Here in the Western world, we tend to lionize those with the “big” personalities – the people who, brimming with confidence and untrammeled by self-doubt, bask in the glow of public attention as they go about their important business. They are the envy of all, and serve as models for the aspiring. Even the word “lionize” is telling – we admire the lion for his fierceness, courage, and power, but most of all for his dominance. The lion gets what he wants. Should we, then, be lions too, if we intend to get what we want? The answer is not so simple: it all depends on what we want.

If what we desire is worldly success: celebrity, attention, money, power over others, then a huge, outwardly focused ego is just the ticket. But what of our inner life? What of the possibility of real inner growth, of understanding of the sort that requires introspection and stillness? One must be receptive in a way that overweening self-importance simply will not permit. Yet to be an unassertive milquetoast in this world is simply to be trampled. How do we proceed?

These questions have perplexed seekers of inner development for a very, very long time, and are a central issue in many esoteric teachings. Let’s look at how the problem is addressed by one such “school”:

One way to describe our inner architecture is in terms of personality and essence. “Essence” is considered to be what is our own – what has not come from the outside through education, imitation, etc., while “personality” is an artifice, a creation that we build in order to present ourselves to the world.

We need our personalities. They are absolutely vital for our survival in a complex social world. Personality is created by culture, and culture, in turn, is created by personalities. As we grow we learn that certain things are expected of us – there are roles we must play, skills we must acquire. We must present ourselves in various ways, depending on the social context. So we create an apparatus for the purpose. It is an accretionary process – small children have very little of it, and their essential part is still openly visible. But as time goes by this apparatus grows and strengthens. It is what we wheel out every day to greet the world. The parts of it that work well are reinforced, and we lean on them more and more. The parts that fail us we attempt to conceal. But daily we add to this contraption, we reinforce it, and after a while we begin to think that we are it.

Some esoteric schools maintain that there are experimental ways to verify the relationship of personality and essence. By the use of special exercises, or hypnosis, or even certain types of narcotics, it is possible to separate the two, and even to supress, temporarily, the action of personality. At such a time, to quote one witness,

“…a man full of the most varied and exalted ideas, full of sympathies and antipathies, love, hatred, attachments, patriotism, habits, tastes, desires, convictions, suddenly proves quite empty, without thoughts, without feelings, without convictions, without views. Everything that has agitated him before now leaves him completely indifferent. Sometimes he sees the artificiality and the imaginary character of his usual moods or his high-sounding words, sometimes he completely forgets them as though they had never existed. Things for which he was ready to sacrifice his life now appear to him ridiculous and meaningless and unworthy of his attention. All that he can find in himself is a small number of instinctive inclinations and tastes. He is fond of sweets, he likes warmth, he dislikes the cold, he dislikes the thought of work, or on the contrary he likes the idea of physical movement. And that is all.”

So when we come to the task of inner development, which requires the growth of our essential part, we will find that the personality, though indispensible to our worldly lives, becomes a tremendous obstacle. We are so strapped in, so deeply connected to this machine we have worn for so long, that removing it is extremely difficult, and excruciatingly painful. Also, stripped of its protection, we are naked and defenseless. So in order to allow essence to develop we must work slowly and painstakingly to soften the structure of personality, to loosen its confining grip. But in order to do any of this it is necessary first to see it, to understand that so much of what we think we are is actually not us at all, but is merely this mechanical superstructure. To do anything about it is not possible at first, but the observation of our personality, of its mechanicalness, and the degree to which we are helpless in its grasp, is a necessary first step, and leads in turn to other possibilities. There are ways to begin to do this. They are difficult, and they are uncomfortable, but they are available.

Here’s another problem, though: if the apparatus of personality is a fine, well-running, splendid machine, one that affords us success, wealth, fame, power, respect, and all the other attractions of a worldly existence, then it will resist any attempts to weaken it; when threatened, it will defend itself. So in many cases the people who are the most envied, the most successful, the most powerful, are the ones with the least chance for inner growth. But those who are exactly the opposite – those who live almost outside of culture and who have had very little need or opportunity to build the huge and complex apparatus of personality, face an obstacle as well – they have not enough in them that is not their own. They cannot begin to study themselves, cannot struggle against their mechanical habits, because they simply will have no motive for doing so.

This is why the ideal candidate for such inner work is often said to be the “good householder” (or, to use a Russian word, obyvatel). Such a person already has a practical appreciation of, and capability for, productive work, and is not subject to the entrapments of personality that the celebrity, the intellectual, the politician, the captain of industry might be. For the latter group, sadly, the chances are fewer. When Jesus said (Matthew 19:24) that it is easier for a camel to pass though the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven, “rich” did not necessarily refer just to money.

There is a lot more to say about all of this, obviously. I’m happy to blog blithely on about chess, politics, qualia, falling from airplanes, and so forth, but I suspect that there are others out there who yearn as I do for a peek behind the veil, and I feel obliged to share what I have learned.

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  1. Very nice post, Malcolm. I hope you continue with this line of thought. Is the quotation from Gurdjieff?

    You are right, ‘rich’ has a richer than merely a monetary sense. And whether we use your terminology or not, it is important to draw a distinction between essence and personality.

    Posted December 12, 2005 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bill,

    Right you are, the quoted party is Gurdjieff, as cited by Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous. I did not attribute the quote, as I want to do a post introducing Gurdjieff first, and because the ideas in this post are really not specific to G.’s teaching, but are instead quite general principles of esoteric systems.

    Posted December 12, 2005 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Robert says

    Yes.. please do keep sharing, Malcolm. I have read Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, and I suppose that a two word essence of their aim is, “Wake up!” But we all seem prone to fall back “to sleep” again and again…it’s the effort that makes life worthwhile, since the results will never be 100 percent, it seems.

    Posted December 12, 2005 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Robert. I will indeed keep writing about this topic.

    Posted December 12, 2005 at 1:45 pm | Permalink