Lecture 14 — Consciousness

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

Degrees of Consciousness
Study of Consciousness
Degrees of Being
Stopping Thoughts
Keep At It!
Self-remembering Is Above Centres
Consciousness and Knowledge

Return to:


See also:

Remembering Oneself
The Master Key


It would be good if, from time to time, you tried to summarise in your mind what you have heard so far because, after some time of coming to lectures and talks one begins to forget the chronology of the ideas, and it is important to remember the order in which they are given.

Out of all you have heard, the most important idea is that with certain knowledge and effort man can develop — he can complete himself. The development of man, if it is a process — for it is not obligatory — passes through certain definite stages or steps. If you return to the beginning, you will remember what was said about the absence of consciousness in man and the fact that when a man realises it, this realisation gives him the possibility of acquiring consciousness. You will then see that this is the direction in which man can develop. As long as he does not realise that he is simply a machine and that all his processes are mechanical, he cannot begin to study himself. This realisation is the beginning of self-study.

So study must begin with the realisation that we do not possess self-consciousness, that is, that we cannot be aware of ourselves at moments of action or thought. This is the first step. The second step is to realise that we do not know ourselves, that is, that we do not know our machine and how it works. And the third step is to realise that we have to study methods of self-study. We observe ourselves all our lives, but we do not know what self-observation means. Real self-observation must be based on facts.

So one of the first points is how to remember oneself, that is, how to be more conscious. It is not enough to admit this absence of consciousness in oneself; one has to see it in actual fact, to verify it from personal observation.

We do not realise what consciousness is and what it implies. If one becomes conscious for half an hour, it is incredible what one can see and learn. So it is an aim in itself because of what it brings; and it also means a step towards objective consciousness.

Degrees of Consciousness

It is necessary to speak a little about what is meant by the four degrees of consciousness man can possess. If we take it from the point of view of cognition of truth, then in sleep we cannot know the difference between what is true and what is not true. Things we see in dreams all look alike. In the waking state we already have more opportunity to recognise the differences between things: the shape of things is made out by our eye, the surface of things by touch and, to a certain extent, we can orientate ourselves by the perceptions of our instruments of sense. So there is an objective element, but we ourselves remain subjective to ourselves. When we become self-conscious, we become objective to ourselves, and in objective consciousness we can know objective truth about everything. These are the degrees of consciousness.

We realise the possibility of higher consciousness when we realise that we are not really conscious at all. We are conscious only at rare moments, without possibility of control. Now we are in two states — in sleep and half awake. Theoretical comparisons of states of consciousness and descriptions in words will not help; but when we begin to awaken we realise the state in which we are now. It is necessary to find moments of self-remembering and then, at these moments, you will see the difference. By studying yourself you will see that you can be very near to sleep, or you can be near to self-consciousness.

So study begins with the study of these different states in ourselves. For instance, when we take ourselves as one — or do not think about it — then we are nearly asleep. But when we begin to divide ourselves and know that at every moment it is only one 'I' or one group of 'I's speaking, then we are nearer to self-consciousness, nearer to objective facts.

Study of Consciousness

There are different ways of studying consciousness in oneself. The first thing to realise is that one cannot be conscious when one wants to be. We become 'pre-occupied' or 'lose ourselves' in whatever we are doing. The best time to realise this is after you have been speaking or doing something. Suppose you have been talking about some important business, or writing a letter; then ask yourself, 'Was I conscious at that time?'. The second thing is to realise that you are not one, i.e. that you have many different 'I's.

If you try to be conscious for a moment and then compare it with another moment when you did not try to be conscious, you will know the difference. It cannot be described. One moment you are aware of yourself, another moment you are not; you do things, you speak, you write — and you are not conscious.

You must also remember that we must study not only states of consciousness but also obstacles to consciousness. We must first study them, and then remove them. All these obstacles are in ourselves. We cannot change external circumstances; we have to take them as they are and change inwardly in these circumstances. If you are conscious all the time that you observe, the line of your attention will resemble two arrows, one showing attention directed on whatever you observe and the other on yourself.

We must distinguish between self-remembering and self-observation. Self-remembering is an attempt to be aware of yourself. Self-observation is always directed at some definite function: you observe your thoughts, or movements, or emotions, or sensations. Observation must have a definite object which you observe in yourself.

Self-remembering does not divide you: you must remember the whole; it is simply the feeling of 'I', of your own person. They may come together, particularly at later stages, and then you will be able to do both at the same time — observe something definite, and recognise manifestations in yourself; but in the beginning the two things are different. You begin with self-observation — that is the normal way — and through self-observation you realise that you do not remember yourself. When you realise that, and that at very rare moments you do remember yourself, then any person who is not definitely prejudiced will be able to understand that it is possible to increase these moments of self-remembering. And then you try to do it.

