Lecture 30 The Law of Three in Action

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

Categories of Action
Activity and Thought
Emotional Understanding
The Law of Three in Self-study

Return to:


See also:

Man's Place in the World

Categories of Action

You have been told that every action, every manifestation, is the result of the conjunction of three forces. This is the principle, and we must now try to understand how to begin to study it. In the study of triads and three forces, one must be very careful and slow, using the principles given in the system and trying to apply and enlarge them when it is possible. One should particularly avoid hurry and invention.

The first point in understanding the meaning of triads is to remember that manifestations of energy, any kind of action, in the world, in man's activity, inside the human machine or in external events, always consists of triads. We spoke of six different triads comprehensible to the human mind, each representing a different combination of forces. In order to limit the question, not to make it too complicated in the beginning, we will consider only human activity.

But here we come to a difficulty. We have never thought of activity itself being different. We know the difference between wood and metal, for instance, and we will not mistake one for the other. But we do not understand that one action can be as different from another as two different objects. For us, in ordinary thinking, actions are the same, only one starts with one aim and has one result and another starts with a different aim and has a different result. We think about motives, but not about actions themselves.

But motive does not determine the action. You may have one kind of aim, but your action may be of a different kind. This happens very often. People start doing something with a certain aim in view, but their actions are such that not even by accident can this aim ever be attained. It is necessary to co-ordinate aim with action, otherwise you will never attain what you want.

This is what we must understand in relation to our actions and we must try to find different categories of actions. When we begin to look at human activity from this point of view, remembering that there are different kinds of actions independently of results, intentions, emotions, material, and so on, we will begin to see it. It is not the capacity to see that is lacking, but knowledge of this principle which is new to us.

We cannot at once begin to look for all the six different triads which can be found in human activity, for they will become mixed in our minds. We must find standards for two, three, or four kinds as much as we can see. Look at your own actions and at those of the people around you and you will see certain differences. It is good material for thinking.


All the absurdities of life depend on the fact that people do not understand that certain things can be done with only one kind of triad. They use a wrong triad, a wrong kind of action, and are surprised that the results are not what they wanted. For instance, it is no good trying to teach by beating or trying to persuade with machine-guns. Find your own and better examples of the wrong use of triads and you will see that certain results are obtained only by an appropriate action. Observe yourself and life in general. If you turn this study on yourself you will see, for instance, that if you wish to know or change something in yourself and if you approach this problem in a formatory way, you will never get anything. Formatory thinking is an example of an action that does not lead to understanding.

Take two simple examples in order to understand the idea. To build a house, effort is needed at every moment, every single brick must be put into place with a certain effort; no triad passes into another without effort. At last the house is built and furnished. Then, if you want to burn it, you just strike a match and put it to something inflammable, and the house is burnt. If you go deeper into it you will see that these are two different activities. You cannot build a house with the same activity as you burn it. In the second case one triad passes into another without any effort, automatically, after the initial effort of striking a match.

Examples of the third kind of triad, in our experience, can be found only in conscious work, not in identified work or in activity that has a peculiar quality of its own that cannot be imitated by others such as artistic creation. Efforts at self-remembering and not identifying belong to this category. If you think about it you will understand that in order to paint a good picture, for instance, you must use a different triad from the one used in building a house or the one used for burning a house; something else is needed.

A fourth triad may be called invention, discovery, craft.

If you think about these four different activities. They will give you material for observing and comparing. Try to see why and in what way they are different.

For every result there is a certain method. Different methods have different results. If you have a sick man, you have to deal with him in a different way from dealing with a block of wood. It does not matter about placing them in different categories. Example is the beginning of the whole thing. We try to pretend that things are more difficult than they are. We know that murder is one activity and writing poetry is a different activity. We cannot murder successfully with the kind of energy used for writing poetry.

Activity and Thought

Although we are not aware of it, every kind of activity has its own way of thinking. But what happens is that people act in one way and think in another. Sometimes the two coincide, but often they are in a wrong relation to one another. One can think rightly and act wrongly. Understanding is one thing; will and purpose, effort and decision, are others: they are different degrees of the same thing. It may be said that right thinking is a step towards right action, but it does not yet mean that the action is right.

