When Was the Last Time You Talked to Yourself! The Timeless Realms of the Spirit [Archives:1999/13/Focus]

March 29 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 
Samira Ali Bin Daair,
Social Worker and Activist
The article about Taiz on the back page of the issue of Yemen Times dated 15th March, inspired me to write this piece. What shall I call it? Maybe just my usual stream of consciousness eruptions about life and its many splendoured but forgotten bits of joy strewn here and there.
No, I am not quite interested in the touristic aspects of Taiz, although I have often felt that there are many neglected historical structures in Yemen that could very well compete with the Acropolis and the Colosseum! No this piece is not about all that. One sentence in Abdulaziz Saqqaf’s article jarred me into life because it happened to coincide with one of my most intense spates into the metaphysicalÉ. Some people call it middle life crisis. I don’t know what to call it really.
I guess we think that we have outgrown the uncertainties and questioning that took place when we were teenagers or at university, when we were all rebellious, a Socialist or a something ist. Everybody was going to change the world or else realise at some point like Omar Khayyam that events will relentlessly unfold, within the scheme of things, no matter what…
Well, the disturbing questions keep coming back maybe not so neatly timed like every decade, but every now and when “the world is too much with us” as Wordsworth said.
It was this bit the Yemen Times editor said about being a Calvinist and not imagining how a person can spend a whole evenning staring into space and relaxing. I assume this meant the protestant work ethic which in the language of simple folks like me translated into never having a moment of leisure to dream and just be, and sitting under a tree in the Wadi and lazily watching the cattle graze was tantamount to a Sin.
Well, and if you happen to be like me, not exactly rich, it would be difficult to buy “indulgences” for forgiveness as was the case in the old days with Roman Catholics before the Reformation. I must say I prefer the Islamic middle ground about taking care of the affairs of the world and acting as if you were going to live forever, and yet believing in the hereafter and not forgetting that you might drop dead at any moment… The sense of “balance” that has been forgotten by Muslims themselves, to say the least.
As I sit here thinking of the mountain of paperwork awaiting me at the office, thinking of my daughter’s impending birthday and all the preparations I had not made yet for a party of 20 small children, and the fact that we had run out of everything at home and I needed to do the shopping … And yes, the washing machine had broken down. Should we fix it yet again or was it better to buy a new one…? And yes, I badly needed to talk to a very good friend whom I haven’t seen for ages…oops! There were all those duty visits to relatives that I kept putting off. The pile of unsorted papers at home and the attic had not been cleared for the past hundred years. My teenage son was getting too exhaustingly argumentative and my teenage daughter needed a pep talk because of something that had happened at school. The little one needed help with her homework…
I don’t know why I suddenly feel so tired and without having done anything at that, beyond sitting on my computor and writing this…! It must be the constant fluctuations in the adrenalin level.
This good friend saved my sanity by stepping in at the right moment, and bringing a very thoughtful present consisting of a small journal and a pen (in the old days I always used to carry one in my bag) and a beautiful book called “Inner Simplicity”. It inspired me to spend the whole Friday afternoon lying in the garden and reading it, suspending all but the absolutely necessary activities.
By evenning, I felt like a completely different person from the harassed woman of yesterday. Incidentally a lot of women sign a contract at marriage that specifies the legalities in the event of a divorce, but I made a covenant with my husband, that if at any point of time, we felt that life was getting too cluttered, we should step back a little from the world and just be. Though it has been difficult to always follow it through, we have tried to remind each other of that contract? That is why the woman who wrote this book made me feel she was talking to me about my present situation.
I don’t like the famous saying: Great minds think alike” because it is so presumptious. However, haven’t any of you ever read a book and said to yourself, this writer is talking about me and my thoughts? I would like to share some of those thoughts with some of you who might be interested.
The book is all about removing the clutter from our lives, and sifting through the things and activities which are really important to us and discarding those which are not. It is a matter of defining priorities. It is about slowing down and simplifying life in order to enjoy the things that really matter.
Inner simplicity means tuning in to what is the best that this world has to offer, such as the love of family and friends, the wonders of nature, and the serenity and clarity that come from silence and quiet contemplation, exploring other levels of consciousness, connecting to a power that is larger than ourselves, creating a balance between our outer and our inner lives…
We have spent so much time pursuing careers and creating fortunes that we have neglected our inner selves. Devoting more time to our inner lives will contribute to enriching our outer livesÉ but it does not mean going everywhere, doing everything, and being all things to all people.
Doing too much and having too much get in the way of being able to enjoy the things we do want in our lives, and to simply be who we are. Create your own sanctuary and escape to it whenever you need to escape and heal yourself of all negative feelings.
This is all so mundane I suppose and most of us have done it without thinking about it so philosophically, but there are times in life when we need to be reminded of the most obviousÉ and that’s when this book inspired me to take a good look at my life and reassess certain aspects of it.
