Monday, August 24, 2009

Why Submission - and Islamic Thought - seem so Foreign to Western Thinking

Homer Simpson cursing his fate over lack of beer

Our Western world seems to be obsessed with winning. Try and be your best, we are told. Never give up. Fight for your dreams and ideals.

There is an air of invincible force over the North American spirit that thrives on obstacles and competition; everyone is always on the look-out for self-improvement. “Second-best” just doesn't cut it; it's the consolation price; it's the price invented for losers only.

Although these are great principles that can move forward both the individual and the nation, it also has its peculiar drawbacks. Success becomes often defined and measured by “material success.” Businessmen compete with each other in size and money. Athletes break their necks to break world-records. Bestsellers and blockbuster vie over how much cash they can bring in.

The other drawback exists in the limits we each face. Ignoring them does not make them go away. No matter how much time I may spend on learning an art that is contrary to my talents and abilities – such as drawing - I just won't succeed.

When people tell you, follow your vocation or that you are born for this or that occupation, they acknowledge that in theory, you can be whatever you want to be, but, in fact, you have a much narrower selection regarding your skills. The reality is that some things can be taught and learned while others you are born with.

Yet something that seems contrary to the Western spirit on a rather deep level is submission. Submission means losing control over the outcome and putting them into the hands of a higher power. It is used in religion to refer to God's will who is said to be behind all the major potentially life-changing decisions, the same way a president though democratically elected has (nearly) absolute power over the future of his (or her) citizens.

But many times we do find ourselves in the position of submission, whether we accept it or not. For example, when you apply for a job, the power structure lies on the side of the employer, and you need to submit to the final decision of the manager. No matter how invincible you think you are, no matter how convincing your act may be, like it or not, the manager has the final say in this matter.

Equally, in my own personal experience, I submit stories for publication. My submissions end up on the table of the “all-powerful god-like” editor who decides to publish it or not. Depending on how much pride I have, the rejection will hurt more. I can cry out that life is unfair, that the editor is an ignorant jerk, that nobody these days values a good and well-written story or that my story, plain and simply, sucks.

But since failure is frowned upon, I will keep trying and get into a vicious cycle of undermining the little confidence I had. In the best outcome I will throw out the story and write a much better one and have another crack at this presumably closed and prejudiced business.

When it comes to Islamic mentality, submission is a part of life as the word Islam itself means submission to the will of God. It does not mean that they see themselves as failures and are happy with it, but that they see a higher cause than themselves constantly interacting and maybe even interfering with their plans. When something does not work out the way they hoped, they will simply shrug and say it has been God's will. Fate interposed between my dreams and what is really the best for me, and Fate, or rather Allah, chose the latter. There is no bitter or hard feeling there but simple acceptance.

I personally believe that some things are not meant to be. There are indeed limits, call it fate, God, Allah, or destiny. You can hit your head against the wall as many times you like; it will stand firm in opposition and won't budge. To me a wise man would be flexible and simply steer away, that is go around the wall or simply make a U-Turn.

It does not have to be seen as failure nor done in low spirits. One would say I tried, and it did not work out because it was not supposed to happen. But I still have many other options more suitable for me right around the next corner. As the philosopher Leibniz states, what is providence in the mind is simply fate in the body.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Adam in Paradise and Calling a Spade by its Correct Name

Adam at peace with nature and animals in the garden of Eden

A name is important indeed. For better or worse, we identify with the name we are given by our parents. Few of us actually legally change it; it's something that we have grown accustomed to; it has become a stable core of who we are, despite the fact that we personally and physically keep changing; sometimes we may even become a completely different person, yet our name always remains the same.

That's why when parents name their children, it is a difficult matter. The poor child is going to be stuck with it for the rest of his or her life. It is a great responsibility. People may later make fun of him or her because of their name.

The same responsibility must have weighed heavily on Adam's shoulders when God assigned him the task of naming all those creatures in front of him. By giving them names, he might have also felt a sense of control, a kind of life-giving. As an author, we feel proud to have created an interesting character with an interesting name; as a parent, others may compliment us on the choice of our kid's name. Or when we invent a new dish and name it ourselves, giving it our own touch and flavor, we equally feel pride and ownership.

It is said that a rose would be sweet by any other name. Sure, you can call a rose a tree, which would mean that the “tree” would smell nice, and the “rose” would sprout leaves. The essence of the matter would not change, of course.

