The world we live in is fast and whirling. We run for work and race to get home. We sleep too little, we eat too much, and we've completely forgotten our souls and spirits amidst the growing demands on our minds. We "chase" our dreams instead of living them, hopping from one fix-all experience on our bucket list to the next. "Live life to fullest" and "live each day like there's no tomorrow" are words we live by, but do they actually bring us peace?
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, an 11th-12th century Muslim mystic and scholar would tell us we've got it all wrong. Ghazali, the author of The Alchemy of Happiness and the famous forty-volume Revival of the Religious Sciences was no stranger to our struggle. Ghazali was patronized by the most powerful Sultan of Baghdad and directed the highest educational institute in the Abbasid empire. Ghazali's lectures defined public opinion from politics to theology. He was one of the most successful and influential figures of his time and many would say he "had it all."
And then one day he gave it all up. I mean ALL of it. And this is why...
In a moment of personal crisis he realized that all his success and societal relevance meant nothing. He felt hypocritical and insincere preaching knowledge to the people when he himself had not purified his soul from vanity and love of the world. Ghazali quit his job, packed his bags, left his wife and children, and spent ten years wandering in search for inner peace. Something much deeper was calling for him.
That call was from his heart.
Ghazali said our experience of life is determined by the state of our heart. I'm not talking about the fleshy vital organ in our chests. I'm talking about the spiritual heart, that deep conscious faculty that flutters when we love and aches when we suffer. Of all the pains the spiritual heart can feel, the worst of all is the pain of being forgotten. That is exactly what happens when we seek meaning in the world - we forget to look and live within our hearts.
Buddhists call this suffering dhukka, a form of agony experienced when we desire things that are not permanent but ever-fleeting. Ghazali perfectly captures the cycle of suffering when he said: "No man has his needs fulfilled; one desire ends only in another." But how do we end this cycle of desire and grasping for the world? According to Ghazali, remembering death is one of our greatest tools.
I know you might be thinking death is depressing and not a topic that will bring you peace. Ghazali would say, an aversion to death is the symptom of living life as though we will never die. We go about life assuming our possessions will be ours forever. Whether they are tangible objects, experiences, people, or even conditions like health, beauty, or happiness, the fact is, they will all come to an end. Ghazali believes that to find peace, we have to accept our mortality, stop upholding the illusion of permanence and confront our true nature.
Ghazali says that the remembrance of death is key to breaking the cycle of desire. Unlike the "live life to its fullest" motto, which responds to the reality of death with an even greater love for the world, Ghazali's advice to remember death is a means to see things as they truly are. Knowing that we will die and our possessions will leave us, we become free to focus on our hearts.
According to Islamic Mystics, the heart free from worldly preoccupation is like a mirror that reflects the beauty of the divine. Such a heart is in constant awareness of the true nature of things and never confuses the illusory for the Real. Finally having broken the cycle of desire, individuals can participate in the activities of life but not carry with them the burden of constantly needing more. Fulfillment from within reached through the remembrance of death and concentration on the heart is not fleeting, but a lasting path to inward peace
According to Ghazali, clinging to desires in the world isn't a new problem either. This form of attachment is part of human nature and has been a challenge to our happiness in all times. So don't worry, its not just you, its not just us. This is part of being human.
We don't all have to be like Ghazali and leave our life and work behind. Many scholars reasonably criticize his decision to literally "flee" his life to achieve detachment from the world. Whether it was the right decision or not, it provides an important lesson for those of us searching for peace and contentment. We too, can free ourselves from the stress and burdens of our lives without fleeing them or changing them. What we should change is our hearts.
Do you remember how you felt when you lost a dear and beloved friend? You did not want for anything. Your mortality was made so clear. The gift of life was evident and you were grateful just to be alive. While we need not return to the sadness that accompanied the experience of loss, the remembrance of death can help us truly live and find peace in our hearts here and now.