Transforming the Self
The goal of all mysticism is to cleanse the heart, to educate, or transform, the self, and to find God. The lowest level of the self is dominated by pride, egotism, and totally self-centered greed and lust. This level is the part within each person that leads away from Truth. The highest level is the pure self, and at this level there is no duality, no separation from God.
The self is actually a living process rather than a static structure in the psyche. The self is not a thing. The Arabic term is related to words for "breath," "soul," "essence," "self," and "nature." It refers to a process that comes about from the interaction of body and soul. When the soul becomes embodied, it forgets its original nature and becomes enmeshed in material creation. This creates the self.
The lowest level of the self, the ego or lower personality, is made up of impulses, or drives, to satisfy desires. These drives dominate reason or judgment and are defined as the forces in one's nature that must be brought under control. The self is a product of the self-centered consciousness - the ego, the "I." The self must be transformed - this is the ideal. The self is like a wild horse; it is powerful and virtually uncontrollable. As the self becomes trained, or transformed, it becomes capable of serving the individual. Sheikh Muzaffer has written,
The self is not bad in itself. Never blame your self. Part of the work of Sufism is to change the state of your self. The lowest state is that of being completely dominated by your wants and desires. The next state is to struggle with yourself, to seek to act according to reason and higher ideals and to criticize yourself when you fail. A much higher state is to be satisfied with whatever God provides for you, whether it means comfort or discomfort, fulfillment of physical needs or not.
According to many Sufi teachers, there are seven levels of the self. They are seven levels of development, ranging from absolutely self-centered and egotistical to purely spiritual.
The Commanding Self
The first level has also been described as the domineering self or the self that incites to evil. The commanding self seeks to dominate and to control each individual. At this level there is unbridled selfishness and no sense of morality or compassion.
Descriptions of this level are similar to descriptions of the id in psychoanalytic theory; it is closely linked to lust and aggression. These have been called the swine and the dogs of the self - the sensual traits are like swine, the ferocious ones like fierce dogs or wolves. Wrath, greed, sensual appetites, passion, and envy are examples of traits at this level of the self. This is the realm of physical and egoistic desires.
At this level people are like addicts who are in denial. Their lives are dominated by uncontrollable addictions to negative traits and habits, yet they refuse to believe they have a problem. They have no hope of change at this level, because they do not acknowledge any need to change.
The Regretful Self
People who have not developed beyond the first level are unaware and unconscious. As the light of faith grows, insight dawns, perhaps for the first time. The negative effects of a habitually self-centered approach to the world become apparent to the regretful self.
At this level, wants and desires still dominate, but now the person repents from time to time and tries to follow higher impulses. As Sheikh Muzaffer points out,
There is a battle between the self, the lower self, and the soul. This battle will continue through life. The question is, Who will educate whom? Who will become the master of whom? If the soul becomes the master, then you will be a believer, one who embraces Truth. If the lower self becomes master of the soul, you will be one who denies Truth.
At this second level, people do not yet have the ability to change their way of life in a significant way. However, as they see their faults more clearly, their regret and desire for change grow. At this level, people are like addicts who are beginning to understand the pain they have caused themselves and others. The addiction is still far too strong to change. That requires far stronger medicine.
The Inspired Self
At the next level, the seeker begins to take genuine pleasure in prayer, meditation, and other spiritual activities. Only now does the individual taste the joys of spiritual experience. Now the seeker is truly motivated by ideals such as compassion, service, and moral values. This is the beginning of the real practice of Sufism. Before this stage, the best anyone can accomplish is superficial outer understanding and mechanical outer worship.
Though one is not free from desires and ego, this new level of motivation and spiritual experience significantly reduces the power of these forces for the first time. What is essential here is to live in terms of higher values. Unless these new motivations become part of a way of life, they will wither and die away. Behaviors common to the inspired self include gentleness, compassion, creative acts, and moral action. Overall, a person who is at the stage of the inspired self seems to be emotionally mature, respectable, and respected. (about dangers at this stage)
The Contented Self
The seeker is now at peace. The struggles of the earlier stages are basically over. The old desires and attachments are no longer binding. The ego-self begins to let go, allowing the individual to come more closely in contact with the Divine.
This level of self predisposes one to be liberal, grateful, trusting, and adoring. If one accepts difficulties with the same overall sense of security with which one accepts benefits, it may be said that one has attained the level of the contented self. Developmentally, this level marks a period of transition. The self can now begin to "disintegrate" and let go of all previous concern with self-boundaries and then begin to "reintegrate" as an aspect of the universal self.
The Pleased Self
At this stage the individual is not only content with his or her lot, but pleased with even the difficulties and trials of life, realizing that these difficulties come from God. The state of the pleased self is very different from the way we usually experience the world, focused on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. A Sufi story illustrates this:
Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna once shared a cucumber with Ayaz, his most loyal and beloved companion. Ayaz happily ate his half of the cucumber, but when the sultan bit into his half, it was so bitter he immediately spit it out.
"How could you manage to eat something so bitter? the sultan exclaimed, "it tasted like chalk or like bitter poison!"
"My beloved sultan," answered Ayaz, "I have enjoyed so many favors and bounties from your hand that whatever you give me tastes sweet."
When a person's love and gratitude to God reach this level, he or she has reached the stage of the pleased self.
The Self Pleasing to God
Those who have reached the next stage realize that all power to act comes from God, that they can do nothing by themselves. They no longer fear anything or ask for anything.
The Sufi sage Ibn 'Arabi described this level as the inner marriage or self and soul. The self pleasing to God has achieved genuine inner unity and wholeness. At earlier stages, people struggle with the world because they experience multiplicity. A broken mirror creates a thousand different reflections of a single image. If the mirror could be made whole again, it would then reflect the single, unified image. By healing the multiplicity within, the Sufi experiences the world as whole and unified.
The Pure Self
Those few who attain the final level have transcended the self entirely. There is no ego or separate self left, only union with God. At this stage, the individual has truly realized the truth, "There is no god but God." The Sufi now knows that there is nothing but God, that only the Divine exists, and that any sense of individuality or separateness is an illusion.
Rumi illuminates this state for us:
If you could get rid
Of yourself just once,
The secret of secrets
Would open to you.
The face of the unknown,
Hidden beyond the universe
Would appear on the
Mirror of your perception