Open our hearts that we may hear Thy voice which constantly comes from within.
Hazrat Inayat Khan

If life is to have meaning, if guidance is real and we wish to find it, we must be sincere in our readiness to listen. We must want to hear what is in our hearts, and what has grown silent due to lack of attention. And then we must learn to listen. It must be practiced, and cultivated. How rarely do we consider this! How few seek this essential mastery. The soul of every person, the soul of life itself, is waiting to be heard. Are we listening? Are we capable of hearing? 

Listening lies at the center of the spiritual seeker’s vocation. If we give it attention, our innermost being will begin to speak to us. Then we will know at last how we are not alone. We will know that there is a light even in utter darkness.

Listening is not merely what occurs through our ears, but a way to describe the witnessing consciousness of the soul. It is the soul that hears and sees, that gains understanding of life [1]. We listen well to the extent that our hearing is pure—free of agenda or judgment. We listen well when we have learned to be receptive.

Although the importance of listening in our path may seem obvious, I believe that it hasn’t been given the emphasis it deserves, and that cultivating it can serve our progress. In this paper we will explore why listening is essential and how it is learned. We will identify some of the skills and attitudes inherent in true listening, and in doing so begin to sketch methods of practice which can take their place along with other basic practices such as breath and concentration. 

Another purpose of this paper is to consider how listening is essential in fulfilling the purpose of our lives. To learn what life–with all its beauty and sorrow, cruelty and goodness–has to teach us, and to harvest its precious gifts, we must listen well. This paper is an attempt to help us open the ears of our hearts in this school called life. 

Listening and Volition: Two Aspects of the Path

To understand the place of listening in our path, we must see it in context alongside its complementary orientation, which can be called volition. Volition is the application of effort to attempt to shape and direct our experience. It is creative and assertive, and includes evocative practice such as wazifa, prayer and visualization. We may be receptive and listen as we experience the effect of these practices, yet their main characteristic is to focus our experience in a desired direction. We direct our mind and fill it with the desired thought as we say, for instance, “O Thou, Sustainer.”

Volition is also the exercise of will power and self-discipline. Out of devotion to our ideal of beauty, we learn to control egoic tendencies, such as refraining from gossip. Volition applies to cultivating thoughts and feelings of our choosing rather than being governed by patterns of reactivity and raw impulse—as when we do not allow feelings of judgment towards another to grow, but instead cultivate feelings of forgiveness. 

The orientation of volition is aspirational. We intuit the One who is Greater and Most Beautiful, then, fueled by the passion of this inner vision, we strive to go beyond the small, encapsulated self in pursuit of our heart’s ideal. 

What then is the nature of listening? Listening is not willful, but receptive. It is seeking to recognize what is present without trying to change or improve. When listening, we are not reaching for wider horizons, no matter how inspirational they may be. 

With volition, we shape our thoughts and feelings. With listening we cease active striving and become present to our state as it is. With volition we rein in the tendencies of the ego. With listening we seek insight into these tendencies until we have touched the divine impulse at their source. 

In summary, on one side is invocation, and mastery; on the other is presence, and understanding. Both are essential to the path, as is the balance between them. And I believe that there are potential dangers when either approach overly dominates. 

The receptivity and acceptance that characterizes listening can be stagnant without the fire of aspiration and the striving toward greater heights. Accepting the truth we know must be balanced by stretching to touch the truth that is beyond our current view. To forgive our failings can be weak unless we also exercise discipline to change our ways. The orientation of listening alone, without creative aspiration, strength, and accountability, is not complete.

There is also potential danger with the volitional mode. On a path of great idealism, we must be skillful in relation to that within us that falls short of perfection. Otherwise, despite our best intentions, we are likely to do harm to ourselves and others. We see the shadow in the Catholic Church that surrounds the covenant of celibacy. It is a sacred ideal, yet many lack the understanding and tools for working with the powerful force of sexuality and the need for human contact. These needs are not readily tamed, and can get acted out destructively. 

In our path we are not celibate, but we do have lofty aspirations of selflessness and tolerance. We must be wise in working with strong inner needs contrary to these ideals. We must explore what happens when those impulses are repressed or denied, and how they can be transformed. Aspiration towards high ideals must be balanced with understanding and acceptance of our humanity.

This paper’s focus is on listening, but always with the recognition that our path is an artful weaving of these two orientations.

Part One: When Listening is Needed

Below are three of the most significant arenas in which listening is critical to spiritual practice: hearing the voice of guidance, examination of the heart, and being present to the wound of the heart.

Hearing the Voice of Guidance 

Receiving guidance from within is pure grace. And it is also a matter of becoming a proper instrument. To come into relationship with the voice of guidance we must learn to properly ask and to properly listen. Striving will not serve us here—the key is attentive receptivity. 

Sometimes guidance may come in a miraculous flash. But what matters most is living in communion with guidance as a way of life, day to day, moment to moment. It is a way of life based on an authentic attunement to the presence of wisdom within us. The voice of guidance cannot be commanded, but it can be invited and graciously attended to. How is this developed?


The Knower manifested as human in order that He might become known to Himself. And now what must we do in order to help the Knower to fulfill this purpose? Seek continually an answer to every question that arises in our heart [2].

We enter into relationship with guidance by bringing a question or a desire to understand into our heart. We bring it with openness and humility, wishing to hear a response. To discover the right question, our true question, is in itself a contemplative quest. A question properly asked is a prayer. 

There is nothing that you ask that this universe will not answer. For it is the nature of this universe to answer your soul’s call [3].

We may need to dig down through the layers to get to the simple, pure question that is the heart of the matter. We may begin with surface questions based on reactivity like, “what’s the matter with me that I spend so much time on the Internet?!” Then we proceed more deeply to arrive at the real and edifying question that will draw forth true insight. This is a contemplative process. 

Our true question holds the key to the answer. If we consider the implication of this statement, we understand that to find our question is to discover a jewel that contains within it the seed of an answer. We cannot determine when an insight will come or in what form. But we participate in a divine covenant—that if we truly ask we will be answered.  So, we search for our question, and give it voice in our heart, with a sense of sanctity. 

We may begin with a question like, “What’s the matter with me that I spend so much time on the Internet?” But through a deepening process, we arrive at the question behind the question, perhaps asking, “What is it that I am truly wanting during those evenings I spend on the Internet?”


The gift of the ear is that it hears what the tongue cannot tell [4].

The heart is the organ of listening, and when properly tuned, it recognizes and loves the truth. For the heart to hear the voice of guidance, we must first of all actually want to hear what it says. The spirit of guidance can disrupt things. It doesn’t concern itself with maintaining the status quo, and may not conform to our expectations, or those of society or the people in our lives. For the spirit of guidance serves the unfoldment of the soul, and to hear its voice we may need to turn away from other considerations. Guidance is that spirit, that voice, that must not be buried under conventions and assumptions that pervade our minds. 

Murshid, in a powerful Gatha paper, speaks to this:

We must be taught to consult our own spirit, and from our own feeling to find out and make a distinction between right and wrong…. [A] wrong and artificial standard is taught today to children at home and young people at school. They begin to learn that…that is wrong which they have heard others call wrong, that is right which they have read in a book…; something is good because their parents have said it is good, something is bad because their friends have told them so. An artificial standard made in this way buries the spirit [5].

Once our attitude is one of complete receptivity to the indication of guidance, then what remains is for us to have the ability to hear. Listening requires concentration and patience. It requires the capacity for subtle sensing of how the heart responds when something feels right and in harmony. 

In the same Gatha paper, Murshid says, “For those searching after truth…the first thing to learn is to find out for themselves what is right and what is wrong…from their own feeling, which can be perceived by a delicate sense of realizing…what gives comfort and what gives discomfort [6].

This “delicate sensing” is a key feature of listening, and it can be practiced and developed. Until then, we are prone to mistake our thoughts and concepts for guidance. If we are present and sensing beneath mental activity, we will know the exact moment that we hit upon what is real. There will be an inner recognition in our heart, a feeling of, “that’s it!” The heart will tell us when the truth has arrived. 

