The Alchemy of the Reunion
Original title in Catalan: Mastay, La Alquímia del Retrobament
2011, Marc Torra
Creative Commons: Attribution – Non Commercial – No Derivatives
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Translated from Catalan to Spanish by the author and from Spanish to English by: the author (Introduction), Jennifer Adcock (Ch. 1 & 2), Darshani Singh (Ch. 3, 6 & 7), Moira Oviedo (Ch. 4) and Georgi McCarthy (Ch. 5); then fully edited by Rebecca Sutton and revised by Rachel Bullard and the author.
Design: Cover background and decorative elements within the book by Brenda Starr. Cover image of Chakana, caduceus and medicine wheel within by Mintsi Griso. Four elements preceding the first four chapters by Emiliano Libre. Chakana from the fifth chapter by Enrica Bernini and Gabriele Pollina. The rest as attributed in the caption or footnotes.
BEFORE THE ARRIVAL of Europeans in South America, no form of currency was used by the Andean civilisation. Their exchanges were based on ayni, a word that can be translated as ‘reciprocity’. But ayni implies something much more than simple reciprocity. It involves the recognition and acceptance by the entire community of a natural law that gives back in proportion to what was given.
This book is distributed under Creative Commons licence with a reciprocal clause I call ayni. Creative Commons means that you can share it. The ayni clause asks that if you received it for free and enjoyed its content, you give something back in return.
There are several ways of giving back. You can buy this or any other of my books as a gift to yourself or to a friend. And if money is not what you wish to give, you can always write a review on your favourite on-line retailer.
The Sources of Maya
The Seven Stages of Love
The Visionary Alchemist
Children of the Dream
The Meeting Point
The Point of Culmination
About the Author
Other Books by Marc Torra
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This book is dedicated to those men and women who I call, ‘the Earth People’, because they represent both our past, and our best hope for the future.
The aim of this book is to stimulate the mind,
and in doing so, help the reader to expand it.
For only by expanding the mind can we transcend it;
and only in transcending the mind, it will be realised that we are neither body nor mind,but pure consciousness.
That is why this book is written to help you imagine,
and through imagining, inspire;
and through inspiring, expand;
and through expanding, transcend;
and through transcending, understand that I am you,
and that you are Everything.
Illuminated by the light of a new sun,
so dawned that prophesied day.
For the Aztecs it is ‘the First Sun’;
the Hopis and Mayas call it ‘the Fifth World’;
for the Incas it is the ‘Taripay Pacha’—‘the Age of Meeting Ourselves Again’.
In the Bible, are the thousand years of peace promised in Revelation.
On this day we, children of Mother Earth and Father Sun, shed our puberty to become serene and mature;
to witness the birth of a new dawn and understand once again.
IT IS SAID that the Q’ero are the last direct descendants of the Inca who, thanks to their isolation, managed to preserve the old traditions of the culture that gave them birth. Their ancestors fled the domination of the Conquistadors to seek refuge in the high valleys of the Andes Mountains, for they had known that a period of upheaval, initiated by the ninth pachakuti^^1^^, was to come. There they lived for over five centuries, tucked away so securely that they remained isolated from the rest of the world and undisturbed by the few people who walked the Andes’ paths. With them an ancient prophecy survived.
This prophecy told of a long night—a difficult period that would last for five hundred years. It also foretold; however, that after this time, a new age of peace and harmony would come; a day when a new Sun would shine in the sky. This day would dawn with the “Mastay”—the reunion of the people from the four directions.^^2^^
The symbol of the four directions refers to humanity as a whole, irrespective of race, ethnicity, culture, nationality, social class, or any other label one might use to classify oneself, either as a member of a group or as an individual, separated from others.
Similar legends and prophecies are to be found in many traditions around the world. For example, a legend that is still told in America describes how, after the Great Deluge destroyed the world^^3^^, the Creator gathered all the survivors together and said them:
I am going to give you the Original Teachings and then divide you into four groups, and send you to the four directions. To each group, I will bestow power over one of the four elements of Nature: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. When the cycle ends, we shall reunite once again. If, by then, you have not forgotten the Original Teachings, you shall share them with the others and initiate a period of peace and harmony. But should my words be forgotten, the world will suffer destruction and will have to start all over again.
A Huitoto elder of the Hitomi community told me his version of this story in August of 1995, while I was in the Amazon. Hopi elders narrate a similar legend.^^4^^ In some of the myths, humanity is divided according to the four elements. Some make no reference to the elements but instead divide the world into four parts.^^5^^ Others tell of four couples who repopulate the world after the Great Deluge.^^6^^ While other prophecies, such as that of the Inkarri, relate a similar allegory, which says that the Tawantinsuyu—the ancient Inca State— will be re-established when the head of the last Inca is reunited with the four portions his body was chopped into by the Conquistadores.^^7^^
All of these legends and prophecies foretell a golden age, which will begin after a reunion—or Mastay—of four body parts, directions, elements, races, or great civilisations. This reunion heralds the arrival of the Age of Aquarius or the Thousand Years of Peace that follow the Apocalypse as promised by the Bible.^^8^^
In the tarot one can see a significant progression between the fifteenth arcana (XV), “the Devil”, and the seventeenth arcana (XVII), “the Star.” The Devil is associated with the rampant materialism plaguing us all today. The Star shows a naked woman pouring the water of universal love into the river of life. She embodies Aquarius, the water carrier. Between these two stands the sixteenth arcana (XVI), “the Tower”. This card represents our awakening to technological and materialistic illusion through a mass ejection or flare from our star—the Sun.
Jean Dodal 1712
In accordance with these legends and symbols is the prophecy known as, “the Encounter between the Eagle of the North and the Condor of the South”, which tells of the splitting of humanity into two as it occurred at the beginning of the current cycle. In this prophecy we see the eagle on one hand, representing the unnatural path of rationality and materialism, and the condor on the other, representing the intuitive and spiritual path of those who maintain close ties with nature. The eagle exemplifies the people of the West, and in the Mastay they are called, “the Fire People”. The condor embodies the indigenous people of the land.^^9^^ “The Earth people” is what they are called in the Mastay.
The purpose of this book is to encourage the reunion of humanity, allowing the long awaited “Age of Harmony” to make its entrance. With this purpose in mind, I have written Mastay in the form of a spiritual narrative. This is a story adorned with parables, fables, myths and legends, all emerging through the exchange of words between the characters. Each tale introduces an individual and their life; and each individual embodies a direction, an element, and a particular civilisation.
This journey unfolds with the story of Vivek, who hails from the East and represents the Air People. Vivek belongs to the Eastern Civilisation and lived in India during the time of the Gupta Dynasty^^10^^, a period which is considered by many to have been a golden age for the Indian subcontinent.
Following this is the tale of Fatima, who represents the Water People. She stands for the North, as most of her people dwell in the Tropic of Cancer.^^11^^ Fatima is a Muslim and lived during the Abbasid Dynasty in a city which is present-day Baghdad.^^12^^ It is said that during this period, Islam was unparalleled in its splendour.
David, whose story follows, represents the Fire People. He hails from the West and was born in 1971 on the East Coast of the United States, when this country’s golden age had just come to an end.
Our final character, Mama Tuk, is an Aboriginal woman who represents the Earth People. She hails from the South, from the Tropic of Capricorn.^^13^^ Of the four protagonists, Mama Tuk is the only one sharing an experience which is to occur in the future; to be specific, five hundred years from now.
In chapter five, titled, “the Point of Reunion”, these characters come together to engage in a conversation. They meet on a subtle plane of consciousness, that inner place from which our thoughts originate. Essentially, these characters await the opportunity to spark a similar meeting or Mastay, one that will occur on our planet; a meeting between, not only four, but between each and every one of us. For this, the descendants of the Incas have been waiting for five centuries.
This work is intended to serve as a reminder of the Original Teachings, as interpreted by the peoples of every direction and every element. It seeks to pursue that which we have in common, that which balances us. Moreover, it endeavours to return balance to our planet, beginning with our own inner world in the hope that it might subsequently unearth harmony between nations and cultures. In remembering these teachings, we will attain a better understanding of ourselves and our role in life. For it is said that we are all distinct expressions of the same Divinity and that our immediate responsibility lies in returning harmony to Mother Earth.
From the Land of the Gunai/Kurnai
He hails from the land of the rising Sun.
Born at the feet of the Himalaya,
in the greatest mountains he grew to be a man,
and climbed down from those heights where air is scarce.
There, you can touch the clouds with your fingers,
or listen to news lifted on the winds.
From there, you can see beyond the trees,
to the whole, the forest as one.
THIS STORY BEGINS in the times of the Gupta Empire in a place the ancient peoples called Mayapuri, the City of Maya, which is nowadays called Haridwar. One of the oldest living cities, Haridwar stands at the point where the sacred river Ganges springs from the lofty peaks of the Himalaya to glide down through the vast plains of the Indian subcontinent. The gods once walked this land, leaving their footprints behind. Ever has it been a place of pilgrimage, visited each day by hundreds of worshippers, people who come to bathe in the icy water of the sacred river. The City of Maya is and always was the last stop on the mother of all pilgrimages
Every twelve years, when Jupiter enters the sign of Aquarius and the Sun comes into Aries, the Purna Kumbha Mela takes place. It is during this time that visitors to Haridwar may be counted in the millions. Some of them, such as the Naga Sadhus, walk the streets naked, their bodies covered in ash. Others, like the Urdhwavahurs, practice severe austerity. The Parivajakas take a vow of silence. The Shirshasins spend day and night standing on their feet or heads, and sleep upright, leaning on canes. The Kalpvasis devote themselves entirely to ritual, performing ablutions three times a day and worshipping the river as Mother. All of them come to this place because tradition holds that whoever bathes here on an auspicious day will see the veil of maya dissolve, and thereby transcend the cycle of death and rebirth.
Since his childhood, Vivek, a youth of Haridwar, had watched the procession of pilgrims pass by his house. As a boy he had loved following the crowds down to the river to see them descend into the water by the great stone stairs called ghats. Once, when he had been there with his father, Vivek had asked the man why the pilgrims did that.
“They hope to attain moksha, the liberation of the soul, and dissolve the veil of maya,” he had replied.
What is the veil of maya? Vivek had wondered.
The river had always been a part of Vivek’s life. He had spent much of his childhood playing in its waters with his brothers; since as far back as he could remember he had helped his father take the daily offerings down to its shores. Nevertheless, after all the years and ablutions, Vivek, born in the City of Maya, still wondered, what is this veil of maya, and how can the sacred river make it dissolve?
His father, an orthodox Brahman, was an austere man who interpreted the Scriptures literally. When Vivek asked him about these things, he was never able to offer the youth a satisfying answer, so Vivek sought out the pilgrims. Even they left him unsatisfied, finding their explanations similar to his father’s—boring and baffling to his young mind.
