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Stay in the Bit
Clive Barker, Seinfeld & Gurdjieff walk into a Bar...
Q: How’s your back?
That’s such a nice question! Thank you. Although, of course, you realize that I’ll have to pervert the answer into some kind of obscure neo-spiritual principle for the Age of the Metacrisis. My apologies.
(NOTE: Starting with this article, I will be recording audio versions of the texts for paid subscribers using the Substack Podcast feature).
1 - The Back Story
We’ve all been there, right?
You are just leaving a lovely, snow-covered cabin on the shores of Lake Ontario in Northern Ontario. You & your delightful-but-challenging partner have spent the last several days improvising a heart-centered ritual to welcome the Spring. And now the golden warmth of morning sunlight is slowly melting the snows into water. Success! Yet it is still cold enough that the meltwater immediately re-freezes, transparently, on the sharp stone steps between the cabin and parking area. Hazard.
You are carrying bags to the car when your foot slips on the fresh, smooth and almost invisible ice. Suddenly your feet are above you as you dangle cartoonishly in the air. Then your lower back (mostly on the right side) crashes down onto the sharp jags of the grey steps. Reality becomes an excruciating explosion of omnidirectional pain. You curse God (how pious!) and hobble like a fragile gnome for the next two weeks.
Perhaps there was something we left out of the ritual…
I have injured my back before. Usually on the right side. However, I’ve never afterward had these recurring, brutal stabs of white hot pain that feel like long, metal needles, fresh from the fire pit, being lanced deeply into my upper right buttock.
It’s not too bad, really. Only hurts wildly when I sit, stand, bend, twist or adjust my legs slightly in any direction. Fortunately, my general mobility returned last week after a wonderful acupuncture session in Toronto. (Thanks, ‘Tash). Nonetheless, these ghostly and penetrating stabs of debilitating pain persisted and perplexed.
This particular perplexity (which is a fun word to say) was connected to the fact that I usually heal from such things very quickly with a combination of daily yoga, therapeutic energy work, light self-massage & a regime of walking on uneven natural surfaces. This specific haunting torment, however, lingered strangely day after day.
At least until last night.
2 - Intentional Suffering
That evocative fellow is Pinhead.
Pinhead is the nickname for the chief cenobite from Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser.” That original dark fantasy film was a startling directorial debut from the painter, playwright & short story author who revolutionized horror fiction in the 1980s. Also the 2022 reboot is not bad — at least compared to the utterly awful sequels to the original movie.
What are cenobites? Priests & priestesses of Hell. Exotic explorers and orchestrators of the transformational intensity that lies at the heart of human suffering. This fictional transhuman esoteric sect has gone “beyond sensation’s rim” into a transfiguring ecstasy whose entrance is the white hot impossibility of pure pain and torment.
I thought of the cenobites as spikes of wild hot pain shot through my lower back and upper butt. As an organism, my automatic response to these crippling bursts of intensity was panic, escape, readjust. Understandably pathetic. My body tensed around the sensation and writhed into new positions which might evade the pain. Very natural. Yet it was not healing me. At least not as quickly as I would like. Maybe I did need some additional transformation from within the pain?
So my conscious strategy became the attempt to “freeze” in the position of the greatest stabbing torment. Hold at the exact agony threshold. Instead of moving away from the pain, I would hold still and allow the pain itself to move. Perhaps it had a secret healing cycle which required that I relax into it?
Difficult. And worrying to those nearby. Imagine that the person next to you suddenly stops talking and, instead, clearly in agony, is paused in some preposterous pose, one leg extended in the air, shoulders twisted, face grimaced, shaking silently.
But — astonishingly — within only a couple hours of this strange new regime, my condition had improved immeasurably. Nothing else in my recovery process had been this transformative this quickly. It seemed like “holding there” allowed the specific postures of painful intensity to start processing themselves. The inner feeling was like that of permitting a cycle that had been inhibited by my very reasonable attempts to shift out of the pain.
