Ahmed Afzaal

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.

If Only . . .

We have heard this sentence structure countless times, as well as uttered it ourselves: “If only [x] then [y].”

Here are some random examples.  If only Nader had not run in the 2000 elections, Al Gore would have easily won.  If only you had listened to my advice, this disaster would not have happened.  If only the press were more honest, the Iraq war would have been prevented.  If only I had not married you, my life would have been a paradise.  If only she had tried harder, she would have won the prize.

Most uses of “if only…” posit a slightly different past that is understood to have the potential of causing an alternative and highly desirable present.  There is something profoundly disturbing about this sentence structure, but it is difficult to put one’s finger on exactly what’s wrong with it.  Apparently, if one set of causes regularly leads to a given set of results, which does seem to be the case, then the “if only…” sentences may be taken as simple expressions of truth.  The problem that one can note almost immediately, however, is that it is not at all obvious as to which causes are primary in determining a given outcome, and that in selecting one cause or one set of causes as primary the speaker has to ignore a very large number of additional causes that may also have had the same or, more importantly, the opposite effect.  These latter, un-mentioned causes do not enter the discussion because they are deemed irrelevant by the speaker, not simply due to their irrelevance as legitimate causal factors but also due to their lack of utility in relation to the speaker’s immediate purpose in making that statement.

Why do we utter sentences that begin with “if only…”?  I suppose there are times when such usage is perfectly valid and conveys objectively verifiable information, but I also suspect that more often it is an expression of a lot more than what the words themselves seem to suggest.  In the first case, we learn a lesson from a particular mistake, we make a mental note that such and such happened due to such and such cause or lack thereof, and then we move on with our lives, determined to avoid the undesirable outcome by being more vigilant.

Very frequently, however, the sentence structure beginning with “if only…” is uttered in a context where the infamous blame game is being played.  This is a game that usually two people play, but we also practice our blaming skills by playing the game with ourselves.  In the latter case the blame may be called regret, shame, guilt, and can lead to intense self-aversion.

The “if only…” sentences come in handy when we are looking for someone or something to blame.  It begins like this:  Something is the case that we find undesirable for one reason or another.  At a semi-conscious level we are faced with a very troubling question: Undesirable things are not supposed to happen, at least not to us; if this particular undesirable thing was not supposed to have happened, why did it happen?  Obviously, someone or something has interfered with the otherwise smooth functioning of reality.  We must find the culprit and let everyone know that “it” was the cause.  More importantly, we need to be reassured that if it were not for that particular cause, that particular interference in the otherwise smooth flow of life, then everything would have turned out just fine.

Of course, it is always possible that a given “if only…” sentence is factually correct, but given its very conditional nature, i.e., the fact that it argues from a condition different from what is already the case, the factual correctness of an “if only…” sentence is very difficult to demonstrate.  In fact, it might well be impossible to do so in any conclusive fashion.  We may speak in terms of probabilities, but the bigger the alternative outcome we are referring to the less will be our certitude.  Yet, most “if only…” sentences are delivered with great confidence, betraying the fact that their purpose is not to communicate an objectively verifiable fact but to help us overcome our own semi-conscious anxiety about why an undesirable situation has arisen in the first place.

Behind this anxiety, of course, hides another unexamined assumption, i.e., that we are, or should be, exempt from undesirable events.  If, on the contrary, we do not imagine ourselves to be so exempt, undesirable events would not cause any perplexity that would then have to be overcome by means of identifying a real or imaginary culprit.  No blame game would be necessary in that case.  However, since most of us do harbor that assumption, acceptance of whatever life brings to us is a virtual impossibility and, for this reason, playing the blame game has become almost a necessity.

