To Do? Or Not to Do?

Since the beginning of time humanity has pondered over the consequences of actions, and tried to determine good strategies for all circumstances.  This applies to practical affairs, as for example when parents endeavour to teach their children to handle money well (“If you spend it now, you won’t have it later!”).  It also applies to the moral level, as when the Spirit of Guidance finds expression in clear codes of behaviour, with such rules as, “Do not steal,” or “Do not feed the flame of anger.”

There are limits to the use of such guidelines, of course. At times it may make some financial sense to incur a debt, and the warmth of anger is sometimes useful to drive the engine of change in our life.  But although we recognise their fallibility, paradoxically the need for such guidelines seems to become more acute as we travel further on the spiritual path.  For a very worldly person–or for a child–the cause-and-effect link between action (or thought or speech) and the consequences thereof may seem not very certain.  Someone unconscious of the inner life might know that stealing is considered wrong but if they don’t get caught, it looks like there is no price to pay.  But the one who is awakening to the reality of life beyond the material, and who begins to glimpse the subtle interactions that ripple out from every movement, breath or feeling, recognises that the consequences of action–and even inaction–are unescapable, if not always understandable.

In this connection, someone once wrote to a respected Sufi, “Master, if I cease from deeds I am perpetually in idleness, and if I perform deeds I am filled with presumption.  Which of these is better?” Note that the concern is not about the external, visible results of deeds, but about the effect on the inner being of the doer. ‘Presumption’ means ‘behaviour that is arrogant, disrespectful and transgressing the limits of what is permitted.’  The seeker is concerned that by acting, he or she reinforces the ego: I work, I do, I say, I give, I take. If one is on a spiritual quest and seeking to efface one’s ego before the sublime beauty and majesty of God, then constantly re-affirming one’s ‘I’ might seem to be the wrong way to go about it.  The alternative, though, is doing nothing, and according to numerous religious and spiritual instructions, idleness is not advisable either.  In the west the ‘Protestant work ethic’ is often cited, but many centuries before Martin Luther, the Prophet Muhammad said that amongst all the many branches of worship, the best was earning a living lawfully.   And in the Book of Proverbs we find: Hunger is good—if it makes you work to satisfy it!  Idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece.

Faced with these two alternatives, the Sufi to whom the question was addressed replied: “Perform deeds, and ask God’s pardon for the presumption.”

To be alive is to make mistakes; error cannot be avoided in this life.  But if we abstain from action, it is to refuse the most precious gift, the opportunity we have been given to move in the rhythm and harmony of the  sacred, cosmic dance.  Creation arose from the infinite volcano of divine love, and in all its forms love lives on hope.  To be idle denies the hope of one’s life.  We may think here of the parable of the servants entrusted with the talents; the one who simply buried his master’s wealth and returned it unused was rebuked.  Better to dance, then, however clumsily, and ask God’s pardon for our missteps, for God loves to forgive, and when we ask sincerely for forgiveness, our contrition draws us closer to Him.

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