Peter Ouspensky

Peter Ouspensky

20th Century Mathematician & Philosopher

Peter Ouspensky

20th Century Mathematician & Philosopher

Introducing Peter Ouspensky

Piotr Demianovich Ouspensky (March 4, 1878–October 2, 1947) was a Russian philosopher who rejected the science and psychology of his time under the strong suspicion that there had to exist superior systems of thought. In his youth, he studied mysticism and esotericism and traveled extensively in search of ancient wisdom, sensing that past ages knew more than his present one. “I felt that there was a dead wall everywhere,” he commented in one of his early biographical notes. “I used to say at that time that professors were killing science in the same way as priests were killing religion.”

When Ouspensky met George Gurdjieff and was introduced to the Fourth Way in 1915, he realized that the barrier towards knowledge lay in oneself; one couldn’t find the truth without simultaneously laboring to live the truth. Real knowledge could only come with sufficient preparation for receiving it. Ouspensky spent the rest of his life laboring to make the Fourth Way principles his own and to share them with like-minded people. In so doing, he became an agent of truth for his age, carrying the wisdom of the pre-World War era into the middle of the twentieth century.

Ouspensky’s Early Years

Ouspensky was born in Moscow in 1878 in a middle class household that was fond of the arts. In his autobiographical accounts he describes himself as atypical, a disinterest in behaving like other children, and an early inclination towards more mature topics like the natural sciences. His lucid memory of these very early years extended to even before the age of two:

Peter Ouspensky

Peter Ouspensky

[MAURICE NICOLL] But I am sure that you remember your life far better than I remember mine, and that your life has had more meaning.

[OUSPENSKY] Yes, but not quite in the way you mean. I have noticed how much you have forgotten. In my case, as a child I did not play with toys. I was less under imagination. I saw what life was like at a very early stage. i

Maurice Nicoll

Maurice Nicoll

These precocious qualities appear to have crystallized in his youth both a steadfast dissatisfaction with the schooling system and, later in his adolescence, an unwavering sense of disapproval towards the academic and scientific establishment. The impulse to take personal ownership of his studies began to be apparent as early as the age six, with Ouspensky choosing to be self-taught in the sciences instead of pursuing formal education, with a particular fascination with the theory of the fourth dimension.

Behind this impulse, however, lay the more indelible mark left on his psyche in repeated experiences of déjà vu between Ouspensky and his younger sister, then five and three years of age, in which he recounts how they were able to remember small events before them having yet occurred.

[OUSPENSKY] How can you speak to mother, grandmother, about former lives even when you learn to talk? They will lock you up. I remembered very well. I was very lonely. I had to wait for sister to be born and then to learn to speak, three, four years perhaps, before I had someone to talk to.

Then it used to happen often like this: she used to look out of window and tell me about people she saw. There was very good combination in our street, policeman first, then postman, like that. She used to know who would come round corner because she remembered.

She would say (only we used our own baby language), “Now there will be policeman.” I say, “And now will come tax collector,” and he came. When we did this often I said to her, “Shall we tell mother, grandmother?” And little sister would say, “What use to tell mother, grandmother? They don’t know, they don’t understand anything.” Just think, I was five, she was three. ii

Peter Ouspensky in Childhood

Ouspensky in Childhood

These experiences undoubtedly contributed to the very early conviction in the young Ouspensky of the existence of a veiled reality behind which stood a much different world with radically different meanings towards life than what was ordinarily understood by the adults around him. It was the inherent seed in him that expressed itself in later years of studies and personal development, and never in fact ceased.

[OUSPENSKY] I discovered the idea of ​​esotericism, found a possible angle for the study of religion and mysticism, and received a new impetus for the study of “higher dimensions”. iii

Ouspensky’s acclaim reached new heights with the publication of Tertium Organum, hailed as a masterpiece in addressing the problem of higher dimensions, and established the now 34 year old as a preeminent philosopher. However, these worldly achievements always appeared to be of secondary interest to him, as the deeper yearning ingrained in his character since childhood made it impossible to settle for the commonplace. Throughout his life, Ouspensky would constantly insist on reaching for nothing short of direct access to the miraculous.

Ouspensky 1912

Ouspensky in 1912

Ouspensky’s literary success did not blind him to the fact that experiencing higher dimensions was altogether superior to writing a bestseller on them. He resolved to seek out the miraculous in actual practice, by coming in direct contact with schools that possessed knowledge and practical methods. And so his search continued.

[OUSPENSKY] When I went away 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. This I understood; but the idea of schools itself changed very much during my travels and in one way became simpler and more concrete and in another way became more cold and distant. I want to say that schools lost much of their fairy-tale character. iv

Meeting Gurdjieff

From 1913 to 1914, Ouspensky traveled in search of a school, the majority of this time devoted to India, and while he was successful in obtaining a better understanding of the types of schools that existed, he remained no closer to discovering one suitable to his search. He had planned to continue his search in  the Middle East when the trip was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War, requiring him to return home.

