Thursday, November 01, 2007

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Otherness (Ghayr) - A Sufi Perspective

In modern civilization one hears much talk of estrangement and alienation. For example, many of us speak about not feeling at home in our homes. We lament how familiar faces hide an existential strangeness and distance which separates us, in hard to define but fundamental ways, from the ones with whom we often are most physically and emotionally proximate.

We are lonely in the midst of people. We have affection for many people. We care about what happens to them. We seek varying kinds of companionship with them. We help them, and they help us in different ways.

Yet, there is an alien dimension to them which we frequently find frightening. There is an otherness (ghayr) about them which isolates us from each 'other'.

We experience this alien otherness with our spouses, our children, our parents and our relatives. Our friends bear the mark of otherness.

As we journey outward into the neighborhood, community, city, nation, the world and the universe, the sense of otherness intensifies in unpredictable and terrifying ways. We are haunted by the feeling things can go sour and turn on us at any moment.

We do not appear to live in a user-friendly world. In fact, we seem to be traveling in potentially hostile country almost on a continuous basis. The boundaries of that country extend from the beds in which we sleep and recedes outwardly through 360 degrees of arc, encompassing everything between us and the horizon.

The aura of otherness which pervades our lives affects virtually everything we think, feel and do. For instance, otherness is at the heart of the territorial imperative which governs much of our lives.

We spend a great deal of time, energy and resources marking and labeling that which is ours and to which the other is not entitled. We seem to need to constantly remind ourselves and the other that she or he is, indeed, the other.

We struggle with great diligence to reinforce the self/other boundary lines which distinguish our territory from all others. For most of us, life is a game of Go in which, both consciously and unconsciously, we seek to maximize our spheres of influence while minimizing the spheres of influence of the other.

Much of our sense of personal space is constructed from materials of otherness. The degree of access to our personal space which we extend to anyone is a function of their otherness classification.

Few, if any, are granted entrance to the sanctum sanctorum in the innermost reaches of our being. This means, for most of us, that everyone and everything is rated as other in one way or another.

Business, government, law, sports, marriage, family, economics, international relations, and religion are all saturated with the ramifications of otherness. We treat the environment as an emphatic other.

Ironically, otherness is not just reserved for others. Many of us have become other to ourselves. Indeed, many of us have become so confused we cannot differentiate, within ourselves, what is self and what is other.

If we don't know who we are, then how can we know what is other? Our uncertainty about our own identity is often reflected in the changing patterns of otherness which we perceive in the world.

In other words, as our ideas about ourselves change, so, too, do the otherness classifications we issue to the people and things of the universe. Access codes to personal space are constantly being reconfigured.

The confusion between self and other within us is the source of much of the ambivalence we experience concerning ourselves. We are both attracted to, and repelled by, the denizens of the deep within us. There is both fear and hope concerning whom we might be.

If we feel ambivalence toward ourselves, we cannot but project this ambivalence outwardly. In the mirror of the other, we see the image of our own ambivalence toward ourselves.

According to the masters of the Sufi path, the source of all otherness flows from our conscious decision to treat God as other. We are other to ourselves because we issue to God, just as we issue to everyone and everything else, an otherness classification. We have set the access code to the door of our hearts to reject God when Divinity buzzes us.

We treat God as other because we fail to recognize the presence of Divinity within us. We relegate God to otherness because we do not understand we are loci of manifestation of Divine Names and Attributes and cannot be other than this. We try to restrict God to our various conceptual and emotional categories of otherness because we get caught up in the forms of otherness and do not see the One Whom is the common denominator linking all of these forms.

We treat others as other because we fail to recognize that they, too, are loci of manifestation of Divine Names and Attributes. Otherness, strangeness, alienness, separation, and distance are all illusions generated out of our spiritual ignorance and projected onto our experience.

If we could witness the reality of Divinity within us, we, automatically and simultaneously, could not but witness the reality of Divinity in others. In fact, others would no longer be other, we would all be participants in the theater of Divine manifestation known as existence.

Moreover, according to Sufi masters, we could take this one step further, and, simply say, there is no we in existence. Being is the locus of manifestation through which the reality of the one and only "I" gives expression to diversity of forms and meaning.

We are like sunspots on the surface of radiant Divinity. We do not understand that our darkness is an artifact of a relative absence of Presence which has been made possible by Divinity Itself.

When the forces underwriting this localized and relative darkness are dispelled, the full radiance of Divinity again is manifested. "Otherness", "we" and the false "I" all disappear with the darkness.

Oddly enough, many of us fight tooth and nail to retain our darkness. We seem to fear the possibility of the Sun's return with the disappearance of the temporary and relative absence of presence which we experience as spiritual darkness.

Darkness may involve all manner of misery, but, at least, it is "our" darkness. We derive identity from our darkness and its concomitant misery.

We fear the lost of this identity, such as it is, because we do not know what will replace it. We seem to feel being "other" is better than not being at all.

The practitioners of the Sufi path tell us the only thing to be lost is the darkness. In losing the darkness, we will reclaim the radiance which always had been intended for us.

Sufi masters indicate the only thing that will cease to exist are the illusions generated by the darkness of otherness. The falsehood of our ego will be replaced by the reality of our essence.

The inertia of otherness stops us from seeking to dispel the darkness. Otherness has a vested interest in maintaining the system of otherness classifications through which it parcels up existence, including its own.

Sufi masters try to show us the nature of this system of otherness which we, through our darkness, have generated. They also try to help us, God willing, to activate and realize our potential for radiance which dissolves all sense of otherness.