In every moment this love is more endless,
in every time people are more bewildered in it.
Love is the greatest power in the universe. Love is the dynamic center of life, the energy that is at the very core of creation. The mystic uses the energy of love to make the greatest of journeys: the journey of the soul back to the source, the lover back into the arms of the Beloved. The power of love transforms the seeker, revealing within the heart the secrets of oneness, the mystical truth that lies behind the veils of duality: "All is One." For the Sufi this truth is stamped in the shahâda, the protestation "Lâ ilâha illâ llâh" (There is no god but God). The lover recognizes only the face of the Beloved, realizing that duality is an illusion and only He exists.
The journey from multiplicity back to oneness, the "journey back to God," is an unfolding of the heart's secret. But while the heart knows the reality of His oneness, the mind and the ego are caught in duality and the illusion of separation. The heart knows that only He exists and we are just a reflection of His oneness. The mind and the ego think that they have a separate, individual existence, and create the web of illusion summed up in the words "I exist." The mystical path destroys this carefully constructed illusion, until we realize the truth of God's words spoken to Saint Catherine of Sienna:
Do you know, daughter, who you are, and who I am? If you know these two things, you will be blessed. You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is.(1)
Only when we renounce our own individual existence can we realize the truth of His existence. The "death" of the ego is central to the mystical path, as expressed in the saying of the Prophet, "to die before you die." This "death" reveals the essential union of lover and Beloved:
If you lose yourself
on this path
you will know in certainty:
He is you, you are He.(2)
THE ARENA OF LOVE
For the Sufi the death of the ego takes place in the arena of love. Entering this arena, we turn our back on the values of the world and our instincts of self-preservation. Love is the energy that breaks down our patterns of resistance and transforms us. Love is the energy of oneness in which lover and Beloved are united since before the beginning of time. Deep within the heart there is a place that has no knowledge of duality or separation. The Sufis call this innermost chamber of the heart the "heart of hearts." The heart of hearts is the locus of the spiritual quest, the arena of transformation.
When we say "yes" to the heart's desire for Truth, our consent activates the heart of hearts which starts to spin with the energy of divine remembrance. The heart begins the process of infusing into consciousness the eternal memory of the soul, the union of lover and Beloved, and the knowledge that we belong to Him since before the beginning of time. This is when the confusion begins, because the inner dynamics of the heart belong to a different reality from that of our everyday consciousness. The heart knows neither duality nor the limitations of space and time. The heart is the home of our infinite, eternal Self where we are always together with Him whom we love. Separation is only an illusion of the ego.
The ways of divine love bring the stamp of oneness into a world of duality. While the ego identifies itself through being different and individual, the heart awakens us to an inner reality in which all distinctions merge and all opposites are combined. Within the heart the greatest joy and the greatest sadness are one and the same, death and birth belong together. As the consciousness of the lover becomes infused with this very different reality, the ego's patterns of identity are confused, and the mind becomes lost trying to grasp love's essential paradoxes.
The lover learns to live with states of confusion, with the knowledge that the mind cannot grasp what the heart unfolds. While the mind sees the outer world of appearances, the heart experiences the unity that belongs to the Beloved:
Reason is like water and love is like fire,
Water and fire are incompatible.
In the two worlds, reason sees only the apparent,
Love only sees the Lover.(3)
The madness of divine love is not just a poetic metaphor but a mystical state in which the lover is thrown beyond the world of reason, beyond the confines of the mind, into the limitless ocean of love. Without form or structure there are no guidelines for the mind to hold onto, no delineations to give us any identity. As the lover is caught in these currents of love, the ego and mind are left standing on the shore. They cannot make the journey beyond the world's end.
The mystic becomes accustomed to bewilderment, does not react to the mind's unknowing. We learn to live without the conditions of thought-patterns and the framework of the ego's identity. Living between the two worlds, we acknowledge the limitations of time and space, but know that our heart is elsewhere, travelling a path without destination:
I met a woman once and asked her where love had led her.
"Fool, there's no destination to arrive at.
Loved one and lover and love are infinite."(4)
This infinite path is the ancient journey of the soul. Since the beginning of time souls have been travelling homeward, called by the heart's remembrance, "the sweetness that was before honey or bee."
BEWILDERMENT AND KNOWING
The arena of love is a place of bewilderment, confusion, and knowing. Slowly a truth deeper than reason permeates consciousness. The barriers between the two worlds are broken down by the energy of love, and we learn to live in the presence of Him whom we love.
