My colleague Yuri and I drove through snow laden Belgium on our way to visit Frédéric Antonious. We’d both just finished his latest book, Ishmael, and it seemed odd to be discussing it in a car; reflecting on a human story set in a technologically sparse, arid and sunlit setting, whilst manoeuvring at 130kph through Europe’s winter wonderland. Experience is at its best when there is irony to it.
We were driving to meet Antonious, not just to talk about his book, but also about his views, perspectives, experiences and what he’s doing in this world. Arriving in the beautiful, refurbished hotel that serves as an open community centre for meditation and personal reflection, we found ourselves in the warmth and comfort of his quarters, greeted by a man who approaches his path in life with assurance and serenity.
When I first picked up Ishmael, it was immediately clear to me that this was a book with an important message. It was also a book that would resonate with anybody whose life had come to the point of wanting and being ready for that message. Although one could say this about every book, it seems that some, such as Cohen’s The Alchemist, and Hesse’s Siddhartha, bring the right message to the right generation at the right time. I feel that the time is definitely right for the message of Ishmael to spread, but as Antonious would point out – to tell anybody that this is the right book for them, would go against the grain of everything that Ishmael tries to convey. Put simply, it is there for those who willingly find it.
The story itself follows the journey of Ishmael – an ‘everyman’ character – as he experiences a society whose values and notions of community have evolved from the paradigms of his home in the big city. Instead of being focused on individual progress, fiscal profit and nurturing of the ego, the people in this desert village put a premium on sharing, compassion, communication and experience – both physical and spiritual. We follow Ishmael as he comes to different levels of understanding this structure, before struggling with and realising the limitlessness of his own self.
This notion of self-experiential discovery carries the echoes of Transcendental Humanism, the term that Antonious uses to explain the state of human nature. Transcendental refers to the spiritual nature of humankind; that at some level beyond the perception of our individualism, we are deeply connected to everything that is One. This includes each other, all life, the earth, the universe… everything.
As an offspring of the Enlightenment, the concept of humanism has traditionally come to represent a secular individualism. For many years, this individualism has been celebrated in terms of greed, survival of the fittest and egoism. It has been taught that fulfilment as an individual can only exist at the expense of other individuals
Humanism in the sense that Antonious means, however, refers to the fact that we are undeniably physical beings, not solely spiritual, and that everything we experience, we do so as humans.
For Antonious, as well as for many others, humanism need no longer be seen as individualistic and competitive egoism; now, it is possible to perceive that humanism and individual experience are more naturally collaborative, rather than competitive.
These two notions together suggest that we are physical beings of a spiritual nature, and that the two seemingly contradictive states actually complement and collaborate with each other.
Antonious calls this collaborative view of humanistic individualism ‘the harmony model’. Keeping in mind the thought that we are intrinsically and collectively connected on a transcendental and spiritual level, our individual and ‘humanistic’ lives represent alternative ways of ‘being’ the human experience, in all shades, and from all facets and angles. If your life represents a path that differs from anybody else’s, then everybody else’s life represents a different path to your own – nobody else’s is a path that you can follow, just as nobody else can follow yours. Individually, we are different experiences. Collectively, we are one (massive experience).
It was his background as a sociologist working in Beirut and other places in the Middle East that brought Antonious to Sufism – allowing him to discover his own truth in the value in simply ‘being’; the value that you are not ‘trying to experience’, but that you can only ‘be experience.’
Yuri pointed out that this background comes through strongly in Ishmael, the setting of which has strong connections to the Middle East and North Africa. Did Frédéric feel that this was a necessary setting towards the communication of his ideas for a non-Middle Eastern audience?
“No…I just find it beautiful…it combines a number of things from my experience. I don’t know if you’ve ever visited an oasis…this is so beautiful. I wanted to express that image. The image of the teahouse…that’s from somewhere else, the fishermen…that’s from somewhere else! I wanted to convey these different images.”
But does he think that the setting matters, in terms of the message being conveyed, and the (European) audience to which it is being directed?
“I try to find a common denominator…not just between the two cultures, but all cultures. Chinese, Tao, Hindu…they are all basically saying the same thing. It’s very universal. With this approach I try to speak a universal language. Not a mythical language, not a religious language, not a cultural language (but) something that we share universally.
Ishmael is certainly universal.
