“No work can be done in sleep.” P. D. Ouspensky

May 2017

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Yesterday a friend and I were in a bookshop in downtown Amsterdam. Standing in front of the esoteric shelves, looking for works by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, my friend suddenly remarked, “Look at all this imagination.”

Before us was an array of books, the contents of which were perplexing. There were books on UFO landings and cover-ups, on the control of dreams, on communicating with your guardian angel—hundreds of tomes and titles of every shape and hue. Browsing them in a desultory fashion, we discussed the value of these works, and concluded that they would take readers deeper into imagination, into unreality, and farther from their real selves.

Imagination has two main meanings. There is “creative” imagination, which one needs to create anything—be it a cake, a , painting, or a suspension bridge; and there is the Fourth Way use of the term. Here, imagination is defined as a state where a person’s thoughts are occupied by something that is not actually present, and may never be. Ouspensky called it “uncontrolled mind activity.” Although it appears to be harmless, it erodes our possibility of being present to our lives, of truly experiencing our existence, which is, if theory is to be believed, the basis of creating a soul.

Our head is a cinema with a constantly playing movie that bears little or no relation to reality. I say “little” because imagination is often based upon a grain of reality. We can play the guitar for a few minutes, then imagine ourselves to be the next Eric Clapton. “We imagine ourselves, really,” Ouspensky said, “and we are not who we imagine ourselves to be.” Even worse, we spend much of our time in “negative imagination,” an unhealthy, self-torturing state in which we conjure up disasters, humiliations, and illnesses, imagining a car accident, a botched job interview, or someone coming through the window in the middle of the night.

I’ve observed that I’m constantly in a state of imagination about the immediate future. When I leave the house, I’m in imagination about whether or not my bicycle has been stolen (it never has been), then I cycle to the tram stop and I’m in imagination that I have missed it or that it will be late. On the tram, I’m in imagination about the walk to college, then about how my colleagues will greet and react to me, and so on. Imagination is always about the past or the future, never the present moment, and it can form the fabric of our lives unless we find a way to get off this psychological escalator and be real. Be present.

When we have identified imagination within ourselves and seen it for what it is, the next logical question is how to escape it. Then one realizes the need to find others who have a teacher and are working with tools to combat it. From one point of view, to awaken means to emerge from imagination and become alive to what is around you in the moment. Only at that point can work on oneself begin. As Ouspensky reminds us, “No work can be done in sleep.”


Alan Burnside