The ego, which separates us from our Beloved, is strongly identified with our thought-patterns. The bewilderment of the mind is a part of the death of the ego. The more we know about the Beloved, the less we know:
The more a man or woman knows,
the greater the bewilderment, the closer
to the sun the more dazzled, until a point
is reached where one no longer is.(5)
At the beginning it can be a shock to lose the security of the mind and its structures of self-identity. But the sweetness of love draws us on, beyond the boundaries of self-protection. The lover becomes accustomed to bewilderment, and as the following dream shows, other people rarely notice our inner state:
In my dream I have lost my head. My neck is healed over like a person who has lost an arm or a leg. I have a party to go to, so I look around for my head. I feel that it might be nice to have it for the party, but it has really gone. I get dressed and notice how easy it is without a head. I look in the mirror and there I am without my head. I have no teeth to brush or hair to comb. All that seems absurd. I go to the party and my friends know who I am. They ask me how I am doing. I say fine but I seem to have lost my head. Someone responds with "Oh, really?" like they were talking about the weather.
The dreamer who has tasted love has lost her head. At the beginning she feels that for the party of everyday life she should have a head. But once love has taken hold of the heart we belong to love and cannot return to the confines of a dominantly mental consciousness. This dream also suggests the simplicity of life without a head, "no teeth to brush or hair to comb." At the party there is no interest in her state, for most people are so identified with their thought-patterns that they cannot even imagine a state of being in which the mind no longer rules.
Our western culture places great emphasis on the mind and intellect. Descartes' saying, "I think therefore I am," is at the foundation of western rationalism. The rational values of the mind support and confirm the ego's illusion of its own identity. These values are now woven into the fabric of our western society. Our collective education trains the mind in the patterns of rational thought and has created a culture based upon an illusion of separate identity. Because the "leaders" of our culture are often those who have excelled in this mental education, we are governed not only internally by our own mental patterns, but also externally by the same limited rationalism. The mystic who knows that "the mind is the slayer of the real" walks a path away from these collective values. We leave behind the security of the collective, to gamble on an inner longing, as 'Attâr describes when he compares reason and love:
Reason needs a guide who converses,
But a sigh which inflames the soul is sufficient for love.
Reason trains the intelligence and intelligence affirms itself,
But love is a flame which gambles with the soul.(6)
PAIRS OF OPPOSITES
The ways of love may seem madness to the mind, but they have their own logic. The knowing of the heart is an experience in which there is no distinction between the knower and that which is known. While the mind can only understand through separation, the separation of subject and object, the heart knows through oneness. At first this is usually experienced in dreams where the dreamer experiences a state of knowing in which the object of knowledge cannot be defined. This is the higher knowledge of the heart.
The knowing of the heart is beyond duality. This is the wayfarer's destination on the path of love, and paradoxically also where she begins. The first paradox of the path is that "the end is present at the beginning." The wayfarer is then introduced into a world of unity. He who is eternally present reveals Himself within the heart of His lover, and so begins the circular journey of self-revelation. Fakhruddîn 'Irâqî describes how different this is from the ways of the external world:
Seek not, find not—
except in this one case:
Until you find the Friend
you'll never seek Him.(7)
The seeming contradiction of seeking what you have already found awakens us to the reality of love, the oneness in which everything is contained from the beginning.
This awakening throws us into the arena, where like the gladiators of old we await our own death. Held in oneness, we are torn apart by the contradictions of love. The experience of love's unity demands the death of the ego, the sacrifice of the self, as al-Hallâj expressed in his famous statement, "Kill me, o my trustworthy friends, for in my being killed is my life."(8)
Life and death are the most primal pair of opposites, the first pair of opposites to arise into the consciousness of primitive man. The terrifying goal of the mystic is to embrace these opposites and thus free himself from the chains of worldly existence. Love is a sweetness and a cruelty that can take us beyond ourself:
When al-Hallâj was in prison, he was asked: "What is love?" He answered: "You will see it today and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow." And that day they cut off his hands and feet, and the next day they put him on the gallows, and the third day they gave his ashes to the wind…(9)
What al-Hallâj experienced publicly on the gallows of Baghdad, each lover comes to experience silently within her own heart and psyche, for "Nothing is possible in love without death."
