An interview with Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.
Elizabeth Marglin interviewed five spiritual teachers who will change the way you think about spirituality. Here is her talk with Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.
"Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love draws us back to love, love uncovers love, love makes us whole and love takes us Home. In the depths of the soul we are loved by God. This is the deepest secret of being human, the bond of love that is at the core of our being and belongs to all that exists…"
EM: How did you become involved on the spiritual path?
LV: One afternoon when I was sixteen I was riding in the subway in London, when I read a Zen koan, “The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection, the water has no mind to receive their image.” This koan was like a key that opened a door I never knew existed. Instead of my grey schoolboy world, I found myself in a reality full of light, color, and joy. I began practicing Zen empty-mind meditation, and had experiences of being taken beyond my body into inner dimensions of pure emptiness, exhilarating in their complete freedom and intensity.
Over the next three years I continued to practice meditation. But I realized that in order to go deeper into meditation I needed a teacher. Then, one evening when I was nineteen, I was invited to a talk on the esoteric dimension of mathematics, and found myself sitting behind an old lady with her white hair tied up in a bun. After the talk I was introduced to this old lady, who gave me one look from her piercing blue eyes, and I had the physical experience of becoming a speck of dust on the floor. It would be many years before I understood this experience, how it imaged the annihilation of the ego according to the Sufi saying, “the disciple has to become less than the dust on the floor of the teacher.”
The old lady was Irina Tweedie, who a few years earlier had returned from India where she had been trained by a Sufi master, as she describes in her book, “Daughter of Fire: A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master.” That was the beginning of a close relationship to Mrs. Tweedie. During this time, I met my wife, who was also a student of Mrs. Tweedie, and we had two children.
Seven years after meeting her, I bought a house with a first and second floor apartment. We invited Mrs. Tweedie to live downstairs, as her group had grown and needed a new home. For eleven years we lived upstairs, my wife looking after Mrs. Tweedie who was now in her eighties, with people coming from all over the world to sit with her, the traditional satsang—sitting in the presence of the teacher. When I was thirty-six I was sent to lecture on Sufism in America, and then two years later our family moved California to establish our Sufi path in America. In 1992 Irina Tweedie retired and named me as her successor. She passed in 1999. To continue her work I founded The Golden Sufi Center.
What do you mean when you say, “it’s all about the beloved, it’s never about us.”
The Sufi path is a love affair with God, a divine love affair that takes us from separation back to union with God through the mystery of love. God, or Truth, is our Beloved, intimate and impersonal, the One to whom we give our heart and soul, the One to whom we fully belong. The path begins when the Beloved touches our heart and calls us home, igniting the fire of longing within the heart, the fire that burns away the ego —“Love is a fire and I am wood,” says Majnun, in the Sufi allegory of divine love, Layla and Majnun, by Nizami.
What is the main way you bring your students home to themselves?
The essence of our Sufi path is the transmission of divine love or grace that is given from teacher to disciple, from heart to heart, from soul to soul. This energy or power of love activates, or spins, the heart chakra, which purifies the disciple and finally merges him or her into the ocean of divine love. The work of the wayfarer is to surrender to this love, to be taken by love back to the Beloved.
What is your signature teaching style?
I like silence and meditation as the simplest way to guide the student. But I have also found that compassion, kindness, and understanding are helpful qualities to guide contemporary seekers. I was taught quite harshly, “old school”—as I was once told in a dream, “he was made soft by a very hard system.” Sometimes I can be hard and strict, if needed, but I have found over the years that kindness and love work best.
Also I have always had an ability to interpret dreams, which was developed through many years of sitting at my teacher’s feet, hearing spiritual dreams from fellow wayfarers. Dreams are considered to be a form of guidance along the Path.
What is a practice you recommend the most?
