Why We Work

by Saad Ismail

Being Called

“What do you do?” 

This much-bandied string of words can be a polite greeting, a conversation-starter, and a way of getting to know a stranger. As such, the phrase can lend itself to many interesting and meaningful conversations. But in common usage it remains no more than a perfunctory formality at best, and a cause for unnecessary anxiety at other times. The anxiety-inducing potential of this seemingly innocuous greeting derives from the fact that what we do for a living is supposed to signify the deepest reality of ourselves. 

In the popular book “What Should I Do With My Life: The True Story of People Who Answered The Ultimate Question”, the American journalist Po Bronson chronicles the choices and challenges involved in facing up to this ‘ultimate question’. Underneath many of Bronson’s insights, however, there is the tacit assumption that the ultimate question in life – the very key to the meaningful life –  lies in cracking the code to one’s career.

The question of career is unmistakably central to life in the modern world. We would like to envision our career not merely as one passion among other passions – but as being the deepest calling of our lives. We would like to reach a stage where work becomes the central purpose of our lives and is no longer merely a trade or a transaction we perform to find more fulfilment in some ulterior purpose. It is precisely this feature of a profession that sets it apart from a mere trade – so argues the philosopher/physician Raymond Tallis. In his essay “The End of Medicine as a Profession?”, Tallis writes: 

“Professions are associated with a ‘calling’. There is a variety of more or less common features to be found in someone who has a calling: going the extra mile (beyond the printed directions, or indeed anything that could be defined contractually); not being in too much of a rush to get home and being willing to be available out of hours in a way that is unconnected with remuneration; genuine compassion; an imaginativeness in thinking about ways of caring for people that could only come from really wanting to help as opposed to merely delivering on contract; and a willingness to carry the burden of worry and the personal risk that comes from taking responsibility… A person who has a calling is driven by the desire to make things, and people, better.”

In a similar vein, the late neurologist and writer Paul Kalanithi held that an all-consuming job such as the practice of medicine ought to be embraced as a calling: “You can’t see it as a job, because if it’s a job, it’s one of the worst jobs there is.”

‘Work Will Set You Free’, at the entrance of Auschwitz

The Ideological Uses of Celebrity

To find one’s calling in one’s work is an ideal. But is it something most of us will be afforded to do? Can the economy even afford that? While the benefit of doing things with passion is evident, the prevalent ideology of passion nonetheless warrants a good amount of skepticism. Is there a darkside to this dream of passion? Can we all simply be whatever we want to be?

Reality-TV is replete with success stories of those who followed their passions and ‘made it’. For a typical talent show to thrive, the mere display of skills by the contestants is insufficient. What makes for addictive viewing is the dramatic overlay – central to which is the elaborate, pity-inducing backstory. The most underprivileged are showcased as proof of the virtues of the meritocratic economy.

See! If you just put your mind to it, and work at it hard enough, no matter your background or lack of fair footing, nothing can stop you from seizing your claim to fame! You can be the winner! And of course, you too can become a celebrity – that pinnacle of success!

The very foundation of celebrity-culture is built on the fact of a few being famous (famous for being famous) at the expense of the many. If everyone is a celebrity, then no one really is. What this meritocratic conceit conceals is that for there to be a few winners, there have to be many losers. Where ‘winner takes all’, losers lose all.

Moreover, not all inherit an equal footing in life, and not all are born equal. ‘Equality of opportunity’ is a futile salve when inequality is structurally and politically entrenched.

However, the neoliberal subject would never admit as much. For this heir to the Enlightenment self – rational, autonomous, and free – nothing would be more inimical than to admit the truth of the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes: that “time and chance happeneth to them all.” Such wisdom captures for the philosopher Michael Sandel the important ‘ethic of fortune’. It is an ethic that appreciates ‘the dimensions of life that exceed human understanding and control. It sees that the cosmos does not necessarily match merit with reward. It leaves room for mystery, tragedy, and humility.’

