Chief Feature and Essence

Two of the more overlooked books in the Gurdjieff literature are the posthumously edited Notes Taken at Meetings January 18, 1934 to April 28, 1934 and Selections from Meetings in 1953, of Maurice Nicoll. First, in the second book, Nicoll states that there are as many chief features as there are finger-prints (p. 92). This corresponds to my own view that the attempt to define chief feature by reference to seven deadly sins or a list will not help us locate chief feature, although it is undoubtedly otherwise useful for self-examination.

But now to the relation of chief feature and essence. On p. 22 of the first book, Nicoll gives as his own opinion that chief feature is the relationship of essence to personality.

This tallies exactly with Orage’s statement: “Chief feature is the relation between essence and personality. The idea is ultimately to detach “I” from personality. … All lower emotions are those we share with animals – all those peculiar to man are higher emotions. Lower emotions come from response of the organism to the external world. Higher emotions come from the response of “I” to the organism. There are negative higher emotions, for example, remorse.” Gurdjieff’s Emissary in New York, 12.

What does it mean to speak of the “relation” between essence and personality? It assumes that essence is one thing and that personality is another, but that, although separate, they are not separated. The fact of the connection between the two makes possible our development, for without that connection, neither could influence the other.

Because essence is the real us, the possibilities with which we were born, and personality is what we have acquired during our lives, chief feature probably represents the distance we have travelled from our real selves. So, when Gurdjieff said of one person that his chief feature was that he was never at home, it meant that whenever he did make his chief feature passive, he would be “at home”, and thus seated in his real self, that is, his essence.

To know the distance I have gone from home is very useful, because I can use that information to return. The point is, I tend to think, that seeing chief feature not only tells us how far we have gone, but also the direction. The struggle with chief feature gives orientation and efficiency to our efforts.

Another aspect of the question of a relationship between essence and personality is that it allows for mutual influence. In the case of the influence of personality upon essence, it is a sort of smothering. In the other direction, the first influence is that chief feature seems to be formed in reaction to essence, almost like the negative of a photograph. This, if correct, would explain why chief feature is one: because essence is one, its negative image is also one.

This also explains why one’s chief feature can become one’s strength. In the 1934 meetings, Nicoll is quoted, again at p. 22, as making a cryptic statement about chief feature being generosity, and then gives an example of miserliness. These notes, based on recollection, rather than recordings, are suggestive that a person’s chief feature of miserliness could become generosity.

Perhaps this would connect with Gurdjieff’s statement: “… if you find a way to struggle with this feature (i.e. chief feature) and to destroy it that is, to destroy its involuntary manifestation” (G. emphasized these words), “you will produce on people not the impression that you do now but any impression you like” (Miraculous, 267).

Again, returning to what it can mean to say that there is a relationship between essence and personality, our relationships wax and wane with time. The nature of relationships vary: sometimes friendly, sometimes not so friendly, and sometimes neutral. If this is the right way to think about it, then the relationship between the two will never cease in this life, but essence can be the active rather than the passive element in the equation. The third element will be our being, and from our being, our manifestations both internal and external.

And this leads me to the quotation from Orage at the start of this paper: “The idea is ultimately to detach “I” from personality. … All lower emotions are those we share with animals – all those peculiar to man are higher emotions. Lower emotions come from response of the organism to the external world. Higher emotions come from the response of “I” to the organism.”

We live in a world where sleep is the rule. We are subject to tremendous external influences which produce internal results in us. Too often, I have suggested, we are satisfied with being half-awake. But we need to raise the bar. If, as Orage says, higher emotions come from the relationship between “real I” and the organism, then they are formed by the process which led to the crystallisation of chief feature, but according to an evolutionary process, rather than an involutionary one.

This is an advantage of religion, and may help us understand why Gurdjieff said that faith is necessary. Faith, being related to something or, more accurately, some one higher than ourselves, who is Himself objective to our organism, provides, immediately and without any shilly-shallying about, a perspective on our organism from higher emotion.

Take the example Orage gave of a higher negative emotion: remorse. We must not let ourselves off too quickly. But neither must we be obsessive. In the last post, I mentioned someone whose chief feature would appear to be being haunted by the past. The demand to be balanced between the past and the present, to be able to feel remorse which is useful, rather than a crippling self-condemnation, could give him so much. Then his recall of the past could mature into the sort of wisdom which we associate with those elderly persons who have led good lives.

Our lives in the body give us all the possibilities we know on this earth. To be objective to the body and all its mechanism, and to the workings of the emotional and intellectual centres, would bring us to a feeling of my own presence, which would unite me in the present moment. At the same time, that state of presence enables me to be objective.

And I think that with intelligent work on chief feature, we will get there more quickly, more surely and much more safely.


Joseph Azize, 7 March 2017


  1. One of the first ideas this made me think of is where is it said how we deal with Chief feature, I think we all strive to perfect ourselves and for this we need knowledge and methods, for me personally I think this is where we have to take an intellectual approach to the Gurdjieff influence. There are so many resources to draw from, where do we start to look?

