The world was full of beautiful things until an
old man with a beard came into my life and set my heart
aflame with longing and made it pregnant with love.
How can I look at the loveliness around me,
how can I see it, if it hides the face of my Lover?
— PERSIAN SONG
TURNING THE HEART
On the Sufi path everything is given through the grace of the sheikh, the Sufi term for spiritual master or guide. The sheikh is the keeper of the gates of grace, and the wayfarer needs this grace to make the journey Home, to become dissolved in love, lost in the infinite ocean of the Beloved. This is why the Sufi says that you need a guide, a master of the path of love. Only through his grace can you be turned inside out, transformed, melted, merged into the divine Oneness.
On our own we cannot make this journey; we neither know the way nor do we have the energy, the power to go beyond the mind and the ego. Without a sheikh we would remain stranded, caught within the limited confines of our own identity. The moment we step upon the path we step into the stream of energy, the stream of love that flows through our sheikh. This love is the divine power that will take us deep within our own self, into the innermost chamber of the heart, the secret place where our Beloved is waiting. This love is the power that awakens the pain of longing that burns away our impurities and prepares us for our Beloved. Without this love there is no journey, there is no fire to consume us. Without this grace we remain locked in the prison of the ego, in the illusion of this world.
When I was nineteen I was invited to a lecture on esoteric mathematics. Sitting in the row in front of me was an old lady with her white hair tied up in a bun. After the lecture I was introduced to this old lady, and she gave me one look from her piercing blue eyes. In that instant I had the sensation of becoming just a speck of dust on the floor. I remember nothing else of this first meeting with my teacher, but the next week I rang on her doorbell and started attending the meditation meetings that were held in her small north-London room. Only years later did I come to understand the significance of that first experience, how it enacted the state of fana, or annihilation, in which the wayfarer becomes "less than the dust at the feet of the teacher." Through her glance a power was infused that gave me a foretaste of the path, of the process of destruction that was to be enacted within me during the following years. Without knowing anything of Sufism, I had stepped into the energy of this path, into the grace that would transform me, the love that would take me Home.
Every Friday evening I would come to her small room and sit with a few others, meditating, drinking tea, and listening to Mrs. Tweedie talk of her time with her sheikh, Bhai Sahib, an Indian Sufi master. I remember nothing of what was said; I only remember the tremendous, tangible power of love that filled the room, and the look in her eyes, the eyes of someone who has given herself totally to God. The energy in her room nourished me, fed the secret hunger that had relentlessly pushed me to find a teacher. I knew that she knew, that she had what I wanted. This knowing was never spoken in words, but felt in every cell of my body. In her presence something inside me opened and sensed the fragrance of Truth.
What is this power, this energy that does not belong to the world? Why do we need it? What calls us to it and how do we recognize us? To all of these questions there is the one answer, "The heart knows." Sufis work through the heart; they understand the secret mysteries of the heart and how the power of divine love can activate this inner organ of higher consciousness. Through the heart we are given the energy we need for the journey:
The disciple progresses through love. Love is the driving force, the greatest power of creation. As the disciple has not enough love in him to have sufficient of the propelling power to reach the goal, so love is increased, or "created" simply by activating the heart chakra.
This process of activating the heart chakra can only be done by a master of the path, by someone who understands the ways of love, and who has been given permission to do this work. Through the energy of the path that flows through the sheikh this ancient work is done. In the words of a Sufi master, "We are simple people. But we can turn the heart of a human being so that human being will go on and on, where nobody can even imagine it."
FROM HEART TO HEART
Stepping into the presence of the teacher we step into the power of the path, the power that in the Sufi tradition is passed down through the succession from sheikh to sheikh, a succession of the friends of God that traditionally goes back to the Prophet. His friends hold the power of His presence within their hearts, the power that can can turn the heart back to God. When Rumi met a wandering dervish in the market place, he fell at his feet and was swept into the currents of love. The presence of this ragged mystic, Shams, changed Rumi from a respected professor of theology into a lover of God, one who summed up his whole life with the phrase, "I burnt, and I burnt, and I burnt."
The power of love awakens us to the quest, turns us away from the world, and takes us Home. This power is His love for us, and the whole of the mystical journey, can be summed up by the words "He loves them and they love Him." The glance of His love touches our heart and awakens the hidden depth of our love for Him. This is the circle of oneness that takes us Home, the arena of love in which we die to ourself. The sheikh is the guardian of the gates of love—his glance carries the potency of a divine lover, and in his presence we can taste the mystery of our deepest nature. My teacher described the sheikh as a transformer of divine power. If we were to directly access the Absolute we would be destroyed by Its tremendous, unlimited power. Just as a transformer is needed to the make the electricity in the high voltage mains useable in our house, without blowing every fuse, so does the sheikh give us access to the divine energy in amounts we can assimilate.
