Sit Still and Conquer
In the rapidly shrinking globe that the revolution in mass communications has
brought about the bulwarks of traditional cultures, that enabled the currents of
thought to be filtered and given local character, have become ever more porous.
This is a two edged sword - imagine the rapid and dynamic effect on the thought
patterns of man of Lord Jesus, of the holy Prophet Mohammed, of a Buddha,
introduced suddenly into the world of mass communications - but also imagine the
terrible negative effects of the thought patterns of a Nero or a Pharaoh.
Thus it has become ever more urgent in the 'battle for hearts and minds', indeed for
the soul of man, that we examine the thought trends that flow through our individual
and collective minds. It becomes imperative we test these thought patterns against
the touchstone of Truth. Not 'my truth' or 'your truth', not a mere assemblage of
facts, not a specific philosophical or religious interpretation, but against the Truth
which a deep moment of introspection reveals to underlie our deepest sense of
individual and collective being. Somebody studying psychology said 'there is no
such thing as truth' - I asked 'Is that statement true?'
Let us look at the increasing emphasis on dynamic external action to secure ends.
Man seen as able to secure his own destiny by his own activity, his happiness by
his own effort. Man as the master of his environment securing ever greater
command over the physical universe.
At its most positive this challenges superstition replacing hocus pocus with reliable
medicine, pious inactivity with water wells, ignorance with education, and
superstition with reason. Its challenges more traditional cultural systems whose own
'perfection' often results in societies unable to easily adapt to change. It favours
results over means, and measures purely by the yardstick of material outcomes. Its
undoubted benefits are more than merely seductive - who would not wish the poor
to have cleaner water, the illiterate better schools, the starving more food etc. It
appears to have enabled its most effective exponents to achieve material,
economic and even military dominance.
But for all this increasing power over the material universe something appears to
have been missed.
Labour with what zeal we will,
Something yet remains undone,
Something uncompleted still,
Waits the rising of the sun.
Like the fabled 'Ozymandius', king of kings' we find ourselves deceived into thinking:
'Look on my works you might and despair!'
but the poet reminds us that this was was found inscribed on a plinth near a statue
in the desert, and that:-
Nothing beside remains, round the decay
Of that collosal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sand stretched far away.'
(Percy Byshe Shelley)
The fact is that our 'mastery' of the material universe is essentially illusory and it
masks our lack of mastery over ourselves. 'What does it profit a man if he gains
the whole world and loses his soul' is as sound an expression of truth now as it ever
Indeed the advanced mystics know that it is the case that our apparent mastery of
the physical universe is in fact an abject form of slavery. Whilst apparently
empowering us to carry out our will it in fact hides from us the fact that we
constantly cede our power over ourselves to the means that we increasingly
Nevertheless the wholesale abandonment or repudiation of mastery over the
physical universe is neither a realistic social option nor necessarily a desireable
To retreat to an ivory tower, to hide away in a cave may once have been an option
for some - but modern mystics tend to take a different view. The goal of the
mystics is to be 'in the world but not of it'. However much more finely wrought the
chains of cause and effect are, the essential problem is to be free of them
altogether not to make the chains less sophisticated.
People like stories - here is one:
A fisherman on the bank of the river hooked a fine silvery fish and was considering
whether to take it for his supper. 'I wonder' he said out loud, 'if this fish would make
a fine supper?' The fish on the end of the line spoke (as they do in stories): 'How
would it be, to be your supper?' it asked. 'Why' he said - 'I will beat you to death
with my club, and then I will cook you over my fire - and then when you are burnt to
crisp I will eat you.'
'That does not seem to me to be an attractive fate' said the fish (understandably).
'And what is it that you think would be a desireable fate?' said the fisherman. 'Why I
would like to be free so that I can choose to go whatever way I like - turning to the
right or the left as I wish - to be master of my destiny'. replied the fish with some
Ah!' said the fisherman - 'but if I threw you back how would you be the master of
your fate? When the current of the river drags you one way you will have to go with
it or spend all your time fighting against it. When you are hungry you will have to
follow your appetite and find things to feed on. When large fish come you will have
hide or maybe you will be caught and eaten. When the desire to mate overwhelms
you will not be able to resist it. How then are you master over your fate?'
'That is true' said the fish, 'but when you eat me how will that be better or make me
more a master of my fate?'
'Why, when I eat you' replied the fisherman, 'you will become part of me, for what is
eaten in some sense also eats. Your awareness would become one with mine.
