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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.