[Let me include here a practical observation I could have added in response to a question about my own practice of muhasabah
that was asked after my talk. The comic description above of what I might have said to the young man at the foot of the hill was deliberately framed as a kind of self-parody, a caricature or cartoon of myself. I have realised that this method is very useful in revealing aspects of the way in which features of character can become unbalanced on the side of excess. That is, after all, what a cartoon is. It is what bring those features into consciousness. The cartoonist focuses on distinctive features of the face and body, and accentuates them so that the person depicted becomes easily recognisable. To depict Donald Trump, for example, you obviously make much of his absurdly flamboyant and idiosyncratic hairstyle, as well as his ‘megaphone mouth’.
I remember well when I was a teacher of English many years ago I noticed one of my pupils, a talented artist, drawing something in one of my lessons. I went over to see what she was doing. You may remember the film Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone. Well, she had drawn a cartoon of me holding a giant pencil over a metre long thrust out with both hands like an automatic weapon, with the caption: ‘Freeze! Judge Henzell. English is the Law!’ I liked it so much, I asked her if I could keep it, and gave her a gold star for creativity. I framed it, and to this day it is within sight in my study as I write, always reminding me to go easy when any tendency to draconian judgement surfaces, but at the same time keeping in view the underlying virtue of not shying away from trying to give strong, discerning and incisive instruction where it is needed. Near to it in my study is a photo of my elder brother and me as young boys in my mother’s lap. My brother is nestling up to my mother with a cosy look but I am sitting bolt upright and looking straight ahead with a piercing stare. Tania always says I look like a High Court judge about to pass sentence, even at the age of two.
A great help in uncovering all of this is the use of humour, which both enhances and takes the sting out of the self-reckoning. Humour defuses the defensiveness and mollifies the angst which arises when our faults may be thrust too pointedly into our awareness.
All of this reminds me of the way in which our ‘chief features’ can be brought into consciousness and seen as either virtues or as vices if they deviate from the Golden Mean. Too much ‘rightness’ can incline to self-righteousness, as well as excessive ‘correction’, ‘rectitude’ and ‘rigour’ (all these words come from the same root as ‘right’) in the same way as too much ‘straightness’ inclines to excessive ‘strictness’ and ‘stringency’. Something ‘astringent’ is too constrictive, and metaphorically too sharp, trenchant and severe in style, even acerbic or caustic. The words related to ‘straight’ come from a root which originally meant ‘stretch’. The related word ‘strait’ gives us a clue to the potential imbalance. A strait is a narrow passage, as in the Straits of Dover, and we all understand the negative connotations of a ‘strait-jacket’ or being ‘strait-laced’, or being in ‘dire straits’. The words ‘stress’, ‘distress’, ‘distraught’, and ‘overstretched’ also come from the same root. We might identify the excessive inclination to what is ‘right’ and ‘straight’ in the narrow, arid, legalistic and dogmatic interpretations of Islam which can be the cause of much inhumanity and distress. The ‘straight path’ we ask Allah to guide us on is not a strait-jacket, but like the shari’ah, is the ‘broad path leading to water’. Lack of curvature and moisture also points to the hyper-masculinity and patriarchy which suppresses the feminine.]
To return to my talk:
Later that week, to my shame I recall an even more dramatic forgetting of the self-awareness and self-reckoning I had committed myself to.
And then, as is so often the case for me, I had a dream which helped me to understand the deeper layers of what was happening here and how to understand the nature of the authentic self. In the dream I had one hour left to bring into consciousness a talk on the authentic self. I was in an area of fine buildings and terraced gardens and landscapes on different levels and had to find the retreat centre where I was to speak. To my surprise I found myself not at Gaunts House but in the Colosseum in Rome, threading my way through the labyrinth of tunnels through which the gladiators had to go on their way to the arena. It was very real, and I had to summon up a lot of courage to follow the tunnels, knowing that I was most likely going to my death. But unlike the actual tunnels in the Colosseum which were all underground, the ones I was trying to navigate in the dream were all at a higher level above ground and the light was streaming into them.