This energy is given from heart to heart, from soul to soul. The sheikh has access to the place within our heart that belongs to God, the heart of hearts. Our sheikh has the key to this secret chamber, and as the agent of the Beloved awakens our memory of being together with Him. The work of the sheikhis to ignite the spark within the heart and then to keep it burning until all that remains is His love: "Love has moved in and adorned the house, my self tied up its bundle and left. You imagine that you see me, but I no longer exist: what remains is the Beloved...."
We are given the energy we need to do this work; the power is infused from the heart of the sheikhinto the heart of the wayfarer. Gradually the heart of the wayfarer opens, allowing the love to flow more and more. Once I was sitting beside my teacher when she was lecturing, and I felt such love drawing me to her, penetrating deep into my heart. In the interval I turned to her and said how much love I felt, to which she replied, "That is good. It means your heart is open and I can work with you."
At the beginning it is usually necessary to be in the physical presence of the sheikh for this work to be done. This is the reason for satsang, being in the presence of the teacher. The sheikh lives the connection to the path; his soul is merged with the soul of his sheikh. In his presence the wayfarer has access to the power of the path, as the Sufi master Bhai Sahib explains:
Think of a bungalow in which the electricity has been installed—the wires are there, the lamps and switches are there; all the bulbs are in their place. But there is no connection to the power house. For this a medium is needed, which in this case would be the engineer. In spiritual life it is the same. A medium, a connecting link, is needed to get the power from the power station. Therefore satsang is of utmost importance; it is essential.
The presence of the teacher is a connection through which the wayfarer can be given the energy that is needed to keep the fire of the heart burning, to keep her attention on the goal despite the distractions of the outer world. My teacher said that coming to the meditation meetings was like "recharging the batteries." Moreover, although regular attendance is desirable, if the wayfarer is only able to come from time to time, maybe every few months, she will still be given the necessary energy; it will just come in larger doses than for the person who comes every week.
However, once a connection is made, the physical presence of the sheikh is not always necessary. On the Sufi path the power, the grace, is given from heart to heart, from soul to soul. Because the soul does not belong to space and time, the grace can be given on an inner plane independent of outer circumstances. In some instances it is not even necessary to make any physical connection with the sheikh; to quote Bhai Sahib, "Many of my disciples have never seen me in their lives, and they never come here. They are treated just the same and get the same as everybody else."
The mystical path is full of contradictions. Satsang is essential and yet a physical connection is not necessary. Deeper than any outer form is the duty of the sheikh. "The guru is duty bound, he gives what is demanded, according to the need." Each wayfarer is treated individually, as I was once shown in a dream when I had to find a pot for cooking one egg at a time. We are each given what we need, the inner and outer circumstances that provide us with the optimum opportunity to realize the Truth. Some wayfarers need to be regularly in the physical presence of the teacher, while others are more able to make their inner connection with the Beloved working alone, maybe seeing their teacher only once a year. What matters is that the inner connection remains, the connection through which the wayfarer has access to His grace.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE WAYFARER
We are taken to God by God. His glance awakens our heart, and His love takes us Home. Everything is given, and yet we have to have the correct attitude to receive His grace. We have to give ourself to the currents of love, and keep our attention firmly on the goal. When I arrived at my teacher's door I was half-broken; as she later described it, "He arrived wounded by life. His wings were clipped. Had his life much meaning? I don't think so. But he stayed and grew." As the years passed my wounds were healed, and a deep and lasting transformation took place. The path softened me, and opened my heart to love's hidden face. But for many years there was only the pain of enduring, of facing the darkness within myself, and the agony of longing. I gave myself to this work, persevering despite all my difficulties. Even in the darkest times I knew that His grace was present, that I could not do this work alone. But only now do I begin realize how much I was given, how insignificant my own efforts were in comparison to the power of His love and the presence of my sheikh.
Only His grace can take us Home, and yet we have to make every effort and allow ourself to become open and vulnerable. We have to learn to cooperate with the energy that works within us. We have to bear the pain of longing as it purifies us, accept the darkness that is brought to the surface. We have to learn from the situations that we attract, be receptive to the subtle hints that we are given and the guidance that comes through our dreams.
