Sufism is a way of life in which a deeper identity is discovered and lived. This deeper identity, or essential Self, is beyond the already known personality and is in harmony with everything that exists. It has abilities of awareness, action, creativity, and love that are far beyond those of the superficial personality. Eventually it is understood that these abilities belong to a greater Being that we each individualize in our own unique way while never being separate from it.
"Since in order to speak,
one must first listen,
learn to speak by listening."
Rumi, Mathnawi (Mesnevi), I, I627
The essential Self is an objective reality, but it cannot be known in a state of sleep, any more than the ordinary facts of reality can be known in a dream. In the Sufi tradition it is written that the absolute Spirit said And I breathed My Spirit into humanity. We are each enlivened by this in-breath. The essential Self, the soul, can be understood as this individualization of Spirit. The soul, however, is such a fine and subtle energy that it can be obscured by coarser energies of our existence, the energies of thought, desire, instinct, and sensation. These are the veils over the essential Self, the substances of intoxication that numb us to our essential Self.
If your thought is a rose,
you are a rose garden;
if it is a thorn,
you are fuel for the bath stove.
Rumi, Mathnawi (Mesnevi), II, 278
In classical Sufism the continuum from the false self to the essential Self has been described in seven stages. The word for self, nafs (nefs) is also equivalent to soul.
- The self of compulsion seeks satisfaction primarily in satisfying its selfish, carnal desires and its will to power. It is mentioned in the Surah Yusuf (Yusuf Suresi), verse 53, of the Qur'an as the self impelled to evil.
- The self of conscience has begun to discriminate between right and wrong, and can sometimes resist the temptation to evil and selfish actions. It is mentioned in the Surah Qiyyamah (Kiyamet Suresi), verse 2: I call to witness to self of consience.
- The self of inspiration is inspired with spiritual knowledge and can reliably follow the voice of consience. It is mentioned in the Surah Shams (Sems Suresi), verses 7-8: By the soul and the proportion and order given to it and its inspiration as to its right and its wrong. This is the highest stage that conventional religion and morality achieves.
- The soul of tranquility has reached the level of presence in which a conscious intimacy is possible. It is described in Surah Fajr (Fecir Suresi), verses 27-28: O soul in tranquility, return to your Lord well-pleased and well-pleasing to Him.
- The soul of submission has reached the level where its desires and actions are in harmony with Reality. It accepts each moment as it is and submits itself to Reality. This is described in Surah Ma'idah (Maide Suresi), verse 122: Allah is well-pleased with them and they with God.
- The soul of total submission is even more completely identified with the Universal Will. This is the stage of the great saints whose lives may be profound and miraculous example of human wholeness. These people are lost in God.
- The soul of perfection is a theoretical absolute, the perfected or complete human being as described in the Surah Shams (Sems Suresi), verse 9: truly he succeeds who purifies [the soul].
Stages 1 and 2 are more or less under the domination of the false self. Stage 3 might be called the natural self, whereas stages 4 through 7 represents various degrees of the essential Self.
See how the hand is invisible while the pen is writing;
the horse careening, yet the rider unseen;
the arrow flying, but the bow out of sight;
individual souls existing,
while the Soul of souls is hidden
Rumi, Mathnawi (Mesnevi), II, I303-304
We can have no sense of the essential Self unless we arrive at our core-that which is deeper than thoughts and emotions, likes and dislikes, or opinions and ambitions. It is possible to listen within while following the rising of the breath, to listen for a silence behind thoughts and emotions. This silence is the background of what we normally pay attention to. Once this state is somewhat established we might direct our mind to our birth, to the mistery of our coming into the world. We can feel love for this being entering upon life. We might then bring the beginning and the end of our life into the present moment, viewing this present moment with the eyes of eternity, of our loving Creator. With this viewpoint, which is that of the essential Self, many wounds can be healed, many mistakes forgiven, and many loses accepted.
Help me with this ego of mine
that is seeking help from You;
I seek justice from no one
but this justice-seeking self.
I shall not get justice from anyone
except Him who is nearer to me than myself;
for this I-ness comes moment by moment from Him.
Rumi, Mathnawi (Mesnevi), I, 2I95-98
If Sufism recognizes one central truth, it is the unity of being, that we are not separate from the Divine. This is a truth that our age is in excellent position to appreciate-emotionally, because of the shrinking of our world through communications and transportation, and intellectually, because of developments in modern physics. We are One; one people, one ecology, one universe, one being. If there is a single truth, worthy of the name, it is that we are all integral to the Truth, not separate. The realization of this truth has its effects on our sense of who we are, on our relationships to others and to all aspects of life. Sufism is about realizing the current of love that runs throughout all life, the unity behind forms.
The idea of presence with love may be the most basic remedy for the prevailing materialism, selfishness, and unconsciousness of our age. In our obsession with our false selves, in turning our backs on God, we have also lost our essential Self, our own divine spark. In forgetting God, we have forgotten ourselves. Remembering God is the beginning of remembering ourselves.
Sunlight fell upon the wall;
the received a borrowed splendor.
Why set your heart on a piece of earth, simple one?
Seek out the source which shines forever.
Rumi, Mathnawi (Mesnevi), II, 708-709