Published in Sufi Journal, Issue 64, Winter 2004 - 2005
When it is time for stillness, stillness;
in the time of companionship, companionship;
at the place of effort, effort.
Everything at its time and its place.
Around us is an unending revelation. In every instant the divine is being born anew. And yet at this moment in our history we are also at the beginning of a new era; a new pattern of life is coming into being. Our spiritual awareness is central to this birth. In our hearts, in our consciousness, and with every breath, we are midwives to a new awakening of the earth that is taking place now. In order to participate fully in this birth, we have to leave behind old patterns, old ways of walking on the earth and of looking towards heaven. We are stepping into an era of oneness that will bring together matter and spirit, feminine and masculine, and our spiritual practice must reflect this new alignment. We cannot renounce the earth or follow a patriarchal model of spiritual progress. Our soul’s journey is part of the journey of the whole of creation. Our heart is connected to the heart of the world. Our remembrance is the remembrance of the world. Through our awakening the world can awaken.
And yet the individual journey of the soul back to the Source, the lover back to the Beloved, continues as it always has. Everything changes and nothing changes. The journey of a soul going Home is like the spiritual heartbeat of the world. When a seeker turns toward the Beloved, all of creation rejoices, because this is the final journey for all of life. Every atom longs to be united with its Beloved, and as spiritual wayfarers we live this longing with our whole being. This journey is our greatest contribution to life and to the Beloved. We offer ourselves on the altar of His love and live His drama of separation and union.
As we expand our spiritual consciousness to include the whole of creation, it is important to remember the simplicity and ordinariness of the soul’s journey. The heart’s longing for God belongs to the primal essence of life. Just as a sunflower follows the sun, so does our soul look to its Source. To live and breathe this true calling often means having to leave behind many of the illusions that we may have about spiritual life.
THE INNOCENCE OF AWAKENING
At the beginning of the journey a spark of pure love touches our heart and we awake for an instant to the wonder of our real nature and our innermost relationship with the divine. Without this gift of love there would be no journey, no desire to return to God. We would remain within the clouds of forgetfulness, never knowing our true self. This spark brings us alive and turns our attention towards the journey of the soul, the greatest adventure.
Traditionally called “the turning of the heart,” this awakening of love is like a first romance, except that this is no idealized lover, no romantic fantasy; this is the great love affair of the soul with God, bursting into consciousness. And yet it often evokes in the lover a similar quality of adolescent impetuousness, creating spiritual fantasies that, like their romantic counterparts, often spin out of control. It is not always easy to reconcile this awakening to real love with the mundanities of our everyday life, or to contain this innermost desire within our ordinary consciousness.
The turning of the heart awakens a fire within us. Ultimately this is the fire that will burn and consume us, transform our lead into gold. But at the beginning it is just a crazy passion that has no container. We may identify it as “longing for God,” but we have no notion of the real dynamics of the journey, the painful work upon the shadow and the slow grinding down of the ego that belong to the initial years of the quest. Just as the romantic experience of falling in love does not prepare us for the real work of a relationship, the spark that touches us in the heart of hearts does not make us think of the vast and dangerous nature of what is happening. We are thrown into the love affair with God as a blind person into an infinite ocean.
This is the way it has always been. We come with innocence and longing, confused by doubts and insecurities, filled with a desire for something we cannot understand. Nor do we know what to do with the intensity and passion of the soul. What can we do except create spiritual fantasies, images of some spiritual world filled with what is unfulfilled within us?
Maybe the journey will give us the partner we have always wanted, the work we feel we deserve. We so easily project our personal needs onto the unknown potential of the quest, looking for a parent to love us, a lover to embrace us, friends to understand us, work to fulfill us. In the West this natural tendency toward projection is augmented by a conditioning that promotes instant gratification and tells us we have the right to personal happiness. The long hard road of real spiritual training has little place in our collective consciousness.
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that at the beginning we are shown something that is immediate, belonging to the eternal now. We are given a glimpse of what is here always, our eternal Beloved. There is no time in this moment, no long and arduous journey. Instead there is something spontaneously and completely alive. He seduces us by giving us a taste of what is already within us—the gift of ourselves as we eternally are. How can the ego with its restrictions in time and space understand or live this eternal now?
The wayfarer does not initially understand that the real work on the path is not to have access to spiritual or mystical experiences; these are given through grace. The work is to create a container for them, so they can come alive in our daily life. An aspect of this container is the ability to discriminate between a real inner experience and a spiritual illusion created by the ego. Without a container of discrimination the wayfarer easily becomes lost and wastes the energy and potential of her awakening.
