—adapted from an excerpt from The Dermis Probe, Idries Shah, Octagon Press, 1970
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
The principle of this story has at least a couple of aspects. First, is that success in inner and outer endeavors employs the same means. To become perceptive of and engaged with a larger reality and to be effective in outward endeavors are not distinct and separate. In this sense, the dichotomy between the “spiritual” and “material” worlds is an illusion.
A Persian proverb says, “you cannot hit two targets with one arrow.” In essence, the two targets are in fact one, albeit obfuscated by faulty vision.
The second aspect is that to be successful in any endeavor, one must start from precisely where one is, including all strengths and weaknesses, available resources, and lack thereof. It is a direct perception without the baggage of illusion. The sentiment accompanying this living recognition is humility.
Though the journey to humility may be arduous, because it means releasing illusory perceptions and assumptions, the experience is complete in itself. Humility springs from a basis in what is real, no more, no less. In humility is the absence of any either fear of lack or inflation of what one has; in humility, there are no laurels upon which to rest. It is an encounter with helplessness in the face of need, which helplessness can create an opening to receive help.
No endeavor, be it struggle with features and habits that hold back the realization of a greater fullness of presence, or realizing effectiveness in vocations or avocations, can succeed without help. The help may be in the form of an opportunity to learn, to make contact with parties with interest in one’s project, or an invisible source of energy that gives the feeling that “I can do this thing” when a moment before all hope was lost.
“All is lost” is a profound aphorism in the way it points to an experience of emptiness. The full cup cannot receive any more tea and a cup half full of vinegar is no place to pour fine wine. Realizing that in every moment one starts with nothing is to prepare a kind of vacuum which draws in a certain “something” which in its turn can again be converted to nothing.
This process of converting something to nothing does not have an end result. It is a mode of being, like the working of an engine; an engine that draws in a mixture of fuel and air, ignites the material in a chamber, and directs the resulting energy to push pistons that connect to a drive train and propel the vehicle. A car engine’s chambers do this thousands of times each minute, as the passenger sits relaxed inside the vehicle hurtling down a road.
In the above analogy, any unburnt fuel accrues into a noxious residue that impedes performance and will ultimately destroy the engine. So too, can we return to the humility of “all is lost” at regular intervals in the overlapping cycles of processes. This happens in the body with each heartbeat, with each breath, with each process of waking and sleeping as the chambers become empty again and again.
There are places in this world that nobody can go, where nobody is allowed. These locales are along the routes described by various traditions as “the straight path” or “the razor’s edge” or “the eye of the needle.” If one wishes to journey to these inaccessible places, the solution is to leave the baggage of oneself behind, and become Nobody, and it’s clear that the world needs more nobodies.