Lecture 13 — From Accident to School

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

Three Laws
Cause and Effect
Centre of Gravity
Need for School
Finding a School
Preparation for School
Three Ways
The Fourth Way
Change of Being
Levels of Being

Return to:


See also:

The Will
Distribution of Knowledge
Personality, Essence, and Magnetic Centre
Four Ways to Immortality


The life of man-machine, of man who cannot 'do', who has no will or choice, is controlled by accident. Things in ordinary life happen mechanically, accidentally; there is no reason in them. And just as man's external life is controlled by accidental external influences, so is his inner life also controlled by both internal and external influences which are equally accidental. You will understand this when you realise what is implied by the fact that man is asleep, that he cannot 'do', cannot remember himself. Think also of the constant unconscious flow of thoughts in man: of day-dreaming, of identifying, and of considering; of the mental conversations that go on in him; and of his constant deviation towards the line of least resistance. People think that accidents are rare, but in actual fact most things that happen to them are accidental.

Accident means a combination of circumstances which is not dependent on the will of the man himself, nor the will of another person, nor on the preceding actions of the man himself, nor on fate — as do, for instance, conditions of birth and upbringing. An accident happens when two separate lines of events cross one another.

Suppose a man stands under the awning of a house, sheltering from rain, and a tile falls from the roof, penetrates the awning, and hits him on the head. This would be an accident. There are two separate lines of cause and effect. Take the line of the man's movements and the fact that he happened to stop under the awning of that particular house; every small thing in it had a cause, but the tile did not enter into this line of cause and effect. Suppose the tile was negligently set and the rain made it loose, and at a certain moment it fell. There is nothing in the life of the man or in the life of the tile to connect them. The two lines of cause and effect met accidentally.

Nobody makes accidents.

Three Laws

Things in human life happen according to three laws:

  1. The law of accident, when an event happens without any discernible connection with the line of events we observe.
  2. The law of fate. Fate refers only to things with which man is born: parents, brothers, sisters, physical capacities, health, and things like that. It also refers to birth and death. Sometimes things can happen in our life under the law of fate — and at times they are very important things — but this is very rare.
  3. The law of will. Will has two meanings: our own will, or somebody else's will. We cannot speak of our own will since, as we are, we have none. As regards another person's will, for the purposes of classification, every intentional action of another person may be called the result of this person's will.

Cause and Effect

In studying human life it becomes clear that these definitions are not sufficient. It becomes necessary to introduce, between accident and fate, the law of cause and effect which controls a certain part of events in man's life. Then the difference between events controlled by accident in the strict sense of the word and events resulting from cause and effect becomes abundantly clear.

From this point of view we see a considerable difference between people in ordinary life. There are people in whose life the important events are the result of accident. There are other people in whose case the important events of their life are always the result of their previous actions, that is, dependent on cause and effect. Further observation shows that the first type of people, that is people depending on accident, never come near school work or, if they do, they leave very soon, for one accident can bring them and another can just as easily lead them away. Only those people come to the work whose life is controlled by the law of cause and effect, that is, who have liberated themselves to a considerable extent from the law of accident or who were never under this law.


Man-machine has no control. We must change to have control. Things happen all around us and we are affected by them. At every moment our life is intersected by other lines, so that accident controls most events. The action of one machine affects another machine. We are surrounded by possibilities of accident; if one does not happen, another does.

We must understand our situation. In Men 1, 2, and 3, there is no control; practically everything in their lives is controlled by accident. There are some things which are the results of their own actions, but they are all on the same level. Control begins on a different level, and it starts with ourselves: control of our reactions, states of consciousness, functions, and so on. Then, little by little, we may come to some measure of control in the sense of avoiding one influence and approaching another. It is a very slow process.


We begin to free ourselves from the law of accident when we develop will. To be completely free from the law of accident is very far, but there are various stages between complete freedom and our present position. In ordinary conditions, accident is opposed to plan. A man who in one or another case acts according to plan escapes in these actions from the law of accident. But actions conforming to plan are impossible in ordinary life except in conditions where the combination of accidental happenings chances to coincide with the plan.

The reasons why it is impossible to fulfil a plan in life are, first of all, the absence of unity and constancy in man himself, and the new lines which continually enter man's line of actions and cross it. This can be very easily verified if a man tries to follow a plan in anything that does not happen anyway or is opposed to the general trend of momentums operating in his life. For instance, if a man tries to remember himself, to struggle with habits, to observe himself, and so on, he will see that his plan is not being fulfilled. Either the result is quite different from what he intended, or everything stops altogether and even the initial impulse and the understanding of the necessity and usefulness of his attempts vanishes. But if he continues to study himself, to make efforts, to work, he will see that his relation to the law of accident gradually changes. Our being subject to the law of accident is a definite fact that cannot be changed completely. Such as we are, we will always be under a certain possibility of accident. Yet little by little we can make accidental happenings less possible.

