PATTERNS OF THE SELF -- The veil
that prevents us from seeing the hand of
Divine Unity in life and Oneness in diversity
"Beginning's End" (with minor extracts from
"The Sufi Way to Self-Unfoldment")
Sufic tradition provides the seeker with a complete guide to the
major steps in the journey toward self-knowledge. It also answers a
number of questions that arise once we have embarked on the quest
for Reality. What is it that prevents us from seeing the hand of
Divine Unity in life and Oneness in diversity? What keeps us from
spontaneously acting according to it? Why do we continue to afflict
ourselves with our attachments? We need to examine some terms found
in Sufism that will enlarge the dimensions of our understanding.
Seven Patterns of the Self
word nafs is a key term in the Sufi tradition. The literal
translation from the Arabic is 'self', and, in fact, nafs contains
the entire spectrum of meanings included in the English word self'
(the entity 'I'). The Arabic speaker knows which sense of nafs is
meant by the context. The words, nafs and nafas, derive from
the same root, which means 'breath'. Tanafus, the act of
breathing, is based on two opposite happenings: inhaling air
and exhaling it. There are a number of verses in the Qur'an that
call for us to reflect on the nature of the nafs, for
example: 'And the self and Him Who made it perfect. Then He
inspired it to understand what is right and wrong with it.' In
our reflection we ask, 'Is the self inspired to transgress or to be
person contains within him two opposing elements -- the movement
toward transgression and the movement towards piety. But awareness
comes through recognizing boundaries and through the knowledge that
transgression will cause us only affliction and danger.
the Sufic system, the spectrum of self is composed of seven degrees,
ranging from the highest to the lowest. Shades of gray exist between
these stages, for the divisions between them are not completely
discernible or quantifiable.
lowest level of nafs is called the commanding self. It is the
grossest, the most treacherous, the most solid. The name implies
that this self commands one to do whatever comes to mind, like a
brutal tyrant. It acts entirely upon selfish motives. Neither
emotional, nor rational, nor intellectual appeals get through to
people in whom this self predominates. They are totally without
guilt and nothing will stop them from acting out their whims. This nafs
is impenetrable, despotic and solidified in its selfishness.
Blaming (or Reproachful) Self
second level is the blaming self. At this level, the hardened heart
occasionally softens and a ray of conscience enters in. This self
occasionally questions its wrong actions. This questioning indicates
a crack in the solidity of the egoism of the self, allowing a beam
of light to shine upon its reality and to occasionally reflect.
Creative (or Inspired) Self
third level of nafs is the creative and tolerant nafs.
It is an evolved self but not sufficiently for it to be secure. When
we are in an artistic or creative mood, we do not have many fears or
anxieties and are open to inspiration. From the Sufic viewpoint,
this pleasant self is in danger because its very open-mindedness
threatens the laws of correct behavior to which creation is subject.
is the open-minded self that says all right to everything and that
anything goes. Like mercury on a table, this self jumps in every
direction. It is the 'why not?' attitude. It is like a man of
seventy who, having never skied in his life, suddenly decides he
would like to try it. He will probably topple over and spend months
in hospital recuperating from his injuries. Although the inspired
self may find itself in trouble, it can also foster hope because of
its flexibility. Most people who embark on a spiritual path start
from this level of tolerance and liberalism because they are willing
to see their own folly.
Secure (or Certain) Self
fourth level is the secure, certain self. It is based on certainty
and trust. It is a mature and experienced self, certain that the
outcome will always be good, and whenever it faces turmoil, it
recalls past experiences and events to bring about steadfastness,
calmness and forbearance. The Qur`an reminds the self that is in
that state of certainty to turn to its Sustainer, to return to the
knowledge which it was given before its creation and to return to
the state it was in before it could understand time, to return to
its source, to its Lord.
and certainty begins with trust, Through trust we come to know.
Because we want goodness and contentment in this life, it seems
natural to accept the hypothesis that these states are attainable.
