A Path of Love and Freedom

A conversation with Sufi master Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Born in London in 1953, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has followed the Naqshbandi Sufi path since he was nineteen. In 1991 he became the successor of Irina Tweedie, author of Daughter of Fire and who brought this particular Indian branch of Sufism to the West. Vaughan-Lee is the founder of The Golden Sufi Center and the author of numerous books including For Love of the Real: A Story of Life’s Mystical Secret and, most recently, Seasons of the Sacred: Reconnecting to the Wisdom Within.
—The Editors

Amir Freimann: What does being a teacher mean to you?

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee: To be a teacher is to be in service to the path and the work of the path. I have been given the duty to be the representative of a Naqshbandi Sufi tradition, and as such I have been given access to the transmission of the path, the energy, the grace that is needed for the disciple to progress on the path. On this Sufi path, the transmission is a quality of divine love, or grace. My work, my responsibility, is to keep this transmission pure and help the wayfarer to be aligned to the path and give them the energy, the love, that is needed to realize their highest spiritual potential. We say that the ego cannot go beyond the ego, the mind cannot go beyond the mind, so on their own, the student does not have the energy or guidance to make the journey.

AF: What are some of the differences you see between you and your students?

LV-L: Spiritually, the student needs everything from the teacher, while the teacher is not allowed to want anything from the student. The teacher is one who has been made empty, has become featureless and formless. The student—particularly in the initial years—will often project their higher self or divine nature onto the teacher, which is a very powerful and numinous projection. The teacher has to bear the projections of the student, both positive and negative, while the teacher should not project anything onto the student.

AF: You say the teacher is not allowed to want anything from the student, but doesn’t the teacher need something from the student—not for himself, but so that he can fulfill his function? I’m thinking of honesty, respect, appreciation, trust, even love—doesn’t the teacher need and want them?

LV-L: This is an interesting question, and also distinguished between need and want. As I mentioned, this is a path of freedom, and so the wayfarer must be left free, and the teacher must want nothing on an essential level. And yet, in order for the teacher to do his or her work, a certain attitude on the part of the wayfarer is needed. What I have found is that a quality of respect is what is most important, and often most lacking in Western wayfarers—respect for the real nature of the teacher and the work that needs to be done. Without this respect there is little container for inner work, and the nafs [the lower self] and personal psychological dynamics interfere too much. But it is not the teacher’s personal self that is respected, but the role or position that the teacher has been given, as representative of a tradition.

You ask about love—and yes, in our tradition, love is essential. The disciple progresses through love. Again, it is not a personal love, but a quality of divine love. If there is no love on their part, either he or she is not suited to this path, or the teacher has not been able to open or reach their heart as yet.

AF: You say that in your tradition love is essential, but what does love actually mean if, as you said earlier, the teacher has become empty, featureless, and formless? I guess you’re using the word “love” in a very different way than it’s usually thought of.

LV-L: This love is a quality of divine love—and yes, it is very different to what most people identify as love. It is given directly from heart to heart, from soul to soul. But it is important to understand that this love is not personal. It is both intimate and impersonal.

This is a mystical tradition, the via negative, that leads from the created to the uncreated, to the primal emptiness. One of the mysteries of the Sufi path is how the disciple is absorbed into the emptiness within the teacher. This process of absorption is an essential part of the final stages of the journey, which can also be described as merging within the teacher. On their own, the wayfarer cannot make the journey into the mystical emptiness. Through the empty heart of the teacher, the wayfarer is taken from existence to non-existence.

Sufi mystics and attendants. Ibrahim b. Adham, seventeenth century. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

AF: Let me ask it this way: How important is the student’s personal relationship with the teacher?

LV-L: Because this connection happens on the level of the soul, it has nothing to do with a personal relationship. In fact, I actively discourage people from trying to make a personal relationship with me, as it confuses the real nature of the love that is given and the soul connection. However, I have found that in the West, students, particularly female students, often want to have a personal relationship, to feel a personal connection.

