The Life and Times of PD Ouspensky (1878-1947)
Sourced from The Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation Archives
With an extended personal comment by Lasha Darkmoon
on miraculous cures and the ancient doctrine of Eternal Recurrence
Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky was born in Moscow on March 5, 1878.1 His parents were part of Russia’s intelligentsia, the educated elite; his mother a painter with an interest in Russian and French literature; his father, a Survey Service officer, fond of music, painting and the idea of the Fourth Dimension. Working as a journalist for newspapers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, he also wrote and self-published a number of books. Believing there existed another reality “beyond the thin film of false reality” that was ordinary life, he searched for “a new or forgotten road”—what he called “the miraculous”—which would “allow a penetration into this unknown reality.”
He made two journeys to the East, the first in 1908, the second in 1914. He found esoteric schools but realized they were not of “the rational kind” for which he was searching. In April 1915 he met G. I. Gurdjieff, and the following year recruited a group in St. Petersburg and, with reluctance, joined it. His relationship with Gurdjieff was difficult; he left Gurdjieff first in Essentuki the summer of 1919 and then again in Constantinople in August 1921 when he immigrated to England. Finally, in January 1924, Ouspensky broke for good and started his own line of the teaching. In 1941, because of the Second World War, he left for New York where he again formed groups. Ouspensky returned to England in 1947 and held a series of talks in which he disassociated himself from what he had taught. He died on October 2, 1947.
As a child Ouspensky showed a precocious intelligence. At the age of three he began to read. When less than four years old, his father died. He, his sister and mother lived with her parents. Not long after, his grandfather, a painter of religious subjects, died. Later in life Ouspensky said, “I was under less imagination and I saw what life was like at a very early stage. I didn’t play with toys.” At six years of age Ouspensky was reading on an adult level.2 Two books made a strong impression on him—Lermontov’s A Hero for Our Time and Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook. Lermontov’s book is noteworthy since the ideas it expresses—the plasticity of time and questions of predestination, fate and recurrence—are those that would occupy Ouspensky throughout his life.
As a young boy Ouspensky disliked school, finding the work dull. At sixteen he discovered Nietzsche, whose idea of eternal recurrence would remain a lifelong interest. He left school the same year. In 1905, at the age of seventeen, his mother died. That year he wrote his only novel (not published until 1915), The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. Theosophical literature became an interest and he attended meetings of the Russian Theosophical Society. In 1908 Ouspensky and his friend Sherbakov planned a journey to the East in search of an authentic esoteric school; however, shortly before their departure Sherbakov died. Ouspensky travelled alone to Constantinople, Smyrna, Greece, and Egypt without finding a school. Returning to Russia in early 1909, Ouspensky moved to St. Petersburg where he experimented with altering consciousness using hashish and nitrous oxide, but soon realized drugs were a dead end.
He began to write Tertium Organum: The Third Canon of Thought, a Key to the Enigmas of the World, which he self-published in 1912. The book was intended to supplement Aristotle’s Organon and Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. It brought Ouspensky attention and fame. Still bent on finding an esoteric school, in the winter of 1913 Ouspensky traveled to Ceylon and India. He made contact with a number of schools, but they were, he said, “either of a frankly religious nature, or of a half-religious character, but definitely devotional in tone.”3 These did not interest him. Other schools promised a great deal but demanded, from the beginning, a complete surrender. “It seemed to me,” he said, “there ought to be schools of a more rational kind and that a man had the right, up to a certain point, to know where he was going.”
In November 1914, Ouspensky noticed an ad in a Russian newspaper for a ballet, The Struggle of the Magicians. In April 1915, after giving a lecture in Moscow on “In Search of the Miraculous,” Ouspensky was approached by Vladimir Pohl, a composer, and Sergei Dmitrievich Mercourov, a sculptor, who encouraged him to meet the man who was leading a group studying occult investigations and experiments. Ouspensky was not interested. Mercourov persisted and finally a meeting between Ouspensky and George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was arranged.
Ouspensky at once recognized the answers Gurdjieff gave to his questions, his understanding of life, were of a much different and deeper quality than anything he had ever encountered. Ouspensky was particularly impressed with Gurdjieff’s command of psychology, an area that he felt was his specialty. “I saw without hesitation,” he said, “that in the domain which I knew better than any other and in which I was really able to distinguish the old from the new, the known from the unknown, Gurdjieff knew more than all European science taken as a whole.” He met with Gurdjieff every day for a week before he was obligated to return to St. Petersburg.
