Excerpt from Chapter 1: Awakening
Take me to you, imprison mee, for I
THE RAPE OF PERSEPHONE
The Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone tells the story of feminine initiation through rape. The maiden Persephone, also called Kore, is gathering flowers with her friend when she suddenly notices a narcissus of striking beauty. She runs to pick the flower, but as she bends down the earth opens and Hades appears. He seizes her and drags her down into the depths of the earth. Kore's mother, Demeter, hears her daughter's despairing cry for help, and for nine days looks all over the world. Finally, on Hecate's advice, she goes to consult Helios, the sun, who has seen the abduction from his chariot in the heavens. Helios tells Demeter that the narcissus was planted by Zeus, who planned her daughter's abduction by his brother Hades, so that she might become Hades' "flowering bride."
In her inconsolable grief Demeter withdraws from Olympus and takes refuge among the cities of men. She comes to Eleusis and has a temple built for her where she retires into her sorrow. As she withdraws, so the earth dries up and withers, the sap of growth departs and the land lies dying. The gods, seeing that without crops the entire human race will perish and there will be no one to worship them, come to Demeter to entreat her to come out and restore the earth. But she will not permit the earth to bear fruit again until she sees her daughter. Finally Zeus commands Hermes to descend into the underworld and tell Hades that he must return Kore, who since her arrival in the underworld has taken the name Persephone, to her mother. Before returning, Persephone, yielding to Hades' temptation, eats a few pomegranate seeds, a symbol of marriage and fertility. Having tasted the fruit of her womanhood, Persephone must henceforth spend a third of each year with him.
This myth enacts the archetype of the maiden's initiation into womanhood, the dark rite of passage that is a transformation to a greater wholeness. When Kore returns from the underworld she is reunited with her mother into the single figure of Demeter-Kore, who is then symbolically joined by Hecate, the figure of intuitive feminine wisdom. Thus through her abduction, the innocent maiden becomes mother, maiden, and sybil all in one, embodying the three-fold nature of woman made whole.
Helen Luke, commenting on this myth, says that in seeing the narcissus, Kore is caught in the intoxicating moment of seeing herself as a person for the first time, glimpsing her own feminine beauty separate from her mother. Inevitably, Luke says, rape must follow, for the moment of breakthrough for a woman is always, symbolically, a rape, a necessity, something which takes over with overmastering power and brooks no resistance. Any breakthrough of new consciousness, though it may have been maturing for months or years out of sight, comes through a building up of tensions which reaches a breaking point. If the man or woman stands firm with courage, the breakdown becomes a breakthrough into a surge of new life. The Lord of the Underworld is he who arises bursting forth from the unconscious with all the tremendous powers of instinct. He comes with his immortal horses, and sweeps the maiden from the surface life of her childish paradise into the depths, into the kingdom of the dead. For a woman's total giving of her heart, of herself, in her experience of her instincts is a kind of death. (1)
New consciousness bursts through from where it has been germinating in the depths. We are carried into transformation, caught by an instinctive drive that pulls us away from the ego into the vaster dimension of the Self. Identifying with the ego, we feel the fear of the unknown and the grief for what is lost, the security of old patterns. These patterns often have to be broken by force, by the shock of the numinous power that belongs to the beyond. Otherwise we would remain forever caught in what has become familiar.
When we are ready, the instinctual energy of the divine invades our carefully constructed identities and ego-patterns. Kore, intoxicated by the narcissus, is inwardly ready to be ravished. She has come to the end of maidenhood, and needs to be taken into the darkness of initiation, the unknowing of transformation. Like children, we are afraid of the dark, but only in the darkness, in the unknown, is there the pomegranate seed of rebirth.
The story of Persephone, like all stories of death and rebirth, can be read on different levels. The transformation of maiden into woman embraces the ancient rites of fertility, the immersion in darkness that leads to new growth, that are central to the cycle of life. The maidenhead of innocence must be broken for the deeper mysteries to be enacted, for life and consciousness to be reborn. Conception only happens in the darkness of the earth, of the womb, of the psyche.
