Selections from ‘What does it mean to be a teacher’
By: Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
The love between teacher and disciple is both the most powerful and the most paradoxical relationship a human being can experience; it is unique in this world… . And yet it has to be played out in the human arena where it is inevitably brought into the limited and distorted structures of the ego and personality. From the point of view of the soul all the projection and misunderstanding this gives rise to can seem such needless drama, based entirely on illusion, and yet this drama too has a role to play. It is the teacher’s job through it all to remain unswervingly true to the real divine nature, to the love and to the inner light of the disciple, as the transmission of love that the disciple needs to make the journey is given from heart to heart.
In an earlier chapter, “Dust at His Feet,” I wrote about my relationship with my sheikh, the Naqshbandi Sufi master Radha Mohan Lal. The following chapter describes a little of my own experience as a Sufi teacher. I began this work when I was thirty-six and was sent by my teacher, Irina Tweedie, to lecture about the Sufi path in North America. And then when she retired in 1992, I became her successor. In 1998, the year before she died, I was made a Sufi sheikh.
I should clarify that there are two distinct forms of spiritual teacher. There are teachers who convey the spiritual teachings of their tradition, their practices and disciplines. They may give lectures and seminars, write books and have students who study these teachings and often engage in the practices. Then there are spiritual teachers who have disciples, taking upon themselves the full responsibility of their disciples’ spiritual evolution, their journey Home. I have written a number of books and conveyed some of the teachings of my lineage of Sufism; this chapter is about my work in the traditional relationship of teacher and disciple. Although most of this drama of soul to soul happens deep within the heart, beyond the grasp of consciousness, I hope to convey a little of the human side of this most extraordinary relationship. In particular I want to describe an ambiguity that I often feel about what belongs to the human being and what belongs to God, and how this has been played out in my life.
The teacher is without a face and without a name. . .
What does it mean to be a teacher, a guide, to have the spiritual responsibility of taking souls Home? For many years I knew what it meant to be a disciple, to have my heart opened by love, to sit at the feet of my teacher being absorbed into emptiness, to see the light of another world in her eyes. From the first moment I met the white-haired Russian lady who was to be my teacher, I felt in her the inner authority that belongs to a Sufi teacher, and in the coming years, full of fear and longing I sat, week after week, in her small room, wanting nothing except the Truth I knew she knew. As she spoke about her sheikh in India, I felt his invisible presence, a being of power and love to whom I came to realize I belonged beyond life and death. I recognized this energy of the path that would demand everything from me, and over the years I experienced how a disciple is destroyed and remade through love, bitter and sweet.
Then one day when I was thirty-four, I was told by Irina Tweedie that I too would become a teacher, take up this transmission of love. This simple statement, made almost in passing, terrified me. Yet it also made sense of and echoed some dreams I had had in previous years. I recognized how the training had begun years before, maybe soon after I first came to the path as a battered and unbalanced young man. I could glimpse how I had been guided by the masters of the path and though I knew it was a grace to be given the work, it was also the last thing I wanted. It was as if I already knew it would demand from me more than I believed I could give, destroy me in ways I did not yet know – the fear was very real.
I had sat at my teacher’s feet since I was nineteen, and knew her ways of working with people, and also saw the demands that the path made on her. Because seekers sensed the unlimited love within her, they somehow instinctively felt that their demands could also be unlimited. I saw her give and give until her body and whole being were exhausted, and still she gave. Once people sense real love, their unmet needs come to the surface and almost suffocate everything else. People came with all of their troubles as well as their longing, and it was all unloaded on her. So much was expected. And this was the work and the world that were waiting for me.
Although, after sitting in her presence, watching her work with people day after day, I had some sense of what was involved, of course my own experience of this work was quite different. She began when she was already over sixty, having just returned from India after the death of our sheikh, and for the first ten years just a few people gathered around her, sitting in her small North London room. I began when I was young and the path was already present in the West: there was already a room full of people. My journey was different and yet the essence of the work was the same: holding a transmission of love to be given to those who need.
