To Struggle, by Lee van Laer

The word [struggle] is of unknown origin; and although it is presumed to have come from Scandinavian and Germanic roots (there are no clear parallels or roots in Latin) the connections are uncertain […]

Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, Prado, Madrid
Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, Prado, Madrid


  • To exert one’s physical strength in persistent striving against an opposing force.
  • To contend resolutely, especially with an adversary of superior power; to offer obstinate resistance. To make violent efforts to escape from constraint.
  • To make great efforts in spite of difficulties; to contend resolutely with a task or burden; to strive to do something difficult.
  • To make progress with difficulty to go into or out of a place or a condition, through something interposed.
  • Also, to maintain existence, or continue one’s course of action with difficulty.

The word is of unknown origin; and although it is presumed to have come from Scandinavian and Germanic roots (there are no clear parallels or roots in Latin) the connections are uncertain. Plausible explanations include cognates of the Dutch struikelen and German straucheln (to stumble); but these meanings are not particularly consonant with the modern (or, for that matter, original) meaning of the word in English.

I. Biblical struggle

I‘ve heard this word brought up a number of times recently in the context of spiritual search—our inner struggle.

Perhaps the most obvious classical biblical reference is Jacob struggling with God (Genesis 32:22-30); this story forms an important root of Judeo-Christian tradition on the matter of struggle.

The passage begins,  

22. And he rose up that night, and took his two wives and his two women-servants and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.

Examining this as an allegory about a person’s inner conditions, Jacob is presented as a man with many parts. (Different centers, or “I”s.) He gathers them together (achieves a certain level of inner unity) and crosses a river at a shallow point. The river represents a divide between separate states of inner awareness; and the shallow point represents a place at which transition can be achieved without drowning in the depths of the inward unconscious, which is represented by the water.

Allegorically speaking the wives and female servants represent sacred receptive parts within him. The duality suggests that Jacob is channeling his receptive and perceptive energies through the two left and right yogic channels, ida and pingala.  The two female servants may represent the secret chakras on the left and right side of the heart; and the eleven children various nadis, or centers of yogic energy.

23. And he took them and sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. 24. And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

This represents a whole inner effort, in which the sum of one’s inner resources are committed. Yet after unifying his inward parts—achieving this different level of inner wholeness “in the night,” in inward darkness—Jacob sends his spiritual consciousness, the wholeness of his Being, forward into the night, and stands alone to struggle with God. The image is one of a naked consciousness, a singular essence of Being, which encounters the person of God in the form of another man. The idea of the entire family being sent away here is a foreshadowing of Christ’s comment in Luke :

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

The sending away of all the “family members” prior to Jacob’s engagement in struggle represents to us a similar attitude of complete detachment from all ordinary things in the pursuit of God.

Jacob’s ensuing struggle represents an intimate physical contact with God; an unusual imagining, to be sure, given our generalized conceptions of God as an ethereal, not corporeal, Being. Yet the physical nature of the contact is unambiguous; and further underscored by God’s weakening of Jacob by touching his hip.

25. And when the man saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint as he wrestled with him.

Why the thigh? …and why was it put out of joint?

First of all, to be touched by God is very different than having a vision of God. Jacob is not only touched by God in this passage, he is in prolonged intimate physical contact with God: struggling. (Jacob’s struggle incorporates all of the above definitions of the word.) To be touched by God allows for the transfer of an inner energy that cannot be bestowed by visions.

Secondly, Jacob not only struggles against God, he proves in some sense to be His equal; and here we sense a subtle but intense intimation of the potential for embodiment of the Godhead in humanity, an idea which eventually becomes the fulcrum upon which our understanding of God is leveraged into a new relationship with man through the birth of the Christ. Remember here as well that the entire parabolic arc of the bible—and religious understanding in general—encodes and incorporates a story not just of man struggling with God, but of God struggling with himself, with man as His vicegerent, or appointed representative. Throughout creation, God is engaged in an investigation of His own nature and character—in other words, a questioning of who He is. The story of Jacob’s struggle is intimately associated with this eternal effort, this question of identity.

God, in the end, resorts to the action of deus ex machina to bring Jacob to an understanding of his position, by putting his hip out of joint.

