Romantic poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, once wrote, “Think of God as a direction, not an object.” But what if you are moving in the wrong direction? How will you know it?
The search for truth
All truths are paradoxical. A paradox is a self-contradictory statement that is somehow true. If you can understand that, you will understand mysticism. To be a mystic, you must be willing to let go of all your worldly attachments until nothing stands between you and God, not even religion. Once your unyielding belief system (your religion) becomes your only attachment, you will find yourself letting go of that too. You decide that you will not be able to induce a pure and pious state of mind if you continue to hold on to the arrogance of certitude. So you become uncertain, which you interpret as a sign of your own humility. After all, who do you think you are: a Muslim, a Hindu, a man, a woman, an engineer or a doctor? You can be none of these in the eyes of God, for all of these are just worldly formulations. You conclude that the only way to completely identify with God is to relinquish your identity.
If these are the logical conclusions you have reached whilst embarking on a search for truth, then congratulations: you have just reached the fourth stage of spiritual growth, coined by one of America’s favorite psychiatrists, Scott Peck. As for the rest of you, let us quickly reverse backwards through the other three stages and see where we belong.
If you are in stage one of your spiritual growth, you are a whim-worshipping little brat. All your relationships are self-serving and manipulative. Of course you won’t admit it because, let’s face it, you are also a liar. Children come into and grow out of this stage. But if you get stuck and remain here into adulthood you might end up in jail or become president of some country. Thankfully, the majority of us will evolve into stage two.
In stage two you are now practicing an organized religion. You observe certain principles. The problem is that you follow them religiously, which makes you a literalist. You cannot distinguish between the letter of the law and its spirit, which makes you a fundamentalist. If you want or need clear black and white answers to life’s big questions, you will find them in stage two. But be careful because this stage is one of stagnation. Thinking is often repressed so as not to endanger the black and white movie that is your life. This stage is easily threatened by any change. Fortunately, most people either graduate into stage three or straddle the fence between this stage and the next.
Stage three is the stage of doubt. You are not sure what you are doubting: religion, God, society? But it does not matter, because you are a good person and you do good things. You might be on the board of your local mosque if you are a man or a Sunday school teacher if you are a woman. You wonder why roles are still being so rigidly defined, but you don’t care enough to say anything about it. After all, you are on a meaningful and sincere search for truth and you can’t let village politics get in the way. You have finally evolved the ego of a true thinker. But you miss God. You have become too logical for your own good. You start to feel anxious. You remember how good it felt when you were innocent enough to think that the world was black and white. You miss that feeling of certainty. But you are too smart for blind faith. You wish it were not so, but it’s too late. You know too much!
You profess to have achieved happiness by renouncing the world but you realize that you can only sustain such happiness if the world does not renounce you. You need the world more than ever. You need people to continually confirm that you are on the right path by seeking you out, asking you to speak, rubbing your robes and kissing your feet
You decide that if your ultimate purpose is to unite with God, then you should be willing to do it at any price. Besides, you really cannot afford to be in soul-searching mode forever. Your time is up. Welcome to mysticism.At this fourth and seemingly final stage you have it all: the car, the career, the kids and you want to know what’s next. You feel a bit empty and depressed and so you turn to spiritual people and books. You start to think outside the box because you are beginning to suffocate inside of it. You decide community is important, but you only get one crack at this game of life and you had better strikeout while the stakes are still low. You find like-minded people who regret to inform you that if you want to move forward in your spiritual journey you will need to relinquish that which made you so successful in stage three: your ego. But since you are still a critical thinker, you start to argue. Life without an ego is not possible, you say. Without my ego, I will be like a saltwater fish in search of the very ocean I occupy. You really want to keep the life-sustaining mechanism of an independent ego, but you start to let it go anyways.
As you start to undergo the transformation from being a monotheist, where there is only one God, to a mystic, where there is ONLY GOD, you start to see things with greater clarity. You get almost immediate confirmation that you are heading in the right direction. You start believing that you are seeing life with God’s eyes, the eyes of total mercy, no judgment, all beauty. You not only start reading poetry, you will finally understand it. You will be able to relate to Rumi for the first time. You will post his words on your Facebook page, which you have not been able to give up yet but are working on it):
Why should I see? I am the same as He. His essence speaks through me. I have been looking for myself! — Rumi
Your stage two friends will call this shirk (idolatry), but you will call it enlightenment or nirvana. After all, what do they know? You are two steps ahead of them. You will think you have abandoned your ego, but you have not. You have merely exchanged an ego built on accomplishments with an ego inflated with spiritual pride. You will start to feel proud that you have no pride. You will become eloquent of speech and you will interpret this as a sign that you are being inspired by God. You feel high but you are not taking any drugs because you do not need them, including that Xanax you used to carry around when you were a stage three doubter. You are high on the divine mysticism of a reality unhampered by human constructs and responsibilities.
