finding secrets of the self

From Sufi scholar Zia Inayat Khan:

"Wisdom is the fruit that ripens when, with crazy courage, we plant ourselves in the garden of radical unknowingness. It is the deep breath that accompanies the willingness to not know, to rest in the mystery, to abide in surprise and allow the sacred to reveal itself in its terrible beauty and startling ordinariness. To be wise is to come undone and pay attention to the dismantling and celebrate what rises from the annihilating depths of love’s fire."

Lately, I've been reading a lot of works by Sufi scholars. One of the most profound ideas that constantly reappears among their teachings is the notion of secrets. Hidden truth. Wisdom that is not visible until the beholder is ready to see it. This type of understanding is not rational; it does not appear simply by being present and logically coherent.

The idea of hidden truth is embedded in the very mechanics of Sufism's patron language. Mostly every word in Arabic takes shape from an algebraic combination of three consonants. The pattern in which they are combined often give them their meaning. 

Let's take a look at the various combinations of Q-L-A (Anglicized to make it easier to follow):

  • There's the verb qalla, which means "to become less" or "to diminish".
  • And there's the adjective qaleel, which means "a little (amount)" or "small (in quantity)".
  • But if you change it a little, to istiqlal, now you have the word for "independence".
  • One more slight alteration, and you get istiqlaliyyah, which means "self-reliance".

You can see how generative, poetic, and suggestive a language gets when small and almost unnoticeable alterations yield potentially great differences in connotation and meaning. Especially when you as the observer bring your own specific experience to the table.

One person may hear qaleel in istiqlal -- to be independent is to diminish the self. 

Yet another person may hear istiqlal in qaleel -- to become less is to become independent.

Maybe there is equal meaning in both, but we cannot unlock the true duality of meaning until we are ready to see and feel it.

The Fable of the Four Travelers

The Sufis are all about this concealed beauty to things. One fable that illustrates this principle really well is Idries Shah's story about the four men in search for food.

"I want to buy angur,” said the Persian.

“I want uzum,” said the Turk.

“I want inab,” said the Arab.

“No!” said the Greek,  "we should buy stafil.“

Another traveller passing, a linguist, said, "Give the coin to me. I undertake to satisfy the desires of all of you.”

The traveller buys them four small bunches of grapes. They realize that they had each wanted the same thing -- grapes. The disharmony had been caused by their faulty understanding of each other. 

Even deeper still, in Sufism, the juice of a grape steeped with time is the wine of wisdom. But before the wine can be tasted, the man must first learn to recognize the grape as a grape.

Modern Grapes

In these modern times, our "grapes" of misunderstanding exist within ourselves. Oftentimes, when we feel something is missing from our lives, we seek out a surface-level acquisition of something.

For some, that may be material things. Buying the newest and the hottest. Quality by association.

For others, it might be knowledge. Reading voraciously but not deeply. Looking to extract wisdom from other sources rather than seeing these sources as vehicles for extracting wisdom from the self.

Or maybe it's something like relationships, or prestige, or money, or some other indicator of success. 

All of these amount to a faulty understanding of what we're really missing.

Becoming the Indiana Jones of Secrets

So what do we do to find what we're missing if our current model doesn't work? Hunt secrets. Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, trained in the works of philosopher/secret-hunter Rene Girard, has written about secrets for years. In his Zero to One essays, he wrote:

"Every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator."

In the realm of business, this makes sense. Airbnb rediscovered the secret link between homes, intimacy, and lodging. Uber rediscovered the secret of car pools. Pixar rediscovers time and time again the power of ancient stories retold with new characters.

Perhaps every great self is also built around rediscovering secrets that are "hidden from the outside." Finding these secrets of the self is not a formula, but once you start seeking them, small innocuous seeds of experience get much more interesting. Nothing is boring anymore. And slowly that vague feeling of modern emptiness might just start to dissipate.