Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (born 1953, London) is a Western mystic and lineage successor in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi Order. He is an extensive lecturer and author of several books about Sufism, mysticism, dreamwork and spirituality, and has more recently focused his efforts on the spiritual ecology movement.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D., was born in London in 1953. He began following the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi path at the age of 19, after meeting Irina Tweedie, author of Daughter of Fire: A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master. He became Irina Tweedie’s successor and a teacher in the Naqshbandiyya Sufi Order. In 1991 he moved to Northern California and founded The Golden Sufi Center to help make available the teachings of this Sufi lineage. He currently lives in California.
Author of several books, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has lectured extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe on Sufism, mysticism, Jungian psychology and dreamwork. He has also specialised in the area of dreamwork, integrating the ancient Sufi approach to dreams with the insights of Jungian psychology. Since 2000 the focus of his writing and teaching has been on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition, and an awakening global consciousness of oneness. More recently he has written about the feminine, the world soul, the anima mundi, and the emerging field of spiritual ecology. He has also hosted a number of Sufi conferences bringing together different Sufi orders in North America.
His initial work from 1990 to 2000, including his first eleven books, was to make the Sufi path more accessible to the Western seeker. The second series of books, starting from the year 2000 with The Signs of God, are focused on a spiritual teachings about oneness and how to bring them into contemporary life, with the final book in this series being Alchemy of Light. He is editor and contributor to the 2013 anthology Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth (Summer 2013), and his most recent book, Darkening of the Light: Witnessing the End of an Era.
Llewellyn has been featured in two films, One the Movie and Wake Up. He has also been featured in the television series Global Spirit and in August 2012, he was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey as a part of her Super Soul Sunday series. A regular contributor to Sufi magazine, Parabola, and other periodicals, he also writes a blog on the Huffington Post.
Some excerpts from his writings:
“What is mysticism? How is it different to spirituality? And why is mysticism important at this moment in time?
The spiritual journey can be most simply described as a way to access the light of our soul — the beautiful light with which we came into the world. On this journey we make an inner relationship with this light of our divine nature — the spirit that is within each of us. Through this relationship we come to know our true self and be nourished by the deeper meaning of our soul.
Spiritual paths and teachings give us access to the tools and guidance to do this inner work. For example, the practice of meditation can help to still the mind so that we are no longer distracted by its continual chatter. Psychological inner work can free us from the traumas, anger, anxiety and other feelings that may cover our light. Gradually we come to know more of our true nature, learn to live in the light of our real self. It is said that the goal of every spiritual path is to live a guided life, guided by that within us which is eternal.
The mystical journey may begin with making a relationship with one’s inner light, but the mystic is drawn on a deeper journey toward love’s greatest secret: that within the heart we are one with the divine. The fire of mystical love is a burning which destroys all sense of a separate self, until nothing is left but love Itself. While the spiritual seeker is drawn to the light of this fire, the mystic is the moth consumed by it’s flames. Rumi, love’s greatest mystical poet, summed up his whole life in two lines:
“And the result is not more than these three words:
I burnt, and burnt, and burnt.”
The mystical path takes us into the center of the heart where this mystery of love takes place. Initially this love is often experienced as longing, a deep desire for God, the Beloved, Divine Truth, or simply an unexplained ache in the heart. Mystics are lovers who are drawn toward a love in which there is no you or me, but only the oneness of love Itself. And they are prepared to pay the ultimate price to realize this truth: the price of themselves. In the words of the 13th century Christian mystic Hadewych of Antwerp:
“Those who were two, at first,
are made one by the pain of love.”
Gradually we discover that this love and longing slowly and often painfully destroy all our outer and inner attachments, all the images we may have of our self. The Sufis call this process being taken into the tavern of ruin, through which we are eventually made empty of all except divine love, divine presence.
This is an ancient journey in which the heart is awakened to the wonder and beauty, as well as the terror, of divine love. It is celebrated in the Bible in the Song of Songs: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” And over the centuries mystics of all faiths have written their love stories. Some mystics have been persecuted, like the Sufi al-Hallaj who was crucified for publically proclaiming the secret of divine oneness, “I am the Truth.” Known as the prince of lovers, he expressed the mystical reality: “I am He whom I love, He whom I love is me.”
Mystics may be drawn inward, but the oneness of the divine also embraces the outer world. When the eye of the heart is open all of creation reveals its divine nature; everything is seen as an expression, a manifestation of the One Being. Mystics are also involved in the demands of everyday life. One of Christianity’s most loved mystics, St. Teresa of Avila, worked tirelessly founding nunneries and looking after her nuns, while at the same time mystical prayer took her into ever deepening states of inner absorption, oneness and ecstasy. Mysticism does not mean to retire from life, but to live the unitive life. “God,” St. Teresa would say, “lives also among the pots and pans.”
