In All Her Darkness

Netanel Miles-Yépez

"Light Shines in the Darkness"  by A.J. Golden (2012-2016)

"Light Shines in the Darkness" by A.J. Golden (2012-2016)

who ever loved the world in all her darkness

or desired that black lamp for her own light

cowards all who give up the chase in the night

or shrink from the struggle with her velvet mantle

 

bed me now in the warm flesh of the earth

in the cave of her sensuous darkness burrowed

to die something flesh sacred material and whole

and emerge into the light to which she gives birth

 

death now to the abstract god of the world-deniers

and their smug apollonian divinity    with all its shadow

dionysians arise and let us explore her molten core

not the faint heavens of these false angels of light

 

* Netanel Miles-Yépez is a poet, artist, and Sufi spiritual teacher residing in Boulder, Colorado.

Foundations of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism: A Manifesto

By Netanel Miles-Yépez & Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

A Call for a New Hasidism

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"Hasidism in Poland has to return if it does not want to die (and it must not die, for “thought that proceeds from sublime Wisdom is not to be destroyed”). It must return to the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples, those bearers of divine compassion. Hasidism needs to be restored to its source. Then it will nourish the spirit and soul of all humanity . . ."

"The holy Hasidic word needs to be carried far, far beyond the boundaries of Poland, even beyond the bounds of the entire Jewish people. The inner power of this word needs to call forth to all humanity, arousing them to true love, true justice, and the true 'kingdom of heaven.'”

— Hillel Zeitlin, Warsaw, Poland, 1916-1917 (translated by Arthur Green)

Hasidism

Hasidism is a movement of the spirit that arises in us as a yearning for God and the sacred, and which expresses itself through acts of loving-kindness and service to the same. Hasidism is the willingness to make ourselves transparent to God’s grace and will, to live in the authentic Presence of God—nokhah p’nai Ha’Shem—as if facing God in every moment, allowing this awareness to change our behavior, to make sacred acts out of potentially profane and purely secular moments.

This movement of the spirit, at the core of the Hasidic tradition, is also a universal impulse, as is the attitude of active-receptivity to the divine which it fosters. Thus, what has been called ‘Hasidism’ over the centuries is only the story of the evolution and manifestation of that universal impulse and attitude among the Jewish people—for whom it has become a communal ethos, wedded to the primary revelation of Judaism, to the Jewish myth and magisterium—with unique characteristics and experiential outcomes.

From this perspective, Hasidism is both the origin and fulfillment of Judaism’s spiritual potential, arising and developing in different periods to meet the unique needs of a specific time and place. Through the millennia, Judaism has witnessed the emergence of numerous Hasidic movements, both large and small, some bearing the name, and others not. Among the former are four significant Hasidic movements which represent the Hasidic ideal as it existed in three different paradigms and historical periods: the classical period of Greco-Roman Palestine; the medieval period of Muslim Egypt and Christian Germany; and the pre-industrial period of Eastern Europe and Russia.

We call these movements, ‘turnings,’ literally, revolutions that demonstrate the adaptation of the Hasidic tradition to a particular time and place.[1] Judaism, as we have already suggested, has seen three such turnings of Hasidism (in four separate movements), each an appropriate expression of the highest and most integrated levels of spirituality available in that period, which is to say, informed by the spirit of the times and influenced by the chthonic element of the place.[2]

The First Turning of Hasidism

In the Mishnah, we are told about the Hasidim ha’Rishonim, the ‘First Hasidism.’ Although this expression is likely a general reference to the ‘pious of times past,’ the examples given of their actions are consistent with what we know of Hasidism in other periods.[3] Moreover, in the classical period of Greco-Roman Palestine, we find references to a Jewish sect known as the asidaioi or essaioi in Greek, which may be the first actual community to be called Hasidim, as these words are generally believed to be Hellenized versions of Hebrew and Aramaic originals (most likely, hasidei or hasya, both meaning, ‘pious’).[4] In the Book of Maccabees, they are called, “stalwarts of Israel, devoted in the cause of the Law.”[5] And in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, it is said that they are “above all, devoted to the service of God” and seek “a freedom which can never be enslaved.”[6] It is generally accepted that these Hasidim (usually called Essenes, based on their Latin name, esseni)[7] are the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the sect whose practices and beliefs are described therein. 