Maybe I should say from the beginning that from my experience I think it is almost impossible to be a spiritual teacher in the West. Recently a young man came to me who had begun having a small group of people around him, and asked my advice about being a spiritual teacher. Half-jokingly, I replied, “I think it’s impossible. Here in the West there is no container, no tradition of the real relationship of teacher and disciple. We have no context for this relationship of the soul that is both impersonal and intimate. There’s just misunderstanding and projection. It’s much better to have a sensible job as a plumber or an accountant.” I don’t think he understood what I meant.
In the West we have just an echo of an echo of this ancient tradition, in the love that Mary Magdalene had for Christ and the few words that she spoke to him after she mistook him for a gardener near his empty grave:
Jesus said to her, Mary. She turned herself, and said to him. Raboni; which is to say, Master.
Here are the devotion and love that belongs to this traditional relationship of teacher and disciple, but it was buried by the Church and has been forgotten. And yet anyone who has been awaked by a teacher’s love knows it truth. But how to express and live this sacred relationship in a culture that understands only personal love? How not to get caught in the myriad projections and misunderstandings that can arise when there is so much love and nearness? How can we live this mystery in its purity so that as with Mary, it can take us to see the risen Christ?
The question for the teacher is how to hold this truth, this essential love, when you know it will be misunderstood by even the most sincere seeker. And from this simple question comes my own experience that the teacher can expect to be burned by this love even more than the disciple. The teacher has to hold this love in its true, impersonal nature, knowing that it belongs only to God. And together with the love comes a deep recognition and complete acceptance of the wayfarer – one can only walk the path as one’s whole self. But this same love and acceptance so often awakens in the disciple a desire to have a personal relationship with the teacher, as the disciple does not understand that the real relationship belongs to the soul and not to the personality. The need to personalize this relationship appears most strongly in women, particularly when the love and understanding they experience are otherwise lacking in their lives. And in the West women seem to form a majority of spiritual seekers, especially on a path of devotion like Sufism.
Yet there can be no “friendship” with the teacher, despite the feelings of inner closeness that are very real. In the Sufi tradition the relationship with the teacher leads the disciple towards a relationship with God. The teacher is in essence an empty space through which the energy of the Divine can nourish the disciple, or a mirror that just reflects back her true self. Having no conscious understanding of its real nature, the disciple will color this relationship with personal dramas, with the images of parents or other authority figures, or even with the longing for a physical lover. She will paint her own pictures on this clear mirror.
I remember at the beginning of the work being shocked at how easily this inner relationship of love and closeness was misplaced, how this intimacy of the soul evoked so many other feelings and projections. Because I never knew my sheikh on a human level, I had never played out this drama, and found it deeply disturbing. For a time I tried to be distant, even cold or disdainful, sometimes deliberately pushing away the feelings that were projected. But then I learned how easily this could evoke patterns of rejection in the disciple, which could then open old wounds and veil the disciple from the love that was given, the love that could take them Home. I have found that it is better to allow the misunderstandings and projections, which over time are resolved through the energy of the path, through the impersonal nature of the love that is given.
And now, after so many years, when someone tells me that they want a “more personal relationship” with me, there is just a certain sadness that this evokes. If they knew the real nature of the love that is given, how its purpose is to draw them step by step towards an abandonment so complete that only Truth remains, they would not try to color it with the images of a personal friendship. And if they could glimpse what is within “me,” an emptiness where a cold wind often blows that knows nothing of any personal self, they would not want to get any closer. But we always paint the pictures we want to see, and when love is given there is no understanding of its desolation.
Hopefully the teacher is one who has been trained to want nothing, has been emptied to completely that there is no danger of being caught in the trap of so many projections. I was fortunate in that I was trained for almost twenty years before I began. I was ground to dust in order to do this work. And for the first few years I was watched very closely, and then crushed, again. I was taught the old-fashioned way, forced to see my limitations again and again. And this was only the beginning.
