Roland: In some work environments, people are expected to behave in an aggressive or competitive manner, putting productivity, profit or success before other considerations. How would you counsel someone who feels trapped by such expectations?
Pir Netanel: As we’ve already discussed, if these things run contrary to your values, this may be the wrong job for you. But if circumstances do have you feeling trapped, there are a couple of ways you might approach the problem: one is to make a ‘get-away’ plan that can be pursued slowly, step-by-step, until it is fairly safe for you to make the transition out of the job; the other is to take it as a challenge, finding better ways to be successful in the environment, transforming the values from the inside. But, whether you simply quit or make a slow transition, or attempt a quiet revolution there, the decision will require enormous resolve and commitment to doing whatever it takes. This is what is most critical.
Roland: For many people, work is all-consuming and takes-up most of their time and energy. Often, it seems, there is no time or energy left for meditation or other spiritual practices. What would you recommend for such people?
Pir Netanel: I want to say that sincerity is what counts. Sincere intention or dedication to one’s spiritual path and practice are as important as the practice itself.
When we sit down to meditate, we hope to be able to hold a particular ‘object’ of meditation. But, often, we spend the entire period trying to wrest our attention away from random thoughts, feelings, and sensations. And often, people think of these as ‘bad’ meditation sessions. But they are not at all ‘bad.’ Even if you spend the entire period trying to bring your attention back to the original object, you have done your work. You have, as St. Paul says, “fought the good fight.” (2 Timothy 4:7) You have followed through with sincere intention and dedication to the practice of meditation for that given period. Now, if we think of our entire life as sincerely dedicated to the spiritual path and practice, then no matter how many things get in the way, and no matter how many times we have to return our attention to it, if we do so, we are successfully following a spiritual path.
On the other hand, the busyness of our lives today requires that we “increase the yield” of our spiritual practices, as my teacher used to say. We have to understand the ‘technology’ of the practices better, understand our own contribution to them better, so that they can be more effective for us in a shorter amount of time.
Roland: Does the Sufi tradition have a general definition of what is “right” or an appropriate “livelihood”?
Pir Netanel: Yes, that which is ‘pure’ or ‘permissible’ (halal). As one hadith, or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, puts it, “People! Allah is pure, and only accepts that which is pure!” (Sahih Muslim) From this, Muslims in general, and Sufis in particular, see it as necessary to try to live by means that are in accord with Muslim and Sufi definitions of purity and permissibility. For instance, Muslim jurisprudence tends to frown on earning money from things that are haram, or ‘forbidden’ in Islam, such as alcohol or gambling, etc. So keeping a tavern or selling liquor in general would not be looked upon with favor by most Muslims. Likewise, if a business or profession is deemed harmful to society in general, affecting its morals or honor, then that would be considered an inappropriate livelihood for a Muslim or Sufi. It goes without saying that one is not supposed to derive one’s livelihood or sustenance (rizq) from crime or deceit. (Ibn Majah)
Since Meccan society in the time of the Prophet was primarily a society of merchants, many of the Prophet’s ahadith or ‘traditions’ reflect this reality, saying things like: “Those who hold back grain in order to sell at higher prices are sinners” (Sahih Muslim); “May Allah have mercy on those who are generous when they buy, sell, or ask their due” (Sahih Bukhari); and “An honest and trustworthy merchant will be with the martyrs on the Day of Resurrection.” (Al-Hakim)
Moreover, in Islam, one is not supposed to beg or receive the charity of others if one already has enough, or is able bodied enough to take care of one’s family and their needs. (Ahmad)
Roland: What is a healthy balance between work and formal spiritual practice (meditation, prayer, contemplation, etc.) in one’s everyday life?
Pir Netanel: I’m reluctant to prescribe for people in general. I would rather continue to challenge the notion of a separation between the two. As it says in another hadith (related to the others just mentioned), “Neither merchandise nor selling divert these people from the remembrance of Allah.” (Sahih Bukhari) That is to say, for the true lovers of God, the formal practice of dhikr, or ‘rembrance’ of God, flows into and is not lost during the workday.
On the other hand, the Sufi manuals of adab, or ‘etiquette,’ do make suggestions with regard to balancing work and formal spiritual practice. They say: “Sufis may participate in business to support their families. But this should not keep them from their spiritual work. One should not see this as a means of earning one’s livelihood, but of supporting one’s spiritual work, one’s family, and supporting the faithful. The Sufi should arrange the work to suit spiritual work, or if that is not possible, to adjust one’s life-patterns to accommodate the spiritual work.” (Suhrawardi)
Roland: New technologies have brought a lot of speed and a greater quantity of information into our current workplaces; how can one find and maintain one’s equanimity in the midst of such speed and this overload of information?
