Dr. Maurice Nicoll (19 July 1884 – 30 August 1953) was born in Scotland, the son of a well-known literary critic and minister. Through his father, he knew many famous and influential people as a boy including the Duke of Kent and Winston Churchill. Nicoll was educated at Cambridge, receiving a medical degree, and eventually practiced psychiatry in London where he became a pioneer in psychological medicine. He had the unique good fortune to spend considerable time under the tutelage P.D. Ouspensky, George Gurdjieff, as well as C. G. Jung. After studying the teaching of the Fourth Way closely with Ouspensky from 1931- 41, he was authorized to conduct his own groups on the psychological teaching given by Gurdjieff, which he continued to do until his death. He was the author of many well received books including Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Living Time, and A New Man.
Dr. Nicoll on Know Thyself
“The doctrine of self-knowledge, written over the porch at Delphi, is not what we imagine. Only when we realize that we have no self can we seek ourselves. Only through a flash of truth can one understand ignorance and falsity.”
Following in the footsteps of his Fourth Way teachers, Nicoll insisted upon an essential nothingness at the root of our ordinary identity and always prompted his students to observe directly this vacuum in the place of any inner permanence or positionality. In this respect his teaching can be reckoned as quite sympathetic with the Buddhist conception of egolessness as well as the Socratic axiom of admitted ignorance.
“That kind of knowledge, therefore, that leads towards higher consciousness and unity must include this aspect of self-knowledge, which brings into ordinary consciousness sides of ourselves to which we are exceptionally blind.”
As a method of correcting our wrong knowledge and discovering a voidness underlying one’s assumption of identity, Nicoll advised capturing different mental snapshots of ourselves throughout time, especially when we have become negative towards something or someone. Through this practice one might become more acquainted with what Jung called the shadow, that is, all of the unconscious psychological material and persona. Through the relativity created by the practice of this inner circumspection, one could eventually arrive at a more balanced and unified knowledge of the truth of oneself.
“We find in the New testament the phrase, ‘the truth shall make you free’. This kind of truth, we are told in many places, begins with self-knowledge.”
Perhaps due to an early Christian theological influence from his father and grandfather, Dr. Nicoll expressed persistently in his writing both a deep love and understanding of the books of the Old Testament and especially the Gospels. The invitation made by Christ for man to “utterly deny himself” (Matthew 16:24) was to him a call for radical self-knowledge, a profound investigation of “all the ideas he has of himself, all the forms of imagination he has of himself and all the illusions about himself that make him think he is what he supposes.”
The repeated scriptural injunctions to watch and awaken were interpreted as an impetus for removal of the veil of ignorance and darkness that hides us from ourselves. When it was mentioned that the Prodigal or lost Son “came into himself” (Luke 15:17) and returned to the house of his father, Nicoll took this, broadly speaking, as a return to self-knowledge and the truth of one’s own experience.
Beyond Scientific Materialism
“This movement of the soul is in the direction of that level of Mind on which it can see truth, the first aspect of which is truth about man’s own invisible nature – himself – which he reaches through self-knowledge. It is a reversal of the natural movement of the soul.”
Trained as a scientist and a doctor, Maurice Nicoll gained insight into the imbalance of the current state of the empirical method. He observed the overwhelming pull from the academic and mainstream scientific establishment towards the outer layers of things, rather than their inner or psychological dimension, which for him, as well as his psychological teachers Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and Jung, was just as valid and vital a field for objective inquiry. In fact, he felt that a great deal of misunderstanding and violence is perpetrated through the general tendency to reverse the significance of and deprioritize introspection and self-knowledge. About his own teaching he wrote “‘just as we are today finding out about all sorts of chemicals… so do we have to advance to the study of the poisons of the mind and the emotions, the outlines of which were laid down in the Gospels.”
“Whatever we understand by self-knowledge, one thing we certainly do not understand, that it has to do with now. The time-man in us does not understand this.”
Nicoll connected the ancient adage “know thyself” with a great many levels of meaning but in the most elevated position, he placed the creation of now. He came to the factual insight that the real truth of man’s being is linked with the only space where it can ever be factually observed, the field of the present moment.