“Maya is a mirage,” they would say. “It is the veil of a physical and mental reality that has captivated our Self, causing us to believe that, like the Universe, we are also limited. It is the illusion we consider real; something transitory that we take to be absolute. It is a condition of our soul which makes us see multiplicity where there is only Unity and causes us to perceive reality in an equally fragmented way.”
In spite of these answers, Vivek still could not understand. No matter how hard he reasoned, he just couldn’t conceive of a world beyond the maya which seemed to encompass the very questions themselves. He was like a blind man trying to comprehend darkness and struggling to contrast the blackness in his mind with colours he could not perceive. If I’m surrounded by maya, he thought, how can I transcend the illusory and see what’s real? How can I look beyond the veil if I am its captive?
One day the young man decided to go to the shrine of Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge, music, and the arts. If She-Who-Is-Invoked-By-Aspirants-To-Knowledge can’t answer my questions, no-one can, he thought.
When Vivek arrived at the shrine, he knelt before Saraswati’s image, holding his offering in both hands. With his gaze lowered, he began reciting an invocation:
Oh Meri Maiya Saraswati, Goddess of knowledge!
Who is fair like the jasmine-coloured Moon and the snow.
Who is adorned in radiant white attire.
Who holds in her hands the Veena in an attitude of blessing.
Whose throne is a white lotus and is adored by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Protect me, dissolving the darkness and sluggishness that cloud my intellect.
Having finished the invocation, he placed his offering at the goddess’ feet. Closing his eyes, he meditated for a long time, until the sounds from the emerging day drifted back into his consciousness, reminding him of his duties for the morning. When he finally opened his eyes, Vivek resolved that he would visit Saraswati every day. Standing, he headed off towards the riverbank to help his father with the daily offerings.
Days dragged by like this, days that Vivek spent kneeling before the small statue. Then, in the early hours of a moonless morning, after he had been meditating all night, a voice came to him from the corner of the temple:
“Do you know the fable of the caterpillar and the butterflies?”
Who would interrupt me at a time like this? Vivek wondered.
Turning towards the voice, he saw a man with skin as furrowed and brown as an ancient road. He sat in the lotus position on the stone floor, his beard braided down his chest, his back against the wall. Vivek saw that the man’s eyes were clouded with blindness, but nevertheless they seemed to watch him without seeing him, or rather, see him without watching him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you,” said Vivek.
“Well, I’ve been sitting here all night. In fact, you pulled me out of my meditation when you started chanting to the Goddess Saraswati; but you didn’t answer my question: Do you know the fable of the caterpillar and the butterflies?”
“There was once a caterpillar who lived in a mulberry tree,” the man began. “This creature thought himself quite fortunate, for he had plenty of food, and in the garden the weather was fine. Autumn seemed so far away that it brought no worry to his mind. He did not think about the day when those leaves would yellow and fall, and the mulberry tree would be bare. Autumn, he thought, why worry about autumn, if it’s still spring here? The caterpillar was so satisfied with his life that he never pondered the possibility of a better existence, or considered the transitory nature of abundance, which is dependent on the seasons of the year.”
The man paused and then added, “Do you understand the story?”
“Yes,” Vivek replied. “The caterpillar represents all those people who, satisfied with their earthly life, don’t stop to think that there might be something better, or that, someday their abundance will disappear. For it is our destiny that everything shall come to pass; as certain as it is that autumn follows summer and that, after autumn, winter comes.”
“Yes!” the man replied, smiling, “but this fable is like a gift, carefully wrapped in more than one layer. You were able to understand the first, but can you extract the next one?”
“No,” Vivek replied.
“Living so comfortably and with such indifference,” continued the old man, “the caterpillar never realised that the mulberry tree was surrounded by a garden replete with flowers. This place was visited each day by a cloud of butterflies that drifted in from every corner of the forest to sip the nectar. Nevertheless, so content was the caterpillar that he never searched for a better life.”
The old man paused for a moment. Then, raising his head, he opened his blurred eyes fully to make sure that he had the boy’s attention and asked: “What do you think would happen if, one day, he glimpsed those butterflies?”
“Well, I suppose he would want to be one too.”
“But you’ll agree, won’t you, that the caterpillar must first know that butterflies exist? For isn’t the caterpillar’s reality limited to what happens on firm ground? Even if he did manage to evade his reality to imagine himself fluttering from flower to flower, isn’t the caterpillar by nature, practically blind? As long as he is a caterpillar he will never manage to see the butterflies, or perceive their reality. Of plants he knows only the flavour of leaves, not the nectar of flowers.”
“That’s sad!” said Vivek.
“It’s not so sad because one day, when the leaves fade and wither, and the wind blows them away, the caterpillar will start thinking beyond the mulberry tree. On that day, he will also contemplate the possibility of becoming a butterfly.”
As the mendicant spoke, his beard moved with the rhythm of his words. Once again, Vivek had the strange impression that the man observed him without seeing him, or rather, saw him without needing to look. His eyes were the long staff with which he struck objects to identify not only their presence, but also their essence. This essence was transmitted through sound and vibration, through a voice that could only be perceived by someone using their ears to discern, and their touch to see. Stone, wood, sand—each emitted its distinct sound that the man could identify with perfect acuity.
The man again gathered the threads of his story and continued, and as he did, his long beard caressed the stone. “One day the caterpillar will discover that he can create a chrysalis. From that moment on, nothing on the mulberry tree will distract him. He will begin to create the means that will enable him to transmute.”
Vivek felt his disappointment turn into hope with his words. The old man smiled.
“What do you think the caterpillar will do once he has become a butterfly?” he asked.
“He will start to fly!” cried the youth.
“Yes! I see you understand the meaning of the story. Now tell me, what do you think the pilgrims are trying to do when they bathe in the river?”
“I suppose they see the water of the Mother Ganga as the chrysalis that will make them a butterfly,” replied Vivek.
“And is it?”
“I’ve bathed in her waters hundreds of times and I’m still a caterpillar.”
“Well then, the only chrysalis possible is the one that shrouds our hearts. Only when this opens will we be able to take flight. Only then, shall the veil of maya dissipate, and shall our eyes be opened so that we can perceive the garden of flowers around us.
“Do you understand?”
“I follow your reasoning, but I can’t fully absorb the idea,” replied Vivek.
“Don’t try to understand maya by using your mind. To transcend the illusion we must use our hearts. Mind and maya are one and the same thing. They are the object, and the object cannot perceive itself. You are the subject however, the eternal essence—pure consciousness. Look inside yourself to connect with who you really are. Don’t seek for it on the outside.”
“Master, even so, it is difficult. I follow the theory; I’ve had similar answers from everyone I’ve asked, but I wish to experience it, to feel it instead of theorising about it. I think that’s the only way I’ll be able to fully understand.”
“You need the faith bestowed by experience (shraddha),” said the master. “This kind of faith does not ask us to believe another’s word without exploring the ideas personally. If you really want to understand, you will need to undergo a pilgrimage to the sources of the three sacred rivers: Yamuna, Ganges, and Sarasvati. This will give you the faith that comes when, in our caterpillar state, we perceive the garden of flowers that surrounds us.”
“A pilgrimage to the three sacred rivers!” cried Vivek.
He’d always seen the pilgrims as people who dedicated, not months, but years of their lives to reach a destiny that he lived in his own right or because of an accident of fate. That’s why the youth felt cautious when this blind man, who he had only just met, proposed he should delve into the perilous Himalaya Mountains in search of the three sacred rivers.
“Yes, a pilgrimage. Once you are at their sources, look for the limit of the glacier, where ice gives way to a bubbling, crystal-clear stream. When you are here, kneel down and pronounce three times the sacred words I will bestow to you. Then, drink from the stream and prepare yourself for an experience.”
An experience. These words struck Vivek, for they were meaningful, not just banal intellectual promises. It was because of these words that the young man decided to open his ears and listen to the mantra, or magical invocation, that the old man recited for him. He would set out the very next day in search of the sources of the three sacred rivers.
When Vivek arrived home he announced to his parents that he was going on a journey. He said that he would be away for several months, but he didn’t tell them exactly how long, or say just where he was going. This was a pilgrimage he wanted to undertake with no commitments, for he knew that in the mountains the days would grow long with monsoon downpours, and that time would stop under the weight of snowfalls. Before leaving, he found a thick woollen blanket for the cold, and a jar so that he might beg for money on the way. Then, he headed northwards. It was April and the snow on the mountains was beginning to thaw. He reasoned that if he hurried, he could make his way to the three destinations and be back before October, when the ice would again cover the roads.
AS THE YAMUNA had been the first river mentioned by the mendicant, Vivek decided to respect his sequence exactly by making this his first destination. Halfway through the morning, he joined a group of renunciants on pilgrimage to the mountains, and together they started out on a route alongside the riverbank. This was a road that had been carved from the rocks of the gorges, a road of sculptured stone and sheer drops, a path to the roof of the world. Along the way they stopped to profess the accustomed rites to the God Shiva. While praying at these wayside shrines, they consumed a resin they had gathered from the flowers of a plant that grew wildly by the road. Soma, the renunciants called it. Vivek thought this custom to be more of an excuse to delay the journey, although there were times when he consumed it that it helped him understand in a deeper sense.
One month later, Vivek arrived at Yamunotri. Here he found that the exact source of the river was the cold lake of Septarishi Kund, the Lake of the Seven Wise Men. While standing on its shore, Vivek looked for the constellation that had given this place its name, seven stars that were now hidden in the North, watching him from behind the mountains and the intense May Sun.
The recent winter snows still dominated the landscape, although summer’s influence was beginning to be noticeable. The ice melted with the heat of each new day, uncovering rocks and sediments, as well as weeds, yellow and withered with the cold.
Vivek walked to the small brook of crystal-clear waters emerging from beneath the frozen crust. Kneeling, he pronounced the invocation three times then took a deep draft of the water. As he swallowed, he was disappointed to find that nothing was happening. He decided he would take a nap at the foot of a great rock, a spot where the grass had already been freed of its winter garb.
Vivek was drifting: his body relaxed and his mind delving into the world of dreams, when he noticed an abrupt sensation of rising energy, a wave that swept him away from his body and lifted him as if he was flying. It was then that he saw his body asleep, leaning against the large rock below. The space around him started to disappear.
In this place, the gleaming midday Sun was more resplendent, the sky’s blue more intense, and he had never seen so many shades of white in the clouds. As he watched the mountains melt into each other like snow, the mingled scents of ice-burnt weed and glacial sediment grew more intense. The frozen surface of the lake diluted like a mirage. While moments before, the wind had caressed his skin, it now stood still, and a mantle of silence descended on the immensity of space surrounding him.