The truth of mystical love is one of humanity’s great heritages. It should not be confused with its cousin, spiritual life. The spiritual journey is a wonderful way to come closer to what is sacred. It a way to live in the light of our divine nature, to be nourished by the mystery and meaning of the soul. It opens the door to what really belongs to us as sacred beings. But mysticism is quite different. The moth who feels the warmth of the fire is on a very different journey to the moth drawn into the flames themselves. This is the ancient journey from separation back to union, from our own self back to a state of oneness with God. Step by step we walk along the path of love until finally we are taken by love into love; we are taken by God to God, and there is no going back, only a deepening and deepening of this love affair of the soul.
Even if we are not all drawn to tread the path of the mystic, we need to be reminded that this note of divine love belongs to all of us. In a time of so much division in the world, it is important to reclaim this primal truth that belongs to our heritage: this great song of the soul that celebrates the oneness that is within the heart of each of us and underlies all of creation. This has particular relevance when we confront our present ecological crisis. We can no longer afford to think of the environment as something separate, outside of us. We need an awareness of the “oneness of being” of which we are all a part, and actions that come from this awareness. This awareness of unity is one of the most important contributions of the mystic at this moment in time.
Within the heart of each of us, within the heart of humanity, is this song of mystical love. It has been present for millennia celebrating the divine unity that is our real nature, and the deepest secret of our relationship with God. Hearing the many voices that today so easily consume our attention, it is easy for us to forget this quiet voice of divine love. And yet it is one of the great secrets of humanity, passed down from lover to lover, needing to be embraced, to be known, to be lived.”
“All of us want, or need, to be loved. The need for love is one of the most basic human impulses. We may cover this need with patterns of self-protection or images of self-reliance. Or we may openly acknowledge this need to our self or others. But it is always present, whether hidden or visible. Usually we seek for love in human relationships, project our need on to parents, partners, friends, lovers. Our lack or denial of love often causes wounds that we carry with us. This unmet need haunts us, sometimes driving us into addictions or other self-destructive patterns. If our need for love is met we feel nourished in the depths of our being.
Love calls to us in many different ways. Yet while most people seek for love in the tangle of human relationships, the mystic is drawn deeper under the surface — in Rumi’s words “return to the root of the root of your own being.” And here we discover one of the greatest human secrets: that the source and answer to this primal need is not separate from us, but part of our own essential nature, our own true being. Again to quote Rumi:
“The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”
The mystical truth of the oneness of love is something both simple and essential: the real nature of the love that we all seek is not other than us. I remember my first direct experience of this love. I was in my late 20s when one afternoon while I was in meditation I felt what I can only describe as butterfly wings touching the edge of my heart. And in that instant my whole being and body were filled with a love I had hardly known existed. Every cell of my body was loved, gently and completely. Love was present in all of me. And this love came from within me, from my own heart. There was no other.
Other experiences of the oneness of mystical love have followed — deeper, more ecstatic, more blissful. But that first direct experience carried the sweetness of a first love. From that moment I knew that I was loved completely, and it changed everything because it gave me a security I had longed for — the security that only love can give.
In every other relationship, even in the most deeply passionate love-affair, there are two — us and the one we love. We may long to get closer and closer to our lover, and when we make love there is a momentary taste of union on a physical level. But then again we become two, we are separate. Mystical love may begin with the illusion of separation, that we are separate from God, that we long for our Beloved. But the journey takes us back to our own heart and the truth of union: that lover and Beloved are one and were always united. And in this union there is a passion and depth of belonging that can only be dreamed of in human relationships. As I discovered in that first experience, just one touch of this love nourishes every cell in the body, meets every need in ways I could never have imagined.
And the deeper truth is that this love is not just within the heart, but underlies the whole of creation. It is said that in the whole of the universe there is only lover and Beloved. God loves the creation and the creation loves God. This is the mystical secret of all of life. What is discovered within the heart belongs to everything. And the oneness of this love embraces everything. When I physically felt how love touched every cell of my body, and how I was nourished by this love, I was also experiencing what belongs to all of creation. The love that belongs to God is not limited and does not discriminate. It is present within everything. The greater human mystery is not that this love is present, but that it is hidden, veiled from our perception. Like a fish in the ocean looking for water, we seek what is all around us.
It is a longing for this love that draws the mystic on the journey of the soul. The mystic is one who is not satisfied with the surface drama of love, with the give and take of human relationships, but is called to go deeper. It is a dangerous and demanding journey into the depths of the heart, into the sorrow and endless love that one finds there. Here there are few signposts but the primal vulnerability of the soul and the seemingly endless longing for love. In an outer, human relationship one can protect oneself, create barriers against one’s vulnerability and wounds. In a relationship that is born on the inside of the heart, in which there is no “other,” it is much more difficult. It is one’s own deepest love that calls: the Beloved is within one’s own soul. The vulnerability of oneness is both painful and intoxicating.
But what is revealed within the heart of the mystic, of the one who has given him or herself to love, is the great secret of creation: that love is always present. Love is present within our own heart, within every breath, within every cell of our body and the whole of creation. There is nothing other than love, and the whole of creation is a continual outpouring of divine love. The great mystery is then not that this love is always present, but that it is hidden from ordinary everyday human perception — that we do not know how much we are loved — how we are made of love. That we are love seeking love.”