This does not mean one should dismiss the excitement and fire of one’s awakening. Traditionally this is one’s spiritual rebirth, the moment the real life of the soul begins. The “yes” that until now has been hidden within the soul comes to the surface, sometimes exploding into our outer world. There are a joy and intensity that belong to this moment, that need to be lived. Real love has arrived; real light is present. Something tremendous has begun. There can be a sense of “coming home,” for the first time in one’s life, of being where one truly belongs. Every phase of the path has its place; “there is a time for everything under the sun.”
I remember the intensity of my own awakening, the world suddenly sparkling with a hidden light, the joy and wonder of it all. I remember my first experiences in meditation, my first experiences of an inner reality beyond the mind. I was given something I had always longed for but did not know existed. I was given a taste of what is real in the midst of a world of illusions and lies. The desire for Truth was ignited and I knew what I wanted. I had no container for the crazy passion that possessed me: it drove me almost to madness; I fasted beyond what my body could bear. But for the first time I was completely alive.
Hopefully one finds a teacher or a path to begin the work of creating a container, of channeling the fire in the right direction, so that one can live a balanced life. It was three years before I found the path that would take me Home, and I arrived there in a state far from balanced, hanging on through will and determination, thin, hungry, and with my feet hardly touching the ground. But we are each given the experiences we need, and I do not regret the craziness of those initial years, even though I know now that much of my energy and most of my actions were misplaced. For example, I had to realize that one cannot fast the body into perfection, or reach reality by force of will.
One of the dangers of the early years is spiritual illusions. We are gripped by a longing, a primal hunger for something we cannot name and do not know. We are awakened for an instant to a reality that has little echo in our outer life or inner thought patterns. We have no context for what is actually taking place, and so naturally we create images and expectations of the path. The moment I saw the light in my teacher’s eyes, I wanted to be in that space beyond the limitations of a world that I found increasingly alienating and problem-filled. I imagined that spiritual life was to live in that formless dimension of presence and love. I little imagined how the path would force me back into this world of limitations.
Many seekers fall into this illusion of escape from ordinary reality at the beginning of the journey. As one friend describes it, “I thought that I would be taken out of life. That ordinary, outer life would fade away somehow, that I wouldn’t have to be responsible in life. I thought I would be lost in love. That I wouldn’t have to exist as a ‘separate’ individual any more, that I would always be swept away in love. I thought I would be taken deeper and deeper into states of love and bliss. That it would be like going farther and farther into meditation. I really didn’t think I would ever have to come back into normal life, or normal awareness.”
Another friend thought that her problems would no longer exist, that they would fade away or she would rise above them to exist in a higher reality. Other seekers create the illusion that they will acquire special spiritual knowledge, or even spiritual powers. The promise of “enlightenment” is a common delusion, one that overlooks the basic truth that the ego does not have any higher experiences and that in the dimension of the Self there is no “I” to realize anything. So many illusions, so many ways we use images of the path as a way to escape from life and from ourselves. The real path takes us back to ourselves and into life. If we do not come back into ourselves, the important psychological work—the confrontation with our own darkness, the shadow, and other inner dynamics that help create the container of a balanced psyche—would never be done.
As we work upon ourself, we begin to see that many of the initial illusions of the path have to do with our experience of the ego as the sole actor in our life. One friend understood that her illusions “are all born from the obvious fact that a ‘person’ comes to the path, so everything I initially expected referred back to the ‘personal.’ For example, I thought ‘I’ or the ‘personal self’ would be in love all the time. I didn’t realize that love just is. That it has nothing really to do with ‘me,’ but it just exists.”
At the beginning all that we know is the ego, and so we imagine the path and its experiences through the eyes of the ego, with all its desires and images of fulfillment. Even if we have read or been told that the ego “has to go,” that you have to “die before you die,” we cannot imagine a state in which the “I” is not at the center. When we think of the Self, we imagine a spiritualized ego. We are rarely prepared for the simplicity of what is. The Self may have a cosmic dimension, but it is also the most ordinary and simple essence, a quality of being that is present in everything. And the states of non-being that exist beyond the Self we cannot begin to comprehend with a consciousness that is centered on its own sense of existence. How can we imagine a state in which we are where we are not?
