Ouspensky’s Introduction – from “A New Model of the Universe”
by Michael Colantoni
THERE exist moments in life, separated by long intervals of time, but linked together by their inner content and by a certain singular sensation peculiar to them. Several such moments always recur to my mind together, and I feel then that it is these that have determined the chief trend of my life.
The year 1890 or 1891. An evening preparation class in the Second Moscow ” Gymnasium “.1 A large class-room lit by kerosene lamps with large shades. Yellow cupboards along the walls. Boarders in holland blouses, stained with ink, are bending over their desks. Some are immersed in their lessons, some are reading under their desks a forbidden novel by Dumas or Gaboriau, some are whispering to their neighbours. But outwardly they all look alike. At the master’s desk sits the master on duty, a tall lanky German, ” Giant Stride “, in his uniform—a blue tailcoat with gold buttons. Through an open door, another such preparation class is seen in the adjoining class-room.
I am a schoolboy in the second or third ” class “. But instead of Zeifert’s Latin grammar, entirely consisting of exceptions which I sometimes see in my dreams to this day, or Evtushevsky’s ” Problems “, with the peasant who went to town to sell hay, and the cistern to which three pipes lead, I have before me Malinin and Bourenin’s ” Physics “. I have borrowed this book from one of the older boys and am reading it greedily and enthusiastically, overcome now by rapture, now by terror, at the mysteries which are opening before me. All round me walls are crumbling, and horizons infinitely remote and incredibly beautiful stand revealed. It is as though threads, previously unknown and unsuspected, begin to reach out and bind things together. For the first time in my life my world emerges from chaos. Everything becomes connected, forming an orderly and harmonious whole. I understand, I link together, a series of phenomena which were disconnected and appeared to have nothing in common.
But what am I reading?
I am reading the chapter on levers. And all at once a multitude of simple things, which I knew as independent and having nothing in common, become connected and united into a great whole. A stick pushed under a stone, a penknife, a shovel, a seesaw, all these things are one and the same, they are all ” levers “. In this idea there is something both terrifying and alluring. How is it that I did not know it? Why has nobody spoken to me about it? Why am I made to learn a thousand useless things and am not told about this? All that I am discovering is so wonderful and so miraculous that I become more and more enraptured, and am gripped by a certain presentiment of further revelations awaiting me. It is as though I already feel the unity of all and am overcome with awe at the sensation.
I can no longer keep to myself all the emotions which thrill me. I want to try to share them with my neighbour at the desk, a great friend of mine with whom I often have breathless talks. In a whisper I begin to tell him of my discoveries. But I feel that my words do not convey anything to him and that I cannot express what I feel. My friend listens to me absent-mindedly, evidently not hearing half of what I say. I see this and feel hurt and want to stop talking to him. But the tall German at the master’s desk has already noticed that we are ” talking ” and that I am showing something to my friend under the desk. He hurries over to us and the next moment my beloved ” Physics ” is in his stupid and unsympathetic hands.
” Who gave you this book? You can understand nothing in it anyway. And I am sure you have not prepared your lessons.”
My ” Physics ” is on the master’s desk.
I hear round me ironical whispers and comments that Ouspensky reads physics. But I don’t care. I shall have the ” Physics ” again to-morrow; and the tall German is all made up of large and small levers !
Year after year passes by.
It is the year 1906 or 1907. The editorial office of the Moscow daily paper The Morning. I have just received the foreign papers, and I have to write an article on the forthcoming Hague Conference. French, German, English, Italian papers. Phrases, phrases, sympathetic, critical, ironical, blatant, pompous, lying and, worst of all, utterly automatic, phrases which have been used a thousand times and will be used again on entirely different, perhaps contradictory, occasions. I have to make a survey of all these words and opinions, pretending to take them seriously, and then, just as seriously, to write something on my own account. But what can I say? It is all so tedious. Diplomats and all kinds of statesmen will gather together and talk, papers will approve or disapprove, sympathise or not sympathise. Then everything will be as it was, or even worse.
It is still early, I say to myself; perhaps something will come into my head later.
Pushing aside the papers I open a drawer in my desk. The whole desk is crammed with books with strange titles, The Occult World, Life after Death, Atlantis and Lemuria, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, Le Temple de Satan, The Sincere Narrations of a Pilgrim, and the like. These books and I have been inseparable for a whole month, and the world of Hague Conferences and leading articles becomes more and more vague, foreign and unreal to me.
I open one of the books at random, feeling that my article will not be written to-day. Well, it can go to the devil ! Humanity will lose nothing if there is one article the less on the Hague Conference.
