I have been fortunate during my spiritual training to have been inspired by some extraordinary teachers, people who came into my life as if by chance, but whose presence and effect on my soul could not have been prayed for, much less imagined. One of these teachers was for a period of time the owner of a café in Vancouver where I sometimes enjoyed being served a cup of frothy Turkish coffee. Murray, as he was sometimes called, was the only person to be found in western Canada who could actually read, write, and fully understand Ottoman Turkish (Turkey, pre 1926). He was discovered and asked to serve as a translator for Suleyman Dede, a Mevlevi shaikh who was trained in the Ottoman era. It was destiny, pure and simple, for Murray turned out to be a hidden master, descended from the esoteric aristocracy of Abkhazia (Circassia). Murray was a hidden Sufi, avoiding adulation, camouflaged sometimes as a carpenter, a café owner, and even occasionally as a fisherman on the high seas. He and his wife Maisie always welcomed me like family, and I was drawn to them by a spiritual fragrance and charisma impossible to conceal.
One particularly rainy afternoon I took refuge in the Istanbul Café and our conversation began this way.
“I had an interesting experience last night. I had been listening to some songs by a particularly interesting songwriter and as I listened to one song after another I actually began to experience a kind of ecstasy, which was all the more extraordinary since I hadn’t been in a very good mood to begin with. It seemed that as I listened to this particular sequence of songs a crescendo was building and deep emotions were stirred. Memories were evoked—powerful recollections of the first stirrings of my own spiritual life, of my father, or a powerful sense of loving many people who were in my life. I wonder why this experience was so powerful—more powerful, in fact, than my spiritual practices, which may leave me with a feeling of well-being and calm, but rarely this kind of ecstatic joy. Afterwards I felt moved to create, to write and compose something myself, to give expression to the beauty I had experienced.”
My mentor pondered for a moment, as if he were about to reveal some secret. “These songs awakened in you a sense of beauty, and beauty evokes love. We cannot will ourselves to love just by saying “I want to love.” But we can, sometimes, be awakened to the vibration of love by beauty, and, more importantly, we can create more beauty in our lives and that will be the cause of more love.”
“Well, I’m very curious.” I said. “How can we create more beauty, I’m not sure what you mean?”
“Beauty is anything that causes our nervous system to resonate with the energy of Eternal Spirit. Beauty is anything that the five senses and human intelligence perceives as beautiful. We can create beauty in practical ways, both in terms of aesthetics, but even more importantly in human relationships. We can gradually engender an atmosphere, an environment of beauty and love. We call this adab. Adab is an expression of beauty and it is how we do love. The wise people of our tradition understood that adab is a process of alchemy, creating a crucible for our own transformation. That’s what a Sufi lodge, a tekke, is meant to be.”
“The Sufi lodge is a place where an accelerated transformation is possible, but a tekke is not just a physical place. Most important is the atmosphere created by a community of people in a subtle and conscious relationship with each other. Each dervish must mature to the point where he or she can awaken a reciprocal exchange of love with other members of the group.”“So the Sufi process is not just about me becoming more spiritual? You mean I have some responsibility to become part of a system, a community, and to experience myself as part of something larger?”
“Exactly,” my teacher said, “and the atmosphere that is created is the remedy for the toxins that exist in human relationships. In this kind of atmosphere, resentment and judgment melt into affection and acceptance. The alchemy of Love will transform the negativity. That negativity is taken for granted in everyday life. It is quite a beautiful and amazing process, but I’m not sure North Americans can achieve this. What do you think?”
“It’s true that we’re up against a powerful force. It seems quite unconscious—the compulsion to choose individual independence over community, to retreat from relationship, our impatience with bearing the faults of others. We have little or nothing requiring us to be together, we can always go to another workshop, another teacher, another spiritual event, or imagine that we don’t need relationships to spiritually develop. We imagine we can do it all ourselves and avoid the challenges, the messiness of human relationships.”
“But the work is to transform the ego that thinks like that, the ego that dresses itself in clever disguises. The ego especially likes to appear as spiritual, to clothe itself in respectable attributes like self-discipline, intellectual attainment, false humility, enlightened personality, sentimentality, and pseudo compassion.”
“I really want to know what love is—I don’t think I understand it at all.”
“Think of love as a resonance, a resonance between the subtle centers (latifas) of your own nervous system and the Eternal Spirit (Ruh). You can to some extent awaken it yourself, but the atmosphere and energy of a loving community creates a stronger resonance, and that connection allows more love and beauty to enter into relationships, transforming more and more aspects of ourselves.
It is through this resonance that we will eventually experience moments of ecstatic beauty, as if we are living in a mist of beautiful love that more and more becomes our natural state and who we are. In that love, the “me” falls away and a “we” remains. This is why Sufis have always organized themselves in this way and this is why they can achieve so much more than individual practice alone can offer. A current is generated that connects the subtle centers of the heart in communion with the Eternal Creative Spirit, which is the ultimate Beauty. That is why it is called the Beloved and why we are called lovers.”
“So what do I have to do next? What’s the next step?”
“Now you will return, and return again and again, to the work of doing love, to practicing the fruits of love, and to creating beauty. You have more souls to love, more songs to write. ”