September 17, 2021

Where do you put your punctuation point?

spirituality, sufi

Some of my friends are earth angels, lightworkers, philosophers, shamans and spiritual preceptors.

Some of them wrestle with doing good in the world and charging for it. And, some charge, but battle to charge like grown-ups or give friends and rates to everyone. Perhaps I should shut up about that since I’m a textbook rescuer and guilty on all counts (sometimes).

Sometimes this leaves them poor financially.

Some of my friends are hard-nosed, realists, cynics, hedonists, hard-charging, goal-driven, in-the-world, those who die with the most toys win, A-types. They have no problem making a shit ton of money.

Sometimes this leaves them short-changed in the meaning department.

Some of my friends have hit the Goldilocks spot between function and meaning. Those are the ones I want to learn from.

In this instance, a discourse by Shaykh Ebrahim Schuitema, a Sufi Teacher from the Darqawi-Shadhiliya Tariqa gives us something to work with so that we can navigate these two opposites elegantly and eloquently.

He explores the theme that’s associated with understanding the difference between predatory and receptive attention.

One must be careful not to be too moralistic about the distinction between predatory and receptive attention, because human beings are predators. We do have eyes like any predator. And if you take that capacity out, then you basically, fundamentally disable a human being.

So, there’s a part to us which is about action, which is about goal-directedness, which is about achieving outcomes, which is really part of our constitution and our nature.

Just as there’s a part of our being, which is about perceiving, which is about seeing what’s coming towards us and experiencing things, and we call that part of our soul’s receptive attention.

All human beings have both predatory attention and receptive attention.

The concern isn’t that one should compete and disable the one in favour of the other. The issue is that in our current culture, predatory attention is overused. And as a result, people experience lives that are less nourishing than what they can be.

If you’re absolutely goal directed and everything you’re doing is about an outcome, and you’re chasing outcomes the whole time, you forget to sniff the flowers on the way and experiences that you have on the way, pass you by. Because you’re not open to them, you’re not letting them in.

However, if you completely abandon all outcomes you don’t get anywhere either. If you don’t have somewhere you’re walking to, there aren’t flowers to pass. So you need an outcome, but the issue is what is primarily the outcome of the process and our journey. Our path is about incrementally, very deliberately becoming more concerned with the process of outcome.

And that is simultaneously, then, developing a greater capacity for receptive attention rather than predatory attention.

One must understand this is about life quality, then it’s also not about making war on our capacity to be predatory, but to see this rather as a foreground and background issue. In other words, what do you make significant? What do you make worthy of your attention?

Don’t make the outcome the point, make the process the point.

You can’t have a process if you don’t have an outcome, so I’m not arguing that you get rid of the goal, but you don’t make that the point. You make doing the thing well the point, and then you’re nourished by what you’re doing.

This also then translates into how one experiences one’s life. When a person’s attention is primarily predatory in character, your attention is really that you’re very concerned with functional stuff, you’re sort of doing stuff to get stuff. You’re making things work, whereas when your attention is receptive, you’re much more concerned with appreciating, rather than making things work. 

Receptive attention is really the attention that is concerned with meaning and predatory attention is concerned with function.

If you want a meaningful life, then this is not about achieving huge amounts of things. People consider that having achievement is producing a meaningful life. Well, not so, I mean you have somebody who decides that they need three degrees, and their life becomes meaningful once they have the PhD. They get the PhD, and then they throw themselves off the top of the building because they discovered the same miserable wretch woke up the day after getting capped with the degrees.

So a meaningful life is not about outcomes, a meaningful life is about appreciating things and seeing the meaning of what’s coming towards you.

Our lives need both function and meaning when you’re on this path. The average person’s pursuit is concerned with function. We’re concerned with paying the bills, feeding the family putting our kids through school, getting some retirement money. That’s what’s called making things work.

When you’re on this path you’re not trying to make things not work, but you’re not making the working the point, in fact you might spend the same amount of time in either activity.

It’s what you emphasise. Well, what do we mean by this distinction between function and meaning? Clearly, Salah (Muslim prayer) is about meaning. It’s about shutting up, stopping, giving up and allowing the world to come to you so that you can read the text. Although we’re not doing the reading, as much as cultivating the quietude, that enables us to read what Allah’s bringing to us.

And then there’s action. There’s a need to do stuff, such as being functional.

You’ll be making business … going to work, feeding the kids and paying the bond. This is as it should be.

The issue isn’t that you shouldn’t have both, the issue is, which one do you make the punctuation point of your life

So, one way of saying it is to say that the purpose of my day is to do the work that’s required of me, and on occasion, I’ll look up, and realise that it’s time for Salah. That’s when you’ve been very functional in your approach to life.

If I’m trying to have a meaningful life, the Salah is actually the purpose of my day; that’s what gets the emphasis.

One of the attributes of the distinction between predatory and receptive attention is that when your attention is predatory, you have to work very hard to achieve outcomes, precisely because the more you chase them, the more elusive they become. Like when a buck flees from a lion. So the outcome runs away from you.

When your attention is receptive, outcomes come towards you. Which means to say, in a very paradoxical way, when you commit to practice, when you make the rest of your day fit around your Salah, not the other way around, the rest of your day goes extraordinarily easily, and you achieve the most extraordinary outcomes, you become super functional.

So, it is inaccurate to say, “I’m too busy to pray.”

You have a hard life. When you have a functional life, you have a life that is about grind, about earning your keep by the sweat of your brow.

You have a life of ease when you experience the world as your benefactor and your ally.

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