Gurdjieff’s adage that a man must come to know his own nothingness is familiar to anyone who’s studied his teachings. It is, in point of fact, a core principal of his teaching. And yet I sometimes wonder if we truly understand what this means... Or even take the time to examine the divergent currents that influence this question.
To seek to know the self, is, after all, a quest to discover one’s own somethingness- the part of one that is real, the essential part of one’s being. One’s own nothingness is nothing more than a part of that somethingness-a somethingness that includes more than just nothing. If there truly were nothing- if a man had no intrinsic value-there would be nothing to discover, no action to be taken, no responsibility for effort.
There is something.
An inherent recognition of one’s essential, inalienable value is possible- and this is not just an option. It’s a responsibility. Every human being not terminally damaged by circumstances has, in their heart of hearts, an intrinsic value that emanates from the very fact and truth of their arising. This principle is embodied in the heart of the Christian practice, and has its distinct parallels in Buddhism and other religions. Man is not worthless, a piece of garbage to be discarded. Philosophies of annihilation of self (to the uninformed, Buddhism can be mistaken for such) don’t take the great cycles of energy that drive the universe and its own inherent selfhood into account. There’s a need for Being; ”I am” is not an optional activity, but a sacred responsibility. The embodiment of the self is a material requirement for the existence of the universe as we know it- even atoms are selves, identities inscribed on the fabric of the microcosmos.
So the universe needs selves, needs its own self... creation exists for the embodiment and manifestation of the self, as well as the surrender of the self back to the sources it arises from. The great rotation of consciousness through the process of life and death endlessly recapitulates this cycle. It’s the engine that drives creation; a principle firmly embodied in Gurdjieff’s cosmology.
Somethingness and nothingness, furthermore, are reciprocal. You can’t have nothing without something to identify it; you can’t have something unless the alternative is to have nothing. So the two principles, seemingly opposed, are actually both part of a whole that can be fully embraced only by the exercise of consciousness.
It’s all very well to speak of the sense of one’s own nothingness... And yet perhaps we should not speak of this, since this particular recognition of ourselves belongs to that most sacred part which is in contact with a higher principle. The exchange between man and God wherein a man acknowledges his nothingness is, in its essence, a private matter... An intimate matter... Not one for public display.When we hear each other speak about a sense of one's own nothingness, the only thing we are actually hearing is an intellectual discourse about the subject. Actual contact with this question lies so far down within the inner source of a man's being that only a fool would try to actually explain it to others.
The esoteric source of a man's work—his own work, what lies deep inside him and can never be put on display—is always in contact with a higher level. Work can't begin without this contact; nothing is possible except with help from a higher source. To even begin is impossible without that help; so if one begins, one already knows that that help has arrived, that it is influencing one's being—even if we remain confused, uncertain, and filled with doubt about it. Already, because that contact exists somewhere (we don't know where, but the certainty is that it does exist) inside us, we know that we have a value. After all, the Lord would not make this effort for us if we were not already valued.
If we don’t learn to trust- and to value- ourselves, we are unable to serve in the manner we were created for. True, recognizing our own nothingness is a significant portion of discovering the sacred nature of our somethingness.
It is, nonetheless, the beginning, and not the end, of an effort to be.