Lecture 25 — 'Doing' and 'Not Doing'

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

Inner Work
Work on Oneself
School and Struggle
Doing and Trying

Return to:


See also:

From Accident to School
Global Warming

Inner Work

We must return to the inner part of the work — to work on oneself.

If you think about it, you will realise that the central part of your own work is understanding of the fact that we cannot 'do', of why we cannot 'do', and of what it means that we cannot 'do'. How can you understand that? Either by trying to do what you have never done before or by doing things in another way. Then you will see whether or not you can 'do'.

Half of the questions I am asked are about 'doing' — how to change this, destroy that, avoid some other thing, and so on. But an enormous effort is necessary to change even one small thing. Until you try, you can never realise it. You do not think enough, observe enough.

You can change nothing except through the system. The system shows how things can be changed and done differently and from where one can begin. Even with the system it is tremendously difficult, but without the system it is impossible. When you realise that, you will begin to understand the value of the system, because with it there is a chance but without it there is no chance at all.


This idea that we cannot 'do' is very important and we must always return to it. Everything 'happens'. People can 'do' nothing. From the time we are born to the time we die, things happen, happen, happen, and we think we are doing. This is our normal state in life. Even the smallest possibility to do something comes only through the work — and at first only in oneself, not externally. Even in oneself, 'doing' very often begins by 'not doing'. Before you can do something that you cannot do, you must refrain from doing many things which you did before. For instance, you cannot awaken by just wanting to awaken, but you can prevent yourself from sleeping too much and too long.

Only in very small things do we sometimes have a choice between two possible happenings. Even then, when you notice that things are going in a certain way and decide to change them, you will find how extremely uncomfortable it can be. This is the most difficult and most necessary thing to realise with your whole being because, so long as we think we can 'do', we shall always put off the things that we actually can do if we work. We can 'do' things only in relation to ourselves — these are the things we must begin with. But we shall never begin to study ourselves so long as we think we can 'do'.

Even small things happen according to certain definite circumstances which control them. You may think you control them, but in reality they happen. We cannot 'do' because we are asleep. How can sleeping people 'do'? Only when one is awake can one 'do'. 'Doing' is magic.


You must understand that nothing happens at the time it happens. The necessity of its happening was created long before. Things happen by themselves. Whether or not you 'do' something may have been decided ten years previously, and that determines what you will do tomorrow: you cannot change it.

We think we can make a certain decision and act accordingly. In reality we are controlled not by internal decisions but by external influences. If the internal decision corresponds to the external influence, we will do it; otherwise we shall not. But we can create in ourselves powers to 'do'. Nature has made us machines acting under external influences, but it has also given us a possibility to develop our own motor. If there is no inner motor, we shall always turn around in the same place. To make plans, to have ideals, is one thing; to do is another thing. One of the chief features of our being is that we cannot do what we decide.

We may sometimes think that with a little extra effort, we can make a great difference to other people. This is an illusion. If a thing must happen, we shall make this extra effort; if it is not to happen, we shall not make the effort. We think we can make or not make this effort, that we can 'do' or 'not do'. But when we think in the right way, we realise that we can 'do' nothing, that things happen mechanically. One thing comes after another and just happens or does not happen, and we cannot help it.

If you help a poor person, it happens. If someone takes from this poor person what little remains to him, it happens. One person will give him a penny, another will take away the last penny he has. It is first necessary to understand the principle that nobody can 'do' anything.

If you think of life, not personal life but the life of humanity — wars, revolutions — you will see this clearly. You must try to find a right case for observation, because if you find something too small you will not see it. But if you find the right case, right conditions, right circumstances, you will very soon see whether you can do something or not. The simplest thing is to remember yourself. Can you do it or not?


People think they can 'do' because sometimes they make certain plans and actually get what they wanted. But this means only that they have got into a certain stream of events and things happened to coincide with their plan. When things happen like that we think that we did it — that we made a plan and did everything according to this plan. In reality it does not mean that we did it on purpose or knowingly and it does not mean that one can choose one stream of events or another; it is just accident. In every kind of work, in business, in travel, and so on, it sometimes happens that things go successfully, but this means only that at a given moment in a given place things went mechanically in a certain way — nothing more.

It is difficult for us to realise, for example, that when people build a bridge, it is not 'doing'; it is only the result of all previous efforts. It is accidental. To understand this, you must think of the first bridge that Adam built and of all the evolution of bridge. At first it is accidental — a tree falls across a river, then man builds something like that, and so on. People are not 'doing'; one thing comes from another.

If you behaved in a certain way, it means you could not have behaved in another way. If you could, you would have behaved differently. We are so accustomed to think that things could be different that we do not try to change things we could change. We can change today, but yesterday is finished. If we change today, things can happen differently tomorrow. It looks like a contradiction: but it is precisely our belief that things can be different that prevents us from doing what we can to make them different.

This understanding comes only after some time of work on oneself, so that when you come to this realisation, you have many other realisations; chiefly that there are ways to change if you apply the right instrument at the right place and time. You must have these instruments, and they themselves are obtainable only by work. It is very important to come to this realisation. Without it one will not do the right things; one will excuse oneself.

We do not want to give up the idea that we can 'do', so that even if we realise that things happen, we find excuses such as, "This is an accident, but tomorrow it will be different". That is why we find it so difficult to realise this idea. All our lives we see how things happen, but we still explain them as accidents, as exceptions to the rule that we can 'do'. Either we do not see, or we forget, or we do not pay enough attention. We always think at every moment that we can 'do'. If you see in your life a time when you tried to do something and failed, that will be an example, because you will find that you explained your failure as an accident, an exception. If the same situation repeats itself, you will think you will be able to 'do', and if you fail again, you will explain your failure as just an accident.

It is very useful to go through your life from this point of view. You intended one thing and something different happened. If you are really sincere, you will see; but if you are not, you will persuade yourself that what happened was exactly what you wanted! When things happen in a certain way, we are carried by the current but we think that we carry the current.

If one is trained to do something, one learns to follow a certain trend of happenings — or, if you like, to start a certain trend of happenings — and as these develop, one runs behind them thinking that one is leading.


So when and how do we have the power of choice, and how do we differ from animals? In our present state, we differ very little. Our power of choice begins only when we begin to realise our situation, our mechanicalness. Only then do we begin to struggle for something else. There are possibilities for that. But this is a formatory way of thinking — either determinism or freedom. Some things are determined, some less determined, and some are in our power if we know how to change or turn them. But we must know. Everything is relative.

It is necessary to understand that by ourselves, we cannot 'do'. When this is sufficiently understood, we can think about what is possible to 'do': what conditions, what knowledge, and what help are needed. But first it is necessary to realise that in ordinary life everything happens. Only when this is emotionally understood is it possible to go further.

Sleep is the form or the level of our being. One can do something with the help of the system if the way is shown, but being awake indicates the level of being itself. So all this struggle with negative emotions, trying to stop unnecessary thought, trying to remember oneself — all this leads you to awakening, but you cannot awaken before you awaken.

Work on Oneself

In trying to become conscious, all a man's work is his own. In this system you are told clearly that you can 'do' nothing. It is esoteric teaching, but in it you can begin in the conditions of ordinary life; it is not necessary to go to a school or to a monastery. Because of that, it is particularly necessary to understand first of all that one cannot 'do' anything and that the only thing one can start to 'do' is try to remember oneself — understanding the one and practising the other.

This idea that we cannot 'do' must be taken quite literally. In this work, we have to 'do' from the very beginning — not much, but very definite things. If you can refrain from identifying, it is already the beginning of 'doing'. If you can refrain from talking when you have an inclination to talk, that is already 'doing'. 'Doing' begins by going against the current — first in yourself, in personal things. You can try to remember yourself. Then, when you begin to remember yourself, you can get certain results and you will see that you can do more things, but all with regard to yourself. You will be able to do something about negative emotions, for instance, and to think in a new way. But outside you, things will continue to happen.

It is necessary once more to divide people into categories. Men 1, 2, and 3 can 'do' nothing: in their case, everything 'happens'. If they do good things, it means that they cannot do bad things; if they do bad things, it means they cannot do good things. One thing is not better than another in that sense, because it is all mechanical. But when one begins to work, when one enters a school at any level, one already has to learn to 'do'. One has to begin with oneself — to know oneself, to study oneself, try to eliminate certain things, try to create control over other things, and so on.

It is always useful to observe our own reactions. We have only five or six ways of reacting: only certain things happen to us and we always react to them in the same way. But if we try to do all that is advised, and not to do all that we are advised to refrain from doing, things will change in the right way and one day, quite unexpectedly, we will be able to do something we could not have done before.

We can direct things in ourselves. If nothing unnecessary happens in us, we shall begin to be able to control things that happen from outside; but first we must control things in ourselves. So long as things are left to 'happen' in ourselves, we cannot control anything outside ourselves. How can it be otherwise? One 'I' decides to control things, but instead all of its attention will be occupied with things that happen inside us and outside us.

In the beginning, all a man can do is learn to control his own mental reactions to events outside his control. If he learns to control his reactions, then after some time he will find that he can control more and more, and still later it may happen that he will be able to control certain small external events. But certain other external events cannot be controlled because they are of a different size.

School and Struggle

There is no possibility of 'doing' without school and without knowledge. Again, if you get the knowledge and do not make efforts, it will be equally useless. Life can be taken as active force. The passive force is in inertia, in habits, in all that 'happens'. School is necessary because it is the conductor of neutralising force. It seems simple, but it is not.

We must overcome mechanicalness. There are things in us , such as physiological processes, which are, and should be, mechanical. There are other things over which we must acquire as much control as we can, because they keep us from awakening. We do not realise to what an extent one thing within us is connected with another. Everything is connected. We cannot do, or say, or even think anything out of the general line of things that happen.

Our four centres — intellectual, emotional, moving, and instinctive — are so co-ordinated that one movement in one centre immediately produces a corresponding movement in another centre. Certain movements or certain postures are connected with certain thoughts; certain thoughts are connected with certain feelings, sensations, emotions. Such as we are, with all the will we can concentrate, we can acquire some degree of control over one centre, but only one; and even that for only a short period of time. Meanwhile other centres will go on by themselves and will immediately corrupt the centre we want to control and bring it again to mechanical reaction. Suppose I know all I should know, and suppose I decide to think in a new way. I begin to think in a new way but sit in the ordinary posture, or smoke a cigarette in the usual way, and I again find myself in the old thoughts.

It is the same with emotions. One decides to feel in a new way about something, and then one thinks in the old way; and so negative emotions come again as before, without control. So in order to change we must change things in all four centres at the same time, and this is impossible since we have no will to control the four centres. In school there are special methods for attaining this control, but without a school it cannot be done.

On the whole, our machine is very cleverly thought out. From one point of view it has wonderful possibilities of development, but from another point of view this development is made very difficult. You will understand why it is made like that when you finally realise what consciousness and will mean; and then you will understand that neither consciousness nor will can develop mechanically. Every small thing has to be developed by struggle, otherwise it would be neither consciousness nor will. It has to be made difficult.

Doing and Trying

Not doing is itself a kind of doing. But when you get control, fewer and fewer things will happen, and you will have to 'do' even small things for yourself because they will not happen to you. But this is probably very far.

Even when we feel or imagine we must 'do' something, we must consider what and how, and how is more important than what. Most people think about what to do but not about how. Often the things they decide to do are impossible, like stopping wars and other such things [e.g. "global warming'. — Ed.]

We must consider what we mean when we use words like 'we' and 'us'. When it was said that things happen to all people and that people cannot 'do' anything, that referred to ordinary conditions in ordinary life — what is called 'normal' life. But in this work we are trying to get out of this 'normal' life, so we already must 'do'. Only we must first learn what we can 'do', because in our present conditions many things will continue to happen. However, in many things we can already have choice, we can show our preference, our will, in so far as we can have will. So 'we' and 'us' cannot be used in the same way as before.

But you must understand that at first, the difference is not between 'doing' and 'not doing', but between trying to 'do' and trying to understand, and at present all your energy must be concentrated on trying to understand. What you can try to 'do' has been explained. We are trying to find things we can control in ourselves, and if we work on them, we will acquire control. This is all the 'doing' that is possible for us at the moment.

However, as in all things, there is a need for balance between extremes. If you persuade yourself too seriously that you can 'do' nothing, you will find that you really can do nothing. It is a question of relativity. Not being able to 'do' refers to people without any possibility of school work.

Then again, a teacher cannot 'do' anything for you. You are given certain tasks and you have to do them. It is always like that. Instead of trying to 'do', try 'not to do'. You learn to 'do' by first learning 'not to do'. You are trying to do things you consider desirable; try the other way round — not to do things that are undesirable.

This self-evolution is not obligatory, not mechanical, there is no guarantee. It depends on effort. People often ask: How is it that I have been working so many years and have had no experience of higher centres yet? And I ask them: Have you really been working so many years? One counts from the time one has heard these ideas, but one does not try to calculate how much one actually worked — how many days, how many hours or minutes in each day. If one makes this calculation, one will see that there is no reason to expect any results yet, although one may have heard about it long ago.


There is one very important principle in the work: you must work not in accordance with your force but always beyond your force. This is a permanent principle. In the work you always have to do more than you can; only then can you change. If you do only what is possible you will remain what you are. One has to do the impossible. You must not take the word 'impossible' on too big a scale, but even a little means much. This is different from life — in life you do only what is possible.

It is necessary to put more energy into things: into self-study, self-observation, self-remembering, and all that. And in order to put more energy into your work it is necessary to find where it is being spent. You awaken every morning with a certain amount of energy, and it may be spent in many different ways. A certain amount is necessary for self-remembering, study of the system, and so on. But if you spend this energy on other things, nothing is left for that.

This is really the chief point. Try to calculate every morning how much energy you intend to put into work in comparison with other things. You will see that even in elementary things, simply in relation to time, you give very little to the work and all the rest is given to quite useless things. It is good if they are pleasant things, but in most cases they are not even pleasant. Lack of these elementary statistics is the reason we do not understand why, with all our good intentions and decisions, in the end we do nothing. How can we do anything if we do not give energy and time to it?

If you want to learn a language you must learn a certain number of words every day and give some time to the study of grammar and so on. If you want to learn Russian and begin by learning five words a day, I will guarantee that you will never learn it. But if you learn two hundred words a day, in a few months you will understand Russian. In every kind of work or study there is a certain standard. If you give a certain amount of energy and time, but just not enough, you will have no results. You will only turn round and round and remain roughly in the same place.