By Kabir Helminski
Every human being will at one time or another experience great loss, emotional devastation, unforeseen catastrophe. As much as we may plan, there is a greater plan. Though we build defenses, we are defenseless against the unexpected. While the ego endlessly strategizes to maintain an undisturbed state, the ego by its very nature is subject to disappointment.
But what about the sincere heart that is crushed by overwhelming events? At such times it is only the solace of wisdom that can be relied upon. The person that has a true spiritual path will have been prepared for any circumstances and will not suffer alone.
Wisdom stands in contrast to the expectations of the ego, reminding us of the possibility of a deeper level of experience. Wisdom teachings prepare the soul to deal with reality. When this reality breaks through the shell of a comfortable and complacent life in the form of unexpected loss and suffering, wisdom teachings allow us to find the gift concealed in suffering. Sometimes wisdom alleviates false suffering; sometimes wisdom is conceived and born through suffering.
On the other hand, a culture that empowers the ego, that prioritizes complete independence and autonomy, that legitimizes vanity and greed as if the purpose of life is to consume, that turns away from death, that idolizes the illusion of youth, such a culture can only lead to a false and temporary happiness, a state of denial and profound insecurity. The fact that we live in such a culture; few of us are left untouched by the false values that prevail. But beneath the veneer of a trivial and superficial life, human beings still have conscience and longing.
The alternative to wisdom is meaninglessness — the meaninglessness of a life lived only for personal pleasure, in a state of existence that has no purpose and no ultimate value. There may be no greater suffering than living in a state of meaninglessness.
As a teenager in a Jesuit high school in the early 1960s I read the existentialists of the early 20th century — Sartre and, especially, Camus. They perceived life in the modern world as “absurd.” Though they regarded material existence as the only reality and human consciousness as a finite and perishable substance, yet even they were capable of finding meaning for the soul in rebelling against this absurdity. They nevertheless awakened a sense of subjective meaning for themselves through a conscious response to the meaninglessness of the world.
In contrast to this, the mystic, the gnostic, the sufi understands all of existence to be the manifestation of an infinite, nurturing Being. For such a person, life is a continual experience of relationship to this infinite intelligent Being. It is a relationship profoundly based in the recognition of an ontological love and a spiritual need to be in relationship to this Love. For the mystic, love is the natural response to the generosity and beauty of a life that is both material and spiritual. Sometimes we are re-awakened to this love by dire circumstances.
Our troubles can be a gift and a benefit, if they awaken empathy and humility. If it were not for the hardships we human beings face, how much would our arrogance and insensitivity increase? Should we fear complacency and comfort as the greater threat? Humility and sincerity are the life of the heart, and the heart is the source of experiential wisdom.
In this relationship with the Infinite, one of the greatest human acts is to express our felt spiritual need by making a Call to the Infinite — not a prayer for something, but a humble offering of the self in gratitude for its very existence. The existentialist was alone in his act of rebellion; but the lover is alone with the Alone.
To the false self, trouble is a trial that it would prefer never to face. I’ve observed in myself the tendency to wish to flow through life without resistance or disturbance, even believing at one point that this would be the result of a committed spiritual life. But Rumi says, “True gold delights in the fire, for only in the fire can it reveal its essence.” Being in a relationship with Infinite Being changes the very nature of suffering, devastation, and catastrophe.
At the same time, spirituality must not become a sedative, desensitizing us in regards to certain realities we face. In the last year we have seen some very beloved and beautiful places devastated by natural catastrophes: Northern California, Santa Barbara County, the Caribbean, Texas, and Florida. This suffering has directly touched the lives of people we know and love, and reminded us of the inter-relatedness of everyone and everything in the world.
Events like these can shake us out of our “normalcy bias,” defined as “the tendency to underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster and its possible effects, because people believe that things will always function the way things normally have functioned.”
If spiritual wisdom can help us to deal with suffering and catastrophe, can it also help us to face the dangerous realities of the present? Can it save us from acquiescing to the political hysteria and growing belligerence around us, the insane increase in our military’s destructive capacities, the extreme economic inequities and transfer of humanity’s wealth to the .1%, and the ongoing collapse of the biosphere?
Can the spiritual perspective include this devastating realism? Is it possible to find spiritual peace, contentment, or acceptance under these circumstances? How do we hold these two poles of reality: trust in the Order of the Universe and the precariousness and increasing urgency of our situation? What in our spiritual traditions can prepare us for this question and guide us to the best outcome?
The contemplation of Divine Names is an essential practice in Sufism. The Name Al Wakil suggests that all of existence is governed by “The Divine Trustee.” Another Name, Ash Shahid, suggests the notion of “The Witness,” able to impartially witness existence. Combining these two Names, we can make a call to these two complimentary attributes of Divine Reality, holding them both simultaneously in the heart. Ya Wakil, Ya Shahid! Or if you prefer English, “O You Whom We Trust as Guardian of Our Affairs,” “O You Who Witness through us, through our eyes and consciousness!”