An Interview with Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez
By Roland Cohen
Pir Netanel Mu‘in ad-Din Miles-Yépez is the current head of the Inayati-Maimuni lineage of Sufism. He studied History of Religions at Michigan State University and Contemplative Religion at the Naropa Institute before pursuing traditional studies in both Sufism and Hasidism with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and various other teachers. He has been deeply involved in ecumenical dialogue and is considered a leading thinker in the InterSpiritual movement. He is the co-author of two critically acclaimed commentaries on Hasidic spirituality, A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters (2009) and A Hidden Light: Stories and Teachings of Early HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism (2011), the editor of various works on InterSpirituality, including The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue (2006) and Meditations for InterSpiritual Practice (2012), and the editor of a new series of the works of the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan, annotated and adapted into modern English. He currently teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Naropa University.
Roland Cohen is a senior meditation instructor in Shambhala. He has served as Resident Senior Teacher for the Shambhala Centers in New Zealand, and as Resident Director of Shambhala Training in Boulder, Colorado. Mr. Cohen is currently adjunct faculty at Naropa University and teaches throughout the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. He conducted this interview in preparation for the “Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey” dialogue, which was itself part of the 2014 Awake in the World Conference.
Roland Cohen: What role does work or livelihood play on the spiritual path, other than purely being the means of one’s survival?
Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez: I like to say it like this, ‘We train for the race.’ A runner gets up everyday, goes out on the road—every day, every week, every month—putting in the miles, so that just two or three times a year, on the day of the race or the marathon, they’ll be able to perform at the peak of their ability. In the same way, we do our spiritual practices—daily, weekly, monthly—so that on those occasions when we really need them, they work for us . . . helping us to be less reactive and more compassionate. We do these spiritual practices to transform our lives, so that in our lives—at home, and at work—we might make different choices, better choices that produce better results.
You know, outside of weekends, I see my wife for a little while in the morning while she’s getting ready for work, and for a few hours in the evening before bed. But from eight to five, for the greater part of the week, she’s at work with other people. This is where most of us spend the greater part of our lives today. And because we spend so much time there, it is also where we see many of the ‘cracks in our armor,’ the flaws in our character. We just can’t spend any significant amount of time with people without revealing some of our flaws. But this also means that work is a place where we can make a significant difference in the world. We can see it as a testing-ground for spiritual transformation, a place to apply the teachings we have learned. So, in many ways, work is one of the most important ‘races’ for which we train.
Roland: Many people feel that they are trapped in jobs that are not ‘making a difference’—helping others or benefiting the world—and, in fact, may be doing harm in one way or another. Is there a way to reconcile the need to make a living, even through unsatisfying jobs, with pursuing a spiritual path?
Pir Netanel: I don’t care for the easy rhetoric which claims that everyone can have the job of their dreams, that you can just quit your unsatisfying job and start making coasters with pictures of your dog on them to sell on Etsy and you’ll make a million dollars. If you love making such coasters, by all means, do it. But do it for the love of it. Not to make a million dollars.
We have the power to make a noble effort, but not to guarantee results. If you need to make a change in your work-life or your career, make it. But accept all the consequences when you do so. Because, to have the career you’ll really love might also require a major sacrifice, perhaps a radical scaling-down of your current lifestyle. If you can’t, or find yourself unwilling to accept those requirements or sacrifices, then perhaps you should stay where you are, because it’s likely that you are already getting something that you need or want from it. And for that, one should be grateful.
Obviously, you don’t want to be doing any harm in your work; but people have to make difficult choices too. I’m certainly not going to criticize a single mother who’s struggled to find work for taking a job at a Monsanto chemical plant. I would only hope that once she’s improved her family’s circumstances, she’ll use it as a springboard to do something else, or use her position to help others in some way. But, whatever the circumstances, the spiritual path and one’s practices, are there to help one know what to change, how to change, when to change, or how to improve what cannot be changed easily. They are what we apply to all circumstances, and those circumstances are themselves our teachers.