To say “if only…” is to wish against what is already the case.  It is to deny what is unquestionably real because it has already happened.  What has already happened is qualitatively different from what has not yet happened.  The past must be accepted as such; only the future is open to our creative activity.  While infinite possibilities are waiting in the future, one cannot argue against what has already happened.  Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said: “Do not curse time, for God is time.”  By saying so, he was rejecting the Arab custom of condemning or cursing one’s fate or destiny, i.e., one’s past reality.  To curse whatever has ultimately brought about one’s past reality is to resist what cannot be resisted -an exercise in futility if there ever was one.

The “if only…” sentence is also a scientific scandal.  The world used to be predictable in the good old days of Newtonian physics, but after quantum mechanics and chaos theory this is no longer the case.  Complex systems have a built-in unpredictability, an indeterminacy, that resists all attempts to make them follow exact laws with an absolute, predictable regularity.  Absolutely accurate measurements were never possible, but now we are told that even if such measurements were available we would still fail to make absolute predictions about the future behavior of systems.  Given that outcomes demonstrate a highly sensitive dependence on initial conditions, a tiny variation in a single variable can lead to major changes in ways that are not subject to comprehension because they may never repeat themselves.  To say that the present would be considerably different if the past were only slightly different is obviously true; but it is impossible to predict the exact way in which the present would be affected by any particular “adjustment” in the past.

Sentences that begin with “if only…” are so nineteenth-century!

Between Isness and Oughtness

Contemporary atheists have resurrected an old idea.  The problem of evil, they argue, is a veritable proof for the non-existence of God.  This may be so, but who told them that evil was a problem?

The “problem of evil” is simply this: the world as-it-is seems to fall far short of the world as-it-ought-to-be.  Things happen that should not happen; things that should happen do not happen.  But there is more to the problem than the objective reality of the world, i.e., our own capacity to recognize it as falling short of the ideal.  We are dissatisfied not simply because the world is the-way-it-is, but more importantly because we are able to imagine it the way-it-ought-to-be.  What brings the “problem of evil” into existence is the fact that we distinguish between “good” and “evil,” that we are capable of imagining the alternative to what is already the case.

This indicates that to understand the “problem of evil” attention needs to be focused inwards rather than outwards, on our own subjective reactions rather on the objective conditions.

This much is clear.  If we could not imagine something better, we would not be able to feel dissatisfied.  If we didn’t feel dissatisfied, there would be no “problem of evil.”  The dissatisfaction that we feel, however, can lead us into one of two directions, i.e., into the despair of meaninglessness or into the affirmation of a higher meaning.  Contemporary atheists have chosen the former, but this choice is not inevitable; it is, after all, a choice.

The “problem of evil” shows, first of all, that humans are capable of exercising a profound moral imagination, that they have the capacity to judge actions and events as desirable or undesirable.  They experience, in other words, a gap between reality-as-such and reality-as-morally-perfect.  The question, then, is not so much what this gap says about the existence or non-existence of God, but what is it in us that makes us discern that gap in the first place.

It is doubtful that we would have experienced the gap between isness and oughtness if we didn’t have symbolic language.  The latter allows us not only to describe what is happening but also to think about what should have happened, what ought to have happened, what could have happened, what must happen, what might happen, and so on.  Living beings who do not have a symbolic language that allows them to imagine other-than-what-is-the-case do not seem to experience oughtness; they only experience what is already true.  Without experiencing the world of oughtness, all they have access to is the realm of isness; as such, the “problem of evil” does not exist for beings who do not have symbolic language.

To use the colorful words of Shel Silverstein, the suffering of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” seems to be an experience limited to the human race.  Of course, animals other than Homo sapiens do feel pain, but do they also suffer from the thought that tells them they shouldn’t be feeling pain?  When an ordinary domestic cat sees a pure-bred Persian cat, does she suffer from pangs of racial inferiority?  When a small mouse looks at a large mouse, does he suffer emotionally from the realization of his own relative weakness?  When a male lion loses all his female companions to a younger, stronger lion, does he feel like cursing the universe for its gross unfairness?  The answer to these questions, while not directly knowable, is probably in the negative.

