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.