Sometimes your life changes and you have no idea what God will send you next. At times like these embrace the state of not-knowing. There are great benefits in it. Become comfortable with the “space between,” even though your ego hates not knowing.
A limen is a threshold or a border between two things. In psychology sub-liminal refers to a sensation too faint to be consciously perceived.
Consider moving out of an apartment you have lived in for years. It is hard to leave your old apartment; you felt you would be there forever. Your new home may be larger and nicer, but it takes time to get used to it.
Change is like birth. Even though you were comfortable in your mother’s womb, God birthed you into the world. Your ego resists change. It often fears change as if it were death, even when change is good.
An example of a simple change is moving from one apartment to the apartment next door. It is harder when you have to leave your old apartment when you haven’t found a new place yet. In a sense you go out into the corridor without any idea where your new home is going to be.
The corridor is an excellent example of the space between. It is temporary and it is not comfortable. You left everything behind and you have no place to settle.
A new home is also a space between. It is only temporary, just as everything in this world is temporary. But you don’t realize that at first. In the corridor you are more in touch with reality. Hz. Isa, as, said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” (King James, 9:58) You think your home is permanent and stable, but there is no permanence or stability in this world.
An eventful pilgrimage. Years ago my sheikh Tosun Efendi and I went together on umrah, the off-season pilgrimage, to Mecca and Medina. Our trip was filled with spiritual lessons.
Tosun Efendi and I had gone to Cairo for a conference on Islamic education. After we have given our talks, my sheikh suggested we make a short pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. In Cairo we changed into the traditional grab of a pilgrim, a simple white cloth wrapped around our waists and another cloth over one shoulder. The lessons began when we arrived at the Jeddah airport in Saudi Arabia.
We got in line to have our passports stamped. There was a problem with the passport of someone in our line and so our line did not move. The official left, possibly to check with his superior, possibly to have dinner. We kept waiting, reminded that patience is one of the great virtues of our spiritual path.
The official finally returned and our line started to move. Almost everyone else from our flight was already gone. When we got close to the front of the line a flight from Africa came in. The African pilgrims had no sense of respect for lines and they piled in front of us. I looked at my sheikh and he looked at me.
Tosun Efendi had been a champion heavy weight wrestler in Turkey when he was younger. I had been practicing and teaching martial arts for over 40 years. We wordlessly agreed not to push our way to the front of the line. We were dressed as pilgrims and we decided to try and behave as pilgrims. We arrived in Mecca at three am, hours after we had planned to get there.
There were some wonderful benefits in arriving so late. The weather was cool instead of almost unbearably hot. There were only a handful of pilgrims circling the Kaaba and performing the rites of the pilgrimage. Our prayers and pilgrimage rites were relaxed and unhurried and I was able to touch the Kaaba for the first time.
After two days in Mecca we left for Medina. When we arrived at our Medina hotel the manager told us there were no rooms available. We had already paid for a room for several days and the hotel seemed deserted, but the manager said “We cannot take your reservation because 500 Egyptians are coming in tomorrow.”
Tosun Efendi reminded the manager that we had reserved a room. The manager replied, “We need every room in the hotel for the Egyptians.” Tosun Efendi pointed out the hotel was currently empty. He argued, “Let us stay until they come.” Finally the manager agreed.
We had a tiny room just large enough for two small beds and a coat rack. There was barely enough space to walk between the beds. We had breakfast sitting cross legged on our beds with a tiny table with fold-down legs between us.
We went to the Prophet’s mosque for prayer five times a day. Every time we returned to the hotel, the manager rushed up exclaiming we had to leave right away because 500 Egyptians were coming. This became a running joke during our trip: “The Egyptians are coming, the Egyptians are coming!”
I thought to myself how strange this was. If you make a reservation you think you are guaranteed a roof over your head. Here I am in the holy city of Medina and I have no guarantee of a place to stay. I have shelter only if God wills it. It was a wonderful teaching.
The weather was warm and I thought if the Egyptians do come we could always sleep in the street. Many poor pilgrims were sleeping in the streets of Medina. I had a just purchased wonderful Bedouin robe that looked like it was made from a rough woolen blanket. I certainly would not freeze to death.
I realized having a roof over my head is God’s will, not mine and it was very freeing. I felt once again the power of being in a liminal space. I was only in Medina for a few days. It was clearly a liminal space, and I might not even have a room while I was there.
Tosun Efendi and I went to the Prophet’s mosque at least an hour before each prayer and we were blessed by being able to pray next to the Prophet’s tomb during each prayer. Tosun Efendi left a day before I did to get back to our conference. When I returned alone to the hotel the manager repeated, “You can’t stay. Five hundred Egyptians are coming today.”
I replied, “They are not here now. I will pack up this evening and bring my carry-on bag with me when I leave tomorrow for morning prayer.” Morning prayer began at 5 am. When I left the next day there were still no Egyptians.
