Alienation and Faith: The Postmodern Situation

From The Knowing Heart, Shambhala, 2000

The real and essential needs of the human being have not changed very much over the centuries. Eight centuries ago, Al-Ghazalli asserted that: “Human perfection resides in this, that the love of God should conquer a man’s heart and possess it wholly, and even if it does not possess it wholly, it should predominate in the heart over the love of all things.”

To grasp his statement, we must understand that this word “God” has the following synonyms: Reality, The Source of Life, The Most Subtle State of Everything. The love of God is the love of the greatest Truth. This quest concerns Reality not religion. The “love of God” is our essential relationship with what is most real.

What has changed over the centuries, perhaps, is the form and pressure of those forces that could displace the love of the Real, the love of God from the heart. And what may change further is that human beings may lose the whole notion of love of God as the criteria of human perfection and well-being.

To be a Sufi is to be a lover, but not just any kind of lover. We need knowledge to know what to love and what love asks of us, in order that we might become love itself. Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi says: There is no greater love than love with no object.

There was once a time, perhaps, when people felt themselves to be part of a cosmic order which offered a straight path to salvation, truth, or enlightenment. In that time before spiritual truth was relativized, the Divine love and mercy was extended to anyone, no matter what his or her circumstances, who fulfilled the necessary moral and religious duties. Almost every person could find in his or her own humanness the pre-condition of hope.

We live in times of spiritual uncertainty and great contradictions. We witness signs of cultural collapse and long for a vision of hope. Perhaps it has always been this way in the world, in the dunya, as it is called in Sufi languages. The situation for many in the post-modern era is that no religion seems absolute anymore. All religious truths seem to be relativized. In this situation, even a life of faith and morality is no assurance of salvation. We live with unnamed anxieties and guilt anyway. An undercurrent of shame and unworthiness moves just beneath the surface of our busy lives. We try to find cosmic satisfaction in a lifestyle, a career, a self-image, or a romantic relationship. Some employ therapists to attain self-acceptance, forgiveness, and understanding. Although liberated from a Divine judgment, we are haunted by an existential guilt which refuses propitiation.

Furthermore, there is no shared cultural myth, no unifying vision to bind us together with the wider society. The servitude to religious forms and strictures is quickly disappearing to be replaced only by a worship of the self or a compulsive escape from the self. The worship of the self conceals itself in many forms: fashion, fitness, career. The escape from the self is served by vast industries that more and more shape our lives: professional sports, alcohol and narcotics, gambling, mass media, and the entertainment of sex and violence. All that unifies us is a synthetic, dollar-driven “culture.”

Many attempt to construct their own personal spiritual world-view through a sampling of what the great traditions have to offer. These words, which were spoken by a nurse, seem to sum up the experience of so many people:

I have looked at many of the world’s spiritual paths, and they all seem to be saying pretty much the same thing. I haven’t been able to commit to any one of them, and it is difficult to remember the sacred in the midst of daily life.

The Existential Contraction

What is it that we are searching for? Our situation as human beings is that we live in a world of pain and death. No amount of pleasure can negate this reality. Our means of pleasure is the body, and the body eventually gets satiated, weakened, sick, or dead.

Even if we no longer fear the punishment of Hell, we have to somehow deal with our own animal self. We try to know which of our desires can lead to a real and perhaps lasting well-being. We try to know when and how much is enough; and yet this animal self has endless desires. Repression, or at least self-discipline, is an inevitable condition of our situation. Our very identity, our ego-self, is a complex of psychological manifestations arising from the body and related to its pleasure and survival. There is a terror in living with a body that is irrational, fallible, and finally, mortal.

We have no cultural and spiritual value systems to reconcile us with the body. We serve the body but we do not teach it how to serve. We worship the body, but we do not sanctify it. Our cultural value systems today are among the least spiritual ever offered to a human community. Basically, the meaning of life has been reduced to an unconscious operating mode: get a job that will enable us to buy what we want, pass through life with a minimum of pain and discomfort. The fulfillment offered to us is the fulfillment of being good and intelligent consumers, effective seekers of pleasure. We will have to repress many of our desires in order to eventually satisfy a few of them.

Yet there is still this problem of our existence. Even if we are free to fulfill our desires, we still lack something to fulfill and give meaning to our lives. Even if we have removed God the Judge, we have a feeling of existential contraction, unworthiness, guilt, and sin.

This existential contraction is the “I” itself, cut off from the spiritual dimensions of Reality. Effectively, in our everyday waking existence, this is all that we know and are. We become this “I” which seeks pleasure and avoids pain. Our capacity for pleasure is, however, limited and our confrontation with pain is inevitable.