The mulberry tree gave way to the myriad of flowers in the garden, the caterpillar to the butterfly, as Vivek rose above the clouds to a place where the blue vanished and the sunshine melted away. From there, he looked north to see the constellation of the Seven Wise Men, also known as Ursa Major. Before now, the constellation had been hidden from him by sunlight and the peaks of the high mountains, but now Vivek could not only see it, he could hear the voice of each individual star. These voices vibrated all that surrounded them and there was a note for each of them, a colour for every note.
This must be maya, thought the young man, as the experience began to wane. Maya means that everything surrounding me is illusory. That it is merely an impression on the mind of what is perceived by the senses. It’s like the sky, which looks blue to us even though this isn’t its actual colour. Like the blue we use to paint the body of Divinity, it is the colour of the veil that covers the infinite cosmos.
WHEN HE RETURNED to his normal state, the young pilgrim decided to continue on the path towards his second destination: the source of the River Ganges. Although the source was not far away, it was too risky to go through the mountains and traverse the peaks between here and there alone. So Vivek decided to go back to Barkot and from there take the route towards Gangotri.
Vivek reached Gangotri just before the start of the monsoon, when the little village was crowded with pilgrims who had come from all three sides of the subcontinent. After resting for a few days to recover from the intense hike, he set off to the glacier of Gaumukh, which was half a day’s walk. This glacier was thought to be the source of the river. Just as Vivek was about to arrive and find out for himself, a blizzard swept down, taking him by surprise, and he was forced to take shelter in a small cave. After the winds had subsided, Vivek was so impatient to get to the glacier that he decided to continue, even though it was midnight. It’s a full moon, so I won’t have any problems finding the road, he thought.
When he arrived, the Moon was flaunting its gown in the southeast, and the wind had dissipated the clouds. It was a magical night, for a whole new calm had followed the tempest. The Moon displayed its pearly face as it slid above the peaks, watching over the firmament. Of all the stars and planets, only Jupiter was clearly visible to the young man. The rest were hidden behind a mantle of light, which the Moon wore with pride and intensity. Vivek saw the sky’s glory as a good omen, because, just as the Sun was related to the river Yamuna, the Moon was linked to Mother Ganga, and Jupiter represented ‘the Teacher.’
When he found the point where the brook emerged from the glacier, Vivek knelt down and was still, watching the Moon. He noticed that it was already starting to hide in the west. When it had disappeared, the stars began to cover the sky, reminding him of the Ganges carpeted with tiny lamps—earthen bowls with wicks burning in clarified butter (ghee), which worshippers used to make their offerings and prayers. He knew at that moment that the time for pronouncing the invocation had come.
First, Vivek said the mantra that the man of the temple had whispered weeks before. Then, he took a sip of the water. Immediately, his consciousness started to shift. Yet this time, it wasn’t the landscape that was vanishing, but his body, dissolving like a sugar cube in water. As it dissipated so too did his mind, spreading thin as smoke from a stick of incense caught in a breeze. His thoughts stopped.
In this state there was no distinction between object and subject. He realised that he and Everything that surrounded him were one and the same. He saw that time and space were illusory concepts invented by a mind anxious to confine and limit us all. Without space, multiplicity did not exist, transforming Everything into that, the only reality. Without time, past, present and future were united in a single instant. His ‘I-ness’ also vanished, liberating him from the mirage of maya. What had been darkness became light. What had been silence became a single sound that flooded and encompassed everything. In the centre was a bindu, a point from which yantras, or geometric figures flow. They were geometric archetypes flowing to the rhythm of an OM that permeated everything. This was the nectar, the amrita that the butterflies so longed for which compelled them to fly from flower to flower.
He knew he was living the experience that yogis called samadhi. This was infinite rapture, mystical ecstasy; the supra-conscious state or the transitory enlightenment of the soul. It implied the dissolution of maya into the ocean of absolute consciousness.
WHEN VIVEK RETURNED, he saw that the blue veil covered the heavens again. The Sun flashed its intense garb, for it was late on a spring day, and an intense fragrance similar to jasmine surrounded him. This was the scent of a mother embracing her child; the perfume of flowers from the spiritual plane he had just now come from. Once again Vivek was the caterpillar lying on the leaf of the mulberry tree.
He looked at the position of the Sun and realised that more than twelve hours must have passed since the beginning of his experience. When he re-established contact with his body, Vivek felt a terrible pain in his bones. He tried to stand, but found it impossible. He let out a soft whimper, a sound too quiet to attract the attention of the few pilgrims who ventured to that place. The night he had spent out in the open had taken its toll on his body. Despite his sorry plight, the people passed him without paying much attention. Most of them walked barefoot on the snow and ice. Some wore grey ashes as clothes, a wooden staff their only possession. This was why, when they saw him, they didn’t think that a young man who seemed to be meditating wrapped in a good woollen blanket, needed any help.
Faint from exhaustion, he felt the cold weigh down his eyelids once more. There was a lump in his throat that made it hard to breathe. If this is my last breath, he thought, perhaps it is also the answer to the questions that brought me here, into the high glaciers of the Himalaya. Perhaps with death the veil will be lifted and the questions that crowd my mind will finally find answers. If so, my journey will not have been in vain…
However, the book of Vivek’s life had not yet turned its last page, for a renunciant who lived in a nearby cave found him just in time. This Good Samaritan was as thin as a staff and his ribcage seemed to be working its way out of his chest. His hair was a nest of knots, though he wore it wrapped about his head with the dignity of someone in a turban. The long beard hung to his waist, and his skin was as brown and dry as toughened leather.
Despite his fragile appearance, the good man hauled the youth onto his back like a bag of grain and briskly toted him to the cave where he lived. There he laid the dying young man, down by the hearth, and set about lighting a small fire. It took Vivek three days to recover, and for three days the ascetic never left his side.
When Vivek awoke, the first thing he saw was a pair of kind eyes watching over him in the light of a waning moon, and a smile that invited him to trust. Three more days passed before he had fully recuperated.
He decided to tell the man his story and the reasons he spent the night out in the mountain air. He spoke to him of the questions that had overpowered him; of how the blind man in the shrine had suggested a pilgrimage to the sources of the three sacred rivers; and of how, after drinking the water of the Ganges and reciting the sacred invocation, he had fallen unconscious on the ice.
“The experience was amazing,” Vivek said, “but it only lasted an instant and then I lost consciousness. Actually, I don’t know if I really lived it or if it was just a dream. Whether dream or reality, my heart longs to experience it again. Now that I’ve drawn the veil for an instant, nothing will stop me until I’ve removed it, until I can be completely naked from this body that binds me to the material world.”
“And how do you expect to achieve that?” asked the man. He poured water into a pot of used tea leaves, which would only afford aroma and colour to one with the patience to wait.
Vivek paused while the ascetic set the pot on the embers, awaiting his full attention. “The old man of the temple spoke to me about three sources. I have visited two and, through this, have learned the true meaning of maya. At the third I hope to obtain the knowledge that allows me to dissolve the mirage completely and remain in ecstasy forever. The only problem is that this river is Sarasvati, and no-one knows for sure where it is. According to the Scriptures, it was the most sacred of the seven rivers of antiquity. Perhaps it no longer exists. Some say it dried up a long time ago. Others say it’s actually a subterranean river that flows into the Ganges and Yamuna near Allahabad.”
The hermit poured tea into two small fired clay pots while he recited a short invocation to the God Shiva. Vivek watched while the drink was being served, then continued. “When I ask where to find the source of this supposed subterranean river, they say that it’s ethereal, that it’s a spiritual river which does not exist here, in the physical realm. Some answers are even more enigmatic; some even go as far as to say that to feel the flow of Sarasvati, one must be able to breathe through both nostrils at once. ‘Activating Sushumna’, they call it. Lunatics!” he said. “I’m looking for a river I can drink from. A real river, to draw its origin. Not a dry river, an ethereal river—or a river that flows down my spine.”
The ascetic watched him and listened to his impassioned words with the look of someone who no longer seeks for answers. Then, suddenly, the man swept his beard aside, got up, and walked out of the cave. Vivek wondered whether he had gone too far. These mountain folk aren’t used to people grumbling, he thought.
Ashamed, Vivek decided to leave the cave and sit next to the hermit, who was perched on a rock overlooking the magnificent mountain range. When he had seated himself by his side, the ascetic asked, “What did you learn after drinking from the first source?”
“That reality is a mirage,” Vivek replied timidly.
“And from the second?”
“That this mirage is made manifest by the power of the mind.”
Vivek looked at him. “It means that everything is possible.”
“—If everything is possible, why do you deny the answers that were given to you? The fact that they do not serve you in achieving your goals, or that they don’t live up to your expectations, does not mean that they are false. In fact, all three of them are true. But I know well that you are seeking a fourth answer. An answer that allows you to recover what you lived for an instant. You are waiting for the third source to give you the technique. What I don’t know is whether you will be able to interpret its message once you drink its water…”
The man paused, and gazing towards the east, he continued. “—Yes. The Sarasvati River also exists on the physical plane and you can drink from its waters. It is no longer the majestic river of antiquity because long ago an earthquake cut it off almost at its source and now its currents flow into the Ganges. Nowadays, it is a small tributary that springs not far from here, losing itself at the foot of the cave where the great wise man, Vyasa compiled the Vedas and composed the Mahabharata. Someday it will be a great river once more—the day we discover that Sarasvati is also a river we must awaken inside.”
“Oh, baba, please tell me where to find it!” cried the young man.
“You will have to undergo a dangerous journey through glaciers and mountain passes at heights so great that there will be little air to breathe. Here you will encounter strong, cold winds, and you will find nowhere to take refuge. Your only companions will be small herds of wild blue goats; like them, you might end up the prey of the snow leopard. You will fight your way to the roof of the world, where the Devas (demigods) reside, but not even they will be able to help you, for this is an adventure you must undertake on your own.”
“How can I get there?” Vivek wanted to set off at once.
“First, you must venture south, following the glacier, until you reach the Tapovan plateau. Then, you will walk a yodjana^^14^^ towards the east, skirting the glaciers, until you stumble upon the Vasuki Tal Lake. Keep walking a second yodjana in the same direction until you reach Kalindi Khal, known as the Path of the Sun Star. Cross it and continue a third yodjana towards the east until you reach a river. This river is the Arwa Nala, a tributary of the Sarasvati you are so eagerly looking for. Walk along its course and after a fourth yodjana you will arrive at the Sarasvati. Continue for a fifth yodjana upriver along its course towards the north and you will reach the glacier that gives birth to it. Five yodjanas then separate you from the answers you seek, but these last five yodjanas might cost you your life. Are you willing to undergo such an adventure?”
“Yes,” replied Vivek.
The next day, Vivek and the hermit bid goodbye with a heartfelt embrace. The young man returned to the tiny village of Gangotri to gather the necessary provisions before setting off in search of the Sarasvati. Once Vivek had spent all his mendicant savings on a pair of good shoes, a second blanket, and supplies, he left in search of the mysterious river.