The reason for this is again subtle, but fascinating. By putting his hip out of joint, God removes the support that Jacob has from his lower parts—the legs which allow him to stand. Allegorically this means that Jacob cannot rely on the material world for support; he now contends in the realm of the spirit, not the flesh.

This happens near daybreak, or, “when the light will dawn.”

26. And the man said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” And he said, “I will not let thee go, unless thou bless me.”

The day breaketh can signify either the end of a dream state or the moment of awakening, which are roughly equivalent in terms of spiritual meaning. Jacob is in a position where he is bereft twofold: he’s lost the support of the material world—a world of the flesh, which is inherently unreliable—but is also being told to let go of God; that is, to abandon everything that might give him support, both from the higher and the lower levels. It implies a condition of absolute defenselessness, or surrender; complete submission to the conditions before the light dawns.

Jacob presciently requests a blessing here. That is, he asks for help. Here, the minimal nature of the text informs, rather than obscuring: his adversary’s ability to confer that blessing is implicit. In other words, Jacob already knows that he struggles with God Himself; else, why even ask?

Yet God wants first to know Jacob’s identity.  

27. And he said unto him, “What is thy name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

A peculiar question, coming as it does from a purportedly all-knowing God; yet we already know that this is a God of questioning, a God that knows he does not know himself, already clear from the earlier passages. So God—engaged in this sacred and eternal quest for essential identity—asks Jacob for his name.

In his answer, God makes not a new man out of Jacob, but a new nation:  

28. And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”

This represents an elevation of nature in which Jacob is appointed intermediary in fact between God and man, not just in concept.

The transition is an interesting one, because it illustrates, in simple allegorical terms, the precise nature of man both before and after the acquisition of what Gurdjieff called “real I,” that is, a legitimate inner identity: freed, as Meister Eckhart would have put it, from all conceptions and support from both man and God. In this position Jacob acquires real authority and can fulfill the potential implicit in man’s Being: that of God’s vicegerent.

There is a tripartite process at work here consisting of  the following elements:

  1. Struggle. An intimate physical contact with higher forces resulting in a confrontation.
  2. Blessing. A loss of reliance on the material, and a request for help in surrender to those higher forces.
  3. The acquisition of a real self, with legitimate spiritual authority.

Jacob ends this process with yet another question:

29. And Jacob asked him, and said, “Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.” And he said, “Why is it that thou dost ask after my name?” And he blessed him there.

God’s answer indicates the rhetorical nature of Jacob’s question; and He finally bestows the blessing as requested. The precise nature of the blessing remains unrevealed; yet we understand its implications through Jacob’s final comment:

30. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [that is, The face of God]: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

This idea of struggling with God face to face is a textbook example of an idea common to much of Jeanne de Salzmann’s notebooks: a confrontation between man’s higher and lower parts: a face to face encounter. She frequently refers to this action as a struggle; and although the idea of conflict is implicit, the struggle between the higher and lower nature within man is directly related to Jacob’s wrestling with God. This brining together of the higher and lower within the realm of man’s innate conscious action—which is exactly what Jacob engages in—performs a sacred function on behalf of God.

II. Material Struggle

Krishna Battling Keshi, the Horse Demon (Metropolitan Museum, NY)
Krishna Battling Keshi, the Horse Demon (Metropolitan Museum, NY)

At a certain moment we come to see two aspects, two natures, in ourselves—a higher nature related to one world and a lower nature related to another, a different world. What are we? We are neither one nor the other—neither God nor animal. We participate in life with both a divine nature and an animal nature.

Man is double; he is not one. And, as such, he is only a promise of man until he can live with both natures present in himself and not withdraw into one or the other. If he withdraws into the higher part, he is distant from his manifestations and can no longer evaluate them; he no longer knows or experiences his animal nature. If he slides into the other nature, he forgets everything that is not animal, and there is nothing to resist it; he is animal . . . not man. The animal always refuses the angel. The angel turns away from the animal.

A conscious man is one who is always vigilant, always watchful, who remembers himself in both directions and has his two natures always confronted.

