The Golden Sufi Center

Both Feet Firmly On The Ground: The Laughing Man Institute Interviews Irina Tweedie

Reflections by Irina Tweedie


Irina Tweedie was born in Russia in 1907 and was educated in Vienna and Paris. Eventually she moved to England, where she married a naval officer. Distraught by his premature death in 1954, she began to search for the meaning of life, especially through the Theosophical Society. In 1961, when she was fifty-four, her search took her to India, where she met her Sufi Teacher Bhai Sahib (in Hindi, Elder Brother). Her years in his company, until his death in 1966, could be characterized as the same trial of human growth and purification we discuss throughout this issue. During this intense period, which prepared her to contact the spiritual presence of her Teacher after his death, she endured many trials of mind and body, which at times brought her to the edge of despair. Nevertheless, her deep conviction that the meaning of her life lay in the relationship to her Teacher enabled her to persevere.

Since 1966, Irina Tweedie has resided in England, taking time for an occasional retreat in the quiet solitude of the Himalayas. Her widely-read autobiography, The Chasm of Fire, has attracted many spiritual seekers to her North London home. More recently she has been moved to extend the range of her work by publishing her unabridged diaries in Daughter of Fire, and in her eightieth year, undertaking a lecture tour of the United States.

We present here excerpts from a public presentation, sponsored by The Laughing Man Institute, given in San Rafael, California, on June 10, 1987, during which Irina Tweedie offered reflections on sections read aloud from her published work and responded to questions from the audience. Although the setting was that of a formal lecture hall, her warmth and graciousness drew everyone present beyond the limitations of the surroundings.


IRINA TWEEDIE: It was through a friend of mine called Lillian, who was a professor of Sanskrit at the Sorbonne in Paris, that I met my Teacher. I was in Kashmir when I met Lillian. We went together on horseback on a pilgrimage. She spoke constantly about her Guru. I heard nothing but le Guru and the miracles he performed. He was a man of great miracles. I just listened and I told her, "Before I leave India, I would like to meet your Teacher."

"Oh yes," she said, "that is perfectly all right."

I had rented a lovely tent, a rather large one, with tables and chairs, and she sat at the table to give me the address. I stood near her, and before she began to write I suddenly had a terrible panic. I grasped her hand and said, Just a moment, don't write this yet. I am afraid." She looked up, and with a smile she said, "What is the matter?"

I said, "Look, please don't write down his name."

"Why?" she asked, and she smiled even deeper.

I said, "Somehow he must be without a face, without a name, for me."

"All right," she said. "What shall I write?"

I said, "Just say 'Mataji' and the street and the town." And of course it was enough, because people around knew him.

You see, there is an ancient tradition in the East to not name an elder. It's a very powerful taboo. You cannot name the father, the mother, the elder brother or sister, and, of course, not the Teacher. As soon as you name the Teacher, you limit the Teacher. That is the law. To not name people is always a sign of respect. Even when my Teacher spoke to his wife he did not name her.

When I came to see my Teacher I had my first meeting with him in the morning, and then I went for lunch. After lunch I had a rest, and suddenly, thinking of the Teacher, I did not remember his head. I remembered just a physical body and no head. I still remember the terrible feeling of panic. I thought I was going mad. Of course when I saw him in the afternoon he was perfectly normal. He was talking to the disciples, and he suddenly had a head and a face. I never could understand that. Later, somebody told me that the experience was one of the signs that he was going to be my Guru. The disciple has nothing to do with the face of the Teacher. The Teacher must be completely without face. Mohammed is very often presented without a face, because it is the teaching that matters, not the face.

I remembered my Teacher's feet in his sandals, and I was told that the disciple has only to do with the feet of the Teacher, because the power pumps through the feet. This is not true, however. The power comes through the heart. Is from heart to heart. In this line of yoga, first the heart chakra is awakened, and the heart chakra will awaken all the other chakras.

It takes time to make a soul pregnant with God, "but it can be done, and it will be done," as my Teacher said. It is done by the yogic powers of the Guru, and the result is that the human being can do nothing else in the whole of his life but serve the infinite Beloved. Every path of yoga will lead to the Infinite provided we are sincere and we practice what the Teacher gives us. There can be many practices. It depends entirely on the Teacher. The soul is made pregnant with God by the yogic process of the Teacher, but it also needs the endeavor of the disciple.

