Viewpoint: P. D. Ouspensky

P. D. Ouspensky, a Russian philosopher, begins the chapter on the study of dreams in A New Model of the Universe by telling us of his early fascination with his dreams.

Possibly the most interesting first impressions of my life came from the world of dreams. ... Certain quite extraordinarly experiences were, for me, connected with dreams. When still a child I woke on several occasions with the distinct feeling of having experienced something so interesting and enthralling that all that I had known before, all I had come into contact with or seen in life, appeared to me afterwards to be unworthy of attention and devoid of any interest.

This feeling that the experience was more real than our ordinary waking reality crops up in OBEs, AAEs and other paranatural experiences.

Lucid Dreaming

In his early 20's Ouspensky undertook a systematic study of dreams. He studied the literature but rejected the psychoanalytic approach then becoming popular.

I wanted to verify a rather fantastic idea of my own which had made its appearance almost in my childhood: was it not possible to preserve consciousness in dreams, that is, to know while dreaming that one is asleep and to think consciously as we think when awake.

Ouspensky does not describe his techniques for attempting to preserve consciousness during sleep, but they were successful. He began to have what we would now call lucid dreams.

"Half-dream states" began to appear probably as a result of my efforts to observe dreams at moments of falling asleep or in half-sleep after awakening. ... The fact is that in "half-dream states" I was having all the dreams I usually had. But I was fully conscious, ... Further, I saw that in "half-dream states" I had a certain control over dreams.

Dream Content from Body Sensations

Ouspensky believed that, whenever the content of a dream was a result of sensations from his sleeping body, the dream itself was meaningless ... however important the heightened consciousness of the half-dream state was.

Dreams of being in public while nude or partially nude often seem to have an important symbolic meaning. But not to Ouspensky:

As I noticed in "half-dream states", these dreams occurred chiefly when I was feeling cold during sleep. The cold made me realize that I was undressed, and this sensation penetrated into my dreams.

Bog Dreams and Bound Legs

The first and most characteristic dream, which I had very often, was one in which I saw a quagmire or bog ... Often this quagmire or bog, or merely deep mud, such as is seen on Russian roads and even in Moscow streets, appeared before me on the ground or even on the floor of my room, without any association with the plot of the dream. I did my utmost to avoid this mud, not to step into it, even not to touch it. But I invariably get into it, and it began to suck me in and generally sucked my legs in up to the knees. I made every conceivable effort to get out of this mud or mire and sometimes I succeeded, but then I usually awoke.

It was very tempting to interpret this dream allegorically, as a threat or a warning. But when I began to have this dream in "half-dream states" it was explained very simply. The whole content of this dream was created by the sensation of my legs being entangled in the blanket or sheets, so that I could neither move nor turn them. ...

Ouspensky explains what he calls the "sensation of bound legs" as a consequence of perceiving, however dimly, the state of the sleeping body entangled in the bedsheets.

Here is his analysis of another recurring dream theme that seems related to ASP:

There was another recurring dream which always frightened me. In this dream I was a paralytic or a cripple; I fell down and could not get up, because my legs did not obey me. This dream also seemed to be a presentiment of what was going to happen to me, until in "half-dream states" I became convinced that it was merely the sensation of motionless legs with relaxed muscles, which of course could not obey moving impulses.

In Ouspensky's analysis, these recurring dreams were a consequence of perceiving the immobile condition of his legs. Today we would likely say that the legs were immobile due to the sleep paralysis that accompanies REM sleep. But Ouspensky was writing over 20 years before the discovery of REM sleep and the paralysis that normally accompanies it.

Cultural Associations

Sensing the immobile condition of his legs triggered a train of associations and material from popular culture emerges.

As regards the mud itself and its "peculiar" character, this was connected, as I became convinced in "half-dream states", with the more imaginary than real "fear of bogs" I had in childhood. This fear, which children and sometimes even grown-up people often have in Russia, is created by tales of quagmires and bogs and "windows" [a small spot of bottomless quagmire in an ordinary swamp] ... which were said to have a "peculiar" character ... that they "sucked in" what fell into them, that they were filled with a peculiar soft mire, and so on, and so on.

Having explained the content of the dream to his own satisfaction, Ouspensky concludes:

There was nothing, absolutely nothing, mystical or psychologically significant in these dreams.

The approach that Ouspensky takes is an approach that many ASP experiencers take in coming to an understanding of the phenomenon. But explaining the content of an ASP experience as hallucinations prompted by sensations from the body combined with cultural associations does not explain away the presence of a consciousness able to perceive those sensations in the first place.


  1. Ouspensky, P.D. . p. 242-9. A New Model of the Universe. 1971. New York: Vintage Books. (Originally published 1931)