Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: July 2008

In the Abrahamic Monotheisms belief is binary.

“Do you believe in this?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you believe in that?”

“Of course I don’t. That’s nonsense.”

Recently I’ve been dabbling in Buddhist philosophy. I was delighted to encounter their approach to belief.

“Do you believe in this?”

“It depends.”

“On what?”

“Circumstances.”

“Circumstances?”

“Circumstances. You’re a modern person, with the best education and that unwavering contempt of silly superstition that is so common these days right…”

“I’m not stuck up or conceited or anything like that. You’re making me sound like such an arrogant jerk. I believe in what I can see, that’s all.”

“So it’s safe to say that you don’t believe in ghosts?”

“Silly stories, made to frighten children.”

“Now imagine this. It is a dark, rainy night, with the clock approaching midnight. Just as the moon starts to peek through the clouds, you realise you are walking through an abandoned grave yard. The trees are creaking in the wind and there is an unearthly silence clinging to every tomb. As you’re walking you see shadows moving in the trees  ahead of you. In the minute when you see those flickers, are you sure there are no such things as ghosts?”

“I…I might have my doubts in that moment. I mean in that moment it’s natural to…you’d be scared and the imagination would be inventing all sorts of ghouls and goblins…”

“In the right circumstances, your beliefs would change?”

“I suppose so. But only temporarily, it would be just while you were in that terrifying place. But once I got home, I’d know it was just the fear that had done that, and it’d go away after a while.”

“That’s very true. I’d like to treat the principle as established though, that where we are in life, and what we are doing directly impacts what we believe. Sometimes only for a short time, and sometimes longer”.

“I guess I’d accept that.”

“Would you accept that it also applies to our everyday beliefs? Isn’t the fickleness of our own beliefs something that we’ve all experienced? On some days you believe with the strongest faith in the world. On some days you wonder whether there’s a God at all. On some days you’re sure that not only does God exist, but he has the character of a charlatan. On some days you wonder whether she loves you at all. Some days you believe that all of the above are true with so much force that you say ‘I know’ when you’re talking about them. They become so true that they stop being beliefs in your eyes.”

“Lord knows I’ve done that see-saw myself so many times. One day God is great, the next he’s a bastard, and the day after, he’s a non-existent bastard. And then it all changes and he’s existent amazing and great again. It all turns on what’s happening that makes me think those things.”

“That understanding is the foundation of the Buddhist philosophy of belief. You can’t pin a person down on their beliefs, because they change moment to moment, and across a person’s journey through life. To demand that beliefs are to be adhered to consistently and equally through a person’s life doesn’t match up with reality, and so Buddhism doesn’t demand such unnatural states of mind either.”

I admire the Buddhist approach.

Advertisements

Rajab al Asab has reminded me of the nature of time and history. An odd thing for a month to bring to mind; there is a reason it did.

There are two major markers in the month of Rajab. The first is the birth of Amir ul Mumineen and the second is the urus of Syedna Taher Saifuddin. Between these two elapses a brief 6 days, and it is that sacred temporal journey that we are now travelling.

What it bought to mind was a book I read a while back.

That book sought to trace what it called the first major crisis of Islam –  the death of the Prophet – and sought to identify what caused the solution found at Saqeefa in the words, correspondence and khutbas that were given by the major persons involved and tried to piece together what and why from those accounts.

In the end the author offers a thesis for why the crisis of Saqeefa happened when it did.

He argues that the death of the Prophet represented the first true crisis of Islam, because that death bought an end to the sacred phase in Islamic history, the phase where there was clear and absolute authority that determined the right direction for the ummah. Before the ummah had the Prophet to resolve all of its disputes. Now it had been left orphaned.

This transition gave birth to the dark world of realpolitik in Islamic political history, where religious authority was simply another factor to be assessed in the quest for temporal power.

Once that calculus was opened, and those who sought worldly power saw that religion could be manipulated to that end, there was no possibility of returning to the Sacred Phrase of history.

My immediate thought on reading this thesis was to reject its assumptions.

It is, even of its surface, a very sunni reading of history and one that makes assumptions about the way the ummah was to be organised and governed, assumptions that the author’s own book makes clear were only developed many years later.

My second thought, one I consider more valuable, was to realise that this analysis could be flipped around and be equally valid.

In a very real sense, and one I have never appreciated before, through the succession of the Aimmat Tahereen and Duat Mutlaqeen, we, like the first Muslims, live in sacred history. We  have a clear and absolute authority that determines the right direction. We  have the decision making system that is necessary  to resolve disputes. We have not been left orphaned.

Those things that created the sacredness of that early history have not departed the world, and so we have not found ourselves alone in the dark without a guide.

Rajab offers the understanding that from the successor of Rasullulah to the successor of Syedna Taher Saifuddin, we continue to inhabit an unbroken sacred history.

wallpaper_camel_desertThis constant wearing prattle. This grating disgusting sound. Must you always keep talking? Are you so in love with your own voice? Will you not stop even to give a moment’s respite, a moment’s rest?

If it were a dull background hum, a gentle roar of sounds that could be tuned out like traffic or the tides I would not despise it.

This sound is the bleating call for attention of the insecure. The desperate need to believe that the speaker is relevant and by right the centre of attention.

Even then I don’t begrudge it to you. Let all of them fawn over you, as you would have them do, and as they are wont to do. Let them listen to every word as holy writ and nod sagely at every saying.

