Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Purity of Heart

The heart is our deepest knowing. Sometimes that deepest knowing is veiled, or confused by more superficial levels of the mind: by opinions, by desires, by social conditioning, and most of all by fear. Like a mirror it may become obscured the veils of conditioned thought, by the soot of emotions, by the corrosion of negative attitudes. In fact we easily confuse the ego with the heart. Sometimes, in the name of following our hearts, we actually follow the desires and fears of the ego.

The heart may be sensitive or insensitive, awake or asleep, healthy or sick, whole or broken, open or closed. In other words, its perceptive ability will depend on its capacity and condition.

Both spirit and the world compete to win the prize of the human heart. As Junayd said, "The heart of the friend of God is the site of God's mystery, and God does not reveal his mysteries in the heart of one who is preoccupied with the world."5 The traditional teachers agree that one of the consequences of preoccupation with the world is the death of the heart. If the heart assumes the qualities of whatever attracts it, its attraction to the dense matter of the world only results at best in a limited reflection of the divine reality. At worst, the heart's involvement with the purely physical aspects of existence results in the familiar compulsions of ego: sex, wealth, and power.

In The Alchemy of Happiness, Al-Ghazzali describes the human being in the following metaphor:

The body is like a country. The artisans are like the hands, feet, and various parts of the body. Passion is like the tax collector. Anger or rage is like the sheriff. The heart is the king. Intellect is the prime minister. Passion, like a tax collector using any means, tries to extract everything. Rage and anger are severe, harsh and punishing like the police and want to destroy or kill. The ruler not only needs to control passion and rage, but also the intellect and must keep a balance among all these forces. If the intellect becomes dominated by passion or anger, the country will be in ruin and the ruler will be destroyed.

Rumi echoes the same theme when he describes the role of Conscious Reason in keeping a balance among our various desires:

God has given you Conscious Reason
as an instrument for polishing the heart until its surface reflects.
But you, prayerless, have bound the polisher
and freed the two hands of sensuality.
If you can restrain sensuality, you will free the polisher....
Until now you have made the water turbid, but no more.
Do not stir it up, let the water become clear enough
for the moon and stars to be reflected in it.
For the human being is like the water of a river:
when muddied you cannot see the bottom.
The river is full of jewels and pearls.
Do not cloud the water that was pure and free.
[Mathnawi IV, 2475-2477, 2480-2482]

The attractions of the outer world are only a small distraction compared to the promptings of egoism which distract us from within. Bayazid Bistami said, "The contraction of the heart comes with the expansion of the ego, and vice versa."

When our hearts soften at the remembrance of God [39:23], the ego acquires the qualities of servanthood and humility in relation to the Divine Majesty, and the heart becomes sensitive and expansive--expansive enough, in fact, to contain the whole universe.6

The healthy heart requires the nourishment of spiritual foods. When the heart is healthy, its desires will be healthy. Muhammad said, "The heart of the faithful is the throne of the Merciful." When the heart has nourished itself only on the desires of physical existence, it is deprived of life-giving nourishment, and its own desires become less sound, more sickly.

Sufi wisdom offers several traditional cures for an ailing heart. One of these is the contemplating the meanings of the revealed Holy Books and the words of the saints, since these perform an action upon the heart, removing its illusions, healing its ills, restoring its strength.

Another cure for the heart is keeping one's stomach empty. Muhammad said that an excess of food hardens the heart. Fasting is the opposite of the addictions, subtle and not so subtle, with which he numb ourselves to the heart's pain. When through fasting we expose the heart's pain to ourselves, we become more emotionally vulnerable and honest. Only then can the heart can be healed.

Keeping a night vigil until dawn is a practice that is unfamiliar outside of Islamic culture, but it has been a mainstay of the Sufis. It has been said that in the early hours before the dawn "the angels draw near to the earth," and our prayers can better be answered. Another explanation is that in these early morning hours the activity of the world has been reduced to its minimum, the psychic atmosphere has become still, and we are more able to reach the depths of concentration upon our own unconscious.

Finally, keeping the company of those who are conscious of God can restore faith and health to the heart. "The best among you are those who when seen remind you of God."7

It is only a matter of degree to move from the ailing heart to the purified heart. This eventual purification could be understood to proceed through four primary activities or stages:

Liberating ourselves from the psychological distortions and complexes that prevent us from forming a healthy, integrated individuality.

Freeing ourselves from the slavery to the attractions of the world, all of which are secondary reflections of the qualities within the heart. Through seeing these attractions as veils over our one essential yearning, the veils fall away and the naked reality remains.

Transcending the subtlest veil which is the self and its selfishness.

Devoting oneself and one's attention to God; living in and through God, Reality, Love.

The first three of these are virtually impossible without the fourth. Without the power of Love, we can only love our egos and the world. Without the Center, we suffer fragmentation, dispersion in the multiplicity.

By living in and through the Center we become still and at peace. Then all the things of the world will run after us. But if while sitting, we are engaged with the attractions of the world, we are not sitting but running after the world. The Prophet Muhammad said, "Make all your cares into a single care, and God will attend to all your cares." The real friends of God are not occupied with power, self-importance or acquisition, because they are with God.

Moses said, "O Lord, are you close enough for me to whisper in your ear or so distant that I should shout?"

And God said, "I am behind you, before you, at your right and at your left. O Moses, I am sitting next to my servant whenever he remembers me, and I am with him when he calls me."8

Ali Ibn Abu Talib, may God be pleased with him, was once asked if he had ever seen God. "How could I worship what I have not seen?," Ali said. "Our eyes cannot see God directly, but the heart can see God through the realities of faith."

Those who turn toward their own heart may enter the world of spiritual qualities, and they may find there the source of every quality that they projected onto the outer world. And all that they are looking for may truly be within themselves.

It is they on whose hearts He has inscribed faith, and whom He has strengthened with inspiration from Himself. [Qur'an 58:22]

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