Whether we believe in any religion, or in God, or in any other value system, there are certain aspects of life that concern us all. These aspects are so fundamental that they do not depend upon one’s background, heritage, or belief. The best way to approaching this subject is to first consider the nature of man’s spirit. In this way one can avoid becoming bogged down in linguistic and philosophical definitions.
Spirit, in the English language, may mean essence, cause, or nature. If we try to look into our essence, where does it take us to? What is this thing within every other human being that guides us or misguides us? What is it that drives us to do anything? What is it that causes us to want something or not want something else? What is it that makes us tick? What creates desires in us and what satisfies these desires? What do we feel or experience when a desire is satisfied? Why are we constantly searching for satisfaction, never satisfied? What is the nature of man that makes him constantly dissatisfied?
These things are beyond creed, nationality, religion or systems of belief. They are basic. The Arabic term is fitri (primal). This is our nature: we are always looking for something else. Whenever one obtains satisfaction or tranquility from that which one was seeking, the mind by its nature moves to something else. This process does not cease. One is tired and wants to sleep; one has slept long enough and thus wants to get up. One is hungry and wants food; after filling the stomach, one wants to stop eating. One wants to be sheltered from environmental pressures, to control the ecological situation. As soon as a modicum of control is attained, one wants to know what to do within the system.
Let us examine libraries for example. Once these enormous places are built, those responsible must worry about how they are going to fill the building with books. What, one wonders, is the value of all these books? We now have more information and less knowledge. In this age we have such an accumulation of facts, which can be useful, but no method of knowledge to utilize those facts so that we can attain the satisfaction that we are all seeking.
So if we look at the nature of man’s spirit, what drives us on at all times, wherever we are, in whatever environment, is this need to achieve desires that are never constant. The desires of a child change all the time and so do the desires of an adult. The higher we move biologically or intellectually, the subtler our desires become. At a lower basic level, we are very physical; we want to be clothed and fed in order to be in a reasonable balance, without agitation. We want to have enough food in order not to be disturbed, because biologically the stomach signals until a pang of pain disturbs us. Equally we want to avid that which impinges on us from the outside and is not conducive to a state of tranquility, therefore, we close the door so that we are not disturbed, to make sure that we have reasonable protection from the sound and noise. Thus, at all times, whatever we perceive, conceive, desire, anything that motivates us from within or without fits into this scheme.
Look into this deeply, contemplate upon it and you will find that what drives us, what makes us act or think, is basically a state of dynamism seeking equilibrium, seeking a position of neutrality. It is a very strange affair. At all times the spirit of man is guided, driven and propelled by the pursuit of peace. Yet, at the same time, we are the creators of that agitation. It is incredible if we really reflect upon it.
What drives man is an ongoing quest, sometimes rational, sometimes not, sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual. There is a natural, primal hierarchy which fluctuates up or down, generally moving from the physical towards the subtle. The equilibrium that a child seeks is physical. The equilibrium sought by those who have satisfied their basic needs is intellectual. We try to keep our bodies in a reasonable state of equilibrium because, unless we have done this, we cannot progress further.
After the bodily level comes the mental level. Our mind has to be at rest. If my mind is agitated about something or some situation, then this irritation will disrupt my equilibrium, sapping the strength of my mental energy.
We are here discussing aspects of knowledge that go beyond quantification and formulation. Formulas can be applied to them if one wishes and those formulas will change from system to system. But the fundamental issue remains the same: if the physical, mental and intellectual levels are disturbed, equilibrium and balance are not possible. That to which our spirit drives us—one may describe it loosely by the term happiness—cannot be achieved. If we wish to express this as a mathematical equation, we may say that happiness equals desires satisfied over desires unsatisfied. Thus, if one has one hundred desires and fifty are satisfied, happiness is fifty percent achieved. So, mentally we also seek to be at ease, to avoid any issue that disturbs the mind. Mental expectations and attachments that are not met will cause disappointment which is a state of imbalance; and that is not desirable. We do not want to be disappointed, we want to be appointed.
Notice how people who are wealthy and do not wish to be disturbed place layers of secretaries as barriers between themselves and the outside world. Think of Howard Hughes: he died in a corner from malnutrition. We want peace, there is no way out of it. Those who are exposed to any spiritual system know that peace is a high attribute. Those who are Muslims know that peace is from as-Salaam, one of the attributes of Allah, glory be to Him. We all want peace yet are constantly in dynamic agitation at all these levels—the physical, the mental and the intellectual. Those who seek knowledge do so because they have discovered within themselves an aspect referred to as ignorance and this is disquieting. That is why so many people move across from one corridor of an ivory tower to another saying, ‘Well, the intellectual atmosphere of this college or school was not conducive.’ This can often mean also that there was a nasty head of department. Man’s agitations and troubles are everywhere. It makes no difference whether one is in the academic world, the business world, or the political world. Everyone is subjected to the same types of experience, and this is a proof, in fact, of the All-Encompassing Merciful One. Even the sanitation engineers and janitors feel jealousies. Be assured that there is a hierarchy among the bathroom cleaners.
