The greatest thing is to control the self. The second greatest thing is to feel compassion towards all creatures. The third greatest thing is to fulfill the principles of Islam to the letter. …
Nothing is possible before the self is calmed and pacified. A seeker went to a teacher, ‘Put me in shape,’ he said. But because the self ceaselessly vibrated, shook and attacked right and left, it was possible to do nothing. The teacher can stop this vibration, but the responsibility to stop it belongs to the disciple. The same seeker went back to his teacher after bringing his self to a quiescent state, and this time he saw that everything proceeded smoothly.
Nothing can be done before the self is stopped, because the rampant self also prevents the principles of Islam from being applied. The tiniest opportunity is enough for the self to wreck everything. …
The self fears three things: hunger, Prayer, death. It fears nothing else.
(The Teachings of a Perfect Master, p. 129, 130, 132.)
Here I shall try to expand upon the Master’s teachings regarding the self. In his view, phenomena belonging to the material world and the spiritual world often mirrored each other, so that it was possible to understand certain spiritual matters by recourse to physical analogues. Hence in what follows, I will attempt to explain certain matters about the self and the spirit by using analogies from the world of nature.
The natural state of the self is the Base Self. The task is to purify the self of its Baseness in several stages, finally culminating in the Purified Self.
The Four States of Matter
Matter is present in nature in four different forms: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. The following graphic covers almost everything we need to know about these states for the purposes of this article:
Heat is a form of energy, the energy of atoms/molecules in motion. As heat is added, matter becomes increasingly agitated, until even the atomic structure cannot be sustained and, in the plasma state, atoms break down into a furious swarm of free ions and electrons. On the other hand, as matter is cooled, it condenses and solidifies. Near Absolute Zero, the motion of atoms/molecules ceases entirely. Only quantum effects remain. (In terms of the Four Classical Elements, solid corresponds to Earth, liquid to Water, gas to Air and plasma to Fire.)
Now the Base Self is similar in its nature to a gas. It is capricious and follows its whim, going this way and that in an apparently random, chaotic fashion like the molecules in a gas:
When the Base Self goes ballistic, i.e. it flies into a rage, this is best symbolized by the plasma state of matter. Then, the Base Self is terribly difficult to control. Just try to contain it when you're angry and you'll see how hard it is.
For decades, physicists have been trying to harness nuclear fusion, so far without any clear signs of energy breakeven. For the nuclei of atoms to fuse, they have to overcome electromagnetic repulsion, and for that, they have to be accelerated (heated) to temperatures of millions of degrees Kelvin. A plasma is a furious swirl of subatomic particles where the structure of an atom can no longer be maintained.
Plasma confinement is fraught with nonlinearities. Though scientists have tried to put the plasma in a “magnetic bottle” by using powerful electromagnets, the genie bursts its confines and the project fails. In its ability to break free, the Base Self is just like white-hot plasma.
But even in a solid, although they are locked into some sort of spatial order, the atoms or molecules still wiggle and jiggle, jostling each other as shown below:
Only at temperatures approaching Absolute Zero (0 degrees Kelvin) does this vibration cease entirely. And when that happens, matter begins to exhibit extraordinary properties, such as superconductivity and superfluidity.
In the same way, the self, when it has been brought to an entirely quiescent state, begins to exhibit emergent miraculous properties which had previously been masked by its constant vibration.
The reason the self has to be “cooled” to absolute quiescence is that otherwise, Ascension to God will be impossible. For the self will shake off the spirit at some point along the way, thus thwarting its goal.
We know of two cases of failed Ascension from Greek mythology. (Important Note: the following should in no way be construed as a blanket endorsement of everything in Greek mythology.)
Case 1: Bellerophon
This hero, riding on the winged horse Pegasus, slew the dreaded monster, Chimera. Emboldened by this and similar successes, he thought to be the equal of God (Zeus: Theos), and to share His company, to sit with Zeus on Olympus. But God has not given, nor does He give, His Godhood to anyone.
The hero in his hubris sought to fly to heaven, to Olympus, on the back of Pegasus.
Zeus was angered by this presumption and sent a horsefly to sting the steed, which caused it to buck and cast the hero down to earth. He became lame or blind as a consequence, and afterwards wandered the earth alone, despised by all. As Pindar observes in this context: “Sweets gained unrightly await an end most bitter." (Isthmian Ode 7.44 ff.)
One proposed etymology for Pegasus is pihassas in the ancient Luwian language, which means “lightning.” Now Buraq, the steed of Muhammad’s Ascension, also means “lightning,” this time in Arabic. It was so called because each step it took carried it to the next horizon.
Pegasus (left), a modern representation of the Buraq (right courtesy M-Studios).
Now as I have been explaining for years, any monstrous form is a symbol for the Base Self. In the Master’s teachings, to slay the Base Self is possible only by total abstention from Unclean Gain and Unclean Lust. The hero shows some evidence of the latter abstention in the mythical accounts. So his slaying of the monster should also have taken care of his conceit. But the almost-purified self, symbolized by Pegasus, is still prone to shake off its rider, with or without a horsefly, this last being a direct consequence of overconfident pride. So the almost-purified self has to be purified also of vanity/horseflies if success is to be possible. As the Prophet said: “Arrogance leads to disaster,” just as hubris inevitably leads to nemesis. And this is where hunger comes in.
Case 2: Icarus
The great inventor, Daedalus, fashioned wings made of feathers held together by wax for himself and his son. Before the two began to fly together, he said: “Let me warn you to take the middle way. The moisture of the sea will weigh down your wings if you fly too low, while the sun will scorch them if you go too high. Travel between the extremes.” And this is always good advice, even in the search for God. The Prophet himself always counseled moderation: "Whoever goes to extremes, is ruined."
The boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him [ever since]. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, A. S. Kline’s version, Bk VIII:183-235.)
Here it is the hero himself who has the wings, instead of mounting a winged steed like Pegasus, and thus the symbolism of Ascension is more obvious. Weak wings represent a state of unreadiness, and the young man's excessive ambition is a sure cause of downfall.
So if you want an Ascension to be successful like the Prophet’s, you need to take care that you don’t approach the matter with conceit. And if you want to Ascend to the sun (a symbol for God, who is Light), be careful that your wings of wax have adequate protection. Here, too, hunger has a role to play.
Let us try to understand the effects of hunger by resorting to analogies from astrophysics.
Black Holes, White Holes
First we have to understand “hydrostatic equilibrium.” Two forces are at work in a star such as our sun. One is the star’s self-gravity, which pulls stellar matter inwards. The other is the pressure of the gases composing the star, which drives stellar matter outwards. This pressure is actually caused by the immense heat output due to thermonuclear fusion. When a star is neither expanding nor contracting, it is said to be in hydrostatic equilibrium:
As a star burns up matter and converts it into energy, the gases become gradually depleted, the star begins to cool, and the outward pressure decreases. At some point, it can no longer sustain its equilibrium against gravity, and the star enters gravitational collapse. What happens next depends on the initial mass of the star, and is best summarized by the following picture:
If the star is about the same mass as the Sun, it will turn into a white dwarf star. If it is somewhat more massive, it may undergo a supernova explosion and leave behind a neutron star. But if the collapsing core of the star is very great—at least three times the mass of the Sun—nothing can stop the collapse. The central part of the star—the entire star if the star is massive enough—implodes to form an infinite gravitational warp in space called a black hole.
In a black hole, all the known laws of physics break down. Furthermore, white holes have been hypothesized as the inverse of black holes. Whereas all matter and energy are sucked into a black hole and nothing, including light, can escape from it, a white hole is supposed to be a region of spacetime which cannot be entered, but from which matter and energy flow out. It is also thought that black holes and white holes may be connected through “wormholes” in spacetime, and that what enters the sink of a black hole comes out on the other side of the wormhole from the source that is a white hole.
While white holes remain a matter for conjecture, supernovas are a relatively common occurence throughout the universe. These, too are due to gravitational collapse. A star explodes with an energy output of something like a 100 million times its normal energy output. Under certain circumstances, a supernova can outshine an entire galaxy.
In sum, interesting things begin to happen when a star has consumed its fuel.
Black hole (left), white hole (right).
Analogies with the Self
Under normal conditions, the self may be said to be in “hydrostatic equilibrium.” We eat, drink, and lead our lives in the usual way. Food provides energy. But what happens when the self is starved of nutrients?
The Prophet said: "Hunger is the food of God" (Reynold Nicholson, Şefik Can). We saw earlier that the Base Self is comparable to a gas. As the body consumes its stored resources to make up for the loss in food input, the internal pressure that maintains the ordinary self decreases. Finally, a point is reached where the self cannot be further sustained, and it collapses under “gravitational attraction.” This is what the Prophet meant when he said: “Die before you die.” This situation is known in Sufism as Annihilation in God (fana fillah), providing an analogy with a black hole. If it then expands again on the farther side of Annihilation by the grace of God, this is called Survival in God (baqa billah), which is analogous to a white hole.
I hasten to add that simply going hungry won’t produce this result, and will only end in starvation. One swallow does not a summer make. You have to follow Islamic principles to the letter, and cut the twin supports of Unclean Gain and Unclean Sex out from under the Base Self. Only then will hunger work its magic on the self. The Master explained the importance of hunger as follows:
If you want Unveiling, miraculous deeds, ‘I want to see something,’ [this calls for] hunger, asceticism. Formal Prayer won’t do it. The role of Formal Prayer is different. If you performed Prayer to the end of your life, the Base Self [still] has to be bowed by hunger. When the stomach is hungry, that’s when the love of God increases. (p. 250.)
On another occasion, he elaborated: “They tried everything on the self, it [still] said: ‘You’re You and I’m me.’ When it was left hungry, it said: ‘You are my Lord.’” (Another variant: it said “Now I know that you are my Lord.”)
These words of the Master find fuller expression in a tale told by the Turkish Sufi poet Ashrafoghlu Rumi:
When God created selves, He asked: “Do you know who I am and who you are?” The self replied: “You’re You and I’m me.”
Ever since, the self has not ceased from this self-assertion in the face of God.
God cast the self into hell three times for periods of a thousand years each, but still the self would not desist from its claim of independence.
Finally God commanded: “Starve it.”
Scarcely three days had passed without food or water when the self demanded: “I want an audience with my Lord.” When it was ushered into the Divine Presence, God asked: “Now tell me: who am I and who are you?” The self answered: “You are my Lord and I am a weak servant of Yours.”
(From “The Purifier of Selves”—Müzekki’n Nüfus)
Hunger prevents the self from engaging in hubris, and one’s Ascension is then safe from vibrations of the self that will throw one to the ground (as in Case 1). If we remember that heat is basically vibration, internally “cooling” the self through hunger will also protect against the heat of the sun, and one’s “wings” won’t be scorched (as in Case 2).
A minor part of one’s food intake goes to ensuring the survival and health of the body. The rest feeds the self. Let the Master again have the last word:
‘I want to possess miraculous deeds.’ In that case, asceticism is necessary. Asceticism, much worship, hunger are necessary. And that happens only with hunger, not otherwise. You can do the Formal Prayer, you can be like an angel, but it won’t work without hunger. You stay hungry for three or four days, a week, that’ll do it.
Asceticism is good, but don’t weaken the body, for it is [your] vehicle. We’re going to give the body, eating, sleeping their due, but not in excess. (p. 250.)