In the beginning, there is no particular need to worry about whether you remember yourself at the moment, or remember immediately afterwards, or remember after some time. But if you keep trying, you will catch particular moments when you can be aware of yourself at the actual moment when things happen. That will be self-remembering.

Degrees of Being

Man can change. There are different degrees of man that can be attained after long and persistent work. If we can be more conscious, this will make higher centres work. The functioning of higher centres will in many ways be miraculous. The idea of self-remembering enters into many systems and school teachings, but it is not in the right place: it is never put first. But this system says that you do not remember yourself and once you understand that, you may be able to achieve something.

Self-awareness is the greatest change possible, because in ordinary conditions of life nobody is aware of himself; and yet people do not realise this. If at this moment you ask yourself sincerely if you are aware of yourself, you will have to answer that you are not. The whole idea is to be aware of yourself at this moment. This is the beginning, for one has to begin somewhere. Later it may take different forms; many other things may be included in it.

Nothing can describe this: it is material for observation and study. Descriptions will not help; one has to practise. Normally nobody remembers himself, nobody is aware of himself. This is the ordinary state of a human being, of a man-machine. But if he knows about it, if he realises it and thinks about it, it becomes possible. Only, in the beginning, self-remembering is very slow in coming and very small, with long lapses of not remembering.

Self-remembering is not the same thing as mental alertness. It is a different state, more different from our present state than our present state is from physical sleep. But even comparing sleep with the ordinary state gives you some possibility of understanding the difference. When you are asleep, your world is limited by actual sensations; but when you wake up and find yourself in the objective world (although you see this world in subjective categories) it is much less limited. When you realise that this is not full awakening, that you are actually less than half awake, you will understand that if you awaken fully you will find yourself in a still richer world and you will see and understand many of its characteristics which now pass unnoticed.

There is always something we can do at certain moments. We must recognise these moments, know what to do, and how. We are studying doors. Self-remembering is a door. If realisation that we do not remember ourselves becomes continuous, then we can remember ourselves. Every day we can find time to realise that we do not remember; this will gradually bring us to self-remembering. I do not mean merely to remember that you do not remember, but to realise it.

I repeat, it is not useful to look for definitions; they would only make understanding more difficult. What is really useful for understanding is comparing the different degrees of consciousness within our ordinary state, for even in our ordinary state of relative consciousness there are different degrees, different levels. We can be nearer to awakening or further from it. When we really learn to observe, we can see such big differences in ourselves that it will show us the possibilities we have. It is the one unmistakable thing. We are always moving between two shores — between sleep and awakening. Moving more towards one shore than to the other creates two different possibilities: one is development, the other is decay.

You can find many descriptions in literature of how mystics and religious people came to the same things. The similarity of descriptions of these experiences is the best proof. All sorts of people in different countries, thousands of years apart, living in different conditions, have come to the same kind of experience by certain ways. Then you can find many people who have personal experience of this kind, which proves that quite different states of perception and reaction exist. So it is not a mere hypothesis that higher states of consciousness can be reached.

When you try to be aware of yourself, for a moment you become conscious and see things that you had not seen before. If you could keep this consciousness for, say, ten minutes, you would see many things which would astonish you. We look with our eyes and do not see; but if we become conscious, we begin to see things about which we have no idea. This is quite normal if only you do not let imagination enter into it.


When the process of growth of unity in yourself has gone on for a long time, there may come a moment which makes you feel different. It may seem like a sudden illumination, but it is not really so. It is the result of previous efforts.

When you try to make the first step towards objective consciousness and you see how difficult it is, how many forces in you work against it and how many obstacles there are, you will have no doubt that only a few can attain it; that it is a possibility, but a very remote possibility. There are too many obstacles — laziness, lying, inertia. We like to sleep.

You can only find out for yourself whether man's development is a true possibility or only an abstract idea. You must yourself come to one or another point of view. If you realise that change is possible only through awakening, then it becomes a fact, because you can see small degrees of awakening in yourself.

You do not remember yourself; not man, but you. If you try and fail, it does not mean you have no consciousness but that you have not enough. Your own experience, however limited, can alone show you the degree.

When we use the term 'self-consciousness', we mean a certain degree, beyond our ordinary amount of consciousness. We have a certain amount of consciousness, but it is not sufficient for getting out of our state. If we had no consciousness at all, we should remain as we are.


