Interview with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee:
"Young People Want Real World Solutions,
Not Just Spiritual Ideas"
Published in Generation Y, Spirituality and Social Change,
edited by Justine Huxley, March, 2019
Justine Huxley (JH): So, Emmanuel, you grew up in a Sufi household surrounded by seekers and spiritual students of all ages from eighteen to eighty. You saw two older generations in your Sufi community come and grow up in the tradition, and now you are just beginning your work as a teacher to a generation of students currently in their twenties and thirties. What do you see as different about spirituality for the younger generation?
EVL: I think there was a real hunger for spirituality that came out of the generation in the 60's and 70's. They were searching for meaning, and I think that was representative of the culture as a whole back then.
But since the 80's that yearning somehow hasn't been as alive in the younger generations in the same way. But more recently, in the last ten years, and the last five years especially, I've seen many young people express a sincere interest in spiritual life. They are a generation growing up in world that is falling apart—environmentally, socially, economically, politically—everything is being pulled apart. The future they are inheriting is so uncertain—all the truths their parents believed in, and lived and worked for have changed. Many young people are searching for meaning, for something that feels authentic, for community, for answers—how to deal with grief and pain and the challenge of the future we're facing. The Naqshbandi Sufi's spiritual practice has always been integrated with outer life, "outwardly to be with people, inwardly to be with God" is one of our lineages primary principles. Yes, outer life has changed, become more busy, more disconnected and harder to deal with, but the practice remains the same. It just requires a lot more attention to be able to do it than it did in the previous generation. The world has changed so much since then.
When I was young my own experience of spirituality was colored by the unusual experience of growing up in a house that was in some ways a modern day ashram, an ashram that just happened to be in North London. Sufi teacher Irina Tweedie lived in the ground floor apartment and opened her doors to people each afternoon to come and meditate. She was in her eighties then and following in the Indian satsang tradition of her teacher, people would come and sit with her in the afternoons. In the summer when I came back from school I would find many people appearing to just hang out in my back garden. So unlike many other spiritual communities at that time, there wasn't much outer engagement. No communal gardens, or work weekends building rock walls like they did at the Mt. Madonna yoga community where I lived for two years when I was in high school. People mostly meditated and had spiritual discussion, shared dreams and spoke about their lives. There was little talk of what was happening on the environmental or social level, or how this connected to our own spiritual path. Although there was always the teaching that we need to outwardly live what we are inwardly striving to achieve spiritually, it wasn't in response to outer challenges like the environmental crisis. Now the questions about of the role of spiritual life and spiritual values in understanding and responding to the environmental and social crisis are the questions at the core of this younger generation. Those are the questions we need to ask.
JH: What do you think are the main challenges for young adults wanting to pursue a spiritual life at this time? And how are you adapting the teachings to meet those challenges?
EVL: I don't know if the younger generation is as drawn to having people from an older generation impart teachings in the same way. They want to relate to people who are going through similar things to them, but perhaps this is always the case in each generational shift. But I do think that young people today are searching for real world solutions, not just spiritual ideas, and this is a bit different than the previous generation. While there are traditions of engaged spirituality—the engaged Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy and others practice—many traditions have focused on individual self-development, and the teaching that the outer world is a world of illusion. I think many younger people today are more drawn to engaged spirituality that has a practical outer dimension. Their parent's generation's spiritual traditions and teachings had tremendous value and wisdom but didn't focus on applying those teachings to address outer challenges in the same way the younger generation is asking for. And the question young people are asking is how are we going to deal with what's happening with the world now? I think that's a piece of it.
How am I adapting the teachings? In some ways the teachings will always remain the same and in some ways it's like a blank piece of paper. In our tradition it is said that the form can change and respond to the needs and the time and the place and the people. It can adapt. There's so much uncertainty about what's going to be happening in the future. It would feel very naïve to think I can use everything that worked in the past. Things are changing so fast. There are big questions before us in these uncertain times—how will we be able to function spiritually in a world ruled by materialism and greed that has mostly forgotten the sacred. And on a very practical level the issues of where am I going to get my food, my water, my shelter and energy are ones we will be facing in the next 50 years. What's it going to be like watching one empire crumble while we wait for the new world we want to see emerge? We don't know how long this will take.
In some ways we have to create something together, because it requires new ingredients. Ours is not the only tradition that is saying this. The Dalai Lama said you can't expect a spiritual tradition from one place and one time to work in a different place, in a different time, with a different set of challenges. It has to adapt, it has to change. But the most important thing is the essence, the inner essence. That must remain alive. If you're a mystic, you're always living on the edge. You never know what's going to happen. You live in a state of uncertainty. You accept that God is a mystery you want to journey towards, that you are leaving the security of your ego, leaving the security of your identity behind, letting go of that. You're saying, I want to give all of that up in search of something. And I don't even know what that something is. However people describe it to you, it won't be that because it is a mystery. So if you go back to the core, the essence of what mysticism is, it can provide you with a way to handle the uncertainty of the times. Mysticism teaches you to not be attached to the past, to not be attached to the future, just to live day by day by day by day.
