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The Second Conscious Shock: From Ouspensky to the Tales

by Ian MacFarlane

Listen to the talk (Audio MP3, 7MB Download)

(Presented at the All and Everything Conference, Bergen, Netherlands, 2005)

The Second Conscious Shock is one of the more obscure areas of the Work. It is surrounded by an aura of mystery and secrecy, and as a result, this has led to various interpretations as to what it involves. The problem has been compounded by the fact that Gurdjieff's own teaching and terminology in regard to it seems to have changed over the course of his life. In this talk I would like to trace the development of the concept and bring out into the open what I have come to understand to be Gurdjieff's final teaching on the subject.

The Second Conscious Shock is not discussed very deeply in the literature about the Gurdjieff Work. Why is this? Is it because the teaching of the work is based on an oral transmission from teacher to student? Is it because it has been deemed impossible to transmit the method in written form? Does the secrecy exist to protect the novice student from a potentially dangerous practice, such as the transformation of sex energy?

Lets do a quick review of what people have written on the subject.

The first widely available written accounts of Gurdjieff's teaching about the Second Conscious Shock came from Ouspensky, who said in the Fourth Way:

"It is the transformation of negative emotions into positive emotions. It is possible only with long work on self-remembering, when you can be conscious for a long time, and when higher emotional center begins to work." (TFW228)

He goes on to say that the results of the Second Conscious Shock assist in the transformation of the energies of sex, air and impressions, which leads to the growth of the higher being bodies, and to contact with the higher centers and their associated higher states of consciousness. I quote:

"The higher thinking center, working with hydrogen 6, is still further removed from us, still less accessible. Connection with it is possible only through the higher emotional center. It is only from descriptions of mystical experiences, ecstatic states, and so on, that we know cases of such connections. These states can occur on the basis of religious emotions." (ISOTM195)

This early writing lays out an arduous, sequential process that builds up step by step and note by note around the enneagram, and any stepping out of line is cautioned against. This line of thought is echoed by many Fourth Way writers. This adherence to structure is curious when we consider what Ouspensky thought about the discrepancies between the placements of the Second Conscious Shock on the enneagram, where it is between Fa and Sol, and on the octave, where it is between Si and Do. Listen to what Ouspensky concluded:

"This signified that there was no wrong place for a "shock" at all." (ISOTM378)

When we come to Beelzebub's Tales, the same results regarding the transformation of the energies of sex, air and impressions are mentioned, but now the method of their transformation is called Being-Partkdolg-Duty, that is, Conscious Labour and Intentional Suffering. Here also the term negative emotions is replaced with the references to the suffering caused by the consequences of the organ Kundabuffer and the desires of the planetary body. Gone is any mention that this practice is reserved for the future - for tomorrow - indeed, man is criticised for his susceptibility to the disease of tomorrow. In contrast, a much more organic process is indicated and there seems to be much less concern about coordinating the shocks with particular practices in a fixed sequence. Rather one gets the impression that he is much more concerned with the simultaneous practice of all aspects of Being-Partkdolg-Duty in order to effect a balanced development of our Being. 

Orage's view of the Gurdjieff teaching is presented in a very interesting book called the Oragean Version, by C. Daly King. In many respects this book recapitulates the views of Ouspensky, but it also incorporates some of the later ideas presented in Beelzebub's Tales. One of the most significant incorporations is the idea of Conscious Labour and Voluntary Suffering, both of which are explicitly equated with the Second Conscious Shock. 

We should look briefly at another aspect of the Second Conscious Shock mentioned in the Oragean Version. This aspect has not been mentioned by Ouspensky, as far as I can recall. This aspect is called Conscious Labour, or Pondering, by Orage. Gurdjieff of course used the expression Conscious Labour and Intentional Suffering to refer to all the ways that we use to Work on ourselves. However, it is my opinion that Conscious Labour includes many more practices than just Pondering, such as those practices related to the first Conscious Shock. Gurdjieff stresses the importance of this practice constantly throughout Beelzebub's Tales by the extensive use of the word Pondering, as well as companion terms such as aiesiritoorassian contemplation, intentional contemplation and active mentation. It is by this practice that we transform the cosmic substances of third being food required for the coating of our highest being body, our soul. These substances are the basis of Objective Reason - the direct experience and understanding of the nature and Source of existence.