'Measuring' progress towards self-consciousness is a matter for observation. You want to put labels on 'benchmarks', but you cannot; they change all the time. One moment you are almost self-conscious, the next moment you are asleep. You must observe and see results. In one state you can understand certain things, in the next you cannot. In one state you identify, in another you have control; the more control there is, the nearer you are to self-consciousness. Talk will not help much; it will remain formatory. It is necessary to touch the emotional centre, and you can do that only by trying different things. Work is not simple: from the very beginning you must try to do 'impossible' things — impossible in the sense that they do not happen by themselves. There cannot be a text-book telling you to do first one thing, then another thing, and so on.

At the same time, questions about self-remembering must always be asked because, for a long time, many mistakes about it are possible. These questions must never be suppressed, for they are most important.

Self-remembering is a method of awakening. What you are doing now is only preparation, only the study of the method. You must do as much as you can in your present state; then, when your inner situation changes, you will be able to use all the experience which you now acquire. But to reach the real meaning of self-remembering is possible only in very emotional states. Since you cannot create these emotional states, you cannot know what self-remembering is, but you can prepare for this experience; then when it comes you will know how to deal with it. Very high emotional energy is necessary for self-remembering. Now you are only practising, but without this practice you will never get the real state.


This is really a training of mind. We must learn to think in a different way. As a rule, we do not think practically — we think mostly about things that do not concern us. Self-remembering is the beginning and the centre of the system and the most important thing to understand. It cannot be described as an intellectual action or intellectual idea. You have to begin studying what self-remembering means intellectually, but in actual fact it is not intellectual because it is a moment of will. It is necessary to remember yourself not at a quiet moment when nothing happens but when you know you are doing something wrong — and not do it. For instance, when you are identified, you must be able to feel it, then stop it, and at the same time remember yourself, be aware that you are doing it, that mechanicalness causes you to be identified and that you are stopping it. That will be self-remembering.

Consider the example of varying degrees of light in a room and a typewriter. The typewriter can be taken as the intellectual centre, and light as consciousness. Only, in the case of consciousness, there is a certain connection between all centres, for in full light not only one but all centres work differently. Real self-remembering requires emotion, but we have no control over the emotional centre. By understanding, we can make the intellectual centre, over which we have a certain control, work in the dark as though it were light, and this will produce self-remembering. Self-remembering means a form of thinking, of intellectual work which corresponds to awakening, and in this way it induces a moment of awakening.

Then, when one awakens for a moment, one realises that generally one is asleep, that one is not conscious, and that this is dangerous. The more you put into it and the better you understand it, the better the result will be. If you realise what you lose by not remembering yourself and what you gain by remembering yourself, you will have a greater incentive for making efforts to self-remember. You will see that not remembering yourself is like finding yourself in the pilot's seat of an aeroplane, high above the earth, and fast asleep. This is in fact our situation, but we do not wish to realise it. If a man does realise it, he will make efforts to awaken. But if he thinks he is just sitting in an easy chair and nothing particular is happening, he will think that there is no harm in sleeping.

In our present state, thoughts are the only things we can control. To a certain extent we can control movement, but in ordinary conditions, without special instruction, we can do nothing with emotions. As regards thoughts, first we must throw out all thoughts connected with identification and think about the ideas of the system. This is preparation for self-remembering, because at every point we come to the necessity to remember ourselves. If you cannot remember yourself, try to revive the ideas of the system in your mind. The whole system, the study of man and the Universe, is all help to self-remembering. This thinking will by itself remind you and create an inner atmosphere for it. But first you must eliminate all thoughts that stand in the way. If at this stage you cannot control thoughts, you can do nothing further. You may not control your temper, or your imagination, or your lying, but you must control your thoughts. At quiet moments you must be able to see when you are wrong. If you cannot, it means that you have not begun yet; but sooner or later one must begin. You must identify what stands in your way. It is generally connected with some form of negativeness, or laziness, or fear.

The right use of imagination is to try to imagine yourself conscious. We develop the power of imagination in an absolutely wrong and useless way which is always making trouble for us. But now, for once, try to use it and imagine yourself conscious. Try to think how you would act, think, speak, and so on.

At first, self-remembering is an effort on functions. You begin to remember yourself simply by forming your mental processes in a certain way, and this brings moments of consciousness. You cannot work on consciousness itself: you can make one or two spasmodic efforts, but no permanent efforts. But you can make efforts on thoughts, and in this way you can work on consciousness in a roundabout way. This is the most important part of the method.

