Iron Rule 1: My conscientious self, make no false claims.

The first of the Iron Rules is: My conscientious self, make no false claims. Well, that sounds very easy. None of us would like to think that we make false claims, and probably consciously we don’t. But if one were to apply this rule to everything that one says, I think that one’s awareness of one’s speech would deepen dramatically, and one would see that there are shades of truthfulness in speech. There are things that we say that our full will is behind—we are transparent at that moment, and that gives the speech great power. And there are other things that we say where there is no transparency; there is just the opposite, opacity. We are projecting a smokescreen with the view of obtaining a desired end. And yet the result that is obtained cannot possibly compare to the purity of the state that is lost in so doing, and the joy and peace that is the natural consequence of that purity.

In connection with this, one could refer to the chapter from The Art of Personality by Murshid (Hazrat Inayat Khan) on “Word of Honor.” Here are some highlights: “What is the word? Word is one’s expression, the expression of one’s soul. The one upon whose words one can rely, that one is dependable. No wealth of this world can be compared with one’s word of honor. The person who says what he or she means, proves, by this virtue, spirituality. To a real person, to go back on one’s word is worse than death, for it is going backward instead of going forward.” Murshid refers to the story of Haris Chandra who suffered great sacrifices to uphold his word of honor. Afterward, Murshid was asked a question: What happens if you find yourself in a situation where you have carelessly given your word of honor and now, to uphold your word, you must do something that, in the light of present circumstances, seems more harmful than beneficial? In such a case, is it not too extreme to stand on this principle? Murshid answered, very tactfully I think, that no principle should be taken to extreme and made absolute. There is danger of excess in everything. However, if one develops the tendency of compromising one’s word of honor because the situation has changed, the effect is that one becomes all the more likely to continue to make casual promises knowing that one will later allow oneself to deviate from one’s word. Insofar as we remain firm in our dedication to our word of honor, to such a degree will we be judicious in exercising our promise.

If one studies one’s life, one may find that there are relatively few occasions when one signs on a dotted line or makes a vow or pledge or declaration. But very frequently, in casual conversation, one commits to something; one accepts responsibility for something; one projects into the future: I will do this; I will be there. Very often we do so with the unexpressed subtext that, after all, circumstances are changeable and I reserve the right to change my mind. But to such a degree as we do so, our word loses the sacred power that is possible in the pledge of the knight.

When one deviates from one’s promise it is invariably because there is benefit to be gained. Sometimes the rewards are very tangible and extremely tempting. Yet when one looks back on one’s life and contemplates the times one has given one’s word and not followed through due to some temptation or other, it is clear that the benefit obtained cannot compensate for the sense of loss that one now feels, a loss of integrity. But we need not become mired in the guilt of the past. We need only repent, make amends, learn the lesson and move on, wiser and truer to our life’s purpose. It is a new day and we have new choices, and we have learned to give our word of honor judiciously and to uphold it conscientiously.

Iron Rule 2: My conscientious self, speak not against others in their absence.

The second rule is: Speak not against others in their absence. This is a saying that, like all wise words, has several levels of meaning. On the most literal level it means: do not speak unkindly about people who are not present in the conversation. At a deeper level, one could say that to speak against someone in his or her absence means to speak judgmentally of someone to whom you are not present. In this case, being present means being conscious of the soul of the person. To lightly discuss the characteristics of a person without truly being present to that person—without experiencing the person’s soul—is an error.

But again, the literal meaning is: do not to speak about people when they are not around, except in praise. The situation that the rule addresses is a common one, I think, in the experience of all of us. In the social world we inhabit, people are more likely to speak about other people in their absence than in their presence. Gossip has a kind of infectious quality. One might not naturally incline toward it, but one finds oneself in conversations in which the intoxicating atmosphere of casual criticism gets the better of one. In that moment, a feeling of license prevails. But as one steps away from the conversation, the thought suddenly dawns: what have I said?

The ego does not exist in isolation. Rather, it is a construct formed of layers of psychic substance generated in relationships. Our self-image is bound up in other people’s image of us, and vice versa. When we cast negative judgments on others, we may imagine ourselves to be revealing the person’s true nature, but we are in fact concealing it. We are wrapping the person up in veils of darkness, covering over the light of the soul.

From a mystical point of view, the physical presence or absence of a person is incidental. We are interconnected beyond time and space. Nothing goes unheard; every word, and indeed every thought, resounds through the universe. Nothing is hidden; every vibration has its effect.

