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?

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