Losing the Narrative Self

90EdmondsonSliderWebsiteby Philip Edmondson

A fundamental goal in Sufism and other Asian spiritual traditions is losing the self and merging with the Absolute. Based on personal experience and those experiences of fellow Sufis, I would venture to say that losing the self is a daunting challenge, particularly at the beginning of the path. For this reason, I would like to focus on two relevant questions: What is the self? and what does it mean to lose the self? Since there has been a great deal of interest in these questions in recent publications from scientific, philosophical, and practitioner perspectives, I decided to investigate how this body of new writing might apply to how Sufism deals with these same two questions as expressed in a number of poems by the late Master of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh.

In numerous poems from the Divan-e Nurbakhsh, the reader apprehends the poet’s process of observing, identifying, and summarily rejecting the ego-narratives that constitute the imagination of a self, and gradually through the power of love and constant remembrance of the Beloved, escaping from any memory of self. Most of the poems function as exhortations to lose the self directed to his disciples or as revelations of a Sufi master who has lost self and come to realize the reality of the Absolute. In “He is the Truth,” the Master directs his disciples to abandon writing the world’s common book of self and turn to writing a new book of mad love.

The foregoing examples in the Master’s poetry and books strongly suggest that Sufism represents the self as a narrative construct. As such, the recent research in neuroscience and philosophical thinking that has focused on Buddhism has practical relevance to our tradition as well. It should be reassuring to know that these narratives have a neurological basis, which meditative practices can quiet. The findings from neuroscience research are extremely helpful for meditators who continue to struggle with ego-narratives. First, the recent discovery of a brain cycle of mind wandering and attention helps us understand why mind wandering during meditation is natural and not something to repress in frustration. Researchers explain that with practice, we become sensitive to losing focus and more flexible in refocusing. Even more important is the finding that experienced meditators can alter this cycle because they have developed the agility to move away from the narrative/evaluative focus and spend more time meditating in the open/nonjudgmental focus of the Mindfulness method.

Ultimately what is the importance of meditation for the Sufi? Clearly it does not bring the practitioner to the end of the path, as it is Love, not meditation that brings about the dissolution of the self. Nevertheless, meditation, through the constant invocation of the dhikr is an essential part of the practice that calms the chatter produced by the neurology of the brain, ultimately allowing the true seeker to be dissolved in the Ocean of Love.


photo © artwork Rob Mulholland

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