Maurice Nicoll: Spiritual Giant, Gentle Genius
Humanity is regarded as unfinished, incomplete, imperfect. We have the possibility of completing ourselves, perfecting ourselves; all that is necessary for this lies in us.
— Maurice Nicoll —
What would be your reaction to meeting a man of towering intellect, infinite kindness, commanding presence, and amazing insight into the workings of human nature, knowing that he was also the student and colleague of three of the greatest spiritual teachers of the twentieth century? If you are like us, you would be immediately attracted to him and want to study with him.
That reaction has been the foundation of our respect, admiration, and love for Maurice Nicoll since we met him through his writings over a decade ago. The depth of his work has guided us in our efforts to ground the Enneagram in a simple, clear understanding of human nature in the hope that we can make it accessible to the widest possible readership.
The Man and his Education
Henry Maurice Dunlop Nicoll was born in Kelso, Scotland in 1884 and died in Great Amwell near London in 1953. Son of Sir William Robertson Nicoll, founding editor of The British Weekly and one of the most famous men of letters of his day, he studied at Caius College, Cambridge and received his medical degree at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. In the first decade of the twentieth century, against his father's wishes but with his blessing, he studied with Carl Jung and wrote one of the first books on Jungian dream interpretation. He said that encountering Jung was the first important event of his life. He and Carl Jung remained lifelong friends, and when he married Catherine Champion Jones in 1920 the newlyweds spent part of their honeymoon with Carl and Emma Jung.
After serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Mesopotamia during the First World War under harrowing conditions, he established his practice on Harley Street in London where for many years he was known as London's leading neurologist and one of Britain's leading psychologists. There, it is said, he received people of both great and small station in life with uniform graciousness and kindness. News of his unique combination of wisdom and love spread slowly, since he published most of his books toward the end of his life.
In 1921, while he was considering Dr. Jung's invitation to be his personal representative in Great Britain, he met P. D. Ouspensky, student and colleague of George Gurdjieff, and was immediately taken with his ideas.
Gurdjieff, a contemporary of Jung and Nicoll, had spent the first forty years of his life searching throughout Asia, Africa, and the Near East to discover a valid conception of the meaning of human existence. In this odyssey he learned methods and practices for releasing latent powers in the human psyche for personal transformation. Calling his new method by various names — the Fourth Way, the System, and the Work — it is the way of balancing all three centers: thinking, feeling and doing. In 1910 he founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Moscow, later moving it to the Caucasus and finally to Paris in 1919 to escape wars and revolutions. The central idea of The Work is that humanity is asleep and must awaken through self-observation; one must die to oneself and the thousands of attachments one has made in life so that a new self, a ‘Real I' can emerge.
"In the Fourth Way, you live an ordinary life in the world, and life is your teacher. Balancing the three centers in the midst of daily life has a deceptively simple sound to it. In actuality, it is the most relentlessly demanding way of all. However, working with yourself in this way causes profound shifts in your consciousness, so that you no longer view life in an ordinary way. You come to realize that life has a meaning beyond itself." – Maurice Nicoll
In 1922 Nicoll, his wife Catherine, and their infant daughter Jane moved to Avon near Fontainebleau in France where they took up residence at the Château du Prieuré and began a year of work in Gurdjieff's institute. Gurdjieff's methods included days filled with physical labor followed by long hours of grueling experiential spiritual practices, leaving little time for sleep. Nicoll became a carpenter, handyman, cook, and janitor in the community of thirty or so members. Since most of the people who participated in the institute were people of means and/or education, living a life so different from their ordinary habits created many opportunities for self-observation. After a year of intense study and practice, Gurdjieff closed the institute and continued his teaching by traveling throughout Europe and the Americas. Nicoll and his family returned to England and, while he was a sturdy man who had endured tremendous hardship during the war, he found himself close to death.
When he recovered months later, he formed what was to become a lifelong friendship with Pyötr Ouspensky who lived with the Nicolls for several years; Nicoll became Ouspensky's student until, in 1931, Ouspensky commissioned him to teach The Work on his own. By this time he had synthesized this wisdom with his vast background that included the Gnostic literature, the Neo-Platonists, the Alchemists, some of the Indian Scriptures, the Hermetic writers, the Sufi literature, the Bible, the Chinese mystics, and the writings of Eckhart, Boehme, Blake, Swedenborg, and, of course, his years of study with Jung.
The Man and his Character
To people who are interested in the Enneagram and the teaching from which it has sprung, Maurice Nicoll lived an interesting life. He was a man of vast background and privileged education who was both student and colleague of the greatest spiritual teachers of his day. But what a person knows means little; it's what's done with the knowledge that says everything. If the knowledge is about personal transformation, the question is not whether a person knows it is true, but whether the person sees that it's true for him or her. As Nicoll himself wrote, "What makes a difference is not what a person knows, but what that person is like."
