Meeting the Teacher, by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

A life-changing encounter with spiritual authority

Coming home…my heart was singing….I felt light, free and happy, as one would feel when coming home after a long absence.

Irina Tweedie, arriving at her teacher’s house for the first time.

Less than the dust at the feet of the teacher

A few weeks after this encounter by the fireside, my new friends, as they had become, invited me to a spiritual talk on mathematics. Listening to the talk, I noticed an old woman with white hair tied in a bun sitting directly in front of me. After the talk my friends introduced me to her in the aisle. She gave me one look from piercing blue eyes. In that instant I had the physical experience of becoming just a speck of dust on the ground. Then she turned and walked away and I was left, empty and bewildered.

I was nineteen and very arrogant, proud of my spiritual learning. I had read books and practiced yoga. In one instant all this identity crashed to the floor. I was nothing. I was nowhere. In that moment my whole self was crushed; all feelings of self-value disappeared. I was just left stunned, overwhelmed not by love or devotion, but by the power of annihilation, the destruction of the ego.

There is a Sufi saying that the disciple has to become “less than the dust at the feet of the teacher.” We have to be ground down until there is nothing left, just a speck of dust to be blown hither and thither by the wind of the spirit. Only when we have lost our sense of self, the values of the ego, can we carry His sweet fragrance, as in the words of a Persian song:

Why are you so fragrant, oh dust?
I am a dust people tread upon,
But I partake of the fragrance of the
     courtyard of a Saint.
It is not me, I am just an ordinary

At the time I had no understanding of this experience. I had no framework within which to assimilate it. It just happened, and I mentioned it to no one. Years later I realized that it was a foretaste of the path. When we meet the teacher, when we first tread upon the path, we are given a glimpse of where this will take us. In visions, dreams, or inner experiences, the wayfarer is shown what this journey will mean, for there is a saying that “the end is present in the beginning.” The Sufi path is a closed circle of love and everything is present in the first moment.

Often wayfarers are given glimpses of bliss or unconditional love. I was thrown into fanā, the state of annihilation. I was shown how I would lose everything, all sense of myself. This was not so much a warning as a statement. There was no sense of free will or of deciding anything. I did not even consciously know that this was to be my spiritual future. I had looked into the eyes of a white-haired old woman whom I had never seen before, and become a piece of dust on the floor. I did not either understand or question the experience. One does not question sunlight or wind.

A sense of belonging

When I was introduced to Irina Tweedie in that lecture hall I did not know that she was a Sufi teacher. I only knew that she was connected to the friends I had met at the weekend course on Plato a few weeks earlier. The explosion of my kundalini had attracted my attention to the young couple who were artists, and I had spent the weekend walking the wet fields and lanes of the countryside with them. The lectures suddenly held little interest for me. My attention had been turned elsewhere, away from the mind towards a different world.

I met up with these friends again in London, at cafés for lunch or tea. They seemed to belong to a small group that shared a common interest, but this interest was only hinted at, never spoken of directly. I just inferred that there was a deeper connection than that of art-school friends. At that time Irina Tweedie’s Sufi group was secret and was never spoken about in public. One had to be invited to the group, and Mrs. Tweedie (as she liked to be called) had to ask her teacher in meditation if the new person could come. When I had met these friends she was actually away in the Philippines, where she was having psychic surgery to heal a heart valve, but no one knew where she had gone. She had just “disappeared” and her group meetings were closed until further notice. But on her return the meetings reconvened, and one of the friends, feeling the intensity of my spiritual quest, asked if I might come.

After meeting with Mrs. Tweedie at the lecture hall, I was invited to the meditation group. So one Tuesday late-afternoon I arrived at a north-London house with Beba. Beba had also been at the lecture on mathematics and thought we were going to visit the old lady we had met there for tea. I didn’t know what to think. I had never been to a meditation group. I had absolutely no preconceptions and so had said nothing to Beba. We had not discussed it. Looking back I realize that it is significant that I did not talk or even think about how the group might be, in the same way that my initial meeting with Mrs. Tweedie had left no mental residue—only years later did I think about the experience of being made to feel like a speck of dust. At the time the experience did not evoke any thoughts, nor did the invitation to the group. There was nothing to say or think except that we were going to visit the old lady. Meeting the teacher, meeting the path, did not belong to my mind.

