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Our intimate enemy: the imperious self

This article is part of an ongoing series on Attar‘s Canticle of the Birds (also known as The Conference of the Birds), a spiritual text rich in lessons for spiritual practice. For more information about the book and its author, please refer to the first article in this series entitled “The nightingale and the rose: from attachment to renouncement”.

The focus of this article is on our most intimate enemy: the imperious self. Here is how it is portrayed by Attar…

Excerpt 2 – Our intimate enemy: the imperious self

A Bird Complains of the Self
One of the birds then said: ‘My enemy’s
That veteran of highway robberies,
My Self; how can I travel on the Way
With such a follower? The dog won’t pay
The least attention to a word I say –
The dog I knew is gone and in his place
A slavering wolf stalks by me, pace for pace.’

And the Hoopoe answers him
The Hoopoe said: ‘How has this dog betrayed
And brought to a dust whatever plans you made!
The Self’s squint-eyed and cannot guide you well,
Part dog, part parasite, part infidel.
When you are praised your Self swells up with pride
(Aware that praise is quite unjustified);
There’s no hope for the Self – the dog grows fatter
The more it hears men fawn, deceive and flatter.
What is your childhood but a negligence,
A time of carelessness and ignorance?
What is your youth but madness, strife and danger,
Knowledge that in this world you are a stranger?
What is your age but torpid helplessness,
The flesh and spirit sapped by long distress?
Until this dog, the Self, can be subdued,
Our life is folly, endlessly renewed;
If all of life from birth to death is vain,
Blank nothingness will be our only gain –
Such slaves the Self owns! What a catalogue!
How many rush to worship this foul dog!
The Self is hell – a furnace belching fire,
An icy pit is a pride succeeds desire,
And though a hundred thousand die of grief,
That this same dog should die is past belief.

(Fârid-ud-Dîn ‘Attâr, The Canticle of the Birds, Diane de Selliers Éditeur, transl. A. Darbandi & D. Davis, 2013, d. 1977 to 1995)

What lessons can be drawn from this account?

This exchange between a bird and the hoopoe is part of a series of exchanges that is central to The Canticle of the Birds. When the hoopoe, who acts as a spiritual guide, proposes to set out to find their Origin, the sovereign majesty of all birds called Simorgh, the birds are enthusiastic. Very soon, however, they realize that the path is long and difficult and begin to give excuses not to set off on the quest. For some, these excuses are “from below” (such as those regarding terrestrial attachments); for others, they are “from above” (more subtle ruses deployed by the imperious self, that use pseudo-spiritual arguments). Here, the bird in question seems to know himself somewhat, as he has perceived an “enemy” in his “Self”—the imperious self. The problem is that he does not know how to fight against it. It even seems that having become aware of the imperious self’s force and of his own weakness, he is on the brink of giving up. The hoopoe, as bird of guidance, will try to dismantle this very subtle ruse of the imperious self and to make the spiritual traveler understand that he must fight a constant and unyielding battle against this animal, by seeing it for what it is, by ceasing to be at its service, by understanding the mechanism of its ruses and by becoming conscious that living according to the desires of the imperious self is living in hell.

Our imperious self, that “slavering wolf” that “stalks by [us], pace for pace”, is a powerful energy produced in our psyche by the activity of our character weak points, that stands in active opposition to our process of spiritual perfection. It is deceitful, it fools us, pushes us to be careless and flatters our ego… It can take on a large variety of forms in order to encourage the development of our illegitimate impulses and to nurture our dysfunctional character traits.

Very often, perhaps even on a daily basis, we allow this negative force that originates in ourselves to guide us and to take over. It pushes us to infringe upon rights—the rights of others especially, but also our own—, to be aggressive, petty, cowardly, jealous, dishonest, etc. We are well aware that if we do not counter this wolf within us and give free range to our natural tendencies, it will be reinforced and end up taking up all the space, suffocating our soul little by little, and thereby suffocating our humanity. This is because the imperious self is always at work, it never stops. We therefore must fight it and make sure that our will to bring out our positive side will be stronger than the ceaseless onslaught of impulses that boil within us.

To know how to actively fight against the injunctions of our imperious self, the best is to start out with an inventory. This requires to first take time to reflect. Here are a series of exercises that aim at identifying and evaluating the manifestations of the imperious self within us, in order to then apply reason and willpower to set up a practical program to fight against it. This is how, little by little, we will be able to limit the scope of its action and its negative effects on our personality. It is important, however, to remember that this is a long term battle—if we expect immediate results we might give up like the bird of the Canticle after merely observing its presence and its power.

Feel free to share your experiences and plans of action to fight against the imperious self in the “comments” section.

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  1. Saga Feb 10, 2018 11:21 pm 1

    Loved this!!

  2. A. Feb 11, 2018 3:37 pm 2

    Thank you for this article!

    It is quite timely. I am faced with a new kind of situation in my professional and personal life. It had never happened to me in the past, or not with the same level of intensity and frequency. I am increasingly confronted to people who criticize my work without understanding it or having the experience to understand it. These same people do not believe what I say, contradict me systematically without believing me, etc.

    I started observing the way I react. Sometimes I give up without trying to defend myself, sometimes I lose control whilst trying to defend myself, and I become upset…. I used to consider myself someone calm. Now, I lose my temper and display anger, which is to my detriment both spiritually and materially. Spiritually, because I sometimes violate other people’s rights, but also because anger weakens my soul. Materially, because those who see me like this trust me even less.

    New situations, new challenges! I need to find a strategy to fight, which should boil down to: control myself, and defend my rights with detachement.

  3. Linda Feb 12, 2018 4:53 pm 3

    Spoiler Alert! Some of the questions do not stem from imperious self. You are sitting on a bus and an elderly gets in. It is the rule of etiquette to stand up. But overall, I loved how the test prepares you to think about it, plan, and be determined about your plans! Thank you!

  4. Peter Feb 12, 2018 10:14 pm 4

    Fantastic view of what imperious self is!!

  5. Nooshie Feb 13, 2018 12:31 am 5

    Thank you so much for this article and the its accompanying exercise. I know very well what it’s like to battle the wolf of my imperious self that I have been nurturing all my life. Yes, there have been many times that I considered the battle a lost cause and was ready to give up. Fortunately, however, His Grace has always given me the strength to carry on with the help my innate character of stubbornness.

    I have come to realize that stubbornness can be both an asset or a weakness depending on how I chose to use it. It certainly has caused me a lot of trouble when I continued to persist in doing something that my sound reason had told me was wrong to pursue. In these cases I know that it was my pride and the fact that I refused to admit I was wrong that fuelled my persistence. However, when I ask God for help and ONLY when I ask Him for help to battle my imperious self, my stubbornness becomes a weapon to battle the wolf within me. The following is an example:

    I have been trying to quit smoking for years but every time I tried on my own, I failed. It was only after I sincerely asked God for help that I was able to stop. Don’t get me wrong, my wolf still strongly craves for cigarettes but my stubborn streak stands in its way with God’s help and my sound reason reminding me that I CANNOT throw away this gift that He has given me.

    I have made more mistakes that I can count and I have been in many truly hopeless situations that if it hadn’t been for His Grace, my faith in Him, and my refusal to give up, I would not be alive to write this comment.

  6. PN Feb 19, 2018 8:46 am 6

    This article and activity was great. Thank you. Answering the questions reminded me, again, of the fact that I need to better manage my frustration and try harder not to snap at the people closest to me. I catch myself snapping for 10 seconds, then calming down. Sometimes I don’t even know why I am triggered that quickly. It’s almost like something disrupts my usual state of being and I don’t like it so I react to it, of course “IT” is laughing “AT” me in that moment…

  7. Linda P Feb 24, 2018 10:29 pm 7

    This poem took my breath away! Thanks so much for printing it.

  8. Sarah Sep 19, 2018 1:34 am 8

    I was on a mission to chose something to work on, when I came across this perfectly timed article! I knew I had flaws, I wanted to select the most eminent one, and low and behold, it was my ego. When I read the article, I realized that my ego had fooled me by telling me I am modest, humble and patient with others. But I realized I was acting with such generosity because I believed I was more patient, more understanding, more spiritual than them.

  9. AS Dec 21, 2018 7:54 pm 9

    This was a good article. I really enjoyed going over the activity because it’s a reminder as to what the imperious self is or is not in our life which most of the time we or I’m not aware of or think about. It would be great to have more of these activities to reflect on.

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