Sufi training is accomplished, above all, in the Sufi lodge and the network of relationships cultivated there. Sometimes the Sufi lodge is an actual tekkye or dergah, a private home, a rented hall, and sometimes it may even be a “tekkye on wheels,” as when we travel to a foreign country together. What is most important is the intention and an understanding of why we come together. We are seeking to create and sustain an environment where spiritual realization can be optimized, where the influence of egoism can be minimized, and where the values and knowledge of the tradition can be preserved.
When we step over the threshold of the Sufi tekkye (lodge) we are leaving one world and entering another. We are leaving the environment of the mundane and entering sacred space. We do this, above all, with our intention. Our intention is to be present, courteous, and aware of our own self (nafs).
Everything within sacred space is inherently intentional; whereas the secular world, which is the result of egoistic and commercial forces, is much less coherent, harmonious, and holy.
Ideally, every thing within sacred space has meaning and purpose. If we are fortunate enough to have a sacred space that was designed specifically for a sacred purpose, even the proportions of the architecture will be intentional, reflecting the Golden Mean, for instance, or embodying sacred geometry and number in other ways.
Proportion also applies to human relationships. Relationships are more harmonious when we know where we fit, what our place is. In the tekkye relationships were proportioned by reciprocal humility and respect. The beauty of relationships in Sufism is one of the qualities that captured my heart. As a beginner on the path and as a guest, I encountered a quality of respect I had not seen in any other circumstances. In fact I felt that I received more respect than I deserved.
The Sufi lodge (tekkye, dergah, khaneqah, zawia) is a place of manners—manners which reflect the purpose of the tradition itself, which is to elevate the vibration of human beings. A Sufi lodge is a place where finer energies are generated, and in order not to let these finer energies be dissipated or misused, the wise of the tradition have encouraged a quality of behavior consistent with these finer energies. The totality of these behaviors and sentiments we call “spiritual courtesy,” or adab.
An important aspect of adab is the adab in relation to the teacher. In the traditional tekkyes of the East, the Shaikh, the spiritual Friend, is given special attention and respect. Of course, in these traditional cultures people are more often brought up with this kind of courtesy; it comes naturally when one is raised with respect for elders, respect that shows itself in restraint of speech, in not turning one’s back toward an elder, and in ways too numerous to mention. In the contemporary Western world these qualities have been so eroded that many Westerners have little concept of manners.
In a society where individuality and opinion are more valued than respect and manners a social “free-for-all” displaces an appreciation of courtesy. Instead of admiration for social grace, the lowest common denominator rules. Attitudes and beliefs such as “we are all equal,” “be spontaneous,” “just be yourself,” “express your individuality,” have sometimes resulted in some rather odd situations—at least for those who see manners as an expression of consciousness. The inter-relational refinement of the Sufi lodge can seem like an unrealistic standard, a quaint notion, or, worse yet, an affront to “equality.”
In the spiritual milieu, the respect and attention we accord to any teacher is not primarily about submitting to authority, nor to foster a sense of privilege or superiority, but rather to cultivate an atmosphere of affection and intimacy. The students, the mureeds, are actually being served by the teacher, and their good manners allow the teacher to offer the sacred transmission which is one of the most valuable aspects of the Sufi process.
This lack of a context for manners has been a challenge to Sufi teachers coming from the original homelands of Sufism. One teacher we knew, after encountering the lack of awareness, manners, and maturity among North Americans, told his students that it would be better for them if, for a while, he were not to function as their teacher. “I recommend,” he said, “that you choose one person from among yourselves to be your leader and learn to “lift up” your leader. You do not know how to treat a leader, but if you watch how I treat him or her, perhaps you have a chance of learning.”
On one occasion, we were visited by a very traditional Sufi Shaikh who was accompanied by several of his senior dervishes. We had been together for several hours conversing with the Shaikh when I asked a question of one of these dervishes. I was surprised that he seemed reluctant to say anything. Instead, he deferred to his Shaikh saying, “When I’m in the presence of ‘Baba’, he speaks and I do not.” I admit that I was a bit taken aback, but I also appreciated the beauty of his sensitivity. It’s very likely that the Shaikh, himself, never laid down a rule, but this adab was “picked up” naturally in the milieu of dervishood, a milieu which has been cultivated for centuries.
Awareness of Speech
In the West we may not expect to exactly reproduce the spiritual environment of the East, but we hope at least to offer an environment where self-awareness can develop. The degree of unconscious behavior we sometimes encounter can be very interesting. For instance, if someone comes to a teacher claiming to be interested in Sufi teaching and spends the whole time talking about himself, such a person is far more under the domination of their ego than they realize. How can we help someone who habitually talks about himself or herself, captures and attempts to hold other people’s attention, and is completely unaware of what he or she is doing? Well, this is what the environment of the Sufi lodge is meant to remedy. Where else in our society can a person learn this degree of self-awareness?
It is important that members of a Sufi community be aware of the adab of relationship in conversation. Mindless self-preoccupation is not only a negative feature of an individual’s personality, but an unaware, compulsive talker can negatively impact the group as a whole. The group exists, among other things, for the development and refinement of a certain quality of intimate conversation and relationship through which spiritual blessings manifest.
Over the course of many years, meeting various people who might be called “Sufis,” I gradually came to recognize a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, difference in how people conducted themselves. Where some were nominally and intellectually “Sufi,” their way of relating to others, especially in a teaching situation, was indistinguishable from the average American or Westerner. Others carried themselves with modesty, respect, and greater self-awareness. Eventually, I came to realize that the essential difference was between those who had experienced Sufism in traditional circles of the East, or, perhaps, had been brought up in the West in Muslim families, and those who had not. Now I could better understand, accept, and be sympathetic to those who through no fault of their own simply have not been exposed to the subtle beauties of an authentic Sufi milieu.
