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.

10 thoughts to “Ouspensky’s tragic mistake”

    1. I’m an American in New York. “Yam” is a pseudonym. I chose the name as a joking way to say “I am.” Later, when it was too late, I realized nobody would get the joke and I was going to mislead everybody into thinking I’m Chinese. Am I the only person here old enough to remember this:

  1. Thank you Freddie for this thought-provoking article (pun very much intended 😉

    As I read it I was wondering if Ouspensky’s view (dividing the attention between self and object) and yours (attention only on the self) is meant for different situations? Ouspensky seemed to be talking about situations in which we interact with the external world (e.g. taking a walk, or having dinner, talking to my dog etc.). If our attention is only on the self during such interactions, how can we possibly function coherently in the external world? Is it even possible? Do self-realised people do this all the time? Your view seems to be relevant more when we are meditating with this purpose alone (i.e. when you are deliberately NOT attentive on external objects).

    1. Hi Moksha. Your comment on realization.org got forwarded to me but I’m glad you tracked me down here. I’ll try to respond to your questions as exactly as I can. But first I want to say two other things.

      First, the method you call my method is not my method. It’s Ramana Maharshi’s method. However, I practiced it and can testify from my own experience that the main thing that Ramana said about it is true, namely, if you focus all your attention on “I”, the “I” sinks into its source. That’s the basic idea. The basic idea is not a situation. The basic idea is a mechanism. The basic idea is, “If you do this particular thing, something unbelievably wonderful happens.”

      Second, both these methods are being taught to achieve enlightenment. In both cases, the teachers are saying, “Do this in order to become enlightened.”

      If a teaching can’t do that — if one of these teachings cannot help a person become enlightened — wouldn’t it be a waste of time to practice it in any situation?

      Now for your question about situations. Ramana’s method can be practiced in different ways. When you practice it very intensely, you can’t do anything else. In fact that practice can put you into samadhi (deep meditative states) and then you really can’t do anything else. But Ramana’s method can also be practiced in a less intense way during daily activities.

      Ouspensky presents his method as something to be practiced during daily life, but I don’t believe that his method is a practical one. In my opinion, his method is an attempt to use the mind in an unnatural way and the mind rebels. All this method can do is make the mind tired.

      Please note that in Ouspensky’s famous description of his attempt to practice his method while walking through St. Petersburg, his attempt is unsuccessful.

      When I say “unsuccessful”, I don’t mean that it doesn’t achieve the desired result. I mean that he isn’t able to do the practice.

      Enlightenment cannot be reached through any use of the mind. We have to go beyond the mind. The Ouspensky-Gurdjieff method does not go beyond the mind.

      The Ouspensky-Gurdjieff method cannot go beyond the mind because the attention keeps holding onto external objects. It’s the mind that sees external objects. As long as the attention stays on external objects, the mind is being kept activated.

      Ramana’s method makes the “I” sink into the Beyond-the-Mind. This can happen with Ramana’s method because the attention lets go of the mind’s objects.

      You also asked, “Do self-realised people do this all the time?” No. This is a practice that can help lead a person to Self-realization. But Self-realized people don’t do this.

      You also asked, “If our attention is only on the self during such interactions, how can we possibly function coherently in the external world? Is it even possible?”

      For the answer to that question, and deeper answers to your other questions, I recommend this book to you:
      No Mind — I Am the Self by David Godman.

      1. Hi Freddie,

        Thanks for explaining this in a simple and clear manner. Having read your other articles as well, I believe I understand what you are saying. Sorry for replying a little late – I was on a holiday. However during this time I also got around to buying and reading the book you recommended (thank you).

        So as I understand it, the key to this method is the focus on the ‘I’ instead of external objects (by which I assume you to be also including internal phenomena such as breath, thoughts etc.).

        I was thinking about this in the last month since reading your response, and it seems to me that:
        – Fundamental is placing the attention consistently on something for a particular period of time. This leads to increased awareness.
        – The placing of attention seems to be in two forms – any object (internal and external), or directly on the perceiver or the ‘I’. I have seen these two forms also being called meditation with seed (i.e any object), and meditation without seed. The former method has endless variations but the same common pattern. The latter method is a ‘non-method’ making it also hard to describe.

