The Birth of a New Year (2006)
We have reached the turning point of the calendar when the old year and its
corruption is slipping into its grave and the New Year is on the point of emerging
untainted as yet. Let us allow the old year to pass away with dignity and let us try
to impress on the New Year our hopes and aspirations.
Life is a continuous process of passing away and coming into existence. The things
which count from the past years are those things that in their very nature are
permanent, which is to say they have about them the flavour of divine Reality. Let
us explore what those things are. They are the things which constitute our inner
garden. Our inner garden is a metaphor for our personality.
When we decide to build an actual garden we recognise that the seasons will pass
over it – that at times it will appear wintry and desolate – at other times it will
appear full of fresh blossoms. We take this into account but we are really
concerned year on year to establish the different features of the garden, an
ornamental pool, a pathway, borders, well laid out lawns and so on. These features
will remain relatively constant. It is just so in building our personality.
In the garden we know that events will occur that will affect the appearance, but if
the garden is well founded and designed, and the soil well prepared; bulbs and
seeds planted in a timely fashion and so on, these things will pass, and at other
favourable times we will be rewarded with something beautiful; with sweet smelling
flowers or luscious fruit. If we leave our garden untended the times of bad weather
will wreak disproportionate havoc and the times of flowering and benign weather
will bring little but a sporadic and incidental untrained growth.
Events in the New Year will bring their difficulties and their opportunities but if we
have worked conscientiously to prepare the garden of our personality the negative
effects of events will be minimised and then, when the sweet breath of the divine
(the Nafas Ar-Rehman), blows our way we will be able to draw from it the many
benefits it can bring.
Thus it is our task to establish the features of our personality that have a lasting
effect. The specific nature of the things we do may vary according to our culture
and beliefs. They include regular prayer, constructive introspection, reading good
books and keeping good company, visits to places of holiness such as churches,
synagogues, mosques or temples, or the shrines or memorials to great saints,
regularly counting our blessings, remembrance of God, charity of heart and so on.
If these and other such things are practised with sincerity and assiduously they can
have an immense impact on us in good times or bad.
The importance of the development of our personality is made clear by the words
of Mevlana Rumi, that great knower of spiritual mysteries, when he says, 'I have
not seen in the world of search and seeking any worthiness better than a good
Often people think that personality is something we have, which we are powerless
to alter. We have inherited it. It is how we are. But though in truth it is the ‘Real
Gardener’ that makes our wilderness into a garden, we cannot shirk the
responsibility of being receptive to His promptings, which ever flow towards us at
every moment. We can develop our personality with effort, humility, sincerity and
There is some truth in the concept of personality as a given, but what I am
suggesting to you here is really part of a process of purification which enables the
positive potential of that personality to be realised – you may be surprised to find
out who you really are.
One of the most important means by which we can develop ourselves is in learning
the technique of controlling our thoughts. Mevlana Rumi says:
'O! Brother, you are that same thought of yours; as for the rest you are only bone
If your thought is a rose, you are a rose garden.'
People tend to assume that thoughts are just a natural flow of mental activity over
which we have little control, yet when people are in desperate straits with mental
health problems such as depression, one of the techniques that is most widely used
nowadays is to train the person to recognise and alter their thought patterns –
there is a process called ‘cognitive therapy’ which is used for this purpose. But how
much better if we do not wait until things have reached such a pass, but practice
the art of managing our thoughts and developing healthier patterns of thinking even
when our situation is much better. Sustained and regular practise is required.
Thoughts are also affected by other things such as breathing, the food we eat, and
the company we keep. These are not the specific topic in hand but the best general
rule (practised by Sufis throughout the ages) is - to eat less, talk less, and sleep
less. Moderation is important in all these things - excess even in things that are
good for us can turn the good effects into bad - it is a device our lower nature,
beware of it.
First we have to learn to recognise our thoughts and feelings for what they are – to
observe them dispassionately, both at times when we are at rest and at times
when we are occupied. We will find some recognisable patterns – maybe we
regularly try to protect ourselves from disappointment by being pessimistic. Maybe
we are unrealistic in our expectations, maybe we are mentally lazy or transfer
blame on to others rather than honestly acknowledging our own faults. Maybe in
order to protect ourselves from hurtful feelings we hurt others first; perhaps we are
negatively overcritical to ourselves and tending towards moroseness and isolation.