At moments of effort, or soon after, you may realise that it is a wrong effort that you cannot get what you want from it. For every definite aim there is a corresponding effort. If you catch yourself using a wrong effort, it means it is a wrong triad. You may not be able to use the right triad, but you can stop using a wrong one.

What is new about this idea of activities is that they are different in themselves. For us, action is action. At present it is enough to understand that the results of actions we see in life particularly if we do not like them or find fault with them are often due to wrong triads used to attain a certain aim. If we understand this we will understand that by a given activity we are bound to arrive only where we do arrive and nowhere else. To arrive at some other place we should use a different activity. But at present we cannot choose because we do not know.

Only by working can we learn what actions to use. School-work can be done in only one way. So we try one way, another way, a third way, and, sooner or later, we come to the right way. In ordinary conditions we cannot see the results of our actions because there are too many possibilities of self-deception; but in school-work we cannot deceive ourselves. Either we get something or we don't, and we can get something in only one way. There are other methods of learning about different kinds of action by intellectual understanding, but we will wait for that. I should like you first to understand the general principle better.

Effort, aim and motive all enter into the word 'action' and the idea of action, so actions are connected with motive but not in the way we think. A certain kind of result can be obtained only by an appropriate action; at the same time motive also determines action. Motive is sometimes important, but with the best possible motives we can do the worst possible things because we use a wrong effort, and a wrong effort will produce a wrong result. Suppose you want to build something and use the kind of effort that can be used only for destruction; then, instead of building, you will only destroy things with the best intentions.

I have given you some examples; try to find parallels. Try to think, for instance, that neither the action that builds a house nor the action that burns it can paint a picture; at the same time the action by which you paint a picture is not necessary for building a house. Then the same effort which is necessary for building a house is not enough to invent, say, a new kind of electric bell. And the action by which you invent an electric bell will not produce a good picture. Different kinds of action mean different triads, but at present it is better to leave triads and not to think which action means which triad, for it will only make you lose the meaning of the idea. Try only to see the differences. From ignorance or impatience people often use wrong triads and explain their failure by bad luck, or by the devil, or by accident.

Emotional Understanding

When we want to do something, we should think by emotional understanding whether the action corresponds to our aim. Then, partly by mind, partly emotionally, we can realise whether or not the way we are going can lead to the desired result. Sometimes we can feel that it cannot, and then we can either stop it or try to do it in another way.

For instance, you are talking to somebody, trying to persuade this person that you are right about something and he is wrong. The more you argue, the more he is convinced that he is right. Stop, and you may suddenly see that this person understands you. This happens very often. The more you argue, the more difficult it is for him to understand. Or you may even pretend to agree with him and in that way understand what you want.

If you do not identify, you will see. Arguing is one way to persuade; agreeing is another. Generally what prevents us from seeing what method to use is identifying. It is a question of approach. Some approaches are right and others are wrong. If you go on observing you will see.

The Law of Three in Self-study

With patient observation, you can observe the Law of Three in self-study. You will see that the Hermetic system always plays the part of the third force between desire to change and inertia. If you have a sufficient supply of the third force, you are successful. In the work, the first force is desire to learn and decision to work, the second is resistance. The more we work, the more resistance grows. Only with the help of the system can we conquer resistance. It is a question of consciousness and will.

We cannot hurry with this question of different actions. It is actually beyond our possibilities of understanding at present; but if we go slowly, we may get something out of it. Almost every idea in the system is a test. If one can pass one test, one can go further.

Many things get forgotten and become dull because we forget the starting-point. But the moment we connect things with the beginning, we see why we came, where we are going, and what we want to get. We realise then what we have got from the system and see that we cannot expect more because the material we have is not sufficiently digested. We must always remember the starting-point, remember that it is connected not simply with words but with search for the miraculous. The system would have no meaning if there were no search for the miraculous.