• July 8, 2024

    Early in childhood, we learn the pleasures of being liked. From that moment, it becomes more difficult to be free to follow our conscience.

    Because we want to be liked, we do not want to offend. If we offend someone, we think we are responsible for their reactions. We may therefore decide not to speak our mind and lose access to our own sincerity. We risk becoming social creatures, molded by prevailing customs and the thinking of our friends and neighbors, not to mention media.

    All things being equal, it is generally preferable not to offend other people. Apart from the ethical issues involved, the reactions may be dangerous, hurtful, costly in terms of valued relationships and wasteful of time and energy. Unless the other person has agreed to be challenged, it may be better not to risk offense.

    But there is also a deeper issue of following one’s own conscience. The easiest way to deaden conscience is to lie, or to practice insincerity, in order to avoid conflict and get along. Our power as individuals, to do and to reason independently, depends upon our integrity. It can too easily be compromised by the desire to be agreeable and liked.

    I do not propose a resolution of the conflicts that may arise between our integrity and the relationships we have with others. You must find your own way which enables your conscience to flourish.

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  • November 3, 2018

    There is immense satisfaction in using only what is needed. There is immense pleasure in having just enough. Indulgence is always weakening to the will. Underneath the enjoyment of excess, conscience saps my strength and opens the door to further error.

    The sacrifice of excess strengthens will. Of course I am referring to my agreement to accept limits for myself, not ones imposed upon me or forced upon others.

    How is sufficiency practiced? First you must discern what is needed, not what is wanted. Sufficiency is saying no to what is not required, saying no to what does not serve a purpose. This form of denial does not inflict pain, rather it conserves attention, energy and an open heart. Self-denial which causes pain to oneself is a distortion. Therefore, as I have said, the exercise of sufficiency is a pleasure, as all virtues inherently are.

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  • December 21, 2017

    The Sufis have an expression: “To be in the world but not of it.” What does this mean?

    This sounds simple but it’s a complex question. First, you need to know who you are, what you are capable of.

    There are actually a handful of people who do not need to be in the world and who have real work to do because they are not in the world. This is the way of the renunciate and it is a very hard way. If you are one of those, then this Sufi expression is not for you.

    The Buddha comes to mind. He renounced his family and his life as a prince to take up a spiritual path of discovery. Do not imagine that you have this nature and that you would like to retreat from the world because you find it to be difficult and harsh. If the path of renunciation is yours, you will not be able to do anything else. Otherwise, here you are, in the life you have. You will have to make the best of it. You must learn to use your life, beginning with the simple fact that it already has exactly what you need for your evolution.

    Now, what is the difference between being in the world and being of the world? I am haunted by a saying of Rabia, an early Sufi saint: “I am eating the bread of this world, and doing the work of that world.” There is a world of bread and there is a world of meaning.

    Concessions are required to live in this world. You must obtain the wherewithal to support yourself, to eat and clothe yourself. Can you do this while minimizing the hurt to yourself and others? Observe that everything has consequences. At the same time, can you find meaning for your life that does not depend on worldly approval?

    The question you must face is ‘who do I serve’? Do I serve the ambitions and desires of the world around me? Do I act from the need to play a role that satisfies my sense of self-importance? Or have I uncovered other reasons to be here?

    To be in the world but not of it is a continual exercise of discernment. I must know, factually, not theoretically, what offends my conscience in real time and I must learn to avoid it.

    If you have accepted that you have obligations to family, to friends, you must find a way to meet them. Concessions are required, effort is needed, to obtain what is necessary and do what you have agreed to do.

    But you must also take great care not to assume unnecessary obligations. Do not agree to things that offend your conscience or waste your time and energy. Do not accept burdens that are not yours to bear. Know objectively through observation of self what your motives are.

    Conscience is an action of the heart that is also expressed in the body, as sensation. Its enemy is rationalization, whether adopting rules that do not apply to you (but you think maybe they should) or justifications that are meant to over-ride the signals of conscience so you can do what you want. The more you practice acting according to conscience, the clearer conscience becomes.

    Conscience is unique to each individual. What is allowed to some may not be allowed to you. Better to follow conscience, make mistakes and learn from them than to follow the rules and conventions of others.

    If you offend your conscience, you will surely know afterward.

