December 2013


Fellowship of Friends

The Main Actor and the Child

Truly, only little children will enter Heaven.
Bernard of Clairvaux

Chief feature is “the fundamental way in which people view themselves and the world, and affects virtually all of their actions” (Girard Haven). The word fundamental is not chosen lightly. We each have a chief feature, a chief weakness, which constitutes the axle around which revolves our lower self and its false picture of who we are. We’re not talking about some window-dressing here, some eccentricity or bright ornament on our psychological mantelpiece. We’re talking about the underlying deep structure, root foundation, main supporting walls, girders and existential glue of the lower self.

What is important is not the chief feature itself but what is produced by it,
and that you can study in the form of attitudes.
P. D. Ouspensky

Chief feature is often determined by our body type—the latter a separate study in itself. But in broad outline, this feature determines how we view what is more and less important, what is to be admired in life, how we view those supposedly weaker or stronger than ourselves, how we react in different situations, whether we seek or avoid confrontation or the limelight, what triggers our favorite negative emotions, and on and on. It is our emotional attitude to ourselves, the fundamental way we feel about ourselves and life. And we don’t see it because we are immersed in it.

In addition to chief feature, we have one or two other features that support and provide buffers for it (buffers are internal mechanisms to avoid seeing the truth about ourselves). For example, tramp feature (absence of values) can work well with fear feature. Essentially, at root, we are afraid to do something. But rather than see this unpleasant truth in a particular moment, we slip imperceptibly into the supporting attitude of, “Well, it’s not worth doing anyway.” And for all of us:

Vanity is a strong feature in each person. If not one’s chief feature,
it is everyone’s second feature.
Robert Earl Burton

Anything that thwarts the aims and buffering patterns of our features can spark our negative emotions. This is the link between features and negativity: our attitudes. Features determine attitudes, and these in turn determine our negative emotions. When we don’t get what these attitudes want, or when we get what they don’t want, negativity follows. What’s incredible is that in spite of its usurpation of our lives and functions, of our feeling of ourselves, chief feature is precisely what we are not.

Chief feature occupies the space that rightly belongs to self-remembering.
Robert Earl Burton

Our natural response to this knowledge is of course to be intrigued; we immediately wish to know what our chief feature is. However, even if someone tells us, this may not help much. The name is just a label, a mnemonic for a large undiscovered country. It is necessary to see for ourselves, through patient observation, the ramifications of our features, the attitudes they determine, and how these are linked to our automatic responses and favorite negative emotions. And just as Goethe conducted his study of colors—in exhaustive practical depth, based on what he could actually see with his own eyes—we need to carefully avoid getting lost in manipulating ideas or jumping to conclusions. Goethe’s method shows us how to work: Observe. Avoid analysis. Hold to being present. In Fourth Way work, we don’t think and extrapolate our way to understanding: we try to remain here and now, seeing, and let understanding come when it will.

When one enters the way ... one begins to gain control
over one’s chief feature. Before you enter the way, chief feature controls you.
Robert Earl Burton

A first step in the work on features is to try to observe and neutralize the attitudes that stem from them, the ones that trigger one’s recurrent negative emotions. Ask yourself in the middle of a favorite negative emotion: “What attitude is uppermost now?” Knowing what attitude is producing negativity, we can work on establishing counter-attitudes—solvents, as Ouspensky called them—to dissolve the harmful attitudes and re-establish presence.

External consideration is one of the best remedies for one’s features.
Robert Earl Burton

We can also come at features from another angle. Features are too preoccupied with their own objectives to be capable of standing outside a situation and seeing what is best for both oneself and another. If our vanity feature considers a person insignificant and not sufficiently important for our attention, we have to make an effort to consider them. If our default mode is to force everything (power feature), then we will attempt to control and manipulate others into doing what we want them to do regardless of how they feel. Feature-driven sleep cannot be externally considerate of others, so external consideration is a wonderful way to let light into our inner world. What does the other person need? What does this situation really require?

As understanding deepens, we gradually see that chief feature permeates our centers like a dye. This is not some minor quirk or bad habit that we can just decide to change and, hey presto, it’s gone. The whole mould of our thinking, the tenor of our emotional reactions, the style and postures of our movements, how we enter or leave a room, interact with others and conduct relationships—every nook and cranny of the manifestations of our functions is colored by our chief feature. This is the main actor running our lives.

At a certain point, we become horrified at the enormity of the task. Feature, as Ouspensky noted, always makes decisions. At every moment, we are making decisions, blithely dozing in the many ‘I’s—except it’s not us making the decisions; it’s chief feature.

Chief feature is ferocious—insatiable. If we control chief feature we are alive
and awake; and if we are controlled by it, we are asleep
and in limbo. It is a life or death situation.
Robert Earl Burton

We begin to feel helpless, locked in battle with an implacable foe, drowning in the dye of our emotional attitude to ourselves—which we just can’t seem to shake off. Interestingly, this is exactly what Gurdjieff noted to Ouspensky when talking about chief feature:

The study of the chief fault and the struggle against it constitute ...
each man's individual path, but the aim must be the same for all.
This aim is the realization of one's nothingness.
G. I. Gurdjieff

Freeing ourselves from the grip of feature-driven negative emotions is an important route to liberating our essence, which cannot manifest and grow in a negative internal environment. Essence is the critical bridge to higher centers, to our real possibilities. It’s not something we can skip. And when we find ourselves grappling with chief feature, it may be that a gentle call to our essence, the simple internal angel-whispered word Child, with its invitation to be open to the joy of the moment as young children are, to drop the brittle posturing of features and buffers and to let the present flood in—this call can cut through the nonsense from an unexpected direction and raise our state. Rather than confronting the feature and trying to wrestle it to the ground, the gentle whisper Child deftly shifts our attention to an entirely different plane: relaxed and cheerfully open to the moment. This is the way of the sly man. Instead of strengthening our foe by brawling with it in the basement of our being—and thereby making it more real than it is—Child turns and raises us to the rooftops for a clear view of blue sky.

Essentially, in order to awaken,
one must keep looking up and not down.
Robert Earl Burton


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