While some illusions center on an inner spiritual state, others reflect a desire to manifest something in the outer, for example becoming a healer or even a spiritual teacher, having a “destiny” that we think reflects our unique spiritual nature. While some wayfarers may be called down these paths, the wish for them is often just a new form of ego-gratification in which the ego gets hold of a pure energy or intention and uses it for its own purposes. The ego loves to inflate itself, make itself the central actor on every stage. It can be disillusioning to realize that the Self often does not need any specific outer form or role to manifest, that it is a state of being rather than a “manifest destiny.”
Another common form of spiritual illusion is the idea of living a “guided life” or being in a state in which actions simply arise by themselves without the need for us as the “doer.” Although there are such states in which the Self or our divine nature lives through us, they require far more conscious discrimination than we realize at the beginning. Except in rare instances of highly evolved spiritual beings, our higher nature needs to manifest through our ego and lower nature, which likes to divert the higher energy for its own purposes. “The ego lurks around every corner,” seeking to subvert our true nature. We must learn to distinguish between the real need of the moment and a hidden desire or a pattern of self-protection that has taken on a spiritual form. Often the illusion of being guided is an avoidance of real responsibility for our life and actions. It is a perfect excuse for someone who does not want to fully embrace everyday life with its difficulties and demands. Patriarchal spirituality may have stressed the transcendent nature of the Self, but the Self is also an intrinsic part of life, and it can only be fully incarnated and lived when we take full responsibility for life as it is. One can only realize the Self with the full acceptance of one’s life and destiny. In the words of the Sufi master Abû Sai‘îd ibn Abî-l-Khayr, “Whatever is to be your fate, face it!”
Finally, the path takes us to a place where the ego surrenders and the Self becomes the ruler. Then life takes on the quality of a blank sheet of paper for the Beloved to use as He wills. But by the time we have reached this stage, we have taken full responsibility for our life, for the ego and its needs and demands. We have become mature wayfarers who do not use the path to avoid life’s difficulties. We have learned the value of common sense, and learned how to live in both worlds. And we have developed constant vigilance against the ego and its cunning ways of self-deception.
Perhaps no illusion is more common or more insidious than the illusion that spiritual life will take the seeker away from ordinary life. Ordinary life will always be included. In fact, we become more and more immersed in the ordinary: we “chop wood and carry water.”
Often it is the mundanity of the path for which we are least prepared. After a taste of the passion of the soul, which initially seems so “other” to our common experience, we tend to expect the banality of life to fade away in the excitement or ecstasy of the inner journey. We may imagine a spiritual life filled with dramatic challenges and spiritual states. But that is simply the ego yet again co-opting the experience for its own ends. Just to be an ordinary wayfarer walking a dusty path home is not so gratifying.
The true uniqueness of our nature often appears most ordinary and simple. As one friend describes her experience, “I am always shocked by how ordinary things are, how I keep coming down into the ordinary. I really expected things to seem extra-ordinary.” Another friend who came to be with my teacher expected to live a simple life of meditation, but within a few years she found herself teaching in an inner-city primary school, with thirty children demanding her attention all day long. It was not what she imagined!
Often the attachment to the “extra-ordinariness” of spiritual life is another way to protect ourselves from life, or from ourself, just as a romantic fantasy can protect us from the vulnerability and demands of a real relationship. True love makes us naked and vulnerable, as the patterns that protect us are dissolved or burned away. Unlike most illusions, the real nature of the path is about becoming emptier, having less rather than more. While illusions often inflate the ego with images of being special, on the real path we become more ordinary and simple.
When we feel we are living in the passion of the soul, torn apart by love, we can easily dismiss the importance of paying our bills on time, of taking care of our human needs and responsibilities. We can go through life with little attention to how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves. But without a firm ground in the ordinary, without learning how to relate to life with the attention and respect it needs, we cannot fully live the energy of the soul here.
A focus on ordinary life grounds the energy of the path, and also makes it more difficult for the ego to create spiritual fantasies. This is why traditionally when a young man first came to a Sufi tekke, or khânqâh (Turkish and Persian for 'Sufi center or hospice'), he was given the most mundane or debasing tasks, for example cleaning the latrines, sweeping the courtyard. For the first few years he might be given no spiritual practices at all, only simple tasks of service.
It is important to not reject the ordinary dimension of our experience, because the nature of the soul is ordinary and simple, and often expresses itself in what is most ordinary. The soul is a quality of being in which things just are. Here peace is, love is, even power just is. We will never notice, let alone really live, these qualities of the soul if we follow our desires to escape the ordinary, if we create unnecessary dramas or fantasies. Zen haikus often reflect this simplicity. The dew on the grass is present in the moment without any drama. The full harvest moon on the water is both simple and profound. The container we are creating on the path is a mature relationship with lif