The Second Turning of Hasidism

The Second Turning of Hasidism is best seen in two movements of the medieval period, emerging independently in separate geographic areas and cultural climates which clearly influenced the particular expression of Hasidism in those places. These were the Hasidei Ashkenaz in Christian Germany, and the Hasidei Sefarad in Muslim Egypt.[8] The Hasidei Ashkenaz were led by the famous Kalonymous family of kabbalists (most notably, Rabbi Yehudah He’Hasid, the author of the Sefer Hasidim) who practiced an almost monastic form of Hasidism. The Hasidei Ashkenaz planted seeds in Europe that would spring up in many smaller Hasidic movements in the centuries that followed. Similarly, the Hasidei Sefarad were led by the philosopher-mystics of the Maimuni family (most notably, Rabbi Avraham Maimuni of Fustat, the son of Maimonides and the author of the Kifayat al-Abidin) who forged a community of Hasidic contemplatives whose teachings and practices paralleled those of Muslim Sufis, whom they openly admired.

The Third Turning of Hasidism

The Third Turning of Hasidism flowered in the pre-industrial period of Eastern Europe and Russia under the leadership of Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, called the Ba’al Shem Tov, and his successor, Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, whose lives and teachings set the pattern of Hasidism for centuries to come, even into our own day. Integrating and building on the spiritual work of previous Hasidic movements like the Hasidei Ashkenaz, as well as generations of kabbalistic endeavor, Hasidism exploded with creativity in the 18th-century. Its approach was characterized by a new embrace of the material world as a divine manifestation, by an acceptance and celebration of the potential of the common Jew, by a joyous engagement with life, by prayer and contemplation of extraordinary depth, as well as stories and teachings that turned conventional thinking upside down. Owing to its positive approach and popular appeal, the movement spread like wildfire over Eastern Europe and Russia, making it the most influential of the three Hasidic movements. 

The Fourth Turning of Hasidism

With the emergence of a global consciousness in the 20th-century, perhaps best articulated in the work of the philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and symbolized by the first images of our planet as seen from outer space, the paradigm of every known religion began to shift irrevocably. Before the dawning of this global consciousness, every religious tradition followed a more or less independent trajectory, or could at least maintain the illusion of doing so. But once the ‘shape and sharing of the planet’ was known, all trajectories began to align, causing upheaval in every religious tradition and spiritual lineage. Thus, a global consciousness is both the primary catalyst for, and the defining characteristic of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism.

The following are common elements shared by all the previous turnings of Hasidism in the view of the Fourth Turning:

REPENTANCE

The beginning and end of a Hasid’s spiritual path is t’shuvah, continually ‘turning’ one’s awareness back to the divine source, remembering from whence we come and our common identity in the divine being. T’shuvah is also repentance, a reorientation to a radical humility that serves as the foundation for true righteousness in our world. No matter how righteous one appears or feels oneself to be, there is always room for repentance; for the paradox of true righteousness is the requirement of self-abasement, realizing one’s utter inability to serve God perfectly and humbling oneself in response.[9]

PROPHECY

Nevertheless, the primary goal of Hasidism is a direct connection to God, often characterized as nevu’ah, ‘prophecy,’ or ru’ah ha’kodesh, the ‘spirit of holiness.’ Hasidism believes that the prophetic consciousness is still available (though the Sages declared the prophetic period closed at the time of the closing of the canon).[10] If Hasidism, as we have said, is a genuine ‘openness to the divine will,’ then prophecy is the product of such openness (as seen in the root of the word, navi, ‘open’ or ‘hollow’).[11] This suggests both the method and the means that allow for prophecy, or as we might characterize it today, deep intuition.

PRAYER

The primary means of cultivating one’s ‘openness to the divine will’ is prayer, which is central to Hasidic life. In the Hasidism of the Ba’al Shem Tov, prayer is generally spoken of as avodat HaShem or davvenen, ‘divine service’ or ‘prayer in which one is deeply connected to God.’[12] In the Fourth Turning, we are also inclined to emphasize what we call ‘davvenology,’ the investigation of the inner process of prayer, including all aspects of worship and the Jewish liturgical life. For today, it is not enough to be able to connect in prayer; we must also understand the sacred technology which allows us to make the connection.

PRACTICES

Nevertheless, Hasidism has always embraced a variety of supererogatory methods or hanhagot, ‘spiritual practices’ that are not required in Judaism, but which are taken on by the Hasid to continue the process of making oneself transparent to God’s grace and will, and to facilitate an awareness of living in the authentic Presence of God. Such hanhagot were often given in the form of traditional and intuitive eitzot or ‘prescriptions,’ to remedy particular spiritual maladies and to promote particular spiritual effects.[13]

GUIDANCE

Spiritual prescriptions and guidance in the ways of Hasidism are given by one’s rebbe, a neshamah klalit or ‘general soul’ who is able to locate and connect with the souls of individual Hasidim because they are part of the same ‘soul-cluster,’ allowing for relationships of deep spiritual intimacy. The rebbe gives his or her guidance to the Hasid in the private encounter, yehidut, and in public gatherings, farbrengen. In the past, the person serving others as rebbe was often indistinguishable from the ‘rebbe-function’ they performed. But in the Fourth Turning, it is recognized that the rebbe, though ‘called to service’ and to function as a neshamah klalit through the cultivation of their own spiritual attunement, is nevertheless, not identical with that service and function. For the projection of such a static identity limits the rebbe’s personal freedom, creates unrealistic and unhelpful expectations, and allows the Hasid to yield personal responsibility in a way that is not conducive to spiritual growth.

