Awakening Our True Potential

Man is born an unfinished creature. He cannot walk or talk or feed himself. Long years of care are required to bring him to even the most minimal levels of self-sufficiency.

And yet even after the typical person has reached the stage of functioning that we call adulthood, something still seems to be missing. In a sense, of course, something will always be missing; there are always new horizons to discover and new skills to attain. But the lack may go further. There is a sense in which even the mature human being is incomplete. The Freemasons allude to this when they speak of the candidate for initiation as a “rough ashlar.” An ashlar is a block of stone; in its rough state it fits only approximately into its intended setting. Some kind of process is needed to adjust and polish it so that it is perfectly suited to its function.

Some may balk at this description – are we, after all, nothing more than raw materials to be sent down some assembly line to be made into identical pieces of manufactured goods? That is the kind of transformation society as a whole seems to envisage. And we would do well to mistrust it. The process to which the Masonic initiations allude has something more than mere conformity as its goal; it is not a matter of circus horses trying to break themselves in. It is the opposite: it is a matter of having access to our own potential, developing it, and offering to the service of higher aims.

This process has been discussed often, sometimes (as in Masonry) allegorically, sometimes in more straightforward terms. But even so it has rarely been presented in a reasonably honest and lucid way. Most of the time, developing human potential is portrayed as a kind of hypertrophy – the exaggerated development of certain functions at the expense of others.

Recently I read a magazine profile of a prominent Oxford philosopher. He had written a fourteen-hundred-page treatise on moral philosophy, in which he had examined and refuted all possible criticisms and objections to his thesis. Yet the article said he wore the same clothes each day (white shirt, black trousers) and did not like to look at any building that was not adorned with columns. His capacity for human interaction sounded rather primitive. In the end I was left with the impression of a gigantic cerebrum attached to a vestigial body.

Is this what is meant by developing our human potential? For many people it is. The abstracted philosopher is only one specimen. Others are the athlete who is nothing more than his sport, the painter who can do nothing more than paint. Some of the greatest achievements of the human race have been attained by such people. But the overdevelopment of talents can and does turn into a Faustian bargain. Breakdowns, crises, and collapses seem to dog these individuals. We may envy their achievements, but their fragility warns us against imitating them.

The same holds true for abilities that are considered paranormal. Although science does not care to admit it, it is possible to develop psychic powers such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and telekinesis. Indeed, in his forthcoming book The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities, Russell Targ, one of the leading parapsychologists in the US, argues that anyone with a certain amount of (not very difficult) training can develop these skills. Nevertheless, overemphasis on these abilities, no matter how miraculous they may seem, creates problems as well. Psychics, clairvoyants, visionaries, and healers frequently seem imbalanced, having developed one skill or power at the expense of the whole.

That is why I would like to suggest a slightly different model of developing human potential, one that is not designed to serve the interests of society (or business or political powers) at the individual’s own expense, but also one that avoids the trap of hypertrophy of a single area. Hence it begins with the crucial need for balance.

There are many models of the human mind, all of them insightful to a certain degree and all of them to a certain degree incomplete. One of the oldest and simplest sees the human makeup in terms of the body, the emotions, and the mind. We have already seen how some people are underdeveloped in one way or another. Even if we set aside extreme cases, esoteric teachings suggest that this is basically true of everyone. While it’s often easy enough to see someone else’s imbalances, it may not be so easy to see one’s own.

Gurdjieff’s Three Types of Humanity

The great twentieth-century spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff divided the ordinary run of humanity into three types: man number 1, who is orientated toward the body; man number 2, who is centred in his emotions; and man number 3, who sees the world through the intellect. Moreover, Gurdjieff contended, human beings pass their lives in a kind of waking sleep – a low-grade trance populated by illusions and daydreams. These facts are all connected. Our sleep in ordinary life is characterised by the fact that we are overbalanced in one or another of these directions and fail to use the intelligence of the other parts of the mind.

This, then, is the first step toward awakening human potential: to see what type of individual you are, because this shapes how you conceive of the world. Man number 1 is often of a highly practical turn; he can fix anything but may not have the dimmest idea of how to express his emotions, and may not even know what emotions he is having. Man number 2, by contrast, sees everything through his feelings. Artistic types (whether or not they have any real artistic talent) are a prime example; everything is emotion, everything is drama. Man number 3 sees life as a series of intellectual problems. He may be able to discuss philosophical issues brilliantly or add up long rows of figures in his head, but may, as James Joyce remarked of one of his characters, live a short distance from his body. (The Oxford philosopher I have mentioned would be an example of man number 3.)

