‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ by Michael Rosen is a children’s story that offers a metaphor for the journey of life. In today’s blog, I use this story to illustrate three powerful forces in human life that hinder spiritual progress, the selfish ego, wicked people and Satan, the arch-enemy. They throw up all sorts of problems and barriers in the way to spiritual enlightenment and the forward march towards Allah.
In the story, four children go on a bear hunt. ‘What a beautiful day!’ they declare. ‘We’re not scared.’ On their journey to find the bear, they are faced with three obstacles.
Each time they come across a new obstacle, they stop with fear, they can’t see a way around it. The only way to keep on their journey is to go through it. “Uh oh! A river! A deep, cold river! We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Uh oh! We’ve got to go through it!”
Like the children in the story, we look for ways around the obstacle, whether it’s our ego, wretched people and Satan. But that’s not always possible! The nasty and selfish ego has to be tackled, you have to drive through it, yes it befogs the mind and the lure of the luxuries is overbearing, the pleasure too intense to resist, money is involved, fame and honour. Until we can ride our ego, we won’t go through!
Next is the jungle, symbolising the wicked people around us. Like the children in the story, we look for ways around. Our survival instinct tells us to go over or under, but never through. Yet the only way to go is through, it’s the only way forward. Here values come in handy like patience, forgiveness and modesty to protect you from the beasts of the jungle.
The third barrier is the cold, deep river, it represents Satan in our minds. It is interesting that the children do not set out alone, they are holding hands, the older children carry the younger children. To take a risk, steps towards growth and discovery, we need to be held for spiritual growth and Divine nearness. The need for a group, society and like-minded friends. With someone walking beside us on our journey, our healthy self is more able to find the strength to stand up against the internal militia, the ego.
Yet, what lies ahead when we come face to face with the bear? The bear represents the three obstacles rolled into one. The ego, the wretched people, and Satan. When the children encounter the bear, they are terrified. They run home, hide under the duvet hoping it will go away.
The teachings of Islam will lead us through storms, mighty rivers and wild jungles. We may never meet the bear at all. But we will learn a lot about ourselves to see our Nafs-Ammara the selfish ego, hedonistic tendencies and passion for pleasure. Rather than succumb to it, we challenge it, become the critical self, Nafs-Lawwama. Reproaching, blaming and scrutinising ourselves to make sure we follow the Shariah meticulously. This is the inner voice of our healthy-self. It keeps us on the straight and narrow, so, we continue with our lives, psychologically richer and healthier. The critical-self is the one that helps us learn and notice what’s happening within us, what we are prepared to sacrifice.
The battle continues until we become old, wise and content. We are no longer obsessed with passion, pleasures and possessions, we have gained freedom, Nafs-Muttmainah, the satisfied and happy self. The Lord calls out, “O happy person, return to your Lord cheerfully and loved; now enjoy the company of my servants and come into my paradise” (Fajr: 27-30).