An Homage to Dr. Maurice Nicoll
by Bob Hunter
Maurice Nicoll’s special contribution to the Fourth Way is that his teaching, by leavening the method transmitted by P. D. Ouspensky, helps people to value the Work. Where Ouspensky presented truth precisely, Nicoll in a more relaxed manner showed how to see the good of it. For truth has meaning only when it is made part of one’s understanding; that is, when it combines with the good, which includes its reason and “end.” Emphasising Good’s precedence over Truth, Nicoll maintained that if we were good we would not need truth.
In his Gospel studies, he equated the name Christ with Truth and Jesus with Good; and hinted at the significance in the united term’s appearing only twice in the New Testament. Nicoll’s full acceptance of Gurdjieff’s assertion that the Work is esoteric Christianity does not suggest he was to any degree sanctimonious. On the contrary, he warned that anyone who affected a serious mien to appear to be a follower of the Fourth Way probably was far from it. He had a light touch, with people and in his writing, an approach partly explained by the Platonic saying artistically inscribed on a wall at one of his group houses: “Serious things can be understood through laughable things.”
This inner lightness ruled out any thought of compulsion in his teaching, as shown for instance by his care never to say that people have no right to indulge in negative emotions, pointing out instead that they have a right not to be negative. Purification of the emotional centre was one of the main thrusts of Nicoll’s teaching. He constantly illustrated ways in which negative emotions close the door to higher centres, which in turn hold the key to self-development.
Students accustomed to the rather rarified atmosphere of Work meeting rooms in the thirties and forties were at first startled to find Dr. Nicoll holding court in a village pub. Not everyone realised how much of themselves they revealed at these convivial occasions, although most eventually observed that their teacher was always “present” and that a casual remark might show them much about an attitude they were displaying.
Dr. Nicoll could be starkly frank when circumstances demanded and his down-to-earth way of illustrating a message made it memorable. Such an occasion was when he drove home the idea that each essence is unique by telling a woman that, though she hoped to blossom into a rose, she was meant to grow into a blooming great poppy. At another time he had people rush about in a crowded room while carrying chairs with the legs sticking out. The resultant collisions etched in the mind the way that jagged points of our personalities catch against those of other people, for we see only the outer person instead of allowing for inner qualities.
He continually used this ability to evoke striking images to teach the Work. One of his suggestions was that people draw a map of their psychological country, to know where it was safe to move about interiorly. To help people separate from useless self-blame for wrong thinking, he described thoughts as birds and said people were responsible for them only if they trapped them in the birdcage of their minds, instead of letting them fly away.
Most people in the Work know of Nicoll through the energising thoughts expressed in his books. Henry Maurice Dunlop Nicoll, was born in Kelso, Scotland, in 1884, the son of a Free Church minister, the Rev. William Robertson Nicoll (later Sir William, after ill health forced him to give up the ministry and become a leading man of letters). Maurice spent his boyhood in Hampstead, London, took a first in Science at Caius College, Cambridge, qualified in medicine at Bart’s Hospital, studied psychology under Freud then Jung and became a leading Harley Street consultant and Jungian analyst. He was a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War I, being in charge of a hospital in Gallipoli, an experience described in his memoirs of that period In Mesopotamia in 1917, in which year he also published Dream Psychology, his Jungian analysis of dreams and the unconscious.
He had a fulfilling career, but his life’s aim changed when he heard Ouspensky lecture in London in 1921. After hearing Gurdjieff the next year he relinquished his medical consultancy and, accompanied by his wife, Catherine, and their baby daughter, joined the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France. When, a year later, Gurdjieff indicated the Institute was closing, the Nicolls returned to Ouspensky’s group. Ouspensky’s centre of gravity may have seemed to be in his intellect, but with Nicoll he gave more expression to his feelings. It was said that Nicoll was the only person in the group who could make the master laugh, and he sometimes stayed with the Nicoll family at their country cottage. Despite this compatibility, in 1931 Ouspensky advised him, “Nicoll, you had better go away. Go away, and teach the system.”
This he did for the rest of his life, supported by Mrs. Nicoll in a relationship that may well have inspired his comment: “A real marriage is when two people are working. It can be in essence. When he is asleep she must be awake. When she is asleep he must be awake.”
Dr. Nicoll’s most influential written works were not intended for publication, which he greeted with “humble amazement.” The first volume of his invaluable Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky, a collection of papers read to his groups, was printed as a matter of some urgency after he confided to senior pupils in 1948 that he would not live much longer and that Catherine should carry on the Work teaching. He survived long enough, however, for Volume Five of the Commentaries to carry a last, unfinished, paper dated August 20, 1953.
Volume One had been printed in 1949, the year when Gurdjieff announced it was time for the esoteric teaching to become more widely known. Publisher Vincent Stuart, one of Nicoll’s pupils, suggested he also produce a book from the “Gospels chapters,” and this appeared in 1950 as The New Man.
Vincent Stuart brought out Nicoll’s classic, Living Time, in 1952. It had been written 23 years earlier, when publication of ideas relating to the Work system was banned. Beryl Pogson reveals in her biography Maurice Nicoll: A Portrait, that he undertook the book by collecting “all the thoughts about Time and Eternity that had come to him from Hermetic literature, from the Greeks, the neo-Platonists, from the mystics throughout the ages, and from Ouspensky whose Theory of Recurrence was not part of Gurdjieff’s system.”
It is natural that the idea of recurrence, bearing as it does on the vital question of death and the afterlife that confronts us all, should attract attention and perhaps stir debate among Nicoll’s readers. He always made clear that identical recurrence was a mathematical idea of Ouspensky. As far as can be gleaned from his writing and from teaching in groups that follow his tradition, Nicoll accepted psychological recurrence as a reality and believed in what might be termed a form of reincarnation in which one’s essence returns to visible life with the understanding it has made its own. Such spiritual persistence means that, even in physical recurrence, a person who has reached a higher level of being will be ready to relate to other people earlier than in previous existences.
This line of thought implies an eternal plan and an invisible guiding intelligence that assists the development of consciousness. Dr. Nicoll spoke of the universe as “infinite response,” adding for those of us who may not find it so that it “is intelligent in so far as we are intelligent.” To live intelligently requires sustained effort, but he pointed out that “the response is more than that we furnish to produce this response.”
In 1952 Dr. Nicoll was still writing chapters for another book on the Gospels which was published posthumously as The Mark. He had previously told members of his group that the Greek word usually translated as “sin” originally meant to miss the mark, and thus was free of guilt associations; on his birthday in July he added: “You cannot have an aim without a mark … the Mark is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Writing (in Living Time) for a public unfamiliar with Work terms, Nicoll said that, were our potential of consciousness raised so we could dwell in the now, each moment would be registered and we would leave “a trace of ourselves.” Maurice Nicoll left more than a trace.