Kabir Helminski Transcript

Kabir Helminski Interview

Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. I’ve done over 430 of them now and if this is new to you and you’d like to check out previous ones go to bathgap.com and look under the past interviews menu where you’ll see all the previous ones organized in various ways. This show is made possible by the support of appreciative listeners and viewers, so if you appreciate it and feel like supporting it there’s a PayPal button on every page of the site. Also another way to support the show is that about one quarter of the people who watch these videos on YouTube actually subscribe to the channel, the Bath Gap channel, and it helps us if you subscribe. YouTube gives us more support and I don’t know I think it maybe makes the interviews more come up more prominently and people search results and stuff. So if you would like to do so please just click the subscribe button and you’ll also get notified by YouTube via email whenever a new interview is posted if you are subscribed. Okay thanks. So my guest today is Kabir Helminski. Kabir is a Shaykh in the lineage of Rumi and co-director of the Threshold Society Sufism.org. His translations of Rumi and books on spirituality, Living Presence, and The Knowing Heart have been published in at least eight languages. Living presence, which I read cover to cover and we’ll be talking about a lot, is now being published in a commemorative subsequent years Kabir was named as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world by the Royal Strategic Studies Center in Jordan. He’s toured North America as Shaykh with the whirling dervishes of Turkey bringing Sufi culture to more than a hundred thousand people. His latest book is Holistic Islam. So welcome Kabir, it’s good to have you here.

Kabir: Thank you Rick, thanks for inviting me.

Rick: Yeah and as I often say when I do these interviews and it’s very true of you also, I thoroughly enjoyed preparing for this one, reading your book in its entirety, the Living Presence book, and listening to quite a few hours of your talks. And the impression I got in doing both of those things was a lot of heart, a lot of tenderness, softness of heart, which is a quality I very much admire, and a lot of wisdom. And I don’t think those two are utterly disconnected from one another, but the wisdom is expressed in words and the heart is expressed in feeling, very intertwined and came through very nicely in your talks and your book. So I appreciate that.

Kabir: Thank you Rick, thank you so much.

Rick: So these interviews usually consist of two main ingredients. One is the person’s story, you know, how they kind of got to be where they are today. And you know some people dismiss stories, they say, “Oh it’s just the story, it’s about an individual and I’m so much more than that.” But it helps people relate, you know, it helps people can kind of think, “Oh yeah, that’s kind of like me, I went through that and yeah, look how he’s doing, and so maybe there’s hope for me.” And another obviously is the knowledge or the wisdom that the person wishes to impart, the wisdom of a tradition or whatever they have gleaned from their own awakening. So hopefully we’ll cover both of those quite thoroughly today. Let’s start with your story. So you’re about my age I guess, late 60s, probably went through some of the same things I did in the me, I imagine you really got sort of like inspired by the vision of possibilities that you somehow stumbled upon during those times and then took it from there, following you know your intuition and your experience and so on. Is that a fair summary of what happened?

Kabir: Well said, Rick. You know there was an opening that happened for me one very cold night on a lake in New Hampshire underneath magnificent stars and in which the worlds I had known dissolved and another universe opened up and I saw as I expressed it at the time the simple truth that it is, it’s that simple, it is. And I had some good friends who also understood the nature of this is and I think I’ve spent the rest of my life embodying that, finding ways to embody that, that truth that was beyond anything I had known, beyond any human formulations, beyond any religious theology that I knew.

Rick: Was there a bit of chemical assistance in that it is?

Kabir: It was a very pure chemical assistance. We’re talking now about maybe January of 1965, just to put it into perspective.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: This was at least a couple of years before you know the psychedelic revolution so-called that hit mainstream. So I was fortunate enough to have this experience under the guidance of some very wise people and to be you know held and protected that exploration. And shortly thereafter I switched my major in college from literature to Eastern religions and I spent a few years, I studied Sanskrit for two years. For a while my focus was on the Far Eastern traditions and I met Baba Ramdas the week that he came back from India that also brought with it a certain grace I think that came from his Guru. But it’s a long journey, I don’t want to bore anybody, there are a lot of details of course. But it began with this exploration in the Far Eastern traditions and also living in San Francisco in the late 60s and then coming back to New Hampshire in the early could describe as something like a Zen school of hard work and mindfulness. And this was a practice that went on a good full two days a week of pretty hard physical labor and mindfulness and it was like a boot camp of mindfulness. After a while I felt that my heart was in a bit of a straitjacket, there was a quite a development of mindfulness and self-awareness, but I felt that somehow when I looked at the relationships in this group something seemed missing to me. And though I was in a somewhat privileged position in that group, being sort of a one of the sub teachers, one of the right-hand people of the main teacher, I and my wife Camille chose to leave and we didn’t know where we were headed. But before too long we began to experience something of the Sufi world and first with some teachers here in North America, but quite soon it led us to Turkey. And in Turkey in Konya which is the hometown of Jalaluddin Rumi, I met a master there who I recognized as my teacher or I accepted as my teacher and I found my connection with the Medlevi tradition which has been my spiritual home ever since, since approximately 1980. And so you know this is Rumi’s tradition and it’s a very broad comprehensive tradition that involves all kinds of practices from contemplation, meditation, chanting, whirling or what we call turning and also a great intellectual tradition as well. So I’ve been at home on this path and in later years I branched out a little bit, I was invited to be in a project called the Spiritual Paths Foundation and this brought me together with some contemplatives in other traditions with for instance we did a number I don’t know over I think it was eight years we did at least one weekend a year working with other contemplative teachers like Father Thomas Keating.

Rick: I just listened to an audio this morning of you and Thomas Keating, having a talk.

Kabir: Yes, yes, a great, you know one of the great living Catholic mystics and Cynthia Bourgeot another great voice in the Catholic or in the Christian world, she’s not Catholic, and then various Rabbis including Rabbi Rami Shapiro and people from the Ramakrishna tradition and we worked together and in an interspiritual mode and the beauty of this was recognizing our commonality, recognizing that while we had traveled parallel paths in many ways and we experienced many parallel experiences as people for the most part who were journeying outside the traditions of our birth and coming in contact with Asian traditions mostly even including Rabbi Rami who was a Rabbi but also he practiced Zen for ten years. It was an interesting time in terms of you know discovering what was universal in our realization and of course I always was wanted that and yet I didn’t choose to be a universalist and the reason for that is I mean, the reason for that is that every time I found a teacher some of whom were extraordinary beings claiming this kind of universality or claiming to offer a universal spiritual teaching, sooner or later it always seemed to me to become a one-man tradition and so I’ve accepted being part of the Sufi tradition. I think in one advantage of that is if I call people that I’m not calling them to myself exclusively as a teacher. I’m calling them to centuries of a very refined and verified tradition of wisdom and that over the centuries in this tradition which has a universality within its own teachings, within its own framework, it looks towards the infinite, it doesn’t, Sufism and Islam, true Islam for that matter, doesn’t claim a monopoly on truth. So it’s a wide enough framework in which to both be held in the bosom of tradition and under the auspices of the beings who we feel are alive and with us all the time and at the same time opening up to something, to a vision that is inclusive and that can comprehend the truth, the value, the beauty of other traditions.

Rick: Well quite a few things I could ask you based upon what you just said. First thing I want to do is extend my condolences for what happened in Egypt the other day. That was a Sufi mosque in which that massacre occurred and I was reminded of that, well I had it in mind anyway, but what you said about claiming exclusivity of the truth, that was a horrible example of the consequences of that sort of attitude taken to extremes.

Kabir: Yes, absolutely. You know in reality this is what some people have called the war against consciousness and it’s in every religion, it’s in every society, not to you know, stoke up the idea, the metaphor of war, but in this case a high price was paid, people paid with their lives for being part of a community that emphasizes love and tolerance and mutual understanding and inclusiveness and they paid a great price for it.

Rick: Yeah, the mystics have always had a hard time in most traditions at least in the West. I mean Saint John of the Cross was locked in a closet for 14 years or something and you know Meister Eckhart was on the verge of getting really messed up by the Inquisition but he conveniently died in a time of natural causes. And I mean we saw, we go into dozens and dozens examples of people who are actually living what the founder of that religion was talking about and why he came out to talk and yet ironically they are persecuted for actually having that experience that the founder wanted them to have.

Kabir: It sometimes happens that way, yes.

Rick: So help us, I mean you know Sufism is a branch of Islam and you know in many people’s minds Islam has a bad rap these days in the West because of things I don’t even have to elaborate on that have been happening. And so help us distinguish between Sufism and Islam in general because a minute ago you used the phrase pure Islam or I forget if that’s the way you phrased it but obviously

Kabir: Yeah.

