Gurdjieff, Freud, Jung, Therapy, and the “Chief Feature”

George Gurdjieff, mystic teacher of the first half of the last century, taught that each of us has a “chief feature,” which can only be shown to him by someone else.  Gurdjieff pointed to the chief feature of his students by how he treated them in various situations, and by situations he put them into in which their chief feature would come to the fore in ways that they would have to acknowledge and deal with.  Sometimes people couldn’t stand to see themselves so exposed, and left.


Of course, while we may have one chief feature at a time, we can certainly have different chief features over time; which highlights the need for periodic self-encounter.


Something like this happens in therapy, where, as I like to say, “Everyone needs someone else to hold up the mirror.”  In therapy, too, the client may leave, seeing her own reflection in the mirror and blaming it on the therapist.  Of course, it’s up to the therapist to be a good-enough mirror; we have to “polish our mirrors” in order to reflect out clients back to themselves without distorting the image too much with our own stuff.  The Sufi wisefool figure Mulla Nasrudin demonstrates what can happen.  One day he stopped to pick up a fragment of a metal mirror by the side of the road, thinking it might be something valuable.  Looking into it, he saw his own reflection, and threw it away; exclaiming,  “How ugly, no wonder someone threw it away!”  Was the mirror too distorting, or was Nasrudin too repulsed by his own reflection to recognize himself?


As far as I know, Freud never had a relationship with anyone in which his chief features were pointed out to him.  He claimed to have conducted the first psychoanalysis on himself, but “everyone needs someone else to hold up the mirror.”  Psychoanalysis has suffered, ever since, from the unacknowledged chief features of its principle founder, among them reserving to himself the role of arbiter of ultimate truth, and conflating “psycho-analysis” the treatment procedure with “psychoanalysis” the culture in which his role as supreme arbiter of truth was embedded.  Jung wasn’t in therapy either, as far as I know, but his relationships with women would have provided mirrors; particularly with the brilliant and powerful Sabina Spielrein, and also with his later mistress Toni Wolff and his wife Emma; powerful women in their own right.  Freud never had a relationship with a woman as strong as any of these, as far as the historical record tells us.

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