Otherwise why should human beings have these desires? At a given
moment, we may be unhappy and in trouble, but have faith that
eventually we will come to know the cause behind our situation and
learn how to extricate ourselves from it.
out on the spiritual path, the seeker begins with the trust that
what he is seeking must be right and attainable, although he has not
fully reached it yet. As he daily progresses along the path, he
finds he is in greater equilibrium as the level of his
self-awareness rises. There is more connection between his inner
intentions and outer actions. His trust helps to increase his
contentment and security, and he is more steady and stable.
we begin the path progressing from random inspiration into
inspiration that is based on a discipline and on a trust that we
will come to know. We embark on a path that we know is going to
benefit us both immediately and in the days to come. This knowledge
must be based on an inner reality and trust; how else can we talk
about an end that neither you nor I can perceive or conceive of?
fifth level is the contented self. This contentment is based on the
knowledge that whatever happens is the best outcome (for it is
real), for reasons we can or cannot see. We are content with the ups
and downs of life; content even when illness strikes. We may not
fully comprehend the entirety of our situation; we may not realize
the extent to which we have overworked ourselves; we may not
understand that the germs that attack us only speed up the recycling
process of wasted cells or tissue. They never attack an organ that
is in a good state.
does not imply passive acceptance. It arises only when we feel that
we have done our best. We are not content when we know that others
or we ourselves could have been more aware or done more. Failing to
do our best indicates inefficiency. We do not like inefficiency
because nature and Allah's Way is the perfect way, the most
efficient way, and we all strive for perfection in whatever we
embark on, even if we occasionally find excuses to stop halfway and
blame our mistakes on other people or circumstances. There is always
an inner urge or drive.
anchored self, the self that is sure, is content that it will come
to know. It does not know now because it has been viewing everything
through colored, thick, and cloudy spectacles. It does not
understand the total picture, but sees each situation in the
microscopic or microcosmic. In reality, however, we are each a
microcosm containing the meaning of the macrocosm.
the contented self is the self that begins the spiritual journey and
commits itself to the undertaking; it will not stop short until it
comes to know the cause of its existence. How else can we be
content? Otherwise we have only the certainty of eventual physical
death and of being left, after all the experiences of the average
human life, as food for the worms of the graveyard.
contented self matures with knowledge. We have all been given a
light of consciousness, which emerges after the mind has been
tethered. 'Aql in Arabic indicates the faculty of reasoning.
It is usually translated in English as 'mind', but a better
translation would be 'intellect' or 'reason'.
Arabic headgear is called 'aqqal. It is actually one cord
twisted into a double circle and put on the head. As an item of
dress, it is a functional device used to secure a piece of material
that shades the head from the sun, but its other role is to tether
the leg of a camel, so the beast sits down and behaves itself.
origin of 'aqqal is the word that means 'to be tethered'; if
we are tethered it is by the faculty of reason. This faculty of
reason is within us all if we stop the mind and allow ourselves to
be quieted. It is for this reason that those of us who are
spiritually inclined want to reflect. We want to stop the so-called
mind and go wandering off. Access to Reality begins when the process
of contentment, in a positive dynamic sense, leads to the contented
self. I am content; hence I see more clearly. I see the despot
within me. I see the blameworthy and the inspired within me, and I
see the highest potential within me. I see freedom and timelessness
Pleasing (or Harmonious) Self
this contentment emerges an immense inner stability and wealth that
leads to the sixth level, the pleasing self -- or harmonious self,
which is the experience of harmony of the entire creation with
oneself. If we are content with every circumstance and situation
that occurs in our lives, we will realize, spontaneously rather than
analytically, the complexity of precision and perfection that causes
each situation to occur. We may not like what we see; we may not
expect it; but we will see the perfect truth in it.
may, for example, have had certain expectations about our child's
ability or performance. In the event that he has not behaved as
expected, we are disappointed. Once we see that we overestimated the
child's maturity, our understanding of our miscalculations will
bring about knowledge and contentment. This state of contentment and
understanding will not prevent us from acting positively to rectify
a situation, or from assessing the possibilities for action from a
reach the stage of the pleasing self means that everything in
existence that interacts with us is content with us, for if we are
content then the reaction or reflection is that everything else is
content with us. There is no separation. We become secure in the
knowledge that no matter what situation we are in, ultimately we
will reap a return from all our actions toward others.
actions are investments that will pay off, one way or another. The
person who is at this stage is, therefore, in complete equilibrium
because he is aware of what is going on within himself and is
connected to the world. He is also able to see clearly how he will,
in time, reap the fruit of all his actions.
Perfect (or Fulfilled) Self
seventh and ultimate level of the nafs is the perfect self.