Rick: there’s a beauty and a purity to it if it’s properly understood and appreciated and I believe Sufism probably comes closer than any other facet or branch of Islam to recognizing that.

Kabir: Yeah, well let me start talking about Islam first and then I’ll bring Sufism into it. In these days especially since 1979 when the Iranian Revolution happened and the Saudi monarchy reacted against it by increasing its propaganda efforts in exploiting Wahhabi Islam, a toxic Islam has been spread throughout the world that is not classical Islam, it’s not traditional Islam. So without even trying to talk about a pure Islam to even just be realistic and talk about traditional Islam. Traditional Islam began as a radical interfaith movement. It spread right at the beginning, happened so rapidly and so extensively because it took into itself other faith traditions and it did not require, it never allowed forced conversions. That’s absolutely forbidden under Islamic law so if ever it happens it’s a violation of Islamic law. And so Christians especially throughout the Middle East, most Christians were not Byzantine or Roman Christians, most of them were subgroups of Nestorian and sometimes Gnostic and so forth. Those people did very well under Islam. The monasteries throughout Egypt and Syria flourished after the Arab conquest. Now just going on in history you know in Spain and also under the Ottoman Empire, Judaism flourished and was protected and Islam has a way of including people of the book and this is all part of the Islamic framework. The Quran says whether you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish or whatever, if you believe in a final accounting and live righteously you’ll have nothing to fear from God, basic teaching.

Rick: And how does that juxtapose with the statement you know there’s no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet or is that a mistranslation?

Kabir: There is no God but Allah, but Allah is not the Muslim God. Allah is, we could get into a discussion of what Allah means but Allah has, Allah is without gender, Allah is even the mystics recognize Allah in a completely non-dual a kind of understanding and this is justified even in the Quran. So Allah, we could say that Allah is not a God and by the way everything I’m saying now I believe is supported by the Quran and even by a kind of Orthodox interpretation. Allah is not some God outside of existence, Allah is the oneness intelligence and mercy of the whole of existence

Rick: Yeah

Kabir: and it cannot be separated. I think that if we had this conversation, if we had time to have it in depth, we would quickly come to an understanding that the concept of Allah is that it is a unified field of being out of which all of this arises and is never separate, it is ungendered, it is fundamentally beneficent. This is Allah and there have been a hundred forty-four thousand prophets that have come of which Muhammad was simply the last putting a seal, you might say the seal of authenticity on all those other many thousands of prophets and to every community a prophet has been sent giving essentially the same truth, even if that truth is later distorted by human beings.

Rick: Which always happens.

Kabir: which always happens, so, if you look at the and really everything I’m saying is Quranic and pretty hard to dispute. So, this is the framework of Islam. So, traditional Islam was pretty good. I mean no human society and certainly no empire is perfect, but there was a more tolerance and even in many cases respect given to the other sacred traditions under Islamic law. So, this is Islam. Now, within Islam, you know most people are born into whatever they’re born, they don’t question what they’re born into, they don’t question their religion, their ethnicity, their I would say nationality, but nations are relatively recent phenomenon. Most people don’t question that, they just are what they are. Sufism is the esoteric dimension of Islam. It is not Sunni or Shia, in other words, it doesn’t have anything to do with the doctrinal divisions. There are Shia Sufis, there are Sunni Sufis and most Sufis wouldn’t pay much attention to these distinctions. Anyway, so Sufism is that intentional practice of consciousness, of higher consciousness, of self-awareness, of self-knowledge, of increasing our capacities for love, of awakening our subtle perceptive faculties under the guidance of a tradition and a teacher, a master. Technically, I mean properly speaking, I don’t mean to sound dogmatic about this, but practically speaking, we’re no freelance Sufis because we view this as having the humility to accept a teacher, at least at a certain stage of one’s development, is part of the process of coming to be free of our egoism and our false self. So it usually involves a master-apprentice kind of relationship and also a relationship with the community because it’s a very relational spirituality, almost more than any other spirituality. Historically, Sufis have the whole setup is based in community and a respectful, loving relationship with brothers and sisters, with elders who are a little further along on the path. So the reality of oneness comes through this manyness, the reality of understanding our unity and comes from the work of acceptance and humility and mutual respect and service. So Sufism is almost never a tutorial nor a practice for hermits. It usually involves even the Shaykhs are typically married and have families and have the profession. So Sufism is not the profession of a Shaykh. Shaykhs almost always have their own trade, their own livelihood. So basically it’s the esoteric dimension of Islam.

Rick: Okay, good. Sounds like it would be fair to summarize by saying that Sufism has an experiential orientation, a developmental orientation, whereas you know the more conventional forms of Islam or any religion are more about what you believe and you know what doctrines you adhere to and so on. You may go on your whole life believing in things in great detail but not having any of the experience to which those things refer. So Sufis are all about having the experience.

Kabir: Absolutely.

Rick: Yeah,

Kabir: Exactly.

Rick: And just while we’re on the history of it, you mentioned 144,000 prophets and Raymond Schuman from Olympia Washington submitted a question asking about whether it’s the spiritual descendant of, whether Sufism is a spiritual descendant of Zoroastrianism and when you said 144,000 I thought wow how far back does that go. So maybe you could answer both those questions.

Kabir: Yes, yes. I wouldn’t say that Sufism is descended from Zoroastrianism although we can recognize that Zoroastrianism had so much to contribute to the concepts of theistic tradition. But the way we understand it is that the Prophet Muhammad was something like a tabula rasa. He was an empty slate when his prophethood began. He was not, that part of the world, Arabia at that time was more or less without a deep spirituality of any sort and so Muhammad was not influenced very much by Christianity or Judaism or any Arab religiosity. He began, you might say, as an empty slate.

Rick: As I recall the story, he got pretty heavily zapped by some angelic beings or something and then had this huge metamorphosis.

Kabir: Over 23 years he began to have experiences of revelation, of some vast intelligence, something, a voice from outside of the human personality speaking to Muhammad and guiding him, sometimes even criticizing him. So, and that is the Quran. That was all recorded. It was an inimitably beautiful language and the final result is a profoundly coherent text. Although I’ll admit that many Westerners approaching the text at first, especially while projecting their expectations on it and even their perhaps their allergies against the religious conditioning of their backgrounds, people get into a muddle reading it. But a great scholar, a great Western scholar, Norman O’Brown said that the West wasn’t really able to read the Quran until James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake. And the reason he said that was he said the Quran like Finnegan’s Wake is a language event. It’s not a narrative, it’s not a rule book, it’s not systematic, but it is a language event that comes into human language and in a way blows it apart and yet conveys something in that totally cosmic and yet coherent series of revelations. And so it’s an unusual book. But it has been a book that has, and all the mystics of Sufism are deeply tied to the Quran and found within it a language for their deepest non-dual realization. So I want to underline that fact. It’s quite extraordinary in that way.

Rick: Okay, I have to ask just because people afterwards might pose this question and I want to have you address it, and that is what do you make of people like Sam Harris who cherry-pick a lot of verses out of the Quran and make it seem rather brutal. Do you have an answer to that kind of critique?

Kabir: I do. I have an answer, a thorough answer. I wrote a chapter in a book about that and all of the verses of the Quran that involve fighting have a context. And sometimes, first of all, the context was that the early Muslim community was under assault and for a while it suffered, they suffered as pacifists and at a certain point they were given permission in the revelation to respond with fight. And the Quran says while fighting is bad, if it weren’t for those willing to take up arms, churches, synagogues and mosques would be wiped from the face of the earth. So it was defensive and there are many verses in the Quran that say things like, you know, you hear something quite scary like chase the unbelievers, they’re called, chase them and slay them where you find them. So Sam Harris, who I don’t consider really an intellectually honest person, if I may say so, I’d be happy to debate him anytime.

Rick: Me too, on other points.

Kabir: On many points, but then, then you find it says thereafter, but if they stop attacking you, then desist.

Rick: Right.

Kabir: So I’ve looked at this, believe me, if I felt that the Quran had a triumphalistic aggressive message, I would leave Islam, I would have nothing to do with it. I’ve looked at it very thoroughly and I’m convinced that you don’t have to look very deeply or far to find out that these verses that have to do with fighting are very limited in their context and that Islam is not out to conquer the world and impose itself on the world.