Murshid says: “It must be remembered that one shows lack of nobleness of character by love of gossiping. It is so natural, and yet it is a great fault in the character to cherish the tendency of talking about others. In the first place, it is a great weakness one shows when one passes remarks about someone behind his back; in the second place, it is against what may be called frankness. Besides it is judging another, which is wrong according to the teaching of Christ, which says Judge ye not, lest ye be judged.”

Judge ye not, lest ye be judged. That is the best touchstone: to ask, how would I feel if that person spoke of me as I am speaking of him or her? If you would feel comfortable, what you are saying is probably fair. Likewise, one might ask, would I speak in this way if the person were present? If so, again, what one is saying is probably fair.

When we have stopped speaking against others, we will have more energy to direct to a nobler and ultimately more satisfying occupation: speaking in favor of others.

Iron Rule 3: My conscientious self, do not take advantage of a person’s ignorance

Each rule begins with the words, “My conscientious self.” This means that the rule is a soliloquy, a conversation with oneself. It is not imposed by an external authority. The rule is the articulation of an ethical orientation. If that orientation resonates with one’s conscience, then the rule is a reminder to fully commit oneself, in all situations, to one’s ideal. If the orientation does not resonate, then the contemplation of the rule presents an opportunity to clarify one’s own ethical position. In neither case is the rule a dogma that demands adherence on the basis of an external authority. The only true authority is the illuminated human conscience.

Now to the rule: Do not take advantage of a person’s ignorance. Of course the extreme form of taking advantage of a person’s ignorance is hucksterism, preying on people’s gullibility and misleading them to make a quick buck. Most of us are innocent of this. But there are subtler forms of taking advantage.

In Creating the Person, Murshid Inayat Khan speaks of what he calls “the persuasive tendency.” He says:

There is a tendency hidden behind human impulse, which may be called the persuasive tendency. . . . By this, people achieve for the moment what they wish to achieve. But in the end, the effect is the annoyance of all those who are tried by this persuasive tendency. Does it not show that to get something done is not so hard as to be considerate of the feelings of others? It is so rare that one finds a person in the world who is considerate of another person’s feeling, even at the sacrifice of getting his or her own desires done. Everyone seeks freedom, but for himself or herself. If one sought the same for another, one would be a much greater person. The persuasive tendency, no doubt, shows a great will power. And it plays upon the weakness of others, who yield and give in to it, owing to love, sympathy, goodness, kindness and politeness. But there is a limit to everything. There comes a time when the thread breaks. A thread is a thread, it is not steel wire. Even a wire breaks if it is pulled too hard. The delicacy of the human heart is not comprehended by everyone. Human feeling is too fine for common perception. A soul who develops his or her personality, what is (s)he like? (S)he is not like the root or the stem of the plant, nor like the branches or leaves. (S)he is like the flower, the flower with its color, fragrance and delicacy.

Murshid speaks here of the tendency to argue, to cajole, to wheedle, to badger—in short, to do all within one’s power to change someone’s mind in the interest of personally benefiting. We all, at times, try to leverage our rhetorical skills to the best advantage. When one feels the stakes are high, one argues one’s case tenaciously, with lawyerly intensity.

To “win” an argument one must downplay the weaknesses in one’s position and emphasize the strengths. Certain facts must be highlighted and other facts must be concealed. That which is congenial to one’s argument one plays up, and the rest is conveniently ignored.

We all have this tendency, more or less. It is just part of the rhetoric of speech, almost unavoidable. We always want to give the best reason for our decisions, our thoughts, and so on. But when this tendency takes an extreme form it becomes abusive. When one knowingly withholds critical information in a discussion, one is no longer contributing positively toward a mutually favorable resolution.

If the purpose of a conversation is a “meeting of minds”—and when should it not be?—then what is wanted is not the triumph of one point of view over the other, but rather a cognitive synthesis in which multiple facets of a subject are brought into harmony and the understanding of both parties is expanded.

When, on the contrary, one takes advantage of the blind spots in another person’s angle of vision, that which results is just a form of exploitation. Knowledge is power, and the manipulation of knowledge with the motive of self-interest can be tyrannical.

