Sufi stories and poetry often allude to mirrors. Not the ones that immediately come to mind which we look at each day to see the outer image we project to the world. Rather, they refer to inner reflections that enable us to see our true nature. Sometimes this happens when we encounter a different perspective of ourselves revealed in another person’s heart and, through this, come to better understand the presence of God within us.
The image I saw glaring back at me that evening a few weeks ago was one I quickly turned away from on account of its unpleasantness.
Someone I cared for deeply, and who reciprocated this affection, spoke in anger and anguish of how they felt hurt by my actions. My instant reaction was to refute the criticisms outright to myself. I didn’t deserve these words, my injured ego protested. The comments delivered in fury simply could not be true since they were a far cry from the compassion, honesty and kindness I was striving to embody.
It’s at moments like this when I’m shaken by an interaction with a loved one, friend, colleague or even a stranger that I feel compelled to spend time in silent contemplation to reflect on the words that were exchanged and the events that unfolded.
In his poetry, Rumi describes how it is through the wound that the light of truth enters us. “Don’t turn your head,” he says in his Masnavi, an epic Sufi poem conveying a message of Divine love and unity. “Keep looking at that bandaged place.”
Unable to sleep, I tended to the agony inflicted on my heart into the early-morning hours. In the process, I dared to take another look at that mirror and examine it, this time peering back at myself through the eyes of my loved one. It was then, when I was focused and present, that I saw the glimmers of truth nestled within the harshness of the confrontation.
While we were trying to balance certain constraints in this relationship with virtuous intentions, it dawned on me that I hadn’t paid adequate attention to how my inner struggles were quietly gnawing away at this dear one’s heart. I had unwittingly inflicted distress.
“Astaghfirallah,” I said aloud upon making this realization.
By then it was nearing the time for the Fajr prayer. I sat cross-legged in the dark on my couch, clutching a string of glossy burgundy prayer beads. Closing my teary and tired eyes, I began to slide each of the 33 beads along the string with my index finger and thumb, repeating 100 times “Astaghfirallah,” Arabic for “I ask God’s forgiveness.”
Embarking on a spiritual path requires that we be willing to do a great deal of self-examination, or muhasabah, and take accountability for the often subtle tendencies, prejudices, judgements and reactions that we’ve developed over the years that nurture our egos. It is when I’ve striven to polish certain behaviours and habits that God’s presence has felt most palpable.
That night, I yearned to be in the embrace of Divine mercy. I reached over to my iPhone and opened the Heart Space app that I’d tuned into daily for months. Turning on one of the meditative zikrs related to forgiveness, I focused intently to Shaikh Kabir’s words. While I had listened to my teacher’s invocations many times before, this was the first time I really felt I was hearing them.
“Listen to these words with your heart,” Shaikh Kabir said, the vibration of his voice echoing in my guilt-ridden conscience. “As long as I am embodied in this world, I am not perfect. I am capable of mistakes, faults and wrongs. I take refuge in the love of our Sustainer, and humbly beg forgiveness.”
The idea that the Divine, one of Whose Beautiful Names is Al Ghafoor, or the Most Forgiving, is graciously waiting to relieve me of the burden of my wrong actions sent a wave of calm through my body.
Before I started nurturing my spiritual connection with God, I could not have grasped the depths of Divine compassion. I used to imagine that He/She weighed my good deeds on one side and my bad ones on the other. Over the course of my life, I envisaged the scales on both sides getting heavier and heavier, and somehow conceived that in the end the bad would outweigh the good.
That evening, I experienced the process of infinite forgiveness in action. When in a moment of sincere realization of wrongdoing we turn in repentance, the Divine’s mercy is bountiful, forgiveness is vast, and we are free to let go of the burden. As my Shaikh continued to speak, I continued to hear.
“When by means of presence we awaken from our unconscious state and begin to see the reality of our situation, this is the beginning of turning in repentance. Conscious presence is enough to cause a shift in our state. Then the knots of the heart are loosened and we are free to turn from the behaviors and desires that separated us from God. And the moment that we see them in their objective and often ugly reality, they also begin to lose their hold on us. True remorse for time lost and opportunities missed is itself a form of worship. It is a healthy, positive form of distress because it turns us toward spiritual health.”
I ruminated on these ideas for hours, repeating my Astaghfirallahs and realizing the subtle ways that I could alter my behaviours and awareness to get closer to the spiritual maturity that characterizes Self Surrender, or Islam. The pain in my chest was slowly replaced with a sense of tenderness and peace.
When sincerely seeking forgiveness from another person, we cannot be guaranteed they will accept it. Yet over time, I’ve found it possible to forgive myself, to gently make changes that will brush away a little bit more of the dust that stains my heart, and be grateful for the mirrors all around reminding me of the work still left to do.
“Let me give you the mirror, but if you see some fault on its face, do not blame the mirror, but something reflected onto the mirror. Know that it is your own image; find the fault in yourself!”
–Excerpt from The Conversations (Maqalat) of Shams of Tabriz