Rick: Okay, good. Another question I want to ask you before we get too far, you mentioned community and the value and tradition and the value of having a teacher. Many people will have read Irina Tweedie’s book, Daughter of Fire, which I unfortunately have not read yet. She was Llewellyn Vaughan Lee’s teacher and as I understand it, her teacher was a real taskmaster. I mean he said things about, you know, you have to become like dust under the master’s foot and you know, he really broke her down and it bore fruit obviously. And there are people I think who try to pose as gurus and behave that way who are not qualified to do so. I’m sure that Irina Tweedie’s teacher was qualified to do so, but that’s a little bit of an aside, but is there any sort of particular teaching strategy in the tradition which is perhaps typified by her teacher or does it really depend on the personality of the teacher and the student and it can be anywhere from, you know, very gentle and sweet and easygoing to, you know, really difficult depending on what the person needs.

Kabir: I think Irina Tweedie’s situation is rather unique. I would say that from my own experience there are occasions when an authentic teacher may confront the false self with itself, but abusiveness is not a part of Sufism. Abusiveness and even authoritarianism is not part of Sufism. We would rather rely on the example of the Prophet Muhammad in all matters related to character and it’s said that Muhammad never even embarrassed a person. He was that respectful and there’s an extraordinary teaching of, it’ s called adab, it’s spiritual courtesy. This is at the heart of Sufism and I’ve never experienced such a refinement of spiritual courtesy anywhere in the world as I have among Sufi teachers and they can be strong, they can be, you know, they can be sometimes anything. What can I say? In a way there are no rules, but if it’s coming from love and if it’s not imposing on another human being’s will, it can be transformational. But we have no right to impose ourselves on another person’s will, number one, and in general abusiveness is not transformational and it’s not part of Sufi teaching.

Rick: Okay, I remember hearing a story one time that Muhammad once cut the sleeve off of his coat because a cat was sleeping on it and he didn’t want to disturb the cat. I love that story because I love cats.

Kabir: It’s a famous cat story. There’s an incredible and extensive teaching on animal rights that goes back to Muhammad and there’s a whole significantly sized book on animal rights in Islam. So this was unprecedented.

Rick: That’s great.

Kabir: yeah.

Rick: So Islam, unlike Hinduism and even Christianity, Islam didn’t have animal sacrifices and that sort of thing?

Kabir: No, I mean it may sound that way because for instance at certain times of the year and on the pilgrimage and sometimes before a retreat you sacrifice a sheep.

Rick: And then everybody eats it.

Kabir: You eat it and you give it to the poor. But even the procedure for sacrificing a sheep, there are certain rules. I suppose it’s similar to kosher rules but I know what the Islamic rules are. First of all you need a very, very sharp knife. You cannot kill the animal in the sight of any other animals and you say the name of God and you do it with compassion.

Rick: Yeah, which is how Native Americans sometimes reverentially treated animals they had to kill for their sustenance.

Kabir: Muhammad even said for instance, I’ll just give you a simple example. You’ve been traveling you know across the desert with your camels and you finally arrive at your destination and it’s time for sunset prayer and you’re supposed to take the times of prayer quite seriously, but you’re not allowed to pray even though it’s a time of prayer until you’ve unburdened your animals.

Rick: Right, nice. Okay, I’m going to shift gears here rather abruptly and read a series of questions that you put in an article that I read called Sacred Space and Conscious Community. I thought they were all great questions. I’m just going to read them and then have you riff on the answers. So here’s what you said, “If we have realized the non-dual nature of reality, if we have begun to perceive the interdependent nature of the self, the non-local reality of mind, what do we do now? How is this going to be embodied? What is the moral imperative if all is One?” Capital O. “Is this a purposeful universe and what is the purpose? Are states of compassion, aspiration, unconditional love, and ecstatic joy mere epiphenomena of our own electrochemical organisms or emergent properties within the field?” So I love that, I wrote the whole thing down, I’d like to hear you respond to it.

Kabir: Well, you know, the totality of my life is an attempt to respond to that.

Rick: Right.

Kabir: And I’m just like I’m barely figuring these things out and not necessarily having accomplished very much. I’ve been asking myself questions lately about how can we in community truly, and by community I mean not a commune, not a community where we live together, but a community such as we have here in Louisville, how do we become more of a community? How do we support each other? How do we create perhaps the, you know, economic structures that would benefit us all on a very practical level and allow us to live a more, you know, a life with more integrity and sanity? So, you know, this is, what can we do to increase our capacities for love and what can we do to reduce whatever is in our hearts that keeps us separate in a false way from each other? This is an unending question. What can we do to solve our problems with love when problems arise rather than anger or withdrawing? So, this I think I could sum it up by saying a phrase I saw recently on a t-shirt, “Think cosmic, act human.” This is about becoming a full human being, that’s how I see spirituality. It’s much more than realizing that those highly energized states of consciousness which we may realize in Samadhi or some form of enlightenment, but having realized those things, having experienced those things to one extent or another, how do we now embody that as human beings? How do we integrate this spirituality? So, I think Sufism is good in this respect, it’s a very integrated spirituality. And what I’m saying is that we have 14 centuries of integration to draw upon. There’s still a lot of things to figure out in this world at this time in considering all the ways that our humanness is under assault, considering that we now face an inflection point I think where as Catherine Austin Fitts says, we’re faced with a choice between a human or a non- human civilization. How can we as spiritual people preserve our humanness and develop our humanness? Because I see humanness as something that’s infinitely developable.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: It’s not what we’re born with but it is a potential because we are the hologram of the whole and yet we haven’t realized that as we could. So, our realization of it will be in our humanness and sometimes I’ve said that what I really appreciated about the human beings that have been our mentors is that they were the kind of people you would like to sit down and have a cup of tea with. That the enlightenment that I experienced from these people in Rumi’s tradition for instance and other Sufi lineages was not some kind of abstract enlightenment. It was a very personal personhood or human character is part of that enlightenment, so not separate from it. And yet human character is an ongoing, that’s a work in progress, we’re souls in progress.

Rick: Yeah, this whole thing that you’ve just been saying is something that’s been I’d say growing in the awareness of the so-called non-dual community, the kind of people who speak at the SAND conference and attend it over the last 5-10 years. It’s shifted from you’re not a person and hanging out in the transcendence and the world is an illusion and that kind of thing to “Hey, wait a minute, you are a person and you’re living a life and you have to be more fully embodied and actually live this non-dual realization. It’s not something to just marinate in but it’s something that has to be sort of integrated and translated into the practicalities of daily life. And just one more point I’ll make and let you respond. I gave a talk at this recent conference where I met you on the ethics of enlightenment and one point I made was a teacher might be sitting up there claiming to have all sorts of wonderful subjective experiences and radiating a lot of Shakti and you know spiritual energy and so on, but if you look closely at how he or she is behaving, would you really like to be like that person? I mean is that something that you could emulate and grow hopefully and you would like to grow into and if not maybe you should leave. Anyway, that’s my point.

Kabir: I think it’s good to apply criteria. I have applied an even more basic criteria. Once somebody was showing me, was attempting to impress me with a video of their latest guru and the guru’s devotees and I watched the video and afterwards they said, “What do you think?” and I said, “Well, very interesting, but which of these people would you trust as a babysitter?”

Rick: Good point. Yeah.

Kabir: So, the Sand community which I very much appreciate, wonderful group of people and they have been on their own trajectory in over 10 years and as you said, moving from that undifferentiated oneness into appreciation of the heart and what they’re calling embodiedness and as you know I wrote a book called The Knowing Heart to try to explore and express the cognitive dimension of the heart because in our understanding the heart is our greatest you know faculty for knowing much more than the brain. I don’t mean the physical heart, I mean a quality within the human being that can experience relationship, that can sense the universe qualitatively, that can sense value, that’s all from the heart, it’s not from intellect, it’s not from the senses. And I see spirituality, I would like to see spirituality as the awakening, purification and maturing of the heart which is the most essential part of the human being. That’s a tall order.

Rick: Yeah, well one question I have about that is that you know on the one hand spiritual development does tend to refine and sensitize and make more subtle you know one’s heart, one’s faculties of all kinds and on the other hand the world has a coarsening influence, it’s you know things are impacting us all the time and you know you see people going to extremes of coarseness and just really becoming very hardened and you know spiritual aspirants don’t want to be like that, they want to be very you know sensitive and feeling and you often hear people teaching this way to just feel everything and let it in, but there’s this kind of conundrum between you know being sensitive and being able to deal with the world and how do you culture the capacity to have both simultaneously?