In all probability you are one of these three types. The first task in awakening human potential is, as the ancient motto said, to “know thyself,” and in a very fundamental sense this means knowing what type you are. One way of exploring this question is by looking at your leisure activities: what do you do with your free time? Are you compulsively active, running from sport to sport or task to task? Do you enjoy spending your time in pleasant fantasies of happier times past or present? Or would you rather curl up with a good book? Leisure activities are important cues because they are not compulsory; you are doing these things because you like them. Of course, work life offers its own share of data. Your profession is often based on type, even in cases where you are not doing the kind of work you want to do. You may think you are really an artist or writer but somehow you have found work as a plumber, and the work comes as second nature to you. You keep at it not because you like it but because it comes easily to you. Despite what he may think about himself, a person like this is probably man number 1.

Very few people are pure examples of any given type; we tend to be admixtures, with bundles of strengths and weaknesses, with skills and affinities that harmonise or conflict in any number of ways. Consequently it is not a matter of simply typing yourself as you might do when taking a test out of a magazine. Knowing yourself is a lifelong course of study.

Furthermore, self-knowledge is not a static process. There is a type of individual who is self-conscious to an extreme degree and can see her strengths and faults with remarkable clarity but is utterly unable to do anything about them. Consequently the next step in developing human potential is trying to consciously balance ourselves, strengthening the weaker aspects of our natures and making sure the stronger ones do not overpower the others. This is one meaning of Christ’s parable of the “evil servant,” who, when his master is away, “shall begin to smite his fellowservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken” (Matt. 24:45-49).

Balancing the Different Aspects of Yourself

Strengthening your weaker functions is never a pleasant task. Inevitably it involves giving time and energy to things you do not like. The intellectual must take up Tai Chi or learn carpentry; the artist must manage financial accounts; the athlete needs to paint pictures or write poetry. Because these are the things we do not like to do, we often find them unpleasant and humiliating, and it is a rare person who has the discipline to persist on his own.

Speaking personally, when I was a high-school student, I realised that my connection to my body was not all that it could be, so I took the somewhat extreme step of attempting ballet. But the rigorous discipline ballet demands of the body was too much for me; I lost interest in it and dropped it after two or three classes. Only years later, as a result of involvement with esoteric disciplines, was I able to work on a more conscious connection with the body through various movements and exercises. But I never took up ballet again.

Another one of my experiences, at an esoteric school in the north of England, casts further light on the sort of work required. The school was moving into a new centre, and a great deal of remodelling was needed. I was there for a residential course, and I was given the job of cutting wall-to-wall carpeting for one of the rooms. I was utterly hopeless at this task. I could not cut the carpet straight; I kept hacking at it and making a mess of it until I was relieved and someone was given the job who was able to carry it out in short order.

Why was the job given to me first? Not because anyone was under any illusions about my skills at laying carpet. Rather it was to show me something about myself, so that, by struggling with an unfamiliar task, I could see where some of my limitations lay. And in fact to this day as a homeowner, I find it a challenge to do the types of household repairs that other men do without trouble and sometimes with pleasure.

As this story suggests, it’s comparatively rare to even out one’s own imbalances completely. If you were really to do so, it would probably take a life’s work, and a life’s work cannot consist entirely of remedying imbalances. Nor is that the ultimate goal. Becoming a well-rounded person is a worthwhile aim, but from a spiritual point of view it still falls short of fulfilling the true potential that every human being possesses. What is this potential?

The student becomes aware of it little by little in the course of struggling with his imbalances. In the first place, he learns to become free from the roles he has identified with in the past. A man thinks, “I’m not a handyman,” but if he has to carry out some task of repair he learns that this is a limitation. His identification with whatever roles he has traditionally clung to – thinker or artist – impedes him in other areas of life. In this way he learns to become free of roles – or at any rate he is a little bit more suspicious of his own tendency to identify with them. This seemingly small step actually marks a crucial point of transition, because it frees up an initially tiny amount of will and attention that had been completely fixed in identification. In short, the student learns that there is an “I” that is separate from, and free from, all the things he has identified with up to this point.

I have spoken of this development taking place in the context of an esoteric school, and while there are not a huge number of these in the world, there are still a fair number. The ones I have encountered range across traditions: Gurdjieffian, Buddhist, Sufi, Qabalistic. Each has its own peculiar orientation, but the general type of training is the same – and in the beginning consists of the kind of work I have been talking about here. The question then arises, is a school necessary? Can you do this work all on your own?

Generally speaking, no. You did not learn how to speak English alone; you did not learn math or cooking or carpentry or whatever life skills you have on your own. Almost always there was some instruction, and usually some instructor, behind your training. You can teach yourself how to do some things, but these are the exceptions in life. Human beings need each other for many reasons, and one of them is learning. While it’s true that people can and do undergo spontaneous moments of awakening that illuminate their being past all previous limitations and preconceptions, these are rare cases, and you can’t count on being one of them. If it has happened to you, you are fortunate. Even so, such moments of awakening are, for many people, mere glimpses intended to motivate them to undertake the hard, slogging work that I have been talking about here.

In any event, at some point in one’s development, something starts to crystallise. And this something consists precisely of the small amount of will and attention that I spoke about earlier. An aspect of the mind begins to awaken and can see that it is not its roles, its tasks, or even its thoughts and feelings and emotions, but can step back and look at them almost as if they belonged to someone else. This is the true “I,” or at any rate the seed of the true “I.”

