The Golden Sufi Center

Through a Glass Darkly: The Paradoxical Nature of the Relationship with the Teacher
Published in Sufi Journal, Spring 2001

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee


"Do not take a step on the path of love without a guide. I have tried it a hundred times and failed," writes the poet Hafiz. The Sufi says that you need a teacher, a guide along the path of love. If you need a guide to cross a desert or unknown land, how much more do you need a guide to venture into the inner world of the psyche, into the depths of the soul? To make the journey from the confines of the ego to the limitless dimension of the heart, you need a teacher, a sheikh.

But the moment we begin the search for a teacher we enter the paradoxical world of the mystic, which presents us with a reality confusing and contradictory. We need to "choose a master," and yet we are told, "You do not find a teacher. The teacher finds you." How do we begin on this search in which we do not look but are found? How do we know what to trust? And how can we distinguish between a true and false teacher, particularly when we are told not to judge by appearances? And there is also the spiritual truth that the real teacher is within our own heart, is the light of our own Higher Self.

This whole problem is compounded for the Western seeker by the fact that we do not have a tradition of the relationship with a spiritual teacher in our culture. In India the relationship with a guru has always been a part of the culture, while in the Middle East the Sufi sheikh has been a recognized (if sometimes persecuted) figure of spiritual authority. But in the West the relationship of master and disciple, although imaged in the life of Christ, has never been part of our spiritual landscape. As a result we are naive and easily misled, and at the same time approach this relationship with the tools of rational discrimination which are valuable in the outer world, but totally inappropriate when we are confronted by a real teacher.

The problem begins because we see the relationship with the teacher through the eyes of duality, and yet this all-important relationship belongs to oneness. The teacher is the one who can take us from the world of duality to the unity that is found within the heart. He (or she) is able to lead us back to oneness because he is immersed in oneness, because he has already made the journey from separation to union. In essence this relationship begins and ends in oneness, only the disciple does not know it. In the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition it is said that "the end is present at the beginning." The moment the spiritual wayfarer steps onto the path she enters the dimension of oneness, because the essential nature of the path is oneness. The teacher is there to provide a living connection to this oneness.

The work of the teacher is to lead the wayfarer from separation back to union, and on the Naqshbandi Sufi path this is done through impressing a consciousness of oneness into the mind and heart of the wayfarer.

Naqsh in Persian means to "bind or impress:"
Naqsh is the form (i.e. the blueprint) of that which is impressed upon wax or any similar matter; and band, namely the binding, is the permanent subsistence of the impression without effacement.

Through this impression the wayfarer gradually becomes aware of the consciousness of oneness that belongs to the heart. For the skeikh this oneness is always present: it belongs to the closed circle of love that is his relationship with the wayfarer.



At the beginning of the journey, the wayfarer can only see the teacher through the eyes of duality, clouded by all of the doubts and judgments that arise within the mind. But the real relationship with the teacher does not belong to the preconceptions and mental conditioning of the wayfarer, but to the love that is within the sheikh. It is this love that belongs to the soul which draws the wayfarer into the presence of the sheikh. The nature of this love is unconditional, and, like the sunshine, is given freely.

The love the teacher has for the disciple belongs to oneness, and carries with it the consciousness of divine oneness. Stepping into the presence of the sheikh, the wayfarer enters the dimension of love's oneness, yet does not know this. The wayfarer has not yet developed the faculty to recognize oneness, to consciously appreciate what is being given. Instead the wayfarer remains within the prison of her projections, mental conditioning, and psychological problems, which of necessity become projected into the relationship with the teacher.

Love evokes both positive and negative psychological projections. And as anyone who has experienced a human love affair knows, the greater the love the more powerful the projections: the more the unlived parts of our psyche clamor for attention, want to be drawn into the sunlight of our loving. This is what makes a love affair so psychologically potent, so full of unexpected and often unwanted projections. The unconditional love that is given by the sheikh will of necessity evoke many projections, along with many unmet needs. Once the initial "honeymoon period" of intoxication has passed, this is what the wayfarer is forced to confront. And because the sheikh is also a figure of authority, the wayfarer's unresolved authority issues will surface, adding to the cloud of confusion that obscures the real nature of the relationship with the teacher-the love that is the essence of the Sufi path.

The work of the wayfarer is to stay true to the inner core of commitment, to the initial feelings of love, while working with the psychological issues that are brought to the surface. As Carl Jung realized, the shadow contains the prima materia for our psychological wholeness out of which the Self is born, and this is also true of the spiritual opus. Working with the contents of our psyche that confront us, we need discrimination and clarity, and yet we are held by an invisible presence that is the real essence of the work-the inner bond of love that is between teacher and disciple. This link of love contains the consciousness of oneness to which we aspire, and yet for many years on the path it is hidden, rarely visible to the ordinary awareness of the disciple. But when the inner work has been done, what the Sufis refer to as "polishing the mirror of the heart," then we come to know the love that was always present.

