… he has seen, with His help, what was concealed from his eyes.
The meanings of things were revealed to him …
The Journey Home
The Sufi path is a journey home, from the outer world of illusions to the inner reality that belongs within the heart. This is a journey of transformation in which the Sufi travels from the outer world of the creation to the inner world of the Creator, the direct experience of our divine nature. This journey happens within the heart; the secret of our divine nature is placed within the heart, and through the heart we can experience its reality. The journey unveils this secret, known as the “secret of secrets”—it is the great paradox of human existence that we are veiled from our divine nature, our innermost union with God:
God said through the Holy Prophet, “Man is my secret and I am his secret. The inner knowledge of the spiritual essence is a secret of my secrets. Only I put this into the Heart of my good servant, and none may know his state other than Me.”[ii]
The real secret of humanity is this inner reality beyond the world of the senses. Just as we have a physical body, we have a spiritual body that exists in this inner world. Made of light, it functions as a living spiritual organism, and through it we can travel and experience the inner worlds.And just as we have two eyes to see the outer world, we have a single eye of the heart that can see the world of divine truth that belongs to the heart. According to Sufi esoteric teaching, the heart is the organ of our divine consciousness.
Early Sufis realized that there are subtle spiritual centers or subtle bodies (latifa, plural lata’if) within the physical body.[iii] Five of these, belonging to our spiritual body, are located within the heart. It is through these lata’if, these “chambers of the heart,” that one makes the journey home. Each latifa also represents a different subtle body enabling the wayfarer to travel in a different inner spiritual realm.
Each of the lata’if belongs to a particular stage of the journey. One can journey within the lata’if in the heart into deeper and deeper levels of reality. And although this journey is unique to each wayfarer, each of these chambers has a specific spiritual quality. The chambers of the heart are thus a map of the journey.
The outermost chamber is called the Heart, Qalb. It is described as active; its color is yellow. It is associated with love and longing. The journey home begins with the awakening of longing within the heart, with the soul’s primal cry of separation as the secret passion for union with God is ignited. Thus begins the great love affair that will tear apart our being and draw us from the separation of the ego into the union of the Self.
For some it begins quietly, with a feeling of discontent. Nothing seems quite right; nothing fulfills you. It is a subtle poisoning by love; you don’t realize you have embarked on the great journey of the soul, the love affair with the great Beloved. For others the longing is awakened more dramatically, perhaps in meeting a teacher. When Rumi met Shams, his heart’s burning began—“this burning which is everything”—and his world was destroyed and remade by love. Through this awakening love you are turned away from the world back to God. The heart calls out in love and longing, and the passion of the soul begins to unfold within you.
This is the most tender, terrible, beautiful love affair. Only it matters. And it is a secret, belonging to the heart, hidden from the outer world.
“My secret will be a secret,” the Friend said.
“Your bloodied shirt no one will see, when the heart bleeds.
No one will wake with your moan late at night,
the smoke from your heart, burning in this fire, no one will detect.”[iv]
Love calls to us through the pain of longing. We lie awake, crying to our Beloved. This is no idealized love affair, but a real pain that grips the heart. My teacher kept a handkerchief as a memento of her years with her sheikh—before she met him it had been blue, but it had been bleached white with all her tears.
To someone who has not tasted this sweet poison no words can convey its power. This love destroys and burns as much as it brings bliss and infinite sweetness. It is a love affair of paradoxes, of intoxicating intimacy and terrible loneliness. In the words of Rumi:
“The Beloved is so sweet, so sweet,” they repeat;
I show them the scars where His polo-stick thrashed me.
“The Beloved is terrible, a maniac,” they wail;
I show them my eyes, melting in His tender passion.[v]
You are beaten by love in the cruelest way, made vulnerable by its sweet pain, tenderized by longing. Sometimes the aloneness seems more than you can bear. And then suddenly His love is present, and everything in you melts, all pain forgotten. This sweetness can last for a moment, an hour, a day—and then again He withdraws, and you are alone again, more desperate than before. This love is intimate and desolate beyond imagining. It can last for years. And there is no refuge; this love affair happens inside your own heart.
