In traditions of Islamic spiritual cultivation, unlocking the fullness of our human potential requires that we strive to free ourselves from the dictates of the commanding ego-self, the part of our consciousness whose sense of purpose has been attenuated by less than worthy pursuits.
In its misdirected pursuits, the commanding ego-self pushes us to live an existence that is spiritually alienated from the goodness of God.
This ego-self also acts as an inner saboteur and critic, keeps us trapped in thought patterns that do not take us anywhere new or better, and in bodily states that trigger physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. The small self convinces us that our thoughts, emotions, and sensations are, in fact, all that we are—pretzels of emotions, hapless collections of atoms confined by our lack of time and power. Our self is constantly being inflated and deflated, tossing itself from one crashing wave to the next.
Freedom from this ego-driven trainwreck lies in continually surrendering to the Sustaining Force behind all that exists, the Pure Generosity that is greater than any force of the universe. Living in this state of surrender leads individuals to wholeness, contentment, fulfillment, and liberation from the emotional and psychological vagaries of life. Islam signifies this willing surrender and the state of mental, emotional, and physical peace that settles into the innermost being from this state of consciousness. The word also bears a semantic relationship to the concepts of safety, completeness, and freedom from fault. The root s-l-m (the Arabic root of the word muslim) is an aspirational state where wholeness, contentment, and fulfillment are profoundly experienced. Yet, most of us cannot simply will ourselves into a state of surrender and harmony without a great deal of conscientious striving and help along the way. Approaching this elevated state requires effortful practice and community.
Problems with the Ego-self (Nafs)
The commanding ego-self gets stuck in stories of injustice, anger, resentment, hurt, and other negative thoughts and feelings. It is easily triggered when its immediate needs are not met. The ego-self wavers between dreams and disappointments. It wants to win, to be vindicated, to be validated, to be raised up, causing the mind to chant unhelpful anthems:
“I am not good enough.”
“I am not worthy.”
“I am unlovable.”
“I am a failure.”
“I am an imposter.”
For some, this voice is one of overbearing self-righteousness and entitlement:
“I am more deserving than her.”
Vindictiveness also bubbles up:
“I will prove him wrong.”
“I will teach her a lesson.”
The small self desperately wants to be right, attractive, needed, appreciated, and successful by any means. It is hard to convince the small self that it is wrong, to turn down the audio tracks that it loves playing on repeat. The small self has created its own existence, an existence that it is bound to and enslaved by through a network of neurons and chemical transmitters that run according to their familiar pathways. The commanding self does not allow us full access to a life of spiritual satisfaction, but instead keeps us restricted, sometimes in ways that are beyond our awareness.
The Universe and the Human Brain
In a famous Qur’anic verse, the voice of divine guidance draws a connection between the macrocosm of the universe—with its exquisite intricacies—and the microcosm of the human being with our corresponding beautiful complexity:
“We will show them Our signs (ayatina) on the horizons and within their beings (anfusihim) until it becomes apparent to them that it is the true reality (al-haqq)…”[ Qur’an, 41:53 ].
The abundant metaphysical “signs” (ayat) in the universe, including in the inner being of the human, point toward liberatory cosmic truth. A human is fashioned with a consciousness that intrinsically possesses the ability to decipher these signs, and in doing so, understand the fundamental purpose of its existence. Yet, this same consciousness also holds the potential to be distracted, confused, deluded, and corrupted, moving that person away from her primal state of being, a state that is inherently liberated from all such vagaries.
Overcome the Ego with the Pillars of Islam
Spiritual freedom starts when one becomes aware of the internal forces and emotional traps that accompany the small self, and then works to rewire those habits by becoming aware of their familiar circuits and patterns. The core pillars of Islamic practice are, from one angle, a way for a more conscious self to practice being expressed over and against the wanton dictates of the ego-self. With practice, the ego-self begins to dissipate. Each pillar of Islam purifies consciousness and desire, and as a result redirects unhelpful mental and emotional states toward truth and tranquility.
1. Surrender through the Shahadah
The shahadah, the recognition of divine unity, has a rhythmic quality that focuses the mind and heart of the hapless wayfarer: ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah wa-anna Muhammadan rasul Allah (“I bear witness that there is no god other than God and that Muhammad is a messenger of God”). The shahadah is a testament of divine reality and a confirmation of the teacher who has mapped a path toward that sanctified reality. The shahadah is the soul’s heartbeat; its rhythm is the surrender to the cosmic Knower, the ultimate Doer.
2. Cultivate Consciousness Through Prayer (the Salah)
Salah creates a rhythmic order in our lives. Just as the celestial bodies move in perfect order, and the night follows the day, salah establishes our own natural order and harmony. Everything follows the laws of nature, except human being, and implementing the shariah, salah, first and foremost, puts the believer in harmony with an ordered universe. As the Qur’an reminds us:
“We made from water every living thing…” [ Qur’an, 21:30 ].
3. Develop Discipline Through Fasting (the Sawm)
The sawm, within and beyond Ramadan, is an exercise in self-imposed bodily restraint that has a goal of spiritual refinement. The impulsive cravings of the small self—food, water, sexual intimacy, sleep—are tamed then indulged, tamed then indulged, and so forth until the impulses lose their hold and the muscles of restraint flex without strain. Ramadan is the gym of the soul.
4. Let go of attachments to material things through Zakat
The zakat further purifies the small self’s attachment to material possessions:
“One who purifies [the soul] has prospered” [ Qur’an, 91:9 ].
Derived from the verb zakka, which means to purify, the zakat is not simply charity, it is a path toward contentment:
“The one who gives wealth to purify
not recompensing thereby any for a favor,
save for seeking the countenance of their Sustainer, the Highest,
surely will [that person] become content.”[ Qur’an, 92:18–21 ]
Zakat is a shower for the soul.
5. Cultivate Patience and Renewed Sense of Purpose Through Hajj
The Hajj is a meditation on human mortality and the possibility for spiritual rebirth. It is the umbilical cord of a sacred genealogy that has transmitted spiritual wisdom through time to the present. It is a journey toward the Real, the Knower, the Guide, with unity of purpose and desire, and with snips of hair, the pilgrim becomes free of self-imposed restrictions. In practicing servanthood, freedom is tasted. Hajj is the soul’s wake up call.
The Effect of Stillness on the Ego
When the commanding ego-self finds stillness, a more abiding self emerges. This self is spacious and allows for expansiveness in the mind, the emotions, the body. Then, the self becomes not as a drop in the ocean but as the ocean in a drop, as Rumi, the great Muslim scholar and poet, describes. For this moment, and the next, the commanding ego-self is diminished, and the expansive self emerges. It is initially a glimmer, a crack where light shines through.
We have access, each of us, to the self that is connected, and when we are in touch with this self, we become free from our need to prove ourselves, to “become” something.
We recognize that there is only one ultimate Doer, one Intelligence, one Love. We carry, yet we are being carried; we move, yet we are being moved. We do not exist for ourselves, or by ourselves. We are more than we have taken ourselves to be.
What does it feel like to be a drop, and what does it feel like to be the ocean itself? As human beings, we are miniscule, malleable entities potentially lacking any enduring significance in a sea of existence dating back a dozen-billion years. The abiding self recognizes that human beings for millennia have experienced life’s unexpected turns. And so too do the humans of the present and those of the future. The existential problem of human beings is that we are physically trapped in our menial existence while holding on to aspirations inspired by the vast cosmos. Such feelings have perhaps only been intensified in this technological age, as we continue to stretch our human limits only to realize our shortcomings. We are beings in search of answers to our questions about the nature of reality and ourselves. The ocean, the forests that remain, the deserts, the snow-capped mountains, the sky, the planets, and in our modern age the galaxies beyond, stand as geographical signs and illusive outer limits. They beckon us to new horizons. In these moments of contemplation, we sense some of our inherent potential—but how do we actualize ourselves? How do we access this higher consciousness, this awareness of our true nature?
Raise Consciousness by Quieting the Mind
Time-honored practices point us towards the importance of quieting the mind and opening the metaphysical heart. The wonders of the natural world can help us do this, as we take in the sounds of birds singing or leaves rustling in the trees. These sounds remind us that we are part of a greater whole, a greater cosmos. Our connection to the vastness of the universe is a necessary counterpart to the journey into the inner vastness, the world that exists within. Freedom exists in exhaling our vain desires and inhaling the gift of breath with full consciousness. In this process, we discover internal contentment. The more we can dive into this spiritual exhale and inhale, the closer we come to transcending our drop-oriented self and experiencing ourselves connected with the ocean itself.
The Infinite offers us growth, an opportunity to transcend confines, to respond to truth at each moment, to open ourselves up to the unfolding of the present. We wake up and we fall asleep, again and again. This is the dance, this is what it means to be human. In awakening each time to the expansive self, rooted in connection to all beings and to all creation, and to the Creating Force, we awaken to freedom. And sometimes it is because we have experienced pain and anguish that we can take such pleasure in accessing our deepest compassion, love, and wonder. May we access a drop of true freedom that can only come from surrender.