To guide a soul back to God is the most serious responsibility anyone can be given, because it concerns what is most precious within a human being: the desire for Truth and the ability to live this desire – the potential to go Home. Nothing is more important in the life of an individual, and so nothing is more dangerous to abuse. Sometimes seekers have come to me who have been spiritually misled, or even abused, by their teacher. The soul becomes twisted, unable to live or reflect the light that is within. These seekers can easily become lost souls, wandering aimlessly without true purpose. Sometimes help can be given, and their light can be returned to them. They can be reconnected with their life’s meaning. But there is almost always a scar, a sadness that what was so precious was contaminated.
On the Sufi path the disciple is taken Home through the power of divine love, and this love is the most potent and dangerous force in existence. It can cut through every pattern of resistance and awaken the heart. To have the power to place this love into the heart of another person is a tremendous responsibility. It also means that the other person can easily fall in love with you. This love is like nothing the disciple has every known, and it is given freely without conditions. It is pure poison – a drug to the heart. The teacher holds the heart of the disciple in his own heart and nourishes it with divine love. And how easy it is to mistake this divine love for human love. Without any cultural understanding of devotion, the disciple can become lost in a maze of longings in which the human and Divine become confused. It is the work of the teacher to try again and again to reflect back to the disciple the true impersonal nature of this love.
After almost twenty years I am in constant awe of this inner drama of divine love, how the disciple is held in love, and how the soul of the teacher is guided by the laws of love in this work. But it was many years before I understood the nature and effect of this transmission of love: how the essence of the relationship between teacher and disciple belongs to the level of the soul, how the soul of the disciple is infused with the light and love that it needs for the journey. And how little this work has to do with the outer person of either the teacher or disciple. And yet most practitioners believe that it is the outer person rather than the real being of the teacher with whom they interact. This is the cause of so much misunderstanding, and yet the outer form of the teacher also has a part to play.
As has belonged to so much of my experience of the path, this paradoxical relationship between the human and the Divine is at the center of the relationship with the teacher. I have personal faults and failings like anyone, and yet I have been trained, been made empty, to hold a transmission of love that is pure and impersonal. Because this pure love goes directly from heart to heart, it creates a feeling of intimacy that evokes needs, projections, and misunderstandings in the disciple. The journey of the disciple is of necessity through this maze of misunderstandings created by the divine love that comes through the teacher. Without the human presence of the teacher this drama would not take place, and yet it is due to the emptiness within the teacher that the wayfarer is drawn into this labyrinth, and hopefully, finally, into the mystery of merging, when human and divine reveal their essential unity.
When I first began this work I traveled around America giving lectures and workshops, finding the people who belonged to this Sufi path. It was a miracle to suddenly feel this love within my heart connecting with another, to experience its sweetness and the sense of a tradition coming alive. What had begun in a room in North London was now present in lecture halls and living rooms across North America, like an ancient promise or a dream being answered. And my heart and life were part of this promise, this mystery of love being awakened. An outer journey of so many motel rooms and rental cars was mirrored by an inner journey that brought a deep joy and sense of fulfillment. Even after twenty years I still find it a miracle when I see an unfamiliar face across a lecture room and find that her or she is already in my heart, or when I hear a dream that carries the ancient imprint of the path, discover a young man whose journey has taken him years and many miles to find his way here, and know that he is now where he belongs.
Over the years gradually more people were drawn to this path, and meditation groups formed in different parts of the world. For some strange reason North America, northern German, Switzerland, and London have become the places most people following this path are gathered. Outwardly we meet in these places, in the form of a lecture, a seminar, or weekly meditation groups. Inwardly we are present within the circle of love that belongs to this Sufi path, the mysterious gathering of souls on the inner planes where the real work takes place. The people following the path have become like a family. I know their lives, the joys and sorrows of their children, the demands of their work. I have heard their stories and know the longing that has always been present.
