I’ve mentioned before that perhaps spirituality consists of the degree to which one has truly recognized the Manifestation of God, and devoted themselves to His instruction. In this vein, an analogy occurred to me that could describe how self, or nafs, fits into the picture.
Imagine Albert Einstein had decided to give an advanced course on physics at the University. As a student attending the class, it is impossible to really appreciate who Einstein is – apart from reputation – until the class is over and all its material absorbed. That is, during the process of learning, a student must necessarily fail to appreciate the depth of his master, else their roles should be reversed. And the greater the teacher, the greater this gap.
Thus, the most important thing for a student to progress is to eliminate everything he thinks he knows about the subject, whenever his teacher tells him he does not understand something. This includes not only facts, but also opinions, ideas, and his very conception of the subject. If Einstein tells us that the Earth travels in a straight line, and not in circles around the Sun, we should discard our thoughts immediately, and ask: why was our understanding so flawed?
“Self” is that impulse within us to hold onto ignorance as if it were knowledge, despite being corrected by the very Source of knowledge. There is a strange obstinacy in us, perhaps a defense mechanism?, that interferes terribly with the learning process if we are not fully committed to being changed. In fact, this tendency must “die”, so that knowledge may be “born”, since the deepest understandings are highly abstract and subtle, and requiring shifts in perception that cannot occur unless we are willing.
In a spiritual context, the Divine Educator has gifted us with a perfect knowledge, but we cannot receive it until every last trace of misconception is eliminated; and our tendency to cling to shadows, in spite of the rising Sun, is put to rest.