Excerpted from The Knowing Heart, A Sufi Path of Transformation
A talk by Kabir Helminski
Burke Mountain Academy
Let’s begin by considering the world we live in, the society and culture that we live in; particularly in North America but more or less all over the modern world we have societies which are based on the individual. Particularly in North America and Europe but in the modern world as a whole, the individual is taken as the center of reality, the most important unit of reality. And this pervades everything. But in the modern world, meaning the world of the last few centuries for the West, this individual that is the center of reality, is in a sense an individual — unlike the individual of traditional societies and of many eastern societies — it’s an individual cut off from the transcendent, it is a crippled individual, a separated individual and sometimes an emotionally toxic and wounded individual; and yet it’s this individual that they base everything on, and that is taken as the norm of reality.
I once gave a talk at a gathering of transpersonal psychologists and I titled the talk “Humility of Presence” and the question I posed to them was: we talk about transpersonal psychology as if the transpersonal were some little adjective you could put on to psychology, to kind of give it a slightly different flavor that we all feel a little more comfortable with, it’s a little more spiritual than regular psychology. But what is the transpersonal if not that which has given us our being and which we need to completely surrender to, which is the reality; its not an ingredient we can add to our individuality, but it is the source, the ground of our individuality. So I was trying to sort of shift perspective and say: here are 500 people gathering in the name of transpersonal psychology so let’s get honest about what this is. Let’s try to realize what it is, and realize that the position of the individual human being or individuality in relation to this transpersonal reality is a relationship of humility in relation to that, and by humility we don’t mean a low opinion of ourselves, by humility we don’t mean shame or guilt; we mean surrender, we mean acknowledgement that everything that we are comes through this transpersonal reality, and everything we long for is realized through this transpersonal reality, this transcendence. That the same time our spirituality, I believe any authentic spirituality whether you call it Sufi or not, any spirituality that has not degenerated into something else, or degenerated into something that serves our eogism or serves our separation, our human-ness is a treasure. It was our teachers in the Mevlevi way particularly who impressed us with what an incredible thing the human being is.
So what we are trying to develop is our human-ness. The next collection of writings that I have to offer after Living Presence will probably be called The Knowing Heart and it’s about the integration of humanness with transcendence making them completely one. This is our way, this is the way of Muhammad, this is the way of the Prophets, and we’re trying to learn, really learn what that way is. And if I were to say that spirituality is the ultimate development of our egoism I wouldn’t be far from the truth. Because our spiritual development depends on developing something in us that is very strong and very clear, very directed in a sense; and that what egoism, what egocentricity really is, is not that strong and clear center, not that clarity of being, not that real eye; what egocentricity is, is our tendency to be fragmented this way and that way, to be seduced from ourselves. Joseph was a good model of this.
So, people confuse if we say fana we talk about the annihilation of the unreal, the dissolving of the false self .The dissolving of the false self, namely the dissolving of all the poor me’s of our life, not the repression of them but the dissolving of them, or in some cases the vomiting up of them; the dissolving of all the “if only’s”, if only, if only: if only I had a different job, if only I had a different body, if only I had a different partner, if only I had a different brain.
So we talk about fana — annihilation — the letting go of all this, the ability to be completely human, to be in touch with something other than that which distracts us or waylays us from our humanness. The conception of the devil or shaytan in our tradition, is that which waylays us from our humanness; it’s quite specifically spoken in the Qur’an for instance, in Sura Yusuf, when it said “..truly the devil is an avowed enemy of the human being”, so we can think of the shaytan as that which reduces our humanness. So we want to get out of our heads the notion that spirituality, the spiritual and the human are pointing in different directions. It’s not that way at all. But to really find out what is our humanness… when Zuleika came to Joseph in one sense it was a very human thing. We use the word human in this way too, ” Hey, I’m only human”. What if Joseph said “I’m only human”? It would have been a different story, and Joseph would not have been a prophet. But we also know that in the story Zuleika, who followed her longing through, was eventually brought to a place where her true beloved was revealed. And in some of the stories — it’s not in the Sura Yusuf — but in some of the elaborations of the stories Zuleika is met years later by Joseph and finally he is in a position to be with her; and she’s gotten old, she’s lost her beauty, but she’s found her beloved and she no longer even needs Joseph. So we are both Joseph and Zuleika.
So to be human — one aspect of being human — is being able to sacrifice. Now, the nafs can sacrifice too. The nafs can sacrifice for instance and say, I’m going to work eighty hours a week and I’m going to save my money and I’m going to take a trip to Las Vegas and win some more; maybe I’ll buy a Condo in Las Vegas, maybe I meet a really sexy person; but for now I’m going to sacrifice myself and work eighty hours a week and put it in the bank. That’s one kind of sacrifice. But what is the sacrifice of a real human being? Parents sacrifice for their children; there is an unselfishness in it because there is great love. But still loving your children (as so beautiful, it teaches us, it’s a model for us), but still there is a kind of egoism in it because after all our children are us.