Kabir: Yes, yes. The purpose, I mean we are refining ourselves and we want to be more refined and sensitive human beings. At the same time that refinement is not opposed to developing qualities like courage, perseverance, stability, you know inner strength. So maybe our purpose is to develop a whole spectrum of qualities and when it comes to the coarseness of the world we, who are spiritual, I don’t mean that as a claim,

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: You know what I mean, we who aspire to more consciousness have a transformative role in the coarseness of this world and that transformation can happen when we are awake to being, when we are being true to that spiritual being, which is the heart and consciousness and then any person who can sustain that state truly and with integrity and sincerity enters into the coarseness of the world and can have a transformative effect. I saw something just this last weekend and I can’t really go into the details of it, but this last weekend I was with a group of Sufis and we were with one of the leading neo-Nazis in America who came to a Sufi circle. He came to a Sufi circle because his son had joined this community after the community had helped the son, after they got him out of jail, they got him out of jail and in this community the son began to flourish and there had been a big separation between the father and the son and just this weekend the father had come to be with the son, the father and mother had come to be with the son and had to sit for three days in this Sufi community and listen to what everything and and be part of everything we were doing. And the son had on a t-shirt that said Love loves love and the father was someone who had actually gone to jail for I believe for his role in not murdering somebody directly but being an accessory and anyway the mother was weeping through the course of the weekend. Her heart was opening. The father was letting down his defenses and it appears that his state had changed and this is an example of when the spiritual energy is near it feels good and people who hate are in great pain and they’re not feeling very good and the things they do that they think might make them feel better like violence etc and it doesn’t help the soul, it doesn’t help the heart. So bring a person like that into an environment where they’re surrounded by nothing but love and acceptance and extraordinary things happen.

Rick: That’s a beautiful story. I heard a story recently about a black man whose mission is to befriend Ku Klux Klan members to the point where they will give him their robes and he’s collected a lot of robes now. He goes to places where they hang out, sits down, starts talking to them and just one thing leads to the next and he gets them to the point where they say I’ve had enough of this, here’s my robe.

Kabir: Well that’s it.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: What a beautiful work.

Rick: Yeah, I also heard you tell a story about how in these Sufi gatherings that go on for long periods of time, I forget what you call them, that there was a thing where people would bring invalids and mentally ill people and so on to just sort of sit them there because it was a way of kind of babysitting them, but once they had sat there for a certain period of time after a while they say, hey can I go help in the kitchen or can I do this or do that and it actually healed them just being in that atmosphere.

Kabir: That was an ongoing whirling ceremony or a whirling retreat that went on in that case for 40 days, constant whirling, not the same people.

Rick: Yeah, taking shifts.

Kabir: Taking shifts. We read about this in Rumi’s time and we didn’t, I never believed it until some friends in Turkey said let’s do it and first they tried it for seven days and that seemed like a monumental feat. I’ll admit that at first I thought it’s going to be a psychotic breakdown or you shouldn’t do this, this is too much, but they went ahead and did it and the results were just as you described. Instead of people getting imbalanced or getting pushed over the edge, people were bringing catatonic people and people with you know emotional imbalances and just leaving them there and just being in that energy of constant whirling and I’m not going to say it’s merely the physical act of whirling, it’s the state of mind and devotion that accompanies it, it’s an act of love and it’s the worship of the One. And in that atmosphere these emotional imbalances were healed in extraordinary ways.

Rick: That’s great. I want to ask you about whirling in a minute but first a question came in from a gentleman in Tehran, Sahand, and this harkens back to what we were talking about earlier with the history of Sufism and Islam but maybe you can answer his question. He said “Do you believe that Sufism wouldn’t exist today if Islam had not emerged?.”

Kabir: Yes, I believe so and I’ll tell you why. Even though I recognize that there is a pre-Islamic tradition in Iran, in Khorasan, that I’m well acquainted with that worked in communities and was profoundly mystical but I would say that the attributes of Sufism that we most appreciate today are developed and come out of the example of the Prophet Muhammad’s character and behavior, the groundedness that he demonstrated it that became part of this mystical tradition, and also a very coherent metaphysical framework that makes it clear that we have a profound need for the divine. And the divine, you know, let’s not underestimate what we mean by that word but let’s say it’s the realm of value and unity that is inherent in existence and we above all, need to remember that, serve that, trust that and this is the essential message of the Quran as we understand it and it was also the essential message that Muhammad embodied and always expressed. So, there have been mystics throughout all time with great respect, we honor them but with the Prophet Muhammad I believe something new began in terms of an integration of that mystical state so that it became the attainment of people who have a useful livelihood, who are engaged in marriage and family life and that the highest spiritual attainments are no longer exclusive to people leading lives of solitude and ascetic practice but became possible through the power of love combined with that purification of the mind.

Rick: Okay, so whirling, everyone has heard of the whirling dervishes and I heard you explain it in a rather interesting way and when you explained it you said the left foot never leaves the ground and I thought how in the world did they do that? You have to have your left foot on a Lazy Susan or something so you can spin around but then I tried it today after lunch and I thought, okay you just take your weight off the foot a little bit and then you can kind of move around but there’s a whole beautiful esoteric significance to every aspect of it and it sounds to me like it’s a profound spiritual practice. So, I’m sure people would like to hear more about it, how it works.

Kabir: Yes, yes. So, first of all the intention of turning, what is called whirling, we call it turning, the intention is to become closer to the divine and it is an act of worship and contemplation, meditation at the same time and as a method it’s powerful and effective because as we know we can sit down in meditation and we can delude ourselves, we can appear to be meditating and yet the mind may wander. When you’re turning you have an almost instant feedback mechanism because if you’re not empty inside, if you don’t keep that interior space open and free of inner dialogues, free of daydreaming, you’ll lose the balance in the turning. So, we have that, it acts as a mirror of our state. When we turn, there are many, many different dimensions that have to be held in a single field of awareness. So, okay, we start with the left leg which as you discovered the weight is on the sort of ball of the foot, the front of the foot, the heel does slide around but it’s as if your pivot point is on the ball of your foot and that symbolizes our being rooted in the eternal. The right foot is stepping 360 degrees and each time the person turning is saying Allah, Allah, Allah. So, the right foot is in time, the right foot is in the world of change and transience, the left foot is an axis on which we turn and it is the axis of of eternity and then the arms are extended and the right arm is up with the palm facing upward, receiving you can say the divine energies, the heavenly grace and that energy is coming through the right arm passing through the heart, moving to the left arm which is palm down bestowing that energy into the world.

Rick: I presume you would say that this is not just symbolic but this is what’s actually happening, right? On some subtle level.

Kabir: Yes, on some subtle level. So, it’s an act of service, it’s not an attempt to get oneself incredibly high and you know corkscrew out of the world, it is really an act of service to bring those finer spiritual energies and bring them into our world and our environment so that even the people who are witnessing this ceremony as well as those participating in it will feel you might say the micro voltage of that pure vibration and be affected by it and have their souls a little more awakened.

Rick: How long do you go for?

Kabir: Well, in the ceremony itself, the ceremony has about 40 minutes of whirling but it’s broken up into periods of approximately

Rick: So that you don’t get tired.

Kabir: It’s not particularly so that we don’t get tired, it is because some people really could go for a very long, could go much longer but no, the pause actually has a more profound meaning than that. The pause that happens between the four movements of turning is in order to bring oneself back to recollection and affirm, this is the language we use, to affirm one’s servanthood to the One rather than to go and just dissolve in the One, to keep coming back and affirming that servanthood while still standing arms over the shoulders like the letter Alif which is the number one, first letter of the alphabet and the number one, it’s just saying one, one, one and there are four periods of turning. Each one, the first three are an ascension toward ecstasy, towards intimacy with the divine, towards unity with the divine.

Rick: Let me just interrupt to ask is that the type of subjective experience one actually has is while doing it, ecstasy, ascension, unity with the divine, do most people experience that kind of thing?

Kabir: It is experienced of course, everybody has their own degrees of it, degrees and capacities for it. I’m not saying that everyone or even the majority of turners will experience you know the absolute oneness in the third period but that’s the structure of the ceremony and it has its experiential truth.

Rick: Okay.

