An excerpt from Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self
Published by Tarcher-Penguin, Inc.
Sufism is a spiritual path based on the principles expressed in the Holy Qur’an and embodied in the character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Sufism is a practice and way of life in which a deeper identity is discovered and lived. This deeper identity, or essential Self, is beyond the superficial personality and is in harmony with the Source of Life. The essential Self has abilities of awareness, action, creativity, and love that are far beyond those of the superficial personality. Eventually, it is understood that these abilities belong to a greater Being that we each individualize and embody in our own unique way while never being separate from it.
Islam originally meant submission: the harmonization of the individual self with the Divine. Sufism is an intentional, intensified expression of that universal state of submission, which could be called Islam. More than a doctrine or a belief system, Sufism is an experiential approach to the Divine. It is a tradition of enlightenment that carries the essential truth forward through time. Tradition, however, must be conceived in a vital and dynamic sense. Its expression must not remain limited to the religious and cultural forms of the past. The truth of Islam requires reformulation and fresh expression in every age.
This Tradition is and will remain a critic of worldliness, of everything that causes us to be forgetful of the Divine Reality. It will never compromise with a stubbornly materialistic society. It is and must be a way out of the labyrinth of a bankrupt materialistic culture. Most important, however, it is an invitation to meaningfulness and well-being.
Islam, as we know it today, developed within an historical and cultural matrix. The Islamic revelation presented itself as the latest expression of the essential message brought to humanity by the prophets of all ages. The Qur’an recognizes the validity of countless prophets, or messengers, who have come to awaken us from our selfish egoism and remind us of our spiritual nature. It confirmed the validity of past revelations, while asserting that the original message was often distorted over the course of time.
Islam’s claim to universality is founded on the broad recognition that there is only one God, the God of all people and all true religions. Islam understands itself to be the wisdom realized by the great prophets—explicitly including Jesus, Moses, David, Solomon, and Abraham, among others, and implicitly including other unnamed enlightened beings of every culture.
Over fourteen centuries the broad Islamic tradition has contributed a body of spiritual literature second to none on earth. The guiding principles of the Qur’an, and the heroic virtue of Muhammad and his companions provided an impetus that allowed a spirituality of love and consciousness to flourish. Those who follow the path today are the inheritors of an immense treasure of wisdom and literature.
Beginning from its roots at the time of Muhammad, Sufism has organically grown like a tree with many branches. These branches generally do not see one another as rivals. In the world today diverse groups exist under the name of Sufism. There are those who accept Islam in both form and essence, while there are others who are Muslim in essence but not in strictly orthodox form.
If Islam recognizes one central truth, it is the unity of being, that we are not separate from the Divine. This is a truth that our age is in an excellent position to appreciate—emotionally, because of the shrinking of our world through communications and transportation, and intellectually, because of developments in the sciences. We are One: one people, one ecology, one universe, one being. If there is a single truth, worthy of the name, it is that we are all integral to the Truth, not separate. The realization of this truth has its effects on our sense of who we are, on our relationships to others and to all aspects of life. The essence of Islam is about realizing the current of love that runs throughout all life, the unity behind forms.
If Sufism has a central method, it is the development of remembrance and love of God. Only presence can awaken us from our enslavement to the world and our own psychological processes, and only cosmic love can comprehend the Divine. Love is the highest activation of intelligence, for without it nothing great would be accomplished, whether spiritually, artistically, socially, or scientifically.
Islam, the state of submission, is the attribute of those who love. Lovers are people who are purified by love, free of themselves and their own qualities and fully attentive to the Beloved. This is to say that Sufis are not held in bondage by any quality of their own because they see everything they are and have as belonging to the Source. An early Sufi, Shebli, said “The Sufi sees nothing except God in the two worlds.”
This book is about one essential aspect of the spiritual life: presence, and how this presence can develop into remembrance, and how through remembrance our essential human qualities can be activated.
Abu Muhammad Muta‛ish says: “The Sufi is he whose thought keeps pace with his foot, i.e., he is entirely present: his soul is where his body is, and his body where his soul is, and his soul where his foot is, and his foot where his soul is. This is the sign of presence without absence. Others say on the contrary: ‛He is absent from himself but present with God.’ It is not so: he is present with himself and present with God.”
We live in a culture that has been described as materialistic, alienating, neurotically individualistic, narcissistic, and yet ridden with anxiety, shame, and guilt. From the Sufi point of view, humanity today is suffering under the greatest tyranny, the tyranny of the ego. We worship innumerable false idols, but all of them are forms of the ego.
There are many ways for the human ego to usurp even the purest spiritual values. The true Sufi is the one who makes no personal claims to virtue or truth, but who lives a life of presence and selfless love. More important than what we believe is how we live. If certain beliefs lead to exclusiveness, self-righteousness, and fanaticism, it is the vanity of the believer that is the problem. If the remedy increases the sickness, an even more basic remedy is called for.
The idea of presence with love may be the most basic remedy for the prevailing materialism, selfishness, and unconsciousness of our age. In our obsession with our false selves, in turning our backs on God, we have also lost our essential Self, our own divine spark. In forgetting God, we have forgotten ourselves. Remembering God is the beginning of remembering ourselves.