Excerpted from The Knowing Heart, A Sufi Path of Transformation
The Disappearance of Faith and Meaning
There was once a time, perhaps, when people felt themselves to be part of a cosmic order which offered a straight path to salvation, truth, or enlightenment. In that time before spiritual truth was relativized, God’s love and mercy was extended to anyone, no matter what his or her circumstances, who fulfilled the necessary moral and religious duties. Almost every person could find in his or her own humanness the pre-condition of hope.
Our situation in the post-modern era is that no religion seems absolute anymore. All religious truths seem to be relativized. In this situation, a life of faith and morality is no assurance of salvation. We lived with unnamed anxieties and guilt anyway. Although liberated from a Divine judgment, we are haunted by an existential guilt which refuses propitiation.
Furthermore, there is no shared cultural myth, no unifying vision. The servitude to religious forms and strictures is quickly disappearing to be replaced only by a worship of the self or a compulsive escape from the self. We try to find cosmic satisfaction in a lifestyle, a career, a self-image, or a romantic relationship. Some employ therapists to attain self-acceptance, forgiveness, and understanding. Others attempt to construct their own personal spiritual worldview through a sampling of what the great traditions have to offer.
What is it that we are searching for? Our situation as human beings is that we live in a world of pain and death. No amount of pleasure can negate this reality. Our means of pleasure is the body, and the body eventually gets satiated, weakened, sick, or dead.
Even if we no longer fear the punishment of Hell, we have to somehow deal with our animal self. We have to know when and how much is enough, and yet the animal self has endless desires. Repression, or at least self-discipline is an inevitable condition of our situation. There is a terror in living with a body that is irrational, fallible, and finally, mortal.
We have no cultural and spiritual value systems to reconcile us with the body. We serve the body but we do not teach it how to serve. We worship the body, but we do not sanctify it. Our cultural value systems today are among the least spiritual ever offered to a human community. Basically, the meaning of life has been reduced to an unconscious operating mode: get a job that will enable us to buy what we want, pass through life with a minimum of pain and discomfort. The fulfillment offered to us is the fulfillment of being good and intelligent consumers, effective seekers of pleasure. We will have to repress many of our desires in order to eventually satisfy a few of them.
Yet there is still this problem of our existence. Even if we are free to fulfill our desires, we still lack something to fulfill and give meaning to our lives. Even if we have removed God the Judge, we have a feeling of existential contraction, unworthiness, guilt, and sin.
This existential contraction is the “I” itself. Effectively, in our everyday waking existence, this is all that we know and are. We become this “I” which seeks pleasure and avoids pain. Our capacity for pleasure is, however, limited and our confrontation with pain is inevitable.
To protect ourselves we unconsciously try to make ourselves the Absolute Ruler of our own psychological and material realm. We create a kingdom with boundaries and defenses. We strive to consolidate our powers so that we can acquire what we want and keep out what we don’t want. This is the business and strategy of the “I.”
And yet from the perspective of the world, this kingdom has all the substantiality of a spider’s web. Despite our pride and careful efforts to spin this web, fate can brush it away without resistance. It is no wonder that we who depend on the world for our sense of security and well-being live in a perpetual state of fear and contraction. Even when we are attaining our desires, and so have experienced what we call “happiness,” we cannot help but question whether this is real, and how long will it last.
What are we to do with our consciousness, our will, our love? These are the choices that variously confuse, distract, and oppress human beings.
Our “I” is our relationship to the world; and as long as this relationship is characterized by a self and “all the rest,” we are in duality. If we tie two birds together by their feet, although both can easily fly, they will hardly get off the ground together. This is our relationship with reality. Our resistance, expectations, complaints, desires fly off at a tangent from what actually is.
The vast majority of human beings are living in a state of alienation from reality and from their own essence. Instead of living life directly and knowing themselves directly, they are besieged by mental and emotional distortions. This mechanism of distortion we call “me.” We are living in a “virtual reality” of our own creation, but because we have always been in costume, always wired to the program, always turned toward the screen of fantasy, we have not known ourselves.
In the best of these times people’s minds are filled with everything but the truth: images from consumer culture, manufactured desires, superstitions, hallucinations, beliefs, allergies to beliefs, the cliches of neurotic individualism, and so forth. In the worst of times, human minds may be occupied with mass psychoses of nationalism, fanaticism, racism, tribalism, or religious fundamentalism.