Roland: In some work environments, people are expected to behave in an aggressive or competitive manner, putting productivity, profit or success before other considerations. How would you counsel someone who feels trapped by such expectations?
Pir Netanel: As we’ve already discussed, if these things run contrary to your values, this may be the wrong job for you. But if circumstances do have you feeling trapped, there are a couple of ways you might approach the problem: one is to make a ‘get-away’ plan that can be pursued slowly, step-by-step, until it is fairly safe for you to make the transition out of the job; the other is to take it as a challenge, finding better ways to be successful in the environment, transforming the values from the inside. But, whether you simply quit or make a slow transition, or attempt a quiet revolution there, the decision will require enormous resolve and commitment to doing whatever it takes. This is what is most critical.
Roland: For many people, work is all-consuming and takes-up most of their time and energy. Often, it seems, there is no time or energy left for meditation or other spiritual practices. What would you recommend for such people?
Pir Netanel: I want to say that sincerity is what counts. Sincere intention or dedication to one’s spiritual path and practice are as important as the practice itself.
When we sit down to meditate, we hope to be able to hold a particular ‘object’ of meditation. But, often, we spend the entire period trying to wrest our attention away from random thoughts, feelings, and sensations. And often, people think of these as ‘bad’ meditation sessions. But they are not at all ‘bad.’ Even if you spend the entire period trying to bring your attention back to the original object, you have done your work. You have, as St. Paul says, “fought the good fight.” (2 Timothy 4:7) You have followed through with sincere intention and dedication to the practice of meditation for that given period. Now, if we think of our entire life as sincerely dedicated to the spiritual path and practice, then no matter how many things get in the way, and no matter how many times we have to return our attention to it, if we do so, we are successfully following a spiritual path.
On the other hand, the busyness of our lives today requires that we “increase the yield” of our spiritual practices, as my teacher used to say. We have to understand the ‘technology’ of the practices better, understand our own contribution to them better, so that they can be more effective for us in a shorter amount of time.
Roland: Does the Sufi tradition have a general definition of what is “right” or an appropriate “livelihood”?
Pir Netanel: Yes, that which is ‘pure’ or ‘permissible’ (halal). As one hadith, or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, puts it, “People! Allah is pure, and only accepts that which is pure!” (Sahih Muslim) From this, Muslims in general, and Sufis in particular, see it as necessary to try to live by means that are in accord with Muslim and Sufi definitions of purity and permissibility. For instance, Muslim jurisprudence tends to frown on earning money from things that are haram, or ‘forbidden’ in Islam, such as alcohol or gambling, etc. So keeping a tavern or selling liquor in general would not be looked upon with favor by most Muslims. Likewise, if a business or profession is deemed harmful to society in general, affecting its morals or honor, then that would be considered an inappropriate livelihood for a Muslim or Sufi. It goes without saying that one is not supposed to derive one’s livelihood or sustenance (rizq) from crime or deceit. (Ibn Majah)
Since Meccan society in the time of the Prophet was primarily a society of merchants, many of the Prophet’s ahadith or ‘traditions’ reflect this reality, saying things like: “Those who hold back grain in order to sell at higher prices are sinners” (Sahih Muslim); “May Allah have mercy on those who are generous when they buy, sell, or ask their due” (Sahih Bukhari); and “An honest and trustworthy merchant will be with the martyrs on the Day of Resurrection.” (Al-Hakim)
Moreover, in Islam, one is not supposed to beg or receive the charity of others if one already has enough, or is able bodied enough to take care of one’s family and their needs. (Ahmad)
Roland: What is a healthy balance between work and formal spiritual practice (meditation, prayer, contemplation, etc.) in one’s everyday life?
Pir Netanel: I’m reluctant to prescribe for people in general. I would rather continue to challenge the notion of a separation between the two. As it says in another hadith (related to the others just mentioned), “Neither merchandise nor selling divert these people from the remembrance of Allah.” (Sahih Bukhari) That is to say, for the true lovers of God, the formal practice of dhikr, or ‘rembrance’ of God, flows into and is not lost during the workday.