My Father and I like reading books on Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan was a really interesting individual, especially his relationship to religion and spirituality—he accepted all religions even as he was guided by his shaman. So much happened as a result of the incredible destruction he brought across Asia. There is a Sufi story about some students who came to their teacher and shouted, "The Mongols are coming! The Mongols are coming! We have to run!" And the teacher said, "I've been teaching you to be ducks, now swim!" That really makes sense to me because today in some ways the Mongols are coming, just disguised. There is destruction coming all around us. So let's swim! Let's be a duck! Let's actually learn how to respond to the challenges we are facing. Not just to the idea of detachment, the willingness to go from here to here in a heartbeat. Let's actually use the opportunity, the challenge it presents us with to live from this place and swim! The challenges of the world today really do present us with opportunities to deepen and strengthen our practice. Because if I don't focus, really focus on my practices, I could get thrown to the Mongols! There's so much uncertainty. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be tough. Then the other thing is, what can we give? How can we contribute? If you are really committed to being in a state of spiritual awareness, remembrance, that alone is a contribution. If you're in a state of remembering the sacred, that actually helps keep the sacred alive.
So much has been destroyed in the past hundred years that used to hold the sacred. In Tibet alone, there were six thousand monasteries that were destroyed by the Chinese in twelve years. So few of the monasteries that were once there remain. That's one place in the world that used to hold spiritual truth and wisdom. Were they just praying and chanting? No, they were also holding a sense of the Sacred for the whole world. Many of the world's Indigenous traditions and communities also did that—and so many have now been destroyed or displaced. And the spiritual traditions that have spread far and wide in the last 50 years have too often been commercialized, and many are about creating a happy life or just making you feel better. All those things, you put them together and it's like a certain light in the world is going out.
We're just a small group of people but maybe by remembering God, we can make a contribution inwardly. That's a given, it's something we all have to do. But then what do we do outwardly? That varies from individual to individual. But we have to have environmental and social responsibility in how we live our lives. We need to live simply. We need to treat the earth with reverence. We need to integrate the sacred into our daily life and actions.
Student: That leads me to a question I have about freedom. I struggle with that a lot. It's hard to make a decision about what you want to do with your life. In the past you did what you father did. But these days it's not like that. It paralyses me somehow that I have so many choices. There are so many things I could do that are meaningful, I end up not doing any of them. Is it important what I do?
EVL: I think it is totally important, I think it matters a great deal. And yes the multiple options can be paralyzing. You know there is a phrase people say, "Follow your bliss, follow your dreams," which in our individualistic and celebrity-driven culture tends to glamorize certain professions over others. But you can also find meaning doing things people view as mundane. Is it mundane to be a nurse? I don't think so. If you are called to be of service as a nurse, you can do incredible work. You can do incredible things when you cook food for people and nourish them, when you're a carpenter and build houses for people. Sometimes you don't have a choice, circumstances mean you have to make a living doing something that does not appear to fulfill you at a soul level. But you can use this as an opportunity. To become more mature, be kinder, more patient, more compassionate. It can be the sandpaper that rubs away at your ego. But if you do pursue a spiritual life you learn to connect to your higher self a little bit, to have a certain intuition. You start to be a little bit more guided in your decisions that can help you find something that feels more authentic to your real nature. Maybe it's not what your mum and dad wanted you to do, it may not be very glamorous, maybe you're not going to make a lot of money, maybe it's not what you studied in school—but you feel drawn there. It has a spark in it, it feels right. Maybe you feel drawn to working in service to the Earth and the tremendous ecological needs at this time. There are many different contributions we can make.
JH: This theme of bringing spiritual values into action is an important strand in your work. You've already made changes in the tradition by bringing in a more embodied focus. Can you say more about that?
EVL: There is always the danger of mystical or spiritual practice making you ungrounded. Traditionally in some Sufi lineages mystics were often crazy dervishes, like the sanyasi in India, only owning one blanket, traveling from town to town, half naked. Seriously! In the older generations I saw growing up around me, there were a lot of people who were a bit ungrounded and perhaps a bit too immersed in the inner dimension of spiritual life. This never really appealed to me. It was also luxury that was more possible in the past—the luxury of being able to fully immerse oneself in spiritual life—but it doesn't work in the same way anymore. The world is so much denser and I don't think you can escape the world in the same way you could before. We live in a world that is so disconnected, noisy, filled with stuff everywhere, virtual and physical. There are so many challenges outwardly and inwardly. So you can't access a certain inner dimension as easily as you could before—because you're hit by all these dense thought forms that throw you off balance. I think we have to be as firmly rooted as possible. The practice of walking with the dhikr(1) is about physical embodiment. The dhikr is a spiritual practice that we have had for hundreds of years—using each and every breath to remember God. I teach walking with the dhikr because it is important to physically embody this in your relationship to the earth, it both helps ground you and also is a prayer for the Earth.
