A Sufi Manual for Individuation and Beyond

“Your personal nature seeks its paradise.” – (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 29)

Ever wish you had a manual for life and how to live it to its fullest? Well, I just found one in a book by Ibn ‘Arabi (12th century philosopher and Sufi shaykh) called “Journey to the Lord of Power: A Sufi Manual on Retreat” and I’m really digging it. It brings things I’ve heard in bits and pieces over and over again in spiritual and mental health circles through the last years together into one cohesive framework. I love that. Of all of the spiritual texts I’ve read, Ibn ‘Arabi’s is refreshingly practical in its teachings. However, he still says all this stuff in a language that might have been sufficient for a 12th century conversation with other mystics but would be frustratingly enigmatic for most folks today. So, what I write here is the interpretation that my Western, 21st century psyche gets out of his words. (BTW, if you aren’t familiar with the Sufi or Islamic use of the word “power”, try not to get bogged down here by the title. It doesn’t imply anyone getting oppressed or “lorded over”. So, just skip that part for now and let’s look at what all is inside the book ….)

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Ibn ‘Arabi lays out a map of what he calls “Realms”, which can also be looked at as stages of personal development. They are infinite in number and are as varied as human beings. However, they fall into some general categories, the first of which are the most relevant to us common folk. Keep in mind that these stages merely describe a progression and they don’t happen just once or even linearly. While you are in one stage, say in a general sense, you might be in another with regard to a more specific situation.

(1) We all start in a state of oneness where our will is unformed and we aren’t all that interested in anything outside of the experience of one-ness we are having. Most of us have witnessed this in the way that babies and toddlers relate to their moms or, if we are lucky, have experienced it in the honeymoon stage of a romantic relationship. It is a sense of being home, feeling seen and deeply understood, where existence requires very little inner work or understanding of anything outside the union.

(2) A state of the hardship of separation. You feel the burden of making your way through a world (or a relationship or any other challenging situation) that seems to be full of contradictions and conflicts. The honeymoon is over. And your sense of diremption seems to imply that something went wrong. (Here enters opportunities for internalizing or externalizing blame.) In this stage, you tend to see the duality in situations; your attention is drawn to the differences between things rather than their similarities. Many problems seems like they have only two solutions (and neither seems tolerable). Things often look black and white (for better or worse). Interestingly, this stage seems to coincide with an individual’s ability to think linearly, to logically link cause and effect.

(3) Ibn ‘Arabi calls this stage “The Interval” as its main function is movement towards stage 4. Basically, in this stage, you get a sense that there is something more to all this living than struggle, and, in your curiosity about what that might be, you actively work towards developing the tools and psychic structure within you to perceive and live that. There is a lot of learning about who you uniquely are and who you are not, learning how to not be thrown off course by messages to the contrary (like you were in stage 2), learning what and what not to trust in for signposts along the way, learning to develop your intuition and how to balance it against your capacity for being strictly rational (presupposing that you have already developed a strong capacity for being discriminating when you need it), getting comfortable with the undefinability of things, and learning how to consciously work with the imaginal world (as distinguished from imaginary–I’ll explain later) and letting it influence your waking consciousness so that it serves as a revealer rather than a veiler (a source of confusion or obfuscation).

(4) As is true in many things, the end is hidden in the beginning. And stage 4 is really just a return to the oneness of stage 1, except this time you are conscious of it. You know the nature of merging, its size and shape, and understand how this process works within you. You can fall into oneness, and at the same time observe yourself falling, and yet this detachment doesn’t rob you of the sense of wonder and magic of it. Because of that, knowledge (and seemingly contradictory information) doesn’t disturb your bliss or sense of union. Had someone tried to impart that kind of knowledge (of the inner workings) back in stage 1 (given that you already had the capacity to even accept and integrate that information), you would have been disillusioned and immediately been thrown in stage 2. Had your stage 1 sense of joy been disturbed with explanations of psychological needs and projection mechanisms and brain chemistry, you would have entered into a period of questioning and doubting that would have disconnected you from the experience of blind trust. Now, in stage 4, you understand enough about yourself and how you respond in given situations and have enough of the big picture of Who You Are and have made peace with the multiplicity of it all that you are no longer confused by additional input and wars of logic. There is space for seemingly divergent perspectives to co-exist within you. You have now a joy/bliss/sense-of-wholeness that is not blind but is once again trusting.

