Chapter Excerpt from
Fragments of a Love Story: Reflections on the Life of a Mystic
by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Chapter 4. What Does it Mean to Be a Spiritual Teacher?
What does it mean to be a teacher, a guide, to have the spiritual responsibility of taking souls Home? For many years I knew what it meant to be a disciple, to have my heart opened by love, to sit at the feet of my teacher being absorbed into emptiness, to see the light of another world in her eyes. From the first moment I met the white-haired Russian lady who was to be my teacher, I felt in her the inner authority that belongs to a Sufi teacher, and in the coming years, full of fear and longing I sat, week after week, in her small room, wanting nothing except the Truth I knew she knew. As she spoke about her sheikh in India, I felt his invisible presence, a being of power and love to whom I came to realize I belonged beyond life and death. I recognized this energy of the path that would demand everything from me, and over the years I experienced how a disciple is destroyed and remade through love, bitter and sweet.
Then, one day when I was thirty-four, I was told by Irina Tweedie that I too would become a teacher, take up this transmission of love. This simple statement, made almost in passing, terrified me. Yet it also made sense of and echoed some dreams I had had in previous years. I recognized how the training had begun years before, maybe soon after I first came to the path as a battered and unbalanced young man. I could glimpse how I had been guided by the masters of the path and though I knew it was a grace to be given this work, it was also the last thing I wanted. It was as if I already knew it would demand from me more than I believed I could give, destroy me in ways I did not yet know—the fear was very real.39
I had sat at my teacher's feet since I was nineteen, and knew her ways of working with people, and also saw the demands that the path made on her. Because seekers sensed the unlimited love within her, they somehow instinctively felt that their demands could also be un-limited. I saw her give and give until her body and whole being were exhausted, and still she gave. Once people sense real love, their unmet needs come to the surface and almost suffocate everything else. People came with all of their troubles as well as their longing, and it was all unloaded on her. So much was expected. And this was the work and the world that were waiting for me.
Although, after sitting in her presence, watching her work with people day after day, I had some sense of what was involved, of course my own experience of this work was quite different. She began when she was already over sixty, having just returned from India after the death of our sheikh, and for the first ten years just a few people gathered around her, sitting in her small North London room. I began when I was young and the path was already present in the West: there was already a room full of people. My journey was different and yet the essence of the work was the same: holding a transmission of love to be given to those who need.
In the West we have just an echo of an echo of this ancient tradition, in the love that Mary Magdalene had for Christ and the few words that she spoke to him after she mistook him for a gardener near his empty grave:
Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Raboni; which is to say, Master.40
Here are the devotion and love that belong to this traditional relationship of teacher and disciple, but it was buried by the Church and has been forgotten. And yet anyone who has been awakened by a teacher's love knows its truth. But how to express and live this sacred relationship in a culture that understands only personal love? How not to get caught in the myriad projections and misunderstandings that can arise when there is so much love and nearness? How can we live this mystery in its purity, so that, as with Mary, it can take us to see the risen Christ?
The question for the teacher is how to hold this truth, this essential love, when you know it will be misunderstood by even the most sincere seeker. And from this simple question comes my own experience that the teacher can expect to be burned by this love even more than the disciple. The teacher has to hold this love in its true, impersonal nature, knowing that it belongs only to God. And together with the love comes a deep recognition and complete acceptance of the wayfarer—one can only walk the path as one's whole self. But this same love and acceptance so often awakens in the disciple a desire to have a personal relationship with the teacher, as the disciple does not understand that the real relationship belongs to the soul and not to the personality. The need to personalize this relationship appears most strongly in women, particularly when the love and understanding they experience are otherwise lacking in their lives. And in the West women seem to form a majority of spiritual seekers, especially on a path of devotion like Sufism.
Yet there can be no "friendship" with the teacher, despite the feelings of inner closeness that are very real. In the Sufi tradition the relationship with the teacher leads the disciple towards a relationship with God.41 The teacher is in essence an empty space through which the energy of the Divine can nourish the disciple, or a mirror that just reflects back her true self. Having no conscious understanding of its real nature, the disciple will color this relationship with personal dramas, with the images of parents or other authority figures, or even with the longing for a physical lover. She will paint her own pictures on this clear mirror.
And now, after so many years, when someone tells me that they want a "more personal relationship" with me, there is just a certain sadness that this evokes. If they knew the real nature of the love that is given, how its purpose is to draw them step by step towards an abandonment so complete that only Truth remains, they would not try to color it with the images of a personal friendship. And if they could glimpse what is within "me," an emptiness where a cold wind often blows that knows nothing of any personal self, they would not want to get any closer. But we always paint the pictures we want to see, and when love is given there is no understanding of its desolation.
Hopefully the teacher is one who has been trained to want nothing, has been emptied so completely that there is no danger of being caught in the trap of so many projections. I was fortunate in that I was trained for almost twenty years before I began. I was ground to dust in order to do this work. And for the first few years I was watched very closely, and then crushed again. I was taught the old-fashioned way, forced to see my limitations again and again. And this was only the beginning.
To guide a soul back to God is the most serious responsibility anyone can be given, because it concerns what is most precious within a human being: the desire for Truth and the ability to live this desire—the potential to go Home. Nothing is more important in the life of an individual, and so nothing is more dangerous to abuse. Sometimes seekers have come to me who have been spiritually misled, or even abused, by their teacher. The soul becomes twisted, unable to live or reflect the light that is within. These seekers can easily become lost souls, wandering aimlessly without true purpose. Sometimes help can be given, and their light can be returned to them. They can be reconnected with their life's meaning. But there is almost always a scar, a sadness that what was so precious was contaminated.
On the Sufi path the disciple is taken Home through the power of divine love, and this love is the most potent and dangerous force in existence. It can cut through every pattern of resistance and awaken the heart. To have the power to place this love into the heart of another person is a tremendous responsibility. It also means that the other person can easily fall in love with you. This love is like nothing the disciple has ever known, and it is given freely without conditions. It is pure poison—a drug to the heart. The teacher holds the heart of the disciple in his own heart and nourishes it with divine love. And how easy it is to mistake this divine love for human love. Without any cultural understanding of devotion, the disciple can become lost in a maze of longings in which the human and Divine become confused. It is the work of the teacher to try again and again to reflect back to the disciple the true impersonal nature of this love.
After almost twenty years I am in constant awe of this inner drama of divine love, how the disciple is held in love, and how the soul of the teacher is guided by the laws of love in this work. But it was many years before I understood the nature and effect of this transmission of love: how the essence of the relationship between teacher and disciple belongs to the level of the soul, how the soul of the disciple is infused with the light and love that it needs for the journey. And how little this work has to do with the outer person of either the teacher or disciple. And yet most practitioners believe it is the outer person rather than the real being of the teacher with whom they interact. This is the cause of so much misunderstanding, and yet the outer form of the teacher also has a part to play.
As has belonged to so much of my experience of the path, this paradoxical relationship between the human and the Divine is at the center of the relationship with the teacher. I have personal faults and failings like anyone, and yet I have been trained, been made empty, to hold a transmission of love that is pure and impersonal. Because this pure love goes directly from heart to heart, it creates a feeling of intimacy that evokes needs, projections, and misunderstandings in the disciple. The journey of the disciple is of necessity through this maze of misunderstandings created by the divine love that comes through the teacher. Without the human presence of the teacher this drama would not take place, and yet it is due to the emptiness within the teacher that the wayfarer is drawn into this labyrinth, and hopefully, finally, into the mystery of merging, when human and divine reveal their essential unity.
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