Monday, November 28, 2011
An Interview with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
ST: For many years you have lived as a Sufi, and have written a number of books on Sufism. I know that technically, Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, yet you describe it as a universal path of love. What does it mean to you to be a Sufi?
LV: You begin with a difficult question—originally, Sufis were known as "wayfarers" or "travellers on the mystical path." Later, these mystics, or lovers of God, as they were also called, became known as Sufis. Sufis follow a mystical path in which the relationship with God is that of lover and Beloved. To put it simply, Sufis are lovers of God.
ST: Many people think of the Whirling Dervishes when you mention Sufism. But this is an ancient tradition with several branches.
LV: That's correct. I belong to an order known as the "silent Sufis" which was named after the 14th-Century Sufi, Baha ad-din Naqshband. He taught that God is silent and is most easily reached in silence. We are called the silent Sufis because our spiritual practices are done in silence. We practice a silent meditation of the heart, and a silent dhikr, which consists of the repetition of the name of God. Our path also incorporates psychology, and we have always used dream work: our founder was renowned as an interpreter of dreams. Also, we don't dress differently from other people—we mix in the world and make our contribution to society. Nobody knows outwardly if you are a silent Sufi or not. We have very little regard for outer form. We focus on what happens within the human being, within the heart of the wayfarer.
ST: What are the devotional practices specific to the silent Sufis?
LV: I mentioned our two practices. One is the silent dhikr, which is the silent repetition of the name of God, "Allah." When we practice the dhikr we are not just repeating a word. We are seeking to remember God with each and every breath. The mystic Kabir said, "The breath that does not repeat the name of God is a wasted breath."
Our other practice is the silent meditation of the heart. In this meditation we use the energy of love to still the mind. We immerse ourself in the feeling of love within the heart, until the mind and its thoughts are drowned in love. The first stage of this meditation is called dhyana, a state of unconsciousness which can seem like sleep, in which the individual mind is merged into the universal mind. Later one awakens on a different plane of consciousness: these are the states of samadhi. Of course this is a very gradual process which takes years. The first step is to still the mind.
ST: You mentioned that the path of the silent Sufis is a very psychological path. And on the audio series you give an interesting talk on "The Purpose of Problems." From the viewpoint of the Sufi, what is the purpose of our problems?
LV: The Sufi says we are here in this world to learn something. We attract our problems to ourself in order to learn something from them. One difference, if you like, between the individual who is on a spiritual journey as opposed to the person who is not, is the willingness to encounter a problem and ask: Why did I attract this? What does it have to teach me?
Most human beings only learn through suffering. If you are having a good time you just enjoy yourself. But if you are suffering, then you engage with life in a different way, deeply and acutely. This can be an opportunity to go beneath the surface of your life and really learn something about yourself. So if you are suffering, and seek to discover the inner purpose of your problems, you are no longer the victim of misfortune. You realize that you are here to learn. And while many people see their life in the terms of success or failure, outer success or failure in particular , the mystic, the wayfarer, knows that much deeper issues are at stake than what is on the surface. And often failure can teach us more about ourself than success.
ST: Central to the practice of Sufism is the concept of "the longing of the heart." Please talk about the role that longing plays in the spiritual life of the Sufi.
LV: The great Sufi poet Rumi said, "I will cry to Thee, and cry to Thee, and cry to Thee, until the milk of Thy kindness boils up." He is expressing what is most precious for the Sufi: the longing for God. The Sufi knows that it is this longing that offers the most direct route to the Beloved, to God.
Deep within the heart there is the primal pain of longing, the cry of the soul separated from its source. This pain comes from the memory of when we were together with God, what the Sufis call "the sweetness that was before honey or bee." At special moments in our life we can be given a taste of this union, a taste of divine remembrance. It is so unbelievably sweet and intoxicating. And it awakens the knowing, latent in the soul, of being together with God. This is what ignites the longing, the fire within the heart that begins to burn as a heartache.
