The space in between. A journey through solitude and self-realization.

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Reading by the lake

Sitting on a damp crescent of sand next to a lake at the outskirt of the forest surrounding the Mount Tremblant, I found myself contemplating the setting sun while blinking at the rhythm of wave’s caressing the wooden trunk peacefully resting on the shore.

The farewell of the sun to the earth I was experiencing was a beautiful sight and I could not resist taking out my phone in order to immortalize this scenery. Right after I tried taking the best possible shot I could with my smartphone in order to share it with my friends, I realized the sun had almost entirely set and I had missed a significant part of its setting. I turned off my phone and sat there smiling at myself when realizing the bitter truth of the tendencies of the society I had started to reflect through my behavior.

In a society where we are used to sharing every thought and moment of our lives, where we are expected to react on social media almost instantly after anything happens in the world, these moments spent in solitude are a good reminder of the very nature of our creation: the fact that one’s existence on earth does not depend on others and that ultimately the purpose of our creation is to know the Almighty and to experience his light, a purpose that is a personal one, and one that will always prevail over ties that bind us to our social identity for it will exist even if we were the only remaining souls living on earth.

Often when I would find myself in a secluded place in the middle of nature, I would think of a life spent in solitude in a wooden house “à la Henry Thoreau”, a life in which simplicity would prevail over any other state and for some reason, the thought of such a life always brought about a sense of spirituality in me which in turn made me question the link between simplicity, solitude and spirituality.

The idea that solitude ultimately leads towards a simpler life is perhaps tied to materialism. Often, philosophers that have written about solitude and seclusion such as Thoreau or Emerson, have almost immediately experienced a newly acquired taste of simplicity through the negation of the never-ending pursuit of a material life, the only pursuit through which many of us identify ourselves and remain alive.

In other words, it seemed as though seeking simplicity was a reaction to an overstimulation of the senses expressed through materialism in societies whose foundations were built upon consumption and the fulfillment of human desires. The negation of such a life pushes one to search for another balance, one in which spiritual needs are placed above physical one. Therefore, the link between spirituality, solitude, and simplicity is one that is tied to our own nature. The quest for spirituality leads one to negate materialism, which brings about simplicity and in turn, seeking simplicity often leads one to live away from centers of materialistic societies, in relative solitude.

Another explanation for the spiritual high one experiences when alone in nature, is perhaps tied to the realization of oneself in the scale of the universe. When you end up staring at oceans and mountains, or experiencing the depth of a forest, you often understand better how insignificant your physical reality is in the entire scheme of God’s creation. At this point, your ego flattens and you end up experiencing a shift in your perception of your own reality. It is when you stare at the countless stars that witness your existence from above that you end up identifying yourself with the infinity of your soul more than through the nothingness of your physical being.

This shift in the perception of who we are is a critical one in one’s quest for meaning for it is through this shift that ones gains a greater sense of responsability. It is only when we identify ourselves through our spiritual existence that we can pretend to understand better, words of the great Arif that Imam Ali (pbuh) was, when he mentions that ‘Human beings should not see themselves as insignificant beings, for within them, is buried an entire universe’.

When I wrote these thoughts down on a paper in order to make some sense from all of which I had experienced in that little time away from home, I reached out my copy of Walden and started re reading Thoreau’s essays on solitude. I found it fascinating that I could connect with some of his words after only half a day spent in nature, a realization that made me think about the universal truth that unites every human being that has ever set foot on earth in the true nature of their creation. This universality in creation not only meant that we shared a common purpose, it also meant that there had to be common realities which regulated every living being’s spiritual quests no matter how different each and every wayfarers lost in the path of God could be. And if this universality was indeed a fundamental truth, one could expect these principles found in western philosophy to be expressed, validated or completed by other schools of thought, especially one as rich and exhaustive as Islamic philosophy.

The idea that solitude impacts one’s spirituality is not a thought that is uncommon within Islamic tradition. On the contrary, it is actually a subject that features in almost every treatise of spiritual wayfaring. Amongst the greatest mystics and modern philosophers that Islam has been blessed to have under its banner and who have written about this topic, Allameh Tabatabaei often stands out as the perfect example of a man who had understood and manifested principles of the Quran in his personality and life.

