Maurice Nicoll: Spiritual Giant, Gentle Genius
What would be your reaction to meeting a man of towering intellect, infinite kindness, commanding presence, and amazing insight into the workings of human nature, knowing that he was also the student and colleague of three of the greatest spiritual teachers of the twentieth century? If you are like us, you would be immediately attracted to him and want to study with him.
That reaction has been the foundation of our respect, admiration, and love for Maurice Nicoll since we met him through his writings over a decade ago. The depth of his work has guided us in our efforts to ground the Enneagram in a simple, clear understanding of human nature in the hope that we can make it accessible to the widest possible readership.
The Man and his Education
After serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Mesopotamia during the First World War under harrowing conditions, he established his practice on Harley Street in London where for many years he was known as London’s leading neurologist and one of Britain’s leading psychologists. There, it is said, he received people of both great and small station in life with uniform graciousness and kindness. News of his unique combination of wisdom and love spread slowly, since he published most of his books toward the end of his life.
In 1921, while he was considering Dr. Jung’s invitation to be his personal representative in Great Britain, he met P. D. Ouspensky, student and colleague of George Gurdjieff, and was immediately taken with his ideas.
Gurdjieff, a contemporary of Jung and Nicoll, had spent the first forty years of his life searching throughout Asia, Africa, and the Near East to discover a valid conception of the meaning of human existence. In this odyssey he learned methods and practices for releasing latent powers in the human psyche for personal transformation. Calling his new method by various names — the Fourth Way, the System, and the Work — it is the way of balancing all three centers: thinking, feeling and doing. In 1910 he founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Moscow, later moving it to the Caucasus and finally to Paris in 1919 to escape wars and revolutions. The central idea of The Work is that humanity is asleep and must awaken through self-observation; one must die to oneself and the thousands of attachments one has made in life so that a new self, a ‘Real I’ can emerge.
In the Fourth Way, you live an ordinary life in the world, and life is your teacher. Balancing the three centers in the midst of daily life has a deceptively simple sound to it. In actuality, it is the most relentlessly demanding way of all. However, working with yourself in this way causes profound shifts in your consciousness, so that you no longer view life in an ordinary way. You come to realize that life has a meaning beyond itself.
In 1922 Nicoll, his wife Catherine, and their infant daughter Jane moved to Avon near Fontainebleau in France where they took up residence at the Château du Prieuré and began a year of work in Gurdjieff’s institute. Gurdjieff’s methods included days filled with physical labor followed by long hours of grueling experiential spiritual practices, leaving little time for sleep. Nicoll became a carpenter, handyman, cook, and janitor in the community of thirty or so members. Since most of the people who participated in the institute were people of means and/or education, living a life so different from their ordinary habits created many opportunities for self-observation. After a year of intense study and practice, Gurdjieff closed the institute and continued his teaching by traveling throughout Europe and the Americas. Nicoll and his family returned to England and, while he was a sturdy man who had endured tremendous hardship during the war, he found himself close to death.
When he recovered months later, he formed what was to become a lifelong friendship with Pyötr Ouspensky who lived with the Nicolls for several years; Nicoll became Ouspensky’s student until, in 1931, Ouspensky commissioned him to teach The Work on his own. By this time he had synthesized this wisdom with his vast background that included the Gnostic literature, the Neo-Platonists, the Alchemists, some of the Indian Scriptures, the Hermetic writers, the Sufi literature, the Bible, the Chinese mystics, and the writings of Eckhart, Boehme, Blake, Swedenborg, and, of course, his years of study with Jung.
The Man and his Character
We believe that what most recommends a study of Nicoll’s work is the man himself. We have not been able to find a negative word written about him. In the research of The Work’s most critical observer, James Webb, author of The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky and Their Followers (Boston: Shambhala, 1987) everyone associated with these ideas comes under careful and often critical scrutiny. While few of the main players in this drama get off with less than several disparaging remarks and some with many, Nicoll’s reputation remains one of consistent kindness, graciousness, and skill in both his professions of psychiatrist and teacher of The Work.
Maurice Nicoll also had a lighthearted, playful side to his nature. In college his friends were those whose sense of humor and frivolity provided what he would need all of his life. Joy and love of life were among his gifts as well. Indeed, a quotation from Plato, "Serious things can only be understood through laughable things," was hung in a prominent place in all the homes in which he lived.
