You are like an artist. Your masterpiece is not painted on canvas or carved in stone. Your creation is your own life. You were born as an incomplete human being without language, reasoning or coordination. You are a learning creature. You are meant to learn and grow throughout your life.
There is trivial learning and important learning. Trivial learning is the learning that comes from the outside. It includes all you have learned from friends, books and teachers. Unfortunately, most of what you have been taught in school is relatively trivial. Western education is focused on educating the intellect and it only educates from the outside.
Deeper learning comes from within, from your experience and your reflections on what you experienced. You can transform your learning into wisdom when you have practiced what you learned.
You were born helpless. Many animals are born with complex instinctual behavior patterns. For example, all spiders of the same species create the same complex patterns in their webs. No one teaches them. When mountain goats are born they are able to run on steep mountains without falling. As with many other animals, there is no time for the most basic learning. They are born with the ability to survive in dangerous environments.
God has given you a long period of childhood learning and development so you can begin to complete yourself. You are a work in progress throughout your life.
Remember this whenever you make a mistake. Learn to pray, “O God, I have made a mistake again. I really regret it. Please help me to do better. Please help me learn and grow.”
The fabled Sufi teacher Nasruddin went to a shoemaker. He asked the shoemaker, “Do you have heels?”
“Of course, I have heels. I have wide heels, small heels, all kinds of heels.”
“Do you have soles?”
“Yes, I have soles of all sizes and qualities.”
“Do you have shoe leather?”
“Yes, I have many different kinds of leather—different colors and different styles of leather.”
“Do you have heavy thread and glue for putting together all the parts of a shoe?”
“Yes, I have plenty of thread and glue for making shoes!”
“If you have everything you need, why in the world don’t you make yourself a pair of shoes?”
God has given you everything to “make” something of yourself, to develop yourself. Use the wonderful resources God has given you.
You have all you need. Now you have to use it. If you don’t think you have what you need, study and learn what that is. You can discover almost any kind of intellectual resource online, and you can learn from your friends how to apply what you have learned.
Someone said to the Prophet Muhammad, “My doctor said I am dying and I have very little time left. What shall I do with the few days I may have left? Tomorrow may be my last day.” The Prophet replied, “Learn.”
Many people think the goal of learning is to “get” something. Learning is actually a form of worship. Learning is an essential part of the lifelong process of creating yourself and enriching your own life and the lives of those around you.
You can create beauty in many ways. Your job as a human being is to create yourself. A real human being is beautiful. You are meant to apply your wisdom, creativity and love of beauty to yourself.
One of the Buddhist scriptures teaches:
Irrigators guide water; fletchers shape arrows; carpenters fashion wood; sages tame themselves.
(Fronsdale, G. (transl.). The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations. (verse 6) Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2006.)
Many artists create art to gain fame or money. Their art serves their egos and it takes them further from God. As with all action the value of creation depends on the intention behind it.
One Arabic word for beauty is husn, which also means goodness and generosity. The Prophet taught, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” An alternative translation is “God is goodness and loves goodness.” Beauty, goodness and generosity go together.
You are a creative project. You serve creation by creating beauty in the world and by creating beauty within yourself. God created beauty in everything, but you have to have eyes to see it. Unless you can recognize beauty within, how can you perceive beauty without?
When Michelangelo was asked about the wonderful art he created, he replied, “You don’t understand. Nothing I have ever created is a fraction of what I see in my mind.”
There is a great lesson in this. You are bound to be frustrated if you seek perfection. However, great artists still strive toward perfection. It is what makes them great. As spiritual seekers we strive for inner beauty and inner perfection. It is an impossible goal, but we have to strive for it anyhow.
Seeking to come closer to the infinite is an infinitely long process. It is bound to be frustrating as the old Turkish Sufi saying points out, “Sufism is like chewing an iron peanut.” The process requires great patience, especially patience with yourself.
Years ago people learned a craft by becoming apprenticed to a craft master. At the beginning they would keep the shop clean. Then an apprentice would be taught how to clean and sharpen the tools of their craft. Next the apprentice would be taught to carry out some of the simplest work. Each student of a craft slowly learned the skills and the etiquette of that craft.
It is the same in Sufism. We have our traditions of etiquette and the older Sufis teach this to newer students and regular visitors. There are also fundamental skills you have to learn as you apply the practices of Sufism to yourself.
You have to keep growing on this path or else you may go stagnant. You become a Sufi because you want to become a more complete human being.
Art, music and other creative activities are mirrors for this inner process of growth. You are a creative project; you are your own masterpiece. You have to continue this process through lifelong learning and applying in your life what you have learned. You are not done, and you will never finish growing throughout your life.
Engaging in prayer and other forms of worship will change you over time. In fact if your practice doesn’t change you, it is not working. The results are often slow and subtle. You may worry that you are not progressing because you have no perspective on your own progress.
It is hard to see yourself. That is why you have a Sufi teacher who can observe your growth and give you feedback.
A Sufi is also called a fakir, literally a “poor” person. A fakir is not literally poor. A fakir is unattached to money and possessions, and rich in love of God.
For over 10 years I was a consultant to the Decurion Corporation, a movie theater company in Los Angeles. They developed a new chain of first rate movie theaters, the finest theaters in Los Angeles. They offered better quality projection and sound, more comfortable seats, and reserved seating. Their goal was to have their customers experience films the way the movie director wants them to experience their films. The company president said, “It is as if we have a glass wall in front of our movie screens. Our job is to keep that wall so clean and spotless it is invisible. It should feel there is nothing between the film goers and the film.”
That is a wonderful metaphor for what you are trying to do. You are seeking to experience the fullness of God’s creation undistorted by your habits of inattention, your preoccupation with yourself, or your concern with your own wants and needs.
One teacher of awareness meditation told one of her students to look closely at a sunset. Not to look with his eyes alone but to experience the sunset with his heart and body. She taught him to feel nature as fully as possible.
You will understand your Creator more fully if you experience creation more deeply. If you look closely at art, you will begin to understand the artist. You can become still enough and receptive enough to experience the One who has created all the beauty in this world. This is another way to understand our spiritual practice.