Monday, February 27, 2017

The Sorrow of Being, part I

Agra, India

People generally think that they want to feel "good"; that joyfulness is the best and most preferable feeling, and that positive emotions ought to be the center of our emotional gravity.

This definition of emotive magnetism depends on an outward and largely sensual interpretation of emotional health. Although we can be sure that depressive and destructive emotion aren't a desirable state, it doesn't follow by default that happiness is what will satisfy us. 

Gurdjieff, course, famously said that every happiness is the result of some earlier and already experienced unhappiness; he thus invoked not only reciprocity, but also payment. In this sense he suggested that if we wish to find any happiness at all we need first to be unhappy; and this makes a certain kind of fundamental common sense, since one cannot know the difference between happiness and unhappiness unless one has experienced both.

Yet, as Viktor Frankl pointed out in Man's Search for Meaning, a homeostasis of emotion—complete equilibrium—actually deprives human beings of an essential and necessary tension without which happiness cannot exist. Mankind derives its sense of meaning—which by itself, and alone, gives true solace to any and all all activity—from struggle; and this is, of course, equally the premise behind nearly all of the Gurdjieff/Salzmann teachings, as well as many manifest versions of Christianity, Sufism, and Buddhism. 

One might well argue that these philosophies of inner struggle represent liberation theologies or theurgies in which the subject is liberated not from the struggle, but from the lack of it. 

Gurdjieff's teachings certainly smack enough of this idea to disturb many folk; and indeed we work and live in a world where creature comforts are celebrated, and the ideal is some kind of wonderful happiness and inner peace — unattainable, of course, but probably right around the corner if only we take the right vacation and buy the right consumer goods.

It ought to be strikingly obvious to mankind that the material solution is a dead end; yet that seems to be just about all that’s on offer. Instead of pulling together into an intelligible vision of our shared humanity, the planet is fragmenting into an exponential number of cruelly self-interested groups. This steady and relentless decay of mankind’s inward emotional state reflects itself outwardly; and we can all see the results.

What I'd like to explain here is that there is, in fact, an objective right state of emotion in mankind—an inner emotional ground floor which alone represents the "resting state" (it is not in fact restful at all) from which all emotional action ought to be directed. 

This inner center of emotional gravity isn't happiness at all. 

It is a religious impulse, a movement towards God; and that movement begins within the human soul, unattached to joy or sorrow, bliss, or pain. It is an objective state of receptivity, not a condition already arrived at; that is to say, it stands within itself prepared to receive what comes, not already predisposed to happiness. 

The religious impulse, the original and primordial state of right emotion in man, is thus one in which a service is prepared for; the state of a nerve ending which has not yet received its first signal but stands prepared to do its full duty of transmission—regardless of the nature of that signal. It is, furthermore, in the performance of the duty itself that the greatest satisfaction rests.

More on this on March 2.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Most readers are well familiar with Gurdjieff's formulation of human beings as "three brained beings."

 My new book, Being and Impressions, consists of brief and practical discussions on the subject, along with observations about impressions and how we take them in. 

The book was written to address some questions that have been directed at me over the last few months on the subject, which helped me to understand that many folks still struggling with these concepts—even after many years of effort to understand them. 

Most moving was a friend of mine—a true genius of talent with extraordinary outer accomplishments to his credit—who still after most of a lifetime, feels he cannot understand why impressions don't fall more deeply into him. 

His comment touched me in ways that theoretical discussions of these matters never do. I felt it was necessary to undertake an effort to grapple with these questions more directly, in a contemporary language, rather than the material we are all familiar with and have been reading for many years.

The aim in this book is to simplify and clarify some of these matters. It remains to be seen whether I have succeeded. Readers will have to judge.

Interested readers can purchase the book by clicking on the link in the above text.


  1. Great. Where does one find these meeting notes?

  2. There's a book entitled, I think, Early Talks of Gurdjieff. Most of these notes are in it (not all.)


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