Excerpted from The Knowing Heart, A Sufi Path of Transformation
Anyone who has probed the inner life to a certain extent, who has sat in silence long enough to experience the stillness of the mind behind its apparent noise, is faced with a mystery. Apart from all the outer attractions of life in the world, there exists at the heart of human consciousness something else, something quite satisfying and beautiful in itself, a beauty without features. The mystery is not so much that these two dimensions exist–an outer world and the mystery of the inner world–but that the human being is suspended between them–as a space in which both meet. It is as if the human being is the meeting point, the threshold between two worlds. Anyone who has explored this inwardness to a certain degree will know that it holds a great beauty and power. In fact, to be unaware of this mystery of inwardness is to be incomplete.
According to the great formulator of Sufi psychology, Al-Ghazalli:
There is nothing closer to you than yourself. If you don’t know your self, how will you know others? You might say, “I know myself,” but you are mistaken…. The only thing you know about your self is your physical appearance. The only thing you know about your inside (batin, your unconscious) is that when you are hungry you eat, when you are angry, you fight, and when you are consumed by passion, you make love. In this regard you are equal to any animal. You have to seek the reality within yourself…. What are you? Where have you come from and where are you going. What is your role in the world? Why have you been created? Where does your happiness life? If you would like to know yourself, you should know that you are created by two things. One is your body and your outer appearance (zahir) which you can see with your eyes. The other is your inner forces (batin). This is the part you cannot see, but you can know with your insight. The reality of your existence is in your inwardness (batin, unconscious). Everything is a servant of your inward heart.
In Sufism, “knowing” can be arranged in seven stages. These stages offer a comprehensive view of the various faculties of knowledge within which the heart comprises the sixth level of knowing:
1. Hearing about something, knowing what it is called. “Having a child is called ‘motherhood.'”
2. Knowing through the perception of the senses. “I have seen a mother and child with my own eyes.”
3. Knowing “about” something. “This is how it happens and what it is like to be a mother.”
4. Knowing through understanding and being able to apply that understanding. “I have a Ph.D. in mothering and my studies show…”
5. Knowing through doing or being something. “I am a mother.”
6. Knowing through the subconscious faculties of the heart. “It’s difficult to put into words everything a mother experiences and feels.”
7. Knowing through Spirit alone. This is much more difficult to describe and perhaps it’s foolhardy to try, but it may be something like this: “I am not a mother, but in the moment when all separation dissolves, I am you.”
The outer world of physical existence is perceived through the physical senses, through a nervous system that has been refined and purified by nature over millions of years. We can only stand in awe of this body’s perceptive ability.
On the other hand, the mystery of the inner world is perceived through other even subtler senses. It is these “senses” that allow us to experience qualities like yearning, hope, intimacy, or to perceive significance, beauty, and our participation in the unity.
When our awareness is turned away from the world of the senses, and away from the field of conventional human thoughts and emotions, we may find that we can sense an inner world of spiritual qualities, independent of the outer world.
Our modern languages lack precision when it comes to describing or naming that which can grasp the qualities and essence of this inner world. Perhaps the best word we have for that which can grasp the unseen world of qualities is “heart.” And what we understand by the word “heart” is an intelligence other than intellect, a knowing that operates at a subconscious level. The sacred traditions have sometimes delineated this subconscious knowing into various modes of knowing. What are known in some Sufi schools as the latifas (literally, the subtleties, al-lataif) are subtle subconscious faculties that allow us to know spiritual realities beyond what the senses or intellect can offer. This knowing is called subconscious, because what can be admitted into consciousness is necessarily limited and partial.
These latifas are sometimes worked on by carrying the energy of zhikr (remembrance) to precise locations in the chest and head in order to energize and activate these faculties. Once activated, they support and irradiate each other.
The five spiritual senses are connected.
They’ve grown from one root.
As one grows strong, the others strengthen, too:
each one becomes a cupbearer to the rest.
Seeing with the eye increases speech;
speech increases discernment in the eye.
As sight deepens, it awakens every sense,
so that perception of the spiritual
becomes familiar to them all.
When one sense grows into freedom,
all the other senses change as well.
When one sense perceives the hidden,
the invisible world becomes apparent to the whole.
[Rumi, Mathnawi II, 3236-3241]
According to one model, the heart is understood as the totality of subtle, subconscious faculties; according to another model, it is the subtlest faculty of them all, sharing in all the knowledge of the others. Essentially, however, we can consider the heart a mostly subconscious knowing of spiritual realities or qualities.
