This interview was originally published in the Australian Magazine Dumbo Feather in their February mysticism-themed issue. It is republished here with permission.
I came to my conversation with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee in a grim mood. Australia was burning and choking in smoke and our political leaders seemed thoroughly uninterested in addressing the root cause—anthropogenic climate change. Chatting about mysticism during a national, and arguably, global crisis seemed somehow indulgent. In the week since we spoke, my thoughts have returned to our conversation with surprising frequency. I’ve found myself pausing to take in the “beauty within the darkness”—watching our parched garden soaking up long awaited rain, my little daughter’s joy as we dance together in the kitchen, and the generosity of strangers helping folks get back on their feet in the wake of the fires. These moments have been a salve for a battered heart.
Emmanuel offers us a way of engaging with the uncertainty, turmoil, and bleakness of this moment with grace. The mysticism he shares is not removed from the realities of the world—alone in a cave dwelling in disembodied bliss. His is a spiritual path accessible to all of us deep in the fray of busy professional and personal lives. In addition to being a spiritual teacher and lineage successor in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi Order, Emmanuel is founder of the thriving online publication, Emergence—which explores the intersection of ecology, culture and spirituality—the director of several award-winning films, a musician and composer, a husband and a father to two children. His life is a testament to the Sufi principle of “solitude in the crowd” encouraging one to “be in the marketplace while still working with true Reality/God.” I encountered in Emmanuel a familiar blend of grounded lightness, humor, gravitas, compassion, directness, clarity, and humility that I’ve experienced in the presence of adepts of other spiritual traditions. These qualities would seem to be who we all are at our core. And yet they are rarely displayed by our current political leaders. I’m left yearning for a world where the path of the mystic and the path of the leader merge.
Cameron Elliot (CE): Let’s start with how you personally define mysticism.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (EVL): It’s inherent in all the spiritual schools of practice that seek out a more direct relationship with the Divine. There’s a wonderful quote from a Sufi who says, “Why settle for second hand reports when you can have a first hand experience?” And Sufism is the background that I was raised in and now teach, that grew out of the Islamic Muslim context. There are many different practices for creating that relationship. It could be through music or dance. In the tradition I come from, the Naqshbandi tradition, it is actually through silence. Often people think of whirling dervishes when they think of Sufism, where they dance in this beautiful circle and create an ecstatic state, this trance that would put them in a space of relationship with the Divine. In my tradition it’s actually through silence that this trance-like state is created. Many of the practices are designed to transcend the ego so that you are more porous and open to experiencing a divine connection. And as mystics often say, it’s really a lifetime journey of emptying oneself so one can be filled more and more with that divine substance. The mystics also say that ultimately you are divine, and as much as you’re making a journey to God you’re also making a journey to the divine within yourself. And at the same time, one cannot truly know the Divine. So it’s this very precarious path of being open to something that you ultimately will never understand.
CE: Which is hard for us humans who like to know everything! The egoic self wants to know and control everything. It sounds like you are describing a process of surrendering.
EVL: Very much so. In Sufism surrender is one of the central aspects of the mystical journey. At the start it’s about surrendering the surface level desires, what the ego wants. But as the journey goes on the surrender becomes much deeper and you have to surrender every aspect of yourself until you are left empty and naked before God—vulnerable, not knowing what will happen. There are many ways to describe the Divine. Actually, the Beloved is a term that is frequently used in Sufism because there is a desire to have an intimacy and a connection with the Divine. But ultimately there are many ways to come home and the terminology is really secondary to the experience. Ultimately, one is left in a space of tremendous silence where words can never describe what is experienced.
CE: You’re reminding me of a moment in your film Earthrise. I can’t remember which astronaut said it but he was talking about the utter silence of space, and then looking back on earth and thinking about all the hustle and bustle and noise that happens down here.
EVL: Yeah. I was very moved hearing the astronauts describe their experience ’cause in many ways it parallels what a mystical experience is—being taken so much out of yourself and into a space which is so vast one cannot comprehend it. There’s so much silence and there’s so much emptiness. And from that space one can glimpse oneself, the world, other people, with a clarity one doesn’t have when you’re caught within the ego. Some of the astronauts in the Apollo program came back from their trip and searched for a language and system that would help them comprehend what they had experienced up there and how to then digest and integrate that. One even ended up studying mysticism.
