Resources on Suffering

Further to the paper I recently delivered at the Gurdjieff Symposium at the University of Sydney, I am intending to post some resources from Gurdjieff and his pupils. I shall commence with what is one of the most concise, and also most practical treatments of it. It is from the paper “The Study of Psychology, Man, the Machine.” This is quite unique in the Gurdjieff literature, so far as I know, being the only attempt he made to set down the psychological side of his teaching in one short document. It is found in full in the volume Gurdjieff’s Early Talks in Moscow, Petersburg, Essentuki, Tiflis, Constantinople, Berlin … 1914-1931. For a full understanding, it is best to read the entire paper. But, to focus on the question of suffering, consider just these passages:

From p.127, “Today you have a thousand “I”s. Each weakness is an “I” that can at any moment make itself your master. To have your own “I” it is necessary for it to be born. It has been conceived because you have allowed the work to enter in you. It will not grow by itself; it must be fed so that it can accumulate substance and one happy day take form. Then it can develop and be born.

“The substance of “I” comes only from intentional suffering. When, for instance, you wish strongly for a cigarette and deny yourself, you will suffer inwardly. Then say: “I wish to make this inward force my own force.” “I wish to receive this substance of my intentional suffering for my own ‘I’.” By this means you can become an individual and go on the path that leads to the perfected man.”

I now omit two paragraphs. At p.128, and closing the paper, Gurdjieff wrote: “I must warn you that you cannot attain to such blessings if you insist on clinging to your present joys. Look back on your life and see what good has come to you from past joys. They are as useless to you today as the snows of last year which have melted and left no trace by which one can remember what they were. Only the imprints of conscious labour and intentional suffering are real and can be used in the future for obtaining a good.”

This paper was apparently marked “London 1922.” Gurdjieff’s teaching on intentional suffering is repeated and elaborated over the next 27 years, but I think it is presented here, at least so far as it applies to humanity, quite fully. These passages set out the template of the entire teaching (as I say, excepting only the cosmic dimension).

Note, first, that intentional suffering is said to be necessary so that one can acquire the substances needed for psychological unity. Gurdjieff is not saying that the different “I”s are melted down, or joined in a larger piece of work, like tiles set in a floor. He seems to be be suggesting that we already possess the embryo of real I, but it is small and unformed. Intentional suffering will feed it, and as it grows, it takes form. A good analogy might be the formation of the human embryo fm conception to birth. Observe, too, the importance of taking a form. This is an essential element: the formless cannot be developed and brought to birth. It needs a form, and that relates, I will briefly note, the ancient Christian teaching of typology.

Then he makes the critical statement that: “The substance of “I” comes only from intentional suffering.” This is a large statement, and later he will say “conscious labour and intentional suffering.” His rather absolute way of speaking here is, I think, designed to bring to our attention, and to emphasise, what he is about to say. Then he illustrates intentional suffering: a person who wishes to smoke but denies himself.

Now, I think that whatever the person’s purpose in denying himself the cigarette (e.g. to help their health), it is possible that some increase in will power will develop. But I would suggest that if the person denies himself the cigarette with the aim of intentionally suffering so that he can remember himself, so that he can acquire bring, then the results of his efforts will be correspondingly greater.

It should go without saying, that what is important is the principle, not the example. If I deny myself eating food before 12 noon, as in the Syriac fast, for example, the same happy results will flow. If I give up something perfectly neutral, like using the dishwasher, with the intent of remembering myself while I do the washing up by hand; or if I get off the bus one stop early to walk, or I have almost finished a book, but leave the very last page unread until the next day, the same results can be expected.

Incidentally, people often take quite literally, in a formatory way, Gurdjieff’s admonition not to work for results. I have said before that this has to be understood in context: it must mean not to identify with results, because Gurdjieff is quite clearly, in the paragraph from p.128, saying that if my experience leaves no trace, but melts like the snow, I am wasting my time. Later in the Early Talks volume, is the text of the Compromise Exercise, dated 1930. There Gurdjieff is quoted as saying about trying the exercise: “Do it often. Don’t try to get absolute results. Make repeated efforts. Then only little by little, can you actualise results” (409). This puts it very well indeed: be patient, results will come, but you cannot demand THIS result by THAT time, which is what I understand by “trying to get absolute results.”

Joseph Azize, 13 December 2019

The illustration is the cupola of the Church of Saint Maria Maggiore in Rome.

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