By Sanober Umar
Lately there has been a trend of citing Paula Coelho as the new age spiritual guide of our times, who inspirational books, especially “The Alchemist,” has become particularly sought after by many of us who are trying to make sense of a world where we struggle to find meaning and understand our role in the bigger picture. This kind of delving into the mystical realm is not new of course – certain religious/spiritual ideas from various folds and cults about “the metaphysical sense of being” have managed to attract even the staunchest of atheists and anti-organized religion agnostics. Irrespective of the divergence in these stand points, I am curious to explore what connotations does the idea of Coelho’s much famed doctrine – “the universe will conspire to make it happen” – hold, as well as share my personal reflections on spirituality and the art of being – which I have also referred to as Grace loosely throughout this essay.
Let me state at the onset that I personally appreciate many of the works and philosophical insights of Paulo Coelho. When I read “The Alchemist” a few years ago in my under-graduation, I was particularly taken up by its deep mysticism. I still in fact admire his spiritual perceptions about communicating with a Universe that is not indifferent to our needs, or static in its Being, a Universe where we can understand our meaning and purpose through the many signs and symbols manifested in nature, as well as the intrinsic spiritual insight we are all blessed with but seem to have lost in an increasingly modern and alienating world. These are reflections that are definitely commendable for the motivation they give us to go beyond the dreariness of the mundane in our lives and discover something far more profound and transcendental in our existence.
However with time, age and experience, I have personally began to question the implications of Coelho’s famous quote “The Universe will conspire to make things happen.” This ‘idea’ is frequently drummed up in literally every medium of popular culture these days. But the fact that it is filled with contradictions and absolutes still remains relatively unquestioned in mainstream honky-dory ‘let’s-all-be-happy-in-our-disguised-sense –of-entitlement’ thought. Our perceptions about ourselves in the universe would lead to particular interpretations of its signs and omens. Bearing this in mind, one can’t help but wonder aloud, ‘On what basis will this Universe conform to our desires? Isn’t it arrogant to believe that the Universe will “conspire” with us to fulfill our individual goals? What about the fact that often our respective “will” or “vision” of life is bound to contradict if not negate somebody else’s will? Is the Universe conspiring to make “things happen” for All of us? When in life, do you draw the line between self-fulfilling prophesy and the narcissism of insisting that things Have To go Our Way? Are all your dreams and desires so admirable, and important in the larger scheme of things, that the Universe would bring together its forces to execute them just for your whims and fancies? ‘The questions raised here are meant to go beyond certain reductive assumptions of this oft quoted philosophical/mystical idea, which is definitely not unique only to Paulo Coelho. I am sure that many of us are aware through our own experiences that life works in far more mysterious ways and not like a simple Math equation where our actions can control our destiny just the way we want it to be…
As a keen student of mystical theologies in various branches of religions and their explorations into the spiritual codes of being, I have come across similar patterns in many of these seemingly distinct schools of thought with mystical inclinations. I personally feel that reading (and consequently, feeling) about the concept of Brahma in the Upanishads, Buddhist mindfulness techniques, Sufi reflections and poetry, Kabbalah and works by Christian scholars like Meister Eckhart can teach us to understand our presence in the Universe in far more nuanced ways without falling into the trap of narcissism where man becomes the centre of his universe and the universe is simply utilized as an instrument in clever ways to manipulate the directions of our imagined destiny. In these works I have come to understand that there comes a point, in many a lives of introspective souls, where we are compelled to look into the depths of ourselves, with all its wounds and glory. Stories of famous thinkers, prophets and yogis often begin with contemplation of the self, surrounded by the many signs and manifestations of the Universe. This experience has been felt and narrated in diverse cultures and folklores, albeit in different ways. Often in moments of silence and stillness, or insights born in a sudden flash, these mystical men and women experience the illuminating light of Grace. Grace is like a healing wand, which sometimes reveals itself in a moment, while at other times through gradual revelations. Sometimes it brings deep inner peace like a gentle bird song, and sometimes it can also leave us bewildered with its outer-body experience that defies the language of human perceptions in this world. Either way, one needs to embrace the calmness of Grace through humble submission, where we no longer chase life but let life transpire before ourselves, organically and without force. Grace requires us to contemplate with patience, about the depths of its guidance, with tranquility in our hearts.