So, one of the difficulties in understanding Intentional Suffering is the use of various words to describe it; words such as conscious, voluntary, self-imposed or intentional. A good example is Orage's use of the word Voluntary instead of Intentional. Gurdjieff had a different meaning for both of these words and he did not use them interchangeably. There is a good example of this distinction in Life Is Real, where Gurdjieff says:

"When he came, in the translation, to the expression used by me, "intentional suffering," I interrupted his reading, for he had translated the word "intentional" by the word "voluntary." As I attempted to explain the great difference between the voluntary and intentional suffering of man, there arose a general philological discussion, as is usual in such cases." (LIR)

In Talks on Beelzebub's Tales, Bennett distinguishes four types of suffering - Unnecessary Suffering, Unavoidable Suffering, Voluntary Suffering and Intentional Suffering. Lets have a look at each of these to see if they can help our understanding:

The first is Unnecessary Suffering. This would be the type of suffering that we incur because of our unreasonable attitudes and expectations towards others, from our ill-will, hatred and rejection of others, from doubt, possessiveness, arrogance and self pity. In other words, suffering arising from our self-importance.

The second is Unavoidable Suffering. This would be the type of suffering that comes to us by accident or from events beyond our control, such as interpersonal conflicts, war, disaster, disease or death.

Third, we have Voluntary Suffering. This would be the type of suffering that we take upon ourselves in order to accomplish a personal aim, such as an athlete who disciplines himself to win a race, or a student who labours to get good grades.

And finally we have Intentional Suffering. According to Bennett, this would be the kind of suffering that we take upon ourselves in order to accomplish an impersonal or altruistic goal, one that is directed more towards service to others or to the Work, and not for any personal gain. Bennett assumes that this is what Gurdjieff meant by Intentional Suffering.

Ouspensky certainly seems to recognize the general necessity of suffering, as indicated by this remark from In Search of the Miraculous:

"To destroy suffering would mean, first, destroying a whole series of perceptions for which man exists, and second, the destruction of the 'shock,' that is to say, the force which alone can change the situation." (ISOTM308)

But when it comes to the Second Conscious Shock, both Ouspensky and Orage seem to only discuss it in terms of negative emotions, or what Bennett has called unnecessary suffering. For example, Ouspensky speaks of negative emotions such as:

"Bad moods, worry, the expectation of something unpleasant, doubt, fear, a feeling of injury, irritation..." (ISOTM198)

And Orage says that: 

"Examples of such emotions are anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, annoyance, exasperation and so on." (TOV)

One thing we will immediately notice is that the negative emotions just mentioned are all very similar to Gurdjieff's 'desires of the planetary body' and 'consequences of the organ Kundabuffer'. Here is how they are described in Beelzebub's Tales:

"... arrogance, the need to provoke astonishment in others, bragging, cunning, the vice of eating, egoism, envy, hate, imagination, jealousy, lying, offensiveness, partiality, pride, wishing the death or weakness of others, self-conceit, self-enamoredness, self-love, swagger, and vanity." (BT512,719)

This is about as far as we can go with the accounts of Ouspensky and Orage about the Second Conscious Shock, since they had ceased to have any direct contact with Gurdjieff in his later years. And it is during those years that Gurdjieff's understanding of suffering may have matured. Here is how C. Daly King summed up his understanding of what Orage had taught about the Second Conscious Shock:

"The suppression of the organic symptoms of negative emotion is the beginning of Voluntary Suffering; Pondering is the beginning of Conscious Labour. Neither of them constitute the end or the completion of their respective exercises. But they do constitute the end of the discussion and of the subject so far as concerns the Oragean Version." (TOV)

As we see from this statement, the Oragean version can only give us the preliminary aspects of the exercises.

