Saturday, December 29, 2007

Death - A sufi perspective

We are born to die. Just like managers are hired to be fired, we have been programmed for death. Death is in our nature, and birth is the first step toward fulfilling that nature.

Someone once said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. This is no longer true. With the advent of shelters, legal specialists, clever accountants, and just your ordinary, garden variety, old-fashioned brand of cheating, taxes are no longer a certainty for some of us.

Death, on the other hand, cannot be cheated. There are no havens and shelters which permit death to be written off as life is depreciated over time.

There are no clever accountants who can set up the ledgers so we can avoid paying death what is due. There are no legal loopholes which permit us to slip past death's auditing process.

Death is very egalitarian. Death offers a flat rate system in which everyone owes and pays the same fixed fee.

The intransigent nature of death has not stopped some people from desperately seeking to discover ways to circumvent the inevitable. Cryogenics, traveling at the speed of light, intense gravitational fields, genes which affect the number of times cells can undergo division, magic, and the occult are just a few of the possibilities being explored in the hope of having the last laugh at death's expense.

Some people praise the quality of longevity which is believed to come from certain kinds of diet. Others talk about the life-prolonging properties of different roots and herbs. Medicine and various health fields trumpet their capacity to push back death's appointment with us.

Even if there may be some modicum of truth in the above claims, none of these remedies has the quality of sufficiency. Sufficiency belongs to God alone.

God may choose, on certain occasions, to work through diet or roots or medicine in order to sustain life. However, diets or roots or medicine, on their own, are not sufficient to effect any benefits whatsoever unless God wishes this to be so.

The origins of causality do not begin with the properties of diets, roots and medicine. Rather, diets, roots and medicine have the properties they do so that, on occasion, they may be a venue for God's grace.

In other words, the inherent nature of various diets, roots, herbs and medicines is in having a capacity to transmit certain kinds of benefit upon God's command. In the absence of God's authorization, no benefit is conferred.

We try different things because we have learned in the past such things have been associated with, say, health or long life. We begin to believe the "magic" is in the thing and fail to understand the thing is merely the locus of manifestation for God's grace. The thing is merely that which God calls upon, from time to time, to serve as a certain kind of medium of transmission.

Many people follow diets, or they consume herbs and roots on a regular basis, or they receive medical treatment, or they take all manner of vitamins and minerals, and, yet, the benefits are limited or non-existent for various groups of these people. Efficacy is a statistical phenomenon in which not everyone benefits equally, if at all.

Scientists and medical researchers look for various kind of co-factors and factor clusters in order to explain the statistical properties of the effectiveness profile associated with a given treatment, medicine, drug, herb or diet. However, underlying all of these sophisticated methods of statistical analysis, is the presence of Divinity which is alone responsible for arranging the shape of the statistical distributions which are observed.

Should one infer from the foregoing that one is a fool to seek assistance in the form of a diet, herbs, or medical treatment? The answer to this question is: no!

By all means, try to find those remedies and health aides which have a strong track record, so to speak, for being a venue for the transmission of certain kinds of benefit. Nonetheless, one also should keep in mind and heart the following understanding: whether or not the remedy works, and to what extent, is up to God.

People who are attempting to discover the secret passageway to immortality make the mistake of believing death is fixed by the properties of things rather by the decrees of God. Such people believe creation is somehow independent of the Creator. As a result, they tend to believe the invention or discovery of an elixir of life is but a matter of the appropriate technology of exploitation.

We fear death, yet there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty interspersed with our fears. Do we fear death in and of itself, or do we fear death for what may come, before and after, the moment of our demise?

For example, some people are quite prepared to accept death per se, but do not look forward to the pain and suffering which may precede it. Since death marks a cessation of such physical difficulty, death actually would bring its own strange form of comfort and relief.

Some people are obsessed with the moment of death. Is it painful? Do we gasp for breath? Do we experience life draining from our consciousness? Will panic seize us as we become aware of our imminent termination?

Since physical death is a once in a lifetime occurrence, we don't know quite how to brace ourselves for it. On the other hand, death may be like a lot of things in life - different that we thought it would be.

Speculating about the experiential character of the moment of death, is just that: speculation. Everyone dies in her or his own way, and we won't know what that way is until we do it.

Should we take the advice of the poet who said we ought not go gentle into that good night? How should we play the death scene.

Like some method actor, we look for our motivation in order to know how we should respond to our exit cue. Our motivation will be shaped and colored by the significance we give to the purpose of both life and death.

Some of us fear what comes after death. Maybe, for example, there is nothing after death except a state of affairs that is oblivious to the universe and to itself.

