‘Man Is Asleep And When He Dies He Awakens’

The following, below “* * *,” is an excerpt from Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (2007).

On this score, we should also note the common theme of sleep and waking up. To take but three among countless many:

  • “Man is immersed in dreams… He lives in sleep… He is a machine” (G.I. Gurdieff).
  • “Great is the matter of birth and death– / Life slips quickly by. / Time waits for no one. / Wake up! Wake up! / Don’t waste a moment!” (Zen chant).
  • A number of Christian mystics enjoin us to “pray unceasingly” to God.

* * *

What Are We Doing Here, And What Should We Be Doing Here?

What most of us are doing here in the world is living in a daydream called ordinary life, in the state of forgetting what Christ called the one thing necessary, that is, the Divine Reality. And we are in such a state because we have forgotten who we are. All we need to do is to wake up and realize our primordial nature, which is always there although buried deeply within many layers of dross of forgetfulness. The Prophet said, “Man is asleep and when he dies he awakens.” Sufism is meant for those who want to wake up, who accept dying to the ego here and now in order to discover the Self of all selves and to be consumed in the process in the fire of Divine Love.

Since we all die, it is better to seek and wake up now under conditions that involve our free will and intelligence rather than in a situation in which we are helpless. The initiatic death is the beginning of the spiritual path. In answer to the question, “what should we be doing here?” the Sufis, like sages of other traditions, say that we should take full advantage of the precious state of being human, wake up to the reality of our prototype as Universal Man, and seek to walk, while we still can, through the door that opens to the inner chamber of our heart and also to the Divine Presence. That opportunity will not always be there, for our next breath may be our last. If we do not pass through that door now, which opens into more inward or, to use the objective symbol, higher levels of being, leading finally to the Reality which is the Source and End of all, that door, which will close at the moment of death, may not be open to us tomorrow. We have no guarantee that we will continue in the state we possess as human beings in this world once we reach posthumous states of being. That is why Rumi, echoing the saying of the Prophet, “Die before you die,” suggests to those with ears to hear and eyes to see,

Go die, O man of honor, before you die,

So that you will not suffer the pangs of death.

Die in such a way as to enter the abode of light,

Not the death that places you in the grave.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (2007), pp. 22-3