Ahmed Afzaal

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.