Friday, June 12, 2009

On The Nature Of Sorrow

I write so much in the blog these days about practice that it seems appropriate, on occasion, to offer readers some more theoretical material—but only if it is based on insights gained through actual experience.

Sitting here 32,000 feet in the air (somewhere over Alaska, more or less) on Delta flight 432 to Shanghai, I have had one such insight, which triggered a set of inevitable logically-flowing associations that, in an organic impulse, all but demanded write-up, and publication.

This essay may not offer readers any durable insight on the nature of sorrow from the practical, inner point of view. That delicate, and demanding, work has to be left up to the individual. The question of sorrow itself is, however, discussed very little in the active practice of the Gurdjieff work—at least in the circles I move in—and this strikes me as rather peculiar, since, as with the question of taking in impressions, it has become quite central to my own work. Hence we depart on what, for this blog, will be a longer than usual excursion into the arcane.

Gurdjieff once said that one of the chief purposes of man’s ability to evolve was so that he could take up the task of sharing the burden of the “sorrow of His Endlessness.” This reminds us, perhaps, of the remark that Christ was a man “well acquainted with sorrows.”

We come almost at once to a nearly inevitable, yet curiously unstated, deduction about Gurdjieff’s cosmology and the place of man. To share in the burden of sorrow is to feel the sorrow; in other words, man’s chief place in the cosmos is to become an instrument of feeling.

So once again, we see that the question of man’s development is closely tied both to the nature, and the quality, of his connection to emotional center (see “On The Development Of Emotional Center” at This does not mean that the other centers play no role—in fact, their role is essential in this enterprise, because they are meant to help man investigate and cope with the inevitable consequences of this emotional work. (Another subject, for another essay.)

In order to better approach an understanding of just what this sorrow we speak of is, it’s well to remember that Gurdjieff told Ouspensky that everything in the universe is material. Sorrow is, in other words, a material substance produced by the interaction of other material substances.

In expounding further on this question of sorrow, it’s necessary, early on, to bring in another major idea, and that is the nature of time. Time, as both Gurdjieff and modern physicists would have it, does not actually exist. In “Beelzebub,” Gurdjieff described time in terms that today’s physics would probably be quite comfortable with: "'Time in itself does not exist; there is only the totality of the results issuing from all the cosmic phenomena present in a given place.’”

In a certain sense, our universe is deterministic, and all events in the universe are contemporaneous. (Gurdjieff implies this quite directly in several sections of “Beelzebub,” and elsewhere: “For one thing to be different, everything would have to be different,” etc. Cogent arguments for a form of universal determinism also exist in Buddhism, e.g., Dogen’s Shobogenzo, essays on cause and effect.) Our sequential perception of time is perfectly attuned to the sensory perception of what is called “classical” reality, that is, the Einsteinian universe, but it is an inadequate or partial perception, based on the limitations of both our organism and our level of awareness. Time and causality exist within an “eternal soup” that has a permanent and real existence regardless of which exact “point” on the “time” line any packet of energy finds itself on.

In this sense, the substance of sorrow—that is, all of the sorrow that ever can be produced by the interactions of matter—is eternal in nature, that is, all the sorrow that has ever existed or ever can exist, already exists, and can never not exist. This sorrow, in varying degrees of what Gurdjieff might call “fineness of vibration,” is continually produced by the emotional interaction of matter at all levels of the universe; and it is produced precisely because there can be no relationship within the universe without emotion.

Examining this from the only perspective we have—the human perspective—we understand this to mean that the core of relationship is emotional in nature. Emotion is the glue that holds everything together.

Let’s examine that a bit further.

Things—the physical—represented in man by moving center, can have no relationship on their own, because the material existence of things, in and of itself, imparts no inherent meaning.

And the intellect, intelligence- facts, as one might crudely approximate—has no wish for relationship; it consists of analysis, but there is no heart to it—nothing that pumps blood, nothing that animates the question.

It’s only in the context of what we call wish in the Gurdjieff work, that is, an emotive quality, that relationship begins to arrive, and the question of—not the answer to—what we might call the “meaning of meaning” arrives. No coincidence that one often hears of people struggling to discover their wish—this emotive element which imparts an impetus is what is so often missing in us.

In a material sense, when emotion enters, the triad that makes relationship possible is formed, and makes possible the arising of the dual emotive qualities of joy and sorrow, which are, as I have pointed out elsewhere, (see "chakras and the enneagram" at actually the same emotion, as experienced from different angles. In other words, without the third force of emotion, the universe could not exist. Reality has the question of joy/sorrow woven into the fundamental warp of its fabric.

