Wrong Work of Centres

Each centre has its own memory, its own associations, its own thinking. As a matter of fact each centre consists of three parts: the thinking, the emotional, and the moving. But we know very little about this side of our nature. In each centre we know only one part. Self-observation, however, will very quickly show us that our mental life is much richer than we think, or in any case that it contains more possibilities than we think. At the same time as we watch the work of the centres we shall observe, side by side with their right working, their wrong working, that is, the working of one centre for another; the attempts of the thinking centre to feel or to pretend that it feels, the attempts of the emotional centre to think, the attempts of the moving centre to think and feel. As has been said already, one centre working for another is useful in certain cases, for it preserves the continuity of mental activity. But in becoming habitual it becomes at the same time harmful, since it begins to interfere with right working by enabling each centre to shirk its own direct duties and to do, not what it ought to be doing, but what it likes best at the moment.

In a normal healthy person each centre does its own work, that is, the work for which it was specially destined and which it can best perform. There are situations in life which the thinking centre alone can deal with and can find a way out of. If at this moment the emotional centre begins to work instead, it will make a muddle of everything and the result of its interference will be most unsatisfactory. In an ‘unbalanced’ kind of person the substitution of one centre for another goes on almost continually and this is precisely what ‘being unbalanced’ or ‘neurotic’ means. Each centre strives, as it were, to pass its work on to another, and, at the same time, it strives to do the work of another centre for which it is not fitted. The emotional centre working for the thinking centre brings unnecessary nervousness, feverishness, and hurry into situations where, on the contrary, calm judgment and deliberation are essential. The thinking centre working for the emotional centre brings deliberation into situations which require quick decisions and makes a person incapable of distinguishing the peculiarities and the fine points of the position. Thought is too slow. It works out a certain plan of action and continues to follow it even though the circumstances have changed and quite a different course of action is necessary. Besides, in some cases the interference of the thinking centre gives rise to entirely wrong reactions, because the thinking centre is simply incapable of understanding the shades and distinctions of many events. Events that are quite different for the moving centre and for the emotional centre appear to be alike to it. Its decisions are much too general and do not correspond to the decisions which the emotional centre would have made. This becomes perfectly clear if we imagine the interference of thought, that is, of the theoretical mind, in the domain of feeling, or of sensation, or of movement; in all three cases the interference of the mind leads to wholly undesirable results.

The mind cannot understand shades of feeling. We shall see this clearly if we imagine one person reasoning about the emotions of another. They are not feeling anything themselves, so the feelings of another do not exist for them. A full person does not understand a hungry one. But for the other they have a very definite existence. And the decisions of the first person, that is of the mind, can never satisfy the second. In exactly the same way the mind cannot appreciate sensations. For it they are dead. Nor is it capable of controlling movement. Instances of this kind are the easiest to find. Whatever work a person may be doing, it is enough for them to try to do each action deliberately, with their mind, following every movement, and they will see that the quality of their work will change immediately. If they are typing, the fingers, controlled by the moving center, find the necessary letters themselves, but if they try to ask themselves before every letter: ‘Where is “k”?’ ‘Where is the comma?’ ‘How is this word spelled?’ they at once begin to make mistakes or to write very slowly. If one drives a car with the help of one’s mind, one can go only in the lowest gear. The mind cannot keep pace with all the movements necessary for developing a greater speed. To drive at full speed, especially in the streets of a large town, while steering with the help of one’s mind is absolutely impossible for an ordinary person. Moving centre working for thinking centre produces, for example, mechanical reading or mechanical listening, as when a person reads or listens to nothing but words and is utterly unconscious of what he is reading or hearing. This generally happens when attention, that is, the direction of the thinking centre’s activity, is occupied with something else and when the moving centre is trying to replace the absent thinking centre; but this very easily becomes a habit, because the thinking centre is generally distracted not by useful work, by thought, or by contemplation, but simply by daydreaming or by imagination.

