"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Self and Selfishness: A Sufi Perspective

"Sufism is concerned with the ways of following a spiritual path and with what gets us off track," write Fadiman and Frager in 'Essential Sufism.' "There is in an element in us," they note, "the nafs, that tends to lead us astray. This Arabic term is sometimes translated as 'ego' or 'self.' Other meanings of nafs include 'essence' and 'breath.'"

"In Sufism," they point out, "the term nafs is generally used in the sense of 'that which incites to wrongdoing.' This includes our egotism and selfishness, our greed and unending desire for more things, our conceit and arrogance. Perhaps the best translation for this part of us is the 'lower self.'

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There was a poor fisherman who was a Sufi teacher.  Every day he would go fishing, and each evening he would distribute his catch amongst the poor of his village, trading a fish or two for vegetables and some basic essentials, and keeping a fish head or two with which he would make a fish-head soup for himself. Each evening, after finishing his soup he would sit in front of his hut, mending his fishing nets and sharing discourses with his students.
One evening, one of his students, a merchant, told the old fisherman that he would soon be traveling to Cordoba on business. The old man was delighted, and he charged his student with seeking an audience with his own teacher, the great Sufi metaphysician Ibn 'Arabi. "Tell him that my own spiritual growth is slow," the sheikh instructed his student, "and ask him what, if there is anything, I can do to improve my practice."

Arriving in Cordoba, the merchant sought an audience with Ibn 'Arabi, as instructed. He was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the great sheik's palace, the majestic marble columns and the fine silk draperies. When summoned to speak with the great sheikh, the merchant humbled himself and relayed his teacher's concerns. Ibn 'Arabi considered the merchant's request for a moment, and then said simply: "Tell him that he is still far too worldly."

Weeks later, the merchant returned to his village, still incensed at the temerity of Ibn 'Arabi, who amidst all his luxuries could say that his own humble teacher was too worldly. When he relayed Ibn 'Arabi's instructions to the fisherman, he expressed how upset he was by the hypocrisy of the renowned teacher. The fisherman told his student: "Do not be confused by material wealth and seeming abundance. We each may have as much wealth as our soul can handle. Ibn 'Arabi's great wealth was not merely material wealth, but great spiritual wealth as well."

"Besides," the fisherman added, "my teacher was right. I still love my fish heads too much!"
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"The lower self is not so much a thing as a process created by the interaction of the soul and the body." note Fadiman and Frager. "Body and soul are pure and blameless in themselves. However, when our soul becomes embodied, we tend to forget our soul-nature; we become attached to this world and develop such qualities as greed, lust, and pride."

"On the spiritual path and in life in general," they note, "we all struggle to do those things we clearly know are best for ourselves and others. We often struggle even harder to avoid those actions we know are wrong or harmful."

"Why the struggle?" they ask. "If we were of a single mind, there would be no struggle. But our minds are split. Even when we are convinced of what is right, our lower self tries to get us to do the opposite. Even when we see clearly, our lower self leads us to forget."

[Fadiman and Frager, "Essential Sufism," pp. 65-66.]

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