Mrs. Tweedie lived in a studio flat, what the English call a “bed-sit.” It was a small, second-floor room, looking out over the street, containing a bed, chest of drawers, wardrobe, table, chair, sink, cooker, and small refrigerator. On the other side of the street was an above ground tube- and train-track, and every five minutes or so the room would shake with the noise of a train passing. The twelve or more people attending the group sat on the bed, against the bed, against the chest of drawers, wherever there was space. Mrs. Tweedie sat beside the sink, and after the meditation, served us all with tea and biscuits. What I remember from that first meeting was a feeling of “coming home,” of for the first time in my life being where I belong. I also remember being offered a selection of chocolate biscuits, and being told “Sugar is good for you.” I had identified spirituality with healthy eating, and the worst sin was pure sugar. That first afternoon, what had become one of my central preconceptions about spiritual life was thrown aside by the offer of a biscuit. Later Mrs. Tweedie elaborated on this, quoting a saying of her teacher, Bhai Sahib: “You cannot reach God through your stomach.”

This small room beside the train tracks contained a power and energy I had never before experienced. It was alive with the intensity of a different dimension. Leaving our shoes in the corridor, we would enter the intensive aura of meditation and dynamic love. Here was a presence that spoke directly of the mysteries I had heard hinted at in the books I had read, a fragrance of an inner reality beyond the mind and the senses. And I belonged here, in this inner space enclosed by the small room and the noise of the trains.

The sense of belonging was tangibly real. It was so definite and distinct that the mind was not allowed to argue. I was a drowning man who had just discovered that there was ground under his feet, and I could now stand with my chin above the water. This was the first real ground I had ever felt—not the shifting sands of the world of appearances, but something ancient and present. Again what was significant was that this experience as so direct it bypassed the mind and any judgment. After the first meeting I did not consider whether I should come back. I did not think about the experience at all. I just came to the next meeting, and the next…. If you are where you really belong there is no before and no after, no sense of arrival and no possibility of departure.

The little room in north London became my real home, psychologically and spiritually. The members of the group became my family, an inner family of friends with whom I shared the deepest bond of belonging and a commitment to find the Truth. For the first time in my life there was an echo of my real being. What was most important to me, what had been hidden in the very depths of my being, resonated in the room around me. A teacher, friendship, and the power of the path—I had found the container to take me Home.

The authority of the teacher

Twice a week I would go to meetings, twice a week feel this presence, this energy, this belonging.  The meetings became the focal point of my life. I lived from meeting to meeting. When I could I would spend time in between with friends from the group, people with whom I could share this hidden secret, this obsession. We were of a similar age, interested in art, music, and the heart’s call to God. We would meet, talk, drink tea, listen to music, and meditate. I liked the silence of meditation and the shared, unspoken understanding.

I don’t remember any “teachings” at the meetings. I remember sitting in a chair just in front of where Mrs. Tweedie sat on the floor, and how, when she stood up, she would tousle my hair with her hand and how I didn’t like it. I remember intense physical discomfort when we meditated and the energy started to flow through my body. My body had become very nervous from too much yoga, fasting, and the pressure of psychological problems. Meditation did not help. The energy was intense, the longing desperate, and the body just seemed a hindrance, an obstacle.

One of the effects of kundalini is to make you want to urinate. The moment we began the meditation, the kundalini would be activated and I would want to go to the bathroom. Even if I went to the bathroom just before the meditation the effect would be the same. Should I remain for the whole meditation trying to hold myself, or should I disturb everyone in that small, crowded room by getting up? I felt trapped and embarrassed, and would often sit in torment for the whole meditation, surrounded by people with heads bowed in deep silence. I longed to be normal, to just sit in silence and peace. I had looked forward to the meeting, but only suffered.

I think that the group was very tolerant. I had arrived with a large burden of problems weighing me down, and an intensity that was not easy to bear even for myself. It was a small group meeting in a small space, but I never received any criticism, only love. Mrs. Tweedie would say that one of the special qualities of a Sufi group is that we are allowed to be ourselves, “warts and all,” and in that space I was accepted for myself without conditions. At the time I was aware only of my own needs and my own insecurities, but the group responded to these needs and gave me the support of real acceptance.

Mrs. Tweedie would talk about her Sufi teacher, Bhai Sahib, her time with him in India. Her book, describing her training with him, was not to be published for a few years, but her time in his presence and her continued inner relationship with him permeated the meetings. Although he was no longer physically alive, she had a direct, inner connection with him and could contact him in meditation. At times she would give people messages that she had received from him. She always insisted that she was not a teacher, only a disciple, just his representative here in the West. She was full of fire, passion, and love in its two sides, tenderness and the cold knife of love that cuts away illusions. But in those early meetings I most remember her being someone who lived what I dreamed of. She lived in the inner reality for which I longed. Until I met her I never knew that it was possible. I had read books about masters in the Himalayas, but here was a white-haired Russian woman, who lived beside the train tracks in North London, and whose eyes were not of this world.