Only as the years passed did I come to realize the sense of responsibility and commitment that are involved in this work of the soul. Much is said about the need for commitment on the part of the wayfarer: without commitment there can be no progress along the path. Less understood is the depth of commitment on the part of the teacher. Without this complete commitment the disciple can easily be left stranded between the worlds, unable to return to a former ego-identity, yet lacking he energy or guidance needed to cross into the deeper reality of the Self. The teacher has to take responsibility for the disciple, whatever their limitations, doubts, or inner resistance. The disciple can hesitate, even step off the path. Disciples have this freedom. But the teacher has to remain committed to the potential the wayfarer has for the journey, hold the truth of her inner light even when it is obscured. The teacher as to follow an ancient code of practice that gives the wayfarer the best opportunity to make the journey, to live their longing for God. Rarely does the disciple understand what is being offered, or the price the teacher has to pay to keep this connection of love alive. Only if the disciple behaves unethically or makes a conscious decision to no longer follow a spiritual life is the commitment of the teacher withdrawn, the link between their hearts broken.
The wayfarer who is drawn onto the path of love will make many mistakes, and through the drama of projection and misunderstanding may get angry with the teacher, feel abandoned, even at times betrayed. In the East these feelings were contained within the tradition of adab, the correct behavior to have in the presence of the teacher. But in the West not only do we not have the real practice of adab, we have a culture that encourages the self-expression of the ego and has no understanding of what is really involved on the spiritual path. Often as a teacher I have had to accept the anger, resentment, even hostility of individuals faced with the darkness within themselves. So may times I have been blamed for inner problems or outer difficulties. One has to be trained in detachment or have the gift of compassion at such times to remain true to the highest potential of the disciple and not react. To wait with patience for weeks, or even sometimes years, until the darkness dissolves and the higher light within the disciple shines through. In these times to even want the wayfarer to progress or change is an obstacle. The disciple must be left free to make mistakes and experience her darkness. Sometimes, much later, the disciple may be made aware of how she has behaved. Sometimes it is never even mentioned. This is the tradition.
TRUST AND DISTRUST
As a teacher I have to trust the light within the disciple and the knowing that the path will nurture and guide this light, will take it where it needs to go. It is not that “I” know, but I have deep faith in the path itself, in this Sufi system that has been guiding souls Home for centuries. And I have faith in my sheikh who has trained me in a way that enables my light to be used in this work. For hundreds of years seekers have been coming to the path with their longing and difficulties, and this tradition has embraced them. There is a deep wisdom in the path itself: so many souls, so many difficulties, and yet the path remains as a living force. I trust that we are each given what we need, even if it is not in the way we want or expect. Real spiritual life is always so different from any expectations.
Yet in America I have encountered a difficulty that has taken me years to understand, and that is a cultural disrespect for real spiritual work and any real spiritual tradition. This deep disrespect appears to be part of our Western mind and psyche, and can subtly undermine the work of the path. It is as if there is a deep cultural mistrust of giving oneself to a spiritual path. This is easy to understand if it is the result of a recent experience with cults or some other form of spiritual abuse, but I sense that it goes deeper than that. Maybe it comes from an early Puritan imprint that was an escape from any imposed religious dogma. Maybe it is simply because the West – and in particular America – does not have any esoteric spiritual traditions as a part of its heritage, and distrusts something it does not understand, especially something that cannot be bought with money. Or maybe it is because America has sold its spiritual principles for material prosperity, and so has lost its own self-respect. Whatever the reason, this disrespect runs deep within the collective, and can easily poison the attitude of the wayfarer. Its presence is particularly felt when the wayfarer encounters difficulties or apparent contradictions in relation to the path or the teacher. It is surprisingly easy to undermine this work of the soul.
In other cultures a spiritual teacher and a spiritual path are respected, even by those who do not follow them. Here in the West we are left with the debris of a dying materialistic culture that has long lost touch with the sacred. Our collective disrespect for the sacred and its traditions casts a shadow on our individual and world soul, blurring the brightness of inner light, making it more difficult to recognize an inner truth. We do not trust what is real, preferring a spirituality that is subtly distorted, whose promises of enlightenment, if one looks closely, belongs to the ego rather than the Self. We are more comfortable with what is false. And in this materialistic culture it is much easier to trust what can be bought or sold. A true spiritual path cannot be bought or sold, but like the sunlight is free,
I have learned that there is nothing to be gained from confronting this collective shadow, but it is important to recognize the forces that interfere with the work of the soul. Distrust and disrespect are subtle poisons that create distortions in the relationship between teacher and disciple. Regardless, my work is always to respect the light within the individual, and to trust that this light and the light of the path will guide the soul Home.