The project of translating the best of traditional Sufi life into the contemporary Western context is still before us. It is not only a question of manners, but more essentially of overcoming those aspects of ego personality that cause us to operate at the superficial level of personality and so to be out of touch with our own souls.
To return to the practical issues, talking is one of the most mechanical and unconscious activities of the human being. It is amazing how quickly people “go to sleep” as soon as they open their mouths and start talking. This is all the more true when they have an audience. People like holding others’ attention, but on the spiritual path we learn to disengage from this need. Rumi, and my own grandfather for that matter, would say: we learn more by listening than by talking.
Let’s be absolutely clear. Those who are in the function of transmitting the tradition (i.e. a shaikh, leader, or anyone entrusted with conveying some aspect of the tradition) do not expect attention and respect because his or her ego needs or deserves it. He or she has no sense of personal injury over the unconscious behaviors of people. Presumably, the teacher is not an egotist; on the contrary, he or she has hopefully disengaged from such lower level, unconscious needs and is not personally reactive or judgmental in these matters; otherwise, he or she should not be in the position of representing the teaching. But spiritual courtesy is a quality and capacity that every seeker needs to develop for themselves.
Sufism is about realizing oneness, coherence, and unity, in more and more circumstances. The more people are willing to consciously serve each other, to notice what is needed in any moment, the more beautiful and refined the togetherness becomes. The Sufi environment is a place for the education of the nafs (self or ego), a place where we observe the ego’s functioning and strive to overcome its tyranny. We do not come to the Sufi lodge for some form of gratification; we should always remember that every situation is an opportunity to learn about ourselves and to overcome our egoistic aspects, and to develop the qualities of a conscious, mature, and free human being.
In line with this intention, those who serve do not expect to be thanked; service is a privilege. One Sufi teacher we know said, “I have never had to punish anyone in our group, but if I did, the punishment would be not allowing them to serve, and only allow them to be served!”
Cultivating Conscious Relationship and Oneness
Sufism cultivates unity on many levels, for example, we sometimes remind people, especially at retreats, when we sit at tables of 8 or more people, that it is very beautiful when our conversation can be shared, rather than breaking up into 3 or 4 different conversations at the same table. It is not a “must,” but there is something quite beautiful about this kind of coherent sharing.
To share a meal with one’s teacher is also an opportunity for conscious relationship. When we’re sitting with a shaikh, or any respected person, we should be very aware. The teacher often has a purpose in what he speaks and with whom he speaks. The teacher may sometimes orchestrate the conversation at the table with a subtle intention; we should give an opportunity to allow the teacher to guide the conversation.
Imagine a situation where the teacher asks a question of one of the students, and the student responds, but, before the teacher has a chance to continue the conversation, another person jumps in and asks a different question of his fellow student, redirecting the whole conversation. If you were that fellow student, would you have the presence of mind not to be distracted and to return to the conversation with your teacher?
In a Sufi community the quality of mindfulness, of adab, should continue even after the explicit teaching session is over, and should be maintained sensitively even in the more casual moments when people gather for tea after a session of zhikr. At such a time a very fine energy has been generated in the spiritual practice. Some people don’t know what to do with this energy, and they may even become a little drunk, loosing awareness of themselves, unable to contain the energy. But the whole purpose of this fine energy is for it to be used in awakening presence and remembrance.
If we were in the presence of a group of mature Sufis after a beautiful zhikr, we would find ourselves in a very gentle, refined, mindful atmosphere, where the conversation itself would be on a very high level even while talking about apparently “ordinary” subjects.
How can we help someone who habitually talks about themselves, captures and attempts to hold other people’s attention, and is completely unaware of what they’re doing? It is important that members of a Sufi community be aware of the adab of relationship in conversation. An unaware, compulsive talker in an intimate Sufi group can dominate the atmosphere and hold back the possibilities for which the group exists.
When we are with our teacher are we aware that it is an opportunity? In fact every moment of life is an opportunity for impeccability. Sometimes even after a sublime discourse, or sohbet, when the teacher has been trying to lift us to another level, we descend into conversation about the most mundane, trivial, or banal subjects. A more mature dervish would always be asking himself or herself: Is this conversation appropriate to this moment? Can it be more beautiful, more true, more congruent with our highest purpose? This does not mean that we have to be overly serious or self-conscious, just that we should be reasonably aware of ourselves in these moments.
If ever we find ourselves after a zhikr session in what sounds like a cocktail party, we need to wake up and be more present, and gently help others to be more present by not mirroring their hyper state of unconscious socializing.
Sufi adab requires that we be very circumspect about when and how we speak, especially in the presence of a teacher who bears and overlooks our faults, and who is, above all, committed to the way of transformation. The ego may at first resent these constraints, but in this case the purpose of the adab of speech is to awaken our capacity to be present and to truly be in relationship with another. When we are truly present with each other it is as if our candles are lit and collectively we are the light.
The reason for drawing attention to these matters is to educate souls. If someone is able to show us a better way than the way we have lived up to this point, we should be grateful. If we are seekers of the truth, and the truth harms no one, we should welcome whatever wakes us from sleep.
These are the kinds of things we must learn on the way to becoming more conscious human beings. These are some of the lessons that are learned in the school of love.