Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Suffering and Desire

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (Detail)
1600-1603, Hendrick Goltzius
Ink and oil on canvas

Perhaps one of the most telling statements in Gurdjieff's Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson is the quote regarding desire and non-desire.

I say this in part because of the position that it takes on the question of suffering. What he says here is, in my experience, entirely true and completely accurate. This may seem like an extreme position to take; after all, when modern people speak of spiritual development, everyone seems to want to talk about joy, to experience joy, move into a realm of joyful action. This includes Gurdjieffians, who might occasionally seem to be otherwise pragmatic individuals.

 It's not about joy. If you want to believe that, it's fine with me, but speaking from my own authority, this is not a right understanding of the nature of the universe, our condition, or where our responsibility lies; it's just a step on the path, and will serve as a powerful distraction unless one is wary. Everyone wants joy; but very few know what actual joy is. What people call joy is a temporary state of emotional infatuation, much like love.

These words are not meant to be harsh; nor are they meant to represent a dark and impossible cosmology, contradiction though that may seem. The resolution of this contradiction, such as it is a contradiction, and such as it resolves, is that men find what we call “joy”—real joy, that is, not the ersatz emotional state produced by our personality—only through fulfillment of their responsibilities to the Creator.

That is to say that suffering is our lot, our responsibility, and our due—and the essence-satisfaction that can be gained from true suffering, an actual participation in receiving the material forces of sorrow, is much greater than any ordinary emotional experience we may think can make us feel good, think positively, have a right attitude, and so on. The word “bliss,” which is commonly believed to describe an ecstatic state of a joyful nature, actually means to suffer in great anguish. Touched by this understanding, one will begin to fully appreciate the difference between the reality and the very nearly entirely theoretical premises that we use to describe such things in books and conversations.

 As such, we discover that Gurdjieff's aim fundamentally differs from that of the Buddha in that he proposes we must invest in suffering, rather than become free of it. This despite the unambiguous relationship between many Buddhist ideas and Gurdjieff's principles.  It poses questions well beyond the scope of this essay.

When we speak of non-desires, what do we mean? What is desire? How does it differ from what we wish? And how does allowing non-desire to prevail over desire figure into the picture?

 One thing seems sure to me.  Those of us who wish to “develop” spiritually desire an improvement. It's all very nice to speak about not working for results, but let's be honest with ourselves. We want something. We are not in this work—no one is in any spiritual work— for “nothing.” A desire for development motivates the effort. To be sure, there is also wish, but wish and desire are two different things. Our personality desires enlightenment—it wants to inspire it, "breathe it in," get it, and have it for itself. This is where most of our work is centered.

Our wish, on the other hand, aspires. Aspiration can be characterized as the exhalation of what we are; it is a surrender, a giving up. So wish does not grasp, it surrenders; whereas desire wishes to have for itself. And if we want our non-desire to prevail over our desire, above all, perhaps, we must not want to work. We must not desire inner work; we must not be attached to inner work. Inner work must, in a certain sense, be done for no other reason than that we do it. Which, incidentally, may remind astute readers of Dogen's ideas.

This is a tricky thing, because it suggests that we have to work without expecting anything whatsoever. We have to throw out all of these ideas we have about development, man number 4, 5, 6, and so on. All of that nonsense. All of it completely irrelevant, in the end, to the fact that we must make an effort to be, which is quite different than desiring.

 Wish consists of a longing, and a letting go of what we are. Desire wants to force open the flower bud, peel back the petals and make it bloom; wish understands that no flower can be forced. Wish is an observer with the patience to be still and watch a process unfold; desire is an actor who wants to make it happen. So the question of desires and non-desires doesn't just relate to the simplistic question of what the body wants and the need for discipline in this area; it goes well beyond that. It moves in to the territory between essence and personality, and how each one operates. One with wish, and the other with desire.

In a certain sense, in the same way that chief feature is everything a man is, desire is everything that we are.  One might even reasonably argue that desire is the chief feature of chief feature. 

Think of it this way. As we are, in this moment, we are composed of desire in exact proportion to how much of us expresses personality. If even one percent of essence enters into the expression of total being within a moment, then 1% of us becomes wish. This is an apt analogy, because when we work, we gradually become a blending of essence and personality—at least, that is, if any change takes place. At that point, we begin to draw active distinctions between essence and personality, and perhaps we know when we are invested in one or the other, and to what extent. 

This is an important point of work for all of us. If we can't distinguish between a higher influence and our ordinary self, we know nothing, and very little is possible.

 I respectfully hope you will take good care.


  1. Other than one technical note, I am in complete consonance with your blog entry of today: that is, I am in complete agreement with your concepts, that joy or bliss are not appropriate aims for a true man.

    The first realization of how repugnant the concept of suffering is to the common man, is that human beings are not willing even to suffer their own lives; not content with who and what they are, they use the imagination to build a false self which contains no "warts" or blemishes, and live as if THAT self was the Self that others see, when obviously they see the proverbial "speck in our eyes"; the feet of clay that we are born with and composed of. That suffering of the droll and pathetic lives of men is the first hurdle that the spiritual seeker wants to get rid of, failing to understand it's significance.

    Our lot is suffering, and any road that promises to alleviate this essential suffering of our lives and fill it with "happiness, joy or unending contentment and bliss" is a cul de sac from which most never recover.

    But in your blog today you actually define bliss AS suffering, and an unending anguish. Nowhere can I find this definition except as an antonym to the word suffering, and I have examined over 20 languages to see if I could squeeze it out but no such fortune,

    We both understand that the path to bliss is through great suffering, first of oneself as one actually is; and then through suffering the manifestations of others. Having found a mature pity for ourselves, we begin to cleanse the conscience until a new emotion emerges from the depths of our being: that of compassion and empathy unsullied by negative emotions.

    Herein we find the secret (if there is any such thing) of the second conscious shock, the realization that we are in the same boat as everybody else, whether they have an inner work on themselves going on or not.

    What would I change in your description? That "suffering and bliss are the obverse sides of ONE coin", and they cannot be separated with any spiritual consolation, however great.

    It is true that an unutterable anguish IS the precursor to bliss, as siblings born of one creation, but it may throw those who do not have the understanding of this relationship, to declare without sufficient explanation that suffering is THE definition of bliss. This seems a chasm with no bridge across it, for the children to understand. And unless you desire to present a conundrum in metaphor, I fear the loss of consciousness in your readership at that juncture. I know it threw me.

    With conscious love and hope,

  2. You are entirely correct here.

    The difficulty is that any language is likely to fall well short of the mark, isn't it?

  3. Lee,
    Thank you for the post!! It helps me to understand my place inside, between two pulls. The one towards the High in which I would so much like to get lost receiving (joy bliss). But there is allways this nasty pull towards the low, towards affirming my place in this world between others. Yes, I will never be "free". It is my place to suffer "in between". Recognizing these two opposing forces -allways there.
    (And no, it has nothing to do with the usual experience of suffering, to which I would tend to attach like a drug, crying over myself)


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