Soon after his return to a politically-turbulent Russia, Ouspensky organized lectures to share what he had discovered in India with the aim of gathering like-minded people who were interested in his spiritual pursuits. At one such lecture, held in Moscow, he was approached by two of Gurdjieff’s pupils, who informed him of a group engaged in occult investigations and experiments. They invited him to meet their teacher. While Ouspensky had a poor first impression about the prospect and responded with disinterest, he agreed to the meeting after some insistence by one of the pupils.

Peter Ouspensky

Gurdjieff (1908-1910?)

[OUSPENSKY] In the spring of 1915 I met in Moscow a strange man who had a kind of philosophical school. This was George I. Gurdjieff. He and his ideas produced a very great impression on me. Very soon I realized that he had found many things for which I had been looking in India. I realized that I had met with a completely new system of thought surpassing all I knew before. This system threw quite a new light on psychology and explained what I could not understand before in esoteric ideas and ‘school principles’. iii

[OUSPENSKY] In his explanations I felt the assurance of a specialist, a very fine analysis of facts, and a system which I could not grasp, but the presence of which I already felt because Gurdjieff’s explanations made me think not only of the facts under discussion, but also of many other things I had observed or conjectured. iv

[OUSPENSKY] I saw without hesitation that in the domain [psychology] which I knew better than any other and in which I was really able to distinguish the old from the new, the known from the unknown, Gurdjieff knew more than all European science taken as a whole. v


Maurice Nicoll

Gurdjieff and Ouspensky Circa 1915

Ouspensky immediately recognized in Gurdjieff the quality of teacher and school that had eluded him throughout all his personal study and seeking abroad. He soon helped form the early St. Petersburg group that Gurdjieff would regularly travel to from Moscow, and became a member of Gurdjieff’s inner circle for several years, playing a key role in establishing the school from the Russian Revolution up until the formation of the institute at Fontainebleau.

Ouspensky’s recollection of this period has been meticulously documented in his book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, published posthumously, and widely held to serve as a masterful introduction to the teachings of Gurdjieff.

Meeting the Miraculous

Ouspensky’s life is forever altered in the summer of 1916 when he finds himself immersed in a week of miracles. Among a small group of Gurdjieff’s closest pupils in a country house in Finland, his inner work intensifies to an inflection point. The combination of personal and group exercises cultivates in him a heightened state of emotional tension, leading up to the shock of engaging in telepathic conversations with Gurdjieff.

[OUSPENSKY] It all started with my beginning to hear his thoughts. We were sitting in a small room with a carpetless wooden floor as it happens in country houses. I sat opposite G., and Dr. S. and Z. at either side. G. spoke of our “features,” of our inability to see or to speak the truth. His words perturbed me very much. And suddenly I noticed that among the words which he was saying to us all there were “thoughts” which were intended for me. I caught one of these thoughts and replied to it, speaking aloud in the ordinary way. G. nodded to me and stopped speaking. There was a fairly long pause. He sat still saying nothing. After a while I heard his voice inside me as it were in the chest near the heart. He put a definite question to me. I looked at him; he was sitting and smiling. His question provoked in me a very strong emotion. But I answered him in the affirmative.iv

It dawns on Ouspensky that this state of unusual tension is the key to all higher perception, and that higher phenomena is impossible to investigate without this strange emotion as the precondition. The subjective yet extraordinary discovery is the answer to his search for the miraculous, contextualizing Gurdjieff’s teaching up until this point as having prepared the ground for it.

[OUSPENSKY] There is something in phenomena of a higher order which requires a particular emotional state for their observation and study. And this excludes any possibility of “properly conducted” laboratory experiments and observations.iv

[OUSPENSKY] This state, which is emotional, is exactly what we do not understand, that is, we do not understand that it is indispensable and that facts are not possible without it.iv

[OUSPENSKY] It is necessary to create a certain particular energy or point (using it in the ordinary sense), and that can be created only at a moment of very serious emotional stress. All the work before that is only preparation of the

The miracles do not end in Finland but continue for weeks afterwards, in which Ouspensky encounters “sleeping people” traveling past him on the street, a higher perception that he observes lasts as long as he himself does not fall asleep. While these facts of a higher order are of immeasurable value to him, the unusual tension that accompanies the experience is constant and often challenging to endure.

[OUSPENSKY] How can this be got rid of? I cannot bear it any more.

[GURDJIEFF] Do you want to go to sleep?

[OUSPENSKY] Certainly not.

[GURDJIEFF] Then what are you asking about? This is what you wanted, make use of it. You are not asleep at this moment! iv

To be continued…


  1. Psychological Commentaries by Maurice Nicoll
  2. Conversation of Ouspensky with Gerald Palmer (1946)
  3. Autobiographical Note
  4. In Search of the Miraculous by Peter Deminaovich Ouspensky
  5. P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University
  6. A Further Record by Peter Deminaovich Ouspensky
In 2022/3, BePeriod will be creating a full-length documentary on George Gurdjieff
George Gurdjieff
Part I:
Gurdjieff on the Three Brains
Part II:
Gurdjieff on the Three Brains
Part III:
Gurdjieff on the Three Brains
Part IV:
Esotericism shown in a Tibetan Mandala
Part V:
Fourth Way