Perhaps we cover over our lack of confidence with bravado. The range of thought
patterns are immense and often become habitual with out our recognising it.
Nowadays people try very hard to improve people’s health by helping them
overcome addictions to tobacco or drink or drugs but they may neglect the harmful
effects of our habits of thought in the wider context of our personality.
Dr Sharib offers us the solution of using the ‘law of substitution’ this means that
once we have identified a negative thought we immediately seek for its opposite.
Thus thoughts of hate become replaced with thoughts of love, thoughts of greed
with thoughts of generosity and so on. This is a helpful practice.
We should not be overly analytical about the root causes of our thoughts. When we
find a negative pattern of thought let us concentrate on changing that pattern to a
better one. Dr Sharib has said – ‘I am not the least interested in what you are or
what you were – but with what you would like to become’.
We must become our own physician. Shakespeare said: ‘Canst thou minister to a
mind diseased………therein the patient must minister to himself’.
To find a better pattern of thought we should look to a model we can aspire to
emulate. A pious Muslim might take the model of the holy Prophet as an ideal and
seek to emulate his mode of behaviour personality traits such as trustworthiness. A
Christian perhaps may take the forgiving nature of Lord Jesus, or a Hindu the
compassionate detachment of Lord Krishna and so on. One who does not follow a
religious path may look for some other model of greatness in a Shakespeare,
Johnson or Tolstoy etc.
The Sufis regard the holy Prophet as the exemplar of both religion and mysticism,
and Hazrat Ali as the gate way to inner knowledge. They may also take thought
patterns of the other companions and the great saints as a model too.
If your response to all this is to say ‘but I am far below such people’ that may be a
humble response, but you may still have their personality in mind as an inspiration
and as an ideal. Abraham Maslow, the humanist psychologist used to say to his
students when confronted with this objection to aspiring after emulating such
models, that somebody must aspire to this .. ‘if not you, then who..?’.
The point is we can work to change ourselves from within. The holy Qur’an tells us
that God does not change a people unless they change themselves.
There are some pitfalls, and as always I will say that the best way to avoid pitfalls
is to put your hand into the hand of a competent guide. Do not underestimate the
seriousness of this remark! If it was your body that required some repair or
treatment you would put yourself in the hands of a surgeon or doctor wouldn't you;
or if you wanted to bring your body to height of perfection for some sport you put
yourself in the hands of a trainer; you probably even rely on an expert to mend your
car. How much more then should we seek the help we need when it comes to our
spiritual development. Hafiz says; 'Do not take one step on the path of Love without
a true guide'.
Here are one or two of the pitfalls to be avoided.
• Some people think that personality refers to the outward aspects of a person
– their dress and physical appearance. They may think that when I suggest taking
great personalities as exemplars I refer to these outward attributes, but a beard
and an Arab head dress does not make a man like the holy Prophet inside. This is
a complete misunderstanding. Real development of personality is not about
creating an image to impress others but to develop internally so as to be
acceptable to the Divine.
• Some people make an effort to change some part of themselves but they
guard that little change so over zealously that they inhibit any further growth. It is as
if they plant a seed in the corner of the garden and then spend all their time
building a wall around it - till the wall inhibits the sunshine and the seed dies.
Sometimes people who have changed their religious convictions fall into this trap.
People who find themselves in different culture can also encounter this problem.
We must beware also of the tendency to twist truth to suit our lower nature. In his
play 'Twelfth Night' Shakespeare has a character called Sir Toby Belch, who
though endearing in some respects, excuses his drunkenness and debauchery with
the expression - 'Ah well - its all one'. True - but the underlying unity of being is not
the same as a licence for licentiousness.
• Prejudice is like this too. A person identifies with the patterns of a particular
racial or religious or sectarian or class based mode of thought, or a right or left
political bias. Thereafter they protect this identification by clinging desperately to it
and denying or repelling anything other than it.
Our garden needs its walls as protection against the evils in life, but they must be
at the borders of the garden. Within it, must be accommodated a wide variety of
flowers and trees and shrubs and lawns and fountains. Today we live in a pluralistic
When I visit Konya I attend the Dergah (Sufi meeting place) of Nuri Baba
Kuchukiplikchi which is currently overseen by Hazrat Ali Baba. During other times of
the year the order meets for the practice of Zikr (remembrance of God by
repeating his name) under strict conditions, with ladies behind a curtain etc. During
the Festival of Mevlana however they play host to a wide range of guests, both
men and women, from many nationalities and with many different understandings of
Sufism – who are permitted within boundaries, to express themselves through
‘turning’ or singing or playing instruments or in other ways.