Life and death stand like two pillars at the final doorway of the heart. But love's path takes the lover through many pairs of opposites. He who is One and alone reveals Himself through opposites, and as we follow the path homeward so we find His unity within duality. At first the opposites seem irreconcilable, and, bewildered, we are thrown between them:
Sometimes He shows Himself in one way, sometimes in the opposite way—the work of religion is naught but bewilderment.(10)
Sufi manuals have described many different pairs of opposites that belong to the path, for example: fear and hope, chastisement and mercy, presence and absence, awe and intimacy, contraction and expansion, annihilation and persistence.(11) Things can only be known through their opposites. God who has no opposite cannot be known, but through His opposites we can come to know His attributes. Thus Sufis sometimes show the pairs of opposites as a ladder of ascent leading to God who alone is the true Coincidentia Oppositorum.
Climbing this ladder, we gradually pass from the outer world of duality to the inner dimension of unity, where the knowing of the heart replaces the knowledge of the mind. The energy of love and devotion is the agent of transformation. The mind and the ego usually resist, fighting the heart with doubts and arguments. The work of the wayfarer is to cooperate with the inner dynamics of the heart, to "walk gladly to the gallows." Although the aspiration and commitment of the lover are the most important factors, it also helps to understand, as far as we are able, the processes of the path. The more we understand the more we are able to surrender the mind. The ultimate realities of the quest are beyond our comprehension, but we can grasp some of the seeming contradictions that confront us.
Because our culture is founded upon rationalism we have to rediscover the fundamentals of mysticism. We have to free ourselves from the constrictions of dualistic thought in order to embrace a reality where beauty and terror coexist, and insecurity is the greatest security. Learning the logic of love, we can see more clearly the guidance of the heart and the pointers on the path of no return. Understanding the inner meaning of apparent paradoxes enables us to appreciate the subtleties of our inner unfolding, the mystery and wonder of the journey. Sometimes in order to accept the difficulties of the path we need to know that
All is sweet that comes from the Beloved's side—
It is never bitter if you taste it with care.(12)
THE TWO WORLDS
Attuning consciousness to the inner processes of the heart, we learn to walk the thin line between the two worlds. Outwardly we remain in the world of multipli-city, while inwardly the lover becomes more and more immersed in unity. In the outer world the lover is God's servant looking always towards her Lord, while inwardly the heart loses itself in the ocean of divine love. This is the station of "the true confession of Unity: immersion in the contemplation of God along with the preservation of the stages of servantship."(13)
Living in the two worlds, we bring the secrets of the heart into everyday life. The demands of everyday life require that His servant not be "lost in the clouds" but reflect the needs of the time. Sufis are not "lotus eaters," living in the daydreams of spirituality, but responsible men and women who have tasted the fruit of oneness. Integrating everyday consciousness with the inner wisdom of the soul is demanding work, particularly as the external world in which we live is dominated by materialism and rationalism.
Working upon ourself, polishing the mirror of the heart, we learn to see our own qualities from a different perspective from that of the ego with its distorted split between good and bad, success and failure. The mind begins to grasp a wholeness in which the opposites form an integral part of a pattern of unfolding. Within this pattern unity reveals itself, for, in the words of al-'Alawî, "Things lie hidden in their opposites, and but for the existence of opposites, the Opposer would have no manifestations."
Gradually the eye of the heart opens and a consciousness founded upon unity is born within the wayfarer. This consciousness of the heart, also known as the higher mind, reflects the oneness of the Self rather than the duality of the ego. With this consciousness we perceive the unity within multiplicity. Experiencing the reality of "Wheresoever you turn, there is His face," the lover sees the Beloved everywhere:
Everyplace I cast my glance
I see You.
Glory be to God!
Have you become my very eyes?(14)
When the ego is surrendered to the Self, the eyes of the lover become the eyes of the Beloved. Through the open heart of the lover, the Beloved witnesses His own creation. Living our everyday life, we silently bring this quality of consciousness into the marketplace of the world.
Our western world has suffered the divisive effects of rationalism to a dangerous extreme. Our planet cries out for an ecological awareness founded upon wholeness rather than fragmented egocentrism. But deeper even than the awareness of one planet and the unity of life is the consciousness of unity that belongs to a relationship with the Creator. The work of the mystic is to live this consciousness, a consciousness born from bewilderment, confusion, and love. The consciousness of unity has an impact on the collective that carries the potency of divine love. Through the open eye of the heart He is able to heal His own world and share His mystery.
EMBRACING THE OPPOSITES
The Sufi does not avoid or withdraw from the contradictions of life. Embracing these contradictions with love and acceptance, we follow them to the source. The ego automatically separates the opposites into good and bad, pleasure or pain. The instinct of self-preservation chooses pleasure over pain and so the ego remains caught in duality and the conflict of opposites. The lover who knows that the pain of love, the heart's longing for God, is the quickest way Home, has a higher priority than self-preservation. She seeks the extinction of the self that separates her from her Beloved.