The mystic passes through many stages of transformation, many descents into darkness and openings into rebirth. The ladder of spiritual ascent forces one into the depths, and the relationship with the divine Beloved is rarely a gentle courtship. When Rûmî fell at the feet of Shams, caught by a glance from the wanderer's eyes, his whole world of theological knowledge was shattered in an instant.
Violation is a cornerstone of the mystical journey, as the potency of the spirit shatters the ego. The glance of the divine, whether seen in a teacher's eyes or experienced through some other medium of awakening, pierces through to the soul where it sows the seed of spiritual conception. In this moment the imprint of remembrance is activated with enough force to carry us beyond our conditioning and lead us to our death. The sharp sword of divine longing is not just a metaphorical concept, as those who have felt its pain can testify. We are pierced by the passion of our own hidden devotion and by the intensity of the Beloved's need for His lover. We are violated by our love for Him and His love for us.
The paradox of spiritual violation is that it carries the sweetness of a lover's kiss, the potency of intoxication. We are embraced by His tenderness as much as we are broken by His strength. These opposites working together remake us in the mold of love and submission. This is the inner drama of our own rape and dismemberment, in which the mystic is destroyed and remade, loses himself to find His Beloved.
Yet we live in a culture which, having lost sight of the mysteries, equates violation only with destruction and not with rebirth. Having closed the door to the inner worlds, we see only half of the cycle of transformation. Just as we have lost sight of the symbolic meaning of incest,(2) so we have become conditioned to reject the transformative meaning of rape. Enacted on the inner stage of the soul, rape or "ravishing" is a purifying and transformative act, often a necessary part of initiation. The horror we rightly feel towards the brutality of physical rape(3) should not blind us to the potency of its symbolic reality. We need to differentiate between outer human relationships and our inner relationship with the divine. In order to help free ourself from the collective rejection of the sacred we need to reclaim an understanding of violation's link with love.
Confusion can easily arise from our lack of understanding of the difference between an outer, human relationship and the inner relationship with the divine. During a workshop, a young woman shared a long and complicated dream full of confusion. But underneath all the confusion was a real conflict about her relationship to the Beloved. The dreamer had been brought up to believe that in a relationship she should not give herself away but preserve her identity. She should not allow herself to be used, but keep a sense of her own worth and value. She should be aware of her own needs in the relationship, rather than just trying to fulfill the needs of her partner. However much she loved another, she should remain independent and free.
In reaction to centuries of patriarchal repression, these values of self-assertion have become a strong influence in our Western collective, particularly among women. They are an important safeguard against patterns of male dominance and feminine abnegation, but can become a hindrance in an encounter with the inner lover. The relationship with the divine requires total subservience and self-sacrifice. The heart's true Beloved should be approached with a vulnerability in which all patterns of self-defense are laid aside. The lover is worthless, only the Beloved matters; we seek to respond to all of His wishes with no thought for our own needs. "The Beloved is living, the lover is dead" is not only a description of union, but also an attitude of the heart in which the lover looks only to the Beloved.
The dreamer is right to protect her sense of integrity with her boyfriend, but not in her search for God. In the outer world of duality our sense of individual worth is of tremendous importance. We are protecting our human dignity, which is ultimately our own sense of being sacred and whole. Only when we value our own inner self can we offer it back to the Beloved. The Sufi is never a doormat to others. We bow down only before Him.
However, the relationship with God does not belong to the ego but to the Self. In this relationship our sense of self is just an obstacle:
The ego does not need to be protected but rather to be pushed aside, surrendered in the service of love. The embrace of the Beloved can be experienced as a violation of the ego, which loses its sense of self-autonomy. The energy of love devastates patterns of ego-identity. In Sufi symbolism, the "tavern of ruin" is the site of that devastation, and it is there we will find the treasure we seek:
In our search for human love we seek care, warmth, tenderness, and understanding, as well as passion. We want something for ourself, to hold onto, to give us a sense of self-worth. But the relationship with the Beloved needs a space empty of desires, where the ego does not intrude. The energy of divine love creates this empty space, creates the place for love's meeting in which there is no lover, only the Beloved. A friend describes how during meditation she experienced the power of this love that attacked her mind and ego, destroying everything she thought valuable:
He destroys those whom He loves. Love is the greatest power in the universe and the most destructive to the mind and the ego. Rûmî tells a story of someone who came to the Prophet and said, "I love you."