If it is the awareness of oughtness, mediated through symbolic language, that makes us dissatisfied with isness, should we seek a way out of the resulting suffering?  Should we disregard the advantages of having a symbolic language and, instead, strive to revert back to a pre-language stage when everything was experienced as such, without judgments of good or bad?  Should we cultivate a state in which there is no distinction between what-is and what-ought-to-be?  At one level, the answer is indeed “yes.”  It is often to our advantage to experience whatever is already the case without the interference of language, which only introduces labels and judgments and thereby creates a gap between isness and oughtness.

At another level, however, this gap is of immense significance.  It is a gift to be cherished, to be thankful for.  Our perception of the gap is not simply the result of the symbolic language we use,  it is also a sign that we have a moral compass within us.  To discern unfairness, injustice, and cruelty in any form, anywhere in the world, and to feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction as well as a powerful desire for things to be otherwise, signify the presence of something very special within us.  Next time you feel angry when you see a gross injustice, say “thanks” to whoever you believe gave you the sense to recognize an injustice as such.

Furthermore, who wants to live in a world where everything is exactly as it ought to be?  A world in which isness coincides with oughtness is a world of moral perfection.  In a morally perfect world, there is absolutely nothing for a morally conscious being to do.  In a world already perfect, there is nothing better to be imagined, no higher goal towards which to strive, no dreams to be pursued.  A perfect world does not degenerate, nor does it improve; it merely stands still.  There is no change in such a world, at least no consciously conceived and deliberately planned change.  Since there is nothing to do, there is no purpose or meaning either; there is no evolution, no growth.  Thank God we don’t live in a perfect world!

As for contemporary atheists, they may want to ponder the following paradox: In a morally imperfect world, they have failed to find any inherent meaning; but in a morally perfect world, with nothing at all to do, they are also going to find a similar lack of meaning.  In fact, in the present, imperfect world they have found themselves a meaningful vocation, i.e., to investigate and explain why the “problem of evil” proves the non-existence of God.  In a morally perfect world, they would have no such luxury.

Does this mean that the perfect is imperfect, and the imperfect is perfect?


If we could grasp the whole of reality all at once, we would know that it is not just fair but unimaginably good and benevolent.  As things stand, this grasping of the whole seems to be clearly out of our reach. Read More

A Grand Delusion

A delusion is a false belief that is tenaciously held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Delusions are not the sole property of clinically insane individuals; they are the common lot of humanity. Despite the suffering they cause, the vast majority of human beings continue to live under the influence of one or another set of delusions.  The worst of our delusions are those that become so ubiquitous as to acquire an aura of facticity.  They go unchallenged because they are not seen as false by any of the significant individuals around us.  In effect, we confirm one another’s delusions by acting as if they were true.

One of the most pernicious of these false beliefs is the delusion of ownership.  This delusion emerges in childhood when we invest words like “my” and “mine” with too much reality.  Since the significant individuals around us appear to be functioning under the same delusion, they do not challenge our misuse of these words.  Soon, we start taking these words not as useful metaphors or convenient fictions but as accurate indicators of the way things really are.

The delusion of ownership is associated with a long list of symptoms, each of which leads to further suffering.  If I believe that something belongs to me, that it is “mine,” then I feel justified in holding that (1) it’s mine because I deserve it, (2) my worth is a reflection of its value, (3) nobody has the right to take it away from me, (4) if I lose it my worth will come down, (5) I am free to use it any way I please, etc.  A large number of human predicaments, from neuroses and political conflicts to global climate change, can be traced to one or another manifestation of the grand delusion of ownership.

We frequently derive our sense of worth from what others say about us.  What others say about us is often related to how many things we own, or can own if we choose to.  This is no longer a subtle or unconscious phenomenon but has permeated into ordinary language in a blatant way.  When we hear a sentence like “how much he/she is worth,” we immediately know that the number of zeros in a person’s bank balance are at issue, not his/her moral qualities or character traits.

