From a book in progress: The Living Tradition, Conversations on the Sufi Path, Kabir Helminski
I was talking to somebody recently who, with a good heart, said, “I have no need for religion. I know what is right and what is wrong.” I didn’t comment or argue but, actually, this brings up some very important subjects.
Do we need God? Do we need God to do and be good? The answer is no, up to a certain point. You can do good without God. You can be kind, generous, respectful and sensitive to other human beings without bringing God into it. What’s the significance of bringing God into it?
First of all, my sense is that people are led to various religions and mystical traditions by a yearning from within. Something in them feels unfulfilled. It’s like an inner drive or hunger. It’s not, “I want to follow a religion so I can be a good person.” It’s more a sense of “I don’t want to just be at home. I want to be together with others. I feel like I need to be in a holy place.” There is something more than just being nice, kind, and all of that. There’s a deeper yearning operating within humans who undertake a spiritual practice. There is something else calling us. These things are part of a bigger whole.
The second aspect is that what we mean by “religion” is something that calls to us from a higher level. It is aspirational and transformational. Throughout history we see that people have not been very good to each other. Something else has been needed. The hadith that says, “My mercy precedes my wrath” gives us what we need. It provides a sense of something that is good. It is better than how we are. The soul longs for a state of perfection. It’s an ideal that is also timeless and spaceless. It includes the ultimate freedom to just be all and to expand. It’s a little bit like meditation. We long for something that is ideally free, beautiful, good and generous. This longing contrasts with our limited self. If we’re honest and conscious, this self is not quite like that.
We spend much of our time doing what we want to do, or doing what we have to do to attain some desires of the self in the short or long term. In other words, we are always at the center of our own choices, we follow our own desires, and there is little that we feel answerable to.
Most of the time, it’s our ego, or nafs, that is pulling us by the forelock here and there. We see ourselves sent in more directions than we can possibly go. We ask the question, “Which of the many impulses of my own ego will I follow? I can’t follow them all.” That’s the big struggle. The real question is: What is to be attained by following our own nafs