Self Discovery; Life is Journey ……


According to Sufi metaphysics and in fact other metaphysical traditions in general, all that exists comes from that Reality which is at once Beyond-Being and Being, and ultimately all things return to that Source. In the language of Islamic thought, including both philosophy and Sufism, the first part of journey of all beings from the Source is called ‘’ARC OF DESCENT’’ and the second part back to the source the     ‘’ARC OF ASCENT’’. Within this vast cosmic wayfaring we find ourselves here and now on earth as human beings. Moreover, our life here in this world is a journey within that greater cosmic journey of all existences back to the source of all existence. We are born, we move through time, and we die. For most of us, without knowing who we really are, we move between two great mysteries and unknowns, namely, where we were before we came into this world and where we shall go after death. The answer of materialists and nihilists is that we came from nowhere and we go nowhere; we had no reality before coming into this world, and nothing of our consciousness survives our death. They reduce our existence to simply the physical and terrestrial level and believe that we merely animals (themselves considered as complicated machines) who have ascended from below, not spiritual beings who have descended from above. But if we are honest with ourselves we realize that even the concept of matter or corporeality is contained in our consciousness and that therefore when we ask ourselves who we are, we are acting as conscious being and have to begin with our consciousness. If we are intellectually awake, we realize that we cannot reduce consciousness to that which is itself contained in our consciousness.

Now, no matter how we seek to go back to the origin of our consciousness, we cannot reach its beginning in time, and the question again arises what our consciousness, its origin and its end are. The spiritual practices of every authentic path, including Sufism, enable those who follow and practice them earnestly and under the appropriate conditions to gain new levels of consciousness and ultimately to become aware the consciousness has no beginning in time (but only in God) because ‘’in beginning was consciousness’’ and it has no temporal end because ‘’in the end is consciousness’’. Once we discover who we are in the spiritual sense, we gain an insight into the mystery of where we came from before the caravan of our earthly life began its journey here below and also into the mystery of where we shall go after the end of this terrestrial journey.

Self knowledge also pierces the veils that limit our ordinary consciousness and ultimately leads to those higher states of consciousness that stand above the world of becoming. We are then able to be aware of our human reality and our ultimate identity beyond the confines of time and space. Sufism makes possible the piercing of these veils as it leads the seeker on an inward journey within the journey on the road of the Scared Law, or the Shari’ah which is itself a journey within the journey within the journey of life, while life itself is a journey within the journey of all beings in their return to the Source. The Sufi path is an inward journey whose goal is to know who we really are, from where we came, and where we shall go. Its aim is also to know ultimately the nature of Reality, which is also Truth as such.

As we travel upon this road of self-knowledge with the help of the means provided by tradition –means without which such a journey is in fact impossible—we gain a new perspective concerning every kind of reality with which we had identified at the beginning of our journey. We come to realize that although we are male or female, that attribute does not really define us. There is a deeper reality; one might say an androgynic reality, transcending the male- female dichotomy so that our identity is not determined simply by our gender. Nor are we simply our body and the senses although we often identify ourselves with them. As we travel upon the Sufi path, it also becomes more and more evident that what we call ‘’I’’ has its existence independent of sense perceptions and the body as a whole although the soul continues to have a consciousness of the body while being also aware through spiritual practices of the possibility of leaving it for higher realms.

Likewise, although we have emotions and psychological states with which we often identify, the spiritual path teaches us that do not define and determine our identity in the deepest sense. Infact, often we say ‘’I must control my temper’’ which demonstrates clearly that there is more than one psychological agent within human beings. As St. Thomas said, confirming Sufi teachings, ‘’Duo sunt in homine’(There are two in man). The part of us that seeks to control our temper must be distinct and not determined by the part of our that is angry and needs to be controlled. Yes, we do experience emotions, but we need not be defined by them. In the same manner, we have an imaginative faculty able to create images, and most of the time ordinary people live in the lower reaches of that world of imaginal form. Again, we are determined by those forms, and journeying upon the spiritual path is especially effective in transforming our inner imaginal landscape. As for the power of memory, it is for the most part the repository of images and forms related to earlier experiences of life. Metaphysically speaking however, it is related to our atemporal relation to our Source of Being and the intelligible world to which we belonged before our descent here to earth. That is why true knowledge according to Plato is recollection, and in Sufism the steps of the path are identified with stages of the remembrance of the Friend. Most people, however, consider these everyday remembered experiences as a major part of their identity. Yet again, the centre of our consciousness our I, cannot be identified with our ordinary memory. We can forget many things and remain the same human beings. The spiritual life may in fact the defined as the practice of techniques that enable us to forget all that we remember about the world of separation and dispersion and to remember the most important thing, which this world has caused us to forget, namely the one ‘’saving Truth’’ which is also our inner reality.

