Nov 1, 1999

"The best deeds are sometimes those which appeal to you the least."

“If you think that you have acquired the entire corpus of knowledge, do not read these words,” said Master Silver Birch once. We do believe that the more knowledge one acquires the more one inquires, ceaselessly. We want you, our reader, to share with us our inquiries as well as the guidance supplied by our Master, Ali Rafea.
Question: The Most Honorable Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib said, “The best deeds are sometimes those which appeal to you the least.” Practically speaking our best deeds are those which we do because we love to do. So the statement seems to be in contradiction with experiential reality . We need an explanation.

First, I would like to clarify the method by which we handle the words disclosed to us by prophets, sages and spiritual guides. If we follow the words literally, with no spiritual maturity, we might come up with inappropriate conclusions. Example of that is the statement you have just mentioned. It is very justified that you think that the best deed is what you do out of love, so how come that someone says that “the best deeds are sometimes those which appeal to you the least”! When we are not preoccupied with letters, when our souls and minds are open, words can take us to a deeper level of perception.
The words of Imam Ali are directing our attention to be watchful of our lower “self” which might deviate us from search for the truth. For example the lower “self” might lead a person to reduce religion into a set of ready made forms of behavior. He is more like a programmed machine. The “self” does not want him to take the trouble of trying to distinguish or judge what is superficial and what is discerning. To be able to distinguish, one must be aware first that one must not follow the inspiration of the lower “self” which capture him in the trap of being attached fully to physical and biological desires. It is a matter of training. Being aware that the self needs to be tamed, a Sufi, for instance, goes through some exercises; when hungry, thirsty, or cold, he does not hurry to food, water or warmth. By so doing he builds up strong will and self control. We are guided to this in Prophet Muhammad’s Hadith “By thirst and hunger, block the devil’s throughways”. The point is that when man resists his biological needs for some time, he allows his spiritual existence to emerge. Man would then deserve to be called God’s vicegerent.
The struggle between the lower and higher levels of the self will not necessarily continue for ever, there will be time when man feels in peace and act as a whole. In such a situation he will act spontaneously towards the right direction where his potentials will be fulfilled and his deeds will be directed to serving channels. This spontaneity should not be resisted. Quite the contrary, it is an indication of the spiritual maturity that should be a goal for whoever is looking to be a better human being. Using Imam Ali’s saying in this context would be void.
The starting point in deciding what to do or not to do should never start from what you assume as the direct application of any statement, however truthful. It should stem from your own experience. One needs to be trained to listen to his inner guiding voice. This training should be directed. It aims at strengthening our ability to listen and respond. Similar to what happens to our physical bodies where an immunization system protects us from disease, our spiritual system also needs care and training. While Love, self denial, honesty, and other good attributes nourishes the spiritual system and its inner guidance, selfishness, hatred , and meanness hurt the spiritual system and weaken its voice.
In order to follow this guidance of Imam Ali, sincerity, transparency, and willingness to be better are prerequisites. If man is honest enough he will distinguish between what appeals to the lower “self” in him and does not follow it. He will definitely discern what the truthful part within guides him to and follow it.