Physical exercise helps one become more embodied, more connected. People who work with their hands have to be more embodied. If you work with the earth, you become more embodied. These things can help. But it's also something that can be embodied through many of the simple things we do in everyday life, we just need to put our attention there. That's what we have been trying to do with some of our spiritual ecology work. Bring spiritual teachings and values into relationship to the earth through simple practices, practices that can be embodied and are easily accessible.
In some ways it was a luxury to able to fully devote oneself to an inner spiritual practice. But we don't have that luxury anymore. We need to be outwardly and inwardly engaged in our spiritual practice and this requires a certain attention it didn't before. We also need practical skills. Learn how to cook, learn how to grow your own food, learn the basic things we need to do just to meet our basic human needs. I'm not talking about starting your own fish farms, although that isn't that hard to do either these days! And each of these simple things we can learn are opportunities to bring our spiritual practice into everyday life.
JH: That brings me into another question...
EVL: The fish farm question?
JH: (laughter) No ... not that one! It's about directness. There is a simplicity and directness about you that's really compelling...
EVL: That's a nice polite way of saying it! You want me to explain why?
JH: My question was really whether that is just who you are as a person, or whether you've chosen to be that way because you see a need for it in these times.
EVL: How honest do you want me to be?
JH: Completely honest!
EVL: Well....part of it was growing up and seeing a lot of people misunderstand the simple essence at the core of spiritual life. People always think it's something different than it is. They love to talk endlessly about themselves and their own spiritual journey. That's not to say there weren't really sincere spiritual seekers around when I was growing up—there were. But I grew up around so much of it, and witnessed so much being misunderstood. Imagine you're a young boy and every day a hundred people come to your house,(2) all sorts of people, all wanting to learn about spiritual life, or experience spiritual life. People asking questions, wanting answers to their life problems. When you grow up with so much talk, after a while you just start to hear a lot of noise.
I think I just got tired of that. So partly, it's a reaction to that experience and wanting to cut through that noise. But also I just think it's in my nature to be direct. And it's funny because in Sufism there is tradition of never being direct, of teaching through hints. You talk to the walls so the door will listen. Or you drop hints. That's the tradition I grew up with. But I'm not sure that really works in Western cultures, not the way it does in the East where there was more understanding of subtlety and a cultural context for spiritual life. And you can't be subtle with Americans at all! So from a practical perspective, that part does not work. So that is something I consciously don't do very often.
JH: Also in your work with the Global Oneness Project, you use very simple, direct language. You don't use spiritual language. You make it very ordinary, very real.
EVL: The goal of that work is make certain stories and ideas accessible to a mainstream audience. Using rarified or spiritual language can create a barrier to connecting to those stories or ideas. As a storyteller I'm interested in reaching as many people as possible. Language is a big part of making those stories accessible. But also I think an authentic spiritual experience transcends language. If you're hung up on language, that's a limitation. In storytelling you try to show not tell.
JH: You're also talking about the need to bring ordinary life and spiritual life closer together. Of course that has always been present in Sufism in some ways, Sufis aren't monks. But in your work and teachings you seem to be demonstrating a new way to do that. Can you talk about that?
EVL: I grew up in a household where ordinary life was spiritual life. It was ingrained in me, that there was no difference. Just watching my parents, there was no difference between their meditation practice and cleaning and taking out the trash, dealing with people and their problems, it was just all one. But I think historically spirituality for a long time was in places where it was less integrated with everyday normal life. It was in monasteries and nunneries, away from the world. But now it has come to the world. But even for traditions like ours that was always integrated into everyday life—as you said Sufi's aren't monks or nuns—the times have changed so much in the last hundred years that how it worked in the past no longer applies in the same way. The world is so busy, noisy, complicated, fast-paced and out of control that the only way to stay sane in my opinion is to integrate spiritual life into every aspect of our lives—inwardly and outwardly.
I don't know if I am demonstrating a new way to bring ordinary life and spiritual life together, I'm just emphasizing the need to find simple and practical ways to bring these worlds together. It's all very simple, but requires a great deal of attention to integrate in our modern world of distractions.
JH: Earlier on you talked about the need for new ingredients, and for creating something new together. The younger generation have many ways of co-creating, of coming together in non-hierarchical spaces and creating together. But you are part of a lineage that has a certain hierarchy. Can you say how you relate to hierarchy?
