If you saw somebody passing over a glass of refreshing juice in order to grab a hologram, an illusion or a projection of juice you would conclude:
a) that the person is suffering or
b) what the person is suffering is an illusion.
You would notice that the person is passing up that which is real in pursuit of that which is unattainable and illusory. You would conclude that the person is passing up that which is precious for that which is worthless, that which is nourishing for that which is depleting, that which is truth for that which is falsehood. This is exactly how we are. We pass over that which is precious because our attention is outside the act of the moment, into an illusion.
Very rarely is the movie that we play in our heads something affirming or something beautiful, something uplifting.
If you examine the nature of our internal dialogue for most people it has one of two characters. It is either a lot of movies playing in the head with regard to events that have happened: “O! He was so nasty to me!” Very rarely is the movie that we play in our heads something affirming or something beautiful, something uplifting. More often than not the movie that we’re playing in our heads is a movie that underscores our sense of having been unjustly dealt with: “That one did this, this one did that!” We have rancour and an ill feeling.
So this movie that we’re playing in our head is an illusion. It’s not an illusion like the glass of illusory juice you’re going for. It’s literally a glass of illusory poison because the effect on the heart is darkening.
The second programme that we run in our heads is a programme that’s concerned about the future and more often than not this programme is also a programme of negation. In other words, it is again passing over the glass of wholesome juice for the glass of poison. Why? Again, your looking forward has one of two characters: hope or fear. Both hope and fear of judging the moment that you are in by saying to the moment – “You aren’t good enough.”
You don’t know that which is real until you are on the edge of losing it.
So you are looking at that which is real from the perspective of that which is illusory and you are commenting on that which is real and you’re saying to the real, “You’re not good enough!” So however you look at this, whatever direction you look at it, we keep on deluding ourselves and taking ourselves away from that which is real and that which is present and precious to that which is illusory.
Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala has given us a couple of doors, keys which allow us to escape this nonsense of an internal dialogue, an internal movie that is either based on the past or on the future. The most significant way that He brings to us is the proximity of catastrophe. You don’t know that which is real until you are on the edge of losing it. You don’t know how precious a relationship is until you are on the edge of losing it. You don’t know how precious is that which you have until you see the tsunami of catastrophe about to overtake it. We look at catastrophe as if it is something monstrous, as if it is a great injustice done by existence to us. We don’t realize that if catastrophe forces you for an hour to sit with a real glass of juice this is better than one hundred years of illusory poison.
The presence of the catastrophy is not a curse. It is a huge blessing.
People often say this: you know the most precious time I spent with somebody was just before they died. The few hours that you have alone, when you connect with this person, things get resolved in relationships just before people die, in ways that that they could never have been resolved before because now the nonsense is put aside. We are no longer playing a game. We’re no longer plotting the future – I’m going to do this to you and I’m going to get this out of you. We’re no longer playing a game because you know there is no tomorrow. All that you have is now. Park our nonsense shall we? Let’s just deal with now. Just let’s say those things that need to be said, address those things that need to be addressed so that each of us can step into infinity from here, at peace, at rest. So, if it was for Malaikatul-Maut (the Angel of Death) hovering over us we wouldn’t have that moment. So the presence of the catastrophy is not a curse. It is a huge blessing.
Certainly in terms of people of my experience, people that I’ve met, of all the generations that were produced, of my living experience of the 20th Century, the generation of people who fought the Second World War were quite extraordinary. They were special people and they were special people because en masse it doesn’t really matter what side they were fighting on, whether it was Axis or Allies, en masse they gave their lives for a cause bigger than themselves. We did this as a species. Now, a lot of those people had a very sensible way of looking on things.
We don’t realise that in the face of the looming catastrophe called our deaths these plots that we plot are fundamentally futile.
One of the things that was clear about these people was what was important to them was real companionship. Real companionship is again only possible if you forego the agenda you’re trying to pursue for long enough to actually give your co-traveller enough attention to see what’s really happening, to have that conversation with the person. You have to stop your agenda long enough to actually sit down and have a cup of coffee or whatever it is you’re going to have with this person. Play a game of pool. You have to stop your agenda. Increasingly you see we’re so busy pursuing our agenda the first thing that goes by the way are the relationships, the companionships. What we don’t realise is that in the face of this looming catastrophe called our deaths these plots that we plot are fundamentally futile.
We were having a conversation prior to the salah this evening. We are old friends in this company tonight. Haji Malik and I have known each other since 1982. If we took our imaginations back to when we were young people, those young men in 1982, in their 20s, looking forward, I can tell you what I had in my mind. We had these visions of re-establishing Madina, this naïve desire to produce this utopian society and we were prepared to do the most extraordinary, in fact monstrous things to achieve this illusion. That’s what it was! It was an illusion, a beautiful illusion.
Tell me, how many people have died for this! With the benefit of hindsight now, 30 years on, looking back on the craziness, it struck me that if I had known then what I know now I would probably not have wasted 80% of the time that I’ve wasted in my life. Futile and fundamentally destructive mentality! I would not have passed up the possibility of actually trying to be an appreciative spouse to my wife or a father to my children for this illusion of establishing this Madina. And so, this is the metaphor for all our aspirations. We pass up the moment because we see “Over there! Take me over there!” In three years time there’s the great man, big turban. Everyone’s going “Ah!”
The reason why Allah keeps catastrophe near to us is so that we’re reminded of the closeness of death.
Be careful folks. As we’ve argued before in this context that at the limit of your peripheral vision there’s a frame which we can refer to as the window of perception. We spend all our time pursuing aspiration in front of that window, in the world. I want to be significant. I want to stand out “over there!” Understand, when we die this window closes and you say on the inside of this window, not on the outside. Be careful Malaikatul-Maut doesn’t catch you with your aspiration on the outside when that window closes and you don’t know when that window is going to close. The reason why Allah keeps catastrophe near to us is so that we’re reminded of the closeness of Malikatul-Maut, we’re reminded how quickly this window of perception can close, how quickly all aspiration that you had in front of that window, in the world “over there” is futile; those things that you are going to achieve there – the big turban and all – they don’t come to the grave with you, they don’t cross the threshold of death with you. What crosses the threshold of death is what’s inside this window once that window closes.
So I caution myself and I caution all of us not to pass over that which is real for that which is illusory; to be very deliberate about cherishing that which you have rather than dismissing it and throwing it away in pursuit of something that we think we want which is better than what we have.
I’ve appealed to myself and to all of us to make the key engagement of our day gratitude and appreciativeness of what it is that we have, because when you understand, when you are truly grateful, when you truly see things as they are, the gratitude that comes to you is enough for you. You need nothing else. It is that fullness, that appreciativeness that you are actually after. You don’t have to achieve the big turban “over there” to have this sense of fullness. You can have it unconditionally right now.
That’s Allah’s Promise to you.
May Allah Grant us success on this Path.
May He Grant us nearness to Him.
May He Grant us annihilation in Him.
May He Grant us death before we die.
This discourse was given spontaneously by Shaykh Ebrahim after a dhikr session on 4th September 2010.