He was first attracted to engineering, so clever was his mind at inventing things. He was led to medicine by his step-mother and her father, and frequently expressed gratitude to his step-mother in his later years for his education at Cambridge. A poet, guitarist and writer, Nicoll wrote short stories after the turn of the century for the Strand Magazine which was in its best period before the First World War. He co-authored with his sister Constance one of the longest running comedies to play on the London stage, Lord Richard in the Pantry. They wrote the story first as a comedic novel while Constance was recovering from a long illness; this was the way Maurice supported his sister in a difficult time.
His friends and students said of him that his kindness was exceeded only by his generosity. People were always welcome in his home. During the Second World War, many of his students and their families actually lived with his family on their country farm. After the war, the Nicolls bought their final home in Great Amwell and invited some students to live with them as a community of people in The Work. Unlike some other teachers of The Work who maintained a magisterial aloofness from their students, Maurice Nicoll had no pretensions and entered into personal relationships with his students, and they often became his friends.
As Nicoll continued his teachings on The Work from this time forward, his secretary, Beryl Pogson, recorded his talks. These were published as Nicoll’s magnum opus, his Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky; the first of the five volumes was published in 1949 and the last in 1952. The New Man, his esoteric commentary on significant passages of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, had already been published. As these books spread to America and to other countries through translation, people wrote and came from all over the world, expressing their gratitude that Nicoll had made The Work available to them in a practical way, and in a way they could apply wherever they were by reading his material.
Maurice Nicoll was raised as a traditional Christian but did not remain one. Gurdjieff said that The Work he taught was esoteric Christianity, and by that he meant that it wasn’t a religion but that it was about the inner meaning of what Christ taught, a teaching about the inner evolution of humanity. This wisdom saturated Nicoll’s heart and mind, and through his background of education and experience he raised it to a higher level — a practical, grounded expression of the heart of true spirituality. When you read his books, you can feel the goodness of the man even as you’re amazed by the insight he reveals.
There are three qualities we believe are the marks of the truly spiritual person — no matter what the person or others claim about the person’s spirituality. Two of them are generosity and kindness. The fact that Maurice Nicoll consistently exemplified these qualities even while he was one of London’s leading psychiatrists gives testament to the fact that he bore the third and crowning virtue of the spiritual person — humility.
Through the eyes of his devoted friend and student, Fulford Bush, we catch a glimpse of the man Maurice Nicoll was.
While Gurdjieff and Ouspensky created slavish devotion in their students and appropriated the title of master and the position of definitive teacher, Nicoll did none of these things. He claimed no authoritative position for his books, saying they were only his "personal contribution." He leaves it to readers to discover for themselves what they truly are. For Nicoll, the word "psychological" referred to esoteric psychology, which for him was the equivalent of spirituality. This wisdom is contrasted to understanding things literally, or to a materialistic perspective. Thus, a psychological point of view reveals a deeper meaning, an elevated insight. By titling his five-volume corpus Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, he was stating in his characteristically humble way that he had synthesized the ideas of these two great teachers and raised them to the next level. Anyone who would dismiss the writings of Nicoll as merely psychological and not spiritual has not read his work carefully or understood its true value.
The great error in the teaching Nicoll inherited from Gurdjieff was its violence. Gurdjieff’s approach to personal transformation was entirely linked to a master-student relationship in which the master ruthlessly pinpointed the student’s flaws and stomped them out by directly opposing them. This tactic — indeed, any master-student relationship — leaves far too much room for the ego of the master unconsciously or consciously to enter the picture and, in the name of transformation, damage or even destroy the inner nature of the student. Ouspensky saw this flaw in Gurdjieff’s work and modified the teaching to some degree. But it is in the writings of Nicoll that we see the true nature of such violence exposed as the direct opposite of transformation. Nicoll defined violence as any lack of respect for self or another and opposed all violence as both arising from and creating "negative inner states," which in his teaching are the root of all compulsive behavior.
The Man and The Work
Nicoll’s list of negative inner states is an interesting one. Many people resist the idea of negative inner states — negative emotions, as he also calls them — because they believe an axiom of modern psychology that says there are no negative emotions, only negative use of emotion. Others assume that if these inner states are called negative Nicoll is suggesting that we do battle with them.