After two weeks of traversing perilous glaciers, prairies and mountain passes, Vivek finally reached his sought-after destination. He made haste to the point where the crystal clear water snaked its way from under the glacier; he repeated the invocation three times, and then submerged his hands. When Vivek drew them from the stream; however, he noticed that his palms could not retain the water. In fact, there was no sensation at all—no wetness, no cold; it was as though the water was nothing but a product of his imagination, a projection of his mind. “Why, why, oh Saraswati, do you deny me the answer that my heart so longs for?” he yelled into the echoing sky.
Now without supplies, and worse still, without the strength to continue his search, Vivek collapsed onto the snow, willing the cold of the coming night to snatch his life away.
A small walking caravan of marchas, a semi-nomadic tribe that lived in the region, came across the man who, for the second time that month, lay half-dead on the snow. This party had come from the cold lands of Bhot, now known as Tibet. There they had acquired a load of wool, which they intended to sell in the lower valleys. When they discovered Vivek’s condition, they quickly built a palanquin of sorts, wrapped him in yak skins, and made him hot tea with butter. A few days later, the group arrived in the village of Mana. Here Vivek was given a bed to stay in until he had fully recovered. When he finally came out of his trance, the rainy season had already begun, and he realised that this would make his return journey difficult. He decided that he would spend the summer with those kind-faced people, and continue his journey down the mountain once autumn arrived.
Mountain folk were well-known for their hospitality and these people were no exception. The chief of the clan had welcomed him as a member of the family, and had given him his children’s room to stay in. Theirs was a house with a low ceiling and small doors that he had to crouch to get through. It was made of stone and adobe mixed with cow dung, a dwelling that invited humility, in contrast with the high peaks that surrounded them. Vivek was amazed to think that for six months of the year these tiny houses were completely covered in snow. When their proprietors arrived in the spring, after spending the winter in slightly warmer lands, they always found them intact. It was as if the thick mantle of snow, which had completely covered them during the long cold months was nothing but a gentle caress.
The answer to Vivek’s dilemma came to him a few days later. One morning, while the young man and his host enjoyed traditional tsampa, a drink made of tea, butter and rye, Vivek gave an account of his adventures. “…So much effort to reach the third source, and when I arrived there, I couldn’t even taste its water.”
“But no one can take away your experience,” replied the chief.
“Yes, but what use is it to me now?”
“Experiences are always good for something,” replied the man. “The first time my people arrived in this valley, we built the village at the foot of the great plateau that lies at the other side of the river. It seemed the ideal place because of the relatively flat, ample terrain that looked to be protected from avalanches. But when we returned from a long winter in the lower valleys, we found that an avalanche had swept our village away.”
“How awful!” said Vivek.
“Yes, but from that experience we learned that it was not possible to escape from avalanches; rather, we had to learn to live with them. Of course, to be able to live with someone, you must first get to know their habits. That’s why our ancestors thought it better to change the location of the village. Instead of choosing the most logical place, they decided to rebuild it on this side of the river, at the foot of the mountain.”
“Wasn’t this even more risky?” asked Vivek.
“No, because they reasoned that, as it was on a slope, avalanches would follow predetermined routes along the natural contours of the mountain. In the valley, while there was less probability of an avalanche, if there was one, there would be no way to predict its path. When an avalanche reaches the valley, it spreads out across the whole terrain. That’s why, that year they didn’t build any houses but instead planted stakes throughout the grounds where they were planning to build the new village.”
“Yes, so that the following spring they could proceed as follows: where a stake was still stuck fast in the ground, they built a house; but where the stakes had been knocked down by the snow, they made streets and esplanades. Since then, we have never again had a problem with avalanches, because we learned to respect their paths, and in fact, have come to share them. Avalanches pass by in the winter, we pass by in the summer, and meanwhile, our houses remain intact.”
“Yes, but you, on the other hand, seem to want to flee from what you call maya, instead of learning to share its same path. Apparently, you want to evade it instead of studying how it operates and thus allowing it to not affect you. You almost departed from this life twice trying to avoid it. Perhaps you need to learn to live with it, because accepting it is surely the first step towards being able to transcend it.”
THAT NIGHT THE young man decided to sleep out in the open, in the highest of the three caves that yawned above the tiny village. These caves were little more than natural shelters formed of large fallen rocks. They provided a roof over one’s head and enough space to take refuge from the snow, but they were not adequate to protect one from the rigours of winter. As the wind was not blowing on this summer’s night, Vivek thought it a good opportunity to set up a bivouac, instead of returning to the chief’s house, where he didn’t have much privacy.
When he fell asleep, Vivek began to dream. This was no ordinary dream, for it transported him to a time long past, to an event that had occurred in this same place thousands of years before.
“Ganesha, did you write down everything I told you?” said a voice that Vivek could not identify. “Ganesha, we have not walked so many days to find this solitary place, for you to take a nap halfway through the story.” The speaker was clearly irritated. “The body of Krishna is dead, the Age of Kali is approaching. If we don’t write down what, until now, has simply been remembered, all the knowledge of our wise ones will be lost in the commotion that is to come. If we don’t leave a written legacy, no one will remember that once, Krishna walked this blessed land and, in his eternal wisdom, he reminded us of the true science of yoga, the science of union with the Divine principle. Please, write: ‘Supreme Consciousness does not make us act against our own will, nor is it the cause of identifications with our own actions, nor does it cause us to become attached to the fruits of those actions. The origin of these three identifications is, on the other hand, the illusory nature of the reality that surrounds us.’”^^16^^
It is the old man from the shrine of the Goddess Saraswati! Vivek thought to himself. It is not him physically, but I can sense that it is him in spirit. Why is he asking me to continue writing this story? Am I dreaming? What’s happening to me? Am I remembering, or am I imagining all this?’
“Ganesha, my child, scribe and witness of this future time of darkness, your name has been given to you in honour of the elephant god, the one who removes obstacles from our path,” continued the voice. “Your writing instrument is the ivory tusk we hope will serve to remove the obstacles of an age that is just beginning. This place, where my words are transcribed, has not been inhabited for the last hundred cycles because it was completely covered by the snow of a long ice age. It is like a blank page, without words telling of its past. I urge you to write, my child, so that when this age reaches its end we can remember all the wisdom our human race has amassed, and so that we are not utterly devoured by the ignorance of the difficult times ahead.”
What difficult times could he be talking about? Vivek wondered.
“The times when we shall wrongly interpret the wisdom of the past,” answered the voice. “Out of the four personalities that Manu^^17^^ defined for us, and upon that which our society has been built, they will make groups to which people belong by heritage, not by tendency.^^18^^ It will be as if spirituality was transmitted through bloodlines instead of resulting from the combination of personal effort and divine grace. The four personalities will also be arranged in a hierarchy. Some will be considered to be above others, as though a person’s head were more important than their chest or hands. Marriage will become a fixed contract to preserve the purity of blood, as if purity is linked to the physical body instead of being found in the soul (Atman). Of karma, or the cause-effect law, they will make an excuse to justify the splitting of a society that is about to lose its harmony, and conflict will rule again, and with it, war and division.”
He is describing our society now, Vivek thought.
“In the Age of Kali, many people will mistake the material for the spiritual, focusing exclusively on the first at the expense of the second,” continued the voice. “Stones will be given more value than people; governors will be corrupt; and merchants will flaunt their power. This is why you must write, my child, write with the hope that at least a few shall understand and preserve Eternal Truth. Write so that those who do not fixate on external objects might enjoy the happiness that flows from the inner Being.”
THOSE WORDS OF premonition were still resonating in Vivek’s mind when he finally returned home a few months later. His mother embraced him for such a long time that he thought she would never let go. His father acted as though nothing had happened, but secretly looked at his son from time to time with a proud new light in his eyes. After greeting his parents, family members, and those neighbours that had come to visit their home, drawn by the news of his return, the young man went straight to the shrine of the Goddess Saraswati. Here he hoped to find the man responsible for his long adventure, the only person who seemed to have an answer to the dilemma of the third fountain.
“Master, master!” Vivek called when he saw him.
The man was seated in the same position that he had been in when Vivek had left him, as if time had stood still inside the shrine. When he heard his voice, the wise man gave a hint of a smile, and Vivek touched his feet as a sign of respect.
After they had greeted one another, the young man said, “Master, from the first source I learned that mountains, rivers, valleys, and all the things that surround us are not real, but an illusion. This material world is a mirage when one observes it through the eyes of Consciousness. From the second of the sources I learned that reality is actually Brahman, or Supreme Consciousness. When one transcends the mind, reality is presented as One and Absolute. But tell me, please, what have I learned of the third fountain?”
The old man motioned with his staff for Vivek to come and sit by his side. With his serene smile ever-present, he replied, “Of the third fountain you have learned three things. Firstly, you came to see that knowledge is also an illusion, as unreal as the water of the source. Therefore, you must not seek, by accumulating it, a formula that will enable you to recover the instant of ecstasy that drinking from the source of the Ganges gave you; for hoarding knowledge will only inflate your ego and push you from your objective. Don’t forget that more valuable than reading knowledge, or having it explained to you, is to remember it, to remember the Eternal Truths. But know also that this is a journey to be undertaken with humility.”
“What do you mean, master?”
“It is like a stick of incense. If you do not hold the incense to the flame long enough for the wood at its core to catch, the stick will never burn. But, on the other hand, if you don’t extinguish the flame when it has caught, the incense will be consumed, and the fragrance shall be lost. The ego (ahamkara) acts in the same way. At first you need it, just as the fragrance needs the wooden stick to hold it, just as the incense needs the flame. The ego is necessary so that one might become conscious of one’s individuality and capacity to act. But after this, you need to detach from it, so you can give off your own fragrance. Once the flame is extinguished, your life will go by steadily in the same way that the stick is consumed, and the fragrance you give off will linger. Then, eventually, you will dissolve, to mingle with the many that burned before you. Do you understand now?”
“Secondly, you have obtained the faith that is born out of experience (sraddha). It is a faith that gave you the strength to venture out alone in the snow in search of the third fountain. It is not a blind faith; rather, it is certainty born of having glimpsed the light for an instant to discover that ecstasy is the natural state of the soul. This is why you accepted the challenge when the master, incarnate in the body of a baba at the foot of the glacier of Gaumukh, proposed you take a dangerous trek to the source of the Sarasvati; because, from your first two experiences, you obtained this faith.”
The young man nodded and a smile came to his face as he realised that this small, dry man of Saraswati’s shrine, had not only manifested as the wise Vyasa of his dream, but that he was also the baba who had rescued him in Gaumukh.
“Finally, you have demonstrated the physical and mental strength (virya) needed to reach your objective. You shall need the same willpower and determination to overcome the multiple obstacles that separate you from the supreme experience.”
