Here is what Lao Tzu wrote: “If you want something to weaken, you must first allow it to become strong. If you want something to be removed, you must first allow it to flourish.” There is a sense of translation challenge here but the point is clear in general: chronic conditions worsen before they get cured; similarly, our default states have to reach their prime and pinnacle of manifestation before something new can take their place.
Spiritual evolution of a human being is comprised of several consecutive stages and the main difference between them is the characteristic states of human mind; therefore, exploring the process of these stages replacing one other through a repeating cycle of flourish and eradication would be equally interesting and beneficial.
Now, the beginning of a human being: the commanding nafs, where desires have you on a string, as they are so powerful that are impossible to resist. Crying kids, for example: their cry is not sadness but pure anger. The slavery of a person of the commanding nafs is absolute, and given that a flow of desires never comes to a stop, one’s misery is way more abundant than pleasures. Just check out the memories of your childhood and tell me whether you were happy back then, stuck in this never-ending waiting mode: for going shopping, watching cartoons on TV, or doing something else; it seems there was nothing but the pressure of desires. And assuming a child can’t help it, adults have nothing else to do but teach him to deprecate his desires.
At first, commanding nafs of a child is truly pure, no contamination present. The next, self-accusing nafs, has a share of commanding nafs in it; while the subsequent inspired nafs is inevitably diluted with unresolved elements of the first and second nafs. Thus, emotional responses and psychological states that can routinely come and go are characteristic of the combination of the first three nafs, which in turn are the first three stages of evolution of a human being.
A seeker has to understand that his pace of furthering is directly related to the degree of his maturity and realization of his current nafs stage. To transition to inspired nafs, one has to get really tired of self-criticism, become consciously aware of all the unproductiveness thereof, and come to see how inner prohibiting attitude and restrictions turn one’s life into a tenacious unceasing nightmare. Maturity of nafs is basically nafs’ meridian; in practice, it means going to extremities that verge on the absurd in your yielding to desires, obsession with self-criticism, or the urge to feel inspired. Those who understand how the mechanism described above works, are able to purify their nafs and expedite advancement to the next stage.
How to hunt down commanding nafs residing in you? Stir up your desire to have all your desires fulfilled the moment they arise; check how strong it is. Allow other postponed and banned desires to spring up. Let them unfold and observe your reactions—is there any impatience or resentment at inability to fulfill them? Any trembling with impatience or getting close to black out from stabbing rejection feeling?
Next thing you should do is contemplate everything that has come to the surface, doing nothing else in the meantime, ideally. Adopt a non-doing state, as they say. But in case it is too difficult to accomplish, you may want to take an easier route by fulfilling one of the activated desires while staying completely present and observing emerging sensations and reactions. This work can take a while—not an hour or two, but a few weeks, perhaps months. Yet, if it buys back a year or more of your time at the end, it’s worth it.
The same approach applies for self-condemnation—you stir it up, bring to light layer after layer, one cause after another. You let it unfurl, observe rejection and aversion and express them; whatever it is, do not be afraid of expressing it, because that is the key for your change. Naturally, disapproval is aimed not solely at self but equally targets others; and you want to observe this facet of displeasure and express it as well. In each particular case you go to the depth in your condemnation, exaggerate it to absurdity as resentment and aversion expand to the size of King Kong under the light of your attention. You observe, endure, and express. As an outcome, resentment loses its value and ideas that encode it become neutralized. This is flourishing and destruction in its purest form.
With inspiration, it works as follows: you want to discover your inner little puppy who is very much into taking part in games with his own kind, longs to grow up into a beautiful wise adult dog, and looks for a place where they would teach you all this. This puppy wants to get the taste of everything that others try and know how to do, and it would be awesome to also benefit and have some fun on top of that. In other words, here we observe our desires and that part of our minds which can’t help but hopping up and down eagerly with its pink moist tongue sticking out. This state of inspiration should equally be taken to the point of extreme, so that its limitation becomes fully visible. And again, there are associated desires to be fulfilled in awareness and expression to be done alongside, and yes, all this will consume some of your time as well. But then, the Path is for a lifetime – isn’t it not?
Next goes tranquil nafs. The mind has already undergone its first transformation and now there is non-involvement with old reactions, sadness, and pleasures in place. A certain base has emerged within, which does not engage in any of the processes or situations that previously used to be inspiring or worrisome. A certain space has been established which prevents previous disturbing and other reactions from flaring up. Shifting attention into that space makes your tranquility almost total; yet if you don’t set a goal of staying detached like that, you can see that it is still some mess left within and tranquility per se is quite an imperfect state. Nevertheless, the trick with forcing the state to its apogee is more difficult to perform in case of tranquility that with preceding states. Aloofness is aloofness, although one can still give it a try and let it come to full bloom. The main complication here is lack of worry as a motivator and a strong belief that profound spiritual can’t-care-less attitude is really cool.
Tranquility ceases bringing joy once you get bored with it. As those lying down for too long gradually get out of shape, so a seeker who got stuck in tranquility eventually loses traits of a seeker. Someone who is perfectly aware that he still hasn’t arrived anywhere has way more chances to reach transition to the subsequent nafs compared to those who don’t give a damn about a thing.
With pleased nafs, it’s even easier: you merely need to dismiss the slightest sign of displeasure with self, others, Creation, Will of God, and God Himself. Piece of cake, at first glance, yet in reality, it’s more difficult than it may seem. Forcing one’s contentment to inflate and flourish is needless; just having it come into being—genuine and true—will suffice, and you begin moving toward the exist, into the main transformation that a seeker undergoes on the Path.
The next stage is the pleasing nafs. A state with no desires of your own, a minimal set of personal needs, and opting to act in preference to the needs that comes from external source, expressed by an outside person. Hence content of others: they suffer and you eliminate their sufferings. Or the cause thereof. It is hard to say whether the quantity of the pleased with your nafs correlate with the pace of your transition to the subsequent stage. The state you live in is such as if you depend on the needs of people with whom you interact. You continue your progress, gain more capacity to assist the afflicted, yet your state remains imperfect. There is little perfection in external dependency, however noble it may appear. Hence the need to take step further, toward getting access to a new source of action. And so, one’s transition to perfect nafs commences, where the mystery of oneness along with other things become revealed to you and which all but fall outside the laws mentioned at the beginning of this text. And since there is no states next to perfect nafs to progress further, let us stop here, for now.