Sufism and the Inner Life

An Interview with Pir Netanel Mu‘in ad-Din Miles-Yépez

The following questions were formulated by Gayan Macher, a senior teacher in the Inayati Order, in preparation for a public dialogue on “The Inner Life in Inayati Sufism” that took place at the Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, New York, in June of 2015. Here, Pir Netanel gives his own very personal answers to each of these questions. — Ed.

 

The Spiritual Path

Question: What draws you to the spiritual path?

 

Pir Netanel Mu‘in ad-Din: I think it’s a question about wholeness that draws me to the spiritual path. I’m always asking myself—Am I whole? How can I become whole? We all know there are limits, that we have limitations with which we have to learn to live, but where are they, really? Where are our real limits? And have we tested them sufficiently?

In my own life, I have always been plagued by debilitating fears and anxieties that limited my freedom and caused me problems. But these limitations also bothered me, until finally, I reached a point where I hated the limitations more than I feared the things that made me afraid and anxious in the first place. I wondered what lay beyond the limits I’d set for myself with these fears. How much more of the circle of my life could I fill-out if I stopped reacting to my fears?

In a sense, wholeness is the ultimate reality for me. What in Jungian terms might be called the Self. Wholeness is what I’m seeking, not ‘enlightenment.’ That’s become the ultimate ego-trap. I like what Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan had to say on the subject—“Enlightenment is a receding wave.” As we walk out into the ocean of consciousness, the wave of enlightenment is always moving on, out beyond us. In that sense, there is only ‘enlighten-ing,’ not ‘enlighten-ment.’ Enlightenment is something static, but enlightening is something occurring continuously on the path to wholeness.

 

Question: And how is that process going so far?

 

Pir Netanel: Well, from one perspective—looking at the kind of difficulties we all go through—I might say, “Not very well.” But, from another perspective—looking at where I was twenty years ago—I see that there has clearly been some kind of progress. There are different versions of me along that timeline that were seriously affected by fears and limitations that don’t affect me so much now. Maybe that’s just growing up, or maturation.

 

Question: What do you most admire in a human being? What qualities and ways of being?

 

Pir Netanel: I admire courage, kindness, sincerity, humility, and hard work in a person.

 

Question: Does one need to be on a formal spiritual path to become that kind of person?  

 

Pir Netanel: No . . . People make a thousand decisions every day that either cultivate those qualities or divorce them from them; and they make them for a thousand different reasons. They don’t necessarily do it because they’re on a formal spiritual path, unless we call the desire to cultivate those qualities a “formal spiritual path.” The desire, the decision, and the action are what is important. They’re the basic ingredients found in all the formal spiritual paths. What the latter offer are an enhanced set of tools for cultivating those qualities, and for navigating the difficulties that arise in life.

 

Question: There are many authentic spiritual paths and realized teachers available to us in the world today. Are they all basically the same?

 

Pir Netanel: I want to play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask—Are there really so many realized teachers available to us today? What do we really know about “authentic spiritual paths” and “realized teachers”? I’m not even sure I know what that means. I’m not sure we can afford to believe that as a starting point. All we can do is watch and learn, apply and test.

I hope I’m on an authentic path, but I can’t sell you on its authenticity; I can only try to be authentic in it. That’s the best any of us can do. If I am in any measure ‘authentic’ in practicing it, and its benefits seem apparent to someone else, then that might be enough to convince them to give it a try. But does that make it authentic? For all they know, maybe I’m just a good fake. The only authenticity we can really be responsible for is our own, and even that is not necessarily ‘authenticity.’ We can try to be sincere, and that’s it. We are authentic only to the degree that we are sincere, and that authenticity only relates to the sincerity itself, not necessarily to what is being done sincerely.

As to “realized,” we have to ask—What have they realized? If, as a so-called ‘spiritual teacher,’ I am supposed to be ‘a realized being’ in the way that phrase is usually bandied-about, then I have to say, I’m not. Not as some sort of permanent identity, or paragon of idealized virtues, transcending the vicissitudes of life in the world. I’m not that; nor do I find that desirable. Have I realized ‘something’? Sure. But so has everyone else. The question is—Have I realized something you want to know, and can I convey that information to you? Or rather, can I be helpful in helping you to realize it yourself? That is the functional definition of a spiritual teacher. There is no need to make an idol of the person. Indeed, we must not make an idol out of them if we would obtain any benefit from the spiritual path.

Given all this, I don’t think we can know whether all authentic spiritual paths and realized teachers are the same, any more than we can say they are authentic or realized.

 

Question: What would you say distinguishes the path of Sufism as brought by Hazrat Inayat Khan from other paths then?

 

Pir Netanel: What distinguishes the path of Sufism brought by Hazrat Inayat Khan? Being the “religion of the heart,” as he puts it, it is in touch with both the individual heart of the human being and the Heart at the center of All Being, allowing for the uniqueness of individual experience and the Divine Pulse reverberating through and encompassing Everything.

Moreover, the Message of Sufism as brought by Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan provides a spiritual umbrella under which all might come and find shelter.

 

Question: Do you think there is anything unique, or significantly different about Sufism and the spiritual path today, than say, three or four hundred years ago in Afghanistan or Turkey? Different challenges? Possibilities? Approach to training? What feels enduring about the tradition or the path, and what elements may be evolving in relation to the times and culture?

 

Pir Netanel: I’d be a fool to say it was the same, but neither would I be entirely right in saying it is different. The philosopher, Gerald Heard (quoting Ernst Haeckel) would say, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” For him, this meant that the psycho-spiritual development of the individual (ontogeny) reflects the evolution of culture (phylogeny), and vice versa. That is to say, there is a developmental capacity or potential within us that is mirrored in the development of human society and culture as a whole. Or, just as we grow up as individuals, so too does humanity over a longer timeline.

Without going into the whole presentation of this idea, I’ll just say that, in terms of developmental capacity, Sufis today are largely the same as those of the past. We have the same basic physical and psychological needs, as well as spiritual potentials. At the same time, more of that potential seems to have been actuated for us as a species through the millennia, and accompanied by the means of accumulating knowledge. As we have accumulated knowledge, or history you might say, our external lives have changed drastically, at least in many parts of the world. And those changes mean that we have to approach many things somewhat differently than we did in the past, including Sufism.

Today, we live in a time-contracted world, flooded with an overwhelming amount of information, demanding a somewhat different approach to spiritual practice, a refining and adaptation of ‘tools’ to meet the needs of this time. It is also necessary to “increase the yield” of those tools—as my murshid put it—so that we can use them more effectively in a shorter amount of time. We must also adapt the presentation of the Sufi Message to make it more accessible to where people are now. Is Sufism itself different? Not in essence, I think; but certainly in form. Form evolves over time. There are clear differences in the form of Sufism in various periods, from its early ascetic phase to the medieval flowering of the Sufi orders to our own day. Nevertheless, the orientation to the heart and remembrance remain.

I would also say that ‘relationship’ is crucial to this paradigm, exploring spirituality in the context of our relationships. Almost none of the traditions have really dealt with relationships in any significant way, always seeing spiritual development in individual or group terms. But development vis-a-vis another person is an integral part of this paradigm.

 

Suffering on the Spiritual Path

Question: Talk to us about personal sadness. As you ripen spiritually, does sadness go away? Does the nature of your sadness change? Is it realistic to expect that the spiritual path would result in happiness?

 

Pir Netanel: Well, if sadness is supposed to go away as a result of ‘spiritual ripening,’ then I suppose I haven’t ripened to any appreciable degree. Sadness is simply a part of the human experience. A spirituality without it is, in some sense, inhuman. 

Does the experience of sadness change? I don’t know. I think it feels the same. But maybe the conclusions we draw from it change. There is no need to reject it or call it ‘bad.’ It may feel unbearable, but it is not something that one should be ashamed of or reject. Sadness is a testimony to our humanity, and how keenly we feel. It is an aspect of our relationship to love. It has to be known in the context of love.

In the Hasidic tradition, the ‘broken heart’ is understood as something valuable, precious. Only a heart that knows pain can be sensitive to another’s pain. The story is told of the holy Apter Rav, Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, who was once asked why his prayers always worked when those of others didn’t. He said: “When someone comes to me with their pain, with their problems, it makes a small hole in my heart. And now, after so many years, when I pray, I simply lift up my heart before God, this sad heart full of holes, and God cannot but feel pity and respond.”

Now this, by all accounts, was a great spiritual master. Was he happy? How can we know? I don’t know why the spiritual path should necessarily result in happiness. We certainly desire it; but is it a necessary outcome of the spiritual path? That may depend on what we mean by the word. If it is an endless sunny day, untouched by grief or sadness, then likely not. But if it something that can hold the complex co-existence of both sadness and gratitude, then I think perhaps that is something the spiritual path can help us to achieve. Again, I would tend to think in terms of wholeness rather than happiness.

 

Question: Does suffering in the world, and in your personal life, affect your faith in the loving God, the God of perfection? If not, how does that work for you? Is there a place inside that we can reach beyond denial, despair, or spiritual platitude?

 

Pir Netanel: In my life? Without a doubt. Suffering has certainly affected my faith . . . caused a crisis of faith. I’ve hated God, felt poison in my veins about the so-called God of love who would send “his only begotten son”—as it says in the Gospels—to be crucified on the cross. Suffering has burned away all the spiritual platitudes I used to repeat about “a larger vision of God’s justice.” What do we know about God’s justice and the greater meaning of events? It may exist, and probably does, but what do we really know about it? The scale of it is just too big for our limited vision. From where we stand in our suffering, God is not just . . . God is cruel. In spiritual hindsight, we make meaning out of events, and often bypass the truly difficult reality of our painful unknowing and limited vision.