        So now on to my questions, if you would be kind enough to answer them 🙂

        1. Do you recommend ordinary people start directly with ‘focusing on the I’ techique? It seems to be very difficult to do this without first acheving a certain level of concentration done with objects.

        2. I’d like your take on Kriya yoga techniques vs. the Ramana technique.
        Specifically the techniques that focus on raising the kundalini (e.g. SRF foundation, Sadhguru Isha yoga etc.). It seems to me that the raising of the kundalini achieves the same result, but in a more step-by-step manner as the different energy centers (or chakras ) are ‘opened’ and the self is realised. It usually starts with the spinal breathing method, or third eye meditation and then proceeds from there. Perhaps there is more achieved in this method, but I don’t understand it fully.

        3. What would be the difference between a person realising the self using the Ramana method vs. one who used the Kriya yoga techniques? Are there different ‘degrees’ of self-realisation that is achieved ? Words are failing me here, but I hope you get the gist of my query. (p.s. I have also read your article on your attempt to raise your kundalini too).

        Look forward to your response.

        1. Hi Moksha,

          You wrote, “Fundamental is placing the attention consistently on something for a particular period of time. This leads to increased awareness.”

          Placing attention on something does not create awareness. All that happens is that the mind focuses on something. Awareness is entirely different from placing attention on something. You cannot create awareness by focusing the mind on something because awareness is not a function of the mind. In fact usually when you focus the attention on something, awareness lessens. This is why people become lost in thought (relatively unconscious) when they think.

          Awareness has to be discovered and cultivated directly, not as a byproduct of something you do with the mind. You cannot notice it as a result of mental activity because it is not produced by mental activity.

          What I just said is the subject of my article on the home page on this website, How to Stop Thoughts. Despite the title of that article, it isn’t really about stopping thoughts. It’s about how to discover awareness so you can begin to increase it.

          I suggest reading that article. You might also want to read Susan Blackmore’s article Am I Conscious Now? which is reproduced on realization.org.

          You asked, “1. Do you recommend ordinary people start directly with ‘focusing on the I’ techique?”

          No, I recommend that people start either by noticing what it means to be conscious or by abiding in love. Both consciousness and love are beyond the mind. You have to get some sort of toehold beyond the mind before you really begin on the spiritual path. Finding or noticing something beyond the mind is the first step. Until that happens, sadhana is just an ineffectual mental activity.

          For many people, consciousness is an easier starting point than love. For those people, I recommend that they start by noticing that they are normally unconscious (lost in thought). Once they notice this, they can begin to strive to become more conscious. Once they know what it feels like to be conscious, then and only then can they benefit from focusing on “I”. If they try to focus on “I” before they know what it means to be conscious, before they can strive to be conscious, it will be a purely mental activity and it will be a waste of time.

          You asked, “2. I’d like your take on Kriya yoga techniques vs. the Ramana technique.
          Specifically the techniques that focus on raising the kundalini (e.g. SRF foundation, Sadhguru Isha yoga etc.).”

          I think Kundalini yoga is useful but I don’t think it’s a substitute for the Ramana technique. I’m basing this answer on my personal experience with both.

          My Kundalini became active in 1998 as a result of deliberate yoga practice. This led eventually to wonderful things including the conviction that everything is God and the universe is essentially benevolent. This conviction is a wonderful thing, and some people might call it a kind of enlightenment, but it’s not Self-realization.

          In my opinion energy practices can be helpful and desirable. Consciousness and energy are related. In my experience all spiritual growth has been accompanied by changes in the non-physical body and/or energy fields. Many conscious phenomena have energetic correlates. However, I don’t think Kundalini and consciousness are exactly the same, and I don’t think active Kundalini will necessarily make you conscious, and I don’t think Kundalini is a substitute for the Ramana technique.

          The ultimate goal of the Ramana technique is to make the I-thought sink into the Heart and dissolve there permanently. This is very different from the yoga idea of Kundalini moving up to the crown chakra. Based on my experience I don’t think Kundalini by itself (or any energetic phenomena) can bring about the dissolution of the I-thought in the Heart. For that you need to do what Ramana recommended.