You run between the heart and its sheath
As tears run from the eyelids.[vi]
And this is just the outermost chamber of the heart, just the beginning of the journey.
The awakening of love and longing that initiates the journey is a very dynamic, often turbulent experience. The fire of love burns and purifies, cleansing the heart of impurities that belong to the ego and our lower nature, often confronting us with our own darkness. And then, when enough of our darkness and impurities have been burned away, a space within us opens that belongs to Spirit.
The second chamber of the heart is called Spirit, Ruh. Its color is red. Here a certain light within us becomes accessible that has a quality of tranquility, peace and quietude. This light belongs to God. The longing of the heart also belongs to God in its essential nature; it is His longing for Himself within us. But we experience it as our longing, our pain, our passion. The light of the Spirit is very different; it comes to us only after longing has purified us.
When we cry to God, the light of our longing attracts another light, the light of spirit:
There are lights which ascend and lights which descend. The ascending lights are the lights of the heart; the descending lights are those of the Throne. The lower-self [the ego] is the veil between the Throne and the heart. When this veil is rent and a door opens in the heart, like springs towards like. Light rises toward light and light comes down upon light, “and it is light upon light.” (Qur’an 24:35)[vii]
Our longing both breaks through the veil of the ego and draws down the light that belongs to our divine nature. This second chamber is the place where the two lights meet, where we are taken into the real mystery of our divine nature.Had we not already suffered the pain of purification, we would pollute this light with our darkness and desires.
In the chamber of spirit the miracle of divine birth begins to take place. It is always unexpected, coming in stillness and silence. After the inner dramas and tears and sleepless nights, suddenly something else is present. Irina Tweedie describes how she first experienced it:
It tiptoed itself into my heart, silently, imperceptibly, and I looked at it with wonder. It was still small, a light-blue flame, trembling softly. It had the infinite sweetness of a first love, like an offering of fragrant flowers with gentle hands, the heart full of stillness and wonder and peace.[viii]
This is our first true experience of our divine nature, belonging to the Self whose core is peace—a taste of something eternal and essential, which nothing can take away because it does not belong to this world. Now begins the transition from effort to effortlessness, as this spirit begins to work from within. Whatever happens now, this light and its tranquility remain, hidden under the surface perhaps but always present because it belongs to God.
The spirit opens us to the third chamber of the heart, Mystery, Sirr. Its color is white and it belongs to intimacy with God. Sirr also means secret, and for the Sufis the greatest secret of creation is that we are one with God. In the chamber of Sirr you experience this secret inwardly and outwardly. Within your heart you are merged into the oneness of God in which there is nothing other than He. The duality of lover and Beloved has dissolved to reveal love’s deeper truth: He whom we have longed for is in our heart in such intimacy that there are no longer two—you are with your Beloved in complete oneness. The love affair is fulfilled; it lives inside you with every breath. It is a merging of lovers such as we long for in sexual union, in which we die and are dissolved in love. And yet the intensity and sweetness of this inner meeting make sexual intimacy seem shallow; it is not a meeting of bodies but a merging within the heart, within the substance of our own soul.
We pay a price for this experience of union, which the Sufis call fana, the annihilation of the ego. Mystics have long known that to reclaim our true oneness the ego has to bow down and relinquish its control.
Between me and You there lingers an “it is I” which torments me…
Ah! lift this “it is I!” from between us both![ix]
The price of love is our own self, which we pay with tears and suffering. When you are going through it, you wonder how you can survive as the “I” is torn apart by love. And then one day you notice that the pain has gone. There is only oneness, and it was always there.
