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The Iron Rules, Number Six

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

Editor’s note: Continuing our examination of various moral codes, Seven Pillars is pleased to present Pir Zia Inayat-Khan’s talks on the Iron and Copper rules of Hazrat Inayat Khan as an ongoing series. While this material originates from a Sufi context, it can be helpful to anyone who is looking for practical guidance on applying chivalric principles to the conundrums of everyday life. A new rule will be posted monthly until the series is complete.

The next of the Iron Rules is: My conscientious self, do not reproach others, making them firm in their faults. There is a very beautiful and enlightening passage from Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan on this subject in the Volume entitled “Sufi Teachings” under the chapter heading “Overlooking”:

“There is a tendency which manifests itself and grows in a person who is advancing spiritually, and that tendency is overlooking. At times this tendency might appear as negligence, but in reality negligence is not necessarily overlooking, negligence most often is not looking. Overlooking may be called in other words rising beyond things: one has to rise in order to overlook; the one who stands beneath life could not overlook, even if s/he wanted to. Overlooking is a manner of graciousness; it is looking, and at the same time not looking; it is seeing and not taking notice of what is seen; it is being hurt or harmed or disturbed by something and yet not minding it. It is an attribute of nobleness of nature; it is a sign of souls who are attuned to a higher key.

Overlooking is the first lesson of forgiveness. This tendency springs from love and sympathy. It is the tendency to sympathize which brings the desire to overlook … until one comes to a stage of realization where the whole of life becomes one sublime vision of the immanence of God.”

An amusing story is told in Turkey about a gathering of Sufis. At this gathering someone asked three shaykhs—the heads of three orders—a question: “What do you do when you see a vice in someone.” The first shaykh answered, “I admonish the person.” The second shaykh answered, “I try to cover it up so that no one will see it.” Finally the third shaykh, the most enlightened, answered, “Vice? What vice?”

Inayat Khan tells a story about a lion cub that got lost on the savannah. Separated from his pride, he gradually forgot his origins and fell in with a herd of sheep. Living among the sheep, he began to bleat like a sheep and eat grass and so on. Though he grew into the form of a powerful lion, in his mind he was a sheep. One day he was confronted by a pride of lions. He tried to flee with the other sheep, but he was surrounded. He shook with fear, but the lions did not attack. Instead they expressed their puzzlement: “You are a lion. Why are you acting like a sheep?” But however they might try to convince him, the lion would not believe them. Finally, in frustration, they chased him to the shore of a little pond. There the lion gazed at his reflection and saw that he was a lion. Suddenly his whole world changed.

That is a story about the human condition. We are born as lions, but somehow we fall in with sheep. What does it mean to fall in with sheep? We become impressed with limitation. We are seen as sheep and sooner or later we come to accept the validity of that assessment. We internalize the world’s judgment and simply take it for granted. It’s not that any particular person intended to deceive us. Those who have planted this impression in us have themselves been infected by the impression from others. It is a kind of psychic disease that is transmitted down the generations, through cultures, through families—a spiritual ailment that makes one feel less than one’s true worth. It is a gloom that circulates through the world endlessly, and all of us are susceptible to it, all of us have in some ways been touched by it.

But that is not the only force in the world. If it were, the world would crumble under the weight of its own torpor. There is another force, the force of illumination, the creative power of the awareness of beauty. Each one of us is a battleground in which these two forces clash. So far as we are locked in the grip of the illusory judgments that have been thrust on us, so far are we incapable of seeing beauty in ourselves, and accordingly incapable of seeing it in others. We then become complicit in the perpetuation of the dark gaze of misjudgment. It is a vicious cycle that has to be broken decisively, and that is what this Iron Rule is calling us to do. Do not reproach others, making them firm in their faults.

The first “other” is our own self. We treat our self as an other when we stand in self-judgment. It is one thing to learn from a mistake and move on. It is another thing to fall into the habit of continuous self-blame. When this happens, the more we accuse ourselves of a vice, the more deeply imprinted the vice becomes. It is reaffirmed with every guilty feeling, and we become helpless. This Iron Rule calls us to break the cycle. Beginning with oneself, cease reproaching the sheep that is one’s illusory nature and learn to see the lion that is one’s true self.

The same principle applies to other “others.” In our interactions with people, we often miss the radiant beauty of a soul and see only its shadows. Though we live in a paradise, our vision is so focused on limitation that we preoccupy ourselves with grievances and neglect the glory of each passing moment. We take exception to imperfection, failing to see that it is from imperfection that perfection evolves—and that what enables it to evolve is unconditional love.

On reflection, one might find that seeing defects is part of a pattern. That which one dislikes in another is present in oneself. In fact, one may be acutely critical of a characteristic in another precisely because one cannot yet accept it or transform it in oneself.

Consider, for example, aggression. If aggression repeatedly arises within oneself, but you repress it, then you tend to feel resentful of someone who has not mastered this same impulse. But if rather than repressing your aggression you have transformed it—if you have clarified and resolved the distortion in the energetic current manifesting as aggression—then you will never resent someone who is unable to do so. Instead, you will strive to support others in liberating themselves as you have been liberated.

We all know from direct life experience that moods of depression and futility are frequently the result of an atmosphere charged with harsh, cynical judgments. Conversely, in the company of understanding and supportive family, friends and colleagues, one tends to thrive.

Can you remember a moment in your life when someone had faith in you? Just recall the tremendous blessing of that experience. That person’s simple act of faith in you, when you could not have faith in yourself, enabled you to see yourself in a new light and to become more fully the person you truly are. Can you do the same for others? Can you discern the latent beauty hidden in the disarray of another person’s life struggle?

When one perceives people in their true light, as illuminated souls, one sees in them a beauty that they may not be ready to see. You will find yourself in the position of the lions who confronted the lion who thought he was a sheep. Try as you might, you will not be able to convince them in words. They will need to see for themselves. But your seeing glance may become the mirror in which they will begin to see.

This commentary was originally presented during a session of Suluk Academy and is printed with permission from the Sufi Order International.

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan is a scholar and teacher of Sufism in the lineage of his grandfather, Hazrat Inayat Khan. He received his B.A. (Hons) in Persian Literature from the London School of Oriental and African Studies, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Duke University. Pir Zia is founder of Seven Pillars House of Wisdom, and also of Sulūk Academy, a school of contemplative study with branches in the U.S. and Europe. His most recent books are Saracen Chivalry: Counsels on Valor, Generosity and the Mystical Quest and Caravan of Souls: An Introduction to the Sufi Path of Hazrat Inayat Khan, both published by Sulūk Press, an imprint of Omega Publications.

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10 November 2009

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