Chief Feature

I have recently returned to the study of chief feature, spurred in part by both the power of Orage’s analysis in Gurdjieff’s Emissary in New York, and the frequency with which he returned to the topic. Clearly, he believed it was of the utmost importance, as did Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, yet, apart from some of his pupils such as Mr Adie and Mrs Staveley, it seems to me, at least, in my acquaintance with the Gurdjieff work, to have been somewhat neglected.

I will open by speaking of a recent case study, and only then turn to the theory. However, I should mention at the outset that Gurdjieff said this by way of description:

Every man has a certain feature in his character which is central. It like an axle around which all his ‘false personality’ revolves. In Search of the Miraculous, 226.

“False personality”, we might recall, is our wrong idea of what we are, our false self-image.

The case study is this: in the last month I have been privileged to be able to help someone see what is quite possibly his chief feature, and it is that he is “haunted by the past”. I have wrestled with the question of whether I should disclose how I helped him, but in the end, it seems to me, this is not a field for amateurs, and the most important thing – if I wish to see my chief feature – is to find someone with a little more understanding. At the end of the day, only such a person can help.

Back to this feature of being haunted by the past, or at least certain aspects of it. The word “haunted” is used quite deliberately: for the person I am speaking of, it is as if he is inhabited by something spectral, appearing when unexpected, The Oxford dictionary definition of “haunt” points to something we might often miss, that the word actually refers to when “(… ghosts etc.) visit frequently with manifestations of their presence and their influence …” Note that last phrase, manifestations of their … influence. This man has been almost driven mad by the influence of the past. Our beloved Skeat cannot be sure of the etymological basis of the word “haunt”, but he thinks it is most likely derived from a root meaning “to go about”. And that is what this man’s chief feature does: it goes about in his poor common presence, wreaking havoc.

Interestingly, when he did see something which we both believe could well be his chief feature was (after all, there is no certainty it is his chief feature), he immediately recalled two incidents when, first, one of his parents had taunted him with that feature, and secondly, when someone in a Gurdjieff group had told him that he was too much in the past. He had been quite open to the idea at the time. He wondered if it was true, even though he felt that did not necessarily mean that what he was saying was wrong. Although his interlocutor had only been concerned to shut him up, he had returned to the comment from time to time. Also in that conversation, another person, who had been with Gurdjieff, intervened saying: “But one cannot pretend that the past existed or that it has an effect.”

This is quite significant for two reasons. First, chief feature is not necessarily totally divorced from reality. I would suggest that it has to be taken into account rather than condemned. That was how my friend felt: even if he was very influenced by his memory of what had happened, nonetheless, that should be taken into account. Yet, as Gurdjieff pointed out, in the end, its involuntary manifestation must be destroyed (Miraculous, 267).

Second, and most importantly, chief feature can become chief strength. Even being present to the operation of chief feature is a tremendous help in one’s work, because it is always there.

Since the likely discovery of his chief feature, he has felt a peace he had not known. It is not continuous and deep, but it is never too far away, and rarely without an influence. He believes that it marks a turning point in his life. I trust it may be so. Certainly, I have seen changes.

But now I need to come back to the theory: the examples of chief feature which Gurdjieff gave in Russia were artistic portraits. For example, of one man he said that he was “never at home”, and of another, that he had a “tendency to argue with everybody about everything” (Miraculous, 267-268). When Ouspensky said that this was not even psychology, but rather art, Gurdjieff replied: “And psychology ought to be art … psychology can never be simply a ‘science’.” (Miraculous, 267).

The example of the man I gave conforms to this model: the description is a lapidary portrait. This does not mean that it has to be right, but it shows at least an ability to grapple with the sometimes indefinite nature of chief feature which Ouspensky mentioned (The Fourth Way, 177).

Jane Heap came to say that chief feature was usually related to one of five characteristics: Greed, Self Pride, Lying, Fear and Sex (Notes, 120). Jane Heap is almost certainly the origin of Kathryn Hulme’s notes at the end of Gurdjieff’s Emissary, 568-569. Jane Heap’s understanding was formidable. But these ideas on chief feature are rather schematic and analytic. If you use the index to find Orage’s teaching, you will see that Orage’s interpretation is more fluid, and hence, I suggest, more likely to be correct in this area. Sometimes we need to be analytic and schematic: but here, I think, it would be a mistake.

Much more could be added, but this may be sufficient to start.

Joseph Azize, 4 March 2017


  1. Dear Joseph Azize,

    I am re-reading Dr. Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries and have arrived at the subject of Chief Feature.

    I came to your page here hoping to find a “list” of possibilities! The enneagram of the passions may end up being the best source, but if you do have some kind of list, I’d be grateful to see it.

    Kind regards,

    Barbara S F Davis

    1. I do not agree with her, but Jane said “Chief features fall into six categories with many characteristics:” Self-Love, Vanity, Sex, Greed, Fear, and Lying. It strikes me as being like astrology. More important are her comments: “ The governor of our personality. Centre of our attitudes, beliefs and opinions. Also called chief fault, like a geological fault in the earth’s crust. Like the central axle that all our reactions, attitudes, thoughts and feelings revolve around. The pattern of undeveloped essence.”