That autumn Gurdjieff visited Ouspensky in St. Petersburg and enlisted Ouspensky’s help in forming a group. Ouspensky agreed but didn’t want to be a member of a group. Gurdjieff began to treat Ouspensky indifferently, and so he reluctantly agreed to become a student. Gurdjieff stated that Ouspensky was responsible for those taken into the group. This time is referred to by Ouspensky as “the St. Petersburg Conditions.”4 Formal studies under Gurdjieff began in February 1916.5
Besides Ouspensky, original members of the group included Dr. Leonid Stjoernval, Andrei Zaharoff, Anthony Charkovsky, Nicholas R–, and Anna Ilinishna Butkovsky. Meetings were held almost every evening. That August the group met in a country home in Finland. Without telling Gurdjieff, Ouspensky had been doing short intensive fasts, mental and breathing exercises. The shock to his organism put him in a state of unusual tension. At a meeting, Gurdjieff spoke to him telepathically and Ouspensky answered his questions in front of other students. Gurdjieff told Ouspensky there were certain conditions he must accept or leave the Work. Later Gurdjieff said something to Ouspensky telepathically that upset him. Ouspensky experienced that what he took as firm in himself was in fact not so. It was another “I”. Ouspensky’s words speak clearly of the experience: “I had found something else. I knew that he [Gurdjieff] would not believe me and that he would laugh at me if I showed him this other thing.”6
In February 1917 Thomas and Olga de Hartmann joined the group and perhaps Sophia Grigorievna Savitsky who became known as “Mme Ouspensky,” though it is not clear if they ever married. That same month civil disorder broke out in Russia and Gurdjieff left for the Caucasus.7 In mid-July 1917 Ouspensky and other students rejoined Gurdjieff in Essentuki. Working intensively, Gurdjieff laid out the entire teaching, revealing the links, connections, and direction of the teaching along with the origin of the ideas. The work there lasted for six weeks. Some event happened that prompted Gurdjieff to announce he was disbanding the group and ending all work. The announcement’s apparent irrationality shocked Ouspensky. He reacted to Gurdjieff’s decision by internally disagreeing with him, separating Gurdjieff the man from the ideas of the Work.8 This marked the beginning of many such reactions, identifications and separations. Though he would join Gurdjieff again in Essentuki, he would continue on to Constantinople after Essentuki was liberated in January of 1919.
In the spring of 1920 Mrs. Winifred Beaumont offered Ouspensky a drawing room in Constantinople in which to hold lectures. There Ouspensky met twenty-three-year-old J. G. Bennett, the much older Mrs. Beaumont’s young lover. Ouspensky’s lectures created interest and he began forming a group of pupils.
LD : Both my parents were disciples of JG Bennett at Coombe Springs, Surrey, where my father was encouraged to write poetry by Bennett and to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church as a “symbolic act”. Bennett (pictured), a polymath of staggering erudition fluent in 17 languages, was the author of a stupendous work in four volumes called The Dramatic Universe — a book in my father’s library which I had found totally incomprehensible when I first tried to read it in my late teens.
Though I was born four years after Bennett’s death, I nevertheless grew up in an atmosphere of Eastern spirituality, with much talk about Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and the Indonesian religious discipline known as Subud, to which many members of Bennett’s circle later belonged. My parents were Subud members and benefited enormously from the latihan, the spiritual exercise around which the entire movement is based. My mother, suffering from chronic arthritis at the time, was cured in a single instant during the latihan ceremony.
It happened like this.
My mother’s back pain, acutely felt at all times and kept in control only with strong painkillers, tore out of her body like an evil bird and entered the body of another person in the latihan hall. There were roughly a hundred people in the hall, all wailing and chanting and gyrating crazily as one does during the 30-minute latihan ceremony, and the pain that had been lodged in my mother’s back had transferred itself into the body of another individual. This was regarded as normal. It was meant to happen.
The man into whose body the pain went was a “helper”, a spiritually advanced devotee specially trained to receive such pain and expel it later. He came up to my mother after the latihan and said, “It’s you who had the pain, am I right?” My mother nodded mutely. “Well, your pain has come into me,” the man said with a gentle smile, “and I must now do a cleansing and get rid of the little demon.” He withdrew into a separate room. Five minutes later he returned. “It’s gone,” he told my mother. “Back into the void from whence it came.”
This miraculous cure of my own mother from an incurable disease made an indelible impression on my young mind. Hitherto an incurable skeptic, I suddenly became a firm believer in the miraculous.
