Moving the Goal Post: A Parable of Psi, by Robert Perry
Religion and Politics

Sufi Spiritual Training

After two weeks camping by a Cornish beach, followed by the Olympics, I'm finding it hard to think or write. The controversies that usually take up my attention look rather small just now.

It could be an effect of the sports, which have been compulsive viewing, both for the athletics and for activities I know nothing about, like taekwondo and dressage. (A newspaper cartoon: 'Come on, whoever you are! Go on doing whatever you're doing! Yessss! ... No! ... Have we won?".)

Or the ennui could be an effect of my holiday reading. I packed loads of worthy science and philosophy books but hardly looked at any of them. Instead I picked up one of my sister's reads, a big fat paperback titled Daughter of Fire by Irina Tweedie, a journal of Sufi spiritual training in the 1960s - and became utterly absorbed.

Tweedie was a naturalised Russian who got into theosophy after her British husband died in 1954 and ten years later decided to try for 'self-realization' (Truth, God, etc). To this end she took herself off to India and acquired an elderly guru who took her on as his pupil and potential successor. The guru, who she knew as Guruji or Bhai Sahib (Elder Brother), was a Hindu but followed a Sufi 'system' in which - at least according to his own account - he does most of the work.

He tells her:

No effort needed; just come here and sit. Everything is done for you. Why make an effort. Effort does not lead anywhere... ours is the System of freedom. But the majority does not like it... People want contortions, Hatha Yoga, discipline, mind control, meditations. They are not happy otherwise, they think nothing is being done. Here, I do not ask you even to pray. Just sit here with me. Even speech is not necessary.

Accordingly, Tweedie feels her mind and body being strangely worked on, apparently by some sort of telepathic or psychokinetic process. At first it's mild and pleasant:

When reading a book sitting in the veranda after lunch, quite out of the blue, a strange sweetness pervaded my heart. It was such a subtle feeling. As soon as I tried to analyse it, it kept vanishing, reappearing again, peeping out from behind my thoughts. This feeling, so light, so elusive, had nothing to do with my environment, and it had nothing to do with him either. At least not directly. It goes beyond him, to something infinitely sweet, so infinitely dear... closer to me than breathing. I caught myself thinking. Yes, that's what it is... and it is just like the beginning of falling in love. Falling in love with what??

There's talk about activating her chakras, and after spending more time with Bhai Sahib she feels her heart pounding unnaturally, also strong vibrations in the base of her spine. These conditions can last all night and be difficult to bear.

Last night when I came home, I still had two hearts going strong. What a sensation! Quite extraordinary! Thunder and lightning about 9 a.m. woke me up. Noticed that I had only my own heart beating softly. Fell asleep. Woke up about 3 a.m. - two hearts beating strongly and not quite in unison. It went on, and I was listening. What a thing! Incredible! Have not even the slightest clue nor an explanation for this strange phenomenon.

One day Bhai Sahib makes a cryptic reference to sexuality. After this at night, for some weeks, she feels intense sexual desire and is kept awake by lascivious visions of unearthly spirits performing lewd sexual acts. (Something to do with burning off past karma, I think).

In other respects the training is the conventional one of breaking down the ego. What is asked of her is emotional endurance. She must negate herself and surrender to the teacher completely. As she develop an intense longing for him, this will gradually turns into a longing for God. But it will be tough: she will suffer injustice and be hurt. 'One has to merge into the Teacher. Only then the little self will go,' he tells her. She will cry a great deal and find herself exclaiming, 'Why, why, does the Master not notice me, does not speak to me - is he angry?'

Although clearly committed to the process Tweedie starts be being somewhat critical and insouciant. But then the mood darkens. She spends her days hanging around outside the guru's bungalow, desperate for him to invite her in, or at least come out and talk to her. This is a severe trial, as she has a good deal of competition from his extended family - she refers bitterly to 'the wife' and 'the brother' as rivals for his attention - and there's a constant stream of other people going in and out: friends, disciples, hangers-on, locals appealing for healing, financial help, and so on. The heat is often intolerable, the smells, the squabbling children...