Our central practice is a silent heart meditation in which the mind is merged into the heart, drowned in love. Love has many different qualities. For some the feeling of love is a warmth, or a sweetness, a softness or tenderness, while for others it has a feeling of peace, tranquility, or silence. Love can also come as a pain, a heartache, or a sense of loss. However love comes to us we immerse ourself in this feeling; we place all of ourself in the love within the heart. When we have evoked this feeling of love, thoughts will come, intrude into our mind—what we did the day before, what we have to do tomorrow. Memories float by, images appear before the mind's eye. We have to imagine that we are getting hold of every thought, every image and feeling, and drowning it, merging it into the feeling of love.
What’s the biggest shift that’s taken place in your teaching?
In the first ten years of my teaching I focused on the inner mystical journey, initially exploring the psychological process of transformation that belongs to the preliminary stages of the spiritual journey. Then in the year 2000 there was a shift in my teaching, as I saw that mystical consciousness, especially the consciousness of oneness (or “oneness of being”) that is central to Sufism, had a valuable part to play in the outer world. This began with an Interspiritual Conference I held in Washington, DC in 2003 titled “Spiritual Responsibility at a Time of Global Crisis.” I saw that the world had the potential to shift into an awakening to oneness, and that the mystic had a contribution to make. Although the central core of my teaching remains guiding students on the inner mystical journey of the heart, back to oneness with God, I have included the importance of holding an awareness of oneness or unity in daily life, particularly now that outer world is so tragically fractured in divisiveness.
In the last ten years this awareness of oneness has been focused on the environmental crisis, which I see as the most pressing issue of our present time. I have been writing and teaching about the emerging field of Spiritual Ecology. Central to Spiritual Ecology is an understanding of the interdependence and living unity of the ecosystem, and the sense that our present ecological crisis requires a spiritual response.
What is the deepest lament/misunderstanding/distortion you see in spirituality today?
I think that a many of the teachings that came to the West in the seventies and eighties became distorted and contracted by the self-development and self-empowerment movement, and also by associating spirituality with health and wellness. Although these are valuable qualities, the essential nature of the mystical journey is to go beyond the individual self and become merged or lost in God.
What saddens me is that this Westernization has limited the real potential of spiritual traditions and their practices to open the individual to the vaster dimensions of consciousness that are our birthright. The spirituality that came to the West when I was young has often become contracted, limited by consumerism and the desires of the individual, so that we are in danger of losing its transformative dynamic—how it can awaken us to the light of pure consciousness and limitless love, to the real wonder of how the Beloved takes us beyond ourselves—to “the shoreless sea where swimming ends always in drowning.”
Finally, as I belong to a path that focuses on the relationship of teacher and disciple, I find it sad how this relationship is so easily misunderstood and also corrupted in the West. In the West we have no tradition of the relationship with the teacher, as for example in the Indian relationship with the guru or the Sufi relationship with the sheikh. In the West there is little understanding of the formality that belongs to this relationship, what in Sufism we call adab. Also in the West there is also a tendency to personalize relationships. As a result this central relationship, which is both impersonal and intimate, can easily be misunderstood. This has not been helped by those teachers or gurus who came to the West and were corrupted by money, sex, or power. And yet in Sufism one cannot make the journey without a teacher, just as Rumi needed Shams.
What is the most common trap of the spiritual teacher?
The most common trap of the spiritual teacher is to become identified with being a spiritual teacher. This can easily lead to inflation, misuse of authority, or simply the need to have students, thus creating a pattern of dependency.
It is also a problem when an individual becomes financially dependent upon their work or role as a spiritual teacher, as this easily also creates more patterns of dependency. It is so easy to be drawn to give the student what they want, rather than what they need—to teach “feel good” spirituality rather than the real path to liberation, the real way to divine love and oneness, which is often hard and painful. As in the words of a Sufi saying, “the ego will not go with laughter and with caresses, it must be chased with sorrow and drowned in tears.”
Can surrender be taught?
You also ask about learning to surrender, which is a very deep question. No, it cannot be taught, though I was once told in meditation, “It is easier to surrender in the presence of someone who is surrendered.” But real surrender is the most difficult thing to do, though once you are surrendered, it is easy. What needs to be given up? On the Sufi path “everything has to go”— the ego, all sense of a separate identity, but that is a long story!