The upside of the foregoing possibility is that such oblivion is not conducive to regrets or nostalgia. We won't know what we are missing, and, better yet, we won't care. Nothing to be feared in this.

Of course, another consideration is that death merely marks a transition from one mode of conscious existence to another mode of conscious existence. This is kind of a good news/bad news situation.

The good news is: there may be eternal life after death. The bad news is: we may not like what is eternally ours.

The latter case would seem to be a worthy candidate for some degree of trepidation. We may fear death as a harbinger of something much more unpleasant. Since we have difficulty fixating our fear on an amorphous cloud of post-death unknowing, we find the concreteness of death a suitable object in which to invest our fears.

The Sufi masters look upon death in a variety of ways. All of these perspectives carry important implications for the manner in which goes about living life.

To begin with, for practitioners of the Sufi path, death is a necessary constraint on the arrogance of human beings. Death is indisputable proof we are not in charge of things.

Death gives expression to determinate limits on our existence. This is so since no matter how powerful, famous, rich, beautiful, talented or handsome we may be, we will be humbled in death.

If we realize, with our heart and soul, our vulnerability, we will not be so likely to become arrogant. The realities of the tenuousness of our situation will help us to be humble and modest in our demeanor.

Secondly, Sufi masters indicate death introduces a valuable dimension of tension into our lives. We have only a limited amount of time to accomplish whatever we can in this life.

Indeed, some of us have less time than others. Few, if any, of us know how much time we have left.

We ought to strive to be as efficient as possible with the time we have. Consequently, we should be focused and purposeful in what we do.

The fleeting nature of time serves as a reminded that death has come one step closer with each breath we take. Death can be our ally in this regard, encouraging and urging us to take advantage of the time we have.

Death can say to us: "Look! I am powerless just like you. I go to whom I am ordered, and only when I am ordered to do so. For your own sake, do what must be done before I am sent to you."

From the perspective of the Sufi masters, one should look forward to the time of death. Death frees us from the problems of this world and brings us into closer proximity to the beauty and majesty of God. Since realizing the closeness of God is an essential component to the purpose of our existence, death is the lane way which leads to the fulfillment of our essential purpose.

Death stands as the gate which veils our Beloved from us. Eager anticipation should characterize our attitudes toward the moment when God opens the gate which will usher us into the Divine presence.

Finally, the teachers of the Sufi path maintain there is a way through which we can prepare for our moment of physical death. If we undergo this preparation, we will be able to embrace physical death with equanimity.

The method of preparation involves dying to our own desires, attachments, and passions. We must die to our egos. We must die to our addictions to the world.

If we can die this greater death, then, according to the Sufi masters, we will be as ready as we can be for physical death and whatever comes after it. Unfortunately, most of us are in far deeper denial concerning the necessity for this kind of spiritual death than we are in denial concerning the fact that physical death is bearing down on us like a freight train with a schedule to keep.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Himma (Aspiration)

There are three general categories of aspiration within us. Normally, only one of these is spiritual in character, and this spiritual aspiration is opposed by, and in conflict with, expressions of the other two categories - namely, passion and anger.

The Sufi path involves three broad sets of transformation with respect to aspirations. One set of transformations entails reforming passion and anger so they become spiritual allies instead of liabilities. The other two sets of transformations consist of the purification and perfection of spiritual aspiration, especially in relation to the nature of the modalities or spiritual instruments through which we engage our relationship with God.

All three sets of transformations involve changes in the character of the "object" toward which aspiration is directed. In addition, a transition in the degree of intensity of aspiration occurs in all three transformational sets. More specifically, this change in intensity revolves around the process of becoming less dispersed, and more `gathered', in our intentions, awareness, understanding and behavior.

Although human beings are born with all three categories of aspiration, very shortly after birth, for most of us, passion and anger begin to dominate our lives, while spiritual aspiration is marginalized and relegated to the background. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but, generally speaking, the unfolding of spirituality, to the extent it occurs at all, lags significantly behind the unfolding of passion and anger.

Passion encompasses all those tendencies within us which seek to acquire. These acquisitive predispositions are directed toward procuring more and more: material possessions, power, money, fame, status, and physical gratification of one description or another.

Anger includes all the inclinations within each of us which are directed toward defending the passions against anything constituting a threat to past, present or future acquisitions. Hostility, antagonism, malice, conflict and rebellion are all expressions of anger in action. If one looks carefully at the situations in which these different modalities of anger arise, one will detect the existence of one or more vested interests of passion at the heart of the issue.

By dominating consciousness, intentions, motivations, thinking, attitudes, evaluations, judgements and behavior, the activities of anger and passion create the illusion of a self which is being served by such activity. In other words, our awareness is mesmerized, or a state of hypnosis is induced in consciousness, by the activities of anger and passion. As a result, awareness identifies with them as being possessions of, and acting on behalf of, consciousness.