A Case Example

Perhaps you have a question about your vocation in life. You have given decades to working with special needs children and now it’s time to renew your contract, but it worries you that you don’t feel enthusiastic. Your mind has gone round and round about it. All this thinking and the pressure to make a decision are stressful. You wish you could call your spiritual guide for advice but she is in India for two months. 

Perhaps you have learned how to turn within and to listen to the voice of guidance. How different this is from obsessive thinking. You have learned to be present with your question and come into resonance with the dynamic, inner process of sensing for insight as it deepens and unfolds.

First you clarify your motivation: you want to hear the truth and to follow what it says no matter what. No matter what! You feel the fire of your devotion to this pledge, and are also a little fearful about the potential implications. You realize, however, that following guidance is to follow what truly feels right in your own deepest knowing, so you go forward in search of that knowing in the depth of your heart.

You remain present, and as you think about your work and the children you work with, you notice a sense of neutrality, a kind of indifference. No passion. This feels odd, but that is what you feel. It makes your mind nervous. Your thoughts say, “What happened to your heart? You seem so cold.” Your spiritual ideal asks, “What about the children who are in need? Don’t you care?” Your practical side says, “You spent all that money getting a Master’s degree; are you going to throw it all away?”

But you wait, undistracted by these thoughts, present to what is occurring, free of concepts about what you “should” be feeling. You are sensing your body, and increasingly your subtle body, as you are attentive to feelings that arise, and to how your state is changing. You know that all these commentaries are premature, and there is no need to draw any conclusions. Is your heart really shut down, or is something else being shown to you? You don’t know. This not knowing isn’t a failure on your part. Rather, you recognize it as a phase of listening—the presence of space. Your analytical mind has reached its limit and has relaxed its effort to grasp the answer. You abide in the dark, and this darkness is the space conducive to the light of guidance.

You return to this process a number of times over the next few days. You pose questions to yourself about your desires. You feel your fatigue. You continue to feel neutrality in relation to your work, and simply allow it to be present while sensing into it with interest and increasing subtlety. What exactly is this sense of neutrality? You begin to see something else now; you sense that your heart feels tired. You knew that you were pretty worn out, but this is not physical fatigue; it’s a sensation in your heart, and it’s actually fascinating to feel it. 

Now an insight dawns. You see how hard you have been trying to help all these children, and their parents and families. Tears well up as you feel the depth of your caring behind all the work you’ve been doing. At the same time, you are encountering in your heart the true scope of the need. So many kids; so many ways the deck is stacked against them. As you stay present to your experience, you feel the strain you have been carrying. It’s an impossible job. You’ve said those very words to friends, but you had not encountered the direct truth of that statement within yourself and surrendered to it. You now see the struggles of these children and their families. You see their financial poverty in a society of so much wealth. You see the situation as it is. You simply sit and focus on feeling the effect this insight is having on you. 

With steady concentration, you sense the state of neutrality returning but now there is an additional sense of presence. You sense a moist warmth in your chest, and somehow you think of Buddha. You feel his peaceful presence and the way he senses neutrality also. That’s it! You see how his seeming neutrality is the very essence of dispassionate compassion. This insight is not intellectual. You are experiencing looking out at all the suffering with the deepest compassion. Your eyes do not turn away. You do not lose yourself in endless strain and busyness trying to fix everything. It’s illogical that you could feel such compassion and such dispassion at the same time. But that is what is present, and it is informing you at a deep level with a profound truth. You are relaxing. What began as a practical question about your work contract has led to this! It is clear now that you do not want to leave your job. But in some subtle yet powerful way, you will not be the same person who will be driving to work on Monday. You will do your best to help as you can, but your actual function occurs on another dimension. The world is as it is, including the vast scope of suffering. But now you know, from the inside, that the world, and all of the children you care for, are bathing in an ocean of compassion. And this great compassion is manifesting through you. 

This case example illustrates the wisdom of remaining present while tolerating a time of not knowing. It also illustrates some of the main obstacles for hearing the voice of guidance. These obstacles are mostly mental concepts and judgments about what we “should” feel and do, including spiritual concepts. Of course, any sense of guidance must pass through the diligence of our conscience. But if we can give ourselves some space from these precepts, we can begin to discern the insights and desires that arise from a deeper mode of knowing. 

Muhasaba: Purification of the Heart 

Muhasaba is the examination of conscience, and more broadly, it is discerning the condition of our heart, including any factors that may be occluding its purity or aliveness. For Sufis, the condition of the heart is of ultimate importance. 

The heart of man is like a globe over the light of the soul. When the globe is dusty, naturally the light is dim. When it is cleaned, the light increases. In fact, the light is always the same. It is the fault of the globe when it is not clear [7].

How do we examine the condition of our heart? What do we do? How do we begin?

If we are accustomed to practicing only volitional practices, we may not be accustomed to the receptive presence that is needed. To examine our heart, we must be ready to sense what is actually here. We cultivate the desire and ability to abide inwardly, attentively, so that our heart will in time reveal itself. 

Muhasaba includes examining anything in ourselves or in our life that we are unhappy with. Sometimes unresolved matters ask something of us—like taking responsibility, or making a change in our behavior or mental patterns. Sometimes something must simply be accepted, or grieved. Sometimes we must forgive ourselves, and acknowledge our limitations. What is key is that these matters are brought to the light of day, and don’t fester, partially unconscious. Muhasaba offers a way of reaching resolution and purity of heart whatever the situation may be. Outwardly things may not change according to our preference, but inwardly there is always the possibility for understanding and peace. 

Muhasaba is not harsh or punitive. The process has a feeling tone of an intimate conversation that takes place in the heart, without judgment. The accounting occurs in the presence of the Friend. We become quiet, listening as we respectfully approach the inner sanctum. 

We must also want to know the truth of our heart. That may sound like a cliché, but not everyone does really want this, and it is important to arrive at this commitment because muhasaba has no reality unless it is truthful. It is not what we wish our condition to be, or what we tell ourselves it should be. It is an actual, honest accounting. If we truly want to see the condition of our heart, if it is our prayer to be shown, then we can trust that we will be answered.

Listening to the heart begins with knowing and feeling our feelings. Therefore, an obvious challenge is how to relate to feelings that we do not wish to know or feel—feelings that are painful or seen as not beautiful. This is an important question. Some teachings emphasize not giving life and attention to “negative” feelings. There can be confusion about this because muhasaba involves seeing what is actually present. I believe the compass through this paradox is, once again, truthfulness. Say, for example, that you have resentment towards a friend. You don’t want to feed that feeling, but to be cleansed of it. What do you do? Perhaps you begin by cultivating the attitude of forgiveness. You call on the sacred name Ghafar. You imagine your friend as a toddler, innocent and sweet. You recognize that you too have flaws and that even though your friend has flaws she is worthy of your acceptance. This is the volitional approach to practice—creatively cultivating a pure and gracious heart. 

Then comes the time for muhasaba, to honestly see if the practice has dissolved the resentment. If the resentment remains, it will continue to have its effect whether you acknowledge it or not. Being unaware does not mean that it has been resolved. It may simply be underground. In fact, it is the unconscious action of this resentment—when it is repressed or projected—that does the most harm to you and to others. Thus, we begin muhasaba in the spirit of prayer. We ask to be made aware of any blemish that covers the heart. 

It is important to recognize that in order to repress feelings, we dull the light of awareness, and mute our aliveness. We are less in touch with our own heart. It is a high price to pay to avoid a feeling.

To know if you are cleansed of the resentment, you sense the trace of a feeling, which can be subtle. You cannot reliably know through the intellect. When your friend’s name is mentioned, is there a slight distaste in your heart? Or does your heart feel at ease at the thought of her? The signs are visceral; they can be sensed, which is very different from what you may tell yourself you are feeling. 