And then I understood what this meant. There are different levels of being a gladiator engaged in combat. The highest level is the spiritual level of that dauntlessness and intrepidity which I admire. This is the virtue of himmah, spiritual aspiration or the concentrated spiritual energy which decisively follows an intention.
But it’s important not to confuse this with vehemence. In effect, it is actually the Golden Mean, the essential principle Al-Ghazali employs (borrowed from Aristotle) to define the best of human character as an expression of the authentic self. At the Golden Mean, the gladiator represents the virtues of courage, of himmah, and skill in the practice and use of various weapons, which symbolize of course our faculties, our virtues and awakened capacities. Vices arise from defect or excess from the virtue at the Mean; so, for example, lack of courage gives cowardice, but excess gives hot-headedness and recklessness.
In the same way, lack of one-pointed intention, single-mindedness, tenacity and application makes one limp, unproductive and ineffectual, whereas an excess of it can incline one to ruthlessness or obsession.
Or again, lack of curiosity, questioning and inquiry leads to passive compliance and conformity, while an excess of it can lead either to a meddling inquisitiveness which breeds suspicion and distrust or an inquisitorial mentality which oppresses others. There’s a tale about that called ‘The Ancient Coffer of Nuri Bey’ which is part of the repertoire of the wandering or Kalandar dervishes in Turkey. You can read it in Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah.
Another example: just as lack of the virtue of self-reliance makes one over-dependent, so excess of it inclines to self-sufficiency, a negative state of arrogant forgetfulness of our dependence on God.
And again, just as lack of discernment makes one gullible and susceptible to negative influences and delusion, so on the side of excess it can incline to nit-picking, pedantry, hair-splitting, unimaginative scepticism, excessive criticism and judgmentalism.
You can apply this principle to just about anything. Real moderation is not mediocrity or some kind of dull compromise; real humility is not the same as that sense of worthlessness which totally disempowers or paralyses; and by the same token, real self-empowerment is not the same as self-worship or narcissism.
So I began to understand this work of muhasabah not as one simply of annihilating or supressing the apparently disabling aspects of one’s personality, but of finding the essential virtues underlying them. For me, that suggested that the combative spirit and martial power of the gladiator needs to be moved from the dark tunnels in the basement to the higher levels of the arena; to transform the impatience and intolerance which discounts and judges others into the light of true discernment which has the psychological awareness to see oneself. And we can all ask ourselves what most needs to be transformed in ourselves in this way.
There is a famous dervish tale about the wise father who helped his idle and greedy sons find themselves. He told them as he was dying that he had buried a treasure for them somewhere in the fields around their house, so when he died they rushed out to dig up one of the fields but found nothing. But in doing so they had cultivated the field, so they thought they might as well plant some wheat, and they had a great harvest. Although they dug up more fields in the hope of finding the treasure, they always found nothing, but over the years, as their harvests multiplied, they became productive and respected farmers whose success rested entirely on their own hard work. In such a way, their father enabled them to transform their vice of greed into the virtues of application and diligence.
Or, to update this story, it’s like the movie Shaolin, where the ruthless warlord is guided by Buddhist monks to transform his tyrannical nature and ferocious temper into the concentrated spiritual energy and single-minded aspiration to attain enlightenment. I’m reminded here of something that Gurdjieff said: We always make a profit. In other words, we can turn even the basest metals into gold.
And to return to the gladiators, many of them were of course slaves. Is not to be a slave the highest level the Sufi can aspire to? But not of course for the entertainment of decadent Romans, but, as Mevlana says, whether I’m drunk or sober, I’m a slave to those beautiful eyes, by which he means the light of God.
So let me move now to some penetrating statements by Shaykh Kabir about sovereignty and the authentic self.