CE: Yeah, it’s not surprising. I was interested to learn that you come from a long lineage of Sufi masters. Your father is the current holder of that lineage. I was thinking before, was this a path you felt free to choose? Or was it one that was imposed on you?
EVL: I would say ultimately it was a choice. Definitely as a teenager and somebody who had grown up in this tradition, sometimes it felt like an imposition. There was a period of my life where I stepped away from it and said, “I need some space from this.” But after several years and different experiences, I made the decision to fully commit myself to studying and ultimately taking on teaching responsibilities. So I don’t think I ever left the path. It was more like I needed to spend time away from that world on my own. It coincided with leaving home and going off to study music in Boston when I was 18. Just wanting to experience life outside of a spiritual context. I grew up in what you might call a modern day ashram where my father’s teacher lived below us in a three-story house. And every day between 80 and 100 people would come to our house from 2-8PM to meditate and have spiritual discussion. That was my life until I moved to America with my family as a teenager. So out of that context I could break the rules, not feel like I was under some sort of spiritual microscope. I eventually got out of that rebellious stage in my early 20s and became very much involved with this Sufi lineage.
CE: And so this lineage, you mentioned briefly that it’s a silent tradition. Is there a regular practice you do, or principles you share?
EVL: In many Sufi traditions there’s something called the dhikr, which is a form of prayer or mantra spoken aloud. Sometimes it can be done individually, sometimes in a group. The Naqshbandis many, many hundreds of years ago made the decision to bring the dhikr from an external expression into an internal repetition of the name of God through one’s breath. And so the primary practice on this path is a silent dhikr. A constant remembrance of the Divine through breath. Sufis feel that it is through remembrance that one becomes closer to the Divine—that one begins to lift the veils of separation between them and God. And the breath of course is the most fundamental primal act of our human existence. Without breath we are no longer alive. But by infusing it with prayer we can harness the power of that central human act and transform it into an act of conscious remembrance of the Divine. So that is the primary practice. We also have a meditation practice for stilling the mind and dissolving ego consciousness. There’s this beautiful principle called “solitude in the crowd,” which is outwardly to be immersed in life, as the world is, but inwardly to behold this connection and presence with the Divine. Outwardly to be with people and inwardly to be with God. Because Sufism is not a monastic tradition. We don’t go off and become monks or nuns away from the world. You live in the world. You have families. You have jobs. You participate in community. And that can be a very challenging rub because it’s much easier in some ways to say, “I want to focus on prayer and divine remembrance,” and go live in a monastery, in other words, not immediately engage with the distractions of life. But to do that in the midst of life can be the sandpaper that rubs down the ego. So it’s an opportunity to bow down and be in surrender to something greater than oneself while in the midst of life. So it’s a very, very challenging principle but also a defining one for this Sufi tradition.
CE: So let’s speak a bit about your work in the world. You’re a filmmaker, a musician, you compose a lot of the music for your films. You’re also a spiritual teacher. Founder of a magazine. Anything I’ve missed?
EVL: A father. A husband [laughs].
CE: Yes! A lot of roles to be played there. How do you straddle all of that as well as your spiritual life? Is there a deep division? Or is that a false dichotomy?
EVL: I used to try to have a division and it didn’t work. Only way that I have been able to manage my life is to think of it as one fluid experience. Of course practically speaking there are times for my own spiritual practice, times when I’m teaching, when I’m working on a film and working on the magazine. But I don’t think of them as separate vocations. I hold it all together as one. The work I’ve been doing through the magazine is in many ways an expression of my own spiritual path, and a translation of the mystic’s desire for there to be no separation between the human and the Divine. And the need to respond to what we’re dealing with right now on the planet, which is a human-centric worldview gone rampant to the point where we’re destroying everything else that is not us. And that is the antithesis of any sort of mystical understanding and truth. The fundamental tenant of Sufism, as it is with all mystical traditions, is that there is just one.
CE: Sometimes I worry that we might not have enough time to make this leap we need to see from egocentric to ecocentric thinking, thinking about the bigger “we.”