Muhasaba is not only about examining difficult matters. But it is important to allow difficult feelings to arise because then there is openness without censorship. With this interior receptivity, the heart may begin to reveal itself like a Russian doll opening to its center. As it turns out, what is most hidden in the heart is not negativity, but the great secret of its sacredness. Our heart discovers itself and its nature through the quality of our listening. Something begins to stir as we sense the presence of the Listener who can be trusted with our secret. Murshid says that the heart is entombed. Perhaps it lies in its tomb waiting for the presence of one who cares, who wishes to know. Perhaps it begins to awaken when asked simply, “How are you?” This is muhasaba. 

The Wound of the Heart

As we enter into the sphere of the heart it is inevitable that we will find there our wounds. But what if we, instead of denying, repressing, projecting, just taste, feel, accept—accept this wound as our share of the woundedness of the world itself? [8]

No human being escapes the wounding of the heart. To incarnate is to experience the wound of separation. Then our sensitive heart begins to suffer from the harshness of the world, often beginning at a tender age. We experience disappointment and betrayal. We have deep needs that were not fully fulfilled—the need to be loved, to be truly seen, to be valued and considered. For some of us, the blows to the heart have been severe and traumatic. For all of us, there has been pain.

How do we on this path address the wounds of the heart? What is our practice? How do we transform the impressions left by injuries? One method is listening. To listen is to be present to the hurt. This counteracts the natural, even instinctual, wish to avoid pain. How easy it is to see spirituality as a route to brighter, happier landscapes. Yet there is a place—a place of dignity and wisdom—for being completely present to our suffering heart. Indeed, there are human possibilities that we can only realize by consenting to be present to pain. 

Pain has a great power; the truth of God is born in pain, sincerity rises out of pain. Metaphysically, the heart is a gate, and the gate is closed when the feeling is hardened, and the gate is opened when there is pain [9].

Attending to our personal wounds is a subtle art. There is, I believe, a danger in overly emphasizing our pain. We could spend our entire lifetime focused on the ways we have been hurt, without realizing that our being is so much more than that. Spiritual awakening reveals that our real self is not defined by our history. 

At the same time, there must be balance. There can be a tendency to reject our sensitivity so that we do not indulge the petty concerns of the ego. This attitude can be harsh and judgmental, and it can hinder our transformation. For one thing, it can lead to splitting, where the part of us that feels hurt or longs to be understood is minimized and denied. We may experience our true, greater self in our spiritual unfoldment. Yet regardless of the power of such experiences, another part of us may remain in the basement, ignored and rejected. This is not at all uncommon. Any denied or split off conditions of our psyches remain unintegrated, and therefore are not likely transformed by illumined experiences. We sometimes see this even in spiritual teachers with genuine realization who continue to be narcissistic or insecure in various ways. This is because the unresolved needs of the heart will continue to assert themselves, seeking wholeness. If they are not addressed consciously, they are likely to manifest in indirect and potentially harmful ways. 

There is another essential reason to turn towards the heart’s pain: our wounds have purpose and meaning waiting to be revealed.

The Purpose of Conscious Suffering

We all have to experience both joy and sorrow in life in order to accomplish the purpose of life. We cannot always be smiling, and there is no spiritual evolution in ignoring either side of life [10].

The wounds of the heart are not curses rained down on us by capricious providence. Travel deep enough, and the light of their meaning is revealed. Often our wounds are the questions that our heart circles throughout our life, holding a key to our purpose here. The wound is not abstract; it is completely personal. And at the same time, it unites us with something beyond ourselves. Truly encounter our unique situation, and it becomes a portal to the heart of humanity. Where else will the deepest questions in the heart of humanity be transformed and healed if not in our hearts? 

Take for example a central question that gnaws silently in the heart of humanity: Where was God in Auschwitz? What kind of God creates the killing fields of Cambodia, and a world where women are forced into sexual slavery? 

This question can never be answered with satisfaction by intellectual reasoning. It is only resolved in the fire of our own hearts. Many of us have experienced our own Auschwitz. Of course, it may seem small in comparison, but it is our portion. Where was God when my mother died when I was only four? What kind of God would deprive me of the romantic love I long for? Why have I been doing spiritual practices all these years and still feel stuck in my ego? 

For the full awakening of the heart, we must somehow resolve the pain inherent in these questions. How is this done? Are the blows to our heart best taken lightly to avoid falling prey to self-pity? Might we put our losses in perspective by cultivating gratitude for all that we are given? Can we forget our problems and ourselves by giving sympathy to those who are suffering far more than we? Certainly there is wisdom in each of these responses. They help point the way out of the small shell of our personal perspective. 

Yet at the same time, there is another side to the alchemy of suffering. What if our personal pain contains vital ingredients for the birth of the heart—both personally and in the eternal heart of the One? What opportunity is lost if we too readily rise above the wound before its teaching has been received and assimilated? 

“The progress [of the world] is made at the price of much failure and many wounds. The sufferers, no matter to what species they belong, are expressions of this austere but noble condition…. The whole question is how to liberate suffering and give it a consciousness of its significance and potentiality [11].

What courage and faith it takes to be fully present to our wounded heart. It is a cross, and to carry it consciously is a sacred act. 

The Original Feeling

Our core wounds most often occur early in life when we do not yet have the understanding and strength to assimilate them. The divine compassion shields our young selves from the full force of these early blows. Without our knowing, protective defenses form to buffer our hearts. But there is a price when these defenses become habitual patterns which live on when no longer needed. Such strategies for coping with the wound powerfully shape our lives, including our sense of ourselves and the world. For one person, the wound of feeling unloved produces an adaptive personality who tries to be good in order to be worthy of love. For another, the defense of feeling unloved is extreme self-sufficiency, not needing anyone, and therefore becoming distant and armored. For one, the original wound of feeling unseen and unvalued results in withdrawing into meekness, assuming that his thoughts are unworthy of being spoken. For another, this same wound shapes a persona of aggression, prone to anger over any hint of insult. 

What is called the false self, covering our true being, is in part these layers of defenses and personality patterns that form in reaction to our wounding. By the time we consciously embark on the spiritual path, these adaptive layers are so established that we take for granted that this is who we are. This explains why the path places such emphasis on “unlearning” and mental purification. 

There is a simple practice for relating to our heart wounds—simple but not necessarily easy. The practice is to feel the core, true feeling in any situation. To truly feel a feeling we must be present to it. We cannot be lost in the feeling. Once we are present, it is a process of recognizing the deeper feelings beneath layers of secondary emotion. This means becoming more vulnerable. For instance, hurt is often covered by anger. Longing may be covered by pessimism. We learn to travel from the surface reactions to the true feeling. This is a skill, but it is something more as well. It is an on-going act of dedication to the truth. We must want so much to be real that we are prepared to sacrifice the defenses that have shielded us from heartache. Those defenses include the tendency to blame and hold grudges against others. It may be true that others have wronged us, but focusing on others keeps us distant from the vulnerable condition of our own heart.

When we are in touch with the core feeling, an alchemy of grace begins. We experience this when we see that the resolution to our precise need is embedded like a seed at the center of our being. When we become consciously present—actually in touch—with our need, our heart’s call evokes a response from the heart of God. This is the divine promise to us. Ask and ye shall be given. Our task is to become vulnerable, to feel. This is hard until it becomes easy. It becomes easier as we experience time and again that Reality is trustworthy and kind. We come to know that there is a balm for our hurt, and that rebirth follows loss. We learn that the compassionate witness has been our most intimate companion every moment of our life. Our outer situation may not change, but we will perceive the divine response to our cry of pain.

None of us would choose suffering for ourselves or those we love. And yet the birth of new life comes from the pain of labor. In this sense, we are all the holy mother carrying the Christ child in our womb. To be present is to consent to the birth process, offering ourselves as instruments to the divine becoming. 