Sometimes this drama is played out in the physical presence of the teacher, as we learn to catch the meaning of what is said. In our Sufi meetings stories and dreams are woven together, incidents repeated, jokes told. Many times there is a teaching hidden beneath the surface; sometimes my teacher would say something outrageous just to watch a person's reaction. Sufis are taught never to judge by appearances. I remember once, when travelling with Mrs. Tweedie on an aeroplane, I inwardly winced as a heavily made-up stewardess walked down the aisle towards me. I have always disliked heavy make-up, but just as this thought went through my mind, Mrs. Tweedie turned to me and said, "Human beings are so beautiful, aren't they?"
On the path we are given everything we need, but we have to learn to accept it. Often the help comes in a form we least expect and may even reject because it does not appear spiritual. For the sheikheverything belongs to His oneness, and nothing needs to be excluded. The wayfarer has to learn to learn both discrimination and unconditional surrender. When is the teacher pulling our leg and when is a profound truth being shared? What matters is the attitude with which we listen, an attitude of receptivity in which we are not bound by any rules but the unconditional ways of love. We have to be open to the hidden depths of the teaching, not bound by any surface attitudes. And so many times we misunderstand, or choose not to understand, and yet are told again and again.
We learn patience and perseverance; we learn acceptance, and how to listen. Many of these qualities belong to the wisdom of the receptive feminine, and they help to create the container, the inner space for our relationship with our Beloved. Through our inner attitude of devotion we are attuned to the energy of love; we learn to be attentive to the needs of our Beloved, and to wait for His embrace. Throughout this process the sheikh is the guide and the giver, immersing us deeper and deeper, until we too can become lost in the ocean of Oneness.
And always we have to keep the right attitude towards our guide, towards the one who is the ferryman between the two worlds. Within the heart there is a deep respect and devotion towards the real essence of the teacher, a quality of real attention. The work of the wayfarer is to bring this inner attitude into consciousness, to live the heart's devotion. This attitude attracts the attention of the sheikh, and he cannot help but give; "such must be the attitude that he cannot help to grant His grace to the devotee."
In the West the devotee has the added work of not confusing the respect due to the teacher with personal psychological patterns that, for example, might belong to our relationship to our parents. In the East it is recognized that the nature of the relationship with the teacher is impersonal, and can thus be kept separate from the wayfarer's personal psychology. But in the West we have no context for such a relationship, and many sincere seekers have contaminated the spiritual nature of this relationship with personal problems. In particular, a parent projection (for example that of a domineering father) can easily damage the attitude of respect or surrender required to the teacher. Caught in personal patterns of anger or rejection, the devotee may cut herself off from the teacher, and thus from the grace that flows through the teacher.
Feelings of anger are especially effective in cutting us off from the love and energy that we need for the journey. This does not mean we should deny our personal feelings and try to become a "good disciple," as this would just cause a damaging psychological split. Rather we should try to find the root of our anger, become conscious of our projections, discriminate between what belongs to the teacher and what comes from another source. However, we are often unknowingly caught and are only saved by the sincerity of our own desire for Truth and the help of the teacher. One afternoon in a group meeting, after I had been with my teacher for many years, she turned to a friend and said, "And he, he hated me for years." From the moment I first arrived she recognized the negative mother image I only too easily projected onto her. In fact, during the first year I was in the group she made me sit in front of her, and when she got up from meditation she would ruffle my hair, knowing how much I hated it. She had the strength to contain my negative projection, and I had sufficient inner focus on the beyond not to allow it to interfere with the journey.
Each in our own way we are taken to God, given the energy and love we need to work upon ourself, to prepare the place of our meeting. Through our devotion, aspiration, and ceaseless attention we attract the grace of the sheikh, without which there can be no miracle of transformation, no rebirth. In our aloneness we are held, in our tears we are contained. Our sheikh knows the secrets of our heart and infuses us with the wine of divine remembrance. From heart to heart this transmission is given; as we are emptied of ourself so we are filled with our Beloved. The sheikh is one who has been made empty, and through him we are taken into the arena of our own non-being, to taste the deeper truth of our divine nature. Through the grace of our sheikh we learn how to become nothing, to give ourself totally to our Beloved:
The lover must be like a dead body in the hands of the Beloved. How is the dead body? Helpless it is. If it is put in the rain, it gets wet; if it is put in the sun, it gets hot. It cannot rebel, it cannot protest. And it is by the grace of the guru that we are learning how to be always contented in the hands of the Beloved.