In a recent piece on the Threshold Society website, in distinguishing between the authentic and the false self, he refers to the ‘countless influences and distractions coming from a false reality which breed false values’, and, as he says, the false self is false because it is no more than ‘a self-image created within our own minds’. ‘Our perception may be adulterated and controlled, our attention manipulated, our inner mastery neglected, and all of this related to our loss of, distance from, and betrayal of our Divine connection.’ And he mentioned an interview between America’s most respected TV interviewer, Charlie Rose, and Dan Harris, a journalist for ABC News, and formerly a writer for the New York Times, who recently wrote a book called 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story. It’s a book about how meditating for 10 minutes a day can change your life.
Now the upshot, as I understand it, of Shaykh Kabir’s response to this is that although we can recognize and respect the value of practices like meditation and mindfulness, they can still, in their reduced forms, be limited, ‘confined’, as he says, ‘to a concept of self that is separate from the Source of Being.’ Or to put it more dramatically, one could say, a vision of the self in which God is dead, or at least completely forgotten or irrelevant.
Often, it seems to me, the fashionable trend of mindfulness training can be little more than a tool for enhancing performance, becoming more ‘effective’ or ‘focused’ in one’s line of work, or a kind of therapeutic exercise for becoming happier or achieving some degree of stillness in a frenetically hyperactive world, a remedy for overload and attention deficit, or as Kabir said, ‘purely secular and scientific techniques for reducing stress and negative behavior’. I recently met someone who attended a Buddhist sangha near where we live, and he explained to me how mindfulness was helping him, as he said, to ‘connect more fully with the world’. And then he protested, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not religious’ – well, God forbid!
I looked into Harris’s book and he himself admits that meditation is increasingly used in the corporate and military arenas to heighten focus and clarity. It’s a bit like reducing the profoundly spiritual discipline of yoga to a set of physical postures to improve flexibility or tone up your muscles or achieve better core strength. Is that the limit of ambition when faced with the comprehensive spiritual teachings of those traditions that gave us meditation and yoga, or in our more familiar terms, presence and consciousness.
As Kabir concluded in his response to this, ‘a true spiritual teacher is like someone offering the finer skills of horsemanship in a society where riding a donkey is a new idea.’ Or, let me add, a gladiator teaching how to play-fight or fence with wooden swords. Or, as a musician, amateur as I am, it’s like a concert pianist teaching his pupils that they’ll hit the big time and gain the adulation they deserve when they can play a simplified two-finger version of ‘Three Blind Mice’.
And, sadly, that delusionary overestimation of one’s attainments is now all too common on social media.
Mevlana says: The mouse-soul is nothing but a nibbler, and this may apply to the 10%, 10-minute self-help plan. Don’t take a wooden sword into battle, he says. Go, find one of steel.
So, what are people looking at when they google the term ‘authentic self’?
I did so, and in the top flight of hits were many which seemed very attached to the idea of ‘authentic empowerment’ or how to ‘empower your authentic self’. One of them, the website launchyourgenius.com has this invitation: ‘Create a Splash of Awesomeness. Sign up today and get a copy of my e-book. “You are not just a drop in the ocean, you are the mighty ocean in the drop.”’ When I saw this, I have to confess that at first it made me cringe, and I thought well, yes, launch yourself on X-Factor or American Idol, turn yourself into an awesome celebrity on Facebook, and don’t forget the selfie.
But returning to the inner compass of the Golden mean can help us here. Let us take the underlying virtue as personal sovereignty, that positive awareness of our true self as the reflection of the Divine, as khalifa or vicegerent of God on earth. But on the side of excess, it inflates that sense of dignity to an exaggerated self-esteem, and to the narcissism of entitlement, self-absorption and self-worship. But on the other side, we may have to be careful that where a balanced positive sense of self is lacking, it can lead to an over-emphasis on a kind of negative and dispiriting self-abnegation, a belief that we can only approach the Divine through lowliness, self-abasement, and a sense of worthlessness.
The balance between our personal sovereignty and worth as khalifa and our surrender to Divine Sovereignty is symbolized in the postures of the ritual prayer. Ibn ‘Arabi relates these to various spiritual journeys. The standing position is the Journey from God in the sense that the erect human being is created by God as khalifa (and by the way the Greek word anthropos, mankind, has the underlying concrete sense of ‘he or she who looks up at the sky’); the bowing position, he says, is the Journey to God, and the prostration is the Journey in God made possible only by that sense of lowly surrender and spiritual poverty.
