Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee talks about streams of prayer

In Part 1 of our coverage of Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s new book, Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism, we provided an overview of this inspiring guide to prayer, plus an excerpt—and we compared that with a passage from Celtic-Christian writer John Philip Newell.
Today, we let Llewellyn speak for himself in our weekly author interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.


DAVID: If Americans recognize Sufism at all, they think of Rumi, Whirling Dervishes and Islam. But your branch of Sufism is distinctly different. Can you describe it in general terms?

LLEWELLYN: There are two schools of thought about Sufism. The traditional one you’re referring to is that Sufism is the mystical or esoteric school of Islam. Then, there is another school of thought that says Sufism is the ancient religion of the heart. That was the thinking of my own teacher. This belief sees Sufism flourishing under Islam, but also existing independently of Islam. In my view, Sufism is an expression of a living mystical tradition—the mysticism of love that appears in different times and different places. As long as there have been humans, we have had hearts—and this mysticism can arise within any heart that reaches God through love. In this way of thinking, we see streams of Sufism surfacing in many places. Some say that St. Francis of Assisi was influenced by a stream of Sufism.

DAVID: So, your branch of Sufism is distinctive. Now, tell us a bit about yourself. Let’s start with your unusual name.

LLEWELLYN: Llewellyn is a Welsh name. My family comes from the western part of England and also from Wales. I am 59. I was born in London in 1953. When I was born, there still was rationing in England. I grew up in a time of austerity. But I’ve lived in the United States for 20 years. I’m a permanent resident with a green card. I’ve thought of becoming an American citizen, but I feel too English to do that.

This particular stream of Sufism I represent had passed to a Hindu family in India. My own teacher, Irina Tweedie, went to India in the 1950s. Irina was born in Russia, educated in Europe and married an English officer after World War II. He died in 1954, which led to her spiritual quest. She joined the Theosophical Society in England. Then, in the late 1950s, she went to India and traveled there. She met her Sufi teacher, asked to take training. He asked her to keep a diary of her training and this became the spiritual classic: Daughter of Fire. She was the first Western woman to be trained in this Sufi lineage. Later, she returned to England and I eventually I became her successor. I am now the current lineage holder for this path.

DAVID: In describing your movement within Sufism, I tend to use the term “branch,”  but you use the term “stream” or “path” or “lineage.” Do you prefer particular terms for this process of handing off wisdom from the Indian Sufi teacher to Irina—and eventually from Irina to you?

LLEWELLYN: I prefer to describe this passing along of our wisdom as my “tradition” or my “lineage.” Through this particular lineage, we are part of the silent Sufis. That word “silent” distinguishes us from the Sufi lineages that use dance or music. For example, people are familiar with the Whirling Dervishes that stem from Rumi. But our particular lineage practices in silence. Our silent meditation of the heart is a silent remembrance of God.

DAVID: There wasn’t a single, “orthodox” Sufi movement. There were many movements, right?

LLEWELLYN: Yes, even in the era when Sufism was coming out of Islam, it was a movement of individual teachers or mystics who didn’t belong to any particular tradition. Small groups of disciples gathered around them. Out of those early Sufi gatherings, various Sufi lineages formed.


Click the cover to visit this book’s Amazon page.DAVID: I understand that your lineage stems, centuries ago, from what is called the Naqshbandi movement. In my own visits to Asia as a journalist, I did not encounter this particular lineage. But there is a lengthy Wikipedia entry about the 14th-century founder of this movement: Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari. We will share a link to that Wiki page, but I must caution readers: That kind of in-depth article can be almost overwhelming for American readers. What basic ideas should we understand about the Naqshbandi lineage—in broad strokes?

LLEWELLYN: The lineage focuses on the sense that one’s spiritual nature is bound into one, is impressed into the heart, the spiritual center of oneself. Most Sufi orders we see in the media do repetitions of the name of God in vocal forms. You can find audio recordings or film clips of these beautiful and very intoxicating rhythms. They do this as a group. But, in our particular path, we practice silently.