Kabir: So what’s interesting, so there are three stages of ascension and the third they’re called salams, four salams. In the third one it’s the most ecstatic, the music and the rhythm, kind of really carries you, it’s very blissful and beautiful and and energized and that’s when the you might say the limited self dissolves in the divine but then the fourth salam comes after that and it’s slower, it’s more majestic, it’s more sober in a way. In the fourth salam it’s as if that the turner is being given his or her self back, it’s as if the self is dissolved and now you’re coming back to your selfness. It’s as if you know you’re being told okay try it on one more time see what you do with it now, a purified self, a new stage of the self. That’s the sort of archetypal journey that’s embodied in the whirling ceremony and that fourth salam goes on, it’s actually quite beautiful and dramatic because by the way all of this is accompanied by a very sophisticated classical music composition and we have many compositions but there may be 70 of them that are extant today and each of them is like a symphony unto itself with chorus and words of Rumi but you come to the fourth salam and at one point the music ends except for a single instrument improvising, it may be a stringed instrument and it’s a very sort of delicate light almost sparkly kind of improvisation. Meanwhile the dervishes are turning, turning, turning, you hear the swish of their robes and their feet and this very light improvised music and it goes on and you’re waiting for it to end, you know something is about to happen and then suddenly the voice of the Quran reciter breaks into it and begins to recite this very majestic recitation which is typically the verse of the Quran that says; “To God belongs the east and the west and wheresoever you turn is the face of God.” So upon hearing the Quran recited, all of the dervishes just stop suddenly and back off the floor and kneel down to listen to the full recitation of the Quran which goes on a bit longer and it’s as if the whole ceremony has prepared them to let those words into their heart. So all of that emptying has prepared them to hear the revelation. So that’s the core of the ceremony.

Rick: Okay, I guess there are Sufi centers around the world where are people, are non-Sufis welcome to come and sit and observe the thing or is it sort of a you know.

Kabir: You know we are told, we call Rumi our Pir, that’s the title Pir means the sort of the, the source of the tradition. We say anyone who walks across the threshold of the Sufi lodge has been invited by the Peer.

Rick: Okay.

Kabir: So if you show up you are welcome. Yes.

Rick: Okay, I have six pages of notes here. I want to ask you more questions and they won’t necessarily flow in perfect logical order from what we’ve been talking about but I just want to get them out there and each one will stimulate some interesting conversation. Here’s one thing I found from, all this is all now from your book, Living Presence. You said it is our essential Self, capital S, which is our point of contact with infinite spirit and I’m wondering what the distinction is. Some people would say well our essential Self is infinite spirit but you seem to be drawing a difference between them.

Kabir: Yes, yes a very important subtle distinction. We would say that when we use this term essential self we’re talking about the absolute foundation of our witnessing consciousness, the self-awareness of ourselves. Now probably the best formulation of this or expression of this is from the great Ibn Arabi, another great, great Sufi, Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi. He said “My journey was entirely within myself and when I came to the intimate presence of my Lord, my sustainer, I saw that I was nothing but servanthood without a trace of lordship, without a trace of sovereignty. I was nothing but servanthood without a trace of sovereignty.” So what a subtle, what a nuanced formulation to say that he was one of the greatest Sufis of all time coming to that intimate union with the divine yet experiencing his own I-ness at the same time as he experiences that there is nothing that all power, all agency is vested in the divine. So this is how we express it and rather than saying you’re God, I’m God, you know, it’s a delicious and beautiful relationship to be that servanthood knowing that you’re nothing, that you are essentially nothing but it may take a lifetime of arriving at that nothingness.

Rick: Good. Okay, next question. Again from your book. Many of our human attributes have atrophied. Through disuse, they have become latent faculties rather than functioning ones. So my question is what are some of these latent faculties or human attributes that have atrophied? Are you talking about like Siddhis or sort of kind of supernormal abilities or are you talking about more natural human things such as really profound development of the heart or refinement of the senses or things like that?

Kabir: I’m talking mostly about the latter but we can’t really put any limits on it. I was trained by a teacher who claimed to be in a 26,000 year tradition and I challenged him from the Caucasus and I challenged him, I said how do you know, why do you say 26,000? How can you say 26,000 years? He said because we can count. Anyway, that’s the procession of the equinoxes.

Rick: I was just going to say that, yeah, 26,000.

Kabir: Yeah. And, so anyway this is some people high up in the mountains of the Caucasus. It’s a real tradition, it exists and for five years I was trained in that tradition as part of my Sufi training. It was this man who said for all this period of time human beings have been losing their latent, their human capacities so that the capacities have become more and more latent. In other words we have them but they’re latent. He defined Sufism as the awakening and developing latent human capacities under divine grace and guidance. And he said if you left off under divine grace and I said; “What do you mean by divine grace and guidance?” He said, “Under the auspices of love.” I said, okay and he said if you left out under divine grace and guidance if you’re only developing latent human capacities that would merely be a cultism.

Rick: Yes. So you could be a psychic or you become a black magician who has capabilities but is using them for ill purposes. Yeah.

Kabir: So the capabilities of human will, of human perception, of human creativity are hypothetically infinite. And I like to leave it that way. I would like to see that there’s no limit on what can be developed and awakened and made unlatent through spiritual practice.

Rick: This is an interesting point to bring out though because a lot of times spirituality is thought of more in terms of a subjective realization which may or may not be that evident on the outside or you might seem kind of remarkable in certain ways. You might seem to be very loving, a Mother Teresa type or something. But you know I think that there is a huge range of possibilities for what a human being can be. I mean if we take some of the ancient traditions literally such as the things Christ was said to have done or the things Patanjali talks about in the Yoga Sutras and so on, it not only indicates that human beings are capable of much more than we now see them, able to do, but it also raises really interesting questions about what our relationship is to the laws of nature. If Christ really were able to walk on water or turn water into wine or any of those things, if he really did that and if it’s not just some kind of fanciful story, then how does consciousness relate to the law of gravity or to certain chemical laws that could enable something like that to happen.

Kabir: Rick, you’re bringing up, and this is an extremely important point and I’m very happy you brought up this question. I would say more important than developing extraordinary possibilities which human beings are capable of, I mean if you just look at the world of sports and many different areas, people are doing unbelievable things.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: But I think it would be more important to ask ourselves of all the things a human being can develop, of all that is developable in a human being, what attributes are of the greatest value to be developed, because we can spend a lifetime developing some rather peculiar and perhaps irrelevant things. There’s a story about a Sultan who offered a huge prize for the person in his realm who could develop the most incredible skill and he gave his people a year and then he had the contest and so there was one person who developed the skill of being able to throw a piece of thread all the way across the room and have it go through the eye of the needle.

Rick: Whoa, that’d be pretty cool party trick.

Kabir: Pretty cool, and the Sultan said, all right, this man takes the prize, now take him away and cut off his head, because anybody who is stupid enough

Rick: to spend a year doing that

Kabir: to spend a year doing that doesn’t deserve to live.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: This is not a Sufi story but anyway you get the point.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: And so I think this is memorable. You know one of my teachers said, if you have a horse and you wanted to develop a horse to be the best horse possible, you wouldn’t treat it like a cow, you wouldn’t say a good horse is a fatter horse, you know. So to know what is most developable in a human being and worthy of development, this takes wisdom, maybe it even takes revelation, maybe it takes some profound supernatural source to give us a little guidance from wandering too far astray into different nonsensical things that we might pride ourselves in developing.

Rick: Yeah. I have a friend named Dana Sawyer who’s been on that gap a couple of times who has been to India 20 times and speaks fluent Hindi and everything. He’s been all over the country and in his travels he’s always sort of looked to see if there’s anybody who actually is able to do anything extraordinary or if they’re all just sort of magicians and he concludes that pretty much all of them are, they have all their little tricks like you can put a walnut under your armpit and squeeze it and make your pulse stop and things like that. But he met one guy who was actually capable of swallowing a live snake and then regurgitating it and it wasn’t a trick. So just an example of something totally worthless.

Kabir: He takes this year’s prize.

Rick: Yeah. Alright. Okay. Another abrupt segue here to our next point. You said “The false self is unable to perceive the meaningfulness of events and is unaware of the divine mercy operating in every detail of existence.” I like that one jumped out at me because I like the notion that the divine permeates and orchestrates every particle of existence and has a sort of a merciful agenda even though it may not seem like it at times but in the big picture, in the long run that’s the trajectory of the divine intelligence. So I’d like you to sort of elaborate on that a bit.

Kabir: Yeah, this is very important and I would contrast this to an attitude we sometimes meet in spirituality or in certain spiritual teachings that the human story can just be dismissed, that ordinary human emotions are garbage or irrelevant or trivial.

Rick: Yeah, we were talking about that earlier in terms of the way the non-dual community was 10 years ago.