To see beyond this point, we have to turn our gaze to Gurdjieff. Lets take a look at an account of his own suffering, to see if it can take us beyond the Oragean Version and shed some new light on our understanding. In Life is Real, Gurdjieff recounts certain realizations that he had at Christmas in 1927. These realizations were about the value of what he calls the "automatic — that is, passive — experiencings of suffering". Listen to what he says about this:

"And this time, beyond any doubt, I again established that during the first three years of my authorship, my labour-ability, as well as my productivity, in reality at all times strictly corresponded in its duration with the length and quality of the, so to say, "degree of contact" between my consciousness and the suffering proceeding in me on behalf of my mother and my wife." (LIR)

Gurdjieff was perplexed by the effect of this automatic suffering on himself. Previously he had been convinced that "to attain any self-imposed aim it can only be done exclusively through Conscious Suffering." Self-imposed suffering is Voluntary Suffering as described by Bennett. Gurdjieff goes on to say:

"To explain my case, however, by such an objective possibility was utterly impossible.
And it was impossible to explain because in this particular case I suffered unconsciously, while this process proceeded in me automatically in accordance with my typicality and the accidental crystallization in it of corresponding psychic factors." (LIR)

In other words, he did not choose this suffering - it was unavoidable - and he allowed himself to experience it rather than suppress it. 

Here we can see that Gurdjieff's understanding about the nature of suffering expanded at this time. He realized that conscious or voluntary, self-imposed suffering was of limited value but that the intentional enduring of the unavoidable suffering arising from the automatic experiencings of his nature was a much more powerful practice. He saw that the intentional enduring of the unavoidable sufferings which are a part of all existence, in this case the death of loved ones, was a practice that had assisted him in the authoring of Beelzebub's Tales and could possibly help him to achieve other aims in the future. He recounts that this powerful realization evoked in him an intense experience of self-remembering and joy. Out of suffering - joy!

Since Gurjdieff and Ouspensky had parted ways by this time, we have to wonder if Ouspensky was ever privy to this new conception of Intentional Suffering?

We can now turn our attention to Beelzebub's Tales and the teaching that is given there about the nature of the Second Conscious Shock, of Conscious Labour and Intentional Suffering. What we learn from Gurdjieff is this:

"the-whole-of-us” and the whole of our essence, are, and must be, already in our foundation, only suffering." (BT372)

Gurdjieff expands on this idea throughout the Tales and he informs us that our planetary bodies are fromed from the crystallizations of the second part of the Omnipresent-Okidanokh, the Holy-Denying Force, and that this is the source of the forces and desires which give rise to our suffering.(BT147) He tells us that the other two forces of the Triamazikamno, the Holy Affirming and the Holy Reconciling, are localized in the head brain and the emotional brain. We are told that there is a very practical aspect to this triadic structure, which is realized when we oppose our Denying Forces with an Affirming Force, such as an intentional Wish to Be. The fire, the Disputekrialnian-friction (BT802), that results from this struggle and blending of forces will actualize the Reconciling Force. The Reconciling Force is the transformed result which feeds the growth of our higher being bodies. It also helps to decrease the suffering of His Endlessness by assisting in the process of world creation and maintenance. This interaction of the three forces is called Harnel-Miaznel and is codified in the Legominism:

Transubstantiate in me,
For my Being. (BT752)

Here is what Paul Beidler, another student of Gurdjieff, has to say about this Legominism:

"This is a prayer given to us. In it I have found what I call the Holy Equation which provides us with a basic pattern for most of our work. Holy Denying equals our inherited mechanical "myself" manifested by our habits, traits, thoughts, feelings and actions in sleep. Holy Affirming is our conscious effort to accept, endure and to meet with objectivity all our Holy Denyings. Holy Reconciling is the resultant of them both leading automatically to a Transubstantiation. By self-observation we learn to recognize accurately our Holy Denyings to which we then eventually apply our Holy Affirming."

Now, one of the things that happens as we become more conscious, is that we begin to sacrifice many of the sufferings that arise from our Denying Force. We learn bear the unpleasant manifestations of others and to accept with equanimity many of the trials and irritations that are a part of all existence. Yet on the other hand, we must not, and indeed cannot, completely eliminate suffering, for without suffering we have no fire for transformation. This was made abundantly clear by Gurdjieff in a meeting on December 7, 1941, when he said:

"One needs fire. Without fire, there will never be anything. This fire is suffering, intentional suffering, without which it is impossible to create anything. One must prepare, must know what will make one suffer and when it is there, make use of it. Only you can prepare, only you know what makes you suffer, makes the fire which cooks, cements, crystallizes, DOES. Suffer by your defects, in your pride, in your egoism. Remind yourself of the aim. Without prepared suffering there is nothing, for by as much as one is conscious, there is no more suffering. No further process, nothing. That is why with your conscience you must prepare what is necessary. You owe to nature. The food you eat which nourishes your life. You must pay for these cosmic substances. You have a duty, an obligation, to repay by conscious work."