Over time, a history of experiences, decisions and behaviors is generated. Memories are recorded and used by passion and anger to serve their respective agendas.

This entire ensemble of passion, anger, mesmerized awareness and remembered life history are the primary forces which underwrite the existence of the false self or ego. All aspirations which arise in the context of this ensemble are seen as aspirations of the illusory self.

This "self" has no substantive reality per se. In other words, this self had no existence prior to its invention or construction.

The false self or ego is merely an arrangement of convenience and circumstance. It is an artificial business arrangement which has been organized by our various modalities of passion and anger for purposes of carrying on different kinds of commercial transactions with the world.

Our God-given capacity for choice is usurped by the false-self conglomerate. Due to the state of hypnotic trance of ordinary consciousness, the process of exercising free will, within our capacity to do so, is arrogated to the false self through the manipulations, seductions and pressure tactics of passion and anger.

Judgements, decisions, and choices begin to get locked into interacting patterns of habit. These patterns reflect, and conform to, the collective dynamics of the various components of the false self or ego.

Exoteric values, practices and rituals have two important tasks to perform with respect to the ego conglomerate which has arisen. On the one hand, exoteric teachings try to help the individual close the gap between spiritual aspirations, which, for the most part, have lagged behind in development, and the dominant influence enjoyed by the aspirations of passion and anger in our day-to-day lives. On the other hand, exoteric teachings try to help the individual bring passion and anger into an acceptable spiritual balance.

The excesses and extremes of passion and anger must be constrained. A middle way of moderation must be discovered which will prevent the individual from transgressing beyond certain boundaries of spiritual propriety. Acquisitiveness and its protector must be trained to pursue their activities within Divinely sanctioned parameters of permissibility.

Exoteric teachings seek to strengthen the dimension of spiritual aspiration within the individual. At the same time, these teachings provide a framework of moderation which is intended to constrain passion and anger provided the framework is implemented by our developing spiritual aspiration.

If our spiritual aspiration becomes sufficiently mature, then, God willing, it begins to influence our capacity for choice. Over time, if everything goes well, we begin to discontinue some of the more injurious patterns of behavior generated through our aspirations of passion and anger.

The Sufi path is not content to merely constrain passion and anger. It seeks to transform them.

One of the themes of such transformation is to induce (through Sufi discipline, practices and so on) the individual to change the character of the object which is the focus of passion and anger. Instead of using anger and passion to seek the world, these two modalities of aspiration should be used to seek Divinity.

However, in order to have a chance of succeeding in achieving this transition in focus from worldly objects to Divinity, passion and anger cannot remain as they are. The intention underlying them must change, and, as well, passion and anger must come under the sphere of influence of all the qualities of spiritual etiquette.

Intention must become a servant of God. Everything which is done must be done for the love of God. Intention must be purified so nothing remains but the aspiration to please God.

The heart must be trained to collaborate with, and give expression to, spiritual aspiration. The heart's association with the aspirations of the false self or ego must be discontinued.

When, God willing, intentionality and the heart have been purified, then, by the grace of God, qualities of spiritual etiquette such as patience, perseverance, forbearance, compassion, and forgiveness come to ascendancy. These qualities have, God willing, a transformative effect on passion and anger, and, as a result, passion and anger come to serve spiritual purposes.

Under these circumstances, the only aspiration of passion is to seek, know, love and serve God.

Furthermore, the aspiration of anger becomes a tendency to protect this spiritual passion from, and defend against, anything which would undermine or corrupt it.

If God wishes, in later stages of the maturation of spiritual aspiration, different capacities within that potential become experientially active. Although the focus of those experiences always remains God, the structural character, so to speak, of that focus undergoes various transformations.

Sufi masters speak of some of these transformations in terms of gnosis, witnessing, and love. In each case, the experience of Divinity changes. Each kind of experiencing involves its own mode of spiritual etiquette.

On all levels, God responds to us in accordance with the character of our spiritual aspiration. When spiritual aspiration is at low ebb, God's way of relating to us will reflect the character of that kind of aspiration. As the quality and intensity of spiritual aspiration undergoes various developmental transformations, so, too, does God's way of responding to us reflect those spiritual transitions.

In reality, God does not change, from beginning to end, during the journey of development or unfolding of spiritual aspiration. The nature of Divinity always is what Divinity is.

However, as spiritual aspiration goes through various transformations, our essential capacity becomes sensitive and receptive to the modalities of experiencing and realizing Divinity which are consonant with the condition of our aspiration. Consequently, the way God responds to us is merely a reflection of the way we relate to Divinity.