Part Two: Learning to Listen—Foundations for Practice

Listening is a way of being—and it is a constellation of values and skills that are developed through practice. This section is a sketch of some of the main building blocks: the practice of presence; the practice of allowing; the qualities of truthfulness and self-acceptance; and the process of understanding through contemplative inquiry. 

The Practice of Presence

Make everything in you an ear, each atom of your being, and you will hear at every moment what the Source is whispering to you without any need for my words or anyone else’s.… Listen, and your whole life will become a conversation in thought and act between you and Him, directly, now and always [12].

Throughout the centuries, great Sufis have explored the mystery of knowing. Shahabuddin Suhrawardi, the twelfth century Sufi mystic, first described the practice of “knowing through presence.” Knowing through presence is direct, in contrast to conceptual knowing. Both have their place in the spiritual path. To be present is to step out of the mental realm, anchored in thoughts of past and future, and into the immediacy of the moment. Direct knowing is a familiar experience in many ways. When we touch ice we have a strong, immediate sensation before our mind produces the word “cold.” The word comes afterwards to give a name to the experience. 

A main way to learn to be present is through sensing body sensations and feelings. This brings us out of our mind and into the moment. With practice, sensing becomes more and more subtle. We can be present to any experience with increasing degrees of intimacy. In this way, the experience of presence progresses through stages. At first, within our familiar identity, we practice being present to our experience. We are in touch with feeling happy, or tired, through direct sensing. We learn to be here rather than living in our minds, or being vaguely absent. 

As our practice develops, a shift occurs, first in little glimpses. The more we are present, here and now, the more we begin to recognize our true identity. Until now, we have identified with our historical identity, and our experience was through the habitual perspective based on a composite of concepts of ourselves and the world. Impressions from the past shape our optimism or pessimism about life, or our trust or mistrust in people. Even more fundamentally, they can stand in the way of our truly seeing this tree before us right now, fresh, and free from associations stored in memory.  

The immediacy of presence is not based in history. To be truly present is to be outside the historical self. We begin to know ourselves essentially as aware presence. We do not have amnesia, but if we did we would still be “me.” With practice, our experience of life becomes more situated in presence, unfolding each moment. In the fullness of presence there is no mental separation—the experience and the one who is aware of the experience are one. 

The ability to be present must be developed, and its development requires distinct methods of practice. With volitional practice, we strive to shape experience. With presence, we remain open, aware, and receptive to our experience. This brings us to the practice of “allowing.”

The Practice of Allowing

It sounds so easy to simply allow our experience to happen. Try it right now for a few moments. Stop reading and be aware of what you are experiencing. Perceive body sensations, watch thoughts come and go, feel emotions that arise, hear sounds. Don’t do anything. Simply witness. See if it is possible, and what it is like to take your hands off the steering wheel for a few minutes.

Allowing is a posture of receptivity, of passive attention. It is practiced by learning to completely allow our moment-to-moment experience to be as it is. It is both simple and profound to give up control and allow our experience to unfold and reveal itself without manipulation. Rumi says, the Sufi opens his hand and gives away each moment for free [13]. What an amazing giving away this is! 

The practice of allowing provides a necessary balance to evocative practice, in part because of the nature of the ego. The ego is restless. It is always active, always striving. It is in a state of exile, uprooted from its home of unity. Therefore, it is always trying to get somewhere else, somewhere better; anywhere but here. Aspirational practices are beautiful and transformative; and at the same time, they can be usurped by the conditioned ego as the impetus for more activity, an expression of underlying agitation. This is particularly likely if we are experiencing something we feel is undesirable. If we are upset, for instance, the ego will try to get away from the discomfort. Yet it is important to be able to be present while being upset without attempting to escape from it. This can actually help train the ego to relax. If the ego relaxes totally we dissolve into unity. Also, we discover that if we completely allow the experience, feeling its energy in our body and mind, it will reveal its nature, and begin to transform. 

As with the practice of presence, it is helpful to practice allowing by noticing body sensations. We might for instance simply feel the weight of our hand resting on our leg. As we train ourselves to be aware without directing our experience, our perception will naturally become more subtle. We learn to navigate inwardly with our attention, to investigate subtle movements of energy, colors and tastes. Experiences of joy, sadness, vastness or fear can be discovered and known with depth and insight. 

Later in the paper as we explore the practice of contemplative inquiry we will see how allowing enables insights and guidance to arise, unbidden, from within. Allowing is the practice of getting out of the way so that a deeper wisdom may be revealed. 

We can see that allowing is a practice of trust and surrender, moment to moment. It is a tangible way to practice the view that all is well right here, right now, just as it is. We are in good hands, even in pain or confusion. Every time we say the words, “toward the One,” we are professing this conviction. We are affirming that our immediate experience of life is not random or wrong. We are inseparable from the loving, intelligent unfoldment of the One. The ego can let go of the illusion of control, and finally rest. There is nothing we have to do other than be present to what is here. 

We can feel this faithful receptivity in Murshid’s words:

When they stand before God, they stand with their heart as an empty cup. When they stand before God to learn…they do not think of themselves in that moment with any desire to be fulfilled, with any motive to be accomplished, with any expression of their own; but as empty cups [14].

We might think of this as an orientation specifically in times of prayer. But what if we are standing before God at each moment? What if, at any moment, we have no other motive than to be alert to what is being given and shown? 

To summarize, presence is the ground for direct experiencing and direct knowing. Presence can be experienced as the medium of consciousness. Allowing is letting experience unfold organically, while witnessing it as purely as possible.

Hopefully it is clear that the stance of allowing is not for all times and circumstances. In both life in the world and in the inner life, there are times to be assertive. Human maturity lies in the integration of these two orientations in perfect balance. 


The soul of truth is flaming,
The heart of truth is warm,
The mind of truth is clear,
And firm through rain or storm.


 Passion for the Real, placed in our hearts at the beginning of time, draws us inexorably toward the ultimate Truth. This fealty is expressed along the way as the desire to be authentic in the face of the relative truths of our human experience. The spirit of truthfulness is the same light in all circumstances. 

We come to realize that our love of truth is stronger than all other preferences. Central to the practice of listening, therefore, is to value truthfulness with ourselves above all else. We do this time and again until our hearts become converted. For example, we would rather feel the truth of sadness than attempt to escape it. If we feel lost, then let it be so; to be authentically lost is in itself to be found.

Truth is the portion of the sincere [16].

If we burn to know the truth we will be guided. This is God’s promise to us. 


Self-acceptance warrants careful attention because it is needed by so many people. For some of us, the absence of self-kindness is overt, and dominates our inner ecology. For others, it is less pervasive but appears in subtle ways. Where self-acceptance is lacking, discipline lacks love and is likely to be tyrannical; and conscience can become condemnation. The absence of self-acceptance deserves attention not only because it causes suffering, but also because it limits spiritual growth. For the heart remains armored until it feels unconditional acceptance, and opens in the presence of love. 

Hazrat Inayat Khan describes the compassion needed when encountering the troubled heart of another person. While reading this passage, can we think of turning this understanding and attitude towards ourselves when it is our own heart that is troubled? 

Once there is a wound in the heart, the whole personality of the wounded becomes embittered. He feels agitated against all things.… He gets into disagreeable moods when there is nothing he agrees with. Even he cannot agree with himself. Others dislike him, avoid him…call him a difficult person, not knowing that…it is some difficulty which he possesses in himself, which he himself knows not. He finds every outer reason…to be the cause of his agitation. In this way the real cause remains hidden. 

Few will help this person, and fewer still will understand. It is a matter of patience, tolerance, besides a keen insight into human nature to understand a person’s condition. It is natural that a person with a wound must fret.… It is often the case that the person himself is at a loss about his own complaint.… He only feels pain and he doesn’t know where it comes from. 

The work of the Sufi therefore is to stop…and see what is the matter with the person…to find out where is the sore. Where is the wound that is hidden? And then his work is to wash that wound with the water of life…. It is the word of consoling that can cool this irritation. Love which manifests as tolerance, as forgiveness, heals even the wounds of the heart [17].