In one of his books Iyengar said spiritual life is difficult because you don't see the target. It is like an archer who wants to shoot his arrows in the dark. You see the arrow and you see your bow, but you don't see the target. That's why spiritual life is so difficult. I would put it like that in my case. You know where you begin, but you do not know where you end. It's like putting your foot in a wasp's nest. Anything can happen.

I suffered from tremendous doubts. My Teacher was absolutely bewildering. I felt the unbelievable power of this man. I saw great miracles happen and I just couldn't understand. I was absolutely and utterly lost. That was, of course, the idea. With his power he confused my mind deliberately. You see, it is said in the ancient scriptures, "The mind is the slayer of the real." The constant functioning of the mind, the automatic thinking, prevents us from seeing reality. When the mind is absolutely lost, absolutely not able to think, then the human being is desperate. Then perhaps something will happen. There will be a moment of intuition, and this moment will be enough to show the human being the light.

So, he kept switching off my mind. It was a very, very confusing experience, but quite painless. You just can't think. I can give you an example. I once came out of his house to go home to cook myself something. It was all I could do not to get lost in the street or be overrun by taxis or pushed about by the cows wandering in the street. I arrived home somehow, mind not working, and I stood in front of my door. I looked at the door, and I said to myself, "Well, it seems to be my door. I have to open it, don't I? You open the door with the key. Where is the key? Oh, yes, in my handbag." You see, it's like slow motion. I opened the door and I stood there. "Well, I suppose I have to go in." So I went in and I closed the door. "Now I am hungry. When you're hungry you have something to eat. Oh, potatoes. I see potatoes on the shelf." You see, life becomes like that.

Krishnamurti says that our problem in the West is that we live either for the future, thinking of the future, or we think of the past. We never live in the now. If by some miracle we would live in the now, something could happen. But the mind interferes. If I see a rose for the first time, not knowing what it is, something can happen in that moment of suspension between naming the rose and knowing that it is the rose. If a long enough interval passes in between, something can happen. The intuitional quality will rise through. That's what he did to me.

The secret is, and the miracle is, that there is no dilemma. The mind constantly doubts. One-third of my book is doubts. When my Teacher told me to write the book, he said write down all the doubts because it will help the reader. We all go through this process of constant doubting. And the Teacher tries to help by switching off the mind.

They say the first two years are the most difficult, but in my case it was much longer. You mustn't forget, he had no time. He was dying. And he had to bring me to a certain stage of evolution so that I should be able to reach him after he was dead. Of course, I didn't know that, but he knew. So I had to fulfill a path of more or less thirty years in about five-and-a-half years. That's why it was so difficult. That's why it seemed such suffering.

 

QUESTIONER: I'd like to know what the nature of doubt is.

IRINA TWEEDIE: The value of the doubt is: Who or what is doubting? It is always the ego. The little self is a covering on your higher self. The grace of the Master will activate those doubts in you in order that you should see the light. How does it activate? How can you see the light better through doubts? Doubts are obstacles. To overcome the obstacles you make an effort and you will progress. Sufis say the devil is very useful to you if you overcome him, but woe to you if you don't. So doubts are extremely helpful. Doubt is power. It is energy you have to overcome. It's like a frontier, like an obstacle. You have to jump over it. That's why he said you have to write down all the doubts—it will help people.

Every one of us has doubts when we approach the Spiritual Master. When we approach anything, we have doubts. It is very useful. I can tell you, overcoming your doubts is a great step. But it doesn't happen suddenly—it takes years. It is an act of surrender to stop doubting. And spiritual life is surrender if nothing else. The Teacher teaches us to surrender so that ultimately we learn to surrender to that which we perhaps can call God. "Thy will be done" will represent ultimate yogic contentment. If you live in such a way that you say "Thy will be done," whatever happens in life, you won't mind. You'll be happy. You will have no desires, and that is the reason for the yogic contentment.

 

QUESTIONER: Could you talk a little about the awakening of faith in you?

IRINA TWEEDIE: It was a slow and very painful process. The mind kept doubting what was actually happening for years. But already in the state of meditation experiences began. When the experiences began, the mind, which is very clever, very cunning, would say, Oh, it's only an illusion. It's rubbish. It's no good. But then the experience would repeat itself, and as the growth begins understanding widens. When that happens, little by little, it's as if the mind folds its tired wings and gives up. But it takes time. That's how it was with me. I can only express it metaphorically.

I was with my Teacher five years and four months, except for a period when I was sent back to London. I was in contact with him even then, though at that time, in the beginning, I didn't know it. Now I know that I was. But I felt very lonely then. I remember when I came back to London, it was as though I was drunk all the time and the pavement seemed to come towards me.