She would not allow any form of personality worship, any form of personal relationship. She always stressed that the teacher is “without a face and without a name,” and only the teaching mattered. But it was her presence that inspired us. Whether we were meditating together or having tea and biscuits, she held the same inner affirmation. She knew that the world was an illusion because she experienced the beyond. She experienced the invisible, inner reality that beckoned to us, for which we hungered. I knew that she knew. This knowledge had nothing to do with words, spoken or unspoken. Her knowing was stamped in the very core of her being and radiated from every cell. This was the power of her presence and the reason for her authority.

At school I had been a rebel, resenting any imposed authority. Now for the first time in my life I was in the presence of an authority before which there was no question. This was not an authority asserted with rules. Before this authority I unconditionally surrendered, even though the unconditional nature and the degree of this surrender terrified me. Again there was no questioning process; no thinking pattern intruded into this relationship. She is the only person whom I would obey whatever she told me. There are no conditions. The absolute nature of this relationship is its greatest security, because it does not involve duality, the dialogue of you and me. It just is. Later I understood that it is a relationship of the soul that is brought from lifetime to lifetime. Belonging neither to time nor to space, it gave my mind no access to question, belief, or disbelief. The relationship and its stamp of surrender belong to an inner commitment to the path.

This commitment comes into consciousness as the knowledge that this is the path that can take one Home. The desire to make this journey is so strong that it overrules any desire to question the authority of the teacher or the teacher’s representative. But there is a deeper relationship in which the disciple knows that the authority of the teacher is one with the path. On the Sufi path the relationship with the teacher carries the imprint of the inner connection of the path. Mrs. Tweedie would say to us, “Don’t trust me here, don’t trust the old lady you see sitting in front of you. Trust the part of me that is somewhere else.” She meant, “Don’t trust my personality with all its faults. Trust my soul which is merged with the soul of my teacher.” The authority of the teacher belongs to this inner relationship, a link of love that runs from teacher to disciple. This link of love is the essence of the path.

The authority of the teacher carries the security born of this link of love, this connection of the soul. But it also carries a quality of fear that is unlike anything else I have experienced. When Mrs. Tweedie was with her teacher she experienced this same fear, for she knew that he would do anything for the sake of truth, even kill her. I also knew that she embodied the same ultimate commitment to the path, and to the inner desire of the disciple for Truth. In the Sufi tradition the sheikh is sometimes referred to as “the executioner,” and Mrs. Tweedie would refer to Bhai Sahib as her “beloved executioner.” The teacher has to take the seeker beyond the ego, help him to “die before death,” and the ego knows this. The ego instinctively recoils in fear before the presence of the sheikh. For many years each time I came to my teacher’s door I would feel this fear, a sense of trepidation and nervousness. There appeared little external reason for this fear, as most of the time I was treated with great kindness. But inwardly I knew that the sword of love was always present, the power that could cut through all my defenses, my patterns of attachments and desires.

There has been much questioning and misunderstanding about the authority of the teacher and the disciple’s need to surrender. In the presence of real spiritual authority, this question did not enter my consciousness. I knew that the personality was not involved, and that there was no personal power dynamic. Real spiritual authority carries the stamp of freedom rather than the subtle or not-so-subtle patterns of co-dependency that are evident in any cult situation. This authority does not come from any desire or egoistic power drive of the teacher, because a real teacher is one who has been made empty. If an individual feels the need to question the teacher’s authority, he or she must be free to do so—in the Sufi tradition the seeker is initially allowed to test the teacher. But somewhere, on the level of the soul, the wayfarer instinctively bows down in the presence of a real teacher. If the spiritual being who is present is not one’s own teacher, this can be experienced as deep respect, the soul’s respect for someone who has been made empty and reflects the divine light. But with one’s own teacher the connection to the path carries the stamp of surrender. The deeper the relationship with the teacher, the stronger the link with the path, the more this inner surrender impresses itself upon consciousness. It is this inner impression of the soul that evokes a feeling of both fear and awe in the disciple.

In the presence of Mrs. Tweedie I felt both the path and my own need. I knew that she was a doorkeeper of the inner world, and that I would pay any price to go through. However low I needed to bow, even to becoming a speck of dust on the floor, the inner necessity to pass the barrier of the ego would push me down. Her presence, her inner state of surrender, was a living example of the process. The path and the goal had become a tangible reality. ◆

Reprinted by permission from Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s The Face Before I Was Born: A Spiritual Autobiography (The Golden Sufi Center, 1997; Second Edition, 2009).

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2024 issue of Parabola, FREEDOM. You can find the full issue on our online store.

By Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a Sufi teacher in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi Order. He is the founder of The Golden Sufi Center and is the author of several books, most recently Including the Earth in Our Prayers: A Global Dimension to Spiritual Practice.