Only when this mystery has been awakened within you does the real transformation begin—transformation not of the ego, but of the soul as it becomes infused with the deep knowing of God’s oneness. This secret is a gift.[x] With all your strivings, your longing and devotion, you could not find it. But when you are ready, He whom you love takes you back to Himself. It is a meeting of lovers, a merging into oneness that grows ever deeper, more intoxicating, more complete. As Al-Hallâj exults: “I have become the One I love, and the One I love has become me!”[xi]
This mystery of oneness within the heart awakens you to the oneness all around. The world becomes another meeting place with God: “Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God.”(Qur’an 2:115)This inner love affair is played out in the outer world, as life begins to reveal its secret face as a revelation of God. The mystic says that God in His Essence is unknowable but He can be known through His creation. It is all He. The chamber of Sirr opens us to this wonder. Through the world’s many images we come to know Him, His light and His darkness, His beauty and His terror. We learn not to judge but to witness His presence, even in a world that has forgotten Him. And even this forgetfulness belongs to Him.
Until this Mystery is opened, His oneness is veiled from our consciousness, because in this chamber lies the light of unification with which one can see the oneness of God in the inner and outer worlds. Only with the light of divine oneness can one contemplate the divine truth within creation. For the Sufi the deepest purpose of creation is His revelation: of Himself to Himself—“I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known, so I created the world.”[xii]
He had but one purpose in bringing forth both worlds’ Existence. To see Himself in the mirror of the soul and then to become the lover of Himself who is without flaw.[xiii]
The heart of the lover is a place of divine revelation of the Beloved. This is the deepest meeting of lover and Beloved, the true affirmation of oneness and the nature of Sirr.
When you see with the light of unification you can see how He reveals Himself anew in every moment. And you are a part of this revelation. As the single eye of the heart opens you begin to experience a world that is not about us, our struggles and dramas, but is about Him. You begin to awaken to the world as it really is, without all our distortions and projections,[xiv] the world that belongs to God. You share in His revelation of Himself.
In your daily life you live this mystery; you experience everything as a meeting place of lover and Beloved. You experience nearness with God and know your divine nature and the world’s, you see things as they truly are. And you are allowed this because you have paid the price: you have given your heart to God.
But the journey continues. Beyond the chamber of Sirr is the Arcanum, Khafi, whose color is black. Khafi is associated with the extinction and absence of self; here all consciousness is dissolved, lost in the inner emptiness, an extinction so total that nothing remains; it is like a black hole that takes everything, even your light. In the primal nothingness of non-existence everything is lost, all trace of the wayfarer gone. Abu Sa’id describes this state:
Now I’m lost behind the secret’s curtain. The lost person doesn’t find again what was lost.[xv]
It is not for the fainthearted, nor for those who want to remain in the intimacy of union. Those who have gone beyond the illusions of the ego and watched every identity burnt away by longing can remain in the circle of love, living and witnessing His oneness. But there is a doorway beyond it that opens into non-existence, where a cold and brutal wind blows away even the secrets of oneness. Primal emptiness is vast and powerful beyond anything that is created, and it destroys everything that ever existed. “And beyond that nothing can be said.”[xvi] Yet it is the real home of the mystic, the “one who passes away... [and] abides in the essence of that which is Real.”[xvii]
This is a state of being with God in the uncreated nothingness before and after creation. It has an inhuman quality that can initially evoke fear and desolation. Yet in the cold darkness of this inner emptiness lies a vaster wholeness in which everything is present, a completeness beyond comprehension. This vast, dynamic realm carries the freedom of non-existence. Leaving all semblance of anything created, one leaves all burdens behind and finds freedom beyond imagining.
Initially, a fragment of consciousness remains, and one is, paradoxically, aware of one’s non-existence. This awareness that one is not is a fulfillment even more complete than divine union. One senses the Reality waiting in the emptiness. Then even that is lost and nothing remains. You return from this state aware that you were taken beyond any consciousness. When you return to the created world you carry the knowledge of the nothingness within and around everything like the dynamic space between the stars, within every atom and particle. And you sense its power. You know that it is Real.