The trial is made double difficult by the guru's insistence that she pauperise herself. Left comfortably off by her husband, she is now forced to hand all her cash over to him to disburse to the needy as he sees fit. She must rely entirely on him for a few roubles now and again to pay for food and her tiny rented accommodation.

He often abuses her, tells her she's a useless pupil and that she will never learn anything. She cries, ceaselessly, presumably in full view of his family.

"I don't want to listen to you!' he hissed at me. "You don't know how to respect people like me; you never learned what respect and reverence means! You don't know how to behave in company of such people! You are nothing but a stupid, dense and ignorant woman, and you try to preach to me?' . . . You idiot! You . . . you . . . so disgusting you are! So revolting! I hate all the evils in you! I hate them! I hate them! . . . If you dare to come once more to my premises, you will be turned out..."

I cried . . I cried . . . and I cried. It must have been for hours; people came and went until 10:30. I was still crying . . . could not stop.

The effect is almost unbearably pathetic: an intelligent, cultured woman voluntarily prostrating herself in the most degrading conditions. She's like a rejected lover, obsessed with her man's physical 'beauty' and 'divinity', and desperate for a kind word or even a glance, which she sometimes gets and greedily treasures. Forgetting his earlier warning she takes his ill-treatment at face value; in fact his brutal indifference is so realistic that I often did too. Perhaps the guru is really exasperated with this tiresome European woman hanging round his house all the time, weeping and wailing.

But then perhaps not. This is all quite confusing to the logical mind. But does it work? From what I can tell, the answer is 'yes', although less in terms of revelation than in intensity of feeling. As Tweedie's mental functioning dwindles, and she finds it ever harder to think and reason, something else takes over. The guru dies; she goes to spend some time in a northern ashram, where the daily entries become rhapsodic descriptions of the beauty of nature and the peace within.

It was here in the stillness of the mountains that it gradually crystallized itself - no, crystallized isn't the right word - it "distilled" itself from a different dimension into the waking consciousness.

From now on I will have to live with the Glory and the Terror of it . . . It is merciless, inescapable, sometimes nearer, sometimes receding into the distance, but never far away, always just around the corner on the edge of perception, a throbbing, dynamic, intensely virile, intoxicating "Presence" so utterly joyous, boundless and free.

But "Presence" is not the right word either; I am helpless. I give up. I don't know how to express it...

For to put it into words seems almost a blasphemy.

Tweedie is thoroughly anglicised, and what could be more English than her adopted name? But in spirit she's Russian through and through. It's hard to imagine an Englishwoman writing in such an unselfconscious way about her intense feelings, utterly without irony, and in a way that commands the reader's attention. (It's extremely repetitive, but I stuck to it through 800 pages). I thought I caught echoes of writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the clarity of description of quite mundane things, infused with that urgency that Russian writers have.

It helps that Tweedie provides little or no detail. There's no background, no context. This is not about information. We don't even know the guru's real name, or the Sufi order he belongs to, or even which city they're in. The focus is relentless on feeling and the changes taking place in her self. (There are a few more details on Wikipedia, and several YouTube clips.)

I admit to being fascinated with mystical experience, and its alleged availability to anyone who makes the necessary effort. I'm arrested by what mystics say about this sense of truth, as something to be felt and experienced. Not merely glimpsed, as from an LSD trip, and then dimly remembered, but woven into the fabric of one's life, as described by contemporary mystics like Byron Katie and Eckhart Tolle.

And who would not want to achieve a state of absolute bliss and security in this world? Arguably, you don't even have to be religious to try to achieve it. Since it's not on the level of ideas, but rather of emotional conditioning, it's a psychological activity as much as a religious one. So yes, a psychologist could dismiss it in conventional terms, as displaced sexual or parent-child feelings. But so what, if it brings something rather wonderful, something that infuses life with meaning?

