The Light of Time
He who departs from a point of origin on the circumference of a circle and proceeds indefinitely in a straight line will never be able to return to the point from which he departed. The farther he travels in a straight line, the farther he will be from his point of departure. And while he might think that he is progressing he will in fact only become more and more distant. - Salman Bashier
In the last months of my mother's life she often talked about what she loved the most: nature. I asked her if she missed it, that is, being able to go for her walks and look at the trees and the sky, and she said, "No, nature is everywhere. It's in you, and in my memories." Though she considered herself a Christian, her faith was also ecology (from Greek oikos ‘house’): in nature, its beauty, it's centrality. She had spent her life oriented to nature, "resetting" her state of mind simply through watching a sunset or dogs at play.
The quotation above is from an essay by Salman Bashier, an Ibn 'Arabi scholar and student of the divide between fundamentalism and mysticism. Bashier sites one of Ibn 'Arabi's realizations, one that occurred in 593 while in Fez, where Ibn 'Arabi obtained the "station of light," as he called it, and wrote, "I could no longer distinguish between different sides of myself. I was like a sphere." Such a statement sounds "mystical" but it describes the attainment of something quite natural that we usually fear: the loss of reference point.
As my mother went through her dying process she was severed from the things she held dear and were steadfast parts of her daily routine; her morning cereal, the fresh fruit and chocolate she loved, reading her novels (the last being Steinbeck's, Travels with Charlie), watching Wimbledon - all her reference points. At each step she embraced the dying process without complaint, but instead with uncanny humor and steady willingness. She died at age ninety-one, she had lots of time to get ready, but her acceptance of this most natural process was exceptional.
I was my mother's primary care-giver and lived with my parents during this time. At night my dreams were intense and continuous and I knew my mother's were the same because she would tell me about them in the morning. I felt we were dreaming together, working things out psychically before she left; a rare opportunity we were somehow able to take. A process of completion was occurring. The divisions between us became less even though she was soon to depart my life forever, as mother. In some small way we had become a sphere, or shared a sphere of awareness. It gave us both courage.
Mystical practice is attention to life's fundamental phenomena made continuous, into a way of life. Gautama Buddha is now part of mass culture, seen by much of the world as an example of complete mystical attainment. Ibn 'Arabi has been a similar example in the Muslim world for eight centuries. The exploration of fundamental phenomena is what unites them, and unites us to them. As I was coming down the stairs of my hotel last week, I heard a woman moaning in some kind of suffering and I heard a baby crying. I reached them, along with a staff member of the hotel, on the mezzanine level just as the baby was about to fall from the woman's arms. We helped them into the restaurant and onto a chair. Other staff came to her aid and in a few minutes we finally understood the woman was saying: epilepsy. She had a seizure on the stairs and was struggling and in panic not to let her baby fall. The staff spoke Turkish, the woman was Brazilian by birth but spoke German and I spoke only English. The only word we all understood, the word the woman was tying to voice, was epilepsy. Her fear and helplessness evoked our own but something more, caring and an intense focus on her needs. In the confusion of this sudden event, we were all suddenly in a sphere of the most fundamentally human: vulnerability.
Ecologically, we now face a new and collective vulnerability. Humanity's acquisition of scientific knowledge has radically outstripped our ability to use wisely the technology this knowledge has produced. We realize, if we are able to look, that our modern way of life and economy as a whole is like a rocket fired with increasingly little purpose other than to speed and consume, and that we will never return to the point which we departed; the CO2 levels of the earth's atmosphere before the industrial revolution. It is very hard to process this on a mass level. Whenever what we take for granted encounters what is, there is a clash, a dissonance and potentially a terror. Coming down the stairs of my hotel, it took me a long time to process that there was a woman in trouble. Before that I was simply on my way to dinner with little interest in being interrupted.
Bashier maintains that the mission of philosophy and the mission of natural sciences are different but interrelated and that philosophy must guide science. Instead, philosophy became dominated by science and subsumed into its methods, became materialistic, lost the drala principle.
Philosophy is our belief system and that natural science is the application of our belief within the means of the technology we have. The Washoe Indians of Northern California, people who once inhabited the land near where I grew up, could make astonishingly beautiful baskets out of reeds, waterproof and durable. A reverence for nature - their "belief" system - was innate in a society so "undeveloped" that it's central technology was one of weaving grass. Even a hundred years ago such a society was dismissed out of hand by the dominant culture, now we find ourselves turning to such people, and many of my friends have flown to Peru to find the same understanding there among the Achuar as Salman Bashier discovered in Ibn 'Arabi.
To sin is to "miss the mark," according to the derivation of the word in both Hebrew and Greek. Salman Bashier gives an explanation for how our way of life, based on scientific advancements and improvements, has missed the mark or the point, how we have come to occupy a line rather than to live within a circle.
For philosophy to stay true to it's purpose, which is of course to lead us to wisdom and acts of wisdom, it must be able to enter the state of the present moment, or in other words, vertical time. "True knowledge," as Salman Bashier says of Ibn 'Arabi's, "is the light of time; and the light of time... is what you are within." When one is in that time, which is not inaccessible to any of us if we are given methods to approach it, we have touched our origin. We know what it means to experience that, and we are that much less likely to become entirely duped by horizontal time, to embark on a journey to nowhere.
Bill Scheffel, Bursa, Turkey. October 2011