There was once a Hasidic master who sat unseen, late at night, in a dark corner of an inn on the Day of Atonement and watched as the innkeeper sat down at a table and took out a ledger. The innkeeper opened the ledger and said, “God, these are all my offences for the year . . .” and he went on to list them one-by-one. Then, unexpectedly, he took out a second ledger and said, “But these are all your offences against us . . .” and he listed all the bad things that had happened to him and the community that same year. In the end, he closed both ledgers and said, “Perhaps, God, we should call it even?”

You see, in the Hasidic tradition, we can also make demands of God, and must, because the truth is, God owes us as much as we owe.

We need to be careful about washing over our pain with convenient spiritual explanations and talk that makes us feel good, but that isn’t necessarily substantiated in a way that builds a solid spiritual foundation. You see, it’s not that I really had an idea of a personal God anymore when I began to suffer. That was long since gone. But there were vestiges of unexamined beliefs and ideas that exploded under the intense heat of suffering in my life, leaving something more painful, though also more real. I knew then the terribly sublime vision that Krishna showed to Arjuna of the Totality of Being, in all its beauty and ugliness, and I both loved and hated it. And somehow, afterward, though I loved ‘God’ less, I loved God in people more.

 

Spiritual Practice

Question: Let’s say that one person meditates consistently for thirty years, while another prays diligently for thirty years. What kind of person does each become? How are they different? Are both orientations included in this path, and given the same emphasis?

 

Pir Netanel: I don’t think we know that they will be different at all. It depends on the individual, their natural tendencies, and where they started. But if we are trying to take the ‘all things being equal’ stance, then we might speculate in the following way. Prayer, being an expressive activity, is generally considered “positive” in Hazrat Inayat Khan’s terms, while meditation, being generally inward, might be considered a “negative” method. (I’m not talking about positive and negative in terms of value judgments, such as good and bad, but in descriptive terms, such as when we talk about positive and negative space.) Prayer, as extemporaneous activity, or even recitation, is expressive, and can be seen as ‘clearing the pipes.’ We are expressive beings. A murid once asked me, “What does God need our prayer for?” That is to say, if God is worthy of the name, then there is no need for us to say anything in the first place, right? But the answer to the question is simple: God may not need our prayer, but we need to pray! Because we are expressive beings, we express outward.

Meditation, on the other hand, is a means of attuning consciousness. It also allows us to discern an authentic voice amid the cacophony of voices within us, a voice that is truly ours, that represents our deepest self or Self.

I would say that we need both—the positive and expressive activity of prayer, and the negative, interior activity of meditation—to live a fully realized spiritual life, like two poles between which we must run back and forth. But that is just my opinion.

Extemporaneous prayer has not been as emphasized in Inayati Sufism, though I would recommend it as good for the soul, and I cannot think of a single reason why it should not be emphasized here. After all, it was practiced by the great Sufi saint, Rabi‘a al-Adawiyya, and many other Sufis through the centuries. In the Hasidic tradition, we see a profound example of its use in the teachings of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav, who calls it hitbodedut. It is also strongly emphasized in Protestant Christianity.

 

Question: Sometimes ideas are taught that I don’t necessarily connect with or understand. I want to be real about my spirituality. I don’t want to pretend that I feel a connection to these things when I don’t. For example, tuning-in to angelic beings. I’m not sure I know what that means. If I don’t experience these things, how do I relate to them? Is there a way to make them more real?  

 

Pir Netanel: We either have to make them more real, or move on from talking about them altogether. If we take the example of angelic beings, we have to get to the heart of the esoteric teachings around them, and find a way to apply those teachings in our actual lives. For instance, the word, malak, in Arabic, means ‘messenger.’ The angel is a messenger, the carrier of a message. But the esoteric teachings also tell us that the angel is itself the message, birthed in a given moment by our actions, emotions, or thoughts, carrying our deep intentions to other planes of reality, where a response is crafted, which is itself an angelic messenger-message. If we understand the implications of this teaching, then we might look differently at our less noble actions, emotions, and thoughts, considering the angelic-messages with which we are seeding the womb of the universe, and considering what kind of child will come from them.

Otherwise, talk of angels usually seems to me, as my murshid put it—elaborating on Fritz Perl’s categories of “chicken shit” (inconsequential talk), “bull shit” (lies and exaggeration), and “elephant shit” (grandiose talk and intellectual bypassing)—just so much “angel shit,” airy-fairy spiritual talk without substance or meaning.

 

Question: What does it mean to be a ‘friend of God’? How does one become God’s friend?

 

Pir Netanel: That’s about qurb (proximity) or uns (intimacy) in Sufism. It is to be so close to God, to have such an intimate relationship, that God is like one’s closest, most reliable and intimate Friend or Companion.

It is also one of the root metaphors of Sufism, using specific relationship language to define a particular quality of relationship cultivated on the Sufi path. For instance, one could address God as Father, Mother, King, or even Boss, and get into the mode of those specific relationships and their qualities. But Sufism tends to cultivate a relationship with God as Friend or Beloved, emphasizing intimacy and love.

 

Question: If someone were coming to you sincerely about embarking on the spiritual path, what tips from your own hard won experience would you give them about how to make their way?  

 

Pir Netanel: Watch your integrity. Pay attention to that. Take responsibility for your own path, and don’t place responsibility for it on anyone else, no matter how “realized” you think they might be.

The Eight Limbs of Sufi Yoga: Yama: Part I

"Mushkil Gusha" by Netanel Miles-Yépez, 2008, showing the five elemets in Yoga asana.

"Mushkil Gusha" by Netanel Miles-Yépez, 2008, showing the five elemets in Yoga asana.

Introduction to the Yamas

(An edited transcript from a private study group on The Eight Limbs of Sufi Yoga. This session on "Yama: The First Limb," which took place in the home of Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez on January 26th, 2014, was transcribed by Leigh Ann Dillinger. What follows below is the introduction to that session.)

 

Murshid Netanel Mu’in ad-Din Miles-Yépez: This is the first limb of the ashtanga, the ‘eight limbs’ of Hatha Yoga. It is called yama, or ‘abstention.’

Between now and our next meeting, I want us to try and think about the yamas all the time, always asking ourselves: “Am I being harmful in this situation? Is that lying? Is this stealing? Am I practicing restraint? Is this attachment?” Just try to hold yourself to that standard, remembering these five basic ideas as often as possible.

This is exactly what I used to do when I was first learning about the Yoga tradition. I was in college at the time, and had a part-time job as a groundskeeper at an apartment complex. So I would be at work, cleaning an apartment building or picking up the grounds, while at the same time, going over the yamas and niyamas in my mind. I would ask myself: “What is not-stealing? What does it mean in this moment, as I’m doing this work? What does it mean in my life, in general?” I would go over every example I could think of as it pertained to me, and it was really helpful. It gives you a good idea of how much subtlety there is in these ideas. There’s lying in a basic way, and there are much more subtle ways in which we lie.

It’s helpful to look at it from different perspectives. So I thought we’d start by going over the yamas, using my own definitions distilled from the Yoga Sutra, and from the classic commentaries on it translated in Alain Danielou’s Yoga: The Method of Re-integration.

Danielou’s Yoga is a kind of compendium of classic commentaries on different types and aspects of Yoga. Alain Danielou was one of those early Westerners to go to India and study with the gurus and pandits. His Shaiva initiatory name was Shiva Sharan. He was a brilliant young man, studying Sanskrit and learning to play the sitar and vina. He was also a classically trained dancer. He wrote a masterful book on Hindu mythology, Myths and Gods of India, originally titled Hindu Polytheism. His brother, Jean Danielou, was also a brilliant scholar, writing works on Christian mythology and symbols, who eventually became a cardinal in the Catholic Church.

I also have here my version of the Yoga Sutra that goes with this presentation of the yamas . . . just the sutras that are applicable. The sutra referring to yama, ‘abstention,’ basically names the five abstentions: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha. But I thought we’d go over them one-by-one, discussing what we feel they’re about, and looking at what the commentaries have to say.

Danielou begins this chapter on the five abstinences, or yama, this way:

When starting on the journey of yoga, it is first essential to bring the body and the mind to the highest possible peak of health and efficiency. The first stage of Hatha yoga is, therefore, the practice of the abstinences and observances which eradicate all physical and mental ailments and create perfect physical and mental welfare. [19]

That’s already an interesting definition, because when we deal with Hatha Yoga, it is physical and mental. There’s an idea that if you do these things, your whole being—your body included—will be cleansed. You’ll be cleansed by satya, or not-lying. You’ll certainly be cleansed by brahmacharya, if interpreted as abstaining from certain foods, etc. There is a total cleansing process to get the body ready for spiritual experience. So he makes the point, right up front, what these early stages are really about.

This is what the Yoga Sutra says: Ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha yama. “Abstention consists of not-harming, truthfulness, not-stealing, restraint, and not-grasping.” [II:29]

Hasidism, Sufism, and a Universal Priesthood (Audio)

by Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez

Photo by Jennifer Alia Wittman, 2015

Photo by Jennifer Alia Wittman, 2015

A talk by Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez at the Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, New York, on Thursday, September 17th. Pir Netanel tells the story of the relationship between his murshid, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Pir Vilayat Inayat-Khan, the initiations they performed for one another, and how these initiations relate to a union of Hasidism and Sufism, as well as a universal priesthood. (The audio begins at 1:39 seconds into the recording.)