Ultimate Key to Human Potential: The True “I”

Remember that Christ in the Gospels often speaks of the kingdom of heaven as a seed. The metaphor is apt on more than one level. As the parable says, the sower sows seeds on all kinds of ground. That is, everyone has this seed of the true “I” – somewhere inside of you there is a Self that stands back and can witness, impartially but compassionately, all the doings of your life like a film. But most people take this for granted. They do not see it as important and they do not bother to develop it. To use the language of the parable again, the seeds fall on stony ground or the birds of the air eat them up.

But this Self, this true “I,” is the ultimate key to human potential. Almost all of the parables in the Gospels speak of it in one way or another. It is the pearl of great price; it is the treasure buried in a field that a man sells all he has to buy; it is the light “that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Everyone has this and can never lose it; it is immortal and indestructible; indeed it is the only thing about us that is genuinely immortal – everything else will pass away. But you can make contact with it and make it develop and grow or you can neglect it, as the majority of people do and have done throughout the course of history.

The choice is yours – now. Up to this point in your life you may not have been aware that you had this “I” within you or had the chance to develop it. You may have had the dim sense of something missing, or you may have had a vague longing of a journey that you have wanted to take without knowing where or why. This is the journey that you have wanted to take. If you were not aware of it before you read this article, you are aware of it now. And like the man in Christ’s parable of the treasure hidden in the field, you will either go out and sell all you have to buy it (figuratively speaking), or you will ignore it and return to the sleep of ordinary life.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all else will be added unto you.” This true “I” is what the Gospels call the “kingdom of heaven.” If you have it – that is, if you are aware that you have it – the rest of life begins to fall into place, naturally and as it were spontaneously. This does not, of course, mean that life automatically becomes easy. It does mean that you become increasingly able to value things rightly. Money, possessions, status become progressively less important. You don’t need to become an ascetic and cast all these things away. You do need to put them in perspective and see that while they have instrumental value, they do not have ultimate value.

This teaching of the true “I” extends far beyond even esoteric Christianity. The sacred Hindu texts known as the Upanishads speak of it frequently. Here is one example: “Verily… that Imperishable is the unseen Seer, the unheard Hearer, the unthought Thinker, the ununderstood Understander. Other than It there is naught that sees. Other than It there is naught that hears. Other than It there is naught that thinks. Other than It there is naught that understands. Across this Imperishable… is space woven, warp and woof” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.8.10).

The Gospels speak of this “unseen Seer,” also known as “the kingdom of heaven,” as a seed. A seed is not a fully developed plant. Similarly, this sense of “I” above and apart from our ordinary thoughts and feelings is also undeveloped when we first come across it. It is developed by further work, and even at a fairly early stage it becomes obvious what this work is. I’m tempted to use words here such as love and compassion, but what I am getting at goes far beyond even these characteristics. To put it as simply as possible, it involves a further insight: that this “I” that exists at the core of my being also exists at the core of all other beings, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate. It is very hard in ordinary language to express the idea that what is most essentially myself is precisely that which I have in common with all others, but this is exactly the case.

Most spiritual traditions speak of a dual path that they characterise as wisdom and compassion or of knowledge and love. While these two potencies may appear at first to be separate, in fact as a student progresses they seem more and more to converge. There is a first level of awakening – to become conscious of the true “I.” The second level is to understand how vast and all-pervasive it is and that so far from cutting us off from others, it is precisely what unites us with them. In this way individual consciousness becomes universal consciousness.

Earlier in this article I mentioned that psychic powers are comparatively easy to develop. So they are. But if they are developed independently of the greater growth that I am speaking of here, they risk becoming a trap. (Practically all the great spiritual traditions warn of this.) By contrast, if we work to grow the seed of the individual consciousness into the greater consciousness that embraces all of us, paranormal powers come more or less naturally. You will not necessarily find that you can read minds or predict the future at will, but you probably will find that you know what you need to know when you need to know it – sometimes in ordinary ways, sometimes in ways that are quite startling.

I have tried, in an extremely brief way, to sketch out some of the key aspects of developing human potential. Of necessity this description will seem somewhat linear. You start as a novice; you experience certain types of insight or awakening; and gradually these insights become more stable and present in your day-to-day life. In a sense this is all true. But the path – if it is right to call it a path – is more circuitous than this. Doubts come after awakening; fear closes in again after times of great opening. More than once it will seem as if all the gains of years of effort have suddenly evaporated. I do not know how to avoid this problem – if it can be avoided. I do know that when one picks up again, after however long a time, the knowledge and faith that one had before reasserts itself, and the long, laborious work of transformation can recommence. As one of Gurdjieff’s pupils once observed, “No conscious effort is ever lost.”

© Copyright 2011 by New Dawn Magazine. This article first appeared in New Dawn No. 129. For further information visit