Goddess: the first
Drawing by Lee van Laer, 2016
Created in Procreate, with iPad pro and apple pencil
The subject of intentional suffering is, perhaps, endlessly interesting, since the phrase was so unique to Gurdjieff, and its exact meaning apparently obscure.
Occupying, as it does, a critical place in the circulation of the enneagram— and our spiritual development— one would think we might spend more time considering it.
One of the practices Mr. Gurdjieff offered us as an effort in daily life is to bear the negative manifestations of others without complaint. I had occasion, on my last trip to China, to experience this in the new and different way that struck me within the roots of my essence, in such a way that I gained a different and, for me, quite new understanding of it.
When we suffer the negative manifestations of another person without complaint, the inward aim is one of absolute and irrevocable compassion. That is to say, it is another form of what Gurdjieff called inner considering; that is, the effort to put oneself in another person's shoes and understand the world from their perspective. Yet this is much more than simply seeing their own thought process and justifications, which it is so easy to interpret this as. If I do that, all I do is substitute my selfishness for their selfishness; and all of us can see, I think, quite easily that this dualistic selfishness, the clash of two personalities with all of their superficial and reactionary inclinations, is exactly what creates conflict and suffering for all of us in the first place. A picture that comes to mind is that of two male mountain sheep backing off and then racing at each other full speed to smash each other with their huge horns. If I put myself in the place of the other sheep, not too much has been accomplished.
The complexity of intentional suffering begins with the idea that I should suffer my own selfishness. Through seeing my inner state— through the inwardly compassionate (compassionate towards myself) practice of conscious labor, attention, and intention — I perhaps begin to see my own selfishness, my lack of love.
Yet this, too, is paradoxically selfish. It so easily becomes a work where everything is all about me, doesn't it? We all tend towards too much self-involvement in the first place; and if I want to learn how to turn my attention outward towards others, and support them — of course, from a rooted place of sensation within myself — it can't be all about me. It has to be all about them. There is a sacrificial offering that takes place in me of my own desires; and that has something to do with the question of intentional suffering.
One thing that is, in its subtleties, appreciated in modern psychology — it does get a few things right, after all — is that negative behaviors are, for human beings in which the positive attributes of instinctive conscience have not entirely atrophied, the product of deep inner conflicts that the soul senses. From my own inward observations, I see that when I act negatively, it actually comes out of an anguished place which I am helpless to oppose. This is the case with most people. That is to say, they can treat others horribly in one way or another; but they are the victims as they do so, suffering from terrible inward drives, conflicts, and dilemmas that they are spiritually (if not psychologically or consciously) aware of. When a human being acts in a negative way, even though their false personality and all of the excrement that is gathered around their external manifestations insist on the destructive outward action, the essence and the soul, which are of God, remain deeply opposed to that action. The soul senses, in other words, our negative outwardness; and it suffers terribly.
We are all, as it happens, unconsciously trapped in these struggles which produce great unhappiness for us; and, lacking the right kind of inward connection and in our work, we suffer terribly even as we harm. Perversely, that suffering causes us to act even more harmfully, because the personality is like a desperate beast maddened by bee stings; unable to understand the mechanisms that drive it, yet sensing the pain in a primal way, it continues to manifest in ways that make things not better, but even worse.
As this process accelerates, I can harm others more and more. This is why it is so important for me to become more inwardly aware of how I am.
As I begin to learn how to suffer myself inwardly, I begin to lay a foundation for intentional suffering from a personal point of view, and understand how necessary it is to go towards the suffering and towards the negativity in order to understand it better. This is another place where modern psychology has it right: we have to unveil and confront the things that distress us the most in order to deal with them. Yet this is a deeply spiritual and organic process, not one that can be done with the mind alone. The way of understanding this better is to see that a deep inward analysis needs to take place both emotionally and physically, as well as with the intellect, in order to have a full understanding of who I am and why I am the way I am. Psychology attempts to treat everything with the mind, through conversation; yet if I don't understand psychology as a three centered process, there is too much missing for to have a permanent effect of any kind.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.