Man’s desire to avert disturbance and find equilibrium causes him to form alliances with people of the same orientation: “Birds of a feather flock together.” It is natural and unavoidable. We ourselves are a proof of this basic cybernetic process. We do not want to be jolted out of our system, thus we find people of the same belief, lifestyle, or creed banding together.
The process of unification, in this case unifying desires with what will neutralize them, is a selective process. The child, as he starts crawling, tries to assimilate everything he encounters in order to unify with his environment. He picks up things and puts them in his mouth because this is the first and primary organ of unification—mouth to breast. Suddenly the child’s mouth is frothing: he is spitting the thing out because it is not in unison with his system. If systems, whether they be psychological, social, ecological or mechanical, do not adapt, then they self-destruct. If a happy person sees someone else who is unhappy and informs him of his happiness, this is perceived as a challenge. The result is conflict, either overt or covert. This is why we see political systems continuously being overturned.
We have spoken about a simple proportional equation relating to happiness. Can that formula be equal to one? The number of desires satisfied equal to the number of desires? As we know, as soon as a situation is satisfied and brought into equilibrium, something else goes wrong. There is an old saying: “As soon as you plug it here, it bursts from there.” We are caught in a non-stoppable dynamic situation. And yet, at all times we wish it would stop. If a situation is incongruous, we want it to cease. If it is agreeable, we want to stop it in time so that it will continue. This is why we take photographs, to remind ourselves of the state we were in when we saw our child smiling, or when we won the football game. The trophy is placed on the mantelpiece to remind oneself of the moments of achievement, the experience of tranquility.
Returning to the point, we will never be able to avoid having desires, nor will we be able to achieve all our desires. So it seems, in a sense, a losing battle. But is the nature of reality so cruel? How can God, if we believe in Him, do this to us? How can we all be seeking happiness knowing full well that, by our own definition, it is unattainable? There is a basic incongruity in this situation. Here we are wanting to fixate things and we can only do it on Kodak film. This is not possible. Here we are desirous of unending peace and we cannot attain it even for a few seconds?
Try and attain a total peace for five seconds. Try and sit completely and utterly tranquil with not a single thought in the mind. One may be aware of peace, silence, or tranquility, but this is not what we are talking about. We are talking about pure consciousness that admits no awareness of itself; that is total, absolute peace. One may be aware of something nice, that is very tranquil, but that is agitation. One may also be aware of awareness, and also aware of the awareness of one’s awareness. Two mirrors opposite each other illustrate well this condition. But can one be purely, simply, totally just awareness itself? Pure awareness.
Where do we go from here? Let us add another dimension. We will look at the same thing from another angle: our desire for complete peace is actually a desire for permanency, for foreverness. We want non-time. We are all dying, and yet we want to know the meaning of eternity. We do not want to die even though our lives may be miserable, even though we can never achieve our desires. Nobody in his right mind says ‘I want to die’, because we do not know the nature of what happens after the body is recycled. We have not had direct access to it. How do you resolve this problem? It is a dilemma similar to the so-called quest for happiness. At every moment we approach nearer to that unknown state after death, and whatever is unknown to us is our enemy. This is the nature of man. It is in our nature to seek knowledge for we do not like what is unknown. But information is not knowledge. And information without a unifying system brings about greater confusion, because there are so many extraneous facts. Caught in this unending dichotomy, on the one hand wanting tranquility, peace, satisfaction, and happiness. It is not possible to fix it, and yet we are seeking a fixed, unchanging reality. In short, man is by nature a seeker who seeks a reality with the following attributes: it is unchanging, eternal, absolute, beyond time, the One who contains time, the All-Merciful, the All-Generous. We all share the desire for these fundamental attributes.
We all want wisdom because wisdom is knowledge acquired through experience which may be applied again in the future, so that if the same situation is repeated, we are able to avoid unhappiness and agitation. Our agitation, incidentally, are all due to the fact that we do not know the cause and effect of a situation when it happens. Even in the case of a situation which we find disagreeable, once it is explained to us how it occurred, we will find much of the problem dissipated. This is one of the meanings of
Surely with difficulty is ease.