FROM HEART TO HEART
From heart to heart the transmission of love is given, the love that the wayfarer needs to make 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.” The teacher activates the heart of the disciple, giving her the love that is needed. This is the grace of the tradition, the transmission of love without which the path would no longer be alive. In the Naqshbandi path there is a bond between teacher and disciple, rabita, that contains this link of love. It can be experienced as a special sweetness within the heart.
The transmission of love is given effortlessly, and, once the bond has been created, is automatic. It does not even need physical presence, but can be given on the inner plane of the soul when the disciple is asleep. The link of love exists beyond the limitation of time and space. When the love is needed it flows from heart to heart. The disciple may not even be consciously aware of what is given, but sometimes awakes with a feeling of sweetness, or even bliss, or a dream of being together with the teacher. Inwardly the teacher is always attentive, his heart attuned to the spiritual needs of the disciple.
It is as if the heart of the disciple is held within the heart of the teacher. As more and more people came to the path, I experienced my spiritual heart expanding to contain their hearts. They are a part of me, and the greater their longing, the more their desire for Truth, the closer I feel them to my spiritual center. They are always with me.
In the outer world the work of the teacher is to help the disciple stay true to the inner focus of the heart. Guidance may be needed to keep the inner or outer life aligned with the higher purpose of the soul, and also to deal with the difficulties that arise through this transmission of love. The love cleanses the heart and psyche, and often causes confusion to the mind. It is not easy to learn to live with the energy of divine love, as it has a vibration that is quicker than the density of our lower self and everyday consciousness. Transformation through love is a demanding process that requires inner attention and perseverance. We need to learn how to surrender to the love that is given and not to resist this higher power. Love can also create feelings of vulnerability and even anger as it triggers patterns of resistance or repressed inner pain. All these feelings need to come to the surface and be accepted and understood. Here the teacher can help the disciple to differentiate what belongs to the work of inner transformation from what is a distraction that can be avoided. It is easy to get caught in unnecessary inner dramas, and the distractions of the mind and psyche can be endless. We all bring our patterns of avoidance along with our desire for Truth.
On this path we also work with dreams that guide us, helping us to understand the inner work that needs to be done, the psychological blocks that may be an obstacle, the darkness we need to confront and accept. Dreams may also give us images of the mysterious process of inner transformation, of love’s journey through the chambers of the heart. Some dreams are spiritual teachings or experiences on the plane of the soul that need to be understood from a solely spiritual perspective. Dreams are often shared within the mediation group, were they are given the interpretation that is needed. But what matters is always the attitude of the dreamer, whether one is able to listen and be open and receptive to the meaning of the dream, to the energy of its images. As a teacher I am sometimes given direct insight into the meaning of a dream, or I may just allow its meaning to surface through group discussions. I also need to be attentive to my own dreams, to the way the path reveals itself in my own psyche. The journey always continues.
LOVE’S DARK SIDE
There is also a dark side to this transmission of love. One afternoon my teacher sat me at her kitchen table and told me a strange story that shocked me. She told it to me three times so that I knew it was for me. It was the story of how they make a torturer: how someone is tortured and tortured until he is broken, and then he is taught how to torture others. There can be great cruelty to the workings of love, and sometimes the teacher is the instrument of this cruelty.
Most wayfarers are taken Home gradually through the simple power of love working within them, echoing the words of al-Hallaj, “When Truth has taken hold of a heart, She empties it of all but Herself.” Love and longing purify and transform us, emptying us of our self. But sometimes the ego is too strong to surrender and then the disciple needs to be broken. This is a terrible task for the teacher because the disciple is always dear to the teacher: the link of love holds him or her in your heart. But occasionally instructions are given from within the heart and this dark work of love begins.