Of course secrecy is not in itself a negative or destructive force. In fact, it is a natural and necessary aspect of life. All of nature is a revelation of the mystery of the divine secret in successive stages of disclosure. If the pure, all-encompassing truth of reality were ever to be disclosed in its totality, the witness’s mind would melt. Neither you nor I could stand the force of the disclosure and survive. It is as a mercy to us that, “Allah hath seventy thousand veils of light and darkness.”

It is only as the human being’s capacity deepens and expands that the veils can be lifted, one by one. Not every moment is the right moment to express a finer perception, a realization of the soul. Secrets of the heart are not to be blurted out carelessly. The luminous darkness of silence nourishes and protects spiritual knowledge until its moment of expression has come. This secrecy is beautiful and empowering. It empowers not only oneself, but also the other. The Prophet, Saint, or Master who keeps the divine secret does so in a spirit of compassionate solidarity with all life, supporting the natural unfoldment of each being. This is just the opposite of the secrecy of the tyrant, who uses knowledge to dominate others. Both use power, but the tyrant uses power against others, whereas the Prophet, Saint, or Master uses power for and with others. The result is very different.

Iron Rule 4: My conscientious self, do not boast of your good deeds

To begin, I would like to bring our attention to a passage on vanity from Murshid Inayat Khan’s book, Creating the Person:

The whole manifestation is the expression of that spirit of the logos which is called, in Sufi terms, kibriyya. Through every being this spirit manifests in the form of vanity, pride or conceit. Had it not been for this spirit working in every being as the central theme of life, no good or bad would have existed in the world; nor would there have been great or small. All virtues and every evil are the offspring of this spirit. The art of personality is to cut the rough edges of this spirit of vanity which hurt and disturb those one meets in life. The person who talks of ‘I’, as many times as he talks about it, so much more he disturbs the mind of his listeners. Vanity expressed in rigidity is called pride, and when it is expressed nicely it is termed vanity. Often people are trained in politeness and they are taught a polished language and manner. Yet if there be this spirit of vanity pronounced, in spite of all good manners and beautiful language, it creeps up and sounds itself in a person’s thought, speech or action, calling aloud ‘I am, I am.’ If a person be speechless, her vanity will leap out from her expression, from her glance. It is something which is the hardest thing to suppress and to control. The struggle in the life of adepts is not so great with passions or emotions, which sooner or later, by more or less effort, can be controlled. But with vanity, it is always growing. If one cuts down its stem, then one lives no more. For it is the very self. It is the I, the ego, the soul or God within. It cannot be denied its existence. But only struggling with it beautifies it more and more, and makes more tolerable that which in its crude form is intolerable. Vanity may be likened to a magic plant. If one saw it in the garden growing as a thorny plant, and if one cut it off, it would grow in another place in the same garden as a tree of fruits. And when one cuts it away in another place in the same garden, it will spring up as a plant of fragrant roses. It exists just the same, but in a more beautiful form, and would give happiness to those who touch it. The art of personality, therefore, does not teach us to root out the seed of vanity, which cannot be rooted out as long as one lives. But its crude, outer garb may be destroyed, that after dying several deaths, it might manifest as the plant of desire.

How can these observations be applied to the rule, Do not boast of your good deeds? We might begin by noticing what kind of behavior in others disturbs our mind. One will probably find that there are certain people in one’s life whose manner is difficult and off-putting, and others whose manner puts one at ease. If one looks into this, in many cases the difference will be found to reside in the nature of the person’s ego. It is difficult to feel comfortable in the presence of those who are intoxicated with themselves, concerned only with their own interests, incessantly calling attention to their virtues, justifying themselves, and promoting their point of view. One’s own ego feels snubbed by the larger and more imposing ego that is before one. Conversely, the presence of one who is modest, understated and able to listen sympathetically is a soothing balm.

If we are to live by the Golden Rule we must consider ourselves in the same light. Reversing one’s gaze, one might notice that there are ways in which one’s own ego has a jarring effect upon others. We might find that we have a tendency, in the intoxication of the moment, to lose ourselves in our own interests to such an extent that we have little regard for the concerns of those around us. We are so caught up in our life that we forget that our personal drama is ours alone, that it is only we who are riveted by the angle of vision that is uniquely ours.

In another place in Creating the Person, Murshid tells the story of two passengers on a train. One was talking for hours and hours about the great exploits of his ancestors. Finally, his patience completely exhausted, the other passenger exclaimed, “Enough! I’m bored to hear of my own ancestors. Why should I care to hear of yours?” What a telling illustration of the principle that personal passions are not always shared!

