forget ourselves in the bustle of daily activity and the delusions of Personality. Self Remembering is the opposite of this forgetfulness – it involves becoming deliberately aware of yourself in the present moment, of your thoughts, feelings, actions and physical sensations.
Right now, for example, notice how you are reading words in front of your eyes, on a screen. Notice the thoughts and images that they are creating in your mind. Notice the emotions they are arousing in you. Notice how your body feels right this instant; the posture you are in; the sensations you can feel. Don’t let this article and these few seconds of your life be like a disembodied film being played out in front of you — put yourself in the picture. Feel what it’s like to be alive at this moment.
Now you are starting to remember yourself. Soon, you’ll forget again, and get caught up in demands and distractions of the rest of the day. But at any moment — if you remember — you can come back to yourself, and become a little more aware, feel a little more alive. Do this often enough, said Gurdjieff, and you open up the possibility of waking up to your real nature.
Self Remembering is not easy. Try to do it for more than a few moments at a time, and you’ll soon discover how hard it is to avoid getting sucked into the next train of thought, the next enthusiasm, the next pressing engagement. And the hardest thing is remembering to do it at all! When I was first introduced to Self Remembering, I experienced such a vivid sense of freedom and peace in the moment that I resolved to do it often as possible. Several days later, I ‘came round’ with a jolt when I realised I had completely forgotten all about that ‘unforgettable’ experience and hadn’t made an attempt to remember myself since!
As we’ve seen, the easy thing is to surrender to personality, the internalised rules and expectations of society. Remembering who you really are is hard work. You have to fight like hell if you want to hold onto it. That’s why Gurdjieff called it ‘The Work’ with a capital ‘W’.
Gurdjieff helped his pupils by providing reminders, prompting them to remember themselves ‘always and everywhere’. Sometimes he would ring a bell at irregular intervals during the day — on hearing the bell, his pupils were to remember themselves immediately, whatever they were doing, and start observing their mental and emotional state. He also encouraged them to make small changes in their daily routines, to create little reminders during the day. If you always take milk with your tea, get rid of the milk from the fridge — every time you go to make a cup of tea, the absence of milk should act as a nudge to remember yourself.
In his own way, I think Hugh’s after something similar with his cartoons and the ‘remember who you are’ shtick. If you have a picture like this or this hanging on your wall, looking you in the face every day, it’s hard to do the easy thing, forget your real nature, and slide back into conformity. The picture serves as a reminder, a challenge to stay true to yourself, no matter what. A bit like the writing on the wall back at the study room in Gurdjieff’s Institute.
[The "Remember Who You Are" archive is here.]