When I say ‘this is theoretical’ or ‘this is philosophy’ in answer to a question, it means that the language is wrong. You cannot ask something in a philosophical way and expect a practical answer. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
This essay is about language, which I know is not a popular subject, but the distinction between philosophy, theory, and practice is important if you want to ask questions about inner work or if you want to teach someone else to practice inner work. Philosophy, theory, and practice refer to different scales of thinking. Philosophy is where you take very general ideas and try to figure them out using the mind. It is, in a sense, pure thought. In esoteric circles philosophy is said to be the easiest of the three scales of thinking because it requires no personal observation.
According to this system philosophical schools are merely preparatory schools. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
Theory is when you try to observe general laws and principles, and try to understand the universe, or yourself, in relation to these laws and principles. As a way of thinking it requires more than philosophy because you need to base your deductions on actual observations of laws and principles.
Practice means you; it means your work. It means that you experiment, that you practice what you learn, and that you make deductions and decisions about your inner work based on your observations.
This idea of three levels of thinking is commonly misunderstood. For instance, people often believe that the subject of the thinking determines whether it is practical, theoretical, or philosophical. And though it is true that some subjects, like the nature of God’s existence, can never be practical, most ideas can be thought about or discussed on all three scales. Being present can be thought about practically, theoretically, and philosophically.
Philosophical thinking in relation to being present might, for example, be about man and about how being present might benefit him, or in what circumstances he might be able to be present for longer periods of time. What would distinguish it as a philosophical discussion would be, first, that it would not be about the people that were having the discussion—it would be about man in general—and, second, that the discussion would proceed in a manner that would not include actual observations made by the people having the discussion. It would, in a word, be abstract.
A theoretical discussion about being present might include questions about the laws and principles that govern being present. For instance, ‘What is the role of attention in being present?’ or ‘How does being present awaken higher centers?’ or ‘Is it possible to be present and to be identified at the same time?’ As you can see this discussion is still not quite personal, but the questions, because they refer to actual laws and principles, are more likely to have some real observations behind them. They are simply framed theoretically.
In a practical discussion about being present the questions would be more like ‘Yesterday I tried to be present while I was reading a book, and I found that kept forgetting about it. Is there some way I can keep my attention on being present and read at the same time?’ Practical thinking in relation to being present is about you; it’s about your efforts and about what you can do to make your presence stronger.
When we talk about conscious evolution, the distinction between these three scales of thinking often indicates our seriousness about awakening higher centers. If, for instance, you are only interested in the philosophical side of Gurdjieff’s ideas—its history, its cosmology, or its connection to the major religions—you may study for years and never connect to higher centers. This isn’t wrong. It’s fine to be a scholar. But you must understand that the primary purpose of the system is to teach people to awaken, and you cannot awaken unless you are willing to make inner efforts and take a practical approach to the knowledge. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that theory and philosophy have no place in inner work. For instance, many cosmological ideas have to be studied theoretically or philosophically. They are part of the system because they help you understand the world, and, because you contain the same worlds inside you, they have the possibility of helping you understand yourself.
The fourth way is a way of understanding. The more you understand about yourself and about the world the faster you will come to the necessity of inner effort, and inner effort is the only way to connect to higher centers. There are other types of conscious evolution, or ways, that don’t require understanding. For instance, the paths of the monk (the second way) and the hermit (the first way) require a strong belief and a willingness to obey; in these paths clarity and understanding are not so important. But in our times these ways are quickly disappearing or are already gone. As the planet is flooded with humanity and is plundered to the point of robbing the earth of all its natural resources, the possibility of passing on a local esoteric tradition becomes more and more remote. In the twenty-first century the most accessible and versatile form of conscious evolution is the fourth way; that is, a way that can be done anywhere and under any circumstances; in other words, a path that is not bound by the necessity of a long retreat or external institutions like monasteries.