“On truths path, wise is mad, insane is wise. In love’s way, self and other are the same. Having drunk the wine, my love, of being one with you, I find the way to Mecca and Bodhgaya are the same.”
There was a time once when the Garden of Truth in the inner depths of my mind was a haphazard mess overrun with weeds of shame and guilt deeply rooted in unfertile earth soiled with fear and doubt. Inherited falsities dressed as truths and limiting beliefs meant that the damage was extensive, leaving me frustrated in knowing how to move forward. I couldn’t ask for help from those closest to me because their gardens were in an even worse state than mine and worst still, they were blind to the chaos. I could only see thorns, where they could only see roses. So for two years, I persevered in quiet solitude to bring order to this botanical chaos, with limited success. Admitting defeat, I summoned the help of those who had walked the same path before me. To my delight, I struck gold at my first attempt. My heart rejoiced in finding a community of fellow Truthseekers, complete strangers who happily borrowed me their tools and shared their expertise.
And so within a short space of time, over two decades of damage was gladly reversed with amazing results. With a healthy foundation of fresh fertile soil, seeds of love and wisdom brought back much-needed vitality and beauty. The warmth of the Sun helped to illuminate the dark shadows. As rows of roses bloomed, soft feathered nightingales arrived singing their songs of love summoning winds carrying spores from unfamiliar lands. And thus my love affair with Tibetan Buddhism began. For four years, I enjoyed the fruits of my labour, happily basking in an illuminated mind as spacious as the blue sky, surrounded by the beauty of other loving souls. Occasionally there were storms but I always had the support of my friends to repair the damage caused by stray thoughts and old patterns.
But then eighteen months ago, a storm that had been brewing from the beginning unleashed its full force. This time the old tools didn’t have the expertise required to repair the repercussions of old wounds that had reopened. And so the garden so lovingly cultivated grew wild again, as I let old weeds resurface. But this time, forgotten longings of my heart also resurfaced, desperately wanting to connect with a mind in panic. And so in my weariness, I let my mind accept this olive branch offered by my lonely heart. It longed to connect to other hearts closer to my roots, and to one beating heart in particular, the path of tasawwuf, otherwise known as Sufism.
After a long fruitless search to find a Sufi teacher and community I connected to, I despairingly conceded that it was unlikely that I would find a community which allowed me the freedom of expression to be my authentic self.
But as I let go and let God, I finally found a community that answered my call. As Murshid Inayat Khan once said, “When the cry of the disciple has reached a certain pitch, the teacher comes to answer it.” Making my way to the Swiss Alps last year to attend a summer retreat, I finally found what I was looking for. For the first time in my life, I felt my inner oriental and occidental divide blissfully melt into wholeness.
Moving back to my old meditation centre last autumn, I felt lonely amongst my Buddhist community who I had considered as my spiritual family. Having tasted the rare wine of spiritual diversity of a more Universal path closer to my heritage, my heart was drunk with a joy that could not be repeated elsewhere. And so the seeds of discontent initiated my next rebirth, as I continue to traverse the path of dying a thousand deaths in this lifetime.
But no rebirth is complete without a dark night of the soul. Each transition in my spiritual change has involved a painfully deep inner cleansing of old beliefs which no longer serve me, to allow space for my inner dimensions to expand and grow. Each challenge has served to stretch my capacity to receive new blessings on the way.
“Destruction, annilation or death might seem a very different change; yet there are a thousand deaths we die in life. A great disappointment, the moment our heart breaks, is worse than death. Often our experiences in life are worse than death, yet we go through them. At the time they seem unbearable, we think we cannot stand it, but yet we live. If after dying a thousand deaths we still live, then there is nothing in the world to be afraid of. ” Hazrat Inayat Khan
And so, stuck in the dark corridor between one door closing and a new one opening, my descent into a prolonged dark night of the soul began. Sitting in the darkness, like a butterfly driven into reverse metamorphosis and forced back into her cocoon, I grieved the loss of an illusory firm ground, as I was plagued with more questions than answers. In the words of the Spanish mystic, St John of The Cross, “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”
As the darkness intensified in the last few weeks, I stopped searching for light. Instead, I resigned myself to sitting (impatiently) as my shadow-self grew darker. My higher self, desperate for change, fought tooth and nail with my lower self, who refused to let parts of my old-self dissolve. I was stuck in that in-between phase of Bardo, vacillating between hope and fear. But amidst the confusion, windows of clarity would sometimes open.
