The Sufis tell that when the nafs (self, or individual soul) is finally conquered, it will disappear – like a drop into the Ocean. This disappearance is faná, or nothingness. When that happens, the drop rejoins the Ocean, and lives in a state of baqá, of eternal reunion. “Verily, we are from God, and to Him shall we return.”
My recent thinking has led me to think that existence itself is baqá. The “self” – or nafs – is created through the rejection of being. We create a room from our ideas of how life should be, and shield our soul in that room. There is a door leading out, but often we cannot see where it is, or even that it’s there. This is the j2004 I sought earlier. Because that room is made from shadow, unreality, opening the door means obliterating everything we have come to know (faná) and as such it requires the insanity of love, to open that door for the Beloved’s sake.
I think this phenomenon is told allegorically in the story of Satan and the fall of man. My soul was born in paradise. My entrance to heaven was the creation of my awareness. I turned away from this when I could not make sense of the world using my knowledge, and in so doing divided something perfect and simple into countless parts. I’ve spent a lifetime reassembling what was never divided, and judging in terms of my own ignorance – when the fracture all along was only in my view of things.
This is Sartre’s rift at the core of being between the for-itself and the in-itself. From this he founded a concept of awareness based on the perception of lack, or our awareness of what is not. This “void in the heart of being” sounds a lot like the nafs.
A true acceptance of being would have the nafs bow before creation and declare it absolutely good, no matter how it appeared to its limited understanding. This, Satan was unwilling to do when he saw the form of man’s creation. So too, my own will, by denying creation, is the author of my purgatory. A loving Father never rejected me, or waits to see if I will do wrong. Rather, I turned away in the infancy of my consciousness, like the Earth bringing on dusk. Religion does not teach how to enter heaven, but how to return, in the same way the mentally ill are encouraged to “return” to reality. There is no coming or going, ascent or descent. The body is not our prison, but the mind.
This choice and its outcome – the hell of self – must also be accepted. To reject it is the being of the nafs. For if evil is loathsome, how can loathing evil lead to anything but more evil? True good is good to the end. I look at my fallen self and see so many imperfections, it prompts self-loathing: this very reaction is the self. I perpetuate my exile.
The potential to fall, however, is also the potential to rise. In that wholeness lies a certain beauty. A sculptor does not hold the unformed block to be an abomination; only from what is unformed may he create. A finished piece may be more beautiful, but it offers nothing to the artist’s hands. Art is in the bringing forth as well as the result.
In my nature that turned away from true reality lies the chance to turn back. My own self begs the artist’s touch. But what sculptor can engage himself if he disdains the marble he’s given to work with? Michaelangelo’s David was created from a block that another artist had rejected forty years earlier for its flaws. That other artist could not find David in the marble, because he thought the medium unworthy of his attention.
My nafs, my self, is such a block. I have built up so many ideas about the world that my soul feels trapped in stone. This is my hell. I yearns to carve away the obscuring veils. To do this, my heart must be wholly devoted to the task, the way a sculptor loves to sculpt. Consider how he sees the block, the matrix of his art: there is no place for loathing. Just as the artist loves his vision, the stone can help him get there. He doesn’t flake away marble because it is corrupt, or evil – because it is the Mara, the satanic self. There is joy in the carving.
If we strive only to be rid of Mara, we fail to see that we need Mara, just as the artist needs the block. Mara is darkness, evil, deception; God is all that we know as good. Yet God has created a world in which Mara exists to a purpose.
Were there only light, only pure whiteness, the world would lack contrast. The edges of all shapes occur between light and dark places. The dark sculpts the light, making it apparent to the eye. In fact, one reason God is hidden is that He is perfect, without relief: “Yea, the intensity of His revelation hath covered Him, and the fullness of His shining forth hath hidden Him.”
Mara reveals God. God wished to be known, but His essence is unknowable: He shines too brightly for eyes to see. Because of Mara, shadows appear, and darkness. Now we can see the edges, the shapes. Beauty and goodness are perceptible because of Mara.
Mara is called the tempter, just as Satan and the nafs. How does he tempt? Because Mara is hateful, he tempts us to hate him. Because he is destruction, he tempts us to want to destroy him. Because he is death, he tempts us to want to kill him. He tempts us into feeding the substance of his being. The hatred of Mara is Mara.
To defeat the tempter, we must create where there is destruction, love where there is hate, and bring light where there is darkness. When we see God even in Mara, then even Mara is God. “There was God and there was naught beside Him.”
Another metaphor is that Godliness is a flower, and Mara is garbage. No one prefers garbage, they put it out on the street. But flowers grow from garbage. They also return to garbage, just as garbage later grows back into flowers. The truth is not one side or the other, but the cycle, and what it reveals in its ongoing movement.
If we reject Mara, we hold onto the flower, hoping it will not die and we will never have to deal with garbage again. But we all know that human nature is other than this. No matter how hard we try to be “pure” and “perfect”, the day always comes when we violate our new-found sanctity. Then we return to garbage, and perhaps despair that we can never change. Yet from that garbage flowers will appear. It is the cycle of death and rebirth.
Human beings are like agents of God’s manifestion. We act to manifest what is Hidden: We bring light into dark places; we demonstrate justice by defeating injustice; we reveal truth by banishing falsehood. We are knights of the ideal King, making His decree known: His wish to be known.
But for this, we need Mara. We need the dark that we may shine out. We need the bitter pain of life to prove our love by wholeheartedly embracing it. Mara is our friend because he is our enemy, and our enemy because he is our friend. There is no part that is “not God”, or outside the scheme of His creation. There is nothing that does not serve divine Will.
Mara is the canvas. He is no work of art, but a blank sheet on which to paint the inspirations of the soul. If we cast out Mara utterly, we lose our mode of expression. “To invite Mara to tea” is to let him take his place at the other side of the table, to participate in the dance of life. The painter covers up the empty canvas with art, but is there loathing for the canvas in its emptiness? It must be painted to be beautiful, but even in the emptiness there is the beauty of potential. Mara is the other side of holiness, its potential to be. “Holiness” is its manifestion. Mara is the silence before we speak.
If we were to eliminate Mara utterly, we would also eliminate the opposite. With Mara would go holiness, with ugliness would go beauty, with garbage would go all the flowers. Insofar as we love goodness and beauty, we must love Mara also, for He is part of the cycle of manifestation. A farmer cannot eat from an empty field, but there is no hatred of the field for its emptiness. Mara is that field, unable to satisfy us in any way; and yet offering the chance to bring forth amazing things from the soil of potentiality. Thus, we make God known.
We could spend our whole life chasing Mara and accomplish nothing; or we can engage Mara in the dance, and serve the purpose of creation. Everything has a role, and plays a part. We are afflicted with imperfection, not because we are flawed, but because we are perfect: so that, from emptiness, we may reveal beauty, goodness, value. We can be eager to cover up the emptiness, or reach for it like a poet for his pen. “[The lover] seeth life in death, and in shame seeketh glory.”
With Mara lies our potential to know God; in the very self we often hate, one may find God “standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.” “He hath known God who hath known himself.”
This is being as an artform, and what I mean by saying existence is baqá. Life is love given shape. Once I can accept it absolutely – say “yes” even to the most hated parts of myself – perhaps then I may return.