Ultimately we suppose that to be able to really sacrifice for other human beings without seeing them all personally but in a sense, feeling love for all manifestations of life, this would be the ultimate condition, the ultimate state; we are not there yet by a long shot, but maybe the circle of our love is widening and maybe, for instance, our love is not limited on the basis of the mere likes and dislikes of our personality. Maybe we can step beyond the temporary likes and dislikes of our personality, to look beyond and to see the being behind the mask, to see the being of another through the distorting lens of our own subjective egoism. This is what a Sufi circle also is for. The other night I asked some of our friends, what’s the most important part this work? Is it our zhikrs, is it our singing together, is it our salat, is it our cooking together, is it our conversations at meal time and other times? and someone said it’s our love which runs through all of those things. On the path of love we call this love (as much as we can remember to and as much we occasionally may touch the reality of it), we call it to our aid to help transform our egoism, because the ego itself, the nafs-i-ammara I mean here, is so clever, so powerful, so self-serving, so continually self-serving that it’s a trickster. So in our way we try to remember to call this love to our service. And sometimes we feel at that same moment a resistance in us. The resistance is that other pole. Spirit knows and still there’s something that resists. Nafs-self resists adab sometimes, instead of seeing it as the most natural thing, instead of seeing adab as being the freedom from resistance and as respect and gentleness and gracefulness, this self projects onto it restraint, constraint, repression, artificiality.
In our way we are always trying to do two things at once; one is to develop the self and all of it’s gifts to the highest level, in all sorts of ways, to bring people out, to bring out their humanness, to bring out their qualities, fearlessly. To get people integrated as strong human beings. No shaikh wants weak and meek dervishes. People on power trips may want that. No real shaikh wants that.
So we have practices and we have all sorts of opportunities; responsibilities given to people; things are asked of people. Opportunities offered, all the time, to bring people forth, to bring that integrated self forth with all of the divine qualities. And in this case what egoism amounts to is our fear, our resistance, our self-doubt, our withholding of ourselves. This is the egoism that has to be annihilated.
And at the same time and in complete balance with that is self-transcendence. Do you understand how self-integration and self-transcendence have to be unified? To manifest being with clarity, with all the qualities that the moment requires and not to be attached to it, not to say me, myself, I, that false sense of I.
A man named Ernest Becker who I believe was a Freudian psychoanalyst, while following the path of Freud: even that led him to something, he was led out of the school of psychoanalysis to the realization that the human being has two purposes in life; one is to develop his or her creative expression to the utmost. And the other is to put that in the service of something, to surrender to something.
And what the teaching of Sufism is trying to do, is to remind you what is worth surrendering to. As Bob Dylan says you’ve got to serve somebody. So what do you serve? Is it that little, small part of yourself ? Maybe one of Joseph’s brothers? become a slave to one of Joseph’s brothers?
So there is no fulfillment in developing this self alone, Ernest Becker says. But ultimately the fulfillment comes in having something much greater to surrender to. And that which is surrendered to is asking for your non-existence, sure, but He is not asking for a non-existent person, He is not asking for a nobody in the personality sense. He is not saying become a nerd and surrender to me. But become everything that you’re meant to be; actualize all the gifts that you have. How much of ourselves have any of us actualized? I really wonder. And yet it can’t be done willfully, it can’t be done by sheer dint of will and effort; we don’t develop that way.
I’m so grateful for the names of God, the qualities of God in the form of names. As someone who is drawn to poetry and had a love of words; the Divine Names are the vocabulary of the Supreme Poet. And their power is such that it’s like — we enter into those Divine Names through a zhikr, for instance — and it’s like putting a sword — a fine Damascus sword — into the fire and holding it there, and eventually pulling it out and that sword is red hot. You ask yourself, is this sword steel or is it fire? it has the qualities of both. Are you human or are you Divine? are you material or are you spiritual? are you in existence or are you in non-existence? are you in time or out of time? are you you?
So we’re watching where life takes us and where this Path takes us; it’s been quite interesting so far, some of us have walked this Path together for quite a few steps. It maybe hard to see yourself and maybe unnecessary to see yourself, but you can see others and you can see where the process is leading toward and what it is leading toward. It’s all life; and Life or Hayy is one of God’s names. Without this Life what would this material existence be? Take the Life out of this situation: we’d become rotting corpses pretty quickly. That Life is a mystery, it’s not explained yet and it will never be explained, how it enters the world, how it gives and takes, how it establishes relationships, how it makes us interdependent with the substances of existence.
Look what became of Mevlâna when he was educated by Love, when he was set afire by Love; he became an intoxicated madman. He spent his nights awake doing hundreds of prostrations, not out of willfulness.
One night he was visited by a group of people and his wife was awake, and the door was cracked and she was kind of looking in and she saw Mevlâna praying with these people doing salat throughout the night; she wasn’t excluded, it was what it was, and she was in the room she was in, and they were in the room they were in. But in the morning Mevlâna came to her and he said, “My friends left these flowers for you”. It was the middle of winter and she didn’t recognize the flowers, they weren’t from Konya, that’s for sure. The next day she sent someone with the flowers all around the town to see if anyone in Konya could recognize these flowers. And someone did and knew them very well and was able to name them and say that they came from the south of India.
So, the shaikhs of this tradition will tell you, “become the Mevlâna of your time”; and if a shaikh says “I’m the Mevlâna of the time” don’t listen to him, but if he says “become the Mevlâna of your time” listen, trust him.