Inayati Dhikr II

By Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez 

Session III: Practice: Inayati Dhikr II (October 2nd, 2014)

(Edited and Abridged Session Notes from "Inayati Sufi Study and Practice," Naropa University, Fall Semester 2014)

Pir Vilayat Inayat-Khan, the son of Hazrat Inayat Khan, used to talk about traditional Sufi practices as “building a temple for the Divine Presence.” Likewise, he said that the Inayati form of dhikr, or ‘remembrance’ practice, is like “circumambulating the temple.”[1] This is a good way of looking at dhikr and other Sufi practices. In general, these practices help us to make a sacred temple out of this body, sacralizing what we have allowed to become profane, or at least which we have forgotten is inherently holy. So, in some sense, our practices are done to re-claim and re-dedicate the body as a temple of the Divine Presence that dwells within it. The particular form of the Inayati dhikr thenwith its spiraling movementsis like circumambulating that sacred ‘temple’ where God dwells in the heart.

Now, Sufi dhikr can be practiced in two basic forms: dhikr jahri (vocal remembrance) and dhikr khafi (silent remembrance). Previously, we learned and practiced the Inayati dhikr in its audible form, jahri, performing the four movements of the dhikr and pronouncing the words of the shahadaLa ’ilaha illa llah hu, which may be translated, ‘There is no god; nevertheless, God Is.’ But we are now going to do it in its silent or khafi form (also known as dhikr-i-qalbi, ‘remembrance of the heart’). We’ll perform the same four movements, but this time, we’ll remember the words in our hearts alone, and accompany the movements with a specific four-part breathing pattern (inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils): 1. Exhalation; 2. Inhalation; 3. Inhalation; 4. Retention.

All together, the dhikr khafi practice goes like this:

1. La ’ilaha, ‘There is no god.’ Begin by pointing your chin at your left shoulder. Then, exhale strongly through your nostrils as you allow your head to loll, drifting down and across your chest toward your right shoulder, continuing to arc upward until your face is exposed to the heavens. As your head makes this 270-degree arc, you mentally ‘pronounce,’ Lailaha.

2. Illa, ‘nevertheless.’ Inhaling, allow your head to fall forward and your chin to drop straight onto your chest, as you mentally pronounce,illa, ‘nevertheless.’

3. Llah, ‘God.’ Inhaling deeper still, lift your chin off your chest and gently throw your head back, so that you are again facing the heavens. While making this movement, you mentally pronounce, llah, ‘God.’

4. Hu, ‘he,’ or ‘the one who is.’ Now, holding your breath as long as is comfortable for you, allow your head to drift gently down and to the left, settling over you heart, as you mentally pronounce, Hu.

So follow me now in doing these four movements in silence, pronouncing the words inwardly with deep intention, and following the aforementioned breathing pattern.

La ’ilaha illa llah hu (10x slowly, silently)

You see, there are two ‘temples’ that are created and ‘circumambulated’ in this practice. One of your own body, and a greater one formed by all of us in practicing togetherthe Divine Presence dwelling in the space between us. Going around and around, we wrap the temple in the energy of the practice, charging and building the field of energy and saturating the space with sacred intention, re-dedicating the temple of the body, and dedicating another greater temple formed by our communion with each other.

Now, if you are doing the practice using very deep inhalations and exhalations through the nostrils, it is enough to do it just three times (as Hazrat Inayat Khan suggests). Believe me, it’s enough. Try it and you’ll see. It is perfect for restoring yourself quickly, returning and reorienting your awareness to the Beloved whenever necessary. But, in doing this practice, make sure that you hold the breath long enough in the retention phase to challenge your comfort zone a little. Not too much. You don’t want to pass out or cause yourself to panic. That’s not the purpose. Be sensible. Just make sure you aren’t leaving the retention phase too quickly. If possible, stay with it long enough to experience your heartbeat in it.

Remember, every aspect of the dhikr is a part of a larger process, and yet a prayer in itself. So begin your dhikr by making your movements beautiful, for they are themselves a choreographed prayer to God. Just doing them mindfully, in an aesthetically pleasing way, is already a sign of your remembrance and a pure offering of the spirit.

Then, once you have established yourself in the movements of prayer, you can add the ‘liturgy’ to them—La ’ilaha illa llah hu. And this is even better, because there are now good words of remembrance upon your lips and entering the atmosphere.

But it is not long before you discover that the words can easily be said while your mind and attention are wandering off far into the distance. So, to a simple recitation of the words, we need to add the ingredient of awareness—attention to the words as we are pronouncing them, even holding tight to them, if need be.

When that is accomplished and comfortable, we find that we can also add another layer of conscious content to our attention—a layer of intentionality—a private message encoded in the carrier wave of the words. This might be as simple as a personally meaningful translation of the Arabic, accompanying the four movements and parts of the phrase in Arabic with a private translation: “There is no God; nevertheless, God’s Presence.” For instance, using “There is no God” with La ’ilaha, “nevertheless” with illa, “God’s” with llah, and “Presence” with hu.  This is as if to say, “God’s Presence is right here, in my heart.” It may not be a literal translation, but it is accurate to the intention.

So, again, every aspect of the dhikr is good in itself and an accomplishment of remembrance on its own; but upon each we can also add a layer that increases the impact and significance of the dhikr.

The Inayati-Maimuni Lineage

In the last session, I was asked to say something about my particular lineage, the Inayati-Maimuni lineage. Sufism is said to have existed from time immemorial. Nevertheless, as it is understood from a historical perspective, Sufism likely has its origins in the 7th century, some 1,400 years ago, in the time of the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.

All Sufi lineages have a direct connection to the Prophet Muhammad, for the Prophet is believed to have imparted a special transmission to his closest disciples (among them, his dearest friend and oldest companion, Abu Bakr, and his nephew and some say, closest disciple, Ali ibn Abi Talib) who imparted it to others.

Over time, four great lineages emerged—the Qadiriyya, the Suhrwardiyya, the Naqshbandiyya, and the Chishtiyya. The Chishti lineage of Central Asia eventually made its way into India where it flowered under the leadership of Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti. There it also acquired techniques from the tantric Hatha Yoga tradition, and many of its masters also received the transmission of the other great Sufi lineages. In time, all four of these lineages were unified under Hazrat Inayat Khan, a brilliant practitioner of Indian Classical music and Sufi master.

Early in the 20th-century, his own master, Abu Hashim Madani, sent him to the West, saying, “Fare forth into the world, my child, and harmonize the East and the West with the harmony of thy music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.” So he traveled to the West in 1910, playing music and speaking in the United States, England, France, and Russia. Everywhere he spoke of Sufism, but did not seek to impose Islam on anyone. That was not his task. For him, Sufism represented a universal spiritual impulse. So he gave over the teachings of Sufism for 17 years in the West and asked his students to apply them to whatever tradition they belonged.

He died in 1927. But not before designating his 11 year-old son, Vilayat, as his spiritual heir. In time, after serving in the British Royal Air Force and Navy during World War II, Vilayat began to train seriously to take up his father’s mantle. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970’s, when he was himself in his 50s, that he really hit his stride and found his people.

In the mid-70s, he met and became friends with my own teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a master in the Hasidic tradition of Judaism, and the two friends performed mutual initiations for one another. Reb Zalman, having studied many Sufi works, and feeling drawn to the universalist teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, asked to be initiated into the tradition. Pir Vilayat, feeling that he could not make someone who was already a master in the Hasidic tradition his murid or disciple, responded to his intuition and made Reb Zalman a sheikh. After all, it was in some sense only a matter of translation for someone who was already a master in another tradition. Pir Vilayat, for his part, desired a transmission of the most ancient priestly order of Malkhitzedek (held in the Jewish line of priests or kohanim through their ancestor Abraham, who received it from Malkhitzedek himself). As Reb Zalman was a kohein or ‘priest’ with access to this level of transmission, Pir Vilayat asked Reb Zalman to perform this initiation for him. I know of no other instance in the history of religions where two masters of different religious traditions performed mutual initiations of this sort.

In this way, Reb Zalman became the bearer of two great spiritual traditions and lineages, Hasidism and Sufism. For many years, he kept them separate, continuing to teach mostly Hasidism, though he did act, as he said on many occasions, “as a good uncle” to a few of Pir Vilayat’s and Murshid Samuel Lewis’ senior students through the years. But he did not wish to be a “papa” in Sufism, he said. It was not until I came to learn with him in 1998, while he was the World Wisdom Chair holder here at Naropa, that both traditions and lineages came together. He asked me at a certain point to study the teachings and practices of both Hasidism and Sufism, and he eventually made me his khalif, his ‘deputy’ and heir to his Sufi lineage.

In 2004, Pir Vilayat’s son and successor, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, formally recognized the establishment of a new branch of the Inayati lineage, combining Hasidic and Sufi teachings and practices, which we called the Inayati-Maimuni tariqah, or ‘path.’ When my beloved master, Reb Zalman, died in July of this year, I became the Pir or head of the lineage.

 

[1] Vilayat Inayat Khan. Awakening: A Sufi Experience. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1999: 166, 176.

Inayati Dhikr I

By Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez

Session I: Practice: Inayati Dhikr I (September 4th, 2014)

(Edited and Abridged Session Notes from "Inayati Sufi Study and Practice," Naropa University, Fall Semester 2014)

In Sufism, we sit together in a circle to emphasize our unity. The Sufi circle is called a halqah, or ‘ring,’ the sign of our commitment to one another. In this ‘ring,’ we are bound as in a marriage to the sharing of our experiences. Thus, a Sufi community is also called a halqah because of what is shared between them.

The halqah formed for spiritual practice describes the boundaries of a ritual space. Thus, we form and enter it intentionally with an invocation. The invocation of the Inayati-Maimuni Sufis is performed in the following way:

1. Hold your hands up, palms outward.

2. Place your right palm in the center of your chest.

3. Place your left palm on top of your right hand.

4. Place the thumb of your right hand over that of your left hand.

5. Spread your fingers wide like the wings of an eagle.

6. Now, lift your gaze heavenward.

7. Then, let your chin descend to your chest, as you say, “This is not my body.”

8. Turn your chin to your left shoulder.

9. Then, allow it to drift across your chest to your right shoulder, as you say, “This is the temple of the heart.”

   We then call and recite the Toward the One:

Toward the One

Toward the One

Toward the One

Toward the One

Toward the One

Toward the One.