Because of these constant distractions human beings cannot know the present moment and the truth it contains. The reality of the moment can be summarized simply as: Being in becoming, a total field of Oneness unfolding, Love knowing itself. The reality of ourselves can be summarized as: we are integral to this reality, not just a part of it, but one with it. We are not a part of the whole, we are the whole. The human being is all of Being, the drop that contains the Ocean. The human reality is a transpersonal reality, but because we have become fragments, we exclude true reality. We focus on parts. We take the individual human person as the ultimate unit of reality and ignore the fact that a common life and consciousness flows through each of us. We can recognize ecologically that all of life is interdependent, that water, minerals, light, and other energies all cooperate to allow a living thing to exist. But when it comes to ourselves, we fantasize our unique psychological independence, denying that we are dependent on an Unseen Reality and a common human transpersonal dimension. We try to live as if we are alone.
We exist in a psychologically fragmented state, a state of continuous inner conflicts among the parts of ourselves. We have lost the principle of unity within ourselves. We are not only psychological polytheists, we are polyselfists, because we have not known our essential self. We know the social selves, the selves of desire; we are preoccupied with the self-cassettes, the self-scripts of conventional society.
Because we are thus fragmented within ourselves and in conflict within ourselves, we exist socially as fragments in conflict with each other with little hope of achieving anything but temporary reconciliation based on these conflicted, fragmentary selves. In contrast, when a whole human being meets a whole human being, there is no antagonism. Even if there is difference, there is respect. Because the wholeness of one is not other than the wholeness of the other, although reflected in a different way.
The human being has the most highly evolved capacity for knowing all of Being, all of Reality. It can know and embrace and be this transpersonal Reality. This whole Reality is the life of love.
We human beings long to surrender ourselves to something great and be taken up into its greatness. A human being’s measure is the measure of that to which he or she surrenders to and serves. Some people surrender only to their own imagined self-interest. Some surrender to some social ideal, others to beauty, to love of family, to religious faith.
And yet so much that human beings surrendered to in the past has been relativized or discredited. We are in a time when many people are trying to invent their own values and beliefs because those that exist are no longer convincing to their souls.
A few people sense that the purpose of life is to give one’s life as a gift to Being itself. Only the strongest personalities are able to do this. The rest settle for the lesser satisfactions of conventional social ambitions and roles. So few people can both activate the passion for life that leads to creative self-expression and at the same time surrender their lives as a gift to the Creative Power of Being.
We need a vision that will not only allow us to see the reality of our lives but will urge us on to a more complete expression of the divinely human reality. The human being is a threshold between two worlds, two realities: the reality of material existence and the reality of spiritual non-existence. Existence is the dimension of expenditure; non-existence the dimension of income. The storehouses of every desirable quality are in non-existence, in the unseen, in Spirit. This earthly, temporal world is the mirror that can reflect the beauty and significance of that other world. The human heart is a mirror, too, which requires a certain polishing to be reflective. Every human being has the capacity and the destiny to bring that world into this world.
We cannot afford to live much longer with denial of the facts: that we are destructive to the planet and to ourselves. Nor can we afford to lose our awareness of the energy at the heart of nature, the power of unconditional, spiritual unity, which is experienced in the human heart as love.
Love is the force that will heal us of our existential guilt and lift us to its level of beauty and meaning; in other words, love is the essential transforming and healing power. All human fulfillment is related to love and all human problems are signs of the denial of the centrality of love.
We must uncover and grasp the principles by which we can cooperate with this power of love. The distillation of all wisdoms might be expressed in this way: We can rejoin our isolated wills with Love’s will. It is possible to open up to the experience of love through the practical understanding of submission. It is submission and not “surrender” because in submission we keep our sword, we pledge all our human faculties to the service of Reality.
Active submission is being receptive to the intelligence of Spirit and living accordingly. Its opposite is the neurotic anxiety and compulsive living that is accepted as normal today. Active submission, the natural state of the essential self, dissolves selfishness, transforms anxiety and fear. At the same time, because it establishes a connection to Spirit, it unlocks our finest and noblest capacities. Because we have cut ourselves off from Spirit, we have swelled with false pride and thrown the world out of balance: Our bodies and minds, our relationships, and our whole ecology is suffering the consequences. The human being has capacities which are unsuspected today and which can only be known through a balance of spiritual submission and energetic activation in relation to our life in the world.
There need not be a conflict between inspiration and practicality, between other-worldliness and this-worldliness, between mysticism and social justice, between spirituality and sexuality, between our spiritual realization and our human fulfilment.