What is The Work?
Psychological Commentaries on the
Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky
Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky were written based on teachings Maurice Nicoll received from Gurdjieff and Ouspensky from 1921—1931. Dr. Nicoll began his studies in London under Ouspensky and in 1922 went to Gurdjieff's Institute For The Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France. Upon his return to London, Dr. Nicoll continued his studies with Ouspensky until 1931, at which time he was given permission to teach the "Work", as it is referred to.
I must add that the center of gravity of this talk to you lies in the meaning of what is called the Fourth Way. We are not Fakirs holding out our arms year after year; we are not monks living in monasteries; we are not Yogis going to remote schools or sitting and meditating in caves in the Himalayas. We belong to what is called the Fourth Way, which is right down in life. So we have to work in the midst of life, surrounded by all the misfortunes of life, and eventually life becomes our teacher, that is to say, we have to practice non-Identifying in the midst of the happenings of life; we have to practice self-remembering in the midst of our affairs; and we have to notice and separate ourselves from our negative emotions in the midst of all hurts and smarts in daily life. And for that reason it is said that a man who follows the Fourth Way must become Number 4 Man, that is, a man who has developed his centers.
The Work helps us understand and put into practice specific conscious
efforts that allow us to gain the power of will over our thoughts and emotions.
The Work is not an external thing. The Work is not a place, the Work is in your hearts and in your own understanding, and wherever a man has to go, the Work can always go with him if he maintains the right attitude towards it. The Work is only kept alive by a man's own efforts. Only if he is willing to receive it can the Work touch a man, and it then slowly begins to transform him. Therefore, the Work is not in space nor even in time. It is in something that we do not understand, which is neither in space nor time, place nor moment, for which a word was invented long ago, a word that is always completely misunderstood, called eternity.
When a person feels that this life cannot be explained in terms of itself, when he or she sees that life taken by itself without any added explanation is largely meaningless—"a tale told by an idiot"—a history of crime and bloodshed and frustration, when such a person begins to see that it is very doubtful whether there is any such thing as progress and that everything begins and ends almost before it has begun, then he or she is in a position to search for other meanings and new knowledge, convinced that it must exist. And when people begin this research with any sincerity and any real depth of feeling, they will be astonished to find what a great number of memorials exist in the literature of the past which point unmistakably towards another kind of knowledge and meaning. In all this literature the theme is the same.
The theme is always that a man can undergo a distinct and certain development, a real evolution or rebirth if he knows and understands gradually what he has to do. That is to say, all this literature, which constitutes a part of what are called "B Influences" in this Work, has the same object. A man has to die in some specific and definite way to himself, to certain sides of himself. And if he dies in the right way, he is born again as a new man, another kind of man, called in this Work a "Conscious Man" as distinct from a "Mechanical Man". He will then know the meaning of his life on this earth, namely, that it is not an end in itself but a means to another end, for it is by means of a certain kind of struggle against what life has laid down in us that the end or purpose of man's existence is achieved. If everything were easy, there would be no rebirth, but, as the Work teaches, man cannot be reborn rightly nor can he die rightly, that is, he cannot see the right things to die to in himself unless he first awakens.
In many esoteric fragments of the past, you will find references to rebirth and death. In the Gospels, for instance, you will find such references, and also references to "Awakening". You will find the word watch often used which should be translated as awaken, but you will not find these ideas, which are the central theme of esoteric psychology arranged in the right order.
A man must awaken before he can die aright. And if he awakens first,
and dies in the right way, he may be reborn if there is anything
worthwhile and sufficiently strong and real in him.
It will depend upon the quality of the person in the deepest sense. Nothing "pseudo", nothing false will be of any use here. Although it is necessary that a man should awaken, first of all, he must be taught what he must work on in himself and observe in order to awaken. And for this he must find a teacher and a teaching, that is, a teaching that is not arbitrary, invented by ordinary people, but one that comes from those who have awakened and left behind them instructions to those in prison in the sleep of life, who wish to get out, to awaken.
Therefore, he will have to search, to seek and even if he does find something it will not be at all easy for him to establish contact with it. He may be tested from the very first moment or it may be that he is tested years later. In some schools of awakening, in the past, a person had to keep silent for two or three or even five years, or do the most menial tasks, or perform labors that were always being frustrated, and so on, before he was taught anything. Or, he would perhaps be treated in some rough way so that his pride and vanity are touched and he might become offended. You know how in the Gospels it is said that people were continually being offended and how Christ was always attacking vanity, pride, self-esteem, self-complacency, and the idea that one knows what is right and wrong already.
There is a phrase: "Seek and ye shall find." The meaning of this is that unless you yourself seek, you yourself will not find. Some may bring you, let us say, to this Work. You may not ever have thought seriously about the meaning of your existence or of life or of anything of that kind, or you may have searched a little and thought that it was too confusing, or you may have been quite unable to distinguish between truth and falsity in what you found. Now supposing that you hear something of this teaching and it falls on your understanding and not simply on your two ears, then your search for this Work will begin and you may be able to find it, but you may be in the Work for many, many years and never have searched for it and so never have found it.
Your search means two things. You may have had to spend a long time in trying to find a real teaching in the world and you may have passed through many stages of thought and endeavor and danger before you have made any contact with the object of your search. Or you may have made contact perhaps even accidentally, straightaway, and imagine that your search is at an end instead of realizing that it has only just begun.
Reflect for yourselves now on this point: if it is said, "Seek and ye shall find," you will have to lose first. How can you possibly seek, unless you feel you have lost? So, we have to go to a still earlier stage, to the feeling that you have lost something, that you have missed something, that something is lacking, or perhaps to the feeling that you, yourself, are lost and that you would like to seek and to find yourself. And this takes us back to the opening of this short paper, to the feeling that this life is inexplicable in terms of itself, and that there must be some other meaning, some other interpretation.
The Work is in your heart and in your understanding. The Work is kept
alive by a man's efforts, and only if he is willing to receive it can the
Work touch him, and it then slowly begins to transform him.
The movement of this Work is psychologically inwards, at first. Later it is both inwards and outwards. Everyone has an external and a more internal side. But the external side usually governs the more internal side. The external side is acquired by the action of life. This is called "Personality" in this system. The deeper, inner side is called "Essence". In the development we have spoken about above—this possible, pre-arranged, individual evolution or re-birth—it is the Essence that must grow. Unfortunately, the Personality and the Essence are under opposite signs. Personality is active and Essence is passive. At least this is our ordinary state in life. The change that has to take place eventually is a reversal of this customary state so that Personality and Essence change signs. This obviously implies a considerable upset of oneself. However, it takes place gradually, up to a certain period, and during this time a person very slowly gets to know himself or herself and realizes that he or she is utterly different from what they imagined.
This weakens the Personality or acquired side. As I said, all this means that the movement of the Work is, psychologically, inwards at first, for no one can get to know his level of being unless he goes inwards, through Self-Observation. One begins to pass into this complex thing called oneself, about which one has so many illusions. But for this purpose several conditions are necessary, one of which is a form of knowledge that will guide one and which must be applied to oneself with sincerity. Some form of truth, in other words, is necessary, in relation to which one can study oneself. This can be got and lost again quite easily. If you have never really searched for it, you will scarcely be able to say you have lost it. But if you have created a vacuum for it in yourself, if you have felt that you are lost or that you have lost something valuable, then if you eventually find something you will know when you lose it again. As this Work begins to mean something important, something genuine, and real, it opens something in the more internal part of a person. This cannot take place if the attitude to the Work is wrong or one's conduct towards it is wrong.
The internal side of a man can only grow through truth, not through
what is false. The external side can grow through what is unreal and false.