Jesus (peace be upon him) said that we will be known by our fruits. We often feel the need to explain ourselves, to make our case, to call attention to our good intentions and the self-sacrifices that we have made. We feel that others really should understand us better than they do. We don’t feel properly appreciated. But the words of Christ call us to remember that it’s by our fruits that we will be known, not our words.

In fact our words may detract from our fruits. The good deeds that we are rightly proud of, by calling attention to them, by excessively speaking about them, those very deeds wither and become less worthy of appreciation in the eyes of others than if we had simply let the deeds speak for themselves. The teachings of the prophets and sages urge us to let our deeds speak for themselves. Even if it seems in the moment that one is not understood or appreciated, one must trust that all accounts are settled sooner or later. One need not struggle so hard to defend, explain, and justify oneself.

We might think that in speaking our own praise we are respecting ourselves. Yet however highly one might praise oneself, the truth is that the praise utterly pales in comparison to the praise that is actually due to the essence of oneself, the light of one’s soul. Ironically, in voicing the praise of which you think yourself worthy, you fall from the station that is your true position, because in praising yourself you are investing yourself in the self-image that you are projecting. The true greatness of your being is much greater than that image. The more that you try to invest in the image the more greatness you lose, because your true greatness is ineffable, it can never be expressed in words. Words only limit it. One’s real greatness is beyond all words and images. That greatness is unspeakably powerful and beautiful, unutterably awesome, and every time that we boast of ourselves, we rob from its infinitude to feed something very small.

Iron Rule 5: My conscientious self, do not claim that which belongs to another

I have two small children and I take great delight in watching them grow and change. In children one can see the simplest impulses of the human personality before it has been socially conditioned. For example, when two children are playing together with an assortment of toys, a toy will often lie utterly neglected until one child happens to takes it up, at which point the other child will develop a sudden interest in it, and demand it as his own. As long as it lay on the floor there was no special attraction, but when another grasps it, it acquires urgent importance.

In reality, adults are not so different from children in this respect, although we might hide it. We are drawn to possess what others possess. In extreme cases, acquisitiveness drives people to deceit and violence. More often, it simply involves spending a great deal of time and energy accumulating and discarding possessions, hunting for the object that will bring happiness, yet never quite finding it. The whole economy is based on our acting this way. If we stopped, the economy would collapse and would have to be reinvented.

From a Sufi point of view, every motivation is ultimately grounded in a divine impulse. Even in our concupiscence there is hope for redemption. The pursuit of an object leads to the attainment of the object, which in turn leads to rising above it. If one were not to strive to obtain that which one desires, if one were to prematurely renounce it while inwardly still hankering for it, one’s renunciation would be hollow and hypocritical and liable to be broken at any moment. But one who has attained the object and risen above it, that one can be said to be free. Even the path of acquisition must have its end, as all things have their end, in realization. William Blake expressed this when he said that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Yet it must be said that it is one thing for an individual to follow the path of excess to the palace of wisdom, and another for the whole of society to do so. The enrichment of one nation or species very often spells the impoverishment of another, and with a human population of over six and a half billion, the Earth’s resources are already stretched precariously thin. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked if India could be expected to attain the standard of living of Britain. He answered that it took Britain half the world to feed itself—“if India became like Britain, how many worlds would it need?”

Collectively, the path of realization through excessive consumption is simply not tenable. Yet many of us go through a stage of preoccupation with objects. As one becomes a connoisseur, one’s tastes develop and there is no limit to what one wants. When one has obtained this thing, something else seems more desirable, and it goes on and on. But after some time one realizes that this is all dunya (worldliness) and that the thing itself is not what provides the satisfaction. The thing is just a trigger for an inner experience, and the experience itself is the source of the pleasure. What does possession really mean after all? In truth, possession is nothing more than legal proximity to an object. Is there any kind of invisible force that links a person and an object? There is no such force, except in the mind.

When one realizes this one moves to the next stage—from dunya to akhira (otherworldliness). Instead of seeking possession of objects, one seeks satisfaction in beautiful and joyful states of being. One sets out on the spiritual path, and perhaps one attends seminars and workshops and retreats and reads a lot of books. In this way one discovers a marketplace of beautiful spiritual ideas. Eventually one might begin to notice that the same impulses that impelled one in the marketplace of things drive one through the marketplace of spiritual ideas: the same acquisitive desire, the same attempt to obtain satisfaction through possession of something that is expected to be stable and pleasurable. Moreover—in the spiritual world as in the physical world—one is often tempted to seize that which belongs to another because it has more attraction than what one possesses oneself.

