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"Sufi Talks consists of an enlightening series of sohbets, or conversations about spiritual matters, which are usually given on a weekly basis during Sufi gatherings. The followers of this path, called dervishes, come to immerse themselves in the energy and wisdom that flows from their sheikh's teaching.
Frager challenges us to work on building habits of the heart which involve openness, hospitality, and everyday spirituality. As an old Sufi saying puts it: "A person who can properly serve a glass of tea can do anything." Spiritual discipline covers all our words and deeds.
Frager insists that we take responsibility for our spiritual lives. As he shows through these conversations, Sufism is a path of practice in which our hearts are polished and we are constantly on the lookout for fresh ways of loving one another" --Excerpted from Spirituality & Practice, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
"Frager, an American psychology professor and sheikh of the Halveti-Jerrahi Sufi order, presents in this book a number of discrete but interconnected sohbets, or conversations, on a variety of religious topics, from Ramadan and marriage to the soul and narcissism, with a special focus on living the ego-free life of a disciple. Though readers interested solely in Sufism, Islam's mystical branch, should look elsewhere, as Frager liberally draws from Zen Buddhism, Judaism, mainstream Islam, and his psychology background, the author's knowledge of his order is impressive and instructive to all, and his insights are often striking. Some of the main themes and even specific stories are repeated, but this results in the book feeling more authentically conversational, and makes reading almost meditative, as does several question-and-answer sessions. Frager is a wise teacher concerned with both the practical and spiritual well-being of his students, and his balance of abstract principles and obscure historical fables with personal experiences from his own Sufi group in California keeps the book's traditional form fresh and original. This will surely be a precious resource for devotees and thought-provoking for the uninitiated" --Publishers Weekly
"This book is a gentle gift intended to open the heart and lift the spirit. The lessons contained within these pages are highly sophisticated, but they are presented without pretense or self-aggrandizement."
--Excerpted from Retailing Insight
"Like a river of paradise, Sheikh Ragip Frager's discourses are clear, pure, and delicious to the soul."
--Pir Zia Inayat-Khan
Obstacles on the Path
Why is the Sufi path so difficult and time consuming? According to an old Turkish Sufi saying, "The path of Sufism is like chewing an iron chickpea." (The Turks love roasted chickpeas as a snack, like we do peanuts.) Our jaws become sore, our teeth wear down, and the iron chickpea seems unchanged. This path requires tremendous patience. It is also a path of great joy and inner satisfaction for those who love God. (The choice of Allah or God to refer to our Creator is a matter of some debate among translators and Muslim scholars. I have chosen to use God in part to remind Western readers that we all worship the same Truth. In the Middle East, many Christians and Jews use Allah when they speak Arabic and God when they speak English.)
Consider the hadith qudsi, the divine revelation, in which God said, "I was a hidden treasure and I wished to be known, and so I created Creation." If there were no obstacles between us and God, there would be no process of knowing. Creation is like a great treasure hunt, and God is the hidden treasure. We are invited to play a divine game, and it is an invitation we need to take seriously.
God wants us to come to know divine Truth. The process of seeking and finding God is the essence of the spiritual path. Part of the fundamental nature of Creation is that God is hidden and must be sought. Actually, God is more than hidden; God is beyond our comprehension.
As human beings, we have free will and can use our will to change for the better—or for worse. We can choose to come closer to God, or we can choose to become more separate. We can choose to submit our individual will to God's will, or we can rebel. We can rise higher than the angels, or we can sink lower than the animals.
To succeed in this path, we have to work hard and long. We have to make what George Gurdjieff, a teacher strongly influenced by Sufism, called "super efforts." There is a great difference between running a marathon and driving a car across the finish line. There is not much challenge to driving as opposed to running, nor does driving provide us the benefit of using our will and our own physical energy. Similarly, the challenges of following the Path of Truth are an important part of the path itself—as many have noted, "The journey is the destination."
