[“Love Without Harmony”. Part of The “Love” Series etc.]
[Today’s guest post comes from Mark McGuinness.]
“Remember yourself always and everywhere.”
These words were inscribed on the walls of the study house of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Château Le Prieuré, Fontainebleau-Avon, the home of the esoteric teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. They summarised the essence of his teaching and were written there as a reminder to his students.
Gurdjieff taught that human beings are divided into two parts: Essence and Personality.
Essence in man is what is his own. Personality in man is what is ‘not his own.’ ‘Not his own’ means what has come from outside, what he has learned, or reflects, all traces of exterior impressions left in the memory and in the sensations, all words and movements that have been learned, all feelings created by imitation …
Essence is the truth in man; personality is the false. But in proportion as personality grows, essence manifests itself more and more rarely and more and more feebly and it very often happens that essence stops in its growth at a very early age and grows no further.
(G.I. Gurdjieff, as reported by P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous)
In other words, Personality is made up of the rules, conventions and expectations of the world around you; Essence is the real you. A bit like the white pebble.
By definition, Personality is hard to resist, since it carries the weight of the world’s expectations. It’s easier to go with the flow, to fall into step with those around you, to do as you’re told, at the expense of who you really are. But doing the easy thing comes at a price:
Moreover, it happens fairly often that essence dies in a man while his personality and his body are still alive. A considerable percentage of the people we meet in the streets of a great town are people who are empty inside, that is, they are actually already dead.
According to Gurdjieff, we can only avoid this fate by staying in touch with our Essence and helping it to grow and develop unhindered by the shackles of Personality. The chief way of doing this is through an activity he called Self Remembering. In ordinary life, he said, we forget ourselves in the bustle of daily activity and the delusions of Personality. Self Remembering is the opposite of this forgetfulness – it involves becoming deliberately aware of yourself in the present moment, of your thoughts, feelings, actions and physical sensations.
Right now, for example, notice how you are reading words in front of your eyes, on a screen. Notice the thoughts and images that they are creating in your mind. Notice the emotions they are arousing in you. Notice how your body feels right this instant; the posture you are in; the sensations you can feel. Don’t let this article and these few seconds of your life be like a disembodied film being played out in front of you — put yourself in the picture. Feel what it’s like to be alive at this moment.
Now you are starting to remember yourself. Soon, you’ll forget again, and get caught up in demands and distractions of the rest of the day. But at any moment — if you remember — you can come back to yourself, and become a little more aware, feel a little more alive. Do this often enough, said Gurdjieff, and you open up the possibility of waking up to your real nature.
Self Remembering is not easy. Try to do it for more than a few moments at a time, and you’ll soon discover how hard it is to avoid getting sucked into the next train of thought, the next enthusiasm, the next pressing engagement. And the hardest thing is remembering to do it at all! When I was first introduced to Self Remembering, I experienced such a vivid sense of freedom and peace in the moment that I resolved to do it often as possible. Several days later, I ‘came round’ with a jolt when I realised I had completely forgotten all about that ‘unforgettable’ experience and hadn’t made an attempt to remember myself since!
As we’ve seen, the easy thing is to surrender to personality, the internalised rules and expectations of society. Remembering who you really are is hard work. You have to fight like hell if you want to hold onto it. That’s why Gurdjieff called it ‘The Work’ with a capital ‘W’.
Gurdjieff helped his pupils by providing reminders, prompting them to remember themselves ‘always and everywhere’. Sometimes he would ring a bell at irregular intervals during the day — on hearing the bell, his pupils were to remember themselves immediately, whatever they were doing, and start observing their mental and emotional state. He also encouraged them to make small changes in their daily routines, to create little reminders during the day. If you always take milk with your tea, get rid of the milk from the fridge — every time you go to make a cup of tea, the absence of milk should act as a nudge to remember yourself.
In his own way, I think Hugh’s after something similar with his cartoons and the ‘remember who you are’ shtick. If you have a picture like this or this hanging on your wall, looking you in the face every day, it’s hard to do the easy thing, forget your real nature, and slide back into conformity. The picture serves as a reminder, a challenge to stay true to yourself, no matter what. A bit like the writing on the wall back at the study room in Gurdjieff’s Institute.
[Mark McGuinness helps artists and entrepreneurs create remarkable things at Lateral Action. For bite-sized inspiration, follow Mark on Twitter.]
[The “Remember Who You Are” archive is here.]
Everything about this is beautiful. I thank you both. I actually feel a bit weepy. Once you start forgetting your essence, and then rediscover it, it can be a bit overwhelming. But well worth it. No other feeling like it. I hope everyone that reads this wakes, and remembers.
Terrific: I think this concept is more practical than meditation, or “being in now” practices. I used to read 20 different life hacks, which all say basically the same thing, every three months to get myself refocused. I guess I only need to remind one core stuff but on daily basis.
