Two Conditions of the Human Being

by Amineh Pryor, Ph.D.

[The following is excerpted from a talk that was given at the Annual Sufism Symposium in 2007]

On the panel today we are talking about psychology. My subject is Sufi Psychology. Sufism is the inner or mystical understanding of Islam. Islam, which translates as peace and submission, is the submission of the part to the whole, of ignorance to Wisdom, of multiplicity to Unity, of conflict and argument to peace. In Islam there is an understanding that there are unchangeable rules of existence. These rules create the foundation of reality and provide a stable point of balance that we, as human beings, have the potential to experience in our lives.

Sufi psychology is the practice of getting close to, becoming aware of, and reawakening to unlimited wisdom. We are a part of, and a potential representation of, this wisdom.

In structuring my talk for today I sought guidance from a book that has been recently published by the International Association of Sufism. So I open my talk with the quote for the day from Seasons of the Soul, a new book of the spoken wisdom of Seyed Dr. Ali Kianfar.

May 18: Neither your problems nor your guidance come from outside. Why are you looking there?

From what I have been taught by my teachers, and from the way that these teachings have been confirmed by experience, we could use this quote for a lifetime of study to bring about transformation, according to the wisdom within Sufi Psychology.

The human being, or nafs, as it is referred to in Sufism, is on a journey. Some may think the journey started at birth. However, the secret is that eternal wisdom is the seed for life and for our physical existence. It is also our destination.  Our practice is to collect and concentrate the energy of wisdom and light within ourselves and to let go of anything that doesn’t belong to us or doesn’t aid us in our journey.

Sufism is a practical school. The major practices include bringing our attention away from the distraction of the outside world and removing what we have collected along the way in our physical life so that we can see the clear background of this eternal wisdom – sometimes called God, the Divine, or Allah. Its name is not so important; in fact, in the practice of reaching that station within our being, we find that it has no name. It IS. And it IS us. Or perhaps more accurately, we are IT. This is what is meant by practical – knowledge and awareness by experience.

By removing what we have collected and turning inward, we become a resident of our soul. Through these practices, which are undertaken under the guidance of a teacher, we awaken through awareness, witnessing, knowledge, and wisdom.

From listening to my teachers, from my experience as a practitioner of Sufism, as a human being, and as a psychotherapist, I am learning that as human beings we are open in two directions and to two conditions. One condition is ever changing and variable.

Think of all the changing information we process on a minute by minute basis. There is our physiology, our biology, emotions, nutrition and digestion. Think of the complexity of our system for managing something as seemingly basic and simple as eating: both nourishing ourselves and the sensory enjoyment of food for pleasure and taste. From conception to death, it is a continual process -- ever changing by its nature.

We’re hungry, we eat – often too much – we complain that we’re full or that something isn’t agreeing with us. Or we start thinking of what to eat next, either because we get hungry again or to balance what we ate too much of, to calm our emotions, or to excite our energy.

While this process is going on in our brains, our physiology is also undertaking a constant process: taking food in, searching it for nutrients, sorting, digesting, building, eliminating, sending signal after signal between organs, cells, and our various physical systems. Even the simple act of eating has an emotional component. How we eat affects how we feel. How we feel influences what we eat.

Because Sufism is practical and not merely theoretical or philosophical, let’s stop for a moment and follow the guidance of the quote for today: For guidance, and to remove ourselves from our problems, let’s move our attention from outside and see what we can learn.

Let’s take a moment to experience our changing nature. You may want to close your eyes, as the symbolic door or gateway from inner to outer. Feel your blood moving; notice your thoughts changing; feel how your physical heart is constantly moving. The act of breathing and your heart beating, which are the physical signs that you are alive, bring movement in your entire body. Feel your chest raising and lowering on the breath. Feel your skeleton. Even the marrow of your bones is not stagnant. You are moving moment by moment from the past to the future – on every physiological, emotional, sensory, intellectual, and many other levels. In time and space, all is changing all the time, by definition. Feel it. Know it. Become aware of it. Be with it. It is you, in one state or condition.

Okay, come back to listening. You can open your eyes. Yet keep breathing. And noticing, if you can.

I also want to note that in Sufism, physical existence is a gift. There is no shame or badness connected with living in our bodies. There is wisdom available on every level of existence. The wisdom for our bodies is balance -- for health, diet, exercise, and mental stimulation. Balance: not going too far in any direction.

The other condition for the human being is fixed, unchanging, and firm. This condition is what holds us in a state of balance. The point of connection to this unchanging level of being has been found by the Sufis to be in the heart. Finding this point is a practice that is guided over time and takes patience and practice to experience, step by step.

So close your eyes again and concentrate your awareness. Can you find yourself, in an unchanging state, within, or perhaps even distinct from your physical being?

These are introductory practices to coordinate your breath, to find yourself within your physical being, within the line of your body, to relax, and then to bring your attention to your breath.

When you focus on your breath, your mind will become calm. Listen for silence. Focusing your listening on silence brings your attention away from listening to the jabber of your mind. And look within. Can you take your attention away from the mental images that have been created over the course of your lifetime?

Practice for a minute in silence.  Then take a deep breath and open your eyes again.

I want not only to describe but to emphasize that there are stations that we travel through and to in Sufism.

There is deep wisdom in Sufism. Unchanging wisdom. We travel the road toward this unchanging wisdom through purification of the nafs, or self, in Sufi Psychology. Purification includes letting go of images. Of finding ourselves in the present moment, which is beyond time.

My point is that on every physical level we are constantly in flux. Constantly changing. We bring this complex system when we come for psychotherapy. We bring this complex system when we meet our spiritual teacher. We bring this system when we explode in anger, are seduced by laziness, or when we meditate and pray, or exercise for a few days and then give up or take a break and then cycle around again, all the while justifying why we are behaving in such a way. Our behavior and its justification are perhaps two of the biggest addictions for a person. It takes work to overcome these addictions.

On the path of Sufism the goal is to transform our awareness from our base or changing nature to our unchanging primordial nature or Fitrat.

If something is ever changing, it cannot be relied upon. The only thing we can rely on in the physical world is the fact of continual change. We seek to move our awareness from this level of comparative information to absolute knowledge.

It’s not necessarily quick or easy; yet it’s our opportunity and many of us here may be aware of the longing in ourselves for this deep and stable station.

There are four stations:
Lowest / confused
Assurance / certainty

Consider your own system again. When you are hungry, you can look with your eyes and your mind to see what looks good according to your senses. Or you can pull your attention and awareness into your hunger to discover what you need for health and balance.

Instead of looking outside for entertainment and excitement, can you focus within to find stability and the excitement of the essence of life?

As human being we have the potential to move from a station of confusion -- being battered about by our wishes and desires, from our questions about why we feel the way we do or why our lives are going the way they are, to a station of increasingly consistent awareness, and to awakening. If we are able to continue we may arrive at the station of assurance and certainty.

We seek to know the stages of traveling, the states of being, and the levels of existence. All this comes through experience.

The more knowledge we have, the farther we can see.

It is said that the Sufi is the master of his or her destiny. You and your destiny are aligned. Inner and outer lose their distinction. When this happens, right action is obvious. Truth stands out from error. The days of chance and gambling are finished.     

I am sure that it is possible to reach this station.

Assalamu alaikum                                                       Peace be with you.

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