Reflections on the Life of a Mystic
Excerpt from the New Book Fragments of a Love Story
When I first met my teacher, Irina Tweedie, I sat in her small room, looked into her blue eyes and I knew that she knew. From that moment, without knowing why, more than anything, I wanted what she had. Much later I understood this as the knowledge that can only come from direct inner experience, which for the Sufi is imaged as Khidr. Khidr is the most important Sufi figure, the archetype of direct revelation.
Khidr first appears in the Qur’an where he is not mentioned by name, but as “One of Our servants unto whom We have given mercy from Our Mercy and knowledge from Our Knowledge” (Sūra 18:65). In this story in the Qur’an Khidr is found by Moses at “the place where the two seas meet.” This place where the two seas meet is the locus of the mystical journey, “where the dead fish becomes alive,” where spiritual teachings become a living substance that nourishes the wayfarer. When we meet our teacher, when we meet the path, this is what happens; something becomes alive within our heart and soul: we become nourished not by spiritual texts or teaching, but by direct transmission.1 The spiritual journey is a way to live with this spiritual substance, to be burned by its fire, to be consumed by its love.
For many years on the path I longed for this destruction by love, for this transformation so complete that nothing of myself would remain. And I have been given glimpses of a reality where the ego is not present, where there is no “I” to tell its story. And yet in this love story of the soul something has always remained, and gradually I have come to understand a little of the meaning of where this journey takes place, “the place where the two seas meet.” It is here, where the divine and human come together, that Khidr is always found. This whole book is an attempt to understand what this means: what it means for the two seas to come together, and what it means to live in this place caught in the currents of the ocean of divine consciousness and yet also held in the sea of human experience.
For so long I struggled to become free of the fetters of existence, of the patterns and problems that bound me to this world of forms. I practiced and meditated, worked with the light and tried to transform my darkness. I was given many experiences of an inner reality where there are no limitations, a landscape which I have called “the further shores of love.” Like many wayfarers before me I have been taken, sometimes dragged, beyond myself into the presence of a love that knows no sense of self, that is as it always was. And yet still there is this person trying to tell this story, to make sense of a journey in which I was lost and found and lost again. I am left trying to understand the human dimension of what it means to be where the two seas meet.
Maybe I will only fully understand this story in the moments before physical death, when this human tale is almost over. And yet at this time I am for some reason drawn to understand a little more of this paradox that is my own existence, this mixing place of the two seas. I know that my human consciousness can only understand a little of the Divine, of Its unlimited nature, and the mysterious ways It comes into existence. But I also sense that there is another mystery present in the real nature of myself as a human being, as a part of this limited world of forms, of thoughts, emotions and sensations, and it is this mystery I am trying to comprehend.
The image of the two seas meeting suggests two currents coming together, and such a meeting is never easy, as anyone knows who has been awakened, if just for an instant, to the Divine within himself or herself. There may be a period of grace that is given at the beginning, a time of peace, bliss or inner joy that comes from reconnecting with the Divine. But this is always followed by the turbulence and uncertainty that comes when the two seas meet. This is the inner turmoil the mystic knows so well, when nothing is certain, when the patterns that define our human existence are affected by the more powerful currents from the divine sea, by the vast swells that come from the beyond. We are swept into these seas and then back again into the more inland waters of our human self. Often we need all of our determination to stay above the surface, not to sink gasping for breath. That is why Sufi masters often advise newcomers to keep away from this love—it is dangerous, unpredictable, and destructive. It is not for the fainthearted or those who need the security of a defined world.
For many years the wayfarer is battered by the powerful currents of love’s vast ocean, by chaos and confusion, “the dark night, the fear of the waves, the terrifying whirlpool.” Often without understanding what is happening, we are surrounded by love in all of its intensity and wonder. This is the love that draws us into the depths, that seems to drown us again and again. And yet always we return to some fragment of self. We come back to the surface, looking for shallower water, a ground that is solid under our feet. And we bring back images of our adventures, dreams of a pearl we have been seeking or an abyss that is always waiting for us to plunge into. These are our stories of the journey, our poems to our self. We try to convince our self that we are not crazy, that this is a planned journey with stages, stations along the way. And yet we know in our belly that nothing is certain except fear and insecurity.