Because the ability to function as a rebbe is rare, requiring particular spiritual gifts and a significant cultivation of them, Hasidism also recognizes the need for the mashpiyya, the mentor or guide, as well as the haver, the spiritual friend. The former is an individual who has achieved maturity on the spiritual path and is thus able to help others in negotiating many of its paths and pitfalls. Likewise, friends who share the same spiritual values, and with whom one can share the journey, are also critically important.[14]

COMMUNITY

The communal context for spiritual growth in Hasidism is the farbrengen, literally ‘time spent together.’ The Hasidic gathering may take place on Shabbat, other yom tovim, or at any other time of the year. Likewise, it may be led by the rebbe or a mashpiyya, or simply be a gathering of haverim. It is a time for spiritual guidance, cultivating both joy and introspection, during which meditations and Hasidic niggunim are used for tuning consciousness to the right frequency for receiving Torah, and where Hasidic ma’asiot and meshalim, stories and parables, open the heart and imagination to the possibilities of living a more virtuous reality. 

LAW

The norms of Hasidic life and behavior are oriented around a radical engagement with Jewish law, or halakhah. Contrary to some modern misconceptions, Hasidism is not anti-legal and has never been casual about halakhah. On the contrary, Hasidism stresses the most integral, elevated, and meaningful application of every aspect of Jewish law and tradition to Jewish life. This is also the view of the Fourth Turning, which seeks to engage and examine every law and tradition, taking the needs of the time, the place, and the people into consideration, looking at the original function of the law in its original context to see how it may be best applied today to achieve similar ends. 

PROVIDENCE

Finally, the view of Hasidism is providential. In each turning, Hasidism has embraced an idea of providence in keeping with its own experience of divinity, as well as an awareness of the ‘miraculous order’ in creation. The holy Ba’al Shem Tov spoke of hashgahah pratit, a ‘specific personal providence,’ in which all events are seen as happening with a specific or particular purpose, beyond appearances of ‘good’ or ‘evil.’[15] This is in keeping with his pantheistic worldview, wherein there is nothing in existence but divinity; therefore, nothing happens that is not divine or divinely ordained (however we may judge it according to our limited vision). Our own understanding of  ‘organismic pantheism’ is but an extension of this view, merely acknowledging the dynamic and sophisticated organizing principle of ecological systems within the whole of possibility, always serving the Greater Purpose.

In one form or another, these elements have been present in every turning of Hasidism. And yet, each turning always contributes something new—new interpretations, new teachings, new practices and new ideas. The following are some of the new ideas on which the Fourth Turning bases itself:

RENEWAL

More than ever before, Hasidism needs to maintain an awareness of its own evolution (of which the various turnings are evidence) in the context of the greater evolution of spiritual traditions  on the planet. As consciousness evolves over time and the world changes, traditions must reclaim their primary teleological impulse in order to adapt to the needs of the evolving consciousness. This process of unfolding within and adapting without, we call ‘renewal.’[16] Renewal itself is characterized by the struggle to marry the magisterium of a religious tradition, i.e., its inherited body of knowledge and wisdom, to a new reality map or paradigmatic understanding of the universe. On a small scale, renewal is happening continuously; but it is also a process that we witness on a larger scale in certain epochs or axial moments in history, like ours, when religions and religious forms are breaking down and slowly re-organizing and re-forming over time.

An awareness of this process can help to keep our current religions and spiritual traditions healthy. For as we engage and become aware of the process of renewal, we must re-evaluate our traditional spiritual teachings and practices, considering their ‘deep structures,’ analyzing their function in different historical periods to better understand how they might apply, or be adapted for use in our own time.[17] This new understanding and adaptation allows us to utilize the maximum of our historical traditions, without at the same time turning a blind eye to the true needs of the present. 

DEEP ECUMENISM

However, as we explore the deep structures of our own traditions, revealing the basic functionality beneath the specific wrappings, we cannot ignore their similarity to those of every other religious and spiritual tradition on the planet. Providence, as well as our own evolutionary perspective, demands that we acknowledge a similar sacred purpose at work in these deep structures, that we learn how others use them for the fulfillment of the Greater Purpose, and how others can aid us in understanding our own use of them.

