By Moin Qazi
Our great universe is flooded with a galaxy of wonders. It is a vast and unique canvas exhibiting a rich and kaleidoscopic diversity of fascinating objects. Spread all across the planet are different creatures with unique traits and characteristics. The world beckons us incessantly to savour its rich beauty and explore its endless charm. Surely, life around is so amazing, we ought to hold fast. It is wondrous, full of beauty and splendour and laden with such amazing charm that it permeates the radiance through every pore of God’s own earth. We are always amazed by this great mystery but often fail to appreciate it in the heat and bustle of our daily life. All too often we recognise it in hindsight or in our backward glance when we remember what a spectacle it held for us and then suddenly realise that it is no more.
We remember a beauty that faded, a love that waned, a music that receded, a life that ebbed and a wonder that mellowed. But we remember with far greater pain that we did not see that beauty when it bloomed and blossomed and, that we failed to respond to love with love when it was offered, that we failed to enjoy the music when it resonated and didn’t appreciate the beauty when it glowed. A recent illness re-taught me this truth. I was in hospital for several days. The whole scene would make me sickly and miserable. Across the room, a thin, dishevelled man hunched awkwardly over the edge of his stretcher. He had strange cuts and bruises scattered across his face and arms and had been waiting to be seen for almost an hour. I started my shift with a woman in her mid-20s who sat cross-legged on a stretcher in the hallway, bouncing up and down with a wide-eyed, unhinged look on her face as she vacillated between singing and crying. As I approached to introduce myself, a viscous ball of saliva and mucus left her mouth and landed squarely on my left cheek. “Be careful: she’s a spitter!” a nurse advised as she rushed past. “PCP and alcohol. Give her a few minutes to calm down.” I moved on to an elderly man who was lying on a nearby stretcher and moaning, and I softly asked what had brought him to the hospital. No response. I shook him gently and asked again, louder this time. He opened his eyes just enough to see my face and muttered something entirely incomprehensible. “I consider myself to be an incredibly blessed person,” he said. “I know I’ll get through this.” His body was sick, yes, but his spirit was unyielding.
By the time I met him, he had had a rough go of it. After learning the previous year that he had lymphoma, he was fortunate enough to receive a bone marrow transplant – only to have his body promptly reject it. On three separate occasions in the past six months, he had deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria coursing through his blood. One morning, I had to have pathological tests as well as an X-ray as I was down with a bout of searing fever and crucifying pain. The required machines were located in a building at the opposite end of the hospital, so I had to be wheeled across the courtyard on a wheelchair. As we emerged from our unit, the sunlight hit me. That’s all that there was to my experience: just the light of the sun. And yet how beautiful and wondrous it was! How warming, how sparkling, and how stunning and brilliant! When the first shafts of sunlight glint, life cheers you with a loving radiance, striking the deeper and more sensitive chords of the heart. I looked to see whether anyone else realised the sun’s golden glow, but everyone seemed to be shuffling in great hurry, most with their eyes fixed on the ground, confused and dazed, their hands clutching medical files. Then I remembered how often I, too, had been indifferent to the grandeur of each day, too preoccupied with petty and sometimes even mean concerns to respond to the splendour of it all. The insight gleaned from that experience is really as commonplace as was the experience itself: life’s gifts are precious and abundant – but we are too heedless of them. In the bustle of our everyday hopelessness, beckoning us to cheer us along the way. Thomas Merton describes the rush and pressure of modern life as a form of contemporary violence. He says, “… to be surrendering to too many demands, too many concerns, is to succumb to the violence.”
When we’re speeding along, we violate our own natural rhythms in a way that prevents us from listening to our inner life and being in a resonant field with others. We get tight. We get small. We override our capacity to appreciate beauty, to celebrate, to serve from the heart. Our mindfulness practice offers us the opportunity to pause and rediscover the space of presence. When we stop charging forward and open to what’s here, there’s a radical shift in our experience of being alive. As we touch into this space of “here-ness”, we access wisdom, love and creativity that are otherwise not available to us when we’re on our way to another place. We are home, in our aliveness and our spirit. Here then is the first pole of life’s paradoxical demands on us: never be too busy to deprive yourself of the wonder and the awe of life. Be reverent before each drawing day. Embrace each wonderful hour. Seize each golden minute. Even ordinary things have the power to touch every heart. Simple things like a man ploughing his field, a woman pulling water from a well, a village girl with a bundle of firewood stacked on her head, the grandma feeding a baby cow, a fisherman heading out to the sea – all are images which tell us that everything is all right with the world today. Pause for a moment beside a tree and its verdant leafy munificence. Feel the love of the lush dense forest. Look at the humble serenity of a flower, the vibrant rainbow of colours of a butterfly. Spare them some moments of silent thought. At sundown, as glow-worms wink good-bye against an inky blue sky, all eyes are directed skywards in search of the crescent moon. The sun has gone down, the evening mellowed by the soft amber of the setting sun. The russet sky turns grey as shades of twilight spread across the plain. Through a break in the clouds, a new moon looking like a pared fingernail appears beside the evening star. At twilight, the stars twinkle across the nightly mantle, radiant and luminous. We can use these silent moments to soften our pain, assuage our grief and salve our grieving heart. It is only in such gentler moments that we can seek the melody of our lives and perceive the astral beauty of the divine. Hold on fast to life, but not so fast that you cannot let go. This is the second side of life’s coin, the opposite pole of its paradox. We must accept our losses and learn how to let go.
