A feeling of discouragement when you slip up

by Ibn Ata' Illah

English version by Victor Danner
Original Language Arabic

A feeling of discouragement when you slip up
     is a sure sign that you put your faith in deeds.

Your desire to withdraw from everything
     when Allah has involved you in the world of means
          is a hidden appetite.

Your desire for involvement with the world of means
     when Allah has withdrawn you from it
          is a fall from high aspiration.

Aspiration which rushes on ahead
cannot break through the walls of destiny.

Give yourself a rest from managing!
     When Someone Else is doing it for you,
          don't you start doing it for yourself!

-- from Ibn 'Ata' Illah the Book of Wisdom/Kwaja Abdullah Ansari Intimate Conversations, Translated by Victor Danner / Translated by Wheeler M. Thackston

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This is a really interesting set of aphoristic verses to contemplate:

A feeling of discouragement when you slip up
     is a sure sign that you put your faith in deeds.


We have this idea, particularly in the modern era, that the strong individual must aggressively forge his or her path through life. There is a sense that it is a fight, that only the strong will succeed, and unhappiness is a sign of weakness and inaction. It is the idea that fulfillment comes through force of will.

But Sheikh Ibn Ata' Illah gives us a very different point-of-view. Throughout these lines Ibn Ata' Illah seems to be reminding us that, if we are pushing for a life that is not ours, and feeling frustration because it is not happening, then it is a sign that we are still serving the nafs (ego).

Your desire to withdraw from everything
     when Allah has involved you in the world of means
          is a hidden appetite.


When we have a life of activity in the world but all we want is to withdraw, that isn't necessarily a sign of spiritual virtue that has somehow been thwarted by circumstances. Instead, our lack of inner peace and desire to be elsewhere is a reflection of self-will and misdirected desire -- products of the false self which wants to tell its own story rather than participate in the real story unfolding through us.

Your desire for involvement with the world of means
     when Allah has withdrawn you from it
          is a fall from high aspiration.


And, by the same token, when we are genuinely called to a life a withdrawal but keep turning our attention outward and getting caught up in the dramas and hooks of worldly activity, then just as much have we lost a sense our true nature.

It is not that one manner of life is right and the other wrong. It is not that one is "spiritual" and the other "profane." Ibn Ata' Illah speaks of destiny: the soul has a path that naturally unfolds as we move through life.

When we understand life this way, there is an immense sense of relief -- and rest.

Give yourself a rest from managing!
     When Someone Else is doing it for you,
          don't you start doing it for yourself!


Most of us imagine that we have to somehow do life, that it is an immense effort. Now, there may be many activities to engage in, some that can be profoundly exhausting or require vigorous determination, but, on a spiritual level, life itself is not something we do or make for ourselves. No, it flows through us and is not of our making. Sheikh Ibn Ata' Illah seems to be saying that what is required is not a great battering ram of willpower, not some total life revolution, but simply to come to know ourselves, to feel the deep currents flowing through our lives, and then to fully live the life that naturally emerges with heart and awareness... and contentment. In this way, we stop obstructing the divine will with our endless frustrated efforts and, instead, we allow ourselves to become expressions of that heavenly flow that has always been eager to pour through us.

Read the wrong way, this can sound like it is encouraging passivity, or even acceptance of terrible life circumstances. That's not it at all. We may need to be intense, passionate, even forceful, but to be effective those energies must be aligned with our deepest sense of who and what we are, in harmony with that great current flowing through us unseen. Even when we make big changes in our lives, it is not that we are forcing movement; we are simply maneuvering things to allow what is ready to happen happen.

The real issue the poet is highlighting is the distinction between self-will, the will that serves the nafs/ego, and divine will, or what he calls destiny. We can reformulate this into saying it is the distinction between willfulness and willingness. Knowing the difference, being able to utilize willingness in a non-passive, positive, and transformative way, this is surprisingly deep work for the soul.

...That is what I understand the poet to be saying. Do I absolutely agree with this perspective? I'll go along with it most of the way, but I suppose I still put some faith in the importance of deeds.

As a younger man I was big on effort. My mantra was, "Push, Ivan. Push harder." And then, in a moment of sweet opening, I had the startling and humbling realization that that eternal moment of delicious fullness had nothing to do with me or my exhausting efforts. I saw that my entire life itself was, strangely, not the result of my own efforts. It was as if it had been unfolding and would continue to unfold with or without my constant pushing. I saw the humorous image of a duck paddling down a stream. The duck imagined that its paddling feet kept the current of the stream running, and so it paddled its legs harder and harder. Finally, the poor duck became so tired that it collapsed in exhaustion upon the stream's surface... and felt the current for the first time carrying him along.

I think Ibn Ata' Illah is saying that we are all that duck. We may have reason to paddle on occasion to reorient and redirect ourselves, but the current is there and all we really need to do is ride it.



Recommended Books: Ibn Ata' Illah

Ibn 'Ata' Illah the Book of Wisdom/Kwaja Abdullah Ansari Intimate Conversations





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