Pir Netanel: It’s a difficult question to answer. I am reminded of a time when I witnessed the head of the Aikido lineage in which I trained demonstrating techniques for a group of us. He was in his 70s at the time, and the partners with whom he was training were young men and women moving at high speed. Though they attacked fast, his response was neither frantic nor hurried. In fact, he seemed to be moving slowly, with a gentle ease and elegance. I was amazed, because his movements, though small and unhurried, were profoundly effective.
Later, while talking to my own Aikido teacher outside, I described what I had just seen. He said, “Yes, he calls it ‘zero speed.’ ” Zero speed. That is to say that the master existed in a world of calm, centered efficiency that allowed him to meet the attack without losing his own equanimity. His centeredness allowed for a precision and profoundly effective economy of effort. Thus, there was no need for him to try and match the speed and energy output of the younger attackers.
Witnessing this demonstration, I learned that it is possible to be effective in a fast-moving situation without necessarily taking-on the hurried and frantic mind of one who is usually caught up in the speed and stress of such situations. I’m not always successful at it, but I know it is possible.
Roland: How is the accumulation of wealth generally viewed in the Sufi tradition? Is it ever considered an obstacle to the spiritual life?
Pir Netanel: Early Sufism was very ascetic and would certainly have considered it an obstacle. With Isa al-Masih (Jesus), they would say, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) And though this view still generally prevails, there are also exceptions to the rule.
Muhyiddin ibn al-Arabi, known as the sheikh al-akbar, or the ‘greatest sheikh’ in Sufism, told a story of two great Sufis he once met. While in Tunis, he met a poor fisherman living in seclusion in a marsh with whom he stayed for three days. The fisherman prayed both day and night, though every morning, he went fishing, catching always three fish. One he let go, one he gave to the poor, and one was his meal for the day.
When ibn al-Arabi was ready to depart, the fisherman asked him his destination.
“Egypt,” he replied.
Tears came into the fisherman’s eyes, and he said: “My master, my sheikh is in Egypt! Please give him my respects and ask him what I am to do in the world.”
Though the man seemed to need no guidance, Ibn al-Arabi agreed.
When Ibn al-Arabi reached Egypt, he found the sheikh living in a palace of wealth and luxury. He seemed merely to be a worldly man. But when Ibn al-Arabi told the sheikh the request of his student in Tunis, the sheikh said: “Tell him to take the love of this world out of his heart.”
This seemed an amazing statement coming from a man who lived in a palace. But when Ibn al-Arabi returned to Tunis and told this to the poor fisherman, the man began to sob and said: “For thirty years I have tried to take the love of the world out of my heart; and yet, I am still a worldly man! At the same time, my master lives amid riches, and hasn’t a drop of the world in his heart—neither the love of it, nor the fear of it. That is the difference between him and me!”
Roland: Is money, in itself, viewed as positive, negative or neutral in Sufism?
Pir Netanel: Money itself is neutral in Sufism. The question is, as the story suggests, do we have the love or fear of the world (or money) in our hearts?
Roland: For the layperson, how much is considered to be ‘enough’ in terms of comfort, wealth and security. At what point could it become a hindrance?
Pir Netanel: Too much cushion or buffer against the vicissitudes of life creates an artificial sense of security, and that becomes a hindrance. We can get into a place where we no longer feel alive and vital, and often, are no longer sensitive to those who are most vulnerable to those vicissitudes.
Roland: Is there a necessity for retreat practice (leaving the world) as part of the spiritual path in your tradition? Is there an appropriate balance between ‘retreat’ and ‘involvement in the world’ proposed for lay people?
Pir Netanel: Yes, Sufism has a long tradition of khalwah, ‘seclusion’ or retreat. These are periods of extended practice that anchor one in the tradition, and which cultivate an experience of inner realities. In one sense, any time we take out for “formal spiritual practice,” as you put it earlier, is khalwah. But it is perhaps most often associated with three-day, forty-day, and three-year retreats. The forty-day retreat however, became the ideal of the tradition, so much so that the Arabic and Farsi words for ‘forty,’ arba‘in and chilleh, acquired the connotation of an ‘ordeal,’ a sustained period of intensive spiritual practice. It breaks the rhythm of the worldly and sets the pattern of the spiritual. This is what’s really important.