Ouspensky made many experiments with the aim of finding a method of self-remembering. They mainly involved trying to stop thoughts and trying to control attention. He came to the conclusion that self-remembering must involve the dividing of attention. This is how he described it in In Search of the Miraculous:
When I observe something, my attention is directed towards what I observe—a line with one arrowhead:
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:
Having defined this I saw that the problem consisted in directing attention on oneself without weakening or obliterating the attention directed on something else.
But the problem did not get solved in that way. It’s not possible to give full attention to two objects at once. Francis Roles came much closer to discovering the real self-remembering in a paper titled Voluntary Attention in which he said: “We want to develop special methods of rousing a state of attention which is non-specific – attention for attention’s sake.” He described this non-specific state of attention as being not directed towards any particular object. It involved just allowing the body to carry out its current task by itself, without interference. He said that this non-specific attention disappeared when he subsequently became lost in a train of thought.
On advice from the Shankaracharya, Francis Roles focused his subsequent efforts on mantra meditation. Mantra meditation involves focusing attention on a mantra, but then allowing the mantra to die away leading one to a state of nirvikalpa samadhi, in which there is an absence of any kind of objective experience. In Western teachings this peaceful, empty state of mind is sometimes referred to as ‘consciousness without objects’. When not meditating, the Shankaracharya advised Francis Roles to practise one-pointed attention, in other words, giving his attention fully to the task in hand, rather than allowing the mind to wander off in imaginative journeys of its own. Both these practices involved focused attention and were very different from Ouspensky’s double-headed arrow experiments and from Francis Roles’s own experiments with non-specific attention. And although the Shankaracharya recommended the practice of one-pointed attention, both in meditation and during the rest of day, as part of a progressive path, he also remarked:
The attention of the Realized man is very free; it is not hard or close fixed, it is freely moving; whereas the attention of the learner has to be very appropriate; he must pull himself together to attend to the subject. Whereas the instructor or the Realized man would do things very freely, but all the same attending to them.
So why did Ouspensky fail to the find the simple method of self-remembering that he was sure must exist? The answer becomes clear when we consider the direct path approach. If we try to remember ourself we are conceptualising ourself as an object of experience and trying to find that object. That ‘trying to remember’ implies that the mind gives attention to this conceptualised object and tries to find it. In this extract from his book Presence: The Art of Peace and Happiness, Rupert Spira explains that the self is the source of attention and not the object of attention. To know ourself as we truly are, the mind needs only to turn the focus of its attention away from the objects that it seems to know and allow attention to relax and fall back or flow back into its source in awareness:
If someone were to ask us to turn our attention towards a sensation in the body, a thought or image in the mind or an object in the world, we would have no difficulty, just as we have no difficulty in turning our attention towards these words.
But what about if someone were to ask us to turn towards our self, towards the aware presence that knows the objects of the body, mind and world? Try to do that. For instance, try to turn your attention towards whatever it is that is seeing these words. Some of us may be inclined to turn our attention towards a sensation around the eyes or head, but notice that the eyes and the head are themselves sensations of which we are aware.
Try again to turn your attention towards whatever it is that is aware of these sensations and which is not itself a sensation. In which direction do we turn? Notice that any direction in which we turn is always towards some kind of an object, more or less subtle.
If we take our attention away from that object and try to turn it towards whatever it is that knows or experiences that object we are always frustrated. Every direction turns out to be the wrong direction. It is like standing up and trying to take a step towards one’s body; every step is the wrong direction. And yet, at the same time, no step takes us further away.
At some point there may be a spontaneous collapse of the attempt to find oneself as an object in the body or mind. In this collapse, the seeking mind comes briefly to an end and in that moment—it is, in fact, a timeless moment—our self glimpses or tastes itself as it is, pure aware presence, unconditioned by any of the beliefs or feelings that thought superimposes upon it.
It is very simple – we just need to relax and stop trying!
By turning our attention away from the objects of experience and allowing it to relax back into its source, we begin to become familiar with our real self – pure, aware presence. As this familiarity deepens, we find we can take a further step. We discover that we are able to attend to objects without losing that clear sense of being our real self, and as the Shankaracharya says, we can allow attention to be ‘very free’ and ‘do things very freely, but all the same attending to them’. We realise that we can abide as our real self both in the absence of objective experience and in the presence of objective experience. That is real self-remembering and it is possible at all times and under all circumstances.
This video explains in more detail the direct path view of attention and its relationship with meditation: What Is the Relationship Between Awareness and Attention?