• Another pitfall is to become overly philosophical, developing convoluted
reasoning to disguise the reality. There is a good expression I heard somewhere
which is: ‘simplify…simplify..!'.
People with strong partial intellects tend to fall into the trap of excessive
sophistication easily. There are immense subtleties at higher levels of spiritual
development, but they cannot be grasped by the partial intellect – don’t try to
become stupid, but do try to use the intellect to spot it owns limitations and to avoid
its own tendency towards unnecessary complexity.
Once I was out walking in Harrow, in England, and stopped outside the famous
public school. There was an inscription in Latin, and I paused to see if I could
understand its content despite having ‘little Latin and less Greek’. After fifteen
minutes I thought I had a good idea of the gist of it. I walked on and came
immediately to a newsagent’s shop. On the window was an advert for a local
newspaper – its headline read ‘local lads make good’ – I don’t think Johnson
himself could have summarised the content of the long Latin inscription any better.
The point is that the most powerful thoughts tend to be short and memorable. They
won’t be new to you but if you want to change your thought patterns pick one or
two out and really digest them mentally. Push them towards your heart. They can
work wonders if you let them.
Here are a few to be going on with:
1. ‘God is Love and Love is God’ (Nawob Gudri Shah Baba)
2. ‘The Peace that passeth all understanding’. (Lord Jesus).
3. ‘Patience is the key to joy’ (Mevlana Rumi).
4. ‘Love is a fire, all that comes into it is destroyed’ : Kh. Muinuddin Hasan
5. Say ‘Allah’ : the holy Qur’an.
6. ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’ : Keats.
7. ‘Come’ : Mevlana Rumi.
8. ‘Happiness comes from within’ : Dr Sharib.
9. ‘The best is yet to come..’ Dr Sharib.
• Another pitfall is to ignore detail, or to become excessive with regard to it.
There is the story of the discovery of the structure of the gene by Watson and
Crick – I have told it before but it demonstrates an important principle. Having
creative minds Watson and Crick developed a model of the gene but neglected to
be accurate over a particular minute measure – the model was disproved by a
colleague who was particularly good with detail but who had not the creative grasp
to put all the details together so as to arrive at a true model. When they combined
forces the accurate model of the gene was found. To be able to simultaneously
combine in the mind differentiation and unification is the very definition of intelligence
according to Shah Wali Ullah of Delhi.
One technique I found helpful when I was developing a model for therapeutic
treatment for people with learning disability was to imagine a jury of people who
represented all the possible arguments against my ideas – I set myself the task of
overcoming their arguments one by one – modifying my ideas if necessary in order
to overcome their objections when they seemed valid. I had to be prepared to
accept the possibility of failure as well as to hope for success. In other words I had
to – ‘to treat those two impostors both the same’ as Rudyard Kipling puts it. The
important thing was to arrive at something that had the flavour of truth about it.
The poem that Kipling wrote called ‘If’ is sometimes thought of as old fashioned but
it does address the issue of personality development in a rather pertinent way. I will
reproduce it here:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master,
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch- and - toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!
When all is said and done, however much we work on developing our garden we
remain dependent on the sun and fine weather to bring out its beauty. It is the
same with our personality – when the Divine Sun looks kindly on it, grey becomes
sparkling shades of green, the drooping flowers look up, open and smile a
welcoming smile, fountains sparkle, dull grass lawns become luxurious carpets of
splendour, the bees become industrious in their daily tasks. In short finally we
become what we had hoped and worked for.
Mevlana Rumi tells a story in the Masnevi: some people after death were taken by
angels to the beautiful gardens of paradise – one of them says to the angels ‘it is
said that no one can come to paradise without passing hell but we did not see hell
– what does this mean?'. The angel replied, ‘that beautiful garden of green that we
passed on our way, that was hell. Your prayers and beautiful thoughts and patient
suffering and efforts to purify yourselves turned it into a verdant garden for you’.
May the New Year bring you an abundance of opportunity and the wisdom to
benefit from it. May you enjoy peace and prosperity within and without.
Jamiluddin Morris Zahuri
December 30th 2005