There are a stage 5 and 6, but they are so far beyond my grasp that I’m not even going to try to explain them here. My best understanding of the stages of development from personal experience and other sources is that (1) progression doesn’t happen like a light switch that suddenly gets turned on–you get glimpses from time to time (perhaps throughout an entire lifetime) into the experience of the next stage before you fully enter it; (2) humanity as a whole is slowly moving through this progression; whether we’ll see it to the end is still to be seen.

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There are some tools that folks can use to consciously further and hasten their movement along their path. But, before any of you Type A, perfectionists, like me, get a hold of these and drive yourself crazy trying to apply them, first a word on equanimity …

It’s a good feeling when things just fall into place or come naturally. Not only are we spared exhaustion and confusion, but it’s affirming as well. When something “feels right”, it usually means that we are engaged more with the flow of life rather than with the interruptions or strife within a progressing situation. Most of us would like to experience that feeling as much as possible, but it’s not something that most of us seem to have much control over. Myself included. And anytime we force a situation or relationship or attitude to be a particular way, our psyches will rebel if it isn’t in accordance with the ways in which they are ready to go. Or, more accurately, our psyches will rebel (in the form of neuroses, depression, obsessive thought patterns, unshakable urges, etc.) if we are single-mindedly addressing only part of the picture. The unconscious lets us know when its being poorly attended to. (Learning to recognize its messages can be a challenge though! See stage 3.) So, although Ibn ‘Arabi has laid out a framework of attitudes and practices here, it is your personal repsonsibility to use them in a way that achieves equanimity within you. Note that equanimity is different than stagnation. Stagnation brings its own kind of pain. (Hopefully, you are blessed with a low tolerance for it so that you won’t have to tread water too much in your life.) So, learning when to push yourself and when to relax and make space for something else to come in is a huge part of the task. With that said, on to his suggestions …

“The seekers of the Way of Truth are individuals.” – (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 26)

There is so much implied in this one little sentence. First off, to go the distance on your path, to take yourself through fulfillment of your individual nature and beyond, you’ll eventually need to arrive at the point where you can stand apart from the crowd and all its messages of how things should look. But to rely on your inner guidance, you need to first get the lay of the land in there. You gotta know the ways in which you talk yourself out of things that are actually true for you and have developed the strength to tune those messages out. This implies that it’s gonna be a lonely path. Although folks can encourage and guide you from time to time, and you can encourage and guide yourself from time to time, you gotta get used to that feeling of walking alone in the desert sometimes, not sure of where you are headed but knowing you’ll wither and your spirit will die if you don’t keep walking.

Eventually, this means you will feel (perhaps disconcertingly) distant from people and even need to go into retreat to solidify some things within yourself without being interrupted or distracted by the needs or influences of others. But before you go off for incubation, there are a few things that it would be better if you had developed within yourself first so that “retreat” doesn’t end up in you losing your marbles.

“Disicipline is incumbent upon you before the retreat. Spiritual discipline (riyada) means (1) training of character, (2) abandonment of heedlessness, and (3) endurance of indignities.” – (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 26)

Let’s take these in reverse order …
(3) Endurance of Indignities – You gotta get past feeling like a fool. What you are doing is walking your individual path away from the crowd. If everybody were undertaking this exact same journey, it would be well travelled and well marked, and so you’d get a lot of outer positive reinforcement along the way. But the journey is yours uniquely. Nobody else has done it this way. Ever. Prepare to make a lot of mistakes and feel like an ass, more often than not. This is not a sign of weakness. Eventually, hopefully, you’ll get to like being caught off guard. Not expecting yourself to have the answers before you even know what questions to ask can be liberating.