    I think this is where the work has to take on a new direction, I think it is at a place where we have to start to examine the resources and start to categorize them into what whole they belong. Lately I been going over and over Life is real only when I am, it occurred to me that Gurdjieff states that in 1927 he had an epiphany where on examining the state he was in when writing his first attempt at Beelzebub Tales, he states he realized that his success hinged on the degree of contact of the consciousness of his thoughts in contact with his automatic instincts. This seemed to be a growth in his understanding. If we look at the version of Beelzebub Tales we have in our possession, this idea runs throughout the entire book and it seems that Partkdolg duty is explained in the same way. Partkdolg duty is this contact. I haven’t found anywhere Ouspensky spoke of this so in my reasoning, this revelation came in that said time, 1927. This revelation seems to be the core of his teaching from 1928 until his death. What knowing this does is that it now gives us a line to draw. We could reasonably say that Gurdjieff had two teachings, one we see documenting from Ouspesnky and his lineage and the other, frankly still seems to be buried in Beelzebub Tales but with hints at it through contact people had with Gurdjieff from 1928 until his death.

    Why am I speaking of this here is because it seems we can approach this idea of chief feature from two different angles. Its not to say what Ouspesnky wrote was wrong, ideas are just pointers to objective truth but it how we approach working with this objective truth that changes, what methods we use changes.

    In Beelzebub Tales chief feature is lumped in with the idea of kundabuffer…..

    “the functioning of one or another corresponding consequence of the properties of the organ Kundabuffer crystallized in them from among those that form what is called the “subjectivity” of the given being, as for instance: “self-love,” “vanity,” “pride,” “swagger,” “imagination,” “bragging,” “arrogance,” and so on.
    I agree that chief feature seems more than just a list of the deadly sins, that it is something quite subjective also. For me my chief weakness is the act of always trying to please others. This makes me a slave of everyone I have contact with.

    Personally, the answers i looked for led me to two sources, one is Beelzebub tales the other, the Paris meetings, or wartime meetings.

    In Beelzebub tales it explains we need to make this contact that I spoke of at the beginning of this post, where the act of contact of our consciousness with the automatic instinct makes these features or effects passive, almost killing them, or at least making them into functions. Taking “I” out of them.

    In the Paris meeting it explains how. For anyone interested I used the word “FIND” in the PDF of those meetings, I searched the words, crystallizations, Dogs or dog, kill, and function.

    Its always a pleasure reading your posts, thank you, they always lead me to find something new to think about. Awesome.


  2. I apologize for the frequent postings of late but your treatment of the subject of chief feature has been both timely and refreshing for me, as I have struggled for quite some time to pin-point it.

    Reading your 4 articles on it, I couldn’t help coming to the conclusion that maybe our chief feature is like a false claim we make against the world in response to some recognition or perception about ourselves that we do not in fact possess that which we wish to claim.

    Someone once told me that I like to hang around certain people because it makes me feel smart. I remember feeling quite hurt at the time. Another time my mother told me I lacked empathy. Again, I felt hurt. Another time I was told by someone that I was bossy, again, I felt hurt.

    All these times I felt hurt I do clearly remember thinking, they are wrong and they do no understand me, and all I did was justify myself to myself.

    With the online school I am part of, I came to the conclusion after much effort that my chief feature was insecurity, and when I came to this conclusion I did feel ‘some’ sense of peace, as if to say, I understand why I am who I am a little better – but I have since felt also this description to be too generic.

    If my chief feature does stem from insecurity, insecurity from what?

    Thanks for allowing me to speak out loud.

  3. If the response of the organism to external world (lower emotion) corresponds to the first totality, do you agree that this totality describes most our chief feature than essence? Or may be the most emotional and deep roots of chief feature close and mixed with essence?

    1. If we take it that essence is what is real, then even if it comes from the moving/ instinctive part of our nature, it can be essential. Chief feature is said to tip the scale in its own direction, and it invariably operates together with other impulses inside us, and I am sure operates or can operate through any centre other than the two highest. I am quite sure that to the degree that essence is awakened, chief feature is passive, so, no, for this and other reasons I don’t see essence and chief feature as being able to mix. Regards,

  4. I have a feeling that chief feature is a part of the personality that is acquired in life, whereas essence is what we are born with. Chief feature may be formed as a reaction to what essence needs in order to grow. Therefore, they are not mixed, yet they are still intimately connected. Nicoll has said that personality is like a yoke surrounding the seed germ in an egg. That would somewhat equate chief feature kind of in the realm of what our main source of nutrition is for furthering digestion, in order to provide our growing psychological body with the necessary end products of higher hydrogens, in the formation process of the higher being bodies. So, personality and essence are not mixed, but perhaps chief feature gives us the energy and impressions like food does for our organic body. This provides us with the material we need in order to continue our distillation, keeping what is needed for growth and discarding what is waste. Anyone hungry for some good steak and cooked potatoes? Bon appétit!

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