What a beautiful attitude Murshid describes. Are we worthy at times of such “words of consolation”? Carl Jung said that self-acceptance is “the essence of our moral problem and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life, [18]” and that we cannot truly accept another until we have accepted and forgiven ourselves. 

There is an important relationship between holding ourselves to high ideals on the one hand, and self-acceptance on the other. These values must work together. The first embodies strength in mastering the impulses of the ego that should not be allowed to control our lives. The second is based on compassionate understanding of the underlying struggle that goes on within us. Many of us, for example, aspire to be selfless and to love selflessly. At the same time, there is the deep need to be loved. Should this need be denied? Can it actually be denied? Sometimes the desire to be loved may need to touched and respected.  

Those with low self-esteem, and especially those who have been abused, may primarily need to learn to receive love. To deny this need may perpetuate the wrong kind of selflessness. It may actually reinforce the false self—a self image of someone who feels unworthy of being loved. With the quality of self-acceptance, we are more likely to know, from within, what is needed for our unfoldment.

Understanding: The Practice of Contemplative Inquiry 

All tragedy in life, all misery and inharmony are caused by one thing, and that is lack of understanding [19].

The awakened person throws a light, the light of his soul, upon every person and every object and sees their condition in this light.… It is just like throwing a searchlight upon dark corners which one did not see before, and the corners become clear [20].

The inner sight of understanding is developed in part by practices that awaken and purify the subtle centers. Listening is an important complement; it is the stance we take in order to know, to learn. The light of understanding can be turned toward any aspect of existence. Here, we will focus specifically on the role of understanding in the purification of the ego. 

As soon as we endeavor to become conscious and mature human beings, we encounter the central issue of the ego. We see, as the saying goes, that we have met the enemy, and it is us. We observe with distress all the ways that we think and act that are not in our own best interest. We have emotional reactions that seem to have power over us, and that bring misery to ourselves and others. We try to settle our minds and direct our thoughts only to find that this too is a great struggle, especially in times of stress. 

The spiritual path is the process of discovering that who we are is beyond these patterns of the ego, and gaining freedom from their dominance in our lives. We must be very clear about how to proceed with transforming and purifying the nafs because it is the most important and most difficult challenge in the whole of life. We are exploring the artful balance between volition and understanding in this process.

The “false” self can be insatiable in its desire to be right, to be praised, to have its way. We learn that we can guide and discipline this self. Like the taming of a wild horse, our chaotic thoughts, raw emotions and impulsive behavior are brought under control.

As we proceed, however, we gain a healthy respect for the seemingly dark and destructive drives within us. As we have said, some of them do not let go easily. We may find that we can bring them under control, but for actual transformation, these drives may need to be brought to light. What gives them their power? What is the motivating force behind them? To understand these forces in their depths is transformative because understanding is a profound form of love. It is the heart that understands, and when the clinging, fearful ego has been truly seen, it relaxes its tight grip. When we get to the heart of the matter, even our demons turn out to be beautiful and good. We must only learn to traverse inwardly from the surface to the cause behind the cause. This is the way of understanding.

How do we gain this penetrating insight? This entire paper can be seen as an exploration of the answer to that question. Contemplative inquiry is one key practice, a process of understanding that, when turned towards the impulses and needs of the ego, brings transformative light. Murshid repeatedly points to the importance of understanding the deeper cause of things, including the ego.

The mystic does not stop with the first reason, but wishes to see the reason behind all reasons. Thus in everything, whether right or wrong, the mystic seeks for the reason. The immediate answer however will be a reason that does not satisfy him, for he sees that behind that reason there is another reason [21].

The Practice of Contemplative Inquiry

For the most part, in this age of science, the pursuit of knowledge is dominated by the intellect. But because the knowledge sought by the mystic cannot be gained entirely by the rational mind, we must access a different mode of knowing. This is the aim of contemplative inquiry. 

It’s likely that most of us contemplate matters in our life so often and so naturally that we fail to recognize its potential as a great art. In this way, it is like breathing, which everyone does naturally but few do with mastery. 

In section one of this paper, we explored the process of muhasaba and of seeking guidance. These are examples of inquiry. In the case study on guidance page 7, we see how each of the skills and values of listening are important to the practice. To inquire, we learn to be present, as distinct from being mostly mental. We allow our experience to unfold organically. We give our fealty to the truth and accept our condition and feelings in order to truly know them. 

Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully elaborate the practice of contemplative inquiry, below is another example of how the process works, specifically in relation to purifying the ego. We will focus on the development of tolerance, and in this case, tolerance of people, which is a central challenge in most of our lives.

Example: Purification of Intolerance

When that heart is frozen and when there is no love but bitterness, coldness, prejudice and contempt, unforgiving feelings and hatred, it all comes from one source: want of tolerance [22].

This passage highlights the significance that Murshid places on tolerance, and why it is so important that our methods for developing tolerance be effective. For tolerance to be real it must be authentic to the core. Professing it is not sufficient. The first step is to embrace the value of being completely truthful with ourselves about the state of our heart. Then we must learn how to sense our actual condition.

Perhaps when we feel intolerant of another, we have invoked forgiveness, and practiced a gentle manner with the other person. But then, being aware and truthful, we recognize that these efforts have not totally purified our feelings, that a deeper strata of the intolerance remains. If so, we can seek to understand its root cause within ourselves. This is done through a process of dialogue—within ourselves or with a guide. In silence or aloud, we pose questions and explore our response, with presence. To truthfully examine our intolerance, it is essential that there be self-acceptance and a feeling of curious exploration into the tendencies of the nafs which are common to all of us. If there is shame, or if we consider these feelings spiritually unacceptable, it will inhibit the action of insight and discovery. 

To illustrate, we can look at two highly simplified dialogues between a mureed and her guide. The mureed is intolerant of a man who talks too much. She says that he only wants attention and never says anything worthwhile. It tends to drive her crazy to be with him. 

Step one is to turn her attention away from the other person and to be present to her own state. To evoke her felt sense may require her talking a little about the other person, but primarily the focus is inward. 

Although we are illustrating this as a dialogue between a guide and mureed, this same process can occur within ourselves.

Illustration 1, the desire for peace 

To repress desire is to suppress a divine impulse [23].

Guide: As you imagine being with this man and feeling its effect on you, what do you feel?

Mureed: I tense up and kind of recoil. It’s like tasting bad food and wanting to spit it out.

G: Just let yourself feel that as a direct sensation without going into stories or judgments. [After giving some time:] Do you have a sense of what you need, what’s missing for you?

M: I wish he would just be quiet! Just for a minute! Give me some space, some peace. 

G: So, you’re wanting peace. Does that sound true?

M: Yes!

G: Just in this moment, right now, feel your desire for peace and quiet. [The guide gives the mureed time to be with this experience—feeling this desire, and the effect it has—gently guiding her away from over-thinking, and toward her immediate felt sense.] What happens as you do that? 

M: Well, I do really want it. Not just with him. I want more peace in my life.

G: It sounds like you really love peace. Are you feeling that attraction right now?

M: Well, yes. As long as he’s not around!

G: He’s not around at the moment. Take your time. What is most prominent right now—the longing for peace or the sense of peace itself?

M: As I pay closer attention, it’s shifting. Now I’m feeling more quiet and settled, more of the peace itself.

G: Okay, sense what that peace feels like, and how it affects you. [Guiding her to stay present and take time engraves the impression of the experience more completely.]

Illustration 2, the need to be seen

G: As you imagine being with him and feeling its effect on you, what happens?

M: I feel like I’m just the audience. I have my thoughts too but can’t get a word in.

G: It sounds like you’d like someone to be interested in what you have to say, to receive some attention too. 

M: I would like him, or someone, to be interested. I have ideas too. [The guide observes her defenses melt as she feels this desire.]

G: Just feel the effect of being in touch with what it is you’re wanting.