The mind fights back, hard. What good can come of this sort of self-inflicted mental castration? Anyway, how can one function without a strong independent ego, without being able to think, reason, compare, analyse? Are those things not the basis of the world we live in, and the technology we depend on? What sense can one make of someone like Byron Katie, for whom everything that occurs is good, including deaths, illnesses, accidents, her diminishing sight, etc. What could this possibly mean?

So on the one hand, I find myself looking critically at the Mind, and its ceaseless striving and activity, even of the kind we do here: judging the relative merits of ideas and empirical facts. On the other, I tell myself that this intellectual activity is essential, if only to convince oneself of the potential nature of the reality that lies beyond. Even so, a growing part of me looks forward to the time when one can just let it all go, and be content just to be.

A rum business, as Bertie Wooster would say. But one well worth investigating.

Comments

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Nice post, Robert! Very interesting!

I would have thought drugs would be a cheaper route to the same experience :)

Thanks for this review. I read the book a number of years ago and never could find anyone to discuss it with me. I related to her experience a lot. One part of my mind was sneering at this experience she had while the other part was being worked on by experiencing what she did. I realized it affected me when I got towards the end and felt physically what she felt. i've never done drugs but this experience made an impression on me that drugs may not have done. Now the book sits on my shelf and every once in a while I glance at it and get a 'refresher' course in what ever this was. My mind is different now.

Thanks, Matt

'drugs would be a cheaper route' - yes indeed, and quicker. But it's a quick hit, and then you're left only with the memory of it. So not the same, by a long way.

This by contrast means you're there all the time. Also you're not intoxicated and incapable.

'I realized it affected me when I got towards the end and felt physically what she felt.'

Interesting, this. I didn't feel anything physically, but reading it definitely left me with a strong impression. Something being 'worked on', as you say.

"The controversies that usually take up my attention look rather small just now."

Robert forgive me if I'm teaching you to suck eggs but if my own experience's anything to go by you sound like you might be drifting towards that part of the psychic 'internet' Juan Matus called the place of silent knowledge.

If it hasn't already happened you may soon get flashes of peculiar states of mind where you'll seem so detached from human concerns someone could rape and murder your wife and kids in front of you and it wouldn't knock a flitter out of you.

When you emerge from it though you'll be shocked at how cosmically lofty and indifferent you'd been but also astonished how blissful such a cold hearted state could feel.

In Buddhism and Sufism this's considered a stage to be worked through until the heart learns to transform cultivated warmth into true warmth.

"I tell myself that this intellectual activity is essential, if only to convince oneself of the potential nature of the reality that lies beyond."

The image used for perfect enlightened consciousness all through the mystical systems's that of the mirror.

You show a mirror a dog turd and it'll unflinchingly reflect the turd the pavement and the steam in their entirety.

You show a mirror the universe and the whole universe'll be reflected without discrimination or judgement.

The 'essential' intellectual activity you refer to's styled the dust which continuously builds up on the mirror.

So long as the mirror's continuously cleaned there's no problem but what tends to happen is the mirror becomes more and more fascinated by its accumulating dusty conceptualizations and less and less concerned with the actuality they're obscuring until soon it can't distinguish between the two.

This I suggest's what happened to Irina Tweedy when she became fixated on Bhai Sahib. She forgot he was only a means to an end (a sort of soap added to the dust with the ultimate intention of rinsing the mirror free of both).

The peculiar thing's supposedly when Bhai Sahib's being horrible to her he's not choosing to act that way or say those things. None of it's even remotely calculated. Everything has to be spontaneous or it's not authentic because supposedly as a perfect dust free mirror he's effectively volunteered for the extremely hazardous task of placing himself under a kind of spell students're allowed to exert over their teachers enabling them to catch an authentic glimpse of themselves as they really are at any given moment.

So when Irina's entranced by Bhai Sahib's beauty it's her own beauty that's really entrancing her. Ditto Bhai Sahib's divinity's HER divinity.

And when Bhai Sahib roundly denounces her he's supposedly reflecting back at Irina her own jealous desire to round on everybody else for not fulfilling what she perceives as HER rights HER needs.

