When I first met the Sufi shaykh, who would become my spiritual guide, I had little idea that the path that I was embarking upon would lead me to a new way of being and a new faith. This would reveal itself naturally and progressively, over a number of years.
I spent a fairly dissolute youth, pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle that was typical of the 1970’s. In my late twenties, I experienced an inner emptiness and dissatisfaction that could not be appeased. After years of reading about various systems of spiritual development, I decided it was time to do something practical, so I embarked on an intensive study and practise of yoga, which included studies in theosophy. As time progressed, I became more focused; more disciplined and decidedly more flexible! However, I still yearned for something that I couldn’t name.
As I approached my fortieth year, I concluded that to progress far on the spiritual path, it was necessary to be accompanied by a guide. A traveler, in unfamiliar territory, has a greater chance of reaching their destination safely and directly, in the company of someone who has first hand knowledge of the terrain. So too, the spiritual seeker. With this in mind, I made a heartfelt plea to the heavens to send me a genuine teacher.
All of my previous training had helped me to improve my lifestyle but I had been unable to stabilise my rollercoaster, emotional nature nor to develop an essential missing ingredient…love.
My reading about sufism (often called Islamic mysticism) impressed me with its practical techniques to develop the complete human being. These techniques had been developed over centuries and were always imparted to the student under the guidance of a shaykh – someone who had not only made the journey but who had also arrived. A few weeks after my ultimatum to the gods, a friend mentioned that a sufi shaykh was visiting Melbourne and was available for individual appointments. It seemed that my cries of desperation had been answered.
Shaykh Azad Rasool sat on the floor in a simply furnished room, in suburban Melbourne. I was filled with anticipation, as well as anxiety. What would I say to this man from a different culture and a different tradition, who I had never met before? Perhaps he would read my thoughts and see the darkness that was present within me. I need not have worried; the shaykh was quite accustomed to western students and had, no doubt, seen it all before! I was struck by the air of goodness that emanated from him and his relaxed yet alert manner. His eyes and face were filled with an inner light that belied his age.
After our initial introduction, he motioned for me to sit down and he sank into a reflective silence. I had the uncanny feeling that he was ‘reading’ me on some subtle level. I sat completely still and tried not to think of anything, terrified lest he be aware of my many shortcomings. However, he merely inquired about my interest in spiritual practices and my wish to experience the methods of sufism. He was polite yet direct in his speech. He did not speak unnecessarily and and was serious yet good humoured – this, in my mind, was a big plus.
With my consent, we sat in meditation together. This was my first experience of a spiritual transmission. In the teaching tradition of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi tariqa (way / path) of sufism, spiritual energy is transmitted from the heart of the shaykh to the heart of the student. This transmission of energy is fundamental to the student’s development and is further cultivated through regular meditation. A niyat (intention) is made prior to meditating, which focuses on the heart.
This first sitting left me feeling calm, yet elated. I felt different from my everyday self, as though I had been put in touch with something both higher and deeper. The shaykh impressed me with his calm presence, his open and direct manner and his perceptive remarks. He asked nothing from me – I could try the meditation technique and see if it worked or I could simply walk away. Remembering the light in his face and eyes, I decided to give it a go.
I practised the meditation daily, comparing it to other methods that I worked with. As the shaykh predicted, after a few weeks one practice took precedence over the others. The meditation on the heart became my new practice – it seemed to hold the promise of what I’d been searching for. I made my choice and stepped onto the path of sufism.
The next meeting with the shaykh would be 12 months away, on his next visit from India. In the meantime, I continued my daily practice and started to attend the weekly meditation with other students of the shaykh’s group. The members of the meditation group were diverse in profession, age and personality. However, what was striking about them was an air of calm self-possession and a relaxed self-acceptance. They were at ease with themselves and quite comfortable with silence. This was not a social club, rather an opportunity to sit with others and to benefit from the combined experience of meditating together.
It was some eighteen months before I met the shaykh again. In the meantime, I had gone through personal anguish over the breakdown of a relationship and I realised that, for the first time, I was actually dealing with events in my life – previously, I had avoided taking responsibility for my actions and I was unable to learn from what had taken place. I had also experienced insights into my own nature and been overwhelmed with the knowledge that I was loved. Despite the dramatic nature of my personal life, I felt like I was travelling on the right path and that my halting steps did equate with progress.
Sufism is experiential. While some experiences are unique to individuals, others are common to most people. With regular meditation practice, I developed a connection to a part of my self that was independent of my changeable emotions and the constant chatter of my mind. This discovery led to a growing sense of inner peace and calm, which gradually produced a more positive outlook on life and resulted in better relationships with others. I noticed that my relationship with my parents, which was always fraught with difficulty, improved noticeably; as did my interactions with friends and colleagues. It was as though the ego was gradually relinquishing the need to dominate.
As the shaykh’s arrival drew near, I was seized with a longing that was palpable and the ache in my heart increased. The desire to grow was increasing and I felt the need for greater insight and inner knowledge. I knew that some of the ‘older’ members of the group had converted to Islam – an option that was outside the realms of remote possibility, as far as I was concerned. The women did not wear head scarves or dress in any special way and the men appeared like ordinary members of society. They all exhibited an integrity and certainty that I was envious of – as though they knew something that I didn’t…something important.
As the student progresses on the path of sufism, greater experiences and knowledge are revealed. The framework of Islam supports and nourishes the inner practices and contains them in a safe place. It also fosters a sense of humility and connection to the Divine. Islam means submission ie. submission to Allah / God. I had no intention of taking on a new faith, yet that is exactly what I did. When I decided to take bayat and took on the faith of Islam (the ritual of accepting the shaykh as guide and coming under the protection of the lineage of the order), I was filled with a sense of sweet relief and awe. I felt elevated and I knew, in my heart, that I had just taken the most important step in my life.
The student of sufism does not retire from the world or escape the everyday responsibilities, which constitute daily living. Rather, he / she constantly strives to refine his / her nature through daily interaction with the world, while at the same time being aware of the inner connection to the Divine. The practise of Islam cultivates an awareness of one’s relationship to God and a resultant sense of gratitude and humility. It encourages a lifestyle that is ordered, humble and beautiful yet it does not negate personal achievement. The fulfilling of one’s potential and the development of the complete person is integral to both sufism and Islam. The two disciplines are actually a whole that cultivate the inner and outer nature of our selves.
Initial practices of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi tariqa, do not require the student to adopt Islam. This is an individual decision that is generally made when the thirst for the Divine becomes greater than the demands of the ego. My new faith was not about taking on a different culture or adopting strange forms of dress and customs. Rather, it is a daily renewal of affirmation in the essential love and goodwill that is present in all of creation and is the nature of the Creator. This leads to the growth of a natural faith in the purpose and meaning of life, even when events overwhelm us and are beyond our comprehension and limited vision.
Emotional highs and lows have gradually transformed into a calmer approach to life and its challenges. My tendency to be depressive and negative has also changed into a more positive attitude, which is more inclusive of others and looks beyond the obvious. People often remark on how relaxed and calm I seem, something which was not evident in the past. These changes to one’s nature also affect others, making for more meaningful connections and greater empathy.
My original prayer of desperation is now one of gratitude. I am more able to ‘go with the flow of life’, the highs and the lows. I owe everything to my shaykh, whose guidance continues to lead me into ever expanding ways of being and who has shown me the path to inner peace and its outer expression – love in action. Islamic sufism continues to be as relevant and effective to contemporary people today, just as it was in the past.