05 August 2009

Suffering

"It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering" is pretty much the same statement as "all history is the history of class struggle". Simply put - the clash of opposites creates energy for transformation, as I'm pretty sure William Blake says somewhere. In the Lesser Jihad (political and social action), this is the struggle of the exploiters against the exploited; in the Greater Jihad (psychological transformation), this is the struggle of the animal/automatic/ego self against spiritual consciousness, of common sense against good sense. The ego is, then, like bodily fat - a source of energy for action. But it must be burned to be useful, like any fuel.

In other words, spiritual exercise (and political action) works on the same principle as physical exercise. No pain, no gain - although not all pain is gain. We must distinguish between "false suffering", where the ego turns on itself and attempts to bite itself to death, producing no useful energy (otherwise known as neurosis), and "real suffering", where the ego is transformed, softened, melted by a source of energy from somewhere outside itself, and consumes itself in a controlled chain reaction, producing useful energy. (Call the exterior source the submerged 9/10 of the brain, or God-However-Defined, or your Holy Guardian Angel, or the 12 Step Higher Power, whichever works for you.) The ego can not only be burned for energy, but it is softened, becomes malleable, in the process. Jill Bolte Taylor talked about how her experience of pure right-brain consciousness meant she saw herself as "a liquid, rather than a solid" - so perhaps the personality can even melt altogether. (Or perhaps vaporize, under exceptional temperature and pressure?)

And I just realised that the creation of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen - the light is taking me to pieces - is, in fact, a depiction of a hyper-accelerated version of this process. (Yeah, big surprise considering the author.) The Thelemites call the final melting or vaporisation of the personality "the crossing of the abyss" - Sufis call it "dying before you die". But then you put yourself back together again on the other side, after your encounter with spiritual death and The Absolute. Will you have kick-ass superpowers at that stage? I honestly can't say. Probably the tradition of alchemy is talking about this, but those who know those texts better than I do can comment further.

A final word for warning, though - the process of "melting the ego through suffering" produces energy, but the energy can of course be used for good and evil. Anyone who went through an old-fashioned Catholic education can probably testify that living an ascetic life of devotion and prayer doesn't necessarily make you a channel for good into the world. Which is why the intellect must rigorously examine the source and outcome of the "spiritual energy" involved in this process. And that applies to political action, too. "Social revolution" = "crossing the abyss", but what awaits you on the other side? Not something necessarily better, if the process is aborted, or the consciousness leading the process is too attached to its own existence and privileges. Which is why the Greater and Lesser Jihads must MUST MUST go together, and a revolutionary party should probably disband itself in the process of the revolution.

(Is the revolutionary party or magickal order then the "ego" or "store of memetic fuel" of a social revolution, which must burn itself to be useful? That puts into perspective recent debates among Marxists about whether it's best to stay in small groups and "keep one's powder dry", or to gamble the future of your group on the chance of spreading revolutionary memes in a broader pool. I suppose the essential point is that if your ideas aren't "starting a prairie fire", then ditch them and get some new ones which work.)