All these talks about a universal peace are only Maniloff’s dreams about building a bridge across the pond.1 Nothing can ever come out of it, first of all because the people who start conferences and those who are going to debate on peace will sooner or later start a war. Wars do not. begin by themselves, neither do ” peoples ” begin them, however much they are accused of it. It is just those men with their good intentions who are the obstacle to peace. But is it possible to expect that they will ever understand this? Has anybody ever understood his own worthlessness?
A great many wicked thoughts occur to me about the Hague Conference, but I realise that none of them are printable. The idea of the Hague Conference comes from very high sources; therefore if one is to write about it at all, one must write sympathetically, especially as even those of our papers which are generally the most suspicious and critical of all that comes from the government disapprove only of the attitude of Germany to the conference. The editor would therefore never pass what I might write, if I said all that I think. And if by some miracle he were to pass it, it would never be read by anybody. The paper would be seized in the streets by the police, and both the editor and I would have to make a very long journey. This prospect does not appeal to me in the least. What is the use of attempting to expose lies when people like them and live in them? It is their own affair; but I am tired of lying. There are enough lies without mine.
But here, in these books, there is a strange flavour of truth. I feel it particularly strongly now, because for so long I have held myself in, have kept myself within artificial ” materialistic ” bounds, have denied myself all dreams about things that could not be held within these bounds. I had been living in a desiccated and sterilised world, with an infinite number of taboos imposed on my thought. And suddenly these strange books broke down all the walls round me, and made me think and dream about things of which for a long time I had feared to think and dream. Suddenly I began to find a strange meaning in old fairy tales; woods, rivers, mountains, became living beings; mysterious life filled the night; with new interests and new expectations, I began to dream again of distant travels; and I remembered many extraordinary things that I had heard about old monasteries. Ideas and feelings which had long since ceased to interest me suddenly began to assume significance and interest. A deep meaning and many subtle allegories appeared in what only yesterday seemed to be naïve popular fantasy or crude superstition. And the greatest mystery and the greatest miracle was that the thought became possible that death may not exist, that those who have gone might not have vanished altogether, but exist somewhere and somehow, and that perhaps I might see them again. I have become so accustomed to think ” scientifically ” that I am afraid even to imagine that there may be something else beyond the outer covering of life. I feel like a man condemned to death, whose companions have been hanged and who has already become reconciled to the thought that the same fate awaits him; and suddenly he hears that his companions are alive, that they have escaped and that there is hope also for him. And he fears to believe this, because it would be so terrible if it proved to be false, and nothing would remain but prison and the expectation of execution.
Yes, I know that all these books about ” life after death ” are very naive. But they lead somewhere; there is something behind them, something I had approached before; but it frightened me then, and I fled from it to the bare and arid desert of ” materialism “.
The ” Fourth Dimension ” !
This is the reality which I dimly felt long ago, but which escaped me then. Now I see my way; I see my work, and I see where it may lead.
The Hague Conference, the newspapers, it is all so far from me. Why is it that people do not understand that they are only shadows, only silhouettes, of themselves, and that the whole of life is only a shadow, only a silhouette, of some other life?
Years go by.
Books, books, books. I read, I find, I lose, I find again, again I lose. At last a certain whole becomes formed in my mind. I see the unbroken line of thought and knowledge which passes from century to century, from age to age, from country to country, from one race to another,. a line deeply hidden beneath layers of religions and philosophies which are, in fact, only distortions and perversions of the ideas belonging to the line. I see an extensive literature full of significance which was quite unknown to me until recently, but which, as now becomes quite clear to me, feeds the philosophy we know, although it is scarcely mentioned in the text-books on the history of philosophy. And I am amazed now that I did not know it before, that there are so few who have even. heard about it. Who knows, for instance, that an ordinary pack of playing-cards contains a profound and harmonious philosophical system? This is so entirely forgotten that it seems almost new.
I decide to write, to tell of all I have found. And at the same time I see that it is perfectly possible to make the ideas of this hidden thought agree with the data of exact knowledge, and I realise that the ” fourth dimension ” is the bridge that can be thrown across between the old and the new knowledge. And I see and find ideas of the fourth dimension in ancient symbolism, in the Tarot cards, in the images of Indian gods, in the branches of a tree, and in the lines of the human body.
I collect material, select quotations, prepare summaries, with the idea of showing the peculiar inner connection which I now see between methods of thinking that ordinarily appear separate and independent. But in the midst of this work, when everything is made ready, everything takes shape, I suddenly begin to feel a chill of doubt and weariness creeping over me. Well, one more book will be written, but even now, when I am only beginning to write it, I know how it will end. I know the limit beyond which it is impossible to go. The work stands still. I cannot make myself write about the limitless possibilities of knowledge when for myself I already see the limit. The old methods are no good; some other methods are necessary. People who think that something can be attained by their own efforts are as blind as those who are utterly ignorant of the possibilities of the new knowledge.