In Khafi there is no longer any journey, any traveler or any path. What remains after annihilation? And yet this state underlies everything: “There is nothing but Nothingness.”[xviii]
Super Arcanum, Akhfa
There is a further mystical state, beyond even the complete extinction in the emptiness of God. This is the deepest mystery, Akhfa. It has the quality of comprehensive synthesis; its color is green. For the Sufi green is the color of Absolute Truth, the emerald rock at the summit of the mountain of Qaf where shines the midnight sun. This Truth is beyond oneness and beyond nothingness. It is at the core of everything that is and is not, completely different from anything you can think or imagine. It is the sun of His face, whose single glance destroys everything. No words can describe Its beauty and Its terror. It is unknown and unknowable. It is the Primal Reality, the end of the mystical journey:
God answers Dhul’ Nun..., “I kill him... and if he has disappeared completely, then I show him the sun of My face…. When the shadow disappeared in the sun, then he became nothing—and God knows best.”[xix]
These are the stages of the mystical journey, the chambers of the heart through which the wayfarer travels, discovering the secrets of his spiritual nature. Not everyone makes the whole journey; the last two chambers are particularly inaccessible. But within the tradition and within the wayfarer all these chambers are present, in potential, even if unlived. They are held within the chain of transmission, the link of love that unites the hearts of those who are drawn to this journey.
The Sufi path gives us access to these inner realms, the stages on the journey within the heart whereby one is taken step by step into the dimensions of light and love and emptiness, uncovering what it really means to be a human being. This is our heritage, given by the grace of the tradition.
© 2009 The GoldenSufiCenter. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, PhD. is a Sufi teacher and author. In recent years the focus of his writing and teaching has been on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition, and the emerging global consciousness of oneness (see www.workingwithoneness.org). Llewellyn is the founder of The Golden Sufi Center. His new book due summer 2009 is The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul.
[i] A Treatise on the Heart, trans. Nicholas Heer, Three Early Sufi Texts, p. 45.
[ii] Al-Jîlânî, The Secret of Secrets, ed. Tosun Bayrak, p. 15.
[iii] Different Sufi manuals describe different numbers of the heart’s lata’if, four, five, six and even seven. Sufi teachers developed specific techniques for accessing the different lata’if, using dhikrs, breathing practices and visualizations. The different lata’if were also associated with different parts of the body.
[iv] Abu Sa’id ibn Abi’l-Khayr, trans. Vraje Abramain. Unpublished.
[v] Rumi, Light upon Light, trans. Andrew Harvey, p. 103.
[vi] Quoted by Annemarie Schimmel, As Through a Veil, p. 32.
[vii] Aby Henry Corbin, The Inner Man of Light. p. 93.
[viii] Irina Tweedie, Daughter of Fire, p. 79.
[ix] Al-Hallaj, quoted by Massignon, p. 47.
[x] Some Sufis say that in order to be taken into this chamber of the heart, in order to make the transition from a world of duality to the mystery of divine oneness, you need to be given a substance that they call sirr. This substance is given through the grace of the sheikh and through the mystery of spiritual transmission, infused from heart to heart.
[xi] Quoted by Massignon, The Passion of Al-Hallâj, Volume 3, p. 42.
[xii] Hadith qudsi extra Qur’anic revelation.
[xiii] Ayn Al-QudatAl-Hamadhani, quoted by Helmut Ritter, The Ocean of the Soul, p. 493.
[xiv] This is similar to the non-dual contemplation of the Buddhists in which one sees things directly, as they actually are. This is the ground of being, the true nature of mind.
[xv] Trans. Helmut Ritter and John O’Kane, The Ocean of the Soul, p. 605.
[xvi] trans. A.G. Ravan Farhadi, Abdullah Ansari of Herat, p. 110.
[xvii] Sufi saying, source unknown.
[xviii] Irina Tweedie, Daughter of Fire, p. 728.
[xix] Farîd Al-Dîn ’Attâr, trans. Helmut Ritter and John O’Kane, The Ocean of the Soul, p. 612.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee & Truth Consciousness.
All pictures from the public domain.
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© 2009 The Golden Sufi Center. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, PhD. is a Sufi teacher and author. In recent years the focus of his writing and teaching has been on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition, and the emerging global consciousness of oneness (see www.workingwithoneness.org). Llewellyn is the founder of The Golden Sufi Center. His new book due summer 2009 is The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul.
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