The Aim of the I ,500-Year-Old Spiritual Tradition of Sufism, it has been said, is “the elimination of all veils between man and God.” In June 2004, Sufi Master Pir Vilayat lnayat Khan died peacefully at his home in Suresnes, France. As leader of the Sufi Order International which first brought Sufism to the West in 1910, Pir Vilayat had spent more than 40 years teaching this and other truths of Sufism to audiences in the U S., Europe and Asia.
For 25 years, Sufi teacher Phillip Gowins was able to take advantage of the many visits of Pir Vilayat to the United States. Thus Sufism: A Path for Today - The Sovereign Soul is a homage to the Master, providing as it does an introduction to the ancient stream of wisdom embodied by Sufism—but present in other religions and humanistic philosophies as well—that Pir Vilayat was able to impart to students around the world.
This book is also a description, always concrete, often humorous, of the mystical path that Phillip Gowins himself has pursued over the years. With many examples and exercises, he shows us how we can practise the spiritual life ourselves. The path he lays out is strewn with pitfalls and pleasures alike. He tells us how we can avoid the one and enjoy the other—and attain to love and self-mastery in the increasingly complex 2 Ist century.
Phillip Gowins was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1945. He has been a cabinetmaker since I 980. In I 979 he met Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan and shortly thereafter was inducted into the Sufi Order in the West. A teacher in that order, he runs a Sufi Center at his home in Yonkers, New York, with his wife, Majida, who is also a teacher. Her daughter, and their grandchildren live with them.
Sufis tend to emphasize that, as a form of communication, words are too limited to have great value. Even the poet Rumi, whose thirty thousand verses top American bestseller lists seven hundred and fifty years after his death, scoffed at the ability of words to convey “that Reality” A Sufi book, then, is something of a paradox. It is a collection of words about something that cannot be conveyed in words. Phillip Gowins, in this insightful personal narrative, acknowledges as much, more than once.
Why read it, then? Rumi, asked a similar question, replied, “Words set you searching. They are not the objects of your quest... Words are like glimpsing movement far in the distance. You start in that direction to see better.” And so, in reading the words that follow, you set your feet on a trail.
Just the act of picking up this book and glancing at it suggests that you are a seeker. You may have been intrigued by its title and wanted to know more. You may even have heard about Sufis is and wondered who they are.
Like so much else encountered on the Sufi Path, the word Sufi itself is mysterious in its origin and manifold in its meanings. Some are convinced that the word has its origins in the Arabic term for the coarse woolen cloaks that early seekers wore; others insist that it comes from the Arabic word for the verandas where those closest to Mohammad fervently prayed. Another derivation suggests a common ancestry with the Greek sophia, or wisdom. Many prefer to look to saaf, or purity, to explain the name.
For Sufis, however, such debates are of only mild interest. It is Being that captivates their attention.
The automatic and unthinking response of many scholars is to categorize Sufis as Islamic mystics. Like many “definitions” connected with the Sufi Path, this one has elements of truth, yet is not completely true. For many centuries, Sufis—or, as they are alternately known, dervishes—have found the warmest welcome in countries and areas that have embraced Islam, as a quick glance at the names of Sufi teachers and saints demonstrates. While many Sufis are devout, observant, and orthodox Muslims, many others, however, are less orthodox. Still others are adherents of other religions. Sufis frequently point out that, although the name “Sufi” is associated with the followers of the Prophet Mohammad, spiritual seekers known by other names both predated him and greeted him once he arrived. The Sufi Way is not a religion or a component of a religion but the heart of all religions and spiritualities. So far is it from dogma that Sufi teachers often express their discomfort with the term “Sufism,” which suggests a rigid and fixed doctrine.
It is also very common for Sufi teachers to spend considerable time and energy explaining other things that the Sufi Path is NOT. In different ways, the masters all emphasize that Sufis offer no one-size-fits-all philosophy, no shalt and shalt-not commandments, no guarantees, and no dearly delineated goal. As The Sovereign Soul demonstrates, progress on the Path demands a constellation of qualities— commitment, authenticity patience, surrender, love, and yearning, among others—but the evocation and balance of these characteristics is unique for each individual.
Because there is no equivalent of a catechism or a creed for Sufis, teachers are essential. The very presence of a teacher helps a student progress spiritually, and much teaching is transmitted nonverbally. Because teachers are channels for divine light, initiates of Sufi orders preserve knowledge of the silsila, or chain of transmission, from one teacher to the next. The silsila can be likened to an electrical cord that carries the charge from the source of power to a particular lamp. Because Sufis adapt to conditions and populations that vary and change, however, there are many groups, or orders, of Sufis. Orders have originated in many locales and are found all over the world. Each order has its own “personality” and flavor, coming as it does from a particular place and the interpretations of individual teachers. Just as each lamp in a house can appear different and shed light in its own way, though, each order draws on the one source of power acknowledged by all Sufis: Divine Love. A Sufi may be affiliated with the Naqshbandi Order, or the Ni’amatullah, Mevlevi, Qadiri, Rifa’i, Bektashi, Tijani, Shadhili, or one of many others. The distinctions among Sufis are considered much less significant than their similarities.