—Jeanne de Salzmann, The Reality of Being, p. 21

This quote summarizes, in certain ways, the inner struggle Jacob is engaged in; yet the connections are (inevitably, given the nature of the material) parabolic.

Being a physical and material creature, I think of struggle in physical and material terms. I do this, however, psychologically; it is in the peculiar nature of the human manifestation and predicament that even the grossest physical experiences are measured by ideation. That is to say, I conceive—through thought—both before and after I experience.

When, therefore, I hear the word struggle, I conceive of it; and that conception is inevitable in terms of my “horizontal” experience of it, that which relates to the real world. It’s interpreted in terms of conflict, of stress and tension, of contest. It is, in a word, externally inflected, externally interpreted, externally understood.

I need to allow here that the question of what an inner struggle consists of is a quite different one. I do understand what an inner struggle conducted in the context of outer circumstances is; but what I’m in contact with here is an inner struggle conducted between inner forces. The struggle—the confrontation— takes place, so to speak, before any outer circumstances are invoked; so it’s a struggle between inner parts. This takes place in darkness.

The confrontation (a facing—just as Jacob sees God face to face) described by de Salzmann arises in an inner sense alone, through the observation of one’s inward nature. This type of observation needs to be inwardly cultivated through an organic sensation of Being; for that is the grounding force which anchors the experience. Firmly planted—rooted—within this organic sensation of Being—an active sensation, one which volunteers, that is, arises of its own conscious volition (not through my psychological or intellectual invocations) I can eventually come to this experience of two natures in a sense that exists before—and apart from—the material world of external impressions.

I come to the idea of oppositional struggle between these two “worlds,” or sets of forces—the animal and the angelic—quite naturally, because I’m accustomed through association to identify with each of them, though in different ways. I generally celebrate one at the expense of the other, just as de Salzmann indicates. This is a function of my outward understanding, which insists—through its reliance on the external—that a certain range of consequences and results must obtain. Either I want to be an angel, or I want to be an animal—each has its rewards, and they appear to be mutually exclusive conditions. No matter which one I choose, they tend to engender a set of destructive impulses which target the other side of my nature as an enemy.

I gained a great deal of experience in this area quite young in life as an alcoholic, where the extremes become ones of life and death. In most cases they don’t paint themselves in such garish or intractable colors; thus disguised, one can lead an entire life unaware of the subtle self-destructive frictions which prevent one side or the other from attaining harmony. Alcoholics who manage to get sober are lucky in the sense that they have a more practical experience of this matter.

What escapes me in my oppositional behavior and inclinations is that both sides are necessary. The function of awareness is to stand between these two natures and see each of them for what it is; and indeed this is exactly the position God assigns Jacob when he describes him as a “prince” in the passages from Genesis. This can perhaps lead me to a brand new appreciation of how very Judeo-Christian—in fact traditional in the strictest Biblical sense—de Salzmann’s understanding is. The moment we sense this, we begin to see that her teaching—and Gurdjieff’s teaching—are identical to the earliest and most original teachings on the matter of inward struggle.

In the material and temporal struggle to be either a man or an animal—a struggle still playing itself out daily (and aggressively) on the disruptive canvas of my daily life on the planet, I forget about the deep inward nature of this enterprise, and the deep inward nature of the observation that’s needed in order to fully appreciate where I am.

I believe myself to be engaged in a war between my higher and lower parts, where the higher parts need to conquer and win. The war appears to be an outward one, waged between outer behaviors: my own and even those of others. Yet all the outer behaviors are nothing more, as Swedenborg pointed out, than reflections of my inner conditions. All of my attempts to fight, to win, or even to mediate between these opposing forces are doomed to failure for as long as I engage in them outwardly. Hence Jacob’s choice to wage his struggle with God alone—a struggle in which he is stripped of all things. First (by his own choice) family; then by God’s will, support from his lower nature (the weakening of his hip); and then by the realization that he cannot continue to cling to his higher nature (God’s let me go) either.

As Meister Eckhart might say, “everything must go.” This is a complete abandonment of the material; an abandonment of the imaginal, the conceptual, and the understandable. We can liken it to the Zen idea of complete dissolution: yet not a dissolution into nothingness, but rather a somethingness.

