Gurdjieff International Review

Attempts to Divide Attention

In the beginning, our Most Most Holy Sun Absolute was maintained by the help of two primordial sacred laws; but then these primordial laws functioned independently...

And so, our all-maintaining endlessness decided to change the principle of the system of the functionings of both of these fundamental sacred laws, and, namely, he decided to make their independent functioning dependent on forces coming from outside.1

P. D. Ouspensky

Gurdjieff said, “Not one of you has noticed the most important thing that I have pointed out to you. That is to say, not one of you has noticed that you do not remember yourselves. You do not feel yourselves; you are not conscious of yourselves...

In order really to observe oneself one must first of all remember oneself. Try to remember yourselves when you observe yourselves and later on tell me the results. Only those results will have any value that are accompanied by self-remembering. Otherwise you yourselves do not exist in your observations. In which case what are all your observations worth? ...

This is a very important realization. People who know this already know a great deal. The whole trouble is that nobody knows it. If you ask a man whether he can remember himself, he will of course answer that he can. If you tell him that he cannot remember himself, he will either be angry with you, or he will think you an utter fool. The whole of life is based on this, the whole of human existence, the whole of human blindness. If a man really knows that he cannot remember himself, he is already near to the understanding of his being.”

All that G. said, all that I myself thought, and especially all that my attempts at self-remembering had shown me, very soon convinced me that I was faced with an entirely new problem which science and philosophy had not, so far, come across.

But before making deductions, I will try to describe my attempts to remember myself.

The first impression was that attempts to remember myself or to be conscious of myself, to say to myself, I am walking, I am doing, and continually to feel this I, stopped thought. When I was feeling I, I could neither think nor speak; even sensations became dimmed. Also, one could only remember oneself in this way for a very short time.

I had previously made certain experiments in stopping thought which are mentioned in books on Yoga practices... And my first attempts to self-remember reminded me exactly of these, my first experiments. Actually it was almost the same thing with the one difference that in stopping thoughts attention is wholly directed towards the effort of not admitting thoughts, while in self-remembering attention becomes divided, one part of it is directed towards the same effort, and the other part to the feeling of self.

This last realization enabled me to come to a certain, possibly a very incomplete definition of “self-remembering,” which nevertheless proved to be very useful in practice.

I am speaking of the division of attention which is the characteristic feature of self-remembering.

I represented it to myself in the following way:

When I observe something, my attention is directed towards what I observe—a line with one arrowhead:

I −−−−−−−−−−−−−►  the observed phenomenon.

When at the same time, I try to remember myself, my attention is directed both towards the object observed and towards myself. A second arrowhead appears on the line:

I  ◄−−−−−−−−−−−−►  the observed phenomenon.

Having defined this I saw that the problem consisted in directing attention on oneself without weakening or obliterating the attention directed on something else. Moreover this “something else” could as well be within me as outside me.

The very first attempts at such a division showed me its possibility. At the same time I saw two things clearly.

In the first place I saw that self-remembering resulting from this method had nothing in common with “self-feeling” or “self-analysis.” It was a new and very interesting state with a strangely familiar flavor.

And secondly I realized that moments of self-remembering do occur in life, although rarely. Only the deliberate production of these moments created the sensation of novelty. Actually I had been familiar with them from early childhood. They came either in new and unexpected surroundings, in a new place, among new people while traveling, for instance, when suddenly one looks about one and says: How strange! I and in this place; or in very emotional moments, in moments of danger, in moments when it is necessary to keep one’s head, when one hears one’s own voice and sees and observes from the outside.

I saw quite clearly that my first recollections of life, in my case very early ones, were moments of self-remembering. This last realization revealed much else to me. That is, I saw that I really only remember those moments of the past in which I remembered myself. Of the others, I know only that they took place...

All these were the realizations of the first days. Later, when I began to learn to divide attention, I saw that self-remembering gave wonderful sensations which, in a natural way, that is, by themselves come to us only very seldom and in exceptional conditions.

Rodney Collin

If self-remembering is so desirable, why is it so difficult of attainment?

To answer this we must return in more detail to the question of attention. For the possibility of higher states of consciousness in man precisely depends upon certain fine matters produced by the body being subject to his attention.

The process of digestion in man consists of the progressive rarefaction of the food, air and perceptions which he takes in; and the fine matter of which we speak may be taken as the final product of this rarefaction in ordinary conditions. Unlike flesh or blood, which consists of cells, this matter may be visualised as in molecular state—that is, as in a similar state to gases or scents. It is thus extraordinarily volatile, unstable and difficult to contain...

In man’s case, however, it is subject to psychological control, and this psychological control is attention. Controlled by attention this matter becomes the potential vehicle of self-consciousness.

In man’s ordinary state ... this fine matter follows the law governing all free matter in molecular state. It diffuses from him in all directions, or in the directions which ‘catch his attention.’ ...

This diffusing of man’s finest energy from him takes many forms... Most commonly of all it simply diffuses from him to create the curious psychological state of ‘fascination,’ in which a man completely loses his identity in a conversation, a task, a friend, an enemy, a book, an object, a thought or a sensation. This ‘fascination’ ... constitutes in fact man’s usual state, and for this very reason is completely unrecognised and ordinarily invisible...


One of the chief things which is taught in schools of the fourth way is intentional division of attention between oneself and the outside world. . .

In this way he learns to remember himself, by moments at first, and then with increasing frequency. And in proportion as he learns to remember himself, so his actions acquire a meaning and consistency, which were impossible to them as long as his awareness moved only from one ‘fascination’ to another...

But this self-remembering cannot be repeated or maintained except by his conscious effort. It cannot happen of itself. It can never become a habit. And the moment the idea of self-remembering or divided attention is forgotten, all efforts, no matter how sincere, degenerate once again into ‘fascination,’ that is, into awareness of one thing at a time...


Many years of struggle and failure may be necessary before one comes to a curious psychological fact, which is in reality connected with a very important law indeed. This fact is that although it is extraordinarily difficult to divide one’s attention into two, it is much more possible for it to be divided into three: although it is extraordinarily difficult to remember oneself and one’s surroundings simultaneously, it may be much more possible to remember oneself and one’s surroundings in the presence of something else.

As we have seen, no phenomenon is produced by two forces: every phenomenon and every real result requires three forces. The practice of self-remembering or division of attention is connected with the attempt to produce a certain phenomenon: the birth of consciousness in oneself. And when this begins to happen, attention recognises with relief and joy not two but three factors—one’s own organism, the subject of experiment; the situation to which this organism is exposed in the moment; and something permanent which stands on a higher level than both and which alone can resolve the relation between the two.

What is this third factor which must be remembered? Each person must find it for himself, and his own form of it... He must remember that himself and his situation both stand in the presence of higher powers, and that both are bathed in celestial influence. Fascinated, he is wholly absorbed in the tree he notices; with divided attention, he sees both the tree and himself looking at it; remembering, he is aware of the tree, himself, and of the Sun shining impartially upon both.

If a man can discover such a third factor, self-remembering becomes possible for him, and can bring far more even than it promised in the beginning.

~ • ~

These excerpts are from two books: P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1949, pp. 117–120; and Rodney Collin, The Theory of Celestial Influence: Man, The Universe, and Cosmic Mystery, London: Watkins Publishing, 1954, pp. 210–216. Some sentences and phrases have been removed for brevity.

Copyright © 2013 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2013 Issue, Vol. XII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2013


1 Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1950, pp. 752–753.