Thursday June 18, 2015: the ninth month of the Muslim year and the beginning of the fast of Ramadan. The early hours of Thursday and already the sky is no longer dark. If I’d been up an hour earlier and I could have taken breakfast. But who would normally have breakfast at 4 am?
Focus is the key – that and good intentions. Being laid-low by fasting helps us to do what we always know is right for us. I read from a mystic source about a man being asked if he loved humanity.
“I do, indeed,” he said.
“Then why,” asked the mystic, “do you treat yourself so badly?”
Today, there are 1.6 billion Muslims fasting – and me, a non-Muslim. Of course, there are plenty of other non-Muslims who undertake the fast. The Christian fast would have been perfectly accommodating, but Lent somehow simply came and went. There would appear to be less emphasis placed on fasting among Christians.
In my efforts, I have one advantage: I am a senior citizen! No office awaits me. No traffic jams. No heavy labor. In theory, I am in a perfect position to undertake the outer and inner fast. No food, alcohol, or nicotine during the daylight hours; these are the basic requirements. The inner fast means the subjugation of bad thinking, arguing, philosophizing, and sex.
The day drags on! At around noon, the pangs of hunger are insistent. I need a diversion. But where? What to do? Devout Muslims spend these difficult parts of the day in prayer. I, on the other hand, have been known to simply sit around, being quiet. My wife frowns.
The evening comes and at the proscribed moment – when the sun has set – it is time to eat. But how awfully vulgar, to await the moment with ravenous fervor. One’s eyes stray to a clock at ever-decreasing intervals. The mind has only one fixed object. The mouth waters. I feel that I deserve this break in the fast. Then comes the first nudge of shame, for I have slogged through this first day with dogged determination. I have succeeded, but the entire day has been of the mind. Perhaps, later, there will be more of a feeling of inner sincerity. As mentioned above, the experts and the experienced know that relief, which generally means freedom from the demands of the body, comes after about three days. It is a physical fact. Nevertheless, it is best not to forget that God is behind everything.
Pre-dawn on the second day. I am too lazy to get up to drink water. Common sense tells me that it should be otherwise. I slump back onto my pillow. Since I have not even had water for breakfast, this will be another long day.
Many years ago I enjoyed a daydream about equanimity, which for me meant a quiet mind. I read of the mystic who said that he was walking around, feeling quite happy, with nothing much on his mind. What a wonderful condition that must be. Envy is my lot and it simply adds to the confusion. In my daydream I pictured a desert riad, the sublime architecture of which makes my stunned mind the place of dreams. There will naturally be the prerequisite inner courtyard. There will be a colonnaded walk around the divine fountain, which gurgles ever so discretely. I am wearing a robe and soft slippers. I walk sedately among the columns, murmuring a few verses from something or other - perhaps even from the Quran. It would be the time for finer feelings to emerge and for the passions to diminish as I slowly lose myself. I suppose that I would dwindle into nothing, to then be confronted with the possibility of seven demons entering my inner world to replace the one’s I had been rid of.
In the everyday world, of course, the vast majority of Muslims do not possess a riad and they do not have the energy to murmur anything at all beyond a fervent wish for the clock to show a different face, so to speak. Still, there are plenty of devoted souls out there, doing their best to survive the onslaught of a secular existence, which is insistently temporal. It is said that by four in the afternoon, the cigarette smokers are going out of the minds. I am grateful that smoking makes me ill.
I understand what Jiddhu Krishnamurti has called the folly of wishing to repeat pleasure. More of the same does not necessarily mean more pleasure because we are talking sensory overload. What in Arabic are called nafs can be comfortably translated into English as appetites. My nafs lead me on. My tongue is a sponge-like nuisance, saturated with saliva. I must be diligent though! A slip in awareness will have me slathering into a cream cake in no time. I remember reading about an ascetic in India who martyred his desire by holding a succulent bunch of grapes next to his mouth as he marched along in the customary 40 Celsius heat of the subcontinent.
The fourth day, my wife’s birthday. One feels inclined to celebrate. We do celebrate and I half promise to add an extra day to the fast to compensate for my misdemeanor. But to be fair, she is not exactly a lady of unprecedented desire; her nafs seem modest compared to mine. If anyone is to blame ’tis I.
Day six. Or is it? I’m losing track. We are too active in the world. An invitation to visit a daughter means that she will cook for us and one can hardly refuse. We eat and drink. I am to eventually count four alcoholic drinks during the month.
Aesthetics loom large in my mind, and I am convinced that God in His mercy has led my mind to such finer thoughts. I loved reading about Shibui, the Japanese concept of rightness, or appropriateness. Like many people I first read about Shibui in James Michener’s Iberia, which is perhaps the definitive travel book about the Iberian Peninsula. Michener also mentioned the Spanish notion of Duende, which describes, or imbues, an almost Zen-like quality to something. It is about grace, but not so much in a religious sense, but all the more in respect of something being graceful. Duende has found, I believe, an up-to-date expression in ‘zone,’ from ‘flow’ psychology. If you are in the zone, everything flows.
The next day and I have stopped counting. I am feeling slightly well. That ‘feeling slightly well’ appeals to me as a figure of speech; it sounds like an original concept. I am able to breathe freely from my stomach. This means wellness for me. I am happy to have thoughts about creativity. They may be just thoughts, which are usually a nuisance, but at least they seem creative as opposed to being damaging. The mystic, again: ‘You can do anything you like in this world as long as you don’t hurt anybody.’ Thoughts arising in this way are also a blessing because I am not thinking anything of a bloodcurdling nature. God is good.
Ramadan seems to be going fairly normally. I no longer have ravaging pangs of hunger. I only occasionally have the desire for an ice-cold beer. That Muslims don’t drink alcohol at all doesn’t seem to help. I have lost a couple of kilograms, however. Common knowledge has it that a one-liter carton of milk weighs one kilogram. Thus, the loss of ten kilograms in body weight can be easily fathomed as not dragging ten cartons of milk around with you. I have read extreme stories of people losing 15 or even 20 cartons.
More diversions. I have just been reading bits of art philosophy: ‘If you can’t use it, it is probably art.’ Thebest quote, however, comes from Shaker philosophy: ‘Don’t make anything unless it is necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.’ Shaker furniture is exquisite; the epitome of minimalism coupled with elegance. Yet looking at it makes me feel sad. Perhaps this is the message: you are not supposed to look at it and be made happy; you are supposed to be happy with or without beautiful possessions. God would have it so.
We drove through a small town this afternoon. A large man strolled casually, obliquely across the road in front of our car. His insouciance was insulting. Anger flared within me. I slowed but gunned the engine as we passed him. If there were minus points to be acquired I acquired the maximum. Sudden anger. Afterwards I sat and gazed, fairly emptyheaded, feeling an awful sense of nothingness. It would lift, I knew. Perhaps sleep would diminish the dull gloom.
I remember the three days in Herat on the border between Afghanistan and Iran. I was rotten with diarrhea and barely able to move from my mud-built room to the muddy hole in the floor ten yards away. I was extremely weak and perhaps even a little delirious. The mosquitoes seemed as big as small birds. You could easily see them coming. I emptied my body until there was nothing more to empty. I was still very young; a skinny youth. It was at times like that, when the situation was dismal, that I laughed. It all seemed so ridiculous, suffering diarrhea in Herat in a mud-built hotel.
“What?” I remember saying to myself. “Are you going to die here?” Then I laughed, perhaps slightly hysterically. It was fifty years ago and in those days I had been able to lift everything I owned in the world with a little finger.
Visitors, again. I ‘borrow’ one cigarette, eat one small thing on a cocktail stick, and drink half a glass of water (with the cigarette) and one small cup of black tea. The visitors fortunately refused wine. I am convinced that hospitality should be shown so that guests are not embarrassed or feel unwanted. A lovely excuse. I don’t feel too bad but I know the time is coming when a more serious attitude will have to set in. My Muslim friends would be appalled at my shortcomings.
Today I am feeling listless. When one puts one’s appetites (those naughty Arabic nafs) on hold, they sulk. This sulking reflects on my own mood; I, too, sulk. Thus listlessness is my portion. What it really means is that I have previously been functioning through the willing energies of my appetites. This would be okay regarding work, but not the finer aspects of one’s life. Confusion is the result and one’s own small blobs of chaos will be added to an already chaotic world. Ramadan is about personal responsibility.
I sinned inwardly, romping into a philosophical debate. Felt the nafs having a field day. I really must get quiet, but it is so very difficult for a writer to acquire grace. In the case of a writer it can only come despite himself. On the other hand, isn’t that always the case? God is not only great, He is wily.
By day 20, I know that writing a journal is not exactly useful for achieving the aims of the fast. I write now after Eid-al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. Intellectual activity may be wrong, but I can’t help feeling sorry for myself, which loves to write, and the millions of poor Muslims who have little opportunity to be free of the material forces raging around our planet. I have also come to realize that good intentions are of the essence.
I stagger through the last ten days of this month of fasting. For a brief period I experience what Christians call ‘the peace that passeth all understanding.’ This experience and other experiences, according to the lights of the recipient, come during the so-called ‘night of power,’ when God’s grace is poured down from the heavens. These are the blessings that make Ramadan such an inspiring endeavor.
This year has been pretty much a disaster for me. There have been no Muslim brothers and sisters nearby. One friend sends the traditional apology for mistakes made during the year.
I am reminded of a past Ramadan and an Eid-al-Fitr celebration in Indonesia. The Muslims and I awaited the arrival of three imams. They arrived and a mind-stilling hush fell over the gathering. I felt an opening, a slight tingle above my heart. The crowd formed a shuffling line and we approached the three imams to beg forgiveness. The imams begged forgiveness in return. Then each person stood next to the imams to eventually form what became a large circle of human forgiveness. It was astonishing to realize the obviousness of an apology that benefits not one but both parties. I had felt a part of it all. Nobody had questioned my right to be there.
Inner worship is a prayer that prays of itself. Something inside a person – the soul – begins to pray. Submission is obviously a must.