The great prophet, Muhammad wanted people to combine the earthly plenitude with extreme sensitivity to hereafter. He said, “Do for this world as if thou were to live a thousand years and for the next as if thou were to die tomorrow.” He asked people to engage in a gainful living to secure livelihood, but he warned that they should not get too deeply immersed in mundane chores and should also be prepared for death at any moment. Therefore, even as we are bowed down in the daily mart of economic strife, we should keep our hearts tuned to the message of our creator so that when the end approaches there is not a trace of wrench in the heart. As the prophet repeatedly emphasised, “Be in this world as a stranger or passer-by.” The Chinese philosopher Huang Po said: “Do not permit the events of your daily lives to bind you, but never withdraw yourselves from them. Only by acting thus you can earn the title of ‘Liberated One’.”
Our time on earth is very short, and we are only trustees of what we think we have. Nothing is really ours. But if we use our abilities and talents to help other people then we can make a difference. What we do for others is the only thing we can truly take with us. Kahlil Gibran aptly says, “Give while the season of giving is here, so that your coffer is not empty when you die.” One can take inspiration by reading Counsels on the Spiritual Life by Thomas A Kempis. Kempis was a German monk who spent most of the 92 years of his life in Dutch monastery reading, writing and leading a life of austerity. He is known for his seminal work The Imitation of Christ, of which Counsels is a part. “Man’s life on earth is warfare,” he says, quoting Job, “the source of temptation lies within your own nature, since we are born with an inclination towards evil.” And he continues, “If you wish to achieve stability and grow in grace, remember always that you are in exile and pilgrim on this earth.” Besides exhorting people to control their senses, he was obsessed with death. He says, “Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in mind, and daily prepares to die. Death is the end of all men and the life of man passes away suddenly as a shadow … Keep yourself a stranger and a pilgrim upon earth, to whom affairs of the world are no concern.” He also lauds sorrow as a “cleanser of the souls.” Spiritual preachers of all stripes have repeatedly exhorted man to remain unattached. Non-attachment and equanimity do not mean the abnegation of will, but the transcendence of all private desires, so that the individual self can totally become an instrument of divine will. As St. John of the Cross explains, “The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, it will not arrive at the liberty of the divine union. For whether it is a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds fast; for until the cord is broken, the bird cannot fly. So the soul, held by the bonds of human affections, however slight they may be cannot while they last, make its way to God.”
Rabia was a Sufi saint. As a poor orphan, she was captured by a slave trader who proceeded to sell her into slavery. As a slave, she was kept busy with her household duties until night, but once night released her from her chores, she devoted herself to prayer, going without sleep to do so. One night, her master caught sight of her absorbed in prayer. He was astonished to see a light miraculously appear over her head that illuminated the entire house. Terrified, he went back to his room, where he sat in wonder till daybreak. At dawn, he approached Rabia and told her what he had seen and set her free. Once free, she moved to the desert where she devoted herself to prayer. As her holiness became more widely known, numerous individuals beat a path to her door seeking her spiritual direction. Once she became renowned, she received numerous offers of marriage. In reply to the marriage proposal of the Amir of Basra, she said, “I’m not interested, really, in ‘possessing all you own,’ nor in ‘making you my slave,’ nor in having my attention distracted from God even for a split second.” A secure and contented individual is more likely to have this ability for self-effacement than an insecure one. This means that before you can learn to pay deep attention to another person, you must first pay attention to yourself; unravel your own emotional tangles. This, surely, is what the Bible means by its commandment, ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’. It is saying that we can’t love our neighbour unless we are at peace with ourselves. Few of us can achieve total selflessness. But each of us can try, and the closer we come, the more we will be able to pay healing attention to those who need it. It is a moral lesson the present generation has to learn. We must learn to teach our ego to hold its breath. You can never live happily if you set out to live life for yourself alone. Choose a cause bigger than you are and work at it in a spirit of excellence. It will become a part of you as you see your goals through to the end. Measure success not by what you’ve done, but what you could do.
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and researcher .He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He was Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He has authored several books on religion, rural finance, culture and handicrafts. He is author of the bestselling book Village Diary of a Development Banker. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award.