Jared Witt | Nov 27, 2020
Sometimes my mind reaches an impasse in its efforts to understand itself. I wheel around and around the same problem like I’m in a Parisian roundabout, and the issue that I’m having is the center island. It rarely occurs to me to just take the next exit off to the side and get on with my life. And whenever a particular street sign catches my eye and alerts me to that option, I’m utterly dumbfounded that I’d probably missed it countless times before.
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff is unlikely to be a household name for most, I’m guessing. But if you’ve studied the Enneagram at all, it may ring a bell. He reclaimed and codified many of the concepts of the Enneagram, though that was more or less a side hustle in his intellectual oeuvre. The eccentric Armenian left home at a young age on the hunch that it is in fact possible for humans to achieve a higher state of consciousness and improve their “state of being.” For him, this occasionally meant high forms of meditation, but more often, it meant simply not yelling at the dog because you’ve had a hard day at work. In fact, he would develop a way of speaking about the latter as being no less a transcendent topic and every bit a part of the conscious spiritual life as, say, sitting legs folded, palms up on a mountain top.
The young Gurdjieff wagered that if he could find himself in audience with the wisest teachers of the great spiritualities and philosophies around the world, he could synthesize all their many lines of congruity into one meaningful system of spiritual development, which he ultimately referred to, not so humbly, as “the work.”
One random Saturday, via audiobook, as I was taking my dog to the dog park, Gurdjieff showed me a street sign in the roundabout. There is a distinction, he said, between conscious suffering and mechanical suffering.
Mechanical suffering is the suffering that just happens to you in life. It is the pure fact of suffering. It has no value or purpose. It can be as small as putting up with a spouse who doesn’t listen to you or as profound as hunger. The emphasis here is not on the severity of the suffering but our response to it. Mechanical suffering is arbitrary, and there’s no redemptive outcome. You go through it as nothing but a passive victim. It can be circumstantial or self-imposed, usually a combination of the two.
Let me make a negative distinction before I define conscious suffering. Conscious suffering is not The Secret. What Gurdjieff promises is not some motivational or some new age-y technique that will help you avoid bad things altogether.
Conscious suffering is still suffering. But it is that suffering to which you apply your own intention and agency. It’s when you decide to do the suffering rather than it be done to you. You insist on being fully present for the suffering and perhaps even finding something redemptive in it against all odds. Conscious suffering is staring directly into the face of your own pain, your captor, and refusing the Stockholm syndrome of an unconscious sufferer. Instead, you look him in the eye and tell him that he might have all the power but he will not call the shots. It’s deciding for yourself that you will find something noble, productive, and humanizing in suffering, and in that way, you will play a judo-like trick on it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s physical or mental. The response might be as quotidian as putting on a clean set of clothes in the midst of a depression. It might be as weighty as giving away some of your bread in a concentration camp—something which, astoundingly, happened with some frequency.
Suffering lies to us. It wants us to believe we are victims and have no agency in the matter, especially psychological forms of suffering. Conscious sufferers don’t believe the lie. One always has a choice for how to respond.
One might ask, “so what if the suffering is mechanical or conscious? It’s still suffering. Who cares if you can tell yourself that you are still an acting subject in the midst of your suffering? It still hurts.” To understand the response to that question, we need to learn a third Gurdjieffian term: force.
Force, here, is not a mechanical term like “power.” In fact, it’s the opposite of power. Power is handed to people mostly by luck—by place of birth, by genetic prowess, by institutional position. Force, on the other hand, is more like the energizing effect of being grounded, centered, and confident in God’s generosity (read: spiritual force). It regards qualities like your “get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning-ness” and your “don’t-interpret-other-people’s-words-in-the-worst-possible-light-ness” and your “don’t-flip-out-when-you-can’t-find-your-other shoe-ness” and a whole bunch of other learned habits and responses which sages have traditionally associated with spiritual health.
Interestingly, power may get all the press. We may think of it as the most, well, powerful thing in the world. Yet history is replete with stories where power was strangely impotent in the face of force. In the hands of a conscious sufferer, whose humility and insistence on taking other values more seriously than herself, have given her a certain invincibility to ridicule, strong-arming, manipulation, condescension, and all manner of power games, force beats power every time.
A prime example of this is Jesus, on the day of his passion. Compare his actions to those of the other three major characters in the story: Pilate, Peter, and Judas.
Pilate has a ton of power but no force. He’s been too weathered and ground down by the cynicism of the system, too compromised by his own ambitions to climb its ranks. Now he finds himself in the odd position where people beneath him still carry out his decrees, but he is strangely not the author behind them. He speaks decrees but doesn’t make the decisions they represent. The further he climbs the institutional ranks, the more he finds his life oddly devoid of agency. He’s becoming more and more of a pawn with each promotion.
Judas has a modest amount of power but no force. His power comes from the odd circumstances in which fate has placed him (Isn’t that where all worldly power comes from?). He’s not used to having power like Pilate. He’s not someone who has grown cynical with insider knowledge as to the inner workings of power. He’s nouveau riche with power. He’s nouveau puissant. And maybe that’s why he’s a little drunk. Give a small man a small amount of power… It’s not until everything has run its course, and he has sold out the one person who ever saw him as more than just a means to an end, that he realizes what a tool he has been. And he opts for the only exit left for someone whose tank of spiritual force has gone totally empty.
Peter has no power and no force. He is an underdog, so you pull for him in the story. No matter how many times I’ve read it, I always want him to do better the next time. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that, hypothetically, were he in a position of power, he could use it to do the right thing. But he isn’t. And without force, he likely wouldn’t. He has never learned one of the most valuable lessons any of us can ever learn: circumstances can take away your power, but they can’t take away your spiritual force.
All of us, at any given time, are in charge of how we respond to the circumstances around us. Are we going to give an automatic reaction? Let the negative power provoke us and manipulate our response in exactly the way it wants? Or are we going to take the agency back. And grow through the experience of conscious suffering? For followers of the way of Jesus, how are my actions going to reveal the Good News which I believe is the ultimate future for the world, even when I’m surrounded by bad news all around?
That leaves us with Jesus as the fourth main character in the passion story. Jesus has no power but enormous force. As a raw measure of pain, his suffering will only go from bad to worse. But one senses that he is the only person in the story who still has command over himself.
People actually do what Pilate says, it’s true. He is wearing a comfortable robe. He is in good health. No one is listening to Jesus. He is naked. He is dying. But the mystery of it all is this: at some point we ask the question, Who seems to be in command of this situation? The answer is clearly not Pilate.
Cheers and Peace,
A blog that is too churchy for your drinking buddies and too drinky for your churching buddies.