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Ouspensky Foundation
updated till: 6-dec-01

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History of the Work
- Ouspensky -


How P.D. Ouspensky channelled the esoteric stream

Seeker of Truth

Pyotr Demianovitch Ouspensky was born in Moscow on the 5th of March 1878. He came from an artistic family: his grandfather was a church painter, his grandmother was fond of literature and his parents were both interested in music, painting and mathematics.

In an autobiographical fragment, he recalls how he could remember certain events before he was two years old and having read the books of Lermontoff and Turgenieff by the age of six. When he was thirteen he became interested in dreams and psychology and later in higher physics and mathematics. This led him to his interest in the fourth dimension.

Yet he did not pursue a scientific career as he felt that the professors were killing science in the same way as priests were killing religion. He became a journalist and undertook many journeys to Europe, Egypt, Ceylon and India. He became a member of the Theosophical Society in St. Petersburg, which then began to be very influential in Europe, and from which the first esoteric ideas flowed to the West. His journeys having been curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War, he returned to Moscow and gave a number of lectures about his travels, attracting audiences of a thousand people. He called his lectures 'In Search of the Miraculous'. As a result of this, he said: "It should now be possible to bring together a greater number of people who no longer want to live their lives full of deception."

Thus he had come quite a long way already in his search for truth when he met Gurdjieff in 1915. It turned out to be a meeting between two extremes. Ouspensky, eminent writer, journalist, artist and philosopher, who searched like a cosmopolitan, and on the other hand the unknowable, mysterious Mr. Gurdjieff with his dark complexion and penetrating eyes. The latter boldly announced that he possessed esoteric knowledge of a 'higher sphere', and told O.: "Don't believe, or accept or do anything what you don't understand." O. accepted these terms and said about the meeting: "Soon I began to understand that I had found a completely new way of thinking which surpassed anything I had found up to now. This new system threw a new light on psychology and explained what had been inexplicable to me up to now in esoteric streams of knowledge."

However, after three years of intensive work, O. felt that G. was sidetracked from these principles and therefore felt he could no longer follow him. At that time, G. demanded total surrender from his pupils, which O. could not accept. Many theories have been proposed as to the reason for the break-up, and one comment is from G. himself. He said that O. never realised that he had been given a shock in order to overcome what he called "a note in the side octave" which had to do with O.'s view of himself, and that he did not want to lower himself. G. explained that by refusing to bow his head, O. would be exposed to other laws, which would hinder his development (from: Secret Talks with Gurdjieff).

After the inevitable break with G. in 1918, he spent an extremely hard winter, which he barely survived, in the midst of the chaos of the revolution. Fortune turned his way when in 1920 he could escape from Constantinople to England, where through the help of Lady Rothermere and A.R. Orage, editor of 'The New Age' magazine, he was received in the aristocratic and intellectual circles of London. But he continued to support his former teacher, who had escaped to the West as well, and helped him to buy a property in Fontainebleau, where G. founded his own 'Institute for the harmonious development of man'. The final break between the two men came in 1924, after which O. took a period of rest for ten years, about which nothing is know, before he started to work with his own group as a teacher in his own right. Having broken with his teacher, he began to entertain the notion that it was necessary to find a 'Higher Source'.

In 1912 he published his book Tertium Organum in Russian and in 1914, A New Model of the Universe. He had also written a script for a film, the latest novelty at the time, called The strange life of Ivan Osokin. This film script never made it as a film but was published as a novel in 1947. Whatever the reason, these three books were the only ones he wanted to be translated and published in English. He had no such intention, however, for his other books: The Fourth Dimension, Superman, The Symbol of the Tarot, Talks with a Devil. What's more, he did not want In Search of the Miraculous and The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution to be published at all, and it was thanks to his wife that In Search was published, which became one of his most popular books.

Ouspensky the artist

Most readers of Ouspensky's books will probably form an image of him as an intellectual, a mathematician or a thinker, and his critics will point out that the reason why he left his teacher Gurdjieff was because he was too much a man of the intellect and lacked emotion. In this respect, a refreshingly new view on Ouspensky's life is presented by Bob Hunter in his recent book P.D. Ouspensky, Pioneer of the Fourth Way.

Ouspensky had a brilliant mind, and an astonishing memory, but he was a creative artist as well in that he wrote novels, and we are told that he painted in his spare time. The strange life of Ivan Osokin shows traces of romantic notions in the non-biographical, but very recognisable, figure of Ivan Osokin, whom most commentators of Ouspensky regard as an image of the writer himself. Ivan loved to write poetry, preferably one-line poems, and we are told that O. was once asked by G. to compose one-line poems as translations of Persian verses for the stage performance of the ballet The Struggle of the Magicians. Ivan held women to belong to a higher caste, and it is likely that O. cherished the same view, given the respect with which he always treated his estranged wife, and other women, like Anna Butkovsky in the early St. Petersburg days. He gives some very sensitive descriptions of his experiences, indicating that he was in touch with a higher emotional world. At the Taj Mahal he discovered that the soul did not reside in the body, but that the body was surrounded by the soul. These and many more examples indicate that in his search for truth, his emotions played a role equally important as the brilliance of his mind.

At the same time, he was not a stranger to the world. He wrote to a friend about his time in Moscow: "Every policeman in Moscow in the old days knew me by my Christian name, because, unlike most people, when I was drunk, I always tried to compose quarrels and not to start them. The porters at the restaurants used to know me, and when there was a row on they used to telephone to me to come round and stop it. One night I remember I got home with the left sleeve of my overcoat missing. How I lost it, and where, I have never discovered." G. once made the following remark about O.: "Very nice fellow to drink vodka with, but a weak man."