Kabir: Right, and that you know to focus purely on the transcendence and to just regard the human story as unimportant. Now it may be that sometimes a teacher will take that approach. I was just with one of my very dear students and she said to me, “You know, I remember so well that day when you and I were traveling in a bus across Turkey and I spoke to you for about an hour and I told you all about my sorrows and I was feeling very sorry for myself and I told you my whole sad story and you listened quietly for an hour and at the end you simply said, “It’s a story and it’s your story, forget it.”

Rick: You said that to her?

Kabir: Yeah, forget it. Just forget it.

Rick: Right.

Kabir: Well, I said that to her at that point and that was the right, apparently she’s now telling me that was very important to hear that. I would also say something very different and equally true which is that if we are awake enough, every detail of our story is imbued with mercy. There is a purposefulness in our lives that we can discern and I guess the distinction here is that this woman was telling me her story. We write our stories and many of the stories we write are our nonsense. They’re a falsehood that we’ve created. I think that’s what I was pointing to but when you get down to the truth of every individual human life, every detail is imbued with the divine mercy. This is a sort of fundamental axiom that,

Rick: that because it takes a little bit of philosophical juggling to really get to reconcile that with some of the things we see happening, I mean these massacres or children born with horrible diseases and so on and the holocaust and I mean how do you respond to that kind of critique?

Kabir: The way I would respond to that is, first of all, let us look to our own experience and not be imagining what it’s like to be a child with some disease but let’s be honest and look at our own experience because we all have enough grief and suffering to look at. Now in every situation, no matter how painful, no matter how great the loss and this is a let’s call this a postulate to be tested not to be believed but there is the possibility of a channel back to the infinite mercy to the infinite grace. Within every experience, is the possibility of finding the comfort, the blessing in the pain and the blessing that is found in moments of extreme pain is sometimes the greatest blessing and sometimes what really shapes character. In other words these are soul-making events but they’re only, they’re more likely to be soul-making events if we are awake and if we have trust in the divine to find the blessing that’s in that pain. So this too, is really very much at the heart of the Quranic revelation which says that, “The nature of reality is fundamentally compassionate and merciful.” The compassionate the “Rahman” in Arabic is that the existence is being created, it’s overflowing as an act of divine compassion. The infinite divine is breathing all the worlds into existence as an act of bestowal and beneficence. Within this existence, every witnessing agent can experience the mercy or the “Rahim” which is the channel back to the one. So that’s always there in potential and sometimes the potential is only fully realized when we are in extraordinary pain or loss. So this is the balance of existence. This is not to deny that the extraordinary pain and suffering but there’s also another postulate which is that, we will never be given more than we can bear. But every human being and every witnessing being, that has free will can go either way, can either become embittered by the suffering of life or can become spiritualized by the suffering of life. In that way it’s not as if the divine is necessarily creating all this suffering in order to cook us, you know. But, in fact most of the suffering is created by human beings through their own free will and their collective evils that require of us, are resistance and courage and mercy and service. But the suffering of life that is inevitable such as disease and death and loss that cannot be avoided even if everybody were being kind, that suffering that’s inherent in the nature of existence is still always a channel, an element that contributes to the perfection of the soul.

Rick: I’m sure some people might argue with that but I think you’re right. I’ve interviewed a few people for whom suffering was their primary path. There’s a woman named Shruti, you can look this up on Batgap, who had some medical condition which caused so much pain that she would literally black out on the bathroom floor from the pain. And she attributes what she went through to have had a very instrumental in her awakening. And that’s just one example.

Kabir: I just want to respond to what you just said about there may be some people who would argue with me about that or argue about that.

Rick: You can get into philosophical debates about it.

Kabir: Yeah, so I don’t know, I would just say it’s not something to argue about, but I would just refer people to their own experience,

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: and find out for themselves honestly. When you are in that pain, how are you going to deal with it? When you’re in that pain, to what extent can you transform that pain or transcend that pain not through denying it? I mean there are certain principles you will get nowhere through denial, but through acceptance, through consciousness.

Rick: The next point I’m going to raise is somewhat related to something you were just saying about freedom of choice and where we put our attention and steering the the course of our life this way and that. You say there are however ideas of a higher order that originate through contact with a deeper reality, and if these ideas are learned and thoroughly assimilated by our intellects, then their significance may be transferred to the subconscious mind. And it kind of reminds me, if you eat junk food all the time, then junk is going to be what builds up your body tissues, and it’s going to result in various health problems. And so what you’re saying here I think is that contacting a deeper reality and having your attention there gets assimilated by our intellects and is then transferred to the subconscious mind much the way what we eat is transferred to our tissues, and it becomes sort of like, kind of our our deeper makeup, you know, and just kind of governs the day-to-day course of our life even if we’re not consciously remembering all these things that we’ve imbibed.

Kabir: Yes, yes. Well, a simple example of this would be learning gratitude. I remember many years ago the first time I heard about gratitude as a spiritual possibility, and I was maybe something like that, and I had had a religious education. I was raised as a Catholic. I don’t ever, honestly, no one told me about gratitude, which I believe now is the foundation of all virtues. But when I first heard, in fact it was my own Shaykh, Suleyman Dede Mevlevi Shaykh, who first expressed the value of gratitude. Well, starting with that very simple idea, it was so new, it’s shocking to think of it now, that that could have been a new idea. But since that time, gratitude has been a practice more and more. I’m still working at it, not grateful all the time, but it’s become more of my natural response to the world and to events. It’s almost second nature to be in that state of gratitude for everything, for everything that comes, everything that happens. And that took time and a certain training of the mind to where you don’t immediately resist, resent, complain.

Rick: Is that because of what we were talking about previously, divine mercy? I mean, because if you really in your bones, have a knowing that everything is divine mercy, then you’re going to be grateful for whatever happens.

Kabir: That’s the metaphysical foundation of it, yes, but it also has to be experiential, you have to have enough experiences of the truth of that to be convinced of it.

Rick: Yeah. I haven’t asked you much about your personal experience and some people are reticent to talk about that, Buddhists are reticent to talk about it, but I mean, you know, you’ve been doing this for decades now and what has it done to your day-to-day, hour-to-hour, 24/7 state of consciousness? [Music]

Kabir: I recognize in myself a personality self or an egoic self that has its reactions, its preferences, its annoyances, its pleasures, all of that stuff. And then I recognize in myself another aspect of my being that is deeper, that is prior to all of that stuff, and more and more I live with these two in relationship and the one, the primary one which is the deeper, I choose to call it the essential self, which is closer to the divine qualities of patience and gratitude and forgiveness, etc., is exercising an influence on the personality level to both restrain it when necessary and to cultivate the personality as an instrument of expression. And almost, I guess, like an actor would cultivate a role but it’s not just a role, it’s the social self, the personality self, is there to engage in relationship with other people and you have your own intrinsic qualities that are personal to you. I’m basically somewhat of an introvert even though as much as I do teaching in public I’m basically an introvert and I don’t particularly like attention but I find myself in that role. So I have my own attributes and that essential self is living more and more in a state of trust, less fear, less jealousy, less resentment. This seems to be where the process leads and I also think that if I were to put this into a sort of more theoretical framework, I would say that I believe or I say I know that everything that I am, all of my best qualities, I wouldn’t even call them mine insofar as they move through me are sourced in something else. They are sourced in the divine source. You know to use a simple fairly neutral term, they’re sourced in the source. I have no gratitude, I have no patience, I have no power of forgiveness, I have no strength, all of these things are sourced in that source and to the extent I can activate those things. They gain expression through me.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: So I see my life as really the awakening and expression of those divine qualities in everyday life and I also see the most immediate practice for me, the constant practice is removing the obstacles to love to everything that gets in the way of the simple, non-judgmental state of being in relationship to everyone in this world and everything in this world.

Rick: Yeah, I mean an analogy I would use to just describe what you just said is that you know all the things that we use in our daily lives that run off electricity don’t work without the electricity. I mean light bulbs don’t create light without electricity, refrigerators don’t create coldness and so on. And so you know the qualities that these things are designed to display, they can only do if they are plugged in properly to the electrical source and so same with human beings except you know the analogy is not so…I mean the analogy is simplistic because that source we’re referring to here is a infinite repository of all sorts of beautiful qualities and I imagine you can you can elaborate on this. It’s not just sort of pure plain vanilla oneness, there are all the laws of nature, all the qualities of nature, everything in the whole universe resides there in seed form and gets expressed or manifested or channeled through the various instruments of the divine that we regard as the world.

Kabir: Exactly. So we can think of the divine as spirituality or consciousness as plugging ourselves into the outlet of divine energy.

Rick: Yeah. And there are all sorts of beautiful qualities that can radiate through us once we’ve done that.

