Imagine for a moment that you are a visitor from the far reaches of the Universe who has just landed on earth. If you revive the memory of the worlds you left behind, you will possess a rare knowledge that is not shared by most of the inhabitants of this small planet: a wide perspective and broad overview of the mystery of existence. In fact, you are a citizen of the Universe -- not just the physical world, but all levels and spheres of reality. Perhaps you decided to come to earth because you wanted to experience its unique environment. Or maybe your motivation was to make a mark, or to improve humankind's circumstances. In order to achieve these tasks, however, it was necessary to assume a body molded out of the fabric of your parents and ancestors; you chose them for the purposes of incarnation. As time passes, you became more adapted to your new physical and social environment -- you worked hard, fell in love, developed friendships, started a family, and traveled the world. Gradually, the memory of your original home began to recede from consciousness, until finally it disappeared altogether.
Excerpt from 'Awakening: A Sufi Experience'
For a while, your life on earth went smoothly; you were happy. Then you were affected by a major crisis, a personal upheaval, and life no longer seemed so certain. You began to feel restless and uneasy. The circumstances of your life felt frustrating, and you yearned for freedom. Stirred by nostalgia for something you couldn't even put a name on, you began looking up at the stars. Likewise, you started to feel an affinity with the trees, the butterflies, the sun, the animals, and the birds. In the vast reaches of the sky and the sweetness of nature, you rediscovered something of yourself that had been forgotten. Swept by feelings of awe and wonder, you began to have a dialogue within yourself about the nature of reality, and to question the source of all the beauty, suffering, and mystery of creation. Something incredible seemed to lie just behind the surface of things -- yet the answer eluded you, slipping beyond the grasp of your realization.
Then suddenly, after years of searching, all the memories of your previous existence came back to you in a flash of awakening. Like the rediscovery of a precious relic hidden beneath layers of dirt, you rediscovered your true self, your real identity, which had been buried and forgotten in the depths of your unconscious. Once again, you could see through the vastly expanded perspective of this cosmic self, rather than the narrow vantage point of your earthly identity. It was as if the scales had fallen from your eyes; you possessed an x-ray-like intelligence that penetrated the truth concealed by the veil of creation -- the revelation of the glory of the Universe -- the One Being people called God. The miracle was that as you awakened, so, too, did the whole Universe.
From the dance of the atoms and the choreography of the galaxies to the unfurling of a flower and the struggle for self-esteem in those who had been broken by life, the entire Cosmos resounded with the clarion call, "Awaken!" And though you found that you still had the same body, personality, relationships, and responsibilities as before, your experience of these circumstances had shifted dramatically: your awareness had become the lens through which God looked out upon the physical world; you had become "the eyes through which God sees." Your glance was the divine glance.
In this parable is contained the essence of Sufism -- the story of every soul's descent into existence, its experiences of suffering brought about by separation from its original state of being, and the subsequent journey of return and reawakening to its Divine nature. For from the moment the soul assumes a physical form, the memory of the celestial spheres from which it has descended is obscured; we remain conscious only of the things that have occurred to us since our birth. But the lost knowledge of the Universe still resides within our unconscious. Like an archaeologist who picks and tunnels through layers of stone, we can retrieve that knowledge by deepening and expanding our consciousness through meditation, prayer, and glorification. We get a feeling for what the state prior to our birth is like when we see the light in the eyes of a baby and think, as I often have, "I've seen this before. I remember that."
Indeed, the secret of Sufism is to shift from the vantage point of our personal point of view to the divine point of view. Very simply, our being is made up of two poles of consciousness: the individual, personal self and the Divine, higher self. It is at the pole of the personal dimension of consciousness that we experience constraint and limitation. While we may think that our circumstances are the cause of this frustration, the real source lies in not being aware of our higher self. Thus, the goal in meditation is to reconnect our personal self to this transpersonal dimension of our being.
Another way to picture this process is to think of consciousness as it were a pendulum. At one end is the dimension of our being that is transient and evanescent, or continually changing and transforming through a process of evolution. At the other end of this pendulum is that part of consciousness that remains immortal and unchanged. Thus our whole being could be said to be a continuity in change -- just as it's never the same water that passes under the bridge, yet at the same time it's the same river. Each of these poles embodies a specific mode of consciousness.
Sufis make a distinction between acquired knowledge and revealed knowledge. Acquired knowledge is the information that we accumulate during the course of our everyday experience of life. But when we begin to view life through the antipodal standpoint -- seeing through the eyes of God -- then we access an inborn, intuitive, revealed knowledge that exists irrespective of the human condition. Meditation is the art of moving back and forth between two perspectives -- the human and the Divine -- downplaying one level in order to highlight the other. Eventually, we learn to extrapolate meaning from the synthesis of these different levels. This state is what I call awakening in life. For the culmination of the soul's journey of awakening is not just returning to its original state. Instead, it is how the soul has evolved through its passage on earth: what meaning has been extracted from its experiences; what archetypal qualities have unfolded as a result of the immense difficulties it has endured; and the unique way each soul's unfoldment has contributed to the evolution of the Universe itself.
Some may wonder what relevance such metaphysical truths have for the modern world -- especially a world that appears to be moving farther away from the values of the ancient mystics and toward an increasingly impersonal, complex, and technological future. But it would seem that the times we live in underscore even more dramatically the need to distinguish between what has lasting value and what is only of passing worth; what takes the soul farther away from the Divine, and what brings it closer.
The whole Cosmos moves as a pendulum: the past and the future, transience and eternity, human and Divine. It is out of the ever-constant back-and-forth dialogue between these two poles that the future is created. I believe that the future is not just something waiting for us; it is something that is built by sorting through the past for that which belongs to tomorrow; it is a continual work-in-progress that takes place in every era and that occurs through each individual's innovative, imaginative, and conscious participation. It is what I call spiritual evolution.
As history proves, this process is one that stirs enormous resistance and difficulty. That the future is something we create, rather than passively endure, fills many with a sense of trepidation. To abandon the comfortable but worn-out values of the past feels like a free-fall into chaotic upheaval. But to fall back upon the comfort of the past, rather than move forward into the future, is to miss the rare cosmic opening that occurs in the flash of time between the past and the future in which it is possible to begin a new chapter in the evolving story of humankind. "The pull of the future," wrote Leonhard Euler, "is stronger than the push of the past." But what exactly is "the future"? According to the Sufi worldview, the future means different things to different people. To some, the future is predetermined -- a fate fixed in stone that they must passively surrender to, in blind acquiescence. Others regard the future as something that can be molded according to their individual will. From my perspective, the future appears to be an outcome of both -- and something much more.
Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan