Life as we imagine it... or life as we know it? Storm and confusion, frustration and anxiety; interspersed with green pastures of pleasant relief and cheerfulness. In our tradition we call this qabd and bast, constriction and expansion. At times, things narrow to the point that there appears no way out in sight. At others we become intoxicated with expansion and forget that all things of this world must come to an end. The pre-Islamic poet Labid said, "Alas, everything other than God is false; and every pleasure will eventually end." The Prophet Mohammed would often say that, other than the pleasure of paradise, this is the most truthful statement ever by a poet.
The illustrious companion of the Prophet, Kaab B Malik, was lost in the pleasure of his date-palm grove in Madinah. The pleasant shade during the hot season enticed him to fall behind when the men departed on campaign with the Prophet towards Syria in the North. His regret and constriction began almost immediately, reaching a crescendo upon the Prophet's return, to whom he admitted his excuse was nothing more than laziness. At the end of his period of atonement the Quran revealed the acceptance of his repentance. In the famous verse Allah refers to him as one of those for whom the Earth became constricted despite its expansiveness; and their very selves became constricted around them, until they realised that there is no running from Allah except to Allah. Kaab resolved from that moment on to make good on his repentance. When you clear the rise from Ataturk International Airport into Istanbul, there's the grave of Kaab B Malik, just outside what were once the walls of Constantinople. If that's not follow-through I don't know what is.
We view situations through psychological frameworks. It's a necessary fact of the subject/object dichotomy. We view a given situation from behind our own eyes, from within our own mind. Oftentimes a distressing situation requires a shifting of perspective, changing the psychological framework through which we are analysing, assessing or comprehending the case at hand. The nature of the shift operates in an orbit with a more expansive view to ultimate realities. This requires psychological conditioning, an understanding of mental frameworks and a consciousness of the metaphysics and cosmology of a bigger picture. Much stress and "stressing" results from lack of training here. And when training has been achieved it is the "loss of consciousness", forgetfulness, or heedlessness called ghaflah that leads to distress. Learning and praxis, trial and error, becoming an accomplished practitioner is a life's journey. But even the melodic flow of a talented pianist had to begin somewhere with not a few off-key notes.
Ibn Ata al Sakandari speaks in his aphorisms of how Allah has "placed you in a middle place between the material world and the angelic world that you might understand your true station and value". Every human being walks between two worlds, his body in one and his soul in the other. His mind has the option to swing the balance of his weight to one or the other according to its attachments and preoccupations.
Ahmad Ibn Ajibah explains this very same aphorism saying that the more a person focuses on his soul and refines his character from its animal qualities, the more he frees himself from the prison of the physical body. The weight of his physical being lightens as his or existence shifts more towards a higher esoteric plane. He or she begins to live in the bigger picture. Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi