More and Enough
Robert Bly, a poet and translator of Rumi, Hafiz, and Mirabai, while leading a workshop on spiritual poetry, told the story of meeting with his teacher in England. They had been discussing ‘nafs’, the technical term in Sufism for the “hungry mind, the wanting soul, the ravenous appetite for more”. Bly said that he had told his teacher that he imagined his wife’s nafs as a Volkswagon Beetle and his own as a Volvo station wagon. His teacher replied, “No, Robert, your nafs are more like an 18-wheeler truck.”
Many of us can identify with wanting more. Even when we know that our consumption is environmentally unsustainable, we continue to find new toys and gadgets to buy and consume, even as Maharaj Charan Singh warned us in Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I , “The more you desire these worldly things, the more hungry and thirsty you become for them.”
All of our personal materialism doesn’t begin to describe the immensity of the ‘wanting’ of the individual ego. We want more attention, more recognition, more invitations. We want personalities that are more attractive and easier to live with. Tevye, a character in the musical play Fiddler on the Roof, asked the plaintive question, “Would it hurt some vast, eternal plan, if I were a rich man?” We might revise that question to ask, “What would be so terrible if I were to wake up one day with a cheerful disposition, a deep sense of serenity that would allow me to focus in meditation, have expansive energy with which to serve my fellow human beings, and a profound capacity to forgive others?” We have fierce desires to be better than we are now. We want more fairness in the world. We want more information. We want to be ahead of the curve.
All of this wanting can be a force for good. When we want something badly, we are more likely to be willing to work hard for it. In our wanting we express our vision, our dreams, our hopes, and the direction we wish our lives to take.
But what happens when all this worldly wanting becomes excessive? Hazur says in Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I:
It [the mind] cannot be satisfied with whatever it gets in this world. It shifts from place to place, from person to person, from thing to thing. It is always shifting, for nothing here is able to hold our minds permanently.
We may have observed that when enough is not enough, more won’t really be better. The aspect of the mind that is rapacious and greedy doesn’t pause to offer thanksgiving or gratitude for the wealth already in our possession. Its focus is on what we do not have, on what is not yet achieved. It doesn’t pay much attention to what we have right now.
In Spiritual Gems, Maharaj Sawan Singh explains how our desires keep us trapped in disappointment:
Like a bee, our mind is running from one object to another and is never at rest. It finds momentary pleasures but is soon disappointed. The transitory nature of worldly objects, no matter how near and dear, gives it no lasting peace. When the objects are gone, the mind feels uneasy.
Thus, Rumi described the nafs as a thief, who has stolen something very important from a blind man – his capacity for sight.
Without sight – or insight – we run after everything and anything that we think will give us pleasure and deliver us from pain. Hafiz describes our predicament:
The stuff produced in the factories of space and time
Is not all that great….
The sweet things of this world are not all that great.
Heart and soul are born for ecstatic conversation
With the Soul of Souls.
Robert Bly, ed.,The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door
But because we are blind and ravenously hungry, we usually don’t move towards the “Soul of Souls”, towards what is ultimately good for us. It is our hunger that moves us away from what benefits us most. Robert Bly listed ten nafs as interesting variations on the seven deadly sins: ignorance, anger, rancour, tyranny, arrogance, spite, envy, avarice, hypocrisy, and infidelity. He noted that most human beings don’t even recognize these lower tendencies of the mind as problematic – most people are willing to follow the nafs blindly, wherever they may lead.
But for those who are frustrated and stymied by the nafs, there is a path of release. It begins with sorrow, an inner regret and genuine repentance for our endless desires. We become woefully aware that these desires don’t take us where we want to go.
The next step of liberation from the nafs, according to the Sufi tradition, is startling. Bly called it being “touched” by nafs. Here the knowledge and the awareness of the ravenous mind is understood to be a blessing, a kind of grace. In this state we are actually happy to encounter our greed, our blindness, our profound doubt in the goodness of creation, our fear and anger, and judgment. We are happy to discover our own confusion and limitations.
Ironically, this awareness is the beginning of wisdom and discrimination. Our confusion wakes us up – we begin to realize that we have no control over our own appetites and drives, and we begin to let go of the fantasy that if we only had a little more strength, virtue, and talent, then life would go smoothly. We become aware that we need help – help from God and help from our fellow human beings.
With nafs, the first stage is recognition, the second stage is repentance, and the last stage is called peace. Not the peace of non-violence, or the end of conflict, but “the peace that passeth all understanding”. (Bible, Phillipians 4:7) This peace of God can only be fully realized with the Shabd, the Radiant Form of the Master, and release from the ego. But even outside of the eye centre we can still get some glimpses of God’s peace. We can stop fighting, we can let go of some of our personal preferences. In other words, we can accept God’s will for us. On our best days we will be able to say, “ I want what you want for me. I want to stay in these circumstances, in this place, facing these limitations and challenges, for as long as you deem it necessary for me to undergo this karma.”
This small peace can offer us the contentment of a disciple who, while undergoing the difficulties of the journey, has faith and trust both in the guide and in the destination. As the Great Master writes in Spiritual Gems:
If you have placed your destiny in the hands of the Guru, he will and must take care of you until the day of your complete and perfect deliverance.