We believe that what most recommends a study of Nicoll's work is the man himself. We have not been able to find a negative word written about him. In the research of The Work's most critical observer, James Webb, author of The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987) everyone associated with these ideas comes under careful and often critical scrutiny. While few of the main players in this drama get off with less than several disparaging remarks and some with many, Nicoll's reputation remains one of consistent kindness, graciousness, and skill in both his professions of psychiatrist and teacher of The Work.
Maurice Nicoll also had a lighthearted, playful side to his nature. In college his friends were those whose sense of humor and frivolity provided what he would need all of his life. Joy and love of life were among his gifts as well. Indeed, a quotation from Plato, "Serious things can only be understood through laughable things," was hung in a prominent place in all the homes in which he lived.
He was first attracted to engineering, so clever was his mind at inventing things. He was led to medicine by his step-mother and her father, and frequently expressed gratitude to his step-mother in his later years for his education at Cambridge. A poet, guitarist and writer, Nicoll wrote short stories after the turn of the century for the Strand Magazine which was in its best period before the First World War. He co-authored with his sister Constance one of the longest running comedies to play on the London stage, Lord Richard in the Pantry. They wrote the story first as a comedic novel while Constance was recovering from a long illness; this was the way Maurice supported his sister in a difficult time.
His friends and students said of him that his kindness was exceeded only by his generosity. People were always welcome in his home. During the Second World War, many of his students and their families actually lived with his family on their country farm. After the war, the Nicolls bought their final home in Great Amwell and invited some students to live with them as a community of people in The Work. Unlike some other teachers of The Work who maintained a magisterial aloofness from their students, Maurice Nicoll had no pretensions and entered into personal relationships with his students, and they often became his friends.
As Nicoll continued his teachings on The Work from this time forward, his secretary, Beryl Pogson, recorded his talks. These were published as Nicoll's magnum opus, Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. The first of the five volumes was published in 1949 and the last in 1952. The New Man, his esoteric commentary on significant passages of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, had already been published. As these books spread to America and to other countries through translation, people wrote and came from all over the world, expressing their gratitude that Nicoll had made The Work available to them in a practical way, and in a way they could apply wherever they were by reading his material.
Maurice Nicoll was raised as a traditional Christian but did not remain one. Gurdjieff said that The Work he taught was "esoteric Christianity", and by that he meant that it wasn't a religion but that it was about the inner meaning of what Christ taught, a teaching about the inner evolution of humanity. This wisdom saturated Nicoll's heart and mind, and through his background of education and experience he raised it to a higher level—a practical, grounded expression of the heart of true spirituality. When you read his books, you can feel the goodness of the man even as you're amazed by the insight he reveals.
There are three qualities we believe are the marks of the truly spiritual person—no matter what the person or others claim about the person's spirituality. Two of them are generosity and kindness. The fact that Maurice Nicoll consistently exemplified these qualities even while he was one of London's leading psychiatrists gives testament to the fact that he bore the third and crowning virtue of the spiritual person—humility.
Through the eyes of his devoted friend and student, Fulford Bush, we catch a glimpse of the man Maurice Nicoll was. I first met Dr. Nicoll in the beginning of 1926 on my return from China. He had, after leaving Fontainebleau, resumed his practice in Harley Street as the leading neurologist in London and my call was made upon him in his professional capacity.
My first impression in that to me momentous call was of a man's presence, that indefinable quality one so rarely encounters and which is unmistakable. I do not think I am easily impressed. I have met many remarkable men, forceful, resourceful men who had to depend on their individual qualities to bring them through difficult and dangerous circumstances.
They all had presence, a certain inner poise, a dignity born of self-command achieved by recognition of a purposed way to some definite objective, the power of detachment enabling them to view your problem objectively. But the man I met in Harley Street had this quality in a more remarkable degree, I think I should say here on a higher level. Of middle height, a classically shaped head, clear cut features, light blue eyes that see right through you with understanding kindliness making any attempt at evasion or deception futile, hands capable and artistic, a voice of which the diapason holds infinite range of expression—that is an attempt to give some idea of the man, Maurice Nicoll—of whom the passing 22 years have only served to intensify the impressions formed at that first interview.
Gurdjieff and Ouspensky created a loyal devotion in their students while appropriating the title of "masters" and the position of "definitive teachers", Nicoll did none of these things. He claimed no authoritative position for his books, saying they were only his "personal contribution." He leaves it to readers to discover for themselves what they truly are. For Nicoll, the word "psychological" referred to esoteric psychology, which for him was the equivalent of spirituality. This wisdom is contrasted to understanding things literally, or to a materialistic perspective. Thus, a psychological point of view reveals a deeper meaning, an elevated insight. By titling his six-volume corpus, "Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky", he was stating in his characteristically humble way that he had synthesized the ideas of these two great teachers and raised them to the next level. Anyone who would dismiss the writings of Nicoll as merely psychological and not spiritual has not read his work carefully or understood its true value.
