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Monday, November 26, 2007

K Haridas NairStone, water and air – different levels of faith.

Reading Brigid Marlin’s book, From East to West I came across Cerno Bokar, the West African Sufi mystic, who, when asked about the different kinds of faith, did not enumerate the different world religions or traditions. Instead, he stressed that faith was what was inside individuals. The depth of faith depended on the spiritual level reached, whatever be the name of the religion or tradition that he or she subscribed to.

The sufi mystic described the lowest level of inner faith as the level of the ‘stone’. The next level was ‘water’ and the highest level being that of ‘air’. ‘Stone faith’ represented those who preferred the letter of the law rather than the spirit, Faith at this level, he described as being hard and precise. Those at this level think in terms of boundaries; of ‘us’ and ‘them’. At times those at this level prescribe armed warfare if this was necessary to gain respect and assurance of their position.

Faith at the middle level that of ‘water’ belongs to those who worked and faced up to the trials of the first level, one fashioned by uncompromising rigid rules. They have triumphed over their faults and have set out on the way which leads to truth. The faith of ‘water’ gives life, it is flexible, it can solidify like ice to move nearer to the people at the lowest level or it can rise like vapour towards those at the highest level. It is the level at which beliefs, ideals and values integrate into life’s experiences. Those at this level stand against war, live in peace with man, nature and animals.

The highest level of faith he described as the level of ‘air’. This is pure and rises above matter. Those who reach this level adore God in truth in the light without colours. At this highest level both the lower levels of faith disappear to make place for Divine Truth which flourishes in the fields of Love and Truth rooted in consciousness.

The sufi mystic’s metaphor describes well the journey of faith. Yes, we start with our places of worship, holy books, rituals and teachings. These represent important beginnings. Yet, like secular knowledge there must be progress from the basics to a deeper understanding. The tragedy, nevertheless, seems to be that many get stuck at the level of ‘stone’ faith. Beginning with right principles is critical for the right practices to be in place. Character and conduct represent important beginnings. Beliefs, ideals and practices must reflect through life. Otherwise in-congruencies show up.

All of us move in the limited or expansive circle of our own thoughts and beliefs. The narrower the radius the more convinced we are that there are no further limits, no wider circles. The lesser cannot contain the greater, as the man of ‘stone’ faith has no means of apprehending the faith at the level of ‘air’. Such understanding and knowledge comes only by growth. Those at the level of ‘air’ understand those at the level of ‘stone’ from where they have emerged. In the larger experience all lesser experiences are contained and preserved. Or as the saying goes, ‘the wise man can understand the fool but the fool can never understand the wise man’.

The person at the level of ‘stone’ focuses on beliefs, theology and dogma. These can be expressed in a manner that conveys religious superiority. ‘My brand is better than yours and we have a special place with God.’ The person at the level of water while appreciating theology, dogma and ritual internalizes his learning’s and integrates these in his life. He is able to explore experiences of faith, share stories of change, reconciliation, restitution and love that provide meaning to his life and engagement. The person at the level of air sees humanity as one and lives a life of humility, giving and sharing, taking people where they are and lifting them to a higher level of spiritual experience what ever be their religious background.

We reach the highest levels through developing an enlarged consciousness backed by growth in thinking and moral understanding. How we view the ‘other’, is often a litmus test of where we are in terms of our level of faith. Without a spiritual view of mankind it is difficult to develop a deeper sense of compassion and hope. How do we explore issues relating to forgiveness without widening our circle of love?

Yet, we live in a world where people are at different levels both as to their understanding and experience of faith. These different levels are evident amongst believers of all religions and traditions. They also have to dialogue; the intra-religious dialogue so that believers of the same religion through shared experiences can reach out regularly to expand the radius of their circle of love and understanding. Then, there is the dialogue across boundaries of colour, class, ethnicity and religions often described as inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogues.

When I was twenty I met the ideas of Initiatives of Change. I was inspired by the need to change society. But, I soon got the point that change had to start with me. Listening to one’s conscience and evaluating one’s life against absolute moral standards was a liberating and renewing personal experience. Moral values were not just ideals but foundational principles that sought commitment through reflection, restitution and application. I soon understood what ownership of values meant and embarked on my journey of faith.

Regular practice of daily listening to my conscience led me over time to an understanding of the notion of the inner voice - a sense of discernment that comes when one is confronted with change, choices and decisions. However, there are times when one is frustrated by personal failings of conduct or behaviour, the besetting sins, as these would be described. I have found through daily periods of regular meditation, an eastern tradition, a greater resilience to some of these frustrations. Meditation is regarded as one of the most holistic yet subtle behaviour modification processes available to mankind.

Change is constant but growth is an option. The inner ultimately informs the outer. The challenge arises when external reality and the state of society provides the basis for acceptable conduct and behaviour. ‘Everyone does it,’ then becomes a norm that is difficult to challenge. When the outer informs the inner then we sacrifice clarity and accept lifestyles and trends that compounds further the confusion evident in society today.

Ultimately personal realisations and growth are intimately linked. Many are searching for clarity in a materialistic world confused by permissiveness, blatant consumerism, unbridled consumption and casino market economics on one side while poverty, violence and hate stares us on the other. We can make a difference and collectively if enough undertake this commitment, then a critical mass could provide the tipping point for new possibilities. We have nevertheless to start with ourselves and what better time then now.