Introduction added in 2019
During the two years since this article was published, a number of readers have posted comments below accusing me of misunderstanding Ouspensky.
To those readers: this article is my reaction to a section of one of Ouspensky’s books which you can read for free at this link:
To future commenters: before you accuse me of misunderstanding, please follow that link and read that part of Ouspensky’s book. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and it deserves to be read for its own sake. Please notice in particular that the black arrows which appear in the article below are copied from Ouspensky’s book. I didn’t invent them. He did. They are his illustrations of his ideas.
Second note: When I say “beyond the mind” I mean beyond all mental activity of every kind. I’m using those words the way they are used by followers of Indian traditions. Judging from the comments that have been written here by followers of Gurdjieff, “beyond the mind” means something entirely different in Gurdjieff’s teachings.
The Original 2017 Article
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, I suspect only Ouspensky practiced them. Therefore I call the mistake 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.
The short section of the book to which I’ve linked is a magnificent description of the lost-in-thought state, probably the best ever written. In my opinion, this section is one of the most important pieces of spiritual writing of all time. Everyone talks about waking up spiritually but almost nobody explains the sense in which we are asleep. What is it we are trying to wake from? In what sense is our ordinary state “sleep”? Ouspensky answered these questions with extraordinary clarity and accuracy.
Ouspensky said our attention is almost always directed exclusively outward toward objects. He illustrated this with a single-headed arrow. The arrow represents 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.
I copied that arrow from Ouspensky’s book. It’s his diagram of the ordinary state, which I call the lost-in-thought state.
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.
Once again, I copied that arrow from Ouspensky’s book. It’s his diagram of the advice he gave people. The arrow is Ouspensky’s own illustration of his teaching. I didn’t invent it. He did.
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.
The red arrow is my picture, not Ouspensky’s. It represents Ramana’s teaching. In Ramana’s method, attention is not divided. It points only one way: towards ourself.
After showing the two black arrows in his book, 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.