Now when the current of the river pulls one way it will no longer effect you as it
does not affect me, for I can wade freely across or use a boat - you will have no
fear of fish large or small, you will live on in me much longer, and participate in my
freedom to walk and talk and see so many things in the wide world which are not
even known to you and of which you cannot even imagine. Though my freedom
indeed has its limits they are far beyond yours.'
The point here is that whilst we remain slaves to our lower nature our freedom is in
reality extremely limited. We may like to think that we decide to take this or that
course of action but in fact the undercurrent of our desires, our lusts, our appetites
in fact pull us in various directions.
To be free first recognise you are slave. Try this little exercise if you don't believe
me. Suppose that in front of you is an unopened box. You have to decide whether
to open it or not. On either side of you sit two people - one urges you to open the
box the other urges you to leave it unopened. You wish to exert your own will but
there are only two options either you do not open it or you do open it (no other
options are available so don't let your mind try to wriggle out of it by half opening it
etc). In either case you may feel you have been influenced by one or the other -
your will influenced by theirs.
The subconscious forces urging us to one course of action or another are ever
present throughout every minute of our day. The complexities of a computer are
built on the premise of a massive number of 'yes' or 'no' decisions - just so the
complexity of our lives are built around a multitude of such small decisions. Yet we
perceive ourselves as free to choose?
To go back to the box - when those two 'men' are in fact our slaves, neither
influencing nor commanding us, but begging us and gratefully accepting our
decision then the relationship is entirely turned around. The decision then truly
becomes our own.
To be free is to master those subconscious urges of our lower nature. The ideal of
mastery of our selves is beautifully presented in an image by Shah Walli Ullah of
Delhi. The image is of a man on a horse with a hunting dog. Our intellectual soul is
the man in the saddle, commanding and deciding, the horse is the heart-soul
carrying with its energy the intellectual soul, the hunting dog is our bodily soul -
obeying the commands and trotting faithfully alongside.
Mevlana Rumi says 'O my son, burst the chains of (love for) silver and gold - and
Mastery of our self is not obtained without help and guidance - in Sufism it is the
spiritual guide that provides that help. He is a free man and his earnest desire -
indeed his prayer is to make his disciple free. Khawaja Muinuddin Hassan Chishti
said that 'to free the slaves' is one of the greatest forms of prayer.
To be free is to conquer ourselves. When we have conquered ourselves the
devices and means on which our contemporary societies so depend are no longer
our chains but our decorative ornaments to be worn or not according to our choice.
But now the question arises as to how to conquer ourselves - naturally our mental
conditioning presupposes a 'how' - what action must we take? - but that is indeed
one part of our chains. Indeed the saying of Nawob Gudri Shah Baba has greater
significance than appears. 'Love is gift'. In truth the acquisitions of the Sufi rarely
derive from effort alone but the effort may be a prelude receiving a gift or the gift
may arrive without conscious effort.
Dr Sharib once said that the first lesson of Sufism is simply to learn how to sit. In
some respects it is the first and the last lesson.
Khawaja Muinuddin Hassan Chishti has said that to sit cross legged and to close
the door of comfort and to think of nothing but love - this is to be a sufi indeed.
To sit still is to bring the impulses and desires of the lower soul under control. The
mind is restless ever seeking to pursue vain thoughts - but like wild animals when
we pursue them they run ever faster away - when once we sit still in our mind the
animals (our thoughts) no longer flee - they turn towards us - they approach, they
When we have calmed and brought under control our impulses and our desires and
our thoughts and we have mastery of our self then we are able to act with real
freedom in this world and the next. Then the mirror of our heart becomes cleaned.
Then we can also travel with a speed faster than a rocket, talk to people over long
distances (with colour vision), see the events of the future and past - indeed have
all the qualities that we have learned to associate with technical means such as
television, radio, telephones etc. Then we are no longer a stranger to the unseen
world wherein occur the events that prefigure the events of the physical universe.
Then too those things which were so elusively missing from the world of
dependence on means and outward actions - I mean inward peace, true happiness
and joy, real love, contentment, and security become ours. And what is more we
are truly free in our outward actions - our inner stillness remains even when we
return to the sphere of physical actions. Even in our actions and movements we are
ever 'sitting still'. We return to the world of actions no longer as slaves but as freed
men, masters of our own destiny within and by the grace of Almighty God.
Jamiluddin Morris Zahuri (Southampton,September 15th 2003)