  2. Joseph, I have been following you for some time. This is a topic that’s very interesting to me. I don’t know if you have read the following from C. Daly King’s, The Oragean Version. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Chief Feature
    Closely connected with Essence is a man’s Chief Feature. This is sometimes also called his Chief Weakness, for it is usually something of which the man himself is deeply ashamed. It is in fact the basic pattern of his undeveloped Essence; it is deeply buried, deeply hidden, disguised from his recognition by every strategem of his Personality.
    But it is the final determiner of our values, something for which, though unacknowledged, we will sacrifice everything else if driven to it. Its effects, direct and indirect, are involved in everything we do; the way we brush our hair, the manner in which and even the steps by which we dress ourselves, our modes of travel, and of course the way in which we meet and deal with other persons.
    The instance is given of a Russian officer of the Czar’s regime who, when told that his Chief Feature was cowardice, laughed heartily. He had been decorated upon the field of battle with almost every available medal for valor, and he had earned the medals. But his Chief Feature was cowardice, nevertheless. His behavior was abasedly craven in the face of his womenfolk, especially of his wife and his mother; and his military feats were fundamentally a desperate compensation for and denial of his real innate, unaltered childhood fears.
    Another not unusual Chief Feature is self-importance, the expression of which may take nearly any form except pomposity. Chief Feature is never beneficial; except for our chief features we should be the very people that we like to think we are.
    “Tell me what you pride yourself upon being,” Orage said once, “and I will tell you what you are not. The very thing we pride ourselves upon not being is the very thing that we are. ‘I’m not a jealous person.’ ‘I’m not afraid of being told the truth.’ When once you have yourself said the real truth about yourself, there is nothing that anyone can ever say to you again that can hurt you.”
    Chief Feature is a predominant feature, an outstanding characteristic. It is not, however, the element that is apparently most pronounced; instead, it is an arrangement of qualities. Until you have arrived at your own or another’s Chief Feature, the definition does not come clearly into view. How shall one find one’s Chief Feature? And, when found, what shall one do about it?
    One may sometimes surprise the Chief Feature of another in a chance description or an off-hand, happy remark. Someone happened to speak of G. B. Shaw as a man whose wits had gone to his head; and it was an almost perfect delineation of his Chief Feature.
    One may possibly turn on oneself in this sudden and unexpected way and make an equally striking discovery. But the sure way is to watch one’s general and detailed behavior over a considerable period impersonally and to let their picture gradually and impartially form in one’s mind. An outline will emerge, suspicions will thrust themselves forward; disregard them for a long time, until you are relatively sure.
    Then go to someone competent to confirm or to deny your own judgment; you can never be sure of this aspect of yourself by yourself, you will always need an outside confirmation. Naturally it must be a competent one and your equally uninstructed friends will not be of avail here; but it is one of a group leader’s functions to supply assurances like this at the proper time.
    Then comes a serious moment for, although to others who do not possess this particular Chief Feature it will seem a matter of little importance and nothing to occasion much of a fuss, to the man himself it usually appears as an almost unfaceable shame. It is, indeed, something which he has only brought himself to mention to his teacher after a real inner combat. And his immediate impulse is to do away with it by any available means.
    This pitfall must be avoided at all costs. Struggling and striving, as our Mr. Shaw has said, are the worst possible ways in which to accomplish anything; and a direct struggle against one’s Chief Feature will not accomplish anything valuable.
    The salvationist attitude has no place in an undertaking so serious as this one; it is always the mark of the religious or emotional fanatic, no matter how much he may seek to deny his role.
    What, then, is to be done, if a direct suppression of Chief Feature is prohibited? The answer is a simple one but it is also a hard one. The subject must watch his own Chief Feature, once he has identified and confirmed it, in operation in his own behavior.
    As he watches it, and the more he watches it; it will change of its own notion and by itself, a little by a little. It will do so, moreover, without the substitution of something more harmful in its place. This is not at all so astonishing as it might seem at first glance; there are a number of chemical reactions that can take place only in the absence of light, and on the level of psychology this is a similar phenomenon, in that an awareness of the action of Chief Feature will automatically alter the action, at first only imperceptibly but after a long enough period very noticeably.
    Chief Feature, like any other aspect of Essence, will commence to mature. When it has matured, it may well turn out to be one of the man’s most valuable human qualities. But it is obvious that its ill-advised suppression, being already the real cause of its presently undeveloped, objectionable condition, cannot change it normally but can only cause further harm.
    Never permit anyone, under any guise or pretense, to persuade you to struggle directly against your Chief Feature; that is no more than the naivete of reform and, in this case a more than usually disastrous naivete.

    1. My own view is that Chief Feature is one because it forms in reaction to Essence. There are occasions when an unbalanced manifestation reminds me that I am not present, and that very realisation provides the energy needed to come back to myself. It is not quite the same, but when I am at a loss, if I “look for” Chief Feature, I experience it as a floor upon which I can stand: it places me (it is not easy to find the right words) and I see, “Ah, here I am, under its influence,” and that provides the energy.

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