(2) Abandonment of Heedlessness – This doesn’t mean “don’t be rash and do something irrational.” Synonyms for heedlessness are inattentiveness and mindlessness. So, this is really about presence. Go ahead and do what you do in life, but bring your full attention to it. Every decision, every interaction, every gaze on a flower or a pile of poop, every breath right down to the inhale and exhale. The question of doing the “wrong” thing almost becomes a moot point. A lot of the “what should I do” problems go away on their own or become completely irrelevant as a result of the shift in awareness and values that occurs when you really bring your full presence and attention to what you are doing right this moment … and this moment … and this one. A tall order, to be sure. And you’ll probably find that, as you slow down to pay attention, you can’t accomplish as much as you used to (which will probably force you to re-evaluate your desires and ambitions and what’s most important to you. Ah, how something so simple can be so multilayered).

(1) Training of Character – This is a tricky one as one definition of character implies morality, but whose morality? So, once again, let’s go back to the dictionary.

  Character \Char"ac*ter\, n. [L., an instrument for marking,
     character, Gr. ?, fr. ? to make sharp, to cut into furrows,
     to engrave: cf. F. caract[`e]re.]
     [1913 Webster]
     ...
     The peculiar quality, or the sum of qualities, by which a
        person or a thing is distinguished from others; the stamp
        impressed by nature, education, or habit; that which a
        person or thing really is; nature; disposition.

So, we’re back to stage 3 here: Getting to know yourself and living what that is. Character is the sum of the qualities that make you who you inherently are. Training of character means knowing yourself, your abilities, your longings, the ways you deceive yourself (so that you don’t get tripped up by them), your limitations (so that you don’t irresponsibly overextend yourself), the things you have no particular aptitude for or calling for (so that you don’t waste time on them), and taking responsibility for living that in the world. When we live at that level of integrity to ourselves, the issue of morals pretty much takes care of itself because there are certain things that just are beneath us as individuated human beings.

The traveler needs to learn what is useful from each situation” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 28).

I know you’ve heard it before but life is the teacher. Walking your path to your paradise isn’t about trying to be some place you aren’t yet. Be right where you are, emotionally, physically, psychologically, all of it. Engage with what you are given, but engage in a way such that you can learn something new from it. Look at each moment and see if you can find a gift in it. Not so that you become an optimist or become appropriately grateful (because that is perhaps just trying to be some place you are not), but just to see what you can learn about yourself from it. No judgment. Just gather information and move on. Don’t linger in situations that have already outlived their usefulness.

“We do not occupy ourselves with or turn our attention to those engaged in [striving for comfort and collecting worldly rubble]” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 28).

If you are still with me, chances are good that comfort and amassing collections of possessions, people, identities, accomplishments, or status aren’t enough for you. You can quietly love folks that love those things, but don’t get involved enough in their lives that your energy goes into appeasing or accomodating them such that it takes away from your availability to your unique path. Sounds easy. Hard to do. Some of the people in your life won’t like that very much. Get used to the idea that people liking or not liking you has nothing to do with how true you are being to yourself.

“Revelation corresponds to the extent and form of knowledge. The knowledge … you acquire at the time of struggle and training you will realize [in experiential form] later. What you contemplate … will be the form of knowledge which you established previously. You advance nothing except your transference from knowledge to vision” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 29-30).

The mental constructs by which you conceptualize your path are very important. They define your experience. Climbing a mountain gives you a different feeling and daily tasks than digging tunnels. In one you strive for the light, in another you lean into the darkness. Psychologists recognize that we think first in image form before words or actions ever arise. For Sufis, images exist in a world unto themselves and have a life of their own and are reflected to us in a denser form (such as belief systems, human dynamics, or even physical manifestations). It’s inevitable, if you are going to put your heart and soul into a path, that whatever images you choose to represent it will ultimately give you a particular kind of experience and material to work with. So, pick a set of metaphors, stories, teachings, or theories that offer the gestalt that you think best describe your inner longing. Go for one that inspires your yearning, that resonates with the deepest part of you. Then, learn about it. Learn as much as you can about it so that when you get to the place of arriving home, you are doing it consciously and you have the images that can take you there.

