I’ve found the following “view” of the nafs and its seven levels personally helpful. It’s an action, actually, one of reflection.
The nafs is not something we hold or possess, to be eliminated (like, say, a suite of base drives and desires).
The nafs is ultimately about the owner, rather than anything owned. But it’s only useful to speak about the nafs when that speech moves through the reflective action I am trying to put voice right now.
And that speech, viewed from an “external” perspective, has the appearance of a categorization of types of being, modes of comportment towards others (e.g., the “Commanding Nafs” is a mode of being heavy towards others, the “Self-Accusing Nafs” is a kind of conscience, etc).
But that’s an external morality, and Sufism is not a moral science. These movements of the nafs are not to be viewed as subdivisions or ranks of a spiritual progress. They’re not personality types nor are they boy scout badges to be earned.
The movements of the nafs are not so much modes of comportment towards others but, in essence, movements of a symphony of transmission, a symphony that is sometimes called Gnosis or Wisdom. These movements run through any kind of relationship to anything and everything (yes, relationships with others, but also with mathematics, biology, the study of Hamlet, contemplation of a single word, speech acts, sex acts, acts of war, generations, reincarnation … ).
Most importantly, these movements of the nafs are modes of comportment toward understanding what the thing called the nafs is in the first place! To know who the “individual” is (because the “individual” is the nafs). That is, they are movements of self-study, first and foremost.
And here we come to a problem with the whole equation of “nafs” and “individual”. To say “movements of nafs are self-study of the nafs” has a connotation of an individual engaged in some kind of self-reflection. And that connotation has its basis in an idea about what an individual is: so to say “self-reflection” here already has an idea of what the conclusion of that action will be, built in. For example, an individual that is separate from others. Or more mystically, an individual that is part of a sum, a unity, or perhaps an illusion of ego. For the philosophers out there, it’s a Cartesian Meditation that begs the question. (Descartes already thinks he has the cogito when doubts his own existence.)
And overcoming/release of that problem is initiated in the very first movement, what is called the Nafs of Commandment. From the perspective of study, this movement is one through what Sufis call scattered forms of information, a scattered, infinity of broken mirror shards. This scattered information are the closest thing we get to a Cartesian cogito (“Information is scattered, therefore there exists a commandment/creation”). Each other movement is, in essence, a gathering of that which was scattered. Until we gather enough to grok what it was we meant by the Nafs in the first place.
Mathematically, we’re talking about this kind of self-reflective “fixed-point”
X = 7Movements(X)
where X is a marker, the “Nafs”.
That’s going in one direction though. Like Bach’s “A Musical Offering”, the movements run backwards and forwards. If we were to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow so to speak, we have a characterisation of how the fact of the matter (of the nafs) gets back to “us”, and how we can in fact even be studying this stuff, hearing this music in its fantastic entirety, even though we’re just standing there at the cosmic hi-fi, still holding the CD in our hands, having not yet even put it in the machine.
7Movements = X(7Movements)