South Africa’s Shaykh Ebrahim (Etsko) Schuitema speaks to Mspiration about the importance of silencing the mind and doing the “inner work.”
In your book The Millennium Discourses – a collection of your talks – you focused heavily about the need to silence our internal dialogue. Why is that skill so important?
If you consider how profoundly our thinking produces the world we live in, then it becomes really apparent that what one has to do is acquire the skill of being deliberate about what goes on in our heads. If you are pickled in your own internal dialogue you can’t work on it because it is the wallpaper in the back of your mind. What silencing your internal dialogue does is that it disconnects the observer – who you are – from the noise in your head. That internal chatter increasingly becomes an object to you and only then you can put it in front of you which enables you to change it. You can’t change something that is bushwhacking you from behind. So our journey to liberation has two aspects to it: the first is to change the character of our internal dialogue and the other is to silence the internal dialogue and they are both linked together. You can’t do one without the other. It’s one hand washing the other.
So is it a case of controlling what we say to ourselves?
No, I wouldn’t say it is to control our internal dialogue, what I am saying is silencing it. You see, control is a dangerous word and it is almost an opposite skill. It is not about getting a handle on it it, it is about just letting the thing go. If you relax deeply then there is not a lot going on in your head. Control doesn’t allow that relaxation and emptying out to occur.
With our lives becoming more fast paced, is silencing the mind integral to achieving a more fulfilling life?
If you ask people what they want from their lives then surely however they look at it they want happiness and a sense of security. You are not secure when you continuously make yourself frightened. We frighten ourselves with the movies we play to ourselves in our heads. This fear makes us want to act, and eventually our lives become so hysterically busy and active that we don’t have the time to get quiet, which means that all our fears are kept alive in our internal dialogue – otherwise known as our waswas. The louder it gets the less control we have over it and the more miserable our life experience becomes. It is almost as if we are dying as a species because we are frightening ourselves to death.
This is such a viscous cycle; some of us would gadly work more to avoid dealing with what’s inside of us.
That’s right and it is also because there is a prejudice in our world that basically says that inner-work is not legitimate work. It is actually the most legitimate work that we can do. There is no single thing that you can pursue in the world that is not determined by how your intention and attention operates. So the work that actually delivers for us is actually done on the inside. It’s the kind of work that we do when we do our salat and dhikr. It’s not the work that is done in the marketplace, in fact that gives us more discomfort, alienation and agitation, rather than security and fulfillment.
Does that prejudice also extend to the way we approach our faith? Sometimes we have a tendency to view Islam as a series of outwardly actions and we neglect the inner work that is also part of it.
What makes Islam really unique is that it challenges us by letting us know that inner and outer-work are not mutually exclusive things. All of our inner agitation is based on the belief that the world doesn’t work, that I have to look after myself because the universe is a dangerous place. When I do inner work I quiet down enough to see the world as it is. Seeing the world as it is cultivates the opposite conviction, which is that there is nothing to get agitated about because life works. There is a Creative Genius in charge of my reality. If I take that conviction to the marketplace and start trading accordingly I will not attend to my immediate self interest but do what Allah SWT wants me to do. I will in all sincerity act in the interest of my customer and when I do that an extraordinary thing happens: the marketplace confirms me. It all works together. This eventually sets your internal transformation: you act in a way consistent with that inner way of being. You forgo your immediate self interest because you know there is a Creative Genius in charge. Success in the outer world and success in the inner world are therefor the product of the same endeavour: basing you intention on what you should contribute rather than what you want to get.
Do you find that inner work is unavoidable? That people will eventually exhaust all options and will have to confront it in order to continue existing?
At the moment most people are exclusively working in the outward. Sometimes they do get to a point where they realise their lives are a mess. That’s how a midlife crisis works. You throw yourself at a career, trying to be successful and providing for your family and you end up with a heart disease at the age 45 and think the world has cheated you. This failure of the outer project makes possible a curiosity for the inner project. At some point people have to realise the legitimacy of doing the inner work. It doesn’t matter how many years they messed around outwardly as long as they do start the inner work eventually.
What are some of the practical ways one can begin doing the inner work?
It starts off with a conviction that I do manufacture my experience. If my interactions with the world is based on what I can take then I cultivate a world that is hostile to me. If I transact on the basis of acting in the best interest of the other then I cultivate a world that is my ally. So the world, whether it is hostile or an ally, is my product. Being convinced of that provides me the rationale for working on my own intent. The thing that I have to do is regularly escape my own internal dialogue and as Muslims we have this wonderful opportunity to do this with our Salat. If you do it properly and give it your full attention, from the ablution to the postures, then you become quiet. The person that gives takbeer at the beginning and says salam at the end has changed, he has become more quieter. Then there is dhikr, because what it does is that it calms you down. As Allah SWT says, the only thing that makes the human heart tranquil is to remember Him. The dhikr is also helpful to change the character of your internal dialogue. After all, if we are going to have a noise going on in our heads we may just as well have something that is benign.
In the Millennium Discourses you recommend little exercises such as paying attention to your surroundings before beginning the prayer as a way to calm our minds. Can you expand on that a little bit?
The thing is that internal dialogue requires attention and we only have a limited amount of that to give. So if you are thinking about yourself, your attention is drawn from your experience of what is actually going on. So right now think about the following things: feel the physical sensations at your feet right now (a long silence). Then focus on the other sounds that you can hear in the room that you are in (a long silence). You and I are talking on the phone, so feel the tactile experience of the phone in your ear (a long silence). How much is going on in your head right now?
Not that much.
That is the point. As soon you pay attention physically to something that is actually happening in the moment you find yourself becoming more silent.
Shaykh Ebrahim (Etsko) Schuitema is also the founder and Leading Partner of Schuitema Associates, a business transformation consultancy that is based in South Africa and Pakistan, for more information click here.To purchase a copy of The Millennium Discourses click here.
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