Two things: I haven’t been writing and it has been raining almost non-stop for more weeks than I care to count. Yes, we get a sunny day in-between weeks of rain and everyone rushes out and basks in the sunshine with faces of just having won the grand prize. We all walk through town smiling at each other as we pass and I find myself saying to everyone “What a beautiful day!” (in French, of course). To which most people feel obliged to respond: “Yes, but it is going to rain tomorrow again.” I wonder why… it’s like raining on your own parade.
As I said: I haven’t been writing, and I have been reading. At least that is a good thing. Strangely enough, I ended up reading two books about radical Islam back to back: The Looming Tower (by Lawrence Wright) and The Girl Who Beat ISIS (by Farida Khalaf co-authored by Andrea C. Hoffman). It was an interesting encounter because the demise of Al-Qaeda foreseen at the end of the first book (which is about the 50 years of radical Islam leading up to 9/11) seems to have led to the rise of ISIS viewed in the second book. Looming has been made into a television series and I can see why it would make a magnificent one; the book was fascinating and –in spite of all the unpronounceable names, foreign places and shifting loyalties- made for spellbound reading from start to finish. I had often asked –both myself and the people who attended my workshops- what the pilots of the planes that hit the towers must have had to believe in order to commit that act: the book made that very clear. It was a most interesting fact to see how these mostly young men not only believed that everyone who does not adhere to radical Islam as they see it is an infidel (and often that included their own family members), but also that to die while killing said infidels assured one martyrdom. What Wright found and made clear through his book is that these young terrorists go out to kill –yes- but much more than that to be killed. Martyrdom is their ultimate goal for it brings uncountable benefits to the martyr and to over 70 members of his family. Several times in the book, the author reflects the frustration of leaders of diverse groups who have not been allowed (by Allah) to obtain martyrdom. I finally understood the motivation of the pilots and could see that –in the end- it was as selfish and ego-bound as most human motivations. After all, it is I–the martyr who will live forever in Paradise with all those virgins and be worshipped unconditionally by my family for the spiritual benefits that I have provided.
(The day has gotten so dark that even though it is noon I have the lights on.) In his book, Wright skirts judgment for the most part and just presents the facts as he has researched them. This means that we get to view these young men living out their beliefs without the label of ‘terrorists’, just as we get to see the members of the CIA or the FBI without the label of ‘heroes’: just people, believing what they believe.
Of course, one believes what one believes and this is neither good nor bad. Have you ever tried not believing what you believe? As long as I believe that I want it to stop raining when it doesn’t, I’ll feel frustration every time I look out the window. If I don’t believe that thought or its opposite… if I don’t believe any thought, I will just gaze out the window and notice that it is either raining or not. But the whole matter is very difficult because I believe that what I believe is good, and that what the terrorists believe is bad and that gets a whole set of emotions going. Wright’s book is outstanding in that he allows you to see what every character is believing (and that includes not only the terrorists, but also all the players on the American side who fumbled the ball, so to say, between the different government agencies and thus made 9/11 possible) as they all move inexorably towards the tragic end. This is deep Greek drama: we get to see fate at play through the beliefs held by the different parts. I’ll say no more, but highly suggest reading the book rather than, or at least before, seeing the series.
The second book is the complete opposite: it is the personal tale of a 19-year-old Yazidi girl, Farida (not her real name), taken prisoner along with others by ISIS. The story is told in first person by the young woman who –along with several others- is imprisoned, routinely raped, brutally beaten and sold off several times to different ‘owners’ until she and a few others manage to escape. Here the good beliefs of the Yazidi girls are contrasted with the bad beliefs of the members of ISIS and several times in the course of narration, Farida asks how it is possible that the men who own, rape and beat her can believe that their God condones this. And yet, Farida herself also believes blindly in the dictates of her religion which says that God, after creating the world, placed it under the guardianship of 7 angels, whose chief is known as Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Interestingly enough, Melek Taus –who as world ruler causes both good and bad to befall individuals- has once fallen temporarily from God’s favor before his remorse reconciled him with the Deity. In other words, Melek Taus is ‘a fallen angel’ or Satan for the fervent Muslims who follow ISIS and consider the Yazidis ‘Devil worshippers’; they also surely must ask themselves how the Yazidis can believe such things.
Byron Katie calls this believing ‘the I-Know mind’, and invites us to question it and set ourselves free. The ‘I-Know mind’ does not apply only to formal religion, however, but to every thought which we believe. If I believe my daughter should phone me and she doesn’t, I might feel frustration or disappointment. Then, if I call her instead, my emotions will go into ‘attack mode’ and I will accuse her of ‘never calling me’. If she feels attacked, she’ll defend herself by attacking me back (‘you refuse to understand how busy I am’), and we have a war. If I find out that my best friend voted for Trump and I believe that Trump voters are all idiots, I just lost a best friend even if I don’t say anything. What I believe becomes ‘my religion’ in the moment I believe it and –unless I question it- it rules my life as surely as radical Islam rules the lives of the young men who die for it. Both books make this very clear.
The ‘I-Know mind’ is an absolute dictator: nothing can penetrate it; to go against it is like beating your head on a concrete wall and expecting the wall to give way. Believe me: I know! I have one, it decides ‘this is good, this is bad’, ‘this is beautiful, this is ugly’, this should not be, this should be’, ‘he must, she mustn’t’. It never stops, judging, deciding, choosing; making war against, allying with. My ‘I-Know mind’ does this all day long; it’s its job.
Fortunately, in 2003, I learned 4 questions that set me free when I use them to question my beliefs (see: www.thework.com), the first of which I now call my ‘Heart-question’. It has taken many years for the ‘I-Know mind’ to, little by little, fall in love with the ‘Heart-question’ Is that true? Now they live together hand in hand. When the I-Know mind states absolutely ‘She shouldn’t do that!’, the body stiffens; then its loving Heart whispers: “Is that true” and the body softens, looks again and smiles.
So my recent literary journey into the extremes of the I-Know mind has made me appreciate even more than before the power of these four simple questions. And if it is to books we must turn, rather than continuing along with the ego-centered Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” which has placed our frail human reason on a dangerous throne, we might choose to go back to Socrates’ simple “I only know that I know nothing”… except perhaps that the rain continues.