dropExcerpted from The Knowing Heart, A Sufi Path of Transformation

It has become an accepted spiritual idea that each part of the universe in some way reflects the whole. Contemporary spirituality has borrowed the holographic model from contemporary science. This notion has always existed within Sufism and is expressed, for instance, in the idea that the human being is not merely a drop that can merge with the Ocean, but a drop that contains the Ocean. Every divine attribute is latent within the human heart, and by the cooperation of human will with divine grace these attributes can be awakened and manifested. We human beings contain within ourselves the potential to experience completion, to know our intimate relationship to the whole of Being in such a way that we reflect this completion through ourselves. The highest spiritual attainment has been expressed by the phrase insân-i kâmil, the Completed Human Being.

When I first entered on the Mevlevi Way, I was told that the aim was “completion”: “If you are a Jew, you will become a completed Jew; if you are a Christian, you will become a completed Christian; and if you are a Muslim, you will become a completed Muslim.” I was moved by the openness and generosity of this assertion, and I came to understand that “completion” is the fulfillment of the message brought by the prophets of these great religions.

What brought my heart to its knees, however, was meeting a human being who exemplified this completion, who embodied the Divine Majesty and at the same time expressed the most perfect humility. This paradox put into perspective all the prior spiritual attainments I had witnessed. Life had introduced me to people who were highly developed in the areas of intelligence, will, consciousness, and even love. But no one, until that time, had seemed complete. I had glimpsed the awesome dignity and responsibility of being human: What is the point of will or consciousness without love? And, on the other hand, what value would humility have without the awakening and manifestation of the divine attributes latent within ourselves?

It has been said that we cannot know or judge a higher level of spirituality than what we ourselves have attained. The wise can understand the foolish because they have emerged from foolishness, but the foolish cannot understand the wise, because foolishness does not come out of wisdom. Some people buy into a mystique of enlightenment, believing that one who has a title and a retinue of disciples, wears robes and a turban, has written books, or is the descendant of a master has probably attained a level of spirituality that may even put him or her beyond the criteria of conventional morality. Too often we Westerners have abandoned our own inner knowing and common sense in offering our credulity to teachers who make claims of spiritual authority.

Yet real spirituality may be obvious to the heart of the simplest person. An illiterate villager may look at the face of a spiritual claimant and make an essence evaluation, while those who are more layered by personality may deceive themselves.

An authentic spirituality is characterized by a remarkable lack of self-consciousness or pretense. Effortlessness and spontaneity merge with modesty and self-effacement. And yet it is possible for this genuineness to occur in a teacher without a maturity appropriate to the needs of the student.

Imagine, for instance, that a psychiatrist from Zurich meets an authentic shaman from Mongolia. Because the psychiatrist has never encountered someone with such a degree of attainment in certain areas, she begins her apprenticeship with a high degree of trust and receptivity. What she will learn is a combination of objective and relative truths of shamanism. The objective truths are those capacities and principles which are universal and necessary to the process of being a shaman. The relative truths are those incidental and secondary aspects that originate from the sociological conditioning and personality of the teacher. She may begin to develop in her ability to contact invisible dimensions and at the same time acquire the personality characteristics and values of a Mongolian nomad. This may lead to a split within her, and she may weaken or fail to develop the kind of maturity that is necessary in her own culture, including, for instance, the analytical and social skills of her profession.

Sufism today needs teachers who have a maturity appropriate to the time and place and can transmit what is objectively spiritual with a minimum of personal and sociological contamination.

The Complete Human Being

A spirituality adequate to the times we live in must first of all be centered in the reality of human completion itself. If it is based instead on any partial version of humanness, it will be insufficient. No matter what is sought to supplement this insufficiency, if the starting point is less than human wholeness, the result will only be a distorted version of humanness.

The attributes of the complete human being are the attributes of God appropriately reflected in human nature. God has innumerable qualities, ninety-nine of which are mentioned in the Qur’an. Some of these are the everyday attributes of a human being: seeing, hearing, speech, will, life, awareness. The Sufi recognizes that these qualities are reflected through the human being from the Absolute Being. Becoming completely human is being able to reflect more and more of the divine qualities in everyday life.

This world is viewed as the mirror of divine qualities, the site of their manifestation. The human heart is even more so a site of their manifestation. Recognizing these qualities in the heart is at the same time recognizing them in life. There is no separation in the field of Oneness (tawhîd). There is, therefore, no antagonism between the human life and the spiritual life. Only when human life has become shaped by the demands and illusions of the isolated ego is it reduced to a caricature, a particularized distortion of its wholeness. Otherwise, to be fully human is to fulfill our spiritual destiny.

Sufism can be considered a path of completion in two important senses: First, it is a way that proceeds from and leads to the Completed Human Being. Second, it is a complete way that uses every possible effective means to orchestrate the transformation of a human being. It can thus multiply its effectiveness by using multiple channels of experience to achieve its purpose. Both of these facts, the completeness of the method and the completeness of the result, are of the highest significance.

The completeness of the Sufi method proceeds from the completeness of its apprehension of human nature. The means by which the human being will be transformed depend on our understanding of what a human being is and is designed to be.