“Master, as you say, I have learned many things, but now that I have tasted the sweetness of the supreme experience, I lack the will to continue living in this illusory reality.”
“Who says it’s illusory!?” said the man. “Didn’t you learn with the example of the avalanches that you need to come to a place where you can coexist with what you call maya?”
Vivek decided not to ask how the master also knew about the conversation he had held with the chief of the small village of Mana. He thought that this would be underestimating the abilities of those who are not subject to the limitations of time and space. Instead, he replied with a new question. “Yes, but how?”
“Primary, by ceasing to consider the reality around you a mirage. For, like avalanches, if you deny its existence, it will inevitably cover you and you will lose your sense of direction. Once you stop denying it, you will be ready to understand how it works, and once you know this, you will be able to transcend it.”
“But how does it operate?”
“The Ultimate Reality—that which you perceived in the rapture of an instant—is One and Absolute. How the singular is transformed into multiplicity and how this multiplicity operates is what you need to learn. But to find your way through the multiplicity of apparent reality, you need to determine and distinguish all the possible directions you can take. That is why I am asking you: how many possible directions do you think define this apparent reality?”
“Four,” replied the young man.
“Four! Are you sure? Don’t let the horizon that limits your gaze betray you and don’t mistake as directions, those ways that you can only walk along. In my blindness and lameness, I see more.”
“Six, if we think of up and down as possible directions, but these are not directions that define a horizon, or that I can move along.”
“But nevertheless you moved along them in your first experience, when you rose towards the sky. Initially you denied the apparent reality that surrounds you. Now you don’t deny it, but you limit it. Neither one option, nor the other, will allow you to transcend it. It is true that up and down define directions of a different nature in comparison to the four cardinal directions, but even so, they are directions with their own concept of horizon and with their own way for one to move along them.”
The master paused to undo and rewrap the bow of hair he wore as a turban, and then continued:
“However, you have missed the seventh direction: the point towards your interior. When you set out in this direction, you will discover that reality as it surrounds us is pure vibration, pure sound. Then, you shall recover the experience of communion with Supreme Consciousness, for it has never left you. Do not look for it at the source of the external Sarasvati River; instead seek it at the source of the river that flows within. This is what they call sushumna, the energy channel that moves between ida and pingala, the lunar and solar channels. The ida and pingala channels (nadis) are also known by the names of Ganges and Yamuna.”
The old man started to hum a soft melody. A few moments later, his humming ceased. He was smiling, and Vivek knew that the man had again entered samadhi, the state of absolute ecstasy. The young man had no more questions. He crossed his legs, closed his eyes, and sought to follow the blind man’s lead on his own inner journey.
She hails from the Tropic of Cancer;
she was born in a sandy and arid land
where her kin lived
from the few wellsprings of water.
This is a place where humanity gathered,
to build the great cities of old;
here the rivers of nomadism
formed their first pools
after the Great Deluge.
OF ALL THE moments in Fatima’s day, she most impatiently awaited that time when she would sit on her grandfather’s lap and he would take her on a journey. Together, they visited lands accessible only to the most adventurous travellers, lands given life by the child’s imagination. They would range past the bounds of the city walls; away from the narrow streets of the medina which she walked with her playmates every day; beyond the arid horizon and the distance covered by the flash and rumble of storms; and far away from the tracks marked by the caravans that came to the city each day.
This journey always began after the Asr, the third prayer of the day. Fatima would sit on the big rock under the household fig tree, waiting for her grandfather to finish his prayers, roll up his mat, and come to sit by her side. Then he would take the girl under her arms and lift her onto his lap. To Fatima, this was like mounting a horse. Her grandfather’s galloping words would carry her through unknown places: places yet to be visited by her imagination.
Each of these journeys began with Fatima asking her grandfather a question, for she knew that this would always prompt the old man to lift her onto his lap. She would utter a new one each time the gallop of his words slowed; her questions were like urging whips on a horse’s back.
“So tell me, grandfather,” she said on this occasion, “why do pilgrims walk seven times around the Kaaba?”^^19^^
The old man lifted her onto his knee. “The prophet Abraham set up the rite of the seven circumambulations (tawaf), and it was put in place again by the prophet Muhammad, because we had forgotten it,” he replied, adding, “Peace be upon them both.”
“But grandfather, why seven times?”
The man knew that a child’s curiosity couldn’t be satisfied with a short answer, and that any answer he might give would open up a new question in her eager mind. To provide a response, he would have to touch upon the esoteric branch of Islam, which would lead them along paths too metaphysical for her young mind, so he simply replied, “It’s because there are seven stages (maqams) that must be crossed to reach spiritual transformation. The pilgrim tries to pass through each of the stages with every successive circuit, to, little by little, draw nearer to The Omnipresent.
That day Fatima did not ask any more questions, but instead began to imagine the great black stone of the Kaaba as a staircase with God sitting on the top and the pilgrims climbing towards him, reciting prayers. She thought of the hajj, believers who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, as men and women who had returned sanctified after a long journey.
This would become her idealised vision of the pilgrims, until the day her own father would come back as a hajji himself. On that day, Fatima would come to suspect that something was amiss in her childish interpretation of pilgrimage.
THE YEARS PASSED BY. Fatima, now a woman, had become aware of human imperfections, passions, and tendencies that move empires, and spur humanity to war. It was the month of Ramadan of the year 636 of Hijra (year 1239 in the Gregorian calendar), and it was starting to get hot. The year before, Mongols had begun incursions into the Caliphate territory, but Baghdad still seemed safe.
The passions that Fatima observed in the political realm seemed to her the same as those that dominated her father’s relationship with his four wives, a relationship based on jealousy and distrust. Nothing had changed after the man had returned from Mecca. The father had not become the grandfather. The worldly man had not become a saint. For this reason, she decided to pick up a conversation that had been interrupted a while back; a conversation that had begun during a childhood journey. For this question she sought out her grandfather.
“Fatima,” he replied, “you should know that not all the passions of our small self (nafs)^^20^^ are completely subjugated with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Reaching the Supreme One requires more than a journey and seven circumambulations.”
“But then, grandfather, why did the Prophet establish the pilgrimage to Mecca if it doesn’t fully relieve us from our afflictions?”
“Try imagining the community of believers as an immense ocean. This is the ocean of the Ummah,” he began. “Each of the five daily prayers creates an undulation, a wave that begins in the east with the first prayer of the morning, and travels from minaret to minaret, from town to town, towards the west. This wave is raised five times a day, starting at the mosque of Muchiri, the City of Broken Lips, and heading towards the doors of the great mosque of Cordoba. By the time the first wave reaches its destination, another begins in the east with the second prayer of the day, so the ocean is perpetually moving.”
While the old man spoke, he stood from his seat on the block of stone and began moving his hands to represent the undulations created by prayer on that ocean of believers. Fatima watched him from her seat under the fig tree—that same tree of her childhood, which was now twice the size and had triple the fruit. The man returned to his seat next to Fatima and waited; he knew she would have yet another question ready for him.
“I understand why we must pray five times,” she said, “but why do we have to face Mecca, and why must we journey there at least once in our lifetime?”
“Just as prayer produces the five waves that cross the ocean of believers each day, praying with your face to Mecca and going to visit it at least once in your lifetime causes another effect in the ocean of the Ummah—a whirlpool,” he replied. “This whirlpool has its epicentre in the Holy City, and the seven circumambulations to the Kaaba are the waters that draw closer to the place where the presence of The All-Glorious is manifested with greatest intensity. These tribes of Bedouin nomads needed to quench their spiritual thirst; they needed the water that nourished their soul. The Prophet, peace be upon him, brought us this water, and since then our spirit has not been thirsty. Pilgrimage is important because it creates movement; it allows the community of believers to get to know each other; and it made it possible for those who, generations ago, fought in continuous tribal conflicts, to come to a place where they can now share the same table and eat from the same plate.”
“So, grandfather,” said Fatima, “if the seven circumambulations to the Kaaba bring us near to The Creator, but doesn’t guarantee that mercy and love will definitely take root in our hearts, how can we reach The All Powerful?”
“Whoever has pure intentions and sincere aspirations may reach Him by crossing the seven stages of love, which are symbolically represented by the seven circumambulations. Only when we have a pure heart may we come near to The Majestic One. This is the path of the mystic, the romance between the sincere believer and the unconditional love of The All-Compassionate.”
“What are these seven stages of love? Please tell me; my heart has yearned for reunion for so long.”
FATIMA HAD RESUMED a conversation postponed for many years. Once again, she sought to delve into the esoteric branches of Islam. When she was a child her grandfather had taken her onto his lap, but now she sat by his side as a woman. She is ready to understand, he thought.
“The seven stages are determined by their degree of intensity. So, in the first three we cannot speak of love, but only attachment.” He pointed to the spot just under the girl’s navel. “This is the region of the body where the small self (nafs) resides.”
Fatima gazed at the point to which her grandfather had indicated.^^21^^ She took notice of, how in the past, when her will felt strong and her energy levels high, this area seemed energised. When she felt depressed, powerless and without will, however, the area around her navel seemed to lack strength. “What do you mean by attachment?” she asked.
“Attachment means to love, not because we wish well to whom or what we love, but because we are trying to satisfy the longing and desires of our small self,” he replied.
“Attachment—but to what, grandfather?”
“We can become attached to three things. In the first place, to others.”
“Yes—both human beings and pets. That is, we cling to the feeling of wellbeing and security that their presence gives us, to the routine of having them nearby, or to the desire for some benefit they might bring to us.”
“What else can we become attached to?”
“Physical objects—material possessions; substances; the place we live in; and generally, everything that is material.”
“And the third thing?” she asked.
“Ideas? How can we become attached to ideas if they’re not material?”
“Ideas form a part of the world of similitude (Alam al-Mithal). We hold on to them as much as we hold on to objects from the physical world (Alam al-Ajsam)—sometimes even more. The idea of good and evil, fair and unfair, of what’s lawful (halal) or forbidden (haraam), and especially the image we have of ourselves—these are all concepts that we are very attached to. They are ideas that we interpret to suit ourselves, to satisfy the desires of our small self, or to dispel its fears.
“Can we also become attached to our birth land?”
“Yes, but in that case we’d be clinging to a combination of all three things. Firstly, we’d be attached to family and friends we’ve left behind. We’d also be attached to the objects that make up both the natural environment, with its rivers, valleys and mountains, and the environment created by human beings, with its buildings, streets and monuments. Finally, our attachment to ideas would include the culture and local customs, traditions, ways of doing things, or beliefs and superstitions.”
“And what about God, can we also become attached to The Finder?”