Not only our sense of worth, but in the final analysis even our sense of personal reality has become bound to the delusion of ownership.  I own things, therefore I exist.  If I lose some of them, I am diminished in the hierarchy of existence.  If I notice that you own more than I do, then I immediately feel small in relation to you.  This may lead to a sense of resentment.  Even if I own more things than you do, I still feel a gnawing dissatisfaction because the world dosn’t know this yet.  In order to feel real and worthy in the eyes of the world, I must display my property in one form or another, letting everyone know that I do, in fact, own more than you.  I have now become the object of other people’s admiration and jealousy, therefore I exist.

Yet, no human being ever owns anything.  Things do find their way into our possession and we do use and enjoy them for a while, but eventually they degenerate or are taken up by natural processes of recycling or they move into the possession of someone else.  As soon as we realize the movement of time across eons and millennia and even across decades, the fictive nature of ownership is exposed.  Yet, entire economic systems are built on the unreal foundation of this very fiction.  There is, of course, a limited use for this fiction in the legal system and in the proper functioning of social relations, though even here we find the devastating tendency to take this metaphor too literally.

To imagine ownership as real is possible only by pretending that time is unreal, that change does not exist.  It is only by making time stand still, only by refusing to acknowledge the reality of perpetual change in the universe, that we delude ourselves into thinking that we own anything at all.  On the other hand, if neither us nor what we possess and use is here for ever, if the only constant in the world is change itself, then we are mere custodians, guardians, trustees, stewards… anything but owners.

Like toddlers in a day-care center, we are allowed to play with the toys but we can’t take them with us at the end of the day.  Someone else owns them.

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.

How does the Teacher Know when to Appear?

It has been frequently said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Experience shows that this is true in many ways. But how does the teacher know the right moment to appear?  Who tells the teacher that the student is ready? And how does the teacher “appear” out of thin air?

The fact is that the teacher is quite marginal in this phenomenon; virtually everything depends on the student, so much so that the teacher may not even know his/her role as a teacher. In fact, the teacher may not be a person; it may be an object, the juxtaposition of two or more objects, an apparently random event, or a series of events. Given the endless variety of things from which people have learned invaluable lessons, it is doubtful that there is anything in existence, or even in imagination, that is incapable of acting as a teacher. This is another way of saying that we are constantly immersed in and surrounded by entities, including other people, that are potentially our teachers in one way or another. Whether they will in fact fulfill that role, as well as when and how, is not a matter that is entirely in their control; instead, it is a phenomenon that is largely mysterious and unknown. The process of learning from human and non-human teachers is therefore unpredictable in its precise details, though it is certainly discernible in its general features and overall trajectories. If anyone has any obvious role to play in this regard, it is definitely the student, or, rather, the readiness of the student to learn a particular lesson.

There is, then, no dearth of potential teachers; anything and everything can teach the appropriate lesson, given the student is ready. It is not that a teacher “appears” out of nowhere; instead, it is we as potential learners who decide, consciously or unconsciously, that we are ready to be taught, leading to the recognition that something or someone in our vicinity is a teacher. At that moment it may seem to us that a teacher had suddenly appeared, when it was, in reality, only a matter of our having become attentive and alert, as well as willing and open, to learn a particular lesson.  This usually happens when our ignorant behavior has run into a resistant reality too many times, though exactly how many is too many obviously varies from person to person. Some stubborn souls keep knocking their heads against reality for a very long time, insisting on the correctness (or sometimes fairness) of their theories over and against the stream of evidence to the contrary. Others, with a more open aptitude, may stop relatively early in this process to ask themselves if they were doing anything wrong; by doing so, they open up the possibility that a teacher will appear to them to teach exactly what they need to learn in that moment.

