Imaginary I in the Work refers to the sense or conviction that we operate as if we were one permanent, consistent, conscious person, that is, the imagination that we have a real I in us. This misperception stands in the way of inner change.
Not only are we convinced that we are a unified self, but due to pictures and buffers, we see ourselves as good, right, charming, loving and reasonable. If we observe negative emotions (thoughts, feelings and sensations that are angry, judging, resentful, envious, suspicious, despondent or blaming), we self-justify; we ascribe the cause to people and events outside of us. We do not realize that the source of all of our suffering is within us.
“Are you going to say ‘I’ to them? All sorts and kinds of small ignorant I’s try to eat us all day long. Do you know what inner separation means? If not, then these small, negative, ignorant, narrow, stupid I’s will eat your Work force like a lot of beetles and mice and rats every day. It is a pity to give them the authority of I – of yourself. You will then be dragged down from the moment you get up in the morning. It is really a tragedy to see a person in the Work, who really feels and wants the Work, quite incapable of realizing different I’s in himself or herself. … On the other hand, if you can see them as I’s in you that you do not care for and deliberately decide by experience not to consent to or believe in what they say, then you begin to enter the way of this Work, even if they overpower you often for the time being. There is a phrase in the Work: ‘This is not I.'”*
The Work gives us an extraordinary path to freedom. After persistent self-observation, we realize that we are not one I, but many I’s. We recognize that some I’s give us force and some rob us of force and we learn to non-identify with those that lead downward towards reactivity and sleep. We awaken to the power of choice and non-identification.
“If you keep a garden, do you not throw out weeds and cultivate and nourish and tend useful plants? Is it not impossible to do this in your inner life if you take everything as you? You have bad thoughts or bad feelings. … Perhaps you will say: ‘Yes, but these bad thoughts and feelings are in me so what can I do?’ What can you do? You can agree with them, consent to them, identify with them and give them the authority of I. But supposing that you do not agree with them, consent to them or identify with them and do not say I to them? Will they get stronger or weaker? Well, think for yourself. …
“The problem is an inner one. Its solution begins with self-observation according to definite instructions. So unless you can observe yourself, the Work remains dead. In order to observe yourself, it is necessary to realize that you are not one but many. Unless you can see eventually different I’s in yourself, you cannot reject or select. And without the Work and the understanding of what it is about, you will not be able – eventually – to reject and select rightly. But if this is done, new influences begin to enter your inner life. You begin to feel the beginning of new life, and very gracious it is. If you listen to it, something begins to grow.”
*All quotations from: Maurice Nicoll, Commentaries, “Self-Observation,” May 13, 1944, Vol. 2, p. 439