Ouspensky placed consciousness at the hub of his teaching. He claimed that nature brings man only as far as the threshold of consciousness, a point, beyond which, he can pass only by careful and intelligent effort. Further he says that the two unnatural, yet attainable, states of consciousness – self-consciousness and objective consciousness – are so rare and infrequent in man, that for all practical purposes, they are nonexistent.
Ouspensky on Measuring Consciousness
Ouspensky stressed that consciousness had degrees, and that its actualization in man happens gradually. The three criteria by which consciousness grows–frequency, duration and depth–bear a sequential relation. Only with sufficient frequency is duration realizable, and only with sufficient duration does depth become a practical possibility. Frequency, duration and depth, therefore, are the natural measures of consciousness in man.
This threefold measure is a contemporary expression of the ancient analogy of a spark, a flame and a fire. Esoteric Christianity used these three stages of light to express the very same aspects of consciousness or inner light
They tied it to the conception, birth and maturation of God the Son. Mary’s conception is the spark; the birth of Jesus is the flame; and the maturation of Jesus that leads to his passion and crucifixion are the fire. Esoterically, the Gospels portray in myth form, the evolution of consciousness in man.
Frequency of Consciousness – The Spark
A spark is the smallest and briefest manifestation of fire. It flashes momentarily and disappears. By itself, a spark hardly provides sufficient illumination. It is primarily valued for its potential to promote combustion. A chain of sparks increases the likelihood that one of them may fall upon a source of fuel and transform into a durable flame.
Consciousness appears and disappears in the same way, illuminating our inner landscape for a blink-of-an-eye before departing and leaving us in darkness. Sparks of consciousness in untrained man are weak. They are so brief and infrequent, that they may easily be overlooked and underrated.
A higher frequency of sparks-of-consciousness, however, will transform our experience of ourselves by drawing us closer to self-consciousness. Therefore, the first variable in gauging consciousness is frequency of sparks.
In Esoteric Christianity, the Annunciation, in which Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary heralding her conception by God, is such a spark. Mary represents the fuel ready to receive the spark of the Holy Ghost and combust it into a durable flame.
Duration of Consciousness – The Flame
A flame infinitely exceeds a spark in strength and duration. Although vulnerable, it will not disappear momentarily, unless some external force extinguishes it. A flame burns long enough for prolonged observation, and although it is too weak to illuminate an entire room, it can be transported so as to provide light enough to see various parts of the room and it’s contents.
But a flame can only issue from a spark. With the increase of frequency comes the practical possibility that some sparks may combust. They may merge into small flames which gain their own momentum, unlike the spark that predictably disappears. Therefore, increase in frequency opens the door to realizing the second variable of consciousness: duration.
To convey Mary’s success in receiving the spark of consciousness, Flemish painters of the Nativity (the birth of Jesus) often showed Joseph holding a candle and guarding its flame. Esoterically, the infant Jesus represents the result of a spark (Holy Ghost) that has landed on fuel (the Virgin Mary).
Depth of Consciousness – The Fire
Just as the nature of a flame exceeds that of a spark, so likewise, the attributes of fire exceed those of a flame. A fire is almost invulnerable and is not extinguished by accident. A blazing fire is secure, and whatever is thrown onto it only augments its force. The fire entirely illuminates the dark, just as a fireplace brightens and warms a living room.
First the flame, then the fire. In the same way, depth of consciousness only becomes practically realizable with prolonged duration. And just as fire hardly has a limit to how strong it may grow, so is there no limit to depth of consciousness, which, as Ouspensky observed, “can vary very much with the growth of man.” There is no end to how much deeper we can see, how much more we can perceive, about ourselves and the world around us.
Esoteric Christianity expresses depth of consciousness in the fiery passion of Christ, prefigured in our Flemish painting as wood-fire in the background. Through the symbolic journey of Jesus – beginning with his conception and ending with his crucifixion – the spark has transformed into a fire and consumed the darkness that characterizes sleep.
Ouspensky on the Significance of Consciousness
Esoterically, the miracle of the Gospels conveys the enlightenment of man: they portray the gradual emergence of inner light via the same threefold sequence that Ouspensky outlined. No wonder, then, that Ouspensky placed self-consciousness at the hub of his system, claiming all the other ideas were supportive spokes. It is the light of consciousness that actualizes all other ideas of the Fourth Way. But to value consciousness already requires a certain amount of self-awareness, and herein lies the great test of awakening. “People often ask: what does one gain by becoming conscious?” said Ouspensky to his students. “This is because they do not know what the result of consciousness is. When we are conscious we become connected with higher centers and then the whole picture changes.”