Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Fools of God
The sect of lovers is distinct from all others;
Lovers have a religion and a faith all of their own.
Sufis are His most beloved fools, for He has a special tenderness for those who are lost in love. We talk of being madly in love with a human lover, but those who have been embraced by a divine lover are lost in a deeper madness, which is at the same time a secret so intimate that it can hardly be told in words. Love can never be understood by the mind. Those who wish to enter this path must accept that they can never explain either to themselves or to others the mysterious inner unfolding that is taking them home. The dynamics of the heart follow laws so different from those of the mind that the seeker needs to begin by accepting the mind's limitations, and realize that on the spiritual journey rational thought is a hindrance rather than a help. In the words of 'Attâr, "When love comes, reason disappears. Reason cannot live with the folly of love, love has nothing to do with human reason."(2)
The thinking processes of the mind have been developed to help us live in this physical world. They are very important for learning to drive a motor car or writing out a shopping list. But from a spiritual perspective, the mind is a limitation. It is known as "the slayer of the Real," for it stands between the seeker and the Real Self, while its constant chatter deafens us to our inner voice. The mind belongs to this world of duality. It understands through comparison. If you look at the workings of the mind you see that it is constantly comparing (Today is warmer than yesterday, but there is more wind than usual....). The mind is always caught between the opposites, their opposition largely created by the mind. As Prince Hamlet remarks, "...there is nothing either good or bad, but only thinking makes it so."(3)
Spiritual truth embraces rather than separates the opposites. Truth is not on the level of duality, but the experience of oneness. It is not found in the mind but in the heart, and on the path the wayfarer is thrown beyond the mind into a world that can only be explained in paradoxes. As the rational mind tries to assimilate experiences that belong to a different level of reality, the seeker is constantly left in a state of confusion. In the Sufi classic, The Conference of the Birds, Attar tells the story of how a man's encounter with the path leaves results in bewilderment, robbing him of both his possessions and his mind through the simple word "Enter."
An Arab once went to Persia and was astonished at the customs of the country. One day he happened to pass the dwelling of a group of dervishes and saw a handful of men who said not a word. They had no wives and not even an obol, but they were pure of heart and undefiled. Each held a flask of muddy wine which he carefully filled before sitting down. The Arab felt sympathetic towards these men; he stopped and at that moment his mind and heart fell onto the road. At this the dervishes said: "Enter, O man of nothing!" So he went in, willy-nilly, just like that! He was given a cup of wine and at once lost his senses. He became drunk and his strength was reduced to nothing. His gold and silver and valuables were taken from him by one of the dervishes, more wine was given to him, and at last they put him out of the house. Then this Arab returned to his own country, one-eyed and poor, his state changed and his lips dry. When he arrived at his native place his companions asked him: "What is the matter? What have you done with your money and valuables? Were they stolen while you slept? Have you done badly in Persia? Tell us! Perhaps we can help you!" "I was moving about in the street," he said, "when I fell in with a group of dervishes. I know nothing else except that my possessions and I were parted and now I have nothing." They asked him to describe the dervishes. He replied, "They simply said to me 'Enter.'" The Arab remained ever after in a state of surprise and astonishment, like a child, and dumbfounded by the word "Enter." You too, put your foot forward. If you do not wish to, then follow your fantasies. But if you prefer the secrets of the love of your soul you will sacrifice everything. You will lose what you consider to be valuable, but you will soon hear the sacramental word, "Enter."(4)
THE SUBVERSION OF THE MIND
As the Wayfarer travels along the path, the energies of the heart gradually subvert the thinking processes of the mind. Because the energy of love is more powerful than the mind, it secretly slows down the mind, until the mind becomes empty and thus able to experience the inner reality of the Self, which is love. The following dream illustrates this dynamic. It left the dreamer with an experience of love such as he had never known before:
I was in a hall full of men on soapboxes, who were giving political speeches to groups of people around them. However, in the hall there was a small number of men who were subverting all this activity by giving out little slips of paper to people around them. Slowly the hall emptied of people and the men on soap boxes left. When the hall was empty, the five men who had been secretly subverting the whole process came together and there was such a feeling of love between them. I awoke filled with this feeling of love.
Our minds are so often like this dreamer's hall, full of men on soapboxes bombarding us with different opinions and ideas. To consciously confront this dynamic would only feed more energy into the mind, fill the hall with more people. The Sufi path is subversive rather than confrontational. It works from within, from the Self which lives in the very depths of the unconscious, in the secret recesses of the heart. The changes begin far away from the conscious mind, where they cannot be interfered with. Then slowly the energy of the Self filters into consciousness, where it begins the work of altering our thinking processes.
The spiritual dynamic is a process of being speeded up. To quote St. John, "It is the spirit that quickens,"(5) and as we travel along the path we tune into, or are infused with, the higher frequency of our spiritual nature. The energy of the Self is far quicker than that of our physical or mental bodies. As we meditate and aspire we create a deeper bonding with our Higher Self which allows its quicker energy to be integrated into our consciousness. It is this energy which transforms us. In the dream of the men on soapboxes, slowly the people leave the hall and the room is left empty except for the five men who secretly instigated the process of subversion. The energy of the Self gradually speeds up consciousness and in so doing throws out the slower, denser thought patterns. Then, when the ordinary consciousness is empty, the individual is able to experience the inner reality of love. This is the dreamer's final experience; he tastes the substance of the Self.
