Gargoyle, Troyes Cathedral
I recently said that mechanical suffering is suffering I’ve agreed to; and I think this deserves some explanation.
In theory, my suffering only emerges from agreement. It relates to my desire. I suffer when the world does not align with my desires: I lose my girlfriend or my money. The dog dies. My sister dies. My mother dies. Trump is elected. The antique vase breaks, my car crashes. People are polluting the planet. You get the idea.
In each example, I suffer because my desire is that these things not take place. All of them run contrary to my desires. So it’s very easy to suffer when any one of them takes place; it happens automatically. This is why it’s called mechanical suffering.
This kind of suffering is the only kind of suffering we generally know; and it runs deep indeed. No one can deny it. Yet it isn’t so easily seen that all of it is egoistic suffering. It arises because the conditions that create it run counter to my desires.
One might also call this selfish suffering; in any event, for all the legitimate tragedy it appears to embody and entail, it represents a relatively unexamined form of self-involvement.
There’s a second, and very different, kind of suffering that is undertaken from a completely different point of view.
Gurdjieff called that point of view non-desire.
This term is a bit tricky, because it doesn’t actually mean “what I do not want.” It means, rather, everything that lies outside the scope of my own desire. What I “do not want” actually lies within the scope of my own desire; and non desire represents a very much larger world. So allowing my non-desires to prevail over my desires involves a huge shift in perspective which becomes entirely impersonal. Non-desires are the actual conditions which surround me— as opposed to the conditions which I wish surrounded me or wish didn’t surround me.
I haven’t in any way agreed to suffer for my non-desires; and in this regard my attitude towards the objective truth of objects, events, circumstances and conditions is entirely lacking. To suffer on behalf of my non-desires is to suffer on behalf of what is true, not what I wish for. And that suffering must be Catholic, that is, ubiquitous and all-embracing. It isn’t suffering for me; it’s suffering on behalf of God.
Now, you might think that this kind of suffering is too big for a human being to take on; yet it’s nothing of the sort. The need for its exercise isn’t on cosmological levels, but rather lies within the exact, intimate and precise perception of everything as it is, exactly where we are. This aspect of seeing as suffering is not spoken of much in the Gurdjieff work; yet they are intimately linked. The difficulty lies in the fact that so much of the suffering that seeing prompts in us is still egoistic suffering.
We feel bad for ourselves and how we are.
And we judge.
Yet the point of inner work is to come to a much different kind of suffering; and for as long as one remains confused about the difference, it’s impossible to understand what is missing.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.