I have been interested in spiritual matters for as ong as I can remember. Growing up in a Catholic country in Europe as I did, my contacts with religious life were natural and unavoidable. As a young boy I was raised a Catholic, and was exposed to this form of Christianity. Early on I was drawn to the lives of the Catholic saints, and as a primary school student I become an altar boy. My priest mentors at the religious classes however, did not particularly impress me as people of great faith or knowledge. I had the impression that a lot of their work was, at best, a kind of service for the general public.
With adolescence came the rebellious period and my breaking away from Catholicism, as it turned out, for good. For a numbers years my interests oscillated between studying philosophy, religions, and being involved in life itself, exploring myself and trying to understand who I was. In my country in the 70’s I came in contact with some theosophical teachings, and also some of their derivatives, such as those of Rudolf Steiner and Alice Bailey. The country at that time was almost totally deprived of any spiritual literature. One could only read about Christianity, or perhaps a little about Buddhism, Zen and Yoga. The communist regime, which ruled there since the Second World War didn’t allow for any alternative literature, or public gatherings of such groups. By word of mouth, one occasionally came across various small study groups, or individuals who either possessed a private library, or had some way of bringing in books (or rather smuggling them) from the West. Influenced by what was available in Poland at the time, my own interests tended more and more toward the esoteric, and the occult – and I studied whatever I could find on these subjects.
Traveling to the West in 1980, first to England and then moving to Australia, opened up many possibilities for me. In addition to my earlier interests, I got deeply involved in the all pervading ideas of the New Age. But for all the intellectual studies, or “head stuff,” which I pursued, my heart remained unsatisfied. My flirt with theosophical studies and the New Age continued – until I came across Sufism.
In the mid eighties, someone sent me a book, which impressed me a lot. It was “Journeys with a Sufi Master”, by Idries Shah. I began to read more of Shah’s books, and I felt that for me this was it. The more I read about Sufism the more it struck a chord.
There was only one difficulty, however. All the Sufi books I had read were saying one thing – that on this path one needs a spiritual guide. This was a departure from my usual New Age ideas, that one is perfectly able to do everything by oneself without any outside help, let alone with help from the Transcendent. But where should one turn to find a teacher? Books don’t come with a teacher, so I had to look for a one or wait. Being impatient by nature I opted for the former.
My search however only amounted to further frustration. During my search for Sufis I have encountered many groups that call themselves ‘Sufi,’ but when I got to know them a little better it became clear that the group members behaved predictably like members of a cult. These groups also usually contained some of the typical New Age ideas that have sprouted up over the last century or so. What was a point of joining yet another New Age cult? I found those groups misty and vague – they talked all the time about “universal religions”, and about “being spiritual,” having a spiritual name, past lives, vegetarianism, and usually extolling their founders and leaders. I also noticed a total lack of adherence to any principles, or rules, or the following of any established religion – admittedly something which attracted me at first, but not for very long. I soon found it all too wishy-washy for my liking, and I sensed that it had little to do with a real Sufism.
For nearly ten years I looked for a living spiritual guide, a physical one, not a mysterious master of Theosophy, who was supposed to live in some remote mountains. This search however was difficult indeed. I was naturally quite excited when one day in the early nineties I heard that a Sufi teacher was to be visiting Melbourne, Australia where I was living at that time…
I meet Shaykh Hazrat Azad Rasool in a suburb of Melbourne where he was staying whilst visiting some of his Australian students. At the time that I first met the Shaykh, I knew something about Sufism already, or more precisely, I thought I knew. I possessed a certain amount of book knowledge from some popular writers on Sufi themes. It was theoretical and quite superficial knowledge though – as I was soon to realize. I was also at that time full of preconceptions, arrogant, full of my own self-importance, and self-opinionated about what spirituality should or should not be, not to mention my own preconceived ideas about what a Sufi shaykh should be like.
My first meeting with Hazrat wasn’t a “love at first sight” or a formidable experience such as those I had read about in the so-called spiritual literature. The Shaykh didn’t sweep me off my feet, he didn’t intrigue me in any way, nor did he express any special interest in me. The Shaykh wasn’t a mysterious oriental individual who spoke in riddles, or who hinted at things ineffable. He was just a normal, kind elderly gentleman who answered my questions for me. He seemed ordinary, perhaps too ordinary. Yet, I got a very clear impression that he was a genuine Sufi teacher, although perhaps not my teacher.