In any love affair, you long for the one you love. You wait for the telephone call. You wait for the letter. You wait for your lover to come home. In a love affair with God the feeling is the same, but amplified. You long and you wait. You wait for the moment when the Beloved suddenly appears in your heart, when you feel the tender touch of your Beloved.
ST: Do you believe that all people have this longing for God?
LV: Let me begin by saying that I think this longing is the deepest, deepest pain, the deepest heartache that exists within every human being, because it is the soul's pain of separation from God. And although they don't know it, those who search for intimacy with others are reacting to this longing. They think that another human being will fulfill them, will answer this need. But how many of us have actually ever been totally fulfilled by another person? Maybe for a while, but not forever. We want something more fulfilling, more intimate. We want God. And it is so within everybody. But not everyone dares to go into this abyss of pain, this longing, that can take you there.
ST: Many spiritual traditions focus not so much on the pain of what's missing, but on achieving a sense of wholeness. In this light, how can you explain Sufism's focus on opening up to the pain of longing?
LV: Again I go back to the core of Sufism, which is about a love affair with God, in which we want to be with our Beloved, want to be united with our Beloved. It is so simple, so primary. This is a path for those who aren't just looking for wholeness, or for integration, who don't care about escaping from pain and suffering. This is a path for people who are only interested in a love affair with their divine Beloved. And when love opens you, and takes you into the depths of your own heart, it can be very painful.
ST: Please explain the Sufi concept of fana or annihilation.
LV: This is one of the cornerstones of the Sufi path, and is encapsulated in the saying attributed to the prophet Mohammad, "To die before you die." You see, most people wait until they physically die to go back home to God. But the Sufi, driven by the soul's homesickness, wants to experience going back to God consciously, in this life. And for this you have to go beyond your ego. This is what it means to die before you die.
Fana is about the annihilation of the ego. One great Sufi said, "Between You and me there lingers an 'It is I.' Oh God, through Thy mercy lift this 'It is I' from between us both." What has to "die" is this "I" which separates us from God. This is the painful part of the path, because it requires that we surrender our ego and learn to give ourself totally to love. Fana is a long, slow process—it takes time for the ego to surrender, to step aside, to become annihilated.
ST: How does the title of your new audio learning series, "Love is a Fire, and I am Wood" relate to the process of fana?
LV: The Sufi says, "Two cannot live in one heart. Either the ego or the Beloved." And if the Beloved is to live in your heart, you have to be burnt. You have to be the wood that is consumed in the fire of divine love.
Through meditation, prayer, and aspiration, the Sufi surrenders to this fire of divine love, knowing that one of the quickest ways to die and reach the Beloved is through this fire of love. This is not just a metaphysical fire. You can feel it burning within you—your longing for God becomes a painful fire that burns within your heart. And finally, only God's love remains. Then you realize one of the great secrets of the mystical path, that the longing awakened within your own heart is actually God's longing for you.
Rumi summed up his life in the lines: "And the result is not more than these three words, 'I burnt, and burnt, and burnt.'"
ST: You've talked about the pain associated with this great longing in Sufism. It seems paradoxical that the wayfarer actually welcomes this pain, this feeling of longing.
LV: One of the great Sufis, Ibn 'Arabi, had as his prayer, "Oh Lord, nourish me not with love but with the desire for love." While another Sufi prayed, "Give me the pain of love, the pain of love, not the joy of love, the pain of love, and I will pay any price you ask." The Sufi knows that love's pain is what will take us home. This pain of love bypasses the mind; it can bypass a lot of psychological problems. The pure longing for God is imprinted by God in the heart of the human being. And because this longing, this fire within the heart, is so precious, you pray that it burns stronger.
ST: How does this longing take you back to God? Take you to divine union?
LV: Rumi says, "Don't look for water, be thirsty." Your thirst attracts God because your longing for God is God's longing for you. It is the most direct way back to God because it is the magnetic attraction of the soul for the Source. Like a moth drawn to the flames, we are drawn back to God by the fire of longing. The brighter the fire, the stronger the longing. And this longing purifies you. It burns you until there is nothing left within your heart but God.