Monday, June 30, 2008
Pleasure, and its value
We are going to stoop to a rather low subject today, both because it's interesting to me in context, and because it perhaps illustrates just how little we actually think about what things mean. It's also an exercise in attempting to understand something from many points of view, rather than the one that we reactively adopt when we hear a particular word.
When asked about the place of pleasure in spiritual work, Mr. Gurdjieff famously answered "pleasure is shit."
Gurdjieff was well known for using coarse language, and dismissing the ordinary motivations in life. Hence, it appears to be in character: the statement seems to be a devaluation of what most of us value.
Pleasure is intensely motivational. Biologists have conclusively demonstrated that most animals will work in order to obtain pleasure. From a biological point of view, we all operate on a stimulus/response mechanism. If the stimulus isn't pleasurable, we are unlikely to respond. Or if we do, the response will be one that tries to eliminate the stimulus in one way or another. We go towards pleasure. We run away from pain.
No matter, this. The bottom line is that when we hear Mr. Gurdjieff say, "pleasure is shit," we hear him saying pleasure is bad.
The interpretation is far too narrow. First of all, we know that Mr. Gurdjieff certainly indulged himself in a range of pleasures. He didn't find the activity below him. Secondly, Mr. Gurdjieff came from a traditional culture where the value of what we call "shit" was definitely very different than the way we see it in the developed world. All you need to do is take a trip to Pakistani villages and see the cattle dung formed into hundreds of neat round patties, slapped onto brick walls to dry for fuel to understand that other cultures view animal waste very differently than we do.
They don't throw it away like we do, flushing it as far out of sight as quickly possible... why, they save it!
Manure also has inestimable value as a fertilizer. Traditional cultures save it and make sure that it goes onto their land, so that the crops will be richer. When I first traveled to Shanghai, over 20 years ago, the whole city was still collecting human excrement in pots to be picked up every morning so that it could be distributed to the surrounding fields (which now sport factories and high-rises.) Of course, China has lost that in the big cities, but the point is that even in today's world, shit has a real value.
It's difficult to believe that Gurdjieff did not have all of this in mind when he made his statement.
The positive role of excrement in life holds true from a biological perspective as well. Everyone has seen dogs eat excrement; it seems disgusting, but the fact is that there is still plenty of nutrition in excrement, and dogs know it. Other animals know it too, which is why the practice is fairly widespread in the animal kingdom. Not only that, there are many animals that make their meals almost exclusively from this substance, particularly insects of a wide variety. One of these insects, the scarab beetle, was considered to be a sacred animal by the Egyptians, rather than a profane one, despite its execrable diet.
We can go a step further. The very soil itself -- the dirt in which we grow the plants that sustain our life, and the life of all the animals on the planet -- is made primarily of worm excrement. Darwin's very last book -- published in 1882, the year before he died -- was a groundbreaking examination of this process, one that was originally dismissed as unimportant and peculiar, but now understood as fundamental and extraordinary.
So the idea that pleasure is shit doesn't dismiss pleasure and its place in our lives at all; it redefines pleasure. We might, for example, regard it as the soil in which our life and being grow. In other words, Mr. Gurdjieff's statement, which implies at face value that pleasure is the least important and least valuable thing in life, might in fact mean that it is a most important, and most fundamental, thing. Now, mind you, I'm not saying it is -- I'm just pointing out that this is a possibility, and an intriguing one, given how reflexively we usually understand terms.
Pleasure as a fertilizer; pleasure as a fuel. Pleasure as a food source. Pleasure as just as much of a necessity as manure is.
Pleasure has one more dimension that becomes evident when we consider Gurdjieff's contention that every pleasure is experienced only as the result of some other suffering already experienced. It means that pleasure is a byproduct, just like excrement.
It is the result of something that has been properly digested.
If we are looking for a justification -- not that we need to, but what the heck -- for seeking and enjoying pleasure within life, I think that we can see an affirmation here of the idea that adopting an ascetic lifestyle to support spiritual endeavors is not only not necessary: it's not even desirable. It extinguishes one of the main impulses in life, along with the vital support that impulse offers to the act of being itself.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.