There can be no personal friendship with the teacher, despite the feelings of inner closeness that are very real. 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 our true self. Having no conscious understanding of its real nature, the disciple will color this soul 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.

Hopefully the teacher 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.

AF: Can you say more about being ground to dust? Is this also part of the process that some of your students undergo?

LV-L: According to the ancient tradition, “one has to become less than the dust at the feet of the teacher,” and this was also my experience with my teacher. One becomes nothing, worthless, without dignity or shame. One cares for nothing. It is completely brutal and ruthless and involves the whole person. For example, at the beginning I was not allowed to sleep for more than two or three hours every night, after which my kundalini energy awoke me. After months of this, you do not care about anything, you are ground down.
With most of my students, it is the power of love that transforms them, so I have only done this on very rare occasions, and only when it was absolutely necessary in order for the student to progress. Of course, there needs to be a degree of trust, as the disciple needs to be held in love while this takes place; otherwise, the psyche can be fractured. Even so, it still takes a long time, often years, for the psyche to heal from this process, unless the disciple is surrendered on all levels, which is very, very rare. But this is a terrible task for me as a teacher, because, on a human level, I care for my students and the suffering they may experience. I have not actually done this for many years now. Maybe I am getting too old or too soft! Though at times I do need to be strict, to point out mistakes or if they are going against the tradition.

AF: On the one hand, it sounds like the teacher has to be detached from their students, but you also spoke of love and care, and to me it sounds like ambivalence—is it?

LV-L: Here you touch part of the real paradox of being a teacher, of being completely involved and yet also detached. The spiritual heart of the wayfarer is held within the spiritual heart of the teacher, and so one cares on a very deep, soul level, both for the human suffering and happiness—illness, a fight with cancer, a baby born, child or grandchild—but [one cares] even more that the wayfarer can make this journey, that the soul can realize its highest potential. Because one knows the real meaning of the soul’s journey, one feels a deep fulfillment at the steps that are taken, and sadness at the missed opportunities. This is why the disciples are often described as the sheikh’s spiritual family. Many of my disciples have been with me for fifteen, twenty years or more, and so I have come to care deeply about them also on a very human level.

And yet, without the detachment and freedom, the journey could not take place, in the same way that real compassion requires detachment. This is a detachment that encompasses commitment and involvement, quite different, for example, from the detachment of a therapist. It is the inner detachment of real love, because the heart must belong only to God, otherwise the teacher could not help the student, would be as caught in the illusions of the world. In Sufism, the doorway to this is annihilation and “poverty of the heart”—having nothing and wanting nothing.

AF: Do you find that your students tend to delegate some of their responsibility to you? Do they lose some of their independence because they are in a relationship with you?

LV-L: Initially, the relationship—in which one may feel loved, accepted, recognized for the first time—can evoke dynamics of dependence. And it is only too easy to look to the teacher for guidance, to project onto the teacher one’s own inner guidance.
But I have found that, in most instances, the energy and practices of the path push the wayfarer to stand on their own feet, to claim their own inner guidance. Often there is a period of feeling completely alone, even abandoned by the teacher and the path. This is a test that requires the wayfarer to journey inwardly beyond patterns of dependence and to claim their own relationship to the self. If a serious student remains too attached, they find themselves ignored or even “thrown out of the group” for a length of time, maybe a year or two, so that they have to find their own feet, their own inner connection and inner guidance.

Sufi garment with embroidered Qu’ran sutras (detail). Afghanistan or Pakistan,1874. Cotton and silk. Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne, Germany. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Author: Daderot.

AF: You spoke, and of course it makes sense, about how the relationship between you and a student changes as the student progresses along the path. Are there aspects of the relationship that remain the same?

LV-L: The inner closeness with the teacher is a “closed circle of love” and remains the same. My sheikh said that, for the teacher, “The very beginning and the end are the same; it is a closed circle. For the disciple, of course, it is very different; he has to complete the whole circle. As the disciple progresses, he feels the Master nearer and nearer, as the time goes on. But the Master is not nearer; he was always near, only the disciple did not know it.” This is from Daughter of Fire.

