Like many people who turn towards spirituality, I have been seeking something deeper in life since I was a teenager. Along the way there have been many wrong turns and dead ends. In my mid teens I was drawn to using drugs. I started to develop a deep sense that there was more to life than I was being taught about in school and that my parents knew about. I used to have dreams where a friendly ice cream man would sell me brightly coloured LSD tabs and I would take them and have amazing adventures. I then started to use LSD in real life. After a few years I gave this up as my experiences were becoming increasingly unpleasant. One of my first experiences was of feeling like the universe was made of love, like an invisible substrate upon which all phenomena were built, and that one could utterly trust this all pervasive love.
I started to try to understand what had happened, but could find nobody who even knew what I was talking about! In my early twenties I felt that I had found a true path with Buddhism. I had a strong conviction that truth and meaning were to be found through turning within. I discovered the teachings on Buddhist meditation and grasped hold of the idea of ‘Enlightenment’ with both hands. Looking back at this period I now see that what I thought was conviction at the time was in fact hope. After some brief and confusing dabbling with Tibetan forms of Buddhism, which though certainly colourful and magical were equally bewildering, I discovered clarity through the teaching of an English Buddhist who founded the Western Buddhist Order. Sangharakshita had a very clear intellect and to his followers had attained some degree of this mystical state of Enlightenment. Through attending classes at my local Buddhist centre in Sheffield I learned to practice the mindfulness of breathing and development of loving kindness meditation, which formed the backbone of the system of meditation in this order. Sangharakshita had written a number of books and delivered hundreds of lectures elucidating and de-mystifying Buddhist teachings. In particular he worked very hard to separate the essence of Buddhism from the millennia of cultural accretions it had become veiled by. After 5 years of practicing these meditations I formally joined the Western Buddhist order and adopted both a new name and a new meditation practice called ‘sadhana’. Sadhana practices are complex ritualised meditations consisting of visualisations, mantra recitations and devotional verses. I adopted the visualisation of a female Buddhist icon named ‘Green Tara’ who is very popular in Tibetan culture, where she is named Dolma. I sincerely practiced the meditation practices for a few years but was troubled by certain questions. In the sadhana, the culmination is the receiving of blessings from the visualised figure’s heart into one’s own heart. I used to wonder ‘who is this Tara, is she real, in what sense does she exist, what does she represent? Am I simply imagining something and making it all up? I did not find any answers within the writings on meditation I found from the Buddhist tradition. I started to feel that there was something important missing. I was also bothered by the fact that different Buddhists visualised different figures; there is a huge pantheon of Buddhist figures one can meditate upon. I could see the limitations of depicting the divine reality in a human form.
I started to look elsewhere for understanding of these issues and my searching led me to the writings of James Hillman who is an Archetypal Psychologist who was deeply affected by neo-Platonism and the work of Jung. Through his writing on the ‘Thought of the Heart’ I was led towards a wholly unexpected source of knowledge. He talked in inspired ways about Henry Corbin’s writings about the Great Sheikh Ibn Arabi. Ibn Arabi was a name I had never heard of, from a tradition, Islam, I knew nothing about. Yet this man from medieval Spain was talking about issues I had been questioning for years. In particular he was talking about how our daily experience was orchestrated by a Being which was merciful, that the events which befall us are not random, nor a product of karma, but are the manifestations of Allah. I become confused because after years of proclaiming my atheistic beliefs, I was reading about God and it made sense. Ibn Arabi was talking about God not as a man as I had been brought up to imagine and reject. The old white bearded, mountain shaping man of William Blake. No, God was something altogether of a different order. Great than anything which human speech or understanding can grasp yet who is continually showing Himself in every moment as a theophanic manifestation. I remember one day allowing myself to believe in God. It was like a sort of reverse blasphemy! I remember with some trepidation saying to myself that I believe in Allah. It was such a huge relief, as if my heart had been aching to do just this for a very long time.
I learnt that Ibn Arabi was known as a Sufi, that there were many Sufis, and this crossed over into another area of interest which was the poetry of Rumi. I had been reading Rumi for a few years, the de-Islamised versions of Rumi translated by Coleman Barks. I had no idea Rumi was a Muslim! Suddenly the combination of Ibn Arabi’s reframing of God and Rumi’s poetry and deep understanding of the human soul and in particular the experience of longing made me reconsider my position as a Buddhist. The rituals of Buddhism started to lose their meaning and appeared contrived and strange. I described this as if I was falling in love with something new. After a year or so I left the Buddhist Order. I attended a few Sufi rituals led by a Sheikh from the Mevlevi tradition. The famous ‘whirling dervishes’. I learned to play the daff and for a time attended whirling ceremonies but I had no confidence in the teacher as they did not follow the sharia. Everything I had read about Sufism stated that even though the Sufi practices may be unconventional they are always within the bounds of law established by The Prophet Muhammad. A short search for a new teacher led me to the meditation classes of the Sufi School of Teaching. Initially I was a little confused as I thought all Sufis practiced elaborate and musical rituals as the Mevlevis do, however here I was being taught about meditation. I decided to give it a go. To my great surprise and relief the utter simplicity of the Sufi meditation quickly led me to a state of great calm and tranquillity. Just the very notion of ‘turning towards the heart’ encapsulated everything I was seeking, and that this heart has a natural, pre eternal affinity for its Beloved Allah. This simple practice was the practical counterpart to the difficult metaphysics of Ibn Arabi and a tangible way to engage in the very process that Rumi’s poetry was describing. I had a pre-existing daily meditation practice which was now populated with the muraqabah technique. In the midst of a very turbulent and transitional period of my life I had a daily ‘cave’ to retreat to where my heart could find rest.
At this point in my life I had been in a tense and unhappy marriage for a number of years. My wife and I were clearly starting to go in different directions spiritually. I had been suffering with anxiety and depression, perhaps as this long standing longing in my heart was unfulfilled. Soon after this I had the blessing to meet the Sheikh. A short meeting in which little was said but which left me with a strong sense of faith.
The Sheikh told me that the teaching of this order was for people to follow spirituality in the midst of a regular life. Unlike Buddhism, which held up monasticism as an ideal. I decided to re-establish my outer life to be more in line with my new beliefs. Through Allah’s blessings I quickly met a new woman. I fell in love. At the same time as the teachings of Islam and Sufism were working on my heart, my life around me was almost effortlessly changing and long standing problems were resolving themselves, often in ways which seemed far better than I could have imagined. After this I started to sense that the meditations not only gave me a sense of peace, but also the sense that I was being guided, started to develop. I started to now perceive that my whole life up until this point had been guided and that the wrong turns were in fact nothing of the sort, but were learning and practice. Rumi talks of God teaching us through opposites, and the Quran itself speaks of a balance inherent in creation, and that to truly appreciate something we must first be deprived of it. To be close to Allah we must first taste the bitter pain of separation. Things I had merely read about were now starting to be infused with heart felt meaning. A deep acceptance of my character and myself began to develop. I had struggled my whole life with self-doubt but now I was perfectly happy to be me, as if something I had longed-for for a long time had been settled. I was amazed that things I had been seeking for two decades through the Buddhist path unfolded quickly now that I had embraced the Islamic Sufi path. There was a sense of “homecoming”, which I had never experienced in my previous practice. Soon after this I formally took the Shahada, the public acceptance of Islam.