Around that time, I had already made plans and arrangements to travel to North America and meet some other Sufi teachers there. Just before I departed, I went to see the Shaykh once again. He taught me how to meditate on the first subtle centre of consciousness (or latifa), and he gave me a transmission1. I hadn’t asked him for it, though at the same time I didn’t really mind. I had been somewhat affected by the transmission I thought, but I didn’t subsequently apply myself to the practices he had taught me as assiduously as perhaps I should have. After all, I was on the lookout for a “great Sufi Shaykh,” and had not the slightest idea that I had already met him.
At the beginning of 1994 I set out for a journey, first to the U.S. and then to Canada. From the popular Sufi literature I had been reading, I had learned that Sufis have some kind of connection with Islam, but what this relationship was not very clear to me. Consequently I was looking for a more universal kind of Sufism – one which wasn’t in any case Islamic (as I dreaded any kind of religion, and Islam in particular) but which on the other hand wasn’t the New Age kind either.
My first encounters with “Sufis” in the U.S. however were a great disappointment. The Sufi teachers I met or stayed with lacked something genuine about them. At least this was how it came across to me. As I had already been quite familiar with many New Age ideas and groups, I recognized some similarity with these groups in almost all of the Sufi organizations I came across in the U.S. There was a lot of talk, some mixture of modern psychology with Eastern terminology, a little meditation, some attempt at healing, and of course no religion. The members attracted to those groups were usually quite emotional types, with some intellectual leanings, and they concentrated on one or other aspect of Sufism. Some of these organizations were just the syncretistic cults I was now all too familiar with, the type that praised all religions yet followed none.
Many of those Sufi teachers didn’t seem to do any concrete work for a living. They were all saying that Sufism was pre-Islamic, and independent of Islam. They gave the impression that Sufism was “to good” to be Islamic. This year-long trip allowed me to look closely at how Western people interpret an Eastern tradition, and which aspects of it they are mostly interested in. All the teachings I had confronted seemed to be fragmented – choosing to ignore some or aspects of Sufism as they saw fit. To me this seemed contradictory from people who usually talked highly of “being holistic”. This Western form of Sufism reminded me of the Western style of Yoga, which consists of nothing more than a lot of muscle stretching exercises. Here in the case of Sufism, it was perhaps more a case of mental and intellectual stretching, but without much essence.
My whole trip to the U.S. was also a kind of a mirror, a caricature of my own ideas and preconceptions about Sufism reflected back to me. One year later I returned to Melbourne disappointed, disheartened, and perhaps a little humbled.
A few months after my return to Melbourne, the group facilitator of The School of Sufi Teaching invited me to join the meditation group again, and he told me the Shaykh would be making another visit to Melbourne soon. He also gave me a couple of booklets containing transcripts of question and answer sessions with the Shaykh. These booklets impressed me, and I was really able to evaluate the Shaykh’s teaching better. I found them to be full of common sense and unusually down to earth. The contents of the booklets somehow harmonized with me, and I decided to see the Shaykh again, with the hope of learning more.
Soon after that I went to see him again. The Shakh greeted me kindly as usual, and was interested in my experiences overseas. This time I found myself being more humble and more opened to both the Shaykh and all the possibilities inherent in the meeting. I expressed my desire to carry out more of the practices, and the Shaykh gave more further exercises and transmissions.
The second or the third session of sitting with the Shaykh turned out, to my surprise, to be a transforming experience for me. I become affected by the transmission far beyond anything I had expected. Soon after the experience I asked the Shaykh to accept me as his student. I become a murid, a pupil on the Sufi path.
What was this growing awareness of inner transformation which the Shaykh’s teachings were bringing about in me? One may equally ask, what kind of experience changes the course of human life? To describe the process of inner transformation2 is not only difficult, but such descriptions may only serve to distort its depths, trivialize it, and not infrequently make it a subject of ridicule by the cynic. However, whatever I may say regarding these experiences, one thing I should say is that I had experienced something that was real and profound. Something that turned my life in a different direction.
The first realization which I had was the fact that for nearly 40 year I had lived for my own ego, my nafs, but now I wanted to spend my life for, and in the way of my Lord, and not to attend to the constant demands and whims of my nafs.
