The Base Self is defined in the Koran as “the self which always commands (or compels) to evil” (12:53), where its Arabic name (nafs al-ammara) comes from. The Base Self is the dark side of human nature. It is our inner demon, the hidden self, the beast within, that silently and ceaselessly plots our downfall. The Base Self is like gravity, always pulling the human spirit down to earth, whereas the spirit’s innate tendency is to soar. The higher we jump, the harder we fall, so there is no rest until this enemy to top all enemies is dealt with.
There are many depictions in Western literature and cinema of how the Base Self overcomes the human spirit and takes over the total personality. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis are all examples of this. And let’s not forget the many transformations of human beings into vampires, werewolves, and a plethora of other unsavory creatures.
In Western psychology, it was Carl Gustav Jung who came closest to describing the Base Self in a manner similar to the Sufis. Jung called it “the shadow.” “By shadow,” he said, “I mean the ‘negative’ side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the content of the personal unconscious.” He posed a profound riddle: “How do you find a lion that has swallowed you?”
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. [M]an also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism.
We carry our past with us, to wit, the primitive and inferior man with his desires and emotions… Taking it in its deepest sense, the shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. [In an instant, a] gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast. One is always inclined to lay the blame on external circumstances, but nothing could explode in us if it had not been there. As a matter of fact, we are constantly living on the edge of a volcano, and there is, so far as we know, no way of protecting ourselves from a possible outburst that will destroy everybody within reach.
[T]he acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible. [The shadow] is unreasonable, senseless, and evil. The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness…
[The shadow works by projecting its own undesirable traits on others.] A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour. Just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naively suppose that people are as we imagine them to be… [W]e still go on naively projecting our own psychology into our fellow human beings. In this way everyone creates for himself a series of more or less imaginary relationships based essentially on projection.The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. If a man is endowed with an ethical sense and is convinced of the sanctity of ethical values, he is on the surest road to…examin[ing his] conscience and thereby [discovering] the shadow.
If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow…Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.
STATION OF SELF
(Carnal or Base Self)
zakiya or safiya)
As Joseph Campbell implies, one of the keys to understanding fairy tales and mythology (and science fiction!) is that every monster is a symbol for the Base Self. Greek mythology is particularly replete with monsters of this kind. The hero must prove his mettle by besting the beast in mortal combat. Difficult though this may be, it is the loftiest of callings. “It is only,” says Campbell, “those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight truly is desperate; that is to say, most of us today, in this labyrinth without and within the heart.”
The labyrinth. “The true calling of man,” said Aldous Huxley, “is to find the way to himself.” Our lives, this whole world, are all mazes, as Jorge Luis Borges might say, but in the context of Greek mythology, one is reminded at once of the labyrinth that King Minos of Crete ordered Daedalus, the archetypical scientist, to construct. Daedalus did such a good job that no one who got into it could ever get out. Therein was placed the Minotaur, a savage chimera with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Each year, youths and maidens from Athens would be cast into the maze, there to wander in vain until they were found and devoured by the Minotaur.
To vanquish and purify one’s self: this is the hero’s journey, the adventure to beat all adventures. Furthermore, as Campbell points out, we do not risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
Of course, Sufis have used the technique of eating, drinking and sleeping sparingly in order to keep the Base Self weak and hence manageable. Likewise, one should indulge in periodic self-examination, self-criticism, and calling oneself to account. (A Saying of the Prophet: “Call yourselves to account before you are called to account.”)
When it comes to wealth and lust, do not take what is not rightfully yours.
Illicit gain. Anything that you have not earned or has not been given to you as a gift is forbidden. This is why you need a job, to earn your keep honestly by the sweat of your brow.
Unless these requirements are met, there is no way to purify the Base Self. But suppose you just came upon this, and hadn’t previously known about it—which, of course, you couldn’t have. Then, all one has to do is to make a solemn vow from this moment on. To repent with a sincere repentance. “To say, “My God, I hereby resolve not to take what is illicit nor touch what is illicit.” And from then on, not to break that vow.
Furthermore, we must understand that the Base Self cannot really be destroyed. It or its residue is operative even as one climbs through all the levels of the self, which is why the monster has seven or nine heads instead of just one. Therefore, no matter how accomplished one is, and what one’s station of selfhood may be, these