Kabir: Yes, yes. Yeah there’s a lot of truth in that. There is a fundamental energy that is fundamentally electromagnetic and it runs on a spectrum from sexual to spiritual, it’s all fundamentally one energy and people get sometimes confused about you know what to do with that energy and how to use it, how to transform it, what to use it for.

Rick: Yeah. And this sounds a lot like you know the Hindu or Tantric ideas of Kundalini energy and the various chakras that it can rise through and so on.

Kabir: Yes.

Rick: So my previous earlier question was about attention and where we put our attention and how the qualities that we imbibe through where we put our attention get ultimately digested into and stored in the subconscious mind. And there are a number of other points you made about attention that I thought would be worth elaborating on here. You said, it could almost be said that a human being is whatever his or her attention is focused on. And I guess another way of phrasing it is that to which we give our attention grows stronger in our life.

Kabir: Yes, so imagine, I mean that’s a pretty absolute statement that I made, but I think I would justify it by saying if we could truly give our attention to the divine we would reflect the divine. Rumi says if your thought is a rose you are the rose garden. So whatever we hold in our attention we become that. And Sufi practice involves work with the divine attributes through the divine names that are in Arabic and also present in all the languages of Sufism, Turkish, Persian, etc. But Sufis will or a Shaykh will give to a student, a certain divine name to focus on. Maybe if they need to, maybe if it’s a quality that needs strengthening in them like awareness, maybe it’s something they have naturally and which you want to develop it even more or in some cases it might be an attribute like a person may be very shy, you want to give them some strength so you give them an attribute related to the divine strength. So it’s as if we live in a world of qualities not just the world of things. Senses and the mind know the world of things, the heart knows the world of qualities. So if we focus our heart on these different qualities then we make those qualities more real in ourselves, they become part of our of who we are and of our character of our very being. So the qualitative development of the human being which is going on in many ways unconsciously, it can go on to in art, you know when you read a great novel for instance or music and you’re inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Schiller’s Words of Freedom, you know the soul is developing qualitatively. So this would be an interesting approach to spiritual education, to think of it in terms of the qualitative development of the human being through the heart.

Rick: That’s a very interesting approach and the point that comes across is that it’s cumulative and it’s not necessarily instantaneous. So there’s going to be a accumulation over time of the qualities to which we give our attention.

Kabir: Yes, yes. And we can live our lives this way, I mean what else is here to do?

Rick: Yeah, really. Continuing on this theme, you say we not only need attention, we also need balance. Balance between the narrow and the wide, the outer and the inner, the material and the spiritual. And this brings up an interesting point maybe you can riff on this a little bit, which is that you know on the one hand we need routine and habit and training and so on to accomplish things. You know you can’t reinvent the wheel every time we want to do something there. And so routine work is kind of involved in almost every occupation and everything else we do. But routine work can be very … routine can be very narrowing to the awareness and so it has to be kind of counterbalanced with unboundedness and then with that deeper foundation of unboundedness routines are no longer binding. So there’s this sort of you know boundless and boundaries, seesaw balance that is achieved.

Kabir: Yes, yes. Our practice for instance has its routines and its unboundedness. The routines in in traditional Sufi practice for instance, is a ritual prayer five times a day,

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: And the ritual prayer, it’s the same thing again and again and again in certain series of postures. But the wisdom in the ritual prayer is that there’s also an element in the ritual prayer where you have the option to recite verses of the Quran that you’ve memorized, that are your own choice. So theoretically you can add you know, those particulars that those unique choices into the ongoing repetitive ritual. And also the beauty of the ritual and its repetitiveness is that it becomes a reference point and as you travel through stages of awareness or depths of awareness your experience of that repetitive ritual changes. But meanwhile that is something in Sufism that you only, you do it five times a day and maybe it takes you five or ten minutes each for each of those times of prayer. It doesn’t take a lot of time. Meanwhile between those times of the ritual prayer you’re living your life but because you have those inflection points in your day where you’re called to remembrance of the divine then the periods in between have more remembrance with them.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: And you’re living your life. Sufis don’t spend huge amounts of time in meditation, they don’t see meditation as the purpose of life or they don’t even see it as the primary means of reaching realization. I mean it has its place, don’t get me wrong, in a certain measure there should be, I mean, there is meditation in daily Sufi practice and maybe it’s a half hour, maybe it’s an hour plus the ritual prayer and chanting and other things. But rarely do Sufis except for limited periods of retreat which might be 40 days long and that’s pretty long.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: But generally it’s considered to be a perfectly comprehensive spiritual practice to pray five times a day, to be in a state of remembrance in between, to do some zikr or chanting, but then to live your life in remembrance and to have that freedom for your relationships, for your creativity, for whatever your free will chooses. But it’s all in a sense contained in that matrix of regular ritual worship.

Rick: Well you don’t take a shower all day long either, but you take one at least once and it keeps you clean. You’re cleaner all day by virtue of having taken it. And maybe if you do a lot of physical work, you take a couple of them you know, and each one kind of re-establishes cleanliness and actually a better analogy might be dyeing a cloth the way they used to do it in India, you dip it in the dye, bleach it in the sun, dip it in the dye, bleach it in the sun. Each time it bleaches it loses its color but it gets more and more and more color fast, through that alternating practice and eventually can’t lose its color in the brightest sunlight.

Kabir: Yes, yes.

Rick: Okay, continuing on the theme of attention, I picked out all these quotes from your book that I liked. This was a good one, “Competition between the higher and lower energies of our psyche.” I think a lot of people can relate to this. “When we feel centered the higher energies of our psyche are able to organize the lower energies and lend them a coherence that they normally lack. At the same time however the lower energies are able to disorganize the higher ones and introduce into them something of the incoherence of the lower levels.” So you know this is kind of tug-of-war thing that can happen. Well, you elaborate before I say anything else.

Kabir: Well, to have our spiritual practices are a way of centering ourselves and in Sufism we think quite explicitly for instance in the ritual prayer there’s a moment when your forehead touches the ground that’s a moment of complete total bodily and emotional and intellectual spiritual submission, submission to the oneness. It’s a very single-pointed practice so imagine practicing that again and again and again it’s like focusing right into the deepest center. And all spiritual practices can be like that and we often talk of the dimensionless point within our own being and dimensionless means it’s nowhere but we say it’s within ourselves. If we could place our attention on that dimensionless point within our own being we have connected to something that is profoundly magnetic and it induces coherence in our emotions, in our thoughts. So this is the idea of you know, it’s actually interesting for people to hear what’s going on when they see Muslims standing, bowing and prostrating. What are they prostrating to? First of all they’re not prostrating to a hierarchy, they’re not prostrating to a theology or a concept. They’re not prostrating to an institution or church. They are prostrating to the infinite and the most common synonym for Allah is Al-Haqq which means the real. So the real and Allah are synonymous, they’re prostrating to the real. Now they’re praying ideally at roughly five times a day. So imagine there are five waves of prayer, of ritual prayer circling the planet at all times. Got that?

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: Can you imagine? So there are people bowing and prostrating to the real, five waves circling the planet at all times. Also they are oriented towards Mecca. In other words, their intention is to orient themselves to an empty cube, an empty cube in Mecca. There’s nothing in that cube and everybody knows there’s nothing in that cube. That too is the dimensionless point. Now if you were to place yourself in that empty cube, these five waves of humanity in worship circling the globe, all of those souls would be in a sense all meeting themselves there in that empty cube. So, this is an energetic phenomenon and by virtue of connecting into that emptiness, that purity which is the divine alone. And Islam is,… one of the beauties of Islam is that it’s very fastidious about not allowing any idols, you know, no human idols, no theological idols. It’s a kind of, trust the divine and the divine alone. And that’s what people are bowing to, that’s what people are bowing to, in themselves. That’s what they are remembering. And the Quran, Islam teaches the greatest practice is remembrance of God, for truly in the remembrance of God, hearts find tranquility. That’s the essence of the whole thing.

Rick: Nice. Of course that idols thing was taken to extreme and distorted, you know, the cartoonists and that whole, we won’t even get into it. I mean we’ve talked in the beginning a lot. That sort of fundamentalist attitude. All right, so I have a lot of notes here still, but I can’t, we won’t have time to do them all. But here’s one that is a little different than the other things I’ve talked about, which I thought was interesting. It’s one of the sayings transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad, God says, “Take refuge in my mercy from my wrath, take refuge in me from me.” And I thought that was cool, because I think that in a way, you know, God is all there is really. I mean if God is omnipresent then how can there be anything other than God? And if there is something other than God then he’s not omnipresent, there’s a hole in him. And so the whole notion of taking refuge in me from me just intrigued me.