The great error in the teaching Nicoll inherited from Gurdjieff was its violence. Gurdjieff's approach to personal transformation was entirely linked to a master-student relationship in which the master ruthlessly pinpointed the student's flaws and stomped them out by directly opposing them. This tactic—indeed, any master-student relationship—leaves far too much room for the ego of the master unconsciously or consciously to enter the picture and, in the name of transformation, damage or even destroy the inner nature of the student. Ouspensky saw this flaw in Gurdjieff's work and modified the teaching to some degree. But it is in the writings of Nicoll that we see the true nature of such violence exposed as the direct opposite of transformation. Nicoll defined violence as any lack of respect for self or another and opposed all violence as both arising from and creating "negative inner states," which in his teaching are the root of all compulsive behavior.
The Man and The Work
This is where we find one of several important connections between the Enneagram and the teaching of Maurice Nicoll. Negative inner states provide the fuel that keep us mechanical and therefore compulsive. Nicoll writes:
"The Emotional Centre is not born with a negative part—it should not be there, but it is acquired by the influence of people who are negative. By contact with adults a child learn to pity itself, to feel grievances, to speak crossly, to dwell on its misfortunes, to be melancholy, moody, irritable, suspicious, jealous, to hurt others, etc. This dreadful infection of a child is something against which nothing can be done because it is not clearly recognized. This infection forms the negative part in Emotional Centre. And this infection is handed on from generation to generation."
Nicoll's list of negative inner states is an interesting one. Many people resist the idea of negative inner states—negative emotions, as he also calls them—because they believe an axiom of modern psychology that says there are no negative emotions, only negative use of emotion. Others assume that if these inner states are called negative Nicoll is suggesting that we do battle with them.
However, neither of these observations is on target. For example, it would be difficult to read the list of negative states in the above quotation and find anything redeemable in any of them. Also, Nicoll does not suggest anything like battling them, for that only causes more negative emotions to come into play. Instead, he suggests we notice them through self-observation and dis-identify from them—in other words, we separate our sense of self from them, allowing them to be experiences we have but not engaging our personal energy with them, thus stripping them of their control over us.
In the Psychological Commentaries. Nicoll says that these petty states of mind attach themselves to other inner experiences and pollute them. Thus, they are at work in all people, but in different ways. Further, these negative emotions are so subtle that they easily attach themselves to the ego and justify themselves.
Another aspect of Nicoll's work that relates to his extensive teachings on the three centers. Nicoll names them the Intellectual, Emotional, and Instinctive-Moving Centers; we have simplified the names to thinking, feeling, and doing. Following Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Nicoll taught that personality is created by one center interpreting the other two. Nicoll took this idea one step further by saying that in every person, one center will be most prominent, another will be somewhat visible, and the third hardly ever used at all.
Nicoll states, "Everything you need for personal growth you already have within you; you don't need to learn exotic meditation practices, for example, nor do you need to take on a new religious, philosophical, or psychological perspective, as some people teach. What you do need is a willingness to learn Work ideas and a love of this wisdom that is strong enough to put it into practice." The key to doing inner work, according to Nicoll, is self-observation, and he teaches that practice to you step by step in Psychological Commentaries as well.
In his quiet way, Nicoll did something quite revolutionary when he published is Psychological Commentaries. He took The Work out of the master-student paradigm and placed it in the hands of anyone who is willing to read, learn, and practice these ideas. In this way, he took the potential for violence and the harm that it causes out of The Work. Parts of this wisdom you can find in many places—pieces of it are contained in all the world's religions, for example, as well as in many schools of depth psychology—but nowhere other than in Nicoll's Psychological Commentaries is it all gathered in one place. Nicoll has created a totally integrated and complete system for personal transformation. Read him; his humor will delight you, and his wisdom will guide you into a new world of personal freedom and consciousness.
In both The Mark and The New Man, the symbolic language of the parables comes brilliantly alive, a literary analogue of the fundamental rebirth that takes place within the mind and heart; the process of becoming "born again," says Nicoll, "is Christ's core teaching." This rebirth involves dying to oneself and to the world, but not in an ascetic or moralistic sense. Instead, it is a step toward a freedom in consciousness through the marriage of a man's understanding and his will.
The New Man
An Interpretation of Some Parables and Miracles of Christ
In The New Man, Nicoll examines the idea of sin which he takes in its original Greek meaning of 'missing the mark', as an archer aiming at some object and failing to strike his target. Subjects dealt with include the Parable of the Sower, the Grain of Mustard Seed, Metanoia, War in Heaven and Esoteric Schools. Read The New Man by Maruice Nicoll
Further Elucidation of the Themes Explored in The New Man
In The Mark, Nicoll examines the New Testament Gospels to reveal the esoteric teaching beneath their surface interpretation. Subjects include the idea of temptation, the Marriage at Cana, the Good Samaritan, Laborers in the Vineyard, Judas Iscariot, Sermon on the Mount, Necessity of Prayer, and the Kingdom of Heaven. Read The Mark by Maurice Nicoll
John A. Sanford
The Inner Meaning of Jesus' Sayings
The Kingdom Within explores the significance of Jesus' teachings for our interior life—that inner reality that Jesus called "the kingdom of God." It is Sanford's conviction that contemporary Christianity has overlooked this inner dimension of Jesus' teachings, and so, has lost touch with the human soul. The Kingdom Within by John A. Sanford.
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