Centre of Gravity

The theory of accidents is very simple. So when work and everything connected with it becomes in truth the centre of gravity of a man's life, he becomes practically free from the law of accident.

The idea of centre of gravity can be interpreted in many different ways. It is a more or less permanent aim and the realisation of the relative importance of things in connection with this aim. This means that certain interests become more important than anything else — one acquires a permanent direction; one does not go one day in one direction and another day in another; one goes in one direction and one knows what it is.

The stronger your centre of gravity, the more you are free from accident. When you change your direction every moment, then every moment something new may happen and every accident can turn you one way or another way. But if your intentional activity, such for instance as self-remembering, becomes so definite, so intense, and so continual as to leave no place for accidents, accidents will become much less likely to happen, because accidents need space and time. So we have to add more causes which will produce results and in this way simply exclude accident, because the more our time is occupied with conscious work, the less room will be left for accidental happenings.

Cause and effect in relation to the laws under which man lives means that events in your life result from your own actions; 'accident' means something happening to you without relation to your intentional action.

Accidents may be 'good' or 'bad'. But our aim is to get rid of accident; and after some time, if we work, we may become free of good and bad accidents.

Ask yourself whether it will be better for you. Try to understand how much we expect from good accidents and how difficult life would become if we had to 'do' everything and if nothing 'happened'.

Need for School

There are too many accidental things in ourselves and we can get rid of them only by creating a centre of gravity, a certain permanent weight — weight in the sense that it keeps us more stable. And for this we need a school.

Just being in a school does not by itself change anything with respect to accidents. One begins to get out from under the law of accident if one develops what we call a centre of gravity, which means that work on oneself becomes especially important — sufficiently important to occupy a big place in man's life. This creates a certain kind of balance and, little by little, dispenses with accident.

There are many difficulties. If you try to understand these difficulties you will see that without method and without help, one cannot move; one will remain what one is — or rather one will deteriorate, for nothing remains in the same state. If one does not develop, one degenerates. In life, in ordinary conditions, everything goes down, or one capacity may develop at the expense of another. All capacities cannot develop simultaneously without the help of school, for system and method are necessary.

But before speaking of why schools are necessary it must be realised for whom they are necessary, because schools are not at all necessary for the vast majority of people. They are necessary only for those who already realise the inadequacy of knowledge collected by the ordinary mind and who feel that, by themselves, with their own strength, they can neither resolve the problems which surround them nor find the right way. Only such people are capable of overcoming the difficulties connected with school work, and only for them are schools necessary.

In order to understand why schools are necessary, one must realise that the knowledge which comes from men of higher mind can be transmitted only to a very limited number of people simultaneously, and that it is necessary for such people to observe a whole series of definite conditions without which knowledge cannot be transmitted correctly.

The existence of these conditions and the impossibility of doing without them explains the necessity of an organisation. The transmission of knowledge demands efforts both on the part of him who receives it and on the part of him who gives it. The organisation facilitates these efforts or makes them possible. These conditions cannot come about by themselves. A school can be organised only according to a certain definite plan worked out and known long ago. There can be nothing arbitrary and improvised in schools. But schools can be of different types corresponding to different ways. I shall speak about different ways later.

These conditions are connected with the necessity of a simultaneous development of knowledge and being. As I said before, the development of one without a corresponding development of the other gives wrong results. Schools are necessary to avoid such one-sided development and the undesirable results connected with it.

The conditions of school teaching are such that from the very first steps, work progresses simultaneously along two lines: the line of knowledge and the line of being. From the first days at school a man begins to study mechanicalness and to struggle against mechanicalness in himself — against involuntary actions, against unnecessary talk, against imagination, against the expression of negative emotions, against day-dreaming, and against sleep. In making a step along the line of knowledge a man must make a step along the line of being. The principles of school work, all the demands made upon him, all help him to study his being and to work to change it.

Finding a School

Actually meeting a school that corresponds to one's type — for one may meet a school that does not correspond to one's type or one's development — is to a great extent a matter of luck, because man lives to such an extent under the law of accident and individual man is so small and insignificant. We think we are very important, but in reality we are not important at all. In order to become important we must become something first, for such as we are we are practically nothing.

But with the exception of very difficult circumstances when fate, accident, and cause and effect are all going against a man, if a man really seeks he can find. He will look for a school with the help of his magnetic centre; but if magnetic centre is not formed, he cannot start.