EVL: More and more I’m subscribing to the long game. As much as I would like to imagine things shifting in the next 20 years, it seems that’s becoming more and more unlikely. It takes time for empires to die. As we are seeing [laughs]. It took a long time for the Roman Empire to die finally. It was dying for a long time, and we seem to be doing something quite similar on a global scale. I’ve gone through this myself of maybe realizing that in my lifetime I will not see a shift to a global society that reflects spiritual values, that respects the non-human world. That learns to live in balance with the world. That doesn’t have its whole systems and structures built on greed and materialism. I may not see that in my lifetime. But there is tremendous value in working towards this shift because the seeds we sow now will eventually sprout. Maybe not how we imagine them to look, but they will. Sometimes we have to do things not knowing what the results going to be. If we only prayed because we knew we would get a response, very few people in the world would be praying right now. Whether we see the results of that tomorrow, a year, a hundred years, 500 years, it doesn’t change, at least not for me, the desire to live my life according to spiritual values and work for a future that is possible. I remember hearing a woman named Winona LaDuke, who’s a Native American activist, at a conference. She said if you’re not thinking about multigenerational impacts of the work you’re doing, you’re not thinking long enough. I think that’s very true. We talk about a thousand-plus years to break down plastic that we are throwing endlessly into our oceans and our forests. We should be thinking about a thousand years’ worth of impact for what we are doing in a positive sense and understand that we are dealing with a challenge which is so great that we cannot be caught in human based time scales. We can’t only think that we have to see successful results for us to want to do this work, for us to want to shift this way of being that our culture has created. We need to do it regardless of what is happening.
CE: I describe what you’re describing as cathedral thinking—that our generation may just put down the concrete or the foot stones. Next generation puts up the pillars. And then the final generation puts the roof on. And so we may never see the finished cathedral. I guess that’s where surrender and acceptance come in.
EVL: And humility and compassion and patience and the fact that there is beauty to be experienced along the road. That’s been revealed to me more and more. That there is beauty present within the darkness and the destruction we’re experiencing. It’s there. Doesn’t mean that destruction and darkness is not real and that we shouldn’t be fully conscious of what’s happening, but in the midst of that there is beauty and we can be in remembrance of that beauty. Whether that is an act of humility and compassion that we experience from another human being. Or a plant that was not burned amidst the destructive fires that have been plaguing my home and yours. The beauty that is present in a birdcall, in a barren landscape. The remembrance and recognition of what is there is so important because it’s easy to say it’s all over, it’s not going to work, whatever’s going to happen in the future I won’t be around for. That is a selfish way of being.
CE: You mentioned before the distractions of the modern world. Obviously there’s a new platform popping up every week vying for our attention. How do you go about maintaining a mystical connection with the world amongst so much distraction?
EVL: Well discipline I would say. I wake up between 4:30 and 5 every morning. And the first thing I do is meditate and pray for an hour. I mean the wonderful thing about 4:30 or 5 in the morning, at least where I live, is the world is quiet. So I do that, and then start engaging with life. All of us determine how much we play into the distractions of a modern life. We can decide to have alerts of every single app pinging us at all times or not. And that level of control is something we can create in all of our interactions. It’s hard but I think that is what is needed if one is to create a space that allows for a more meaningful way to live. So you have to have discipline. I think you have to be willing to say, “No, that tweet can wait. That email can wait. I don’t really need to know what the latest Netflix series is. I don’t need to scroll through Instagram to see what somebody else is doing.” Yet because of these distractions and the imbalances in the world I do think it is probably the hardest time in many ways to be a serious mystical seeker. But at the same time we’re not dealing with the hordes of Genghis Khan sweeping across the Middle Eastern plains. There’s a wonderful story that my father shared with me. And it’s the story of a Sufi’s encounter with Genghis Khan as they were sweeping across the Middle East and raping and pillaging cities. The dervishes [students] come to the master and say, “Genghis Khan is coming, what are we going to do?” And the teacher says, “I’ve taught you how to be ducks. Now swim.” It’s like spiritual practice can give us the tools to learn to deal with the devastation that we’re confronted with. It doesn’t make it easy. We’re going to feel grief and pain. But it means that we don’t have to become completely gripped in the fear of what’s happening, and also means we have to embody a certain detachment and a realization that what’s going to happen may be out of our control. But a duck can dive through the waves, rises to the surface and can float on the water in the midst of the storm.