Maurice Nicoll and the work of truth

I first 'met' Maurice Nicoll anonymously. He was the unnamed psychotherapist to whom the editor of 'The New Age', A.R. Orage sent the poet, Edwin Muir, to on Muir's arrival in London. It was an analysis that Muir vividly describes in his own 'Autobiography' that prompted him to a series of extraordinary waking visions that sourced his poetry and gave him a lifelong attention to the revelatory nature of the dream. Nicoll, however, was more circumspect and suggested they discontinue the analysis, after all Muir was highly sensitive, and given the trauma of his adolescence, fragile. It was a decision Muir wondered at ever afterwards but, on balance, may have been wise.

Nicoll was a neurologist, who did important work on 'shell shock' in the First World War, and was an early follower of Jung. His book 'Dream Psychology' was one of the first books to introduce Jung to the English reading public. He is best known, however, as a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, having spent time with the former at the Institute in Fontainebleau and with the latter as a lifelong friend.

I have read his philosophical magnum opus, 'Living Time' see

and his two books of esoteric exegesis of the Gospels - 'The New Man' and 'The Mark' (The former volume comes from the library of the novelist and playwright, J.B. Priestley, who was a friend of Nicoll's, and, who retired to my home town, from whence his library, on his death, was inherited by the local antiquarian and second hand bookseller and, thus, to me)!

I had possessed 'Maurice Nicoll: A Portrait' written by his long-time secretary, Beryl Pogson, for years but had never read it before, until now. It was obviously a labour of love and it gives a vivid picture of his life and character. One of the people quoted, having been a student of Ouspensky, joins Nicoll's study group on the Work and describes Ouspensky as the 'philosopher' and Nicoll as 'the family doctor' and that seems utterly apt.

Nicoll comes across as a highly gifted doctor of souls (and minds) whose very considerable culture is bent always to the practical: what will allow a person to live to their full potential? For this thought is necessary but no idea lives unless it transforms a person in practice. And you must be able to withstand the coming of an idea as well as understand it ( and here the example of Muir is instructive).

He is closer to Gurdjieff than Ouspensky in tone. He shares with the former his slyness and a sense of humour (though differently expressed) and delightfully gives much of his individual teaching (as the photograph suggests) at the local pub, pint in hand. My own first spiritual director - Sr Amelie - a remarkable French nun always used to drive me out (from Salisbury) to a lovely 'puub' for lunch to listen and respond, glass of red wine at hand. Akin to Gurdjieff, driving with her was an 'experience' - not for speed, Gurdjieff's passion - but for stopping abruptly, without warning, to admire some arresting glimpse of God's beautiful creation - a tree, a woman with a pram, the way the light struck the post office window! It was the same with Nicoll. There was no moment that was without the possibility of instruction or of sign.

There are many arresting moments in the book. One especially resonates namely a passage on Hitler. It is an extraordinary text, written in 1939, suggesting that the only valid approach to Hitler can be the one of a psychologist. Hitler has identified himself with the suffering of Germany to the extent that it has brought him to the point of paranoia. The only way through is to understand that suffering and that identification. Neither reinforcement nor opposition will change its character. The only way to change it is if you can find a way to show that it is understood. Nicoll never shifted from this view. Hitler was not mad nor evil but possessed by an identification. The consequences of which wrought disaster and suffering. Yet, like all of us, he was striving for the good that he knew and the suffering was real. If you argue merely that the interpretation of that suffering was wrong, you never free the person. It is not the interpretation (the content) that matters, first and foremost, but our identification with it (the how). Truth (and goodness) first are about the how of our holding truths before the what of a particular truth emerges.

The underlying question is how is it possible to be free of our identifications, whether positive or negative, for this is what falsity feeds on?

This would be genuinely revolutionary.

Imagine, for example, the recent debt negotiations with Greece if the room had been occupied by people free of their identification with their current truths, who held them as possibilities and yet were open to what might emerge; and, who could look at everyone in the room as their neighbour in a shared reality, equally trying to find a solution?

Think of how much work on oneself that this would require and how it could be helped by a community engaged in this common search and you have the inspiring notion of the Work that Nicoll envisaged (as well as, sadly, a realistic vision of whether it might emerge).

The invitation is always there and in Nicoll's books the processes for its acceptance are laid bare.


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