‘Imagination’ is one of the principal sources of the wrong work of centres. Each centre has its own form of imagination and daydreaming, but as a rule both the moving and the emotional centres make use of the thinking centre which very readily places itself at their disposal for this purpose, because daydreaming corresponds to its own inclinations. Daydreaming is absolutely the opposite of ‘useful’ mental activity. ‘Useful’ in this case means activity directed towards a definite aim and undertaken for the sake of obtaining a definite result. Daydreaming does not pursue any aim, does not strive after any result. The motive for daydreaming always lies in the emotional or in the moving centre. The actual process is carried on by the thinking centre. The inclination to daydream is due partly to the laziness of the thinking centre, that is, its attempts to avoid the efforts connected with work directed towards a definite aim and going in a definite direction, and partly to the tendency of the emotional and the moving centres to repeat to themselves, to keep alive or to recreate experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, that have been previously lived through or ‘imagined.’ Daydreaming of disagreeable, morbid things is very characteristic of the unbalanced state of the human machine, After all, one can understand daydreaming of a pleasant kind and find logical justification for it. Daydreaming of an unpleasant character is an utter absurdity. And yet many people spend nine tenths of their lives in just such painful daydreams about misfortunes which may overtake them or their family, about illnesses they may contract or sufferings they will have to endure. Imagination and daydreaming are instances of the wrong work of the thinking centre. Observation of the activity of imagination and daydreaming forms a very important part of self-study.

The next object of self-observation must be habits in general. Every grown-up person consists wholly of habits, although they are often unaware of it and even deny having any habits at all. This can never be the case. All three centres are filled with habits and a person can never know themselves until they have studied all their habits. The observation and the study of habits is particularly difficult because, in order to see and ‘record’ them, one must escape from them, free oneself from them, if only for a moment. So long as a person is governed by a particular habit, they do not observe it, but at the very first attempt, however feeble, to struggle against it, they feels it and notice it. Therefore in order to observe and study habits one must try to struggle against them. This opens up a practical method of self-observation. It has been said before that a person cannot change anything in themselves, that they can only observe and ‘record.’ This is true. But it is also true that a person cannot observe and ‘record’ anything if they do not try to struggle with themselves, that is, with their habits. This struggle cannot yield direct results, that is to say, it cannot lead to any change, especially to any permanent and lasting change. But it shows what is there.

Without a struggle, a person cannot see what they consist of. The struggle with small habits is very difficult and boring, but without it self-observation is impossible. Even at the first attempt to study the elementary activity of the moving centre a person comes up against habits. For instance, one may want to study one’s movements, may want to observe how one walks. But they will never succeed in doing so for more than a moment if they continue to walk in the usual way. But if they understand that their usual way of walking consists of a number of habits, for instance, of taking steps of a certain length, walking at a certain speed, and so on, and try tries to alter them, that is, to walk faster or slower, to take bigger or smaller steps, they will be able to observe themselves and to study their movements as they walk. If you want to observe yourself when you are writing, you must take note of how you hold your pen and try to hold it in a different way from usual; observation will then become possible. In order to observe yourself, you must try to walk not in your habitual way, but must sit in unaccustomed attitudes, must stand when you are accustomed to sit, must sit when you are accustomed to stand, and you must make with your left hand the movements you are accustomed to make with you right hand and vice versa. All this will enable you to observe yourself and study the habits and associations of the moving centre.

In the sphere of the emotions it is very useful to try to struggle with the habit of giving immediate expression to all one’s unpleasant emotions. Many people find it very difficult to refrain from expressing their feelings about bad weather. It is still more difficult for people not to express unpleasant emotions when they feel that something or someone is violating what they may conceive to be order or justice. Besides being a very good method for self-observation, the struggle against expressing unpleasant emotions has at the same time another significance. It is one of the few directions in which we can change ourselves or our habits without creating other undesirable habits. Therefore self-observation and self-study must, from the first, be accompanied by the struggle against the expression of unpleasant emotions. If you carry out all these rules while you observe yourself, you will record a whole series of very important aspects of your being. To begin with you will record with unmistakable clearness the fact that you actions, thoughts, feelings, and words are the result of external influences and that nothing comes from yourself.

Adapted from ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ by P.D. Ouspensky