Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of August 10, 2020

First Identity

(The Ladder of Will: 1)

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One day in the mid 1960's, the students of a Tennessee high school elected a certain teenage boy to be their student body president. For the boy, it was the achievement of a goal that had held a major place in his life for several years. Ever since entering that school, he had admired, respected, and envied those who had been student body president. He wanted that for himself. He wanted to be someone. He knew that reaching that position would change his life. And it did: but not in the way he expected.

That evening, as he stood on the steps leading down into the basement of his parents' house, gazing at the place where he and his friends had in the prior weeks fashioned campaign signs, he had an entirely unexpected and unwelcome realization. He saw that the triumph of winning the election had made no difference. Instead of this being an apotheosis that would remake him, he was still the same person. He still had the same anxieties and self-doubts. He still depended on others for validation and approval. He had not become someone special. He saw that the whole enterprise had defrauded him and left him empty.

The spiritual path is essentially about identity, about who we believe we are and who we actually are. The Sufis look at the path, in part, in terms of four fanas, four liftings of progressively deeper veils of illusion of identity. The first fana concerns disillusionment with the material world. Our teenage boy understood in that moment on the basement steps, that nothing material could offer true satisfaction. Yes, he would go on to enjoy serving as student body president. Yet it was only a role he played; it did not have the hoped-for transformative effect on who he was.

Material possessions, wealth, recognition, social status, and the like, are so alluring. But they lose their luster when they cross into our inner world. We want these things and endow them with some of our identity. But it will not fit. As so many people have discovered, the day comes when we see, without a doubt, that those things are not who we are and cannot make us into something. No material thing can do that. As the Buddha taught in the First Noble Truth, we see that what material life offers does not ultimately satisfy. This is the first fana.

It does not mean that we give up on the material world, which we cannot do in any case. We have a body and we depend on it. We live under the obligation to take care of it. Our material body needs material things that require our involvement with this material world. Yet we need not identify with it.

But we also need not treat the material world with disdain. Our body is part of this wonderful world, this home planet of ours and all its inhabitants, this land, water, air and sky. We honor and respect and care for this material world. We appreciate its beauty and enjoy the good things it has to offer. We give it its due, bringing order where it is needed and respecting nature as it is where that is needed. However, though we may not know what we are, we do know that we are not only a living body, not only a material object.

We may seek a fulfilling career, a family of our own, and enjoyable avocations. Though these all have a material basis, they cross over into our inner world, into love and wisdom, into joy and the satisfaction of serving well. The first fana does not negate any of that and it does not relieve us of material responsibilities. But it does open us to recognizing that there is more to life than the material, that there are inner depths, shared depths, to explore, and that we are not just a body among bodies. For many people who come to and through this first fana, it serves to kickstart their spiritual search in earnest. For if our meaning is not to be found entirely in the material realm, then our hope becomes finding it in a higher realm. If I am not just my body, then who am I and what is my life for?


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