In his book Kernel of the Kernel, Allameh beautifully explains how his journey towards light passed through several stages and how relative seclusion (khalwat) was an integral part of his spiritual ascension. Allameh identifies spiritual wayfarers to be unlike ‘the group of people [who] have no will power of their own, [a group which is] totally submissive to the will of society and follows [it]. On the contrary, according to Allameh people seeking spirituality have a tendency to distance themselves from certain people, they busy themselves in ‘dhikr’ and often avoid crowds, attention and noisy places.

There are indeed similarities in both western and Islamic schools of though when it comes to the role solitude plays in spirituality. But are the two schools of thought really equal? Can one live a life like Thoreau; a spiritual life spent in the woods, in solitude and silence and still follow Islam?

While I got more and more interested in those topics, and tried to grasp and absorb essays on solitude from western and Islamic philosophers I realized how their writing were starting to profoundly impact my personality. I had always been a lively person, the kind of person that would crack a joke in order to make other feel comfortable and light up a conversation. But the more I read Thoreau and others, the more I became quiet. The more I spent time in nature, the more I appreciated silence. Interestingly, others often perceived this newly acquired sense of tranquility, which expressed itself through silence, as a state of worry, worry, stress or anxiety. It always brought a smile on my face when people thought I was lost exactly when I started to find where my existence laid in God’s entire scheme of creation.

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On a train, somewhere between Qum and Mashhad.

While keeping these thoughts in my mind, and forever seeking the balance required between solitude and society, between simplicity and materialism, this spiritual journey brought me to Qum in Iran where I spent few weeks amongst scholars from the hawza and students from the west. I remember having travelled from Qum to Mashhad in a night train accompanied by Agha Amini, a teacher of Akhlaq that Ayatollah tahriri, himself a student of Allameh had advised to consult for spiritual growth.

In the middle of the night, I asked my question to Agha Amini and tried to understand where the middle ground laid. On the one hand, it is often narrated that Allameh Tabatabaei had reached a certain level of spirituality after successfully detached himself from materialism, distancing himself from elements of society which were detrimental to his spiritual growth. Other mystics such as Ayatollah Mutahari had also emphasized on the impact of a materialistically driven society on one’s spirituality. But on the other hand, there were also countless advantages and benefits that could solely be acquired in the presence of other individuals, be it learning from scholars, helping others, teaching and the refinement of one’s morality all of which one could not benefit from if one was to live a life in the woods like Thoreau. And because Islam emphasized so much on social and family ties and responsibilities that a one could easily find himself lost, eternally looking for the right balance required to grow spiritually without neglecting its Islamic duties.

Agha Amini listened and understood the matter. He gave me an advice, which I engraved in my mind ever since. He acknowledged the fact that temporary seclusion and solitude were indeed a practice that was common amongst mystics and it is a well-known fact that they do bear a spiritual significance, but they are not the most important. The most important aspect of attaining higher level of spirituality follows a much simpler formula: perform your wajibat and avoid your muharammat. From this perspective, one can only distance himself from certain social elements only as long as it does not lead one to infringe on his/her social duties.

This sentence made a lot of sense to me and I find it interesting that this advice was actually the first one that Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini, may Allah give him a high rank in Jannah, mentioned in his book on self building and spiritual growth when he says that ‘monasticism, renunciation of worldly affairs, and unacceptance of social responsibilities are not pre requisite for undertaking a self-purification program, on the contrary, as will be shown in the book later on that seclusion and relinquishment of individual and social responsibilities are inconsistence with the spiritual self-building and self-purification program.’

Allameh Tabatabaei himself draws a sharp contrast between true seekers of spirituality and people who have made solitude, seclusion and the negation of all social customs, norms and responsabilities to be the principles around which their lives are built. Allameh mentions in his book that the true spiritual seeker must always observe moderation and adopt a middle position.

When I think about this quest for meaning and spirituality, this journey seeking the middle ground and how it had impacted my perception of life, I realized how these writings had made me rely on my sole company more than I ever had before. And since I had learnt how to appreciate life through my own existence, I was now able to find a greater sense of satisfaction from my life experiences, for they did not rely on anyone else’s approval or acceptance.

Pragmatically, this realization made me distance myself from social media. I am not against the use of Facebook or twitter and I do realize that there are countless advantages of being able to connect and share content with likeminded people within seconds no matter where they live. As a matter of fact, I am not even sure you would be reading this essay if it wasn’t shared on social media.

