Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Notes from the conference presentation, part one

Town Square, Hoorn

The following excerpt is from my presentation at the All and Everything Conference, in Hoorn, the Netherlands, April 30. The paper was on the subject of suffering in Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson and Meister Eckhart's Book of Divine Consolation.

It constitutes the introductory talk to the paper that I submitted, and is published with the kind permission of the conference organizers. Those interested in reading the entire paper can obtain it as part of the conference transcript.


Every man or woman views suffering through the lens of their own agency; and perhaps this is where we go wrong, already, up front. We simply don’t believe we are nothing; and to the ego, the idea that others ought to be considered before we gratify our own lusts and urges is—to put it bluntly—absurd. We can trust the devil in us—and what we can trust most is that he always wants our own satisfaction to come first.

 This question of intentional suffering explores the intersection between outer, material suffering—which is what mankind generally understands by the word—and inner suffering, which is of a different quality and requires a different response. We can’t come to the understanding of intentional suffering until we clearly distinguish between our inner and our outer lives, and develop an organic and tactile experience of the inner life. 

Our difficulty lies in the fact that so much of our attention is directed outwardly, lacking the connection to sensation and feeling which is so necessary in life if we are to know our inner experience in the first place. We think a lot; we don't sense, and we don’t feel. When we do sense and feel, they’re almost entirely reactive; the minds that govern these parts of ourselves are untrained and unconscious.

Intentional suffering involves going towards that which we don’t like. We don’t like people to be cruel or unkind to us; yet in our sleepy confusion, we respond in kind. This is what ego and self-defense are all about. The proposal that we become aware enough of ourselves to say no to this habit is a thread that runs through all the great religions, in one way or another; yet it forms the warp and weft of them largely as a creature of the thinking mind. We’re adepts at rationalization; yet the world around us proves over and over again, on both a microcosmic and macroscopic scale, that the thinking mind is fundamentally deficient. One might argue, in light of recent human events (by recent, I mean the last 5 to 10,000 years or so) that it’s not a mind, and it doesn’t think. We routinely engage, as a species, in entirely irrational acts that are demonstrably selfish and destructive. That is nutshell into which you can stuff most of Beelzebub’s advice, if you’re in the mood for stuffing things.

Beelzebub is, among many other things, a chronicle of disasters. The products of disasters are varied and unpredictable; all are extraordinary, but not all are bad. For example, the Austrian psychologist Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz and wrote an astonishing book called Man’s search for Meaning. One essential point of the book (among many) is that meaning emerges through suffering. It is much like emergence in the biological world: a series of actions, in this case destructive ones, produce a whole much greater than the sum of their parts. It brings to mind the essential difference between those in Hell and in Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The punishments are the same in both places; yet in Purgatory, those who suffer agree that their punishment is just. Unlike those in hell, they understand that suffering has a purpose. 

The bad, in other words, is the servant of the good, for without it we would not know what good is.

In suffering, we endure; and we ought, furthermore, to intend to endure in an inner sense. Put differently, we develop the inner will to endure; so in intentional suffering, what is proposed is a path of intentional will.

This is the point of our lives: endurance is what we are built for, and we endure in order to become decent. It’s said that Lord Pentland told folk the Gurdjieff work was meant to produce a decent human being; but no decent being emerges from our larval stage without suffering and overcoming it.


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