With the help of a school you can attain what you want; but first you must formulate what you want. A question was asked earlier about whether a school leads machines to what is good for them. If it is a real school, it will not lead machines anywhere, because machines have their own fate in the Universe and no one can do anything for them. But a school can help people who are tired of being machines; it can show them the way to cease to be machines and teach them how it can be done. That is all a school can do, but without a school it cannot be achieved.

Generally speaking, a school is a place where one can learn something. There can be schools of music, schools of medicine, and so on. But the kind of school I mean is not only for learning but also for becoming different. It was explained before that nobody can work alone, without a school. Also it must be clear by now that a group of people who decide to work by themselves will arrive nowhere, because they would not know where to go or what to do.

So we can say that a school is an organisation for the transmission to a certain number of prepared people of knowledge coming from higher mind. This is the most essential characteristic of a school.

Another very important fact is the selection of students. Only people of a certain preparation and a certain level of understanding are admitted to a real school. A school cannot be open to many.

Schools can be of very different levels depending on the preparation and the level of being of the students. The higher the level of the school, the greater the demands made upon the students. So from this point of view, schools are divided into degrees. There are schools where Men 1, 2, and 3 learn to become Man 4, and acquire all the knowledge that will help them in this change. The next degree are schools where Men 4 learn to become Men 5. There is no need for us to speak about further degrees, since they are too far from us. But even in schools of the lowest degree, the beginning of school work already means a certain preparation. One cannot pass straight from the absurdity of ordinary life to school. Even if a school does all that is possible to give a man something, if he is not prepared, if he does not know how to take it, it cannot be given.

A school does not necessarily contain people of higher consciousness, but it cannot be started without knowledge coming from men of a higher mind.

Preparation for School

It is first necessary to be ready for any level on which one can begin — not only from the point of view of knowledge but also from the point of view of being. One must realise one's situation, know what one cannot do by oneself, realise that one needs help, and many other things. It depends on what a person needs in a school. Nobody needs a school as such, but if one does need something, then one needs a school in order to get it. Being prepared means that one must know oneself to a certain extent; one must know one's aim; one must know the value of one's decision; there must be a certain elimination of lying to oneself; one must be able to be sincere with oneself.

Unfortunately C influence very often becomes B influence if people come to school unprepared. Later, perhaps after a long time, they may hear the same things that they heard when they first came and discover a new meaning in them. This then becomes C influence. There are many ideas which, if understood rightly, can become C influence.

Besides, one can only enter a school when one has already lost, or is prepared to lose, at least a certain amount of self-will. Self-will is the chief obstacle to entering a school, because a school means not only learning but also discipline. And some people may find discipline boring, or unnecessary.

Three Ways

Schools are not all the same. Thousands of years ago, people came to the idea that man can change, that he can acquire something he has not got. What he can acquire was expressed differently and approached from different angles, but the general idea was always the same — that man can develop, that he can acquire something new. So there were formed three ways corresponding to the division into Man 1, Man 2, and Man 3. [See Four Ways to Immortality. — Ed.]

The first way is the way of the Fakir. It is a long, difficult and uncertain way. A fakir works on the physical body, on conquering physical pain.

The second way is the way of the Monk. This way is shorter, more sure, and more definite. It requires certain conditions, but above all it requires faith, for if there is no faith a man cannot be a true monk.

The third way is the way of the Yogi, the way of knowledge and consciousness.

When we speak about the three ways, we speak about principles. In actual life they are seldom met with in pure form, for they are mostly mixed. But if you know the principle, when you study school practices you can separate which practice belongs to which way.

When we speak of yogis, we really take only Jnana-Yoga and Raja-Yoga. Jnana-Yoga is the yoga of knowledge, of a new way of thinking. It teaches one to think in different categories, not in categories of space and time and of causality. Raja-Yoga is work on being, on consciousness.

Although in many respects these ways are very efficient, the characteristic thing about them is that the first step is the most difficult. From the very first moment you have to give up everything and do what you are told. If you keep one little thing, you cannot follow any of these ways. So, although the three ways are good in many other respects, they are not sufficiently elastic. For instance, they do not suit our present mode of life. The Fakir is an exaggerated Man 1 with a heavy predominance of instinctive-moving centre. The Monk is an exaggerated Man 2 with the emotional centre developed and the others under-developed. The Yogi is an exaggerated Man 3 with the intellectual centre developed and the others not sufficiently developed. If only these three traditional ways existed, there would be nothing for us, for we are too over-educated for these ways.

The Fourth Way

But there is a Fourth Way which is a special way, not a combination of the other three. It is different from others first of all in that there is no external giving up of things — for all the work is inner. A man must begin work in the same conditions in which he finds himself when he meets it, because these conditions are the best for him. If he begins to work and study in these conditions, he can attain something. Later, if it is necessary, he will be able to change them, but not before he sees the necessity for it. So at first one continues to live the same life as before. In many respects this way proves more difficult than the others, for nothing is harder than to change oneself internally without changing externally.