EVL: That's a really great question. The very traditional formal teacher-disciple relationship has always been present in Sufism. It was an intimate relationship between teacher and disciple, held within a chain of energy and transmission. That can only really happen on an individual level. The nature of a teacher-disciple relationship is in some ways hierarchical, but it doesn't have to be a negative hierarchical relationship. We've seen hierarchy misused and abused, but it isn't about that. When I think about what it means to be a Sufi teacher in a hierarchical context, it means you take responsibility for the wellbeing of that person's spiritual destiny, for their journey. That's the way I was trained. You never take it lightly. You commit yourself fully to responding to everybody's needs—be they spiritual or not. It isn't just that you sit in a chair and impart wisdom. Not at all. It's that you're there for somebody as they go through all the inner and outer challenges of life, its ups and downs—when their partner leaves them, or their child dies, or their business fails, or they lose everything in a fire, or they have a psychological breakdown—you have to be there for them. Not to hold their hand or be a shoulder to cry on, but to help support them as is best needed on their spiritual journey, which includes their human needs as well. And you also share in their joys, like the birth of a child, and all the moments of wonder that are sprinkled along the journey.
I will be here to guide you from this place to that place—not because I'm better than you, not because I have power over you—but because I love you. That's very different to the kind of hierarchy that I see misusing power and creating so many problems in the world. That's when people say I know better than anyone else here so I'm going to decide. The teacher doesn't gain something from their role—it doesn't work like that—you put yourself in a complete state of service. And sometimes you have to tell people no, don't do this, I don't think that's a good idea. And sometimes you have to be stern—because you're taking responsibility for this person and it's your duty to be stern. But you never say I'm going to convince you to do something, or convince you to be a student, it doesn't work like that. People must be left completely free.
That traditional relationship between teacher and student will continue on within our Sufi tradition. But I also believe we can co-create certain things together. Yesterday, my students were talking about their own lives and challenges. I learn from them, I ask myself how can I best serve and understand the challenges they are going through. And if the traditional way of doing things is an obstacle, then let's shift it slightly. As long as it doesn't compromise the essence then things can be shifted. And the essence can't be compromised. The essence is love.
People have this idea that being a teacher means you've arrived somewhere. But you've not arrived anywhere you just are. If you think you are something because you're a teacher, you shouldn't be a teacher. There are a lot of false teachers out there who think they are something. They create lots of problems. There shouldn't be any ego identification in being a teacher. You have to have surrendered somewhere and not be attached.
When I was younger I learned to play music by going up on the stage to play, even when I didn't know the song, in front of a lot of people. That's how I live my life, that's how I do everything, with commitment and vulnerability. For me they go hand in hand. I just want to be as present as I can for my students and as real to myself as I can be. Even if that makes me vulnerable. Because my students are vulnerable, so why shouldn't I be vulnerable.
JH: This is a bit of an impossible question really, but how do you see the future of spirituality? There's going to be so much change in the coming years—technological leaps as well as ecological collapse and migration—huge changes. Do you have any conception of how your tradition will look, when your daughter grows up, say in fifty years' time? How do you think spirituality is going to function on the planet then?
EVL: You know I used to think about that a lot. Now I just think how I can I hold what I have been given, for the future. That's my job and that's all I want to do. I just want to hold it the best that I can, keep what's essential to this tradition alive in whatever way I can, be of service in whatever way I can and not think too big. Ten years ago it was a different story. I remember in 2008 when we were watching the stock market crashing, and thought the whole thing was going to go, finally. We were so excited! But clearly the empire is going to take a little longer to crumble. So I don't think too much about that now.
Spiritual ecology is going to be my work for a long time. That is not about some big plan for the future, in many ways it's about going back to the basics and a simple way of being. First we need to remember the world is sacred. Then we can begin to plant some seeds. When and where those seeds are going to sprout, we don't know. Some might sprout in our lifetime. Some might in my children's lifetime. I'm not going to break the concrete that has paved over our world, or even try to figure out the concrete anymore.(3) I just want to plant the seeds, nurture them as best I can and see what they can do by their own power over time.
One of my students was in Scotland last week, where she saw trees that over the last few years have been planted in a denuded landscape. But after several years the trees are still only a foot tall. It's going to take a long time to revitalize the land and bring back what has been lost. Seeds grow from small beginnings and can sometimes take time to take root and grow. I don't think about what's going to happen in my lifetime so much anymore. I think things will take a longer than that to really change. And I also want to enjoy things as they are now while nurturing those seeds. Do my best to contribute to what might happen in the future. Try to have some fun sometimes. Eat good food while we can get it. Drink good coffee while we still can.
(1) A mantra, Divine word or phrase repeated on the breath.
(2) Spiritual seekers who came to be with Emmanuel's father, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, and Irina Tweedie
(3) Used as a metaphor to mean structural change.