Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Intentional suffering and the nature of self, part 1
Swedenborg characterized man's influences as being under the agency of active forces — spirits, which are largely evil, and angels, who are good. Gurdjieff almost exactly echoed that statement when he said that a person has an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. In any event, they both saw human beings as being under difficult and even inimical influences. The bad — the evil spirits, the tendency toward selfishness — dominates in man from the beginning, and the struggle has to be undertaken in order to choose for the love of the good, which ultimately points a person in the direction of the love of God.
In Beelzebub' Tales, Gurdjieff told his readers that they must struggle so that their non-desires predominated over their desires. It's important to consider and understand this in light of the fact that man's desires are, according to both Swedenborg and Gurdjieff, essentially under the influence of evil. Our desires are, in a word, selfish; they center around our ego, and are almost exclusively directed at satisfying it. One needs decades of inner study in order to understand this thoroughly; and more decades in order to come to grips with it. To go with our desires is always to choose the love of self, or selfishness, which is, in a nutshell, to choose the bad rather than the good.
Our desires are essentially destructive to others in the outer world. Because they begin from self-love, rather than love of the good, they abandon right attitude towards the world and towards other human beings and God in order to serve themselves. Objectively speaking, every kind of destructive force that human beings unleash begins here. This is why a human being is required to struggle with their desires in order to develop spiritually, to, as both Jeanne de Salzmann and Swedenborg put it (in nearly identical terms) become spiritualized.
One of Gurdjieff's principal instructions to his students — one of the very few things he said they could do, under circumstances where (as he reported it) doing nearly anything was impossible — was to not express negative emotions. Now, in order to understand this more precisely, we need to see that negative emotions means far more than just being angry at people. That's just the surface of what negative emotion means. In essence, emotion is a form of power, or movement, closely connected to what Swedenborg called will. So emotion is what moves us in one direction or another; that's exactly how Swedenborg explained our loves affect us, love for the self moving us toward selfishness and hell, and love for the good moving us towards love for others and for heaven. In fact, Gurdjieff's conception of these forces and the way they act on us was nearly identical, although a failure to understand the idea of negative emotion has obscured this.
Put in these more precise terms, negative emotions are everything that cause us to be selfish. They move us away from the good, and towards the evil. If one prefers less moralistic psychological terms (which is fine with me, but in my eyes simply a way of avoiding the real issue) they move us away from the generosity of Self and into the ego. A negative emotion is anything that serves me instead of others, and the good of human beings in general. All of my desires, in other words, in one way or another fall under the descriptive of negative emotion, since they move me away from the good.
This may seem like too broad brush to paint things with, but truly, I think not. Gurdjieff's instruction to engage in non-expression of negative emotion was a succinct directive to avoid putting these destructive, self-serving attitudes out into the world. Instead, he asked us to own them — to take responsibility for them, to keep them inside ourselves, and to swallow them. We can't do this as long as we are under their sway, which is exactly how sleep functions — we are affected by them as though in a dream, and whatever desire comes along, no matter how selfish it is, we do it. If one examines life carefully, one sees that the vast majority of human behavior falls under exactly this description.
If we take responsibility for our negative emotion, our desire, we keep it to ourselves. It still has the potential for a destructive force, but it is not expressed outwardly; instead, it becomes a kind of food that we digest, and every time we digest it, it inwardly forms a new kind of Being in us — incrementally, to be sure, but this is a vital activity.
More on this in the next post.