“We cannot become attached to The Everlasting One. We can only reach Him by love—never by attachment. But we can limit Him, to the point that one might identify God with an object; then one may become attached to this object. That is why the Prophet in his infinite wisdom, asked us to destroy all idols in our temples, so that The Hidden One would never be represented by images. He did this so that we might not become attached to those objects and thereby mistake them for The Self-Existing One.”
“I see,” said Fatima.
“But we can become attached to the idea of God, an idea that we mistake for The All-Comprehending, turning what is Absolute and Infinite into something relative and limited. We see this in the idea of an avenging god who wants Holy War, or a god who distinguishes between believers and infidels, as if there were just one path to Him, who, by definition, symbolises all possible routes.”
“Do you mean we can become attached to everything that is limited and relative, but not to God himself?”
“Now that I know the three types of things we can cling to, what are the three levels of attachment you were telling me about?” she asked.
“The first stage of attachment is the one born of habit and custom,” replied the man. “We get used to living with someone, or enjoying an object, or the traditions of the place we live in, and we become attached in such a way that if the person leaves, the object disappears, or the traditions change, we feel an inner emptiness, as if something is missing from our lives. This is the attachment born of our need to feel safe.”
Fatima knew very well what type of attachment her grandfather was talking about. She had seen how change produced anxiety in most people—changes in their home, health or profession; changes in the weather; in the political situation; in the material welfare of society; or in the traditions and ways of doing things. And, of course, in the ultimate change: death.
“Change produces uncertainty,” said her grandfather, as though he had read her mind. “That’s why we prefer what we know, to the promise of something better that we’re not familiar with. We complain about what we have, but if someone proposes we change it, we get nervous because we’re frightened of uncertainty.”
“The small self in most people does not want to accept uncertainty. It does not want to acknowledge that everything is subject to the will of The Subtle One. The small self clings to people, objects, or ideas so that it might create for itself an illusion of permanence, of everything remaining the same. That’s why each time we talk about a future intention, we Muslims say, ‘God willing’ (Insha’Allah); it’s so we don’t forget that everything is subject to His will.”
“But grandfather, before, when we were nomads, we didn’t have so many possessions and our lives were a lot simpler. Was our level of attachment less too?”
“As nomads, we could not accumulate many possessions because they needed to be transported. Therefore, we only kept the things that were truly necessary for preserving our way of life. Now, we build mansions and fill them with valuable objects; we surround ourselves with slaves to make our lives more comfortable; we design irrigation systems to facilitate agriculture; we build storage spaces to support the exchange of goods; we erect empires that take two hundred days to cross by caravan. Now that we are sedentary, we cling to many things. It is not to old traditions so much, because we have been modifying them as generations go by. We are no longer attached to our tribe or clan, because we have mixed our blood too. Now, we cling to the sumptuousness of our mansions; the beauty of their mosaics; the cleanliness of our public baths (hammams); the variety of our foods; the knowledge transmitted by books; the sophistication of our manners; our refined taste; and our honours and social titles. All these constitute our new ties. They are ties that our small self identifies with.”
“You have spoken of three degrees of attachment, and said that habits and customs constitute the first one. Grandfather, what are the other two?”
“Attachment to customs or habits is intense, but even greater than this is the strength with which the small self clings to what it desires, or its stubbornness in trying to avoid what it rejects. While, in the first stage, we passively cling to things that were given to us and to customs we want to keep intact, in the second stage, we actively seek, long for, and desire attitudes that increase the strength of our ties.”
“Where does all this start?”
“With our small self, which we identify with, to the point where we believe we are also the object of our attachment.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’ll see it more clearly with this story. They say a very rich merchant and a wandering ascetic met in the City of Jeddah, seaport and gateway to Mecca. Both men were on pilgrimage to the Holy City. The merchant had arrived on his ship, which was weighed down with all sorts of riches he had acquired along his journey—myrrh from Abyssinia, the land of the Habesha people; malachite from King Solomon’s mines in Palestine; jade and silk from the east; lapis lazuli extracted from Badakhshan; and amber from the north. These treasures were jam-packed, so that the ship could barely stay afloat. In contrast, the ascetic travelled barefoot, with nothing more than a wool tunic to cover his body.
“‘Why are you carrying all those riches?’ the ascetic asked the merchant.
“‘To sell once I’m back, as I’ve invested my entire fortune in them,’ he replied.
“‘And if, on the day of the Final Judgement, The Forbearing opens the doors of Paradise to you, do you expect to arrive with all your earthly possessions—or will you be prepared to leave them behind?’ the ascetic asked.
“‘If The Just promises me Paradise,’ responded the merchant, ‘then I am willing to renounce them all. For I have been told there is no treasure that can compare to the Garden of Allah.’
“‘God willing,’ replied the ascetic, ‘because, as the Prophet said, “one must die before dying,” which means we must let go of all that ties us to this earthly existence. Paradise is not a port at which you can anchor the boat of avarice. Just as you are now forced to anchor your ship of treasure here in Jeddah and continue your journey on foot, the day when The Hearer of All calls you, you will have to leave it all behind. You will not even be allowed to wear a woollen tunic like mine. But tell me, do you not think that when the day comes, it will be easier for me to rid myself of my tunic than it will be for you to renounce all the possessions you think you need?’”
The old man’s story was followed by silence, a silence in which Fatima tried to absorb his words. Now that she understood the first two stages—the first two circumambulations of the Kaaba—she wanted to continue on her journey around the great Sacred Stone. She had waited many years for this—since that first conversation in childhood.
Her grandfather saw the appeal in her eyes, a longing that only years and experience would appease.
“After clinging, firstly out of habit, and secondly for desire, what is the third degree of attachment?” she asked.
“Do you remember I said we can become attached to three things—people, objects, and ideas?”
“Well, in the third degree, we become attached to our small self. In our small self, the three things—people, objects, and ideas—are combined in a single state of attachment. The subject we cling to is our small self, and the object our body; then there is the idea that we cling to: the image we have formed of ourselves. We identify with these, forgetting that, in reality, we are the Eternal Spirit (Ruh). Because it is so difficult to separate our body from our small self, our small self from the idea that we’ve formed of ourselves, and the idea from the objects that identify us, this third represents the most intense degree of attachment.”
“What do you mean by the idea of ourselves?” asked Fatima.
“I’ll tell you another story so you’ll understand. There was once a monarch who boasted of being a virtuous believer and, to help his subjects along the path of righteousness, he decided to forbid music, making it haraam. His decision was based on the argument that music was against the Scriptures and harmful to the soul. With the new decree, he authorised his soldiers to reprimand musicians and burn their instruments, driving them to mendicity. After the decree, nobody dared sing verses that weren’t contained in the sacred book. Even these, they recited shyly, without making use of the plasticity, rhythmic beauty, and melodious sounds of our language.
“In this same kingdom,” he said, “there also lived an ascetic whose fame had reached the monarch. He was a marabout, and people said of him that he spent all hours of the day in contemplation. And so, the monarch decided to summon this ascetic to court, for he wanted to measure the man’s degree of sanctity. Aware that he could not reject the dignitary’s invitation without offending him, the marabout accepted his request.”
Fatima could not take her eyes from her grandfather’s face and gestures; his words were the only sounds she could hear. She listened to him as though memorising every detail.
“After dining, the guests relaxed for a snooze. It was then that the people of the court heard a melody drifting through the hall, but no one could say where it came from. Deeply offended, the monarch stood and snarled at his guests, ‘Have I not forbidden music! Who dares to play in the palace?’
“This was the music that flowed from the heart of the ascetic, for he was lying in contemplation in a corner of the grand hall. He sat up and answered the monarch then, saying, ‘God is the musician; I am just his instrument.’
“Giza-i Ruh,” said the grandfather, closing his story, “music is food for the soul. To forbid music is to starve the soul to death.”
“But if music is food for the soul, why did the monarch forbid it?” asked Fatima.
“He didn’t feel confident in his abilities as a ruler, and so the musicians satirised him with songs that emphasised his ineptitude. This is why he distorted the concept of haraam, forbidding something that had always been halal and therefore allowed by the Law of God. The monarch was too attached to the idea he had of himself—to his image of rectitude and orthodoxy—to his own small self.”
“Did this really happen?” asked the girl.
“If it hasn’t happened yet, it will, especially to the degree that the revelations transmitted by the Prophet, peace be upon him, are forgotten, and we cling to a deformed idea of his true message.^^22^^”
THE CONVERSATION was interrupted by Fatima’s father, who had just returned from the market where he had been attempting to sell a horse of mixed breed as a pure blood. Annoyed about his failure, he yelled at his wives and the household slaves to release his frustration. The horse was taken to the stable, and when silence governed the inner patio of the house once more, the grandfather decided to continue.
“Fatima, I have spoken to you of the first three stages, based on the attachment of our small self, but you must know that the three following stages emanate, not from the inner self, but from the heart (Qalb).” He pointed to the left side of her chest.^^23^^ “In these stages we can speak of true love.”
“True love? Oh grandfather, what are these other stages? Please tell me more!”
“First, there is love with acceptance, which is the foundation for a relationship of equality between lovers. This moves beyond the selfish attraction subordinated to the will of the small self that distinguishes the first two stages; and it is greater than self-love, which I explained was the pinnacle of the third. It’s the kind of love that comes, not from habit, or from the impulse to satisfy our desires, or from considering ourselves first, before others, but from accepting our loved ones just as they are, without trying to change them, and without making them adjust to an ideal or to our own expectations.”
“Can we also feel this kind of love towards objects or ideas?” she asked.
“Just as we can become attached to everything that is relative, such as objects, people or ideas, but not to The Clement because He is Absolute, true love, coming from the heart, and can only be felt for those who also have a heart. This might be animals, humans, or celestial beings. We can, however, love an object or an idea indirectly; inasmuch as it links us to the person we love. That is to say, we can love objects for what they symbolise, not for what they really are.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Perhaps this story will help you. While the Prophet still lived, peace be upon him, many of his followers had to fight to defend the faith and their lives. One of the soldiers of the new faith was a young man who gave a necklace to his wife before departing to the battlefield. He said to her, ‘While I am gone, love this necklace as you love me, for its touch at your neck will remind you of my caresses, and the strength of its gold around your breast will be like the firmness of my embrace.’ She put the necklace on and never took it off, not even when she went to sleep, because she never wanted to lose touch with her beloved. Then, one day, she was told that her husband had died in combat. When she heard this, she removed the necklace and cast it to the ground, never to wear it again.
“‘Why do you throw away the gift of your husband, if you loved him so much?’ the people asked.
“‘If it’s true that those who die for a just cause are united with The Light, it no longer makes sense to wear the necklace. For from now on, each time I feel the breeze brush my skin I will feel the caress of my beloved; each time water slides down my body I will feel his embraces; each time the Sun warms me I will feel his presence; and each time I step on the ground I will feel the firmness and support of his words.’”
“The necklace was precious only inasmuch as it linked her to her beloved,” said Fatima, satisfied that she’d understood.
