Imperial Ambition – Expanding Selves, Shrinking Planet

Awareness is real. Even if the whole world is a dream, the awareness perceiving the dream is real. There is awareness, therefore I am.

I am aware of thought, therefore I am not thought – observer and observed cannot be one and the same.

And yet my sense of identity has a tendency to imaginatively bleed into and incorporate external phenomena from which I am actually separate. If you kick ‘my’ car, it is as if you kick me. If ‘my’ football team loses, I feel like I have lost – I actually say, ‘We lost!’ If you burn ‘my’ flag, I may fly into a rage as if you had burned me. If you criticise ‘my’ beliefs, ‘my’ heroes, ‘my’ profession, you wound ‘my’ self that has expanded and spread across all these phenomena to form a little Empire of Self.

Anything that diminishes my Empire of Self – contemplating the greater success of your empire, for example – diminishes and wounds me. Your success is insulting (writer Robert Pirsig commented of his fans: ‘They love you for being what they all want to be, but they hate you for being what they are not.’) If you have a bigger, better salary, career, house, car than mine; if you are smarter, better looking, more famous, you diminish me and my ego grinds its teeth.

Inevitably, then, I am engaged in a Perpetual War to establish and expand my personal empire in competition with all other personal empires. This is the real lesson behind every lesson at school training us to come first in exams, to get to the best universities, to take the most prestigious degrees and jobs. Schools and universities turn us into hungry little Napoleons and Trumps of Imperial Self. They wind us up tight with ego ‘successes’ and ego ‘defeats’, and let us loose on the world to compete and conquer.

Happiness is the first casualty of this Perpetual War. I think it’s because I haven’t conquered enough territory, haven’t expanded my self to include the right job in the right place at the right salary, with the right level of fame and romantic partner. But, in fact, I am unhappy because my attention is devoted to a blizzard of whirling, repetitive imperial thoughts about who I am and can be in the future, whereas happiness is not a thought of the future, it is a feeling in the present. Compulsive thinking cuts me off from feeling. We ordinarily describe people fully focused on their own brain activity as ‘asleep’. I am fundamentally asleep, lost in thought.

Because I am asleep, I hardly notice that the world is collapsing around me. After all, the point has always been that my Imperial Self comes first: more and more of the world must be incorporated. My imperial I is fundamentally an ingesting, expanding phenomenon. I am bewildered when climate scientists ask me to stop expanding to save my physical self from death because my Imperial Self knows that, in stopping, it will lose any hope of becoming or remaining ‘someone’.

There is a way out. If scientists warn that the Amazon, Arctic sea ice and insects will likely disappear in the next few years – and that each loss, on its own, has the power to kill us all – I can dismiss this as a sleazy, stupid scam perpetrated by other Imperial Selves seeking to expand their empires exactly as I do. These are the climate scientists grubbing for research dollars, the over-privileged activists with nothing better to do than wax ‘greener than thou’ and suck up attention. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life – it’s my reason for being – why wouldn’t I believe they are doing the same thing? In reality, I’m clinging onto my expanded sense of identity, my Empire of Self, whose rise and fall I imagine determines the rise and fall of my own happiness.

I know I am not happy, so I must become more, and I know the world cannot support me in my billions. But what else is there?

Meeting With A Mystic Madman

The great emperor Bahramshah, the Sultan of Ghazna, was moving with his army to conquer India; at his side, Hakim Sanai, the renowned court poet. The army was in a hurry, as armies always are – the time was right, but short, for conquest.

And yet, at some strange moment, riding past a great walled garden, or ‘firdaus’ (the origin of the word ‘paradise’), something happened: the Sultan stopped. It was impossible to do otherwise. The Indian mystic and master story-teller Osho takes up the tale:

‘The sound of singing coming from the garden caught the Sultan’s attention. He was a lover of music, but he had never heard something like this. He had great musicians in his court and great singers and dancers, but nothing to be compared with this. The sound of singing and the music and the dance – he had only heard it from outside, but he had to order the army to stop.