Learn to differentiate between sensory and imaginal perception (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 35).

This expands on the previous item. For Sufis, the world of images, dreams, and symbols is vital. We are consciously aware of some of the images that affect our lives (say, for example, imagining what we’d like our lives to look like in the future) and unconscious of others (e.g., reacting in a particular way to a situation because it reminds us of something else). Images are easier to work with and change than things that have already taken a more concrete form in our lives. For example, we all know the difficulty of trying to repair the damage of harmful words once they have been said. Instead, by intuitively attending to the needs of the moment, we can often avoid the hard work of later having to unravel miscommunications and hurt feelings. Similarly, by recognizing personal destiny when presented to us in its embryonic, imaginal form, we can avoid walking the paths in our lives where nothing seems to work right, no matter how hard we try.

Mental images, dreams, and symbols (when they come from the right place) can be great sources of knowledge and understanding. They can help us know when to cut off negative influences, prevent us from stagnating in life, or help us cooperate and relax into painful but necessary processes. They can keep us from walking down dark psychic alleys by warning which situations will just constellate trouble and distract us from our path or suck us dry. They can incite real experiences of awe, terror, and a sense of meaning, all without ever actually taking empirically observable form in the waking world. Through the imagination, we can feel simultaneously touched in our most personal, hidden places and yet lifted into the context of something so much greater than our individual selves. In this way, imagination is the organ of theophanic perception and prophetic hermeneutics. (Theophanic = the manifestation of a god.)

The ability of the imagination to see and feel into this kind of imagery is the bridge that links the island of limited ego-consciousness to the larger world of which it is a part. By “this kind of imagery,” I am referring not to those images that are inseparable from the imaginer (those arising from the personal psyche), but those that are autonomous and subsist beyond any particular individual’s attention to them. Images in this “theophanic imagination” exist even after we wake from their dreamy world.

But there is a real trick in learning what images arise from our personal fantasies and which arise from the theophanic imagination. It is a subtle thing and whole books have been written about this. Ibn ‘Arabi gives us a brief guideline in this manual: “when you turn your attention away from [a form or some created action] and occupy yourself with dhikr, you will move from the sensory to the imaginal [theophanic] level” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 35). Dhikr (a practice of remembrance of one’s ultimate longing) is explained below, but, simply put, if you put your attention fully back on your longing/your sense of destiny/calling (and willingly let go of a particular image or action) and this image or action sticks with you, then it’s time to give it a deeper look.

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“Seclusion from people will become inevitable for you.” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 30) “The object of departure from people is not leaving their physical company, but rather that neither your heart nor your ear should be a receptacle for the superfluous words they bring.”(Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 31)

Retreat is not a physical place or shutting out of loved ones. It is a state of awareness. It occurs when you feel a natural commitment to constantly lean into your longing, to bring awareness of it into every corner of your life. It requires that you have reached the point that you have enough of a sense of who you are and a connection to your calling that you can tune out messages to the contrary. And, because of the risk of being led astray by false ideas and the grandeur of inner experiences in this solitary state, retreat isn’t to be entered into lightly, without a well-developed capacity for discipline (see above) or before you know your strength in respect to the power of imagination (more on this later). Retreat is essentially a state of remembrance. And, for Ibn ‘Arabi, it is remembrance of God.

Up until now, I’ve avoided the use of the ‘G’ word because the information is applicable regardless of whether or not the reader has a spiritual or monotheistic bent. But to take these tools beyond their psychological pay-offs, we need to take a look at this God concept. The ‘G’ word has a lot of connotations in 21st century that it did not in the 12th. For Sufis, God is simply the mysterious, imaginal (see above) entity, that is on the other end of our deepest longing. Sufis don’t concern ourselves too much with nailing down a definition of God. In a way, any definition would be irrelevant because we are talking about individual inner experiences of something ineffable. All that Sufis need to know is that we have a deep longing that calls us and we can’t seem to shake it, no matter what we try. And, at the point in the journey in which we feel called into retreat (constant remembrance), we have been consumed enough by that longing that we feel driven to live it fully, to not push it away or put our attention on things that distract us from it. Engaging fully with that longing is a state of remembrance of God.