To protect ourselves we unconsciously try to make ourselves the Absolute Ruler of our own psychological and material realm. We create a kingdom with boundaries and defenses. We strive to consolidate our powers so that we can acquire what we want and keep out what we don’t want. This is the business and strategy of the “I.”

And yet even from a materialist perspective, this kingdom has all the substantiality of a spider’s web. Despite our pride and careful efforts to spin this web, fate can brush it away without resistance. It is no wonder that we who depend on the material world for our sense of security and well-being live in a perpetual state of fear and contraction. Even when we are attaining our desires, and so have experienced what we call “happiness,” we cannot help but question whether this is real, and how long will it last.

What are we to do with our consciousness, our will, our love? These are the choices that variously confuse, distract, and oppress human beings.

This human face is a shape

tethered in the stall of pain:

part god, part angel, part beast. . .

a secret charm, rarely released.

Rumi, Quatrain 568

Our “I” is our relationship to the world; and as long as this relationship is characterized by a self and world, we are in duality. This is our relationship with reality. Our resistance, expectations, complaints, desires fly off at a tangent from what actuallyis.

The vast majority of human beings are living in a state of alienation from spiritual reality and from their own essence. Instead of living life directly and knowing themselves directly, all experience is filtered through layers of mental and emotional conditioning in the form of subjective distortions, defense mechanisms, cultural prejudices. This total mechanism of distortion we take to be ourselves. We are living in a “virtual reality” of our own creation, but because we have always been in costume, always wired to the program, always turned toward the screen of fantasy, we have not known ourselves.

In the best of these times people’s minds are filled with everything but the truth: images from consumer culture, manufactured desires, superstitions, hallucinations, beliefs, allergies to beliefs, the cliches of neurotic individualism, and so forth. In the worst of times, human minds may be occupied with mass psychoses of nationalism, fanaticism, racism, tribalism, or religious fundamentalism.

The Purification of Consciousness & the Surrender to Being

Because of these constant distractions human beings cannot know the present moment and the truth it contains. A spiritual education and transformation would first of all have to minimize our subjective distortions, or, in other words, increase the objectivity of our consciousness. Since distortions exist in every area of our lives, the reeducation must be applied to every area of our lives. Meditation alone would not be sufficient. We must also bring a new consciousness into all our relationships and activities.

The full human reality includes the transpersonal reality, but because we have become fragments, we exclude true reality. We focus on parts. We take the individual human person as the ultimate unit of reality and ignore the fact that a common life and consciousness flows through each of us. We can recognize ecologically that all of life is interdependent—that water, minerals, light, and other energies all cooperate to allow a living thing to exist. But when it comes to ourselves, we fantasize our unique psychological independence, denying that we are dependent on an Unseen Reality and a common human transpersonal dimension. We try to live as if we are alone.

Furthermore, we exist in a psychologically fragmented state, a state of continuous inner conflicts among the parts of ourselves. We have lost the principle of unity within ourselves. We are not only psychological polytheists, worshipping gods of our own creation, we are polyselfists, because we have many selves and have not known ouressential self. We know the social selves, the selves of desire; we are preoccupied with the self-cassettes, the self-scripts of conventional society.

Because we are thus fragmented within ourselves and in conflict within ourselves, we exist socially as fragments in conflict with each other with little hope of achieving anything but temporary reconciliation based on these conflicted, fragmentary selves. In contrast to this, when people allow their false separation to dissolve, as is sometimes possible in music or love-making or sincere worship, a truer individuality emerges and a harmony between these individualities is possible. When one whole human being meets another whole human being, there is no antagonism. Even if there is difference, there is respect. Because the wholeness of one is not in conflict with the wholeness of the other.

According to the testimony of the most attained human beings, we have the potential capacity for knowing all of Being, all of Reality. We can know, embrace, and participate in this transpersonal Reality. Furthermore, this whole Reality is the electromagnetic field of love.

The Beloved’s water washes all illness away.

The Beloved’s rose garden of Union has no thorns.

I’ve heard it said there’s a window that opens

between heart and heart,

but if are no walls,

there’s no need even for a window.

Rumi, Quatrain 511

The reality of the moment can be summarized simply as: Being in becoming, a total field of Oneness unfolding, Love knowing itself. The reality of ourselves can be summarized as: we are integral to this reality, not just a part of it, but one with it. We are not a part of the whole, we are the whole. The human being is all of Being, the drop that contains the Ocean.

Our pure hearts roam across the world.

We get bewildered by all the idols we see,

yet what we’re trying to understand

in everything is what we already are.

Rumi, Quatrain 549

We human beings long to surrender ourselves to something great and be taken up into its greatness. A human being’s measure is the measure of that which he or she surrenders to and serves. Some people surrender only to their own imagined self-interest. Some surrender to some social ideal, others to beauty, to love of family, to religious faith.