There are several reasons why one distances himself from these platform, especially while seeking greater realms of self awareness. The first one is a very simple one. When one learns how to appreciate moments of his life for what the truth they inherently bear instead of how great they would look once immortalized, one does not feel the need to experience them through the appreciation of others.

The second reason is perhaps a more subtle, and is the fruit of a deeper realization, one that makes one question the miserable value we tend to assign to our thoughts and reasoning.

When one ponders over the matter a little more, one soon realizes that most of us have a tendency to judge the validity of our thoughts and experiences through the popularity they generate on social media. The more likes a post gets, the more one feels he has written something worthy of being read. This reliance on others not only feeds one’s ego, it also makes one to exist solely through foreign eyes. This behavior not only forces our existence to express itself through likes and comments, it pushes our souls to surrender their most valuable god given right, the right to be free and to exist through our sole dependence on Allah’s mercy justice. And to be fair with all other injustices committed by past and previous societies, I found this caging of our identity to be the greatest form of enslavement of modern times for I don’t think we have ever knowinglyconsciously and willfully belittled our existences any lower.

The greatest challenge in this quest of spirituality is to find a balance between the sweetness of solitude, and the tenderness of friends and family, the balance between the soothing tranquility of silence and the thrill of exchanging with likeminded people. With time I have realized how far greater Islamic mysticism and philosophy are to ideas of Thoreau, no matter how brilliant they are, for Islamic mysticism allows one to attain its true potential without hindering the spiritual growth of others. It allows the likes of Allameh Tabatabaei to enlighten societies they live in, to share their knowledge and train future generations of thinkers, all of which are responsibilities without which they themselves couldn’t have attained the level of understanding and wisdom they have attained. Islamic mysticism lets you enter greater realms of spirituality using a balance that suits the entirety of one’s reality, which is not only a spiritual one, but a social and physical one also. And it is at the junction of these three realities that one can truly fulfill the purpose of its own creation.

One wonders how to call this balance. This place where one is just alone enough to be free yet, present enough to serve others. I guess I’ll just call it the way I picture it in my mind: a place stuck between Muir’s mountain and Thoreau’s house in the woods; a place that offers a tiny bit of flexibility in order to experience silence the way Allamah did. Often, when I think about this place, I think of Frost and the road diverging in a yellow wood. While he chose to take the one less travelled by, I chose to create my own. Somewhere between a path leading to total seclusion and one leading to a complete immersion in society, I decided to walk on my own unpathed trail. And when I stopped after a while in order to observe where I stood in comparison with the two other paths, I found myself exactly where I had intended to be, in the space that lied in between them.

Work Cited

Allameh Tabatabaei, Kernel of the Kernel

Ayatollah Amini, Self Building

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

John Muir, Mountains of California

Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi, Provisions of the Journey

Robert Frost, The road not taken

The promise I made with my soul in Qum.

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Often in Islamic traditions, narrators have mentioned that the virtue of a believer can be measured by his truthfulness. A believer is one, whose words are true and one who acts upon them. From that perspective, one can somehow deduce that a believer is one that fulfills promises he has made to others. A very relevant hadith from Imam Ali (AS) that somehow validates this assumption mentions that ‘the fulfillment of promises is the highest form of integrity’.

Shrine of Sayyah Masoomah, Qum, January 2016

The night is long only for those who do not understand its sweetness. And it is the shortest for those whose time of parting from their beloved has arrived, bearing a distinct taste of unfulfilled promises.

I wonder what promises to the self are worth. Those words uttered in your heart that no one except yourself know, what are they worth in the eyes of God? If the integrity of a believer is measured by his capacity to act upon commitments made to others, what can be said about pledges a believer makes with himself ?

Standing near the vicinity of Sayyadah Masooma’s Zarih, I keep staring at the outer dimension of believers coming in and out to convey their salutations to the Lady of Qum. Each one of them must be bearing a request. Some must be longing for marriage, some must be asking for a blessed child, some students must be seeking guidance in order to achieve a better understanding of the holy scripture and here I was still thinking about how to best formulate what lay in my heart.

I sat down on the cold marble floor and took a rosary in hand. I kept reciting the same divine sentence that has always brought about a sense of serenity and certainty whenever I felt the unbearable weight of my soul’s nothingness would fail to elevate me towards higher realms of spirituality.

 

….And Allah is the best of planners.

….And Allah is the best of planners.

