Monday, September 10, 2012

Ibn Arabi On Retreat

Retreat refers to a withdrawal to a place of seclusion or safety: a place of refuge. It may refer to the spiritual practice of retreat as seclusion in a cell or to the general principle of withdrawing or fleeing to God.

Fleeing to God, in the context of Ibn 'Arabi's doctrine on the unity of existence, is not a flight away from one thing towards another, since there is nothing in existence but God; fleeing to God is merely a way of expressing the flight from ignorance to knowledge - a theme which runs through all of Ibn 'Arabi's writings. However, Ibn 'Arabi also wrote specifically about the spiritual practice of retreat in the Futuhat al-Makkiyya, in the Risalat al-anwar which Rabia Terri Harris has translated into English under the title Journey to the Lord of Power and in at least one other treatise which he devotes to the subject, the Kitab al-khalwa.

The practice of physically withdrawing from the world to a cell or some other isolated place is inevitably associated with asceticism. Ibn 'Arabi mentions some of the methods associated with retreat as a practice of withdrawing from the world in the Hilyat al-abdal, which refers specifically to seclusion or solitude, 'uzla. This kind of seclusion is characterised by abstinence, in particular refraining from speech, refraining from the company of people and refraining from food and sleep, described here by Ibn 'Arabi as silence, solitude, hunger and wakefulness. Ascetic elements of the retreat are described not as something in which to remain for their own sake, thereby conditioning what might be given freely, but as a means to an end, for they loosen the grip that the animal self exercises by curbing the natural appetites and they help in the cutting of worldly ties in order to bring the realisation of one's dependence on God Alone: that in silence and solitude conversation may take place with the Real One, for His is the Company, and through hunger and wakefulness it is known that God is the Nourisher and God is the One who gives repose.

Ibn Sawdakîn reports that Ibn 'Arabi told him, "Retreat and seclusion is all for the preparation of the place by cutting the ties. It is agreed that the one who finds intimacy with God the Most High in retreat has really [only] become intimate with retreat, not with God (Allâh), and He is the Truth (al-haqq)." The physical cutting away from wordly attachments and severing from dependence on secondary causes may be helpful as a means of approaching God. However, Ibn 'Arabi seems to indicate that the means should not be taken as important in themselves, lest the seekers familiarize themselves with a method instead of finding closeness to God, and limit Him by trying to approach Him through something other than Himself. Much of what Ibn 'Arabi writes in his letters, treatises and books address a particular individual or group of people, at a certain stage and for a specific reason, all of which is incidental to its purpose of helping others to withdraw from their belief in the existence of anything besides the One and Unique existence. The physical practice of retreat needs to be undertaken within careful guidelines and Ibn 'Arabi makes it clear, in the Risalat al-anwar, which is addressed to someone who is already advanced in spiritual disciplines, that caution needs to be exercised. He says, " not enter your cell until you are aware of your station and of the extent to which you are able to oppose the power of the imagination. If your imagination has power over you, you must go into retreat only under the guidance of a teacher who is trained in discerning spirits and familiar with the Way. If, on the other hand, your imagination is under your control, do not fear to go into retreat."


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