P. D. Ouspensky on Our Fundamental Illusion and How to Wake Up


P. D. Ouspensky haunts me. I’ve tried to make him go away, but he won’t leave me alone.

Ouspensky tells me that I am inauthentic and delusional.

Ouspensky says that my fundamental notions about myself — that I am an individual with an enduring identity and the capacity to make choices — are pure illusions.

Ouspensky says that I live my life in a state of waking sleep. If I truly saw myself objectively, he says, I would be shocked.

Entering the Gurdjieff work

I own many books by Ouspensky — The Fourth Way, A New Model of the UniverseThe Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, and more.

During the 1980s, I gathered with a group of people to study Ouspensky’s masterpiece, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. This book is an encyclopedic account of Ouspensky’s association with G. I. Gurdjieff. Today it remains as the most complete and accessible treatment of Gurdjieff’s work.

Gurdjieff has been described as a mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and saint. He has also been called a scammer, a fraud, and a cynical manipulator of his students.

Possibly he was any of those things. He died in 1949, designating no successor, and much about him remains mysterious.

Ouspensky met Gurdjieff in 1915 and became one of his early students. The two men parted ways in 1918, however, after Ouspensky charged Gurdjieff with abandoning his original teachings. Ouspensky carried on with his version of the “work,” gathering with his own students until he died in 1947.

Gurdjieff wrote his own books, of course. One is the highly allegorical and nearly opaque Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.

Another is Meetings With Remarkable Men, a possibly authentic account of Gurdjieff’s travels throughout Asia in pursuit of esoteric knowledge.

If you’re interested in the teachings of Gurdjieff, then save those books for later.

Start with Ouspensky.

We are machines

In The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, Ouspensky begins with the unflattering assertion that we are machines:

What does it mean that man is a machine?

It means that he has no independent movements, inside or outside of himself. He is a machine which is brought into motion by external influences and external impacts. All his movements, actions, words, ideas, emotions, moods and thoughts are produced by external influences. By himself, he is just an automaton with a certain store of memories of previous experiences, and a certain amount of reserve energy.

This is something that we can test by self-observation.

I see Trump on television and immediately feel a surge of anger. What an idiot, I say to myself. I reach for the remote and hit the power off button. I just had to make the image of that man disappear. Now.

This incident perfectly illustrates Ouspensky’s point.

It’s true that behavior took place — I saw an image. Felt disgust. Shut off the television. But it was all pure reflex.

That image of Trump triggered an automatic chain of events. And they unfolded in a few seconds with no conscious choice on my part.

In short, I acted like a machine. I no more chose to turn off the television than a toaster “chooses” to heat up when you press down on its lever.

The truth is that I spend large chunks of my day in this mode — as an unthinking automaton. I think that I am doing things. But in reality, they just happen. My reactions simply unfold, one after another. And I control them no more than I control the weather.

Ouspensky concludes that:

Man cannot do. Everything that man thinks he does, really happens. It happens exactly as “it rains,” or “it thaws”….

In the English language there are no impersonal verbal forms which can be used in relation to human actions. So we must continue to say that man thinks, reads, writes, loves, hates, starts wars, fights, and so on. Actually, all this happens.

Man cannot move, think or speak of his own accord. He is a marionette pulled here and there by invisible strings.

Given this fact, says Ouspensky, we move through our lives like automatons in a state of waking sleep.

Our only hope is to see that we are machines and fully admit it. Then — with time and help — we can learn ways to stop being machines. We can wake up.

Discovering the limits of your consciousness

Ouspensky suggests that you do an empirical test to discover how long you can stay awake:

Take a watch and look at the second hand, trying to be aware of yourself, and concentrating on the thought, I am Peter Ouspensky, I am now here. Try not to think about anything else, simply follow the movements of the second hand and be aware of yourself, your name, your existence and the place where you are. Keep all other thoughts away.

You will, if you are persistent, be able to do this for two minutes. This is the limit of your consciousness.

Actually, two minutes might be a generous estimate. Even before that, my attention often dissipates. I sink into my default mental mode — distraction. I get lost in waves of random thoughts and images that I do not control. Again, they simply happen.

There are those rare moments when we spontaneously awake from our unconscious state. This can happen when we feel strong emotions, find ourselves in new and difficult circumstances, or sense that we are in imminent danger (such as during the seconds that precede a car accident).

In our normal state, however, these sudden and transitory flashes of consciousness are rare. And we have no control over them. They are strictly accidental.

“You must remember yourself”

Fortunately, our moments of consciousness can be extended by an act of sheer will. We can train ourselves to release distractions and voluntarily focus our attention. This is the practice of self-remembering.

Gurdjieff once gave a simple definition of self-remembering: “To know you are angry when you are angry.”

We could also say: To know when you are afraid when you are afraid. Or, to know when you are sad when you are sad.

In each of these moments a different sense of I am emerges. Our job is to witness them as they arise and pass.

Self-remembering — the state of being I, here, now — has been called the master key to Gurdjieff’s teachings. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky spoke often about self-remembering and gave their students a variety of practices for developing it.

It is with self-remembering, then, that our real work begins. And it is our only hope for waking up.

In her book This Fundamental Quest, Henriette Lannes says it well:

Only when we succeed in gathering our attention and relaxing does our body become capable of opening. If these inner conditions are brought together and maintained for a certain time, a true feeling – without words, without images – can appear for a few moments within ourselves. At the moment of this experience, which is like no other, we sense a new vibration that transmits the taste of a more secret, more subtle life. We realize, then, that the capacity to be there has been given us.

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Photo by Chad Walton on Unsplash