 

Toward the One,

The Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty,

The Only Being,

United with all the Illuminated Souls

Who form the embodiment of the Master,

The Spirit of Guidance.

In this way, we create and enter into a ritual space and atmosphere. The primary ritual or spiritual practice done in this atmosphere is called dhikr (the dh pronounced with a soft th sound). The word, dhikr or zikr means ‘remembrance.’ (These are merely the Arabic and Farsi pronunciations of the same word.) Which is to say, dhikr is a practice of ‘remembering’ divinity and the divine unity, of being in continual ‘remembrance’ of the holy ground of our being through repetition of a divine name, a sacred formula or phrase.

The most celebrated sacred phrase among Sufis is La ’ilaha illa llah. You might recognize this as the first part of the great creedal statement of Islam, the shahada or kalimah. Literally, it means, ‘There is no god but God,’ which is to say, ‘There are no other gods beside Allah.’ In the Arabian Peninsula in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, this was a radical statement of monotheism, advancing the understanding of divinity in that culture and that time. But, as you might have guessed, Sufis read a still deeper meaning in it, often breaking the phrase into two distinct parts, La ’ilaha and illa llah, changing the emphasis of the entire statement.

La ’ilaha means exactly what it says, ‘There is no God.’ No matter where you look, whether under a microscope or through a telescope, you won’t find God. Which is to say, in the objective universe, in the material universe of science, you won’t find God. This is our experience of the material world. And the Sufi acknowledges this fact, this aspect of our universe with the declaration, La ’ilaha, ‘There is no God.’

But that’s not where it ends for the Sufi; for the second part of the statement says, illa llah, ‘nevertheless, God.’ Here, in my heart, I have a sense of divinity, of holiness, of the sacred. You see, while we must concede that, in the world of the senses, there is no observable or demonstrable God. Nevertheless, there is, within us, an inner testimony that is continually whispering, “God.” This is why the philosopher Martin Buber liked to describe faith as “holy insecurity.” For, while I may not be able to prove it to you, I cannot deny it to myself. Faith is the inner testimony of things unseen. For one person, it may be a simple longing for something Other, something Greater; and for another, it may be an actual experience that cannot be proven, but which, at the same time, cannot be un-experienced. And this is what the statement, La ’ilaha illa llah, describes . . . a paradox of objective and subjective experience, the marriage and mingling of two apparent realities.

On another level, however, La ’ilaha illa llah is also interpreted by Sufis to mean, ‘Nothing exists except divinity.’ But that is another discussion for another time.

To this basic statement, the Sufi often adds the word, hu, which literally means ‘he’ in Arabic; though among Sufis, it is code for the experiential presence of God, and can also be seen as the divine feminine from a certain perspective.

Now, every Sufi lineage has its own way of approaching dhikr, using this sacred phrase with different melodies, different body movements, and even different pronunciations. In the Inayati lineage of Hazrat Inayat Khan, which is derived from the older Chishti lineage of Central Asia and India, La ’ilaha illa llah hu is broken into four parts and performed in the following way:

1. La ’ilaha, ‘There is no god.’ Begin by pointing your chin at your left shoulder. Then, allow your head to loll, drifting down and across your chest toward your right shoulder, continuing to arc upward until your face is exposed to the heavens. As your head makes this 270-degree arc, pronounce the words, La ’ilaha, accompanied by the thought, ‘There is no God.’ This is a movement of expansion, evolution, looking out into the material universe and finding only space . . . no God.

2. Illa, ‘nevertheless.’ You allow your head to fall forward and your chin to drop straight onto your chest, as you say, illa, ‘nevertheless.’ In doing this, we descend inward, looking for our own experience, no longer dependent on our external senses and what we are told in the external world.

3. Llah, ‘God.’ Lift your chin off your chest and gently throw your head straight back, so that you are again facing the heavens. While making this movement, you say, llah, ‘God.’ For this is where we find God, in our highest ideal.

4. Hu, ‘he,’ or ‘the one who is.’ Now allow your head to drift gently down and to the left, settling over you heart, as you pronounce, Hu. We settle consciousness back in the heart where we can actually experience God. Having searched the world in a wide arc, a spiral, we descend and ascend the pole at the center of our being, searching ourselves and finding the ideal, and finally connecting with the actual experience of God in our hearts.

So follow me now in these four movements, pronouncing the vowels with aspiration (the exhalation of breath) and a soft lion-like growl, accompanying the words with deep intention:

La ’ilaha illa llah hu (99x slowly)

When you have completed the round, ask yourself: What am I feeling now? What did I experience? Has the atmosphere around me changed? Am I changed?

We then close the ritual very much as we began it, with a dedication:

1. Hold your hands up, palms outward.

2. Place your right palm in the center of your chest.

3. Place your left palm on top of your right hand.

4. Place the thumb of your right hand over that of your left hand.

5. Spread your fingers wide like the wings of an eagle.

6. Now, lift your gaze heavenward.

7. Then, let your chin descend to your chest, as you say, “This is not my body.”

8. Turn your chin to your left shoulder.

9. Then, allow it to drift across your chest to your right shoulder, as you say, “This is the temple of God.”

In the invocation, at the beginning of our practice, the intention is to go inward. So we say, “This is the temple of the heart.” But at the end, as we are about to re-enter the world, we affirm that this body is “The temple of God,” dedicated to God and God’s service.

Amin.

Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey

An Interview with Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez

By Roland Cohen

Pir Netanel Mu‘in ad-Din Miles-Yépez is the current head of the Inayati-Maimuni lineage of Sufism. He studied History of Religions at Michigan State University and Contemplative Religion at the Naropa Institute before pursuing traditional studies in both Sufism and Hasidism with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and various other teachers. He has been deeply involved in ecumenical dialogue and is considered a leading thinker in the InterSpiritual movement. He is the co-author of two critically acclaimed commentaries on Hasidic spirituality, A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters (2009) and A Hidden Light: Stories and Teachings of Early HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism (2011), the editor of various works on InterSpirituality, including The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue (2006) and Meditations for InterSpiritual Practice (2012), and the editor of a new series of the works of the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan, annotated and adapted into modern English. He currently teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Naropa University.

Roland Cohen is a senior meditation instructor in Shambhala. He has served as Resident Senior Teacher for the Shambhala Centers in New Zealand, and as Resident Director of Shambhala Training in Boulder, Colorado. Mr. Cohen is currently adjunct faculty at Naropa University and teaches throughout the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. He conducted this interview in preparation for the “Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey” dialogue, which was itself part of the 2014 Awake in the World Conference.

 (Reposted from Spectrum: Spirituality, Culture, and the Arts)

Roland Cohen: What role does work or livelihood play on the spiritual path, other than purely being the means of one’s survival? 

Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez: I like to say it like this, ‘We train for the race.’ A runner gets up everyday, goes out on the road—every day, every week, every month—putting in the miles, so that just two or three times a year, on the day of the race or the marathon, they’ll be able to perform at the peak of their ability. In the same way, we do our spiritual practices—daily, weekly, monthly—so that on those occasions when we really need them, they work for us . . . helping us to be less reactive and more compassionate. We do these spiritual practices to transform our lives, so that in our lives—at home, and at work—we might make different choices, better choices that produce better results.

You know, outside of weekends, I see my wife for a little while in the morning while she’s getting ready for work, and for a few hours in the evening before bed. But from eight to five, for the greater part of the day, she’s at work with other people. This is where most of us spend the greater part of our lives today. And because we spend so much time there, it is also where we see many of the ‘cracks in our armor,’ the flaws in our character. We just can’t spend any significant amount of time with people without revealing some of our flaws. But this also means that work is a place where we can make a significant difference in the world. We can see it as a testing-ground for spiritual transformation, a place to apply the teachings we have learned. So, in many ways, work is one of the most important ‘races’ for which we train.

Roland: Many people feel that they are trapped in jobs that are not ‘making a difference’—helping others or benefiting the world—and, in fact, may be doing harm in one way or another. Is there a way to reconcile the need to make a living, even through unsatisfying jobs, with pursuing a spiritual path?

Pir Netanel: I don’t care for the easy rhetoric which claims that everyone can have the job of their dreams, that you can just quit your unsatisfying job and start making coasters with pictures of your dog on them to sell on Etsy and you’ll make a million dollars. If you love making such coasters, by all means, do it. But do it for the love of it. Not to make a million dollars.

We have the power to make a noble effort, but not to guarantee results. If you need to make a change in your work-life or your career, make it. But accept all the consequences when you do so. Because, to have the career you’ll really love might also require a major sacrifice, perhaps a radical scaling-down of your current lifestyle. If you can’t, or find yourself unwilling to accept those requirements or sacrifices, then perhaps you should stay where you are, because it’s likely that you are already getting something that you need or want from it. And for that, one should be grateful.

Obviously, you don’t want to be doing any harm in your work; but people have to make difficult choices too. I’m certainly not going to criticize a single mother who’s struggled to find work for taking a job at a Monsanto chemical plant. I would only hope that once she’s improved her family’s circumstances, she’ll use it as a springboard to do something else, or use her position to help others in some way. But, whatever the circumstances, the spiritual path and one’s practices, are there to help one know what to change, how to change, when to change, or how to improve what cannot be changed easily. They are what we apply to all circumstances, and those circumstances are themselves our teachers.