For those of you more versed in psychological than spiritual vocabulary, instead of the word God, consider the Jungian concept of the Self as the central, ordering principle of one’s psyche which harmonizes all other aspects. Most of us aren’t consciously aware of this structure in our psyches, but when we have experiences of it, we know it. We feel a part of something larger than what we previously thought of as ourselves. There is a sense of possibility and meaning. “The experience of the self is almost impossible to practically distinguish from the experience of what has always been referred to as ‘God'” (Raff, 2000). If it helps you to read the rest of this material without getting distracted by the 21st century baggage around the ‘G’ word, try substituting “That Which I Long For” or ‘The One I Long For” and see what that does for you.

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Ibn ‘Arabi offers a few tips on how to stay in that state of remembrance as much as possible.
* Do the dhikr. (A more commonly known word for this in the West is “mantra”.) The dhikr is a practice whereby one repeats a key word or phrase that directs one’s attention and thoughts to “the Beloved” (another Sufi word for God). You can do this aloud or silently. For Sufis, that word is “Allah”. The idea is to repeat it constantly. Of course, you can’t do that and pat your head and rub your belly (and manage all the details of living) at the same time. But you may find that after a while, after it becomes enough of a habit, the dhikr does you.
* Don’t let animal, unthinking urges dominate your thoughts or actions. They don’t leave room for spiritually principled living. Ibn ‘Arabi suggests that this intention is symbolized in the eating of nourishing foods and avoiding of animal fat.
* “Keep your constitution in balance, for if dryness is excessive, it leads to corrupt imaginings and long, delirious ravings” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 31). We all know the state of dryness. It is a state in which nothing grows. We can be full of imperial certainty and impersonal wisdom and these may be protecting us against stagnating in the chaos of our own unconscious. But we lack a certain vitality or freshness. So, there has to be an equal throne in our inner kingdom for uncertainty and simply “being” without overanalysis. Ibn ‘Arabi suggests that the intention to hold this balance in our psyches is symbolized by the avoidance of excessive hunger in our dietary practice and excessive satiation.
* If any influences come in that knock you off balance (and hopefully they will), tune out the unuseful and allow the helpful. Distinguish between these two based on what they leave you with. If you find yourself distressed, disoriented, or otherwise mentally disordered by certain influences, tune them out. (The dhikr can be really helpful here in working with unhealthy, obsessive thoughts.) You are looking for those things that put you in a state of coolness and bliss. “There is nothing that pertains to a station which [God] reveals to you that does not greet you with honor, reverance, and exaltation” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 44). This doesn’t mean that getting knocked off balance won’t be painful, but if you encounter an influence that demeans you or makes you feel restricted or think you are smaller than you truly are (which is something you can discern by turning to the longing in your heart), then don’t let it derail you. “You belong to that which exercises its authority over you” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 29). Spiritually and mentally speaking, you are what you eat. On a psychological level, this is just sound, statistically proven cognitive-behavioral psychology.

