Having just returned from a remarkable trip to Turkey, Sara said, “The effects of this trip are still with me. Something has really changed. I witnessed the beautiful adab of some of these people—how they move so gracefully through events without reacting negatively, always having a beautiful, gentle response to things.”
Yes. This is not just about being nice. As one’s spirituality matures it remakes the relationship between ourselves and the Truth. All of manifest existence is the Truth, and the self which was once negative, doubtful, faultfinding, and complaining, becomes, instead, a witness to a miraculous theater of divine qualities.
We had gone to Rumi’s shrine in Konya, Turkey and on the first day were met by unprecedented crowds of Turkish villagers, mostly women, who had been bussed there by their local municipalities for a national holiday. It was like the Super Bowl of Anatolian motherhood—barely room to squeeze through to get a glimpse of Rumi’s beautiful dergah and mausoleum. “Too commercial, this is not good,” someone said. “I felt more Baraka at Shams’ tomb,” another commented. Yet others in our group were unaffected by the outer circumstances and entered a deep state of peace beyond all judgments.
Rumi’s Dergah has written over its entrance: This is the Kaabah of lovers; those who entered here became complete. What does it mean to become complete? What happens to the self? Does it become a greater more complete self? Or does it merely vanish? A hadith beloved by Sufis says: Whoso knows himself, knows his Lord.
Some murshids (accomplished spiritual teachers) add: Whoever truly knows himself, will know his own nothingness. This is not so easy to understand, and in fact is easily misunderstood. The practical teachings of Sufism usually begin with the development of will, intention, and self-awareness beyond even that which is considered normal in everyday life. So the first steps on the spiritual journey require the development of self, not the losing of it.
The loss of self begins when we have enough of a self to observe our own distorted opinions and judgments, enough self-awareness to observe how we construct, justify, and defend a false self which we take to be completely real, because we have not known a deeper self that can live spontaneously in harmony with the Truth. The experience of living from that deeper self is what we mean by “knowing your own nothingness.”
Our problems arise from ideas we construct about ourselves, the way we think we are something, because that something we think we are is based on false ideas. These false ideas and constructs need to be defended. Continually comparing ourselves with others only increases egoism whether that egoism manifests as vanity, pride, self-importance, or self-denigration. To “know your own nothingness” is to leave all this behind. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it can happen when one follows the Way with sincerity and devotion, with a commitment to getting beyond our superficial ideas of self.
The bliss of knowing you are nothing comes simultaneously with the perception and understanding that all of manifest existence is the Truth, and the Truth will express itself through your “non-existence.” But to come to this non-existence we must be purified of the impulses of egoism and this is the rub. Yet, as Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi says, “How will you be polished if you are irritated by every rub?”
Human beings, though made from the soil of this earth, actually manifest God’s Being. The earth is humble, accepting of all we scatter or dump upon it, and yet returning abundance through its fertility. We need to remember this and not become inflated by the false self, or worse yet some idea that we are special, spiritual beings.
You remember the story of Iblis in the Quran. Iblis in his pride would not acknowledge Adam, thinking his own fiery nature superior to Adam. Iblis in us is the tendency to separate ourselves, to justify a delusional autonomy. When the Iblisian nature manifests in us as superiority we have departed from our true humanity, we are out of adab.
All of existence is the Theater of Tawhid, the drama of Oneness. The price of admission to this theater is adab. We have considered adab many times before. Understood as spiritual courtesy, it is the essence of the Sufi path, but there is a much higher understanding of this basic practice. Adab is to live from our essential nature, which is the mirror of God’s essence and qualities. When we have attained that, we do not search for faults outside ourselves, we see the perfection of each moment. To live from our essential nature is the true Din. “Din” is usually translated as religion, but its meaning is how we transact with reality. To live from our innate nature, our fitrah, is to be aware of the meter of the heart where the divine intelligence reflects. Someone who has polished away superficial opinions and judgments can listen to the heart, witness the manifestation of attributes in the heart and thus respond appropriately to every situation. This is the real adab, the true spiritual courtesy in relation to reality.
What makes us acceptable and loveable is to see the Truth (Haqiqat) in human beings, to see them as manifestations of God’s meaning and qualities. When we can see others in this way we will not be drawn into negativity and anger. We will learn from every situation.
We will learn as much from the negative situations as from positive situations. I don’t say this lightly or without an awareness of how deep the disappointments and betrayals of life can be. We will learn from life, rather than be defeated by it, to the extent that we can remember to see the Truth manifesting through every detail of life, every relationship, every condition.
All of existence is a book to be read. The Holy Qur’an is from God and yet it contains descriptions of evil and beings like Iblis, Nimrod, and Pharaoh. We do not reject the Book because of the presence of such negative things. It is the same with life.
The Book of Life has been written by permission of the Divine. Every thing, every being is, in a sense, a word of God. Jesus is a word of God. You are a word of God. The Saint, the Prophet, the Liar, the Tyrant, the Abuser are all words of God. Yet the Liar usurps Truth. The Tyrant usurps Freedom. The Abuser usurps power and uses it for his own distorted ends. Everything is, in a sense, the manifestation of divine attributes or their usurpation by beings endowed with choice.
Because freedom of choice is built into reality, we have these possibilities, but there is always the Divine Mercy present as well. There is always a potential benefit, a gift within these negative conditions—the potential gift of moral courage, the gift of loving sacrifice, the gift of servanthood, the gift of love beyond reason. The conditions we meet in life always offer the possibility of awakening and developing our character, knowledge, and latent spiritual capacities.
We are created with Jalal and Jamal, we are kneaded from the substances of Power and Beauty, and we are educated through Jalal and Jamal. Like the washing, beating, and drying of clothes, contrary actions serve a single purpose—to become clean. The perfection of the “good” sometimes comes about through contact with “evil.”
If we see someone manifesting these negative qualities, we might choose to avoid such a person. If we believe their conduct to be harmful, we are obliged to do something to correct them, but within the principles of adab, not with personal anger. Following the example of our Prophet, Muhammad, we have three ways to restrain someone who is doing harm: first by our own hand, then with our words, if we can, and if we can’t, then with our minds.
We can even learn to welcome the negativity of others, remembering that all of existence is the Theater of Tawhid, the drama of Oneness. We do not underestimate the difficulty of this task, nor are we offering easy, sentimental truths. Mevlana says in one of his ghazels:
When Hallaj found union with his beloved,
it was right that it was on the gallows.
I snatched a cap’s worth of cloth from his coat,
and it covered my reason, my head, and my feet
I pulled a thorn from the fence of his garden,
and it has not stopped working its way into my heart.
One morning a little of His wine
turned my heart into a lion hunter.
We must not let anything destroy our servanthood. This is what Sara began to understand on our journey. By being constantly aware of Haqiqat, by demonstrating that everything is the Truth, we may respond with dignity and appropriate behavior. Destructive negativity does not manifest from people of Haqiqat; and whether they manifest Power (Jalal) or Beauty (Jamal) it is in the service of the Merciful Truth and they continually express this Truth.