Lecture 10 — Studying Oneself

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

Study of Consciousness
Study of Functions
'Remembering' Oneself
Location of Centres

Return to:


See also:

Wrong Functions
Consciousness, Laws, and Influences
The Planes of Correspondence

Study of Consciousness

In this system, which studies man as an incomplete being, particular stress is laid on self-study, and in this sense the idea of self-study is necessarily connected with the idea of improvement. As we are we can use very little of our powers, but study develops them. Self-study begins with the study of states of consciousness. Man has the right to be self-conscious, even as he is, without any change. Objective consciousness requires many changes in him, but self-consciousness he can have now. Yet he has not got it, although he thinks he has.

How has this illusion started? Why does man ascribe self-consciousness to himself? He ascribes it to himself because it is his legitimate state. If he is not self-conscious, he lives below his legitimate level and uses only one tenth of his powers. But as long as he ascribes to himself what is only a possibility, he will not work for the attainment of this state.

Next the question arises: Why does man not possess self-consciousness if he has all the necessary arrangement and organs for it? The reason for this is his sleep. It is not easy to awaken, for there are many causes of sleep. The question is often asked: Do all people possess the possibility of awakening? No, not all: very few are capable of realising they are asleep and of making the efforts necessary to awaken. First, a man must understand his situation; second, he must have enough energy and a sufficiently strong desire to be able to get out of prison.

In all this strange combination that is man, the one thing that can be changed is consciousness. But first he must realise that he is a machine, so as to be able to tighten some screws, loosen others, and so on. He must study: that is where the possibility of change begins. When he realises that he is a machine, and when he knows something about his machine, he will see that his machine can work in many different conditions of consciousness and so will try to give it better conditions.

We are told in this system that man has the possibility of living in four states of consciousness but that, as he is, he lives only in two. We also know that our functions are divided into four categories. So we study four categories of functions in two states of consciousness. At the same time we realise that glimpses of self-consciousness happen, and that what prevents us from having more of these glimpses is the fact that we do not remember ourselves — that we are asleep.

The first thing necessary in a serious study of oneself is to understand that consciousness has degrees. You must remember that you do not pass from one state of consciousness to another, but that they are added to one another. This means that if you begin in the state of sleep, then when you awaken the state of relative consciousness or 'waking sleep' is added to the state of sleep. If you become self-conscious, this is added to the state of 'waking sleep'; and if you acquire the state of objective consciousness, this is added to the state of self-consciousness.

There are no sharp transitions from one state to another state. Each state consists of different layers. As in sleep we can be more asleep or less asleep, so in the state in which we are now, we can be nearer to self-consciousness or further from it.

Study of Functions

The second thing necessary in a serious study of oneself is the study of functions by observing them, learning to distinguish between them in the right way, learning to recognise each one separately. Their differences must be clearly understood, remembering that they are controlled by different centres or minds. It is very useful to think about our different functions and centres and realise that they are quite independent of one another. We always try to reduce everything to one mind and do not realise that there are four independent minds in us. So we must notice not only that instinctive centre can exist quite apart from the other centres but also that moving and emotional centres can exist without the intellectual.

We can imagine four people living in us. The one we call instinctive is a physical man. The moving man is also a physical man, but with different inclinations. Then there is the sentimental or emotional man, and the theoretical or intellectual man. If we look at ourselves from this point of view, it is easier to see where we make the chief mistake about ourselves because we take ourselves as one, and always the same.

We have no means of seeing centres, but we can observe functions, and the more you observe, the more material you will have. This division of functions is very important because control of any of our faculties can be obtained only with the help of knowledge. Each function can be controlled only if we know the peculiarities and speed of each.

Observation of functions must be connected with the study of states of consciousness and degrees of consciousness. It must be clearly understood that consciousness and functions are different things. To move, to think, to feel, to have sensations — these are functions; they can work quite independently of whether we are conscious or not; in other words they can work mechanically. To be conscious is something quite different. But if we are more conscious, it immediately increases the sharpness of our functions.

Functions can be compared to machines working in various degrees of light. These machines are such that they are able to work better in light than in darkness; every moment there is more light the machines work better. Consciousness is light and machines are functions.

Observation of functions requires long work. It is necessary to find many examples of each. In studying them we shall unavoidably see that our machine does not work rightly; some functions are all right while others are undesirable from the point of view of our aim. For we must have an aim, otherwise no study will give any results. If we realise we are asleep, the aim is to awaken; if we realise we are machines, the aim is to cease being machines. If we want to be more conscious, we must study what prevents us from remembering ourselves. So we have to introduce a certain valuation of functions from the point of view of whether they are useful or harmful for self-remembering.

Thus there are two lines of study: study of the functions of our centres; and study of unnecessary or harmful functions.

One can find many things by self-observation alone and it can prepare the ground for further study, but it is not sufficient by itself. By self-observation one cannot establish the most important divisions in oneself, divisions both horizontal and vertical, for there are many different divisions. Neither can one know the different states of consciousness and separate one's functions. One must know the chief divisions, otherwise one will make mistakes and will not know what one observes.

Man is a very complicated machine. He is not really one machine but a big factory containing many different machines all working at different speeds, with different fuels, in different conditions. So it is not only a question of observation but a question of knowledge. Man cannot get this knowledge from himself, for nature did not make this knowledge instinctive: it has to be acquired by the mind. Man can know instinctively what is sour or sweet and similar things, but instinctive knowledge ends there. So Man must learn, and he must learn from somebody who has learned before him.

If you make a serious effort to observe functions for yourself, you will realise that ordinarily, whatever you do, whatever you think, whatever you feel, you do not remember yourself. You do not realise that you are present, that you are here. At the same time you will find that, if you make sufficient efforts for a sufficiently long time, you can increase your capacity for self-remembering. You will begin to remember yourself more often, you will begin to remember yourself more deeply, you will begin to remember yourself in connection with more ideas — the idea of consciousness, the idea of work, the idea of centres, the idea of self-study.

'Remembering' Oneself

But the question is: How to remember oneself, how to make oneself more aware? The first step is to realise that we are not conscious. When we realise this and observe it for some time, we must try to catch ourselves at moments when we are not conscious and, little by little, this will make us more conscious. This effort will show how little conscious we are, because in ordinary conditions of life it is very difficult to be conscious.

Here you put yourself in artificial conditions, you think about yourself: 'I am sitting here' or 'I am myself' — and even then you cannot do it much. But in ordinary conditions, when you are thinking about something or talking or working, everything distracts you and you cannot remember yourself. This expression 'remembering oneself' is used intentionally, for in ordinary conversation we often say 'he forgot himself', or, 'he remembered himself in time'. We normally use these expressions only in relation to extreme negative emotions; but in actual fact we always forget ourselves, and with the exception of very rare moments we never remember ourselves in time.

Self-remembering is the centre of the initial process, and it has to go on; it must enter into everything. At first this sounds improbable, because you may try to remember yourself, and then you find that for long periods of time it does not come into your mind; then again you begin to remember about it. But efforts of this kind are never lost; something accumulates, and at a certain moment when in the ordinary state you would have been completely identified and submerged in things, you find that you can stand aside and control yourself. You never know when it will be or how it comes. You must do only what you can — observe yourself, study, and try to remember yourself; then, at a certain moment, you will see results.

Self-remembering is not really connected with memory; it is simply an expression. It means self-awareness, or self-consciousness. One must be conscious of oneself. It begins with the mental process of trying to remember oneself. This capacity to remember oneself must be developed, because in self-observation we must try to study our functions separately from one another — the intellectual function separately from the emotional, the instinctive separately from the moving. This is very important but not easy.

At certain moments of the day we must try to see in ourselves what we think, how we feel, how we move, and so on. At one time you can concentrate on the intellectual function, at another time on the emotional, then on the instinctive or the moving. For instance, try to find out what you are thinking about, why you think, and how you think about it. Try to observe physical sensations such as warmth, cold, what you see, what you hear. Then, every time you make a movement you can see how you move, how you sit, how you walk, and so on. It is not easy to separate instinctive functions, because in ordinary psychology they are mixed with the emotional; it takes time to put them in their right place.

Mechanical changes such as eating different things or going to bed at a different time each night may be useful in the very beginning of self-study. They may help you to see something you would not have seen otherwise but, by themselves, they cannot produce any change. Change must begin from inside, from change of consciousness, from the moment you realise the possibility of self-remembering and that it is really important. Only it often happens that people start well and then lose the line of efforts.

Without work on consciousness, all the sides of us that could be conscious will become more and more mechanical. Only very uniform work without any variations is totally mechanical. If work is a little more complicated, then the more mechanical it is the worse it is. In no work is mechanicalness useful: one has to adapt, to change methods, in order to produce better work, and for that one has to be aware of what one is doing. Being efficient in physical work does not mean mechanicalness. Training does not make us more mechanical. Being an expert means being more intelligent about one's work.


The moving and instinctive centres are normally more stable and reliable than the intellectual and emotional. If it were not so, a man might soon poison or injure himself. Other centres can go mad without immediate harm.

In order to understand man's mechanicalness, it is very useful to learn to think about him as a machine, to study the functions of this machine, and to understand the chief divisions of functions not only in general, not merely in theory, but to study them in their activity, to learn how they work. The division into four functions is only a preliminary division, because each of them is again subdivided. All this has to be studied and understood by observation, because theoretical study does not give the same result, does not lead to the same conclusions, does not show the same truth.

For instance, very few systems recognise the existence of the instinctive centre or instinctive mind, and no system I have heard of recognises the existence of an independent moving mind. Yet moving mind plays a very important part in our life, so the absence of this division spoils the results of ordinary observation of Man, particularly in modern psychology for, since this fact is not recognised, many things are ascribed to a wrong origin. Moving centre is very important to study and observe, because it has other functions besides movement in space — such, for instance, as imitation, which is a very important function in Man 1. Besides, moving centre also controls dreams, and not only dreams at night but dreams in waking state — day-dreams. And since most of our life passes either in real dreams or in day-dreams, study of the moving function is most important. We think that the intellectual and emotional side is more important, but actually most of our life is controlled by instinctive and moving minds. So moving centre has many useful and many useless functions.

'Moving' and 'mechanical' are not the same. Moving centre means only the mind whose legitimate function is to control movements. Every centre may be mechanical; every function may be more or less mechanical, more conscious or less conscious. Certainly, there are some mechanical processes in us for which there is no need to become conscious, such as the physiological processes which are arranged and controlled by their own mind. But it is our actions as a whole, both in relation to ourselves and to other people, that can become harmful if they are left to themselves.

Talking is almost always mechanical. This is one of the first, and one of the most difficult, things to observe and struggle with. There may be very different talking: you can talk for the sake of talking, or you can make yourself talk, with effort. Talking can be awakening, and it can be sleep.

One way of helping yourself to observe is to put yourself in more difficult circumstances. For instance, if you assume an unaccustomed posture, you won't be able to stop observing. We do not ordinarily observe ourselves because life is too easy. If you are hungry, cold, tired, you will observe yourself. But with civilisation there are no strong physical sensations. We smoothe out all potentially uncomfortable things before they reach a degree that will make us observe.

Modern psychologists are not aware of the division of centres. It looks very simple, yet the fact that it is not known shows that the ordinary mind cannot discover it. If you take existing psychology, ordinary mind feels different things but cannot definitely say that this is one thing and that is another thing. This idea comes from schools, just as does the complete idea of the division of four states of consciousness. You can find this last idea in literature, but the description is quite different; so again it comes from schools and must be explained orally. There are things which can never be rightly described.

We can observe only with the intellect. That is the only part of us which is to a certain extent under our control, so we can use the mind for observation. Later, perhaps, we can train other centres to make observations, but that cannot come for a long time. Naturally, other centres must not be in the way. For instance, if you identify emotionally with something, it will prevent your observing; you want to think about one thing, but it will constantly bring you other thoughts, other associations. For a long time we have to work from the intellectual centre, but at the same time we must understand that we cannot go far with it because it has definite limits. It will bring us to a certain point after which we cannot go further unless we can use the emotional centre. But the emotional centre has to be trained first. We must learn not to express negative emotions, and only if we do that for a sufficiently long time can other things be explained.

It is very rarely that all centres work simultaneously on the same subject. All the four functions can and do operate simultaneously, but they can work on different things. An example of all four working simultaneously on the same subject would be artistic creation.

Owing to their working simultaneously, centres often get very mixed; yet it is possible to distinguish them. This is the beginning of self-observation and self-understanding: we have to understand the different functions and then begin to divide them.

Instinctive centre can control unruly organs and cells. We could not live for half an hour if instinctive centre did not work. It knows the right and wrong work of each organ. It always tries to make them work rightly. We think organs work by themselves — this is imagination. They are controlled by instinctive centre. This is 'instinct' in the real sense as related to man.

But we must begin with intellect because our intellectual centre is better developed, or more under its own control. The emotional centre is more irresponsible. So because we have more command of our intellectual centre we have to use it until either we become more conscious or we learn to use other functions more efficiently and control them better than we do now.

At present we have no control over instinctive and emotional functions, and only a little over the moving function. External influences move them. We cannot be glad or angry without cause, and a cause means something external. Later work must be on the emotional centre because the chief energy is in it. Intellectual centre is only auxiliary, but at present it is all we have.

Location of Centres

It does not matter where the centres are situated because each centre occupies the whole body. There is not a single cell in our body that is not influenced by all centres. This must not be taken too literally; for instance, you cannot say that intellect controls every cell, so there are limitations; but speaking generally, each centre controls the whole body in a different way. We cannot know the physical side by ordinary observation; but we can study functions, and that gives all the material that is necessary.