P. D. Ouspensky: The Meaning of Life

P_D_Ouspenski(y)The meaning of life — this is the eternal theme of human meditation. All philosophical systems, all religious teachings strive to find and give to men the answer to this question. Some say that the meaning of life is in service, in the surrender of self, in self-sacrifice, in the sacrifice of everything, even life itself. Others declare that the meaning of life is in the delight of it, relieved against “the expectation of the final horror of death.” Some say that the meaning of life is perfection, and the creation of a better future beyond the grave, or in future lives for ourselves. Others say that the meaning of life is in the approach to non-existence: still others, that the meaning of life is in the perfection of the race, in the organization of life on earth; while there are those who deny the possibility of even attempting to know its meaning.

The fault of all these explanations consists in the fact that they all attempt to discover the meaning of life outside of itself, either in the future of humanity, or in some problematical existence beyond the grave, or again in the evolution of the Ego throughout many successive incarnations—always in something outside of the present life of man. But if instead of thus speculating about it, men would simply look within themselves, then they would see that in reality the meaning of life is not after all so obscure. It consists in knowledge. All life, through all its facts, events and incidents, excitements and attractions, inevitably leads us то the knowledge of something. All life-experience is knowledge. The most powerful emotion in man is his yearning toward the unknown. Even in love, the most powerful of all attractions, to which everything is sacrificed, is this yearning toward the unknown, toward the new — curiosity.

The Persian poet-philosopher, Al-Ghazzali, says: “The highest function of mans soul is the perception of truth.”

In the very beginning of this book consciousness and the world were recognized as existing: I and Not-I. The world is everything that exists. Consciousness may be defined as the realization of existence.

The I realizes its existence and the existence of the world, a part of which it is. Its relation to itself and to the world is called knowledge. The expansion and deepening of its relation to itself and to the world is the expansion of knowledge.

All of the soul-properties of man, all the elements of his consciousness—sensations, perceptions, conceptions, ideas, judgments, reasonings, feelings, emotions, even creation—all these are the instruments of knowledge which the I possesses.

Feelings—from the simple emotions up to the most complex, such as esthetic, religious and moral emotion—and creation— from the creation of a savage making a stone hatchet for himself up to the creation of a Beethoven—these indeed are instruments of knowledge.

Only to our narrow human view do they appear to serve other purposes—the preservation of life, the construction of something, or merely pleasure. In reality all this conduces to knowledge.

Evolutionists, followers of Darwin, say that the struggle for existence and the selection of the fittest created the mind and feeling of contemporary man—that mind and feeling serve life, preserve the life of separate individuals and of the species—and that beyond this they have no meaning in themselves. But it is possible to answer this with the same arguments before advanced against the mechanicality of the universe; namely, that if consciousness exists, then nothing exists except consciousness. The struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, if they truly play such a role in the creation of life are also not merely accidents, but products of consciousness, of which — we do not know; and they also conduce, like everything else, то knowledge.

But we do not realize, do not discern the presence of consciousness in the laws of nature. This happens because we study always not the whole but the part, and we do not divide the consciousness belonging to the whole—by studying the little finger of a man we cannot discover his consciousness. It is the same way in our relation to nature: we study always the little finger of nature. When we come to realize this we shall understand that


In order to comprehend the consciousness of the whole, it is necessary to understand the character of the whole. Consciousness is the function of the whole, thus the function of man is consciousness. But without understanding “man” as a whole, it is impossible to understand his consciousness.

To understand what our consciousness is it is necessary to clear up our relation to life.

In Chapter X an attempt was made—a very artificial one, founded upon the analogy with a world of two-dimensional beings —to define life as motion in a sphere higher in dimensionality in comparison with ours. From this standpoint every separate life is as it were the manifestation in our sphere of a part of one of the consciousness of another sphere. These consciousnesses look in upon us, as it were, in these lives which we see. When a man dies, one eye of the Universe closes, says Fechner. Every separate human life is a moment of consciousness of some great being, which lives in us. Every separate life of a tree is a moment of consciousness of a being, the life of which is composed of the lives of trees. The consciousnesses of these higher beings do not exist independently of these lower lives. They are two sides of one and the same thing. Every single human consciousness, in some other section of the world, may produce the illusion of many lives.

To us, life and consciousness are different and separate from one another, because we are inept at seeing, inept at looking at things. And this in turn depends upon the fact that it is very difficult for us to step outside the frames of our divisions. We see the life of a tree, of this tree; and if we are told that the life of a tree is a manifestation of consciousness, then we understand it in such a way that the life of this tree is the manifestation of the consciousness of this tree. But this is of course an absurdity resulting from “three-dimensional thinking,” the “Euclidian mind.” The life of this tree is a manifestation of the consciousness of the species, or family, or perhaps of the consciousness of the entire vegetable kingdom.

In exactly the same way, our separate lives are manifestations of some great consciousness. We find the proof of this in the fact that our lives have no other meaning at all aside from that process of acquiring knowledge performed by us. A thoughtful man ceases to feel painfully the absence of meaning in life only when he realizes this, and begins to strive consciously for that for which he strove unconsciously before.

This process of acquiring knowledge, representing our function in the world, is performed not by the intellect only, but by our entire organism, by all  the body, by all the life, and by all the life of human society, its organizations, its institutions, by all culture and all civilization. And we acquire the knowledge of that which we deserve to know.

… …

Therefore the true and real progress of thought is only in the broadest striving toward knowledge, that does not recognize the possibility of arrestment in any found forms at all. The meaning of life is in eternal search. And only in that search can we find something truly new.

Excerpts From: “Tertium organum (the third organ of thought) a key to the enigmas of the world.”


~Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii (known in English as Peter D. Ouspensky, Пётр Демья́нович Успе́нский; 5 March 1878 – 2 October 1947), was a Russian mathematician and esotericist known for his expositions of the early work of the Greek-Armenian teacher of esoteric doctrine George Gurdjieff, whom he met in Moscow in 1915. He was associated with the ideas and practices originating with Gurdjieff from then on. He shared the (Gurdjieff) “system” for 25 years in England and the United States, having separated from Gurdjieff in 1924 personally, for reasons he explains in the last chapter of his book In Search of the Miraculous.

Excellence Reporter 2018

Categories: Philosophy

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