The veil that prevents us from seeing the hand of Divine Unity in life and Oneness in diversity 

From Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri's books, Beginning's End (with minor extracts from The Sufi Way to Self-Unfoldment)

The 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.

The Seven Patterns of the Self

The 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 pious?'

Every 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.

In 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.

The Commanding Self

The 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.

The Blaming (or Reproachful) Self

The 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.

The Creative (or Inspired) Self

The 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.

It 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.

The Secure (or Certain) Self

The 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.

Security 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.

Setting 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.

So 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?

The Contented Self

The 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.

Contentment 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.

The 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.

So 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.

The 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'.

The 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.

The 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 within me.

The Pleasing (or Harmonious) Self

From 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.

We 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 balanced standpoint.

To 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.

Our 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.

The Perfect (or Fulfilled) Self

The 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.

One 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.

Sometimes 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.

Once 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.

This 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 again?

If 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.

There 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'.

One 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.'

This 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 disturbance.

From 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.

One 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.

These 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 downfall.

There 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.

The 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.

When 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.'

Imam 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.'

The 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.

The 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.

These 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.'

So 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 will begin.

Each 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 portfolio.

Eventually, 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.

Having 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.

Each 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.