For the sheikh this love is the prima materia of the path, both the beginning and the end of the work. Through love the wayfarer is swept clean of impurities and remade, so that she can live her deepest nature, her inborn closeness to God. While the wayfarer confronts the obstacles her mind and psyche place in the path, the sheikh does the real work of transformation, softening the heart and preparing the wayfarer for the awakening of the consciousness of the heart, the divine consciousness that is present in the innermost chamber of the heart, what the Sufis call the "heart of hearts."

The consciousness of the heart is awakened through the grace of the sheikh, through a transmission from the heart of the sheikh to the heart of the wayfarer. This is the gift of sirr, "a substance of God's grace, produced by the bounty and mercy of God, not by the acquisition and action of man." Sirr means secret, and it is a quality of divine love that is hidden from the world because it does not belong to the world, but belongs to the mystery of divine love. It is the essence of the relationship of lover and Beloved: "He loves them and they love Him" (Qur'an, sura 5:59).

Much of the work of the path is a process of preparation, an inner purification to enable the heart of the disciple to contain His secret without its being contaminated by the ego or lower nature, the nafs. When the sheikh receives the hint that the disciple is ready, then this substance of divine love is infused from heart to heart, from the heart of the sheikh into the heart of the disciple. Without this secret substance there can be no realization. For the Sufi, sirr is the most precious substance in the universe.



Only the teacher can give us what we need, and yet what is given cannot be grasped by our mind or ego. Moreover we are unfamiliar with a relationship of love that does not belong to the personal self. Our conditioning places love and nearness solely within the sphere of personal relationships, and has no concept of a deeper, impersonal love that belongs to the soul (our culture focuses on the personal-in America it is has even become customary to address everyone by their first name). Our hunger for personal acceptance, our unmet emotional and even physical needs come to the surface and are easily projected into the relationship with the teacher. We lack the traditional container that separates this relationship from the personal sphere. In many eastern traditions, for example, the disciple cannot address the teacher directly, but must first wait to be spoken to. But in the West we have no such protocols.

Without the tools to distinguish between our emotional and spiritual needs, without the support of a traditional understanding, we easily becomes victims of both our own naivety and false teachers, who use their position for personal needs. It is easy to become caught in patterns of dependence, in a psychic or psychological web that subtly saps our own sense of self. We read that surrender to the teacher is necessary, but lack the understanding that the real surrender is never to the outer form or person of the teacher, but to the essence of the teacher, to that within the teacher that is surrendered to God. In the Sufi tradition the teacher is described as "without a face, without a name," stressing the impersonal nature of the teacher. He is one who has been made empty, become "featureless and formless."

The real relationship with the teacher belongs to the inner reality of the heart, far beyond the personal sphere. This is the dimension of Khidr, the Sufi archetype of the teacher and the figure of direct revelation. In fact some great Sufis who did not have a physical teacher, like Ibn 'Arabî, were instead guided or initiated by Khidr. But the story told in the Qur'an about Khidr (sura 18: 61-83), "one whom God had given knowledge of Himself," shows how difficult it is to follow this enigmatic figure. Moses, who met Khidr "at the place where the two seas meet," (where the inner and outer worlds come together) asked him, "May I follow you so that you may guide me by that which you have been taught?"

"You will not be able to bear with me," replied Khidr. "For how can you bear with that which is beyond your knowledge?"

Three times Khidr performed acts which Moses questioned, until finally Khidr parted company with him, explaining, "What I did was not by my own will." Khidr belongs to a reality that does not follow the rules of reason or any outer law, but enacts the will of God. If we are to follow Khidr we must surrender to the inner essence of the heart, give ourself to the unconditional relationship that exists between lover and Beloved. Then we will discover the true nature of Khidr, the secret substance within the heart of hearts that is the real teacher:

I am transcendent reality, and I am the tenuous thread that brings it very close. I am the secret of man in his very act of existing, and I am that invisible one who is the object of worship.... I am the Sheikh with the divine nature, and I am the guardian of the world of human nature.

The teacher is the thread that connects us to our own transcendent reality. Through the grace of the sheikh the wayfarer awakens to the consciousness of oneness that is the knowing of love. But for many years on the path this consciousness is hidden from the wayfarer, who is faced with the limitations of the ego and the confusions of the psyche. The wayfarer cannot help but see the teacher through the veils of duality and the distortions of her own projections. This relationship belongs to the impersonal level of the soul, and yet the wayfarer tries to bring it into the personal landscape of her ego-self. This is what makes this link of love so difficult to follow, this thread so tenuous. But if we follow this thread with sincerity, devotion, perseverance, and a sense of humor, we will awaken to its real nature, how the heart of the sheikh reflects the oneness of love's hidden face.

For now we see through a glass darkly;
but then face to face: now I know in part;
but then shall I know even as I am known.