A Universe of Qualities
The heart is the perceiver of qualities. What we mean by qualities are the modifiers of the things. If we say for instance that a certain book has a particular number of pages on a certain subject by a particular author, we have described its distinguishing outer characteristics. If we say, however, that the book is inspiring, depressing, boring, fascinating, profound, trivial, or humorous, we are describing qualities. Although qualities seem to be subjective and have their reality in an invisible world, they are more essential, more valuable, because they determine our relationship to a thing. Qualities modify things. But where do qualities originate if not in an inner world? And is that inner world completely subjective, contained within the individual brain? Or are qualities, somehow, the objective features of another “world,” another state of being?
The answer of the tradition is that Absolute Reality–which cannot be described or compared to anything–possesses qualities, or attributes. All of material existence manifests these qualities, but the qualities are prior to their manifestation in forms. Forms manifest the qualities of an inner world. A cosmic creativity is overflowing with its qualities which eventually result in the world of material existence.
The human being is an instrument of that cosmic creativity. The human heart is the mirror in which divine qualities and significances may appear. And the world is the mirror in which these qualities are reflected and known more clearly. The cosmic creativity manifests itself in and through the human heart which has the capacity for interpreting the forms and events of material existence.
From the point of view of the human being, qualities are projected on things, recognized in the outer world. Things lose or gain importance for us as they are qualified by qualities whose immediate source is the human heart, but whose ultimate source is the divine treasury. A cheap, mass-produced teddy-bear becomes an object of love because it has been qualified by the affection of a child’s heart.
This subject may seem elusive because we are so conditioned to project qualities onto the things and events of the world that we overlook that everything of true significance is happening within us. Furthermore, the qualities that we experience in relation to the outer, material world also have a reality beyond both ourselves and the things of outer world. That which becomes the object of our affection, for instance, is receiving a projection of the capacity for affection contained within the individual heart. Affection, itself, is a quality that exists in Reality itself and transcends both the heart and the object of affection. Another way of saying it is that we live in an affectionate universe and we know this through the relationship between the individual heart and the object of its affection.
A mature enlightenment is seeing all these projections for what they are: the heart, because of its nearness to the divine treasury, is primary; the world is the shadow. We need not then withdraw these qualities into ourselves, because the mirror of the world receiving the projection of the heart has received the qualities of the divine source. This divine source, the heart, and outer existence together form a unified Whole.
Between Ego and Spirit, Fragmentation and Wholeness
The heart could be called the child of the marriage of self and spirit. The heart occupies a position intermediate between ego and God. It becomes a point of contact between the two. Like a transformer, it receives the spiritualizing energy of the spirit and conveys it to the self. Like the physical heart it is the center of the individual psyche. If it is dominated by the demands of the ego-self, the heart is dead; it is not a heart at all. If it is receptive to spirit, then it can receive the qualities of spirit and distribute these according to its capacity to every aspect of the human being, and from the human being to the rest of creation. If it is receptive to spirit, a heart is sensitive, living, awake, whole. It becomes the treasury of God’s qualities.
In this, behold, there is indeed a reminder for everyone whose heart is wide-awake–that is who lends ear with conscious mind. [Qur’an 50:37]
It is through the heart that the completion of the human psyche is attained. The heart always has an object of love; it is always attracted to some sign of beauty. Whatever the heart holds its attention on, it will acquire its qualities. Those qualities are as much within the heart as within the thing that awakens those qualities in the heart. The situation is like two mirrors facing each other, while the original reflection comes from a third source. But one of these mirrors, the human heart, has some choice as to what it will reflect. Rumi said, “If your thought is a rose, you are the rose garden. If your thought is a thorn, you are kindling for the bath stove.”1 Being between the attractions of the physical world and the ego, on the one hand, and spirit and its qualities on the other, the heart is pulled from different sides. Rumi addressed this issue in a conversation recorded and presented in Fihi ma fihi2 (Herein is what is herein):
All desires, affections, loves, and fondnesses people have for all sorts of things, such as fathers, mothers, friends, the heavens and the earth, gardens, pavilions, works, knowledge, food, and drink–one should realize that every desire is a desire for food, and such things are all “veils.” When one passes beyond this world and sees that King without these “veils,” then one will realize that all those things were “veils” and “coverings” and that what they were seeking was in reality one thing. All problems will then be solved. All the heart’s questions and difficulties will be answered, and everything will become clear. God’s reply is not such that He must answer each and every problem individually. With one answer all problems are solved.3
There are countless attractions in the world of multiplicity. Whatever we give our attention to, whatever we hold in this space of our presence, its qualities will become our qualities. If we give the heart to multiplicity, the heart will be fragmented and dispersed. If we give the heart to spiritual unity, the heart will be unified.