While dialogue with other religious traditions undoubtedly took place in our past, it had no legitimizing basis or support in the tradition and could rarely take place openly. Today, it is nevertheless embraced by many Jewish leaders, being seen as a salutary attempt to achieve a measure of understanding between religions, discerning similarities and differences through dialogue and close observation. However, the Hasid must go beyond such surface knowledge, seeking the spirit beneath the external forms and teachings, undertaking the more intrepid exploration of ‘deep ecumenism,’ in which one learns about oneself through participatory engagement with another religion or tradition.[18]

Judaism can no longer afford to see itself as the only valid religious tradition, or even as the most important. For such a view is ultimately self-defeating and destructive to the ecological system of the planet, which prefers diversity and depends on it for its own health. From this ecological perspective, every religion is like a vital organ of the planet; and for the planet’s sake, each must remain healthy, functioning well in concert with the others for the health of the greater body. Thus, Jews must be the best and healthiest Jews they can be, doing their part in the planetary eco-system; but they must also do it in a way that recognizes the contributions of other religions and supports their healthy functioning.

EGALITARIANISM

As we embrace this larger ‘organismic view,’ seeing Judaism as a contributor to the health of the planetary system, we must not, as we have already said, forget to support the health and diversity of the internal Jewish ecological system. Judaism has, for too long, excluded women from full participation in the religious life of the community, denied the basic rights of individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, and erected high walls to protect Judaism from so-called ‘outsiders.’ Although there may have been times in our history when the exclusion of these groups served to preserve a fragile social order or seemed less important amid greater concerns for health and safety, today, their exclusion is untenable and acts like a cancer in the body of Judaism. If Judaism would be healed and give its most healthy functioning back to the planet, it must embrace all of these groups. And in doing so, it will find that much of its new vitality and creativity will come directly from them.

Conclusion

But all of this is just a beginning. It is not definitive, not the final word, nor the only view of the matter. Our words are not ‘the word’ of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism. They are merely the product of a longing to serve God as deeply as our Hasidic ancestors once did, recognizing the needs of our time and attempting to call the future into the present with a name. It is only Hasidism itself—i.e., making ourselves transparent to God’s grace and will, and living in the authentic Presence of God—that can do the rest.

         — N.M-Y. & Z.S-S.

Notes

1. In speaking of ‘turnings,’ we are consciously borrowing language from the Buddhist tradition, which speaks of ‘three turnings of the wheel of dharma,’ describing three phases of how the wisdom of that tradition was presented according to the needs of different eras.

2. Chthonic (from the Greek word, chthon or ‘earth’) referring to how the land itself, or the landscape of a place influences expression in that place.

3. The expression hasidim ha’rishonim may be read both ways. It occurs many times in the Mishnah. One example is found in Berakhot 5:1.

4. Another possibility is the Aramaic word, asyah, ‘healing.’

5. 1 Maccabees 2:42.

6. Philo of Alexandria, Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit, sections XII and XIII.

7. As they are called by Pliny the Elder.

8. Although this group did identify themselves as Hasidim, “Hasidei Sefarad” is simply a name we have applied to them for the purpose of differentiating them from their northern siblings, the Hasidei Ashkenaz.

9. See Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yépez, A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009: 44-54, and 294-95.

10. See Ibid., 180-92.

11. From the tri-literal Hebrew root, Nun-Beit-Beit, which may be interpreted as ‘hollow.’

12. Davvenen may be derived from the Latin word, divinum, meaning, ‘divine work.’

13. See Schachter-Shalomi and Miles-Yépez, A Heart Afire, 306-31.

14. See Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yépez, A Hidden Light: Stories and Teachings of Early HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism, Santa Fe: Gaon Books, 2011: 160.

15. See Schachter-Shalomi and Miles-Yépez, A Heart Afire, 26-44.

16. Another term for what we have sometimes called ‘paradigm shift,’ a phrase originally introduced by the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn.

17. We have borrowed the term, ‘deep structures’ from Noam Chomsky’s discussion of transformational grammar.

18. ‘Deep ecumenism’ is a phrase coined by Father Matthew Fox. Ecumenism, from the Greek, oikoumenikos, ‘from the whole world,’ originally referred to cooperative efforts between different parts of the Christian Church.



Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey

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.

A Turkish Muslim maker of sikkes, the traditional hats of the Mevlevi Sufis.

A Turkish Muslim maker of sikkes, the traditional hats of the Mevlevi Sufis.

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.

Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey Dialogue

Sreedevi Bringi, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Father Alan Hartway, Stephen Hatch, Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez, and Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, hosted by Roland Cohen

The sixth and final event of the 2014 Awake in the World Conference was an interreligious dialogue (hosted by the Shambhala Mountain Center and Naropa University on October 24th, 2014) in which six representatives of different religious paths engaged in dialogue on "Livelihood and the Spiritual Journey."