Why a Shaykh?
by Shaykh Ibrahim Spiegel

The Shaykh is your soul's gardener. S/he takes you from where you are right now, and uses your inner materials as fertilizer to grow your heart. Parts of you - the garden - need weeding, some need hoeing, planting, landscaping. The Shaykh represents your highest potential. By putting your trust in the Shaykh as a guide, you make the first step towards unifying yourself. On a personal basis, the Shaykh goes within you, sees the distinction between yourself and your True self, and helps you to initiate the process of unification.

Much of what a shaykh deals with at the beginning involves trust. For many people, especially Americans, trust is an issue. In this society trust in not a very common virtue. The first step of learning is to learn to trust the guide. Trust is paramount before any other teaching can take place. Trust is paramount before any other teaching can take place.

Trust happens over time and through experience. You cannot trust Allah if you cannot trust your Shaykh. A Shaykh sees you as you truly are. S/he sees through your clothes, your attachments, your nafs. Nafs is the ego matrix giving you the impression that you are your things, memories, habits. The shaykh sees you with your habits, and compares that to your true self. Part of a shaykh's job is to be a mirror for you. What you see is what you get, in this case. If you are scared, fear comes right back at you. If you love, love comes right back to you. In this and many other ways, your shaykh is here to help you overcome your nafs. Being a mirror to you is one of the quickest and perhaps most startling ways to break old habits. Imagine, for example, that you see yourself in a special kind of video, one where you can also hear your thoughts and see what is in your heart.

The Shaykh is your best friend and your nafs worst enemy. The teacher works with each person on an individual basis, and in a vocabulary that that person can understand. The Shaykh is like a taxi driver. You get on wherever you are, and the driver takes you where you want to go.

The choice is always yours.

At times, the Shaykh will talk directly to your soul (ruh) . The outer form may not understand as well as the inner soul. You may find yourself arguing, disagreeing, defending what you "know" to be right. Defense of yourself, however, is contrary to the goal of a spiritual discipline. Defending yourself indicates a lack of surrender, mistrust of your guide and reliance upon your nafs.

As a piano teacher, there have been many students who, when they've made a mistake, argue with me about it.

"I did play an F sharp!"

I know the truth, that without doubt, this student absolutely did make a mistake. If I record the session I play it back and the student hears what I heard. Eventually, if there is perseverance, the student eventually begins to hear just the sound, not what is being imagined in the mind. You see, in music, just as in Sufism, when your mind and preconceived ideas are quieted, you can hear the sound (God, Allah, the Divine) without distraction, without attachment. Then you can place your heart into the sound and turn that sound into music.

This is the same with a true spiritual teacher. Your time with your teacher is the same as a music lesson. What you've practiced so far (or not) is apparent and cannot be hidden.

Through time and experience rabita develops. Rabita is the spiritual/mental/heart connection between you and another person. In Sufism the primary rabita is between the murid (student) and the Shaykh. Over time, many people experience a profound deepening of this connection. When you can begin to trust the spiritual teacher, it means that the process of surrender can begin. Surrender, in Sufism, is giving up what your nafs want and learning to listen to what Allah wants. In Christian mysticism this is "Not my will but Thine, Oh Lord." For some people, not even with death is the link with the teacher broken. At some point, there is the experience of Fana fa-Shaykh- losing your self through your Shaykh. This is an important step on the path of Sufism.

The Shaykh's job is to help you prepare the soil to grow your heart-tree. Your heart- in its pure, cleansed state- is the greatest treasure you will ever have. The teacher knows its worth and works with you constantly to cleanse it of personal and cultural accretions. This is a labor of love and service. The Shaykh knows that when the heart is cleansed, it is as though a child is born. A child who sees, hears, speaks, and knows the languages of all living things. The rain of blessings showers down up a clean heart. A clean and pure heart is the beginning point for a dervish. When the eyes of the heart see the world and life for what they truly are, a new life has begun. That is why adab (right action) is so strongly taught. The heart-child is new and innocent, but because there is an awareness of the need for proper social interaction, harm because of wrong action is avoided. The heart child deserves our deepest respect, and so we prepare for that meeting with adab. How does the shaykh know how to do all this?

A master teacher has gone through the same turmoil as you, and come out the other side. Where you feel you might need a little help and already know a lot, the master teacher knows that s/he knows very, very little and needs much help, but has learned to live with equanimity knowing that. Emptiness is the key here. Without emptiness Allah cannot pour blessings in. The Shaykh has visited the well of life and brought back the water for the thirsty to drink. Some complain about the cup, some say it is the wrong time of day to drink. Some say they don't like the cup-bearer. The point, of course, is who cares about any of that as along as one gets the water to drink. If you are thirsty, you want water. First, though, you must realize what thirst is and then discover that you are thirsty. Then find the water carrier. Being able to recognize a true teacher or Shaykh requires in itself a certain spiritual development. You must have developed enough humility and truth about yourself to ask for help. Asking for help means to leave your "independence" behind.

Nasruddin walked into a bakery shop one day. He asked the salesperson, ""Have you ever seen me before?" "No." replied the baker. "Well, then," said the Mulla, "How do you know it's me?"
A spiritual discipline, like Sufism, is like any other discipline - be it music, sculpture, painting or plumbing - a time comes when you must seek out a teacher. This requires an emptying out of parts of yourself in order to take in new ways of thinking. You can't fill a full cup. This is an important moment, for the emptying requires humbling yourself to a higher authority. We Americans have an especially difficult time of doing this. We think we are individuals and do not need anyone else-especially someone telling us what we don't want to hear. With John Wayne Bruce Willis, and Sylvester Stallone as folk heroes, individualism plays a key role in the mythology of the self. How can you be really independent? Everything you wear, you eat, all the things you depend on are the result of and because of the works of others. There is no independence. We depend on each other in so many ways. It seems that when we can recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, when we have taken a fairly honest stock of ourselves, I think most of us would agree that we need help. We need help because we all have habits. Nasty habits. And we all need help going through them and picking out the ones we don't need. And to do that we need help plus.

Professional help

If you don't think you need help, then, without doubt, you need professional help even more. This is a job you cannot do by yourself. Remember, though, that is not the product but the process. The goal is to be at peace with God, to walk always with God, to know God, and to be grateful to God. A Shaykh may be able to help.

For more information see your local Shaykh.

Salaam Alaikum


Copyright 1995, 1996 The Qadiri-Rifa'i Tariqa of the Americas. Reprinted here with the permission of Shaykh Ibrahim Spiegel

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