Loved this post. Hugh, really enjoying all your guest posts. Thanks!
Thanks guys, glad it touched a chord.
@ Isao – Yes, enlightenment isn’t rocket science, it’s the ‘daily basis’ bit that’s hard. 🙂
Thank you for this very simple and clear explanation of personality, essence and self-remembering. Although you say that it includes bodily sensations, I think it really needs to be emphasized that self-remember must be from an embodied state. Otherwise it devolves into self analysis and is just more of the same-old-same-old.
Good point Ann. Self Remembering is not self analysis or navel gazing. It means being centred in your body, not lost in thought.
Sounds like meditation. (Which I’ve been doing for, let’s see, 44 years.) What I find is that the essence cannot die, Gurdjieff to the contrary notwithstanding. I do a lot of chanting in my car, and what invariably happens is that I only feel in touch with my soul when I can get very, very simple in my heart. Nothing adult, nothing mental, strip away all phony devices and covers. No matter how I stray from that center, it’s always there – and always infinitely refreshing.
I came to this post through my subscription to Lateral Action. An email was delivered to my inbox.
I’d like to think that I’m pretty in tune with myself, to some level. But this post’s simplicity allowed me to connect to a different part of myself that made me smile. And I think it’ll make me smile from here on in when I do it whenever I’m out and about.
Thank you Mark and thank you Hugh for allowing this to happen.
Mark – This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing. We all have to deal with this inner/outer persona and the struggle it creates within us every day. By creating ways to remind us of our true self, our essence – the struggle should cease to exist -yes?
The older (and wiser) I become the more my essence become my personality.
Where can I find out more about Gurdjieff the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man? Is there something to read in addition to In Search of the Miraculous?
Sorry Lesley, I’ve just seen your comment. Two other excellent books about Gurdjieff are Teachings of Gurdjieff by C.S. Nott and Boyhood with Gurdjieff by Fritz Peters.
Gurdjieff’s own writings can be a bit opaque (deliberately) but have a look at Meetings with Remarkable Men.
Thanxx Mark, for bringing simplicity into our lives. Many a time we tend to create an artificial complexity around us, hence we become oblivion of our on self…
Very nice post…
Excellent article. It is the mind we are battling with in our daily existence. Observing but not becoming attached. Understanding the true nature of things. It is taming one’s Monkey mind. Reminds me of a wonderful talk “The power of mindfulness and compassion” by Ajahn Brahm.
Thanks for an insightful reminder of the conscious effort required to focus on what matters most. It is so easy to get caught up in being busy and to lose sight of our core being. So glad to read and to share!
This is the heart of yoga, where we focus on the breath and how the body feels in every small adjustment of posture. My teacher ends every practice with a call to “remember who we truly are.”
[…] piece I like for completely different reasons is Remember Yourself, commissioned by one of my all-time favourite bloggers, Hugh MacLeod of […]
I found a mysterious bookmark in a book i recently purchased. It has the phrase “remember yourself always and everywhere” and a few numbers to call!
It may be a gimmick by the book company but there’s nothing else on it, so i think it’s unrelated.
i’d like to find out more on self-remembrance so if someone could email me at [email protected] id be grateful, thanks
These comments are very beautiful. I originally like d the simplicity of the article but read what was said below, and love the way people are mentioning Mindfulness and Meditation, because the essence of all three are the same: really feeling here, really feeling alive, and Ourselves, and actually being Aware… which is experience that we cannot objectify for another…It is ours…
Just some comments on the article: I think we do have to fight for it (I certainly do, even tho it is quite strohg in me – when I have it, being human – it is so easy to get distracted (which can be healthy, but then it takes us!…)
ALso – I think Essence is another us entirely. Gurdjieff somewhere says that it is like it speaks ‘another language’ (than our personality). I suppose when we are identified with it, we are asleep to this alive us inside; the point is to allow our I-Nature to be, while/simultaneous to playing our roles…
I think it is almost impossible to describe what our true, natural nature is, although we can experience it very clearly at the time.
Gurdjieff (and his disciple Ouspensky) however seemed to soemtimes believe in their ‘system’ so much, which doesn’t really seem to believe that anyone can develop it apart from in a ‘school’. It’s not So much their writings, but people who are involved in ‘the Work’now that seem to blindly repeat the ideas in the form they were given, without any living knowledge, or connection-to-reality-as-it-is (-like their essence has gone out!) It is very strange.
They basically say- ‘you can only develop essence in a school’. What? When you are ‘awake’ and ‘really alive’, you see that some others are like this on quite a common basis!
Also -surely most people are still alive inside (albeit a bit dormant/rusty in some key places, maybe). One needs to take care with Gurdjieff/Ouspensky, for me anyway.Their ideas can be very rigid (and don’t chime with my essence and what I see!)
Good luck! and Have a wonderful life of presence, meaning, Joy and aliveness everyone!