If we ask others when they feel happiest, most people will conclude they are happiest while working toward important goals. Our greatest happiness is not at the finish line but in the striving itself. The joy is in the doing of it, not in accomplishing it.
It is also true there is nowhere to go. God says in the Holy Qur'an, "We are closer to him [humanity] than his jugular vein." (50:16, Cleary) In other words, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. It may feel as if we are moving closer to God, but God is already fully present within us.
Moses and the Children of Israel
According to my teachers, Moses once asked God to transform the children of Israel. He was tired of the continual battle to free them from the attitudes and values they had learned as slaves. Moses was said to be so fiery and passionate that when he got angry or excited, the hair on his arms would stand on end and go right through his clothing. He would even argue with God.
Moses complained, "God, You can do anything. Why don't You cleanse my people of their self-centered egos? I left them for a few days, and the moment I was away, they worshipped a golden calf. They have no faith, and they are not grateful for all You have done for them."
Moses asked, "God, You can do anything. Please change them."
And God replied, "You see how egotistical your people are with all their faults. Could you imagine how arrogant they would be if I cleansed their faults?"
We are just like the children of Israel. Time and time again, God delivers us from disasters, and yet we almost immediately forget. When the Israelites were in the desert, God sent down manna every day, but the manna did not last overnight; it could not be hoarded. And so the children of Israel worried about their next meal. Some also complained that the food was always the same. And so God no longer sent down manna, and the children of Israel had to find their own food from then on.
Don't we worry and complain in the same ways? Even though God has continually nourished and supported us every day of our lives, we are afraid God will not continue to do that tomorrow. We are not content with what we have. This is a sign of the weakness of our faith.
We are not perfect, and we are not going to become perfect. But we can improve. We have to work with our faults and learn from our mistakes. In the process of seeking God, we have to confront our limitations, and then we learn how much we need God's blessings to succeed at anything.
The children of Israel were the slaves of the pharaoh, just as we are slaves of our own "inner pharaoh"—an inner, oppressive ego that tries to enslave us and run our lives. The first goal of Sufism is to free ourselves from the tyranny of our narcissistic egos. Luckily we have a great ally in this struggle. God has placed within us an inner Moses, our own inner liberator. It is our soul, calling to us to follow the Path of Truth.
The liberation of the Israelites can be understood as a rich metaphor for self-liberation. It was a long-term process. It began with plague after plague, suffering after suffering. In a sense, the children of Israel had to be "birthed" out of Egypt and out of slavery. We all experience similar birth pains as we struggle to loosen the grip our egos have on us.
It took a good amount of courage to flee from Egypt and to walk toward the Red Sea pursued by the pharaoh's army. After the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, each day in the desert brought new tests of faith. The making of the golden calf was an attempt to return to the idol-worshipping culture that had enslaved the Israelites for generations. They were still addicted to the culture of their oppressors.
If we make sincere intentions and act on them, God will aid and assist us. This is what happened to the children of Israel. They had no hope of overcoming the might of the pharaoh's army. They had been slaves for generations and had no idea how to fight. The legions of the pharaoh included archers, chariots, and armored warriors. These highly trained soldiers were pitted against a group of slaves who had probably never even held a weapon in their hands.
As they fled, the children of Israel came up to the Red Sea, a seemingly impassible barrier. God did not immediately part the waters before them. Scholars have pointed out that the waters did not part until the Israelites actually stepped into the water. In fact only when the water came up to the first person's chin did the sea begin to part. What a wonderful example of faith. It is also a reminder of the importance of action. The children of Israel acted without any certainty they would be successful. They followed their prophet.
These are teachings for today, not merely interesting historical stories. God has parted the Red Sea for us in our own lives, and we can discover many examples of divine help if we examine our own lives. We have all experienced miracles in our lives, miracles in which God has removed obstacles for us when we could not possibly have succeeded by ourselves. But we forget very quickly. We are like the pharaoh who changed his mind about freeing the Israelites after each plague was over. That is the work of our egos, our inner pharaoh. We forget. We are ungrateful. We complain, "God, what have You done for me lately?" And we worship what is tangible and material, our own golden calves.