Why can we not just give our self to this love, to this power? Why do we fight, try to defend our self, swim against the current? This too is part of our human drama, the doubts and distress, the anger that can come from deep within. It is not easy to surrender, to give oneself. We are not made in this way. It takes time to bow down before God. And we have to bow down again and again, always when we are most vulnerable. And yet from this battering by love something is born, a silence, a quality of being, a softness that belongs to love’s sweetness. There are so many ways the Divine comes alive within us. This inner alchemy is the promise of the heart: that if we stay at the place where the two seas meet we will be changed, that love will reveal its secrets, secrets that are both human and divine.
The divine secrets are in many ways more obvious: experiencing the oneness that belongs to all of life as well as to our relationship with our Beloved, the endlessness of love, its intoxicating bliss, the inner peace it can bring, the compassion. There are many qualities of our divine nature. But what of the human secrets that are revealed? What are we shown about this sea of our self? Yes, there is the ordinariness of life that is given back to us, the simplicity of “chop wood and carry water.” Traditionally Khidr appears in the most ordinary form, often over-looked until he has passed: the fisherman we met on the bridge, the child who smiles at us. And in these ordinary moments any image of our self with difficulties or problems disappears and we experience life with a freshness that belongs to the moment; maybe we catch the laughter that is at the core of things. We are more fully alive.
I would like to say that this is all of the story, this return to the simplicity of our self. It has the quality of a return to Eden, recapturing the innocence of a childhood we may have never had. There is no judgment, just pure awareness and often joy. Watching the birds in flight, seeing a leaf fall in the wind, we experience life as fully present. I have been given such moments, which, like a fire in winter, give warmth and light. But what of the person who has made the journey: are all those stories just lost in this sunlight? Does anything remain of the traveler? I have come to believe that even when every image of our self has been dissolved like dew, there is still a story that has a meaning and a purpose. Love’s journey brings many scars, often scars in the heart, and they do not all fade away, even if their drama has lessened. They tell us something about what it means to be human, to stand at the place where the two seas meet, to see the dead fish become alive. And yet, because in moments of real experience there is no time, just the instant that is, these stories do not belong to any past; they are simply a part of what is. They are an essential part of our human mystical experience, our deepest knowing of our self.
For so long I tried to leave myself behind, to abandon it like the wreck of an old car. But always something remained, calling me back. Again and again I tried to avoid it, tried to purify it with love, dissolve it with light. Yet it still remained, as if its story needed to be told, its meaning uncovered. And this is where I am at this moment, with wonder and sadness, knowing that there is part of my own story that is still waiting. It is no longer a story of struggle and transformation, the pain of separation, the bliss of union. And yet it carries the remembrance of these states. It also carries a reminder that we are always separate from our Beloved, always a servant at His feet, even in the presence of the knowing that separation is an illusion and all is one.
So who is this person who is present at this place, whose light is part of the light of God even as I need to live it in my own small life? What really happens when these two seas come together? Do they mix and blend as one, or does each sea retain its own qualities, one speaking of an infinite ocean, the other of an ordinary human experience? How do they come together inside of me, and what story do they tell?
When Moses met Khidr at this place he asked, “Can I follow you, that you may teach me some of the knowledge and the guidance bestowed upon you?” But Khidr said that Moses would not be able to bear being with him, for “How can you stand that which you do not comprehend?” (Sūra 18:68). Three times Moses tried to follow Khidr, until finally he had to leave him, unable to bear his actions. On this journey it appears that the human and divine part ways, and yet the path of the mystic is to bear what we cannot understand, to follow without knowing why. Direct experience cannot be explained to the rational self: we must leave our Moses behind at the water’s edge. And yet there is also a human self who makes the journey with Khidr, who does not question or seek to understand. This is the self that remains.
And through this self something is revealed that is hidden from the vaster dimension of our being. It is not just the struggle and confusion, the longing and love, the giving of oneself and attempt at surrender. It is not even the simple awareness of the moment that sees the world with an open eye. Our human self can come to know something about this meeting of the human and divine—a meeting that takes place every moment in every breath, and yet is hidden so quickly by the patterns of existence, by the play of colors and forms we call life. Every moment the Divine comes into existence, and every moment this mystery is hidden the very instant it is revealed. It is quicker than a heartbeat and is so easily overlooked. You can only see it if you are at the place where the two seas meet, where the Divine and human come together. If you look just towards the Divine the light is too bright to see it. And if you are caught in the dramas of being human you will be too slow to notice it.