The experiences of reality are as diverse as the people in the world. Grace can manifest in thousand-fold ways. The student of Sufism soon learns that it is often better not to disclose ones own inner experiences, as inner experiences are always different with different people. To talk about them is somehow to influence the listener, and to create in him, or her, a kind of expectation for similar experiences. But the two experiences will never be the same. We are all unique beings, and our experience of God is also unique. Although a Sufi may be inwardly “drunk,” he is outwardly sober. Though Sufis can know and understand the inner state of one another, outwardly they will never profess to this knowledge except in the rarest of circumstances. They prefer not to attract attention to themselves by showing evidence of inner states or powers that are not accessible to average individuals.
On the Sufi path, a student may relate his inner experiences, visions and dreams only to his/her spiritual guide. And only his or her Shaykh can best understand and interpret such experiences.
The immediate effect of my transformative experience was an insight into the relationship between Islam and Sufism. Such a relationship became to me quite clear and even obvious. I felt as if the Islamic gnosis (irfan) had opened before me. The meaning of the Quran, and the writing of the Sufi classics become clearer and more understandable. I also had an impression that I could access, in ways that are difficult to explain, the immeasurable wealth of Sufi gnosis – the Divine Gnosis that only a sacred chain or Silsila (the chain of transmission of teachers) can confer. I felt connected to this chain of the great saints of the Naqshbandi and other Sufi lineages, which always converge at some point.
The Alchemy, which I had studied for years, now became a reality, far more than just an empty image or a symbol. I can actually testify myself that in the presence of the red sulphur, the Shaykh, this transmutation is eminently possible. A transformation can only happen by means of an “agent” or something which is higher, greater, and transcendent in relation to the thing to be transformed, without which that thing would remain forever unchanged. And similarly, for seekers of truth, true help can only come from someone who has reached the end of the journey.
Another effect of the transformation was a better understanding of my own limitations, shortcomings, and faults. I finally understood why it is necessary to have a guide on the Path. I feel it appropriate here to highlight some reflections on the phenomenon called the “New Age”. Proponents of this ideology assert that man can regain his own potential and achieve anything by himself. Thus a man has become his own authority, and his ego (nafs) has become his “god.” It is not uncommon in such circles to hear phrases such as, “We are all Gods”. But by rejecting the One Transcendent God, they sever the relationship with the true immanent manifestation of God in man. So the New Age man finds himself in a cul-de-sac, trapped in his own ideology – limited and limiting.
A man who is trying to lift himself by pulling his own hair faces a heroic but impossible task. A human ego has not the possibility to transform itself beyond its own limitations. Neither can one ego, acting on another, bring about any results, nor can it transform the whole man (ego and all else that makes the man). But the New Age is obsessed with the themes and possibilities of the ego and nothing more. Even though it may call this “spiritual” or “transpersonal” activity, it remains ego-bound.
These realizations came to me when my own personal transformation gave me some idea of the vast possibilities available to a human once they move beyond the ego. I realized that the New Age, like the so-called occult groups which I had also been flirting with for some years, are all degenerated forms of true mysticism. All of the occult or syncretistic cults that abound in this day and age attempt to mimic the original mystical paths. But when one attempts to follow one of these copies they fail to lead one anywhere.
All the Prophets, and many of the saints from all religions – that is to say, men of God – were all in possession of certain powers, but this power never originated from the material side of life, the form, or from their own egos. Rather it came from the Divine Self. Sufis are traditionally associated with many unusual powers, like telepathy, translocation, being able to predict the future, dematerializing, healing, etc., yet Sufis are the first to admit that any powers they may possess are all manifestation of the Divine Will, not their own. These are divine gifts, not anything as trivial as occult powers obtained through performing some exercises. All attempts to consciously and willfully gain such powers are ultimately only attempts to imitate divine powers, or usurping to be divine. The desire for such powers arises from the ego, and to willfully develop such powers is also to strengthen the ego, thus widening the gap between man and the Divine.
My further experiences on the Sufi path only confirmed the efficacy and authenticity of the Shaykh. At least in my own case, many of my experiences were translated into the moral aspect of being on the path. Here I noticed some difference between the Western version of Sufism which I had studied to some extent, be it from Western Europe or from California where, as in New Age groups, everyone is free to make up their own rules on how to live. The Shaykh has never compromised on any moral aspects in the life of the student. We are all enjoined to work, take responsibilities for our families, and live in society, not neglecting our everyday duties, yet at the same time to allocate some time every day for our practices – to be in the world, but not of it, all according to the Sufi rule. The world can be better in so far as we become better individuals. Some Sufis even went so far as to say that Sufism is just a system of morality3.
