The great Sufi mystic, Ibn ‘Arabi, is a helpful friend when we are on our path to find spiritual wisdom.
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It is He who is revealed in every face, sought in every sign, gazed upon by every eye, worshipped in every object of worship, and pursued in the unseen and the invisible. Not a single one of His creatures can fail to find Him in its primordial and original nature.
— Ibn’Arabi, al-Fuduhat al-Makkiyyah, chapter 372
The title for my blog this week is taken from an ancient Sufi manual on spiritual retreat by Ibn’Arabi, an Andulusian mystic scholar, poet and philosopher (1165-1240). His cosmological teachings were very influential in the Islamic world during the late Middle Ages and he is renowned among Sufis as a saint – given the title ‘The Greatest Shaykh’. (You will have to excuse the shaykh’s use of the masculine gender for the Divine – he was a mediaeval writer, after all!)
Sufism is the esoteric or mystical branch of Islam, and Sufis, like the Jewish mystics known as Kabbalists, developed practices and experimented with inner journeys, seeking the Divine within. That’s what we modern meditators want to achieve as well. In this treatise, Ibn’Arabi is teaching seekers how to explore their own ‘primordial and original nature’, in order to find the Divine within. If this exploration is diligently pursued, he promises we cannot fail to find Divinity. Then we will experience the delight of knowing we are at one with It, not separated and alone within our individual selfhood.
Surrendering is a challenge
The original title for Ibn ’Arabi’s manual was: A Treatise on the Lights in the Secrets Granted One Who Undertakes Retreat. In his treatise, the shaykh offers guidance for the ultimate inner journey, towards a meeting with the Divine – the ‘Lord of Power’. This requires absolute surrender of the ego (the words Islam and Muslim both derive from an Arabic word meaning ‘surrender’).
In Sufism, the journey is thought of as a ladder, so again we see a similarity to the concept of ascending the branches of a tree in Kabbalah. At each stage of the ascent, we are told, our imagination can deceive us into thinking we have ‘arrived’. There is the possibility of temptation, by which we might come to think we’ve ‘got the truth’. Only someone with an overpowering desire, a heart intention (himma) for the Divine, and no care for anything else, can look forward to a safe journey.
The instructions for using a dhikr (Arabic for remembrance) as a fundamental technique during the inner retreat are almost identical to those given in the Hindu or Transcendental Meditation teachings, as well as for The Shefa Method. A mantra (Sanskrit) and a zera (Hebrew) will both serve as ‘reminders’ of what you want to achieve.
Ibn ’Arabi advises seekers…
Occupy yourself with dhikr, remembrance of God, with whatever sort of dhikr you choose.
Then, because this teacher is a practising Muslim, he continues…
The highest dhikr is the Greatest Name… saying Allah, Allah, and nothing beyond Allah.
In order to maintain the repetition of the chosen dhikr, the mystic will usually use beads, passing them through their hands as the dhikr is repeated.
Ibn’ Arabi advises the seeker to begin their journey with due reverence for the sacred task. This includes being careful of your diet – your food should be nourishing, but should not include animal fat. He recommends we become aware of extremes of satiation or hunger. Keep your constitution in balance – any extremes can lead to “corrupt imaginings’ and excitability. This sounds like a warning, perhaps that psychosis could be a side effect if the seeker does not maintain a healthy lifestyle. I would add a further suggestion – avoid watching extreme action movies, or TV shows that focus on danger, fear, anxiety, murder and so on. When you meditate, your stored memories of such content can filter into your mental arena and present themselves just when your intention is to go beyond these negative possibilities.
Some mystics adopt wearing a shawl and/or a head covering during meditation. That’s part of my practice. Putting on a shawl cues you that you are ‘in retreat’ from everyday concerns. I also light candles and give thanks when I extinguish them before leaving my meditation room. The shawl I wear for special events is embroidered with a Tree of Life, but for everyday meditation I use a plain white pashmina.
So, is the inner journey safe?
The Sufi warnings echo a legend in Jewish aggadah, in which four rabbis attempt the inner journey to Pardes, from which the word ‘Paradise’ is derived and translates as ‘orchard’. Only one rabbi, Akiva, comes back in good order: one actually dies, one of them goes mad, and one becomes a heretic. In the legend, this last character (nicknamed ‘Acher’, meaning ‘backwards’) destroys some of the saplings in the Divine orchard. This suggests to me that Acher, when he gets to Heaven, rather than surrendering to the beauty of the Divine, starts pulling it apart with intellectual argument. Acher gets a glimpse of the Divine but refuses to believe in the validity of his own experience.
In this painting, we see four rabbis arguing about Talmudic texts. It isn’t clear if the four pictured here are meant to be the same group who appear in the legend, but clearly they haven’t got to Heaven as yet, otherwise at least one of them would be blissful!
Acher’s destructive approach reminds me that many people who have powerful spiritual experiences will rush for medical advice, hoping to dismiss the reality of a Divine encounter by applying scientific/materialist concepts. I hold my hand up to this! When I first had a powerful illumination in 1974, my first immediate thought was to consult a doctor. Fortunately, I also knew a Sufi, who gave me an alternative explanation. Even so, it took me many years to accept the Divinity of my experience, and to stop trying to pull it apart with my intellect, assigning it to the file labelled ‘weird’.
How do these warnings apply to modern spiritual seekers? These concerns are to be taken seriously. We need to be well grounded in our material, everyday life before we endeavour to enter a more expanded state of consciousness, otherwise we can be flooded and overwhelmed by our experiences. That is why modern teachers suggest a softly-softly approach for people living what yogis call a ‘householder’ lifestyle – working, bringing up a family and such.
Meditation twice daily for twenty minutes, perhaps with some extra time for using the Shefa characters if you are following the Shefa Method; maybe add an hour-long session once a week, if you want to seek guidance from inner guides or angelic supporters. You could make this a regular ‘date’ with your inner ‘Council’. I find guides and angels respond more promptly if you give them a regular slot. Don’t just suddenly think, ‘I need some help right NOW!’ and hope you’ll be able to instantly drop into the right space to meet your guides.
The kind of timetable I suggest above will be safe for most people. If you have a bipolar tendency, or any other mental issues, then take precautions and just use meditation for ten minutes each time. Those tendencies are not contra-indicators; they just signal that you can easily become overwhelmed when opening your psyche to otherworldly dimensions. Another suggestion is to undertake walking meditations, as suggested for children under the age of ten. Time spent walking, with your own bodily rhythm and speed, naturally keeps you grounded. Using a zera while walking will definitely encourage stillness in your mental arena.
The Sufi master’s treatise title seems to promise revelations – the ‘lights in the secrets’. What does that mean? The branches – or paths – on the Kabbalist’s Tree of Life is decorated with sefirot – receptacles of light, each derived from the greater Light of the Divine. Perhaps the ‘secrets’ are close cousins to the sefirot and the ‘lights’ are the Archangelic guardians we learn about in Tree of Life mysticism.
In the Sufi tradition we learn about ‘demons’. These are dynamic energy forms that are associated with disorientation, pain and distress, which can leave you feeling bewildered and confused. Heat and agitation are associated with these feelings. The shaykh recommends you keep maintaining the dhikr, until the difficulties cease, then the Angelic influence will bring a feeling of calm and bliss, often associated with coolness.
Ibn’Arabi invites you to enter your retreat with a clearly articulated intention, in which you state that there is ‘nothing other than God’. If anything arrives in your meditation that seems to be Divine, he insists that you assume it must be a lower form… the Divine will always be more than all experiences or forms, however beautiful they are. The mystic must keep repeating ‘this is not God’, because the Divine is the source of manifested realms but, in Itself, has no form. So, even meeting an Archangel, however awesome that might be, we always repeat: this is not the Divine. An Archangel is only an extended attribute of Divinity as It creates multiple realms for Its own delight. In Kabbalah, there have been especial warnings concerning Metatron, whose light is so potent and overwhelming that one could be seduced into thinking this Archangel is actually the Divine. But Metatron is just an aspect of Divinity, just like the other Archangels, including Michael, whose name means ‘like unto God’.
Meeting the Lights
Using the Tree of Life as a map of ascension is a powerful technique for your inner journeys. When you are at the foot of the Tree, you are well grounded before you begin your journey. On my website you will find suggestions for working with the Archangels of the lower part of the Tree – click here to access them. You would find it useful to have a copy of The Angels Script as well, then you can use the Archangels cards from the deck to set out the map as a visual reminder of the journey up the Tree.
The Lord of Power – or Lady, as you prefer – is within you, residing permanently in ‘Paradise’ or the ‘Inner Kingdom’, also known as ‘Heaven’. Experiencing the ‘lights’ within the secret gates standing between your everyday self and Heaven allows you to release limitations and blocks in your psyche. Then you can truly step into your own power and shine your light as a gift to the world.
You can learn how to work with the great Archangels of the Tree of Life by enrolling on my new course, Accessing Angelic Realms, either as Self-Study or with personal supervision from me. If you take up the FREE Shefa Method offer, you also receive a 50% Discount Voucher valid against Accessing Angelic Realms if you purchase before 18 June 2021 (you can start the course itself whenever you wish).
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