From our very first days on the Sufi path, what intrigued us was the quality of human beings we met — their humanity, their capacity for friendship, service and love. Sufism is not about aiming for extraordinary mystical or supernatural experiences; it is about the transformation of character and the realization of spiritual maturity.
If there is one thing I wish I could “teach,” or contribute to people’s lives, it is to escape the domination of the ego patterns that keep us stuck in self-defeating behaviors and attitudes. Sometimes it seems much easier to practice remembrance of God than forgetfulness of self. It is easier to teach meditation than letting go of the false self. The part of us that is self-justifying, defensive, and judgmental can sometimes be extraordinarily well-fortified.
On the spiritual path we travel through various spiritual stages. The tradition calls this sayri suluuk, the journey of the wayfarers. It is a beautiful and perilous journey. It is perilous because the untransformed ego lies in wait like a bandit ready to strip us of whatever spiritual goods we have and bring our journey to an end.
The false self purports to be our ally and protector while it is our own worst enemy. Sometimes it speaks in a subtle voice reminding us of the ways we feel unacknowledged, unsupported, unappreciated; it may feed our resentment, telling us what we are owed, or why we have not been treated fairly. On the other hand, it may also tyrannize us with self-blame, self-doubt, and insecurity, as a result of which we may try to overcompensate by fortifying our false self, criticizing others, or withdrawing from relationship. The web of negativity and self-justification can be so complex that our original essential self is buried under layers of this distorted perception and thought.
I have seen people turn their backs on love, friendship, and spiritual support because some aspect of their egoism was denied satisfaction. So convinced of its right to make demands, the false self will sabotage the soul’s best hope in order to retain control of our lives. Mevlana Rumi warns us in the strongest terms:
Surely your own wicked ego is a prowling wolf:
why are you blaming every comrade instead?
The stubborn, misguided, unquestioning ego
is a cap for a hundred bald heads.
For this reason, O poor slave, I am always saying,
“Keep a collar on the neck of this mongrel.”
Even if this dog has become a teacher, it’s still a dog:
Humble the ego, for it’s nature is harmful. . .
The entire Qur’an is a description of the viciousness of egos:
look into the Holy Book! Can’t you see?
It is an account of the egoism of those like the ancient people of Ad,
who found weapons and did their utmost to attack the prophets.
Down through time, from generation to generation,
the evil of the ego, irrepressible and unrestrained,
was the primary cause of the world’s conflagrations.
What would it mean to take on the project of making the new human being? The kind of human being we are talking about is someone who is not governed by the false self, who is free of the distortions that arise from both judgment of others and low self-esteem, who does not respond to negativity with more negativity, in other words, someone who is fully sane, mature, and responsible. In contrast to the delusions and self-destructive machinations of the ego, the spiritually mature person feels little need to promote or defend themselves, and achieves what needs to be achieved through simple sincerity, or holiness, rather than through force.
Who are the people who attract the love of others? How does anyone become truly loveable? Why do some people seem to repel friends while others easily attract them?
People want to be liked and respected by others, to have the various satisfactions of relationship; yet how clumsy we sometimes are in trying to achieve these. Look at any group of people, including any spiritual community, and we will undoubtedly see people engaged in all kinds of skillful and unskillful social interactions. How often do we seek love in so many peculiar ways, actually driving love away through these unrecognized behaviors that clumsily try to attract the attention of others?
Some collar others and talk about themselves; some feel they must prove that they are authorities about this or that. Some monopolize people’s attention; others back away, imagining that people should notice and come to draw them out. Still others numb themselves into thinking they don’t really care at all. There are so many games we play with ourselves, so many unconscious behaviors we fail to notice, so many ways we rationalize our actions and justify ourselves. Yet how difficult it is to recognize these unconscious behaviors, admit our mistakes, and ask forgiveness.
The spiritual path is not a popularity contest; but spiritual maturity is the overcoming of self-defeating, unconscious attitudes and behaviors. As Rumi says: Why do we try to outdo each other when we have all come from the same home?
Is it possible for us to realize that this life is not meant to be a project of self-assertion, a strategy to attain every desire that arises. What are the odds that we can successfully give up our self-importance and intellectual pride, unlock our hearts, and allow ourselves to become intoxicated with love? How hard it is to selflessly reach out to others, especially if we have been ignored, slighted, or hurt. This would be a real test of our ability to transcend this egoism and be truly free. Can we imagine the blessings of living a life of invisible, subtle service? Is it possible to disappear into a vortex of nothingness, not by default, but intentionally with conscious love? Is it possible to become someone who, instead of needing love, can freely give it?
The whole work of spirituality is to integrate into ourselves the ultimate principle of Goodness and Beauty. The more our hearts are in communion with that Beauty the more our character will be trasformed into something useful and beautiful.
So, in truth, we need to recognize the self-corrupting attributes and behaviors of the false self and disengage from them. At the same time we need the transformative mystical experiences to gain a perspective on the false self. By being taken out of ourselves we can better see ourselves, and through those transcendent experiences the quality of our I-ness changes. We come to appreciate the joy of humility, of true friendship, of servanthood.