When we hear stories like this, we can go beyond their historical significance and the obvious moral lessons. Haven't we experienced similar stories in our own lives?
Remember, the children of Israel had to spend forty years, or two generations, in the desert. Most of those who emerged from the desert were the grandchildren of the slaves who fled Egypt. The grandchildren were free of any trace of slavery.
How can we free ourselves? It took the Israelites two generations to enter the Promised Land, but we don't have that kind of time. How can we emancipate ourselves from the state of slavery to our egos and self-centeredness? How can we transform our lives and leave that enslaved state?
In their forty-year-long desert retreat, the children of Israel were constantly taught by Moses, one of God's great Messengers. That is what it took to transform a people.
Their goal was to enter Canaan, the land of milk and honey, just as our goal is to attain a state of inner contentment and serenity. Inner calm and peace are essential foundations for our spiritual lives. We have to decide whether to follow our inner Moses or our inner pharaoh. It is not always easy to follow our inner liberator. Our egos play God—as if they were the pharaoh—and constantly work to distort the truth and turn sound advice or spiritual teachings into something useless or unhelpful.
This reminds me of another story about Moses in the desert. This story comes from Rumi's spiritual classic, the six-volume Mathnawi. One day, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, someone asked, "Would you please invite God for dinner?"
Moses replied angrily, "You can't invite God to dinner. God doesn't eat dinner! God is infinite, beyond any need for food. Besides, God has no mouth. God is beyond any human form! God is not like you and me. God is everywhere and everything."
"Are you sure you can't invite God to dinner?"
When Moses returned to Mount Sinai, God asked him about the invitation. Moses replied, "I told them that You don't eat."
God said, "No, Moses. Go back and tell them to prepare a feast tomorrow evening, and I will come."
Can you imagine how Moses must have felt? He had to return and tell his people that he was wrong, that God was coming to dinner after all. And this after his diatribe about how God did not have a mouth, God did not eat or drink, and God should not be thought of as another person. It must have been very hard on him.
Everyone was tremendously excited, and they prepared a wonderful feast the next day. The cooks made their finest dishes. Everybody was involved in the feast preparation.
In the middle of all the commotion, an old man came in from the desert. He asked if he could get something to drink and to eat. Moses said, "God is coming to dinner. Wait until God gets here. Nobody is going to eat before God!" The cooks put him to work fetching water.
Dinnertime came and went, but God did not show up. It got later and later. The food got cold. Of course everyone criticized Moses: "First you said God doesn't eat, then you said God was coming to dinner, and now God hasn't shown up. What kind of a prophet are you, anyhow?" Poor Moses did not know what to say.
The next day, Moses went to Mount Sinai and complained. "O God, I told them You do not eat. Then You said You were coming, but You didn't come."
"I did come. I was thirsty and hungry, but no one gave me anything to drink or to eat. The old man who came in from the desert was one of my servants, and when you feed my servants you feed Me; when you serve my servants, you serve Me."
This is a wonderful lesson. By serving God's creatures we serve God, and that service is worship.
The story also reminds us that whatever image of God we hold is imperfect. Whatever ideas we have of God are limited, inadequate, and distorted by our own limitations. Whatever concepts we have regarding God are more wrong than right.
While the children of Israel were busy getting ready for a special event, they failed to see what was right in front of them. They are mirrors for us. We are not Moses in these stories! We are the confused children of Israel, and we struggle with limited faith and limited understanding.CHAPTER 2
Transforming Our Egos
There are two approaches to dealing with the ego. One is to seek to transform it, and the other is to try to "drop" it. I believe that we have to begin by transforming our egos. Some spiritual seekers can reduce their egos to almost nothing, but that is only possible after years of inner work. Many people try to drop their egos much too soon. Safer Efendi once explained that the ego only falls away at the final stage of spiritual development. He said, "It's very, very hard to take the 'I' out of oneself."
