When I was growing up I veered towards asceticism and had this idea that seeking pleasure was spiritually damning. I got that idea, not only from Islamic asceticism but also from my reading of the Far-Eastern Traditions. My journey into Martial Arts led me down the rabbit role of spiritualism and for many years I guarded myself very strictly. I ate for the sake of nutrition not enjoyment. I slept little, and prayed a lot and I fasted most days. I changed that lifestyle later on and though I miss it, I decided I cannot live like that anymore. In this article I will discuss how to balance yourself between pleasure seeking and abstinence and how to distinguish between training and real life consequences.
My days of training
As a young man walking, taqirah al zuhd (the path of abstinence) I had a very peculiar practice to rid myself of attachment. In my tradition, I was taught that all attachments to the world within your heart is a form of associating partners with God. In Islam, the greatest sin is to commit the crime of associating partners with God. I was taught that this crime has major and minor forms and that some of its minor forms are, like the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (s) says, “as inconspicious as a black ant on a black rock at night.” To train myself to let go of worldly attachments, I would work hard to get what I wanted in the world and then simply give it away. I would then savor that feeling of remorse until I would no longer feel it.
I also developed an interesting relationship with food, in that I only ate when fed by other people, otherwise I just wouldn’t bother to eat. In fact, I started out most days fasting, and if I was fed, I’d break my fast, and if I wasn’t fed I’d just continue to fast. That was also part of my training. It was all to teach myself to not be attached to the things of the flesh and it was a necessary period in my life, but later I would learn that it wasn’t to be sustained. The difference between training and living in the world is that the world offers you real challenges, training offers you the ones you set up for yourself.
How I transitioned
As a young single man, living a life of non materialism and being a spiritual wayfarer was ideal. It kept me out of a lot of trouble and I loved the spiritual high I was permanently on. I also enjoyed the deep insight that lifestyle afforded me and that I was able to know people intimately. However, according to my tradition, I had to try to marry and have children. I was taught that marriage is half of faith. Hence, devoted to the teachings, I pursued that. Despite my inclination to live a life of abstinence, I was committed to follow the wisdom of Muhammad (s).
Once married, I had to try to balance my life between living in poverty (which was my preference) and having to maintain the comforts of a woman. In the beginning it was hard for me to find sleeping on a bed comfortable, as I got used to sleeping on the floor. I also had to dedicate a lot of my time to working and had less time for praying. Between prayers, fasting, working and married life, I was finding it hard to maintain my former lifestyle. So much of the world seemed to be centered around what we needed materially that it could no longer be ignored. Once I had my first child, the material needs of my life became more amplified. Overtly otherworldly, I had to change my entire approach to life just so that I could be employable. It’s then that I learnt the greatest version of spirituality.
Now with a wife and child, I had an obligation towards my new family to be a good provider. I wasn’t driven by a passion for careers and conventional versions of success ordinarily, but now I needed to be. I entered the world of business and was forced to give up my job as an Islamic teacher. Those jobs didn’t pay well, and I had a greater responsibility than that could afford me. It was, after all, my duty in my religion to look well after my family. In fact, it was classified as an act of worship. It was different, it was very new, but nevertheless it was rewarding. My spiritual training now was no longer about giving everything away, it was about keeping most of what I have and making it grow financially and still not having an attachment to wealth. It was about being in positions of power, as most employers are, and still being fair to my staff members. It was about indulging in the pleasures of the world, and still guarding my heart with the remembrance of God. This was a new spiritual journey. This was the real deal, the training wheels had to come off!
Here’s what I learnt
My transition from being something like a monk, to being worldly, has taught me a valuable lesson about how to approach pleasure seeking. Should we seek pleasure? My younger self would have said, “Definitely not!” Now, however my answer is, “well, it depends…” I’ve come to realize that spirituality is not an individual pursuit. We are deeply interconnected with everything and everyone, and the pursuit of pleasure unstrained results in harming ourselves and others. My understanding of the universe now has led me to believe that when pleasure is not to the peril of anyone in so far as one can tell, then pleasure pursuit in measured doses is beneficial. Enjoying the gifts of God is meritorious and beautiful when it is done with self-awareness and the awareness of others. My pleasure pursuit should not be at the peril of others. If what I desire for my pleasure will harm others, then restraint must be called for. That’s when I must give up what I desire. Muhammad (s) demonstrated the pinnacle of spirituality when he married several women, had children, traded in business, fought in battles and yet remained deeply connected to God. The spirituality of my early life was that of Jesus (a), and while it is an amazing path full of love, wonder, bewilderment, and blessings, it is often not sustainable. There are many days I miss that path, but then I am reminded that the greatest challenge isn’t in withdrawing from the world, but living in the world and withdrawing the heart into the Divine!