Sufism: The Transformation of the Heart
by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Introduction | Description | PDF Download
Table of Contents
1. The Longing of the Heart
2. Sufi Practices: the Dhikr and Meditation
5. The Relationship with the Teacher
6. Uniting the Two Worlds
Excerpt from the Introduction
Sufism is truth without form.
THE JOURNEY FROM SEPARATION TO UNION
Sufism is a mystical path of love in which God, or Truth, is experienced as the Beloved. The inner relationship of lover and Beloved is the core of the Sufi path. Through love the seeker is taken to God. The mystic seeks to realize Truth in this life and God reveals Himself within the hearts of those who love Him.
The mystical experience of God is a state of oneness with God. This unio mystica is the goal of the traveller, or wayfarer, on the mystical path. Within the heart, lover and Beloved unite in love's ecstasy. The wayfarer begins the journey with a longing for this state of oneness. The longing is born from the soul's memory that it has come from God. The soul remembers that its real home is with God and awakens the seeker with this memory. The spiritual journey is a journey that takes us back home, from separation to union. We have come from God and we return to God.
The mystical journey home is a journey inward, to the very center of our being, where the Beloved is eternally present. He whom we seek is none other than our own eternal nature. Saint Augustine said, "Return within yourself, for in the inward man dwells Truth." The mystic experiences that the Beloved dwells within the mystic's heart, not as a concept but as a living reality. In the depths of the heart there is no separation between the lover and the Beloved. Here we are eternally united with God, and the mystical experience of union is a revelation of what is always present.
The greatest obstacle that keeps us from experiencing this eternal state of union is the ego, our own personal identity. In the state of union there is no ego. In this moment the individual self ceases to exist and only the Beloved exists. The Sufi says, "The Beloved is living, the lover is dead." Thus the Sufi aspires to "die before death," to transcend the personal self and experience our transcendent divine nature. The eleventh-century Sufi, Ansârî, expressed this very simply:
The mystical journey leads us away from the ego towards the Self, from separation back to union. Turning away from the ego and turning back to God, we are led deep within ourself, to the inner most center of our being, what the Sufis term the "heart of hearts." This is an individual journey of the seeker back to the source, of the "alone to the Alone." Yet there are stages on this journey, "valleys of the quest," through which each traveller passes. The Sufi masters have provided us with a map describing these stages and also the difficulties and dangers of the path. Having reached the goal, they are able to help other wayfarers by recording what may be expected along the way.
Sufism also provides certain techniques to open us to the inner world and keep our attention focused on our invisible goal. Foremost among these is the practice of remembrance, for the Sufi aspires to remember God in every moment, with each and every breath. This is not a mental remembrance, but a remembrance of the heart, for it is the heart which holds the higher consciousness of the Self. The Self is the part of us which is never separate from God, and the consciousness of the Self is a quality of knowing that we are one with God. The practice of remembrance is a way of awakening the consciousness of the Self, and thus becoming aware of our inner union with Him whom we love.
If you love someone you always think of them, and when the soul's love for God is awakened within the heart, the lover's attention is turned towards the Beloved. The moment of spiritual awakening is tauba, "repentance," which the Sufis describe as "the turning of the heart." The moment of tauba is always an act of grace, a gift from the Beloved, but Sufism has developed techniques for keeping our attention on the soul's love for God, on the heart's remembrance. One of these techniques is the dhikr, the repetition of one of the names of God. Through the practice of the dhikr the attention of the lover is turned towards God and the whole being of the lover becomes permeated with the joy of remembering the Beloved.
The Sufi path helps to make us aware of the divine consciousness of the Self that is found within the heart, and at the same time guides us away from the limited consciousness of the ego. The journey from the ego to the Self is the eternal journey of the soul, of the exile returning home. In this world we have forgotten our real nature and identify with the ego. The journey home frees us from the grip of the ego and the illusory nature of its desires. We are led to the real fulfillment that can only come from knowing what we really are, tasting the truth of our divine essence. When one Sufi master, Dhû-l-Nûn, was asked, "What is the end of the mystic?" he answered, "When he is as he was where he was before he was."(1)
Every spiritual path leads the sincere seeker to the truth that can only be found within. The Sufi says that there are as many roads to God as there are human beings, "as many as the breaths of the children of men." Because we are each individual and unique, the journey of discovering our real nature will be different for each of us. At the same time different spiritual paths are suited to different types of people. Sufism is suited to those who need to realize their relationship with God as a love affair, who need to be drawn by the thread of love and longing back to their Beloved.