[The mureed begins to weep softly.]

G: [After a moment:] What are you experiencing now?

M: Feeling kind of soft. 

G: Just be present and sense that softness. [After a pause:] Notice that you are giving attention to yourself right now. Now you’re being interested in what you think and feel….

The main feature of this second illustration is the quality of vulnerability. The mureed allows herself to feel the desire for attention, the need to be seen. Often people think that they shouldn’t have this need, and yet it is essential, especially early in life before we have the capacity for self-seeing. Vulnerability is the absence of defenses around the heart. As defenses melt, these deeper feelings can be directly felt. As we’ve said, egoic patterns and much of the false self are built upon unconscious attempts to avoid certain feelings, or strategies to get needs met. In this case, it is the desire to be seen. 

Contemplative inquiry peels back the layers of defenses and reactions until we arrive at the heart of the matter: a core need or something that needs to be understood at a deeper level. The focus turns away from the “intolerable” person toward our own experience, and we are able to see that our discomfort is not ultimately about him. It’s about our own needs, and our reactions to not having those needs met. Unlike therapy, where the entire history surrounding this dynamic might be uncovered in great detail, the key here is presence. When there is the direct encounter between our need and our witnessing presence, an alchemy can occur. Our call evokes the divine response. This is true in a completely personal sense and also at a universal level.

The message is the answer to the cry of individual and collective souls [24].

Principles for Purifying the Ego Through Understanding 

  • Volitional practice and understanding work together in balance. It is a subtle art to discern when to turn towards and inquire into a limitation and when to assert the quality that is needed. 
  • It is of limited benefit to attend to the feelings and reactions of the ego from within the perspective of the historical self. But because this historical identity is our usual perspective, we must gradually learn how to be present as witness to the patterns of the false self. 
  • It is key to be intimately in touch with our state, completely feeling it without being identified with it. There is, for instance, a significant difference between feeling sad and thinking of ourself as a sad person. The former is an immediate experience; the latter is a self-concept based on our history. 
  • Listening with presence occurs primarily in the body and the heart. While thinking can be helpful, and insights do come from intellectual understanding, the intellect is not primary here. 
  • Presence is the divine ground from which guidance, insight and compassion arise. By making our question or condition conscious within the heart, and allowing our experience to unfold freely, the alchemy of healing and understanding can occur naturally. 

Over time we gain the skills, attitudes, and qualities needed to contemplate in this way. Also, importantly, we gain faith in the process of turning towards that which we do not wish to know or feel. This relaxes the armor that has been felt necessary to protect the heart. 

In Closing

This paper is about listening, and the practice of listening in our path. To what shall we listen? We exist at the threshold between earth and heaven. We turn our ear toward the Divine that we may know our Source and hear the voice of guidance. We lean the ear towards the earth so that we can hear the call of the human heart. Where these two come together, there is an alchemical dialogue between God and human. According to the Sufis, God, the Eternal, is also enriched by this encounter. 

Of course, it is natural to be drawn towards the divine perfection. And yet what might be gained if we are able to truly understand our human experience, with all its limitations and imperfections? To ponder this question, let’s take a pilgrimage to Florence, Italy. Perhaps you have been there and have visited the Gallery of the Academy, the small museum that is home to one of the greatest works of art ever created, David by Michelangelo. The sculpture is set on a pedestal at the end of a corridor. It is lit from above, and the first instant of seeing it is a moment of awe. Your eyes lock in on this vision, a majestic icon of perfection, and you are drawn like a magnet down the hallway. 

As you walk towards David, you may not notice what lines the corridor on both sides, such is the mesmerizing power of its beauty. And yet there, on either side, are statues that are stunning in their own way. They are the unfinished sculptures left incomplete by Michelangelo. My favorite is this one, the Awakening Slave. 

Take a moment now to gaze at this image. What do you see? How does it affect you?

Notice the slave’s emergence from the dense, rough stone. Can you sense his visceral struggle, straining towards his potential? How long must he endure this labor of the birthing process? Is his destiny to live forever in a state of incompletion? Is he cursed? Or is he perfect in his own way, just as he is—cast in the perpetual state of creation? Do you feel the nobility in his struggle to become? 

The Sufis say that existence sleeps in the rough, unformed stone. What emerges is the light of consciousness—the dawning recognition of who we are and what is happening here. The spiritual path is the journey to this realization. All the restlessness and discontent we feel is our participation in the birth pangs of the cosmos. 

Inside ourselves we feel the inexorable pull, like the ocean tide, toward the beauty that we intuit and love. At the same time, we are painfully aware of our personal flaws and limitations. We agonize over all that is not beautiful both in ourselves and in the world. We are buffeted by forces and circumstances beyond our control. What a formidable task it is to navigate the lives we have been given!

What are we to make of our situation? This paper is in essence a profession of faith, not that we will be spared from sorrow, but faith in the ultimate meaning of life. We return to Murshid’s poignant words, spoken as someone who has also struggled: 

[Life is] a place for study, in which every sorrow, every heartbreak brings a precious lesson; it is a place in which to learn by one’s own suffering, by the study of the suffering of others; to learn from the people who have been kind to us as well as from the people who have been unkind. It is a place in which all experiences, be they disappointments…or joys contribute to the understanding of what life is.… And the more we understand it, the greater our life becomes, and the more of a blessing will our life be for others [25].

It is a premise of this paper that to turn our ear towards our human condition is neither weakness nor defeat. If done consciously and skillfully, it is integral to our maturation. It is not a way out of the human condition, at least not in the way that we might have hoped. It is not an escape. It is the way in. It is our consent to be present, to truly incarnate, and to learn the truth of this life. We do not seek suffering, but we are willing to accept our portion of it. Like Abraham’s willingness to take his precious son to the mountain of sacrifice, the Real One at the center of our heart sees that we will face anything, enter the fires of hell if need be, to find the truth. In our willingness to sacrifice the comfort of easy answers, we will in time be given a certainty that does not waver. If we are able to be present, we will find in the heart of every sorrow, and in the darkness of every cruelty, the face of Beauty waiting. 


I.  Case Examples: The Role of Understanding in Spiritual Purification 

Case:  When will power doesn’t work

The mureed says she has a trivial question, but it is one that is causing her significant problems in her life:  she is always late.  She says that she tried everything, but nothing works because her will power is so weak. This woman is an MD, and the guide reflects to her that she could not have made it through medical school if she lacked discipline and will power.  

Guide:  Try saying, “I will not be on time.  I refuse to do it.”  Sense your body as you speak.

With encouragement the mureed says these words with conviction.  As she does a big change comes over her.  She inhabits the truth of this statement.  

Guide:  Tell me about the part of you that doesn’t want to be on time.

Mureed:  That part of me is tired of doing what everyone expects of her.  She’s tired of her whole life being work and responsibilities.

Guide:  what does she want?

Mureed:  [weeping] To look at the sky.  To walk in the woods.  To just take her time.

…I had a serious illness last year and almost died. During that time I saw what was truly important to me; but when I got well I began working all the time again and haven’t valued my inner life. 

Guide:  So, the part of you that refused to be on time has been the advocate for your soul.  You just needed to heed her message.

Commentary:  in this situation the mureed must be interested in the cause of her behavior rather than trying to over come it.


Case Example:  The man who is judgmental of his friends

The mureed is critical of people.  He feels terrible about it but doesn’t know how to make it stop.  He does his spiritual practices; he has tried being understanding and patient, but to no avail.  

Guide:  Think of one friend who you judge and tell me what you judge him for.

Mureed:  He is messing up his life.  He doesn’t take good care of himself and it’s just getting worse.  No matter what I say nothing helps.

Guide:  You don’t know what will happen to your friend, but just for a moment assume that he is not going to change.  See how that feels.

Mureed:  it’s really sad.

Guide:  Right, it is sad. So, just feel the sadness.  In your mind’s eye look upon your friend who does not change, and feel your sadness.  

