The First Nafs

The Sufis recognize an evolution of the soul in a series of seven steps called Nafs. Each step is an ascent into a higher level of development, a refining of the soul through experience. Each level creates what is, in effect, another type of soul. The first Nafs is where we begin. It is called the Depraved Nafs. It is the lowest common denominator of souls. If you have done a great deal of work on yourself in previous lifetimes, you may be born into this life at a higher Nafs. The First Nafs is called the ego in the West. Each higher Nafs is attained by spiritual work and previous realizations. We are working our way to greater and greater refinement of the soul, but there is no guarantee of progress. There is no guarantee that we’re going to succeed in the refining process. At any stage it is possible to revert back to a previous stage. We can even revert from a very advanced stage clear back to the very first Nafs. Sometimes we see spiritual teachers doing exactly that. They lose their way and begin acting out in ways that they should know better. In such cases, the First Nafs has been re-entered.

The soul learns not by thinking about life and reality but by actually experiencing things. The soul almost always has to go through experiences in order to learn lessons about what to avoid, pathways not to follow. People can learn from looking at other’s mistakes, but they must be very alert to do so.

In a sense, the theory of Nafs envisions changing our identity as the soul is refined. We move up the ladder into higher and higher Nafs. We are changing who we are, who and what we take ourselves to be. At any given time, we occupy a particular station in the ascending ladder of refinement, and this station can be seen by others, at least by those who know what to look for. The soul is working its way slowly back to Being. In the process, it is expanding its frame of reference and increasing its understanding of the nature of the Cosmos, the nature of the human being, and the relationship between the two. There is greater understanding of Core Reality as one moves successively from Nafs to Nafs. There is deeper and more gounded vision.

The First Nafs is an undeveloped, simple, primate consciousness. We know this one very, very well. Some people stay in this Nafs for their whole lives. There is no guarantee that we will move beyond this level. If we don’t bother to work on ourselves spiritually, we will almost certainly stay stuck at this level. This is the most primitive kind of Nafs. It’s consciousness is common. The person is wholly entrapped in worldly pursuits, in contact only with the material world and completely self-absorbed. He or she is almost entirely unconscious of Being, and not really interested in invisible realities. He or she is suffering, lonely, desolate, unhappy, and looking desperately for some kind of relief. He or she is also unsupported by Being. In the framework there is no place for Being, so there is no access to Being. This produces a constant state of fear, which can range from mild to intense.

This is a superficial consciousness. There appear to be no deeper realms. The mental energy in this kind of individual is used mostly to solve problems. As we know, as quickly as we solve one problem and it disappears, another takes its place. This process can go on for a lifetime, so that you really don’t do anything with your mind except solve problems, one after the other. That’s the pattern of the first Nafs. There is little time in the life of the person of the first Nafs to feel wonder, to raise the head and look at the Cosmos. There is no appreciation whatsoever of the miracles of life that are operating to keep us on this Earth every second that we are here. This kind of person is totally pre-occupied with status and material things. At bottom, they feel valueless and deficient. This leads them to desperately claw at the world, to try to get some kind of value, under the mistaken impression that having things or achievement will solve the problem. They are always coming out of a sense of deep deficiency because they are not in touch with Being, the only place that would give them a sense of value. They are clawing at the world to get status, to get value, to be recognized, to be seen, to be appreciated in some way. They don’t know how to get what they need, but material things, achievement or fame mistakenly seem like possibilities. The first Nafs is the false self or the ego, recognized by all the wisdom traditions. Above all, it is characterized by blaming others. Whatever goes wrong is always somebody else’s fault. The person in the first Nafs is always a victim of life.

The child development theorists have done us a terrific service by mapping out the development of the child between one and four. In the process, they have mapped the creation of the false self. The most important time in the development of our life is that time between one and four. Immediately after birth, the child experiences the world as an undifferentiated matrix–a sea of unity of light and sound and moving forms. There are  no distinctions between self and other. A little later, the child begins to distinguish between self and object. A later stage is dual unity, where the child recognizes that there are two, Mom and me, but there is still a sense of a unity underlying the duality. A little later, the child begins to separate itself and truly distinguish between itself and the mother. The sense of self has emerged. Still later, the child reaches a stage called ‘object constancy,’ where the environment and every thing in it stabilizes. It knows that the world is out there and I’m in here, and it all stays in place, even when I’m not looking.

At this point, the child begins to be truly functional as a human being. There is orientation and sufficient development of the brain so that the child can cope with the realities of everyday experience. The map of child development is a map of the creation of the developing ego.

The development of the false self is part biologic and part psychological. This development creates two experiences. One of them is the experience of separateness. The other is a sense of identity. Identity can be defined as the unique set of characteristics that distinguish you in your own mind from everybody else. And, of course, it is the answer to the questions ‘Who am I?’, or “What am I?’

The goal of spiritual work is to broaden the framework and loosen the hold of the ego. The ego’s hold on our consciousness must be relaxed in order to move beyond separateness. We have to slip free from that hold in order to truly open to the expansiveness of Being and experience ‘Sa’ada’, nearness to Being. When we are in a state of ‘Sa’ada’, the qualities of Being move though and irrigate the nervous system. This creates experiences that include joy, peace, depth, meaning, beauty, value, sacredness, belonging, miraculousness, acceptance, surrender and eternity.  That’s just a beginning of the list. In the state of ‘Sa’ada,’ it is wonderful just to be alive.

That’s what we want in our lives. The only place to go to get those qualities flowing through our nervous systems is Being. We cannot get it from a new red car. What  we can get from a new red car is about a five minute high, after which we go right back to where we were.

The First Nafs is where we begin the Journey of the Soul. We are all engaged in the project of being on the earth as a human being and abiding in a material body. We are all making the human journey, the Journey of the Soul, ascending slowly to higher levels of refinement through experience, maturation and hard knocks. We are moving through the successive stages of the soul, the Nafs, and we are headed ultimately back toward Being.

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