A Short Note on the Measure of Spirituality from Muhammad Iqbal and Rumi
Muhammad Iqbal, the South Asian Muslim philosopher and poet, gives an excellent insight into the nature of spirituality in his poem Pīr-i-Rumī wa Mūrīd-i-Hindī, where he puts questions to the famed Sufi poet Rumi, and then picks answers for these questions from the master’s great work, the Mathnavī. In the section I want to look at, Iqbal writes:
My lofty thoughts reach up to the heavens;
But on earth I am humiliated, frustrated, and agonized.
I am unable to manage the affairs of this world,
And I constantly face stumbling-blocks in this path.
Why are the affairs of the world beyond my control?
Why is the learned in religion a fool in the affairs of the world?
Anyone who [claims to be able to] walk on the heavens;
Why should it be difficult for him to stalk on the earth?
I think this gives a really powerful response to the phenomenon of spiritual bypassing, and also gives insight into (part of) the purpose of spirituality/religious practice in this world.
If you have profound spiritual experiences within your life, but then can’t integrate these higher states of consciousness with the trivialities and difficulties of daily life, then who is this spirituality for? It amounts to nothing other than something onto which you can grasp and stake your identity — it is a cause for feeling special or even superior to others, it is the ego (or nafs in the Islamic idiom of Iqbal and Rumi).
Spirituality is not about deep experiences for oneself — it is about cultivating a deep character for the sake of others, so that compassion, mercy, and justice may be manifested in the world through you. Yes, there are also aspects of spirituality which are naturally personally healing, but even in this case this translates into something good for others — people with unresolved trauma can be very difficult to be around, especially when they are loved ones, so untying those knots within yourself can produce profound positive effects for those around you.
How does your spiritual practice allow you to develop a compassionate and transformative relationship with your own anger, so that you don’t needlessly harm others when you are placed in frustrating situations? How does your spiritual practice deepen your capacity for patience and empathy, so that you can meet all people where they are and offer your tranquil presence as a refuge for them in this tumultuous world? How does your spiritual practice make you intolerant to injustice, encouraging you to speak up against the evils perpetrated by fellow human beings and following up this critique with action?
Answers to these questions, more than the profundity or bliss of your private spiritual experiences, are the measure of authentic spirituality.