When I first meet someone who is drawn to follow this path, I feel the real nature of our spiritual connection and relationship of the soul. But it takes the student many years to come to know this inner connection, this quality of love and spiritual friendship.

AF: Have you had students who were on the path and at some point wandered off the path?

LV-L: Yes, of course, some students wander off the path, mainly through being caught in the illusions of the ego, or the world. I have also found that for the first years on the path, students often make mistakes, get caught in illusions in the outer and inner worlds, yet they can remain on the path. Yes, they need to learn from these mistakes, but it is just part of the journey. But as the path progresses and the wayfarer is given more and more access to their divine nature, they have to live more and more aligned with their higher nature. Then mistakes have more lasting consequences when, for example, an individual gets caught in a spiritual illusion, a spiritualized sense of self, or does not ground the path in outer service in everyday life, or gets caught in a negative relationship. There are so many different illusions that can attract us and the danger is that the illusion covers over the real light of the path, and the individual is drawn back into the ego.

AF: What happens then to the relationship between you and the student?

LV-L: If a wayfarer makes a serious mistake, or gradually turns away from the path, of course I feel a certain disappointment, particularly if a spiritual opportunity, an opportunity for the soul to grow and evolve, is missed. If the individual continues down this road, gradually they forget the path and the true nature of their inner connection with the teacher, and I am no longer able to reach them on the plane of the soul. It is very sad, probably one of the greatest sadnesses of being a teacher, because it is a sadness of the soul. But at the same time, I have to be detached; otherwise, I could try to influence the individual, and the person has to be left free. Love is about freedom. On this path, freedom is very important. It is a path of complete freedom.

AF: Did such disappointments change something in you?

LV-L: At the beginning, I was very naïve, but over the years I have learned about the many ways the ego can seduce us. Maybe I have grown more mature; but also a certain sadness remains, a certain loss of innocence.

Behind these questions and my answers there is another quality that belongs to this link of love between teacher and disciple, which I find difficult to fully articulate. This is a deep feeling of love and care, so that if the student is able to make the journey, there is a joy and happiness, balanced by the sadness and disappointment for those who are waylaid by the ego, by anger or a personal power drive, or many of the other obstacles to real surrender. Although I am detached, I also feel deeply for the spiritual well-being of those who are drawn to this path.

AF: What have you learned from your work with students?

LV-L: I have learned about human beings and how the path works mysteriously within each of us. And I have marveled at the grace that is given, and how easy it is to miss the opportunities that are given, how easily the lower self and the illusions of the world cover and distort the inner light, the real guidance, and yet how we are helped again and again, despite our mistakes.

I have also learned how often the way I have approached the path with a certain ruthlessness and masculine drive is not necessarily appropriate for others. I have always pushed myself, but I have found for most people this is not the best way, that love and acceptance work better.

I also have discovered many of my own limitations, lack of understanding of certain human dynamics. For example, when I first started teaching, many women appeared to have issues with a lack of self-worth which I had never encountered before, and I had to try to learn about these issues, though I do not think I have been fully successful. Certain psychological dynamics I just do not understand.

AR: Do you need to be a teacher in order to continue learning and developing?

LV-L: I will be happy to pass on some of the responsibilities of being a teacher to the one who comes after me. Being a teacher is both a grace and a burden, especially in the West, where there is so little understanding of the true nature of this relationship. And, of course, there is a central part of my journey that has nothing to do with being a teacher, just a human being, a soul drawn towards the light. Just a piece of dust at the feet of my teacher.

AR: You feel this way even though you are a teacher yourself?

LV-L: In our tradition, the real relationship with the teacher is once and forever, from lifetime to lifetime. In my own experience, I could not live without the inner connection to my sheikh. I belong to him beyond life or death. Through his grace the journey continues. ◆

Reprinted by permission from Amir Freimann’s Spiritual Transmission: Paradoxes and Dilemmas on the Spiritual Path (Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2018, monkfishpublishing.com).