This is the state of perpetual spontaneous awareness. It is in
unific equilibrium, awakened and evolved into its pure
consciousness, experiencing time, yet aware and alive to its
permanent divine reality. It is a self that outwardly acts as an
agent of goodness and an aid towards true evolvement and fulfillment
for others and inwardly is engulfed by the ocean of beingness
without a beginning or end. It is the self of an outer struggle or
sacrifice, and an inner contentment with infinite love. This self is
a mirror of prophetic light.
is essentially pure consciousness. If that pure light is directed at
the lower end of the spectrum it will only encourage and propagate
baser energies. If, however, it is directed towards the pure
spontaneous state that we all aspire to and whose potential exists
within the amazing complex physical mechanism, we will recognize
that the limitations we face in this existence are there only to
bring about knowledge of the unlimited. Then our direction is clear,
it being to taste the limitless within, and living with these
physical limitations becomes the most wonderful experience.
one drives the body beyond its limit of endurance, this is caused by
misdirecting our continuous drive to go beyond limitation. The
limitless is to be experienced within. The body is the limited 'take
off' platform, we have to learn this subtle differentiation and
apply our energy appropriately.
we realize the full spectrum of the various unknown areas within our
so-called self and we begin to see it spontaneously, our afflictions
are likely to lessen. If at the moment anger rises within us, we see
that it is an expression of disappointment at being deflected from
achieving a desire, we are then more likely to understand our
miscalculation, and our anger will probably subside.
does not mean that the spiritual seeker does not get upset. He may
be very angry when he sees injustice, but there spontaneously arises
in him a mechanism that brings about a practical outcome. Is there
anything he can do about the situation? Can he stop the man from
beating the child? If not, how can he ensure that it does not happen
we are living in an environment that is degenerating because of its
abandonment of virtuous values, ultimately a time will come when we
are obligated by our teachings and by the precepts of our Perfect
Masters to leave it, because that community or neighborhood along
with whoever belongs to it is doomed. Indeed, the blessed Prophet
Muhammad said that a time might come when each of his followers
would have no choice but to take a goat and seek refuge at the top
of a mountain. He meant that a time would come when the situation in
the world would be so decadent and hypocritical that a man of
knowledge and truth would want to get away from the chaos and
confusion he saw around him because he would not be able to do
anything to change it.
is a story about a seeker who, as he was approaching a town one day,
saw a man running out of the gates of the city in great anguish. The
seeker asked what was wrong. The man replied, 'There is nobody in
this town who wants knowledge, so flee from such a place'.
of the great masters of Sufism, was asked to define the Sufic Path.
He said Sufism had been a reality without a name, but now it was a
name without a reality. At the end of his life, Imam Junayd was
found weeping. Asked the reason for his tears, he said: 'I have
roamed all over Baghdad [then considered the great city of
knowledge], and I have not found one heart that is ready to receive
what I am transmitting.'
overall situation never changes. It is the same today. As we get
older, we all conclude that quality in the world is deteriorating.
Throughout the ages older people have shared this belief All the
great masters have said that their own time was the worst of times.
They cannot all have been the worst, but as our knowledge broadens
with age and experience, we tend to see more conflict and
the standpoint of Reality, however, this is not the whole story. We
know from the law of opposites that the more darkness there is, the
greater is the potential for light. In maximum darkness, the tiniest
spark shines brightly. Today, for instance, if we spend a few
minutes of our day helping others, everybody praises us because
there are few who sacrifice any time at all.
day, A'isha, the young and outspoken wife of the Prophet Muhammad,
said something completely out of place. The Prophet told her that it
was the shaytan in her speaking. In Arabic the word shaytan
comes from shatana, meaning to be cast off or far away
from the path. There can be no 'on' unless there is 'off', no divine
light unless there is evil. Our creation is based on duality in
order to see that opposites emanate from the same source, so that
the bounds are known. We cannot have good without evil, dark without
light. When A'isha asked the Prophet, 'What about your shaytan?'
He replied, 'My shaytan has given up. He is in submission, in
lslam.' He meant that as negative tendencies arose in him, he
recognized them and, with his instant recognition, banished them.
This recognition comes from a state of constant awareness. These
varying aspects of the nafs are within us all but they can be
improved as we progress along the path of knowledge, if we have a
clear direction, guidance and adhere to the limits.
models or states of the self are only hooks for the mind to latch on
to, so we can say, 'This is my lower self, my selfishness, arrogance
or vanity.' All of us possess negative qualities. The only
difference is that the man of spiritual insight will immediately see
his arrogance, vanity or selfishness and seek refuge in the Creator.
