Discourse (9 June 2018) at the Zawia Ebrahim by Etsko Schuitema, inspirational speaker and human excellence consultant.
There are two ways one can live your life.
The first way to live your life is such that your attention is outwardly gathered.
The second way is to live your life is that your attention is inwardly gathered.
The first way of living your life is to live a life which will end up in defeat and the second way of living your life is to live your life in such a way that you’ll be victorious.
There isn’t a third way. You’re either inwardly gathered or you’re outwardly gathered.
There are moral rules to the distinction between inward gatheredness and outward gatheredness. Although this isn’t the only thing that’s true for the distinction, it gets us at least part of the way there.
To be outwardly gathered means that you pursue outcomes. A person who pursues outcomes does things in the world with the intent to get things from the world. To get something out of the world. A person who lives their life like that lives the life of a slave and of a victim. Because if you want something from somebody else, that person’s ability to withhold what you want gives them power over you. You are weak and they’re strong. So being outwardly gathered is the effect of living a life concerned with what you can get. The way to escape that tyranny is to shift your intent of what you’re trying to get to how you can be helpful, how you can give … because the moment you do that, the other no longer has any power over you. It sets into motion a move where the self becomes inwardly gathered. To be outwardly gathered is to be inwardly separate. To be inwardly gathered is to be outwardly separate.
However, seeing the distinction between inward gatheredness and outward gatheredness as purely a moral concern is not helpful because even moral concerns are concerns with outcomes. A good person does things to make things better. They want to achieve an outcome in the world. Which means not that you have licence to be a bad person, but there’s a station beyond being the one who fixes things in the interest of others. And that station is the station of the witness. He is the person that by definition has given up all actions and is now witnessing. So, the life of a man who is outwardly gathered is a life of a man of action and of doing things in the world. He is a man who measures his life by his accomplishments and he measures his life on what he does outwardly. A man who is inwardly gathered is a man of reflection. He is man who spends far more time and far more of his life effort considering how things are. That is not to say that a man who is inwardly gathered cannot act or do. Very often you find that when that person acts, they don’t need to act a lot because their action has a catalytic quality precisely because they’ve done a lot of reflection. Because they’ve looked before they’ve acted.
Whereas a person who is constantly chasing outcomes has to work very hard. Because they’re constantly having to manipulate the world to try and get from the world what they want.
I think it was the shaykh Shadhilli who said, make your actions salt and your adab (courtesy) flour. And that means it’s far more than what you do is how you do it. The courtesy you do it with. Normally you’d think if you were baking bread the main component is the flour and the little sprinkle component is the salt. So most people think that the main component to their lives is what they do and a little sprinkle of what they do is the courtesy of how they do it. This is exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to pursue. Because it is the nature of an outwardly gathered person who makes their actions flour and their adab salt. Whereis it’s the nature of an inwardly gathered person who makes his action salt and the adab flour. An inwardly gathered person does as little as possible … conserves energy because he’s always trying to work from the point of view where he’s orchestrating with Allah. So he doesn’t do much. And to find that catalytic point where he can make that one small contribution required of him requires a lot of his attention and he spends most of his time cultivating his attention. Another way of describing cultivated attention is inward gatheredness.
Fundamentally, the life of an outwardly gathered person eventually, despite their achievements, becomes unattractive. Even ugly. Whereas the life of an inwardly gathered person, despite their failures becomes interesting and attractive. Now how can one say this? We’re all familiar with the game of soccer. As we know there are two ways as a player that you can play the game. You can play the game purely to win the game. And when you play the game like that you don’t care how many injuries get given to the opposition, you don’t care how foul you play whilst the ref isn’t watching as long as you win the game. You win the game at all costs. And the other way of playing the game is to play the game in the spirit of playing a good game. And when you play in the spirit of playing a good game, far more important than winning the game is how you played it.
If you play with due courtesy to the opposing team, you play within the rules, you contain your behaviour to within the required rules and you don’t just act as you like just in order to get the outcome which you want. Now clearly from the third person’s point of view, from the spectator’s point of view a game that leaves crippled players at the end because everybody was so concerned with winning is not a watchable game. It’s not a game you go and see a second time. But a game you can see where each player was playing to the best of his ability to play well becomes a watchable game because the players demonstrate a level of restraint, they’re not trying to win at all costs. Far more important is that they play a good game, rather than winning a game. This distinction between an ugly life and a beautiful life isn’t just true for the spectator of life, it’s actually true for the player. A person who plays the game with the intention of always winning and who measures his success on the basis of how many times he’s won will obviously not always be happy because he will sometimes lose. You can’t win every game. But a person who plays a game as an opportunity for him to act to the best of his ability and to play a good game, an honourable game, that person wins every time because every time he’s gotten onto the field, he’s managed to be equal to and rise beyond his worst nature and equal to his better nature.