It is therefore of great importance to notice one's attitude to the Work and those connected with it and also to notice what one is using the Work for. For example, to use the Work to increase the Personality and its ambitions is to have a wrong attitude. That should be clear enough to anyone who has any power of sincerity and does not justify everything. When the Work forms an emotional point in a person, it actually opens a part of a center, and then that person begins to touch new influences. It is quite easy to know when this has happened. But to keep this point, he must follow and keep to the truth of the Work. He must apply it to himself: and if he loses this point, for a time, he must seek for it again. The Work lies in us at first like a piece of silver. In the ancient and lost language of parables, silver represents truth. A person feeling himself asleep, feeling he has lost this point in himself, feeling an emptiness and blankness where he had felt something light, must search for what he has lost all through himself—in every room in every center, on every floor of the three-story house called himself.
What is he to be identified with? What is he internally considering? What is he lying about? What is he expending on pretense? Where is he justifying himself? When did he last remember himself? When has he last made any effort? What has happened to his aim? How many things has he put in front of the Work? When did he last observe himself attentively and go over his mind? When did he last view himself over the past few days? When did he last think clearly about this teaching and search for new meanings? When did he block some important staircase or corridor in his house by leaving a litter of stuff that he should have sorted out and put in place, or slam some door by haste or irritation and forget to go back and open it again? You can see what a mess of one's house one can make by behaving in sleep for a short time and how easily one can lose something.
Now you will understand some of the meaning in the parable of the Lost Piece of Silver: "What woman having ten pieces of silver, if she loses one piece, does not light a lamp, and sweep the house, and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost.'" (Luke XV: 8-9)
Given the right conditions, a man can become what he or she was created for.
The Work says that a man is created as a self-developing organism; like a seed.
A seed must be planted to develop. So it is with the man if he becomes planted
in the ground of teachings known as Esoteric Christianity.
One of the objects of this Work, this teaching, is to observe oneself. Self-Observation is a method of self-change. This Work teaches that a man, a woman, can change. Why? The Work teaches that everyone is created in such a way that they can change. We are created as self-changing beings. We can change—not anyhow, but in a definite direction. The Work says we are created as Self-Developing Organisms—like seeds. A seed can remain a seed, but it is a self-developing organism. Can we understand this? Is it clear? Is a seed capable of some definite development? This Work, the Gospels, and all esoteric teaching is older than history.
How, then, can we put ourselves in the right conditions in order to change? A seed must be planted to develop, and have the right food, air, and light. So it is with us if we become planted in the ground of esoteric teaching. This is not a fanciful idea. It is not an idealistic idea. It is not a pious idea. It is not a sentimental idea. It is a fact. Given the right conditions, a man, a woman, can begin to undergo what he and what she was originally created for. We were not created merely to live in life. Life does not develop a man or a woman finally. It is the first and necessary experience. But it only goes so far—that is, to the formation of Personality. Here it stops and nothing more happens.
The man, the woman, having attained to this first, this necessary development of the Personality—namely, of the profession, the craft, the business, the labor, the civilian duty, the good householder—remain then undeveloped any further in the sense of esoteric teaching. The man, the woman, having attained to such life-positions, to such successes, to such situations, then begin to die. They have become "equal to life". It must be said that many do not get as far as that. However, this is the first task—the life-task. A man, a woman, must learn, must get to know, something definite in life before anything else is possible. They must be good at something, know something, and be able to do something.
That is why in this Work it is said that a man or a woman must start from the level of "good householder". This work is not for useless people or for people who live on the being and vitality of others; such people are not at the level of good householder. The Work can only begin with people who have reached a certain attainment in life and in life-experiences, and who are not evil, criminal, pathological or perverted. The Work is not for the riff-raff of life, the people who are a nuisance and a burden to others, or for those who expect something for nothing. It is for responsible people who understand the difference between chaos and order, and who see clearly that certain things must be done, regardless of how they feel personally.
