A Note on Self-Justifying (Maurice Nicoll, Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Vol 3)
One of the many definite things we are told by this Work to observe in ourselves, and specifically to work against, is self-justifying. What does self-justifying mean? It means always putting yourself in the right. To justify one’s action, for example, is to vindicate oneself, to shew to others that whatever one did, it was reasonable, right, proper and just. When you justify yourself, you start from the picture of yourself as always good, honourable, just, upright. To justify oneself is to exonerate oneself, to explain to people how one was not to blame, how one was misunderstood, how one acted from the best motives, and so on. If you have begun to observe self-justifying, you will realize what a prodigious quantity of psychic energy is used every moment by the human race in this useless activity. The man or woman can never be wrong. People feel themselves always right, whatever they do or say. Nothing penetrates them. Nothing can rouse them from the deep sleep in which they prefer to exist. This becomes a serious matter, however, if a person wishes to awaken.
Now it is useless to speak of self-justifying to people unless they have tried to observe it in themselves. Suppose a person is suddenly asked why he is so negative? Probably he will either indignantly deny that he is negative or say that he has good reason to be. In both cases, he justifies himself–that is, he justifies his negative emotions. You can justify yourself by denial, or by finding an excuse such as blaming others. But the root of the matter lies in this picture of always being right and so never being actually in the wrong. Here a very powerful force is at work to keep us asleep in illusions about ourselves. As a consequence, we are then never at peace internally. On the contrary, we are at war–with ourselves. For there is that in us that knows we are in the wrong and that in us that refuses to admit it. Here the two Giants, Pride and Vanity, come in, but it seems to me that it is chiefly Pride. But that is a matter for personal observation. Vanity may make pictures of oneself and Pride defend them. But whatever the case is, the fact remains that some very powerful force lies behind the act of self-justifying and that this force does not give us any inner stability and so no inner peace. A man or woman may, say, not sleep all night simply because of something they will not admit and accept, and instead they justify themselves. Yet one real act of uncritical, sincere self-observation, one search through their inner rooms for the missing piece of silver–that is, the missing truth–will clear everything up. The tension relaxes. A real act of self-observation has been made. Something not admitted and so not properly conscious has been allowed to become fully conscious. All inner strain and tightness suddenly vanishes. Why? Because instead of the crowding voices of self-justifying–and here it is oneself justifying oneself to oneself–observation, acknowledgement and acceptance have been carried out. In other words, an act of real work has been done. The pill has been swallowed.
Let me talk once more of this pill that Sly Man makes and swallows in the 4th Way. Sly Man does not sit on his haunches for years with his arms outstretched. He does not starve for weeks or deep-breathe for days. He observes himself and sees what he has to do with himself now to change his machinery–his present Being. He is clever–like the wise virgins in the parable. (In the Greek the word translated as “wise” means “clever”.) He works on what it is immediately necessary to acknowledge and accept in himself without Pride or Vanity. So he is sly, clever, intelligent. He makes a pill and swallows it. Now if he always justifies himself, how can he make this pill and swallow it? The Sly Man does not strive to keep up with himself as he imagines he is. He notices distinctly that he lies, for example. He observes it over a period and does not seek to disguise it to himself, to justify himself. He notices it, sees it, acknowledges it, accepts it, and so swallows this particular pill. Then he must digest it. It tastes bitter in the mouth. But once digested it becomes sweet.
When we justify ourselves nothing comes home to us. We keep, as it were, a half of ourselves from entering consciousness. We live on one side. This is due to those extraordinarily difficult things to observe called in the Work buffers. The more buffers, the more self-justifying. But once the other side of a buffer is observed, acknowledged and accepted, the buffer can never re-form itself. We lose a particular idea of ourselves. We gain a broadening of consciousness. Thereby we reach a higher level of Being. This seems paradoxical. It seems paradoxical to say that if you will accept what you disapprove of you reach a higher level. People imagine that by increasing their sense of self-merit and virtue, they get higher. On the contrary, they descend. This is worth thinking about.