    Learning in real time to act according to conscience is what it means to live in the world but not of it. You could say it is ‘listening’ to the heart. Of course, this is not listening with the ears but rather it’s a quality of attention that quietly attends to the feelings and sensations of the heart. If you follow the inclinations of the heart, the world will lose its power to determine the meaning of your life, as it did for Rabia.

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  • May 21, 2016

    I am haunted by the past, by some of the things I have done. Is there anything I can do about this?

    This is very common. What is valuable is to understand the past and make use of it in your work.

    First, you need to know that what you remember of the past is probably mostly wrong. Memory is very selective and over time we unconsciously change it to reflect our stories about ourselves.

    Consider this as a task. Choose an emotional family event many years in the past. Ask other members of the family who were there what they remember. Be prepared for monumental disagreement. Now, consider that you may have constructed large parts of your past to support your self-imagery and related identities.

    A second step is to review how much of your recollection of the past is fixated on “should, could and would”. You “should” have done things differently. If you “could” have, things “would” have gone differently. Consider that probably all of this is made-up.

    Of course we make mistakes and it is appropriate to regret them. But in looking back at yourself in the mechanical throws of the sleep state, you have no idea if you could have done things differently and you especially have no clue if things would have worked out differently. You are leaving out all kinds of unremembered factors—sensations, impressions, bodily states—had you eaten, were you in a hurry?—that may have played a vital role in what happened.

    Perhaps you will also notice that the “shoulds” change over time, as you learn more about yourself and experience more of life on this planet. We change our past by growing up and changing our perspective on it. Some of our mistakes begin to look like divine interventions.

    Third, what happened in the past likely involved other people. Do you know what their roles were and what impact past events had on them? Really? We place far too much importance on our role and what the implications were for us, what the events meant to us. We put too much emphasis on what we think the results were when we actually know almost nothing. What happened may have been the consequence of factors that had nothing to do with you.

    From a work point of view, the value of the past is that it reveals oneself. Looking impartially, not obsessing about what should have happened and leaving aside what may or may not have been the result, can you see what your inner condition was? You sense remorse. For what do you sense remorse? Was there dishonesty, cowardice, arrogance, greed?

    Looking back at some event which is accompanied by remorse, entering into the sensations of remembering, what do you see in yourself NOW, in the present? Looking without judgment, not concerned with what you cannot know, can you impartially observe the sensations proceeding in you?

    Our greatest offence against our own conscience is that we sleep. Ultimately, this is the source of remorse. Observed impartially, the sensations of remorse provide the raw fuel for awakening. Remorse is a doorway, if not indulged, if not explained or judged. It is our sleep that wakes us.

    Until you no longer need remorse to awaken, be glad that you have it.

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  • April 30, 2016

    The Law of Karma tells us that certain behaviours are rewarded while others are punished. I would like to know how karma fits into the ideas of the work.

    Well, you must know by now my attitude towards trying to get one set of ideas to fit with another. But there is something useful in what you have said that we could explore together.

    The concept of karma is a great way to rationalize the value of ‘good’ behaviour, explain future events and impose order on the universe. As such it runs counter to the work.

    Karma is supposed to explain a fortunate rebirth or an unlucky one based on the karmic consequences of what you did in past lives. And in this life too, it is supposed to account for the truth of ‘what goes around comes around’ or the natural justice of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’.

    Does karma explain much of what actually happens in life? Pre-judging actions based on whether or not they are supposed to have good or bad karmic consequences is ridiculously simplistic. Do we not observe that good things happen to bad people and the other way around? Do we really think this injustice is somehow put right in a future life? Whose life?

    Do we know what actions deserve merit? Is anger always bad and generosity always good? Can the same moral judgments be applied equally to all beings everywhere? Is what is good for me also good for you? Similar-looking actions may be very different, depending on context and intention.

    Karma is clearly a mental construct intended to give us a comforting sense of justice. As such, karma supports sleep. It places exclusive importance on horizontal time…moving from the past to the future…at the expense of the present, the temporal dimension of being.

    Karma paints the picture of a very small and uninteresting universe that obeys our ideas of fairness and proper reward…a universe forced to conform to our image rather than a mysterious and magical world that is ours to explore.

    The work begins when judgment stops and observation begins.

    Rumi wrote that all of our tendencies and traits come from one Treasury. Whether love and generosity or envy and ire, all impulses arise from the same divine source, he says. We want to make rules when we should be concerned about conscience…the intimate, direct, immediate knowing of the correct action for me to take in the moment when it is possible for me to take it.

    Perhaps you remember the Sufi stories about Moses travelling with Khidr. Every action taken by Khidr is immediately judged by Moses who is then shown to have failed because he did not account for the inner intention behind each of Khidr’s actions. Moses relies on the law. Khidr relies on perception.

    Conscience consists of perceiving one’s own heart and what is acceptable to it, or not acceptable. To do what is not suitable stirs up inner turmoil which cuts me off from all that I value most. The consequence is immediately observable, not necessarily in the realm of ordinary life but certainly in the inner worlds of presence and feeling. We exclude ourselves from Paradise and it does not take a lifetime.

    Karma is, in my opinion, a gross distortion of a very great observation about the nature of reality that has definite work potential.

    What observation is that?

    The observation that things continue.  The original meaning of karma is ‘action’. Throughout the universe, an action once begun tends to continue. If you act out of anger, it is likely to happen again. If it does happen again, it becomes a virtual certainty to re-occur. Once you take an action, you are likely to repeat it. Do not take an action and this inaction is likely to repeat. This is not the law of cause and effect or the law of karma but rather the law of inertia. Do you see this law at work in your life? Can you observe the tendency to continue to do what you have always done, or not done? Observe this impartially. There is no need to judge it. Judgment is one of the traps that inertia uses to continue. Only slaves think they always get what they deserve.

    When you have seen karma in your life, without judgment, without explanation or rationalization, you will be ready for change. You will see that you are worthy of more. Conscience awakens when it is trusted and concepts of fairness are abandoned.

    Being is able to overthrow karma and begin again. Its guide is con-science…literally, ‘with knowing’…which enables me to feel my way into a relationship with the Treasury and its infinite riches. But do not be surprised to find that this is also a path of exquisite suffering. Conscience comes at a cost. As it awakens, all one’s past is laid bare. Fortunately, the path of conscience includes mercy and redemption.

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  • April 16, 2016

    What is the most important thing to remember on this path?

    Remember that you are returning home. The early Sufis called this ‘safar dar watan’…your journey is towards your homeland. Do you feel at home here? Or do you feel that you are from another place?

    At first, my journey is outward, through the country of myself–my thoughts, emotions, reactions, prejudices and assumptions. They seem quite real until I have observed them for a long time and then I see that they are empty. It is not enough to think this. The dissatisfaction must reach deep into the bones. Please understand, this is not a rejection of the world, it is for yourself, because you have been occupied with unworthy pursuits.

    Later, the journey is through the landscape of the heart—objective feelings that emanate from your origin, guiding you home.

    Can you remember yourself as the voyager? Can you remember the feeling of home? This is not just poetic metaphor. Each of us has this longing because we are truly a long way from home.

    I become identified with this place, its beauty and its horror. I become invested in how things turn out. I become a part of the drama and that attracts my attention. My life becomes a story about me, my accomplishments and failures. A very minor story, and rather short after I account for all the repetition.

    Where am I facing? I can know this by where my attention goes…what could be called my ‘attention default settings’. Where I place my attention—or where it goes automatically—turns me in the direction I am going. Attention is always the rudder.

    To be in the work, I must be facing the nameless, the formless. I must have a nameless longing. That is where the impetus for this work comes from. Otherwise, I will be enmeshed in self-development and that leads nowhere. I must stop accumulating and start relinquishing, thereby retrieving net free attention for an assault on that unknown region which lies above the roof of the world. Suhrawardi called it ‘na-koja-abad’, the ‘country of nowhere’. If I analyze it, I will lose the thread. This is for the heart to follow.

    Qur’anic verse (41:53) says: ‘We will show them Our signs on the horizon and within their selves until they know We are the Real’. How will you be able to lift your gaze to a far distant horizon? You could begin with objective observation of self, to ‘Know Thyself’, as recommended by that ancient Greek aphorism inscribed on the wall of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, according to Pausanias. This is not a pleasant intellectual learning. Rather, it is a crucifixion of conscience for which no forgiveness is quite enough. Perhaps you may then find the signs in your heart and on the horizon.

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