It is a subtle process, hardly ever done with any outer show of anger, although sometimes that is necessary. We all have particular weaknesses within us, places where we are vulnerable and afraid. It is here that the teacher begins to pressure the disciple, usually with an energy of cold detachment that can seem heartless. A comment here, a remark there are often all that is needed; sometimes the disciple is simply seemingly ignored for months. There are many ways to break a human being in order to help them to make this step, and when there is great love between teacher and disciple, the pain is particularly potent. My teacher called her sheikh her “beloved executioner,” so often did he appear hard, cold, and distant to her.
You have to be trained to do this work. It is one of the most painful things anyone can be asked to do. And it is done with great love, a love that does not allow anything to get in the way on the road towards Truth. You can only do this work if it has been done to you. It is the dark side of love, and a work that is much misunderstood. Something within the disciple is destroyed, torn out, crushed. They are broken, made empty.
Part of this process often manifests as an experience of feeling abandoned, betrayed by the teacher. The teacher may “put all the appearances against him; he will appear full of faults and all kinds of defects.” The disciple may be forced to abandon any images or projections he placed on the teacher, and often becomes angry, even hostile. He is not aware of the great love on the part of the teacher that is needed to do this work – the human being has to be broken with love; otherwise, it could leave a terrible scar in the psyche and even the soul. It is all part of this ancient training, how a human being is destroyed and remade with love, so that he can contain the vaster dimension of Truth.
If the teacher were not completely surrendered he could easily interfere with this process, want to make it easier for the disciple, to help in the work. Then the breaking would not be complete and the pain would be wasted. The knife must be clean and cold, and although there is great love there is also an inhuman quality to this work. And yet I am not separate from this process. Although I have to put all my own feelings aside, still it hurts: it tears the fabric of my own heart.
THE DRAMA OF PROJECTION
It is easy to idealize the work of the teacher, of one who has been made “featureless and formless” by love so that this work can be done to others. When I sat at the feet of my teacher I was in awe of what she was given, of the power of Truth she carried within her. Yes, there are oceans of love to which one has access, and the grace of the tradition is always present or the work could not continue. But one is always given for others, never for oneself, and there is a human cost to this work that is rarely understood.
There is the simple burden of being responsible for the souls of others, of keeping open the doors of grace. One of the first things my teacher told me was that none of us are indispensible, and one is always aware of that. Even so, to carry the energy of the path and its teachings is a tremendous responsibility. This is not a nine-to-five job, and there are no weekends off! It is the job of the teacher to be inwardly with all of the disciples all of the time, to keep the inner attention awake. Although this is a spiritual work that takes place on the level of the soul, there is a human cost to being the focus of so many lives, so many aspirations, the central figure in so many dreams. There is a sacrifice that has to be made again and again as one’s own life is lived in a state of surrender to the work. I first realized this when I lived above my teacher and saw the constant stream of people who came to her door. But in the last twenty years I have come to know for myself how subtly draining it can be. At times it takes me to the point of exhaustion. So many times something human within me rebels, and wants to be left alone. I have images of a small cottage in Scotland surrounded by the wild moors and the wind and the rain!
There is also this strange burden of projection. One not only carries the aspirations of the wayfarer, but also many strange projections, particularly in a culture that has no understanding of this tradition. One is the focal point of the inner life of the disciple, and everything one says or does not say is interpreted as deeply meaningful. One learns to be careful when speaking, knowing at the same time that most of what one says will be misunderstood. How can mystical truth be understood by the rational mind? The disciple looks through the veil of the ego and its conditioning. The reality of love is so different.
The disciple wants the teacher to be perfect, to be all knowing rather than just someone who has been made empty. I have learned that some people think I know their every thought, their hidden secrets and their future. They do not realize that I know nothing except when it is necessary to help the disciple to make a step or avoid an unnecessary difficulty. Why would I want to burden myself with so many thoughts? I am just used when I am needed. And sometimes when I am made to know something about a disciple, her inner or outer situation, I am not allowed to share it with her, even if I think it may help. She has to be free to walk her own way, make her own mistakes.
