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Humanity, Muhammad Azam, Religion, Self Growth, Spirituality, Tolerance

Understanding Spirituality I – Knowing your Conditioning


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The top and bottom grey surfaces in the picture (on the left) appear as different but they are both exactly the same shade of grey as depicted in the other picture (on the right). Even though we know both surfaces are of the same color, the contextual information distorts our color perception of the lower surface. 


This article is first in a series of articles on Spirituality. Read other two parts here. 

Understanding Spirituality II – Voice in the Head

Understanding Spirituality III – Living in the Now


A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart. ― Goethe

Recently a friend asked me to share with him my understanding of spirituality and how do I see it helping humans to connect with God? I wrote him few emails explaining my thoughts in detail. Later I decided to convert my emails, with some modifications, into a series of articles so that it can be shared with a wider audience. The great spiritual tradition discussed in these articles can be traced, in some form, in almost all major religions of the world. In Islam it can be found with Sufi mystics. But the explanation presented here is not specific to any religion and people of different faiths can connect with it. I personally feel that spirituality is a widely misunderstood topic and it might be beneficial to some if it could be explained in simple words without using complex philosophical language. The purpose here is not to make you agree or disagree with anything but to simply share my limited understanding. Please refer to the book ‘A New Earth’ by Eckhart Tolle for a comprehensive yet simplified treatment of the subject.

Central concept to understanding spirituality is that God has created man in His own image. And because God is all goodness, justice, mercy, love, compassion, wisdom etc., being a creation in His image implies that man shares these attributes with his Creator to some extent. In other words, man is inherently good, just and loving because his true nature is in line with the will of God (Allah ki raza). We humans don’t have to go anywhere else to find God because He is there inside our heart, in the form of our godly nature. Our task in this world is to keep that image of God – our true nature – intact. A human heart is just like a mirror that can fully reflect God’s image when it is pure. A tarnished mirror can’t reflect it fully. We are here to keep it pure as much as possible.

Every human being is born with this true nature. But as we grow our nature often gets distorted by a combination of our lower desires – biases, prejudices, temptations, influences, experiences etc. – that we develop with time. This is what spiritual masters call ‘human conditioning’. Sufi mystics call it hijab (or veil) which hides our true nature from our own eyes. Our upbringing, culture, family background etc, play a vital role in shaping our conditioned identity. We then start to confuse our distorted self with our true nature. We no more see the world as it really is but through the lens of this conditioning, which lets only a biased and distorted view of the external world pass through it. When the mirror is tarnished, it can’t reflect the true image of anything that comes before it. The distortion we carry in our heart, dictates how we see the outside world. Stephen Covey puts it in these words:

We see the world, not as it is, but as we are — or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms. When other people disagree with us, we immediately think something is wrong with them. But … sincere, clearheaded people see things differently, each looking through the unique lens of experience.


 

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Stephen Covey uses these illustrations to demonstrate how our perception of things can be influenced by the prior conditioning of our mind. If you look at the picture of young woman, dressed in furs and a necklace first (on the left), and then turn your attention to the picture in the middle, you are more likely to see a young girl in the middle picture. But if you see the picture of an old woman first (on the right) before looking at the picture in the middle, it is more probable that you will find an old woman in the middle picture. See this for more elaborate explanation: http://www.ocdqblog.com/home/the-point-of-view-paradox.html


This ‘unique lens of experience’ – that Covey is talking about – actually makes up our conditioning which differs from person to person. It can take different forms. Sometimes it can be our hatred for others. We hate a person so much that it blinds us from the goodness that might be there in him/her. Sometimes we identify with an ideology or a group so strongly that we fail to see the problems with it.  Sometime we are conditioned by our knowledge to the extent that it doesn’t let us properly appreciate opposing point of views. Sometimes we are so much obsessed with our cast, color or creed that we can’t properly connect with other people. Unless we get rid of such biases, hatreds and obsessions, we can’t see things clearly. Idries Shah explains the same problem in different words:

Our heads are filled with ‘knowledge’, a knowledge that in some areas pre-empts our seeing anything at all; or being truly aware of any part of the world that surrounds us. Everything arrives in our understanding already packaged and labeled. How are we to take the wrappings off and test the truth of the labels? The fact is that we are in no condition to do so: we are helplessly hidden from ourselves, even when we attempt to discover what we really are, since the imperfections that we are trying to seek out exist in the very perceptions with which we search for them. It is as though we looked for the colour red through spectacles fitted with a red filter. Until the filter is removed we cannot see what is certainly there, but hidden from us.

Now the obvious question is how one can remove this conditioning filter? Well, first step is to become aware of the presence of such conditioning that preempts our seeing of everything. The moment you become alert of its presence; it starts to disappear. Spiritual awareness starts from here.

Spirituality is all about this realization that within your own “being” there exists a hidden treasure – your true godly nature. You don’t have to seek it anywhere else because it is already there inside you. You just have to become aware of the conditioning that hides it from your eyes. The moment you remove this veil, your true nature appears from behind. In the words Helen Schucman

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

It is a good exercise to try to evaluate our conditioning and try to identify its sources within us. It requires questioning our inherited beliefs, assumptions, associations, prejudices and views that actually make up this conditioning. The more closely we know our conditioning, closer we get to our true nature. When we truly understand that despite our sincerest intentions, our biases can influence our seeing of the world in a wrong way, we tend to become less authoritative and more tolerant towards the views of the others. Our helplessness to overcome our own biases and temptations makes us more sympathetic towards others who might also be struggling with similar issues. When we realize this, we don’t hate people anymore but only feel pity form them because deep down inside every human being shares the same godly nature. If we look this way we find out that every human being, irrespective of his/her cast, color or creed, is essentially the same from inside – an image of God. It is only this conditioning that makes a person appear as bad, illogical, hateful or cruel to our eyes. We then realize that no one deserves our hatred but rather needs our love and care so that they can discover the hidden goodness in them.

Spiritual enlightenment is nothing but this awareness about your conditioning. There are no logical steps that you need to take in order to be enlightened. It can happen instantly. It is possible that this awareness could come to a sinner before it can come to a saint. In fact the conditioning is much stronger in learned people or scholars who arrogantly think they know everything. After all it is difficult to fill a cup which is already full. Similarly some people who grow in religious practice remain far away from spiritual enlightenment because in them conditioning takes the form of religious convictions. This happens because with our religious practices, we also grow in self-righteousness and judgment. We look at others, who don’t share our convictions, as bad people and sentiments of hatred and superiority complex grow inside us. When this happens, you should immediately know that conditioning is gaining a foothold inside you.

Growing in religion should bring you closer to your godly nature – which means it should make you more compassionate and less judgmental. It should fill your heart will love not with anger. And if this is not happening with you, then perhaps it is time to introspect and honestly evaluate why your religiosity is taking you in the opposite direction. May be you realize that what you consider righteousness is nothing more than a false cloak of piety. If your inner self is not being transformed, then your religious awakening is not what it appears to you. The recent massacre of innocent school children in Peshawar is an example of how religious convictions of some people can make them commit unspeakable acts of cruelty.

Knowing your conditioning will pave the way for you to discover your true self within you – your true nature which is all goodness, justice, love, compassion, truthfulness. This is what spirituality is all about.  I hope by the time you read my next article, you will have a much better understanding of your own conditioning. In that article I shall inshAllah further elaborate on this problem of conditioning from another angle. May Allah give us the awareness to see things as they really are and not as they appear to us through the lens of our conditioning. Ameen

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About Muhammad Azam

An engineer by profession who also sometimes feels like writing on the issues we are facing today as a society.

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