Love is a sword of death cutting us loose from the ego. Only when we forget ourself do we remember Him. Only when we have nothing left to lose does He come to us. Then, secretly, unexpectedly, He reveals His presence, the intoxicating oneness of union. Within the heart there is no me and you, no sense of identity or individuality, just a merging and melting into His embrace. Because the ego is the only obstacle, the only protection we need is from ourself. Contrary to all patterns of conditioning, we need to allow ourself to be naked, vulnerable, violated, to be pierced through to the core of our being, to the inner sanctum of the soul.
The energy of love not only attacks ego-patterns; it also opens us. Cutting through the barriers of protection, love reveals the hidden places of the heart. In a human love affair this is where violation and betrayal leave their most dangerous wounds. Scarred by pain, only too often we close ourself, build a defensive shell and repress our feelings. Instinctively we withdraw, safeguarding ourself from further pain. But those who are caught in the grip of longing have to make the dangerous journey beyond the confines of self-preservation. The madness of love is not just a poetic metaphor, but a passion that defies the primal instinct of self-protection. In the words of Rûmî:
Surrendering to violation, we sacrifice ourself on the altar of our longing. We pawn away our own self-worth in our addiction for love's wine. We know that love's pain is also its greatest promise. The Self can never be hurt by love. The only suffering of the soul is when we deny the Beloved and turn from His face. In the arena of love only the ego is wounded, only the ego suffers. When there is no obstacle, how can there be pain? Pain is caused by resistance, by the ego struggling to preserve itself or protesting its wounds.
The lover looking towards her Beloved acknowledges suffering but is pushed by a deeper instinct than self-preservation. Once the fire of longing is ignited within the heart, we are caught by the soul's desire for union. When we say "Yes" to the call of the Self we open our heart to the pain of separation. This pain draws us into love's arena where the energy of the Self is stronger than the ego's pull. The energy of the Self does not belong to this world of duality where "I" must protect myself from "you." The Self is a state of union in which "I" and "you" are experienced as a part of the Great Oneness. The only betrayal is when we close our heart to the pain of separation, when we protect ourself from the violation of His touch.
Being open to violation means to hang naked on the cross of our own longing and suffer the destruction of our beliefs and values. What is most precious to us must go. And while outer attachments may be difficult to give up, beliefs and our own sense of identity are much harder. It is far easier to give up possessions than to surrender ourself. We each have our own particular beliefs, in justice, for example, or our image of what is right. But such beliefs belong to this world and are limited. "Beliefs can be great traps. They can imprison us."(8) There even comes the time when the belief in the teacher has to be surrendered, as expressed in the Zen saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." The wayfarer is walking a road beyond all form, all limitation, into the limitless ocean of His love.
The ego needs an identity, but the wayfarer aspires to being "featureless and formless," an empty mirror that can reflect His light. For many years I was attached to being a spiritual seeker. This was an identity that gave me a sense of purpose and a support in time of difficulties. For a while it was a necessary crutch, but there came the time when it was dissolved and I was left with a feeling of abandonment. What was I if not a seeker? At this time I had a dream of seeing my own coffin on which was written "spiritual aspirant."
Sometimes attachments and identities fall away, sometimes they are torn from our bleeding hands as we struggle to keep a sense of self. We are often surprised by what we find to be most precious, most difficult to lose. But the energy of the Self is relentless in its drive for Truth. If we are attached to being an artist we may lose our creativity. If we are attached to being a failure we may be forced to be successful.
The potency of divine love is that it is not attached to any form, nor will it allow itself to be limited. The work of the lover is to co-operate with the process of destruction, the work of annihilation. Love cuts through illusions and attacks patterns of self-interest. The sword of love is merciless, destroying anything that stands between lover and Beloved:
Protecting ourself from love's sword is to protect ourself from His closeness. He empties us of ourself so that He can reveal His beauty and His majesty. Empty and free from self, the lover is open to the bliss of His presence.
His love for us ignites the primal pain of longing, the wound that can only be healed by His touch. The anguish of the soul calls out, awakening us to separation. The potency of this pain is that there is no shelter or defense that can protect us. Our love for Him pierces our patterns of resistance. The hunger for God is no idealized feeling, but a need that comes from the instinctual depths of our being. We crave His touch with a desire only addicts can understand. Caught in love's trap, we would pawn everything, including our self-respect. Love has its own values, as in 'Attâr's story of a lord who lost everything for his love for a beer-seller.
While human love may offer us security, warmth, a sense of being wanted, divine love opens a different door. The gods abduct Persephone, carry her off to the underworld, leaving a world devastated through her mother's grief. Divine love, erotic and untamable, destroys all plans of prosperity, all images of freedom. The lover is gripped by a passion that is more powerful than reason, her whole being impregnated and then torn by desire. She is like Mirabai, the sixteenth-century Indian princess and mystic who left her palace and wandered the roads and forests searching for Krishna, her "Dark Lord," willing to give up everything for a glimpse of her Beloved.
The desperation of divine love is that the lover is the victim of a force beyond her control. In human love we engage in power dynamics and strategies of seduction. We play a myriad of games and psychological dramas with our human partners. Whether we assume the role of innocent, hero, temptress, or tyrant, unconsciously or consciously we plan and enact our moves. Patterns of power and protection are woven into our romances and relationships. But with the Beloved we are always a victim.
Whether seduced or attacked by His love, whether we try to run away or give ourself gladly, He is the master and we are the slave. His glance is so potent that we are left helpless. Even when we struggle and fight, we are already love's casualty. With our free will we can reject Him, turn away from the abyss of His embrace back to our problems and attachments, but He remains love's master.
This is no love affair of equals, no give-and-take of partners. Blindly we give ourself to a Beloved who demands total submission, a blank check of devotion. All we have to offer is our incapacity to love Him as He should be loved, our inability to know Him. Silently we plead that He allow us to come close, that He grace us with the merest glimpse from His eyes, the faintest scent of His presence. Like Mirabai, we know that our only place is at His feet.
On the Sufi path the relationship with the Beloved is reflected in the relationship with the teacher. The sheikh is the mediator between the wayfarer and the Beloved. The heart of the sheikh is a pure mirror reflecting the light of divine love into the heart of the lover. This transmission of love happens on the inner plane of the soul, creating a relationship of impersonal intensity. A friend had a vision of the power of this love when she first came to her teacher's group:
The friend describes her response to this experience, and her understanding of its implications:
The teacher's phallus and nakedness image the potency and vulnerability of the relationship with the divine. The association of the teacher's body with the Virgin Mary points to the immaculate conception, the process through which the spirit impregnates the soul with the seed of higher consciousness. In this vision the impregnation comes from the eyes of the teacher which blazed forth "an unspeakable love that pierced my heart like the blade of a sword. It awakened with one gaze from the Divine Lover a longing which tormented me in a way I could not ever get any purchase on." The sword of longing pierces into the very core of our being, where the mystery of divine conception takes place: the soul is made pregnant with God. In the words of Rûmî, "Sorrow for His sake is a treasure in my heart. My heart is light upon light, a beautiful Mary with Jesus in the womb."(12)
The divine consciousness conceived within the heart of the lover is the knowledge of His oneness, of His unending presence and limitless love. The consciousness of His unity dissolves all semblance of duality, and is a direct perception from essence to Essence. Abû Sa'îd ibn Abî-l-Khayr terms this consciousness sirr Allâh, the consciousness of God which God places within the heart. He describes how it comes into the heart:
The pain of longing purifies the psyche and prepares the soul. Longing is the heart's most terrible wound through which we are opened to God. Its intensity enables it to penetrate throughout our being and burn away our impurities. The greater the longing the faster the process of purification. Each atom cries out for union, and as longing permeates our whole being, so is the whole of our self prepared for His embrace. He wants all of us, and not just what we identify as spiritual. The body too is included in the annihilating ecstasy of love. Everything is to be surrendered and given to Himthe mind, the psyche, the body, and the soul. The depth, passion, and intensity of this yielding belong only to divine love, as another friend experienced in meditation:
The ancient memory of divine love is made conscious as the lover yields to its penetrating and illuminating power. The shared desire of lover and Beloved belongs to the memory of the soul, to the eternal moment in which "He loves them and they love Him." The incarnation of this experience, felt in the body, the psyche, and the soul, is the completion of the circle of love. To quote Mechthild of Magdeburg:
The heart's desire for God is born from His love and returns us to Him. Just as love has no limits, longing is not limited. Longing is love's violation, for it does not acknowledge the protective barriers of conditioning, and its pain batters down our resistance to God. Awakened in the core of our being, it is like a traitor in the midst of our ego-self. The more we turn towards God the stronger we feel its pull. Longing is intensified by meditation, and the dhikr impresses into us the anguish of being separate from Him whose name we repeat. Our only defense is to deny Him. But then we deny the love our own soul has for its Beloved.
Love and longing violate reason. Love is a madness, a disease, and an addiction. Longing is a sweet poison that brings despair. The heart cries, the soul cries, but He whom we need is absent. We are forced to give away everything, driven by a drunkard's desire for the taste of annihilation. Only love can redeem love's sorrow, and only when we have been permeated by love's sorrow does the Beloved take us. Finally, in the depth of our longing and despair, we give ourself unconditionally. No longer seeking protection, we sell ourself as love's slave to our master. In the words of the fourteenth-century Indian mystic, Janabai:
Notes from Chapter 3 Excerpt:
(1) "Mother and Daughter Mysteries," Helen Luke,Woman Earth and Spirit, p. 56-7.
Abû Sa'îd ibn Abî-l-Khayr. The Secret of God's Mystical Oneness. Trans. John O'Kane. Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1992.
Bowie, Fiona, ed. Beguine Spirituality. New York: Crossroad, 1990.
Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Love. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
Hirshfield, Jane, ed. Women in Praise of the Sacred. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Luke, Helen. Woman: Earth and Spirit. New York: Crossroad, 1986.
Mirabai. For Love of the Dark One. Trans. Andrew Schelling. Boston: Shambhala, 1993.
Nicholson, R.A. Studies in Islamic Mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921.
Rûmî. Delicious Laughter. Trans. Coleman Barks. Athens, GA: Maypop Books, 1990.
-. Say I am You. Trans. Coleman Barks. Athens, GA: Maypop Books, 1994.
-. Signs of the Unseen. Trans. Thackston, Jr., W.M.. Putney, Vermont: Threshold, 1994.
Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
Tweedie, Irina. Daughter of Fire, A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master. Nevada City: Blue Dolphin Publishing, 1986.
Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn. The Bond with the Beloved: The Mystical Relationship of the Lover and the Beloved. Inverness, California: Golden Sufi Center, 1993.
The author gratefully wishes to acknowledge: for permission to quote from Beguine Spirituality, edited by Fiona Bowie, introduction and compilation copyright © Fiona Bowie 1989, translation copyright © Oliver Davies 1989 used with permission from Crossroad Publishing Company, New York; excerpt as submitted from Women in Praise of the Sacred by Jane Hirshfield copyright © 1994 by Jane Hirshfield, reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.; Maypop Books, for permission to quote from Say I am You, translated by Coleman Barks; from For Love of the Dark One translated by Andrew Schelling, © 1993. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., 300 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA 02115; for permission to quote from Signs of the Unseen translated by Thackston Jr. published by Threshold Books, RD4 Box 600, Putney, VT.