It is very easy to get caught in the projections of others, to become a helper, savior, or even their image of a teacher. As every therapist knows, an individual person’s projections can be very strong. The projections of a spiritual group are a thousand times more powerful, particularly one full of people who have done many years of meditation, whose inner focus as a result is stronger. One has to be very attentive not to try to live up to their expectations but rather to take the ground out from under those expectations whenever possible, while always maintaining one’s detachment. Although the disciple is free to project what she wants onto me, I have to want nothing again and again. I cannot even react against the projections, as they would engage me in their drama.
Sometimes, I think that although I have tasted the real freedom of surrender, those who are just walking the path are in many ways more free than I am. They are free to make mistakes and forget, to put aside the work of the path for their own reasons, even get lost in the world from time to time. I am bound to be always attentive, to hold the light regardless of how I may feel. I cannot abandon the disciple, even though the disciple is free to abandon or even betray the path.
But at the same time I am given that deepest joy of seeing and experiencing a human being awakened to the Divine and making the journey Home. When I hear dreams or experiences that reflect that ancient journey I feel deeply touched to be a part of this process, a witness or participant in these stories of divine love. Every human being is so infinitely precious, but a person who has been touched by the tenderness or fire of real love has a special sweetness. It is often those one would least expect who make the serious steps on the path, who become lost in deep states of meditation or feel the presence of divine oneness. And to know that one has played a small part in this awakening, even as just a witness, is deeply nourishing. I know that it is all due to the grace of my sheikh and the energy of the path, but something in me has been present as a soul turns towards God, or when that light is lit within the heart. There is nothing one wants more than for another to taste the Truth that is at the root of all.
And sometimes one is given the privilege of preparing a disciple for physical death, for that last journey. Then one can see almost visibly how the grace works, how the individual is given the experiences that she needs in order to complete this life, and how she can become free from any inner or outer attachments that might impede her journey beyond this world. One friend was given the direct experience of life that she had never had. Her cancer went into unexpected remission for two years, and as she walked the beaches near her home or watched the sunsets, she was at last able to be present with life in a simple and pure way, free of all the dramas of self that had dominated her life. Life and its joy were present in their essence. Another friend was able to go in a state of infinite sweetness and tenderness, with a presence in her room that carried this fragrance of love. Her eyes had already seen the other side before she died. Mostly the work of the teacher is to help the disciple to “die before you die,” to become free of the ego with all its patterns of attachment while still in this world. But sometimes one can help in this more final transition, as life’s journey is fulfilled through love.
I could not do any of this work without the constant inner help of my sheikh. How could I carry the burden of a disciple’s aspirations on my own, without real support? At the beginning he was always present in my mediations, giving me advice and answering my questions. He also showed me when I made a mistake, and helped me to correct it. But over the years he has left me more and more alone, unless there is a real need that I cannot answer. I have had to stand on my own feet in the shifting sands of this world, knowing that although his energy is present I have to make my own decisions. I trust in his trust of me, but sometimes it is a very lonely, heart-wrenching business. I have been given much outer help, especially from my wife, whose feminine wisdom and understanding and deep connection to the path have been an invaluable support. And yet at the same time I am left more and more with my own humanness and imperfections. I no longer aspire to anything, not even to be a better teacher. The work seems to have washed everything out of me.
Partly this inner state came as a result of what I can only describe as a spiritual burnout that began some years ago, after I had been doing this work for over fifteen years. For fifteen years I had pushed myself, lecturing and being with people, as slowly over the years more and more people came with their mixture of spiritual longing and human dramas. During this time I discovered that I could give people a certain light to help them, to help to free them from inner blocks and align them with their higher Self and their true purpose. After I had spent time with a person in this way the light was drained out of me, but then in meditation it would be replenished. Although I would often be tired, there was always enough light.
Usually it seemed to be the everyday difficulties that dominated people’s consciousness and to which I was pushed to respond – problems with work or relationships. Rarely were there real questions about the inner relationship with God. At the same time my own journey was drawing me further and further into the emptiness, into the formlessness beyond creation. How could I help people with problems about this world when my inner attention was being turned elsewhere, into a dimension far distant from the ego and its concerns? I felt inadequate to answer their questions, to understand their problems that, although real and pressing to them, to me appeared insubstantial.
It became harder and harder for me to hold the light of their spiritual aspiration in the midst of these demands. I do not know whether spiritual work has always been like this, or whether the collective darkness and forgetfulness in the West have emphasized this – whether the individual light now is more easily caught in the collective darkness, a darkness that also carries a self-obsession with the ego-self and its endless problems. I began to feel more and more drained. I tried to say that I could only work with people’s spiritual self and not their psychological dramas. I even stopped interpreting dreams for a while. But I realized that it is almost impossible to separate the personal and spiritual, that the individual path is lived through our human drama and its apparent difficulties. I had to accept and work with people as they were. But I felt my own light and life force being more and more drained, less easily replenished, until finally I had little left to give.
The energy of the path still came through me, but I had also discovered that often it needed a human container, that on its own it was too inhuman, too detached for people to easily digest. It needed the container of my own human nature, and yet that was getting more and more exhausted. And then there was the added difficulty of working in the United States after the invasion of Iraq, with the collective darkness that the invasion constellated. As many people know, after 9/11 there was a period of grace when the prayers of millions around the world were turned toward the United States. Yet this grace did not last and the invasion of Iraq triggered a cloud of darkness that all but obscured the spiritual sun. Spiritual work in the U.S. became much more difficult and demanding over these years, as individuals were confronted not only by their personal darkness but also by this collective shadow. Holding the light in these times drained almost all my reserves, until finally I could not continue. I was burned out and for over a year I was physically ill.
That time has passed and my physical health has returned. That shadow over the United States has gradually lifted. But something has changed. The light is different. A spark that had been present when I first came to America is no longer there. And I know that I will never able able to work with people in the same way again. I can no longer afford to give them my own spiritual light to help them on their journey. I have enough light to stay attuned to the energy of the path and to ensure that its grace be given where it is needed. But those years of darkness took with them a certain light from within me that has not been returned. This bewildered me for a long time. I suppose that means that this light is not needed, that I no longer need to help people in the same way. We each have to stand on our own feet, live our own light. Often I am reminded of Buddha’s words to Ananda, his closest disciple, before he died:
Therefore O Ananda,
Take thyself for a light
Take thyself for a refuge
Never seek for a refuge in anyone else
And work on thy salvation diligently
We are all a part of the one light. Teacher, disciple, and path are just different reflections of the same one light as it comes into the world. And as the world shifts on its axis of love so the light within the world changes. Sufism has always adapted to the changing need of the time, and now we need to subtly adapt in the way we work, the way we are present in the light of the world.
When I was first sent to America to teach I came with an innocence and enthusiasm I no longer have. I have had to mature and understand more deeply what it means to guide people on this journey of the soul. I have seen more clearly the difficulties and demands of this work, as well as experiencing the deep joy of being present as love awakens and transforms the heart and life of another. But I have also come to see that our individual journey is part of a greater journey – the evolution of the whole. Nothing is separate. And I have seen that changes are taking place within this larger picture that affect the way we live our longing. The path will always continue, sometimes more hidden, sometimes more visible. And the relationship of teacher and disciple will also continue – the mysterious transmission of love from heart to heart. And yet something has changed that is too far-reaching to fully understand at this moment. A certain light has been withdrawn and a certain light is waiting to be given. The soul of the seeker and the soul of the world are being drawn together more closely: a global oneness is coming nearer to our consciousness. I am waiting to see how this light will work, both in the individual and in the whole. And I am trying to stay attuned to the currents of love as they come into the world. At the same time something within me has been washed away: some sense of what it means to be a teacher has gone. Maybe some new understanding will be born, or maybe this is just part of the deepening emptiness that belongs to this work.