Several years ago, I remember walking through the city of Bath a few days before Christmas and I could not fail to notice a large poster in the window of a hairdressing salon in the heart of the city. In the centre of the poster was a glitzy handbag surrounded by various vanity products with the caption ghd Christmas Giftbox. Above, in bold letters, the message was a blatant and insolent parody of the language of Christian supplication: Grant me the Power to be the Centre of Attention this Christmas, with some words from the Lord’s Prayer: Thy Will be Done. And at the foot of the poster, these words: A New Religion, ghd Hair. Just to make clear: I’m not a miserable killjoy, puritan, or strait-laced prude. Nothing wrong with having gorgeous hair. But it’s not a religion, and cannot be our heart’s desire.
The self is awakened and fashioned by that heart’s desire: as Mevlana says,
Whatever it is you wish to marry,
go absorb yourself in that beloved,
assume its shape and qualities.
If you wish for light, prepare yourself to receive it;
if you wish to be far from God,
nourish your egoism and drive yourself away.
(Mesnevi, II, 3605).
And, as he says, if it is the soul in man and woman that is striving in whatever it does, the ear and the eye of the soul’s King are at the window (Mesnevi, II, 1824). Personal sovereignty is an illusion without, as he says, quoting from the Qur’an, bowing in worship and drawing near to the Divine Sovereign.
I remember a very simple dream I had about twenty years ago, two years before Tania and I encountered Islam and Islamic Sufism. It told me something about the authentic self, and how unprepared I was to live up to it. I was at an auction and bidding for Lot No. 1. The symbolism of that speaks for itself. It was a coat of arms in the form of a shield framed in bare unadorned wood. I wanted this but did not have enough money. And I also thought my house was too small for such a large piece. Bidding went on in gold coins, or sovereigns. Then the auctioneer said that Lot no. 1 was only for the ‘Bare Man’, that is, bare in the sense of naked. I looked at the shield and it was itself bare, there were no symbols on it, no emblems of status or identity of any kind, no discernible marker of the self.
Later, I found these words of Mevlana:
If you want a customer who will pay in gold,
Could there be a better customer than God, O my heart.
(Mesnevi, VI, 879)
There is a specific context to this dream in that my family has a coat of arms which goes back to our descendants in France before they emigrated to England in the 16th century to escape religious persecution. It bears three acorns on a red background – a nice symbol in itself, but it is a symbol to do with personal or clan sovereignty or status in a world which values such things, and this cannot be Lot No. 1, which can only refer to the primacy of the Divine and which can only be secured by the highest bidder, the one who is prepared to pay with his or her whole self.
Whether one moves slowly or with speed,
The one who is a seeker will be a finder.
Always seek with your whole self.
(Mesnevi, III, 981)
Be cleansed, he says, of the (false) self’s features, and see your pure Self.
Or, again, come, return to the root of the root of your Self.
In the Mesnevi, Mevlana uses a term (khod-parast) meaning ‘self-worshipper’ three times to describe someone who is dominated by the base self or ego (nafs) which he describes as the ‘the mother of (all) idols’. He uses a related term (khod-bini) meaning ‘self-seeing’, which is an idiom in Persian, meaning conceited, or arrogant. This term occurs seven times, six times in this negative sense, but also once in a positive sense: I am the (devoted) slave, he says, of the one who sees himself in this manner, that is as his true self. (VI:3776)
He also uses another term (khod-shenasi) meaning ‘self-knowing’ when he translates directly into Persian the saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, He who knows himself knows his Lord.