          You asked, “3. What would be the difference between a person realising the self using the Ramana method vs. one who used the Kriya yoga techniques?”

          Ramana defines Self-realization as manonasha, i.e., the permanent destruction of the ego, of the sense of a personal self.

          If you want to get an idea of what it’s like to be in that state, you can read Bernadette Roberts book, “The Experience of No-Self,” or look at photos of Ramana Maharshi’s face.

          In that state of Self-realization, of manonasha, there’s no “me” that wants to impress anybody. There’s no “me” that wants to hire professional photographers to take pictures of “my” face so other people will think “I” am handsome. There’s no “me” that wants money or a big organization or that dresses “myself” up in theatrical costumes so “I” will look impressive. There’s no “me” that plasters the Internet with videos of myself so people will see “me, me, me”.

          A person without an ego does not and cannot care what other people think of “him” or “her” because there is no “him” or “her.”

          One of the main characteristics of the ego is that it cares intensely about what other people think of it. In some people this takes the form of wanting to be famous.

          Without an ego, there can be no desire to be famous.

          You mention Sadhguru. Does he seem to you like somebody who doesn’t have an ego?

          Recognizing that somebody is not Self-realized is often very easy because the ego is usually very obvious and easy to see. It usually demands attention from other people very loudly and shines like a thousand-watt bulb.

          Manonasha is not the only desirable state that can be achieved through spiritual practice. For example, there is a state of knowing at a gut level that everything is God, which I mentioned above. People sometimes use the name “Self-realization” for those states but I do not. I follow Ramana’s example and use the name “Self-realization” only for manonasha, for the state in which the ego no longer exists. The other states are sometimes wonderful, and they sometimes make people charismatic, energetically powerful, loving, generous, etc. However, since these states are not manonasha, people can attain them and still be nasty people. They can even be sociopaths.

          Many spiritual teachers are sociopaths. Being a spiritual teacher is a dream job for sociopaths, therefore sociopaths are attracted to that profession. A person can be enlightened to some degree and be a sociopath, but somebody who is in a state of manonasha cannot be a sociopath because the essence of sociopathy is that the person gratifies his or her ego at the expense of other people.

        2. P.S. I should probably add a few words of warning. Although I think energy yoga and active Kundalini can be good things, I don’t subscribe to the idea of moving large amounts of energy to the head. I think that can be dangerous and I am skeptical whether it leads to any sort of enlightenment. A good friend of mine became psychotic as a result of doing Kundalini yoga, and I think this happened because lots of energy moved to her head. I’m not sure it’s really a good idea to make efforts to open the crown chakra or increase the amount of energy that moves in or out of it. I usually tell people who want to bring energy to the crown, “If I can’t talk you out of it, I urge you to develop the lower part of your body first, particularly the root chakra.”

          I think that when you are energetically open and conscious at the bottom of the body (everything from the heart downward but especially the belly and root and, if you can notice what lies below the root, that-which-is-below-the-root, you are safer and healthier and less likely to suffer ill effects from energy in the head.

          By the way there are many kinds of energy. There is a blue cold kind that moves in sheets through the outside world and through our bodies. I found that very helpful for many years. It sometimes descends from above. When it descends from above it doesn’t enter though a chakra. It can move through any part of the body.

          My girlfriend’s body is surrounded by a vortex of white energy which, on close inspection, is made of millions of tiny silver particles. There was no energy of that kind in or near my body until she “inoculated” me with it.

          Energy stuff is way more complicated than Kundalini moving up and opening chakras.

  2. Your assessment of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff is based on a superficial understanding of their writings. Yet their “work” is essentially an oral transmission, and attempts to bring one to a balanced state between the mind, the feelings and the body.

    We live in the external world, and we must be “conscious” of it. We also have an inner world, and must learn how to be “conscious” of it. We live in two worlds simultaneously, and must become aware of both as they interact.

    Submersion or absorption in the “self” ignores the physical world as a “grounding” or touchstone for seeing the reality of both worlds. Otherwise the “self” is immersed in illusion and fantasy.

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