Sufi is a name given to a band of mystics who are lovers of God. There is an ancient story about a group of lovers who were called "Kamal Posh" (blanket wearers), thought by some to be early Sufis. Their only individual possessions were their single blankets, which they wore during the day and wrapped around themselves at night. They went to every prophet. No one could satisfy them. Every prophet told them, do this or that, and they were not satisfied. One day Mohammed said that Kamal Posh men were coming and that they would arrive in so many days. They came on the day he said and, when they were with him, he only looked at them without speaking. They were completely satisfied. Why were they completely satisfied? Because he created love in their hearts. "When love is created what dissatisfaction can there be?"(2)
Sufism is the ancient wisdom of the heart. It is not limited by form, by time or place. It always was and it always will be. There will always be those who need to realize God as the Beloved. There will always be lovers of God. The Kamal Posh recognized that Mohammed knew the silent mysteries of love. They stayed with him and became assimilated into Islam.
Islam literally means "surrender" and, while the esoteric side of Islam teaches the outer religious law of surrender to God, there developed an inner esoteric side which teaches of the lover's surrender to the Beloved. A century after the death of the Prophet, small groups known as "Lovers of God" began to emerge throughout the Muslim world. They were also known as "Travellers" or "Wayfarers on the Mystical path," reflecting a saying ascribed to the Prophet:
Later these "Wayfarers" became known as Sufis, possibly referring to their white woolen garments (sûf), or as an indication of their purity of heart (safâ).
These small groups of Sufis gathered around their teacher, or sheikh. The inner teachings of the path are transmitted from teacher to disciple. Each teacher guides his disciples according to the principles he has received from his teacher. The essence of the teaching is not verbal, but a direct communion from heart to heart. The Kamal Posh stayed with Mohammed because he created love in their hearts, and it is the inner communion of the heart that is the core of the Sufi path. The relationship of lover and Beloved is reflected in the relationship with the teacher who guides his disciples, or murshids, with an openness of heart and an understanding of the mysteries of love.
At the core of all Sufi practices is the element of love and devotion. Devotion is the inner attitude of the lover, and the nature of the Sufi path is devotional. The Sufi aspires to give herself to God as a lover to her Beloved. Devotion is an opening of the heart to the grace that flows through love. It is an attitude of surrender in which the ego and the mind are surrendered to a mystery beyond their comprehension. In giving ourself to God we allow Him to take us Home, and the quickest way is through the door of love. In the words of al-Qushayri, "The inner reality of love means that you give all of yourself to the One until nothing remains of you for you."(3)
It is said that there are two ways of attracting God's attention. Either we make ourself perfect and then He has to love us, or we give ourself to Him and then He cannot resist our need to be with Him. The attitude of devotion is an offering of our whole self to Him whom we love. This inner offering is a dynamic state of surrender which attracts the higher energies of love. Just as in nature a vacuum is always filled, so is the inner emptiness of surrender filled with His presence.
In the West we have tended to associate surrender with subservience and have lost touch with its hidden power. Surrender creates an empty space within the psyche which allows us to experience the power of the Self without being overwhelmed or inflated. Sufi practices are designed to help us to surrender, and to realize that we are contained by something far beyond the limited horizons of the mind and ego. Stepping into the inner spaces of our own being we are able to experience the potency of His love for His servant.
Sufism has explored the ways of love and developed means to help the seeker travel this invisible and yet powerful path. Because the purpose of the path is to reveal the inner essence of the wayfarer, Sufism stays attuned to humanity. The deepest nature of mankind remains the same and yet surface changes take place. It is said that Sufism has stayed alive and preserved its dynamism through adapting and changing with the times and yet at the same time remaining true to the essence of the tradition. The essence of the tradition is the inner alignment of the heart towards God, and the surrender of the ego that allows His will to be done. But outwardly, as society and culture develop and change, so does Sufism respond to these changes.
Notes from the Introduction:
Arberry, Arthur J. The Doctrine of the Sufis. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1966.
Al-Qushayri. Principles of Sufism. Trans. B.B. Von Schlegel. Berkley: Mizan Press, 1990.
Tweedie, Irina. Daughter of Fire: a Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master. Inverness: The Golden Sufi Center Publishing, 1995.
For permission to use copyrighted material, the author gratefully wishes to acknowledge: Mizan Press for permission to quote from Principles of Sufism by al-Qushayri.