However, neither of these observations is on target. For example, it would be difficult to read the list of negative states in the above quotation and find anything redeemable in any of them. Also, Nicoll does not suggest anything like battling them, for that only causes more negative emotions to come into play. Instead, he suggests we notice them through self-observation and dis-identify from them — in other words, we separate our sense of self from them, allowing them to be experiences we have but not engaging our personal energy with them, thus stripping them of their control over us.
In the Psychological Commentaries Nicoll says that these petty states of mind attach themselves to other inner experiences and pollute them. Thus, they are at work in all people, but in different ways. Moodiness or irritability, for example, fastens itself to the emotionality of the Enneagram type Four in one way, to the aggressiveness of the Enneagram type Eight in another, etc. Further, these negative emotions are so subtle that they easily attach themselves to the ego and justify themselves. Teaching about negative inner states and how to dis-identify from them as a way of dismantling your Enneagram compulsion has become a centerpiece of our professional training programs. Learning and applying this wisdom personally has literally changed our lives.
Another aspect of Nicoll’s work that relates to the Enneagram is his extensive teachings on the three centers. Nicoll names them the Intellectual, Emotional, and Instinctive-Moving Centers; we have simplified the names to thinking, feeling, and doing. Following Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Nicoll taught that personality is created by one center interpreting the other two. Nicoll took this idea one step further by saying that in every person, one center will be most prominent, another will be somewhat visible, and the third hardly ever used at all. In doing so, he sketched out the personality formulations of the Enneagram types One, Two, Four, Five, Seven, and Eight even before the Enneagram of personality was developed in its complete form. However, he did nothing more with the idea.
We have taken Nicoll’s kernel of insight and developed it into a full explanation of the nine Enneagram personality types. Our book Discover Your Soul Potential: Using the Enneagram to Awaken Spiritual Vitality (WindWalker Press, 2000) uses this model of the Enneagram. Interestingly, when you give this model of the Enneagram a chance, it has two remarkable effects.
First, it simplifies the system so that it can be explained in three hours or so, with people usually being able to type themselves accurately. Because the centers are the components of our human nature people already have an experience of them, though it may be unconscious or inaccurately named, and they easily recognize themselves as the types are described through the centers.
Further, in a short, one-day workshop (six or seven hours) you can explain the Enneagram; support people in typing themselves; explain what the centers are, what they are for, and how we misuse them when we’re in compulsion (that’s what creates the compulsion!); conduct a panel of the nine types so that people see the Enneagram in action; and set participants on the first step of the road to transformation by explaining how you can balance the centers. This approach to teaching the Enneagram makes it available to the general public.
Second, for those seriously interested in personal growth and transformation, this model of the Enneagram shows you which of the three centers in you needs what kind of work, and then you can use Nicoll’s extensive teachings on the centers in his Psychological Commentaries as your guide. Using this Fourth Way approach means that everything you need for personal growth you already have within you; you don’t need to learn exotic meditation practices, for example, nor do you need to take on a new religious, philosophical, or psychological perspective, as some people teach. What you do need is a willingness to learn Work ideas and a love of this wisdom that is strong enough to put it into practice. The key to doing inner work, according to Nicoll, is self-observation, and he teaches that practice to you step by step in his commentaries as well.
In his quiet way, Nicoll did something quite revolutionary when he published is Psychological Commentaries. He took The Work out of the master-student paradigm and placed it in the hands of anyone who is willing to read, learn, and practice these ideas. In this way, he took the potential for violence and the harm that it causes out of The Work. Parts of this wisdom you can find in many places — pieces of it are contained in all the world’s religions, for example, as well as in many schools of depth psychology — but nowhere other than Nicoll’s commentaries is it all gathered in one place. Nicoll has created a totally integrated and complete system for personal transformation. Read him; his humor will delight you, and his wisdom will guide you into a new world of personal freedom and consciousness.
© 1996, 1998 and 2001, Enneagram Resources, Inc. All rights reserved.
A Conversational Bibliography
These are the resources we have found for Nicoll’s books:
Nicoll Books published by Eureka Editions (www.eurekaeditions.com) in The Netherlands. Eureka Editions will pay shipping to the U. S. A.
Books by Nicoll published by other publishers.
Kathy Hurley and Theodorre Donson’s most recent book is Discover Your Soul Potential: Using the Enneagram to Awaken Spiritual Vitality (WindWalker Press, 2000), and they are the authors of two other bestselling books published by Harper San Francisco. Reach them at their website, www.hurleydonson.com, and e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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