And yet so much that human beings surrendered to in the past have been relativized or discredited. We are in a time when many people are trying to invent their own values and beliefs because those that exist are no longer convincing to their souls.

A few people sense that the purpose of life is to give one’s life as a gift to Being itself.

Secrets fall from the Sufi’s hands,

Whole kingdoms for the taking.

Unlike someone who begs on the street for bread,

a dervish begs to give his life away.

Rumi, Quatrain 686

Only the strongest personalities are able to do this. The rest settle for the lesser satisfactions of conventional social ambitions and roles. So few people can both activate the passion for life that leads to creative self-expression and at the same time surrender their lives as a gift to the Creative Power of Being.

A Spirituality Adequate to Our Times

We are searching for a spirituality adequate to the times we live in. We need a vision that will not only allow us to see the reality of our lives but will urge us on to a more complete expression of our complete humanness.

The spiritual challenge of our time is to realize our sacred humanness, the reconciliation of the existential and spiritual worlds, of a complex, individuated self and a dimension of Self as the Source of Being. The challenge of our time is to realize that there need not be a conflict between the natural and the supernatural, between the finite and the infinite, between time and eternity, between practicality and mysticism, between social justice and contemplation, between sexuality and spirituality, between our human fulfillment and our spiritual realization, between what is most human and what is most sacred.

The human being is a threshold between two worlds, two realities: the reality of material existence where the ego dwells, and the reality of spiritual Being, where the essential self is held and nurtured in an All-Compassionate embrace. It is in the knowing heart where these two dimensions meet and are integrated. Without an awakened and purified heart, the ego lives in the illusions of its own fears, opinions, separation. Without the knowing heart there is no connection between self and Being. The heart is the center of our being and our most comprehensive cognitive faculty. The eye of the heart sees more truly than our ego-based intellect and emotions. With such a heart, true surrender, and true happiness and well-being, becomes possible.

This book is an attempt to focus on the practicalities of educating the heart, the inner vision of the human being. It is one thing to propose that the highest human possibility lies in the surrender to Being, it is quite another to know in any moment whether surrender lies in the choice of one course of action over another, or perhaps in not choosing at all.

The lonely and isolated self in its anxiety knocks upon many doors. If we can bring it to the door of the heart, when it opens, the self will know that it has been inside all along. Inside and outside will be one. The heart itself will be seen as the door to infinite intelligence and life.

We cannot afford to live much longer with denial of the facts: that we are destructive to the planet and to ourselves. Nor can we afford to lose our awareness of the energy at the core of nature, the power of unconditional, spiritual unity, which is experienced by the knowing heart as love.

Love is the force that will heal us of our existential guilt and lift us to a new level of beauty and meaning. All human fulfillment is related to love and all human problems are signs of the denial of the centrality of love. In other words, love is the essential transforming and healing power.

We must know and apply the principles by which we can cooperate with this power of love. It is possible to open up to the experience of love through a practical education of the heart. The knowing heart is receptive to the intelligence of Being and is guided by Being. When the heart is awakened and purified, it establishes a connection to Spirit; our finest and noblest capacities are unlocked, our sacred humanness is revealed. What it comes down to, the distillation of all wisdoms, is this: we can rejoin our isolated wills with Love’s Will through the knowing of the heart.

If the heart is restored to health,

and purged of sensuality,

then the Merciful God is seated upon the Throne.

After this, the heart is guided directly

since the heart is with God.

Rumi, Mathnawi I, 3665-6.

The Divine Being created human nature in beautiful proportions and breathed its Spirit into us. Because we have cut ourselves off from Being, we have swelled with false pride and thrown the world out of balance: Our bodies and minds, our relationships, and our whole ecology is suffering the consequences of our denial of our own essential nature. Perhaps we needed to experience this separation in order to finally experience our intimate relationship with this Source. The human being has capacities which are unsuspected today and which can be known through a simultaneous surrender to Being and energetic activation in relation to our life in the world.

The Sufis have been the educators of hearts for at least fourteen centuries. Their teaching and methods are based neither upon dogma nor conjecture, but upon a divine and objective foundation which is the primordial “religion” of humanity. Sufism does not offer “salvation” in the sense of a guarantee of heaven in the afterlife. Sufism offers a path to complete humanness, a state in which the spiritual and the human are unified, in which the world of spiritual qualities and material existence are seen as one. This education is empirical, practical, and integrated with daily life. At the same time it is attuned to the most transcendent Truth.

This education is a unified whole, but it touches on so many areas of experience: individual psychology, relationships, marriage, family, community, livelihood, creativity, and worship.

We are the mirror as well as the face in it.

We are drunk on this life of God.

We are both the pain and its cure. We are

the fresh, cool water and the jar that pours.

Rumi, Quatrain 1652

The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material. Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission. If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder


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