Essence and Personality

I was very moved by Maurice Nicholl’s writing on Essence and Personality in The Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, Vol 3. The following excerpt shook me to the core. What I understood at one point in my life, is now seen anew. And I suspect that 5 years from now a higher level of understanding will emerge.



To-night we speak again about Personality and Essence because all self-observation leads into the question anew at different stages–“What in me is Essence? What is Personality?” It might be said that Personality is the grown-up side and Essence the ungrown side of ourselves. The point however is that the grown-up side is not really ourselves. It fits like a tight costume round us but can under certain circumstances be stripped off. The real person then appears, quite unlike what the Personlality made him appear to himself and to others. Why is so much said in this Work about the necessity for Essence to grow? Essence cannot be stripped off. The real person, the person that remains after Personality is removed, is the Essence.

A person may have a noble Personality. But this is not the real person.
When the safeguards and restraining influences of life are removed and all fear of exposure or loss of reputation or the consequences of the law are done away with, what lies behind this noble Personlaity emerges. That is, ungrown, undeveloped Essence appears. We must not imagine that Essence is wholly beautiful and charming The real man appears separated from the Personality that has surrounded him hitherto. People do not understand how, if certain outer restraints and fears were removed, they would not lead the careful lives they do. They do not understand that their behaviour is not from within, but is caused by external circumstances. That is, they do not see that Personality is active, but not Essence. Now we know that Essence manifests itself openly and uncovered until about three or four years of age. Then Personality begins to surround Essence, masking it, and taking charge. Personality is formed by imitation and education, by praise, by fear of consequences. But it is not the individual himself. The real person–the Essence–remains covered over and passive.

Now whatever is done by Personality is done through the force of external circumstances. That is, it is done from without, not from within. In this sense it is unreal–not the real person. Let me repeat: “What is done through Personality is done through the force of external circumstances.” That is life drives the machine of Personality. External circumstances make you act as you do. You may imagine you are free. But you are not free. Whatever you do is due to external circumstances acting on your particular kind of acquired Personality. Notice how external circumstances put people in great or small positions. It is not them. It is the force of external circumstances. All the time we say ‘I’ to what we do, as if we were doing it. We do not suspect, save through genuine self-observation, that it is external circumstances acting on Personality that make us do as we do. It is not I from within doing it. Ordinarily, what you think is really your ‘I’ is only a collection of ‘I’s in the Personality that are for the moment in agreement responding to outside impressions — that is, responding to external circumstances.


Inner Life Exercise

Just watch with great interest, as an objective observer, the activity of Personality and all of the outer influences upon it.


Leave a Comment