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The Iron Rules, Number Four

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 fourth rule is: My conscientious self, do not boast of your good deeds.

To begin, I would like to bring our attention to a passage on vanity from Murshid's1 book, Creating the Person:

The whole manifestation is the expression of that spirit of the logos which is called, in Sufi terms, kibriyya. Through every being this spirit manifests in the form of vanity, pride or conceit. Had it not been for this spirit working in every being as the central theme of life, no good or bad would have existed in the world; nor would there have been great or small. All virtues and every evil are the offspring of this spirit. The art of personality is to cut the rough edges of this spirit of vanity which hurt and disturb those one meets in life. The person who talks of ‘I’, as many times as he talks about it, so much more he disturbs the mind of his listeners. Vanity expressed in rigidity is called pride, and when it is expressed nicely it is termed vanity. Often people are trained in politeness and they are taught a polished language and manner. Yet if there be this spirit of vanity pronounced, in spite of all good manners and beautiful language, it creeps up and sounds itself in a person’s thought, speech or action, calling aloud ‘I am, I am.’ If a person be speechless, her vanity will leap out from her expression, from her glance. It is something which is the hardest thing to suppress and to control. The struggle in the life of adepts is not so great with passions or emotions, which sooner or later, by more or less effort, can be controlled. But with vanity, it is always growing. If one cuts down its stem, then one lives no more. For it is the very self. It is the I, the ego, the soul or God within. It cannot be denied its existence. But only struggling with it beautifies it more and more, and makes more tolerable that which in its crude form is intolerable. Vanity may be likened to a magic plant. If one saw it in the garden growing as a thorny plant, and if one cut it off, it would grow in another place in the same garden as a tree of fruits. And when one cuts it away in another place in the same garden, it will spring up as a plant of fragrant roses. It exists just the same, but in a more beautiful form, and would give happiness to those who touch it. The art of personality, therefore, does not teach us to root out the seed of vanity, which cannot be rooted out as long as one lives. But its crude, outer garb may be destroyed, that after dying several deaths, it might manifest as the plant of desire.

How can these observations be applied to the rule, Do not boast of your good deeds? We might begin by noticing what kind of behavior in others disturbs our mind. One will probably find that there are certain people in one’s life whose manner is difficult and off-putting, and others whose manner puts one at ease. If one looks into this, in many cases the difference will be found to reside in the nature of the person’s ego. It is difficult to feel comfortable in the presence of those who are intoxicated with themselves, concerned only with their own interests, incessantly calling attention to their virtues, justifying themselves, and promoting their point of view. One’s own ego feels snubbed by the larger and more imposing ego that is before one. Conversely, the presence of one who is modest, understated and able to listen sympathetically is a soothing balm.

If we are to live by the Golden Rule we must consider ourselves in the same light. Reversing one’s gaze, one might notice that there are ways in which one’s own ego has a jarring effect upon others. We might find that we have a tendency, in the intoxication of the moment, to lose ourselves in our own interests to such an extent that we have little regard for the concerns of those around us. We are so caught up in our life that we forget that our personal drama is ours alone, that it is only we who are riveted by the angle of vision that is uniquely ours.

In another place in Creating the Person, Murshid tells the story of two passengers on a train. One was talking for hours and hours about the great exploits of his ancestors. Finally, his patience completely exhausted, the other passenger exclaimed, “Enough! I’m bored to hear of my own ancestors. Why should I care to hear of yours?” What a telling illustration of the principle that personal passions are not always shared!

Jesus (peace be upon him) said that we will be known by our fruits. We often feel the need to explain ourselves, to make our case, to call attention to our good intentions and the self-sacrifices that we have made. We feel that others really should understand us better than they do. We don’t feel properly appreciated. But the words of Christ call us to remember that it’s by our fruits that we will be known, not our words.

In fact our words may detract from our fruits. The good deeds that we are rightly proud of, by calling attention to them, by excessively speaking about them, those very deeds wither and become less worthy of appreciation in the eyes of others than if we had simply let the deeds speak for themselves. The teachings of the prophets and sages urge us to let our deeds speak for themselves. Even if it seems in the moment that one is not understood or appreciated, one must trust that all accounts are settled sooner or later. One need not struggle so hard to defend, explain, and justify oneself.

We might think that in speaking our own praise we are respecting ourselves. Yet however highly one might praise oneself, the truth is that the praise utterly pales in comparison to the praise that is actually due to the essence of oneself, the light of one’s soul. Ironically, in voicing the praise of which you think yourself worthy, you fall from the station that is your true position, because in praising yourself you are investing yourself in the self-image that you are projecting. The true greatness of your being is much greater than that image. The more that you try to invest in the image the more greatness you lose, because your true greatness is ineffable, it can never be expressed in words. Words only limit it. One’s real greatness is beyond all words and images. That greatness is unspeakably powerful and beautiful, unutterably awesome, and every time that we boast of ourselves, we rob from its infinitude to feed something very small.

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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[1]Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), the author of the Iron Rules.

1 July 2009

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