Ego inflation causes me to think mostly of myself and what is important for me. This relates powerfully to two concepts that Gurdjieff brought up: first of all, identification, in which I become the outer parts of myself (I literally become them, my identity is attached to them and not to any other part) and, secondly, desires and non-desires.
In order to examine this question of identity, it may be useful to understand that it is borrowed from the middle French identité, which in turn comes from the Latin identitātum, meaning sameness or oneness. That is in turn extracted from the adverb identidem which means, quite simply, over and over again.
So identity actually means habit, or, what we continually repeat.
The idea that this continuity creates who we are immediately become suspicious to me. The implication here is that it is a continuity of sameness; that I keep doing something again and again and that that makes me myself. One might, for a moment, turn to Gurdjieff’s Views From the Real World and remark on the passages where he talks about postures.
In the first talk in Berlin, November 24, 1921, for example, he says,
“everyone has a limited repertoire of habitual postures, and of inner states… An actor who is the same in all his roles — just himself — what kind of an actor is he? Only by accident can he have a role that entirely corresponds to what he is in life.”
In particular, it’s worthwhile to read the chapter the stop exercise on the subject; some excerpts are at this link: Posture. The book has a number of sections that discuss this subject, which will become significant later in an upcoming essay.
Now, from Gurdjieff’s remarks on the subject (which must be absolutely accurate, and, again, more on this later ) our identity is formed from these postures or habits. It isn't a particularly conscious entity. It is just, as he says, the repetitions of an uneducated and rather unskilled actor who doesn’t know how to inhabit the play he's in. I think, in other words, that I’m a great actor, but I'm actually an idiot who keeps doing the same thing. I'm asked in life to act first as a king, then as a tramp, and then as a lunatic, but (for example) I only know to act as a king. So I would do a terrible job of representing the other two roles, and everyone knows it. This is how we all manage to end up playing the fool so often in our lives.
The insidious part of this is that every single part of this operation comes from the associations that constantly play themselves out inside me. There are countless little voices saying this, that, and the other thing about how people ought to treat me, what I deserve, and what idiots those other people are. The longer one engages in self observation, the more painfully aware one becomes of these habitual parts, which really haven’t learned anything new since I was a child. They're all connected to the evil commanding ego by puppet strings; and the ego manipulates them to keep me identified—that is, I believe in everything I say to myself.
One can't so easily escape from this, as I pointed out; yet Gurdjieff’s idea of false personality is closely tied to this understanding of identification — which means, in summary, habit. The only way that anything new can happen is if I'm committed to abandoning all of this associative nonsense that takes place in me constantly, and I become willing to throw myself into the moment without any props—as honestly as possible in the relationship.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.