Now, the context of this quote from the Prophet is profoundly revealing. It occurs in Mevlana’s telling in Book V of the Mesnevi of the story of Ayaz, the favourite slave of Mahmud, the King of Ghazna. The King symbolizes God and Ayaz represents the humble saint of spiritual purity and compassionate wisdom. Ayaz’s fellow servants are convinced that he has hoarded hidden treasure in a locked room so they break into it, but all they find are his original rustic shoes and sheepskin jacket, which he keeps there to remind himself of his humble origins as a shepherd before being elevated to a high position by the King. The King asks Ayaz to pass judgment on the wrongdoers who have disgraced themselves, praising his knowledge as a bottomless ocean beyond human knowledge alone, and his patient forbearance as a hundred mountains, far beyond human forbearance. And we can see here very clearly the status that Ayaz enjoys as the King’s vizier, itself a symbol of the role of the human being as khalifa. But Ayaz replies, ‘I know that this is Your gift, since otherwise I am (nothing but) these poor shoes and sheepskin jacket.’ And this is where Mevlana quotes that saying of the Prophet, Whoever has known himself, has known God. Mevlana is saying that the servant of God knows that he is only a container for God’s gifts, and not the possessor or source of those gifts. The perfection of the Divine Attributes belongs to God alone.
If you’re lugging a heavy bag, Mevlana says,
don’t fail to look inside it
to see whether what is inside it is bitter or sweet.
If it’s really worth bringing along, bring it;
Otherwise, empty your sack
And redeem yourself from fruitless effort and disgrace.
Only put into your sack
That which is worth bringing to a righteous sovereign.
(Mesnevi, IV, 1574-1577)
I’ve mentioned Shaykh Kabir’s insight about the countless influences and distractions coming from a false reality which breed false values, and I made a special note in my mind as I was preparing this talk about the way in which social media, blogs and other sources on the internet can create this false reality, or one might also say a fake reality, a forgery, a fraudulent deception. One example I read about last week had the headline ‘My girlfriend’s Katy Perry…but no, I’ve never met her…’ This is about a man from Knoxville in Tennessee who believed he had been dating Katy Perry, the singer, for six years on social media and had even spent much of his savings on an engagement ring for his superstar lover, even though she is herself worth £125 million dollars. In fact, he had been ‘catfished’ (that’s the term) by a female hoaxer from Gloucester who had assumed Katy Perry’s identity and who had kept him on a string with her protestations of love for him.
This could be a parable for our times.
I don’t have time now to explore the other examples of this that I collected but perhaps there might be another time to do so.
As well as equating the true self with the whole self, Mevlana also emphasizes that the true self is discovered and nurtured in relationship with others:
The reflection cast from good friends is needed
Until you become without the aid of any reflector
A drawer of water from the Sea…
Don’t part from the friends who guide you –
Don’t break away from the shell
If the raindrop hasn’t yet become a pearl.
(Mesnevi, II, 566-8)
As the Prophet said,
The faithful are mirrors to one another.
Mevlana goes further, too, in saying that relationship is not just being with your friends, with people of like mind, but that the road to the self passes through ‘the other’.
Many of the faults you see in others, he says, are your own nature reflected in them.
And Ibn ‘Arabi tells us that the form of the Divine Message we may most need to hear is that which is the very opposite of what we are comfortable with in our settled habits of belief.
Let me conclude with some final reflections on the paradox of personal and divine sovereignty.
Suppose you know the definitions
Of all substances and their products,
What good is that to you?
Know the true definition of yourself,
That is essential.
(Mesnevi, V, 564-565)
You know the value of every article of merchandise,
But if you don’t know the value of your own soul,
It’s all foolishness. . .
(Mesnevi, III, 2652)
But that is not the end of it, for Mevlana makes a giant leap in going on to subvert and to confound any possibility that in coming to know ourselves, we identify with a limited self that has forgotten its Divine origin:
For he goes on to say,
And when you know your own definition, flee from it,
That you may attain to the One who cannot be defined,
O sifter of the dust.