‘It was so ecstatic. The very sound of the dance and the music and the singing was psychedelic, as if wine was pouring into him: the Sultan became drunk. The phenomenon appeared not to be of this world. Something of the beyond was certainly in it: something of the sky trying to reach the earth, something from the unknown trying to commune with the known. He had to stop to listen to it.’ (‘Unio Mystica, Volume 1, Discourses on the Sufi Mystic, Hakim Sanai,’ talks given from 01/11/78 to 10/11/78)

We can imagine the scene: the enchanted emperor, his impatient army stretching back as far as the eye can see. Throughout history, it has always been the same story – huge effort expended on a cause that, at the time, seemed so vital, so just, worth any cost.

But we can also both broaden and narrow our perspective; the marching army of Sultan Bahramshah stands for everyone striving towards some future goal: the great, tramping crowd of commuters travelling backwards and forwards, day after day, for the sake of salary, promotion and pension. The crowd of political activists marching for a better future which will finally bring an end to injustice and war. It stands for modern civilisation’s great ‘conquest of nature’, marching relentlessly ‘forwards’ to certain disaster under the banner of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’.

The Sultan’s advancing army can stand for the near-universally accepted principle that ‘then’ matters more than ‘now’, that ‘there’ matters more than ‘here’, that the present is subordinate to some future goal.

The army didn’t have time for a pause. The commuter is also in a hurry to get the damned journey over: to get home, to the pub, to the weekend, to the ‘annual leave’, to retirement. The revolutionary is in a hurry because the epic injustice of the status quo is intolerable. And of course, the whole of ‘progress’ is in a hurry because profits generated are insufficient – economic growth must be maintained, and science will one day cure all ills.

When ‘now’ is irrelevant, a mere means, obviously we cannot arrive at the end, ‘then’, soon enough. The cosmic absurdity of a whole species perpetually subordinating what is for what will be troubles precisely nobody.

But in our story, the impossible happens – this great army, this great killing machine, with all its momentum and power, stops. The Sultan, captivated by the music of the present moment, momentarily drops all thought of future attainment:

‘There was ecstasy in it – so sweet and yet so painful, it was heart-rending. He wanted to move, he was in a hurry; he had to reach India soon, this was the right time to conquer the enemy. But there was no way. There was such strong, strange, irresistible magnetism in the sound that in spite of himself he had to go into the garden.’

And the force behind this magnetism:

‘It was Lai-Khur, a great Sufi mystic, but known to the masses only as a drunkard and a madman. Lai-Khur is one of the greatest names in the whole history of the world. Not much is known about him; such people don’t leave many footprints behind them. Except for this story, nothing has survived. But Lai-Khur has lived in the memories of the Sufis, down the ages. He continued haunting the world of the Sufis, because never again was such a man seen.

‘He was so drunk that people were not wrong in calling him a drunkard. He was drunk twenty-four hours, drunk with the divine. He walked like a drunkard, he lived like a drunkard, utterly oblivious of the world. And his utterances were just mad. This is the highest peak of ecstasy, when expressions of the mystic can only be understood by other mystics. For the ordinary masses they look irrelevant, they look like gibberish…

‘To the ignorant, his utterances were outrageous, sacrilegious, against tradition and against all formalities, mannerisms and etiquette – against all that is known and understood as religion. But to those who knew, they were nothing but pure gold…’

As my readers like to remind me, Osho was and is himself deemed a ‘madman’, a ‘charlatan’, a ‘fraud’. Humanity’s ugly little secret is that we have a habit of casually condemning, reviling and of course killing our greatest truth-tellers. Jesus was not alone in being crucified by the Emperors of Self. Socrates was made to drink poison for ‘corrupting’ the minds of the young. Mansoor Al-Hillaj was tortured and killed as a ‘false prophet’. Buddha’s teachings were violently cast out from India, the land of his birth. Osho, one of the greatest spiritual teachers ever to have lived, wound up in leg irons, in jail, likely poisoned. He is dismissed on the basis of a few foolish lines in Wikipedia and a frivolous documentary made by a couple of ambitious opportunists who knew nothing about him (‘we hadn’t heard about this story’).

We hate living Buddhas because they illuminate the lies and ugliness of our Imperial Selves. Dead Buddhas are fine – we do not fear competition from golden statues that can be moulded to suit our needs. 

