Lecture 16 — From Aim to Conscience

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

Direction of Effort
Initial Requirements
Conscience and Consciousness
Towards Emotional Integrity

Return to:


See also:

Consciousness, Laws, and Influences
Noumena and Karma
Christianity and the New Testament


The strange thing is that, as a rule, people do not know their aim in life. Aim can be formulated only if one already knows something about one's position. If a man does not realise his position, all his aims will be imaginary. So I advise you to think about your aim: what you thought about it before you met this system and how you would describe what you now want and must try to get. It is useless to describe an aim which you know you cannot attain. But if you have an aim that you can hope to attain, your work will be conscious, serious.

In the beginning people usually set before them aims which are too abstract and remote. A person's aim is at first like a light that he sees afar off while walking by night along a dark road. He makes this light his aim and goes towards it. On the way to it he sees another light, between him and the first light. He understands that first he should go to the nearest light, and he goes towards it. After a certain time he sees a third light, again between him and the light towards which he is going, and so on. This is repeated several times until, at length, the man learns to concentrate on the light nearest to him — that is, the aim he is able to get to from where he is now.

So do not have too big a view of things; do not look too far; look nearer. You cannot start working for a remote future; you work for tomorrow. You find something wrong today. Why? Because yesterday was wrong. So if you make today right, tomorrow will be right. And only with an aim is it possible to remember what you did yesterday and what you should do today — what corresponds to your aim and what does not.

The motive power in all our actions is of two kinds: something attracts us or something repels us. We cannot know what we can attain in the remote future, but we know very well the situation in which we are. If we understand this, it will give us a definite aim. The aim will be to get out of this situation. We can know certain things in us from which we must try to get free.

Aim must be clearly formulated, understood, and remembered. Only then is it possible to come to results. If the aim is forgotten every moment, no results are possible.

How can a man who realises his position formulate his aim? If he sees that the centre of gravity of his position is sleep, then his aim will be to awaken. Or if he sees his mechanicalness, his aim will be to get rid of it. Both come to the same thing. It is a simple and practical view.

Aim must always be in the present and refer to the future. No result is possible if there is no aim, no decision, and no effort.

Direction of Effort

Big efforts consist of aggregates of small efforts. A big effort depends on many things: circumstances, situation, understanding. You cannot begin with big efforts. You must begin with small efforts like, for example, trying to remember yourself, trying to stop thoughts three times a day. It is quite a small effort, but if you do it regularly, the need or the possibility of a big effort may come and you will be able to make it at the right moment.

Once we have an aim, we can appreciate the difference between right and wrong. If we have no direction, there is no particular evil, because it is all the same. If my aim is to go home from here, it will be right for me to turn to the right and wrong for me to turn to the left. This is how the principle of good and evil can be established. There can be no definition of good and evil, or right and wrong, without first establishing an aim or direction. When you have an aim, then what is opposed to your aim or takes you away from it is wrong, and what helps your aim is right.

It must be your personal aim. If it corresponds to the possibilities of development, then the system explains these possibilities. And if you understand that what keeps us from reaching our aim is mechanicalness and what helps us is consciousness, it follows that consciousness represents good and mechanicalness evil. So instead of 'good' and 'evil', the system uses the words 'conscious' and 'mechanical'. This is quite sufficient for all practical purposes.

It does not necessarily mean that all that is mechanical is evil: but evil cannot be conscious; it can only be mechanical. You must ask yourself: Can evil be conscious in me? Everything else is sophistry. If there is something that from your subjective point of view you consider good, and if you try consciously to do what you consider bad, you will find that either you cannot do it or you lose all pleasure in it. In exactly the same way you cannot be negative consciously without identification. Negative emotions are the best conductors of evil, because they are among the most mechanical things we have.

In doing things that we must do in ordinary life, the worst that can happen is that progress towards our aim is delayed. If something is unavoidable, we can always make positive work out of any activity. Other things we do out of mere imagination and negative emotions are much worse, and they are avoidable. Actions that go against one's aim can only be mechanical — that is, unconscious.

You can understand evil only in relation to yourself. Anything else is too general. In yourself you find features and tendencies that go against consciousness, that resist your aim. These evils are in yourself. You will see that evil can be manifested only mechanically. A long time is necessary to understand that fully, and it is easy to make mistakes.


Many people act mechanically mainly as a result of their upbringing and formal education. However, merely to react against such influences would be equally mechanical. Just doing the opposite of what you are accustomed to do will not necessarily be right. In any case, not everything you have been taught or have become accustomed to is necessarily wrong. So it is necessary to observe examples of your actions and see that when you let things happen, they may be right or wrong with respect to your aim. But if you were conscious, you could choose how to act; that would be quite a different situation.