On the other hand, the Sufi manuals of adab, or ‘etiquette,’ do make suggestions with regard to balancing work and formal spiritual practice. They say: “Sufis may participate in business to support their families. But this should not keep them from their spiritual work. One should not see this as a means of earning one’s livelihood, but of supporting one’s spiritual work, one’s family, and supporting the faithful. The Sufi should arrange the work to suit spiritual work, or if that is not possible, to adjust one’s life-patterns to accommodate the spiritual work.” (Suhrawardi)
Roland: New technologies have brought a lot of speed and a greater quantity of information into our current workplaces; how can one find and maintain one’s equanimity in the midst of such speed and this overload of information?
Pir Netanel: It’s a difficult question to answer. I am reminded of a time when I witnessed the head of the Aikido lineage in which I trained demonstrating techniques for a group of us. He was in his 70s at the time, and the partners with whom he was training were young men and women moving at high speed. Though they attacked fast, his response was neither frantic nor hurried. In fact, he seemed to be moving slowly, with a gentle ease and elegance. I was amazed, because his movements, though small and unhurried, were profoundly effective.
Later, while talking to my own Aikido teacher outside, I described what I had just seen. He said, “Yes, he calls it ‘zero speed.’ ” Zero speed. That is to say that the master existed in a world of calm, centered efficiency that allowed him to meet the attack without losing his own equanimity. His centeredness allowed for a precision and profoundly effective economy of effort. Thus, there was no need for him to try and match the speed and energy output of the younger attackers.
Witnessing this demonstration, I learned that it is possible to be effective in a fast-moving situation without necessarily taking-on the hurried and frantic mind of one who is usually caught up in the speed and stress of such situations. I’m not always successful at it, but I know it is possible.
Roland: How is the accumulation of wealth generally viewed in the Sufi tradition? Is it ever considered an obstacle to the spiritual life?
Pir Netanel: Early Sufism was very ascetic and would certainly have considered it an obstacle. With Isa al-Masih (Jesus), they would say, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) And though this view still generally prevails, there are also exceptions to the rule.
Muhyiddin ibn al-Arabi, known as the sheikh al-akbar, or the ‘greatest sheikh’ in Sufism, told a story of two great Sufis he once met. While in Tunis, he met a poor fisherman living in seclusion in a marsh with whom he stayed for three days. The fisherman prayed both day and night, though every morning, he went fishing, catching always three fish. One he let go, one he gave to the poor, and one was his meal for the day.
When ibn al-Arabi was ready to depart, the fisherman asked him his destination.
“Egypt,” he replied.
Tears came into the fisherman’s eyes, and he said: “My master, my sheikh is in Egypt! Please give him my respects and ask him what I am to do in the world.”
Though the man seemed to need no guidance, Ibn al-Arabi agreed.
When Ibn al-Arabi reached Egypt, he found the sheikh living in a palace of wealth and luxury. He seemed merely to be a worldly man. But when Ibn al-Arabi told the sheikh the request of his student in Tunis, the sheikh said: “Tell him to take the love of this world out of his heart.”
This seemed an amazing statement coming from a man who lived in a palace. But when Ibn al-Arabi returned to Tunis and told this to the poor fisherman, the man began to sob and said: “For thirty years I have tried to take the love of the world out of my heart; and yet, I am still a worldly man! At the same time, my master lives amid riches, and hasn’t a drop of the world in his heart—neither the love of it, nor the fear of it. That is the difference between him and me!”
Roland: Is money, in itself, viewed as positive, negative or neutral in Sufism?
Pir Netanel: Money itself is neutral in Sufism. The question is, as the story suggests, do we have the love or fear of the world (or money) in our hearts?
Roland: For the layperson, how much is considered to be ‘enough’ in terms of comfort, wealth and security. At what point could it become a hindrance?
Pir Netanel: Too much cushion or buffer against the vicissitudes of life creates an artificial sense of security, and that becomes a hindrance. We can get into a place where we no longer feel alive and vital, and often, are no longer sensitive to those who are most vulnerable to those vicissitudes.