I reasoned with myself that the deep longing that precedes the inner journey towards God and my own inner Divine Essence, is infamous for its difficulties, and a necessary spiritual station to visit. It’s from the thick impenetrable walls of separation from the Divine, that scores of music, art and poetry were born out of frustration and anguish. The words of Attar come to mind, as the Hoopoe warns his fellow birds of the hardships involved in making the way to the Kingdom of the Majestic Simorgh,
“Do not imagine that the Way is short; Vast seas and deserts lie before His court. Consider carefully before you start; The journey asks of you a lion’s heart. The road is long, the sea is deep- one flies first buffeted by joy and then by sigh’s; If you desire this quest, give up your soul and make our sovereigns court your only goal. ‘I am a pilgrim of our sovereigns Way’; Renounce your soul for love; He you pursue will sacrifice His innermost soul for you.
Conference of The Birds.
It took years of overhauling my subconscious mind with Tibetan practices of deep meditation, self-compassion, and loving kindness to others, in my attempt to attain bodhicitta, an awakened heart, to fully grasp the beauty of Attar’s words. This is the distinction between the Islam I grew up with and the Sufism I fell in love with. The path of the mystics involves intense bouts of inner purification to open up a sincere heart that is powered by patience and perseverance in the face of setbacks.
And so, step by step, my higher-self claimed victory and contracted itself enough to pass through the narrow gate. But would my Buddhist path continue to lead me past the narrow gate or would I have to leave it behind?
I was left alone to contemplate the difficulties of blending two paths. On the days I succeeded, I felt peaceful and secure, but it was always short-lived. I reflected on the famous story of Maulana Rumi taking his students to a field to watch a farmer digging holes. Searching for water, he had nearly destroyed a field by digging many incomplete holes. Digging only superficially for a few feet, he would abandon the hole when he found no water. And so time and time again, he self-sabotaged an opportunity to access a wellspring of abundance. Instead, he remained stuck, blocked by his frustration and confusion.
Was I like the insane farmer? In the end, I have reasoned that I’m not. As a child, I had a well dug for me, but the water was murky and lacked the vitality of the Divine. And so without even realising it, I had begun to divert sideways from the path dug for me. And in doing so, I dug deeper until I finally hit bedrock, where all the blessings of the Divine had been flowing all along.
And so through all my difficulties I have came to the conclusion that following two spiritual paths has given me a multitude of tools to navigate difficult terrains. In the words of Trungpa Rinpoche, both can be brought together to make something beautiful like a jewel mounted in gold. Which in my case, brought me back to the Throne of God, like Ayat-ul Kursi, my most beloved passage of the Qur’an.
It took a long time from me to bridge the proclamation of faith from ‘La ilaha‘ there is no God, to ‘ illa ‘llah‘, but God. God is not an external being out there, God is within me, closer to me than my jugular vein. Having stopped looking outside of myself, I looked within, like the famous saying, ‘I went looking for God and only found myself, I went looking for myself and found God‘. A non-theistic tradition gave me an unadulterated perspective to crack the outer shell of Islam to access the hidden pearl of the Divine. I have finally understood why primordial purity is hidden behind emptiness. We have to empty ourselves of our preconceptions and walk the path of doubt and confusion and embrace the Al-ghayb, the Unseen Power to discover Al-Fitra, our Divine basic goodness.
And now that my feet are firmly rooted on the path towards the Divine centre, I understand, we’re not so different. We all just want to be happy. We’re all like different caravans that are going in the same direction. May we be happy, may we be healthy, may we be loved (for who we are).