On the back cover of the 2017 May-June edition of this magazine we were reminded of the knot that binds us to the tangle we have made of human existence. Releasing the knot, one would contend, requires first an awareness of the nature of the knot, which means knowing what caused the tangle.
We are horribly aware of what is, but hardly aware of why. Your correspondent rather fears to suggest that in respect of human history, and as far as the current terrorists are concerned, they are not even par for the course. This not an apology and is by no means a suggestion that they are anything less than undesirable, but they do have a long way to go to equal our collective bloody past. You don’t need a list.
It may be reasonable to suggest that frustration is at the root of most human folly. The terrorists are frustrated by their own need to find release from persecution perceived, but more likely a purpose for their lives. It amounts to the adoption of a system, a philosophy, a reason to be. It is often similar, in albeit psychological content, to what we often undertake in the name of “our interests.” Humans are also frustrated by the need for some of us to be rude, as in the appalling attacks of the good name of the Prophet Muhammad, which were used as an excuse to release ingrained frustrations. Should we really be aghast when we end up with a bloody nose after insulting someone? We do not discuss right or wrong because we are confronted by simply what is. Our lack of comprehension when being hit tells of an equal lack of awareness of human decency and that really means our own lack because, after all, you generally get back what you engender. The Hindus call it karma. All right, let’s tell it how it is. “Keep your dirty mouth off me, buddy, or you’re gonna get a smack in the eye.” Thus, however crass, crude or unsophisticated, that is how things stand. We must possibly consider that the human fuse is longer or shorter according to the individual. Even if so inclined, one would perhaps risk an oblique thrust against an educated, worldly wise person, but I will hesitate to walk into a black neighborhood shouting about white supremacy. This by no means supposes that people in a black neighborhood are unsophisticated, but it does suppose common sense, as opposed to being either cowardly or brave, or downright silly. Quite obviously, speaking one’s mind is often far removed from exercising common sense. To be fair, there would seem to be a need for a study about what to do with thoughts that are less than useful. The “freedom to be me” set would protest, but I am suggesting a universal creed, borrowed again from one of the mystics, of being able to do anything you like in this world, as long as you don’t hurt anybody.
Don’t think about it: only God is good.
The peoples of this world have been insulting each other since the beginning of time. Nevertheless, there must be more to the matter. History shows us that most nations have at one time or another been at the top of the pile politically, culturally, and naturally financially. The top nations were then seen to slide right on down again (Rome is the obvious example.) How come? They had it all! It is a common notion to say that wealth brings responsibility with it. But with tons of money available, decadence is a beguiling and easy option. Above all, we are bound to admit that the exhilarating, albeit disastrous, slide down is likely to be made rapid to the extent of a nation’s financial means.
One could also suggest that as far as the terrorists are concerned, they may well be running on a sort of universal “now is my time” program. The wheel of human endeavor has turned – someone has even suggested that there is a noticeable historic cycle in social change – and we are now faced with another bully thrusting to the fore. Please remember that none of the so-called advanced nations have ever succeeded without bullying, usually some other country’s indigenous peoples. This brings about frustration and an arising group urge. First comes the insult perceived, then comes the instinctive, then the planned, fight back.
Please consider that terrorists have, in one guise or another, littered the lives and existence of humans for thousands of years. The name, the cause, the flag under which they kill may have been superficially varied, but the root cause, the why, has always been the same. Humans have an appetite for anger. To be precise, anger is an appetite!
Has anyone ever investigated appetite? The mystics deal with it. The Islamic mystic, Sheikh Jilani, has pinpointed our lower instincts, for which the Arabic word is nafs. Our nafs are not merely our egos, but are somewhat akin to the appetites we attach to our lower impulses. Am I splitting hairs, here? Nevertheless, whether from the Arabic or otherwise, nafs, our lower impulses, are universal one way or another to all of humanity.
The ego is indeed pure until it acquires a less than useful appetite. Our motivating forces (often animal or material in nature) may well be necessary for navigating our daily lives, but there are few among us able to use them under the governance of a human attitude, read God’s guidance. Nevertheless, it may seem to be confusing the issue somewhat to suggest that our lower impulses are also needed to get out of bed in the morning with a purpose. In other words, an ego is little more than a mechanical function that has somehow acquired enormous clout in the minds of humans. The ego is very useful for undertaking work, for getting you to the train on time, for making money, but not for using money for matters of detriment. Such as having a war supported by a war industry. Thus, doing what you truly feel guided to do and nothing else is demonstrably tricky. Your mind will always find a reason for you to indulge in your appetite for sex, drugs and… (ok, let’s keep rock ‘n’ roll), the world, the world. One of the problems arising when discussing ego is that it is loaded with connotation. Everyone will tell you that egoism is bad, but that is not true! It is what you do with your ego that is often out of context. That’s the point, it is the notion of what you do that is of the essence. The big idea, of course, is to keep your self separate from your ego. In other words: my ego, my servant, and not the other way round. Moreover, my mind, my servant, and not the other way round, would suggest relegating the mind to its proper position within the human frame. This perhaps sounds like a good idea, on paper, and one should be able to exercise free will to undertake it. The problem is that not many wills on this earth are actually free. (Ask any parent struggling to put a child through school.) There always appear to be the add-ons, coloration engendered by experience. The Hindu maintains that “…to live life according to experience is the most bitter of ways.” Another mystic has also said that people make most mistakes when feeling happy. That may sound weird, and this writer apologizes for not offering an example. I would need a month on a desert island to figure that one out.