 

QUESTIONER: Are you completely free of self-doubt now?

IRINA TWEEDIE: Now I am completely free of doubt, because I know. When you know, it's not a question of belief, it's knowledge. I cannot doubt any more because I know. You see, not only do I know, but also I can contact my Teacher at any time. Now how can there be doubt? As for self-doubt, I suffered from it very much. The more the better, you know!

 

QUESTIONER: When your path was particularly difficult, what kept you going?

IRINA TWEEDIE: The desire for truth. The tremendous thirst to know. The longing for the ultimate truth, I think. When I first came to my Teacher, he was doing miracles and I thought he was just a juggler, and I decided to leave. But when I decided to return to England, suddenly there was an unbearable feeling of despair. I felt, if I go, life has no meaning any more. There was nothing to live for. So I stayed. The desire for truth can be so overwhelming that you do everything for it. People often said to me, "Why did you do it?" I was fifty-two. I was a reasonable human being—at least, I hoped that I was. I knew what I was doing, and I wanted the truth, so I just stayed. One day when I complained bitterly because he treated me so badly, he said, "Isn't this what you want? Most people come to me for a little bit of jnana, a little bit of samadhi. You came for truth, nothing but the truth. I'm just doing my duty. If you want the absolute truth, you must give up everything. Truth is everything. You must give up everything in complete surrender."

You see, one does not surrender to the Teacher. You and I and anybody else will only surrender to the light within us, to the eternal part, to the inner Guru. I didn't know that, but now I know. However, twenty-five years have passed. It takes time, you know. You must be very patient. Yoga is not a question of a day or two, or even a year or two. It takes years and years and years and years. Sometimes meditation is wonderful, and sometimes it's like a brick wall in front of you and you can do nothing. You feel, "God doesn't exist, and I cannot pray, and I'm alone, and it's all rubbish." And the next day it's suddenly as if a ray of light touched the edge of your heart, and all is well. We call it the yo-yo syndrome: up and down and up and down.

 

QUESTIONER: When your Teacher died it must have been very difficult for you. I wonder how your relationship to him changed. How did you relate to him after his death?

IRINA TWEEDIE: It was a very traumatic experience. When he died all his disciples were terribly bereft. We looked to each other, and we found that although we felt lonely and forsaken because he was gone, we had an unbelievable peace. We just couldn't be really desperate. We were desperate and at the same time we were not, because of this peace that we couldn't understand. It was a peace that remains always with you. Somewhere in the Bible it is called the "peace that passeth understanding". It lives in the heart of those who live in the Eternal.

When I came back to England I read (in the Gospel of John) how Jesus says to his disciples: "Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give." I knew this to be the last gift that a great Teacher gives to his disciples, his own peace, such as the world cannot give. And I can assure you this peace never left me, never. On the surface, there were difficulties of life. There could have been all sorts of disturbances. But as in the ocean, deep, deep down, there was always this unbelievable peace. That is the gift of the Teacher.

Otherwise, it was a difficult time. I remember being in the Himalayas. I think it was on the 14th of October (he had died in July) when I first contacted my Teacher in deep meditation. It was a very awesome experience, because he didn't have a physical body anymore. He was a center of energy, of power. But I knew it was him all right, because all my being was just as it was before his death. I was terrified. And it is from that moment when I could contact my Teacher on a different level of consciousness, that the training began.

What I relate in my book is not yet the training. He told me that. I remember shortly before he died, he told me, "Training—nonsense." I had not yet begun. I remember I was furious. I felt all that I had been through, giving away all my money, being utterly poor like a church mouse, having all the terrible doubts and all the tribulations and worries, and yet that was not the training! The training began in a different state of consciousness on the 14th of October, in the Himalayas, and it still continues. People often say to me, "Are you a Guru?" and I say, "Nonsense. I am a disciple, and I hope I will remain one for the rest of my life."

 

QUESTIONER: You mentioned that some people are fortunate enough to have a great Teacher, and others simply surrender to the inner life. How do you find out if the Teacher is real?