Ultimately what the heart desires is unity in which it finds peace.
Truly, in the remembrance of God hearts find peace.
The ego desires multiplicity and suffers the fragmentation caused by the conflicting attractions of the world. Rabi’a, perhaps the greatest woman saint of the Sufi tradition, said, “I am fully qualified to work as a doorkeeper, and for this reason: What is inside me, I don’t let out. What is outside me, I don’t let in. If someone comes in, he goes right out again– He has nothing to do with me at all. I am a doorkeeper of the heart, not a lump of wet clay.”4 We can assume the responsibility of being the doorkeeper of our own heart, choosing what we wish to keep within the intimate space of our own being.
Purity of Heart
The heart is our deepest knowing. Sometimes that deepest knowing is veiled, or confused by more superficial levels of the mind: by opinions, by desires, by social conditioning, and most of all by fear. Like a mirror it may become obscured the veils of conditioned thought, by the soot of emotions, by the corrosion of negative attitudes. In fact we easily confuse the ego with the heart. Sometimes, in the name of following our hearts, we actually follow the desires and fears of the ego.
The heart may be sensitive or insensitive, awake or asleep, healthy or sick, whole or broken, open or closed. In other words, its perceptive ability will depend on its capacity and condition.
Both spirit and the world compete to win the prize of the human heart. As Junayd said, “The heart of the friend of God is the site of God’s mystery, and God does not reveal his mysteries in the heart of one who is preoccupied with the world.”5 The traditional teachers agree that one of the consequences of preoccupation with the world is the death of the heart. If the heart assumes the qualities of whatever attracts it, its attraction to the dense matter of the world only results at best in a limited reflection of the divine reality. At worst, the heart’s involvement with the purely physical aspects of existence results in the familiar compulsions of ego: sex, wealth, and power.
In The Alchemy of Happiness, Al-Ghazzali describes the human being in the following metaphor:
The body is like a country. The artisans are like the hands, feet, and various parts of the body. Passion is like the tax collector. Anger or rage is like the sheriff. The heart is the king. Intellect is the prime minister. Passion, like a tax collector using any means, tries to extract everything. Rage and anger are severe, harsh and punishing like the police and want to destroy or kill. The ruler not only needs to control passion and rage, but also the intellect and must keep a balance among all these forces. If the intellect becomes dominated by passion or anger, the country will be in ruin and the ruler will be destroyed.
Rumi echoes the same theme when he describes the role of Conscious Reason in keeping a balance among our various desires:
God has given you Conscious Reason
as an instrument for polishing the heart until its surface reflects.
But you, prayerless, have bound the polisher
and freed the two hands of sensuality.
If you can restrain sensuality, you will free the polisher….
Until now you have made the water turbid, but no more.
Do not stir it up, let the water become clear enough
for the moon and stars to be reflected in it.
For the human being is like the water of a river:
when muddied you cannot see the bottom.
The river is full of jewels and pearls.
Do not cloud the water that was pure and free.
[Mathnawi IV, 2475-2477, 2480-2482]
The attractions of the outer world are only a small distraction compared to the promptings of egoism which distract us from within. Bayazid Bistami said, “The contraction of the heart comes with the expansion of the ego, and vice versa.”
When our hearts soften at the remembrance of God [39:23], the ego acquires the qualities of servanthood and humility in relation to the Divine Majesty, and the heart becomes sensitive and expansive–expansive enough, in fact, to contain the whole universe.6
The healthy heart requires the nourishment of spiritual foods. When the heart is healthy, its desires will be healthy. Muhammad said, “The heart of the faithful is the throne of the Merciful.” When the heart has nourished itself only on the desires of physical existence, it is deprived of life-giving nourishment, and its own desires become less sound, more sickly.
Sufi wisdom offers several traditional cures for an ailing heart. One of these is the contemplating the meanings of the revealed Holy Books and the words of the saints, since these perform an action upon the heart, removing its illusions, healing its ills, restoring its strength.
Another cure for the heart is keeping one’s stomach empty. Muhammad said that an excess of food hardens the heart. Fasting is the opposite of the addictions, subtle and not so subtle, with which he numb ourselves to the heart’s pain. When through fasting we expose the heart’s pain to ourselves, we become more emotionally vulnerable and honest. Only then can the heart can be healed.
Keeping a night vigil until dawn is a practice that is unfamiliar outside of Islamic culture, but it has been a mainstay of the Sufis. It has been said that in the early hours before the dawn “the angels draw near to the earth,” and our prayers can better be answered. Another explanation is that in these early morning hours the activity of the world has been reduced to its minimum, the psychic atmosphere has become still, and we are more able to reach the depths of concentration upon our own unconscious.
Finally, keeping the company of those who are conscious of God can restore faith and health to the heart. “The best among you are those who when seen remind you of God.”7
It is only a matter of degree to move from the ailing heart to the purified heart. This eventual purification could be understood to proceed through four primary activities or stages:
Liberating ourselves from the psychological distortions and complexes that prevent us from forming a healthy, integrated individuality.
Freeing ourselves from the slavery to the attractions of the world, all of which are secondary reflections of the qualities within the heart. Through seeing these attractions as veils over our one essential yearning, the veils fall away and the naked reality remains.
Transcending the subtlest veil which is the self and its selfishness.
Devoting oneself and one’s attention to God; living in and through God, Reality, Love.
The first three of these are virtually impossible without the fourth. Without the power of Love, we can only love our egos and the world. Without the Center, we suffer fragmentation, dispersion in the multiplicity.
By living in and through the Center we become still and at peace. Then all the things of the world will run after us. But if while sitting, we are engaged with the attractions of the world, we are not sitting but running after the world. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Make all your cares into a single care, and God will attend to all your cares.” The real friends of God are not occupied with power, self-importance or acquisition, because they are with God.
Moses said, “O Lord, are you close enough for me to whisper in your ear or so distant that I should shout?”
And God said, “I am behind you, before you, at your right and at your left. O Moses, I am sitting next to my servant whenever he remembers me, and I am with him when he calls me.”8
Ali Ibn Abu Talib, may God be pleased with him, was once asked if he had ever seen God. “How could I worship what I have not seen?,” Ali said. “Our eyes cannot see God directly, but the heart can see God through the realities of faith.”
Those who turn toward their own heart may enter the world of spiritual qualities, and they may find there the source of every quality that they projected onto the outer world. And all that they are looking for may truly be within themselves.
It is they on whose hearts He has inscribed faith, and whom He has strengthened with inspiration from Himself. [Qur’an 58:22]
Outer and Inner
There must be a reason for our being embodied in this world other than to escape it. The perspective of Sufism is always a non-dual wholeness.
If the human heart is a space in which two worlds meet, in which two kinds of senses operate, then it is possible to be in both worlds simultaneously: the world of the senses and the world of inner spiritual qualities. Our humanness would consist, then, in that presence, that receptivity to what is offered both by the senses and the spiritual qualities, and finding our right relationship to the outer and the inner dimensions.
In this life, no pleasure is entirely physical or spiritual, outer or inner. The most outer, material pleasures would mean nothing if there were not some quality of anticipation, association, personal relationship. Likewise for a living human being, the most spiritual pleasure is nevertheless experienced through the mediation of the human nervous system. We experience the spiritual qualities as states of relaxation, of heart expansion, of coming alive.
The word for heart in Arabic is qalb and literally means that which fluctuates; the heart expands and contracts, and even in its purified condition passes through many states. The Prophet said, “The hearts of the children of Adam are as if between the two fingers of the Infinitely Compassionate. He turns each however He wishes. O God, O Turner of hearts, tour our hearts toward obedience to You.”
Ibn ‘Arabi says:
God made the heart the locus of this longing to bring actualization of this reality near to the human being, since there is fluctuation in the heart. If this longing were in the rational faculty, the person might seem to be in a constant state. But since it is in the heart, fluctuation comes upon him always. For the heart is between the two fingers of the Compassionate, so its situation is not to remain in a single state. And so it is within this fluctuation, witnessing the way the fingers cause it to fluctuate. [II 532.30]
The heart as the locus of longing experiences constant expansion and contraction, but if the heart is awake, it begins to grasp the Divine Reality through all these changes of state, through the intoxication of expansion and through the aridity of contraction. The heart is always occupied with some object of longing through which it is coming to know the essential Beauty, the longing behind all longings.
The goblet is the lover’s heart, not his reason or sense perception. For the heart fluctuates from state to state, just as God–who is the Beloved–is “Each day upon some task” [55:29]. So the lover undergoes constant variation in the object of his love in keeping with the constant variation of the Beloved in His acts. The lover is like the clear and pure glass goblet which undergoes constant variation according to the variations of the liquid within it. The color of the lover is the color of the Beloved. This belongs only to the heart, since reason comes from the world of delimitation; that is why it is called reason, a word derived from “fetter.” …[L]ove has many diverse and mutually opposed properties. Hence nothing receives these properties except that which has the capacity to fluctuate along with love in those properties. This belongs only to the heart…. The wine is precisely what becomes actualized in the cup. And we have explained that the cup is identical with the locus of manifestation, the wine is identical with the Manifest within it, and the drinking is that which is actualized from the Self-discloser if His locus of self-disclosure.9[II 113.33]
The heart is not an accessory to life. It is not a switch to be turned on or off, a box to be open or closed. The fathoming of the human heart and the disclosure of spiritual qualities within it is the work of all life, art, spirituality. Our purpose in life is to know the heart without the veils of our fears, preoccupations, desires, and strategies. A human being with a heart is the hologram of the seen and unseen universes. If we have seen such a person we have seen everything. Everything is a part of him or her who has fully known the reflection of the Infinite within the heart. If we keep the mystery of spirit, “God,” present in our hearts, that “God” will become our reality. This Essence will become our essence. This Power will become our power. God’s wholeness is our wholeness.
The heart can be understood as the center of the unconscious, the potential integrative power at our core. It is the point at which the individual human being is closest to the Divine Reality, to Wholeness. The heart is the center of our motivation and our knowing, possessing a depth and strength of will that the personality lacks. The heart may even know what the conscious mind denies. When we say that the heart has an integrative power, we are not talking in abstract, metaphorical, or merely intellectual terms. The realization and purification of the heart both opens a doorway to the Infinite, and also results in a restructuring of neural pathways, a refinement and reorganization of our entire nervous system without which we are not completely human.
Living from the Heart
We have proposed that the heart includes a spectrum of subconscious faculties for knowing reality immediately and qualitatively. In other words, the heart is intuitive. The heart, however, is obscured, or “veiled” from its intuitive knowing by most of our habitual thoughts and emotions, particularly in so far as these are derived from the false self.
In the condition we find ourselves, life presents us with so many ambiguous situations. How can we know whether we are following the concealed desire of the false self or the guidance of the heart? We cannot afford to sentimentalize the heart, which is not only tender but fierce, which is both in submission and in absolute freedom at the same time.
Reason, which is the wise and skillful use of the conscious mind, can be used to clear the mirror of the heart from the distortions of compulsion, defensiveness, and illusion. To some extent this is the work of a true psychotherapy, a process which is a “healing of the soul.” While the effects of past wounds can be mitigated by bringing contents into consciousness and psychotherapy, an authentic spirituality can awaken the healing forces of humbleness, gratitude, and love. For these qualities, however, to be authentic and spontaneous, and not merely the outcome of a moral obligation, it is necessary to live from the heart. The complete healing of the soul is possible through the soul’s contact with Wholeness through the heart.
Purity of the heart refers to the heart’s overall soundness and health. The heart, if it is truly a heart, is in contact with Spirit, but to achieve this rapport with Spirit it must be renovated and made receptive all the way down to the subconscious levels. Only then can it reliably respond to the spiritual qualities within are reflected within itself.
Living from the heart is responding to the inner guidance of Love and Wisdom in the heart. This guidance may appear to be irrational and even counter to one’s own apparent self-interests. That is its beauty and power. It does not come cheap. It does not depend on emotion. It submits faithfully, spontaneously and joyfully to the requirements of the moment. It knows no fear and always submits to the Wholeness.
2Published by Threshold Books as: Signs of the Unseen. Translated by Wheeler Thackston, Jr.
3Rumi. Signs of the Unseen.
4Upton, Charles. Doorkeeper of the Heart. p. 21. Threshold Books. Putney, Vermont.
5Ansaari. Tabaqaat as-sufiya.
6As described in the divine transmission (hadith qudsi): “The heavens and the earth cannot contain Me; only the heart of my humble and faithful servant is expansive enough to contain Me.”
7Hadith of Muhammad.
8Munawi, al-Ithafat, p. 110, #254.
9Chittick, William. The Sufi path of knowledge. p. 109 Albany, New York. 1989