SOMETIME SOON AFTER thesour ice cream of adolescence, I came to feel that the whole point of life was to be enlightened. Not to wear the spiky helmet of pain inflicted on oneself and on others. Not to wrap oneself in the yellow slicker of lies, hypocrisies and hard-heartedness. Nor to tamp down the soul’s yearnings that are so alive in our youth and by all appearances get blasted out of people as soon as they think they must take life seriously, shut off their beings from vision, and search for or at least desire higher knowledges.
In the late 1940s there was that post World War II feeling of relief, Hiroshima shadow mushrooming up from the heart, a relative calm settling down in society that was more like a refrigerated numbness at the tragic realization that mortal vulnerability was part of life. The crack in the Star-Spangled Dream Dodo egg was apparent and growing. Something was becoming extinct even as it smiled and hula-hooped its last hurrahs. Something else was looking past that extinction to a romanticized but earnest desire for enlightenment.
How could our evanescent lives be here for any other purpose? What good would it be to blindly fit into what was so apparently a desperate façade – of careers, patriotisms and other self-aggrandizements – which our educational systems and pundits insisted were the true goals of our existence? The earth is home to many folk, some barefoot, mountainous and sharp-edged, some slow and easygoing, holding to ancient traditions that have delivered meanings to their souls all these centuries with no disappointment, even against all odds.
We would go forward by going back. Aborigines and their red-mud-splotched skin and strange hair, navigating by the stars across the wastelands of Australia, then painting soul-maps with luminescent dots that would instruct all the following generations of their wisdom. Wisdom! Aha . . . that’s the word I’ve been looking for up to here . . . Because that was what was the tasteable goal of all our efforts at a life spent purposefully. We could squirm like Kafka’s cockroach, lonely and abandoned, or stand up like Blake’s Glad Day, jubilantly stretching our arms to the ends of the horizon.
I look around now and wonder, in the shambles the world’s become, what wisdom is available that most everyone might understand? We can deepen our own studies, deepen our own remembrance of the Original Instigator and Glorious Creator of us all, become scholars knowledgeable in the Islamic spiritual sciences, and even taste the Primal Recognitions (ma ‘rifa). But what about societies where a degenerate lawlessness and disregard for justice and human life seems to have taken hold, not only in the streets but in the highest corridors of government, the American and British now among the worst offenders, overreaching with lethal power into lives so human and now so tragic that one wonders how they will ever be repaired . Yet, as Ibn Arabi showed in his Sufis of Andalusia, the most anonymous and blessed but unlikely person could have the highest wisdom.
Our teacher said recently to someone’s question about his pesky and persistent nafs routines, “Multiply your self by zero.” I’d heard teachings about the naß for years, and this statement must be seen against the background of her insistence that we rely on God and His Prophet, peace be upon him, for everything, in the most practical way . . . everything! But this simple equation seems to me the perfect prescription for all of us, from the lowest soul to the highest. If only people could take this to heart, those in power especially, those with influence, those who can’t seem to shake loose the shackles of greed and the “aphrodisiac of power” (as Kissinger termed it), and look at the Other and the world with wise empty eyes, as it were, to see the “world in a grain of sand,” with an uncrowded psyche and a purer transparency of being.