Revenge of the Nafs


A couple of events came together this morning that led to some interesting thoughts on the current financial crisis. Firstly, I heard on the radio that people in the new democracies of eastern Europe are becoming quickly disenchanted with American style free capitalism because what they see is a few individuals getting rich and the rest being left behind. Against the background of this week's expose of one the world's biggest financial frauds by Bernard Madoff, this kind of disillusionment is not surprising. I think the whole world is getting sick of this kind of capricious behavior by our supposed financial titans. Furthermore, it turns out the SEC regulators were warned about Madoff's scam as early as 1999 and chose to take no action, which only heightens the suspicion that nobody in authority cared much as long as "the old boys" were making out like bandits.

Half an hour later, in Revelations, my favorite coffee house and bookstore I happened upon a battered copy of The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks, one of my all time favorite reads. (I've always marveled that in these times when so many people in America are distrustful of Islam, one of its greatest mystics should be the best selling poet in the country). The first poem that caught my attention as I flipped through its pages was The Dog in the Doorway. In it, Rumi describes the dangers that arise when our animal energies are allowed to dominate our soul:

You have a fine piece of linen
that you're going to make into a coat
to give to your friend, but someone uses it
to make a pair of pants. The linen
has no choice n the matter.
It must submit. Or, it's like
someone breaks into your house
and goes to the garden and plants thorn bushes.
An ugly humiliation falls over the place

He compares it to having a guard dog that is out of control. It may just as easily attack the owner and confine him to his house as it would prevent the stranger from gaining access, and wouldn't be able to distinguish between a saint passing by and a bandit coming to rob you.

In the Sufi tradition to which Rumi belongs, these animal energies are referred to as Nafs or manifestations of the ego that determine our behavior. There are seven levels of Nafs that the human soul must work its way through on its way to perfection. In the first one, Nafs-i-ammara, The Commanding Self, ego forces us to commit evil. Much like the Christian concept of the Devil, this is what most of us struggle against in our daily lives as we try to do good. It has seven heads that must be chopped off: false pride, greed, envy, lust, backbiting, stinginess and malice. I'm guessing that most of the financial world has been lost somewhere in here for a while now.

The second stage, Nafs-i-lawwama, or The Regretful Self, is a time of awakening when we repent and ask forgiveness for our actions, even though we may fall back into bad behavior. It was noticeable that Madof's malfeasance came to light when he confessed his sins to his sons, and then there were those leaders of the the Big Three auto manufacturer's who ditched their private jets and their massive salaries (and maybe egos as well) and crept, cap in hand, back to Congress for a free hand out. Our financial leaders might be just entering that level. I hope so. There is certainly going to be some loud cries of repentance and wailing pleas for forgiveness if they ever get to stand before a judge, as many of them should.

In the next five stages, Nafs-i-mulhama, the Inspired Self, Nafs-i-mutma'inna, the Contented Self, Nafs-i-radiyya, the Pleased Self, Nafs-i-mardiyya, the Pleasing Self, and Nafs-i-safiyya, The Pure Self, the human soul gradually increases its power to do good until it finally becomes completely surrendered to God and acts only according to His will.

So my wish as we approach the holiday season, where everyone is focussed on the spirit of giving and helping others, is that all of us (including our leaders) are beginning to successfully fight our darker sides that cause us to act with greed and selfishness; and that this financial crisis is not the disaster it seems, but rather the beginning of better times when the wealth spreads out to everyone, generosity prevails, and together we find what Rumi calls the "peace that saves us."