Thus, one way in which we make ourselves ready to be taught is when we recognize that our repeated failures in a given venture may not be due to a lack of effort.  At that moment, we recognize that working harder at what we have already been doing for a while is not going to solve our problem, that instead of working harder than before we may need to try something different. This recognition is difficult and painful, for it involves an acknowledgement of ignorance rather than just failure. Failure is relatively easy to admit, because one can always blame someone else, but to admit that one has been wrong all along hurts the ego where it is most vulnerable. Yet, no teacher will appear and no learning will take place until we stop hitting our heads against concrete reality, and become willing to say to ourselves that perhaps there is a wall here. Once we are willing and open to learn, the teacher appears as if by a miracle. The miracle, of course, is not the appearance of the teacher; the miracle had already happened inside the student, which is what made it possible for the teacher to “appear” in the first place.

What does the teacher do when he/she finally appears?  Does the teacher tell us something that we did not already know?  This is unlikely, for something that is not already inside us will always appear alien and unacceptable, and therefore nonsensical; it won’t evoke true insight.  Instead, let us imagine the possibility that the teacher never taught us anything new at all; that we became open and ready to a teacher only because we had already learned the lesson in ourselves and by ourselves; and that we needed a teacher only to make the implicit lesson explicit, the unconscious realization conscious.  Learning, then, may already have happened somewhere deep inside us well before the teacher appeared.  The teacher merely pointed out to us what was already present within us but not yet fully appreciated or recognized as such.

The teacher, according to this view, is an external sign that points out to us the existence of a particular sign within us, which, in turn, points toward the lesson which is to be learned.


Freedom of will and action, of choice, is real but precarious.  I do have the freedom to choose what I will feel on a given day or in a given moment, how I will experience the objective situations that present themselves to me, how (and whether) I will react and respond to them.  Yet, this freedom is too subtle, too faint, and hence too vulnerable.  It’s real, but always under the threat of annihilation, of being erased completely. Like political freedom, the freedom of choice is forever threatened by its enemies, both internal and external.  Like political freedom, the freedom of choice can increase under certain conditions and decrease under other conditions.  Like political freedom, the freedom of choice is our birth right but it is not an automatic privilege that will be simply given to us because we deserve it; instead, it has to be obtained, nurtured, kept safe from its enemies, made to grow, and used with great caution.  Like political freedom, the freedom of choice can take a life-time to acquire but can be lost in a moment.  In fact, the process through which we acquire political freedom is very much like the process through which we acquire the freedom of choice; both kinds of freedoms are to be acquired again and again, in each moment, indefinitely.  The moment we stop acquiring our political freedom, we lose it.  The moment we stop acquiring the freedom to choose, we no longer have it.  While political freedom is a social phenomenon and the freedom of choice an individual one, the former is pretty much useless without the latter.  There may be perfect guarantees of rights and freedoms in a Constitution, but whether the people supposed to be enjoying those rights and freedoms actually have the capacity to choose at an individual level is not guaranteed in any Constitution.  That capacity is highly fragile, one may even say that it is volatile; to aquire, maintain, and cultivate this capacity an immense amount of consciousness, attention, alertness, and discipline are required…each moment.


Real teaching is a paradox because it is an illusion. It doesn’t exist.  Galileo said: “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.” Teaching, in the sense of conveying an insight to another person, is an impossibility. Information, in the form of words, can be communicated; insights, on the other hand, are incommunicable even when they are perfectly expressed in words. The obstacle is not in the imperfection of language, for people learn invaluable lessons all the time even with little or no involvement of language-based communication.  The obstacle to learning is simply that one is not yet ready. This is evidenced by the fact that if one is not ready to learn a particular lesson, one would not learn it no matter how many times it is repeated, how eloquently it is taught, or how competent the teacher is. One learns only when one is ready, and one learns by finding (i. e., discovering) the truth of the matter for oneself and within oneself. The role of the teacher is to figure out what lessons the student is ready to learn, and then to facilitate the learning of those lessons whenever possible (and to stay out of the way when there is nothing to be done). At other times, the role of the teacher is to figure out what lessons the student needs to learn, and to help prepare the student to become ready for learning those lessons.


Gratitude is a prerequisite for receiving.  We are thankful first, and then we are given. Read More