IRINA TWEEDIE: Finding your Teacher has to do with personal karma. It is not at all a question of the mind. This is an extremely deep question. How do you recognize that he's not a scoundrel? How do you recognize the signs? There are none. I recognized my Teacher when I saw him. It was as if something stood up in me and saluted. For me, that inner gesture is the recognition of ultimate authority. Something in me just knew. But I've seen people who fall on very bad Teachers. And yet the bad Teachers will teach you something. You see, I do believe that our destiny is very important and our karma will lead us there. Never mind the bad Teacher. You have learned the lesson. Seek further. You will find the way. I absolutely believe it. Your endeavor, your effort, will light the lamp in the darkness of the world. Someone who has karmas with you will notice it. When the disciple is ready, the Teacher will definitely appear. It happened for me—I was ready and I have seen it with hundreds of others in these twenty-five years.

 

QUESTIONER: Could you speak more about what the death of your Guru meant?

IRINA TWEEDIE: The spiritual life of every one of us is the drama of the soul. It's the crucifixion and the resurrection. What is crucified, of course, is the ego. The resurrection is—I hesitate to say— Enlightenment, perhaps. But Enlightenment of what or whom? Once you merge into oneness, there is no such thing as "I". So who is there to be Enlightened?

We Sufis are mystics. Mysticism cannot be explained. We speak of God as the Great Beloved. We are lovers, and He is the Beloved, or It is the Beloved. Somebody said to me the other day, "Why do we say God is 'He'?" For me, psychologically it is better to think of God as "He" because of the union with the Beloved in deep meditation. For you, maybe it would be "She". It doesn't matter.

At one time I very much avoided using the world God, because it was very limiting. In one talk I spoke of "the Absolute" and at the question time a little old lady stood up at the back of the row and said, "Miss, what is the Absolute?" Since then I hesitate to say what God is. Better not to name It.

But there are moments of deep meditation where you and That are love and It loves you. It responds. It fulfills you absolutely. But What fulfills you? What responds? God is Nothingness. But this Nothingness loves you. You are loved and there is absolute unbelievable bliss. Mind knows nothing about it. These things cannot really be explained. They have to be experienced. That's why we try to meditate—to reach this moment, to contact that eternal part within ourselves. That is the only thing. But to speak about it, we cannot.

 

QUESTIONER: Can you speak about spiritual ethics?

IRINA TWEEDIE: According to the ethics of the Sufis, whatever you do can be seen by anybody. It's as if you live in a glass house. There are no secrets. You see, it's not easy. Whatever you do is not done for the self, it is done for others. If I help a human being, to this human being belongs everything that I have, including the physical body, in the sense that if I am worried about someone, I will sit all night and pray. I may suffer discomfort if I have to visit somebody who cannot come to me. I may feel discomfort, sometimes distress. But this is only physics. So then my body belongs to them, you see.

It's quite simple. One is not special. One is not magnificent. One understands better, that's all. But any one of you can do that. And I wish you all at least to be able to touch with gentle fingers the hem of the garment of truth. I hope that you do, because life will become such a symphony. Life becomes such music.

 

QUESTIONER: I'd like to know how someone can give up the world?

IRINA TWEEDIE: It is quite simple, you see. But you have to be ready. You cannot have the cake and eat it. If you want spiritual life, you have to give up everything. That is a fact. There is a most significant painting in the Tate Gallery in London. Many years ago I went three or four times to see this painting alone. It was a painting of a young Arab leaning against a pillar. Jesus and his disciples are there, but they are walking away. And underneath it was written "and he could not do it." Jesus had said, "If you want to follow me, leave your father and mother. Give away your possessions, and follow me." But the secret is that you don't give up anything. It falls away from you. In other words, the values change.

Let me give you a very simple and very banal example. A mother comes into the room and sees her little child playing with matches. She's horrified. If she takes the box of matches away, the child will cry. So she quickly grasps a lovely red bowl. "Look, darling, look." The child drops the matches and grasps the bowl. That's what the Teacher does. He changes the values within you. Suddenly something is not so interesting anymore. The values have changed. Then it is not crazy, you know, because you are being given something more precious, like the child.

Spiritual life is infinitely logical. It obeys the laws of this world of logic and of common sense. The other day in San Francisco, I met my friends of the Theosophical Society, and we had a walk in Golden Gate Park. The man was giving us a little talk and he said, "What is spiritual life? Common sense. Then aspiration, endeavor, and then there is a third factor."

"And people asked, "Please tell me, what is the third factor?"

He said, "More common sense."

And our Teacher said it in the book. "No hysteria, please, no exaggerations. Have both feet firmly on the ground. But with your head you have to support the vault of the sky, so that people shouldn't think that it falls on them."

When I was young there was a popular song that said "You belong to my heart once and forever. Our love had a start long, long ago." When you can say that to the Beloved with all your love, with all your tears, with all your heart, then you are there.