As one pursues one’s spiritual path, one sees that there are other people who are apparently endowed with a quality of realization that is extremely attractive. One wishes that one had what the other person has, and feels the need to test out every new methodology or discipline in order to latch onto something that will maximize one’s satisfaction. One craves to possess that which belongs to another, the apparently perfect spiritual state of those who surround one, and one feels oneself to be trapped in a lesser state. So one becomes, on the one hand, idolatrous of the others, and on the other, most unkind to oneself, feeling profoundly one’s unworthiness and incapacity. Ironically it is likely that the one upon whom we project our ideal of perfect spiritual accomplishment likewise feels his or her limitation and wishes for the state of a more perfectly realized being, and so on ad infinitum, everyone turning and looking at another—that is, until we return to the principle of this Iron Rule: Do not claim that which belongs to another.

The rule tells us, only claim that which belongs to you, that which arises from your own experience. That is what you can claim, accept and be content with—your own state of being. Understand its changeableness. Understand that your state is not the essence, but it is a quality of essence that is shifting. In the acceptance of one’s state one is better able to sense how it is poised on the ground of pure essence.

So take the truth of your experience as that which belongs to you, the special vantage point that has been disclosed to God by God exclusively through you. Your angle of vision is necessarily unique to you, and something is thereby added to life that could not be added in any other way. Nothing is superfluous. All is providential. Our critical judgments of our experience as good or bad, negative or positive are ultimately very relative. There is simply the life experience that we have been given for the enrichment of the divine self-disclosure. It is in embracing that experience that we enjoy the fulfillment that is our birthright.

This commentary was originally presented during a session of Suluk Academy.

Iron Rule 6: My conscientious self, do not reproach others, making them firm in their faults

The next of the Iron Rules is: My conscientious self, do not reproach others, making them firm in their faults. There is a very beautiful and enlightening passage from Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan on this subject in the Volume entitled “Sufi Teachings” under the chapter heading “Overlooking”:

There is a tendency which manifests itself and grows in a person who is advancing spiritually, and that tendency is overlooking. At times this tendency might appear as negligence, but in reality negligence is not necessarily overlooking, negligence most often is not looking. Overlooking may be called in other words rising beyond things: one has to rise in order to overlook; the one who stands beneath life could not overlook, even if s/he wanted to. Overlooking is a manner of graciousness; it is looking, and at the same time not looking; it is seeing and not taking notice of what is seen; it is being hurt or harmed or disturbed by something and yet not minding it. It is an attribute of nobleness of nature; it is a sign of souls who are attuned to a higher key. 

Overlooking is the first lesson of forgiveness. This tendency springs from love and sympathy. It is the tendency to sympathize which brings the desire to overlook … until one comes to a stage of realization where the whole of life becomes one sublime vision of the immanence of God.

An amusing story is told in Turkey about a gathering of Sufis. At this gathering someone asked three shaykhs—the heads of three orders—a question: “What do you do when you see a vice in someone.” The first shaykh answered, “I admonish the person.” The second shaykh answered, “I try to cover it up so that no one will see it.” Finally the third shaykh, the most enlightened, answered, “Vice? What vice?”

Inayat Khan tells a story about a lion cub that got lost on the savannah. Separated from his pride, he gradually forgot his origins and fell in with a herd of sheep. Living among the sheep, he began to bleat like a sheep and eat grass and so on. Though he grew into the form of a powerful lion, in his mind he was a sheep. One day he was confronted by a pride of lions. He tried to flee with the other sheep, but he was surrounded. He shook with fear, but the lions did not attack. Instead they expressed their puzzlement: “You are a lion. Why are you acting like a sheep?” But however they might try to convince him, the lion would not believe them. Finally, in frustration, they chased him to the shore of a little pond. There the lion gazed at his reflection and saw that he was a lion. Suddenly his whole world changed.

That is a story about the human condition. We are born as lions, but somehow we fall in with sheep. What does it mean to fall in with sheep? We become impressed with limitation. We are seen as sheep and sooner or later we come to accept the validity of that assessment. We internalize the world’s judgment and simply take it for granted. It’s not that any particular person intended to deceive us. Those who have planted this impression in us have themselves been infected by the impression from others. It is a kind of psychic disease that is transmitted down the generations, through cultures, through families—a spiritual ailment that makes one feel less than one’s true worth. It is a gloom that circulates through the world endlessly, and all of us are susceptible to it, all of us have in some ways been touched by it.

But that is not the only force in the world. If it were, the world would crumble under the weight of its own torpor. There is another force, the force of illumination, the creative power of the awareness of beauty. Each one of us is a battleground in which these two forces clash. So far as we are locked in the grip of the illusory judgments that have been thrust on us, so far are we incapable of seeing beauty in ourselves, and accordingly incapable of seeing it in others. We then become complicit in the perpetuation of the dark gaze of misjudgment. It is a vicious cycle that has to be broken decisively, and that is what this Iron Rule is calling us to do. Do not reproach others, making them firm in their faults.

The first “other” is our own self. We treat our self as an other when we stand in self-judgment. It is one thing to learn from a mistake and move on. It is another thing to fall into the habit of continuous self-blame. When this happens, the more we accuse ourselves of a vice, the more deeply imprinted the vice becomes. It is reaffirmed with every guilty feeling, and we become helpless. This Iron Rule calls us to break the cycle. Beginning with oneself, cease reproaching the sheep that is one’s illusory nature and learn to see the lion that is one’s true self.

The same principle applies to other “others.” In our interactions with people, we often miss the radiant beauty of a soul and see only its shadows. Though we live in a paradise, our vision is so focused on limitation that we preoccupy ourselves with grievances and neglect the glory of each passing moment. We take exception to imperfection, failing to see that it is from imperfection that perfection evolves—and that what enables it to evolve is unconditional love.

On reflection, one might find that seeing defects is part of a pattern. That which one dislikes in another is present in oneself. In fact, one may be acutely critical of a characteristic in another precisely because one cannot yet accept it or transform it in oneself.

Consider, for example, aggression. If aggression repeatedly arises within oneself, but you repress it, then you tend to feel resentful of someone who has not mastered this same impulse. But if rather than repressing your aggression you have transformed it—if you have clarified and resolved the distortion in the energetic current manifesting as aggression—then you will never resent someone who is unable to do so. Instead, you will strive to support others in liberating themselves as you have been liberated.

We all know from direct life experience that moods of depression and futility are frequently the result of an atmosphere charged with harsh, cynical judgments. Conversely, in the company of understanding and supportive family, friends and colleagues, one tends to thrive.

Can you remember a moment in your life when someone had faith in you? Just recall the tremendous blessing of that experience. That person’s simple act of faith in you, when you could not have faith in yourself, enabled you to see yourself in a new light and to become more fully the person you truly are. Can you do the same for others? Can you discern the latent beauty hidden in the disarray of another person’s life struggle?

When one perceives people in their true light, as illuminated souls, one sees in them a beauty that they may not be ready to see. You will find yourself in the position of the lions who confronted the lion who thought he was a sheep. Try as you might, you will not be able to convince them in words. They will need to see for themselves. But your seeing glance may become the mirror in which they will begin to see.

Iron Rule 7: My conscientious self, do not spare yourself in the work you must accomplish

I can imagine this might not be what you want to hear. None of us wants to work ourselves into the ground. But before recoiling, consider closely the implications of the words. What one must not spare oneself in is specifically the work you must accomplish.

Not every work is the work you must accomplish. As it is, we might be over-exerting ourselves in all kinds of efforts that do not ultimately contribute significantly to our life’s purpose. But when it comes to one’s life purpose, one must pursue it with complete resolve.

To pursue a task with resolve does not mean violating nature’s law. If it is to be successful, action must always be balanced by repose. On the path of accomplishment, the rheum of sleeping eyes is as necessary as the sweat of laboring limbs.

What matters is the life-force behind an action. If you look back over your life, you will see that certain courses of action, undertaken with clear determination and enacted with the sum total of your being, have built you up, brick by brick, to be the person that you are today. By contrast, other sorts of actions, lacking resolve or keen awareness, have contributed negligibly to your becoming.

It is one of life’s ironies that that which tugs at our appetites most temptingly in the short term often proves least satisfying in the long run. Yes, there are times when ease of body and exaltation of spirit are of a piece. But just as often we are faced with a choice: the cozy comfort of base-camp or the transcendent glory of the hard–won summit. By freeing ourselves from the compulsion of paltry gratifications we are made ready for the attainment of great and soulful joys.

From a Sufi perspective, the whole universe is a phenomenon of desire. The Divine desire pervades all things and beings, empowering each according to its capacity. For the mystic, the truest education is the education of desire. By means of this education the indwelling Divine desire is liberated from the constraints of the ego and becomes a force for the transfiguration of the world.

Desire incarnates and accomplishes its purpose in three stages. The first stage is pure desire. Here one experiences desire in and of itself, without object. This is one’s share in God’s own infinite longing. Lord Shiva instructs in the Vijnana-Bhairava: “When a desire appears, the aspirant should, with the mind withdrawn from all objects, fix his mind on it as the very Self, then he will have the realization of the essential Reality.”

The second stage is wish. Here, out of the swirling vapor of the Cloud of All-possibility, beauty reveals itself, an ideal to be attained. Desire now has a direction. This is the moment to set one’s goal and to envision the steps leading to that goal.

The third stage is will. Will is the soul-power that translates thought into deed, rendering inspired visions into tangible accomplishments. When one’s limbs, one’s tongue, and one’s glance heed the call of one’s will, immense power is the result.

Every attainment is possible when the will is focused, when the blazing light of one’s true purpose outshines every distracting temptation. Then the desired object is sure to be obtained.

Once obtained, it too must be transcended, for as the horizon recedes, a still greater goal comes into sight.

Iron Rule 8: My conscientious self, render your services faithfully to all who require them

The next Iron Rule is My conscientious self, render your services faithfully to all who require them. This saying epitomizes the spirit of chivalry that defines the Knight of Light.

Let me begin by sharing with you a wonderful passage from Creating the Person by Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan that elucidates this Iron Rule.

One must think of everything that is entrusted to one by every person in life as one’s trust. And one must know, that to prove true to the confidence of every person in the world is one’s sacred obligation. In this manner a harmonious connection is established with every person, and it is the harmony established with every person which tunes the soul with the infinite. 

The woman who is conscientious of her duty, of her obligations to her friends, is more pious than someone sitting alone in solitude. The one in solitude does not serve God; he only helps himself by enjoying the pleasure of solitude. But the one who proves to be trustworthy to every soul she meets and considers her relation and connection, small or great, as something sacred, certainly observes the spiritual law of that religion which is the religion of religions. 

If one only knew what the relation of friendship is between one soul and another, the tenderness of this connection, its delicacy, its beauty and its sacredness, one could enjoy life in its fullness for one would be living, and in this manner one must someday communicate with God. It is the same bridge which connects two souls in the world which, when once stretched, becomes the path to God. There is no greater virtue in this world than proving kind and trustworthy to one’s friend, worthy of her confidence. 

We are offered here a teaching that is, at once, very simple and very profound. I suspect we all immediately feel the truth of this teaching, but it is a constant practice to apply it in life in all conditions: To remember that the connection that we have with each person is the bridge which unites us with God.

What does it mean to render one’s services faithfully to all who require them? We are subjected to many demands in life, some reasonable and others unreasonable. Does Murshid mean that we must submit to all that is demanded of us by every comer?

If we look carefully at the wording of the rule, we will notice that Murshid chose the word “require” rather than “ask” or “demand.” In a given situation, what is required may be different from what is demanded. A requirement is a haqq, a right or truth. Reality (haqiqat) is a lattice of mutual rights and responsibilities. To render faithful service to another is to respect the other as another oneself; to uphold his or her rights and, as fully as possible, to augment his or her happiness.

We cannot and must not satisfy the demands of all people at all times. Sometimes in trying to make one person happy one makes ten others unhappy. There are also times when, if one accedes to a person’s demand, the actual result detracts from, rather than adds to, the person’s true happiness.

When confronted with expectations that we cannot or should not fulfill, too often our response is to submit grudgingly, quarrel angrily, or withdraw fearfully. To meet the haqq of a person is something altogether different. It means intuiting what is really needed in a situation: responding, as my father used to say, to “that which transpires behind that which appears.” Perhaps one must uphold a principle that the other person is not ready to understand or accept. And yet one does so with the unconditional love of a fellow traveler on an endless and endlessly transforming path.

In the annals of chivalry one reads stories of life-long nemeses who, in the end, recognized each other as their own truest friend. When the other’s haqq is clearly recognized, even a situation of conflict becomes suffused with the light of soulful communion.