We hate political truth-tellers like Julian Assange for the same reason and give barely a fig that they are persecuted and tortured. Even 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg is reviled, declared a false prophet of corporate cynicism, a ‘circus freak’, with adult male political commentators, in particular, openly wishing that she would die in a boating accident or be shot. The adult ego is made to feel irrelevant by a teenager with 3 million followers on Twitter, whose impact utterly dwarfs our own. How ridiculous, how impossible, that the public should lavish such attention on a mere child! Our Empires of Self spit and seethe, and declare war on such people. They always have!

But the ego can be defied; it is not all-powerful. In our story, the Sultan is made to stop and listen by a madman who has discovered something else, something more. Lai-Khur was drunk with bliss, with a source of ecstasy that blazes within the human heart attuned to the present rather than the future, to the real world rather than thoughts about the real world. Like Osho himself, Lai-Khur’s strategy was to hit the ego where it hurts, to shake us Little Emperors awake:

‘Lai-Khur called for wine and proposed a toast “to the blindness of the Sultan Bahramshah.”’

Imagine, again, the scene: a mocking insult cast at an emperor in the presence of an army with the power to raze whole cities to the ground. Osho comments:

‘Now, first the great mystic called for wine. Religious people are not supposed to drink wine. It is one of the greatest sins for a Muslim to drink wine; it is against the Koran, it is against the religious idea of how a saint should be. Lai-Khur called for wine and proposed a toast “to the blindness of the Sultan Bahramshah.”

‘The Sultan must have got mad. He must have been furious – calling him blind? But he was under the great ecstatic impact of Lai-Khur. So although he was boiling within, he didn’t say a thing. Those beautiful sounds and the music and the dance were still haunting him, they were still there in his heart. He was transported to another world. But others objected, his generals and his courtiers objected.

‘When objections were raised, Lai-Khur laughed madly and insisted that the Sultan deserved blindness for embarking on such a foolish journey. “What can you conquer in the world? All will be left behind. The idea of conquering is stupid, utterly stupid. Where are you going? You are blind! Because the treasure is within you,” he said. And you are going to India; wasting time, wasting other people’s time. What more is needed for a man to be called blind?”’

The impact of these humiliating barbs was transformed by the very fact that, in the moment, the Sultan was himself experiencing the ecstasy of the strange music harmonising with ‘the treasure within’.

‘Lai-Khur insisted: “The Sultan is blind. If he is not blind then he should go back to his home and forget all about this conquest. Don’t make houses of playing-cards, don’t make castles of sand. Don’t go after dreams, don’t be mad. Go back! look within!”’

Perhaps a company scientist said something similar to Exxon’s CEO in 1982, when the oil company’s research predicted exactly the dire rise in temperatures experienced in 2019 from the rise in carbon dioxide generated by the burning of fossil fuels. Perhaps a scientific Lai-Khur told an Exxon Bahramshah:

‘The idea of conquering nature, of infinite profit, is stupid, utterly stupid. Where are you going? You are blind!’

Lai-Khur continued.

‘“If he is not [blind], then give me the proof: order the army to go back. Forget all about this conquest, and never again go on any other conquest. This is all nonsense!”

‘The Sultan was impressed, but was not capable of going back.’

Bahramshah ‘was sad, ashamed, shy. But he said, “Excuse me, I have to go, I cannot go back. India has to be conquered. I will not be able to rest or sit silently until I have conquered India.”’

Millions of Little Emperors respond the same way every day as they toss the latest warning of impending disaster and return to the office, to business as usual: the next quarter’s sales targets must be met. Nobody can conceive that all the peace, love, compassion and bliss that political activists have ever dreamed of bringing to the world are simply waiting to be uncovered within, as Lai-Khur had found.

A Toast To The Blindness Of Hakim Sanai

Then a toast was called ‘To the blindness of Hakim Sanai,’ Bahramshah’s right-hand man:

‘He was his adviser, his counsellor, his poet. He was the wisest man in his court, and his fame had penetrated into other lands too. He was already an accomplished poet; a great, well-known wise man.’

First, the emperor is insulted, dismissed as a blind fool. Now, the spiritual soul, conscience and intellectual pride of the court is subjected to the same abuse:

‘There were even stronger objections to this on the grounds of Sanai’s excellent reputation, his wisdom, his character. He was a man of character, a very virtuous man, very religious. Nobody could have found any flaw in his life. He had lived a very, very conscious life, at least in his own eyes. He was a man of conscience.’

Hakim Sanai can stand for all – and we are many – who take for granted that we are paragons of virtue while subtly serving the ego in its quest for external attention. Because Little Emperors identify with the people they admire, extreme rage always erupts in response to criticism of the likes of Hakim Sanai:

‘Because maybe the Sultan was blind – he was greedy, he had great lust, he had great desire to possess things – but that could not be said about Hakim Sanai. He had lived the life of a poor man, even though he had been in the court. Even though he was the most respected man in Bahramshah’s court, he had lived like a poor man – simple, humble, and of great wisdom and character.’

How easily we are persuaded to trust those who claim to advance themselves for a Great Cause. Compassion may be the motive, but an Imperial Self that knows more, cares more, that is in a position to help, gorges on moral righteousness, spiritual superiority, lapping up the applause, pursuing a hunger for attention beneath a banner of virtue: 

‘Lai-Khur countered that the toast was even more apt, since Sanai seemed unaware of the purpose for which he had been created; and when he was shortly brought before his maker and asked what he had to show for himself he would only be able to produce some stupid eulogies to foolish kings, mere mortals like himself.’

Insult upon insult. Lai-Khur clearly had the insight to know that, for all their pride, the Hakim Sanais of our world know perfectly well that they are intellectual prostitutes selling their talents to foolish overlords. After all, what kind of poet writes in praise of kings for money? Lai-Khur kept the mirror in front of Hakim Sanai’s face:

‘Lai-Khur said that it was even more apt because much more is to be expected from Hakim Sanai than from Sultan Bahramshah. He has a greater potential and he is wasting it, wasting it in making eulogies for foolish kings. He will not be able to face his God; he will be in difficulty, he will not be able to answer for himself. All that he will be able to produce will be this poetry, written in praise of foolish kings like this blind man, Bahramshah.

‘He is more blind, utterly blind.’

The impact was extraordinary:

‘And listening to these words and looking into the eyes of that madman, Lai-Khur, something incredible happened to Hakim Sanai: a satori, a sudden enlightening experience. Something died in him immediately, instantly. And something was born, something utterly new. In a single moment, the transformation had happened. He was no longer the same man. This madman had really penetrated his soul. This madman had succeeded in awakening him.’

In an instant, Hakim Sanai’s ego, his Little Emperor, was exposed as utterly worthless, empty – the illusion collapsed. The truth of Lai-Khur’s ecstasy – of his music, being and words – overwhelmed the ludicrous conceit that happiness can be found in the applause and attention of other Little Emperors, even great Sultans, all equally competitive, miserable and bewildered.

Hakim Sanai decided in that moment to leave Bahramshah’s army to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. The Sultan, mortified, did everything to prevent him, offering his only sister in marriage and half his kingdom. Hakim Sanai just laughed:

‘I am no longer a blind person. Thank you, but I am finished. This madman has finished me in a single stroke, in a single blow.’

Hakim Sanai returned from his pilgrimage and presented Lai-Khur with the book he had written, the classic mystical text, The Hadiqa.

The idea that a hidden treasure, a source of genuine happiness, is available at the heart of man, has been almost completely rejected by a ‘mainstream’ culture that, of course, is created and controlled by Little Emperors hopelessly addicted to external attention. The idea that the attention we really need is our own – directed inside at our thoughts and feelings – makes no sense at all. We call this ‘meditation’ or ‘mindfulness’ and dismiss it as something that ranks alongside Pilates and aerobics as one more lifestyle choice. And yet the remarkable fact remains that, throughout history, all around the world, everyone who has seriously directed attention inside in this way – acting, as Buddha said, as lamps unto themselves – has found the same truth, the same answer, that cannot be found anywhere else.

David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens