Ahmed Afzaal

To Sing or Not to Sing

In a previous post (“Be the lament…”) I deliberately exaggerated the rose/nightingale dichotomy as two ways of being in the world, presenting them as mutually exclusive.  It was pointed out to me that the contrast was overdrawn (thanks, Tahir).

Perhaps we can identify two levels to this issue.  At one level, quiet contemplation and active self-expression do indeed go together, sequentially or even simultaneously.  After all, to express oneself implies that one has something to express, which could not have come into being without a prior period of quiet contemplation.  Furthermore, contemplation is an ongoing process, which means that one can never outgrow the need to think, reflect, reconsider, adjust, re-adjust, revise, correct, improve, and keep on looking for new conclusions as well as fresh ways of expressing them.

At the second level, there is the issue of time.  In the words of the Bible

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot.
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain.
A time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3)

The point, then, is whether we find ourselves in a time that demands we maintain silence or a time that demands we speak up.  How do we know if this is the time for silence?  If our audience are not ready, or if the song within is not yet mature, silence is preferable.  Be a rose, then; suffer some more, hold the song in your heart, let it grow.  Once your audience is ready, and the song within has reached the desired level of maturity, then it is obviously time to be a nightingale.  Incidentally, Iqbal anticipated both kinds of situations.  This is what he said about “a time to be silent.”

نا لہ  ہے بلبل  شوریدہ  ترا  خا م  ا بھی

اپنے سینے میں اسے اور زرا تھام ابھی

If it is “time to be silent,” you wait, and let things simmer in the background, doing whatever needs to be done in the meanwhile to prevent apathy or stagnation.  Soon there will be signs that the audience is ready, the song is ready, the stage is set, and it is “time to speak.”  You may still be hesitant or unsure, not wishing to sing an immature song but not wanting to let the right moment slip by either.  If that is so, seek advice from those you trust and those who have followed your progress.  Very frequently when one is not able to judge one’s own maturity, a friend or a mentor can do that part.  Listen to what they have to say; they are usually right, particularly if they are unanimous.  This is your sign that the time for becoming a nightingale has arrived.  This is how Iqbal described “a time to speak.”

پیر حر م  نے کہا  سن  کے  مری  رو ید ا د

پختہ ہے تیری فغاں اب نہ اسے دل میں تھام

The dilemma that many of us face is whether to sing or not to sing.  Is this moment asking me to wait and see, or is it demanding that I stand up and speak out?  The danger here is the ego and its deceptive tricks.  The ego tends to be out of sync with the present moment, and it is therefore a poor guide to what should be done now.  In a time that demands silence, the ego may wish praise and glory and so it may throw us in a premature nightingale mode.  On the other hand, in a time that demands full-fledged expressiveness, the ego may wish to cling to a life of comfort and ease and so it may hold us in an inauthentic rose mode.

We learn by trial and error, and by paying attention to the signs.

Excuse me, are you Homo duplex?

If someone stops you in the middle of the street and asks the above question, do not panic!

Homo duplex is Latin for “the double human.” It implies that all humans have two closely related but very distinct sides to their being. The distinction between these two sides is sometimes experienced with such sharpness that we may even say that there are two distinct beings in each human. Each self, then, is double.

The easiest way to understand human duality is to experience it directly, by looking within oneself. If each of us is really double, then it would mean that there are two of me; let’s call them I and myself. There are also two of you; let’s call them you and yourself. When you look within yourself, do you find a duality or do you see a unity? If you said unity, look again. Then ask yourself: Who is looking? You, of course. Who is being looked at? Yourself.

This is not a psychic illusion, nor a play on words. Humans really are double beings, though the vast majority of us are veiled from this reality. To say that each human is double is to recognize that there is both the observer and the observed within each of us. There is a being in me that thinks, speaks, and acts, and another being in the background that watches me think, speak, and act. For most people, the observer in the background remains unperceived, undetected, and therefore non-existent. In fact, the observer cannot be directly observed at all; it takes alterness and practice to still the observed self so that the observing self is allowed to emerge spontaneously.

There are many ways of describing the observer and the observed, and a great deal of overlap, and hence confusion, in the terminology. Let’s look at some of the terms used. The Qur’an, for instance, uses the word “nafs” with a variety of connotations and nuances of meaning. In the Islamic scholarly tradition, different authorities have interpreted this word variously, depending on their immediate purpose as well as the overall linguistic-semantic context in which they were writing. Nafs is often translated as soul or self, but these words remain inadequate without lengthy explanations. The Qur’an also uses the word “ruh,” or spirit, which is related to the Hebrew word “ruah,” meaning breath, air, or wind. The word nafs is frequently contrasted with ruh, though nafs is also related to “nafas,” which means breath.

In referring to the divine spirit in the human individualal, Rumi frequently uses the Persian word “jan,” which literally means life. The relationship of this word with the Biblical reference to the “breath of life” and the Islamic notion of divine breath, or nafas al-Rahman (breath of the All-Merciful) is clear enough. The word “life” is being used metaphorically in this context, as in “spiritual life.” Any confusion of “jan” with life as a biological category should therefore be avoided.

Muhammad Iqbal, perhaps the most important Muslim thinker to have contributed in this area of inquiry in recent times, had to face a similar problem of terminology. In his Urdu and Persian poetry, he chose the Persian word “khudi,” which had, till then, a very negative connotation of selfishness and egotism. The fact that Iqbal single-handedly changed the connotations of this word is a testimony to the popularity and influence of his poetry. In his English prose, however, Iqbal had to deal with a different dilemma.  Both “self” and “ego” already had a long history in the works of Western philosophers and psychologists; Iqbal had to go to extraordinary lengths in order to distinguish his ideas from those of his Western predecessors and contemporaries. Yet, it is difficult to say that Iqbal has been fully understood in either the East or the West.

In the second lecture/chapter of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal uses language that seems not only to affirm the notion of Homo duplex but also to confirm the distinction made above between an observing self and an observed self. Iqbal writes:

. . . the self in its inner life moves from the centre outwards. It has, so to speak, two sides which may be described as appreciative and efficient. On its efficient side it enters into relation with what we call the world of space. The efficient self is the subject of associationist psychology – the practical self of daily life in its dealing with the external order of things . . . .   The time in which the efficient self lives is, therefore, the time of which we predicate long and short. It is hardly distinguishable from space.  . . . Existence in spatialized time is spurious existence.

For Iqbal, the “efficient self” is the “practical self of daily life.” Throughout the day, as I think, speak, and act in order to carry out the routines of my practical life, as I brush my teeth, drive my car, talk with co-workers or friends, watch a movie, or play a game of chess, I am fully identified with my efficient self. I constantly use the first person pronoun to refer to the acts, motives, and desires of this efficient self. Yet, as Iqbal notes, the efficient self exists only in serial time, i.e., in time that we imagine as a straight line divisible into past, present, and future. The existence enjoyed by the efficient self is therefore “spurious.” Even though the efficient self is a tool that is absolutely necessary for human growth and fulfillment, it is, in the final analysis, unreal–just like the serial time in which it operates. Iqbal continues:

A deeper analysis of conscious experience reveals to us what I have called the appreciative side of the self. With our absorption in the external order of things, necessitated by our present situation, it is extremely difficult to catch a glimpse of the appreciative self. In our constant pursuit after external things we weave a kind of veil round the appreciative self which thus becomes completely alien to us. It is only in the moments of profound meditation, when the efficient self is in abeyance, that we sink into our deeper self and reach the inner centre of experience.

One of the great insights of Buddhist teachers is that the human being has “no self,” and that a great deal of suffering results from the illusion that the self is real. Iqbal fully agrees with this insight, adding only that the “no self” doctrine of Buddhism applies to the efficient self that operates in the practical world of everyday reality, i.e., within the limitations of serial time. Its existence, indeed, is “spurious.” Beyond this spurious self and its so-called “reality,” however, there lies the appreciative self which enjoys true existence in the world of pure duration. In our day-to-day lives we are so overwhelmed with the incoming flow of sens data and with our constant pursuit of things and experiences that the appreciative self simply becomes unavailable, drowned as it were in a deluge of distractions. In deep states of meditation the efficient self is stilled and silenced, which allows the manifestation of the appreciative self. What Buddhist teachers call “pure consciousness” is what Iqbal identifies in the above passage as the “inner center of experience.” According to Iqbal, the distinctive feature of our experience as the appreciate self is unity.

In the life-process of this deeper ego the states of consciousness melt into each other. The unity of the appreciative ego is like the unity of the germ in which the experiences of its individual ancestors exist, not as a plurality, but as a unity in which every experience permeates the whole. There is no numerical distinctness of states in the totality of the ego, the multiplicity of whose elements is, unlike that of the efficient self, wholly qualitative. There is change and movement, but change and movement are indivisible; their elements interpenetrate and are wholly non-serial in character. It appears that the time of the appreciative-self is a single “now” which the efficient self, in its traffic with the world of space, pulverizes into a series of “nows” like pearl beads in a thread. Here is, then, pure duration unadulterated by space.

Again, Iqbal’s description–based on his reading of the Qur’an–appears to be in great sympathy with the Buddhist view of the nature of pure consciousness that lies beyond the flux of thoughts and sensations. For Iqbal, pure duration is experienced as an indivisible, un-analyzable unity; the whole of experience is present in each of its parts, and hence there is no perception of separateness, discontinuity, or interruption in the flow of experience. Time is no longer a straight line that can be divided neatly into past, present, and future, but forms a series of “nows” that are, despite themselves, uncontaminated by plurality. This absolute, total sense of unity can be so profound that some mystics may describe it as absolute and total “nothingness.” Such description will be entirely acceptable to Iqbal, so long as he can point out that “nothingness” here stands for the total lack of “thingness,” i.e., an absence of boundaries that are normally responsible for our sense of distinct entities being separated by empty space.

Returning to the problem of terminology, let us note that Iqbal frequently uses the word “ego” in ways that differ from its common, contemporary usage. Unlike Iqbal, most contemporary writers -particularly those who are influenced by the Buddhist tradition–almost always use the word “ego” in a negative sense. In their usage, the ego represents our normal sense of personal identity that functions well in the world of forms but which is also the source of much of our neurotic patterns of thinking and acting.  Most of human suffering, in this view, is the result of our taking this ultimately false sense of egohood too seriously and of investing its fleeting patterns with too much reality and permanence. This usage of the word “ego” is virtually the same as Iqbal’s usage of the term “efficient self.”

Similarly, when words like “selfishness” or “selflessness” are employed in ordinary discourse, or when Islamic authorities emphasize the need to overcome or transcend one’s “nafs,” we should be aware that it is the “ego” in the above sense that is being implicated.

Finally, in Buddhism inspired writings the term “attachment” frequently shows up, where it relates to the tenacious quality of relationships that the ego establishes with things and people within the world of forms. In Iqbal’s language, these are the relationships that the efficient self establishes with things and people while operating within serial time. In both cases, “attachment” is a potentially neurotic phenomenon that can be recognized as such only through great inner awareness; it emerges due to an over-identification with the ego or the efficient self, and dissipates insofar as we learn to experience pure consciousness or as we “sink into our deeper self and reach the inner center of experience.”

Each of us, then, is a Homo duplex.  To recognize our inner being as double is simultaneously a great and a humble achievement. It is great because all subsequent insights are already contained in this discovery; it is humble because it is only the first and the very basic step in the journey.

Be the Lament, or don’t Bother Singing

Here is an Urdu couplet by the Indian mystic-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.