There are two paths I can describe in Sufism—one is a path of intoxication and the other is a path of sobriety. The path of intoxication involves Sufis gathering together and moving into a trance state through music or drumming or dancing or chanting. The Naqshbandi path is part of Sufism’s path of sobriety, because we don’t go into a trance state like others. This Naqshbandi path was one of the first paths to focus on psychological inner work. For example, we’ve always used dream work. Naqshband was renowned even his day as an interpreter of dreams.

When other Eastern spiritual movements crossed into the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of their early adoptees found themselves intoxicated with these spiritual disciplines. Some of these movements lacked a psychological component that could give them more balance.


DAVID: Now you’re talking about one of the thorniest issues for Americans who want to explore Eastern religious traditions. Many of these traditions come through charismatic teachers who want to profoundly shape their followers’ lives. There are some wonderful accounts of these relationships—but there also are some serious complaints. What advice do you have about wisely selecting a teacher?

LLEWELLYN: I was fortunate. I was 19 when I met my teacher, who was not seeking power or money or sex. My teacher was an older woman and did not allow any of us to mess around or to get caught up in inappropriate projections on her as our teacher. She set the right kind of relationship.

I didn’t experience any other spiritual paths until I was in my late 30s and came to teach in America. Over here, it is sad to see that some Americans put too much trust in teachers who either turned out to be impure or who came over here out of pure motives, then wound up corrupted by money, power and sex. That was the reality for a lot of people and left a legacy of broken promises.

The biggest problem is the enormous amount of projection followers place on their spiritual teachers, something that was not fully understood in many cases and led to confusion and problems and, in some cases, to dangerous forms of guru worship. I’ve written about what it means to be a good teacher. And, I’ve had the experience of both being the student of a good teacher—and now being a teacher myself. So, I understand how difficult this is. It’s difficult to understand how a relationship that involves so much love can also be a completely impersonal teaching relationship. But, I have experienced that in my life.

Mainly, if people are looking for a teacher, they need to practice a lot of spiritual discrimination in choosing a teacher. You may think that you don’t need a teacher—and there is a lot of spiritual work you can do as an individual. But, there comes a time in these spiritual traditions when you do need a teacher to go further. For myself, I was 17 when I was practicing hatha yoga and I began to feel an awakening of powerful energies. When I began to experience these deeper spiritual energies, I needed someone who understood what was happening and could guide me. In these situations, you need to talk with someone who can say, “Yes, what you’re experiencing is expected at this stage.” They can guide you. They might say, “Perhaps, now, you should meditate less.” Or they can say, “Here’s a new spiritual practice you might try.”


DAVID: I don’t want to leave the impression that most teachers are corrupt. Many do selfless, noble work. In fact, millions of Americans still enjoy poetry by the master teacher Rumi—and, after all these centuries, Rumi remains as inspiring as ever. How do you describe Rumi in relationship to your lineage?

LLEWELLYN: What is most important in the work of Rumi is that he brings this note of divine love into Western consciousness. Today, there are well-known Christian mystics and Western mystics, but for centuries mysticism was banished in most Christian and Western circles. This led to an enormous, unmet need in Western consciousness to reclaim this note of mystical love—the realization that love is more than something we find in a Hollywood romance. Rumi embraces all of creation in his passion for the divine. He has become the greatest poet of mystical love today.

DAVID: If I understand your message correctly, you are saying that the truth—the reconnection with divine love—does not depend on any single religious pathway. A central theme of your new book is that this divine love can be found through a number of different religious traditions that converge in deep forms of prayer. Am I saying that correctly?

LLEWELLYN: Yes, I look at the deeper mystical practices that make all real mystics—whatever their religious path—into a brotherhood and sisterhood in which there are no divisions. There’s a lovely saying from Rumi: “God does not look at your outer forms, but at the love within your love.”

Care to read Part 1 of our coverage?
In Part 1, we provide an overview and an excerpt
from Llewellyn’s new guide to prayer—and we compared that with a passage from Celtic-Christian writer John Philip Newell.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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