Mureed:  I feel helpless.  

Guide:  That’s a difficult feeling to tolerate; and yet, it may be true that you are helpless.  [The guide gives him some time to be present to his feelings]

Mureed:  I feel that way about so many things—climate change; the homeless people I walk past every day on the way to work.  I do what I can but the scope of the need is over whelming.  

Guide:  That’s true.  Take a moment and see the whole situation with the eyes of your heart. Remain present to what you are feeling.

Mureed: There’s so much suffering.  It’s everywhere I turn. I feel so sorry.

Guide: [after a time] I think this is what Buddha felt.  He looked out upon the world and saw the suffering.   He didn’t turn away.  This is how he became the Lord of Compassion.

Mureed:  I do feel compassion.

Guide:  Just allow that feeling.  Give it room in your heart, and perhaps spreading out beyond your body.

Mureed:  I feel that.

Guide:  [after some time] Now think about your friend.  How do you feel about him now?

Mureed:  I feel sorry that he may be ruining his life; but that may be his destiny.  I feel compassion for him too.

Guide:  I think you were critical of him because you couldn’t fix him—you couldn’t control him.   When you stop trying to control things you may have to accept things as they are, and that may mean tolerating that there is suffering.   

Commentary: In this situation being judgmental is a defense against feeling more vulnerable feelings.  The mureed must be willing to be vulnerable in order to feel sad and helpless in the face of suffering he cannot change.  


Case Example:  The quality that is needed arises 

Mureed:  I love doing my practices in the morning.  But then I go into my life and get irritable. I’ve been on the spiritual path for years but this tendency hasn’t really gone away.  I hide it well; I try to act pleasant, but inside I feel agitated.

Guide:  are you feeling any of that agitation now?  

Mureed: yes, it’s not strong, but I can feel it in there.  

Guide:  Just feel the irritation.  See if you can be intimate with it.

Mureed:  [after a few moments] It feels raw, very sensitive.  

Guide:  Do you have a sense of what this sensitive part of you needs?

Mureed:  It would have to be someone or something with perfect attunement.

…[After a few moments].  I’m having this image now of the Madonna, the mother holding the baby Jesus….

Guide:  What if this is not just an image, but a presence?  See if that feels true, and if you can sense the presence of Madonna.

Mureed:  Well yes, actually I feel both—the totally sensitive child and the loving, holding mother.   

Guide:  Be present to your experience and allow it to happen.  There’s nothing you have to do.

Mureed:  I realize that this feeling is familiar.  But I never paid this kind of attention to it.  

Guide:  Now this presence is becoming truly known to you.  It is within you, as the comforter of your irritation.

Commentary:  The mureed turns toward the issue rather than trying to get rid of it.  This requires tolerating an uncomfortable feeling.  Being present to the irritation and sensing what is needed creates an alchemical condition, a call that draws the response.  

It is important that the guide be detached about what unfolds, and not overly invested in producing a particular resolution.  What is needed must be allowed to arise organically.

II.  Additional Passages

There are many more passages by Hazrat Inayat Khan, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, and Sufi mystics relevant to these themes than could be included in this paper. Here is a sampling listed in the thematic order of the paper. With these passages and those in the paper, minor editing has been done for ease of reading. Quotations from Pir Zia are drawn from transcripts of talks he has given; specific references for those talks are not available. 


Introduction: Receptive Witnessing 

“The positive is expressive whilst the negative is responsive, as speaking is positive while listening is negative. Each finds its completion in the other.” —The Art of Personality, Rasa Shastra – The Science of Life’s Creative Forces: Attraction and Repulsion 

“One should realize that what is responsive needs far greater care, and that the creative power should pay much more attention to it…. We know that the ears are the receivers of sound; they do not create. The eyes are creative. The nose perceives the odor; it cannot create. The lips and the mouth create.”— Sufi Teachings: The Law of Attraction 

“As we advance, the Unlimited Being working through us makes its own way and realizes its own perfection. For in this realization Reality only realizes itself, which is not at all difficult for it.”—The Unity of Religious Ideals, Part II: God the Infinite


“The Spirit of Guidance is a plant that grows and blossoms when it meets with response and care…. It is like a searchlight, which shows up any object upon which it is thrown; and so when the light of the Spirit of Guidance is thrown upon any aspect of life, man receives a keen insight into it. In the Spirit of Guidance one finds a living God active in the heart of every person.”—The Unity of Religious Ideals, Part III: The Spirit of Guidance

“When you turn for guidance to God, to the inner Being, then all light and all knowledge are yours for your guidance. ‘But,’ people say, ‘how can we attach ourselves with the inner being, so as to have that guidance?’ When the mind is fixed upon anything, then you become linked to that, a current is established between you and it. It may be called guidance of God, or the guidance of the self…the soul has within it the inner faculty of guidance, pointing to the person what to do, which way to go.”The Supplementary Papers Class for Mureeds, VII: The Word That Was Lost

“The answer is in the question itself; a question has no existence without the answer.”—Sufi Teachings: The Smiling Forehead, Part II, The Deeper Side of Life 

“If there is any source from where one can get the direction on how to act in life, it is to be found in one’s heart.”—Sangatha II, Saluk: The Good Nature 


“To explain in simple words what the spiritual path is, I would say that it begins by living in communication with oneself, for it is in our innermost self that the life of God is to be found.”—Sufi Mysticism: Repose

“Real mysticism or esotericism begins simply with the first step, with looking outside. And at what do we look outside? One thing is that we ask ourselves how all we see affects us and what is our reaction to it all; how does our spirit react to the objects or the conditions we encounter, to the sounds we hear, to the words that people speak to us?”—Philosophy, Psychology and Mysticism: The Tuning of the Heart 

“The people who only know the lighter side of life and who are afraid to have their feelings touched, represent through which the water has never pierced…those who wish to fare forth to the world unseen have to cross the water of feeling.”—Pearls from the Ocean Unseen: Blessed Are They That Mourn

The Wound of the Heart

“The deeper the sorrow the higher the voice of the heart rises, until it reaches the throne of God; and that is the time when the answer comes.

Plainly speaking, man’s real being is his heart, and in pain the heart becomes living and without pain man seems to be living on the surface.”—Religious Gatheka 45, The Message

“Those who have suffered, those who have gone through the test of patience, those who have contemplated…. These hearts all represent one or the other kind of the water that heals. Persons who have had deep experiences of any kind – of suffering, of agony, of love, of hate, of solitude, of success, of failure – all have a particular quality, a quality which has a particular use for others.… And [you] can only give that chemical substance for the use of humanity if you can keep your heart awake and open.”—Sufi Teachings: The Smiling Forehead, Chapter II, The Heart Quality

“The warmth of the lover’s atmosphere, the piercing effect of his voice, the appeal of his words, all come from the pain of his heart. The heart is not living until it has experienced pain. The soul is all light, but all darkness is caused by the death of the heart. Pain makes it alive.”—Spiritual Liberty, Part IV: Love, Human and Divine: The Moral of Love 

“How will you know the difficulties of being human, if you are always flying off to blue perfection?”—Jelaluddin Rumi. The Illuminated Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks 

“Don’t be stolid and silent with your pain. Lament. And let the milk of loving flow into you.”—Jelaluddin Rumi. The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks 

There is a Sufi story attributed to Yazid al-Bistami. The student asked her teacher, “What can I bring as offering to God who has everything?” And her teacher answered. “Bring the one thing that God does not have: bring your need.” 


“If one isn’t witnessing, then one is just over-looking, missing what is going on. And that means that life is flashing by nothing remains.… That which has not been processed, alchemized, in this way is fleeting. We participate in the extraction of the essence of the history of the universe—through our witnessing. We take it in, transmute it and send it to God. And it is the substance of the nourishment of God.… Ibn Arabi says this in so many words. He says…God is nourished by our knowing, knowing in the sense of witnessing.”—Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

“Muslims commonly distinguished between transmitted knowledge and realization. Transmitted learning depends totally on what has been received from the past. In contrast, intellectual learning cannot be transmitted, it can only be recovered from within the intellect, which is also called the “heart.” 

