If anyone should ask us what Sufism is, a number of possible answers might come to mind. ‘The path of the heart’ or ‘the religion of the heart’ or ‘the search for wisdom’ are all inspiring suggestions. Eleven hundred years ago, a Sufi living in Baghdad said it is, ‘owning nothing, and nothing owning you.’ This sounds formidably ascetic, and we might ask if it has much relevance to our present world.
Of course, we are very familiar with owning things – it is a fundamental component of our way of life. We acquire objects of every kind, and the constant avalanche of new products and new versions of old products motivates us to add still more to our dubious store of treasure. Indeed we own such a huge volume of material that the disposal of what we discard is a serious environmental issue – and that problem illustrates a basic truth, that owning comes with consequences. If I purchase a vehicle, for example, then I must also think about changing the tires, buying insurance, protecting it from being stolen, and so on. If I buy a house, then I must think about water, light, taxes, furniture to make the house useable, and still more. Although wealth seems attractive, if we look at life with a sober eye, we must see that we inevitably become the caretaker of whatever we acquire. To put it another way, we are owned by that which we own.
We want to be free – indeed, many people think they are free, though they are often in error – so the idea of being owned is repellent to us. Nevertheless, it is doubtful how far most people would be able to discard all their possessions for the sake of real freedom. But what about something less tangible? What about our assumptions and opinions? We have an abundance of these, and once the habit of judging is established, it tends to grow, and become more and more firm. We do not see them, but we are even more attached to our opinions, and hold them closer to our identity than our goods. Our opinions ‘own’ us just as do our possessions.
There are two possible ways to find our freedom from that which holds us. One is the extreme discipline of a dervish, walking away from everything, making do with just a blanket and breaking our opinions and habits on the unresponsive stones of life. But only a few will follow this route – most of us are on a path of living in the world while trying to not be of the world, so we need a different way to let go.
The other way to free ourselves from owning and being owned might sound more attractive than the life of a dervish, but it is just as hard, or perhaps harder– it is the path of love. If there is anything which can undo our attachments, like dissolving rust from the mirror of the heart, it is love. In Gayan Chalas we find this saying : As water is the cleansing and purifying element in the physical world, so love performs the same service. on the higher planes.
It is for the sake of love that we let go of our claims. For the one who truly loves, all the goods of the world and all the opinions that form the walls of our ‘me’ lose their interest. It is a painful path, since to love means to sacrifice, but when that divine fire has at last consumed everything, we discover that we are freed from owning, and since we ourselves have also vanished there is nothing that can own us.