by Modaser Shah
The Sage of Hannibal, Mark Twain, said: “My life has been full of misfortunes, most of which never happened.” Here Mark Twain shows us how hard it is to surrender; the mind is very creative in inventing a world of troubles in order to evade what is there in front of us, requiring attention. This imagined troubled world keeps at bay the responsibility of dealing with our immediate, present reality and what needs to be done, right here and now, in our neighborhood, in our families, among our friends and acquaintances. Mullah Nasruddin shows what Mark Twain is talking about in the episode where he is looking for the lost key. He goes looking not where it was lost but elsewhere where there is light. He wishes to appear to be doing the reasonable thing, although what he does is the convenient thing to do. It is like worrying about those visibly hungry people or abused animals or nature in far away lands, rather than worrying about the people among our kin or neighbors who go hungry or can’t afford their medicines or are homeless, or taking care of the animals or nature in our vicinity crying out for a reprieve from man’s rapaciousness. This is not meant to denigrate compassion for denizens of distant lands but people, indeed, are likely to look away from pressing realities that need to be faced in their immediate lives.
In the great silent movie Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang in 1927, was this quote, “The mediator between the brain and the hands must be the heart.” The brain seems to be the material substrate of the mind. And what is this intangible quality called the heart? Is its material substrate the physical heart? Is it intuition? Is it compassion? Whatever it is, it is clear that if it is negated, as shown in the movie, we are left with the undead, the zombies, the robots. The heart does indeed redeem the brain and the hands.
In “A Case for Irony” by Jonathan Lear, Kierkegaard is reported to have asked, “In all of Christendom, is there a Christian?” This is an anguished cry of the heart, pining for perfection in the human heart, brain, and hands. Yet this pining for the perfect, as the Sage of Hannibal shows, can divert us from the path of reality and surrender, i.e., the way. The Greeks knew this well, this need to start from human reality, from what has been given to us, from what there is. This has much in common with Zen and Tao practice and teaching, not to mention the wisdom in Sufi tales, such as those of Mullah Nasruddin.
In a review of the aforementioned book in The Psychoanalytic Review (volume 4, 2012), Alfred Margulies quotes Pindar, the ancient Greek poet: “Become such as you are, having learned what that is.”
A monk says to the Zen teacher: “I have been at this temple for quite some time now and I have not received any individual teaching from you.” The teacher replies: “Whatever could you possibly mean by that. Haven’t you been greeting me every morning and haven’t I been answering you? You have been serving me tea and I have been enjoying it. What more could you possibly be looking for?”
The gist of all of the above is given in a Tao aphorism: “The Path is near, yet people look for it afar.” It is stated in even simpler words by Ibn Abbad (as quoted in “Merton and Sufism” by Rob Baker and Gray Henry): “The Way is plain.”
Essay by Modaser Shah; photo by Ali Hammad