The Gift of the Formless

As in many Sufi writings, the article below contains ideas that flow from the heart rather than the mind. This essay can be read as a guided meditation; we invite you to allow yourself to be drawn gently on a journey of expanded consciousness.

When we observe ourselves critically, we sometimes discover that our lives are permeated by an unsuspected element of fear — the fear of death. We have tried to take the emotional edge off this fear by calling it an instinct for survival, which is just a more acceptable way to say, “We are scared, and willing to do anything to avoid this feeling.” Our fear of death is uncomfortable, and we do what we can to avoid it, because we are basically creatures of comfort.

We are unsettled by the thought of death partly because we know nothing about what happens after death. We know what death looks like from the side of the living, but once the threshold has been crossed, it becomes the unknown, and most of us do not like the unknown – nothing is more frightening. It is so scary that we spend an enormous amount of energy avoiding even the thought of it, and we have created all kinds of social manners to circle the subject.

Religion has attempted to ease our fear by suggesting a landscape of continuity — of life beyond death. Unfortunately, the average person cannot verify it, and to make things worse it has been embellished to a point of incredibility, becoming more folklore than a useful tool to appease our fears. Yet there are some dedicated intuitive individuals who have crossed the threshold into the holographic, non-linear unknown, and have attempted to offer guidance, to offer maps and directions on how to work on our self-imposed limitations and fear.

One approach to this aspect of our psychological makeup has been to recognize the existence of the subtle layer of fear manipulating all our interactions in life and influencing our decisions. According to this method, by paying attention to our discomfort we can begin to understand who we truly are, what activates our responses when at the edge of uncertainty. We are reminded of the writing at the entrance of the ancient Greek schools of mystery, “Know thy self.” Unfortunately, this is not as simple as it sounds. We might wonder, what did the ancient Greek scholars mean by that statement? Which aspect of the self, of which we have only a superficial knowledge, do we start with, and how do we even begin?

Fortunately, there are some guidelines. A long time ago a group of people, who came to be known as the Sufis, came upon a system that offered a beginner’s map to the road of self-discovery. In Europe, it was called the Royal Road; it offered the means to peel, one at a time, the layers covering our true self. It was a system designed to be progressive, as they knew from experience that anything overly abrupt would discourage the traveler, by revealing fears they were not equipped to handle yet. The system was methodical yet adaptive to the readiness of the traveler. Some were able to move slowly, while others could move by leaps and bounds. The Sufis knew that each experience was a building block in establishing a self-trust that would eventually lead to what they called “the station of certainty.”

These ancient Sufis had observed that most travelers begin in a somewhat self-centered, self-conscious manner. While some are expressive about it, others are introspective. The Sufis had a formula by which the travelers could discover the subtle way they interacted with the world, and how it affected their perception of that world and of themselves. The Sufis understood that the dust of everyday life can cover the mirror of self-reflection, distorting the traveler’s perception. Once the travelers had established a way to maintain the clarity of the mirror (conscience) they would be instructed on a certain way of looking into the mirror, and working with it.

One would think looking into a mirror would be a straightforward proposition, but that is often when imperceptible distortions come into play, creating the opportunity for assumptions to arise. The travelers were instructed to look into the mirror of self-reflection without focusing on any one part of what they observed, even if it seemed obvious. They were shown how to take in the whole picture, by which methods they would be able to catch the essential tendency in which assumptions and presumptions flourished.

Though it seemed an easy and simple task, many took a long time to master the particulars of the practice. This difficulty in time revealed the places where the travelers had blind spots that buffered the concept of self and their fears. Experience with this practice revealed the empowerment that is gained by those who make themselves vulnerable in consciousness. Sometimes the practice disclosed clues to the next practice leading to a landscape of innocence.

Such is the way of the Sufis. However, in the bustle of everyday life today we are challenged to find the balance that will provide harmony between the social need to be involved and the longing of our soul for trust, purity and love. Like most delicate emotions, this needs to be cultivated in a supportive environment. In order to do so, we need first to have an idea of what we are looking for and why. That is, why do we want to free ourselves from this veil that separates us from the reality of life, which also shelters us from harsh emotions and the fear of pain we imagine to be its outcome? Or is the veil just an illusion we have come to rely on?

Have you ever had the experience of looking into the eyes of a newborn, while still in its mothers embrace? Did you give yourself permission to fall into the depth of the trust and innocence that for a moment was open to you? If you did, you know how vulnerable you were at that moment. Vulnerable to your own innocence and in turn to the experience of revealing the most sacred vision of truth from the deep inner recess of your soul.

It is a place that reveals the limitations we have created for ourselves in order to have a persona, an ego, and a buffer we use to interact with the world. Yet it is also a place of unconditional surrender and learning. A place we knew a long time ago in our past. A landscape described in religious visions as mystical, from which we have unknowingly alienated ourselves.

Books have been written about it, poems created, music composed, but none can touch the moment of experience, when tears and laughter overwhelm consciousness and the mind is rendered silent. For no words could possibly begin to describe the ecstasy of having been engulfed in the heart of beingness.

Nevertheless, to live realistically in the world we need to recognize and honor not only our spiritual nature but also our psychological and our physical nature. An aspect of our conflict and fear of death is the dichotomy between the finite and the infinite, or the personal and the universal dimension we experience in ourselves.

Often the spiritual is presented to the detriment of the physical, although they are actually two extremes of a complementary experience. We are conflicted because we feel we can only work with one or the other. We attempt to reason, and convince ourselves of the truth of one side or the other. But a convinced person can be unconvinced, and then convinced again, of a different perspective. And fear plays a role in that process.

On the other hand opening the eyes of innocence brings a freedom of perception, un-conditioned by opinions, or concepts of a “right way”. The innocence of true love is a sacrificial love, a love which is self-sustaining, independent of results, un-conditional. From this comes a transforming experience.

It is with these innocent eyes that we may be able to re-evaluate the function of emptiness as it is revealed by form. Emptiness reveals the beauty of form, by its contrast. We are so accustomed to viewing form in relation to form, that we have become desensitized to the wonder of emptiness and its manifestation as an act of divine creativity. A manifestation of emptiness in time and space, within which is hidden the clue of its essence, released, freed in the dissolution of the form at the time of death.

We must give ourselves permission to look at and explore the emptiness that intimidates us so much. To look without eyes at the space between our thoughts, between our feelings. To realize the vastness between the atoms that form our body. Perhaps then the emptiness we have imagined to be nothingness will take on a fullness within which resides the potential, the spirit of all life, the life of all spirit.

May the radiance of your countenance illuminate those you encounter.


© Copyright 2014 Sufi Order Inayati — Seattle