Embracing the opposites within the heart, we turn away from duality and the dominance of the ego. The heart reveals the hidden face of life's contradictions, in which the deeper purpose of the soul becomes manifest. To bring into consciousness the soul's purpose is to step away from the cycle of life and death into a different dimension, which sees life as a school of learning. In this school there are no such things as good or bad experiences, only experiences. If we reject the experiences that life brings we reject the possibility for growth and inner development. If we accept with love life's difficulties and dilemmas, we cooperate with their deeper purpose. Sometimes in a dream or intuition we glimpse their meaning, the lesson we need to learn. Once during a painful period I had a dream in which I had to teach a child the lesson of "Absolute Poverty." Spiritual poverty, "having nothing and wanting nothing," means surrendering even the desire to change a painful situation. This runs contrary to every instinct, but is central to the way of the Sufi.
The path bewilders us, turning all our values upside down. But the potency of love is that it does not belong to the world of the ego but to the reality of the Self. Within the circle of love there are no contradictions, no opposites. The power of love frees us from these limitations, but only if we embrace them. If we try to escape the opposites we are caught more firmly in their grip. Love frees us both from the outer world and from ourself. The mind first becomes confused and then surrenders to the heart; the ego resists and is then overwhelmed by a power greater than itself. The wayfarer may be frightened by this power which does not separate pain from pleasure, but somewhere we know it is our only escape. And we are guided by those who have gone before us, even if they leave few traces:
In the arena of love do not think of the head—
Climb on the Beloved's gallows that you may become healed;
Love is a dragon; those who have been devoured know that!(15)
Wayfarers who have entered the heart's arena know the truth beyond duality. They experience within their own being how the opposites are held together by the dual energies of creation, feminine and masculine, yin and yang, negative and positive. The two worlds, the inner and the outer, balance each other, and, like two mirrors held face to face, reflect eternity.
Life and death are woven together and we are a part of this weaving. When the eye of the heart opens, we can see beyond our own individual existence into the oneness of life and then further into the emptiness from which life is continually reborn. Non-being gives birth to being, from which the opposites are created and life continually manifests. The lover who tastes the essence of love passes from duality to unity, from being to non-being. This is the ancient way of the mystic, of the fool who tears aside the veils of the world because of a crazy desire to go Home. Lovers are born into this world in order to break free from duality and dissolve into unity, yet also to remain here in His world, carrying the secrets of the heart: how duality and oneness belong together. Thrown into the world of separation, we come to know that there is no separation. In the world of existence we realize our own nonexistence. Through the opposites we come to know Him who has no opposite:
The final and ultimate return of the gnostics…is that the Real is identical with them while they do not exist…. The gnostic is known only through the fact that he brings opposites together, for all of him is the Real. Thus Abû Sa'îd al-Kharrâz was asked, "Through what have you known Allâh?" He replied, "Through the fact that He brings opposites together," for he had witnessed their coming together in himself….(16)
Notes from Introduction:
(1) Quoted by Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace, p. 110.
(2) Fakhruddîn 'Irâqî, Divine Flashes, trans. William Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson, p. 120.
(3) 'Attâr, The Book of Secrets, trans. from the French Lynn Finegan, Chapter V, ll. 548-551.
(4) 'Attâr, trans. Coleman Barks, The Hand of Poetry, p. 59.
(5) Ibid, p. 59.
(6) 'Attâr, The Book of Secrets, Chapter V, ll. 554-557
(7) Divine Flashes, p. 105.
(8) Quoted by Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, p. 69.
(9) Ibid, p. 63-64.
(10) Rûmî, quoted by Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love, p. 227.
(11) See Sara Sviri, "Between Fear and Hope, On the Coincidence of Opposites in Islamic Mysticism," Jerusalem Studies for Arabic and Islam, No. 9, 1987, pp. 321-323.
(12) Abdul Latif, quoted by Annemarie Schimmel, Grace and Pain, p. 192.
(13) Mîr Dard, quoted by Schimmel, Grace and Pain, p. 132.
(14) Fakhruddîn 'Irâqî, Divine Flashes, p. 125.
(15) Abdul Latif, quoted by Schimmel, Grace and Pain, p. 184.
(16) Ibn 'Arabî, quoted by Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, p. 375.