Grace is solitude, observation and inner bliss. Grace is wisdom to not be perturbed, but have the immense and calming knowledge that God knows better than we do. Grace is knowing that life may not work according to our designs, but with peace in our souls, life’s designs will be perfect – you will be, wherever you are, exactly where you are supposed to be. With ethereal guidance, manifested in His plentiful omens for us to quietly observe, we will be where the Universe intends for us to be in the Universe’s wisdom.
Grace, like the ‘conspiring universe’, asks for a vision. Grace encompasses and embraces life. Conspiring Universe on the other hand, is one where we build a prophesy of our vision, and adamantly seek to manifest that in life. Grace is humbling, whilst the latter is certainly empowering to believe, but deceptive in its self-reliance to interpret the world through an understanding of nothing beyond our mortal selves. Grace does not mean the absence of agency. For Grace requires accepting opportunities as they come, but keeping modesty in its actualization, for the vision to manifest beyond ourselves and our thinking. Grace beckons us to make the most of our free consciousness, when the doors of fate present themselves to us, to open or close them. Grace shows us that our burdens are not for us to shoulder alone, nor is the universe at the mercy of our whims and fancies. It’s a fine dance of multiple souls and energy fields synchronizing together the notes of their music in our interconnected lives.
Grace gives us strength to reach the depths of our soul. It makes us acutely aware of the transcendental force of Oneness and its uniqueness, and frees us from the dependence on our ego, outside influences and power. Grace knows compassion, and its knows that for the divine providential care of our very being, we no longer need to place ourselves, or others, in the centre of our Universe. Grace is firm, but stabilizing, as it floats in our minds. It abounds in our consciousness of being, where the Universe does not submit to your will. It does not “conspire to make things happen” your way, but rather make you humbly submit, with gratitude, to the Universe.
Coelho is without a doubt, an excellent writer. No wonder his works have spoken to the masses and critics alike, and that is a distinction worth noting in his great caliber as a writer. In fact, I prescribe to many of his thoughts, and insightful statements. However I depart from this particular branch of Coelho’s philosophy which to me seems to be myopically anthropomorphic and full of contradictions. Man as the controller of his destiny has a lot of tasteless implications for the execution of our goals at any cost. But I am certainly not suggesting the other extreme here either, which is to be a fatalist and leave all things to destiny. The key is a middle path. Work towards your goal, with sincerity and intelligence, but also know that nothing is in your hands beyond that. Humility, unlike the doctrine of the self-sufficient self, requires us to fundamentally accept that if our dreams come true, We have to thank the Universe for being kind to us – and not expect that the sheer power of our persistence and insistence for a particular purpose is reason enough for the Universe to bow to our wishes. That is trying to control life, and the only outcome it can have is unprecedented disappointment and frustration when at some point or the other, life will not work according to your whims. And if your goals do come true, do not assume in overweening pride that the Universe conceded to you. Do remain in awe of transcendental forces that worked beyond your individual input, and let that humble you in order to become a more caring and responsible person.
I sincerely hope that Grace teaches each one of us, through its own ways and unique trajectories, to be a compassionate and empathetic people, not entitled control-freaks who despair in righteous anger when things do not go our way. For ultimately, all that really matters in this world, is a life well lived, that goes beyond our individual ego and beyond our reliance on ourselves as the centre of our ‘universes.’ Grace is knowing that there is so much to your life, than your personal vision of it. You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone, but be accountable to the innate morality, kindness and justice endowed in each one of us. Why then, would ‘The Universe’ need to conspire at all?
Sanober Umar is a graduate of the University of Oxford, UK. She has worked for many transnational as well as grass-root organizations in positions of responsibility, and conducted research analysis on several issues. These topics ranged from gender, migration, human rights, public policy, films to international relations. She enjoys engagement with current issues as well as insights from History. She values ethical consistency, together with wit and humour in any stance.