A THOUGHT OCCURRED to me in a religious gathering—when the sitting became pleasurable, and the hearts were present, and the eyes were flowing, and the heads were bowed, and the souls felt remorse for their negligence, and the resolution to fix their affairs swelled within them, and the tongues of self-blame were working at the falsehood in them, seeking to earnestly diffuse it, and to make them abandon their caution for fear of worldly loss.
I said to myself: Why is it that this consciousness of awakening does not last? For, truly, I see the ‘self’ and ‘awakening’ in such gatherings as two pure friends. Yet, when we depart this soil, they grow estranged from one another.
I thought this over and came to this. It is not that the ‘self’ becomes unconscious when it leaves such a gathering. It stays awakened. So too the heart remains knowing of Allah. However, the interpretations of the experience splinter and grow abundant in the course of our worldly lives, and this wearies our thought processes. For while our thought processes are meant to be engaged in coming to know Allah, this mental activity grows busy with figuring out how to bring the world to us so that we may attain the “needs” that our ‘self’ perceives having. This worldly psychic activity suffuses the heart until the body is enslaved to it as its prisoner.
And so our thoughts turn: How to attain food, drink, and clothing? The mind bends itself upon these concerns and upon how we can attain them: What should be sought today? What should be saved for tomorrow, for the coming years?
Our thoughts and senses fill up with the prospects of gaining and storing. Then, one suddenly realizes that one has bodily emissions that need discharging, that it is harmful to keep this inside. One recognizes the need to marry and apprehends that this cannot happen without earning something of the world. This further occupies one’s thought, and one acts according to the dictates of this situation.
Then comes a child. A man grows concerned for him and about him. And, behold, one’s thoughts are all the more preoccupied with working out the principles of the world that lead to gain and with the realities that this imposes.
Now, should it come to pass that such a one attends a religious gathering, he does so having satisfied his hunger and his need to marry. In the midst of the gathering, he pulls together his resolve and forgets the affairs of the world that were previously commanding his mind.
The admonition spoken to him in the gathering is alone now with his heart. It reminds him of what he knows is good. It beckons him toward what he recognizes to be right. Then the deckhands of his heart rise up in the boat of his recognition, until they bring themselves to the port of account for their negligence. They summon to account their senses for their past faults. That is when the eyes of regret begin to flow. That is when the resolutions to make amends are set firm.
If only the ‘self’ had been free of the mundane demands of worldly life as I have described it, it would have busied itself fruitfully in the service of its Creator. And once it had docked in the harbor of His love, it would have been distracted from everyone and everything, owing to its complete preoccupation with drawing ever nearer to Him.
Here is the reason ascetics have been wont to rely on seclusion and to immerse themselves in the task of cutting their lives off from the obstacles between them and Him. In accordance with their striving, they reach the divine service they have sought, just as the harvest accords with the planting.
Yet, I have noticed in this condition a subtle problem: If the self is continuously awake, in the sense we are speaking of, it falls into something worse than what it was seeking to avoid in its preoccupation with the world to begin with: Self-glorification and looking down on others.
The overpowering knowledge of the ‘self’ can lead to a certain self-admiration that leaves the ‘self’ vulnerable to the summonses of “to me,” and “I have,” and “I deserve.” To leave one’s ‘self’ in the vicinity of sins that buffet it from side to side is better than it succumbing to this disease of self-exaltation.
Perched upon the brink of the riverbank and fearful of falling, the ‘self’ realizes humility in worship as it should be. This state is far better for it than that of exaltation of ‘self’ and contempt of ‘other.’ Such is the condition of the majority of creation. It is for this reason that Allah has distracted people from this station of uninterrupted, unobstructed wakefulness.
Hence, one who plants the seeds of good deeds, whose plants are growing well, must inevitably have a fall that causes his eye–of fear towards Allah–to open up. It is this that allows his worship to find acceptance, for it protects him from arrogance.
Even so does the ṣaḥîḥ ḥadîth tell us: “If you [believers] did not sin, Allah would have done away with you and brought forth a people who sin and beseech Allah for forgiveness, whom He thus forgives.”