You must understand that you have to follow ordinary standards of conduct until you have new ones. If you take the essence of ordinary moral laws, you will find nothing particularly different from what you can see in the system. For instance, ordinary rules of relationship with other people are very simple: do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. It is quite logical and clear, and is fully accepted in the system.

If you could find out for yourself what is right and wrong, you could find out everything else. But you have to learn this, like many other things that have to be learned. Only when you appreciate the value of self-remembering do you begin to have right values and can judge and weigh.

One of the most difficult things is to recognise right and wrong, or good and evil. Our mind is not accustomed to think about it in relation to consciousness. We think that there must be a permanent external definition that can be accepted, remembered, and followed, and we do not realise that there can be no external definition. But there are inner qualities of actions that determine things.


Morality is not simply understanding the laws of conduct. If, like the savage, we say, 'If you steal from me it is bad, but if I steal from you it is good', it is not morality; it is merely savage conduct. Morality begins when one has a feeling of good and bad in relation to one's own actions and is capable of renouncing what one considers bad and doing what one considers good.

Generally, to begin with, man simply adopts conventional taboos or borrows moral principles from religions, philosophies, or scientific ideas. He believes that some things are good and some other things are bad. But this is subjective morality, and the understanding of good and evil is purely relative. In all countries and at all epochs, certain moral codes were accepted which tried to explain what is good and what is bad. But if we try to compare the existing theories, we shall find that they all contradict one another and are full of contradictions in themselves. There is no such thing as general morality; there is no such thing even as Christian morality. For instance, Christianity says you must not kill, but nobody takes this seriously. Many moralities have been built on the basis of killing. For instance, as I said in Lecture 5, in some countries it is considered a most immoral thing to refuse blood revenge. Why in one case can a man kill, and in another not? All that is known about ordinary morality is full of inconsistencies.

So if you think about this problem, you will understand that in spite of hundreds of moral systems and teachings, man cannot say what is right and what is wrong, for moral values change; there is nothing permanent in them. At the same time, according to their attitude to the idea of right and wrong, people can be divided into two categories. There are people who have no feeling of right and wrong at all; all they have instead of moral sense is the idea of pleasant and unpleasant, profitable and unprofitable. And there are other people who have a feeling of right and wrong without actually knowing what is right and what is wrong. People who belong to the first category cannot be interested in the system; it is not for them. People of the second category may be interested.

Initial Requirements

What must be understood from the beginning is that man must start with a certain sense of right and wrong; otherwise nothing can be done. Then he must be sufficiently sceptical about ordinary morality and must understand that there is nothing general or stable in ordinary moral principles, for they change according to convention, place, and period. And he must understand the necessity of objective right and wrong. If he understands these three things, he will find a basis for distinguishing what is right and what is wrong in relation to each separate thing because, if he starts rightly, he will find that there are definite standards with the help of which good and bad cease to be relative and become absolute. The whole thing is to start from a right attitude, a right point of view. If he starts from a wrong point of view, he will not find anything.

This system begins with the possibility of objective consciousness, i.e. a state in which we can know truth. If, when we reach it, we can know truth, we shall also know what is right and wrong. The same way which leads to objective consciousness leads also to the understanding of right and wrong. As we have not got objective consciousness, we consider everything that helps us to develop it as right and good, and everything that hinders us in this is wrong and bad.

In our ordinary understanding objective truth refers more to the intellectual side of life, but a man may want to know it also on the religious side, the moral side, the aesthetic side, and so on. The system explains that Men 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are all in different positions in this respect. There is religion No. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., and there is morality No. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. It does not mean that one or another of them is wrong, but that one cannot be explained by another. For instance, Christ did not preach inquisition, and if his teaching be distorted by Men 1, 2, and 3 to be used for criminal purposes, this cannot be attributed to Christ.

Since we are Men 1, 2, and 3, there are many things about which we can find no visible indications as to whether they help or hinder the development of consciousness. So we must look for other principles, and we can find them only if we think about concrete cases of conduct. In the system we can find many indications which show how to look at one or another thing.

Conscience and Consciousness

An aim of the system is to bring man to conscience. Conscience is a certain faculty that exists in every normal man. It is really a different expression of consciousness, only consciousness works more on the intellectual side and conscience on the moral side: it helps to realise what is good or bad in one's conduct. Conscience is a state in which one cannot hide anything from oneself, and it must be developed. This development is parallel and simultaneous with the development of consciousness. We cannot say that we do not have it, so it does not mean a special development of something that does not exist in us; only in our life it is behind the scenes, buried very deep down in us, and asleep. It may awaken for a moment in ordinary life, and when it does, particularly at first, it always brings suffering, for it is very unpleasant to face the truth about oneself.