Human completion is not glimpsed from the eye-level of the average human being; nor is it successfully theorized or described by science, sociology, philosophy, or psychology; it is a gift from the Creator of the human being. It is a proposal that comes from the Heart of Nature through its revelatory dialog with humanity. When Nature bears its final fruit, it is the Completed Human, who speaks with the voice and intelligence of Nature itself, describing the attributes of Completion. Human completion is our innate destiny, which, however, requires our conscious cooperation with divine grace. What we can know about our essential humanness comes from those who have become completed human beings and who could listen within their own hearts to the guidance of the Creative Power.

The human being implies his or her own completion, as a plant implies the existence of the sun, as man implies the existence of woman. Sufism received the implicit knowledge of completion first from the Qur’an, which describes itself as “a mercy and a guidance for humanity,” a “reminder” confirming and clarifying previous revelations to humanity, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Sufism also draws upon the ever more explicit understanding of this completion as witnessed in the lives and teachings of its many saints and masters beginning with Muhammad.

The Methodology of Completion

The Sufi process exists essentially on the basis of the shaikh-mureed, mentor-student relationship, and typically this relationship is supported and enhanced within a “spiritual family” of seekers. There have been many metaphors offered to describe the role of a shaikh, or shaikha: as a shepherd of a flock, as the father or mother of a family, as a spiritual monarch. None of these, however, seems appropriate to the times we live in. First of all, spiritual seekers who are awakening and developing their latent human capacities should not be considered sheep. Even the metaphor of a parent is fraught with danger, because it may encourage seekers to become dependents. Nor is a shaikh fundamentally a king, because spiritual love cannot coexist with the exercise of power or priviledge.

I would rather liken a shaikh to the conductor of an orchestra. A conductor is responsible for harmonizing the various members with each other. He is also responsible for maintaining the classical repertoire as well as introducing new elements into the orchestra’s repertoire. He is thus both the guardian of tradition and the continuing creator of it. The shaikh is even more than a conductor, because the Sufi way uses every aspect of human existence to accomplish its purpose.

Within the Sufi way, these are some of the principles and methods that are used in the orchestration of human transformation:

The remembrance of God under all circumstances.

Remembrance implies two dimensions: the state of presence in which a person is whole and self-aware; and the state of being in continual relationship with God: known, held, guided, and loved.

Worship, understood as the integration of all one’s faculties in the act of expressing love and respect to the Absolute.

In its most specific sense, worship is a complete human action, including but not limited to ritual and ceremony, intended to harmonize ourselves with Divine Being. In its general sense, it is the purpose of life on earth. One of our teachers, Hasan Shushud, said, “Our human egoism can create a world that is a mirage and a poison; the antidote is acts of worship.”

Submission, which is allowing the Divine to be the Center of our reality.

The effective result of this submission is both self-transcendence and a capacity for sacrifice. Submission proceeds from the conditioned to the Unconditioned, the compulsive self to the essential Self, the finite to the Infinite.

Ethics, especially those straightforward and self-explanatory moral principles revealed in the Qur’an and other authentic revelations.

Ethics, apprehended by a loving heart, contribute to a sense of harmony and trust through right relationships and sensitivity to appropriate boundaries.

Brotherhood, the Sufi code of chivalry centered on love, interdependence, and heroic sacrifice.

We lack an adequate word in the English language to convey the profound alliance of seekers of both sexes, the bond consciously accepted by those who have undertaken a life’s journey together.

The art of spiritual conversation.

When minds join together and communicate for a spiritual purpose, an active receptivity is sustained, energy is exchanged, and realization of meanings is deepened.

Reasoning and conscious reflection.

Reason allows the intelligent ordering of ideas around the master truth of existence: the Oneness of All Being. It is evaluating or discriminating among ideas based on the degree to which they reflect the truth of Oneness. Reason, in this context, is the working of the conscious intellect to decondition, recondition, and finally uncondition the whole of the mind, including the subconscious.

Reading sacred texts.

Reflecting upon the Word of God and the inspired language of God’s friends, the masters and saints, awakens the soul and purifies the heart.

Refining the subtle faculties of Mind.

As the human nervous system is refined through spiritual practice, subtle faculties of perception develop which open us to the imaginal world, a dimension in which meanings are embodied as images. Our dreams become more lucid and objective, our intuitions more accurate.


Just as the mind needs to be purified and refined to be able to make contact with the Infinite, the body needs purification and refinement so that the veils of desire and compulsion may be lifted.

Movement and Bodywork

The ritual prayer of Islam, done five times a day, is a complete “yoga” that maintains the health and equilibrium of the body. In addition, from the sublime whirling of the Mevlevis to the zikr gatherings of other orders, which involve chanting and a vigorous bodily worship, Sufism has typically included the exercise of the body into its ceremonies. The ritual prayer provides a grounded and dignified sobriety, and the zikr allows a degree of self-transcendence through the ecstasy of expansion.

What Essential Sufism Is Not

The idea of completion is so important, because without it we may settle for less than human maturity. Without it we might mistake some part for the whole. Just as egoism can reduce our humanity, various distortions of spirituality can produce impressive human attainments that are incomplete, restrictive, imbalanced, or even pathological.