After prayer I went to the airport and waited for a couple of hours for my morning flight to the international airport in Jeddah. After a short flight I waited all day at the Jeddah airport until the evening flight to Cairo. While waiting I completed the Introduction to my first book on Sufism, Love is the Wine. It was a blessing to write the final part of the book while I was still inspired by the holiest places of Islam.
My adventures continued after I arrived in Cairo. One of our dervishes who lived in Cairo promised to pick me up at the airport. I waited but no one came. I had no cell phone. (They didn’t become popular until 10 years later.) And so I kept waiting for my ride. I was still dressed in my caftan and my Bedouin robe, both permeated with the dust of Mecca and Medina.
My only luggage was a new carryon bag I had purchased for the trip to the Cairo conference. After waiting for over an hour I put the bag down beside me and stepped closer to the curb to look for my ride, watching the bag out of the corner of my eye. I finally gave up and decided to try and find a pay phone inside the airport. I turned back, picked up my bag and went back toward the airport.
Suddenly two Egyptian men came up to me. They walked on each side of me and began talking to me in rapid Arabic. I thought they were trying to steer me to a cheap hotel, a nightclub, or something worse. In my very limited Arabic I replied, “la, la” “no, no,” clearly indicating I didn’t want whatever they were suggesting. They became very frustrated and so did I.
The men quickly figured out I knew almost no Arabic and finally they showed me their badges. I had almost gotten arrested by the Egyptian police for stealing my own bag! I’m sure I looked like a Bedouin straight from the desert. The brand new carryon bag did not go with my dusty Saudi clothing.
I showed the policemen my American passport and explained I had just returned from umrah. They were delighted to meet an American Muslim and were all smiles and apologetic. They couldn’t do enough for me. They brought me to a phone and I called my dervish friend. She said that she and her husband had a last minute appointment and could not pick me up, but they had reserved a room for me at an airport hotel. My two new friends brought me to a taxi and told the driver to take me to my hotel.
I arrived at a modern Western hotel, and somewhat unwillingly returned to Western culture. It was a jolting change from my little room in Medina. My wonderful adventures in my prayer-focused space between were now over, at least for a while.
The power of the threshold. In the past wandering dervishes would go door to door, standing at the threshold seeking food or a small gift of money for their travels. Today dervishes try to remain at the threshold between God and creation. In a spiritual sense we seek to remain at the threshold between heaven and earth praying for God’s blessings.
One spiritual teacher observed we are closest to God when we know the least, when we are the most confused. When we think we understand our ideas stand between us and God. In the space between you know how little you know. It is a space where you can let go of your limited concepts of God. The great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart taught, “you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding.” (1)
A scholarly dervish once approached her sheikh with her arms filled with a pile of books. The sheikh looked at her and called out, “Drop it!” The dervish froze for a moment. She was very attached to her books. Her sheikh repeated, louder, “Drop it!”
She opened her arms and dropped her books. Then the sheikh repeated again, “Drop it!” and she understood he meant something far deeper.
How can you let go of all the things that stand between you and reality? It is a challenge. When you consider attachment you generally think of your attachment to money or possessions. But your attachment to your opinions is even greater.
Only God knows. If you were to have a mantram it should be “Only God knows.” You don’t know. Your attachment to your beliefs is really an attachment to the fantasies of your ego.
It also helps to have more times of silence and stillness in your week. Enter regularly into a liminal space of stillness, without talking or listening. The Psalms teach, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) “Be still” means to stop scrambling and striving, to “drop it.” Your mind is so busy all the time.
Western culture invented elevator music. You can’t enjoy a minute or two of silence, even in an elevator, because of your culture’s fear of silence. Let me suggest that fear of silence is really fear of opening yourself to God’s presence.
How can you let go? How can you realize you don’t know anything? Your mind becomes filled with trivia and you think you have attained knowledge.
There are many stories about the life of the great Sufi poet and saint Yunus Emre. Before becoming a dervish Yunus had been a judge. When a legal question was asked of his sheikh, Yunus offered to help out with his legal training and experience. His sheikh told Yunus, “I have a new practice for you my son. Whenever anyone asks you a question tell them ‘I don’t know.’”
This was very difficult for Yunus at first, but he soon grew to love the practice. No matter what he was asked Yunus would answer, “I don’t know.” Even when he was asked his name or what he was doing, he responded, “I don’t know.” He became freed of his pride in his learning and his old position as judge.
One young man entered a dergah and found it difficult to adapt to his new life. His mother was a famous physician and he was used to luxury and to having servants fulfill all his needs. The sheikh gave the boy the job of cleaning the dergah bathrooms.
When his mother heard this she immediately send several servants to take care of her son’s new job. The sheikh sent the servants back with a note, “If your son was suffering from a serious illness, would it help him if I administered his medicine to your servants?”
You are ill and your sheikh is your physician. Your illness is you are hypnotized by your self-centered ego. You don’t see the world as it is and you don’t see yourself as you are. One of the most important jobs of a sheikh is to help you cure yourself of that.