Conscience in relation to emotions is the same as consciousness in relation to ideas. It may be easier for you to understand what conscience is if you think of the etymological meaning of the words consciousness and conscience. Consciousness means all knowledge connected together. But we cannot speak of all knowledge, because it would be too high; we can speak only of all the knowledge we may have relating to the same subject. It must be connected with self-awareness, so consciousness must be yourself connected with all you know about some particular thing.

Conscience is the same thing, only in relation to emotions. It can be defined as an emotional feeling of truth on a given subject. To have a moment of conscience is to feel at once all that you feel about somebody or something. If you can feel all that you ever felt in relation to the same person, country, house, book, or anything else together, this would be a moment of conscience, and you will see how many contradictions there are in your emotions. Unless you have had this experience, you cannot imagine how many different feelings you can have. In a state of conscience, we see them all at once. This is why it is such an unpleasant state. Conscience is not very far, but we have many methods of preventing ourselves from feeling it, such as imagination, negative emotions, justifying, and so on.

The idea of the relation of good and bad to conscious and unconscious is a very useful thing to think about, particularly when you begin to find right analogies. This not only gives you a certain definite understanding but also, by keeping your mind on this and similar ideas you hear in the system, you keep it on the highest level possible for us — that is, in the intellectual parts of centres. You cannot profitably think about such things with the lower, mechanical, parts of centres, for nothing would come of it. In order to get some understanding, you have to use the intellectual parts of centres — and not only one centre but two or three at the same time.

Such consciousness as we can have in our state cannot manifest through the intellectual centre because the intellectual centre is too slow and works mostly with the formatory part. But it can at times manifest through the emotional centre, and then it is called conscience. Consciousness, to manifest, needs long preparation, intellectual capacities, and things like that; but conscience works more often and more easily than full consciousness. Full consciousness needs much knowledge connected with the realisation of one's existence, but it must be a constant realisation; it is not enough to realise it today and forget it tomorrow.

At first, when conscience manifests itself in us, it turns against us and we begin to see all our inner contradictions. Usually we cannot see them because we are in one small compartment or another; but conscience can see from the top and show us that here we felt one thing, there another thing, and here again quite a different thing, all on the same subject. All our life, all our habitual ways, have only one aim — to avoid shocks. And this is the chief thing that keeps us asleep, because in order to awaken we must not be afraid; we must be brave enough to see the contradictions.

For instance, if we take the work of this system, we must realise that at one moment we feel one thing about it, at another moment quite a different thing, at a third moment again a different thing. And we never feel it all together. If we could feel at the same time all that we ever felt about the work, we would have a great shock. That would be conscience. All our life, all our habitual ways of thinking, have only one aim — to avoid shocks, unpleasant feelings, unpleasant realisations about ourselves. And this is the chief thing that keeps us asleep, because in order to awaken we must not be afraid; we must be brave enough to see the contradictions.

Even quite apart from the question of conscience, it is important to feel in yourself that, when you have strong emotions (it does not refer to small emotions), when you feel strongly about some particular thing, you may be practically certain that at another moment you will have a different emotion about the same thing. If you cannot see it in yourself, see it in other people. When you realise the existence of these contrary emotions, it will help you to understand your mechanicalness and your lack of understanding of yourself — your lack of self-knowledge.

Towards Emotional Integrity

So long as we feel different emotions at different times, what are we like? One moment we trust, another moment we are suspicious; one moment we like, another moment we dislike. So the aim is to bring those different emotions together, otherwise we shall never know ourselves. If we always feel only one emotion at a time and do not remember other emotions, we are identified with it. When we have another emotion we forget the first; when we have a third, we forget the first and second. Very early in life, by imitation and in other ways, we learn to live in a kind of imaginary state to save ourselves from unpleasantness, so people develop in themselves this capacity to see only one emotion at a time.

Remember to work. Remember yourself in one mood, then remember yourself in another mood. Try to connect them together and you will see. For instance, we love somebody one moment and wish them dead the next. Only we do not see it. Yet sometimes moments come when we can feel all our emotions on the same subject together. Only you must wait until you get a taste of such a moment, because without a taste of it you will never get any further in understanding what a moment of conscience means. Conscience can be very strong and definite. But in most cases it is asleep because, since most people are asleep, everything in them is asleep.

So conscience must be awakened. We must learn to understand truth emotionally in certain cases, and we can do this only by not being afraid to face contradictions in ourselves.