You are close to God, not because you know Him but because you know that He is the only one who knows you and knows that you are one hundred percent sincere.
Stage two people will abandon you, but stage three logicians will explain the scientific basis for your euphoria. They will lend you a copy ofBrain and Belief and Hardware of the Soul, and you will lend them a copy of The Power of Now and some other book by Deepak Chopra. You skim through the books and decide you do not care if you are artificially inducing a neurological state of euphoria with generic mantras and meditations, because that’s the whole point. You have started writing your first book and Oprah might even have you on her show. And so what started out as a quest to detach yourself from the world has got you more attached to it than ever before. You profess to have achieved happiness by renouncing the world but you realize that you can only sustain such happiness if the world does not renounce you. You need the world more than ever. You need people to continually confirm that you are on the right path by seeking you out, asking you to speak, rubbing your robes and kissing your feet. You are desperate to feel like a master, because you are beginning to realize that you have become a slave, not to your ego, but to your insecurities.
You are living large now, and you think you are special, but you are completely oblivious to the gazillion dollar industry evolving out of the rhetoric of your newfound religion. A billion books and manuals are being churned out to help people create their own path. A path to what you ask? To God, your publisher reminds you. But you don’t want to call Him God anymore because you do not want to exclude anyone, so you can call Him the feminine spirit, divine energy or kumbaya. After all, names are just worldly abstractions.
All truths are paradoxical. So how do you know if you are going in the wrong direction? I cannot speak for all faith traditions. But as a Muslim, I can tell you that for starters, you must accept that there is such a thing as a wrong direction. No, it is not all good. Islam is about dealing with and not denying reality. Harmony, peace and proper direction are achieved by acts of practical compassion, not esoteric theology that we cannot prove one way or another.
It’s okay to doubt and to be weak. It’s not okay to be certain and arrogant. In Islam, every sin will be forgiven except the sin of shirk or idolatry. Mysticism can open the door to shirk. The myth of mysticism is that you can achieve union with God in this life by renouncing life itself. The paradox is that you will end up achieving the opposite without even knowing how it happened. This is because God has rigged our nature against any attempts to deify ourselves. Just because you are playing a gentle, non-judgmental, loving God does not make it better than the man who plays God by condemning people to hell. Both are equally destructive: the first because he corrupts man’s mind and the second because he corrupts man’s heart.If you start breaking rules and commandments and you gossip, cheat, fornicate or lie, you are safe. You just need to be humble and admit that you are weak and repent to the Almighty. But if you sin and you find yourself eloquently and intelligently justifying your actions and the actions of others by using the power of paradox, you are heading in the wrong direction.
I am not opposed to inducing mystical experiences through prayer and fasting and other God-sanctioned forms of worship. But I am opposed to the assumption that such experiences have any kind of social implications. They are personal, and so long as they remain personal they will enlighten you. The minute they are offered up for public consumption they will corrupt you and everyone around you. If you attempt to get close to the light of God without the shroud of repentance and humility you will get burned.
So where do you go from here? Stage four does not seem to be working out too well. So congratulations we just invented stage five. In stage five you realize that you can only move forward by moving backward. But this time you will not do it out of love or fear of heaven or hell but out of true love for Allah. You will not do it out of blind faith but out of total conviction. You will not observe the rules out of superstition but out of discipline and humility.
You will go back to your community and stand side by side with the literalist and the whim-worshipper and you will be tempted to say I am better than you. But you won’t because you have been through too much to actually believe it. And although you are going through the same exact motions as all the other blind followers in your midst, you know that the action is the same but your intentions are one hundred percent different. You recognize that only you and God know this to be the case. You finally feel that you can have a more intimate relationship with God just by standing humbly among your peers, than any relationship you could have ever achieved on a mountaintop, at a temple or a retreat. You are close to God, not because you know Him but because you know that He is the only one who knows you and knows that you are one hundred percent sincere. And for the first time in your life you really don’t care if the whole world thinks otherwise. Nirvana, Eureka, Allahu Akbar: you realize that you are finally free of the world. You own it, but it does not own you.
You start to enjoy more meaningful relationships built on love and not the spiritual industrial complex. You not only start to live in this world but you become a vital part of it. You no longer shun physical lusts and passions. You elevate and spiritualize them by observing the boundaries, rules and rituals that give our mundane lives meaning. You sit, reflect and remember one of your favorite verses from the holy Qur’an. You decide to log onto your Facebook account and type:
“Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?” (55:16)