So we see that instead of suppressing or eliminating the emotions of unavoidable suffering, instead of what Gurdjieff called Self Calming, we must actively and intentionally endure the fire that arises from the experience of suffering. When we realize that this patient enduring of suffering is an act of service to His Endlessness, as well as a lawful expression of the Triamazikamno necessary for the coating of our higher bodies, then we may find the strength and humility that enables us to 'gird up our loins' and suffer gladly; suffer without suffering. And out of this fire may arise conscience, compassion, faith, hope, love, joy and awe. This is truly a transubstantiation of the suffering into the higher positive emotions.

So, we have come a long way from Ouspensky's vague hints about the Second Conscious Shock and negative emotions. Many of us were first drawn to the Work in the hopes of alleviating the suffering we experienced in ourselves. But as we have seen, there are other types of suffering from which we will never escape, the automatic and unavoidable sufferings that are a part and parcel of our being. Can we see that there is a higher purpose and value to this suffering, something other than it being the means of our self transformation?

Gurdjieff indicates that suffering is part of the cosmic plan, part of our very essence and is thus inescapable. The necessity of suffering is also plainly evident from the law of three, where the Holy Denying force is an essential ingredient of all energy transformations. For as long as we exist, we will be enmeshed in the Denying Force. Our highest being body also has its own internal law of three. Even the beings who have reached Purgatory are still struggling with their suffering. Intentional suffering is an act of service to His Endlessness; it is a Doing which lightens the burden of His suffering.

Another misconception about the Second Conscious Shock that I hope I have dispelled is that it is a secret practice reserved only for the later stages of the Work. From a purely practical point of view, for harmonious development, it is necessary to Work on all our centers simultaneously. Pondering and Intentional Suffering are vital elements in that process. J G Bennett expresses the immediate need for this kind of Work when he says:

"Is it that Conscious Labour and Intentional Suffering is only for the special rare ones or their disciples, followers, companions or apostles?

"It is different in these times. The needs of the world are very much wider and there is a task that can no longer be performed by a few. Many people are needed. Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful but the reapers are few and now it is even more so like that. The harvest is enormous — the whole future of mankind." (TOBT)

So we have been called to suffer - as Jesus said: "Take up your cross and follow me. My yoke is easy and my burden is light." And strangely, out of the bearing of our allotment of suffering, there can arise a joy, a peace that passes understanding. One might call this Conscience - that paradoxical, bitter-sweet state wherein we experience all our conflicting emotions and thoughts at once.

In conclusion, I would like to end with a few well chosen words from my Teacher:

"Conscious Labour includes the performance of all recommended exercises requiring conscious effort, gradually leading to Holy Affirming in our daily activities."

"We understand the ordinary pursuits of our lives responding to desires to be educated, well thought of, useful, admired, superior, wealthy or spiritual, as examples of Holy Denyings. We try to meet these denyings with our conscious efforts in our search which we call Holy Affirming. Both are of equal substance and importance."

"Intentional Suffering is the intentional acceptance of all suffering which is a part of all existence. To prepare us for this type of Holy Affirmation in our daily lives we are assigned special exercises including seeking out or welcoming suffering in all its forms, especially those forms which are overlooked or moved into different categories, such as "anxiety", "fear" or "depression". It is sometimes useful as a preparation to induce self-imposed suffering but this is to be abandoned when we learn how to meet the normal lot of humanity's suffering."


LIR - Life is Real, Then, Only When I Am; G. I. Gurdjieff

BT - Beelzebub's Tales; G. I. Gurdjieff

ISOTM - In Search of the Miraculous; P. D. Ouspensky

TFW - The Fourth Way; P. D. Ouspensky

TOBT - Talks on Beelzebub's Tales; J. G. Bennett

TOV - The Oragean Version; C. Daly King


The Endless Search 2004 Ian C. MacFarlane