Roland: Is there a necessity for retreat practice (leaving the world) as part of the spiritual path in your tradition? Is there an appropriate balance between ‘retreat’ and ‘involvement in the world’ proposed for lay people?
Pir Netanel: Yes, Sufism has a long tradition of khalwah, ‘seclusion’ or retreat. These are periods of extended practice that anchor one in the tradition, and which cultivate an experience of inner realities. In one sense, any time we take out for “formal spiritual practice,” as you put it earlier, is khalwah. But it is perhaps most often associated with three-day, forty-day, and three-year retreats. The forty-day retreat however, became the ideal of the tradition, so much so that the Arabic and Farsi words for ‘forty,’ arba‘in and chilleh, acquired the connotation of an ‘ordeal,’ a sustained period of intensive spiritual practice. It breaks the rhythm of the worldly and sets the pattern of the spiritual. This is what’s really important.
Roland: What are the benefits of being ‘in the world’ as opposed to ‘leaving the world’ (retreat or monasticism). Is one of these considered superior to the other?
Pir Netanel: The world is where the work is. There’s a famous saying of the Prophet, “There is no monasticism (monkery) in Islam.” Muslims are encouraged to marry and have families, to be good citizens and contribute to the health of society. Because of this, formal monasticism did not develop in Sufism. Nevertheless—especially in the ascetic period—Sufis often put off marriage as long as possible, and many lived an extremely ascetic and solitary lifestyle even in the midst of married life. In later periods, however, Sufis put more emphasis on integration in the world and community, finding God in all places and all people. The ideal became one of service to the world. In retreat practice, Sufis believe that they are actually being made ready for the world.
Roland: Does the Sufi tradition propose gender specific roles regarding work and home?
Pir Netanel: Those are more historical and cultural issues. Even so, there were exceptions, like Rabi‘a al-Adawiyya, one of the greatest of all Sufi mystics, who lived a very unconventional life for a woman of her time. But, even within conventional roles, Sufis were still Sufis, whether men or women. I have seen examples of Sufi women in traditional societies, in rural towns, who sing their own dervish songs while making the bread together, and men who do the same at their work.
In the traditional environment, through most of Sufi history, Sufi men and women were mostly segregated. Women were led by sheikhas, women spiritual leaders, and men by men. But today, this is much less the case in many places. And in universalist Sufism, there are no such restrictions or divisions.
Roland: Is our ‘success’ or ‘failure’ at work connected with one’s spiritual development? Does success as motivation for one’s livelihood conflict with the spiritual path?
Pir Netanel: Everything is grist for the mill. It is impossible to say whether there is a conflict except in individual cases.
Roland: Let’s put it like this then . . . Do Muslims or Sufis believe that one would more likely experience conventional or worldly success if one is more spiritually devoted or more spiritually developed? It seems we tend to be judged by our successes and failures, both by ourselves and by others.
Pir Netanel: I see . . . I’m sure there are Muslims who feel that worldly success is tied to personal piety or religious observance. There are always people who want to make a simple correspondence like this. But most of the exempla from the Islamic tradition that come to mind tend to support a view of ‘ultimate success’ or ‘reward,’ and not necessarily of worldly success. After all, though the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is somewhat successful prior to the revelation of the Qur’an al-Karim, and is victorious over the enemies of Islam at the end of his lifetime, during the majority of his time as prophet—one might say, at the height of his spiritual development—he was almost continually besieged, plotted against, and persecuted.
I’m sure there are actually ayat (‘verses’) in the Qur’an or ahadith (‘traditions’) that seem to support the former view, but my sense is that the Qur’an is mostly attempting to bring about a true reckoning in one’s life, a true accounting of those things that matter most, beyond or beneath the surface successes and immediate rewards of life. The Qur’an is most often taking successful and worldly persons to task for having forgotten or having abused the widow, the orphan, and the poor. It is continually reminding them that death comes to us all, and there are always karmic consequences, i.e., a ‘reckoning’ for our actions. So we need to stop living for immediate rewards and look at the long-term consequences.
