• January 29, 2018

    When we hear, we hear sounds. We do not know we are hearing unless we hear sounds. We do not know about hearing itself, the capacity without the content.

    Zikr is called Sama in some Sufi circles. Sama means hearing. The music is beautiful. The zikr is enchanting. But this is not the hearing that is meant by Sama. Sounds are the content of experience we call hearing. But before there are sounds to be heard, there is hearing itself. Perhaps we could call it listening.

    Listening is rapt attention, an inclination of the being to receive, a palpable inner stillness that precedes sensations in the ears. It’s an effort to perceive and discern rather than think and react. Can you listen to silence? Can you listen to listening itself? Have you stepped behind the words to find out?

    Listening is only a hair’s breadth from presence.

    If I only attend to the sounds, I enter an experience which easily triggers enjoyment and satisfaction. But attention may cease to be voluntary. The Sirens of ancient Greece bewitched unsuspecting sailors with their music. The mariners forgot themselves and their ships then foundered on the rocks.

    Not so for those who continue to listen even as they hear the music.

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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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