Ouspensky’s tragic mistake

P.D. Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff came very close to discovering Ramana’s method of Self-enquiry. They even gave their discovery a similar name: Self-remembering. But their method doesn’t work because they made a tragic mistake.

I mentioned this the other day in passing, but it deserves to be emphasized in a post by itself.

Their mistake was that they tried (or at least Ouspensky did) to be aware simultaneously of objects and of themselves.

This doesn’t work. They were trying to hold onto objects and sink into the Self simultaneously. That’s like a circus acrobat who tries to clutch the trapeze and fall to the net at the same time. Not possible! If you want to fall you must let go.

In order to practice Self-enquiry successfully — in order to drown the mind permanently in the Self — we need to stop paying attention to objects and instead pay attention only to ourselves. We must let go of objects.

Ouspensky’s and Gurdjieff’s followers call their idea “divided attention.” They are still giving themselves this advice today.

For example, Robert Earl Burton, a contemporary Fourth Way teacher, wrote in his book Self-Remembering in 1995:

Divided attention is Self-remembering.

The idea originated with Gurdjieff, who wrote:

There are moments when you become aware not only of what you are doing but also of yourself doing it. You see both ‘I’ and the ‘here’ of ‘I am here’ — both the anger and the ‘I’ that is angry. Call this self-remembering if you like. (Views From the Real World)

Even though the idea originated with Gurdjieff I call it Ouspensky’s tragic mistake because I don’t think Gurdjieff practiced his own teachings. Of the two men only Ouspensky practiced them. Therefore the mistake was tragic for Ouspensky but not Gurdjieff.

Ouspensky explained this idea in his book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. Here’s a link to a free copy of that part of the book.

What a wonderful book title. One of the greatest titles of all time. Such a briliant mind, such a tragedy.

This book contains a brilliant description of the lost-in-thought state, probably the best ever written. Ouspensky deserves to be read for that reason alone.

Ouspensky said our attention is almost always directed outward toward objects. He represented this with a single-headed arrow. The arrow is our attention. It points to objects (to things of which we are aware other than ourselves).

We are on the left; the things we see are on the right.

Ouspensky said we should replace this arrow with one that points to both objects and ourself. In other words, we should pay attention to both simultaneously. We should divide our attention between them.

What he should have said, but didn’t, is that we should turn the first arrow around so it points only at ourselves. If he had done this, he would have discovered Ramana’s method of Self-enquiry instead of the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky method of Self-remembering. But he didn’t.

After showing the first two arrows in his book (the third arrow represents Ramana’s teaching not Ouspensky’s), Ouspensky wrote:

Having defined this I saw that the problem consisted in directing attention on oneself without weakening or obliterating the attention directed on something else.

Arghhhh! No, Peter, that’s not the problem. The problem is that you are trying to do the impossible by holding onto objects and sinking into the Self simultaneously. You’re like a circus acrobat who tries to grasp the trapeze and fall to the net at the same time. It doesn’t work that way!

To see what Ramana Maharshi thought about this, read this very nice article by Michael James. I linked to this same article a few days ago. It could be extremely helpful for many people.

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