Irmis Popoff on Chief Feature and Steady Work

As we continue this work with chief feature, some things become clearer. First, to struggle with chief feature seems to always involve losing belief in a story. That story is the fictional idea of myself which comes with chief feature. I might be wrong, but it appears to me that just this effort to not believe, is fundamental when I am up against chief feature, because all my life something in me (personality) has implicitly believed it.

Chief feature is something with which we have been living since we were children. It formed, I tend to think now that it must have formed, before we were old enough to reason about it. That is, it must have crystallised when I was too young to be able to reason about my impressions, to compare memories, to critique, analyse and conclude. This, I suggest, is why chief feature is both pervasive in my psyche, and why it seems so right. We are accustomed to it. True. But not only accustomed, that is too weak a word.

Our very sense of right and wrong is bound up with chief feature. We can no more separate out from it than we can separate out from our sense of right and wrong. It is, perhaps, only when we can start to accept a standard of right and wrong which is beyond what our personality has been conditioned to accept, that we can see our chief feature. And that, I think, can only happen when real “I” starts to crystallise. If I am correct, this is why it takes so long to see chief feature.

Let us go back to the example of someone who suspects his chief feature is that he is haunted by the past. All the life he can remember, this has been the case. He does not realise that other people are not haunted by the past to the same degree. Perhaps it is of the nature of every chief feature that is is shared with everyone else to some degree. If our individual chief features are like our fingerprints, as Nicoll suggested (see the previous articles), then just as what is unique about our fingerprints is the configuration of whorls, loops and arches and lines which everyone has, so too, the same may apply to chief feature.

The individuality of fingerprints has another result: it means that as long as chief feature is active, we live our own uniquely distorted world: our perceptions and conclusions are biased by chief feature, and we cannot see that until we have some representative of real “I” to stand outside our personality.

The haunted person of our example, does not realise that he does not have to live as he does: he does not know that he can recall the past without being, very often, shaken. He does not understand that the important thing is to try and change by being present, by seeing where he went wrong, and so providing an aide to being more present when similar circumstances recur, as they will. To remember is natural, and to him, to be tormented by regret or self-recrimination seems natural, too. He sees other people sometimes react that way, and he thinks it must always be right. He sometimes sees other people with no regrets, no pangs of conscience whatever monstrosities they may have perpetrated, and he feels glad that he is not so self-satisfied, so callous.

As soon as he can say: “this is chief feature”, he is able to say “this is a pathology”. And with that comes his first real chance for freedom. Irmis Popoff states that Gurdjieff said that: “man’s work begins when his struggle with his chief feature starts” (Gurdjieff: His Work on myself …, 220).

Also significant is that chief feature provides a line to our work. In fact, because of the nature of chief feature, it provides a steady line. It is always there. The work against chief feature will always provide the shock we need to pass an interval. We only need to remember it.

The struggle with chief feature also provides a certain confidence: not an overweening brashness, but a humble confidence: I know that I am flawed, I have this feature, but at least I have seen it, and now I can work on myself, using the energy generated by that struggle.

After I had written the above (except for the quote from her book, which was added later), I revisited Irmis Popoff’s writing on this, I found that there was a great deal of depth in her comments, and felt grateful to her for sharing it. One evening, Ouspensky said to her “You are always inventing things. … That is your chief feature. … Now you are luckier than most people. You know what most people spend years trying to find out. Use it.” (Gurdjieff, 218-219). Something in her was able to accurately write that down in her notes. But she immediately forgot it. Gurdjieff came, and she joined the groups established. They even discussed chief feature, but not once in many years did she recall what Ouspensky had said.

She does not say how much later, but some years after Ouspensky had said that, she found the notes. It came back very clearly, but she was shocked. “It makes no sense. This is not true of me” (p. 220). She relived the moment. She stayed with it, and struggled. She now saw that even as he had been speaking, she had been inventing. As she turned to her present life she saw that “inventing is what I was engaged in now” (p. 221).

