Sunday, January 22, 2012

Autonomy - A Sufi's Perspective

The struggle to establish control over our lives is a theme which is intimately woven into the fabric of our existence. In one way or another, we all seek to carve out a place on which we can stand and defend ourselves against intrusions into, and possible threats to, our space, our privacy, our movements, our choices, our time, our possessions, and our identities.

From the very earliest days of our developmental odyssey, the story of our growth is influenced greatly by skirmishes and battles concerning the perceived locus of control in our lives. Our relationship with parents, siblings, relatives, playmates, neighbors, religious figures, school mates, teachers, adolescent friends, bosses, work mates, clients, romantic liaisons, in-laws, and children frequently revolve around problems of whom gets to set the agenda for how, or if, the relationship will proceed and under what set of conditions.

We tend to define who we are and aren't according to the character and outcome of all the different kind of locus-of-control issues which run through our lives. How serious were they? How intense? Were they protracted? What tactics were used?

How important was control in any given instance? Was it an atmosphere of take no prisoners or were there civil negotiations? How long were the periods of relative peace between significant differences of opinion concerning locus of control problems? Were there peaceful alternatives available to hostile encounters? Did the confrontations do lasting damage, or were they no big deal?

The answer to all the above questions, and many others of a similar nature that might be asked, will have a profound impact on us. They will affect our sense of: identity, integrity, self-esteem, and ability to function effectively in a variety of social settings.

If we are lucky, we come out of all this with, perhaps, a few bruises and a couple of scars. However, our basic feeling about ourselves as, in some nontrivial sense, worthwhile human beings is still intact.

One might even argue our sense of self has been enhanced by the rigors of, and lessons learned from, that developmental process. Moreover, we have " war" stories to swap with other people - stories that both link us to, as well as differentiate us from, other people who have gone through their own operational theater of developmental conflicts.

If we are unlucky, we end up as casualties. Even worse, we may end up creating other casualties.

We may survive these wars, but we do not always do so free of the horrendous ramifications which may ensue from the seemingly unending years of conflicts. Emotional trauma, arrested psychological development, inability to form intimate relationships with others, poor self-esteem, various kinds of stress syndrome, under-achievement, over-achievement, ambivalence, confusion, inability to commit oneself, debilitating anxiety, and a free-floating malaise are but a few of the dysfunctional possibilities which we may carry with us as mementos of the 'campaigns' marking different stages of our formative years.

There is a very fundamental sense in which much of what goes on in politics, economics, marriage, and other social institutions is dominated by contentious forays into battlefields strewn with bunkers of resistance involving locus of control, perceived or actual. Such battlefields are disasters waiting to happen because they bring together a highly volatile mixture of unresolved or problematically resolved locus of control issues from our collective developmental processes.

Issues of: right or wrong; just or unjust; democratic or undemocratic; equitable or inequitable; legal or illegal; and, reasonable or unreasonable often form only the playing field in which locus of control issues become the game within the game. We talk in terms of values, rights, freedoms, truth and the 'good' as being the reasons for struggling in, say, the political or economic arena. Yet, in reality, we frequently use such language in order to shift attention away from the fact that, more often than not, the issue which actually is being contended is a matter of locus of control in and of itself.

We want to do whatever appeals to us, and we want to do it whenever it appeals to us to do so. Moreover, what appeals to us may not be a function of what is, ultimately, actually true or good or right or just; rather, what appeals to us tends to be a function of our own desires, independent of considerations of truth, justice, and so on.

Indeed, we often try to argue that our desires necessarily reflect what is true or good or just or right. As a result, we convince ourselves that the alleged equivalence between our desires and all that is good and true justifies the locus of control being under our tender, fiduciary care.

From the Sufi perspective, true autonomy is not primarily a question of how we fare in conflicts involving locus of control issues vis-a-vis other people, whether in the past or the present. A Sufi is only free when she or he has realized the essential self and acts in accordance with that nature.

For the Sufi, an individual could be in prison or in chains or limited by the constraints imposed by others. Yet, the individual still could have autonomy if the person were to respond to those conditions in terms of the individual's essential nature and true self.

On the other hand, a person might, seemingly, possesses the locus of control concerning the lives of other people. Nevertheless, this individual might have no substantive autonomy because the person's essential nature was in bondage to, and imprisoned by, the person's own desires - the entity which actually is setting the agenda.

Such an individual may be " free" to desire. However, this person does not have autonomy over those desires.

The Sufi does not seek control over the lives of other people. The Sufi does not enter into conflict with others over matters of locus of control.

The true locus of control is with God. The Sufi attempts to discern how that locus of control is being manifested in any given set of circumstances. Once this has been determined, then, the individual, according to the person's capacity and God's support, will merge horizons with the structural character of that locus of control as it unfolds over time.

The locus of control is a manifestation of God's will and gives expression to the passion play of existence. The more attuned one is to God's will, the greater will be one's ability to detect, and adapt to, the shifting currents of the manifestation which are being expressed through the passion play as it reflects the will of God.

We adapt ourselves to the will of God not by trying to change or control others but by changing, and having autonomy over, our desires and intentions and attitudes. In fact, the great tragedy of so much of the developmental process is that very few people involved in the struggle over issues of locus of control have any understanding of, or insight into, what the real issues of locus of control are.

More specifically, the issue is not about which of the people engaged in a conflict is able to win the battle of dominance in any given set of circumstances. The issue is how do we collectively realize our essential autonomy so we can find harmonious and creative ways to align ourselves with the will of God as it manifests itself through the currents and eddies of the passion play of existence in which we are participant observers.

There is something deeply, intrinsically attractive about those people who are able, by the Grace of God, to accomplish this kind of transformation. In fact, it is deliciously ironic that such people who do not seek or wish to have control over others end up influencing the desires of so many people who are inspired by their example and want to follow in their footsteps and seek the same sort of transformative essential autonomy exemplified in the lives of individuals such as the Sufi masters.