In spite of following what may seem to the freedom-loving Western man as strict rules of conduct, the Shaykh himself remains an extremely modest, kind, cheerful and patient person. I have never heard of the Shaykh reprimanding or criticizing anyone, and when he wanted to convey the teaching, he used a story or a parable, to illustrate the case without confronting the person in question. The way of the Sufi is subtle, but effective.
My subsequent visits to the Shaykh at his residence in India offered me an extra insight and an additional dimension to what Sufism really is. Sufis in India, unlike some other Muslim countries, enjoy great respect not only amongst Muslims themselves, but amongst followers of other religions. The dergas, the places of burial of great Sufi saints thrive with life and are attended by thousands of people every day – from all walks of life and religious background. One can see there Muslims, Hindu, Sikhs, and occasionally some curious Westerners –neither religious nor racial differences matter when one visits the tomb of a Sufi saint.
During group visits to the Shaykh’s khaneqa (the Sufi centre) in India, every member of the group feels that the Shaykh really cares about his students like a father. Hospitality is one thing, but there is also a sense of security and protection from the Shaykh, protection both physical, and what is more important – also spiritual.
During all the time that I have known the Shaykh I noticed that there was at no point any issues relateing to finances. There were no fee for the teaching, and even while staying at the khaneqa, there was no mention of money beyond the normal Islamic sadaqa or voluntary offering. The Shaykh has never asked anyone for money, nor indeed for anything else. In accordance with the custom of the Sufis, the Shaykh lives from the proceeds of his own work, and not from the work of his students. One day I approached the Shaykh commenting on how quickly he had built the khaneqa. The Shaykh smiled and said that it had actually taken him 25 years to get the khaneqa built, and he didn’t have any sponsors. He only asked and prayed for help to God. And the help was given, slowly but surely.
Another thing I have noticed about the Shaykh is that he never looks for newcomers or new students, and always stresses that the goal of Sufism, at least the one he teaches, is to awaken a man for the presence and intimacy of God. Sufism is not a movement, and only few will be attracted to it. Even less still will attain the end of the journey. There was an obvious and noticeable absence of any missionary spirit, or proselytism whenever I was with the Shaykh.
Having in mind a growing number of the Western students, the Shaykh with the consent of his own Shaykh established the Institute of Search for Truth, which is based on, and is functioning as a traditional Sufi Tariqa. Talking about the today’s role of Sufism, the Shaykh emphasizes that Sufis are not contemplative monks locked inside a monastery. A Sufis is always present in the world, or to be more precise, he is present in both worlds, trying to harmonize the outer with the inner. The goal of every human being is to become a whole man, the insani kamil, or the perfect man.
Sufis historically have always tried to create optimal conditions for the spiritual development of man and his return to his Creator. Shaykh Hazrat Azad Rasool, in spite of his advanced physical age, at least once a year tries to visit some of his groups in Europe, America and Australia. During those visits the Shaykh spends long hours in private talks to his students, and sees many newcomers. He doesn’t give any speeches, or try to gather any crowds, but somehow manages to affect people who see him, by his presence and through his own inner being.
The spiritual training with the Shaykh is practical and experiential. There are no theories to believe in, no recommended reading lists, and no intellectual brooding to be done. When a person decides to give the practices a go, it is expected that it is done with all his/her sincerity; otherwise, the preliminary practices will have no effect. I have for years observed many people who chose as their main preoccupation a constant window-shopping in the spiritual marketplace, without ever getting seriously involved in any one tradition. Sufis have always stressed that to reach a deep water, one must dig in a single spot, otherwise one will be involved in making many small hole in the ground, but will never find the water. As Sufi say “one cannot sail in two boats at the same time.”
I would like to end this short testimonial on an optimistic note, and with cheering words to all seekers after truth. Today, in the fast changing world, one full of anxieties, unrest and insecurity, the genuine spiritual training IS available, as it has always been. If one prays sincerely enough, and desires with all one’s heart, one can be granted the privilege of finding a
genuine spiritual guide, who can take us to the end of our journey.
(1) The transmission is a process during which the Shaykh affects a student by his inner states.
(2) The process of transformation is very similar to the alchemical process of transmutation of the base metal into gold in the presence of the red sulphur. The analogy is not only symbolic, but factual. In the presence of the Shaykh, and by means of the Divine Grace, a man is lifted from his fallen state into the state, which is his birthright and his real destiny. Everything is always the will of God, and the work of God. Man is only an instrument.
(3) We must differentiate true spiritual morality, from the so-called moralizing.