Meditation

Sufism and the Inner Life

An Interview with Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez

Gayan Macher and Netanel Miles-Yépez in dialogue. Photo by Hilary Benas 2015. Used by permission of the Inayati Order.

Gayan Macher and Netanel Miles-Yépez in dialogue. Photo by Hilary Benas 2015. Used by permission of the Inayati Order.

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?

 

NETANEL: 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?

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?

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? 

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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? 

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?

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? 

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.

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.