Nicoll: What Gurdjieff Said about Decisions

I do not find all of Nicoll’s “psychological commentaries” equally valuable. They are rarely mediocre, but on some occasions, I have the impression that Nicoll, who wrote these as weekly helps to his groups, was rather under the gun and seeking for something fresh to say. However, some of his pieces are among the best of all the work written by any of Gurdjieff’s pupils.

I thought I had read all the commentaries, but I must have been on automatic pilot when I first read this one, which was drawn to my attention recently by someone here in Australia. It is called “Commentary on Making Decision in the Work,” and was written from Quaremead, Ugley, on 29 September, 1945. (Maurice Nicoll, Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Vol. 3, 784-789). It is, without question, the most important of the Nicoll commentaries I have read and can remember.

He begins by stating that: “In making decisions in the Work the mind must be free from its bondage to mechanical attitudes.” And what he has to say about that is concise and good. Then comes the unique section, when he quotes some notes he made of a talk once given by Gurdjieff:

You cannot make a decision from one ‘I’. For example, you make a small decision not to smoke, while you are sitting quietly. The next moment you get up and light a cigarette. When you are not in Moving Centre—that is, not moving about—you may make a decision that instantly is forgotten when you begin to move. This is making a decision from a small ‘I’, let us say, in the Intellectual Centre.

Contemplating this shows us, Gurdjieff said, how hard it is to make a decision and our lack of control over our organism. A real decision will come from something more like the whole of us, and not just a small ‘I’, and that real decisions are not made in words, as they come from a source too deep for words. Gurdjieff said that if we make a conscious decision, we see how it is connected with other things. With what follows, I will not attempt a paraphrase:

Then G. began talking about what he called binaries (the word binary comes from the Latin binarius=consisting of two). He gave us an example of a binary: necessary and unnecessary —these are opposites. He said that a decision in the Work-sense does not lie in the binaries but in the Neutralizing Force or Third Force that turns a binary into a ternary (meaning ‘threefold’ or a ‘triad’— from Latin ternarius). He said that our life is led in binaries—that is, opposites. This is called the Law of the Pendulum under which we are mechanical.

That is the essence, the quotation develops this and is well worth obtaining the book just for that. Later he paraphrased:

… the binary becomes ternary—that is to say, the opposites become included in the triad and from this a result can take place which leads to what he called a quaternary (which comes from the Latin quaternarius = consisting of four). This quaternary is active. It consists in first of all a union of the binaries or opposites through the Third Force, so making a ternary and leading to a result which makes it a quaternary. Through this result, which in a sense can be called active, as was said, a further development can take place.

The way forward in all this, Gurdjieff said, is by giving oneself the First Conscious Shock of Self-Remembering. Of self-remembering, Gurdjieff said, and this is most important for understanding his system:

“This state of Self-Remembering,” he said many times, “is a state that Man was born to possess but he has lost it. A man is born with the power to remember himself but as he is brought up amongst sleeping people—that is, amongst people who do not remember themselves—he soon loses this power. He falls asleep himself through the hypnotism of other sleeping people amongst whom he grows up, and for this reason this Work must start with talking about the state that Man must reach which is his birthright. That is why I say to you all that you must practise Self-Remembering.”

G. used often to talk about this and I will give you in so many words what he said. He said that esoteric teaching at one time used to be only necessary in regard to the Second Conscious Shock, for Man is not born with the possibility of giving himself this shock and cannot give it to himself unless he is taught how to do it, but that now owing to the fact that Man has fallen so much asleep he has to be taught how to give himself the shock of Self-Remembering before anything can be done to transform him. G. used to talk a great deal about how Man has lost this state given to him at birth …

We need, Nicoll said, to become free of negative emotions, and of depression, and to be patient with ourselves. We see that the small decisions made by small ‘I’s are not enough. I think a great help is the reminder not to identify “with ourselves or with external events.” He ends with an interesting story, almost a fairy tale:

There is a story about a blind girl whose five brothers go out into the world in turn, thinking they can do, but they all fail and become lost in the world. Then the blind girl goes into the world. She does not think she can do, but she holds on to a thread that she has woven, one end of which is bound fast to the Sun. She never lets go of this thread and as a result she can do—she is able to help her brothers and other people in the world simply because she does not trust in herself to find the way but looks to the thread to guide her. Why is this girl shewn as being blind? She is blind to the external world. She does not act through her senses but she holds on to something internal. Now if a person could remember himself all the time and notice everything that caused him to identify—that is, to cease to self-remember—he would be holding on to this thread that comes from the Sun, from a higher level.

I have been unable to find the source of this story. Neville Goddard, obviously inspired by Nicoll, used this tale. It sounds to me as if it could be from almost any culture. But what is clear Gurdjieff, is this teaching about binary, ternary, and quaternary. It is reflected in the lecture on symbolism which Ouspensky took down in In Search of the Miraculous. And the more I work, the more I think the idea of not identifying with the past is a key.


  1. I am fairly new to Gurdjieff’s work.

    What I Observe in myself with respect to struggle with anxiety, if it makes sense,is ‘i-thoughts’ (garbage/unconscious thoughts) trigger bodily emotions/feelings, and if let alone then mechanical automatic/unproductive response is what happens, or else ‘I’/’presence’ has to take charge and see that both ‘i-thoughts’ and following ‘feelings/emotions’ are incapable of ending the mechanical run. Like ‘I’ have to even let the emotional trigger know that they don’t have to over work and it’s not their duty to end triggered-reaction nor next ‘i-thoughts’, and to let it settle in presence.

    Just thought of sharing. Found this blog recently. 🙂

    Thank you.

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