Clearly this is not a magical panacea for all back injuries. Nor is it the sole reason for the recovery I have experienced so far. Yet there may be something worth exploring here.
It has to do with principle of staying with.
3 - Staying With
Clive Barker’s fantastical imagery — and the whole post-Lovecraftian realm of dark transcendence fiction — puts me in mind of Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. How much of our depth and transformation are we avoiding simply because it occurs in the places of the trouble?
Obviously we are not invoking a world of horror. The goal is to reduce suffering for sentient beings. And it is certainly not a great idea to assume we can wisely and ethically inflict pain as a remedy. That’s a kind of terrorism. Yet there is something here to consider. Conscious allowing-and-abiding-in-intensity has deep echoes at the edges of the Dharma.
Student: What do you do if you find yourself in hell?
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: I try to stay there.
He tries to stay there.
Intentional suffering is a phrase that descends from the Gurdjieff Work. If you have heard Christopher Mastropietro discussing Kierkegaard’s esoteric Christianity with John Vervaeke, then you may be familiar with the theme of consciously utilizing suffering for the refinement and transmutation of human authenticity. This kind of suffering was one of the two basic meta-principles by which Georges Gurdjieff defined practical developmental work in general.
Why is the word intentional highlighted? Well, therein lies the rub. Literally. Gurdjieff denounced the stupidity (too often accompanied by self-pity & self-sabotage) of ordinary human miseries. Simple suffering is not beautiful or useful. Merely tragic. The transformational utility is connected specifically to the intentionality.
For Gurdjieff, even “voluntary suffering” was not good enough. In his final book (Life is Real Only Then, When I AM) he cryptically describes struggling with translators of his writings to get them to understand why he says “intentional” and not “voluntary.”
A subtle difference is suggested.
I might volunteer to undergo some particular suffering in order to facilitate another valuable condition. The agony of early mornings and painful practices maybe be a reasonable price to pay in becoming an Olympic athlete. Perhaps I tolerate long, nonsensical diatribes from my spouse because I wish to maintain good household relations. There are many forms of suffering that we consent to undergo in order to achieve some positive goal.
This maps loosely onto Kierkegaard’s stages of life’s way — as described in that Vervaeke/Mastropietro discussion. The first layer of the sapient human animal is somewhat childish. We experience the “aesthetic” life in which we suffering passively and thus make every kind of attempt to escape from personal suffering into all the pleasurable possibilities that present themselves. An additional layer of “ethical” psychology can make it clear that we can only deeply access certain pleasures by rejecting other pleasures — and by voluntarily accepting particular sufferings. Yet for Kierkegaard, as for Gurdjieff, this is not yet the privileged layer.
Intentional suffering seeks something of “religious” value (Kierkegaard’s 3rd stage) within the suffering itself.
This is not simply ascetic masochism (which Gurdjieff parodies in many of his writings). Rather it is the odd intuitive and experimental notion that we have something interesting to gain from the gesture of leaning into our personal pain. One does not simply undergo the torment but, instead, actively reaches out for it. It is not for the sake of some distant value but rather for a nourishing element that inheres within the intensity of the friction in which we are already embedded. An element, as Kierkegaard might say, that is essential to escaping from the faithless repetitions of life’s foolishness in which we are trapped — regardless of how pleasurable and/or ethical our lives may be.
Trapped by our attempts to escape the trap.
That famous children’s toy, called the Chinese Finger-Trap, makes this obvious. Pulling away (trying to escape the trap) makes it worse. Liberation requires that you do the exact opposite. Push into the trap.
4 - The Stop Exercise
A “bit” is a technical term used by computer programmers and comedians.
In the latter case, it suggests a micro-narrative & an accompanying affective-gestural performance. A deliberately perverse characterization is presented, along with an emotionally-charged mental incongruity, in order to elicit the liberating value of the humor reflex by undermining and reversing conventional social values (which tend to stagnate and rot unless we stir them). It is a crucially important social function.