With difficulty is surely ease. (94:5-6)
There is a double ease with every difficulty. The first ease is that the difficulty will eventually be removed. The other ease is to know how the difficulty arose, for that knowledge in itself is a relief. This means we are slaves of knowledge, we are slaves of al-‘Alim (the All-Knower). Only the foolish person says, ‘Don’t tell me, don’t give me bad news,’ for the news will come whether one sticks one’s fingers in one’s ears or closes one’s eyes. Ultimately, the roof will come down. There is no hiding place.
Man will say on that day: whither to fly to? (5:10)
As I have said, we are trapped because the spirit, the mechanism that drives all of us, is the same—we all want to avoid whatever is disquieting and the desires that must be neutralized to achieve this state change all the time. We are programmed sub-genetically to be caught in this dilemma and each one must sort it out in his own way. There are as many ways to that knowledge as there are human beings.
The knowledge process which illuminates this dilemma is what we call self-knowledge. This fundamental fiber is what we can define as true knowledge, because it does not change with time. From the rise of the Adamic consciousness this fiber was present. The Adamic consciousness was a unified consciousness until there was a need for differentiation, until the voice of dissent was heard, the voice of what is termed Shaytan (satan), from the Arabic verb shatana which means ‘to be far away’. In other words, Shaytan refers to that which is out of line with the unified field of consciousness. From that moment differentiation was born, because prior to that Adam had not heard anything but truth. Suddenly, he heard something which he also thought to be the truth, for he was used to hearing nothing but the truth. In order for discrimination to occur, this rise of apparent two-ness is necessary. We should be able to observe ourselves and our lives, so that we may see how we are torn between the two and rooted in the One.
Ibn ‘Arabi says that the entire creation is balanced between the two opposites of renunciation and appreciation—renouncing what we do not desire and appreciating what one values. We are caught and there is no way out. The essential nature of humanity has been and will always remain unchanged, regardless of a person’s culture, nationality, or belief system.
The only possible resolution to this conflict is recognition of the dilemma and submission to it. This leads to sublimation, that is to say, to a process of spiritual transformation or refinement. We have explored the theme of recognition and seen the self from the standpoint of its motivation. From this frame of reference we can understand it in any of its manifestations. By seeing the reality of the self, we must then fully submit to the condition, dissolving into it, submitting to it with no expectations. We must allow that inner urge which has its foundation in non-time to push us higher and higher towards divine knowledge, towards divine awakening. We must use the divine law and the prophetic path to guide us, for only in this way can the proper balance between renunciation and appreciation be maintained.
We are aspiring towards the higher attributes of the self which are basically divine attributes. Thus, we may say that the essential nature of humanity is divine, yet it is mostly the lower nature which we see exhibited in our lives. The Qur`an clearly states the condition of this lower aspect of the self saying:
Or do you think that most of them hear or understand? They are nothing but as cattle; nay they are straying farther off from the path. (25:44)
The rest of this condition is the desire. We all have basic desires that are very selfish and subjective, aimed at our own comfort and well-being. If we are given the opportunity to move on, our desires could be to share with others, with neighbors, with society, with humankind. Thus, this unavoidable condition of having desires is transformed higher and higher. If from the beginning we could make our desires for humanity, we could avoid our present troubles. What if the aim of our desire is to share knowledge, or to please Allah, this will mean that our desire will be to know the laws that govern this existence so we never transgress them. We cannot avoid desire, nor do we want to avoid it, otherwise we will be cabbages or artificial hermits. We cannot avoid it because the source and ultimate aim of desire is divine.
There was a man from a very wealthy family in England, from the Midlands. He really had renounced the world. For seven years he lived on almost ten pounds a year. There was such wonderful expression of freedom on his face and one could see that the man was free—except every Wednesday. Every Wednesday he would go to the local post office and collect a box of chocolates that some of his friends used to send from Switzerland. He would say: “I do not care for anything in the world but these chocolates. Everything is now concentrated in these chocolates.” All his desires had concentrated on one object. Since we cannot be without desire, let us move our desires higher and higher. Ultimately we may reach an Entity about which we cannot speak, about which all what we can say is,“There is no god but God.”
This method cannot just be studied, it has to be lived. Study without practice is yet another unworkable duality. As I have said, the only way out of our predicament is to submit totally to that Reality which encompasses all realities, both relative and subjective. We have to dissolve into it, submitting to it with no expectations. From this unified state another process emerges, another awakening begins to occur, which will offer us the means of being secure in this life. I am here referring to the shari’ah, the corpus of divine law which provides us with a mechanism for established equilibrium and progress.
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