He will recognize the negative tendencies within him and their
destructive potential. If he is a businessman, for example, he will
recognize that arrogance is one of the principal causes of financial
is an Arabic saying, 'The mistake of a man of reason (and wisdom) is
a big one because when he makes a mistake it is as large as his
reason.' We have all seen examples of a man who has lived correctly
and responsibly throughout his life but suddenly at the end he makes
a terrible mistake that causes his total ruin. Such an occurrence
happens because he is not on a real spiritual path with clear bounds
that show him how to behave in every circumstance.
greatest master of Sufism was Imam Ali, the son-in-law and closest
companion of the Prophet. All Sufi paths except one connect with
him. He lived the life of a man of outward poverty, choosing always
to dress in a patched robe.
he was elected as a leader of the Muslims, he responded to the
request reluctantly and continued to live frugally. One day he
visited the home of a wealthy man who had prepared a lavish banquet
in his honor. He asked his host, 'You have cared very much for this
life. Have you invested in the same way for the next?' The man said,
'I have a brother who loves you and imitates you. We will bring him
to you; he will please you.' The brother arrived in a dusty patched
robe and Imam Ali said to him, 'What a miserable condition you are
in. Why do you dress like this?' The man answered, 'I love you and I
am imitating you.'
Ali replied, 'But you are not me. I am afflicted with governorship
and I want to live in such a way that the majority of the people
will have access to me. Most of the people's living standard here is
like this and I do not wish to be above them. Also, I want to show
that it is not the garb that you wear that matters; it is who you
are and what you represent. You who have been endowed with this
wealth and well-being should show your gratitude to the Creator and
the environment that has enabled you to have it by dressing as well
as you can.'
great-grandson of Imam Ali, Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, who is one
of the pillars of our teachings, was wearing fine clothing one day,
when he was approached by someone who questioned him, 'Your
great-grandfather Imam Ali, who was our greatest master, always wore
a patched robe. Why do you wear such fine clothes?' The Imam
replied, 'Am I not dressed in garments quite commonly found in the
marketplace of Madinah?' The man agreed. Imam Jafar then said, 'As a
master of the people, I like to wear what is available to the
people. I do not like to exalt myself by calling attention to my
dress (by wearing a patched robe or any special dress). However, if
it was left to my personal preference, I would be wearing what I am
wearing underneath this fine robe.' And he lifted up his sleeve to
expose a threadbare, yellowed robe.
nafs patterns we have been discussing exist in us all, but
the more we dwell unnecessarily on the limitations of the level we
are at, the more we reinforce them. It is for this reason we find
contemporary psychology to be of little use, for it only serves to
highlight a problem that in reality does not exist. The nafs is
like a thief, the more we see it the more it runs away. Where is our
anger? Once we have seen it, it disappears. What about our
irrational insecurity? The problems we had last year have
disappeared; our current ones will also disappear in time.
patterns of the nafs are the shields that veil our eyes from
the eternal truth. You and I hide the one and only Reality, which
dwells in us all. But the way to recognize the infinite truth is by
the recognition of the limited self This is the meaning of 'He who
knows himself knows his Lord.'
we start by recognizing what goes on in ourselves; seeing that all
our higher aspirations can only be achieved by recognizing the lower
ones as they arise. The further we go on the path, the more we see
everything disappear except the perfect beauty and mercy of God that
encompasses all. Then we will melt into the one and only network of
Truth, and our spiritual life as opposed to a merely physical life
one of us must choose whether to utilize our God-given potential.
Time is short and our tendency is to postpone a decision. But if we
invest a little of our time in the spiritual life now, that
investment will blossom. If we dedicate a small proportion of our
time to God's purposes, our investment will be amply rewarded. As
our dedication and sincerity to the cause of Reality increases, so
too, will the rewards. For our life is our investment; we are its
if we continue along this path, we will find that all these self
patterns come and go like bubbles. Eventually what is left is the
Truth that possesses, encompasses and permeates us. This can only
happen if there are boundaries, for there cannot be freedom without
limitations. If we do not know the meaning of constriction, how can
we know the meaning of freedom? The more we are tethered, the more
we are free, until we come to a point where we have absolutely no
choice because we are living the moment. Then we taste life itself.
Then and only then, we are qualified to talk about true meditation.
recognized our nafs pattern, everything becomes easier and
lighter. As a result of that lightheartedness we begin to see the
light of truth, for we are nothing other than the light. The Qur`an
describes God as being the light of the heavens and the earth. That
light burns in every heart, provided that it is a heart and not a
bank vault locked behind steel barriers.
one of us has to discover how to live our own life fully. We cannot
stop at second-hand knowledge. The spiritual path is for the
adventurer (to add to the venture not to be reckless), for the one
who truly desires, who has the right sensibility, who recognizes
that with every breath he is moving closer to the end of this life
experience. He wants to know life's meanings and his beginning. Once
he knows the beginning, he knows his end. With that knowledge there
will come a transformation that is possible for every one of us if
only we are willing to abandon ourselves to it.