Ouspensky Teaching

Ouspensky in Search of the Miraculous

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ouspensky visited Constantinople, Smyrna, Greece, Egypt, Ceylon and India, in search of the miraculous. “The ‘miraculous’ is very difficult to define,” he wrote in the opening chapter of his book In Search of the Miraculous, “But for me this word had a quite definite meaning. I had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road, unlike anything hitherto known or used by us…”

However, Ouspensky wasn’t fated to find the miraculous where he sought it. World War I caught him in Ceylon and forced him back to Russia against his will, despite that fact that he felt that he had gotten onto a trail that could lead to the miraculous he sought so enthusiastically. He realized that he had needed more time, that the secret existed, but better and more deeply hidden than he had previously imagined. Ouspensky returned to Russia soon after the beginning of the war, and gave several public lectures on his travels and his search in St Petersburg and Moscow.

“I already knew I was going to look for a school or schools. I had arrived at this long ago. I realized that personal, individual efforts were insufficient and that it was necessary to come into touch with the real and living thought which must be in existence somewhere but with which we had lost contact.” (from In Search of the Miraculous, p. 11)

Ouspensky meets Gurdjieff

In the spring of 1915, Ouspensky was introduced, by two people who had attended his lectures, to George Ivanocitch Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff and his ideas produced a strong impression on Ouspensky. He soon realized that he had found many things for which he had been looking for in the East. He realized that he had met with a completely new system of thought surpassing anything he had encountered before. This system threw a new light on psychology and explained what Ouspensky could not understand before in esoteric ideas and ‘school principles’.

“I liked Gurdjieff’s movements, which had a great deal of a kind of feline grace and assurance; even in his silence there was something which distinguished him from others. I felt that I would rather have met him, not in Moscow, not in this flat, but in one of those places from which I had so recently returned, in the court of one of the Cairo mosques, in one of the ruined cities of Ceylon, or in one of the South Indian temples—Tanjore, Trichinopoly, or Madura.” (from In Search of the Miraculous, p. 17)

Thus did Ouspensky encounter the miraculous, not in the exotic East, but back at home, where he had least expected to find it. Indeed, his travels to the east had brought him to the realization that he had to find a teacher and an organized group of people sharing a common aim – a school. He had realized that alone, he could achieve very little. Ouspensky was, therefore, in an ideal position to value Gurdjieff and his teaching upon being introduced to him in Russia.

Ouspensky Assimilates the Fourth Way

Gurdjieff and Ouspensky were men of different cultures, education and essential tendencies. In retrospect, one can argue that they were complementary agents of the Fourth Way, that what one couldn’t offer, the other had supplemented. Nevertheless, in the years following their encounter, Ouspensky would be forced to go beyond his natural inclinations in order to study underneath Gurdjieff and submit to his methods. Gurdjieff himself was but a young teacher, and it appears that his teaching continued evolving as his first generation of students were learning from him.

There came a point, according to Ouspensky, in which Gurdjieff gravitated away from verification towards faith. He no longer demanded understanding from his students, but required them to follow blindly. Ouspensky found difficulty with this approach, as well as with the effects he observed on Gurdjieff’s groups. There follows a period of confusion for Ouspensky, struggling with the conflict of indebtedness to Gurdjieff on the one hand, and disagreement with his methods on the other.

This conflict forces Ouspensky to distinguish between the system he received from Gurjieff and the greater tradition to which it belonged. “The Fourth Way is big,” he says, “and this system is very small in comparison.”

Ouspensky Disassociates with Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff’s gradual change of methods from verification to faith force Ouspensky to disassociate with him and continue working independently. The post-World War I turmoil drives Gurdjieff to France. Ouspensky, meanwhile, establishes a small group of students in London and continues monitoring Gurdjieff’s progress. Ouspensky makes a few more attempts to collaborate with Gurdjieff, but eventually gives up and resolves for a complete disassociation. He gives his students the option either to follow his own work or Gurdjieff’s.

Ouspensky is careful to avoid competition with Gurdjieff’s Institute in France. Aware that Gurdjieff came in contact with the source of the Fourth Way, he directs his efforts to contacting a similar source. Although he is unsure of what this may mean, Ouspensky takes this source to be metaphysical, in the form a higher influence. He hopes to tap into the source, not by physical contact, but through bringing the level of his group high enough so that it receive the waves emitted from the level above.

Meanwhile, Gurdjieff closes his institute and releases his students. Ouspensky witnesses Europe degenerating into another period of social turmoil. He anticipates the rise of Fascism and Communism and predicts the inevitable war. During this period, when his student John Bennett asks inquires into the nature of his relation to Mr. Gurdkieff, Ouspensky replies:

“I waited for all these years (before expanding the work in London) because I wanted to see what Mr. Gurdjieff would do. His work has not given the results he hoped for. I am still as certain as ever that there is a Great Source from which our System has come. Mr. Gurdjieff must have had a contact with that Source, but I do not believe that it was a complete contact. Something is missing, and he has not been able to find it. If we cannot find it through him, then our only hope is to have a direct contact with the Source … Our only hope is that the Source will seek us out. That is why I am giving these lectures in London.”

Ouspensky’s London Groups

The expansion of Ouspensky’s work both requires and makes possible larger opportunities and better organization. In 1935 a country house and farm about 20 miles from London are purchased. Here some of Ouspensky’s older pupils live, and practical work of various kinds is arranged for as many as 100 people on weekends. In 1938 a larger house is found in London with a studio and a capacity of hosting 300 people. Its acquisition makes possible the formation of the Historico-Psychological Society, giving and external form to Ouspensky’s work.

However, restrictions imposed by war make continuation of the work in England impossible; there is civilian as well as military conscription, rationing of all forms of food and energy, and the blackouts. The country house at Lyne in Surrey becomes a haven for a number of people, and Ouspensky holds small meetings there while he waits to assess the probable duration of the war. After the loss of Europe to Germany, he realizes that it would be a long war and decides to go to the United States, where he has many contacts.

Ouspensky holds meetings in New York from 1941 to 1946, well attended. Franklin Farms, a large house and estate in New Jersey, is put at his disposal. Here, Madame Ouspensky organizes practical work so that Ouspensky is able to continue his writing and lecturing.

Ouspensky Abandons the System

Although a few members of the London groups come to America during the war and others visit after the war ends, Ouspensky has not, in his own view, finished his obligations to his followers in England. He feels that they must now be ‘set free’ from the system to find the truth in their own ways. He returns to England ill in 1947, and through great efforts, is able to hold six meetings with audiences of more than 300 people.

Ouspensky realized that his time is about to end. He understands that his external work has fallen short of establishing a school and connecting with the ‘source’. In a move that surprises his students, he abandons the system and asks them what they want. For some, this causes great confusion and disorientation; for others, it opens doors into new realms of exploration. (Read more about the continuation of Ouspensky’s branch of work in Ouspensky Backstage)