In my last article “Digging through dirt in the land of the pure” I talked about Pakistan being clean on the inside. Now I want to explore that a bit more and be a bit controversial at the same time.
The reason people are here are cleaner on the INSIDE has nothing to do with them being better people. There are just as many ratbags here as anywhere else in the world. It is about the ability to look inside. Islam (as indeed all religions) encourages people to clean themselves from the inside before setting out to clean the world. Wasn’t it Jesus who said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”? In fact all of the prophets, from Adam through to Muhammad, have said the same thing. Don’t worry about trying to fix everything that is wrong with the world – fix your own self and everything will be OK. In fact that is the only thing really worth doing. Why? Because the ability of self-improvement is what separates us from the animals. That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with religion, but religion sure helps as a tool for achieving it.
As muslims we stand before Allah five times a day in humility and surrender, and ask him to “lead us on the straight path”. It is hard enough just to make the time from our own lives to stand there five times a day, but to admit that we are not really getting it right and asking for help to improve takes a lot of work.
There was once a time when people sat and contemplated about these kind of things for most of the day, because they didn’t have much else to do. Here in Pakistan you still see those kind of lives all the time. The other day I was reading about goat herders who travel for nine months of the year from up in the mountains with their goats to bring them to the city for Eid. Nine months of walking! The interviewer said they were the most relaxed people he had ever met. But it is not only them. The women here spend an inordinate amount of time here cutting vegetables and contemplating. You see old men every day who sit out the front of shops with their prayer beads and watch the world go by as they recite. And not only are they contemplating the inner and outer realities, but they are learning.
In these kind of cultures there is a tradition of sitting with old spiritual teachers and learning wisdom from them. It has gone on for generations – the old teach the young, and the young use these learnings in their lives and go on to teach themselves. All of the religions emphasise the importance of this kind of contemplation. Buddha sat under the bodhi tree for more than six years concentrating on the ultimate nature of all phenomena. Muhammad would go for weeks at a time to meditate in a cave on Mt Hira and said “He who knows himself knows his Lord”. Jesus is quoted in Psalms 46:10 as saying that “through stillness we come to know God” and himself spent long hours each day in solitude abiding with God. Every prophet did it.
But now something has gone wrong.
It seems to me that contemplation is no longer on the agenda and true knowledge is much less a valued commodity. Now we are in the era of information and it is all about looking outside at the world (and often criticizing it) rather than looking within. I am new to the blogging scene and have been absolutely blown away at how many people out there are writing and writing and writing. It seems to me that the world is now divided between those who write and those who do not. But what are they writing? In long hours of searching endless random blogs almost everything I read is opinion. Everybody has an opinion about everything. In the past, opinion came from years of life experience and wisdom. Now with the help of the technological age, anyone can have a blog, anyone can have an opinion, anyone can write something and everyone can think of themselves as the next Einstein.
Once upon a time teachers were respected and revered. Now it is becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to teach because everyone has their own opinion and the students no longer listen – they want to be teachers themselves.
Every morning my kids and I listen to Linkin Park full bore on our way to school, and to me they are true ambassadors of the age of opinion. I cringe when my three, seven and nine-year old start screaming along “SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU!!!!” and hope like hell that they don’t understand what they are saying. Actually I have made a conscious decision to let them listen to the voice of their generation rather than suppress it, because they are going to have to face it sometime. Better it is now, when they are still young enough to listen to their mother’s perspective on it (sometimes).
In another example of the information age gone mad, my husband is something of a spiritual teacher and when we lived in Australia, he had a small following of people who would come and listen to him talk. One day a friend of a friend turned up, and immediately we could see that he was not in his senses. A crisis had occurred in his life, and from being a reasonably sane and intelligent young man, he had become like a maniac on speed. He could not stop talking, and none of it made sense – he was completely lost in his mind-chatter. The first thing my husband did was try to explain some simple concepts of focus, but this kid could not even sit still long enough to listen, let alone focus. The first day he talked non-stop for 5 hours straight, and it took many, many more days before he could stop talking long enough to listen. Finally he did slow down, and through meditation and focus exercises managed to still his mind. But this was a great example to us of the result of too much information, too much opinion and not enough real learning.
Another teenage boy who used to work for us would beg my husband to teach him spiritual wisdom, but then would argue with everything he said with his own opinions. It was not learning he wanted, it was affirmation of his opinions. Finally my husband had to say, “Everything you think you know is ZERO! How can I teach you when you have an opinion about everything?” He explained that opinions are like a gate which nothing can penetrate – real learning can only come when that gate is opened and the opinions are set aside. Then the arrogance of thinking you know everything is replaced by the humble desire to understand. And the more you want to understand, the more you look inside to make sense of the world.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying there is anything wrong with information. But when more and more information is whizzing around faster and faster in cyberspace and nobody is stopping long enough to digest it, the result can easily be opinion without a base and the culture of evaluating and judging everyone but ourselves. Where this will lead us, God only knows, but from my way of thinking it can’t be good. If having fixed opinions leads to the attitude of arguing rather than learning, then it seems to me like it can easily descend into anarchy and chaos.
Tie that in with the enormous black hole of institutional collapse that the global economic crisis has created, and the imminent environmental disasters of global warming etc etc, and the result could be a level of chaos the likes of which has never been conceived.
It seems that only the people who can retain the ability to slow down and contemplate on all this information that will be the learners and doers of society, and be able to clean up their own inner dirt to become better people.
It is ironic that it may be up to the goat herders and old men with prayer beads to lead this new revolution of learning.