Thursday, May 10, 2012


 The word superstition means, quite literally, “over standing.” It's derived from the Latin root super, indicating “over,” and stare, to stand.

It is, in other words, the exact opposite of understanding.

 Religions began as instruments of understanding—a way of seeing that we come under a certain set of laws, that we are subordinate creatures. All understanding is a process of seeing this subordination, the presence of a higher order of which one is a part. Walt Whitman's poetry is, in my opinion, an excellent literary example of this phenomenon. The reason he is revered as a poet is because his poetry reflects understanding. He incorporates his individuality, his self, into a vast landscape of objects, action, and principles, and indicates the relationship between human beings, nations, ideals, and societies. Such understanding is present in many levels in Leaves of Grass. It leaves respect for both the human being, and a higher order of which they are a part, acknowledging each one's place.

In any event, religions run off these railroad tracks of understanding with great ease. The malaise we see in so many religious movements today—a cramped fundamentalism dedicated to destroying the rights of others, terrorism in the name of God—is the direct result of superstition, an effort to overstand. In this type of inner action, instead of submission to a higher order, man believes he is the higher order. He  narcissistically appoints himself as the agent of God, one who knows God's will.  Religions, unfortunately, are hardly unique in this kind of arrogance; atheists often seem to revel in it, from a perversely different perspective, and extraordinary egoists of every stripe from every walk of life routinely comfort themselves with the idea that they know better.

This idea of actually knowing God's will from within what we are now is antithetical to every esoteric understanding of religion. It is an overstanding of religion, an overstatement of religion, an assumption of powers and privileges that ought to belong only to God. The Lord, as the Sufi saints and Meister Eckhart taught us, is unknowable and cannot be understood by us. We must, in a certain sense, be extinguished if the will of God is to become present. The Buddhists, although they don't speak of God, see it in much the same way.

 Men, in their superstitious practice—which has, like any process, many facets—often adopt a submissive role which masquerades as humility. I think we all do this at times. We pray to God, for example, to grant us wishes. It's believed that the first time any Muslim on the Hajj lays eyes on the Kabaa, any wish they make may be granted. Catholics, Hindus, and Buddhists  have similar ideas about sacred sites and objects. The practice, in other words, is universal. I've seen it in action many times in many different countries.

My questions regarding this practice arise from the fact that I think it presumes we understand God's will and God's action, when, in fact, to do so is quite impossible. It's a form of overstanding, of superstition, because it arrogates abilities to us which we don't in fact have. Most practices of esoteric religion, including the esoteric practitioners of Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, would agree that a man can only, in reality, pray a single prayer for a single aim in a single way, and that is for the Lord to have mercy on him.

This prayer is the ultimate prayer of submission, of Islam, because it presumes no demand on God, rather, it is an admission of helplessness and a request for assistance. It is not asking for God to fix what is wrong with ourselves or the world, it is an acknowledgement of our position.

And that is what understanding means.

 I respectfully hope you will take good care.

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