But there is something else that is also reassuring about consuming such narratives. The rags-to-riches stories sell for a reason. They reassure us of our own individual perfectibility. They foster the consoling delusion that we too can become great, and of course – in a short amount of time. What is missing in these narratives, is the obvious wisdom that greatness is the end-result of many years of living and loving the not-so-great intermediary stages. Stages that would make for poor TV. In fact, the greatness that is commonly craved for is merely a socially bestowed title, not an intrinsic goodness. True greatness is its own reward and does not crave acknowledgement.

A further delusion that these pop-cultural narratives peddle is of one’s entitlement to greatness. But life comes with no such guarantees, or any guarantees for that matter. Only those sufficiently distanced from lived experiences can come to hold such delusions about life itself. Those who spend a major chunk of their time experiencing the world through screens will only know the world as a skewed shadow of the original. Plato’s allegory of the cave is truer now than ever before.

A Genealogy of the Modern Worker

To be fair, the cult of passion is perhaps not the most flattering representation of an idea that can possibly stand for more genuine inspiration. The notion of a calling is much older than Reality TV. It has been part of our language around work and career for quite a long time. But it hadn’t always been so. 

It is precisely because of its ubiquity that this way of thinking comes to seem natural to us. It will be helpful, though, to step back a bit from our vantage point in history and examine how things used to be before the ‘new normal’. Through understanding the historical and sociological factors that led up to the present moment, we might be able to make the present ‘strange’ and see it as far from a ‘natural’ given’. Thus, we will be able to think afresh about new possibilities. 

It is perhaps the Protestant Reformation, in 16th century Europe, that marks a milestone in these changing trends. The Protestant Christian movement laid the foundation for much of our modern secular values, including our modern attitudes to work – a connection famously articulated in the sociologist Max Weber’s 1905 study ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’. 

According to Weber, in the erstwhile traditionalist economy, the space for work was clear and well-defined. The aim of work itself was simply to provide one a sufficient income ‘to live in the manner in which he is accustomed to live.’ Work was not the aim of life, but mainly a means to fulfill one’s aims. But this was precisely what changed with the Reformation, where the key term “calling” (Beruf) marks for Weber, the shift from thinking of work as a pragmatic means to thinking of it as a sacred end in itself. 

Against the Catholic ideal of monasticism – which bore connotations of spiritual elitism – Protestantism sought to democratize the spiritual pursuit and make it accessible to the masses, not all of whom could afford to lead a life of world-abandonment. Earth no longer needed to be shunned for an ascent into the heavens; the means for the flight upwards were to be found closer to hand in the mundane world. Thus. the hallowing of daily life and the sacralization of work became the cornerstones of the burgeoning secular age.

The philosopher Michael Sandel in his prescient new book ‘The Tyranny of Merit’, also credits the Protestant reformation with being the progenitor of the modern ideology of meritocracy:

“Like Luther, John Calvin, whose theology inspired the Puritans, held that salvation was a matter of God’s grace, not determined by human merit or deservingness… As Weber writes, “The question, Am I one of the elect? must sooner or later have arisen for every believer and have forced all other interests into the background. And how can I be sure of this state of grace?” The persistence and urgency of this question led Calvinists to a certain version of the work ethic. Since every person is called by God to work in a vocation, working intensely in that calling is a sign of salvation… (leading) to the notion that worldly success is a good indication of who is destined for salvation.”

Over the course of three centuries, this work ethic became further entrenched in the self, leading to a thorough internalization of the sweet and bitter fruits of work as the supreme measure of one’s worth and significance. 

A further important shift emerges when we enter what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “Liquid Modernity”. The model of the steady life-long job breaks down and the modern worker becomes a ‘global citizen’, untethered by community or locality, who is endlessly occupied in renewing his/her portfolio, acquiring ‘transferable skills’, and adapting to the demands of a new job every couple of years. The modern worker is encouraged to be an ‘entrepreneur of the self’ – to see each occasion as a business opportunity, and to utilize it in favor of self-advancement and promotion. 

Not least among the upheavals that come in the wake of this new capitalism is the culture of consumerism. In consumer society, we do not merely identify with our work, but we also come to see identity itself as a commodity for us to pick and choose – indeed, to be endlessly choosing. Consumerism thrives on the cult of choice, and favors an ethic that “identifies the good life with the chosen life”, in the words of the philosopher John Gray. “The cult of choice”, writes Gray, “reflects the fact that we must improvise our lives. That we cannot do otherwise is a mark of our unfreedom. Choice has become a fetish; but the mark of a fetish is that it is unchosen.” 

“The model of the steady life-long job breaks down and the modern worker becomes a ‘global citizen’, untethered by community or locality, who is endlessly occupied in renewing his/her portfolio, acquiring ‘transferable skills’, and adapting to the demands of a new job every couple of years. The modern worker is encouraged to be an ‘entrepreneur of the self’”

It is this self-same cult of choice that is evident in the popular career mantra: “You can be whatever you want to be”. A mantra that not only assures us of our infinite possibilities, but also entrenches within us a sense of entitlement. Consequently, when we talk of success/failure, we tend to do so in (de)moralizing terms. “The implication”, writes philosopher Michael Sandel, “is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.” In his latest book, ‘The Tyranny of Merit’, Sandel argues that the problem with meritocratic ethics in an unequal world is that “its exalted conception of individual responsibility is gratifying when things go well, but demoralizing, even punitive, when things go badly.”

This demoralizing attitude tends to be so thoroughly internalized within us that we become both its victims and perpetrators at the same time. Freudian psychoanalysis helps us understand this dimension better. The psychoanalyst and literary studies scholar, Josh Cohen, offers interesting observations about the psychodynamic shift that follows from the shifting economics:

“In a more traditional industrial society, the prime imperative is production rather than consumption – hard work, discipline and dedication. In psychoanalytic terms, an industrial society is driven by the superego, the internal figure that seeks to induce guilt in us for our insufficient levels of conscientiousness.

The superego’s motto is ‘You must!’ In a consumer society, this forbidding voice is not the most effective in ensuring our compliance. Consumerism is more motivated by what Freud called our ‘ego-ideal’, the inner voice created by the unconscious belief, originally transmitted to us in infancy by our parents, that we are, or at least can be, perfect. Its motto is not so much ‘You must!’ as ‘You can!’, the great slogan of the era of positive thinking and maximised potential.

The ego-ideal is less harsh schoolmaster than wildly encouraging personal trainer.”

Elsewhere, Cohen notes about the ego ideal: “While it can serve as a spur to ambition and creativity, it is also liable to become insidiously punishing, inducing feelings of shame and inadequacy at the gap between who we are and who we feel we should be.” In a sense, the ego ideal is a more sinister force than the superego – and since it is a calling heard from within, rather than a necessity imposed from without, it becomes much more difficult to deny it without feeling inadequate or guilty.

Thus, we see that to conceive of work as a calling from within, while being a spur to deeper commitment, can also become the reason for deep resentment within us. Work that runs stale or sluggish no longer feels like a drudgery to be patiently endured, but is instead perceived as a crisis of existential proportions. When work fails, or when one fails at work, the failure is not just a material or an economic one, but also an existential and a spiritual one. The deeper we identify our entire selves with our work, the deeper the crisis. This is perhaps where we need a spirituality of work: to cultivate an ability to be passionate, while simultaneously resisting the temptation to identify oneself with one’s passions. This will be the theme of our final section. But before we broach that discussion, it is worthwhile to take a few detours along the way. The elusive terrain means that we can only arrive at our final destination tangentially.

On Ambition

 “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” – Kierkegaard

This theme in Kierkegaard seems to perfectly lend itself to the ideal of single-minded devotion inherent in the idea of a calling. It is for this reason that the physician-philosopher Raymond Tallis, whom we encountered in the beginning, argued for conceiving of a profession such as medicine in terms of a calling. Yet, in his own life and work, Tallis offers an illustration of a more capacious sense of the term: a calling need not be singular nor absolute, nor yet must it entail a disdain for multiplicity. Against Kierkegaard, Tallis maintains there may be no singular vanishing point where all our multiple ambitions finally converge. We are irreducibly multiple – not only in our work or our passions, but also in all the myriad other facets of life. A case in point: the multiplicity of self that is born through begetting children.

In fact, the very exercise of being open to multiplicity is perhaps the best antidote to a sinister idolization of ambition. To quote from Tallis’s poem “Ambition”:

“He thought across the things he’d brushed aside:

his youth, of course; his broken, lonely wife;

the childhoods of his children, now far away;

the tender shoots Ambition had laid waste.”

We live in a culture that valorizes sacrifices made for the cause of single-minded ambition. However, there may be a thin line between ambition and obsession. Worse still, ambition may be used to buttress the ego, and work – thus, no longer an end in itself – may become a means to the real ends of fame and acclaim. In the pursuit of these ulterior ends, the rest of life is easy collateral damage:  

“His wife and children (“those I should have loved”)

were interruptions, clutter on the path to fame;”

It is perhaps a myopia to be unable to see nothing short of the full splendor of life as worthy of one’s attention. To quote the German poet-prophet Rilke: 

“One may do anything: only this corresponds to the full scope of life. But one ought to be certain that nothing is done out of opposition, to defy obstructing circumstances, while thinking of others, or based on some kind of ambition.”

It is ambition in this sense that degrades work/art into means for egoistic ends. Emily Dickinson, that brilliant paragon of intellectual humility, spoke of, and lived by, the need to keep poetic and personal glory safely distinct from one another:

“Publication – is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man –

Poverty – be justifying

For so foul a thing”

Poets have generally counselled invisibility as the condition of truth. As have prophets. The Sufi tradition in Islam speaks highly of unknown friends of God – those spiritual elects who pass away anonymously and unsung.

“It is wholly possible to become a ‘divine man’ without anybody’s recognition.”

– Marcus Aurelius

In fact, ideas must not be hastened into the limelight. They must not be birthed prematurely without being held in the deep womb of soul until they are brought to full term.    

“Those who are alone and will not be confused, the prophets who do not announce their revelations, those who are heavy with their silence and sweet with their unspilled longing: they will be the source of redemption.”


Fame has always been known to meddle with the purity of one’s work. If one’s passion is a true calling, it must be made distinct from one’s baser passion for fame.

In a discussion of the history of the concept of happiness in American political life, the philosopher Hannah Arendt cites John Adams, the second president of the United States, as making a useful contrast between ‘the passion for distinction’ and the ‘passion of ambition’:

“‘Wherever men, women, or children, are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him, and within his knowledge.’ The virtue of this passion he (Adams) called ’emulation’, the ‘desire to excel another’, and its vice he called ‘ambition’ because it ‘aims at power as a means of distinction’ And, psychologically speaking, these are in fact the chief virtues and vices of political man… It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to rise above the company of all men; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the world and enjoy the company of their peers, and drives them into public business.”

In the chapter on ‘Ambition’ in his latest book ‘How to Live. What to Do.’, Josh Cohen writes commenting on this passage: “Following John Adams, we all want to believe that our ambitions are rooted in the noblest motives – to help our fellow human beings, to increase worldly happiness. But Arendt reminds us that in our competitive individualistic societies, where we’re encouraged to see the pursuit of our own happiness as isolated from the pursuit of a common happiness, private ambition is liable to cut itself off from public good.”

Arendt makes another powerful observation: that ambition and excellence are unlikely bedfellows. It is for this reason that we must be even more keen to dissect our desires and examine them closely. We must explore the nature of passion and the means by which to maintain the purity of one’s passions. We will return to this elusive terrain momentarily. But first, let us explore the distinct nature of passion in the two cultures of the arts and the sciences.

The Two Cultures

Certain careers allow for more liberal self-expression than others. Careers in the Arts seem particularly of the kind where the art is inseparable from the artist, the writing from the writer, and the work from the worker. In careers of science, however, where arguably the weight of reality bears more heavily, the personality of the scientist is ideally relegated to the background. Although science is predicated on the genius of individual minds and social structures, the asymptote of scientific inquiry is the kind of objectivity that the philosopher Thomas Nagel dubbed ‘the view from nowhere’. A view that is far from egocentric concerns and preoccupation with the self. Thus, the hallmark of good science is not so much originality or novelty, but reliability or repeatability. A scientist works best not so much by trying to be original, but by faithfully emulating and working with tested principles. A scientist works to get herself out of the way of her work as much as possible – as opposed to the creative artist whose work relies upon the continued efflux of herself into her work. Indeed, if one can put it rather glibly – the purer the self-expression, the better the art, and the poorer the science. 

There are a series of loose threads in the above paragraph that are simply begging to be tugged at, particularly the postmodernist refrain (from Barthes to Foucault to Derrida) of the ‘death of the author’ – which although a fascinating tangent, is irrelevant for our present purposes. Admittedly, a valid argument can be made for complicating the simplistic picture above of how science operates using the more sociological paradigms of thinkers like Thomas Kuhn. In any event, I believe the general idea holds true that the weight of reality (the unbearable heaviness of being) is one that can be felt much more heavily in confrontation with the physical world as opposed to when navigating a largely mental terrain. In a similar vein, the philosopher/motorcycle-mechanic Matthew Crawford, writes in defense of the worker who has to deal with reality, as opposed to the artist who deals in creating reality:

“Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself. Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism, … (and a means to) cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness.”

Crawford’s brilliant if somewhat uneven remarks at the very least demonstrate that as ‘technologies of the self’ the two career trajectories clearly give rise to and engender different selves. However, if Crawford’s account seems to incriminate the artist in self-absorption, a thinker like Oscar Wilde would flip the charge and accuse Crawford’s mechanic of being an escapist from genuine self-engagement. “Action is the refuge of people who have nothing whatsoever to do”, are Wilde’s scathing remarks in his 1891 essay ‘The Critic as Artist’. This provocative claim may not really be as far-fetched considering the culture of modern workaholism. In the modern work culture, frenetic activity is an easy excuse to avoid any deep confrontation with oneself, life, or existence. Workaholism, like any addiction, is an effective balm towards, and a refuge for, the inability to simply be with oneself. This existential anxiety is so pervasive that it goes unnoticed. One needs simply to observe oneself in a moment of unaccounted, unplanned free time on one’s hands. No sooner than we are afforded a moment’s respite from our all-consuming work, do we jump for the closest distraction at hand – social media, email, or Candy Crush – anything to stay off our nervousness with not doing anything. One can do little better than echo Oscar Wilde’s sentiments here: “To do nothing is the most difficult thing in the world.” 

This creative and potent sense of “not-working” that Wilde speaks of is eloquently articulated in Josh Cohen’s aforementioned book by the same title. For Cohen, this productive sense of not-working, of pure non-action, is the very ground of creativity. Creation best occurs ex nihilo, as it were. The aim in doing-nothing is to become a looking glass. Or to use another metaphor, “good prose is like a window pane”, as George Orwell says in his autobiographical essay ‘Why I Write’. Good writing demands rising above the ego’s pettiness and, for Orwell, this is best done in the service of political justice. Only in service to a greater (political) cause and above self-obsession, may one produce anything worth reading: “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality”.

Between the self-effacement of an artist who endures the pregnant pangs of non-work, and the self-forgetting that a scientist must maintain to do her work well, there seem to be many affinities. The artist and the scientist at these levels may be said to occupy a similar psycho-spiritual state at the very threshold of self-transcendence.  

