The Transformation of Suffering
“Maurice Nicoll said that ‘Nothing
makes a man so much like God as suffering’.
I would add that nothing makes a man so
much like God as transforming suffering.”
Robert Earl Burton
In the process of trying again and again
the question naturally arises: how to keep
it going for more than just a few seconds,
or at best a few minutes? How to prolong
presence? On the Fourth Way, this is where
the conscious shock of transformation comes
The idea behind transformation is that suffering
creates a pressure which, when used correctly,
can dispel imagination
and perpetuate self-remembering. Usually,
the greater the suffering, the more we want
to avoid it. Yet in terms of awakening,
suffering provides a unique opportunity
because of the impact it has on our mechanical
state. If we are asleep, the force of suffering
puts us further to sleep. But if we are
present, the power of our suffering can
help to strengthen self-remembering.
When suffering comes our way, if we make
a conscious effort not to identify with
it—not resist or resent or blame suffering—then
it can work in our favor as a catalyst or
third force for consciousness. It can help
us be more present. As Robert Earl Burton
points out, this is the hidden meaning of
suffering. True transformation has an awakening
It may sound intriguing, yet transformation
is hard to achieve because we tend to resist
and avoid suffering of any kind, be it a
minor irritation or a life-threatening event.
Just as the machine
prefers the ease of imagination over the
effort to self-remember, so it prefers comfort
and pleasure over pain, inconvenience, and
turmoil. From the ordinary point of view
this is normal, for to turn our response
around and embrace suffering rather than
resist it is to go against the laws of Nature—which
explains why transformation is so rare.
Self-remembering lets us use the moments
of our lives to promote presence; transformation
lets us use periods of suffering to prolong
presence. To transform suffering, we need
to begin by remembering ourselves—that
is, we need to be present to the suffering
we are experiencing without rejecting or
denying it. Some ‘I’s
can support this, but many more oppose it
and do their best to prevent it. The stronger
the suffering, the harder it is to keep
self-remembering on track.
Why is this? The most mechanical reaction
to suffering is negative
emotions. We feel hurt, angry, pitiable,
defeated when we experience real suffering.
Observation proves, however, that negative
emotions prolong our suffering and turn
it from real suffering into imaginary suffering:
we relive our experience over and over again
in sleep. By not expressing and not identifying
with the negative emotions we experience
in the face of our suffering, we have a
chance to separate consciousness from functions,
and this separation is what makes transformation—and
Work on transformation
As was said, transformation cannot work
until we free ourselves from all the imaginary
suffering that reinforces negative emotions.
Things like complaining, criticizing, suspicion,
jealousy, worry—all the forms of negative
imagination and identification
which serve no other purpose than to distract
us from being present to the reality of
the moment. Imaginary suffering occurs often,
yet it leads nowhere and changes nothing.
Real suffering, however—such as illness,
pain, grief, and emotional devastation—happens
much less often. But when it arrives it
is charged with an intensity that can sustain
presence. This is why Mr. Ouspensky advises,
“The moment you suffer, try to remember
This effort begins by letting go of imaginary
suffering—not displaying irritation
and impatience, not complaining or criticizing,
not worrying, not blaming, and, above all,
not feeling sorry for ourselves–and
by replacing it with the effort to divide
attention. Daily efforts of this kind—of
choosing presence over imaginary suffering—is
how self-remembering is reinforced and how
we can transform our state from sleep to
In sleep, the four lower
centers cannot distinguish between real
and imaginary suffering, and so they respond
to both with identification and negative
emotions. Meanwhile, self-remembering responds
to both types of suffering with continued
efforts to divide attention. It uses suffering
large and small as fuel to promote and prolong
the wordless state of presence that characterizes
the functioning of one’s higher
centers. As Robert Earl Burton has said,
“Transforming and not identifying
with suffering opens up all our possibilities.
The more one transforms suffering, the more
one’s soul emerges.”
of interest on our web site
See video of
Robert Earl Burton teaching
suggested reading about the Fourth Way
See the web site in
your language (home page menu)
Introductory lectures monthly
We offer a series of free introductory lectures
in cities around the world. To register:
Call our USA information line (1-800-642-0212),
Find a center nearest you.
The Foundation of the Fourth Way
Self-knowledge · Levels of
Man as a machine · Consciousness,
will, and unity
Obstacles to awakening · Three
lines of work
The Theory of Centers
(requires lecture 1)
Practical Ways to Seize and Prolong Presence
The 4 lower centers
The sex center
The soul, the spirit
(requires lecture 1 and 2)
How to introduce and sustain self-remembering
of Friends is a Fourth Way school with
centers worldwide. Membership is monthly.
Find a center nearest you.
Hercules fighting the Nemean lion, detail,
Greek sarcophagus, circa 500 B.C., Santa Maria
sopra Minerva, Rome.
Thoughts on Transformation
Nothing can be attained without suffering
but at the same time one must begin by sacrificing
suffering. 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.
By itself suffering can bring nothing, but
if one remembers oneself in connection with
it, it can be a great force. If suffering
did not exist, it would be necessary to create
it, because without it one cannot come to
right self-remembering. But people try to
run away from suffering, or try to disguise
it, or they identify with it and in this way
destroy the strongest weapon they have. Evolution
depends on man's attitude; if he accepts suffering
and tries not to identify with it.
Suffering can either destroy or make a man,
according to whether he allows his attention
to become attached to the unhappy flesh, or
whether with a great effort he can transmute
it into that principle of consciousness which
is able to regard the physical organism and
its troubles from a detached and objective
point of view. It is almost impossible for
those whose lives are full of involuntary
suffering to be able to conceive of suffering
as a positive thing. The intentional use of
suffering only becomes practical in connection
with the work of a school of regeneration.
It is not suffering we seek, but the transformation
of suffering. The best way to work with suffering
is to accept it, not ward it off, but let
it run its course. Perhaps the most painful
aspect of suffering is wishing it to end,
because by accepting suffering one rises above
it. Enduring friction without identification
constitutes the greater part of awakening.
We must remember that friction is not what
it appears to be. It is necessary to accept
suffering as a life-giving principle and not
as an obstacle.
Robert Earl Burton
I know that every suffering is a mercy.
According to the law that governs the universe,
all suffering is your labor of love to unveil
your real self.
All below duly travel’d, and still I
mount and mount. Rise after rise bow the phantoms
You nights of sorrow, why did I not kneel
to you more gracefully?
Rainer Maria Rilke
Everywhere a greater joy is preceded by a
When the fire is strong, it soon appropriates
itself to the matter which is heaped upon
it, and consumes it, and rises higher by means
of this very material.
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