So much more than our conventional ideas of a “nirnava” within nothingness, the very word itself provokes a questioning, doesn’t it?

III. Spiritual and Metaphysical Struggle

Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, Prado, Madrid
Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, Prado, Madrid

Metaphysical struggle takes place on what I perceive to be an immaterial level; that is to say, it takes place on the level above me. At least that’s the way I conceive of it. Metaphysics somehow involves a realm beyond that which I know.

Perhaps this is a better way of putting it: metaphysics is the physics of the unknown.

Metaphysical struggle is a struggle with the unknown.

Perhaps we can configure this, in our formulation, as a struggle of the unknown with the known. This is, of course, the ultimate struggle we are always engaged in; because while we live in the known, we always struggle to understand what the known means, and we only ever do that in the context of the unknown.

This invitation of the unknown is not just a metaphysical struggle; it has a quality of temporality to it, because the unknown always implies one step further into a future where the unknown becomes the known. Metaphysical struggle, in other words, is a path, a process of one step after another into the unknown.

Each of the steps somewhat paradoxically constitutes a movement into the known; to the extent, that is, that each moment is known as we enter it. The moment is known to the extent that we are aware; that which is not aware cannot know the moment.

We can also say – I can also see — that how much I know this moment is dependent on my awareness of Self and the fact that I inhabit it; so the metaphysics of struggle is also the metaphysics of inhabiting the moment. Consciousness finds itself poised between the unknown and the known in this moment — and we can create a rough equivalence between the known and our animal nature, the unknown and our spiritual one. We know our animal nature only too well; we do not know our spiritual nature, although we craft hypotheses about it.

Yet our spiritual nature—that which emanates from goodness— is always one of the potentialities; and the less we tamper with the known, the less that we try to manipulate it, the more potentialities for goodness we leave open.

I’ve grown convinced through experience and age that it is towards this movement into the unknown potential of goodness that we are supposed to be working; that is, we open ourselves not just to an unknown future, but the possible goodness of that future, and the possibility of us becoming agencies of that goodness. In this sense, the struggle is not goodness “against” evil; although it is easy to see it that way if we wish to.

It’s a struggle for a goodness that arises through harmonization.

Harmonization of itself takes what opposes and incorporates it; both the positive and the negative are taught to work together, not oppose each other in a destructive manner. This deserves some thinking about. If I always construe inner struggle as a fight of some kind, with a conqueror and one who is vanquished, then I never allow struggle to become a meeting place between the known and the unknown. I always feel that there must be a winner and a loser, rather than just that which is.

Knowing can be a dangerous thing; because the struggle of the known against the unknown, the struggle to know, all too easily becomes a struggle to destroy the unknown. We modern peoples—armed with our medicines of technology and intellect—undertake enterprises of this kind with excessive zeal, never fully understanding that the unknown is immortal, eternal, and infinite. Medieval Sufi metaphysics certainly tried to define and comprehend this problem, as did Christian theology. But the age of Enlightenment took up innumerable lances to tilt at this windmill, and we have never yet put them down.

My fears take comfort only from the known; and it is there that I think I can find all goodness. Yet if I attempt to banish the unknown—that greater portion of all my psyche, my spirit, and my life—because I am afraid of it, I dismiss most of my potential, most of what I can be. I think I can only be the known; yet it’s not the unknown that I ought to struggle with, it’s the known itself. So perhaps instead of taking up the struggle of the known against the unknown, to vanquish my unknowing, I ought to take up the struggle of the unknown against the known, and help my knowing see it has a partner that complements it—a partner that does not necessarily have to be feared, but might rather be embraced.

In what the Buddhists call mindful practice—the action of the Christian contemplative, what Gurdjieffians call self-remembering—I find myself engaged in a metaphysical struggle, a struggle of the spirit, which is simply an effort to be right here and inhabit this moment. Although I may use the word struggle to describe that effort, it isn’t really a struggle. There is an organic, a natural, opportunity available to me to inhabit the unknown, right here, right now, by using the organic sensation of Being and the organic sensation of Feeling as instruments that stand in front of the unknown, measuring and accepting, without quantifying and explaining. ♦


By Lee van Laer

Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor of Parabola. For more information, please visit