A Spirituality of Desire

The end of passion is to become one with the object of passion. The end of love is to unite with the beloved. Like the moth to the flame, the quest for ‘enlightenment’ becomes whole upon extinguishing oneself into the light. 

The quest for self-transcendence seems to be a primordial instinct in our species. We transcended survival-of-the-self and acquired relationality, developed language, social organization, and morality. If such self-abnegation was purely a privation, it would scarcely have been an ideal sought after by the vast majority of us moral animals. In fact, the appeal of any path of selflessness seems to lie, not of course in the ‘self-negation’ that it appears to be superficially, but rather in the ‘self-enlarging’ potentiality it augurs.

Only by heralding the veritable death of the narrow self can the birth of the larger self be ushered in. To die to one’s merely individual self, is to wake up to the larger Self that we all are. To go high, you must lower yourself. To lead the people, become a servant of the people. To elevate yourself, humble yourself. This wisdom is universal across human civilization. One grows only by strategically denying oneself. 

This is perhaps also why we moderns seek an all-consuming calling. It is in this sense that one’s career transforms into a life of self-abnegation par excellence. It is in being fully consumed that we feel fully free. It is in transcending one’s individual self, in dying to one’s individual self, that we feel most fully alive. If this is the deepest drive behind our callings, we must make one final excursion into the depths of our motivations. 

In the preceding discussion, we observed that the pursuit of science or art, in its most creative moments, plumbs into a state of selflessness. To go down this unwitting detour, we will need the assistance of those who have travelled these psycho-spiritual paths before us. The veteran spiritual traveler becomes our guide on this path untrodden and unfamiliar to most worldly workers.

For starters, the aforementioned ideal of the inspired scientist/artist can be compared with the Sufi idea of “Fana” – self annihilation / self extinguishing.  In fact, the Sufi ideal for true selflessness and true transcendence from the ego requires even relinquishing the very hope or ambition of selflessness.  As the classic counter-intuitive Sufi wisdom goes: ‘the path to God is best paved by abandoning it’

To quote Iqbal: 

“Vaaiz! Kamal-e-tark se milti hai yaan murad

Duniya jo chor di hai to uqba bhi chor de” 

“O Preacher! Only through abandoning do you get here what you seek

Now that you have abandoned the world, abandon the hereafter too” 

Sufi classics such as Farid Attar’s ‘The Conference of the Birds’ mention the ‘char tark’ – the ‘four abandonments’ necessary for spiritual wayfaring:  “Tark e dunya, tark e uqba, tark e maula, tark e tark” 

  1. Abandonment of the world
  2. Abandonment of the hereafter
  3. Abandonment of the Master
  4. Abandonment of Abandonment

The teaching of the ‘Abandonment of Abandonment (tark e tark)’ is of course meant to medicate the single desire that the spiritual pilgrim is most at risk of becoming attached to – the desire for non-desire. Freud termed this the ‘Nirvana principle’, which represents the longing for ‘annihilation’- a radical detachment from all passions, a yearning to undo the knots of desire and dependence in which life entangles us.

Of  course, there’s something paradoxical about becoming attached to detachment; and mystics and saints throughout history have recognized as much. For instance, Kamo no Chōmei, the 12th-century Japanese Buddhist monk, in his memoir seeks a life of detachment and withdrawal from the world and sets off living in a mountain hut, only to later realize: “This fondness for my hut I now see must be an error, and my attachment to a life of seclusion and peace is an impediment to my rebirth”

Ultimately, however, there is a world of difference between the different, deepening states of desiring/non-desiring, namely D1, D2, D3, D4, and D5.

D1 =  desire

D2 = ~desire

D3 = desire x (~desire)

D4 = ~desire (desire x (~desire))

D5 = ~(~desire (desire x (~desire)))

To elaborate: Desire (D1). Abandon desire (D2). Find non-desire (D3). Abandon non-desire (D4). Find non-non-desire (D5). Now, to grow comfortable at this stage (D5) could mean perpetuating the initial desire (D1) one had sought to abandon in the first place. Thus, the reflexivity needs to be further developed to mean a further deepening of the abandonment/attachment dynamic: “non-non-non-desire”, and so forth.