Try to understand the difference between remembering yourself in this way and being conscious. It is the same mental process that you use in everything, in reading, writing, and all that you do, so you have a certain control over it. Even if we put the same amount of energy into self-remembering that we put into the study of a foreign language, we would acquire a certain amount of consciousness. Unfortunately we do not want to put even that amount of energy into it; we think that these things must come by themselves, or that it is enough to try once and it must come. Self-remembering needs effort so, if you continue to make these efforts, moments of consciousness will come more often and will stay longer. Then, gradually, self-remembering will cease to be purely intellectual — it will have an awakening power.

Self-remembering is an attempt to create in oneself a state of consciousness without any relation to functions. From the very beginning we must understand that functions are one thing and states of consciousness another. You are now in a certain state of consciousness, and by trying to remember yourself you try to create an approach to the third state of consciousness. You do this by a certain reconstruction. You reconstruct a certain form of thinking which you have in higher states of consciousness. You cannot keep a flash of consciousness unless your thoughts are in a certain form. It is quite simple: you remember the example of the line of attention with two arrows? [See Division of Attention — Ed.] Attention is directed both on myself and on the thing I see. This double attention is the form of thinking corresponding to another state of consciousness.

We have the power not only to think but also to think about this and that. So we can both eliminate useless thoughts and put the realisation of 'I' at the centre of our thinking — 'I am here'.

Every kind of emotional moment, emotional shock, makes you realise 'I am'. You realise it without any theory behind it. If you find yourself in a very unexpected place, you have a feeling of 'I' and 'here'; when you are in unusual circumstances, it always reminds you of your existence. But in customary conditions, we always forget because we identify ourselves with these conditions.

In the system, self-remembering is the only way to reach all the rest, because it is the first thing that is lacking in us. We are always forgetting ourselves from one moment to another, and this state must be changed. One must remember oneself — this is the beginning and the end of the whole thing, because when one has that one has everything.

Attention may be regarded as the elementary beginning of consciousness — the first degree. It is not full awareness for it is directed only one way. Attention can be drawn or it can be deliberately directed, and then it has quite a different value. As I said, consciousness needs double attention.

One thing depends on another. If we want to have will, if we want to be free instead of being marionettes, if we want to awaken, we must develop consciousness. If we realise that we are asleep and that all people are asleep, and what it means, then all the absurdities of life are explained. It is quite clear that if people are asleep, they cannot do anything differently from what they do now.

Nothing comes to its full state all at once. The first step is to be more conscious, and the second step is to be still more conscious. If, with effort, you can now make yourself conscious for a minute, then, if you work on it and do all that is possible to help, after some time you will be able to be conscious for five minutes.

As we are, higher states cannot last; they are just flashes, and if they last, then it is imagination. This is a definite fact because we have no energy for lasting higher states. Flashes are possible, only again you must judge and classify them by what material they bring. The memory that we can command, control, and use is only intellectual, and intellectual memory cannot keep them.

Stopping Thoughts

Try this method of stopping your thoughts to see for how long you can keep your thoughts down, to think about nothing — if you know about self-remembering. [See Stopping Thoughts — Ed.] But suppose a man who does not know about self-remembering tries this — he will not come to the idea of self-remembering in this way. If you already know, that will create a moment of self-remembering; for how long will depend on your efforts. It is a very good way. This method is described, for instance, in some books on Yoga, but people who try it do not know why they are doing it, so it cannot produce good results. Quite the opposite: it may produce a kind of trance state.

We speak about self-remembering all the time; we always come back to it, so you cannot say you do not know about self-remembering. But if you take a man who has studied only ordinary psychology or philosophy, he does not know about it.

If you do a certain thing knowing what it is, it gives one result; if you do almost the same thing without knowing what it is, it gives a different result. Many people came very near to self-remembering in practice; others came very near to it in theory but without practice, and neither from the one nor from the other did they come to the real truth. In the so-called Yoga literature there are many near approaches to self-remembering. For example they speak about 'I am' consciousness, but they are so theoretical that you cannot get anything out of it.

Self-remembering was never mentioned in any literature in an exact concrete form, although in a disguised form it is spoken about in the New Testament and in Buddhist writings. For instance, when it is said, 'Watch, do not sleep', this is self-remembering. But people interpret it differently.

You cannot control emotions. You simply decide to remember yourself. I have given you a very simple, practical method. Try to stop your thoughts, but at the same time, do not forget your aim — that you do it in order to remember yourself. That may help. What prevents self-remembering? This constant turning of thoughts. Stop this turning, and perhaps you will have a taste of it.