Essential Sufism is not a specialization apart from life that requires the renunciation of human interests and desires. In other words, it does not aim at the absolute transcendence of the human condition.

Sufism does not focus primarily on a single-pointed inner concentration on the Divine through which all the created world falls away.

It is not concerned with developing a micro-attention to the minutiae of consciousness in order to deconstruct the ego.

Nor is it concerned especially with altered states of consciousness, soul travel, or shamanic ecstasies. Although a mature human being may incidentally have the facility to enter other realms of consciousness and states of being, one’s submission to and trust in the Absolute Compassion significantly reduces the need for and preoccupation with such explorations.

Nor is Sufism necessarily characterized by bewilderment and intoxication, although one may pass through such states before attaining the sobriety that embraces and transcends all intoxication.

Sufism is not a way of making the ordinary seem miraculous, but of integrating the truly miraculous into ordinary human life.

Enlightenment and Maturity

Many of us have experienced various disappointments and disillusionments in our search for a spirituality adequate to our times. Aside from those false teachers who are not really worthy of discussion, there are spiritual guides who clearly have some kind of enlightenment and yet fall short of what we would expect of even an ordinary decent human being. Such people may have charisma, the ability to read thoughts, the power to alter others’ states of consciousness, and so on; yet they are immature in certain essential respects.

It may be possible to create what could be called a “hothouse enlightenment,” a kind of theoretical or induced enlightenment that is nonetheless unripe and incomplete. If, for instance, it were possible to give a monkey in a laboratory an experience of monkey enlightenment, that monkey would not necessarily have the wisdom of a monkey who had matured in the jungle. Some people are granted the experience of very high states of consciousness, and yet if these states are not accompanied by a development of character through a prior education that involves every department of human experience, you might have an enlightened being whom you would not even trust to be a babysitter.

Worse still is the kind of teacher whose enlightenment has been used for egoistic ends, who manipulates others, who is incapable of having a mature sexual relationship with an equal partner, or who has addictions he or she cannot control. Our mistake was in assuming that people who have some attributes of enlightenment are perfected human beings.

In Sufism the phenomenon of immature enlightenment is well known. It is a biological and energetic transformation that directly affects the nervous system and energy centers, the result of which is that the veils between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind have been removed, yet the person has not necessarily acquired the qualities, experience, and virtues that I have termed maturity.

In Sufism, the point is not to enlighten everyone as quickly as possible, but to go step by step, developing the attributes of maturity without which enlightenment would be a curse. A certain prior education must be passed through before one has the privilege of receiving the kind of help that would increase the chances for the biological enlightenment.

What is a Spiritually Complete Human Being? Even the words with which we ask this question contain assumptions about what is attainable for us and how it is attained. Some of these assumptions are: that some kind of attainment or perfection is possible, and that we become complete through spirituality. Other ways we could ask this question: What is human perfection, enlightenment, or spiritual attainment? What are the ultimate criteria for human development? What is a full-spectrum development for the human being?

I do not claim that the following list is the ultimate answer to these questions, only that it represents my own present level of understanding.

Qualities of a Spiritually Complete Human Being

Self-knowledge. The degree to which we know ourselves–our weaknesses, limitations, characteristics, motivations

Self-control. The ability to guide and transcend the promptings of the self.

Objective knowledge. A knowledge that is in accord both with the practical needs of life and an objective Reality that can be known through an awakened and purified heart.

Inner wisdom. The ability to access guidance and meaning from within oneself.

Being. The capacity to remain in a state of presence, to consciously witness experience.

Selfless Love. A love for God and His creations without selfish motives.

Sustaining the Divine Perspective. The ability to always see events and people from the highest perspective of Love and Unity and to not slip into egoistic judgment and opinion.

Divine Intimacy. Awareness of one’s connection to the Divine Source.

So many people have been engaged in a search for a spirituality adequate to the times we live in. This means, first of all, that it should be able to offer some orientation to the psyche after the doors of perception had been opened through the awakening of consciousness and spiritual emergence that many people have experienced in recent decades. Furthermore, a spirituality adequate to the times would have to offer a way of living in harmony with human nature itself, in a partnership of man and woman, and within the ecological balance of this planet.

Sufism is the reconciliation of all opposites: the outer and the inner, the material and the spiritual, the finite and the infinite, the here and the hereafter, freedom and servanthood, the human and the divine. Enlightenment in this tradition does not prevent us from functioning in a practical and humble way in life, does not entitle us to special treatment, does not exclude us from the inevitable joys and griefs of life. The Sufi’s union with God does not cancel servanthood.

What I found through Sufism far exceeded my hopes. As an example, one poet said to me: “All of my reading, study, and creative writing could not have prepared me for the poetry of Rumi.” And yet all Rumi’s poetry is just the wave on the surface of the ocean of Sufi spirituality. Perhaps it is consistent with the idea of Divine generosity that it should exceed in actuality the gift we had foreseen in our imagination. The Source is not only infinitely generous, it is infinitely creative, and its gifts surpass human imagination.