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The Iron Rules, Number Five

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.

My conscientious self, do not claim that which belongs to another.1

I have two small children and I take great delight in watching them grow and change. In children one can see the simplest impulses of the human personality before it has been socially conditioned. For example, when two children are playing together with an assortment of toys, a toy will often lie utterly neglected until one child happens to takes it up, at which point the other child will develop a sudden interest in it, and demand it as his own. As long as it lay on the floor there was no special attraction, but when another grasps it, it acquires urgent importance.

In reality, adults are not so different from children in this respect, although we might hide it. We are drawn to possess what others possess. In extreme cases, acquisitiveness drives people to deceit and violence. More often, it simply involves spending a great deal of time and energy accumulating and discarding possessions, hunting for the object that will bring happiness, yet never quite finding it. The whole economy is based on our acting this way. If we stopped, the economy would collapse and would have to be reinvented.

From a Sufi point of view, every motivation is ultimately grounded in a divine impulse. Even in our concupiscence there is hope for redemption. The pursuit of an object leads to the attainment of the object, which in turn leads to rising above it. If one were not to strive to obtain that which one desires, if one were to prematurely renounce it while inwardly still hankering for it, one’s renunciation would be hollow and hypocritical and liable to be broken at any moment. But one who has attained the object and risen above it, that one can be said to be free. Even the path of acquisition must have its end, as all things have their end, in realization. William Blake expressed this when he said that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Yet it must be said that it is one thing for an individual to follow the path of excess to the palace of wisdom, and another for the whole of society to do so. The enrichment of one nation or species very often spells the impoverishment of another, and with a human population of over six and a half billion, the Earth’s resources are already stretched precariously thin. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked if India could be expected to attain the standard of living of Britain. He answered that it took Britain half the world to feed itself—“if India became like Britain, how many worlds would it need?”

Collectively, the path of realization through excessive consumption is simply not tenable. Yet many of us go through a stage of preoccupation with objects. As one becomes a connoisseur, one’s tastes develop and there is no limit to what one wants. When one has obtained this thing, something else seems more desirable, and it goes on and on. But after some time one realizes that this is all dunya (wordliness) and that the thing itself is not what provides the satisfaction. The thing is just a trigger for an inner experience, and the experience itself is the source of the pleasure. What does possession really mean after all? In truth, possession is nothing more than legal proximity to an object. Is there any kind of invisible force that links a person and an object? There is no such force, except in the mind.

When one realizes this one moves to the next stage—from dunya to akhira (otherwordliness). Instead of seeking possession of objects, one seeks satisfaction in beautiful and joyful states of being. One sets out on the spiritual path, and perhaps one attends seminars and workshops and retreats and reads a lot of books. In this way one discovers a marketplace of beautiful spiritual ideas. Eventually one might begin to notice that the same impulses that impelled one in the marketplace of things drive one through the marketplace of spiritual ideas: the same acquisitive desire, the same attempt to obtain satisfaction through possession of something that is expected to be stable and pleasurable. Moreover—in the spiritual world as in the physical world—one is often tempted to seize that which belongs to another because it has more attraction than what one possesses oneself.

As one pursues one’s spiritual path, one sees that there are other people who are apparently endowed with a quality of realization that is extremely attractive. One wishes that one had what the other person has, and feels the need to test out every new methodology or discipline in order to latch onto something that will maximize one’s satisfaction. One craves to possess that which belongs to another, the apparently perfect spiritual state of those who surround one, and one feels oneself to be trapped in a lesser state. So one becomes, on the one hand, idolatrous of the others, and on the other, most unkind to oneself, feeling profoundly one’s unworthiness and incapacity. Ironically it is likely that the one upon whom we project our ideal of perfect spiritual accomplishment likewise feels his or her limitation and wishes for the state of a more perfectly realized being, and so on ad infinitum, everyone turning and looking at another—that is, until we return to the principle of this Iron Rule: Do not claim that which belongs to another.

The rule tells us, only claim that which belongs to you, that which arises from your own experience. That is what you can claim, accept and be content with—your own state of being. Understand its changeableness. Understand that your state is not the essence, but it is a quality of essence that is shifting. In the acceptance of one’s state one is better able to sense how it is poised on the ground of pure essence.

So take the truth of your experience as that which belongs to you, the special vantage point that has been disclosed to God by God exclusively through you. Your angle of vision is necessarily unique to you, and something is thereby added to life that could not be added in any other way. Nothing is superfluous. All is providential. Our critical judgments of our experience as good or bad, negative or positive are ultimately very relative. There is simply the life experience that we have been given for the enrichment of the divine self-disclosure. It is in embracing that experience that we enjoy the fulfillment that is our birthright.

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.

Read more about Pir Zia Inayat-Khan


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

13 August 2009

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