Kabir: Well, it could be confusing, intriguing and confusing or it could be evidence of this non-dual reality that I’ve been trying to point to. But let’s take this apart a little bit. In this cosmic existence that we find ourselves in, we can recognize that there are qualities of wrath or stringency and power on the one hand, and on the other hand there are the qualities of beauty, mercy, compassion, tenderness. So we have two great categories. Let’s call one the attributes of beauty and the other, traditionally called the attributes of power. But with that power is also the destructive power, the wrath not as a personal emotion but as that which just blows things away. And so, it would be false and overly sentimental to ignore that wrath and stringency as an aspect of reality. It is part of the makeup of reality. There are hurricanes, there are earthquakes, just as there are tropical breezes, you know, and beautiful you know, forest ponds. So this is the situation we’re in. But the teaching is, and this is said in another Islamic saying, my mercy prevails over my wrath. In other words my mercy is the bottom line. Everything finally adds up to mercy. Even the wrath is just mercy with a little veneer of wrath.

Rick: Kind of like a strict parent who really loves you and this.

Kabir: Yeah, it’s all love and even the strictness is an aspect of the love and will bring you back. Sometimes it brings you back to the straight path, sometimes it brings you back to reality. So that’s how it’s viewed. Now, it’s kind of a charming and scary way to say it, you know, what you just read, take refuge in me, in me, from me. So that’s just a very sobering, very direct way of telling us that the refuge is always possible and that’s called Rahim, that’s the mercy quality that I was talking about before. It’s that, there’s always a channel back to the mercy in every moment, in every circumstance.

Rick: Yeah, here’s a quote that I think relates to this, I think this is from the Quran. It’s, “The unsuspecting child first wipes the tablet and then writes the letters on it. God turns the heart into blood and desperate tears, then writes the spiritual mysteries on it.”

Kabir: That’s from Rumi, it’s the same idea. That’s some poetry of Rumi and that says it very well, doesn’t it? It’s even more poetic.

Kabir: Relates to the whole suffering thing we were talking about earlier.

Kabir: Yeah, yeah.

Rick: Okay, well here’s a nice wrap-up point for something that we discussed earlier also, that you wrote this in your book. Presence allows us to open to the suffering of the world. Compassion is being able to feel the world’s suffering without being drowned by it. I love that.

Kabir: Yeah, yeah. Well, all I can say to that, Rick, is that presence is a human attribute to be developed. It is our perhaps, most fundamental and important spiritual attribute because everything we will ever attain, everything we will ever truly know and experience will be experienced and known more fully in presence. Presence is that comprehensive self- awareness. I want to define it. It’s not just some you know, vague term. Presence is a state above our thinking, our feeling, our sense impressions, our behavior. It’s a comprehensive state of self- awareness that comprehensively gathers all of those other kinds of experience – thought, feeling, sensing – into a single field of awareness and also included in that is our direct spiritual experience. So, this is the you know what’s absolutely necessary in order for us to be able to receive the divine wisdom and grace that is always showering upon us and by the very nature of reality itself. That reality itself is showering the conscious witness with qualities, with insights, with meaning, with beauty and there’s no greater work than to awaken the presence to be aware of that.

Rick: Incidentally I was impressed by the fact that you wrote this book 25 years ago. I mean, if I had written anything 25 years ago it would be a far cry from anything I would be capable of writing today, so pretty good.

Kabir: Well thank you.

Rick: Yeah. Here’s another point or two on presence for your book. “As we learn to make our home in consciousness or presence we feel more freedom within our circumstances even without changing them.” I like that one. And okay, so again the word presence but in a different context here. I find this one interesting. “Within ourselves we are surrounded by presences. The saints and masters are here within us as is the presence of spirit.” And you alluded to this elsewhere too earlier in the interview. Do you feel that the saints and masters who have died still exist in some form and are kind of overseeing or helping humanity?

Kabir: Yes, that’s sometimes very tangible, something we’re aware of and I personally, I feel that we owe so much for instance to the presence of Rumi. I think there’s no other explanation for the kinds of transformation that I’ve witnessed in others but that there is some kind of a flow of an influence, a blessing that comes from certain sources and that these qualities or these presences are eternal, they are not bound by time and space so there are morphogenetic fields of qualitative morphogenetic fields to use Sheldrake’s term, which makes sense if you’re aware of what it means. And so this is such an important part of spirituality and it’s one of the reasons why our respect for the traditions should humble us and make us more receptive and not as independent and impractical as we Americans are. We shouldn’t go too far with that to neglect that we need help and there is spiritual help.

Rick: Nice. Okay, here’s a final quote from your book, this would be a good one to end on. “This divine essence is nearer to us than our jugular vein. The divine face is everywhere to be seen, its qualities surround us.”

Kabir: Yes, yes and that’s straight from the Quran.

Rick: Is it? Okay, great.

Kabir: Yeah, that’s an example of the mysticism of the Quran and how close it is to the surface. I mean it’s right there, it’s right explicit. The Quran is a deeply mystical text and wheresoever you look, is the face of God.

Rick: And and that kind of quote should give everyone hope and inspiration. I mean you know; “The divine is not somewhere far off in a place that we couldn’t reach, it’s nearer to us than our jugular vein, it permeates every cell in our body and it’s just a matter of tuning into something that’s already completely within us.”

Kabir: It’s infinitely near and the word for saint in our tradition is Wali and Wali means the one who is near to, in this case, near to God, a friend is a Wali. So the saint, we don’t have a word like Saint that comes from Sanctus in Latin. The meaning of the equivalent of a Saint in the Islamic Sufi tradition is the one who is the friend of God because of being near, near to the divine.

Rick: Nice.

Kabir: That’s a nice way to conceive of it.

Rick: And we can all be that because we are, we’re all near to the divine. We just have to become aware of our nearness.

Kabir: Every human being and everything I’m saying is not, there’s no, nobody holds the franchise on this, that doesn’t belong to any one religion. Truth is truth. You know what Muhammad says, it’s so beautiful. He says “Truth is the believer’s lost camel.” Meaning, when you recognize it, you recognize it as your own, like nobody would mistake the lost camel. I know that camel, that camel is mine. So truth, wherever you find it is your lost camel.

Rick: Nice. Well on that note let’s end. I’ve really appreciated spending this time with you and I think people really appreciate

Kabir: Likewise.

Rick: Yeah. The book that I’ve been quoting from mostly here is, what was it, Living Presence and I’ll link to it from your page on batgap.com. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s full of good stuff and I’ll also link to your website and anything else you want me to link to. So,

Kabir: There’s one other book I’ll mention. I mean there are a lot of…

Rick: I’ll link to that one too, but what’s the other one?

Kabir: The Knowing Heart.

Rick: The Knowing Heart.

Kabir: Living Presence and the Knowing Heart are almost like a pair.

Rick: Okay

Kabir: Living Presence is more universal but the Knowing Heart is more explicitly about the Sufi tradition. It’s pretty universal too but it’s about the heart but it’s also about the Knowing Heart and about the issues of bringing an ancient tradition into the contemporary world.

Rick: Great. All right. Well, I hope this has been a… you know, I hope a lot of people will be introduced to you through this interview and I think most of the listeners to this show would really enjoy reading your books or tuning in to what you’re doing in whatever way they can do.

Kabir: Thank you.

Rick: Yeah.

Kabir: I appreciate the time you’ve taken, Rick. I think this is the longest interview I’ve ever given and I appreciate your allowing the depth that God willing, that there may be some depth in this or at least a time amount of time to do justice to some of these ideas.

Rick: Well, that’s what I try to do, you know. I’ve got nothing better to do really except my wife says I have to chase down the UPS truck because something very important that we needed and he didn’t leave. So, I’m going to do that in a minute but in any case I love to do that with these interviews is prepare for them as much as I can during the week and then you really spend a couple hours going as deep and as comprehensively as possible with the person so that you know so that people can really get more than just dip their toe in.

Kabir: Well, thank you. I feel like it was a really good dialogue between us. So, thank you so much.

Rick: Thanks. So, let me just make a couple of quick concluding remarks and then I’m going to go chase the UPS truck. This is an ongoing series as most of you watching will be aware. Go to www.batgap.com and just check out the different menus and you’ll see everything that we have to offer and all the past interviews and the upcoming ones that are scheduled and so on. So, thanks for listening or watching and thank you again Kabir and we’ll see you all next week.

Kabir: Thank you.