In a Nov 3rd-28th 2014 online course now available on demand at:, Cynthia Bourgeault set out on the tricky task of illuminating the teachings of the obscure and much misunderstood early twentieth century mystic and teacher G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff’s teaching is commonly referred to as “The Work.” In Session 12 Cynthia tackled the particularly challenging Gurdjieff teaching on “Conscious Suffering.” Her words are challenging but worth pondering. If we can open to the possibility of the kind of redemptive suffering she describes, we may discover the possibility of meaning and purpose in those parts of life we most fear.

Cynthia explained in part:

The key to unlocking Gurdjieff’s subtle and challenging teaching here lies in the realization that for Gurdjieff there are two very different types of suffering — stupid suffering, as he calls it, and intentional or conscious suffering.

The first kind of suffering — which one of my Buddhist friends picturesquely describes as “squeezing the cactus” — is suffering caused by the frustration of our neurotic programs and illusions. In unison with virtually all teachers of inner awakening, Gurdjieff insists that this kind of suffering is completely useless and avoidable. In fact, one of the primary purposes of the Work’s spiritual training program is to liberate us from this pointless, self-inflicted misery. … non-identification, self-observation, and external considering — can help us to spot those places where we slip back into “cactus-squeezing” mode and to get ourselves disentangled as quickly as possible.

… Gurdjieff ultimately remains true to his Western spiritual lineage in insisting that conscious awakening does not put a final end to suffering, but rather, allows us to bear it in a way that is luminous, generous, and ultimately sacramental. In contrast to that more Buddhist slant, which links suffering irrevocably to ignorance and urges us to move beyond it, the Western view tends to see suffering as an objective reality, woven deeply into the fabric of our world. As the medieval mystic Jacob Boehme once famously quipped, “Pain is the ground of motion.”

….That late-great wise woman Helen Luke, in her iconic book Old Age …points out that the word “suffer” actually comes from the Latin sub-fere, which means “to support, or “hold up” — as, for example, an undercarriage holds up the upper structure of a car. As we are willing and able to participate at this level, we take our place in the mystical undercarriage of those who are literally “holding up” the visible structure of the cosmos. Through our prayers and our presence, we take our part in bearing the cost of this precious divine finitude, in which and through which infinite love is revealed.

We need to tread carefully through this minefield — one misstep and the whole thing blows up! The foregoing statement does not mean that God is a monster demanding innocent sacrificial victims (the dark side of Christian atonement theology), or that “the reason” for pain and atrocity is so that love can be manifest. But what we do know is that great injustice, cruelty, physical pain, or betrayal, when consciously accepted and generously borne, can give rise to a peculiarly luminous and healing quality of love, and that this love radiates out from the site of the pain as a source of healing and hope for the entire cosmos.

Perhaps the most moving description of the flavor of this “intentional suffering” is for me summed up in a poem left by the body of a dead child at the Ravensbruck death camp, during one of those eras of unspeakable human darkness. Its beautiful lines summarize what Gurdjieff was attempting to convey by “intentional suffering”.

O Lord
Remember not only the men and women
of good will, but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us;
remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to
this suffering — our comradeship
Our loyalty, our humility, our courage
Our generosity, the greatness of heart
Which has grown out of all this, and when
they come to judgment, let all the fruits
Which we have borne be their forgiveness.