Can we envisage “my mind, my servant”? A mind that serves and does not lead? A humble mind is a rarity, of course. A mind denying its self for most of us would be, well, unthinkable. This writer asks forgiveness for adding sophistry; it is a writer’s test of faith. But it does mean that the true human self should be, but rarely is, separate from a person’s motivating forces. Hence inner conflict.
It has been suggested that to worship God one must make neutral the effects of the heart and the mind. This emptying of worldly influences, which are actually necessary for living in the world, for a period of worship means permitting God to take over. With the heart and mind in neutral, the nafs, our lower motivating forces, are in abeyance. At the finish of worship, the nafs will again thrust to the fore, often with a vengeance. Five times daily in prayer is a constant return to God. Then by the grace of God we may wish to consider the forces within us as they really are. It must be of great value to be able to dissociate ourselves – achieve distance – from our lower forces, get them into focus but not to eradicate them because one may never get off one’s desert island. One may also meditate at lofty Himalayan heights and even “shake” the hand of God, but would be incapable of coming down to the valley where human life goes on.
Our lower motivating forces should be – in fact are – the instruments given at our disposal for work, for undertaking science, for example, for feeding ourselves and our families, thus, for dealing with our worldly responsibilities. Many persons of an ascetic leaning have removed themselves from “the world” in an endeavor to subdue their lower forces. Indeed, Muhammad went to his cave, Jesus went into the desert for forty days and forty nights. Their motivating instinct, however, was submission, for receiving and not conceiving. After all, can we really be wiser than God? These persons then returned to the world to assist the rest of humankind. This writer remembers the story of a Buddhist monk who had received nirvana, after which he returned to the marketplace, the world, to serve humanity. In its simplest form it was all about knowing what makes people suffer, what makes people afraid, what makes people turn to their lower instincts for answers and then makes them fight. The German language offers Existenzangst, which is a good a word as any for describing the root of the human condition.
Jesus returned knowing what makes people be the way they are, Muhammad, too, and he was reported to have cried out in anguish at his knowing. The Buddha came to his realization of what makes people unhappy, which was, of course, desire.
The Islamic tradition leans, quite rightly I believe, on the sciences – the use of the mind to serve for the betterment of human existence. It is not a mystical matter, but it is engendered by a mystical instinct. First the realization, then the serving. Moreover, using the mind to cultivate a garden, harness solar energy, or simply attending to one’s given profession could reasonably be suggested as being God’s preferred way of keeping us out of trouble. Those of theological persuasion may well suggest that one is unable to enter through the gates of heaven through works. This writer would contend, however, that enterprise is not the real meaning of work, or works. It may be reasonable to suggest that anything undertaken through the designs of God has already been blessed, however mundane it may appear. Philosophers, writers in general and those who would delve into higher things are naturally at risk. It is dangerous terrain, often a tightrope walk over a yawning chasm engendered by the heart and the mind, which amounts to the most sophisticated double act to ever enter upon the stage of human endeavor. This writer has also been in the presence of a mystic who once maintained that he had no real knowledge of what he was about to say (lecture notes would be anathema). His inspiration was from above.
Thus, after our daily prayers we return to the world on a hopefully even keel. Our appetites, which, let’s face it, are currently raging around the planet, are for a while governed by a higher force.
It has been suggested – and don’t get me wrong here – that prayer changes nothing. Prayer changes people and people change things. This writer is inclined to equate prayer with a spontaneously arising feeling of hope for betterment in the face of trouble. Thus, to hope for betterment, and not wish to kill, is in itself grace.
The only way to surrender to God, it seems, is to place one’s lower motivating forces in abeyance for a while. But never, ever, try to eradicate them.
This writer finds himself, at long last, reading James Michener’s Iberia. At the beginning of the book Michener tells us about duende (grace recognized) and shibui (aesthetic rightness). Both explanations are approximations. My leaning for such things, my temperament, brought on enthusiasm. The promising beginning was brief, however, and Mr. Michener then takes the reader through 800 pages of small print dealing mostly with the history, art and culture of the Iberian peninsula. Mr. Michener tells us what is or was, but not why.