This weakness was in fact his strength. O. was much more an original thinker than most of G.'s followers, although he needed material to work with, whether it was the concept of 'recurrence', which he took from Nietzsche, or of 'Superman' of the Theosophists, or of the 'Fourth Dimension'. He took those subjects and recreated them like an artist who makes a new painting of an old biblical story. The most inspired ideas that arose in his mind stand out in his texts by italics.

England and America, 1935-1947

In 1935, a large country house was bought by followers of O. Lyne Place, where work meetings were held during weekends under Madame Ouspensky's watchful eye, who remained a devoted follower of G. all her life, but at the same time supported her husband and his work as well. She supervised the instruction of the movements, in which her husband had no particular interest, and it is mainly due to her efforts that until this day, the so-called 'old' movements (i.e. of the early days in the Caucasus) are still being kept alive by a few groups in England. In 1938, a large London property was bought, Colet House, which could accommodate meetings for a few hundred people, and which is still the centre of the present-day Study Society, as founded by Dr. Roles.

Between 1934 and 1940, O. held weekly meetings with questions and answers for people who could join only by personal invitation. At one time these meetings were attended by some thousand people.

The imminence of war made O. decide to leave the U.K., much to his followers' dismay, and sail to America, where he joined his wife. But this was not an act of cowardice, or mere abandonment. He felt that if the Germans would win the war, the work would have a better chance of being preserved in America than in Europe. It turned out differently in the end, and when he returned in 1945, his pupils were shocked to see a sick, old man, who no longer addressed them in the same way as before. He came back with a new message, the last thing anybody would have expected, that the system he had taught so carefully, now no longer existed as far as he was concerned. He urged them therefore to dismantle the system and reconstruct the whole. Some thought he had lost his mind, but others understood that he was preparing them for his final departure, by giving them their last 'shock' to take up the work themselves and thus become responsible for their own future. This is an extract of one of the meetings which were held after he had returned:

Q. We have been trying to follow the teaching you gave us years ago.

A. I gave no teaching.

Q. You told us certain things to help us.

A. You misunderstood.

Q. Where can we begin to work now?

A. I will see what you want to know and where you want to begin, and then we will see the first step.

Q. What should we do when you are no longer with us?

A. Dismantle the system.

Q. What, to destroy everything?

A. No, not destroy, dismantle. Keep the form, but let a dozen people from within the organisation reconstruct everything.

Rodney Collin Smith, one of his close followers, had kept a diary of the last few months of O.'s life from which these are a few moving extracts:

"It was at dawn, having driven all night, he got out of the car, there was a high brick wall: he hit it with his fist, and cried to them: 'Go through there'."

"When almost unable to set one foot before the other he would make his dying body walk step by step for an hour at a time through the rough lanes; force it to rise in the small hours, dress, descend and climb long flights of stairs; turn night into day and require of his companions in order to remain with him, such feats of endurance as they in full possession of health and strength were scarcely able to accomplish. He would have two or three people sit with him, not doing anything, just sitting, smoking, occasionally making a remark, drinking a glass of wine, for hours on end. At first it was very difficult - one racked one's brains for what to say, how to start a conversation, thoughts of all kinds of imaginary duties elsewhere. Many people could not bear it. But after a while, these became the most interesting times of all. One began to feel - everything is possible in this moment."

The suggestion could be that these extraordinary instances from the last months of O.'s life were a deliberate attempt to create a 'conscious shock' because he saw that the circulation of energy in the school he had created was running down and needed a strong impulse to set it going again in the right direction. At another level it is possible to surmise that he may have been conscious of the imperative need to give up everything he had worked for, a sacrifice which would ultimately benefit his followers.

In this respect it may be worth pointing out that O.'s preoccupation in the nineteen twenties and thirties with the possibility of contacting a Higher Source, which has been recorded by Dr. Roles in Lasting Freedom, had now been transcended.

In 1935 he had said: "Something was missing in the system. If man is meant to remember himself there must have been some simple method. But it has been lost. I could never find it. Once in India, I heard an echo of such a method. If you find the method you may find the Source."

But, seventeen years later on his deathbed, he did not mention this idea again, and instead suggested to his followers that they should "dismantle and reconstruct the teaching".

However, the followers, headed by Dr. Roles, set out on a search for a Method and a Source and thought that they had found it when, in the sixties, they met with the method of the Transcendental Meditation of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, thus leading Ouspensky's legacy into a new Eastern esoteric direction. Looking back at it now, which is a much easier position to have than when you are in the middle of things, one wonders if that is what O. had envisaged...

Bob Hunter (in: P.D. Ouspensky, Pioneer of the Fourth Way) makes the following interesting observation: "Would it not be his own higher centres that Ouspensky might have hoped to find - perhaps in the end did find - as his Higher Source? If the message from his higher intellectual and emotional centres was getting through, then he may have been telling his people they did not need any method but to look within themselves. An external system is needed only because our mechanicalness cuts us off from what 'we could already know if we could only listen to ourselves and tender quiet the uproar of the daily wheels of personality.' (Nicoll, Commentaries)."

In his diary, R. Collins recalls: "On the first of October 1947 he was found fully dressed on the landing in Lyne Place. He took his place on the sofa and called everybody together. He wore no glasses and seems for once not to need them, looking at everyone with great poignancy and benevolence... gradually a deep sense of being together came over all those present. It was clear that his end was near, but this moment was one of extraordinary peace and unity."

He died the next day. A coffin was brought on a cart and his body was brought to the village church of Lyne, where a simple service was held attended by a few followers. Ouspensky died as he had always wished to live: anonymously.