Here we come to the crux of today’s insight. The question of sorrow becomes paramount, because within a certain context of inner work it becomes evident that all of the sorrow in the universe that ever existed is eternally present within this immediate moment.

The entire universe is indeed constructed of Love, but this is not a Love consisting solely of joy alone—it consists of joy/sorrow, and according to Gurdjieff it is not man’s principle task to feel joy. This is, perhaps, the exact place where the Gurdjieff work unmistakably parts company with many other spiritual disciplines. We might suggest that while His creation feels joy, His Endlessness Himself feels sorrow, and He can only feel Joy insofar as His creation shoulders the overwhelming burden of sorrow. Yes, we have the sensory equipment for the sensation of joy, and through Grace it will come, but for us, as “particles of creation,” the question of sorrow is at the deepest heart of our inner work.

Bringing us back to this question of “time,” in a certain sense it is a man’s task to be able to sense and accept, as an emotional impression, all of the sorrow that has already gone before him in the "time of" (relative to) his life. This means that through inner evolution, a man can become capable of taking in a small yet tangible portion of the “sum total” of all the sorrow of all the organisms (human or otherwise) that have ever existed.

And in a certain subtle yet ungraspable sense, it is the duty of mankind to feel this sorrow for all those organisms that have gone before. To sense the sum total of their lives, their struggles, their deaths.

It’s not too bold to say that the emotional center, if it should open, stands on the threshold of a moment in which it might become possible, emotionally, to sense everything that has ever taken place in the universe in a single instant. This may sound allegorical, but it isn’t. We might call it a “universal impression of sorrow.”

The “universal impression of sorrow” is not one of sentiment, and it touches not just one, but all of, the centers. It is an organic experience—physical, intellectual, and emotional. Sorrow cannot be easily defined or translated into words, because the essential nature of sorrow is experiential. What Gurdjieff called the “sorrow of His Endlessness” is not evoked by a simple relationship of cause and effect: it is spontaneous, organic, intuitive and essential.

As such it’s quite distinct from the ordinary (and quite valid and necessary) sorrow that the causal circumstances of day-to-day life evokes. This type of sorrow can certainly provide a bridge to that deeper sorrow—in the extremis of emotional distraught, powerful higher substances with transformative potentials are certainly released—but it is not the same thing, and to participate in “unintentional sorrow” is quite different that to intentionally accept that higher sorrow which we are, through grace, called upon to share.

The question of the experience of sorrow is closely tied to three-centered work and the more active taking in of impressions into the body. One cannot work seriously on this question for long before encountering at the very least the glimmerings of a more universal sorrow—an aim of inner study which is unique, perhaps, to the Gurdjieff work.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.


  1. I like your essay very much
    My only few points to “add”:
    Perhaps Sorrow functions as precursor to Wish, in the sense that our Wish for ‘something Else of a different level to exist in our life has to constantly be fed, but the problem being that most often its fed from the apprehending of some ‘unbecomingness’ within our psyche. Somehow we have to feed the Wish with a better kind of food. That seems to be one of the main paradoxes doesn’t it? That is, keeping myself as who I am, just an actor on the stage of the cosmic drama, and trying to register/connect with the “Sleeping Beauty” within.
    And the negative becomes positive in our experience only through enacting what we can out of cognizing Wish.
    But somehow, it ties in with perpetual motion, that is, a motion towards the Infinite, that can never get completed . .So Sorrow is present, - but at least we can know that we’re making a movement in the right direction (because of Magnetic Center).

    The function of Music in the Gurdjieff Work, seems for me anyway, designed to produce Sorrow.. That is how it works within my psyche.. . Gurdjieff talks of this effect in “Meetings With Remarkable Men”, of experiments to try to produce the objective effect via certain music.

    Another point, just more out of academic curiosity: Do you think Kierkegaard’s ‘despair has anything to do with this concept of Sorrow?

  2. thanks, joe. do we feed ourselves? ... Always a question.

    Without organic presence, less food is available.

    I'm afraid I haven't read enough Kierkegaard to comment on his concept of despair. If I see the "resident kierkegarrd expert" in the work this summer I will try to remember to ask him.

    ...The word, however-- for myself at least-- definitely connotes an emotional state I would set apart from the sorrow I speak of when I use the word. Despair, after all, contains an element of hopelessness, and Sorrow-- real Sorrow-- is essentially hopeful.


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