Real learning. Years ago a teacher of Arabic held class in a corner of the bazaar next to the wall of his city. The wall was his blackboard. One day a dervish asked to study Arabic so he could read the Qur’an. The teacher replied, “O dervish, I would be happy to teach you for nothing. Let us begin with the letters of the alphabet. Perhaps we can study half the letters today.”
The teacher drew a vertical line of the wall and explained, “The first letter is alif. It has no sound of its own; it is a placeholder for vowels.”
The dervish bowed to the teacher and left. The teacher thought, “This is going to take a very long time.”
Months later the dervish returned. His face was changed and his eyes were shining. He bowed very low and said, “Master, I have come for my second lesson.” The teacher thought to himself, “This may take a lifetime of work.”
He handed a piece of chalk to the dervish and said, “Please show me what you have learned. Write the letter alif on this wall.”
When the dervish took the chalk and wrote the letter alif, the wall crumbled.
Do you ever immerse yourself deeply enough in your own study? If you learned as that dervish learned it would transform you. But you are in too much of a hurry.
There was a famous teacher of the ney, the Middle Eastern reed flute. A young man came to her and said, “I really want to learn the flute. How long will it take?” The teacher replied, “If you take weekly lessons and practice every day, it will take at least two years to become a ney player.”
The young man asked, “What if I take two lessons a week?”
“It will take three or four years.”
“What if I had three lessons a week?”
The teacher replied, “You may never learn.”
Without patience you will never master anything. You have to take time to digest what you learn. Otherwise it won’t sink in and you will develop mental and spiritual indigestion. You will achieve more by practicing patience and doing less. You will progress further on this path by sitting still than by running.
Less is More. Much of your spiritual work involves becoming less, not learning more. You have to remove false opinions and prejudices and keep reminding yourself you don’t know.
Your goal is to let go and have less, not to have more. You will come closer to God through subtraction not addition, but you are addicted to addition, the sickness of capitalism. You have been taught that you need more—more money, more possessions, more fame. You have learned to love things more than people.
Try subtracting. Have less; give away more. Become less attached to your opinions and judgments.
Meister Eckhart called this “the negative way.” Whatever you think about God, whatever images you have of God, is not the truth. Just drop it. Whatever you imagine is not it; whatever you think you know is not it.
How can you progress to the next stage of your spiritual growth? First you have to let go of where you are. You have to leave the old in order to find something new. You have to let go of where you are comfortable. You have to leave your old apartment before you can move to a new home.
It is like a snake shedding its skin. Snakes keep growing throughout their lifetimes and so they have to keep repeating the process of shedding their old skin. If you keep growing you have to keep letting go.
Find God in pain and darkness. Realize you have to appreciate that God is in the darkness, not just in the light. At the beginning of your spiritual path you enjoyed God’s presence in the light and beauty around you. But God is everywhere. Once you have experienced God in joy and beauty, God asks you to become more spiritually mature and experience God in suffering and darkness as well.
If you only think of God as love and light, your spiritually will remain shallow. When you run from pain and suffering, you are also running away from God.
Most people choose running from pain. Over 20 million Americans teenager and adults are addicted to nicotine, alcohol or other drugs. That is one in ten. It is more than those suffering from heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined.
This does not include 44.5 percent of the Americans population who took some kind of psychotherapeutic prescription medication last year. That includes pain relievers (97.5 million people), tranquilizers (39.3 million people), sedatives (18.6 million) and stimulants (17.2 million).
These addictions are all used to avoid experiencing reality.
When a loved one dies, close relatives are offered tranquilizers so they won’t “suffer” grief. But grieving is a natural healing process. It is right and natural to feel the pain of loss, not to deaden it. The pain of loss is part of healing and avoiding it only stretching out the process.
Embrace whatever God sends to you, even if it is illness, loss, or pain. There are many different kinds of losses in life, including loss of love or loss of a relationship. Everyone endures pain and difficulty, but the Qur’an teaches that God will not send greater trials than your soul can bear.
It is wonderful to experience God’s presence, but what happens when God puts a wall between you and God’s presence. Can you be patient? Can you ask, “What is the message of this barrier between and God?” “What is the message of this illness?”
There are many tests on this path. There are tests of patience, consciousness, and generosity. God has invited you to this path and has allowed you through the door of this spiritual hospital. Pray that God allows you to stay instead of becoming stuck alone in a spiritual corridor.
When another young man began a new job he mentioned to his employer that he wished to be allowed to attend the local mosque for Friday prayer. His employer agreed. The next Friday the young man did not return to work after an hour. The employer went to the local mosque. He peered through the door and saw the young man sitting in the mosque, still praying. The employer said to him, “What is taking so long? Why are you still in the mosque?” The man replied, “The same One who is keeping you out there is keeping me in here.”
We all have to pray that God keeps us here in our Sufi center. That is true for so many things. We can only go where God invites us. Coming here is a blessing.
(1) Meister Eckhart, Christianity Selected Writings. (Trans. Oliver Davies). New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1994, pp. 236–7.