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.

1 comment:

  1. I know this saying well. Mr. Gurdjieff said it often and meant it.

    I put it in the category of Jesus saying that we should love our enemies and turn the other cheek.

    Christians look at themselves and others and the evil in the world and they say "surely he cannot have meant this literally!" and then they devise rationales for what are called just wars etc..

    That's what people are like, and the last thing they want to hear are statements like the above, that all pleasure is merde; but in the context of the growth of man's essence and being, it is a simple arithmetic formula.

    I was once taken to a crafts sale of a workgroup with my then work leader -- we looked over some of the handiwork which included some of Mr. Gurdjieff's aphorisms in the original script as well as an English translation. I picked one which still hangs on my wall -- it says "Only Conscious Suffering Has Any Sense." My teacher said "Oh, that's not for you. You should buy the one that says "Remember Yourself Always and Everywhere".

    But I know what I am doing and I knew what I was doing and I bought the one that was for me.

    There is a very interesting exchange in the beginning of Fritz Peters first book about living with Mr. Gurdjieff where Mr. Gurdjieff explains to Fritz how people seek after pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering, and he explains in his soft and generous compassionate manner how this is detrimental to man and antithetical to his growth.

    I can remember bringing this subject up in a workgroup and being shouted down -- "ALL pleasure CANNOT be bad! You are being pessimistic and negative. Mr. Gurdjieff has to have been speaking metaphorically."

    I guess Jesus and the Buddha didn't mean to be taken seriously either - their words were meant to be re-interpreted by other "men" so that "men" could get out of the awful truth and noose of the situation and calm themselves with a watered down version of the medicine prescribed by the great spiritual masters.

    When I tried to explain my sense of this understanding which Mr. Gurdjieff was trying to get across, the human beings in my group all denounced what I was trying to say as with a single voice.

    I stood alone in my own understanding -- unable to convey what I know in my being to the blind: those without ears to hear and without eyes to see the gorgeous mystery which is enclosed in Mr. Gurdjieff's simple statement.

    Don't get me wrong. Cheerfulness, nonnegative acceptance, wishes for well-being for others, moments of joy and laughter are proper to a man without quotation marks, but a man who takes pleasure as his aim has missed the mark entirely -- which is the literal translation of the word sin. Yes, he becomes a fertilizer -- manure, and when he dies and suffers the first Rascooarno (death) he is thrown on the slag heap and all his parts are separated and used for scrap. He himself goes nowhere, as he doesn't exist without the physical body holing together his unformed parts and so he goes to "limbo", that is, nowhere.

    Ultimately nothing is without some purpose and value -- the laws of thermodynamics apply, but no amount of pleasure can help to create second or third bodies -- not one whit.

    In the alchemical vessel which is ourselves, only intentional suffering and conscious labors pay dividends and help to create the inner bodies. All pleasures are like reductions in the pressures that are required to create these bodies -- pleasures are in fact, grevious leaks in our own work, unless they are specifically connected with outer considering.

    There, and only there, in the outward consideration towards others, especially "civilians" (those not on an accelerated path such as the fourth way), does the manifestation of pleasure and happiness (which is etymologically related to a root word meaning chance -- the "haps"; as in happenstance or happening) serve as the proper expression of man.

    The Gospel of Philip expresses this quite well by declaring that this Aion is the winter, and the next Aion is the summer. One sows in the winter and reaps in the summer. If one reaps in the winter than there is nothing -- no harvest for the summer. One must plant in the winter and wait until the summer to pluck out. Call it delayed gratification if you like.

    Remember that Mr. Gurdjieff told Ouskensky that the awakening of conscience was tremendously painful, but after it's awakening comes an unimaginable bliss and the other positive emotions. No-one can clean their concience while hunting pleasure - it is against the laws of physics and the science of "being".

    Pleasure is its own reward. It has no career; it reaps no dividends, and aside from the particular conditions of outer considering, it cannot help us except to perpetuate the deleterious effects of the organ kundabuffer.

    We are advised by Mr. Gurdjieff as well as by the Gospels of Jesus Christ and the Buddha, to wake up from our slumber -- to become awake. And one who is awake will see what I have been saying clearly.

    I am no pessimist. I am a realist, whose only desire is to help mankind under the protective wings of Mr. Gurdjieff and his teachings.

    --rlnyc

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