This transformation is a gradual process because the inner energies are so powerful that the structure of consciousness needs to be attuned slowly in order to be able to integrate them. In the words of T.S. Eliot, "human kind cannot bear very much reality";(6) this is because ordinary consciousness would simply be shattered by the higher vibrations of the Self. Our mental hospitals contain many people who have had an experience of an inner reality which their consciousness could not contain. Just a glimpse of our true nature is awe-inspiring, "aweful." Sometimes, when an individual begins on the Path, when he begins to meditate, he can be given such a glimpse. This can be an encouragement, but it can also be frightening, because it points beyond the ego and the mind, beyond the known into the unknown. Then a teacher is needed, one who is a few steps further along the Way, and speaking from experience can say: "No, you are not going mad. What you have experienced is not unusual. You have just touched an inner dimension that is very different from the external world. It is a good sign."
However, there can also come the time when the higher energies are necessary to shatter the rigid patterns of our ordinary consciousness, to break our self-imposed boundaries. This only happens when the teacher knows that the seeker is ready, usually after years of meditation and spiritual practices have silently prepared a new inner vessel. This inner work makes the seeker both finer and stronger, and thus allows him to live in the world of everyday consciousness and at the same time in tune with the inner dimension of the Self.
Such an experience of inner transition can be both dramatic and disturbing. It can be triggered by an outer situation or specifically by the Teacher. Something happens, often a shock that throws the individual off balance. Sufi Teachers often use shock tactics, even accusing the devotee of something totally unjust, to deliberately bring about this unbalancing. When our consciousness is totally "balanced" there is no space for the higher dimension to come through. As a Canadian psychiatrist observed:
When a human being is standing with both feet firmly on the ground, with both legs on the earth, and is "quite normal" as we medical practitioners call it, spiritual life is very difficult, perhaps impossible. But if something is not quite right with the mind, a little wheel not working properly in the clockwork of the mind, then spiritual life is easy.(7)
When the mind is thrown off balance, the higher, faster energies are able to come through, and it is their vibrations that break up the barriers of consciousness, the patterns of conditioning. At this moment it is vitally important that the seeker surrender to the process, however painful or unjust it may seem. Yet, because the values of the Self are so different from those of the ego and the conscious mind, the seeker is presented with every reason to reject this process of inner destruction.
The values of the ego are a limitation, and for the sincere seeker the teacher or life itself will present the opportunities that will bring about both inner destruction and freedom if they are unconditionally accepted. But in these situations of pain and inner panic, there is the danger that the seeker will try to hold onto the wreckage, to find some security in the patterns of the past, in parental or social conditioning. Bombarded by the energy of the Self, the seeker can find no security except in total insecurity; yet still the ego, frightened by the limitless horizons of the Self, clings to the world of reason and the limited values of the past. It clings to the wreckage of a ship that can no longer take us on any journey, and yet this wreckage prevents us from realizing that we can swim, naked and alone. In time the wreckage will decay or float away and the final result will be the same, but it will have been a longer and more painful journey. Spiritual life has its cycles and there are moments that must be grasped and totally surrendered to. Often these moments of greatest opportunity are disguised, appear "unspiritual" or cruel. It is said that the teacher puts all appearances against him, and then tests the disciple. Life does the same. It is best never to reject what life brings, and often the most difficult circumstances hide something of infinite value. The light is hidden in darkness, but the darkness must be fully accepted before the light reveals itself. When the Sufi Abû Sa'îd ibn Abi'l-Khayr was asked what Sufism entailed he replied: "Whatever you have in your mind—forget it; whatever you have in your hand—give it; whatever is to be your fate—face it!"(8)
Chapter 1 continues...
Notes from Chapter 1 Excerpt:
(1) Rûmî, quoted by Miriam and Jose Argüelles in The Feminine, p. 123.
(2) Farîd ud-Dîn 'Attâr, The Conference of the Birds, trans. C.S. Nott, ch. 39 ("The Valley of Love").
(3) Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.ii. 249-50.
(4) Attar, The Conference of the Birds, ch. 39 ("An Arab in Persia").
(5) St. John, 6:63. Compare with Irina Tweedie's teacher, Bhai Sahib: "We do not teach–we quicken." Irina Tweedie, Daughter of Fire, p. 219.
(6) T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton," ll. 42-43.
(7) Quoted by Irina Tweedie: "Sufi spiritual training is a process of individuation leading to the Infinite," in Sufism, Islam and Jungian Psychology, ed. J. Marvin Spiegelman, pp. 127-8.
(6) Quoted by Jâmî in The Abode of Spring, abridged and translated by David Pendlebury, in Four Sufi Classics, p. 192.