I only ask for an exemption.

Leave me be. I am not here.

If you feel entitled to my attention it is by my ill fate. It is because I am a prisoner of geography and society. I was bought here in chains that I locked on my own wrists. 

Do you understand that chains only hold so much? That a body bound in iron and held by the firmest restraints is still just a body?

There are no means to lock down a mind. You cannot demand its presence.

Mine is roaming free. Even as I sit here, in every way that matters I am not here.

Where am I?

In Isidora, a city where the buildings are spirals, encased with spiral staircases on their outsides and with spiral seashells embedded in each step. 

In Zobeide, a city which men planned in their dreams, and which is constantly reborn in new dreams of new men, so that from each ruined foundation a new city is built. Layer upon layer, the city rises on myth and dreams to aspire ever higher.

In Perinthia which was designed by the astrologers so that each building might line up auspiciously with the wills of the Gods.  Each gate of the city’s mighty walls, when one looked through it aligns with the most auspicious portents.

Yet it is a city accursed and its inhabitants bemoan the constant tragedies that befall them. It is said that this reveals the folly of those who aspire to understand the portents of Gods. I say it tells us as much about the Gods’ true nature.

I am in a thousand different cities, each beautiful, vibrant and different, that fill in the gaps of the many metropolises that have been, are and will ever be.

I am a traveller, journeying through countless nows in the ship of my mind.

Leave me be. I am not here.

I heard Dr. Conan Doyle tell a good story during a trip I made to London last winter,” said George D. Aldrich at the Arlington last night.

“He said that at a dinner party he had attended the guests began discussing the daily discoveries made to the detriment of people occupying high stations in life and enjoying the confidence of the business world. Dr. Doyle said that it had always been his opinion that there was a skeleton in the closet of every man who had reached the age of forty. This led to a lot of discussion, some of the guests resenting the idea that there was no one who had not in his past something that were better concealed.

As a result of the controversy, Dr. Doyle said, it was suggested that his views as to family skeletons be put to the test. The diners selected a man of their acquaintance whom all knew only as an upright Christian gentleman, whose word was accepted as quickly as his bond and who stood with the highest in every respect. ‘We wrote a telegram saying ‘All is discovered; flee at once” to this pillar of society,’ said Dr. Doyle, ‘and sent it.

He disappeared the next day and has never been heard from since.

[From “Men Met in the Hotel Lobbies,” The Washington Post, 16 June 1901, Pg. 18.]

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

The Litany Against Fear, in Dune by Frank Herbert

I’ve done a lot of public speaking this year.

You join a moot team, that’s part and parcel of the job.

You argue your case before judges. You make mistakes. You vow never to make them again. You argue your case before more judges. You get better. You do it again.

As a result I kicked the fear of public speaking. I still get butterflies in my stomach. There’s still that fear that gnaws away at the insides when I confront an audience for the first time.

It’s a moment I know will come. A moment I plan for. I script the opening. I ritualise the first few minutes, so that they go smoothly and my brain comes online.

My focus narrows and I start concentrating ferociously on the topic. Once that happens, I’m in the zone. In the zone, I’m doing everything the best I can.

And failure? I stop worrying about failure. That’s the power of the zone.

That’s given me 2 vital lesson about the way I experience fear. Not just the fear of public speaking, all fear.

I experience fear as the terror of beginnings. Its about stepping outside my comfort zone. About taking steps onto a surface where I’m not perfectly sure.

Secondly that reality is never as bad as you imagine it to be. I build great visions of failure in my mind. Colossal Failure. Failure so humiliating that you’d never recover.

And it never happens.

Not ever.

I’ve taken these two lessons and applied them to all my fears.

I confront that first moment of panic head on by planning around it.

I imagine what is actually going to happen. Not what I fear will happen if the sky should fall and asteroids rain from the sky, but what will happen.

This is something pedestrian, a normal banal social event, a reasonably difficult exam or a yes/no response from the person I’ve asked for help from.

I plan the first few moments. I anticipate the first few difficulties I’ll encounter.

Then I ignore all the fear and do what I’m scared of doing anyway.

Because the secret is that you don’t lose fear by thinking about it.

You have to do what you want to do without caring about it. Once fear is  revealed as a hollow spectre by experience, that’s when you can defeat it.

TBBT

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait…
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries,
That all started with the big bang!

Music and mythology, Einstein and astrology
It all started with the big bang!
It all started with the big BANG!

– Barenaked Ladies, “The Big Bang Theory”

In the midst of this TV watching binge one show I’ve been enjoying hugely is The Big Bang Theory.

The show is about two socially inept prodigies, theoretical physicists at Caltech, in their 20s who are living across the hall from a beautiful, socially adept girl who does not share their level of intellect.

It does the whole humour through awkwardness during the first few episodes, playing of the natural opportunities offered by having the socially inept interact with a beautiful girl.

Then about 3 – 5 episodes into the season it grows up and finds its feet. It changes into some awesome character driven humour with excellent writing and one liners with real wit, which plays well into the characters and their disparate personalities. The acting becomes just top notch and the characters and their predicaments that much more alive.

It’s one flaw is its awful laugh track but that’s a small flaw in the bigger scheme of things.

If you’re looking for something to watch over the summer, I’d recommend it.