bowing dervishFrom a book in progress: The Living Tradition, Conversations on the Sufi Path, Kabir Helminski

I was talking to somebody recently who, with a good heart, said, “I have no need for religion. I know what is right and what is wrong.” I didn’t comment or argue but, actually, this brings up some very important subjects.

Do we need God? Do we need God to do and be good? The answer is no, up to a certain point. You can do good without God. You can be kind, generous, respectful and sensitive to other human beings without bringing God into it. What’s the significance of bringing God into it?

First of all, my sense is that people are led to various religions and mystical traditions by a yearning from within. Something in them feels unfulfilled. It’s like an inner drive or hunger. It’s not, “I want to follow a religion so I can be a good person.” It’s more a sense of “I don’t want to just be at home. I want to be together with others. I feel like I need to be in a holy place.” There is something more than just being nice, kind, and all of that. There’s a deeper yearning operating within humans who undertake a spiritual practice. There is something else calling us. These things are part of a bigger whole.

The second aspect is that what we mean by “religion” is something that calls to us from a higher level. It is aspirational and transformational. Throughout history we see that people have not been very good to each other. Something else has been needed. The hadith that says, “My mercy precedes my wrath” gives us what we need. It provides a sense of something that is good. It is better than how we are. The soul longs for a state of perfection. It’s an ideal that is also timeless and spaceless. It includes the ultimate freedom to just be all and to expand. It’s a little bit like meditation. We long for something that is ideally free, beautiful, good and generous. This longing contrasts with our limited self. If we’re honest and conscious, this self is not quite like that.

We spend much of our time doing what we want to do, or doing what we have to do to attain some desires of the self in the short or long term. In other words, we are always at the center of our own choices, we follow our own desires, and there is little that we feel answerable to.

Most of the time, it’s our ego, or nafs, that is pulling us by the forelock here and there. We see ourselves sent in more directions than we can possibly go. We ask the question, “Which of the many impulses of my own ego will I follow? I can’t follow them all.” That’s the big struggle. The real question is: What is to be attained by following our own nafs

[1]? To say, “I have no need for religion,” is to say that I’m satisfied following myself, above all. And what is attained by following a traditional teaching, especially one like Sufism that is grounded in a lineage of enlightened and morally exceptional human beings?

The spiritual path, the path of transformation, is about following something other than our own whims and desires, even when these are within a basic moral structure. With a practice like ours, you are able to break the unconscious momentum of your self’s activities. You are able to come into the center of your being and be there, face-to-face, with the Divine. You learn to love that. There’s always a continual relationship between these two elements: the limited, imperfect part of ourselves and the eternal, pure part. The self, in a way, is blessed by that unconditioned pure being. It is nurtured and transformed by it because that part of ourselves is intimate with the Divine.

Spiritual practice can also be undertaken with ambition, in a self-serving way. It can be done with an unconscious ego sense of “I want to gain something for myself.” That’s not the best way to approach a spiritual practice, but no one’s intentions are totally pure, free of self-interest. And ultimately the spiritual path is more in your self-interest than unconsciously following the demands of the nafs, the ego. But the point is we are practicing for the sake of something that gradually frees us from many forms of tyranny—the tyranny of the ego, the tyranny of unconsciously needing to please others, of conformity to the worldly values around us.

There’s a transformative power that exists in the nature of Reality. There is something that can almost miraculously transform human beings. We need that. It’s within ourselves, yes, but not as our selves. It is not there as an object. This is a subtle, metaphysical distinction.

To invite God into a conversation is to open the door of mystery and possibility. It is not about an exchange between two people, with the thought of “I’ll do this for you, maybe someday you’ll do it for me.” It has nothing to do with expectation. It’s not a quid pro quo. It’s something entirely of a different order and unpredictable.

And so on the spiritual path we choose to give a certain amount of time and effort in our life to be in the company of the Divine consciously and intentionally. It’s appropriate to have, as we have in our tradition, times of the day dedicated to this. There are times when we make an effort to bring ourselves into the presence of God. In our tradition there is a physical effort involved in worship—the postures of bowing and prostration during salaat, or the practice of turning[2]. There’s a “doing,” not just a “being” in Sufi spiritual practice. It’s “doing” with “being.” The physical efforts in the ritual prayer also are done in time. We undertake the ritual prayers at the times indicated, following what we believe to be a heavenly ordained pattern, not merely at our convenience, not just when we want to.

Yet we’re really quite free. We have much time to do what we want to do. We also have some time we must reserve for our relationship with the Divine. How much is “a little bit of time?” Is it five minutes or an hour? These are small periods of time compared to the 24 hours that are in a day.

Someone says,
“I must provide for my family.
I have to work so hard to earn a living.”
He can do without God,
but not without food;
he can do without Religion,
but not without idols.
Where is one who’ll say,
“If I eat a piece of bread
without awareness of God,
I will choke.”

We fool ourselves by saying we don’t have time for spiritual practice. Take care of your selves, your hearts, your souls.



[1] Nafs, literally means the self, and generally refers to our lower self governed by egoism.
[2] A specific Mevlevi practice, also known as whirling.