Volume VIIIa - Sufi Teachings
WHAT COUNTS most in the path of truth is self-discipline, for without this our studies and practices cannot produce great results. This self-discipline has many different aspects. By studying the lives of the ascetics who lived in the mountains and forests and in the wilderness, we learn that those who have really sought after truth have done their utmost to practice self-discipline; without it no soul in the world has ever arrived at a higher realization. No doubt it frightens people living in the world, accustomed to a life of comfort, even to think of self-discipline; and when they do think of it they imagine it only in its extreme forms. But it is not necessary for us to go to the mountain caves or to the forest or to the wilderness in order to practice self-discipline; we can do so in our everyday life.
There are four principal ways in which self-discipline can be practiced. One way is the physical way, the practice of remaining in the same position, of sitting in the same posture for a certain time. And when one begins to do it one will find that it is not as easy as it seems. One may sit without realizing it in the same posture or stand in one position for a certain time, but as soon as one begins consciously to practice it one finds it very difficult. There are various positions in which to hold one's hands or legs or eyes or head; and these practices help one to develop the power of self-discipline.
The fantasy of the whole of creation is apparent in the direction of every movement; it is in accordance with that direction that a thing takes form. Where do all the opposites such as sun and moon, man and woman, pain and joy, negative and positive, come from? Since the source and the goal are one, why such differences? They belong to their direction, the secret of every difference is direction. It is an activity, an energy working in a certain direction which makes a certain form. That is why the way one sits makes a difference; it makes a difference whether one sleeps on the right side or on the left, whether one stands on one's feet or on one's head. Mystics have practiced various postures for many, many years; and they have discovered different ways of sitting while doing certain breathing exercises. They have made a science out of this; there is a warrior's posture, a thinker's posture, an aristocratic posture, a lover's posture, a healer's posture; different postures for the attainment of different objects. These postures make it easier for man to learn the science of direction; posture does not denote anything but direction.
Then there is another aspect of self-discipline which is connected with eating or drinking: one avoids certain things in one's everyday food or drink, and makes a practice of being able to live without them, especially things that one feels one cannot live without. This is one of the reasons, apart from the psychological and physical ones, that some adepts live on a diet of fruit and vegetables; that for days or weeks or months they go without certain things that they are accustomed to eat or drink.
Fasting is also one of the ways by which the denseness of the body can be diminished. And when one knows the right way of fasting, when one is under the direction of someone who really knows when and why and how a person should fast so that he is benefited by it, a great deal can be achieved by fasting. Surgeons keep their patients without food for several hours or days knowing that it will help them to heal more quickly. In the same way spiritual teachers may prescribe a fast for their pupils; sometimes going without meat and sometimes without bread; sometimes living on milk or fruits and sometimes for a limited time without anything at all, according to the capacity and endurance of the pupil. But in point of fact, I am myself the last person to prescribe fasting. I hardly ever do so; I only give some advice to my pupils if they themselves wish to fast. I once knew a disciple who went to a murshid, and the murshid told him that in order to begin his practices he should start with a three days' fast; but after the first day he felt so hungry that he left the city, so that he might never see that teacher again!
There is always a meaning to it if the teacher prescribes a fast. In Baghdad there lived a great Sufi who was known for his wonderful attainments. Once he told a young pupil of his to live on a vegetarian diet. The mother of this young man, having heard that since going to that teacher the boy only ate vegetables, went to the teacher's house to tell him what she thought about this. She arrived just when he was at table, and there was chicken in front of him. So the mother said, 'You are teaching your pupils to live on a vegetarian diet and you yourself are enjoying chicken!' Upon this the teacher uncovered the dish, and the chicken flew away; and he said, 'The day when your son too can do this, he may eat chicken!'
There is yet another aspect of self-discipline and that is the habit of thinking and of forgetting. This means on the one hand to be able to think of whatever one wishes to think of, and to continue to do so and to be able to hold that thought; and on the other hand to practice the forgetting of things, so that certain thoughts may not get a hold over one's mind; and in the same way to check thoughts of agitation, anger, depression, prejudice, hatred. This gives moral discipline and by doing so one becomes the master of one's mind.
After one has practiced these three aspects of discipline, one is able to arrive at the fourth aspect which is greater still; it is greater because by it one arrives at spiritual experiences. This discipline is practiced to free one's consciousness from one's environment. It is the experience of the adepts and they have spent much of their lives arriving at this. In the old school of the Sufis, and even today, there is a custom that when they enter or leave the room of meditation, one among them says, 'Solitude in the crowd.' The suggestion is that even when one is in the midst of the crowd one can still keep one's tranquility, one's peace, so that one is not disturbed by the surroundings. It is this which enables one to live in the midst of the world and yet progress spiritually; and it is no longer necessary to go into the wilderness, as many souls did in ancient times, in order to develop spiritually.
No doubt this is difficult, but at the same time it is simple; and in a small way everyone experiences it, although unconsciously. A person engaged in something that interests him very much, or that completely occupies his mind, is often not conscious of his environment. A poet, a writer, a composer, a thinker, when he is entirely absorbed in something that he does, is unconscious of his environment. And it very often happens that one is so absorbed in something one is doing or thinking about, that one is not conscious of one's body or one's self. Only what a person is thinking of exists for him, not even his self. This is the stage which is termed by Sufis Fana. The word Nirvana about which so much has been said, is simple to understand in this way. It is only an experience of the consciousness; in other words it is the freedom of the soul, reaching a stage where one is not thinking about oneself, nor about one's environment.
One might ask if these practices are not dangerous in any way. Everything in this world is dangerous. If we think of the danger there could be in eating, drinking, going out or coming home, there could be danger every moment. It is dangerous to go into the water, but when one can swim that counteracts it. It is even dangerous to be in the street, but if one can walk and run then that counteracts the danger. It is in being able to meditate and to raise one's consciousness above one's environment that the secret of spiritual development lies.
Once a person is accustomed to the practice of self-discipline he will find that though in the beginning it may have seemed difficult, it gradually becomes easier. It does not take long to experience its wonderful results. Almost everyone complains that the person who is closest to him does not listen to him. He is continually saying that the other does not listen to him! But by self-discipline one rises above this complaint, because one begins to realize that it is one's own self which does not listen to one. Then one finds the mischief-maker: it was not the other person, it was the self; and as one begins to get power over it, one begins to feel a great mastery. It is a mastery over one's kingdom; it is a feeling of kingship. And naturally as one begins to experience this phenomenon, everything becomes more and more easy.