“Yes, but only while he was alive, because when he died and became united with The All-Merciful, everything then reminded her of her beloved. That’s why the Qur’an says about God, ‘No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision.’^^24^^ He can see from the eyes of every creature and that’s why another of his names is The Seer of All.”
After these words, grandfather and granddaughter remained in silence, their gaze fixed on the fig tree.
Love with acceptance, Fatima thought. How different from the love between my father and his wives…
She still remembered a conversation that had taken place between her father and grandfather when she was barely in her teens. It was an argument she had overheard by accident while lying behind a bush not far from where the fig tree stood. The two men, sitting under the tree, had seemed visibly agitated. Her father had just met a dancer, and was announcing to her grandfather his intentions to marry her.
“Have you taken into account that you already have four women to support and that, as a good Muslim, you are obliged to treat them all equally?” said the older man.
“The Prophet, peace be upon him, had nine at one point,” replied the other.
“Yes, but the Prophet, peace be upon him, married for the second time after he was left a widower, and his subsequent marriages were contracted to ensure the wellbeing of the widows of Muslim brothers who had died defending the faith. They were not the product of a whim, nor were they based on seduction. A’isha was, in fact, the only one who had not been married before, and the Prophet married her because the archangel Gabriel asked him to.”
“Four women I have, and not one of them has been capable of giving me a male son. How can I expect our lineage to continue if all my descendants are female?”
“Qasim and ‘Abdullah, sons of the Prophet, also died before leaving successors; but this has not been an inconvenience for the numerous families affirming they were linked to the lineage of Muhammad,” replied her grandfather, adding, “Peace be upon them all.”
“Have you no wish for descendants to give continuity to your name?” asked her father. “You, who have been married only once, and were left a widower with the birth of your only child.”
“If your actions are noble, you will not need sons to continue your lineage. With noble actions your lineage will be transmitted whether or not you have descendants of your own.”
What lineage was grandfather referring to? Fatima wondered as she went over the details of that old conversation. If it is not the lineage of blood, perhaps it is the lineage of the word…
In any case, the reasons that caused her to recall that conversation from her teens were related to a love based on acceptance, and which, just as her grandfather had said, represented the highest stage to be reached in romantic love.
The old man interrupted Fatima’s reverie by picking up a fig that had fallen to the ground, and offering to her saying, “Our heart is like this fig. The Sun ripens it, softens it, intensifies its fragrance, and makes it sweet on the inside. Once the fruit is ready, the slightest breath of air can make it fall to the ground. This ripening and making ready to be consumed, represents the entrance to the fourth stage; and the act of falling to the ground symbolises the fifth. This fifth stage is called, love with surrender.”
“Just like the fig, which surrenders its fruit when it has ripened!” Fatima cried.
“Exactly!” said he. “They say that Allah loves the one who serves all the creatures of Allah more than they serve themself. True surrender begins when one offers oneself to all his creatures, and is united by this total surrender with The Nourisher. A true Muslim is he who surrenders to divine intention. Perhaps he does not know the Messenger of God, or any of the prophets who preceded him, such as Abraham, or Jesus, peace be upon them all. Perhaps he has never had the opportunity to read any of the sacred books, or to visit a mosque. But if this devout person is capable of surrendering to the will of The Equitable One, he will be more Muslim than the most erudite of Imams. Surrender is in fact the culmination of the message transmitted by three prophets, who were born and lived in this arid land surrounded by five seas.”
“The culmination?” she asked.
“Abraham came first, to tell us there was only one God—everyone’s God. With time we went from the only God to the only true God. This is why Abraham’s followers ended up considering themselves the chosen ones. And because the chosen ones were persecuted, some of them made God their vindictive officer, who would avenge the injustices they’d suffered. So, then came Jesus, to remind us that God is neither cruel nor avenging; rather, he is the God of Love. He too made God everyone’s God. But with time, we ended up identifying The Hidden with idols, and we made The Absolute the god of those institutions that represented Him.
“Finally, came Muhammad,” said the man, “to remind us that we must surrender to the only God, the God of Love, not by using idols or institutions as intermediaries, but directly—through prayer, pilgrimage, service and compassion towards others. But his message was also distorted, and the God of Peace is now being used to make war. In all three of these cases, we are talking about the same God, the same message, with the only difference being the emphasis placed on a particular aspect of divinity. Do you understand?”
“Yes. But surely you have another story up your sleeve to explain the meaning of surrender to divine intention,” she said with a smile.
The old man sat quiet for a time, and then, drawing breath, he began his story.
“They say that the waters of a great river descended through mountain gorges, valleys, deserts, and plains, all the way to the sea. But at a point just before he joined with the vastness of the ocean, this river had formed an estuary surrounded by a swamp.
“‘What are you doing?’ the ocean asked the river when she saw the mire.
“‘I’m trying to preserve my identity,’ he replied. ‘That’s why I’ve been picking up soil and stones along my way and depositing them here, to form this estuary. It’s so that one day I’ll be able to keep my waters from being confused with your immensity.
“‘But don’t you see that, as a result, you’re forming a swamp of stagnant and foul waters?’ reproached the ocean. ‘If, on the other hand, you let yourself be carried away, blending into me, you will achieve much more than you ever dreamed. With the loss of your identity, you will be free, and your waters will extend the width and breadth of me.’”
“But grandfather, if we are the river and the ocean is God, doesn’t this mean that love with surrender is only possible towards The Knower of All?” asked Fatima.
“Among human beings, there is only one relationship of love whose intensity can reach the fifth stage: the love of a mother towards her child. A mother who truly loves her children will not hesitate to sacrifice her life to preserve theirs. If she were asked, the answer would be immediate and would flow directly from her heart. In contrast, a father may also sacrifice his life if he were asked, but he would first use logical reasoning to answer, filtering his reply through his small self. The mother has carried her son in her womb. She has witnessed his body being formed, his soul entering in the third month to give the first kick. With birth, the physical link is broken, but the emotional link will continue to exist forever and ever.”
“How may I surrender to The Divine One?”
“Through the practice of remembrance of Allah from the heart (Zikr-e qalbi). You must continuously remember God by constantly repeating His name or a fragment of a sacred book where He is mentioned. ‘Remember me, I will remember you,’ says the Holy Qur’an.^^25^^”
“I’ve tried that already, grandfather, but I keep losing my concentration and other thoughts distract me.”
“If you’ve been absorbed for some time remembering The Exalter, and you forget about what you’re doing and allow other thoughts to distract you, don’t worry—simply go back to remembering His name once again. And if, throughout one day, this happens to you a hundred times, be at peace, for the next day it will happen one time less; and on the following day, one time less still. It will be this way until, just as you forgot God at the beginning, the day will come when you will forget everything except for Him.”
“The fig falls, the river surrenders to the ocean, the mother to her child, or the devout person to God, and then…” said Fatima, eager to hear his description of the two final stages.
“—Then comes rapture or mystic ecstasy (wajad). But to understand this ecstasy, you first need to grasp the relationship that exists between the first three stages of love—the ones involving the small self (nafs)—and the three following ones, which are linked to the heart (Qalb). This relationship might be compared to the one between three musical notes located in one octave (diwan), and those same three notes, an octave higher.”
“Musical notes? Octaves?”
“Remember that music is not only food for the soul; it also constitutes the soul’s language. In this language, the first octave is occupied by the small self (nafs), the second by the heart (Qalb), and the highest by Spirit (Ruh). It’s a harmonious melody and in order for the devotee to leap from one octave to the next, they must first win the greater battle (Jihad Akbar).”
“What greater battle, grandfather?” asked the girl.
“When the Prophet, peace be upon him, returned from the battle against the tribes of Mecca he said, ‘We have moved from the lesser battle (Jihad Asghar) to the greater battle (Jihad Akbar).’
“‘Oh Prophet of God! What is this greater battle?’ asked his followers, to which he replied,
‘It is the battle against our own small self. This is the most obligatory of all battles’ (Afrad al-Jihad).^^26^^ It is, in fact, the only true Jihad,” concluded the grandfather.
“Only those who win this greater battle enter the second octave,” said Fatima, satisfied that she’d understood.
“That’s right,” replied the man. “Do you remember how the first stage was attachment from habit? Well, this represents the first note in the first octave. It symbolises that stage in which we are attached out of habit to everything that surrounds us, be it people, objects, or ideas. Those who live in the first stage do not want change, because change brings uncertainty.”
“So, when the Prophet, peace be upon him, found opposition to the new faith among the tribes of Mecca, it was because of resistance from those who were too attached to old ideas and who did not want to accept new ones,” she said, following the thread of her grandfather’s explanation.
“Exactly! And these are the same people who now want to make holy war against infidels to expand our faith,” he said. “On the other hand, those who vibrate from this same note, but an octave higher, live in love, with acceptance. From this fourth stage of love, they interpret events as the result of divine will and accept them, just as they accept others, and others’ faiths. This is not a passive acceptance based on apathy; rather, it results from an ability to appreciate the subtle link that joins and connects all events. Therefore, it is an acceptance of the present moment, but from the understanding that our current decisions affect the future. Do you understand?”
“Following this same reasoning, in the second stage the small self becomes attached with even greater strength, because it desires. It has created a conscious link that makes it yearn with greater intensity. In contrast, people who live this same desire, but from the heart, surrender to divine will, which means…” he glanced at Fatima, urging her to finish his sentence.
“—It means that all desires have been conquered, except the desire to reunite with God,” she said.
He smiled. “I see you understand.”
“And between the third and sixth stages, what relationship is there, grandfather?”
“In the third stage, the small self is attached to itself with the same intensity, because on this rests the image we have of ourselves—and the one perceived by others. Those who live in the third stage think they are the centre of the universe, and that everything revolves around them. Conversely, when we finally transcend the small self, transmuting self-love into the love that encompasses everything, it means that we have opened up to rapture, or mystic ecstasy (wajad), which enables us to experience the entire universe within.”
“No,” he replied. “This is a transient spiritual state, a hal. To make mystic ecstasy permanent, we must reach full union (fana’ fit tawhid).”
“The seventh stage!” cried Fatima.
“Yes!” he replied, “The seventh stage represents the first note of the third octave, and may only be described through metaphor. On the other hand, the notes above cannot even be described metaphorically; nor can they be played by any instrument. They are the notes of angelic music which may only be perceived by those who live completely in Spirit.”
FATIMA’S GRANDFATHER ASKED her to follow him, and together they walked across the vast inner patio of the house. In the background they could hear the bustling street, although birdsong and the fluttering insects were more audible in the enclosed paradise. Grandfather and granddaughter walked in silence until, back at the foot of the fig tree, the man said, “See this tree? It has taken root between the rocks and the wall because its branches are weak and it needs a good base to sustain it. In the same way, to reach the seventh stage we need a strong Spirit to provide us with those same foundations. Foundations are necessary, because the seventh stage does not flow from the small self (nafs) or from the heart (Qalb); rather, it flows directly from Spirit (Ruh).”
