The Golden Sufi Center

The Face Before I was Born Book Cover

NEW EDITION, June 2009
The Face Before I Was Born: A Spiritual Autobiography

by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Chapter Excerpt | Description

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Table of Contents

Foreward by Irina Tweedie

Introduction to First Edition, 1997

Introduction to Second Edition, 2009

1: Awakening

2: Meeting the Teacher

3: Madness and Bliss

4: Romantic Love

5: Life as a Householder

6: The Archetypal World

7: Dreamwork and the Group

8: On the Road

9: Coming Home

Epilogue

Appendix
Notes
Acknowledgments

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Excerpt from Chapter 1: Awakening

He travels with whoever looks for Him,
and having taken the seeker by the hand,
He arouses him to go in search of himself.
— Al-Ansârî

The longest journey begins with a single step.
— Lao Tsu


AWAKENING TO WILD GEESE

My journey Home began in the London underground. In the summer when I was sixteen I was traveling back from boarding school for a weekend break with an American student who was, for a short time, a boyfriend of my sister. Sitting in the half-crowded tube train, I noticed that he was reading a book on Zen Buddhism. At this time in the late sixties Zen was becoming quite popular in certain hippie circles, and intrigued, I asked to look at the book. Turning the pages, I came across a Zen saying,

The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection,
The water has no mind to receive their image.

Reading this saying was like lifting a curtain. There, in the morning tube train, I felt a joy I had never before experienced, a moment of intense exhilaration. Now I know that this was the moment of the heart's turning towards God, the moment the door to the journey Home opened.

This joy stayed with me for weeks. There was a sense of laughter, a feeling of seeing the joke within creation. A world that had seemed grey sparkled with a hidden light. I laughed at everything I saw. My boarding school was beside a river, and there was a beautifully tended garden on the riverbank where one could sit, away from the sports fields and any noise. Those summer afternoons, when schoolwork was over, I would come to this garden and watch the river, full of wonder, full of delight. The flowing water, the ripples in the current, the reflections sang to me. There was no desire in me to understand the reason for this sudden change, this inner opening. In such states of grace there is no questioning; the moment is too full.

Looking back, I realize that this deep joy came from the soul, which flooded my life with its sunlight. My soul knew that the journey Home had begun, the ancient quest that one carries from lifetime to lifetime. The Sufi says that there are three journeys, the Journey from God, the Journey to God, and the Journey in God. The Journey from God is the journey of the exile in which we come into this world and forget our real nature, our real Home. I had been traveling this journey of forgetfulness for sixteen years, not even knowing that there was a journey. Born into a middle-class English family, I had gone to church every Sunday and read the Bible. I had sung hymns and recited prayers. But nowhere was there the slightest suggestion of spiritual life, of any reality beyond the world of the senses.

Suddenly this Zen saying opened a doorway which I never even knew existed, and my heart rejoiced. Many years later I discovered that this same saying about the wild geese was a favorite of the Sufi master Bhai Sahib, the being whom I came to know as my Sheikh. He would often compare his line of Sufism with Zen Buddhism, and when asked to describe the path would point to wild birds in the sky, saying, "Can you trace the path of their flight?" The saying about the wild geese led me through an ancient doorway, back onto the path to which my soul belonged. Those summer weeks were like the taste of a first love; they were unexplained magic and I looked for no reason.

I borrowed the book on Zen and discovered a simple meditation technique, to sit with closed eyes and meditate on nothing. I practiced this meditation and immediately had inner experiences. The most powerful experience was of being enormously large, spreading into infinite space, and at the same time being very small, incredibly dense, with a feeling of great power and compactness. These absolute opposites were experienced simultaneously, and although it must have lasted for just a few moments, there was no sense of time. Outside of space and time the experience was very tangible and intensely real. There was also an exhilaration, the exhilaration of going beyond the limitations of the outer world, for the first time consciously knowing an inner dimension so different from the boarding-school world around me. I remembered that I had had this same experience a number of times as a young child just before falling asleep. As a child I was terrified and told no one. Now I welcomed it, for it was a taste of an inner reality which was very potent and deeply satisfying. Years later I asked about the meaning of this experience and was told that it was an experience of the Self, "larger than large and smaller than small...boundless power, source of every power." I had brought with me into this life this stamp of the Self, this inner consciousness of transcendence, and through meditation it was being awakened. To a child this reality was frightening; there was no context for an experience of this deeper being.1 But now it was a wonderful confirmation of what was waiting within.

In the evenings I would sit and meditate and find myself inwardly expanding beyond my physical self. Again there was no questioning of these experiences, which seemed both natural and miraculous. I just knew that I had found something very precious. Later I discovered that while the most common Zen meditation is to sit with open eyes, the meditation I had read and was practicing was very similar to the Sufi meditation that was to become my central spiritual practice. The door had opened onto the one spiritual path that was to take me Home, although it was more than three years before I made the outer connection.

Chapter One continues...