Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
My boys are straddling two stages of independence. One is young enough to enjoy hearing me read or talk with him at bedtime. The other is just as happy to read on his own, though he will tolerate me reading with him in special moments.
The other evening, I read from a book of Sufi teaching stories with the younger boy. Completing each story I asked him what meaning he found. In some cases he thought and replied, and in others he impatiently tells me to "just keep reading, dad!"
This is the routine.
With one story the boy didn't hesitate to share the meaning. It is a potent story, with a surprising turn of meaning affording a glimpse of the almost ubiquitous phenomenon of perceiving the world upside down.
You, who are reading these words, are likely not a child. Nevertheless, the story, which may seem whimsical, has some significance, and is equally valuable to young and old ears. As such, I am sharing it here.
A man died far from his home, and in the portion of his will which he had available for bequest, he left in these words: "Let the community where the land is situated take what they wish for themselves, and let them give that which they wish to Arif the Humble."
Now Arif was a young man at the time, who had far less apparent authority than anyone in the community. Therefore, the elders took possession of whatever they wanted from the land which had been left, and they allocated to Arif a few trifles only, which nobody else wanted.
Many years later Arif, grown to strength and wisdom, went to the community to claim his patrimony. These are the objects which we have allocated to you in accordance with the will," said the elders. They did not feel that they had usurped anything, for they had been told to take what they wished.
But, in the middle of the discussion, an unknown woman of grave countenance and compelling presence appeared among them. She said: "The meaning of the Will was that you should give to Arif that which you wished for yourselves, for he can make the best use of it."
In the moment of illumination which this statement gave them, the elders were able to see the true meaning of the phrase, "Let them give that which they wish to Arif."
"Know," continued the apparition, "that the testator died unable to protect his property, which would, in case of his making Arif his legatee in an obvious sense, have been usurped by this Community. At the very least it would have caused dissension. So, he entrusted it to you, knowing that if you thought that it was your own property you would take care of it. Hence, he made a wise provision for the preservation and transmission of this treasure. The time has now come for it to be returned to its rightful use."
Thus, it was that the property was handed back; the elders were able to see the truth.
There's a Sufi theme much like the golden rule suggesting one should wish for others precisely what one wishes for oneself. Of course, the task is not to stop at wishing, but to actively seek and procure the good of others.
The suggestion is that with a right-side-up perception this is not a selfless or sacrificing mode of behavior. Rather it is the counterintuitive means of achieving the happiness, wholeness, and wellbeing for which everyone seeks but can never quite grasp, precisely because of grasping.
The teaching is that those who work for the happiness, wholeness, and wellbeing of others gain access to a larger reservoir of these qualities, not in acquisition but participation. In this process, the ordinary experience of "other" relaxes and there is a beginning to work for 'the good.'
Another perhaps deeper meaning relates to the inheritance or bequest each person receives by virtue of being born in a human form. These are the faculties—the mind, creativity, the body and its powers, the emotional life, our characteristic makeup and strengths—all that we are given, and experience as "myself."
The movement describes a simple reversal of focus from inside to outside. Herein all that the magnificent instrument of being is, is not for the benefit of ego, not for personal pleasure and enjoyment. Rather all that we are is for others, and for the energetic ecosystem of a larger world of which we ourselves are a part.
The Sufi litany says "You have many endowments which are yours on trust alone; when you understand this, you can give them to the rightful owners."
*Tales of the Dervishes, Idries Shah, 1967 EP Dutton & Co., New York