“Small self, heart, and Spirit—I get lost in so many concepts, grandfather; could you please clarify their meaning?” Fatima said.
“Perhaps the following story will help you to understand them better,” he replied. “They say God created the Moon to illuminate the night and the Sun to illuminate the day. They say it was that way from the beginning, but because the Moon was very jealous to see the Sun shining with more strength, he kept thinking:
“When it’s the Sun who’s shining, everyone opens their eyes, but when it’s me, they go to sleep. When the Sun is in the firmament, the flowers bestow their fragrance, but when I’m there, they shut it away. When the Sun shows her face, the birds sing, but when I reveal mine, they are quiet…
“—Thus reasoned the Moon, until the day, tired of not being taken into consideration, he decided to eclipse the Sun so that everyone would see only him. But when he positioned himself between the Sun and all the creatures of the world, he noticed that a shroud of darkness covered the Earth. It was then that he realised he was just a reflection. Since that day, at regular intervals, the Moon has had the chance to eclipse the Sun so that he might never forget that it is not he who shines—but only reflects. Do you understand the meaning of the story?”
“Maybe it means that the Moon discovered he was sterile and that, without the Sun’s fertility, life could not exist, in the same way that, without a woman’s fertility, man cannot procreate,” she said.
“Perhaps this is one of the possible interpretations, Fatima; but remember, myths usually have different meanings. Like layers of sediment hiding buried treasure, they are revealed little by little, as we become ready to understand them. Your interpretation is a first layer because it is tinted with cultural and idiomatic elements.”
“What do you mean, grandfather?”
“As you well know, we Arabs perceive the Sun as female and the Moon as male. There are some people, however, who believe that the Moon is female and that the Sun is male; and there are still others who do not assign to these any gender at all. To them, your interpretation wouldn’t make much sense. Therefore, you need to find a meaning that transcends all cultural connotations and, at the same time, helps us understand the concepts you asked to be explained.”
“Let me think,” she replied. “If the Moon does not shine with its own light but needs the Sun to illuminate darkness, wouldn’t it symbolise the small self, and the Sun represent Spirit, that is, our true essence?”
“But then, what is the heart?” she asked.
“The heart is that place in which the battle between the small self and Spirit is won. It is the Earth with its night and its day. The night represents the material universe (Alam al-Ajsam), a reality where Spirit is reflected through our small self. Spirit is reflected, just as the Moon throws back the light from the Sun, illuminating the heart—but only in darkness. On the other hand, during the day of the soul, the light of consciousness reaches us directly at the heart, without being distorted by the small self. It is in this instant that we can perceive the essence of everything that surrounds us.”
“How?” Fatima asked.
“By achieving spiritual ecstasy. When we reach the sixth stage, it is day for an instant, yet when this ecstasy fades, the polarity of the night rules again, and confusion takes us over once more. But when we reach the seventh stage, the Sun illuminates us forever.”^^27^^
“Describe this ecstasy, grandfather,” said the young woman.
“With ecstasy, our chest opens, allowing us to love everything and to take in everything we love. In that moment, we understand the simplicity of Creation. Tears flow from our eyes, and we say to ourselves, How can everything be so simple and at the same time so hard to understand? Then, we see that love is the strength that creates us and keeps us together. This realisation does not flow from the centre of our chest. Love flows from the chest, but understanding emanates from the point between the eyes. This point is called the Mysterious (al-Khafi)^^28^^; it is where the fog of duality dissipates.”
“Do you mean that, in the instant of ecstasy, we perceive directly, without needing the small self as our intermediary?”
“Yes. The heart is illuminated; the world is illuminated; it becomes daytime and we can contemplate light directly—no longer just its reflection. In that moment, we realise that we are not Moon, nor Earth, but Sun—the light that illuminates everything.
FATIMA STILL REMEMBERED the last words of her grandfather: “You have to contemplate the face of the Sun directly, not just its reflection, to realise that you are its light.” Since that conversation, many years had gone by. Now, that girl was a woman in an elderly body, a woman who had been able to observe for herself the different spiritual stages.
She had come to appreciate how, in the infancy of the soul, the small self tries to find stability so that it might understand the world surrounding it. At this stage, the small self requires constancy, the assurance that tomorrow will be like today, and that there will be no surprises to face. Fatima had learned that, for this reason, we avoid change; we become attached to everything around us and create an illusion of permanence. As her grandfather had explained to her all those years ago, these were the qualities of the first spiritual stage.
Once we are used to our environment and our human condition, desires and longings start to arise, heralding our entrance into the second spiritual stage, the youth of the soul. This is when the small self sets out, looking for objects that will make life more comfortable; substances that will make it easier; people, so that it might be more entertaining; or concepts, to give it value. The small self turns objects into possessions, substances into addictions, people into attachments, and concepts into knowledge. When a desire has been satisfied, the small self substitutes it for another and then comes to yearn for an even greater object, a more potent substance, a more understanding person, or a more exciting concept.
It is within the small self’s nature to desire, to project itself into the future, and to preserve its integrity, rather than be satisfied with what it already has. Instead of giving itself to the present and accepting that it is just a reflection of one’s true essence, the small self pursues external fulfilment and is willing to do anything to satisfy its ambitions. Friends and foes are defined according to whether they help or hinder our objectives. We give to receive, help out of self-interest, and submit only to obtain what we’re looking for. We base relationships on our own expectations and will not squander even a smile for people from whom we need nothing.
In its search to possess and enjoy, the small self then starts to identify with objects, substances, people, and concepts. This indicates one’s entrance into the third spiritual stage, a stage that culminates in the full formation of the ego. At this level, the small self believes, I am the object I possess. I am the one who talks when I am under the effects of the desired substance. I am this person’s friend or that other person’s son; I am this profession or that quality…
This is how we define our persona,^^29^^ the mask we use to hide who we really are. And so, we start projecting an image of ourselves, which we cling to with even more strength than we did to old desires. We hold to it so tightly that, in order to defend it, we are even willing to renounce our former attachments. Someone offends us and we feel hurt; but out of pride we decide to abandon our ambitions so that we might save face. Desire is no longer the most important thing and we invest all our energy in protecting our image. We gaze into our navels and find the centre of the Universe there, the immense Cosmos orbiting it.
When we spend so much energy on ourselves, we pay a high toll. The world seems to sink; everyone is against us; our friends abandon us; our enemies ignore us; bad luck takes us over, and our need to change becomes more and more obvious. It is then that we are called to reduce that small self we have taken so many lives to build, and to start opening our own heart. It is then that the fruit stops growing and starts to ripen. This represents the maturity of the soul, the most conflictive stage in the human developmental process.
With the impetus to change, the Self or Spirit begins to win the battle of the heart, the greater battle—or Jihad Akbar—to then venture into the second octave. This is not a battle against the infidels, but an internal war that seeks the annihilation of our ego. Those who live in the first few stages, however, become confused, seeking outside themselves for an enemy to fight, when the true enemy lives within. The ego tries to protect itself, and therefore cannot accept that it must do battle against itself. Seeking external enemies, it deflects attention from Spirit (Ruh) and, in this way, preserves a false identity.
As we move into the fourth spiritual stage, we realise that there are no enemies to fight against at all—just our own ego. It is then that attachment transmutes into love and the soul enters its old age. We become fully aware of others’ needs, of the effects our actions have on our fellow beings, and of the consequences these very actions will one day have upon ourselves. It is in the fourth stage that the laws governing the Cosmos are revealed to us; that we come to know there is no action without reaction, no movement without return. The moment we realise this, we are willing to sacrifice a portion of our small self to maintain the harmony of our surroundings.
We are not as easily offended as before, and we accept ourselves and others, with all their limitations. We turn passion into compassion, ambition into serenity; others become equal to ourselves and we relate to them in this way. The small self continues to be strong, but it is no longer dominant. It does not decide for us anymore, nor does it direct our thoughts. We no longer gaze into our navels; rather, our attention is focused on our chest, where we observe the ripe fruit, which we need to let go of to keep evolving.
In surrendering to the moment, we relinquish our preoccupations, but without renouncing our occupations. This is to live in the now, without seeking, without projecting into the future or being caught up in nostalgia for the past. It is to stop identifying with what surrounds us, and instead focus on what we really are. This is true freedom—no ties or strings attached. It is knowing that others are no different from us; understanding that when we possess nothing we have everything; that when we desire nothing, it’s because nothing can possess us. The true experience of being alive, the magic of the moment begins with surrender to the present. In this, the soul finds its essence and the path of true freedom. To surrender is to make others ourselves, and ourselves Divinity; it is to stop thinking so that we can transmute; it is to transform desire into service, and longing into solidarity. In surrendering, first towards others, and finally towards the whole of Divinity, we culminate the fifth spiritual stage. The ripe fruit falls to the ground, like an offering to anyone who might need it.
When the small self has been practically dissolved, when the frontier that divides us from others is virtually imperceptible, when the duality that separates the object from the subject has been transcended momentarily, then we enter the sixth stage. This is the state of mystic ecstasy or spiritual rapture. It is marked by the soul’s ability, not only to recognise its true nature, but also to become completely submerged by it. However at this point, ecstasy is transitory, like a borrowed object one must return. As an experience, it helps us to increase our spiritual strength because, even though we have only experienced ecstasy once, it constitutes the potential to change our life.
In the sixth stage, the soul comes and goes like day and night, communing with Divinity to then return to the world of objects. This coming and going continues until the small self is completely dissolved. Then, the soul is free to again meet with its divine essence, forever transcending the duality that has limited it. When this occurs, we have entered the seventh stage. The seventh is an ineffable phase, beyond the mind, beyond the duality of language; therefore it cannot be described. It is a stage to be reached by all expressions of consciousness, be they mineral, vegetable, animal or human. Rumi, the Sufi poet, made this very clear when he wrote,
I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angel-hood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.^^30^^
(Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi)
He hails from a land
where the heat of the fire is still necessary for survival;
a land until recently blanketed in ice,
with no trace of having been inhabited during the previous cycles.
Untouched by humanity,
this is a land stripped of all weight from the past
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The prophecy of the Mastay foretells the coming of an age of light and harmony, a day that will be illuminated by a new sun. This day will begin with the reunion of the ‘people of the four directions’. The aim of this book is to facilitate the union and explore what could happen afterwards. It describes the lives of four characters, each of which represent an element, a direction and a civilisation. The first character represents the people of Air, the East, and Eastern civilisation. The second represents the people of Water, the North, and Islam. The third belongs to the people of Fire, the West, and Western civilisation. Finally there is the fourth character, an indigenous Australian woman who represents the people of Earth, the South, and the first nations.