Ultimately, only through a deepening, and constant reflexivity can authenticity be preserved. The moment the dynamic becomes sluggish, it solidifies into an idol, and is no longer the transcendent aim of desire/non-desire. What is required is nothing short of the perpetual negation through the “neti, neti..” (not this, not this..) of Hinduism, or the infinitely expansive implications of the superlative “Allahu akbar” (God is greater (than x)”; x being the variable representing any of the varying degrees or levels of the ascent of the spiritual pilgrim.

“Ultimately, only through a deepening, and constant reflexivity can authenticity be preserved. The moment the dynamic becomes sluggish, it solidifies into an idol, and is no longer the transcendent aim of desire/non-desire.”

Finally, we can at least come to see how such a protracted reflexivity cannot be sustained in complacency. D4 might share surface similarities with D1, but the similarities end precisely there: at the surface. The work of progressing through these deepening states is work, which is to say that it is not the result of happenstance or passivity.

Clearly, then, this deceptively seamless state may be sustained – if at all attained – only through actively remembering (dhikr) and constantly recalling the reality (ma’ana) of things.

“Protect God (in your heart), and He will protect you.” as the Prophet Muhammad advised. 

One must actively resist the medieval Sufi Qunawi’s incitement to the traveler to gradually abandon all remembrance until total emptiness is achieved. Instead, one would do better to repose in the counsel of Qunawi’s own teacher Ibn ‘Arabi: “Remembrance is more excellent than abandoning it, for one can only abandon it during witnessing, and witnessing cannot be achieved in an absolute sense.”

Thus, there is a very real risk that any spiritually motivated renunciation of the spiritual pursuit may in fact end up perpetuating spiritual negligence. One may find a more helpful approach in Iqbal’s Nietzschean-Sufi amalgam of the Khudi: the self must not be starved, but rather must be fed and nurtured. Iqbal is giving expression to a central Quranic wisdom: Whatever allows the self to grow and flourish is alone good, and whatever causes it to wilt and wither is alone bad. The Stoic sage Marcus Aurelius had a similar intuition:

“Nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave and free; and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these.”

Finally, one must not forget that the self is not ‘naturally’ perfect, but rather needs to be exercised into perfection through a series of systematic efforts. Not only is the self inherently given to entropy, but in fact there is no pure self out there whose ‘knowledge’ will lead to instant enlightenment. Rather, the self must be worked upon to facilitate its passage into an enlightened state of being. 

Michel Foucault diagnosed the modern era as one anachronistically consumed with the singular Delphic injunction to ‘know thyself’. What we moderns fail to see, argued Foucault, is that one cannot speak of self-knowledge without a context, and that what is even more primary, is a ‘care of the self’ (epimeleia heautou) or self-refinement through a series of spiritual and physical exercises. There is a self that I must aim to be, before I can venture to know myself.

The maqam of ‘tark e tark’ (the state of abandoning abandonment) is thus a dangerous resting place. Unless of course, it is not a resting place at all, but a constant dynamic.

Whirl, dervish … 



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Sandel, Michael – The Tyranny of Merit: Whats Become of the Common Good? (Allen Lane, 2020) 

Sennet, Richard – The Craftsman (Penguin UK, 2009)

Snow, C. P. – The Two Cultures (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Tallis, Raymond – Sunburst: Poems (Iron Press, 2019)

Tallis, Raymond – Hippocratic Oaths: Medicine and its Discontents (Atlantic Books, 2005)

Tallis, Raymond – Newton’s Sleep: The Two Cultures and the Two Kingdoms (Palgrave Macmillan, 1995)

Taylor, Charles – A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2018)

Weber, Max –The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Penguin Classics, 2005) 

Wilde, Oscar – The Critic as Artist (1891)

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