Every time you act in such a way that you are equal to your better nature you have triumphed. Even if the objective outcome was a failure. So, how does one cultivate this inward gatheredness. What is the technique, how do you do this. We follow the direction of the Rasul (s.a.w.s.) He only came to effect good character, he only came to effect adab. In other words we try to do as much of our lives in the spirit of doing the thing that I’m doing well, rather than just the outcome of what I’m doing. The Prophet turned everything he did into a ritual. From the brushing of his teeth to clipping of his fingernails, to how he greeted people. He turned everything into a ritual. There was a courtesy with regards to everything that he did. And because that is his sunna, it’s the first thing we should be taking advice from. We forget, its not about which tooth shall we brush first, but more that he didn’t do things in order to get through doing them. The Prophet was playing with a signet ring in a slightly distracted way. When he realised what he was doing he was horrified. He ripped off the signet ring and he threw it away. One of the companions went to pick up the ring. And the other sahaba said, “What would you touch that ring that he has cast away angrily?” What this story tells you is that this extraordinary paragon of human virtue (the Prophet) was appalled at the slight loss of attention. The moment he did something distractedly he was appalled by it. The degree to which you’re inwardly gathered is the degree to which nothing that you do is arbitrary. Nothing is just a means to an end. Everything you do you do you do deliberately with due attention to what you do.
What we’re trying to do in this circle. What this path is about is about cultivating inward gatheredness. It’s about living our lives in such a way that we are people of restraint. That we are people of respect. The English have a word for a man who is cultivated, a man of respect. They’ve called such a person a gentleman. And the word is significant. It’s a GENTLE MAN. Not just a man. It’s a man who’s gentle to his condition. From the rough, crude natural beings that just want to get stuff, to a man of restraint who deals with his world in a restrained and gentle way. What else does a gentleman do? A gentleman treats everybody that he meets with courtesy. He treats everybody that he meets with respect. The world that we’ve developed is a world that doesn’t like gentlemen anymore because we’ve cultivated this appalling American habit of treating everyone as a peer. We call people by their first name. We call older people by their first name. We think this is just fine. We’re all equal … egalitarian. The first thing you understand on this path is that this is a path of subordination because inward gatheredness is subordination. Whether you like it or not, inward gatheredness is forgoing what you want in deference to the other. That’s the first rule of inward gatheredness. The first rule of inward gatheredness is a moral rule which says to the other, “I’m there for you and I regard you as the significant one in this interaction.” All courtesy is the self saying to the other “in this interaction, you are the significant one.”
You’ll notice when we greet each other we use the word sidi. I don’t know if you know where this word comes from? It’s the derivation of the North African sayyidi which means “Sir”. We do not use the word akhi (Brother) . Why do we use the word sidi and not the word akhi? Because the companions on this path are one who you regard as the significant one. It’s not an egalitarian state. It’s a spirit of respect.
The rituals of the hand kissing and so on … sometimes they’re a little bit artificial. Where does this thing come from? When you kiss the hand, it’s again an indication of respect. It’s the natural form of being a gentleman. Of saying, I honour you. The courtesy in all North African Zawias is the fuqara kissing the hand of the shaykh, that’s the courtesy. The reason why they do this is by respecting the shaykh, they respect themselves.
By treating the shaykh as somebody of significance they’re saying that this endeavour that we’re on is a significant endeavour. This is not just a common or garden endeavour of us mates together. This is an honourable endeavour. This is an endeavour of those who want to triumph. Because you see one of the key indications of outward gatheredness is that everything you do is arbitrary. Everything you do is a new resource to your end. You can dismiss it. I don’t have to respect it. I can use it. Whereas to be inwardly gathered means to be a person who treats nothing as arbitrary, has restraint and courtesy to everything and recognises the first rule of significance: Is that the self is there for the other and not the other way around. Your eyes have been made for other than you. You’ve not been made to find yourself significant. If you’re going to be the witness, the first thing you must stop doing is trying to appear and stop trying to contend for space. Another way of describing an inwardly gathered man is a man who is quite comfortable to disappear.
Before Khalid Bin Walid’s campaign to the Persians the Persian king was informed in a letter inviting him to Islam: “Beware, the men coming against you love death like you love life.” This isn’t morbid. This is understanding your role. To subordinate it all you need to escape tyranny of all. To try and dominate all is to try and be vanguished by all. Continue to pursue outcomes and you’ll suffer a life of defeat. Continue being outwardly gathered and you will lose. Use your life as an exercise in restraint. Be inwardly gathered and show courtesy to others … that is our path.