The Path to Self-Mastery: A Life of Struggle

The theme of Man’s duty to fight and struggle clearly permeates the words of Shri Krishna and our Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.

We all experience the first struggle at the moment of birth, when we gasp for air and learn to breathe on our own. At the same time, the body, responsible for gathering life experiences, pledges to serve as a vessel for our organs, and commits to fighting for life and struggling against death. The mind, responsible for reason, pledges to serve as a vessel for our memories, and commits to fighting for logic and struggling against irrationality. And the heart, responsible for emotion, pledges to serve as a vessel for our sensations, and commits to fighting for love and against fear.

Then we start our journey towards individuality. We stumble through our youth to find and assert our unique identities. We struggle to educate ourselves, to find a job, to earn an income, to find a partner, to start a family, to have children, to raise children, to be healthy, to save for retirement, to stay in touch, to resolve conflicts, to make amends, and to say our goodbyes.

The significance of these external struggles precisely lies in what they sanctify. They are intricately tied to the battles an individual experiences within oneself. This is struggle that our Imams have talked about – the struggle that leads to the purification of our inner world, the force behind our actions and the source of our intentions.

This journey often starts with pain and suffering, a gift to many of us, without which we would have long forgotten our purpose here on earth. The struggle here isn’t against the worldly pain and suffering; instead, the struggle is to conquer the fear and doubt that follows. This is our true test –

Do we spend our time thinking how others have hurt us or how the Absolute, through His mercy and compassion, has healed us? Do we welcome adversity as a chance to remember our Creator?

How much time do we devote to defending our worldly egos? How much of that time could be spent contemplating our eternal journey?

Are our minds flooded with negativity, mistrust, and doubt for others? Or do we make a conscious effort to replace it with respect, love, and gratitude for the Divine?

Do we say things that we know will hurt others? Or do we struggle internally and silence the vengeful impulse?

Do we lack the courage to apologize? Or do we embody humility and willingly take responsibility for our actions?

Are we willing to forgo our pride for the sake of group harmony? Or are we unable to make such a sacrifice?

As the pain and suffering subside, we immediately turn to the Absolute to say Shukar and Khuda-Hafiz while making a mental note to call on Him again when the need arises. This is where we are disillusioned. The struggle isn’t to ask Him to rescue us when we’re in trouble; instead, the struggle is to retain our God-consciousness after the difficulty has passed, and ultimately live in a state of constant remembrance (dhikr).

The struggle is always upwards, towards spiritual evolution, which unfolds as the Vedic Chakra System illustrates below.

We inherited fear, our longest-standing emotion, from our reptilian ancestors who operated solely on instinct to survive. While the fight-or-flight instinct served them well, it often impedes our ability to think rationally. When the fear of pain, disappointment, dependency, loneliness, death, failure, rejection, or commitment is unconsciously triggered, our animal soul kicks in and we instinctively become defensive. Taking a few moments to examine our emotions and logic allows us to respond, rather than react, to the situation. Perseverance at this stage disarms the reactive impulse within us and opens the door to the next stage.

The mammalian brain introduced desire, an excess of which leads to lust, greed, anger, and envy. This is the stage in which to rigorously question our intentions. What is the reason we wish to accumulate wealth, climb the corporate ladder, or attend an Ivy League university? What is the reason we wish to find a new job, travel the world, enlist in voluntary service, get married, and have children? Are we succumbing to social pressures? Or do we see them as opportunities to further ourselves on our spiritual journeys? Do we see them as ways to demonstrate our trust, temperance, fortitude, and love? Right thinking coupled with right action at this stage permits us to enter the next stage of spiritual evolution.

The human brain brought with it language and reason, but also pride and egotism. Pride, which stems from unconquered fear, lust, anger, and envy, creates an inflated sense of one’s personal status, and leads to toxic relationships and broken homes. If we can learn to embody humility instead of pride, we can unite our families and change the course of our lives altogether. Ultimately, humility will open the doors to the final stage of our struggle.

Our most difficult battle awaits us in this stage, the reward for which is beyond our imaginations. Our task is to permanently remove the last veil between us and the Absolute: our ego.

Fortunately, we enact the final stage many times a day, during the act of prostration (sajdah), as we touch our foreheads to the ground. This practice encompasses the intention to struggle until there is nothing that separates us from the Absolute. It also serves as continuous training for our final battle in which we must surrender our (developed) egos.

If the daily practice of prostration is performed consciously, with the right intention, we can feel confident when thinking of the future. With a natural calm and contentment enveloping our being, we can relinquish our need to control the sequence of worldly events. We can learn to trust Him and only Him for our sustenance. And then we can wholeheartedly accept the challenge to perfect that which is eternally ours – our souls.

To accept this challenge is to commit to a life of thinking. Shri Krishna explains this in the Bhagavad Gita by saying, “Important though Right Action be, yet it yields precedence to Right Thinking. Therefore take though refuge in the peace and calm of Right Thinking, O Arjuna, for they who stake their well-being upon action alone must needs lose happiness and peace, and find themselves possessed only of misery and discontent.”

We ought to be thinking about the intention behind every action, the piety of every thought, the sanctity of every moment – all of which hold the keys towards the fulfillment of Man’s duty. To accept this challenge is to commit to the path of self-mastery: alife of inner struggle.

“No struggle (jihad) is more excellent than the struggle (jihad) of the soul.” – Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib

7 thoughts on “The Path to Self-Mastery: A Life of Struggle

  1. Pingback: Sabrina Lakhani: The Path to Self-Mastery: A Life of Struggle | Sojourn | Ismailimail

  2. Hi Sabrina, Can you tell me who the image of “The Inner Struggle” is from? I’d like to get the artist’s permission to use it in my brochure. Thanks!

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