Several years ago, the HBO corporation arranged a 4-way conversation between acclaimed comedians. The Talking Funny discussion explored, among other things, advice that Jerry Seinfeld gave to a young Louis CK. What do you do when the joke is over — but the people are still clapping?
Stay in the bit.
Continue, Jerry said, to affectively enact the character or position that you were performing when the applause began. The natural thing, with comedy as with pain, is to move into another position. To evade the uncomfortable intensity of the in-between condition. The professional advice, on the contrary, is to stay in the bit.
This is where we come back to Gurdjieff. When he performed with his students at Carnegie Hall in New York in the 1930s (“The Great Harmonizer Tuning Up”) he presented talks, demonstrations & his brilliant reconstructions of archaic sacred dances — choreographed as examples of simultaneous, and intersubjectively shared, mental, emotional and physical efforts. Not bad. And one of the most memorable practices, at least for that era’s audience of cosmopolitan elites, was when he shouted “Stop!” At that moment, each member of the performing troop would freeze in place.
Even if that meant toppling over preposterously.
These were sophisticated students. They were not just holding still with their bodies. Rather, in the manner of the old Sufi practices upon which the exercise is based, these people attempted to intentionally confine themselves to the interwoven physical, emotional and mental postures that characterized them in that instant.
Stay in the bit.
But, then again, which bit?
5 - The Excessive Micro-Expressions of “House, MD”
Why did Gurdjieff call “Stop!” at those particular moments? Random sadism? What was the purpose of the exercise? The ability to hold still when commanded is not in itself a terribly valuable capacity.
It seems to me that the essential developmental feature of this practice involves staying with our transitional inter-postures. Most of us have a very limited number of postures. They get the job done, pretty much, but how many actual different moods, ideas and gestures do you really cycle through in your life? After childhood (unless you’re constantly learning new sports, or moving from one improv troop to another) you probably do not gain many new “positions” in your private behavioral alphabet.
Of course we can speak many new sentences with the same few letters. It’s fine. We can do many things by simply moving from one habitual stance to another. But perhaps there is something to be gained by increasing the complexity of our postural repertoire?
The possibility of deepening into a soulful richness of character through exploration of the valences of transitional states between our learned postures occurred to me one day whilst I was watching an old episode of House, MD frame-by-frame.
These days, we have such astonishing digital technologies! We would be foolish not to look through electron microscopes or to witness the eerie elf-carnival of reality slowed down. We can (and should) watch political debates with the sound off. So much to learn by tweaking the knobs on the media machines!
So I was watching House, MD — still a classic show about how an iconoclastic cognitive savant uses unpleasant experiences to generate collective intelligence in a hospital diagnostics team — very slowly. Frame by frame. What did I learn?
The charismatic lead actor Hugh Laurie seemed to exhibit considerably more micro-expressions per second than any other actor on the show.
You won’t seen much variation in this video. It is charmingly tailored to one particular mood — pensive pondering. However, if you watch the affective journey of an entire episode, frame by frame, you will see the difference between Hugh and the other actors. In the time it takes them to register one feeling on their faces, he has registered two or three.
Does this contribute to his charisma, visual intrigue & general compellingness?
In the narrow field of “pretending in front of cameras” does he have a richer, more complex character because he inhabits micro-postures that exist between ordinary postures? Maybe that kind of depth is what the Gurdjieffian/Sufi exercise is meant to elicit? And the key principle, as with my back pain, seems to be that we must intentionally stay with the momentary intensities that our automatic responses immediately move on from. Our habitual organism wants to leap to one of its normal positions. Yet there may be so much healing and growth possible in the places from which this leaping energy attempts to escape…
This whole article is an obscure, interlinked and personalized way of suggesting a mindfulness of our in-between selves. A mindfulness that is not normal. One that requires us to purposefully want-and-try to occupy the interstitial spaces that our moment to moment responses typically evade. There may be something for us “down there.”
That said, I again appreciate the questioner’s empathic concern. I am healing well now. And I hope that my pain in the ass has, in some small measure, become your pain in the ass…