Many would say that if we are not determined by our gender, bodies, emotions, imaginative faculties, or memories, then surely we are what we think and are determined by our minds. Here we are reaching a more delicate realm. One can say with Aristotle that man is a rational animal, which means that it is in the nature of human being to think. Even as great a Sufi figure as the thirteenth- century Persian master Rumi says,

O Brother, thou art thought itself,

The rest of thy being is but sinew and bone (Mathnawi)

But by thought Rumi did not mean simply everyday discursive thought, which skips from one concept to another without the whole being of the person who holds the thought participating in the concept(even if it be true) a thought that does not go beyond the level of mental play. Moreover, conceptual knowledge can be wrong and lead to error, and excessive cerebral activity can distract our consciousness from the centre of our being. That is why mystics have also spoken of ‘’unknowing’’ and more specifically, Sufis have stated explicitly that in order to reach the Truth one has to ‘’Tear the veil of Thinking’’. In any case, while we have a mind, our true identity resides in an even deeper level of our being.

This deeper level is the heart/intellect, the heart being the centre of the human microcosm and also the organ of unitive knowledge associated with the intellect (in the medieval sense intellectus, or Greek nous, not in its current sense of reason). The heart is also where Divine Reality resides in men and women, for as the scared Hadith asserts, ‘’ The Heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, but the heart of my faithful servant dose contain Me.’’

Here, at the very centre of the heart where the Divine resides, is found the root of the ‘’I’’ and the finally answer to the question, ‘’who am I?’’ Sufism seeks to lead adepts to the heart, where they find both their true self and their Beloved and for that reason Sufi are sometimes called ‘’the people of the heart‘’ (ahi-i dil in Persian). Of course the phase ‘both their true self and their Beloved’’ does not mean any ultimate duality, for as Rumi also said, in the heart there is room for only one I. which is both the root of our true self and the Self as such. Who am I? I am the I that, having traversed all the stages of limited existence from the physical to the mental to the noumenal, has realized its own ‘nonexistence’’ and by virtue of this annihilation of the false self has returned to its roots in the Divine Reality and has become a star proximate to the Supernal Sun, which is ultimately the only I. Having passed through the door of nothingness and annihilation, I come to the realization that at the root of my consciousness, of what I call I, resides the only I that can ultimately alone is.

Neither this body am I, nor soul,

Nor these fleeting images passing by,

Nor concepts and thoughts, mental images,

Nor yet sentiments and the psyche’s labyrinth.

Who then I am? A consciousness without origin

Not born in time, nor begotten here below,

I am that which was, is and ever shall be,

A jewel in the crown of the Divine Self,

A star in firmament of the luminous One,

Being human however implies a second phase of discovery in light of the first. Having discovered his or her roots in Divine through the teachings and practices of Sufism, the Sufi then returns to the lower levels of existence, which are again seen as parts of his or her identity but not as they were before. Rather, they are transformed so that each at its own level reflects something of that supernal Reality, which determines our ultimate identity. They heart, having been discovered and its hardened shell melted through spiritual practices, emanates a light that shines upon the mind, which then, rather than jumping aimlessly from one concept to another, becomes an illuminated instrument of intellect, able to discern true knowledge and distinguish between truth and falsehood, substance and accidents, necessity and contingency, levels of existence and most of all the Absolute and the relative.

It becomes an aid in, rather than a detriment to, self-realization. The same is true of the imagination faculty, which becomes transformed in such a way to create imaginal forms reflecting higher rather than lower levels of reality and to facilitate the theophanic contemplation of sacred forms.  As for the emotions, rather than being negative and dispersing one’s spiritual energies, they become completely transformed into positive energies dominated by love, charity, empathy, and so forth and controlled by virtues. Our memories are likewise transformed, becoming the treasure-house for the remembrance of the Friend rather than a bleak warehouse filled with trivial and opaque forms, concepts and images.

We finally come to the body, which in most mystical schools in the West is looked upon primarily as an impediment to the freedom of the spirit. Of course this aspect of the body is real but another aspect is also very significant and is emphasized strongly by many schools of Sufism. First of all, we have more than one body. We have levels of subtle bodies within us corresponding to all levels of cosmic reality going up to God. Sufism makes possible the awareness of these other bodies and makes clear their role in spiritual life. Second, as the soul and the psyche become illuminated by the spirit and the real ‘’I’’ begins to shed its light on the individualized self, the body also becomes transformed by this inner illumination and in fact often becomes itself illuminated. One need only recall in the Christian context the halo is the iconography of saints and the incorruptibility of their bodies: a new and at the same time primordial relation is established in them between spirit, soul and body. In Sufism the body becomes an outward source of barakh, or grace, in the case of those men and women who have come to realize who they really are. The body also becomes a tangible and concrete external form that preserves and reflects the spirit within. It becomes the temple of the spirit.

To the question who are we? We can then answer finally that we are latent are archetypes embedded in the Divine Reality, which is the ultimate root of every ‘’I’’ and that through that archetype, which has become existentiated by God, we have existence in all realms of being from the spiritual to the physical, microcosmically and also macrocosmically. We were brought into this world in order to realize who we are and having discovered that reality to live accordingly while on earth. But this self-discovery is not possible without inner illumination, the subjective counterpart of objective revelation (upon which the former usually depends, there being occasional exception that only prove the rule). In the Islamic tradition, it is primarily Sufism that answers the basic existential question of who we are and through this answer provides guidance for a life full of spiritual felicity, marked by illumination and leading ultimately to deliverance from the bondage of all limitation.

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