Lately I've been reading C.S. Nott's "Teachings Of Gurdjieff - Journal of a Pupil," which recounts some of his early work with Gurdjieff, going back to the 1920s.
One of the interesting remarks he makes is that Gurdjieff avoided getting hung up on the language of the work. He didn't constantly use his own terms and overuse them. He recognized the fact that if you use a term too often, it becomes habitual, mechanical, it ceases to have meaning. Instead, he emphasized the living quality of work; a quality that does not rely so much on limited or narrow definitions, but that preserves flexibility in the face of real situations.
One of the terms that we often hear in this work is "intentional suffering." That term is often taken as being distinct from what is called "voluntary suffering."
Let's take a look at these two terms. I want to do so, because I note that in Nott's book he specifically says that during this period, Mr. Gurdjieff actually and specifically used the term "voluntary suffering."
I think that we are on a slippery slope here, because anyone who thinks that they have been able to accurately define what either term means and apply it in an active and meaningful way to their own inner work may well be deluding themselves. It is, in fact, more likely that it is the question of intentional suffering or voluntary suffering that we need to hold in front of us, that is, an active stance in opposition to our mechanical manifestations, and an examination of our willingness to bear them within ourselves.
We also need to acknowledge that Gurdjieff's form changed over the years. His later use of the word "intentional" may have been... well... intentional.
That being said, what is the difference... and why even ponder it? Let's examine intentional suffering first.
In order for a man to engage in the practice of what Mr. Gurdjieff calls "intentional suffering," a man would have to be able to do. That is to say, he would have to have enough will to form an intention and then carry it out. Gurdjieff contended that we are weak and unable to do this. Intentional suffering would thus appear to lie outside the boundaries of our capabilities, as we are.
The second question I have in regard to this term is, whose intentions are we talking about? There is an ever present danger of presuming that our own intentions are whole -- that they are three centered, that we know what we are doing, that we are prescient enough to have meaningful and worthwhile intentions. I'm not at all sure that is the case. More likely, I suspect, we are apt to undertake intentions that are willful and egoistic. (Yes, even in our work--let's not pretend that our work efforts live in some purer sphere untainted by these sordid attributes.) This means that we constantly live under the threat of having an intention which comes from the wrong place.
So, the confusion between ego, false personality, and the intentions I form is endemic. That is to say, the confusion is part of the current natural state of my organism. Until and unless the organism changes the way it works, my intentions are likely to pave a road to hell rather than one to heaven. In this regard, the moment I presume that the suffering I have intentionally undertaken is a right action, I may already be stepping off the path and into the brambles. If I try, so to speak, to construct my own suffering, invent my own trials, and then walk into that dwelling place, I may be inhabiting the wrong house for the wrong reasons.
The idea of intentional suffering is powerful, but it seems to me that it's a power tool for powerful people. Those who have already developed a real will and mastery of their inner state may well find it useful. I don't know. For those of us, however, who have not developed those qualities -- everyone who has, raise their hand here... you are now excused, and may leave-- exercising the muscles of intentional suffering may be a bit more than we know how to deal with. It's a bite that may look delicious, but our mouths are not necessarily large enough to chew it.
Let alone swallow.
Voluntary suffering is a different matter. If we consider the idea of voluntary suffering, we may begin to form an understanding that is related to offering ourselves to what takes place in our life.
This idea of offertory is, of course, found in most religions. But just what is it we are offering? Are we offering material things -- money, the pagan sacrifice of animals?
To suffer voluntarily is a different kind of offering. It is a submission, a surrender. An acknowledgment that I am not in power. Instead, I show up, bringing only what I can muster of my own presence. I offer myself to what takes place, suffering -- that is, allowing -- what arrives as best I can within the context of my own understanding in the moment.
If my effort comes from more than one center, I have the possibility of offering myself with some sensitivity. And in that offering of the self within the context of a greater sensitivity -- a receptivity, a willingness to be exposed to the impressions that enter more nakedly, without judgment -- new possibilities arise. Instead of finding myself in a place where I know everything, I can say to myself, "hey, you never know!"
Yes, this practice means that I must surrender my usual reactions to a new, raw, and much more immediate emotional experience, one in which I am in question: I don't know what to do next. I don't know much about where I am. I am simply here, and I offer myself. It could always be the case that I'm wrong, so I need to stay on my toes. It might often be the case that I am too coarse, too loud, too argumentative. I don't know. I think that's the point of self-knowledge. I discover, in the search for self-knowledge, that I don't know anything about myself or who I am. There are many potentials, none of which can be fulfilled if I assume that I know who I am or what I am doing.
Remaining open-- voluntarily suffering-- the arrival of the unexpected in the cold light of not knowing, a warmth is born. Yes, it's a paradox. Out of the fear of the unknown, the expectation of the unexpected, the revelation of the unrevealed, is born something new and different, which is not fearful, does not expect, need not hide from the light of life.
May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.