The Qur’an supports purity of motivation and truth in action, rather than notions of conventional success or failure. It does not seem to be against such success, but places more importance on the inner dimension of one’s life. I think the most we can say is that spiritual development can help us to live a more fulfilled life, or live more fully in the face of life’s difficulties, which might be a better measure of ‘success.’
Roland: Is there a divide in your tradition between the spiritual and the secular, the sacred and the profane?
Pir Netanel: No. Sufis speak of wahdat al-wujud, the ‘unity of all being.’ As Hazrat Inayat Khan says, “There is one God, the Only Being, nothing else exists.” Sacred and profane are seen pragmatically. That which tends toward the greater unity is sacred, and what leads to greater separation is profane. Though, it must be said, that there are Sufi lineages, like the Chishti lineage, which shuns connections to politics and the powerful. But much of this is really a shunning of influence-seeking. One should not chase after ‘name and fame.’
Roland: Are there considered to be ‘seasons’ in a person’s life when particular activities are more appropriate than others? Are these spelled out in your tradition?
Pir Netanel: Only as defined by the necessities of age and circumstance. There is nothing like the ashramas, or life-stages of Hinduism, where one is supposed to seek the spiritual life in old age. It is incumbent upon one to do so throughout one’s life, in whatever way possible, no matter the life-stage or circumstance.
Roland: We've all heard of the syndrome of being a ‘burned out’ helper or giver—one who is always there for others, perhaps with no time or energy left for themselves and with little or no support. Is there a tendency for people to fall into this category in your tradition? Is there an antidote proposed?
Pir Netanel: The Sufi is by definition a servant. One’s first duty is to take care of one’s family. Burn-out is really an individual matter that hopefully finds some relief through family and communal support. I have not noticed it to be a particular issue in Sufism. Rather, it seems to be endemic to western society. Sufism and its communal structures are meant to be the ‘antidote’ to such situations.
Roland: There are situations which seem to demand that one should act hypocritically, such as sacrificing honesty in order protect a project, one’s leaders, or to gain advantage for oneself or one’s position. How would you advise someone to work with this?
Pir Netanel: Skillfully. Hazrat Inayat Khan makes a point of saying that the Sufi is not unworldly, and Jesus himself says it is a tough world and Christians should be, “Cunning as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:6) What does that mean? Honest and sincere, but skillful in their dealings with others who are not so. It is difficult not to lie. Indeed, one master famously said that it took him fourteen years to stop lying, and it broke nearly every bone in his body to do so. The trick is to learn to tell the truth that you can tell in the moment without sacrificing your integrity.
Roland: Are there standards of behavior, vows or moral codes regarding livelihood in Sufism?
Pir Netanel: The basic ethics of Sufism are drawn from Islam; but Sufis also have specific codes or manuals of behavior. These define adab, or the specific ‘etiquette’ for various situations.
Roland: Does Sufism teach that one should give a portion of their income to charity? If so, what are the virtues of this?
Pir Netanel: That too is defined by Islam for Muslim Sufis. The Muslim Sufi, in general, gives 1/40th (or about 2.5%) of their yearly income to charity. This is called, zakah. It can be higher, depending on the type of property one owns, and on which one needs to pay tax. But it is basically 1/40th. This is how Muslims re-distribute wealth to the poorer segments of society, those whose income is so low that they do not meet the minimum requirements for paying tax themselves. Among the world’s population, Muslims tend to give more to charity than any other group of people. For the Muslim, this is law, one of the pillars of Islam. But for the Sufi, this is seen as a duty, a part of one’s service in the world that also challenges us to reduce our attachment to our own comforts in favor of helping others. Thus, the Chishti lineage of Sufism in India is particularly well-known for its langars, or kitchens which serve the masses.
Roland: Does your community provide support for its members who are in need? Does it help members who are struggling or destitute find employment?
Pir Netanel: My own community is very small, and very young. But that is the ideal we try to uphold, and I hope it will become the foundation of our community.