On Work on Oneself

Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky

~Maurice Nicoll

It is necessary to work on oneself to-day. Each day is an epitome of one's life. One's life is what remains at death—that is, a person is his life, and this is what is meant when it is said in the scriptures that the book of one's life or the book of life is opened at death. A man is his life. A day in one's life is a small replica of one's life. If a man does not work on a day in his life, he cannot change his life, and if he says that he wishes to work on his life and change it, and does not work on a day in his life, his work on himself remains purely imaginary. He solaces himself with the imagination that he is going to work on his life and actually never begins to work on a single day of his life. One's life is broken up into days and years. If a man does not work on a day of his life by self-observation by means of applying the ideas of this work practically to what he observes, there is no starting-point. He says, perhaps, that he will work to-morrow. You remember the saying that we will have jam to-morrow. But it is always to-morrow. If a man says: "I will begin to work on myself to-morrow", then he will never work on himself, for it is always to-morrow that he will work and never to-day. This is sometimes called in the work the disease of mañana —to-morrow. As long as a man says always mañana—that is, to-morrow—he will never change.

In order to work on oneself it is necessary to circumscribe the field of work—that is, not to dream idly of working in the future on some grand occasion but to work to-day—to circumscribe practical work to to-day, to this very day with its events, and not think in terms of to-morrow. Have you begun to observe yourself in regard to the day —the ordinary every-recurring day that is the cosmically determined miniature of the year and of one's whole life? You all know that saying: "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof". But have you thought what this saying means and have you considered the context in which Christ made this remark? What, for instance, does it mean when it is said sufficient. Sufficient for what? It is sufficient to work on the evil of to-day. If a man begins to work even a little on the day and its vexations and troubles, he then begins to work practically on himself. But he must get to know his day and get to know himself in relation to his day. There is a certain average day that each person passes through, apart from very unusual events. The events of the ordinary day have, as you will admit, a certain recurring similarity for each person. Now suppose that a man never realizes this and never observes himself in connection with the typical events of his average day, how can he even think he is' working on himself and how can he even suppose he can change himself? Change of being begins with changing your reactions to actual incidents of the day. This is the beginning of taking your life in a real and practical sense in a new way. If you behave in the same way every day to the same recurring events of the day, how can you believe that you can change? To get to know yourself, begin with observing your behaviour towards the events of a single day in your life.

Notice how you react—that is, notice your mechanical reactions to all the little events that happen and to other people and notice what you say, feel, think and so on. Then try to see how you can change these reactions. Of course if you are certain that you always behave consciously and rationally and that you are never in the wrong, and so on, nothing will ever change in you, for you will never be able to realize that you are a machine, a mechanical person, always saying and feeling and thinking and doing typical things according to changing circumstances over and over again. But perhaps, owing to a grain of modesty or a sense of humiliation or, better still, owing to increasing consciousness of yourself, you may realize that you are not one—not a fully conscious individual, willing his life consciously at every moment, but at one moment a mean person, at the next an irritable person, at the next a benevolent person and the next a scandalous or slanderous person, at the next a saint, at the next a liar. Try to make the work-exercise of behaving consciously for a small part of one day in your life. Because everything we do affects us for ever. A single moment in which one is conscious enough not to behave mechanically, if it is done willingly, can change many future results. If you learn, say, a little French to-day, you will know more to-morrow, but if you do nothing to-day, you will know nothing more to-morrow. It is the same with
work on oneself. But one must work willingly on oneself and not because one is told to. To work sullenly or for merit, is one thing; to work on oneself because one dislikes something in oneself and longs to alter it, is another thing.

Our whole manner of taking a day in our lives is wrong because by habit it gets fixed and so mechanical. Then indeed we are mechanical and so have no real feeling of what we are doing and our days pass in a strange unfelt way—i.e., we follow the mechanical habits of the day and so have no real life and take in no new impressions. "It" acts— that is, the machine. But if a man starts his day consciously, the whole day may be rather different for him. But he must get to know what it means to work on himself, taking his life as a day—to see, observe, and realize what a day is for him, and not think that a day for him is unimportant because it is so usual and that work means something in the future—or that work is something "he has no chance yet to apply to himself, because he is so busy with his day's work", as someone once said to me in a serious manner. How do you get up, in what mood are you at breakfast, what always upsets you, etc., etc. ? Please do not think that to change yourself is merely to smoke less or eat less. Remember this work is psychological. Our daily life, our profession, our trade, our occupation, etc., are nothing but a dream with which we identify. But this understanding comes slowly—when we understand better what sleep and mechanicalness mean and why mankind is called asleep and life is called mechanical. To work on yourself, begin to work on daily life and then you will understand what is meant by the strange phrase: "Give us this day our daily bread" in the Lord's Prayer. For the word "daily" here means in the Greek supersubstantial bread or "bread from above". The ideas of this work are to give us bread for life in the double sense of ideas and force to meet with the troubles of daily mechanical life and so supersubstantial "bread"; and to feed a new life beginning in oneself, for in the work everyone seeks to become a new person. Now no one can alter his life or change anything in regard to his mechanical reactions to his daily life unless he has the help of new ideas and is helped by the force coming from these new ideas and the new thoughts that are born in his mind if he begins to understand them. Remember that the slightest thing counts in regard to mechanical reaction to ordinary daily life—the slightest negative reaction matters, and the slightest wrong thinking about oneself or another, or internal considering, or negative imagination, and so on. To prepare lower centres to receive the ideas and force always coming from higher centres (but not heard, as it were, owing to our heavy inner state of sleep) is long work —but every attempt, done willingly, to correct or separate from a negative reaction, every attempt to remember oneself in the presence of a difficulty, every act of sincere observation of oneself, as when one is lying or shewing off or making oneself over-important from false personality, or twisting the truth to injure another, helps to make right connections in lower centres and so to prepare them for conjunction with higher centres and the help that comes from them.

[Uit Deel I]