At its core, the message of Ishmael is one that challenges conventional modern thought: there is no single truth, as every person is following their own path, each as valid as the next; an individual’s life is a different shade or reflection of the entire human experience, which in its totality encompasses all the things that are commonly referred to as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The human experience encompasses everything that humans experience, believe and ‘know’ individually, even if they seem to contradict each other. Nobody is right or wrong, and the only obligation one person has is to ‘be their experience.’
Antonious puts this very simply, as regards how he intended to convey this message through Ishmael.
“I try to shake the idea of truth”.
This is fair enough, but then does he see this message as being ‘truth’? Thankfully, he does not, as Ishmael can only be an expression of his own experience, and not a ‘truth’ being handed down to others. Yuri and I agreed, and we both got the feeling that he would be happier with somebody telling him how and why they disagree, rather than fawning over everything that he’s said, and believing him to be claiming truth.
“People who pretend to claim truth are limited”
Yuri and I tried to push Antonious on the concept’ of the malleability of truth, and whether, if truth is such a subjective thing, then why and how do we distinguish between good and bad, positive and negative? He was ready.
“We all have a carrot on a stick. And the carrot on the stick has to be there. And this carrot is ‘well-being’. Every life is pushed towards this carrot on a stick…towards well-being. So we try to shape our world in order to reach well-being. Every person tries to bring their life into this state of well-being. The person who is sexually abused must try to bring their life into this state; the person who is at a disadvantage must. This is essentially how evolution takes place; our thinking is a part of evolution, our feelings (also)…”
This statement took greater shape, and made more sense upon reflection than when we initially heard it. He is basically saying that, as individual parts of the one human collective, every experience is valid, and every experience necessary in order for the collective experience to move forward; to progress; to evolve. Good and bad, positive and negative… these things can only exist as reflections of each other. Without bad, there can be no good, and vice versa. Without experiencing the bad, there can be no experience (or appreciation) of the good. It is a suggestion that only by viewing and appreciating this life (the universe & everything) as a collective experience, can we move forward into new experience. Only by experiencing and appreciating the things that seem to hold our societies back (greed, violence, pain), will we be able to experience and appreciate the opposite expressions of those things: sharing, love and comfort. This is not a new or radical thought, but one that does deserves to be communicated. I’m thankful that it is Antonious’ path to do so.
After talking a bit about Ishmael, we moved on to discussing the community that has built around him. Being based mostly in Spain, Antonious largely lives a monkish life. He has his pupils there, as well as in Belgium and the Netherlands, and they are people who have come to him independently to learn and listen.
“They came to me…I didn’t go searching for them. I absolutely don’t look after conformity…because I don’t believe conformity is functional. I don’t know anything of anyone’s background…I don’t need to know. I know them on an energy level.
The positivity of this communal collaboration is evident from the minute you walk through the door, into an old, and beautifully refurbished hotel, to be greeted by all kinds who are simply living their experiences.
“Spirituality has to be grass roots.”
Many of these people call Antonious ‘a spiritual master’. Personally, I know that Yuri and I both have reservations and felt discomfort around this. Antonious did give a reasoning behind it, which was that this “role” acts as a “point of orientation – ”.
“Particularly in a situation where there is no truth…you should be able to let go of all your own opinions. I compare a spiritual master to an empty window frame in the sky. It is something to direct (give orientation). In order for this window frame to be effective, it has to have a certain behaviour around it. I could sit at a bar…tell the same spiritual story (it would be less effective).”
This is the mission or task which he has reached, and that he came to as an individual human, responding to the direction of his own transcendental nature. He is a communicator for those that are looking for the communications.
So does that mean more books, promotions, lectures..?
“I’ve said what I have to say, and I’ve written what I’ve written… But I have no truth to tell. I only have suggestions. I can only say…well I’ve learned this… that’s what Ishmael’s about.”
Antonious has found his path, and that path is a job. He feels he has the tools and skills to communicate something important towards the benefit of the entire human experience. To do this job effectively, he fulfils a role that is representative of that job. He is a spiritual master for those that need that window frame of reference in the sky. Fortunately, though, he realises that it is not a right or wrong path, and in fact he expresses himself as his own person, fulfilling the experience that satisfies him on an individual level. Like all of us, he is a shade of experience; a part of the wider experience that is everything. This is something that both Yuri and I, driving back again through the white forests of Belgium, agreed that everybody could benefit from…whether that would be right or wrong.
by Joe Wegescanyi & Yuri Cartland