I was to receive a copy of Ouspensky’s magnum opus In Search of the Miraculous (see below) as a gift on my thirteenth birthday from my father, a book which in turn had been given to him by the erudite Bennett. This book, too, was completely above my head, I confess, but far easier than Bennett’s book which had been full of abstruse mathetmatical equations. It was here in this book that I first made acquaintance with the uncanny “Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence” which was to exercise such a fascination on both Ouspensky and Nietzsche.
Let Wikipedia explain:
“ETERNAL RETURN (also known as “eternal recurrence”) is a concept that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. The concept is found in Indian philosophy and in ancient Egypt and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics.
With the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept fell into disuse in the Western world, with the exception of Friedrich Nietzsche, who connected the thought to many of his other concepts, including amor fati. In addition, the philosophical concept of eternal recurrence was addressed by Arthur Schopenhauer. It is a purely physical concept, involving no supernatural reincarnation, but the return of beings in the same bodies. Time is viewed as being not linear but cyclical.”
In other words, according to the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence—derived from intuitive knowledge or sruti—our lives are like recorded movies on a disc which will be played again and again, with no end in sight; and everything we have done will be done again without the slightest variation, ad infinitum. You will be born into the same family, go to the same school, make the same friends, fall in love with the same lovers, experience the same triumphs and disasters, and die the same death. And each time you do this, you will think it is the first time, with no recollection that you have done this before in an infinite number of identical lives.
According to this alarming theory, this is not the first time you are reading this article. These words you are reading now, you have read them before in countless incarnations. And you are doomed to go on reading them in countless identical lives yet to come.
This would be the Ultimate Torture if you knew for sure that the thing you are about to do is the thing you have already done, a trillion zillion times, in an infinite series of identical repetitions. There is no free will here. This is clockwork repetition. The precious moment in the rose garden, with the moonlight on your lover’s face … the fleeting kiss long forgotten … the sigh, the whisper, the murmured words … they will all come back again and be re-enacted in the Eternal Return.
IDENTICALLY . . . FOREVER AND FOREVER . . . WORLD WITHOUT END!
I have tried to capture all this in a very short poem I wrote long ago.
On July 7, 1920, Gurdjieff and his followers arrived in Constantinople. Ouspensky decided to work again with Gurdjieff and turned over his pupils to Gurdjieff. At this time Ouspensky gave lectures at Gurdjieff’s Institute in Constantinople. In the spring of 1921 Ouspensky noticed that Gurdjieff seemed to be going out of his way to provoke quarrels and misunderstandings.
Ouspensky was alarmed by Gurdjieff’s behavior and began to think of leaving. His opportunity came in May 1921 when Ouspensky received a telegram from Lady Rothermere. Impressed with Tertium Organum, she offered to pay all his expenses if he would come to London. During this time Ouspensky told Gurdjieff of his idea to write a book giving Gurdjieff’s St. Petersburg lectures with his own commentaries. Gurdjieff agreed to the idea and authorized the publication. In August Gurdjieff saw that conditions were not right in Constantinople, and he left the city with his entourage. Among those were Mme Ouspensky and her family. She had chosen Gurdjieff over Ouspensky as her teacher. During the same month Ouspensky departed Constantinople for London.
Ouspensky was well received in London and was given a meeting place in Lady Rothermere’s studio. A. R. Orage, a former Theosophist whom Ouspensky had previously met in London on his return from India, also helped to recruit pupils for Ouspensky’s group and introduced him to members of his psychosynthesis group.