Then in the Fourth Way the first principle is that man must not believe anything; he must learn — so faith does not enter into the Fourth Way. One must not believe what one hears or what one is advised; one must find corroboration for everything. If one is convinced that something is true, then one can believe it — but not before. This is a brief outline of the difference between the four ways.

People believe or disbelieve when they are too lazy to think. You have to choose, you have to be convinced. You are told that you must remember yourself, but it would be wrong for you to remember yourself merely because you are told. First you must realise that you do not remember yourself and what it means; then, if you really realise that you need it and would like to remember yourself, you will do it in the right way. If you do it simply by copying somebody, you will do it in a wrong way. You must realise that you are doing it for yourself, not because somebody told you.

The Fourth Way can be the shortest of all because knowledge enters into it. It is sometimes called the way of the 'sly man'. The sly man knows about the three traditional ways, but he also knows more than they do. Suppose people in all the ways work to get into a certain state necessary for some particular work they have to do. The sly man will produce this state in the shortest time of all; but he must know how to do it, he must know the secret. This idea is very largely used in the New Testament, only it is not called being 'sly'. There are some things and situations that are so difficult than one cannot go straight; it is necessary to go indirectly, or to be 'sly'.

Change of Being

What is similar in all the ways is the possibility of changing being. If you think of all that makes up being, such as wrong work of centres, identification, considering, negative emotions, absence of unity, and so on, you will understand that all this can be changed in each of the four ways: in the way of the Fakir by conquering physical suffering; in the way of the Monk by creating religious emotion; in the way of the Yogi by acquiring knowledge and working on consciousness. Ways are the same, but people are different; a man who can go by one way cannot go by another.

There are four categories of people in our times according to which the ways are divided. I do not mean that it has always been so, but it is definitely so now. This division is connected not so much with people being Number 1, 2, or 3 as with there being one-centre people, two-centre people, three-centre people, four-centre people. This means people in whom one centre is fully developed while the others are under-developed, or two centres developed and the others not developed, or three centres developed and the fourth under-developed, or four centres developed more or less equally.

The Fourth Way does not have many of the things which enter into the three ways, and it has many other things that do not enter into the three ways. The idea of the Fourth Way is that it discards from the three ways all that is unnecessary in them, because besides the necessary things the three ways have other things which have remained there purely through tradition, imitation, and so on.

In the Fourth Way all the sides that can develop develop at the same time, and this makes it different from the other ways where you first develop one side and then go back and develop another, and then again go back and develop a third side. In the Fourth Way all the four centres must be more or less alive, on the surface, open to receive impressions; otherwise long preliminary work to open them is necessary before one can begin.

Levels of Being

We can take this idea of levels quite simply in relation to ourselves. Using all our mental capacities we can think only up to a certain level. But if we could use higher centres, for instance higher emotional centre, which already needs more or less complete self-remembering, then certainly on the same subject we could think quite differently and find many more connections in things than we notice now. That shows a different level of thinking. Sometimes we actually have glimpses of a higher level of thinking, so even now we can think differently on the same subject.

As regards different levels of people, we cannot say that our experience of ordinary life is limited to results of work of people like ourselves; sometimes we meet with results of work of people obviously belonging to higher planes. Take, for example, the New Testament; and there are also works of art, esoteric writings, religious literature, and so on, which obviously cannot belong to ordinary people. The existence of people of higher development is not imagination, not a hypothesis, but an actual fact. I don't see how one can think without recognising this fact. It is a definite fact that people live not only on the level on which we are but can exist on different levels.

From this point of view humanity can be regarded as divided into four concentric circles. The three inner circles are called Esoteric, Mesoteric, and Exoteric. The fourth is the outer circle where Men 1, 2, and 3 live. Schools act as gates through which Man 4, who is between the outer and the Exoteric circle, can pass. Man 5 belongs to the Exoteric circle, Man 6 to the Mesoteric, and Man 7 to the Esoteric or innermost circle.

The outer circle is also called the circle of the confusion of tongues, for in this circle people cannot understand one another. Understanding is possible only in the inner circles.

All this means that there are degrees. A man who lives in the outer circles is under the law of accident or, if he has strongly expressed essence, his life is more governed by the laws of his type or the laws of fate. But when a man begins to work towards consciousness, he already has direction. This means a change — perhaps not perceptible, but nevertheless cosmically a change. Only individual effort can help man to pass from the outer circle into the Exoteric circle. What refers to a man in the outer circle does not refer to a man who has begun to work. Each circle is under different laws.