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August 21, 2013

When Virtue is Not Virtue

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Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim.

Tonight it occurs to me to explore the connection between two apparently disparate and unrelated insights. The first insight is that outward aspiration faces potential disasters equal in number to the sum of all created things. With inward aspiration, however, the disaster that one faces is singular, and that disaster is self-pity.

The second thought that seeks to be connected with this insight is that virtue without deliberateness is not virtue at all – it is habit. Virtue that is based on the habituated response of the good person to social conditioning is not virtue, because it is not the will of a free being. It is not the willing submission of a free being. It is the bondsman acting.

So let us first explore the first insight – that the sum of disasters that can face any given aspiration in the outward is equal to all created things. Any given thing that you can think of doing can have catastrophe visited on it in an almost infinite number of ways. For example, if your aspiration is to build a house, what are all the possible things that could go wrong with the house? There is quite literally an infinite number of errors, or combinations of errors of things that could go wrong. Anything from a meteor to groundwater, to fire, to not being able to pay the bond. The number of possible things that could go wrong to that house is necessarily equal to the sum of all created things.

You have a job, and you aspire to succeed at the job. The number of things that could possibly go wrong in that career is equal to all created things, including for example your untimely death. There are any number of things that could go wrong – bad politics in the business, a fraudulent transaction, a bad business decision that collapses the company. There is an infinite number of things that could go wrong with your job.

Or you aspire to be the great family man. How many things could possibly go wrong with your aspiration to succeed at being the family man? Again, anything from the favourite child being taken out by a virus, through to the infidelity of the spouse, through to a family murder, there are a huge number of possible catastrophes that could be visited on your aspiration to become a provider – the family man.

So with all of these things, as Sidi Kamardine frequently reminds us with the Quran that he recites after the dhikr: Allahu khairu raziqeen. Allah is the Best of Providers. If you think through all the possible variables that could equal disaster with regard to anything that you do, you won’t do anything. It will be pickled in disaster.

On the other hand, when you’re dealing with inward aspiration as opposed to outward aspiration, there is only one disaster that you can face. All other calamities in inward aspiration are a subset of one disaster, and that disaster is self-pity. The root of all virtue of the human being is gratitude. If you don’t deeply recognise in your heart that Allah provides for you better than what you can provide for yourself and that He has always given you infinitely better than what you deserve, then all the actions that you are going to do after that are going to be based on the desire to produce or manage outcomes, because you don’t trust. You don’t think it’s good enough, you’re not grateful, you’re suspicious and resentful. That can only happen because at some level, you think you’ve been done in.

Carlos Castaneda‚Äôs view is that the root of everything that is rotten in the human being is self-pity. This is incontrovertibly, absolutely true. Like the root of all virtue is gratitude, the root of all vice and all rottenness is self-pity. Self-pity and gratitude are clearly mutually exclusive opposites. When you are grateful, you are affirming that you receive in excess of your due. When you have self-pity, you think that you’ve been given less than your due – that you’ve been done in.

In the first instance, the fact that the core problem is the pursuit of gratitude becomes apparent when you examine the lives of people who are habitual. Sidi Coen Jonker and I had a conversation earlier – they had spent New Year’s with acquaintances of theirs in England who are of the old landed gentry. These are people who are fantastically wealthy, who have got everything that they could conceivably desire, and the wealth has been in the family for many generations. Two adults in their forties, both miserable, both finding any creative means to escape each other’s company. She has a 28 year-old lover and he spends all his time playing with ski boats on the Mediterranean.

What can you conclude?

All this apparent outward blessing has only meant misery for these people. It has not brought blessing at all. So why do we pursue wealth, why do we consider being the significant person in the world to be such a worthy aspiration? If we saw things as they are, we would recognise that this apparent success is a recipe for unspeakable catastrophe.

This is because you only start doing the real work, which is the work on the inside – the work on your self-pity – once your outward endeavour fails. If your outward endeavour always just gives you affirmation, the real work of the inside doesn’t start. We are very grateful to the shuyukh who have reminded us that when you are outwardly gathered, you are inwardly separate. In other words, while you have aspirations in the world, you are a stranger to yourself, and a stranger to your essential nature, which is to be deeply ecstatic in the midst of catastrophe. Shaykh Ali al-Jamal said, “When you’re outwardly gathered, you are inwardly separate, and when you are inwardly gathered, you are outwardly separate”. When your aspiration is on the inside, and you have achieved the conquering of your self-pity on the inside, then nothing in the world has a hold over you. No family, no wealth. You can walk in and you can walk out. You are a free man.

You can’t compare the bondsman with a free man. A bondsman’s word only goes as far as he suspects there is somebody who can visit retribution on him. A free man’s word is his bond, because it is given freely. A bondsman is a slave. A bondsman is untrustworthy, because all bondsmen are of the view that they’ve had their spirits broken in order to fit in, to be a good person. A free man no longer has a broken spirit – his spirit has healed. And how has his spirit healed? He was liberated from the nightmare of his own self-pity.

By being liberated from the nightmare of your own self-pity, the first thing that happens is that you choose your virtue. If I’m a good person because I’m frightened of other people’s approval of me, there is still a “poor me” story inside there. The narrative is still

“I’m so defenseless.”
“I’d better look after myself.”
“I’d better make sure that they don’t get upset with me because I need their alliance.”

Again, this is flying in the face of Allah’s proclamation – Allahu khairu raziqeen. These people are not going to protect you or look after you.

So the second insight — that virtue that is not deliberate is not virtue at all — is rooted in this understanding that the biggest calamity that can hit you is self-pity. When you consider yourself to be ill-done, rather than generously provided for, then your good behaviour is forced from you. That’s not the act of a free man. It is the act of one who is frightened of what people might think of them. That is an act of one who is still trying to get good opinion from others. That is not freedom.

So it is indeed true that the worst calamity that can face us is self-pity. And in terms of inner aspiration, it is the only calamity – there is no other calamity. In terms of outward aspiration, there is a universe of calamities. Every single thing that you do can have an incalculable number of things that could go wrong with it. So if you want to simplify your life, stop investing so much effort in outward aspiration, because it is a forgone conclusion that you would fail. This is the nature of an infinite number of variables to produce the one variable that you did not predict, the one that will take you out.

If you shift what you aspire to and you construct your aspiration not around your achievement in the world, but around your inner achievement, then the matter becomes very simple. You have one enemy. You have one problem. That problem is self-pity. You know that you have escaped your self-pity, when your virtue has no sense of force in it anymore. There is no sense of compulsion in it. Every virtuous act is freely chosen, not giving to be liked, to be respected, or to make an investment in your future, but giving to give away. Until your every act is an act of giving to give away, you have not understood this path. That giving to give away you can only do consciously and deliberately, not on knee-jerk.

Need based behaviour is habituated behaviour. It is how you are compelled to act on your need. Value-based behaviour is behaviour that happens when you see that what is in my own interest and what’s the right thing to do are not the same, and you choose to do what is the right thing to do. In other words, quite deliberately acting contrary to your need. That is virtue. When that virtue comes out of a sense of compulsiveness because you have been habituated, it is not virtue it is need. Virtue is only virtue if it’s the free man doing it. Not a man who is trying to protect himself, who doesn’t believe that Allahu khairu raziqeen.

May Allah grant us nearness to Him.
May Allah grant us annihilation in Him.
May Allah grant us death before we die.

This discourse was given by Shaykh Ebrahim after a dhikr session on the 7th of January, 2012.

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