Roland: In some work environments, people are expected to behave in an aggressive or competitive manner, putting productivity, profit or success before other considerations. How would you counsel someone who feels trapped by such expectations?

Pir Netanel: As we’ve already discussed, if these things run contrary to your values, this may be the wrong job for you. But if circumstances do have you feeling trapped, there are a couple of ways you might approach the problem: one is to make a ‘get-away’ plan that can be pursued slowly, step-by-step, until it is fairly safe for you to make the transition out of the job; the other is to take it as a challenge, finding better ways to be successful in the environment, transforming the values from the inside. But, whether you simply quit or make a slow transition, or attempt a quiet revolution there, the decision will require enormous resolve and commitment to doing whatever it takes. This is what is most critical.

Roland: For many people, work is all-consuming and takes-up most of their time and energy. Often, it seems, there is no time or energy left for meditation or other spiritual practices. What would you recommend for such people?

Pir Netanel: I want to say that sincerity is what counts. Sincere intention or dedication to one’s spiritual path and practice are as important as the practice itself.

When we sit down to meditate, we hope to be able to hold a particular ‘object’ of meditation. But, often, we spend the entire period trying to wrest our attention away from random thoughts, feelings, and sensations. And often, people think of these as ‘bad’ meditation sessions. But they are not at all ‘bad.’ Even if you spend the entire period trying to bring your attention back to the original object, you have done your work. You have, as St. Paul says, “fought the good fight.” (2 Timothy 4:7) You have followed through with sincere intention and dedication to the practice of meditation for that given period. Now, if we think of our entire life as sincerely dedicated to the spiritual path and practice, then no matter how many things get in the way, and no matter how many times we have to return our attention to it, if we do so, we are successfully following a spiritual path.

On the other hand, the busyness of our lives today requires that we “increase the yield” of our spiritual practices, as my teacher used to say. We have to understand the ‘technology’ of the practices better, understand our own contribution to them better, so that they can be more effective for us in a shorter amount of time.

Roland: Does the Sufi tradition have a general definition of what is “right” or an appropriate “livelihood”?

Pir Netanel: Yes, that which is ‘pure’ or ‘permissible’ (halal). As one hadith, or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, puts it, “People! Allah is pure, and only accepts that which is pure!” (Sahih Muslim) From this, Muslims in general, and Sufis in particular, see it as necessary to try to live by means that are in accord with Muslim and Sufi definitions of purity and permissibility. For instance, Muslim jurisprudence tends to frown on earning money from things that are haram, or ‘forbidden’ in Islam, such as alcohol or gambling, etc. So keeping a tavern or selling liquor in general would not be looked upon with favor by most Muslims. Likewise, if a business or profession is deemed harmful to society in general, affecting its morals or honor, then that would be considered an inappropriate livelihood for a Muslim or Sufi. It goes without saying that one is not supposed to derive one’s livelihood or sustenance (rizq) from crime or deceit. (Ibn Majah)

Since Meccan society in the time of the Prophet was primarily a society of merchants, many of the Prophet’s ahadith or ‘traditions’ reflect this reality, saying things like: “Those who hold back grain in order to sell at higher prices are sinners” (Sahih Muslim); “May Allah have mercy on those who are generous when they buy, sell, or ask their due” (Sahih Bukhari); and “An honest and trustworthy merchant will be with the martyrs on the Day of Resurrection.” (Al-Hakim)

Moreover, in Islam, one is not supposed to beg or receive the charity of others if one already has enough, or is able bodied enough to take care of one’s family and their needs. (Ahmad)

Roland: What is a healthy balance between work and formal spiritual practice (meditation, prayer, contemplation, etc.) in one’s everyday life?

Pir Netanel: I’m reluctant to prescribe for people in general. I would rather continue to challenge the notion of a separation between the two. As it says in another hadith (related to the others just mentioned), “Neither merchandise nor selling divert these people from the remembrance of Allah.” (Sahih Bukhari) That is to say, for the true lovers of God, the formal practice of dhikr, or ‘rembrance’ of God, flows into and is not lost during the workday.

On the other hand, the Sufi manuals of adab, or ‘etiquette,’ do make suggestions with regard to balancing work and formal spiritual practice. They say: “Sufis may participate in business to support their families. But this should not keep them from their spiritual work. One should not see this as a means of earning one’s livelihood, but of supporting one’s spiritual work, one’s family, and supporting the faithful. The Sufi should arrange the work to suit spiritual work, or if that is not possible, to adjust one’s life-patterns to accommodate the spiritual work.” (Suhrawardi)

Roland: New technologies have brought a lot of speed and a greater quantity of information into our current workplaces; how can one find and maintain one’s equanimity in the midst of such speed and this overload of information?

Pir Netanel: It’s a difficult question to answer. I am reminded of a time when I witnessed the head of the Aikido lineage in which I trained demonstrating techniques for a group of us. He was in his 70s at the time, and the partners with whom he was training were young men and women moving at high speed. Though they attacked fast, his response was neither frantic nor hurried. In fact, he seemed to be moving slowly, with a gentle ease and elegance. I was amazed, because his movements, though small and unhurried, were profoundly effective.

Later, while talking to my own Aikido teacher outside, I described what I had just seen. He said, “Yes, he calls it ‘zero speed.’ ” Zero speed. That is to say that the master existed in a world of calm, centered efficiency that allowed him to meet the attack without losing his own equanimity. His centeredness allowed for a precision and profoundly effective economy of effort. Thus, there was no need for him to try and match the speed and energy output of the younger attackers.

Witnessing this demonstration, I learned that it is possible to be effective in a fast-moving situation without necessarily taking-on the hurried and frantic mind of one who is usually caught up in the speed and stress of such situations. I’m not always successful at it, but I know it is possible.

Roland: How is the accumulation of wealth generally viewed in the Sufi tradition? Is it ever considered an obstacle to the spiritual life?

Pir Netanel: Early Sufism was very ascetic and would certainly have considered it an obstacle. With Isa al-Masih (Jesus), they would say, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) And though this view still generally prevails, there are also exceptions to the rule.

Muhyiddin ibn al-Arabi, known as the sheikh al-akbar, or the ‘greatest sheikh’ in Sufism, told a story of two great Sufis he once met. While in Tunis, he met a poor fisherman living in seclusion in a marsh with whom he stayed for three days. The fisherman prayed both day and night, though every morning, he went fishing, catching always three fish. One he let go, one he gave to the poor, and one was his meal for the day.

When ibn al-Arabi was ready to depart, the fisherman asked him his destination.

“Egypt,” he replied.

Tears came into the fisherman’s eyes, and he said: “My master, my sheikh is in Egypt! Please give him my respects and ask him what I am to do in the world.”

Though the man seemed to need no guidance, Ibn al-Arabi agreed.

When Ibn al-Arabi reached Egypt, he found the sheikh living in a palace of wealth and luxury. He seemed merely to be a worldly man. But when Ibn al-Arabi told the sheikh the request of his student in Tunis, the sheikh said: “Tell him to take the love of this world out of his heart.”

This seemed an amazing statement coming from a man who lived in a palace. But when Ibn al-Arabi returned to Tunis and told this to the poor fisherman, the man began to sob and said: “For thirty years I have tried to take the love of the world out of my heart; and yet, I am still a worldly man! At the same time, my master lives amid riches, and hasn’t a drop of the world in his heart—neither the love of it, nor the fear of it. That is the difference between him and me!”

Roland: Is money, in itself, viewed as positive, negative or neutral in Sufism?

Pir Netanel: Money itself is neutral in Sufism. The question is, as the story suggests, do we have the love or fear of the world (or money) in our hearts?

Roland: For the layperson, how much is considered to be ‘enough’ in terms of comfort, wealth and security. At what point could it become a hindrance?

Pir Netanel: Too much cushion or buffer against the vicissitudes of life creates an artificial sense of security, and that becomes a hindrance. We can get into a place where we no longer feel alive and vital, and often, are no longer sensitive to those who are most vulnerable to those vicissitudes.

Roland: Is there a necessity for retreat practice (leaving the world) as part of the spiritual path in your tradition? Is there an appropriate balance between ‘retreat’ and ‘involvement in the world’ proposed for lay people?

Pir Netanel: Yes, Sufism has a long tradition of khalwah, ‘seclusion’ or retreat. These are periods of extended practice that anchor one in the tradition, and which cultivate an experience of inner realities. In one sense, any time we take out for “formal spiritual practice,” as you put it earlier, is khalwah. But it is perhaps most often associated with three-day, forty-day, and three-year retreats. The forty-day retreat however, became the ideal of the tradition, so much so that the Arabic and Farsi words for ‘forty,’ arba‘in and chilleh, acquired the connotation of an ‘ordeal,’ a sustained period of intensive spiritual practice. It breaks the rhythm of the worldly and sets the pattern of the spiritual. This is what’s really important.

A Turkish Muslim maker of sikkes, the traditional hats of the Mevlevi Sufis.

A Turkish Muslim maker of sikkes, the traditional hats of the Mevlevi Sufis.

Roland: What are the benefits of being ‘in the world’ as opposed to ‘leaving the world’ (retreat or monasticism).  Is one of these considered superior to the other?

Pir Netanel: The world is where the work is. There’s a famous saying of the Prophet, “There is no monasticism (monkery) in Islam.” Muslims are encouraged to marry and have families, to be good citizens and contribute to the health of society. Because of this, formal monasticism did not develop in Sufism. Nevertheless—especially in the ascetic period—Sufis often put off marriage as long as possible, and many lived an extremely ascetic and solitary lifestyle even in the midst of married life. In later periods, however, Sufis put more emphasis on integration in the world and community, finding God in all places and all people. The ideal became one of service to the world. In retreat practice, Sufis believe that they are actually being made ready for the world.

Roland: Does the Sufi tradition propose gender specific roles regarding work and home?

Pir Netanel: Those are more historical and cultural issues. Even so, there were exceptions, like Rabi‘a al-Adawiyya, one of the greatest of all Sufi mystics, who lived a very unconventional life for a woman of her time. But, even within conventional roles, Sufis were still Sufis, whether men or women. I have seen examples of Sufi women in traditional societies, in rural towns, who sing their own dervish songs while making the bread together, and men who do the same at their work.

In the traditional environment, through most of Sufi history, Sufi men and women were mostly segregated. Women were led by sheikhas, women spiritual leaders, and men by men. But today, this is much less the case in many places. And in universalist Sufism, there are no such restrictions or divisions.

Roland: Is our ‘success’ or ‘failure’ at work connected with one’s spiritual development? Does success as motivation for one’s livelihood conflict with the spiritual path?

Pir Netanel: Everything is grist for the mill. It is impossible to say whether there is a conflict except in individual cases.

Roland: Let’s put it like this then . . . Do Muslims or Sufis believe that one would more likely experience conventional or worldly success if one is more spiritually devoted or more spiritually developed? It seems we tend to be judged by our successes and failures, both by ourselves and by others. 

Pir Netanel: I see . . . I’m sure there are Muslims who feel that worldly success is tied to personal piety or religious observance. There are always people who want to make a simple correspondence like this. But most of the exempla from the Islamic tradition that come to mind tend to support a view of ‘ultimate success’ or ‘reward,’ and not necessarily of worldly success. After all, though the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is somewhat successful prior to the revelation of the Qur’an al-Karim, and is victorious over the enemies of Islam at the end of his lifetime, during the majority of his time as prophet—one might say, at the height of his spiritual development—he was almost continually besieged, plotted against, and persecuted.

I’m sure there are actually ayat (‘verses’) in the Qur’an or ahadith (‘traditions’) that seem to support the former view, but my sense is that the Qur’an is mostly attempting to bring about a true reckoning in one’s life, a true accounting of those things that matter most, beyond or beneath the surface successes and immediate rewards of life. The Qur’an is most often taking successful and worldly persons to task for having forgotten or having abused the widow, the orphan, and the poor. It is continually reminding them that death comes to us all, and there are always karmic consequences, i.e., a ‘reckoning’ for our actions. So we need to stop living for immediate rewards and look at the long-term consequences.

The Qur’an supports purity of motivation and truth in action, rather than notions of conventional success or failure. It does not seem to be against such success, but places more importance on the inner dimension of one’s life. I think the most we can say is that spiritual development can help us to live a more fulfilled life, or live more fully in the face of life’s difficulties, which might be a better measure of ‘success.’

Roland: Is there a divide in your tradition between the spiritual and the secular, the sacred and the profane?  

Pir Netanel: No. Sufis speak of wahdat al-wujud, the ‘unity of all being.’ As Hazrat Inayat Khan says, “There is one God, the Only Being, nothing else exists.” Sacred and profane are seen pragmatically. That which tends toward the greater unity is sacred, and what leads to greater separation is profane. Though, it must be said, that there are Sufi lineages, like the Chishti lineage, which shuns connections to politics and the powerful. But much of this is really a shunning of influence-seeking. One should not chase after ‘name and fame.’

Roland: Are there considered to be ‘seasons’ in a person’s life when particular activities are more appropriate than others? Are these spelled out in your tradition?

Pir Netanel: Only as defined by the necessities of age and circumstance. There is nothing like the ashramas, or life-stages of Hinduism, where one is supposed to seek the spiritual life in old age. It is incumbent upon one to do so throughout one’s life, in whatever way possible, no matter the life-stage or circumstance.

Roland: We've all heard of the syndrome of being a ‘burned out’ helper or giver—one who is always there for others, perhaps with no time or energy left for themselves and with little or no support. Is there a tendency for people to fall into this category in your tradition? Is there an antidote proposed?

Pir Netanel: The Sufi is by definition a servant. One’s first duty is to take care of one’s family. Burn-out is really an individual matter that hopefully finds some relief through family and communal support. I have not noticed it to be a particular issue in Sufism. Rather, it seems to be endemic to western society. Sufism and its communal structures are meant to be the ‘antidote’ to such situations.

Roland: There are situations which seem to demand that one should act hypocritically, such as sacrificing honesty in order protect a project, one’s leaders, or to gain advantage for oneself or one’s position. How would you advise someone to work with this?

Pir Netanel: Skillfully. Hazrat Inayat Khan makes a point of saying that the Sufi is not unworldly, and Jesus himself says it is a tough world and Christians should be, “Cunning as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:6) What does that mean? Honest and sincere, but skillful in their dealings with others who are not so. It is difficult not to lie. Indeed, one master famously said that it took him fourteen years to stop lying, and it broke nearly every bone in his body to do so. The trick is to learn to tell the truth that you can tell in the moment without sacrificing your integrity.

Roland: Are there standards of behavior, vows or moral codes regarding livelihood in Sufism?

Pir Netanel: The basic ethics of Sufism are drawn from Islam; but Sufis also have specific codes or manuals of behavior. These define adab, or the specific ‘etiquette’ for various situations.

Roland: Does Sufism teach that one should give a portion of their income to charity? If so, what are the virtues of this?

Pir Netanel: That too is defined by Islam for Muslim Sufis. The Muslim Sufi, in general, gives 1/40th (or about 2.5%) of their yearly income to charity. This is called, zakah. It can be higher, depending on the type of property one owns, and on which one needs to pay tax. But it is basically 1/40th. This is how Muslims re-distribute wealth to the poorer segments of society, those whose income is so low that they do not meet the minimum requirements for paying tax themselves. Among the world’s population, Muslims tend to give more to charity than any other group of people. For the Muslim, this is law, one of the pillars of Islam. But for the Sufi, this is seen as a duty, a part of one’s service in the world that also challenges us to reduce our attachment to our own comforts in favor of helping others. Thus, the Chishti lineage of Sufism in India is particularly well-known for its langars, or kitchens which serve the masses.

Roland: Does your community provide support for its members who are in need? Does it help members who are struggling or destitute find employment? 

Pir Netanel: My own community is very small, and very young. But that is the ideal we try to uphold, and I hope it will become the foundation of our community.

Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey Dialogue (Video)

Sreedevi Bringi, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Father Alan Hartway, Stephen Hatch, Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez, and Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, hosted by Roland Cohen

The sixth and final event of the 2014 Awake in the World Conference was an interreligious dialogue (hosted by the Shambhala Mountain Center and Naropa University on October 24th, 2014) in which six representatives of different religious paths engaged in dialogue on "Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey."

The Uses and Abuses of Religion and Spiritual Leadership Today

An Interview with Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez

By Amitai Malone

Netanel Miles-Yepez. Don Murray Photography, 2011

Netanel Miles-Yepez. Don Murray Photography, 2011

(Reposted from Spectrum: Spirituality, Culture, and the Arts)

AMITAI MALONE: Why do people have so many problems with religion?

NETANEL MILES-YEPEZ: I often hear complaints from people for whom ‘religion’ is a dirty word. They point to current conflicts in the mid-east and the Crusades and make sweeping statements like, “Religion is the cause of all wars and hatred between peoples.” Or, looking at historical examples and vestiges of patriarchal dominance in various religions today, they say, “Religions are responsible for subjugating women.” I understand what they are saying and where they are coming from when they say it; but my response is usually to challenge the assumptions underlying these statements. Often I say, “But religions don’t exist; so how can they be responsible for these things?”

AM: Meaning that there is no such ‘thing’ as religion; they’re putting the blame on a ghost, an apparition?

NM-Y: Exactly . . . Look around and show me a religion. It’s an abstraction, an idea; there is no object to receive the blame. There are only people, people who believe they ‘belong to a religion,’ and who believe that they are acting according to ‘its dictates.’ But who is really responsible for the so-called ‘crimes’ of religion? We need only look in a mirror. We have to start taking responsibility for what we do in the name of religion, and what other human beings have done in the past. You’d be on much surer ground to say, “Human beings are the cause of all wars and hatred between peoples,” and “Men have attempted to subjugate women.” Those statements are far less interesting, but at least they’re accurate. It’s just too easy and convenient to make religion a scapegoat for all the things we do to each other.

AM: Essentially, we hide our personal shadow material in a fictional enemy, projecting it onto a paper tiger that we can look good fighting.

NM-Y: Yes . . . And many of the abuses we see in religion come from people who are actually using it to execute other agendas. At a certain point in the mid-east, you were more likely to find impassioned Communists than Muslim extremists among the youth; because it was Communism in those years that seemed to be offering them a path to personal and political liberation. That was the agenda; Communism was the means of achieving it. When religion is used to achieve political agendas, there is a great danger of abuse.

AM: Then, is religion in itself neutral?

NM-Y: Well, I would say, like anything else, it can be used effectively . . . or misused, as it often is.

AM: As it was misused during the Crusades and other religious wars?

NM-Y: One doesn’t need to know a lot about psychology to know that young men will look for nearly any excuse to go to exotic lands and pull out their swords. The same is true of greedy men, except that they tend to ask the young men to do the rough work for them.

But how many wars were fought between Catholic Christian kings of European countries? They certainly weren’t fighting over religion. And even when they seemed to be, as we saw with the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants, any historian will tell you it had just as much to do with a long-standing Bourbon-Hapsburg rivalry. And the truth is, we had plenty of wars before the ecclesiastical-political ascendency of Christianity and Islam that had little or nothing to do with religion, and two World Wars since. The Nazis considered it ‘unenlightened’ to persecute someone over religion; it was Semitic peoples they considered inferior. Was that better?

AM: I see, religion is not usually the cause of these conflicts; it is the vehicle. Then maybe we should talk about what religion is in itself and how it should be used. So can you tell me . . . What is religion?

NM-Y: Religion is a sociological construct meant to take us back to the primary experience from which it arose. It enshrines an ideal and provides one with a structured approach to spiritual awakening.

AM: And how should religions be used?

NM-Y: Ideally, according to the definition I have just given. That is to say, with an understanding that the religion is a boat that takes you somewhere, as the Buddha taught. What he actually said was that it is like a raft one uses to cross a river; once you are on the other side, you don’t need to carry the raft around on your back.

You see, religion should be used by us . . . and not the other way around. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, sometimes says: “Good religion puts itself in the service of God; bad religion puts God in the service of religion.” In the same way, good religion should serve the individual trying to get somewhere; it should not try to put the individual in the service of religion. When religious authorities start putting religious adherents in the service of the religion, things begin to go wrong. The focus of religious activity becomes the support of the religious structures and ecclesiastical authorities, and not the fostering of a primary spiritual experience.

“Christ.” by El Greco.

“Christ.” by El Greco.

If we take Christianity as an example, the source experience is Jesus’ profound realization of divine relationship, that he was a ‘son of God’; and by following his path we too might find our own way into the same realization. But if you really want to build Jesus up, to “pedestal-ize” him, as Alan Watts put it, making Jesus the Son of God, not a son of God, his realization becomes something that shouldn’t be sought by such as we. It would be hubris to think anyone else could achieve the same experience, or worse, heresy. So, once we put Jesus on that pedestal, then we don’t actually want anybody to achieve the same thing. And if Christianity is not meant to link us back to that peak primary experience in which we learn we are actually children of God, then what is it?

AM: And in the experience of learning that I am a child of God, I am also led into more universal frames of reference, which is dangerous to religious authority.

NM-Y: Very much so. And a religion that takes the source or peak experience off the table needs to offer a penultimate experience to its adherents. Now, the best one can do is to have some sort of unifying moment with Jesus himself, as opposed to God.

AM: So now experiences are mediated.

NM-Y: Yes, the peak primary experience is then mediated. Unifying experiences are potentially dangerous to the religious power structure, so they will want to offer ‘safer’ primary experiences. At the upper end of safe primary experiences might be confirming visions and auditory experiences of Jesus himself, or of his mother, Mary. On the lower end, an inner testimony of the spirit that allows one to invest more faith in the religious structure—enough to say it works, but not enough to challenge any of its conventions.

AM: How do we bypass the dysfunction and hierarchy of religions to engage in a primary experience of our own?

NM-Y: One doesn’t necessarily have to bypass religion at all. If it is functioning according to its true purpose, under the leadership of those who understand its function, it can serve a person very well. That is to say, if a religion is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs back to the source experience, or to experiences of depth, then there is no need to bypass anything.

But, whether it is functioning well or not, a person has always to take responsibility for their own spiritual path. Remember, you are relating to a social construct that doesn’t exist except in you! If you know that, then you know that what you do with that religion is most important.

In some ways, a religion is its magisterium, the body of associated teachings, traditions and technologies that have come down to us through the centuries. And each magisterium presents one with tools and structures that may be used to get somewhere. But one has to take responsibility for using the teachings and technologies available in these magisteria to achieve one’s goals. And one’s success will depend largely on one’s own integrity, on one’s own desires and potentials.

The Teacher-Student Relationship

AM: What are the actions one would take responsibility for?

NM-Y: Prayer, ritual, study. We’re the active ingredient in the relationship with that which the magisterium brings down to us.

AM: What is the litmus test for engaging one’s spiritual path with integrity? How do we know if we’re lining up with our own integrity? How do we know if our primary experiences are trustworthy?

NM-Y: Well, often we don’t. Often we’re in the dark in our own lives until some situation causes us to realize that we’re not doing something according to our own integrity. It has to be a realization. If we didn’t fumble around in the dark for a while, we’d never have an appreciation for the clarity that comes from the light. The preliminary ignorance is critical to creating a powerful realization. Even so, we’re not always very reliable about knowing whether we’re acting with integrity. For this reason—because we’re so liable to error, and so capable of fooling ourselves about our own motivations—we often need the guidance of a spiritual mentor.

The spiritual mentor or guide is meant to challenge you, to be objective, experienced, mature and intuitive enough, to be able to note when you are acting with integrity or not, to know when you are not challenging yourself, to notice when your excuses seem all too convenient.

AM: How do we know if a guide is qualified and trustworthy enough to help us maintain our integrity?

NM-Y: In the same way trust and understanding are built in any relationship—over time, and through situations that test the relationship. It’s said that Swami Vivekananda, the great disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, tested his master for twelve years! Apparently Vivekananda had lingering doubts—he was a rational-scientific type—and yet, knew he was getting something good enough to merit staying in Ramakrishna’s orbit through all of those years.

We have to build a kind of inner testimony about the relationship: Do we come away from encounters enhanced or diminished? Are we being helped to integrate our qualities in a way that is more holistic, or are we being divided against ourselves? Are we being encouraged to put the guide on a pedestal, or is the guide working to empower and liberate us from such dependencies? These are questions to ask and things to watch. Once again, we have to take responsibility for our own spiritual paths. If we seem to be ceding responsibility for them to a teacher, or that teacher seems to be taking over that responsibility, there’s a question about the relationship there. It’s not necessarily, “Ah-ha! I see your evil plan now!” But we do have to watch out and be aware of how things are unfolding over time. Sometimes a spiritual guide has to turn a situation on its head to illustrate something, but there are also some pretty clear lines that one should be careful of crossing: there are few, if any, situations when a sexual relationship is appropriate between a teacher and student; and the consequences of giving or receiving extraordinary monetary gifts should be carefully considered.

And these cautions run both ways; it is not just the abuse of power that we have to consider. Sometimes students who are wealthy try to ‘buy’ spirituality and access to a teacher, or try to use their control of the purse strings as a means of avoiding being challenged. Likewise, some students who are attracted to the charisma of teacher mistakenly see sexual partnership as a quick route to having all that they want.

AM: Interesting, the temptation to offer one’s body as a substitute for one’s soul.

NM-Y: Charisma is magnetic and draws people naturally. Unfortunately, some tend to think that they can go right to the center of the magnetism and have it for themselves.

The Problems of Modern Spirituality

AM: What foundations need to be laid for a healthy spirituality in the future?

NM-Y: I really feel like the success-model of marketable spirituality we see everywhere today, where spiritual teachers are marketed like self-help gurus or contemporary celebrities, is antithetical to a deeply holistic and healthy spirituality, both for the teachers, and for those who look to them for guidance. The model—built as it is on Western consumerist notions of convenience, and ideas of extraordinary success—is distinctly unhelpful for doing anything meant to reduce the size of the ego to manageable proportions, or to fit one for service to God. In fact, it tends to have precisely the opposite effect.

Recently, someone sent me a quote from the Dalai Lama questioning these success-oriented values. He said something to this effect, “The world doesn’t need more successful people; it needs more peacemakers, healers and lovers of all kinds.”

“The Dalai Lama and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.” Foto di Vita, 1997.

“The Dalai Lama and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.” Foto di Vita, 1997.

Likewise, the corporate-organizational model used for spiritual communities in the West is also problematic. It may be a practical necessity to organize as a non-profit, but it seems a mistake to run a spiritual community like one. A spiritual community must be an incubator for spiritual transformation, and must also be based on intimacy and shared experience. It is harder to cultivate these things in the organizational model, where one becomes a member by filling out an application and paying dues.

We don’t need more organization for healthy spirituality; we need more organic connections for doing spiritual work. In so many ways, the traditional structures of communal practice and intimacy offered in Hasidism, Sufism, and the monastic orders of Christianity, are still the best organic models. The challenge is how to use them today.

AM: Are you suggesting we need to go back to the communal practice structures of the past?

NM-Y: No . . . I’m suggesting we explore ways in which they can be adapted to the present.

We don’t need to be contrarian, anti-modernist or anachronistic just because we feel there are problems with modern forms of spirituality. And we certainly can’t afford to avoid everything associated with the success-model and the corporate-organizational models out there either. We can’t afford to say, “They’re using those technologies, so we’re gonna’ avoid them.” We have modern problems to solve, and we need modern answers. They just don’t have to be cut-off from the more organic structures that have served us so well in the past.

There was a time in the early-to-mid 20th-century when every block in Warsaw had its own rebbe, a Hasidic master who led a group of neighborhood Hasidim. I assume there was a similar situation among the Sufis of Istanbul as well. But today, we tend to have group connections with people who live in widely disparate places. So, the question is: How can we keep up the contact and intimacy of the old local group, as it once existed in Warsaw and Istanbul, in our non-local groups of today? After all, our heart-connections are not less profound because we are physically separated from one another. And how can we not be a group knowing the rarity of such affinities of heart. We have to use the available technologies that make this possible—Skype and FaceTime—to maintain and enhance the intimacy between us, and as vehicles for spiritual guidance.

Spiritual Guidance and Community Today

AM: What of the tele-courses and video lectures that are so popular today? Often, the only guidance some spiritual practitioners receive is through recorded media.

NM-Y: Well, part of me wants to say, “It’s better than nothing.” But the other part knows it is inferior to direct, one-on-one spiritual guidance, and being present to one another in real-time. It’s not wrong, but it is clearly a stopgap measure. It’s not easy to make that situation work for deep spiritual transformation. How is the teacher’s mirroring-challenge to a particular student offered in that situation?

Now a person might say, “Every time I hear that lecture I feel challenged.” That’s good, and I know what they were talking about, having experienced it myself. But there are also major limitations and loopholes. The challenge is not alive and demanding a response in the way it would be if it were being directed at you from a teacher working from intuition. The only challenge you feel in the former situation is the one you allow yourself to feel. What about the challenge to those things you can’t see, that you are blind to?

In the end, learning from a video lecture is not much different from trying to learn spirituality from a book; both are wonderful vehicles for information, but much of the real nuance and subtlety is learned in relationship.

AM: In that informational context, one’s conscience is allowed more flexibility than in the direct situation of one-on-one confrontation, where one’s ego may get squeezed a bit.

NM-Y: Yes . . . Two people actually interacting is not a ‘technology’ we can afford to leave behind. It’s too bad that we don’t have porches anymore upon which we could sit in the evenings and interact with our neighbors as we used to. Our intense focus on isolating media is a problem for us. In fact, I tend to think that our increasing isolation is among the biggest dangers facing humanity today.

AM: And yet, we’re more technologically plugged-in and talk more than ever.

NM-Y: That’s the paradox: we talk more and say less than ever . . . on our phones, on Facebook, in Twitter, in Blogs, and in opinion posts. There is a lot of mind-chatter out there . . . reporting of ordinary daily activities and dropping half- and entirely un-considered opinions. The challenge is to use the same technology to facilitate intimacy, to communicate at depth, and to convey more valuable information for a community of spiritual seekers.

AM: Why is it so difficult to find that intimacy in a group setting today?

NM-Y: Akiva Ernst Simon, a professor at the Hebrew University in the 20th-century and student of Martin Buber said, “The people I can talk to, I can’t pray with; and the people I can pray with, I can’t talk to.” It’s difficult to find people with whom you can do both today, at least for some of us.

What we’re looking for is more overlap with people, people who are different, and yet, share enough with us to make us feel safer and more understood. Such communities have always been intimacy communities, as opposed to membership communities. With intimacy, you can be different; there can be love for one another without necessarily liking one another. But community members without an experience of intimacy are just people in a room together.

The Geologist of the Soul

AM: How does this relate to the idea of the Neshamah K’lalit in Hasidism?

NM-Y: Neshamah K’lalit means ‘aggregate’ or ‘general soul.’ We can look at this in two ways: From one perspective, the rebbe, or spiritual master, is a ‘general soul.’ What makes that person a general soul? The fact that they can address the needs of many different souls. It’s as if they are a universal plug—lots of people can come and plug into them and receive what they need. People that can only relate to one type of person are not general souls. Those who cannot find compassion for a broad group of people cannot be spiritual leaders. One can be very smart, a spiritual genius or a great spiritual practitioner, and still not be a Neshamah K’lalit or general soul. So, that’s the Neshamah K’lalit as an individual.

But the Neshamah K’lalit is also understood as an ‘aggregate soul,’ made up of many parts, many people sharing a greater soul. Imagine a crowd of people standing in a circle in a small room, all of them reaching one arm toward the center. The part of each person that is reaching for the center is part of an aggregate soul, reaching for the same thing—the center. Each person remains an individual, but they are all connected by their desire for the ‘center.’

“Barack Obama’s 1st Inauguration.” David Friedman, 2008.

“Barack Obama’s 1st Inauguration.” David Friedman, 2008.

Now, the leader of the group, the ‘general soul,’ is often symbolic of the group itself and its center, but is not actually the center. The leader is only functioning to form connections for the group. Think of it this way . . . During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was going around the country, from city to city, saying—“Yes we can!” And everywhere he went, in every place he got other people to say that with him, he was actually building that We. That is to say, all the people who invested in that idea became that We. Unfortunately, many people forgot the message—“Yes we can!”—while staring at the messenger, and thus were disappointed when he wasn’t able to do it all alone.

He was the symbol and the one who helped to create the connections. That is the function of the spiritual leader; but if we forget that a person in this position is just the symbol and facilitator, we are often disappointed with what has not been achieved.

AM: I know you are very familiar with the metaphor of the ‘Geologist of the Soul’; can you tell me what this means to you?

NM-Y: I have always loved this mashal, this ‘analogy,’ which my teacher, Reb Zalman heard directly from his own rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe.

First of all, when the Rebbe was challenged with the question, “What is a rebbe good for?” He says, “I can’t speak about myself; but I’ll talk about my own rebbe,” Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Then he goes on to tell us that a rebbe can help you locate what is most precious inside you—“gold, and silver, and diamonds.” And in as much as they do that, they are valuable to you. But they are not themselves the focus; they are helping you to find the focus, which is the Divinity within you.

This is really the model and the metaphor for spiritual leadership that we need to use in the emerging paradigm. We need to look at our spiritual teachers from this perspective: in as much as they help me find that inner treasure, that thing that is most precious within me, they are serving their purpose and fulfilling their function; but they are not the focus of the spiritual path. The goal of the spiritual path is not to make an idol out of the spiritual guide, nor is it to become a spiritual leader or guide. That is a vocation and a function. The goal is the inner discovery of Divinity! Not everybody is a general soul in this way, nor do they need to be. It’s a job, and not always a pleasant one. The guide is a mirror.

AM: How does the spiritual guide, the ‘Geologist of the Soul,’ get to know where this ‘gold’ is?

NM-Y: That’s a really important question. The “Geologist of the Soul,” like any good geologist, has to have studied and spent time in the ‘lab,’ and most importantly, done their own ‘field-work.’ The Geologist of the Soul draws upon both knowledge and intuition in the context of experience to say where the ‘gold’ is. The geologist knows because they have been there, because they have actually found some of that precious treasure.

But I also want to say that it’s not good for a spiritual guide to rest on their laurels. It’s easy to get distracted by the vocation and its demands, to get caught up in the role and identifying with the role. That’s why I was so delighted when I first learned Sheikh Shahab ad-Din Suhrawardi’s guidance on being a Sufi sheikh. It says nothing of status; it is all about responsibility. And among the sheikh’s chief responsibilities is to keep up with and maintain his or her own spiritual practice.

It’s very easy to get distracted from those practices when you’re leading others. Often, it’s unavoidable. Leading others does distract you from doing that work, and sometimes you even want to escape so that you can do it. But if it ever becomes an excuse, then you’ve got a problem to deal with. You have to keep trying to cultivate your own spiritual life. That’s the burden our master Suhrawardi lays on us . . . You can’t quit trying; because these are the terms of your empowerment, and that’s very important.

AM: So the ‘Geologist of the Soul’ has to have both deep experience and a continuing commitment to cultivating more experience.

NM-Y: The Geologist of the Soul has to be mature and experienced enough, to be deeply connected enough to be able to witness to how the spiritual path tends to work. They have to have had experiences that they can speak to, that are regular enough that they can be conveyed in principle to another with the words: “Here’s what to look for . . . Here’s how you will trick yourself . . . I’ve been around that corner myself; here’s what you’re likely to find.”

AM: Do degrees of spiritual experience and depth make a difference?

NM-Y: The more mature the practitioner, the more experience they have, the more they can say. The less mature, the less experience, the less they can say. Nevertheless, they still may be able to say something, and that too is helpful. Anybody who has more experience than you, and with whom you have a good connection, can give you some good advice. Every mentor or guide doesn’t have to be a master on the 20th plane. But the connection needs to be good, and there does needs to be a respect for the laws of gravitation, meaning that there is an attraction between the two of you, and just as with gravity, some things have to come down.

AM: You mean there is a necessary element of hierarchy?

NM-Y: It’s just gravity. Let me tell you one of my favorite Hasidic anecdotes . . . It’s about a Hasidic master named Reb Moshe of Kobrin. One day, he’s out for a walk in the woods and runs into one of his old schoolfellows. His old buddy stops him and says, “Oh, Reb Moshe! It’s so good to see you! I heard that you’re a rebbe now?” Reb Moshe shrugs his shoulders. His friend says: “I want to ask you a serious question. At this point in my life, I need to make some changes. My life is not where I would like it to be, and I’ve heard how you help people now. The problem is, I remember what you were like as a kid. I remember the things you did—the things we did together! So what I need to know is this: what do I need to believe about you in order to have the benefit of your guidance?”

As Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor except in their own land.” Because people remember what you were like as a kid—maybe you were not very confident, or maybe you were a bully or a prankster. So this guy knows Reb Moshe’s past and asks a very intelligent question. He is saying: “I have memories of these things, and I’m not going to lose them so easily. When I look at you, I’m going to remember what you used to do. And yet, I also believe that maybe you’ve changed, because people come to you for help and seem helped by you. And now I need some help. So what do I need to believe about you in order to get that help?”

Reb Moshe shakes his head for a moment, thinking. He looks around and sees a tree stump, walks over to it and hops up on it, saying: “This is as much as you need to believe. You don’t need to believe that I’m sitting on top of that tall tree over there, surveying the landscape for miles around. But you do have to believe that I’m at least on top of this tree stump, just a foot or two higher than you; because, from up here, I can see just a little farther. And that’s enough to help.”

AM: From there he can offer just a little more perspective.

NM-Y: I think it’s really a great way to look at spiritual leadership. If we are walking down the street, and I’m walking just ahead of you, and turn a corner before you, I’m in a position to tell you what’s around that corner. It’s as simple as that.

There are all kinds of mentors available to us, and that’s as much as we need to believe about them. We don’t have to make idols out of them. In some ways, making idols out of them renders them useless to us as accessible models. It leads us to believe we can never reach their level. And we tend to give away responsibility to them. After all, they look so high—and we help build them up so high—that we know we can never get there ourselves . . . and we stop trying. We say, “Oh, he’ll do the work for me,” or “she’ll do the work for me.” Or, the other problem is that we want to be on top of the tree and have some sort of status or identity built around that. The tree stump model is much more useful, and most of the time, just truer. . . . Amen.