In the path of realization, imitation is necessary at the beginning, but it cannot provide true understanding, it can only prepare the way. The goal is to know for oneself, directly and without intermediary.”—The Place of T’ien-fang hsing-li in the Islamic Tradition William C. Chittick 


“One might ask if it is not weakness to be so passive. Yes, if one were passive from weakness it would be weakness. But if one is passive from will power then it is strength.”—The Alchemy of Happiness: The Inner Life and Self Realization 

“Every impulse for a mystic is a divine impulse. The moment we are conscious of the divine origin of the impulse, from that moment on, it is divine.”Sufi Mysticism Sufi Mysticism: The Mystic

“The whole system of the world’s creation is kind of blind impulse working in a kind of mechanism of the universe…and the most pronounced form of this impulse is agitation…

When it is said in the life of Krishna that Krishna had a battle with Kansa, the monster, that monster was not outside of Krishna, that monster was inside of Krishna and that monster was that agitation spirit. 

In the Bible we read that Jesus Christ went for forty days on the top of the mountain, at the side of that spirit. What is that spirit? The same spirit which is the greatest enemy of the human race, the spirit of agitation…

…Among the earthly characteristics, agitation is the principal characteristic. 

Very little man notices how far this spirit follows a person in the path of spiritual progress. A person may arrive at the gate of the heavens, even to that length this spirit will travel with him… How true it is that man is his own enemy. But where is that enemy? That enemy is this spirit, this spirit which is never contented.”—Social Gathekas #24:  Brotherhood – 3


“Disbelief often darkens the soul, but sometimes it illuminates it. There is a Persian saying, ‘Until belief has changed to disbelief, and, again, the disbelief into a belief, a man does not become a real Muslim.”—The Way of Illumination, Part III: The Sufi

“Our soul is always seeking for truth, truth in all things, in objects, in personality, in character, in everything. Consciously or unconsciously, we seek the reality in all things, and it is the reality, which is the only answer to the soul. The one who is insincere, or dishonest or keeps truth far away, never gives comfort either to himself or to others. He cannot give ease to others, still less to himself.”—The Supplementary Papers Philosophy: The Knowledge of Truth


“There is generally a tendency seen in those treading the spiritual path to feel discouraged at having bad impressions upon their heart of their own faults and shortcomings. And they begin to feel that they are too unworthy to have anything to do with things of a sacred nature. But it is a great error, in spite of all the virtue humility has in it.”—The Gathas III, Part VI, Taqwa Taharat: Everyday Life; Reject the Impression of Errors and Shortcomings

“When our own heart says, ‘I am wicked’, a thousand persons may say, ‘You are good’, but our heart will continue to tell us that we are wicked. If we ourselves give up, then nobody can sustain us.”—Sufi Teachings: Conscience

“I look to Thee O Lord, when I try to do right and it turns to wrong.”—Sayings of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan: Ragas

Understanding and Inquiry

“Understanding is the product of reflection. To penetratingly reflect on the past is to absorb its lessons in our bones. Murshid says, ‘The Sufi learns not only by the study of books but by the study of life. The whole of life is like an open book to a Sufi and every experience is a step forward in one’s spiritual journey.'”—Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

“We are tested by people who make us impatient.… We may be a kind person with everyone else but with this person it is as if the very worst is brought out of you. And one wonders, “why is this?” And if one is wondering, that is the beginning of wisdom. One then inquires into the nature of the situation.

But all too often we don’t inquire. We are insulted, offended…we become angry and agitated. Murshid speaks of the spirit of agitation. It’s good to familiarize yourself with it, and to see it when it enters you. It’s not a good feeling. But it’s good to watch it as it happens and to not be completely in the clutches of it; but instead see “ah yes, I know this; I know where it comes from. I know what it does. I see it for what it is.”—Pir Zia Inayat Khan

“What is the best way of seeking that (perfect) source? The way to seek it is first to learn the psychology of one’s own life: what makes one fall, what makes one rise, what makes one fail, what makes one succeed, what gives happiness, what brings sorrow…”—The Alchemy of Happiness: Journey to the Goal, Part 1

“By the opening of the eyes you can see things, so by the opening of the heart you can understand things.”—The Art of Being, The Privilege of Being Human, Chapter I, Man the Purpose of Creation

“To purify the mind from fear is of great importance, and this can be best done by analyzing what causes one fear. Fear is an outcome of long-collected problems unsolved. When once a person looks his own problem in the face he gets an insight into the cause of fear, and as in the sun many germs are destroyed so the germs of fear are destroyed by the light of intelligence.”—Everyday Life, Gatha III, Purify the Mind from Fear


“Souls on earth are born imperfect and show imperfection, and from this they develop naturally, coming to perfection. If all were perfect, there would have been no purpose in their creation. And manifestation has taken place so that every being here may rise from imperfection towards perfection. That is the object and joy of life and for that this world was created. And if we expected every person to be perfect and conditions to be perfect, then there would be no joy in living and no purpose in coming here.”—Mental Purification, Chapter I, Mental Purification

“Why does God send the message to humanity by Christ and not by angels? Because only a human being knows human beings. He knows them from having experienced human limitation. That he felt sadness is the most beautiful side of the Master’s life. If he had not, how could he have sympathized with those who are sorrowful? Life’s beauty is in acquiring wisdom, in living at the cost of all our failures, our mistakes. It is all worthwhile, and it all accomplishes the purpose of our coming to the earth.”—The Alchemy of Happiness: Our Life’s Experience

“As we sleep God sleeps too. If we can be unconscious, there is also God’s unconsciousness.”—The Alchemy of Happiness: From Limitation to Perfection #1


[1] It is the faculty of the soul to see, and the eyes are its instruments. It is not the instrument that sees, but it is the soul. The eyes I have given as an example, but really the whole body is the instrument of the soul, to get the experience of life. The seeing of the soul through the ears is called hearing. Gatha I, Kashf: Insight 1, Safa

[2] The Way of Illumination: The Purpose of Life, Chapter XII

[3] Gathas II, Nakshi Bandi: Symbology: The Tree of Wishes

[4] The Book of Everything: Journey of the Heart’s Desire, by Hakim Sanai, translated by Priya Hemenway

[5] Gathas II, Taqwa Taharat: Everyday Life #7, Every Mind Has Its Own Standard of Good and Bad

[6] ibid

[7] Spiritual Liberty Part VI: Metaphysics, Chapter III, The Destiny of the Soul

[8] Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

[9] Sangatha I, Tasawwuf, by Hazrat Inayat Khan (unpublished)

[10] Sufi Mysticism: Sufi Poetry

[11] Teilhard de Chardin, Spirit of Earth, “The Significance and Positive Value of Suffering”

[12] From Light upon Light: Inspirations from Rumi, by Andrew Harvey

[13] Jelaluddin Rumi. The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

[14] The Way of Illumination, Section II, The Inner Life, Chapter I, The Preparation for the Journey

[15] Sayings of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan: Alankaras

[16] The Supplementary Papers, Mysticism I: The Life of the Sage in the East 

[17] Sangatha I, Tasawwuf, Metaphysics, Spirit in the Heart, by Hazrat Inayat Khan (unpublished)

[18] C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul

[19] The Smiling Forehead Part I, Chapter XIX, The Awakening of the Soul

[20] The Smiling Forehead Part I – Chapter XIX, The Awakening of the Soul

[21] Sufi Mysticism: The Nature and Work of a Mystic

[22] The Art of Being, The Privilege of Being Human, Chapter VII, Truth

[23] Sufi Teachings, The Difference Between Will, Wish and Desire

[24] The Unity of Religious Ideals Part VI, The Message and the Messenger

[25]  In the Eastern Rose Garden: Nature’s Religion



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