I guess some people are destined to single-mindely pursue a task which will change society and the world at large. Those famous people who have chosen at great personal cost to leave a legacy of great thought to the world and others who have sacrificed their lives to bring about revolutions which they believed would result in a better world for the coming generations. But for the rest of us, we have our bit to do for society but we also have our bit to leave for ourselves as separate entities from the clutter of the world. As it is said in Islam, “Alnafs laha hakuk alayek” the soul has its rights upon you. Islam also emphaiszes the fact that honest work towards building a good society is important.
It is also said “ta’ammul saa khairoon min sabeen sanaa salaa” an hour of meditation is preferrable to 70 years of prayer, which really means meditating on the why of existence and achieving a balance between the needs of the spirit and those of the physical world.
It is believed that all the great religions came to answer the needs of that particular society in that point of time, and rectify their excesses. Christianity, for example, was very spiritual because it came at a time when the jews were very materialistic people, just as the Tauraat (Testament) had dealt with the more material aspects of life. Islam is meant to be a synthesis between the material and the spiritual and “balance” is the key word.
All the great religions came in a sequence to serve a purpose at different stages of human history to take humanity to a stage where they achieve this sense of balance in life. An inner sense of alignment with the self is vital, or we become like cars with bad alignment which go in all crazy directions. I remember a sentence from one of the famous Indian thinkers, (I am not sure if it was Tagore) “There is a moment of non-thought that has the potential of becoming the focus of all thought”, and I am sure everyone has had this experience of trying hard to think of solutions that don’t come and then in a flash it comes when you are not deliberately thinking of it.
Who was it who said that life is what happens to you when you are doing something else. So many unique moments of life are missed because we push through just always doing and performing as if we were robots which have been programmed to always operate only within defined parameters. It is not surprising this should happen to us in a world which encourages conformity, and because of institutions that penalize those who attempt to stray a little from the straitjackets of systems.
Fundamentalism is usually associated with religious fundamentalism, but I think it comes in many forms. The ideas propagated about the kind of life we should all pursue in order to fit into the so-called “yupee” culture is a kind of extreme fundamentalism. The fact that if you don’t work 27 hours of the day you are labelled as “lazy” is also a kind of fundamentalism that started with the “American dream” and all the ensuing workaholism.
Several researches into work dynamics and on effective management of time have proved that it is counter-productive to work beyond a certain number of hours, because it has been proved that people work effectively and produce good quality work within a certain number of hours. Some may spend 12 hours a day in the office and not produce any real work. We all have deadlines to meet. But it has rather become a status symbol to be seen always working late which implies that one is doing a very important job. Maybe we are trying to escape from ourselves.
To me, the street sweeper is an important person doing an important job (especially in Sanaa where there is litter everywhere). It always seems that we in the developing countries copy the developed world whatever it does, though after a time gap. When extreme feminism in the West is discarded, we begin to pick it up here… and so on.
I was reading an article in an American journal about the change of heart in most Americans about family life and that more Americans are opting for cutting down on the number of hours so as they can spend more time with their families. Here, I listen to a lady I know proudly announce that she cannot remember the last time she didn’t work late at the office. A wise man once said he had never heard of anyone confessing at their deathbed that they had regretted not spending more time at the office. Lest I be accused of being lazy, I have had my full schedules in life to saturation point. But thank God for that safety valve that always pulls me back and I stop in my tracks. I wonder if anything can compensate me for that moment when my little girl wants to share with me the little picture she made, or for when she had to call me several times the other day before I could hear her to tell me, “You know, Mama. Time is more precious than gold.” “Why is that?” I asked her. Her answer was that one can buy gold, but the richest man in the world cannot buy time once it is gone. Here answer made me stop and really think .
A friend of mine who lives in Zambia said that she was quitting a job that even Machiavelli’s enemies would envy. She said she had realised that she was really stressed from the fact that she had a flipchart in her bedroom ticking off things she needed to do the whole time. This predicament is not solely that of female professionals, but on both sides of the fence. There are professionals who spend their lives pushing papers from one end to another and others who try to bring more meaning into their endeavours. The stay at home might enrich our spirits and lives.
Much as we may like our jobs, we do need at some point to go inwards and have our own space so that we can become better parents, better people.
What can substitute the joy of watching the sunrise and smell the fresh crispness of a new day and watch the rays of the sun give a majestic hue to the mountains? Or watching a multicolored butterfly perched on a beautiful flower and observe the love and joy of giving in the flow of life . The poor of the Third World work hard for a living… and yet they seem to have a better sense of balance maybe because they are closer to the realities of life. At the end of the day, what is it all for without the small joys of life as we rush with our pagers and mobiles….
Any answers out there?