But every moment this secret is present. It is a moment of divine intention, a spark of divine purpose, that is at the same time our intention and purpose. It is said that we each have a unique, divine purpose, a note of the soul that we alone can play. And this unique note can only be played in this world, in time and space, in the limited world of forms. In the inner worlds that stretch beyond the horizon there is other music, beautiful celestial sounds. But here, in this world, we each have a calling and a purpose, and it seems much of life’s journey is to try to live this purpose, play this note. It is the greatest contribution we can make.
In each of us there is a longing to live this purpose, to “find the meaning and make the meaning our goal.” This is what calls us on our journey through life, and for some people, if they are fortunate, it is played out through the events of their life, a life which then becomes deeply meaningful and fulfilling. They are living their life’s purpose. Of course it is also easy to be sidetracked, caught in the illusions of the world, its pleasures and pain. Then we lose touch with our unique purpose and life becomes gradually more and more meaningless, however we may try to fill it with distractions. For some people spiritual life offers a way to try to regain this meaning, to reconnect with this purpose, and yet it also has its own distractions, illusions of light or “spiritual development.” There are so many ways to get lost in this world.
But underneath the play of events, the seeking for meaning and purpose, the losing and finding, is this simple meeting of the Divine and the human: the divine purpose coming into human form. This is what takes place where the two seas meet—this is the meaning of Khidr appearing as an ordinary person. Because one of the greatest mysteries is that there is a divine purpose that is only revealed in this world of forms, and as human beings we carry this purpose in our hearts and in the light of our consciousness. We carry the light of the divine coming into existence, the wave of the divine sea meeting the wave of the human sea. We are the divine purpose being made manifest. This is the hidden love story of the world, which the Sufis call the secret of the word “Kun!” (“Be!”).
All of the struggle and seeking for meaning takes one to this place, to this meeting that happens again and again in every instant. The currents of the Divine come to meet us and we come to meet the Divine. And in that meeting we merge and are one, as two waves coming together, and yet also remain separate—because as Ibn ‘Arabī reminds us, “the servant is always the servant and the Lord is always the Lord.” This is the promise and the pain of the mystic: we long to return to love’s infinite ocean, to merge back into the source. And yet we have to remain here in this physical world of multiplicity to play the unique note of our being. We have to honor what it means to be a human being even if we have tasted what it means to be dissolved in love.
My journey has brought me to live where the two seas meet. I know the nothingness, the primal emptiness that is within every atom and every breath. I know the bliss of absorption and what it means to be drawn into “the dark silence in which all lovers lose themselves.” And I also know the pain of returning, of accepting the limitations of my own everyday self, the simple joys and pain of being human, the everyday dramas we all enact. But it seems that my story is to hold these seeming opposites. I remember a line I wrote soon after I first came to the path almost forty years ago: “I am caught in the coils of infinity, and yet held in the presence of time.” This has always been part of my journey, part of the meaning I have been asked to live. Now, after so many years, I understand it a little more. Hopefully I have learned to accept it.
Here, where the two seas meet, I find a light that holds my attention. It is a light that holds an intention, a purpose that cannot be defined but is. To be at the place where the two seas meet means for me to hold this light, to embody this intention. This intention has a purity that belongs to the beyond, a purpose that belongs to my Beloved. And it is held in the heart, a heart that knows suffering and surrender, that beats with the blood of life and also carries the consciousness of the Divine. This for me is where meaning is born, where the story I call my life continues to unfold.
Once you have tasted the ocean of love’s oneness it is in your blood. It is always calling to you, sometimes from afar and sometimes so close you can feel its presence. It is like a lover you always long for. It is then so easy to be lost in love, dissolved in light. To remain is not so easy. Sometimes it tears the heart. Yet only in the moment of human experience, between the in-breath and the out-breath, is that light of meaning made manifest. And this light coming into the world, being manifest in each of us, is the love story of the Beloved. For me to live this love story is to be present where the two seas meet, to hold this tension, this paradox. Here, in this meeting of the infinite ocean of divine love with the frailty of my human self, in my own heart and mind and body, His love story is being told—told to me, for me, and through me. And what can I continue to do with my life but live this love story of my Beloved? The fragment of my own self that remains is just a fragment of His love story—that is all it ever is. Just a fragment of a love story.
For further information on Fragments of a Love Story and to order please visit www.goldensufi.org