….And Allah is the best of planners.

Surely, Allah knows what lies in our heart. And surely, he must have been aware of this conflict that was growing within me, one that my intellect alone could not seem to process and integrate. And how could it ever pretend to do so? How can a mind that has been trained to critically analyze information flowing from its environment, assess realities from tangible experiences which can be measured and repeated, and most importantly, act according to known concepts limited to the physical existence, how could such a mind ever understand matters of the heart? How could I use my mind to formulate realities it couldn’t even grasp?

Often, when you see yourself walking on the path of your past experiences, you tend to realize that most of your decisions have been either predictable or following an intelligible scheme. That reality is a fact for most of us, and when you ponder over it, there seems not to be anything wrong in it. We are bound to a physical world regulated by predictable laws and since we ourselves possess a physical dimension, the only dimension through which most of us identify ourselves with, we end up embodying laws of the nature. Like gravity, we fall when we lose hope. Like forces of magnetism we let our nafs drive our bodies towards its lowest level of existence, a station in which we end up making our desires to be our master.

Yes. It seems a plausible explanation. It is because we end up living our lives only through its physical reality that we end up living lives that are in most part, as predictable as laws that regulate the world we live in. Much of the truth that lies in this explanation is also applicable to our mind. We think through the information that is conveyed to us by our limited senses. We see through the optics of our eyes, which can only perceive a narrow spectrum of visible hues. We hear only that which can be heard. And yet, despite knowing how fallible our senses can be, we deny any other source of inspiration to enlighten our soul and in doing so, we perpetuate our enslavement and negate our soul its most fundamental right: the right to be free and to experience the light of its creator.

And this is where my restlessness laid. My physical reality was somehow aware that its supremacy was now questioned and that the pen with which it had so far effortlessly written my own destiny was about to change ownership. This transitional phase was characterized by smooth handover of power between the mind and the spirit. I was about to make a promise to myself that could not have been predicted from the path my life had taken so far.

When you end up acting upon a spiritual inspiration, one that does not follow popular logic and expectation, it is better not to share your position with just anyone for they will fail to grasp its meaning, and will convince you to continue acting upon your physical reality.

Upon my return home, I took some time preparing the grounds for the day when I would go back to Qum and write in cursive letters and endless spirals, using an alphabet that best suited the loftier realms my soul was aspiring to reach.

With time, I mentioned my plans to my close friends and family. Some understood, and some did not. I became used to judgmental sighs and sarcastic smiles blooming out of some of their shortsightedness.  They were used to a predictable way of life, one that explained their inability to see beyond the comfortable familiarity of their repetitive age-old cognitive processes.

When I thought about it long enough, it was not their choice to live a life confined to what was expected of them, which made me uncomfortable. What was however stranger and somehow frustrating, was the fact that eyes which had fed only from the sneaking twinkling light perceived from the tunnel of a narrowed existence deny the need of others to want to fly to the moon and stars.

The frustration laid not, by any means, in their self imposed celibacy with their own destiny and the fulfillment of their own existence. What was depressing however was their inability to understand that beyond living a life when one exists only through the approval of foreign eyes laid a life that did not happen, but that chose to become.

And in order to experience this gift, which everyone has not only a right to experience but also a duty to do so, one must rise above those judgmental sighs and sarcastic smiles and climb the mountain of their own fears and doubts in order to be bewildered by the infinite depth of their own imagination.

Like every one of us, I am not immune to doubts, and often, when I question my own capacity to act upon the promise I made with myself when I took Sayyadah Masoomah as a witness in front of God, I often think of the following words

 

Rise!

Rise from your ashes and

walk on the dust beneath

which you will sleep forever.

Stare!

Stare at the sun

And fly towards light for

There’s no truth in shadows.

And above all,

Do not!

Do not judge yourself in measures

Foreign to your soul!

You were made out of light,

And only light can carry you higher.

 

Indeed, a believer in one who fulfills promises. And the most important promises of all are those, which are made with the self. Those promises do not rely on spoken words just like they do not need the presence of another human being in order to exist. Promises made with your soul are unique for they will live on as long as you do. And since your soul is eternal, those promises shall never die.

I would like to thank the organizers of the Bab Al Ridha course 2015 as well as my teachers and mentors during my stay in Qum, all who have been critical in my spiritual growth and in the realization of those promises I made in Qum.