In February and March of 1922 Gurdjieff traveled to London. His talks won the allegiance of most of Ouspensky’s pupils and patrons, who decided on their own to help Gurdjieff open an institute in London at Hampstead. However, Gurdjieff was refused permanent entry to England. In 1923 Ouspensky often visited the Prieuré in Fontainebleau, but declined Gurdjieff’s invitation to live there. In January 1924 Ouspensky gathered ten of his senior pupils and backers and announced that he had broken off all relations with Gurdjieff and in the future would be operating independently. He told them that they had a choice, to stay and work with him or go and work with Gurdjieff. But if they chose to stay then they must not in any way communicate with Gurdjieff or his students and not mention his name. Though Ouspensky imposed this rule on his pupils he did not hold to it himself, and for at least seven years he would occasionally see Gurdjieff. Later, after Gurdjieff closed the Institute, he sent Mme Ouspensky to her husband in England. Though the Ouspenskys’ personal relationship remained platonic, they did share the responsibility of teaching in both England and America.9
By 1935 Ouspensky had attracted upwards of one thousand people to the teaching. Weekly meetings were held with the material to be addressed first presented by an older student, usually Lord John Pentland, a Cambridge graduate and journalist, and J. G. Bennett, and then Ouspensky followed answering questions and elaborating. With funds from wealthy students, the Ouspenskys purchased Lyne Place at Virginia Water, located twenty-three miles from London. C. S. Nott visited there. Ouspensky told Nott that he thought Gurdjieff lost contact with the Source after Essentuki. He claimed that Gurdjieff’s mind had never recovered from the car accident in 1924. Nott disagreed, saying, “For me Gurdjieff represents objective sanity…. He lives the Teaching, while we talk about it.”10
By 1938 Ouspensky had delegated much of the routine teaching to others. In April 1938 he formed the Historico-Psychological Society. Ouspensky was the “Official Lecturer.” On the Society’s committee were Ouspensky and Mme Ouspensky, Lord John Pentland, Dr. Kenneth Walker, and Dr. Francis Roles. Ouspensky began drafting rules to be adhered to by the Society members. He thought that these prohibitive rules would promote consciousness: pupils were never to mention Gurdjieff, never address each other by their Christian names, never speak together around strangers, never speak to anyone who had left the groups, etc.
In January 1941, both Ouspenskys left England for America to avoid the war, with Ouspensky leaving instructions for the Work to continue as long as possible at Lyne Place. At this time Orage had been dead for seven years, yet his group was still meeting in New York. C. S. Nott arranged for Ouspensky to speak to Orage’s group. The group was not impressed with Ouspensky’s presentation, considering him overly intellectual, pretentious, and lacking in emotional authority. His energies at this time were depleted by age, drink and the climate of the East Coast, and most importantly he had lost inner conviction.11
In late 1942 Franklin Farms, an estate in Mendham, New Jersey, was purchased for Ouspensky to use as a center for his activities.12 Mme Ouspensky, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, spent much of her time in bed but continued to direct Work activities. Many pupils considered her the senior teacher. Ouspensky spent little time at Mendham preferring to stay in New York. Ouspensky’s health was deteriorating and he was drinking heavily, saying that drinking was the only thing that relieved his boredom.13
In 1945, Marie Seton, Ouspensky’s secretary, expressed concern about his drinking and explosive temper.14 Ouspensky confided to her that he felt contempt for his students and believed that neither they nor he had gained anything from the System. He said that he took over the System before he was ready, but that he was too accustomed to the comfort and luxury that teaching afforded him and he could not stop. She urged him to give up his lectures until he had found his way again, but he refused. Because of this incident she left the Work.15 Ouspensky began to shun contact with others.16 He continued to see a small circle of his intimates, which included Lord Pentland and Rodney Collin-Smith. His drinking increased and he became ill with kidney disease but refused to seek treatment.17
- S. Nott wrote, “All that Ouspensky had of value, he got from Gurdjieff, and that only with his mind. He had a perfunctory fling at the movements; and even confessed to being lazy. Gurdjieff’s main quarrel with him was that he, Ouspensky, thought he knew better, and was apt to kick over the traces.”18 Moreover, “Ouspensky had set out, in the Theosophical tradition in old St. Petersburg, in a role in which he saw himself as a successful religious teacher though he may not have been conscious of this. He was, as I have said, a professional philosopher.”19 While Nott felt Ouspensky to be warm and sympathetic, he said his weakness was his emotional center.20
Frank Pinder felt that Ouspensky knew the theory of the work, perhaps better than anyone, but he did not understand.21 Denis Saurat believed that Ouspensky couldn’t submit to the pressure Gurdjieff brought to bear on him so as to break down his vanity.22
Speaking of Ouspensky, Marie Seton said, “Here was a man who was at heart honest; a man who was not by any means devoid of compassion for people. But adulation and comfort and the dearth of friends and the terror of a period of war had sapped his will to keep theory and practice united.”23
Finally, his health in decline, Ouspensky decided to leave America and he sailed for England on January 18, 1947. Five weeks later, on February 24, he held the first of six meetings at Colet Gardens. Ouspensky baffled many of his students by denying that he had ever taught a System, saying he had never given a teaching and that he had no teaching to give. Those in attendance tried to understand; some believed this was a teaching device. No one considered that what he said was what he believed.24
In his last days, Ouspensky was driven by his student Rodney Collin-Smith for exhausting car rides to impress familiar locations on his memory. Ouspensky would also push his body, making himself stay up long hours. On October 2, 1947, Ouspensky died at Lyne Place in the arms of Rodney Collin-Smith. He is buried in the courtyard of Lyne Church.
Ouspensky will be chiefly remembered as the author of In Search of the Miraculous, published posthumously in 1949 and later in several foreign languages under the title Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. This work is by far the most lucid account available of the Russian period of Gurdjieff’s teaching, and it has been a principal cause of the growing influence of Gurdjieff’s ideas.25 His other books include: The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, A New Model of the Universe, Tertium Organum, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, and The Symbolism of the Tarot. A posthumous record of his talks and answers to questions were published with the titles The Fourth Way, A Record of Meetings, A Further Record, and Conscience.
His life has been the subject of many books as well, including The Strange Life of P. D. Ouspensky by Colin Wilson; Don’t Forget: P. D. Ouspensky’s Life of Self-remembering by Bob Hunter and Andrew Phillip Smith; P. D. Ouspensky: Pioneer of the Fourth Way by Bob Hunter; and Ouspensky: The Unsung Genius by J. H. Reyner. His relationship with Gurdjieff is examined in Struggle of the Magicians: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship by William Patrick Patterson.
Ouspensky gave thousands of lectures over many years, and has been quoted as saying:
If we begin to study ourselves we first of all come up against one word which we use more than any other and that is the word ‘I’. We say ‘I am doing’, ‘I am sitting’, ‘I feel’, ‘I like’, ‘I dislike’, and so on. This is our chief illusion, for the principal mistake we make about ourselves is that we consider ourselves one; we always speak about ourselves as ‘I’ and we suppose that we refer to the same thing all the time when in reality we are divided into hundreds and hundreds of different ‘I’s…. These ‘I’s change all the time; one suppresses another, one replaces another, and all this struggle makes up our inner life.”26
Particularly interested in negative emotions and the lack of reason for them, he said, “There is absolutely not a single unavoidable reason why somebody else’s action or some circumstance should produce a negative emotion in me. It is only my weakness. No negative emotion can be produced by external causes if we do not want it.”27
And regarding war, “Wars do not begin by themselves, neither do ‘peoples’ begin them, however much they are accused of it. It is just those men with their good intentions who are the obstacle to peace. But is it possible to expect that they will ever understand this? Has anybody ever understood his own worthlessness?”28
Speaking of man as a machine, he said, “Man is a machine, but a very peculiar machine. He is a machine which, in right circumstances, and with right treatment, can know that he is a machine, and, having fully realized this, he may find the ways to cease to be a machine.”29
On the subject of lying, Ouspensky said, “Lying fills all our life. People pretend that they know all sorts of things: about God, about the future life, about the universe, about the origin of man, about evolution, about everything; but in reality they do not know anything, even about themselves. And every time they speak about something they do not know as though they knew it, they lie.”30
About the aim of his “System,” he said, “The aim of the system is to bring man to conscience. Conscience is a certain faculty that exists in every normal man…. Conscience is a state in which one cannot hide anything from oneself, and it must be developed in man. This development is parallel and simultaneous with the development of consciousness.”31
- William Patrick Patterson,Struggle of the Magicians(Fairfax, CA: Arete Communications, 1996), 2.
2. Ibid., 3–5
3. Ibid., 11.
4. Ibid., 24–25.
5. Ibid., 24.
6. Ibid., 36–38.
7. Patterson, 43.
8. Patterson, 49–51.
9. James Moore, Ouspensky & Gurdjieff: An Historical Choreography.http://www.ouspensky.org.uk/mainappreciation.htm
10. Patterson, 175–76.
12. Patterson, 192.
13. Ibid., 194.
14. Ibid., 202–203.
15. Marie Seton, “The Case of P. D. Ouspensky,” http://www.Gurdjieff-Bibliography.com
17. Patterson, 203.
18. C. S. Nott, Journeys Through This World (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1978), 90.
19. Ibid., 91.
20. Ibid., 108.
21. Patterson, 194.
24. Patterson, 204–205.
25. John Pentland, “P. D. Ouspensky,” Gurdjieff International Review, Winter 1998/1999,http://www.gurdjieff.org/pentland2.htm
26. P. D. Ouspensky, The Fourth Way (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969), 3.
27. Ibid., 71.
28. P. D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 5.
29. P. D. Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 13.
30. Ibid., 40.
31. Ouspensky, The Fourth Way, 151.