We have two basic modalities that we exist in as human beings. The one modality which is the predominant modality for most people is that they function under the assumption that they exist separately from and somehow contra-distinct to the world. The other modality is that you recognize that you are not separate from the world but that there’s a oneness which connects you with all things. This second way of experiencing is indeed something to aspire to because a person who has reconnected their experience of life with the rest of existence has befriended existence. Whereas a person who experiences himself as being alive, separate to existence has declared war on existence and has basically a hostile experience of life.
A person who experiences that their life is separate from what is other-than-them is faced with the problem of being a very small being in a very threatening and very big universe. And therefore this being has to look after itself. A small being under threat is a small being that seeks to protect itself. So that the root of this small being’s experience is fear. It may be very subtle but it is still the groundwork of their day-to-day experience and that fear creates the condition where this person needs to look after themselves. They need to look after Number One so their basic engagement with the world is one of taking, of looking after themselves.
You are not here to follow your own plan.
This being-here-to-take creates the conditions as we’ve explained and explored many times here, if you want something from someone else that person has power over you. If you want something from the other, the other has power over you and therefore makes the other dangerous to you and precisely because you’re trying to get something out of the other you become dangerous to that person. So your relationship with the other is hostile and because that relationship is hostile it’s fundamentally competitive and a competitive relationship is one where two people cannot occupy the same space. They repel each other. A being who knows they’re connected to the rest of the universe can afford to be generous with life because they realize that they are connected with something, intimately connected with something far bigger than themselves which basically has looked after them up to this point and is likely to look after them in the future.
So their basic experience is one of trust rather than fear and because their basic experience is one of trust they can afford to be generous with the world. Because they are generous with the other, because they serve the other, the other is safe from them and they’re safe from the other and when two people are safe from each other you have harmony which means that the self that experiences itself as connected with the world fundamentally lives in a state of harmony with the world. This being can cohabit. The person who is fundamentally connected with the world can co-exist in the same space with other people because they are not competing.
..our first experience and expression of connectedness is with other people.
So this issue of living with and learning to live with is a core tool on the path of escaping the loneliness and the vulnerability of your illusion that you live as a separate being. Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala has given us a massive gift and the gift is other people and living with other people. This experience of having a separate existence you can refer to as nafs. And it is manifest in any situation, in any experience where you feel negated. Now there are so many ways in which we as human beings can convince ourselves that we’ve been negated or put down or made less of.
Somebody insults you, inadvertently says something you take umbrage at. The moment you’ve taken umbrage you are saying: you and I are not the same. In organizational life you see this very often where people start to have feuds around turf and roles. So the person in one department gets upset with a person in another department because the person in the other department did something which was not part of their job description. So people get rancorous about people invading their role.
Even small things like another person’s sort-of crankiness in the morning – we have a hundred and one ways of setting up our experience of other people says to ourselves and that other person: I cannot tolerate being in the same space as you. These are all manifestations of nafs, all manifestations of our illusion that we exist as separate beings. How can your leg and your foot not occupy a connected space? If your foot was severed from your leg you would no longer have a foot. How can bits of your body not cohabit? So in the same way as bits of your body are connected so you are deeply connected with the world around you, with the people around you. When you say I can’t cohabit with you it’s like your limbs declaring independence. You’d be in a sorry state if your limbs declared independence.
These jagged edges are those assumptions that we have about who we are.
So Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala has given us the proximity of other people to rub us, to rub off our jagged edges. These jagged edges are those assumptions that we have about who we are. Understand – death has no interest in who you think you are. The grim reaper, when he walks through the door, will not have a hint of sympathy. He just comes for you whether it suits you or not. You are not here to follow your own plan. You are here to be connected with a plan that’s far bigger than yours. That plan is a plan which is cosmic in character. So the purpose of living with people and the blessing of living with people is that it demands that you give up your idea of who you think you are in the spirit of cooperating.
This spirit of learning to cooperate with people, of living with people, is not an end in itself. It’s a necessary step on the way. But understand, you haven’t graduated beyond this step if other people “fiddling in your pie”, freaks you out. It’s almost as if you only have licence to leave people’s company when they no longer irritate you. While they’re irritating you, you haven’t got licence to leave, because they haven’t fulfilled their role for you. They haven’t knocked off your corners. They haven’t smoothed you out, polished you. So our first experience and expression of connectedness is with other people.
Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala has made us in such an extraordinary way that in order to be human we have to have a sense of being exiled from Him. The infant has recently come from Allah so he’s connected. As the infant goes through the stages of childhood and particularly adolescence the infant starts to get taught and he starts to experience that he exists separately and he has to compete with the world. That’s why adolescents are so frightfully competitive. That’s part of the design of things. But then Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala’s trick is that He also stacks our hormones against us so before you know it you kind of have to satisfy these urges and then there are children and you’ve got to look after children. Now there’s no question that you’re just looking after yourself. You can’t just look after yourself. You have to look after the children so you are now stuck in a context where you have to live with other people. You have to start to cooperate and not to compete.
You have to start to cooperate and not to compete.
So from the exile and alienation of adolescence you get reintroduced to the sense of connectedness with people by having to live with people. By having to connect with people. By having to cooperate with people. By having to have your world put second for the interests of the group and for other people. If you, throughout the experience of your life and your experience of other people, have this hankering to flee them because they’re really just too frightfully irritating, there are still bits of adolescent sitting in your chest with his raised fist – “I want my own life!” However, it is your connectedness with other people, your submitting to the community initially is because you are too vulnerable on your own, but over a period of time, as you get older, you start realizing that you are the caregiver. The adolescent is still taken care of. The man in his forties, there’s something in you, there’s something that you are custodian over, there’s part of the world which you have to look after, but by the time you start hitting your fifties you start recognizing that you can’t look after them. The thing starts to unravel.
..annihilation is the truth if it’s only about other people.
I mean – some of the children die, the house gets’ invaded – so you start to realize that no matter how hard you work, you are busy with a futile enterprise. These people that you are connected with, they’re all going to die. They are all going to die! And so then this starts to become a question of well – annihilation is the truth if it’s only about other people. But, starting to look past other people, starts to create another opportunity. You start recognizing that you know, I’m not just connected with people I’m connected with the whole of the universe. That I am having a conversation with other people – I’m actually having a conversation with Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala. And in a sense He has veiled Himself from me in my relationships with other people but that veiling is a successive stripping off until suddenly the people weren’t there anymore and the connectivity was with Him.
So, there’s no spirituality without other. Other means being socially and transactionally correct with other people. This is the brilliance of the Deen. And this is the brilliance of the Tasawwuf that has come with the Deen – it is the understanding of the significance of being transactionally correct as a social being and that is part of the Path. So the Rasul (SallAllahu alaihi wasalam) was very disapproving of monasticism amongst those withdrawn from society because society is the Path. Being correct with other people in the world is the Path. You do what is right with other people, you learn how to cooperate with other people, you learn the patience that is necessary to be able to co-exist with other people. This creates the condition for you to engage the higher.
Being correct with other people in the world is the Path.
So we recognize then that community for all its annoying price is a blessing from our Rabb which He has given us. It is the pathway whereby we escape the loneliness of our inherent selfishness and narcissism and are reintroduced back to our deep connectedness with Him. We also recognize that it is precisely this having to live with other people that develops the sabr, the patience to act on the basis of what is required of us rather than on the basis of what we want. Every time you do that, every time you act on the basis of what is required of us and not what we want, we’ve escaped the prison of our exile a little bit more. We’ve chipped away at another piece of the façade of the nafs.
So ask yourself in your reflections, your journaling, whatever mechanism you use to reflect and consider your day, ask yourself: has my fundamental demeanour with other people today been competitive or cooperative? How easy was it to cohabit today – literally? To inhabit the same space? Or did I keep wanting to flee, to escape to my private, my own little agenda? How easy was it for people to be in my company? Because these things are connected. If people find it difficult to be in your company it’s somewhere that you are pushing them away.
Was I really enchanted with the people around me or although I might have been nice and smiled, in my heart I was really judging them, saying – “Eh! He’s really a bit of an idiot!” Be very deliberate about your own internal dialogue, be deliberate about how you describe your engagement with other people and hunt for competitiveness in your own thinking. Reflect on it. Find it. Root it out. Change its character. You will have it. Everything that’s alive has nafs. You will find this competitiveness. Hunt for it. Find it. When you find it work on it so that its nature changes from competition to cooperation. From negativity, from judgment to curiosity, to appreciation and a celebration.
May Allah Grant us success on this 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 22 January, 2010.