Of course if you can't buy into such ideas then it's all a load of bollocks and he's just a nasty bastard.

Hi Robert
I got the impression that she didn't have it all the time hence the comment. :)

I imagine she experienced a similar spiritual awakening that people who involuntarily lose everything (property, loved ones, etc.) report experiencing - after they work through their anger, depression and illusions.

The process can be quick, but for most folks it takes years.

My anger, depression and illusions are what keep me going - if I lose all those, what's the point? :)

Good point, Paul. Come to think of it, if I were her, I would be sooo embarrassed!
Hell, I don't blame her. I'd go run and hide out in an ashram too. :)

Lol

Robert -- I looked at that book to consider reading it and it seemed like gobbily-gook. I'm glad you were able to weed through it to pull out the essence of the book and then to pass it on to us!!

On the transformations she's going through -- you said it's emotional. Yes the heart is what Gurdjieff calls the "large accumulator" - it is the real source of the spirit -- but it is expressed through the pineal gland.

The pineal gland expression is beyond emotion and I think this is really what the Sufi guru was getting at.

As for the body being injured and yet peace remaining -- these paradoxes are well analyzed in Master Nan, Huai-chin's books that are unfortunately out of print now. But http://meditationexpert.com has the latest tome from Nan and his student Bill Bodri - called "Measuring Meditation" -- 900 plus pages.

Anyway I just sit in full lotus yoga position as much as possible as Yogananda says that "burns karma" -- and practically speaking it most effectively sublimates the life force energy (call it what you want). As Vivekananda stated spirituality it just sublimated sexual energy and as Gurdjieff stated the big problem in the West is the inability to consciously sublimate the sex energy.

But this is all a paradox as the excellent training book "Taoist Yoga: Alchemy and Immortality" states the big problem is called "heart fire" or the emotion of passion -- what the Taoists call "over-excitement. So there must be sublimation but not based on material desire -- and so this requires the mind concentration on the immaterial, abstract realm of consciousness (call it God or the Emptiness, etc.) Logical inference of the I-thought.

So that's why energy masters are so rare. The person I took classes from did a month of full lotus yoga nonstop with no sleep in a cave in China - Chunyi Lin http://springforestqigong.com - -check out the amazing healing testimonials -- and the "randomized controlled" external energy healing confirmed by the Mayo Clinic doctors and University of Minnesota. He trained through Master Zhang at http://qigongmaster.com

Here's some more great mystic meditation books I recommend -- I'm sure you've probably read Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda. Then there's "Opening the Dragon Gate" on Master Wang, Liping. Then "Miracle of Love" on Neem Karoli Baba. Then David Godman's biography of H.W.L. Poonjaji - "Nothing Ever Happened." Then "This House is On Fire" - the biography of Dhyanyogi.

That's a good start -- all amazing reads.

Thanks, Drew - I was planning to read around the subject a bit, so these refs are useful.

Robert,

Like you, I am fascinated by stories of mysticism and of achieving absolute bliss. I don't have the patience to meditate or attempt other disciplines leading to any kind of blissful state or awakening. Actually, I have tried, but always ended up falling asleep. I've never tried any recreational drugs, but I have had nitrous oxide administered in the dentist's office. Most of the time, they don't turn it high enough to go much beyond the threshold of blissfulness, but on a few occasions I've gone well beyond that threshold and wondered if I would be satisfied with such blissfulness for eternity, concluding that in a non-local environment I think I could. At the same time, I still had control of my thoughts. That's the closest I have come to absolute blissfulness, but not knowing what the absolute is, I have no way of knowing how close I came to it. I'm content to believe that celestial ways are beyond our comprehension and it is useless to apply terrestrial thinking in an attempt to understand them.

I enjoy all of your posts.

Thanks Michael. Regarding meditation, with me it goes in cycles - I do it for a few years, then circumstances change, and I drop it for a while. I've noticed when I come back that it seems to have deepened somehow. I'd like to go on doing that, using some of the imaging that Tweedie and others recommend. Like you, not sure how ambitious I am, but someday perhaps I'll push it a bit.

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