What is the soul? If there is any explanation that can be given of the soul, it is the feeling of ‘I am.’ The feeling of one’s existence, this is the soul; that part of one’s being which feels that one exists. And what is the ego? Ego is what is gathered around the soul, and that is the knowledge of oneself. When a person says or feels, ‘I exist,’ that is the feeling of the soul. But he goes further and says, ‘I exist as what? I exist as a physical body, as hands, as feet, as head, as a tall person, as a short person, as a thin person, as a stout person.’ It is that feeling of being a tangible and visible being, it is that knowledge surrounding the soul, which makes the ego, the Nafs.
There are many friends in this world and there are many enemies; but the best friend and at the same time the worst enemy is our own ego. It is our best friend when it becomes a friend; but first of all it is the worst enemy. Every time a person takes offense at something, every insult that a person feels, every impulse to do something, it all comes from the Nafs (Ego).
The ego is like the rose and also like the thorns which surround the rose. It takes the place of the thorns when it is not cultivated, and it becomes a rose when it is refined. And the way to make it refined is to humble oneself and to crush one’s desires. It is by the process of crucifixion that a person refines the ego. It is a hard grain, and it must be ground till it becomes a fine powder, out of which a paste is made.
When the ego remains in the condition of a thorn, more thorns come; and more and more, till it increases its thorns to such an extent that everyone who touches that person is dissatisfied. We all have friends to whom we should be most grateful if they would keep away from us. We love them, we like them, but we would be very glad if they would keep away. What is it? It is the thorns that hurt.
In what way do these thorns manifest? They manifest in the form of words, of actions, of desires, in the formula of manner. Why does one feel annoyed with certain people in life, even before they have uttered one word? Because the thorn is pricking. Perhaps that person will say, ‘But I have not said anything, I have not done anything,’ but he does not know that he has thorns; there are perhaps so many that even before he utters one word, before he moves, his presence pricks us. It is a natural outcome of the ego. Either the ego develops thorns, or it develops into a rose; and when it develops into a rose, then everyone is attracted to it because of its beautiful petals, its delicacy, its fragrance, its color, its softness, its structure. Everything about it is attractive, appealing, and healing.
For every soul there are four stages to pass through in order to come to the culmination of the ego, which means to reach the stage of the rose. The first stage is that a person is rough, thoughtless and inconsiderate. He is interested in what he wants and in what he likes; as such he is naturally blind to the needs and wants of others. In the second stage a man is decent and good as long as his interests are concerned. As long as he can get his wish fulfilled he is pleasant and kind and good and harmonious; but if he cannot get his wish and cannot have his way, then he becomes rough and crude and changes completely. And there is a third stage, when someone is more concerned with another person’s wish and desire, and less with himself; when his whole heart is seeking for what he can do for another. In his thought the other person comes first and he comes afterwards. That is the beginning of turning into the rose. It is only a rosebud, but then in the fourth stage this rosebud blooms in the person who entirely forgets himself in doing kind deeds for others.
In Sufi terms the crushing of the ego is called Nafs Kushi. And how do we crush it? We crush it by sometimes taking ourselves to task. When the self says, ‘O no, I must not be treated like this,’ then we say, ‘What does it matter?’ When the self says, ‘He ought to have done this, she ought to have said that,’ we say, ‘What does it matter, either this way or that way? Every person is what he is; you cannot change him, but you can change yourself.’ That is the crushing.
For whom shall we build a throne of soft cushions? For our own vanity’s sake, thinking that we are better than others? No, for the pleasure of others, and not for our vanity. As soon as the question arises, ‘Am I not better than others, am I not more spiritual or wiser than others?’ then there is ‘I’. That is wrong. What does it matter what we are as long as we are able to give pleasure to others, to make life easy for others? For this is the world of woes; there is no end to the troubles; from the king to the pauper, from the richest to the poorest, there are endless troubles hanging over the head of every individual. And if we can be of some little use to anybody, we can more easily learn what mysticism is; for the only real mysticism is when a person realizes that he pleases God by pleasing mankind.
It is only in this way that we can crush our ego. Every time that we notice its pinprick, every time that its thorns appear before our eyes, we should crush it and say, ‘What are you? Are you not thorns, are you not the cause of unhappiness for others and myself as well? I do not want to see my own being in such a form, in the form of thorns! I want my being to be turned into a rose, that I may bring happiness, pleasure, and comfort to others.’ If there is anything needed in spiritual teaching, in seeking truth, in self-realization, it is the refinement of the ego. For the same ego which begins by being our worst enemy, will in the end, if developed and cultivated and refined, become our best friend.