There is a Work-definition of good householder in the supreme sense of this state—namely, a person who does what is necessary in life but does not believe in life. This is a curious phrase and is worth reflecting upon all one's life—for many good householders believe in life, and believe that sooner or later life will become much better than it is now. They believe in progress, in spite of things as they are. But this impulse, this idea, really is one that takes a wrong and outward direction. Progress is possible—and here esoteric teaching, this second education, comes in. A man, a woman, can progress in themselves. They can undergo a definite development by giving up what they have come to think they are.
Self-Observation is training in creating an objective perspective.
It is not about judging anything. It is about seeing that eventually
leadsto understanding, and then to have compassion for others.
This is where Self-Observation starts. In my case, Nicoll—the Personality formed by life, what life has made in me, my opinions, my bias, my conceit, etc.—must gradually be separated from through my observing Nicoll. In your case, it is your own life built on Personality that must be observed by each of you: gradually—all the time—and also at intervals until something separates from it. This thing that separates is what can grow. Then you no longer wholly regard yourself as yourself, as your meritorious life, your virtues. I begin to see Dr. Nicoll. He begins to see Mr. Wilson. He begins to see Mr. Parfit. He begins to see Mr. Taylor, and so on. That is, we begin to see what is not us—what life has built up in us—what we have hitherto solely taken as ourselves.
The method of this slow, gradual shifting of the feeling of oneself begins with the slow, gradual observing of oneself—noticing oneself. It does not begin with going against oneself. How is this possible when one does not know oneself? How can you go against something you do now know? So, it is necessary to begin with Self-Observation, carried out over years—in fact, all one's life. This ray of light, this ray of consciousness, arising from noticing oneself, that begins to enter into the darkness, the ignorance of oneself, very slowly brings about a change. This is the beginning of this inner development of which the Work speaks so much. Things may and do go on just the same, for a long time. But one notices them. One is not asleep to them. If they are observed often, continually, at intervals, they slowly begin to alter. You cannot alter yourself directly. You can only alter by means of certain kinds of effort. These efforts are shown to us.
There is the great effort of Non-Identifying—not identifying, with yourself, to begin with. ("What a fine fellow I am!") There is the great effort of Self-Remembering. This is the first effort of all, but very difficult. There is the great effort of Self-Observation. There is the great and continual effort of living more consciously towards yourself, towards others in the Work and towards the Work itself. All this increases consciousness. Things alter by your becoming more conscious, more aware of them, by observation, by noticing without criticism, by gradual separation from them. Do you realize that to observe oneself and then criticize oneself at once is useless? Now if a person asks: "How does one alter?" or "What does one alter into?" the answer is that everyone has something which they can become if they practice the Work, and which they are destined to be. This is perfecting oneself—a phrase in the Gospels. If they observe, notice, and non-identify, they will inevitably begin to alter into what they were created to be, which is not what they are in the Personality. A seed alters into what it was created to alter into, to change into, to transform itself into. So it is with us. This is what the Work teaches about ourselves. This paper is to remind us what the Work is about.
Recently someone asked: "What is this Work about?" This person had been in the Work some time and the situation presented itself to his or her mind on that formulation—i.e. why should we work on ourselves? Why should we observe ourselves? Why should we separate from negative emotions, from Internal Considering, and all the rest of it? This question presents itself at intervals to everyone who is in this Work. Why, any of you older or younger people in the Work, should you work on yourselves? You may or may not be getting on very well in life. You may or may not be happy in life.
Therefore, why should you work on yourselves? This leads to the fundamental question: "What is this Work about?" Why does this Work exist in life and why has it always existed in different forms, in different disguises, religious and otherwise? Why should I try to observe and separate from Negative Emotions? Why shouldn't I talk scandal? Why shouldn't I tell a person what I really think of him? Why shouldn't I expend my Negative Emotions all day long on everyone whom I meet? Why should I have to do something else apart from behaving as I naturally would? Why should I have to try to change my behavior towards life, towards people, towards circumstances and events? Why shouldn't I hate when I feel like hating? Why shouldn't I murder if I feel like murdering? Why shouldn't I always say just what I like and behave as I wish to behave?
