By John Abd al-Qadir Davies, Ph.D.
Every day we are faced with a stream of problems – personally, through the media, and from those around us needing help. All this may leave us wondering what is the point? Why so much disappointment and suffering? How much can we really do to protect ourselves and those we care about the most from physical or emotional violence, abuse, disease, injustice, broken or dysfunctional relationships, addictions, exploitation and other forms of stress, loss and misfortune?
My older brother went through a series of emotional crises following an early illness that for years stopped his ability to speak. I was impressed by how little my family was able to help him. Thus, questions such as these have shaped my life journey. They have drawn me through early careers in psychology and law, to a deeper spiritual seeking, and to over 30 years in international peacemaking. I have been able to test the insights I have gained in some of the most brutal wars on the planet as well as in more everyday crises closer to home.
A first principle I have learned is that the problems that confront us are critical guideposts in our own life journey. Just as physical pain brings our attention where it is needed to respond and protect our health and well-being, so problems large and small wake us up, engage us in ways that we would not otherwise have chosen. They make it possible to step into fuller, more surprising and complex lives that allow us to better understand who we are and what we are capable of.
A second principle is that too often we have bought into a common assumption or belief that our connections with most people and events around us are incidental, meaningless and separate from who we are. We interpret them as potential threats or problems to be avoided or defended against. If we forget that we are the ones who define them in this way, our beliefs may become self-fulfilling: we come to feel isolated and beset by threats and problems, cut off from sources of support.
How do we apply these principles? Spiritual attunement, through Sufi practices such as dhikr, remind us experientially that we are divine beings and expressions of a single source. These experiences free us from the box of our own assumptions, releasing our grip on limiting beliefs that don’t serve us, and allow us to discover or recover the much bigger gifts that are our birthright (what Sufis call fitrah).