Shaykh Ebrahim discourse delivered 29/9/18
Audio available at the bottom of the page
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim
Much of our life is really concerned with the pursuit of aspiration, of going after what we want to get out of life. This goal-directed shaping of our beings is the fundamental human condition. It’s what we get taught by our parents and it’s the first principle that makes all human interaction, human cooperation and language possible.
Most of how we understand the deen (religion) to be phrased is also in this context – we do things in order to get things. I do things to earn thawab (reward), I do things to achieve a place in akhira (the next life). So, this way of orientating our aspirations and intentions is about something better in the future. That better is either on this side of the grave – we do things in business, we do things in relationships in order to achieve a better condition – or we do things to achieve a better akhira. Our intent is forward-focused and our aspiration is forward-focused.
It should, however, become apparent that you can look at this issue of attention and your intent from two points of view. They both have to do with how one deals with time. You either see time as an unfolding into the future – and that your engagement with time is about achieving things that are still to come – or you can see your time as an unfolding of what has already been decreed. Now, the difference between these two is not small. The person who aspires to get things in the future is operating from a place of lack. They’re saying, what I have is not adequate – my physical condition is not adequate, my spiritual condition is not adequate, I need to do things to get these in the future. So you can describe the intent of this person as an emptiness that seeks to be filled. This person’s aspiration is like an emptiness that wants to achieve things in the world. The other way of looking at your life is that you’ve already received enormously in excess of your due. There’s nothing to be achieved. There’s only to be enjoyed of what has already been granted.
Now you can describe that person, a person who acts on the basis of a sense of fullness that overflows as a truly free human being. A person who orientates their aspiration towards the future is saying, “I still want to get stuff for my life” you can describe as an empty human being. A person who says, “I have already had the best and what comes from me is an overflowing” you can describe that person as a full human being.
The peculiar truth to this is that the person who assumes that he has already received in excess of his due and he is owed no more and doesn’t aspire enormously to go somewhere else – that person goes further and achieves more than the person who is trying to get stuff out of the world. For a very simple reason and that is that, that person’s being is rooted in gratitude.
We seem to think that what happens in our chest is somehow divorced from what happens in the world around us. But if my heart is full, if I’m a grateful person, then when I interact with other people around me, they will experience that gratitude. And because they experience that gratitude, they will find it pleasurable to give more to me.
There’s nothing that you’re trying to get out of life that doesn’t come from something other than you. And “other than you” is like a big person. If you refract it down to interaction, individual by individual, if you deal with somebody in the spirit of being owed, that person doesn’t want to give you anything. But if you interact with that person in the spirit of being grateful, it’s pleasurable for that person to give you something. And so it is with the whole of life. So, the person that goes through their life with the assumption that they’ve already received whatever there is to receive and that they’re full and that their action is based on this fullness, there’s like an overflowing – that action is by definition unconditional, that action is by definition rooted in gratitude and because that is the case that action contains the biggest benefit and reward.
It’s bizarrely precisely the person that can forgo the reward that gets the reward. A person who acts because they’re still trying to get stuff out of the world is constantly contending with the world. They’re constantly trying to wrestle things from life. Even the person who constructs their life on the basis of doing things for akhira, the great danger in that is that you walk through the world in the spirit of judgment – “this is beneath me, this is of dunya, this is of the earth”. And it doesn’t matter if you’re acting for akhira or for dunya, your deportment in life becomes a contending deportment. You’re not in a state of peace, you’re in a state of combat.
So there are these two ways of looking at life, “my life has lack, my life has emptiness and I act to fill it” or “my life is full and I act out of a spontaneous overflowing of gratitude from a fullness that is there”.
The difference between the two is not the product of action by definition. The difference between gratitude and resentment, between fullness and emptiness, is not based on what you do, it is based on how you see things. It is something that happens behind your eyes. So, this perceptual trick of finding something of what there is to be grateful about, of filling yourself, of being full, that way of seeing produces ‘right action’. Conversely, the way of seeing which convinces you that your life has some blight, has some inadequacy that you need to go and fix or fill; the action that comes from that is by definition an action that is contending, is combative and onerous for the person who is doing it. It’s heavy. It’s exhausting. So, it is not the action per se. The fruit of our action is to cultivate an experience. A way of seeing. It’s to cultivate a perception.
In the first instance, why is it that I should give fisabilillah? Because when I give fisabilillah, I start to experience that the world is not my enemy and then I start getting real feedback that in fact my life works and that I don’t have to worry about it. Things will work out.
So, one way of describing what we’re busy with on this Path (although we do things, there’s dhikr, there’s salah, there’s sadaqa) is that we give. The real reward, the real purpose of doing this, is to change how you experience things, how you experience life. The real fruit of a well-lived life is not a huge accumulation of assets or feats of action, the real fruit of a successful life is a way of seeing. It’s a way of viewing the world from a station of gratitude, from a station of fullness and not a station of emptiness.
Allah has put us amongst people and he’s made us human. And to make us human, we have to be damaged. This wild being that comes into the world as an infant needs to be civilised. It needs to, in a sense, be cauterised. It needs to have its passions restrained and constrained. It needs to be taught to act conditionally. It needs to be taught to use language and to plan into the future and to collaborate and cooperate. So, in other words, in a sense we get reprogrammed to lose our original sense of fullness. Why? So that we can rediscover it. So we come into the world, we end up in a place of exile, so that we can go home. And the going home is the recognition that it is all alright from the start in any case. This whole thing is miraculous and works by the most extraordinary design. So this is one of the significances of the description of the Path, ‘what is life but five prayers and waiting for death’. This description of what it means to be a faqir (poor person) is not depressing or morbid. It is saying, “My life is so full I can die now. There’s nothing else to be done other than to dance my dance of worship, which is the five prayers.” This is not life-negating but life-affirming. It’s saying, it is all amazing, it is all extraordinary, it is all miraculous, there is nothing to be judged or fixed.
There are two ways, in which we try and manipulate the world to keep the world on our side. They’re both toxic but one is more toxic than the other. The first way is if we seek to ingratiate ourselves into the world. We want to be sweet with people, we want to manipulate people. The other is that we brutalise them, we beat them. The most pernicious thing is the “sweet thing”. This idea that I can play little games of manipulation and stay in charge to get the world I want and the first sign that I’m playing this game is that my attitude to somebody changes instantly when they’re no longer doing what I want them to do. “Ah, you see now. You’re not dancing to my tune, now you’re a bad person.”
If we were full, there would be no restraint to our service. There would be no condition to our service. We would not be depleted by our service. There would be no ill-feeling about it. There would be no sense of being unjustly done by, when we are called to serve.