It reminds me of a brilliant Swiss story called a “Table is a Table” (Ein Tisch ist ein Tisch) by Peter Bichsel, where a lonely man thought it funny to change the names of things calling each thing by a different name, and he eventually becomes incapable of having even a simple conversation with others. Language may be randomly assigned, yet it is still based on a consensus, so if you speak of a rose you should “mean” a rose, otherwise there is going to be a lot of confusion between the two of you.

Calling a spade by its correct name helps one communicate effectively and honestly with others. This is one of the main merits of language, whether written or spoken. It creates a bridge between two souls; for a moment, they are not islands onto themselves. We can come closer to the best of our abilities to explain ourselves, our feelings or points of view, our thoughts.

It is, therefore, important to learn a language well, to be as precise as possible in one's choice of words, not to mince words but to state things clearly, unequivocally. This is often referred to as communication skills, and it prevents one to have misunderstandings. Wars have started on the misuse of words, on ignoring to choose the right tone of voice and so on. The list is endless and we need to sharpen our words and increase our knowledge to let communication flow easily. As they say, communication is key; yes, it is a key to understanding.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Buddhist Concepts of Right Thought and Right Speech and the Perception of Others

Siddharta Gautama the Buddha meditating at the boddhi tree


Our thoughts color our perception of reality. Whatever we see is filtered through the lens of thought, and it often becomes twisted and transformed into something else. The great German philosopher Kant reminds us that we can never see “how things really are,” all we are left with is our version of how things may appear to us; it would never be on purely scientific criteria. Even science becomes limited due to our undeniable subjectivity.

Yet all of this is not a real problem. It can be used to our benefit. Existentialism underscores this unique capability of ours, something that, as Descartes has observed, truly sets us apart from other kinds of beings: Our capacity to create meaning, our ability to look for an underlying reality, the reality behind the veil of reality.

Religions have dealt with such ideas extensively. Whether it be the City of God as idealized by St. Augustine, or “Maya”, the world of illusion of Buddhism, or the Nirguna Brahman versus the manifested Saguna Brahman, each tradition has their own, yet highly similar take on perception versus reality, and appearance versus truth.

But all these varying points of views aside, there are some very important pragmatic and moral truths expressed in the Buddhist practice of the eightfold path. These days I am quite taken by two of them, namely “right thought” and “right speech.”

Right thought or intention refers to how we represent a particular event or person within us. Mostly we deconstruct or break down the person and only focus on peculiar characteristics. For example, we claim that John is a backstabber. This belief, regardless of its truth and validity primes most of our perceptions of this particular person.

Instead of seeing John as a complex and holistic person, we define each of his acts with our perception of his lack of trustworthiness. Even a good deed would then be either construed as a hidden act of betrayal or shelved away as an exceptional circumstance, but with our perception in mind we would not easily shake off the tendency to see him as a backstabber.

As we can see our thought process interferes with how we make meaning of and how we relate to a person. This can be very deceiving. When we are upset with a person, we carry around this anger and we feel its presence in various other subsequent meetings with this person and all of this causes unnecessary tension.

We tend not to actually listen or perceive the person but only focus on what annoys us about the person; we would actually prolong and perpetuate a stifling and uncomfortable climate between the two us instead of looking past the previous differences or giving the other person a fair and balanced hearing.

As Krishnamurti states, it is our thought process here that needs to change for us to effectively communicate and “see” the other person. Once we manage to control these waves of mostly negative thought, it would become easier to retain a sense of peace and harmony among each other.

To me, that is a case of right thought. Even if we may have been actually wronged by the other person, it would take a conscious effort to forgive and erase this source of tension, so that we can start on a new clean slate with the other person, without grudges or past grievances.

Right speech goes hand in hand with it. If our thoughts are tinged with negativity towards the other person, then it is often expressed in words. It can also be used as talking behind the person's back. In this case, we are influencing the perception of a third person, so that next time this third party comes into contact with the person in question his or her perception would be primed and steered by those negative characteristics.

Some people are bitter about life and constantly express negativity. They complain about everything and everybody; their family and friends, the bus driver, their boss and co-workers. By doing this, they unwillingly create more negativity for themselves, and it becomes a vicious cycle they may escape from only with a high degree of effort and difficulty. Yet it can be done by breaking the chain of karma and seeing everything in its “right” light.

One can practice resisting the temptation to have negative thoughts about others; one can learn to stop blaming others by accepting responsibility and action and to weigh one's words before uttering them because words have powerful lingering effects and can be destructive weapons. Once one's thoughts are cleared and one's speech is purified, one can get closer to a life of harmony, gratefulness and yes - even true happiness.