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How to Work on Oneself

As we were speaking at the meeting to-day on a subject that is important, I would like to write a little about Jacobs Ladderit. It concerns the way in which people take this Work and how and in what spirit they work on themselves.
I will begin with myself. I was brought up, in regard to religious ideas, with the sense that only the conviction of sin was important. Everything was sin, briefly speaking. In consequence, religion was a very gloomy business and personally I loathed it. Morality was only sexual morality. Virtue was only continence, and so on, and, in general, sin and the feeling of being a sinner was the main idea of religion. I never understood anything else in regard to religion as a boy, and so was either afraid or worried or hated the whole thing. I began to stammer badly. I listened to the Scriptures, mostly drawn from the Old Testament, which always seemed indescribably horrible. God was a violent, jealous, evil, accusing person, and so on. And when I heard the New Testament I could not understand what the parables meant, and no one seemed to know or care what they meant.
But once, in the Greek New Testament class on Sundays, taken by the Head Master, I dared to ask, in spite of my stammering, what some parable meant. The answer was so confused that I actually experienced my first moment of consciousness - that is, I suddenly realized that no one knew anything.
This is a definite experience and was my first experience of Self-Remembering - the second being the sudden realization that no one knew what I was thinking - and from that moment I began to think for myself, or rather knew that I could. As you know, all moments of real Self-Remembering stand out for ever in one′s inner life, and one′s real life is not outer events, but inner states.
I remember so clearly this class-room, the high windows constructed so that we could not see out of them, the desks, the platform on which the Head Master sat, his scholarly thin face, his nervous habits of twitching his mouth and jerking his hands - and suddenly this inner revelation of knowing that he knew nothing - nothing, that is, about anything that really mattered.
This was my first inner liberation from the power of external life. From that time I knew for certain - and that always means by inner individual authentic perception which is the only source of real knowledge - that all my loathing of religion as it was taught me was right. And although one always goes to sleep again after a moment of real Self-Remembering, and often for years, yet such moments of consciousness stand always in higher parts of centres and remain and await, as it were, the further moments of realizing, more consciously, what life actually is - that is to say, they are never lost, and, although forgotten in one way, stand in the background of yourself always, and come forward at critical moments to guard you.
Now I wish to speak to you about how you work on yourselves and in what spirit you take the Work. You cannot easily work from the ordinary religious ideas and moods. You recall the saying about new wine in old bottles. This Work, this system of teaching, these ideas we are studying, are the most beautiful things you can possibly imagine - and they are new to us. No, they are far more lovely and beautiful than anything you can imagine. They accuse you only of being asleep. They hold no conviction of sin in them. They ask you quite gently to observe yourself. It is you yourself who must accuse yourself. Let us take one of the ideas of this teaching - an idea about Essence. This teaching tells us that the Essence of each of us comes down from the stars. You will remember the Ray of Creation. Essence comes down from the note La (Starry Galaxy) and passing through the note Sol (the Sun) and then the note Fa (the planetary zone) enters the earth. We are not merely born of our parents; our parents create the apparatus for the reception of this Essence that comes from the Stars.
And all work, whether personal work, work with others in the Work, or work for the Work itself (and these are the three necessary lines of work for anyone who wishes to remain in this Work) is to lead us back to where we have originally come from. Now each one of us is down here, on this dark planet, so low down in the Ray of Creation, because he or she has some special thing in themselves, some special factor, or chief feature to observe, to become conscious of and to begin to dislike, and so to work against. It may be meanness, or cruelty, or lying, or self-pride, or fear, or ignorance and so on. And if a man or woman dies without seeing why they are here and what is the real reason of their lives, can it be called anything but a tragedy ? Each one of you is here, on the earth, because from the work point of view you have something very special and very important to see in yourselves and struggle against with all your skill and ingenuity, with all your strength of mind and will and soul and heart and body. But of course if you pride yourselves on your virtues - well, what can happen save that self-righteousness, and so False Personality, will be increased every day you live: and the result will be that you will crystallize out in such narrow viewpoints and attitudes and become dead people.
You have heard me speak of the meaning of the dead in the Gospels - for example, as in Christ′s remark: "Let the dead bury their dead." The dead are those dead to all possibility of working on themselves and so changing themselves. Now the Work can only be done in the spirit of its own beauty and light, in the spirit of its true message and significance. Life on earth is nothing but a field for working on oneself, so that one can return whence one came. To take life as an end in itself is not to understand the Work, and it may cause a wrong attitude which may be the source of many negative emotions and of useless efforts made in negative states. For to work in a negative way is useless. It is only through some kind of delight, some feeling of joy or pleasure or some genuine affection or desire, that a person can work and bring about any change of being in himself.
Fear, for example, will not act in this way. A man may have some knowledge of truth, but unless he values it, unless he feels some delight in it, it cannot affect him. It cannot act on him, for a man unites with truth only through his love, as it were, and in this way his being is changed. But if he is negative, then his love-life - that is his emotional side - is in a wrong state, and it will be the same if he is in a state of fear and feels compelled to do something against his will.
To do a thing willingly from a delight in doing it, will effect a change in you. And when a person begins to take up his own "cross" - that is, the burden of some difficult thing in himself that he has at last come to observe - and does it in such a spirit, then he will get results. But if he does it heavily, out of the conviction of sin, nothing will ever come out of it, and especially if he shews others what he is trying to do, and likes to look miserable or grave or sad. And in this connection you will remember what Christ said about fasting - namely, that if you fast, you should anoint your head and wash your face "that thou be not seen of men to fast".
To work on oneself from the conviction of sin puts the Work into negative parts of centres, and to work in a negative way can lead to a worse state of oneself than not to work at all. Some tend to take the Work in this heavy way. But no one can fathom the delight people take in making themselves miserable and in enjoying their negative states. You all know and have often heard me say that negative parts of centres create nothing. When I first heard Mr O. say that negative parts of centres cannot create anything, and that people who try to work in a heavy dreary, negative way, could only make their inner state worse than it was - then I think I experienced almost another moment of consciousness. I understood that what I had felt about religion had been right; it was suddenly formulated and explained.
This Work, if you will listen to it and hear it in your hearts, is the most beautiful thing you could possibly hear. It speaks not of sin, but of being asleep, just as the Gospels do not really speak of sin, but only of missing the mark - the Greek word means that. Can we hear the Work ? There is an old book that I have, composed by a man in the Work of his time; it depicts a man lying fast asleep flat on the earth, and a ladder stretching to heaven, and angels on it blowing trumpets almost in the man′s ear. Yet he hears nothing. He is asleep in life - perhaps he is a millionaire, or some very important person, or simply a harassed clerk, or a worried mother, and so on.
This Work is beautiful when you see why it exists and what it means. It is about liberation. It is as beautiful as if, locked for years in prison, you see a stranger entering who offers you a key. But you may refuse it because you have acquired prison habits and have forgotten your origin, which is from the Stars. How, then, will you ever be able to remember Yourself with only prison thoughts and interests, and hand back your life whole and not twisted and soiled by negative emotion and every form of identifying ? It will then be only natural for you to refuse the key that will unlock all the doors of the prison, one by one, because you prefer to remain in prison - that is, as you are in yourselves. Nay, even more you may be indignant and seek to kill the stranger and fight for your prison-life and even sacrifice your life in order to remain in prison.

(Maurice Nicoll - Pyschological Commentaries, vol.5 page 1741)