For the sake of clarity I will explain that what many others have called ego or mind, I am going to call personality. The division is not exactly the same, but is it is close enough. I don’t like ego because it comes with too many psychoanalytic connotations, and I don’t like mind because the mind is a separate and legitimate function.
The way of dividing man into three parts, personality, essence, and consciousness is from the Gurdjieff / Ouspensky system. In reality personality and consciousness can be further divided. Personality can be divided into false and true personality and consciousness can be divided into higher emotional center and higher intellectual center. These five levels can be seen as separate inner worlds. False personality is the heaviest and under the most laws, higher centers are the lightest and under the fewest laws, and essence is in between.
Personality is not a function, and therefore easily distinguished from mind. Personality is a collection of opinions, instinctive habits, education, negative emotions, and habitual postures and movements. It is in a sense all our programming. It is what we were taught to think and feel, not what we would necessarily think and feel if essence had been left to develop without the intrusions of personality. Essence is what we were born with, our talents, our limitations, and our natural preferences and aversions. Nothing in personality is hardwired; everything in essence is hardwired. In a perfect world preferences in personality would reflect preferences in essence. But our world is far from perfect.
A child may be naturally creative and artistic, but be told from an early age that art is not practical. His parents and teachers may even convince him to forgo art. Perhaps the child’s father is a businessman and expects his son to carry on the family business. Essence will rebel, but if essence is opposed and beaten down enough, it will eventually give way. The child may grow up and become a decent businessman, but no matter what happens to him, his essence will always be artistic. He is a businessman in personality only. He may live his whole life feeling unhappy and lost, and not understand why. Another young man may be a natural carpenter, but have greed in personality. He decides that he wants to make a lot of money and that being a carpenter does not pay enough. Or perhaps he feels that working with his hands is beneath him. So he goes into business and learns to use his mind to make a living. Perhaps his greed will motivate him enough to be a good businessman. But, again, he will never be happy. Another man may be good a businessman in essence and find satisfaction and joy in the business world. Essences are different. What gives one person joy, will give another only frustration. The main point here is to understand that personality is incapable of being happy.
It sometimes happens, though it’s becoming rare, that essence overshadows personality. It’s unusual to see this in mainstream cultures in the west; though it can occur in pockets of underprivileged or minority groups within the culture at large. This imbalance occurs more frequently in underdeveloped cultures where there is little or no education, where there is no communication with the outside world, and where the problems of survival overshadow other concerns. In these cases essence dominates because personality has never been given a chance to develop.
The tendency of personality to overshadow essence is far more common, and it has been made more common by our mechanized and increasing violent and alienated way of life. Essence can be fed by many different kinds of activities, but human contact is essential to its well being and growth. In our times, where much of human interaction is facilitated through computers and phones, it is not unusual that essence atrophies at an early age. A grown man can have the essence of a spoiled child. In undemanding circumstances he may seem mature and even intelligent—he may be the CEO of big company or a senator—but if you press him a little, make his life uncomfortable, his essence will react. It will squirm, complain, and be revengeful like a little boy.
Essence can atrophy for many reasons. It can, for instance, be stunted because of an infatuation with sport or games or because of an unhealthy preoccupation with activities or professions that are artificial in the sense that they alienate a person from basic human relationships and nature as a whole. It is not unusual for a forty year old man to have the essence of a seven year old child. This is sometimes more apparent in famous or successful people. For Instance, in our times it is almost expected that actors, performers, and athletes will be demanding and childish in personal matters. It is even thought that infantile behavior is somehow necessary for the creative process; this, of course, is nonsense. Childish behavior means an immature essence; that is, an essence that has stopped developing during childhood.
It is curious that modern psychology recognizes the fact that experiences that change us and determine our psychological make-up are most often encountered in early childhood; that is, before personality has had a chance to develop. In reality formative experiences are closed to adults not by nature, but because essence is dominated too much by personality. There is no reason why experiences in our adult life cannot be instrumental in defining who we are. The only thing that is required is that these experiences be allowed to reach essence. When personality dominates it means that events are deflected, that they are not allowed to enter us in a way that affects us deeply. Self-remembering and being present change that; they create a shock in the body that allows experiences to enter essence and affect us, what Gurdjieff called the ‘first conscious shock.’ Self-remembering is the shock that allows essence to grow and become vibrant again; it is the first step to connecting to higher centers.