(Mesnevi, V, 564-565)
And the challenge Mevlana offers in urging us to flee from ourselves highlights for me the essential difference between those partial and diluted versions of spiritual life and practice which encourage self-absorption, sentimentality and even narcissism, and often fail to mention the divine at all, and those which reflect the essential truth that there is no god but God (la ilaha illa ‘Llah) and give us the means to strive to realise it through, as Shaykh Kabir has said, psychological self-awareness, a coherent metaphysics, a sustained and comprehensive practice, and the support of a conscious community – and to add to that, an adequate ethics and system of values and a level of cultural development in line with the needs of the time in which we live, and in line with the evolution of humanity.
The word ‘authentic’ comes from Greek authentikos which means ‘having the authority of the original creator’, and that definition points exactly to the essential paradox of personal and divine sovereignty – in Mevlana’s words, we ‘know the true definition of ourselves’, we are true to ourselves, or, in Shaykh Kabir’s words ‘authentically oneself’, and yet we abandon ourselves to the One who cannot be defined. Yes, as the Qur’an says, what we do we do to ourselves, our personal transformation is our own responsibility, but ultimately, we can attain to mastery of ourselves only through submission to the truly Original Creator, our Rabb, Lord and Sustainer. There are many ways in which we can express this, as ‘submission’, ‘self-surrender’, ‘fleeing from ourselves’, or, as Mevlana does so often, in the beautifully concrete and evocative imagery of the open window and the relationship with the Divine that it bestows:
Listen: open a window to God
and breathe. Delight yourself
with what comes through that opening.
The business of love is to
create a window in the heart.
Now, an artwork is recognised as genuine, and not a fake or a forgery, if it bears the authenticated signature of its human creator, or other unique feature of his or her style. But the artwork which is the human being is nothing less than the Divine imprint of that truly Original Creator who created everything, our Divine Source. The Qur’an tells us that we were created in the ‘best of moulds’, or in the best conformation to the Divine prototype, the form of Adam, the fitra, or essential nature. The authentic signature on the artwork created by the human hand is composed of unique characters, and in the same way the human character itself carries the imprint of the divine attributes. The word character also comes from Greek and meant something engraved. So the essential self is etched on the human soul.
I’ll end with a dream – not one of mine, but one of Tania’s which she shared with me earlier this year.
Here is how she described it:
‘I was measuring the width of a large, oval mirror with a wide, white, carved frame. I was using the small, white ruler, which I have in the lounge. I started at the outer left hand edge of the frame and measured towards the centre of the mirror. The measurement was five inches and the ruler did not stretch quite to the centre of the mirror. I did not see my own reflection in the mirror.’
I was so moved by this dream, I went straight away to our garden shed and I found the navigation ruler that had belonged to her father. He had been a pilot, in fact a flying ace, a member of the Red Arrows, and World Gliding Champion. Here it is. Tania has been up with him in his glider doing aerial somersaults.
And then I wrote a message for her headed with the words ‘Measuring the Reflection of the Self’ and left it on the table with the ruler.
I’d like to read that message, because I know only too well how much it applies to me, and I guess to all of us:
‘In the mirror we see reflected our true Self.
‘Your mirror is a large one because of the extent and expansiveness of your Self. Its frame is substantial to symbolize that is no ordinary mirror, but a distinguished and valuable one, the kind of mirror marking a room of distinction. Its spiritual purity is also indicated by the whiteness of the frame, rather than the ostentation a gold one might suggest.
‘You cannot measure the extent of your Self with a 5-inch ruler. In that, you underestimate yourself.
‘So here is a better ruler, both longer and wider, one used by pilots and navigators to measure nautical miles on a scale of 1/500,000. It must have been your father’s. Its full extent encompasses 140 miles and it extends far into the ocean. From the frame of your mirror it will extend at least to its centre, and reveal the heart of who you are in all its fullness. It is a legacy from the Father, the Divine Sovereign who is of course Hu beyond gender, and who gave us all a yardstick within ourselves as human beings created “in due measure and proportion”.
‘I count myself blessed that I spend my days and nights in the precious company of you, my beloved, who continually reflects to me the immeasurable attributes of the Divine Beloved.
‘Treasure your Father’s ruler, and it will reveal to you the Face of your Whole Self.’