Choosing to Respond

A recent post from the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan underlined the importance of responsiveness, telling us that the person who is not responsive will be disappointed in all affairs of life.  Obviously, then, it is a subject that deserves close attention. To respond means to react to the world around us, as the body of a violin resonates to the vibration of the bowed string, for example, or as the tympanum of the ear moves in conformity with the complex pressure waves of air we experience as music.  But Hazrat Inayat is speaking about more than physical response; he is advising us to respond to all that surrounds us: to nature, to the events and circumstances of life, to the people–family, friends, colleagues and even the stranger on the train, and to the unseen clouds of thought and feeling that envelop us, as well.   No doubt there is wisdom in this teaching, but it raises a concern in some minds. Most people, consciously or unconsciously, rely on boundaries to define themselves, and above all to protect that which they regard as their ‘self’ from that which appears ‘alien.’ Doesn’t responsiveness put us at the mercy of all the world?  Fearing lest they be asked to permit an overwhelming invasion, some people run away from the assumed over-saintliness of spirituality.

It is a popular belief that to be spiritual, one should passively accept all that life throws upon us: if those around us treat us badly, we should be ‘good’, and suffer without complaint; if we are deprived, we should smile through the hardship and misery; if we are ill, we should patiently bear the pain.  This is a mis-representaton, though, a sort of ‘supermarket tabloid’ picture of spirituality, for the wise teach something different.

In the long history of humanity there are indeed numerous examples of great souls enduring suffering that seems beyond the limit of the ordinary person,  martyrs, saints and messengers whose examples have had a profound influence on the world, but there is a difference between passivity and resignation.  A truly spiritual person will accept what cannot be avoided, but will nevertheless try to keep the difficult circumstances from clouding his heart and mind; he will be resigned, in other words, to what cannot be changed.  In this connection, the saying of Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn [posted in ‘The Jewelled Garden’ Apr. 5, 2016] points out that something in life may be bitter, but if we say it is bad, we are, in effect, cutting ourselves off from the Divine Source of all that comes in life.  And similarly, the Indian Buddhist Shantideva said: If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection?  And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being sad? This is what Hazrat Inayat means by ‘indifference,’ which he calls one of the two wings that lift the heart to freedom ( the other being independence).

At the same time, the wise of every tradition have taught that we must exert ourselves to do whatever we can to make the world better, according to our understanding, to reflect our ideal, in other words. Speaking on the subject of Sadhana, or the Path of Attainment, Hazrat Inayat said, We live by the hope of attainment–without this one cannot exist–be it spiritual or material, of a selfish nature or of an unselfish one. It is not necessary that all should have one and the same object for their attainment nor is it possible. It is however, desirable that we should hold in our thought the best and highest attainment possible for us. 

Perhaps someone will say, ‘But what about the austerities that some spiritual figures practice? Does that not show that they seek pain and hardship?’  The strict fasts and other disciplines endured by saints, dervishes and faqirs are legendary, and many have taught that this is an essential way to practice–but we must not confuse the way with the goal.  Fasting and mortification are not spiritual in themselves; practiced in the right way, with the right intent, they may help one to rise above the physical and reach an awareness of the spiritual, but the method itself is not the purpose.  In this connection, there is a story that Hazrat Inayat was once invited to a dinner, and found himself seated beside a lady of rather ample proportions.  As the dinner was getting underway, the lady asked the Master if it was spiritual to fast.  With a kind smile, Inayat said, “It is as spiritual to fast, madam, as it is to enjoy a delicious dinner.” He said later, it was an answer that pleased her very much.

The word ‘respond’ (in English) has two senses; one is to react, automatically, mechanically, and the other is, to answer. The body of the violin, mentioned above, responds to the singing of the strings because it is made to do so; obedient to the laws of physics, it has no choice. As humans, we have the possibility of choosing how we answer.  If someone speaks to us, we may reply with coldness, with a kind word, or with silent attention; the choice depends upon our inner condition.   If life gives us bitter medicine, we may respond with the limited view of anger, or with the wide view of acceptance, knowing that when we become transparent, we contain the entire universe.  The choice is ours: if life gives us an opportunity, we may turn away, or we may respond with our precious willpower; and if life offers us the wine of joy, we may cling to what we know, or we may drop our small concerns and accept the cup with both hands.

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