Of course, not all requests for our services are unreasonable. Nor are all valid requirements expressed in words. If we open our eyes and look, we will no doubt see that opportunities to render faithful service and increase the happiness of those around us are abundant. And as we rub our sleep-laden eyes and begin to see clearly, we might just recall that this is why we came to Earth in the first place: to serve one another.

Iron Rule 9: My conscientious self, seek not profit by putting someone in straits

Iron Rule 10: My conscientious self, harm no one for your own benefit

The ninth iron rule is My conscientious self, seek not profit by putting someone in straits. And the tenth is very similar: My conscientious self, harm no one for your own benefit. So I think that these two principles can be considered in tandem; they’re very closely related. Do not seek profit by putting someone in straits and do not seek to benefit by harming someone. Like so many of the Iron Rules, these are common sense ideas and probably every one of us naturally accepts the principle and would never consciously harm another person for one’s own advantage or put someone in straits for one’s own profit. But what is at stake in contemplating these thoughts is not only to act according to one’s awareness but to expand and deepen one’s awareness, to make conscious the unconscious. We might find that we often do not sufficiently probe the depth of a situation in order to determine whether someone has indeed been put in straits, harmed by our actions, because we are so naturally fixated on our own ends. If we were to be made aware of the trouble we are causing to others, no doubt we would change course, but we don’t take the trouble to make ourselves aware. In fact we might even do the opposite, we might look away, avoid the act of witnessing that would complicate the situation. But that avoidance introduces a note of false consciousness, because somewhere, in the depths of our mind, in our soul, we cannot but be aware of the impact of our actions. It lurks in the depths and becomes a source of guilt and shame and fear. Even if those feelings are not consciously recognized, they remain below the surface.

When one does exclude the wellbeing of others in the insistent pursuit of one’s own personal gratification, then one may well succeed. Very often the world is set up in such a way that ruthlessness is an effective strategy. So one may, in the short term, succeed in this way and gain a measure of happiness. But that happiness is the happiness of the Nafs al Ammara, the “commanding,” imperious self, the self that utterly distinguishes itself from every other and doggedly pursues its self-interest at the expense of others. It has its own happiness, and that happiness has a certain pleasure, but it is a short-lived pleasure, a hollow pleasure, and it is fraught with fear and anxiety tinged with guilt. So ultimately it proves to be no satisfaction at all because it is exclusive.

But there’s another kind of happiness, and that is the happiness of the Nafs al Lawwama, the nafs that sees itself as part of a greater whole. And that whole might be one’s family; that whole might be one’s neighborhood; that whole might be one’s nation, one’s religion, one’s species, the whole biosphere, or even the whole of being. But one sees that one cannot, ever, sever oneself from this web of life and expect to find satisfaction autonomously. One realizes more and more that one’s own true fulfillment lies in one’s contribution to the fulfillment of the whole. And that happiness is a much greater happiness. It, too, has its triumphs; it, too, has its successes; it, too, has goals that are achieved and enjoyed, and the enjoyment of those goals is something very special because there is an utter absence of the guilt and shame and fear and anxiety that comes with dominating and succeeding competitively, ruthlessly over others. It’s the satisfaction of participation, the satisfaction of being a part of something greater than oneself, of contributing to the building of a world that is for the fulfillment of the whole of being.

When one looks back over the course of one’s life, those ephemeral pleasures in which only one’s small self benefited, really lack lasting value. They are just as quickly effaced as they are enjoyed. But those triumphs that are triumphs of participation, inclusion, compassion, witnessing, those are the immortal triumphs that are recorded in the ledger of the divine evolution, and that will be the lasting happiness.

So we are reminded here, in every decision that we make, to look beyond our own personal gratification, which however is also important. Do not deny your own personal needs and your own satisfaction. That is part of the satisfaction of the universe; if you exclude yourself, the happiness is incomplete. You are an integral part of that satisfaction. But so is the community of beings that surrounds you. So one wishes to calculate, are the beings around me, those who take part in this, those who are affected by this decision, are they benefited? Is their happiness, and that of future generations, increased? As a nation, we rarely take account of the future of our children, and their children, and their children down seven generations as the indigenous people of this country counted. We are creating a huge deficit, spending the resources of future people and, if we were to apply this principle in our collective institutions, we would perhaps live in a very different way. So we have to think about all the people, animals, and plants who are affected by our actions and make every action one that contributes to the building of the beautiful world that we envision.