The words of this couplet are fairly simple and the symbolism is traditional; yet its meanings are fresh and the underlying concepts have a distinctly contemporary flavor.  A simple paraphrase follows:

In this garden, either be a follower of the nightingale or a disciple of the rose; either become the lament [like the former] or refrain completely from singing [like the latter].

The symbols used in this couplet are familiar to any student of Indo-Persian literature. They have been used over and over again over many centuries, but usually within a limited range of semantic possibilities. It is this well-established cultural tradition that makes these symbols immediately recognizable all over the Persian and Urdu speaking societies of Asia. In this couplet, however, Iqbal manages to do something novel with these old symbols, reviving them as effective metaphors by pouring into them fresh insights.

The garden is obviously the world; the nightingale and the rose are two ways of being in the world, the former representing a life of self-expression and the latter a life of quiet contemplation. The nightingale sings, not out of joviality and celebration but in response to her pain. The nightingale’s pain is one of longing, of separation from the beloved (which is usually the rose). The song is therefore a lament. Innumerable poets have seen a reflection of their own yearning in the nightingale’s anguished song. The rose, on the other hand, is self-reflective, almost self-absorbed.

The symmetrical form of the couplet seems to indicate that there is nothing wrong with either of these options; it is as legitimate to be a rose as it is to be a nightingale. Whether one becomes this or that depends largely on one’s temperament, which is at least partly inherent and fixed. Yet, both lines of the couplet are in the imperative case, suggesting not only the possibility of choice but also its inevitability.

Jungians would say that the nightingale stands for extraversion and the rose for introversion. They would also see nothing wrong with either personality type, though each obviously has its limitations. Most Jungians would probably agree that a great deal of one’s propensity to be outward-looking or inward-looking are biologically given, more or less fixed, with only limited possibilities for conscious change.

From a religious viewpoint, being a nightingale amounts to prophetic religiosity that emphasizes practical ethics, and being a rose amounts to mystical religiosity with its stress on contemplative prayer and spiritual experience. A person’s inborn personality traits are obviously relevant to the kind of religiosity that he/she would find most satisfying. Both the prophetic and the mystical kinds of religiosity have existed throughout the recorded history of religion. Who is to say which of the two is superior?

But if nightingale and rose are two ways of being in the world, the issue at stake goes considerably beyond the question of types. In order to be in the world, i.e., in order to practice authentic being, a person has to take into account not only his/her own psychological propensities and subjective preferences but also the external demands of the moment. As we experience and encounter them, the objective demands of the world are never static. Sometimes the world allows and even encourages a person to be a rose; it provides opportunities and incentives for quiet contemplation, silent meditation, introspection, introversion, and self-exploration. At other times, the world is experienced in diametrically opposite ways, when it demands action and struggle directed outwards into the objective reality. At such moments, authentic being can best be practiced by becoming a nightingale. In times like that, self-expression is preferable to contemplation; one must stand up and speak out. To remain a rose when the world demands otherwise is not only to forsake one’s duty, it is also to suffer diminishing in being. One ceases to be real insofar as one ceases to be authentic.

For those individuals who are accustomed to being roses, the call to self-expression naturally provokes great anxiety. One response to such an existential challenge is to find refuge in a false sense of modesty or of self-imposed limitations; another is to accept the call but only half-heartedly, saying yes while insisting on a plethora of ifs and buts in small print. Iqbal’s couplet is a critique of this very reluctance, this avoidance of full commitment, that precludes the actualization of being at the precise moment when it is most likely to bloom into unforeseen beauty. In a state of being neither here nor there, one desperately seeks the comfort of remaining a rose, dreading the risks involved in living the life of a nightingale but also realizeing at some level that one’s very reality is at stake.

There is, then, no middle ground between the silent contemplation of the rose and the loud and daring self-expression of the nightingale. If one lacks the courage to be a nightingale, then Iqbal suggests it is better to remain a rose; there is no point in getting up on to the stage if one is only going to clear one’s throat, make a few practice notes, and then end one’s performance with a whimper.

Be the lament that’s in you, Iqbal says, or don’t sing at all.