Keep At It!

Self-remembering needs the best work you can produce, so the more centres that take part in it the better the result. Self-remembering cannot be produced by slow, weak work — the work of one or two centres. You may begin with two centres, but it is not sufficient because other centres can interrupt your self-remembering and stop it. But if you put all centres to the work there is nothing that can stop it. You must always remember that self-remembering needs the best work you are capable of.

The idea is to remember yourself, to be aware of yourself. And what comes with it, you just notice. You must not put any definite demands upon it. If you make it a regular practice to try to remember yourself three or four times a day, self-remembering will come by itself when you need it — but you will notice only later. You must make it a regular practice to try and remember yourself, if possible at the same times of day. And, as I said, the practice of stopping thoughts will have the same effect. So, if you cannot remember yourself, try stopping your thoughts.

You can stop thoughts, but you must not be disappointed if at first you cannot. Stopping thoughts is a very difficult thing. You cannot say to yourself 'I will stop thoughts', and they stop. You have to use effort all the time. So you must not do it for long. If you do it for a few minutes it is quite sufficient; otherwise you will persuade yourself that you are doing it when instead you will just sit quietly and think and be very happy about it. As much as you can you must keep only one thought, 'I do not want to think about anything', and throw all other thoughts out. It is a very good exercise — but only an exercise.

Self-remembering is not exactly the same thing as stopping thoughts. They are two different methods. In the first you bring in a certain definite thought — the realisation that you do not remember yourself. You must always start with that. And stopping thought is simply creating a right atmosphere, right surroundings, for self-remembering. So they are not the same thing, but they bring the same results.

When you are awake you can do everything better, but a long time is necessary for that. When you get accustomed to self-remembering you will not be able to understand how you ever worked without it. But in the beginning it is difficult to work and to remember oneself at the same time. Still, efforts in this direction undoubtedly give very interesting results. All experience of all times shows that these efforts are always rewarded. Besides, if you make these efforts you will understand that certain things one can do only in sleep and cannot do when awake, because some things can only be mechanical. For instance, suppose you forget or lose things: you cannot lose things on purpose, you can lose them only mechanically.

Self-remembering Is Above Centres

Thinking about self-remembering is not being conscious, and it may interfere with whatever else you may be doing. This is one function interfering with another. But real self-remembering is not in centres, it is above centres. It cannot interfere with the work of centres, only one will see more clearly, and will see one's mistakes.

We must realise that the capacity for remembering oneself is our right. We do not have it, but we can have it; we have all the necessary organs for it, so to speak, but we are not trained, not accustomed, to use them. It is necessary to create a certain particular energy, using this word in an ordinary sense, and this can be created only at a moment of a very strong emotional stress. Everything before that is only preparation for the method. But if you find yourself in a moment of very strong emotional stress and try to remember yourself, then it will remain after the stress is over and thereafter you will be able to remember yourself. So only with very intense emotion is it possible to create this foundation for self-remembering. But it cannot be done if you do not prepare yourself beforehand. Moments may come, but you will get nothing from them. These emotional moments come from time to time, but we do not use them because we do not know how to use them. If you try sufficiently hard to remember yourself during a moment of intense emotion, and if the emotional stress is strong enough, it will leave a certain trace, and this will help you to remember yourself in the future.

The preparation necessary is self-study, self-observation, self-understanding. We can change nothing yet, nor make anything different. It all happens much as before. But there is a difference already, for you see many things you could not have seen before, and many things 'happen' differently. It does not mean that you have changed anything: they happen differently.

You come to the understanding of this point through self-remembering. When you reach certain results in it, if it comes often — like seeing oneself in a mirror — then there comes another form of self-remembering, remembering one's life, the time-body. This increases possibilities. There are also other steps, but we only speak of one step ahead, otherwise it would be imagination. We must understand that we must not touch certain questions without self-remembering. It is a question of perfecting our instrument of cognition. Our mind is very limited by our state of consciousness. We can hope that certain things will become comprehensible if our state of consciousness changes.

Consciousness and Knowledge

Consciousness does not, by itself, give knowledge. Knowledge must be acquired. No amount of consciousness can give knowledge and no amount of knowledge can give consciousness. They are not parallel and cannot replace one another.

But when you become conscious you see things you have not seen before. If you keep it long enough it produces an enormous effect. The whole world would be different if you could keep it up for, say, fifteen minutes.

But one cannot be aware of oneself for fifteen minutes without a very strong emotional element. You must produce something that makes you emotional; you cannot do it without the help of emotional centre.