The author of the present book is part of the Sufi Order International, a Chisti branch of the Sufi Path. The silsila of this order, like those of all genuine Sufi orders, begins with the Divine One, followed by the Angel Jibra’il, or Gabriel, and then the Prophet Mohammad and the blessed Au. It proceeds to a thirteenth-century Syrian saint who initiated Afghanis in the Sufi Way and from there to a series of saints who migrated to Gujarat, India and taught there for hundreds of years.
In 1910, an initiate of this order, under instructions from his own spiritual teacher, brought the Sufi Message to the West. Hazrat Inayat Khan thus began a great spiritual awakening and transformation of those who heard him speak and read his writings. In the span of only seventeen years, Pir-o-Murshid (Leader and Teacher) Hazrat (Holy Presence) Inayat Khan began the Sufi Movement in North America and Europe. A gifted and celebrated master of Indian classical music, he sacrificed his composing and performing to teach tolerance, love, unity and consciousness. Upon his early death, his son Pir Vilayat Khan succeeded him. In 2000, Hazrat Inayat Khans grandson, Pir Zia Inayat Khan, assumed leadership of the Sufi Order International. (Among his many other activities, Pir Zia has founded and heads a mystic school, the Suluk Academy, in New Lebanon, New York.)
These pirs are the teachers of whom Phillip Gowins writes. His many years of close communion with Pir Vilayat and his decades of teaching and leadership enable him to write from experience and first-hand knowledge about tasawwuf, the Sufi Path.
The way in which he writes is identifiably Sufi. Like Rumis Masnavi and Sa’adi’s Gulistan (and many other Sufi works), this book appears to have very little pattern. On the surface, it seems to be a fascinating tangle of anecdotes, autobiography, philosophy, practices, references, reflections, musings, and meanderings. A casual reader flight find the organization oddly elastic, or even suspect tat there is very little organization at all.
The casual reader would be mistaken. As Sufis constantly remind us, there’s a lot going on below, above, and beyond the surface. There is a jazzy rhythm to this writing that echoes the unpredictable syncopation of life itself. Our attention seems to be drawn first here, to a memory of a guide, then here, to a recollection of a student’s frustrations, then there to something Pir Vilayat said on retreat. In trying to follow the apparent digressions and circular stories, we may feel that we are losing our concentration, our grip on what we are being told. We may become anxious about whether we are getting the point.
And that, of course is precisely the point that we can let go and surrender to a pattern that we may not easily discern, that we can give up control and linear logic and just immerse ourselves in what is given. Phillip Gowins invites us along for a ride and tells us that we don’t need to drive the car, that we can admire the scenery and enjoy the journey. Like the very best storytellers he keeps us sp spellbound that we don’t about the bumps in the road and the bends in the tale. It may be some time before we even notice that, though he sits in the driver’s seat, his hands seldom grip the wheel. There is a pattern in this book but it is not imposed by either reader or writer. It emerges.
As you being the wonderful trip through these pages, though you don’t really need to map out where you are going. It is needless to worry about patterns or fret about what exactly a Sufi is . Just glimpse the movement far in the distance, as Rumi suggested. Let the words set you searching.
One night when I was twenty-six, I was lying in bed next to my wife (my first wife, I mean), waiting to fall asleep, when a sensation like a traveling electric shock swept down through my body.
I thought nothing of it until it happened again. It happened a third time, then kept on happening at three-or four-second intervals. It was like a pulsing hoop of energy that started at my head and coursed down through my entire body—like a wave front hitting the beach again and again.
I was puzzled, then alarmed, then frightened, then really scared, until I was begging it to stop. But it just went on and on. It seemed to be happening on some psychic
level, maybe in my aura (though I didn’t know what an aura was then), and despite my pleading I remember thinking that it was really all right, that no actual harm was being done to me. And then, just when I thought it was over, another wave came crashing down, exploding, enlivening, energizing me. Then it stopped.
I lay there for a long time, not daring to sleep for fear -e energy would sneak up on me again. At the same time I was amazed, even pleased that something unusual had happened to me, because nothing much had ever happened o me in my life before. But I was exhausted and I soon fell asleep. My wife, lying beside me, never stirred.
