By way of metaphor, one can describe the centre of the human experience as the being in the chest. And one can distinguish between fundamentally two different modalities, two modalities that you can experience the subject as, the subject being the self or the one that’s experiencing. In Tasawwuf we refer to one modality as nafs and the other modality as ruh.
Very crude translations of these two terms would be ego and spirit – nafs and ruh. It’s the same chest, the same being, but your experience can literally be – depending on which of these two you engage in – can be an inverse experience. The attributes of nafs are limitation and being cut-off. The assumption when you’re operating from the point of view of nafs, the assumption that you are operating is that you exist as an individual, that you are significant, that you have an identity and that that identity has a history and that the attributes of your life are what make you noteworthy.
It’s the same chest, the same being, but your experience can literally be an inverse experience.
I am a South African. I am an Arab. I have this ancestry. I speak this language: all of these things that we consider to make ourselves significant. But every time we make an assertion like that about ourselves we point to that which makes us different. So we exist by distinction. By saying I’m a South African means I’m not some other kind of human being. If I say I’m a man, I’m not a woman.
So the nature of nafs is that it makes, it draws attention to distinction. It exists by separation, by being split-off. The result of the split of standing apart from the world is that the nafs is then presented with a very scary universe, because in the first instance, the nafs is presented with a world which is very big and which has in its nature the capacity to annihilate. Each person knows that because we touch death all the time.
We touch death because of the loss of near ones. We sense death in our own body. This is no longer the young, live body I had fifteen years ago. It creaks and it really doesn’t move as it should move. My eyes are fading. So when you identify with yourself, when you identify yourself as an individual, you suddenly inhabit a universe which is threatening, vast and annihilating.
The nature of nafs is that it makes, it draws attention to distinction.
There are two implications to this. The one is that you experience yourself as needy. So you can speak about the chest experience of nafs as emptiness, as neediness, as wanting to get things. Identifying yourself with your boundaries, with what makes you distinct from the world is also simultaneously identifying or entrenching your need. When you say “I am my conditioning” then you are also saying “I am lacking.” If I say, I make my masculinity a core thing of who I think I am then I’m always in need of woman. So I’ll chase skirt all the time because I’m a man and I always chase skirt.
However, if you define yourself by that assertion you will create a need for other-than-that. So your conditioning is also that which describes your conditional motive and your neediness. Your conditioning and your conditional motive are what keep you trapped in the sense of small, needy and isolated. So you experience yourself as a being in lack therefore you are empty and you are needy. Because you experience yourself as a being in lack you don’t trust that the world will look after you, which means that when you look into the future you are fearful. Your account of your own life is an account of limitation and limiting experience. Your projection into the future is a projection of distrust.
Your conditioning and your conditional motive are what keep you trapped.
So this identifying yourself as nafs, as distinct, as a being with an identity puts you on an island of alienation and isolation and being cut-off. It creates the conditions where you are both needy and your chest is hollow. It is like a hungry empty thing and distrustful.
The other modality that we operate as human beings we can refer to as ruh. Now ruh is that part of your being that recognizes that it is not distinction from the world, that it is part of the continuity, which connects all things. There’s nothing that I can claim as my own. The liquid that courses through my veins and carries blood sugar from one part of my body to another comes from other-than-me. The energy that I’m metabolizing as I am speaking to you now came into me by some rice and dead meat that I ate about an hour ago courtesy of Rayana.
So if you consider what’s making it possible for me to speak right now, well there [are] all the kind-of biochemical effects of that mouthful of rice and dead lamb. Where did the dead lamb come from? Well, the dead lamb probably ate a Karoo bush and that Karoo bush photosynthesized under sunlight and was fed by the nutrients of the Karoo.
There’s nothing that I can claim as my own.
So inside me there’s this wide open space of Karoo and of sunshine and of the minerals of this extraordinary place in the emptiness of the stars. So, who am I? What did you do with me? When you looked at me suddenly you found anything but me! You found the Karoo. You found a dead sheep. You found rice from the other side of the planet. So where’s Schuitema? They’ve stolen him. He’s disappeared.
If you examine how things actually are, you don’t exist as an individual. You exist as something connected with absolutely everything that isn’t you. There’s a oneness. There’s a continuity that reaches out around the globe and you are part of that. That’s the truth. Haqq. Truth is tawhed. Unity. There’s a unity that connects all things. Illusion is separateness, distinction.
Now when you are the attribute of experiencing your being, of experiencing life as ruh, is in the first instance you no longer experience yourself as separate but experience yourself as deeply connected. Not only do you experience yourself as deeply connected but you experience this incredible orchestration of things that has to happen on an ongoing basis just to take the next breath. You are aware of the fact that inside you there is the Karoo, there is this vast empty space and there is this dumb lamb staring up at the twinkling stars in the middle of the night. You are aware of the fact that inside you there’s a piece, there’s the other side of the planet that came to you in that piece of rice. You realize that there’s this incredible orchestration of things that have to happen to make you who you are now, that you could never have worked out. It’s too big. It’s too magnificent.
There’s a continuity that reaches out around the globe and you are part of that.
So, rather than being needy you are grateful. The natural effect to the heart of recognizing that you are the product of something that connects, which is far bigger than you, is gratitude. Now, a grateful heart is a full heart. A needy heart is an empty heart. A needy heart is something that seeks to be filled so all motive that flows from a needy heart you can describe as an emptiness that seeks to be filled. The motive that flows from a grateful heart you can describe as a fullness that empties. And the fullness that empties has absolutely no interest in an outcome because I’ve already had the most sublime outcome! What more could I ask for than having the lamb of the Karoo – I mean, there’s nothing more! This is it! This is it! Anything more to this is just a further en-awe-ing gob-smacking attribute of the overflowing generosity of my Lord. Because I don’t deserve any more than this surely – this!
We are this far from catastrophe every moment of our lives. These very boundaries that we delude ourselves as defining who we are, those boundaries themselves are sustained by other-than-ourselves. Today we were busy dressing this lamb that we slaughtered and I stuck my thumb on the blade of the band-saw and I just nicked my thumb as you can see. There’s a little … wow! I mean, another millimetre and I would have done myself serious injury.
A person who operates from ruh has absolutely no interest in getting anything because they’ve got it already.
I once worked with a man who did that, put his finger through a band-saw. It was a horrifying experience. That thing goes through your finger like its butter. A fraction, a millimetre from catastrophe. That’s how we are moment by moment by moment by moment. We are all working with a band-saw here. That’s how we are. If you could consider all the things that could annihilate you right now! Why are you here? So this very sense of independence is illusory. It’s sustained. Your Rabb is so generous He even allows you that! Alhamdulillah. This thumb could very possibly not have been here, today, right now, not by my ingenuity. That thing was absolutely just Divine intervention, that I didn’t put it through the machine. A close shave. Alhamdulillah. Subhanallah.
So the intention of a person who is operating from ruh is inscrutable to a person who is operating from nafs. They can’t understand it. A process operating from nafs finds is inconceivable that you can act to act, can’t compute the possibility that you do anything not to get something. A person who operates from ruh has absolutely no interest in getting anything because they’ve got it already! There’s nothing else to get. So their motive just can’t be computed.
And so, very often people who operate from ruh are experienced as being dangerous, because they actually are, because they can’t be manipulated. They can’t be manipulated because they don’t want anything. You can only manipulate people if they want something from you. Alhamdulillah.
May Allah Grant us success on this Path.
This discourse was given spontaneously by Shaykh Ebrahim after a dhikr session on 28th November 2009.