Very few spiritual traditions admit young children into the monastery. Why not? After all, if they did, the children would be surrounded by spiritual teachers and spiritual discipline, instead of being surrounded by worldly people and secular life.
One reason they don't is to give the children a chance to develop their personalities, to mature enough so that they can come to the monastery with a personality—even though that personality has developed in the world. We have to let kids experience the world and mature to a certain extent, because only then could they make an informed choice to pursue a spiritual life. In other words, people are only admitted into religious life after they have developed their egos and their personalities.
Many years ago, my Zen teacher, Kennett Roshi, pointed out, "In Buddhist iconography, there is a statue of Maitreya, the Buddha to come, sitting on a fierce beast. The Buddha is larger than the beast—bigger and stronger. He hasn't killed the beast but he sits on it and he controls it. That beast represents the ego."
This image beautifully illustrates the most effective way to work with the ego. The goal is not to kill the ego or give up our personality. The goal is to control the ego rather than letting it control us.
Now, to control the ego doesn't mean to beat it or starve it. The ego might argue, "I'm being abused." But then, who believes the ego? The goal is to develop ourselves as spiritual beings so that our egos are only a small part of us—and, ideally, are transformed and become a mature part of our psyches.
The term ego strength is popular in psychology today. It refers to self-confidence and the ability to cope with challenges. It is seen as an indicator of success in life. Some psychologists tend to focus on building ego strength in patients with low self-esteem. They believe, "We have to work just on developing our patients' egos if they lack self-confidence." I would argue that the best way is to work on developing our egos in the context of "sitting" on them. We can't simply say, "Let me feed this beast and let it run free, even though I imagine by the time it has grown big and strong I'm going to have a hell of a time taming it." That's not very smart! What we can do is train the beast compassionately, with love and understanding. Sufi masters have compared training the ego to training a dog or a horse, with caring and compassion. Developing our egos without a context of spiritual discipline is just pandering to the ego. It is a foolish mistake.
From a Sufi perspective, service is an important component of the struggle to develop ourselves—service to humanity and service to the world, to all of Creation. One of the essential tools we use in service is our personality structure, including our ego. Letting go of our separate sense of self and attaining a state of unity is the last stage of spiritual development. Paradoxically, we need to use our ego well in order to get to this stage.
In the Sufi tradition, the greatest saints experience union and then return to the world of duality to serve. In order to serve, they must have an intact personality structure. But the difference between them and us is that their personality is firmly under their control. It is a tool that they can use. It is not their master.
Some spiritual seekers do lose their personalities and their sense of self. They become unbalanced or "God intoxicated," often unable to care for themselves. Instead of serving others, people have to serve them. They are stuck at this point, and further growth is impossible. It is a paradox that the ego, which is an obstacle on the spiritual path, is also an essential element on that path.
The great saints have had their own unique and interesting personalities, which were formed around a sense of separate self. The sense of self is essential in human development. We can't develop without it. Without that sense of self, we would probably be feral humans without much intelligence.
Like other people, these saints developed their personalities as they grew up and matured. They learned to relate to others with love and compassion. After they transformed themselves, the saints still retained their old personality structure, which allowed them to understand the problems of people who came to them for help and advice.
But in the saints, the personality ultimately becomes a structure imbued with the Divine. It no longer has the capacity to throw them off, to distort their experience in the way it used to. And yet, that personality structure did grow up from a sense of "I" and an ego. In the course of human development, we develop an ego and a personality structure. And in the course of human spiritual development, we begin to transcend ego and personality and incorporate them within something larger.
Excerpted from Sufi Talks by Robert Frager. Copyright © 2012 Robert Frager. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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