Work on the book is abandoned.
Months go by, and I become completely absorbed in strange experiments which carry me far beyond the limits of the known and possible.
Frightening and fascinating sensations. Everything becomes alive! There is nothing dead or inanimate. I feel the beating of the pulse of life. I ” see ” Infinity. Then everything vanishes. But each time I say to myself afterwards that this has been and, therefore, things exist that are different from the ordinary. But so little remains; I remember so vaguely what I have experienced; I can tell myself only an infinitesimal part of what has been. And I can control nothing, direct nothing. Sometimes this comes, sometimes it does not. Sometimes only horror comes, sometimes a blinding light. Sometimes a little remains in the memory, sometimes nothing at all. Sometimes much is understood, new horizons are disclosed, but only for a moment. And these moments are so short that I can never be certain whether I have seen anything or not. Light flares up and dies before I have time to tell myself what I have seen. And each day, each time, it becomes more and more difficult to kindle this light. It often seems that the first experiment gave me everything, that afterwards there has been nothing but a repetition of the same things in my consciousness, only a reflection. I know that this is not true and that each time I receive something new. But it is difficult to get rid of this thought. And it increases the sensation of helplessness that I feel in the face of the wall behind which I can look for a moment, but never long enough to account to myself for what I see. Further experiments only emphasise my powerlessness to get hold of the mystery. Thought does not grasp, does not convey, what is at times clearly felt. Thought is too slow, too short. There are no words and no forms to convey what one sees and knows in such moments. And it is impossible to fix these moments, to arrest them, to make them longer, more obedient to the will. There is no possibility of remembering what has been found and understood, and later repeating it to oneself. It disappears as dreams disappear. Perhaps it is nothing but a dream.
Yet at the same time this is not so. I know it is not a dream. In these experiments and experiences there is a taste of reality which cannot be imitated and about which one cannot make a mistake. I know that all this is there. I have become convinced of it. Unity exists. And I know already that it is infinite, orderly, animated and conscious. But how to link ” what is above ” with ” what is below “?
I feel that a method is necessary. There is something which one must know before starting on experiments. And more and more often I begin to think that this method can be given only by those Eastern schools of Yogis and Sufis about which one reads and hears, if such schools exist and if they can be penetrated. My thought concentrates on this. The question of school and of a method acquires for me a predominant significance, though it is still not clear and is connected with too many fantasies and ideas based on very doubtful
theories. But one thing I see clearly, that alone, by myself, I can do nothing. And I decide to start on a long journey with the idea of searching for those schools or for the people who may show me the way to them.
* * *
My way lay to the East. My previous journeys had convinced me that there still remained much in the East that had long ceased to exist in Europe. At the same time I was not at all sure that I should find precisely what I wanted to find. And above all I could not say with certainty what exactly I should search for. The question of ” schools ” (I am speaking, of course, of ” esoteric ” or ” occult” schools) still contained much that was not clear. I did not doubt that schools existed. But I could not say whether it was necessary to assume the physical existence of such schools on earth. Sometimes it seemed to me that true schools could only exist on another plane and that we could approach them only when in special states of consciousness, without actual change of place or conditions. In that case, my journey became purposeless. Yet it seemed to me that there might be traditional methods of approach to esotericism still preserved in the East.
The question of schools coincided with the question of esoteric succession. Sometimes it seemed to me possible to admit an uninterrupted historical succession. At other times it seemed to me that only ” mystical” succession was possible, that is, that the line of succession on earth breaks, goes out of our field of vision. There remain only traces of it: works of art, literary memorials, myths, religions. Then, perhaps only after a long interval of time, the same causes which once created esoteric thought begin to work once more, and once more there begins the process of collecting knowledge, schools are created and the ancient teaching emerges from its hidden form. This would mean that during the intermediary period there could be no full or rightly organised schools, but only imitation schools or schools that preserve the letter of the old law petrified in fixed forms.
However, this did not deter me. I was ready to accept whatever the facts which I hoped to find should show me.
There was yet another question which occupied me before my journey and during the first part of it.
Should one and can one try to do something here and now with an obviously insufficient knowledge of methods, ways and possible results?
In asking this I had in mind various methods of breathing, dieting, fasting, exercises of the attention and imagination and, above all, of overcoming oneself at moments of passivity or lassitude.
In answering this question voices in me were divided:
“It does not matter what one does, only one has to do something,” said one voice; ” but one should not sit and wait for something to come to one of itself.”
” The whole point is precisely to do nothing,” said another voice, ” until one knows surely and definitely what should be done to attain a definite aim. If one begins to do something without knowing exactly what is necessary for what object, this knowledge will never come. The result will be the ‘work on oneself’ of various ‘ occult’ and ‘theosophical’ books, that is, make-believe.”
And listening to these two voices within me I was unable to decide which of them was right.
Ought I to try or ought I to wait? I understood that in many cases it was useless to try. How can one try to paint a picture? How can one try to read Chinese? One must first study and know, that is, be able to do it. At the same time I realised that in these last arguments there was much desire to evade difficulties or at least to postpone them. However, the fear of amateurish attempts at ” work on oneself ” outweighed the rest. I said to myself that in the direction I wanted to go it was impossible to go blindly, that one must see or know where one was going. Besides, I did not even wish for any changes in myself. I was going in search of something. If in the midst of this process of search I myself began to change, I should perhaps be satisfied with something quite different from what I wanted to search for. It seemed to me then that this is precisely what often happens to people on the road of ” occult ” search. They begin to try various methods on themselves and put so much expectation, so much labour and effort, into these attempts that in the end they take the subjective results of their efforts for the results of their search. I wanted to avoid this at all costs.
But a quite different and almost unexpected aim to my journey began to outline itself from the very first months of my travels.
In almost every place I came to, and even during the journey, I met people who were interested in the same ideas that interested me, who spoke the same language as I spoke, people between whom and
myself there was instantly set up an entirely distinctive understanding. How far this special understanding would lead, of course I was unable to say at that time, but in the conditions and with the material of ideas I then possessed, even such understanding seemed almost miraculous. Some of these people knew one another, others did not. And I felt that I was establishing a link between them, that I was, as it were, stretching out a thread which, according to the original plan of my journey, should go round the world. There was something which drew me and which was full of significance in these encounters. To every new man I met I spoke of others I had met earlier, and sometimes I knew beforehand people I was to meet later.
St. Petersburg, London, Paris, Genoa, Cairo, Colombo, Galle, Madras, Benares, Calcutta, were connected by invisible threads of common hopes and common expectation. And the more people I met, the more this side of my journey took hold of me. It was as though there grew out of it some secret society, having no name, no form, no conventional laws, but closely connected by community of ideas and language. I often thought of what I myself had written in Tertium Organum about people of a ” new race “. And it seemed to me that I had not been far from the. truth, and that there is actually carried on the process of the formation, if not of a new race, at least of some new category of men, for whom there exist different values than for other people.
In connection with these thoughts I again came to the necessity of putting in order and arranging systematically that which among the whole of our knowledge leads to ” new facts “. And I decided that after my return I would resume the abandoned work on my book, but with new aims and with new intentions.
At the same time I began to make certain connections in India and in Ceylon, and it seemed to me that in a short time I should be able to say that I had found concrete facts.
But there came one brilliant sunny morning when, on my way back from India, I stood on the deck of the steamer going from Madras to Colombo and rounding Ceylon from the south. This was the third time I had approached Ceylon, during this period, on every occasion from a different direction. The flat shore with blue hills in the distance revealed simultaneously what could never be seen when one was there on the spot. Through my glasses I could see the toy railway going south and all at once several toy stations, which appeared to be almost side by side. I even knew their names: Kollu-pitiya, Bambalapitiya, Wellawatta, and others.
The approach to Colombo stirred me. I was to know there:
first, whether I should again find the man I had met before my last trip to India and whether he would repeat the proposal he had made me regarding my meeting certain Yogis, and secondly where I should go next: should it be back to Russia, or further on to Burma, Siam, Japan and America.
But I was not expecting what actually met me.
The first word I heard on landing was: war.
There began then strange muddled days. Everything was thrown into confusion. But I already felt that my search in one sense was ended, and I understood then why I had all the time felt that it was necessary to hurry. A new cycle was beginning. And it was as yet impossible to say what it would be like and to what it would lead. One thing only was clear from the first, that what was possible yesterday became impossible to-day. All the mud was rising from the bottom of life. All the cards became mixed. All the threads were broken.
There remained only what I had established for myself. Nobody could take that from me. And I felt that it alone could lead me further.
1″ Gymnasiums ” were government ” classical ” schools containing eight classes, i.e., forms, for boys from ten to eighteen.
1 Maniloff, a sentimental landowner in Gogol’s Dead Souls.