When I got up the next morning I went into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror for some sign of change—a pentagram carved into my forehead, perhaps, or a white streak running down the middle of my hair— some sign I hadn’t just dreamt this shimmering wave of energy that had kept me awake and affected me in some unknown hut possibly profound way. But I saw nothing, no outward sign, only the same lazy old frightened loser who looked back at me from the mirror every day, the same old frightened failure who was well on his way to joining the ‘league of disappointed unpleasant old men who sit in badly lit taverns in cities all over the world telling each other lies about their adventurous youth.
The phenomenon did not repeat itself the next night and it never happened again. But I thought that if what had happened had really happened, then something had to have changed inside me, or in my life—hadn’t it?
Later, I would come to view this experience as a wakeup call, my spiritual alarm clock going off.
For a long time I had strongly suspected that I was not a very interesting or likable person, certainly not one interesting enough to attract a bizarre and unknown energy field in the middle of the night. In those days I was mystified by life, clueless, adrift, frightened, insecure, but intelligent. I knew I was smart. I just didn’t know what at. College didn’t interest me. I had a wife I didn’t know how to be with and a son I didn’t know what to do with. didn’t know how to express affection or joy or any emotion at all except perhaps the disdain and contempt that come from the false pride people put on when what they really feel is that they are unworthy. My opinions were as changeable as the wind, except for two things: I liked sex (that was a firm opinion), but I suspected I wasn’t very good at it (a common enough guy terror, I suppose), and I had just discovered pot, which I thought was totally wonderful (remember, we’re talking 1970 here). How I envied people who had firm convictions and expressed them unequivocally! Any authentic opinions I had about life and the world were so totally hidden within me as to be unknown even to myself.
The next stage in my spiritual odyssey (though I didn’t yet know I was on one) took place when I was sitting in a state of reverie on the living room floor of our house in Oregon (I may have been stoned), gazing out the window at a very tall, very green pine tree. I was thinking about how the world was a big objective whole unto itself and not just the series of disconnected perceptions we all have of it. This way of looking at things may be very familiar to some, but it was new to me at the time, and I was much enamored of it. It had also dawned on me that this objective whole might be a conscious, living entity—alive like myself—and that if I wanted to be of use to this dynamic, living world, then I should seriously dedicate myself to being a conscious, aware part of its single-entity aliveness.
And then, suddenly, I took a vow to whatever cosmic forces rule. I vowed that whatever I could do or however those forces could use me to be of service to the world, I would be at their disposal.
This was something that came from so deep inside me at it surprised even me. But I knew I truly meant it.
Whatever cosmic forces were listening must have taken re seriously, because a few months later my life completely fell apart. I now know that this happened because I’d triggered a crucial change in myself that demanded nothing less than the total dismantling of the life I’d lived up till then. What shape did this falling apart take? My wife left me and took the children with her. There followed a series f misadventures at the end of which I found myself on the other side of the U.S.A., in Boston, living in my brother’s spare room.
It had taken two years for all this unpleasantness to unfold. As it did, I was constantly aware in the back of my mind that the vow I’d made to the cosmos was the precipitating factor, and I couldn’t help telling myself that if this one simple vow could make so much happen, then what might I be able to accomplish if I could place at the service of God a serene mind and not my present confused consciousness?
I persisted in this distressed and aimless state for another couple of years. From time to time I leafed idly through books on spirituality or meditation or even stranger aspects of esoteric thought. Sometimes I made attempts to meditate. I attended seminars, some of them given by people who certainly knew what they were talking about, though I was not prepared to accept that at the time.
Then, one night, I looked into the mirror again. This time, though, it was the mirror of my soul. And I had a third experience. There was nothing esoteric or paranormal about it. It was a humiliating sort of experience, one we all have from time to time. I’d been reflecting on some concepts having to do with spirituality and thinking how clever I was to be able to understand the concepts I was reflecting on. All of a sudden my thoughts coalesced into a single reproach directed at myself. It was, “And just who do you think you are?”
I didn’t like what I was seeing in my mind’s eye. It was ugly. I saw self-pity and cowardice and just about every other negative quality attributable to man. I saw pettiness and a lack of sympathy for others. Seeing this was hardly calculated to make me feel good. But I also saw that I hardly even knew how to feel good.
I decided it was time for a beer, but I couldn’t find one in the house. So instead I took another vow, this time to change this personality of mine. I took a vow never to forget what I had seen in myself that night and to alter every aspect of it.
I didn’t go to a therapist. That’s not a step I wanted, or I would ever want, to take. Call it a personal quirk. Instead, I began to develop the spiritual techniques that I still use today, techniques that work for me—techniques that aren’t magical, that can’t be described glibly, and that consist of a lot of steady plodding work.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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