Spiritual teachers of all hues and stripes repeatedly emphasise the need for finding equilibrium between the material and spiritual scales of life.
The great mystic Rumi gives an interesting analogy of village women: In the early dawn, when nature lifts up the veil of darkness, groups of women trudge down the hills carrying water in bronze pitchers on their head. On their way, the women gaily engage themselves in an endless tattle, talking about their homes, the village and the weather. But, even while all this talking goes on, the bronze pitchers are balanced with perfect poise. The mind is engaged in the talk, but it never loses control of pitchers on the head. Like these village women, Rumi tells us, we should continue to perform all our worldly chores, but should never remain unmindful of the higher spiritual goal.
In another analogy, Rumi likens the world to a river and the individual to a boat. In order to float, the boat needs the support of water, but that very same water can penetrate the boat and sink it if there is a hole. Similarly, we need certain basic material necessities for our daily sustenance, but once these material objects preoccupy our minds, they devour our spiritual self.
Sufis like Rumi consider the spirit and body to be one whole. They believe in integration, not dichotomies. In other words, what we do in our physical lives affects us spiritually, and vice versa. This integration extends beyond the individual as well, but we humans often forget that everything is part of a total, interdependent network in which each element is vitally important to every other element, thus failing to appreciate the fact that our very existence depends on the existence of all other things in the universe.
Spiritual teachers of all hues and stripes repeatedly emphasise the need for finding equilibrium between the material and spiritual scales of life. The great Prophet Muhammad said: “Do for this world as if thou were to live a thousand years, and for the next as if thou were to die tomorrow.” He asked people to pursue a gainful living to meet their everyday needs, but he warned that we should not become so deeply immersed in economic strife that we lose our spiritual soul.
Therefore, even as we are bowed down in our daily work, we should keep our hearts attuned to God so that when the end approaches, there is not a trace of wrench in our heart. As the Prophet repeatedly emphasised: “Be in this world as a stranger or passerby.” While we strive towards fulfilling the physical needs of the body, we often let the soul starve. Conversely, there are others who satisfy the soul, but keep the body starved. What we need is harmony and balance.
The Chinese philosopher Huang Po said: “Do not permit the events of your daily lives to bind you, but never withdraw yourselves from them. Only by acting thus you can earn the title of ‘Liberated One’.” This approach to life gives us our best shot at not being filled with regret at the end, for life is not about endurance, nor is it about apathy — it’s about balance.
Aristotle’s ideal of “the golden mean” and “nothing in excess” is founded on this wisdom. If we do not temper our worldly lives with the demands of the soul, our life loses its rhythm and vitality. Similarly, asceticism to the point of harshness deprives us of experiencing the subliminal beauty of life.