As human beings we have two modalities that we operate in. The one is the modality of witnessing, of observation, of seeing. The second is a modality of acting. These normally oscillate. You apprehend something, you experience something, suddenly there’s an input of some kind and then there’s some process and then there’s a response, then there’s an action. You refer to the moment of seeing also as the moment of restraint, as a moment of patience because you’re waiting for things to become clear.
We live in the context of a culture where this skill of witnessing is undervalued..
We live in the context of a culture where this skill of witnessing is undervalued and it is a capacity to act, sometimes hysterically and almost impulsively, is what’s there. When you think that a person who works very hard is a person who is successful, is a person who has achieved something. The problem is that the more we act the more we hide the truth that things as they are, are actually okay and actually don’t require your intervention and the more you intervene the more you mess things up. So we’re busy-busy-busy-busy to do-do-do-do and in all this doing, we sort-of miss that actually our personal effort is not of great consequence. At some point, as you mature as a person, you start to get this insight. You start to realize that in fact what you do in the fullness of time, no matter how profound it is, is futile. So you build a house for yourself. Marvellous! My house! How long are you going to live in that house? At some point you’re going to die and then the house is going to belong to somebody else. The house is a metaphor, to us as human beings, as permanence. My bastion! My castle! And it’s transient because you are transient. So everything that you try to do, to make sure, to ensure, to create permanence, is futile.
So while it appears as if our strong modality is our capacity to act, that isn’t our strong modality. It’s the modality that’s consistently set-up for failure and disappointment. So the skill of learning to see, learning to observe, learning to see things as they are, that is the superior skill of the two. That skill requires patience. It requires restraint. It requires withholding yourself so that you don’t just act. You’re not just impulsive. A child is impulsive. A child doesn’t know, doesn’t actually cotton-on that there’s a gap between stimulus and response. You know, there’s a split, there’s a moment where you can actually choose how you are going to respond. The more mature you become the bigger and bigger that gap becomes between stimulus and response. The more there’s a sense of restraint, of withholding, the more there’s a sense of I won’t act until I’ve seen it as is it – not just knee-jerk, not just up! So you can describe this reflective skill as a withholding skill. It’s the opposite of acting.
The best thing of your life happens to you despite you, not because of you.
Acting is going out into the world. Witnessing is stepping back into the self – standing, watching, pulling back so you can see the big picture. As we mature this skill should get stronger and stronger. This skill, its movement forward, is based on a positive and a negative element. Its negative element is the constant experience of failure, of futility, constantly recognizing the futility of your own actions. That’s the negation. The affirmation is the amazed insight at how things keep on coming together despite you, not because of you. Outside of your genius your life works by a genius that is bigger than your own. If you imagine how you were when you were five years old and looking forward, could you imagine that you’d be doing what you are doing with your life today? Not possible. When I was five years old I thought that maybe I’d could ride my brother’s bicycle. So who I am in potential, who I was in potential as a five year old – if you left it to me as a five year old and I’d been able to plan my life I’d be riding a bicycle or maybe become a train driver. That’s about it, because I only had the imagination of a five year old. So you are always more than who you think you are, and this being that you can become happens despite who you think you are and what you think you want, not because of it! Despite it! The best thing of your life happens to you despite you, not because of you.
So, we have to learn how not to interfere. We have to learn how to step back. We have to learn how to disengage. We have to learn to strengthen our skill of reflection. This is what is meant by the phrase, “Make your action salt and your adab flour.” When you are baking bread there’s a big proportion of stuff and there’s a small proportion of stuff. The thing that has the big proportion of stuff is the thing that gets the major emphasis – that’s the flour. Salt is a small, little thing. You sprinkle over. Most of us make our action flour and our adab salt. A little bit of restraint but – Act! Act! Act! Act! But the Shaykh says: Make your action salt and your adab flour – means restrain, restrain, restrain, restrain because you’ll find that a tiny bit of action is plenty. Your world, your life works miraculously. It requires tiny, tiny, tiny catalytic things for you to do these things to change – small things, not big things. Not changing the planet, tiny things. The problem is that we don’t see those tiny things because we’re too busy. We’re running hysterically trying to fix our lives and the one thing that I can do that will completely change the situation doesn’t become apparent to me because I can’t see it.
There’s no greater achievement than the person who truly witnesses things as they are.
In some point in your maturation as a being the implications of making your action salt and your adab flour is a depressing prospect, because you feel futile. It’s like your arm has been cut-off. And if that’s how you respond to this then you’ve still got to pursue the illusion of being useful. But, at some point this insight of making your action salt and your adab flour becomes truly medicinal. It has in it great opening. Aaah! So it really isn’t up to me. I don’t have to make sure everything works. I don’t have to protect. It works. At some point your heart really needs to feel that. And as you get older your heart needs to feel that more and more. Why? Because as you get older your capacity to act, gets taken away from you.
Why do you think Allah takes away your eyesight? So you can’t see so well anymore, you know this thing that you could do so well, you know – “Where’s my specs?” How do you thread this needle? And then as things go one you get more and more incapable. Allahu Akbar. So, as you get older incapacity is visited on you, outer incapacity is visited upon you. You are forced to step back. You get people who get old beautifully. You will notice that they don’t have an issue with their own incapacity, and they really enjoy being alive. They are enchanted with an flower. They are over-the-moon with a child. They see, they are in a world where they witness how incredibly profoundly these things work – and that is enough!
It’s about understanding that your incapacity is your role.
It is with the dhikr of Allah that the heart becomes tranquil. One of the implications of this is you truly remember Who He is, see His traces – that is enough for you. You don’t need more. You don’t need to achieve. There’s nothing more to achieve than the wonder of witnessing that Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala is in charge. Not witnessing speculatively – witnessing with the eye. There’s no experience more thrilling than to see how things keep on working despite our interference as human beings and your interference. That is, achieving that state of witnessing is an accomplishment which makes, you know, winning a gold medal in some Olympic event, becoming the CEO of a business, the President of a country, child’s play! There’s no greater achievement than the person who truly witnesses things as they are and recognizes, apprehends how magnificently things work despite themselves.
So please understand, I’m not – what we’re referring to here isn’t this: “Great! O! I’m so unable, I’m so …” It’s not about feeling bad about yourself. It’s about understanding that your incapacity is your role. How can you witness how extraordinary He is if you are so enchanted with your own ability? Your inability is the platform whereby you can bear witness. Laa ilaha illa’Allah. There’s no creator other than The Creator. There’s no creative genius other than The Creative Genius. There’s no absolute other than The Absolute. So we celebrate our incapacity. We celebrate our buffoonery. We are grateful for our weakness. So we can be the ones who affirm the Magnificence, the Intelligence, the Subtlety, all of the wonderful Attributes of our Rabb, Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala.
May Allah Grant us success on the Path.
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 29 January, 2010.