Now this Work is about awakening from sleep. What is sleep? When you are in a passion you behave in a certain way. You may in this passion do untold harm by what you say and what you do. I would ask you, if you are in this passion and behave as you feel from this passion, are you awake or are you asleep? Are you hypnotized? You may afterwards realize you said the wrong things or did wrong things and wonder why, but while you were under the hypnotism of this passion you thought that everything you said or did was right. When the passion is over you may feel that everything you said or did was right. When the passion is over you may feel that you may have said too much or done too much. I say, you may.
This means that in ordinary life you realize to a certain extent that you were under hypnotism—you were asleep. What hypnotizes you and puts you to sleep is the passion. At the same time you at once justify this passion and how you behaved in it and say it was perfectly right. Yes, Self-Justifying means putting yourself in the right always. People of coarser psychology don't ever realize that. People of finer psychology feel a twinge of regret. But instantly they justify themselves—put themselves in the right—but very few people realize that they really cannot trust themselves to this moment of passion.
Now man asleep is a man, a woman, who is always governed by various passions and moods. People say in this Work when they first hear that we are all hypnotized, that they do not understand that they are hypnotized by their passions to begin with. They say they always know what they are doing. They do not realize that they are not free but governed by different kinds of passions. Playing on life to keep humanity asleep are various kinds of passions. As long as the passion works in you, you are asleep and in certain cases can even do murder under the influence of the passions that play on humanity. This is one example of what it means that mankind is kept asleep. This is the great source of propaganda.
The whole point of the Work is to be dehypnotized. It is the de-
hypnotism of life hypnotism. External life hypnotizes us by its events.
War, for example, is a typical event. The study of life-hypnotisms is very interesting, especially when you apply it to yourself and see how you are hypnotized every moment. What one sincerely wishes to do from oneself is usually quite different from what one does from the bravura of life. All these things keep us asleep. But what keeps us asleep most of all are our domestic quarrels, our domestic difficulties, our thinking that others are conscious. As a rule a hypnotized man marries a hypnotized woman and then their married life consists in overcoming their self-hypnotism, usually, if they are not in the Work, with bad results. A man expects a woman to be like that, and a woman expects a man to be like that. The greatest hypnotism in life is that you think you will find your goal in life. Christ was tempted by goals in life:
"The tempter came and said, 'If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.' But he answered and said, 'It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.' Then the devil took him into the holy city; and he set him in the pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, 'If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down': for it is written, 'He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, and on their hands they shall bear him up, lest he dashes his foot against a stone.' Jesus said, 'Again it is written, you shall not tempt the Lord thy God.' Again the devil took him into an exceeding high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said, 'All these things will I give to you if you will fall down and worship me.' Then said Jesus, 'Get thee behind me Satan: for it is written, you shall worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shall you serve'." (Matthew IV: 3-10)
How many of you without knowing it has made power and possessions your goals? That is for the first training in life when you find that these goals do not furnish you with any internal happiness. Now all this belongs to Man asleep. If you are in the Work, you ought to begin to understand that your goals are not giving you peace. You have to realize that you won't get peace; you have to realize that what you are striving after is exactly for your Personality, for your first education. The Work is a second education in which you become aware that what you are striving after is not what will give you internal peace. You have to come down to find yourself to find out what kind of person you are. I always think the Temptation of Christ was the overcoming of the first education.
Toward Awakening by Jean Vaysse
The Art of Personal Transformation
What This Work is About
The Work: Esotericism and Christian Psychology
by Rebecca Nottingham
The teaching is called "The Work" and it is about the inner psychological meaning of Christ's teaching. It is a system of ideas and psychological practices derived from the Fourth Way System that originated with George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, interpreted by Peter Ouspensky, and taught by Maurice Nicoll in "Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky". Students at any stage can use this reference to find guidance into the intended aim of The Work in order to carry it forward as the sacred path it was meant to be and applies to anyone who is seeking meaning and an authentic path that leads to real personal development.
Read the Introduction to The Work