Identifying with the Past

Part One 

I think that one of the major points one will come to in the work of spiritual development, is to realise that one is identifying with the past. To realise that fact is to begin the work of ceasing to identify with the past, and that can lead to more.

But let me remain with this idea of identifying with the past. Before turning to specialist literature, I will start with everyday meanings. Perusing the 8th edition of the Macquarie Dictionary is instructive. When looking for “identifying” one finds the related words “ident,” “indentic,” “identical,” “identifiable,” “identification,” “identikit,” and “identity.” For the word “identification” itself, it has:

  1. Psychol. a. the process by which one takes into oneself the characteristics or behaviour of another. b. the becoming like another as a stage of development or as a way of fulfilling needs, c. the process by which one perceives another as an extension of oneself.

Already having taken just this small section, it opens up and deepens our understanding of identification in Gurdjieff’s sense. And it is quite clearly something which is so insidious it can take place even with Gurdjieff groups, where we can identify with our group leaders, and movements demonstrators, “taking into ourselves” their behaviour, characteristics, attitudes, and ideas.

Now we come to the word “identify.” The first meaning of this word, according to the dictionary, is the base from which we work out: “to recognise or establish as being a particular person or thing.” An example would be where I see someone approaching from afar, and then at some point I identify the person as being my brother, or a stranger, or whoever.

The fourth meaning is the psychological meaning: “to associate … with another person or group of people by identification.” Meaning 5b also has a psychological side: “to associate in feeling, interest, action, etc. with.”

Again, it is useful: we now have two ancillary concepts to help understand “identification”: “taking into oneself” and “associating with.”

The dictionary entry for “past” is also revealing. It means “2. gone by in time,” “3. belonging to, or having existed or occurred in time previous to this, 4. gone by just before the present time …” That is clear and obvious enough. It becomes more interesting at meanings 9, 10 and 11: “9. the events of that time, to forget the past. 10. a past history, life, career, etc. a glorious past. 11. a past career which is kept concealed: a woman with a past.”

So taking this altogether, even from the learning available in the ordinary level of life, we have a concept of identification with the past as taking into oneself and being influenced by what has happened, our history, life, and career, perhaps especially the concealed past.

Now we turn to Skeat for the deeper history of these words. “Identity” has a base meaning of “sameness,” and derives from Indo-European roots meaning “sameness.” In Latin, īdem means “the same” and has roots i and de which are “pronominal” third person bases, that is, it is a root which stands for “him,” “her,” “it,” and “they.” Identification, in its strong meaning, then, is “becoming it” (or “him” or “her”). That is, not being oneself. Before we get to this strong sense, there are degrees, the stages by which we associate with or take into ourselves the properties of another person.

Therefore, when I speak about identifying with the past I could, simply by reference to the common language, understand it as becoming and being limited to memories, external influences: elements from one’s history, whether known or secret.


Part Two

Although I only think of these concepts because of Gurdjieff, it is good sometimes to put his ideas aside for a moment, and turn to other sources. Now we add Gurdjieff, and immediately the being-level of thought is lifted. Gurdjieff said:

Man is possessed by all that surrounds him because he can never look sufficiently objectively on his relationships to his surroundings. He can never stand aside and look at himself together with whatever attracts or repels him at the moment. And because of this inability he identified with everything. Early Talks, 97.

This, I think, is the key. Note the word “possess.” Little wonder we speak of “demonic possession.” Now, demonic possession is real. But the point is, so is identification, and just as in demonic possession, where another personality usurps the driver’s seat, so too, even in the middle reaches of identification, let alone, strong examples, I am not in charge: other things usurp me as commander of this organism I have been loaned for a certain period. Then, we have this significant comment from 1922:

Non-identify. Identification in work means one-centre work: we see only the aspect with which we are identified. … Man has real individuality inherent in him, but can only reach it after long process and gradual growth through great effort. We can easily sacrifice our pleasures but not our sufferings; we are too identified with them – we love ourselves too much. We must learn to express opposite feelings. Early Talks, 147.

Again, this is vital: our false self-love attaches itself particular to our sufferings: possibly because the things done to us are what we have suffered, whether or not there has been pain involved. There are several reasons why something in us identifies with our painful; suffering: for example, it is not pleasant to think that we have suffered all that for no good purpose. It is the nature of human nature, perhaps, that we will have suffered so much. That is a lot of tinder for a fire. But to escape from it, Gurdjieff says, we need to learn to express an opposite emotion. One such emotion, I suggest, is remorse of conscience. Another is, I think, gratitude to God and whoever else for all benefits I have received. Often people do not see their lives as a gift, and hence have no feeling of gratitude for it. Okay, then think of our continued life as a gift.

I will finish with this one last quotation. Before that, my aim here is not so much to speak about the practical work, although that is implicit in some of this. It has been more to draw attention of a certain kind, an attention with a feeling of concern, to the problem of identification with the past. Here is the last word for this post:

A child has no logic, no material, and because of that his mind is only a function. His mind will not stop to think, with him it will be “it thinks,” but this “it thinks” will be coloured with hate, which means identification. Early Talks, 246



  1. Hello Mr. Azize. I’m an 4th way student in Brazil and I created my i own blog to promote 4 way ideas on portuguese.

    I found your last post fantastic and would like to kindly ask if it is possible to autorize a republication of that in my blog with the appropriate reference to your site.

    In case you want to know my work you may access

    Also in Instagram leissagrada

    Best Regards

  2. Hi Joseph,

    I’m a Canadian student of The Work (originally from Toronto, where the Gurdjieff teaching is active but concealed well).

    Thank you for persisting in learning and sharing your contemplations of the material. I first discovered you today (by accident?…) in a series of videos you posted on Youtube, where you speak about your book and it’s contents. I was impressed and went out of my way to find this website and more information about your book.

    1. Thanks, but I removed the reference to another web site. I would not wish to sound as if I was indirectly endorsing it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *