Netanel Miles-Yépez

The Dancing Master, Moshe Leib of Sassov

Netanel Miles-Yépez

Detail from "The Third Hasidism" by Netanel Miles-Yépez

Detail from "The Third Hasidism" by Netanel Miles-Yépez

The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, was born in the Ukrainian city of Brody in 1745 to Rabbi Ya’akov, a bitter opponent of the Hasidic movement. But from an early age, his son Moshe Leib was attracted to the movement and longed to come into contact with one of its masters. Eventually, he left home without his father’s permission to study under the tutelage of Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, one of the leading disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch.

When Rabbi Ya’akov found out what his son had done, he flew into a rage and rushed out to cut a switch from a nearby tree. He then put this in his room, intending to beat his son with it when the boy returned. Whenever it happened that he saw a better switch with which to beat his son, he immediately cut that one and threw the other away. This went on for a very long time, until one day, a servant cleaning the house, took the switch and put it in the attic. On that same day, Reb Moshe Leib asked Reb Shmelke’s permission to return home for a short visit.

When Reb Moshe Leib entered the house, Rabbi Ya’akov jumped up at once and began to search for the switch he had recently cut. He searched everywhere, but could not find it. While he rushed about, frantically searching for the switch, Reb Moshe Leib walked calmly past him and retrieved it from the attic. He then brought it to his father and laid it at his feet. The old man gazed into his son’s earnest face and was suddenly overcome with love.

Such was Reb Moshe Leib’s humility, much of which he had learned from his master, Reb Shmelke. But he also sought to emulate Reb Shmelke’s profound love of Israel, literally, ‘those who wrestle with God.’ Thus, after thirteen years, when their studies together were completed, the blessing Reb Shmelke gave to Reb Moshe Leib was that the love of Israel should truly enter his heart.

Later, Reb Moshe Leib said that he had learned how to love others from a couple of drunken peasants in a roadhouse.

One peasant said to another, “Do you love me?”

The other replied, “I do.”

And first said, “No, you don’t love me; if you did, you would know what I need?”

Thus, Reb Moshe Leib’s most profound service to God was always in how he sought to anticipate and meet the needs of the people around him. For this reason, he was often called the “father of widows and orphans.” He would personally go to the homes of the bereaved and offer what comfort he could. There is even a famous story of his going disguised as a peasant to chop wood for a needy young mother.

Just as he spared no effort in helping the needy, he was equally committed to raising funds for the redemption of captives (those unfortunate tenant farmers who had fallen behind in their rent payments and had been thrown into prison by their Polish landowners). To redeem these captives, he would often travel from town to town raising funds. All the money he received, he gave to the cause of the captives or distributed to the poor. Once he was reproached for giving money to someone of ill repute and replied, “Should I be pickier than God, who gave it to me?”

It is said that Reb Moshe Leib was a broad shouldered giant of a man. But in spite of his size, he was known to be the most graceful of dancers. Once, when his friend Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev fell ill, Reb Moshe Leib laced up special shoes made of Moroccan leather and danced a holy dance, every spin and gesture of which was imbued with holy meaning. Through this ‘prayer,’ the holy Berditchever was healed.

His love of music and dancing was such that he even broke with convention because of it.  Once he was present at a wedding where the musicians played so wonderfully that he danced the whole evening. Afterward, he said to the band, “I would love it if you play this music at my funeral.” Well, years passed and everybody forgot about it. Then, one day, while the band was traveling, their horses suddenly bolted and took the wrong path. They ran and ran and ran, until finally, they arrived at a funeral in Sassov. The musicians asked, “Whose funeral is this?” Someone answered, “The great rebbe, Moshe Leib of Sassov.” Then they remembered his request and told the guests at the funeral. But how could you play music at a funeral? So a beit din, a legal council, of Reb Moshe Leib’s disciples was quickly convened, and the musicians offered their witness to Reb Moshe Leib’s request. The disciples, knowing their master well, accepted their witness and the band played on the way to the cemetery.

There is a tradition that says, when Reb Moshe Leib died on 4th of Shevat 1807 and had no more mitzvot, or commandments to fulfill, he decided to do what he had done in life; he burst straight into hell and refused to leave until all its prisoners were released from their captivity. Some say that he got his way.*


* A version of this was originally published in Moshe Leib of Sassov. A Guide to Spiritual Progress. Tr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Boulder, CO: Albion-Andalus Books, 2011.

The Story of Sufism

The Foundations of Traditional and Universalist Sufism [1]

Netanel Miles-Yépez

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Once, long ago, tea was unknown outside of China. But slowly, word of its reputation as a ‘celestial’ or ‘heavenly drink’ made its way down the Silk Road and into the various kingdoms which it connected.

In one of these kingdoms, a kingdom called Inja—‘here’—the king had heard rumors of the celestial drink, and being curious to know if such a thing actually existed, decided to send ambassadors to the Emperor of China, seeking permission to taste this thing called ‘tea’ for themselves.

Thus, the ambassadors of Inja made the long journey up the Silk Road into China where, finally reaching the gates of the Emperor’s palace, they were admitted and granted an audience with the Emperor himself.

“Your Radiant Highness, Son of Heaven,” they said ceremonially, standing before the emperor, “we have been sent by the King of Inja to request the honor of tasting the celestial drink known as ‘tea.’”

The Emperor of China was silent. He would not deign to speak to the ambassadors of the insignificant kingdom of Inja, but merely gestured to his ministers, who showed the ambassadors into another splendid chamber set with tables, where they were served the celestial drink, tea.

Sitting at the low tables, tasting the tea for themselves, the ambassadors said to one another—“It’s wonderful! Both stimulating and relaxing at the same time! It truly is the celestial drink!”

Pleased with themselves and their success, the ambassadors of Inja began the long journey back home. Only now, they decided to take their time and see a little of China, stopping various places to see the sights and staying in different roadhouses to sample the local cuisine. But in so doing, they soon discovered something profoundly disturbing to them . . . Everyone was drinking tea, both peasants and royalty alike!

On returning to Inja and the court of the king, the latter asked them, “Were you successful in your mission?”

“Yes,” said the ambassadors, tentatively, “but . . .”

“But what?” said the king.

“Well, we did make it to the palace of the Emperor of China, and we were served something wonderful that was called, ‘tea’ . . . but we suspect that they may have played a joke on us, or decided not to serve us the real tea. For we later discovered that this same drink was offered all over China, and served to both peasants and royalty alike!”

In another country along the Silk Road known as Anja—‘there’—was a great philosopher, indeed, the greatest philosopher of the region, whose primary interest was tea. He thought constantly of tea, speculating about it and collecting information from travelers in his notebooks. Some said it was a leaf, some said a liquid. Some said it was a drink, greenish in color, some said golden. Some said it was sweet, while others said bitter. In time, this philosopher complied the world’s greatest collection of information about tea, and had written the authoritative treatise on the subject, becoming the most renowned authority in the whole region . . . but he had never tasted it!

Elsewhere, in a land called Mazhab—‘sectarianism’—they had actually managed to procure a single bag of tea! And one day a year, they would attach this little sachet containing dried tea leaves by four strings to two great staves, which four large and grim-faced men rested on their shoulders, carrying it with ritual solemnity through the streets of the capital. On that day, all the city’s inhabitants would leave work and come out of their homes to witness the holy procession. And when the sacred bag of tea passed before them, all would bow down and prostrate in fear and trembling.

And this is the way it was for a long time, until one year, on the day of the holy procession, a visitor to the capital remained standing while all the city’s inhabitants prostrated themselves before the sacred bag of tea. Laughing out loud, he said, “No-o-o-o, you idiots! You have to pour boiling water on it!”

An audible gasp went through the crowd. The grim-faced priests carrying the tea bag turned to look at the man in both horror and anger. Then, with a look and an angry gesture, they ordered the religious police to arrest the heretic, this enemy of religion who had suggested the destruction of the holy tea! The police immediately seized the man and executed him in the most horrible ways, hanging and dismembering him.

Fortunately for us, before this sad incident, the man had confided the secret of tea to a few friends in the city, and had bequeathed to them the tea he had brought with him on his journey. But having seen what happened to their friend, they now knew not to make the same mistake of talking about infusing the tea with boiling water, or of drinking it openly. Instead, they gathered in secret to do so, and if anyone happened to ask them what it was they were drinking, they would answer simply, “Just a little medicine.”

In this way, they grew in wisdom, until one day, the wisest among them said this . . . “The one who tastes, knows; the one who tastes not, knows not. Stop talking about the ‘celestial drink,’ but serve it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more; those who do not are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and open the tea-house of experience.”

Thus, this circle of secret tea-drinkers became the first merchants of tea. Being already merchants of fabrics and jewels, traveling tradesmen of all sorts, they took their tea with them wherever they traveled along the Silk Road. And wherever they might stop, they would take out a little tea and brew it, offering to share it with whoever might be near. This was the beginning of the chaikhanas, the tea-houses that then popped-up all over Central Asia, spreading the true use and reputation of tea far and wide.[2]


Traditional Definitions of Sufism

For over a thousand years, Sufis have routinely learned and recited various definitions of Sufism as a kind of spiritual practice, as a way of continually ‘course-correcting’ and guiding themselves back to the ideals of Sufism. Thus, they have often asked themselves the question, ‘What is Sufism?’ This ancient story or parable of tea is one answer.

Thus, we might look more closely at it and consider what it is trying to say.

First, we have the curious king of ‘here’—Inja—who wants to know if there really is such a thing as ‘tea,’ which might stand for Sufism or mystical experience. But, being a rather ordinary or unremarkable sort of king, he doesn’t go out in search of it himself, but sends ambassadors or emissaries in his stead. The emissaries actually taste the tea for themselves, but are convinced that it can’t be the ‘real thing,’ because people of all classes and stations drink it. In other words, they are elitists who cannot accept that mystical experience is something available to everyone.

Then we have the great philosopher of ‘there’—Anja—who is the world’s greatest authority on ‘tea,’ though he has never tasted it. Thus, his is only head-knowledge, as opposed to the more substantive experiential knowledge. He is like the academic scholars of Sufism who can describe all of its characteristics based on the reports and writings of others, but who have never tasted the heart-broken love and obliterating passion it offers.

Elsewhere, in the land of ‘sectarianism’—Mazhab—they actually worship the ‘tea,’ but in a dry form. This is religion without spiritualty, without the infusion of spirit, the one thing necessary to bring it to life, allowing people to benefit from it. The priests of religion celebrate and defend the ‘dry form’ of religion, often forgetting that the purpose of religion is not merely to preserve the religion itself, but to aid one in transformation. In so doing, they become worshippers of religion instead of God. Thus, Sufis have been known to say . . .

“A Sufi’s religion is God.”[3]

Obviously, this is a Sufi critique of religion, a way of suggesting to the orthodox—‘You have become worshippers of Islam,’ or ‘Christianity’ or ‘Judaism,’ as the case may be, ‘and have forgotten God in your observance of religion. Whereas, God is our religion!’ That is to say, the direct experience of God is a Sufi’s religion. Indeed, it was in the context of such a critique—in rebellion against conventional religion—that historical Sufism was born.

Sufis often say that ‘Sufism has always existed,’ being the deep impulse of the heart that seeks wholeness in divinity or the sacred found in every religious tradition. Thus, Muzaffer Ozak, the famous 20th-century Jerrahi sheikh, says—“A river passes through many countries and each claims it for its own. But there is only one river.”[4] In every land, that river is called by a different name in a different language, but there is only one river, flowing back into one source.

Nevertheless, there is also a clear historical phenomenon with specific characteristics which we call ‘Sufism’ that has a definite context and origin in the Middle East. Personally, I like to explain this context through a parallel exploration of the possible etymological origins of the word, ‘Sufi.’

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Among the most commonly suggested origins is the Arabic word, ṣuffah, ‘bench,’ which is itself a reference to the ahl aṣ-ṣuffah, ‘people of the bench,’ or ashab as-suffah, ‘companions of the bench.’ Now these people were, in the time of the prophet Muhammad, alayhi as-salām, a supposedly impoverished group of companions of the Prophet who never seemed to leave the bench outside the masjid, or mosque, in Medina. They were probably looked upon by many in Medina as lazy and indolent; but it is said that they were actually so God-intoxicated that all they wanted to do was remain in prayer close to the mosque. They could never do enough practice, never talk enough about God, so they never left the precincts of the mosque! Thus, these “people of the bench,” according to some, are considered the first Sufis.

However, another legend says that Sufis, at first, were actually a nameless, wandering band of mystics, who roamed the world in search of the qutub, the ‘axis’ or ‘pole’ of spirituality in any given age. Thus, in the time of the prophet Muhammad, they were magnetically drawn to Medina, the city of the Prophet, where they recognized him as the qutub and embraced Islam. Thus, the originally nameless form of Sufism took on an Arabic character and name, and became associated with Islam, though it never lost its essentially universalist spiritual outlook. Some even say that this group of wandering seekers, arriving in Medina without any other material aim or intention, became the ‘people of the bench.’

Later, this recognition of the nameless origins of Sufism led one great Sufi master to admonish his fellow Sufis with this famous statement . . .

“Once, Sufism was a reality without a name;

now it is but a name without a reality.”[5]

Another explanation of the origin of the word ‘Sufi’ is the Arabic safā, ‘pure,’ from which we get, tasawwuff. In English, we speak of the tradition of Sufism, but that’s merely an Anglicized form of the Arabic word, tasawwuf, meaning ‘purification,’ a process or path of continual purification, purifying oneself from the more spiritually deadening effects of the ego.

Nevertheless, historically and linguistically, scholars tend to agree that the most likely origin of the word, ‘Sufi,’ is the Arabic word sūf, ‘wool,’ a reference to the simple woolen cloaks worn by early Muslim ascetics in the 8th and 9th-century in the Middle East.

These pious Muslims were generally called nussāk (sing. nāsik) or ‘ascetics, and wore rough woolen garments, rejecting the decadent luxuries of the increasing wealthy Islamic empire which, as they saw it, had lost its way. Their lifestyle was a protest and rebellion against the lax morality of the time. In just two hundred years, the originally poor and pious Muslim community of high ideals had become rich, bloated with wealth acquired through conquest, and extremely decadent. Thus, these early ascetic Muslims were trying to reestablish the ideals of Islam based on the best models available to them. In this case, on the example of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas) who lived in desert caves across the Middle East, and who were often known for wearing coarse woolen garments, an ascetic practice in that hot, dry climate.

Indeed, stories of this cross-fertilization are preserved in the Sufi tradition, especially in an episode from the life of the great Sufi master, Ibrahim ibn Adham, a king who gave up his kingdom to pursue God, who tells of a deep transmission of inner wisdom (ma'rifa) he received from a Christian ascetic.

According to the story, Ibrahim Adham once visited a Christian ascetic called Father Simeon in his desert cave in the mountains. He asked him, “How long have you been here, father?”

“Seventy years,” Father Simeon answered.

“What food do you eat?” asked Ibrahim Adham.

“Why do you ask, my son?”

“I just want to know.”

Father Simeon answered, “One chick pea a day.”

Amazed, Ibrahim Adham said, “What moves your heart so much that you can live off so little?”

“Well, I’ll tell you. Once a year,” Father Simeon answered, “the people of the village below come up to celebrate my work here, adorning my cave and honoring me. And when I’m weary of this life, I think of that, and I can go on.

“Now, I ask you, what work of an hour would you endure for the whole glory of eternity?”

“Hearing this,” Ibrahim Adham tells us, “ma'rifa,” the inner wisdom or experiential knowledge, “descended on me.”

For me, this is an amazing story, connecting the three great esoteric Abrahamic lineages. Just as the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Christianity were already the heirs of the Essenes, a Jewish mystical ascetic sect along the Dead Sea[6] and the probable authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, so too were the Sufis the heirs of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

These early Muslim ascetics, nussāk, were even known to say that they followed the way of the Prophet Isa, or Jesus, who wore wool instead of the more comfortable cotton. In saying this, they were not proclaiming themselves converts to Christianity—they were still good Muslims—but recognizing that Jesus was a prophet in Islam whose model was closely aligned with their values. After all, they were rebelling against a corrupt Islamic government, and with the fact that Islam had become mixed-up with politics. The Prophet Muhammad, of course, was considered the best possible ruler, a true philosopher or prophet-king, but things had quickly degenerated after his passing. Aware of the problems of this model, these early proto-Sufis saw Jesus as a prophet who wasn’t involved in politics or governance, leading an exemplary spiritual life. Thus, it likewise became a longstanding value among many Sufis not to become too deeply involved with powerbrokers or politics, nor to court or seek the influence of the powerful elite, whether those with great wealth or great political power.

Within the larger ascetic protest movement of the 8th-century—roughly 200 years after the birth of Islam—was a fringe group called the Sūfiyya, ‘the wool wearers,’ which was likely a pejorative term originally used by their detractors to make fun of them.[7] Nevertheless, the name stuck, and was eventually claimed by this group of spiritual idealists. Indeed, one early master, accepting the more realistic derivation from sūf, ‘wool,’ and combing it with the ideal of safā, ‘purity,’ famously said . . .

“The Sufi is the one who wears wool on top of purity.”[8]

Likewise following the model of Jesus, these early Sufis emphasized Jesus’ teachings on love, though, they did not need Christianity to show them the path to love of God. It was also there before them in the Qur’an (5:54) . . .

“God loves them, and they love God.”

Thus, some Sufis even came to say . . .

“Sufism is the religion of Love.”[9]

It was not long before the early ascetic tradition of Sufism was transformed into a tradition oriented to the ideal and experience of divine love. This is perhaps owing to the influence of one individual more than any other, a woman and a former slave named Rābi‘a al-Adawiyya or Rābi‘a al-Basri (ca. 717-801).

Orphaned at an early age, Rābi‘a was sold into slavery, but her owner, seeing that she spoke with God, became afraid and freed her. After that, she began to wander, never leaving her devotions. She is said to have been a beautiful woman, but never married, devoting herself entirely to God. She is known to have said . . .

“I love You with two loves,

one that that is unworthy of You,

and one that is lost in You.”

And on another occasion . . .

“If I worship You for fear of hell, then send me there.

If I worship you out of a desire for heaven, then bar the gates.

But if I worship You for Your own sake,

then do not deny me the vision of Your eternal beauty.”

The most enduring image of Rābi‘a al-Adawiyya for me is the description of her walking through the streets of Basra carrying a fiery torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. Some Sufis who saw her asked, “Lady Rābi‘a, what are you going to do with these?”

She answered, “I’m going to set fire to paradise (Janna) and douse the flames of hell (Jahannam), so that both will cease to inspire desire and fear, that these veils may fall from their eyes, and the lover’s purpose may become clear.”

Through her influence on many others, Sufism came to be oriented toward pure love and ecstatic experiences of union with the divine. Soon, practices developed around the remembrance of the divine Beloved, such as dhikr Allāh, the mantric remembrance or recitation of the name of God. Sufism also developed practices of courting ecstasy with music and dance and the recitation of love poetry. Such sessions which put one in a state of ecstasy (wajd) were called samā‘ or ‘hearing.’ In these ecstatic states, it was said that the self (nafs) was annihilated (fanā) in the experience of union with God.

Among the most famous of the early ecstatic Sufi masters was Mansūr al-Hallāj (ca. 858-March 26th, 922), who is known for crying-out publically in a moment of ecstasy, An al-Haqq, “I am the Truth”[10] . . . and then being executed as a heretic for it.[11] Of course, to the literal-minded, he seemed to be saying that he was God, that his individual ego had subsumed God, when actually he was saying quite the opposite, that his individual ego had been obliterated by God!

Does his story sound familiar?

Clearly, al-Hallaj is the man from our story, the one visiting the land of sectarianism who laughs and cries out, “No, you idiots! You have to pour boiling water on it!”

Thus, the tea of the parable represents Sufism as a path emphasizing experience, specifically, the experience of ‘tasting God,’ or the sacred.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

But the Parable of Tea is also a cautionary tale, describing a shift in the history of Sufism. Having seen what happened to al-Hallāj, and the general backlash against Sufism, many Sufis decided to go underground, practicing dhikr (‘remembrance’) or ‘drinking their tea’ in secret.[12] Thus, the admonition . . .

The one who tastes, knows; the one who tastes not, knows not. Stop talking about the ‘celestial drink,’ but serve it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more; those who do not are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and open the tea-house of experience.

This reminds me of Murshid Samuel Lewis’ wonderful paraphrase of Muhammad Ghazzali’s (d.1111) suggestion . . .

“Sufism is a school of experience, not of dogmas.”[13]

Sufism is not interested in trying to convince others to believe through argument, and does not have a specific set of beliefs to prescribe. It has specific teachings, of course, and a definite perspective oriented to divine love, but no dogmas about what you must believe. The idea of Sufism is to seek experience, your own experience. Beliefs should not be merely ‘imported,’ but formed from personal experience. In Sufism, you discover your own God or “God-ideal,” as Hazrat Inayat Khan puts it.[14] The tradition is merely suggesting, ‘Take these things in and try them out for yourself; discover your own relationship to the sacred.’ The Sufi way is to share, not to impose, as the story illustrates . . .

Thus, this circle of secret tea-drinkers became the first merchants of tea. Being already merchants of fabrics and jewels, traveling tradesmen of all sorts, they took their tea with them wherever they traveled along the Silk Road. And wherever they might stop, they would take out a little tea and brew it, offering to share it with whoever might be near. This was the beginning of the chaikhanas, the tea-houses that then popped-up all over Central Asia, spreading the true use and reputation of tea far and wide.

The chaikhanas or tea-houses, of course, refer to the many Sufi turuq or ‘orders’ (and their khaneghas) that soon arose, including the four great orders, the Chishti, Naqshbandi, Suhrawardi, and Qadiri.


The Evolution of Universalist Sufism

The Chishti lineage, which originally formed in Central Asia, eventually made its way into India with the great Sufi master, Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti (1141-1236), where it developed into a unique lineage incorporating Yogic practices and a specific musical lineage called, Qawwali.

In 1910, a master in this lineage, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), a great classical Indian musician, in whom was also united the four great Sufi lineages, was charged by his master to bring Sufism into the West. In his master’s words . . .

Fare forth into the world, my child, and harmonize the East and the West with the harmony of your music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.[15]

Coming to the West, ostensibly as a musician, Inayat Khan gave concerts which were sometimes followed by lectures on Sufism. In San Francisco, in 1911, he met his first Western student, a Jewish woman named Ada Martin (1871-1947), who became the first American Sufi murid (‘seeker’), and also the first American murshida, or acknowledged spiritual teacher of Sufism.

But in taking a Western murid, it soon became clear to Inayat Khan that it was not necessarily his mission to spread Islam along with Sufism in the West. The people he was teaching were already Jews and Christians, whose religion was to be protected. Thus, he began to introduce them to Sufism without Islam, as an esoteric path and set of teachings that might catalyze or ‘turn on’ what was dormant in their existing religious practice. In other words, he would teach them to “pour boiling water on it,” to infuse it with Sufi spirituality.

Thus was born Universalist Sufism, and also the Inayati lineage (as a new emphasis in the lineage is often marked by the addition of a name to it, often the name of the innovator). And in time, Inayat Khan would propose yet another definition of Sufism, saying . . .

“If anybody asks you, ‘What is Sufism?’ . . . you may answer:

‘Sufism is the religion of the heart,

the religion in which the most important thing

is to seek God in the heart of humanity.’”[16]

Now, some have asked, ‘Is this still Sufism?’ To this, I believe we can answer a clear, ‘Yes.’ Inayati or Universalist Sufism maintains the traditional Sufi orientation to love and the heart, the commitment to personal spiritual experience through practice—through dhikr (remembrance) and muraqaba (meditation)—and continues the great, 1,400 year-old unbroken lineage, passed from Sufi master to Sufi master. Moreover, Inayati Sufism is still completely in-line with and following the almost 800 year-old mandate of Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti to all Chishti Sufis . . .

Love all, and hate none.

Mere talk of peace will get you nothing.

Mere talk of God and religion will not take you far.

Bring out all of the latent powers of your being,

And reveal the full magnificence

Of your immortal self.[17]

Be charged with peace and joy,

And scatter them wherever you are,

And wherever you go.

Be a blazing fire of truth,

A beautiful blossom of love,

And a soothing balm of peace.

With your spiritual light,

Dispel the darkness of ignorance;

Dissolve the clouds of discord and war,

And spread goodwill, peace, and harmony among the people.

Never seek any help, charity, or favors

From anybody except God.

Never go to the courts of kings,

Nor refuse to bless and help the needy and the poor,

The widow or the orphan, if they come to your door.

This is your mission, to serve the people. . . .

Carry it out dutifully and courageously,

So that I, as your Pir-o-Murshid,

May not be ashamed of

Any shortcomings on your part

Before the Almighty God

And our holy predecessors

In the Sufi silsila

On the Day of Judgment.[18]




[1] An edited version of a talk originally given in Portland, Oregon on July 7th, 2016 at Lewis & Clark College for the Season of the Rose, the annual summer school of the Inayati Order.

[2] A parable attributed to Khwaja Yusuf Hamadani by Idries Shah. A less elaborate version of the story is given in Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967: 88-90). After originally reading this story in Shah, I went on to tell it for many years, often as way of introducing Sufism. After some years, I needed to consult the original to confirm a detail, only to discover that I had greatly embroidered the story. However, I was pleased to note that I had preserved all of the essentials, as well as the most important details and phrases.

[3] A traditional Sufi saying.

[4] Muzaffer Ozak. Love is the Wine: Talks of a Sufi Master in America. Ed. Ragip Frager. Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1987: 1.

[5] Abu’l-Hasan Bushanji, 8th/9th-century.

[6] Greek, Essaioi, a corruption of the Aramaic, Hasya, or Hebrew, Hasidim.

[7] Eventually, by the 9th-century, the name “Sufi” came to apply to all the nussāk. In Khurasan and Transoxania (Central Asia), they were also called hakim (pl. hukamā’) also ‘ārif (pl. ‘ārifūn), fakir, and darwiish.

[8] Al-Rudhabari, 9th-century.

[9] A traditional Sufi saying.

[10] Such ecstatic outbursts are called, shathiyat (sing. shath).

[11] This is the classic story of Mansūr al-Hallāj’s martyrdom. The historical truth is more complex. It seems that he inspired a movement of moral and political reform in Baghdad, which made him powerful enemies. He was then forced to flee Baghdad. He was later arrested and imprisoned for nine years and finally condemned as being part of an insurgent group who wished to destroy the Ka’ba. He had said, “Circle the ka’ba of the heart seven times,” and some also reported that he said cities should build local ka’bas for people to circumambulate. For these things, he was denounced. But as-Shafi’i, the greatest Muslim jurist of the time, refused to condemn him, saying that mystic inspiration was beyond his jurisdiction. Nevertheless, he was condemned by the government. The queen-mother interceded and the order was revoked, but the vizier continued conniving until al-Hallāj was finally condemned, tortured, hanged, decapitated in Baghdad. His last words were said to be, “The only thing that matters is to be absorbed in Unity.”

[12] This story or parable is attributed to the Khwajagan, who are said to have been critical of al-Hallāj, considering his public shath an example of spiritual imprudence. They were advocates of quiet work out of the public eye.

[13] Actually, this is my own paraphrase of Murshid Samuel Lewis’ paraphrase of al-Ghazzali, “Sufism consists of experiences not premises.” (Sufi Vision and Initiation, 19, from The Lotus and the Universe). It seems to be based on a whole passage in al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal of Muhammad al-Ghazzali. One sentence (in Watt's translation) reads: “It became clear to me, however, that what is most distinctive of mysticism is something which cannot be apprehended by study, but only by immediate experience (dhawq—literally, 'tasting'), by ecstasy and by a moral change." (The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazali, 54-55).

[14] The Unity of Religious Ideals, Part II, “The God-Ideal.”

[15] The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan: Volume 12: The Vision of God and Man. Geneva: International Headquarters of the Sufi Movement, 1982: 150.

[16] Religious Gathekas, #1.

[17] This reminds me of the Bektashi saying reported by Murat Yagan in I Come from Behind Calf Mountain (Putney, VT: Threshhold Books, 1984: 155): Sufism is the “process of awakening and developing latent human powers under Divine Grace and guidance.”

[18] Adapted from the version given in Hakim Moinuddin Chishti’s The Book of Sufi Healing. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991: 9.

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.

Hasidism, Sufism, and a Universal Priesthood (Audio)

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.)

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

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: Why do people have so many problems with religion?

NETANEL: 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?”

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

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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.

AMITAI:Then, is religion in itself neutral?

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

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

NETANEL: 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?

AMITAI: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?

NETANEL: 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.

AMITAI:And how should religions be used?

NETANEL: 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?

AMITAI: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.

NETANEL: 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.

AMITAI:So now experiences are mediated.

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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

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

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

AMITAI: 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?

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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

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

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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

AMITAI: 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.

NETANEL: 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.

AMITAI: 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.

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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

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

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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.”

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

NETANEL: 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.

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

NETANEL: 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.”

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

NETANEL: 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.