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Entering into a state of retreat, it is helpful to make a convenant. That is, to consciously articulate your intention and commitment to it. Here’s what Ibn ‘Arabi recommends.
(1) Be advised that wild (and wonderful) things can happen in a state of retreat–compelling states of drunken bliss, fascinating insight, and seemingly intolerable states of contraction and isolation. Promise to look away from every idea or image that comes to you along this path and suggests that it is God, that it is the thing that will give you what most long for, and promise to work to remember that God is more than all of these. Remember your goal. Don’t give up your loneliness easily. Don’t settle for anything less than the whole enchilada. Go for being in a state of constant longing, not for the state of arriving at union. If you get to the place where you finally come into union with your heart’s deepest desire, there will be no negotiation anyway, no thinking will be involved, for it is a state of being that comes upon you and you don’t have control over flipping that final switch. After all your dedicated striving, it just happens.
(2) Promise to not seek from God anything other God Itself. Don’t attach your himma (the power of the heart’s intention) to anything other than God. “If everything in the universe should be spread before you, receive it graciously–but do not stop there. Persist in your quest…. If you stay with what is offered, [God] will escape you” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 31). So, this is the point where you gotta ask yourself what you really want. If you get the perfect relationship, the most amazing opportunities to do and be in the world, or wisdom that draws people to you in gratitude for your insights, will you still have this longing? If the answer is no, then you may not want to risk how crazy this process can make you and how much it will completely up-end your life. If the answer is that the longing will continue, then there’s no place to go but to give yourself over to it completely. You may not know the answer to this question until you try some of these things out. And that’s OK. For many of us, these other things act as the carrot on the stick anyway. I mean, they are what we see that makes us run towards a sense of ultimate fulfillment and bliss, not realizing that the carrot is a very, very special carrot meant to make us reach for something beyond what we ever would have accepted as possible for ourselves, and that we may or may not get the carrot, but if we pursue it with all of our heart, we’ll get so much more (and maybe the carrot too, although at that point the carrot, as we once thought of it, won’t seem quite so central to our being anymore).

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Ibn ‘Arabi goes on to describe the flavor of how your perspective shifts as you stick with the dhikr. There are many different stages, and each bring new levels of insight. I’m underqualified to try to expound on these. And when I try to ponder them without actually having experienced them, all that I can do is create suppositions which only create ideals that I then get attached to and that’ll just get painfully dispelled eventually anyway as I (if God wills it) come into direct experiences of them.

Knowing the content of the later stages of the journey is helpful in so much as it satisfies our minds enough so that they agree to get out of the way and let the process of transformation happen. Some of us have minds that require more information than others to let this happen. If you are one of those, welcome to the club. There are books and people that can orient you. Once we get to the point that we are more or less OK with not knowing what in the hell we are doing and where we are really going but that we know we have to go there anyway, it’s really not so important to understand the content of the stages of the journey as much as the process of it.

Perhaps it can suffice here to say that, as we progress, our awareness shifts away from preoccupation with the problems and conflicts in our lives and more towards unity, towards the essential nature and dynamics of each different kind of living thing (e.g., the relationships of the body in its various forms, the mind, the world of images, the soul, absolute truth, etc.). But, although, your perspective shifts, on an outward level, things still look the same. The rules of the physical world still operate and you live in the physical world. What you have is a state of awareness in which you carry your new insights along with you in this dense state of incarnation and that can make life a hell of a lot easier. And yet this still isn’t the whole enchilada.

“Every seeker inevitably will experience the impact of the states, and blending of the worlds with one another, but the development from this stage to the stage of divine wisdom appearing within the customary outward principles is incumbent upon him. Transcendence of the customary order will become his secret, so that events beyond the ordinary will accompany him ordinarily” (Ibn ‘Arabi, 1981, p. 60).

Along the way, insights you get can be quite fascinating, reassuring, and clarifying. They can make you feel good. They can make people around you feel good. But these states of awareness aren’t meant to be destinations, just changes in the scenery. Remember, remember, remember what it was that set you out on the journey, what you most deeply long for. Accept these insights graciously and then return to the dhikr. Remember we aren’t shooting for becoming an intellectual authority on life and how to live it, but on actually living our longing and arriving at that eventual state of union in our own individual way, regardless of what anyone else may notice about us.

Ibn ‘Arabi stresses over and over again the importance of the dhikr. If we apply this rule of the road, no matter what states of expansion or contraction befall us, we won’t stagnate if we just put our attention back on the dhikr. The name of the game is re-orienting ourselves consistently to getting the whole pie, not settling for any crumbs no matter how bitter or how sweet. Persevere, but attend to your inner balance so that perseverance doesn’t turn into dryness. Stay with your truest intention. Throw yourself into your longing and again.

“It is the intensity of the longing that does all the work.” – Kabir

The path is incredibly hard and incredibly simple. Sometimes the hardest thing is to trust in just how simple it really is.

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