In the opening to his classic spiritual text In Search of the Miraculous, Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky writes: “I already knew then as an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us. The ‘miraculous’ was a penetration into this unknown reality.”

But why seek the miraculous? What’s false about this “thin film of false reality”?

In search of the miraculous

Ouspensky’s account opens in November 1914, with Russia embroiled in a cataclysmic war that would ultimately destroy the Tsarist dynasty. He was appalled by the mechanicalness of the war. Not the use of technology, but the futile destruction of life and society that, beyond any logical reason, seemed totally unstoppable.

Ouspensky saw no way out. “I had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road.”

A century—and another senseless Russian war later, this time in Ukraine—humanity has not fundamentally resolved that “labyrinth of contradictions.”

On his return to St Petersburg, Ouspensky met the Greek-Armenian spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. It was on his native soil, under Gurdjieff’s tutelage, that Ouspensky penetrated the “unknown reality” he had long sought.

Gurdjieff directly addressed the mechanicalness that manifested in the folly of war. “Men are machines, and nothing but mechanical actions can be expected of machines… Machines they are born and machines they die… No miracles are possible in a machine.”

Gurdjieff’s century-old words are extraordinarily prescient in the age of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Covid-19, and climate change.

“There are periods in the life of humanity, which generally coincide with the beginning of the fall of cultures and civilizations, when the masses irretrievably lose their reason and begin to destroy everything… Such periods of mass madness, often coinciding with geological cataclysms, climatic changes, and similar phenomena… Without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free.”

Ouspensky sought the miracle of freedom from mechanicalness.


Ouspensky mistrusted the then-new discipline of psychoanalysis. Gurdjieff stated that “mechanics, not psychology, is necessary for the study of machines.”

Yet psychoanalysis is an at least partially successful search for the miraculous. It too recognised the mechanical nature of much human activity.

“Your conscious action is only a drop on the surface of a sea of unconscious processes, of which you can know nothing—about which, indeed, you are afraid to know.”

— Wilhelm Reich, The Function of the Orgasm

Carl Jung’s famous quote, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,” echoes Gurdjieff’s view.

The psychoanalytical concept of the ‘false self’ correlates with Ouspensky’s “thin film of reality.” It’s an emotional fortress of unconscious coping mechanisms we erect around ourselves during adolescence to deal with “the labyrinth of contradictions” we consider to be normal, sane, and healthy living.

What is the ‘miraculous’?

Both psychoanalysis and Gurdjieff’s system, known simply as “the work,” are methodical approaches to penetrating and clearing the unconscious. Yet—as Ouspensky’s title, In Search of the Miraculous, alludes—it cannot be navigated with the formal laws of cause and effect our intellect is used to.

As I write in The unconscious – realm of subjective truth, this “unknown reality” works not with objective proofs but with principles and processes. The principles are universal, but the processes—more accurately, our experience of the processes—are unique.

And these experiences can seem quite miraculous. In Living with ghosts – confronting generational trauma, I describe some supernatural-seeming experiences of clearing trauma. Synergies, synchronicities, and coincidences abound.

Trauma—whether from current-life events or inherited from our ancestors—is the source of the “thin film of reality” separating us from deeper truth, conscious contact with reality, and the possibility of living in a spontaneous, non-mechanical way.

The unconscious is the wizard’s hat from which we can pluck miraculous healing.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

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