She then makes this very important comment: “How, indeed, could I struggle against this, which was my very self?” (p. 221). This tallied exactly with what I have found: that the new self must start to form before the old can be seen. She states, quite memorably:

And then it happened. I cannot put into words the feeling that came over me. I saw so much, so rapidly. … it was a real milestone in my personal work on myself. I saw my chief feature as a medal, its sides advantageous or harmful, useful or useless, desirable or undesirable, depending upon which one of them I flipped” (p.221)

There is a very deep principle there: it is related to the way of thinking which we call typology. A type can be thought of as a medal, and the antetypes are what are formed from the medal, as if it were dipped into wax. She is saying that chief feature is something like this. When she says that it has two sides, I think it probably more accurate to say that we have the two sides: essence and chief feature. To “flip” chief feature is to approach essence.

Joseph Azize, 14 March 2017


  1. I have found by starting with something I have progressed through a series of layers of the onion so to speak.

    I began with noticing that I always have an expectation about what should happen next and my negative emotions were always the result of this expectation not playing out.

    I then began to see that I find it difficult not only to listen to others but to even observe myself around others such is the sheer magnitude of my own vanity.

    Then that I saw that it was my own vanity holding the axe and assuming the role of executioner on my vanity itself, i.e. my vanity was wanting to do the work.

    Then I saw that my vanity seems to stem or manifest from a fear that seems to exist as a result of not having trust with others. Although I am around people, there is no real bond. I do not feel that we are really there for each other.

    I have also observed that since my teens I developed a very thick wall of self-importance, one that is ready to fight another for it, and yet before my teens I was extremely shy and very fearful of both my peers and more importantly my parents and other authorities. I never liked confrontation as a child, and could never bear to hear others argue, and yet since my teens I became ever ready to confront another as to some opinion or belief which did not match mine, provided of course the other person was not big enough to knock me to the ground!

    I do not know what my chief feature is other than something that maybe appears to stem from vanity and fear, although I must confess I still don’t quite know what it is I am looking for.

    In trust

  2. If I may say, Mr Adie always told us not to speak of it as “my vanity” or “my pride”. If I allow myself to speak that way, I will think of it that way, and iron the problem in, so to say, because thought has more permanence than emotion, and it forms attitudes. Better to understand, he would tell us, that something in me is vain, and I am responsible for it. Something in me is proud, and I am responsible for it. What we are looking for in seeking chief feature, is that which makes us act in this particular way at times of decision. I wonder if that might not help: we are looking to see what within me makes the big decisions. Regards, Joseph

  3. Thanks Joseph,

    I responded to another article of yours regarding where the Gurdjieff schools are headed, and after I had written it I observed myself questioning whether or not what I has posted appeared to be a little hot-headed. I often see myself as like ‘brainy smurf’.

    If I was pressed to give an answer straight away, I would say that what makes me act vain or proud at times of decision would be fear of losing something. It is like, if I may use one of my older daughters as an example who always asks for things even though she has moved out of home, that I fear if I give her an inch she will take a mile – as if by having to give up this mile, something in me is gone forever. Another example might be that when being engaged with people who love to talk about trivial matters, I find it almost unbearable to give up my attention to them, as if, by giving up my time I will lose it forever. Even instances which do not involve other people directly, for instance, after the working week, I find that if I do not let my hair down at least once on the weekend I am giving up my time for my day job even on the weekend.

    After reading this part:

    “something in me is vain, and I am responsible for it”,

    I felt a wave of something go through me, a sense of duty which I can do for something greater than me, even for the sake of the duty itself maybe, and even sensed that this ‘vain’ or ‘pride’ thing in me needs my unconditional attention.


  4. Another thing I observed recently;

    If I am tired I am grumpy, and its definitely one of the times where my desire to ‘work’ wanes.

    I was waking one morning, already feeling tired because I had not had a decent nights sleep, and I knew straight away that I was going to pass off my grumpiness, because that is what I always do.

    And so I asked myself, why do i need to do this, and straight away I thought that if I smile or hide my tiredness and grumpiness, that I would lose something – as if by being jolly i would be expected to do it all the time. My grumpiness was my way of denying anyone else the right to demand of me anything else, anything else that would cause me to struggle or work.

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