“Amid the noise and increasing demands of our daily life, it is more and more important for many of us to find a way to reach an inner quiet, a place of rest and refuge. For many people, the recent introduction of meditation techniques has been an invaluable means to find a much needed stillness and tranquility.
However, the tradition of mystical prayer is another way to access the peace that belongs to our soul. It is born from a need to rediscover our heart’s relationship with the divine, our own personal and most intimate inner connection. Mystical prayer is a place of deepening love, as well as silence and peace.
My own journey in mystical prayer took place within the Sufi tradition, which describes our relationship to God as that of lover and Beloved. On this path of the heart, I was drawn back to the Beloved through the mystery of love, a love affair that takes place within the heart. Our heart is a place of receptive stillness where we wait for our Beloved, wait for this meeting of love for which we long. During the day, I often found myself longing for a time for prayer, when I could turn away from the outer world and go into my heart where I could be alone in silence with my Beloved.
After practicing for a number of years I was asked to lead a gathering at a Roman Catholic retreat center. So I studied the works of the Christian mystics, and was overjoyed to discover in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila a description of the stages of mystical prayer that was very similar to my own experiences within the Sufi tradition. At that time in the 16th century the Inquisition only allowed the mental repetition of prescribed prayers, but St. Teresa was drawn to the mystical Prayer of Quiet, a state of inner receptivity, a listening stillness very similar to the receptive Prayer of the Heart within the Sufi tradition I had been practicing. And in her writings she articulates very clearly the stages of prayer that draw one deeper and deeper within the heart into states of union and ecstasy.
To know that beneath all the divisions of the outer world there is this single stream of mystical prayer is in itself a refuge and deep reassurance. It is so easy to get caught up in the forms and images of the outer world, and yet, as Rumi writes, “God does not look at your outer forms, but at the love within your love.” And here, within the heart of each of us, is a place where we can enter the formlessness of love. And as I have discovered from my own journey into the heart, this is a love that embraces each of us with a tenderness and passion known only to lovers. We are taken by love to love.
We begin this journey of mystical prayer with the simple act of listening within the heart. We bring the mind down into the heart, into the feeling center our self. And here we wait and listen, not to the sounds of the outer world, but to the silence that is within our self. This silence is nourishing, and in itself it draws us deeper and deeper within. It is the silence from which love is born, where we meet our Beloved, where we are taken by love. In the words of one Christian mystic, the Blessed John Ruysbroeck, it becomes “the dark silence in which all lovers lose themselves.”
Like the practice of meditation, or Centering Prayer, this Prayer of the Heart can be practiced daily. It allows us to have a deepening relationship with the divine that is always present within us, but so easily overlooked in our daily life. It nourishes us from the depths of our own soul. Our outer, everyday life becomes more and more grounded in the core of our own being. And through this simple mystical prayer we discover a friend, a companion, a lover.
Mystical prayer belongs to our deepest human heritage, and as our outer world appears increasingly fractious and out of balance, with economic and ecological uncertainty, it is infinitely valuable to reclaim this tradition. In the West it was often hidden beneath all the rituals and recitations of the Church — sometimes its practitioners were persecuted — and yet it was kept alive by mystics like St. Teresa. As we open our hearts and our-selves to love’s silence we affirm what is deepest within us and within the world: our relationship to the divine and the oneness that belongs to all of life.”
“We live in a culture of religious diversity that is at present experiencing a reawakening of interest in spirituality. If we are to more fully understand what this reawakening might mean, it seems to me that we need to clarify the traditional difference between religion and spirituality, between the exoteric and the esoteric.
Exoteric refers to a religious doctrine or body of knowledge that is accessible to anyone. It does not rely upon one’s individual inner experience of the divine or what is sacred. Religious teachings have often emphasized that following religious doctrine is more important than one’s individual spiritual experience, and some have discouraged inner experiences altogether.
In contrast, esoteric teachings and their practices are usually a way to help the individual have a direct inner experience of the sacred. They are based upon the understanding that there is a world of the spirit that is very different than the purely physical world of the senses. Esoteric studies often involve specific spiritual practices that are quite distinct from religious observances. These practices are a way to access the world of the spirit–leading finally to awaken or be born into this reality that is invisible to our physical eyes.
Spiritual teachings of all cultures tell us that just as we have a physical body, so too do we have a spiritual body. This is the body of our spiritual self. In some Indian traditions it is described as having a series of energy centers, or chakras. In Sufism it is described as a series of chambers within the heart–that just as we have a physical heart we also have a spiritual heart which contains our divine consciousness. In Taoism it is sometimes imaged as a spirit body or light body. Our spiritual body has qualities such as peace, bliss and endless love that are rarely found in our outer lives. What is common to most esoteric traditions is that we can access this spiritual body through specific practices or techniques, meditation, mantra, breathing practices and others.
Many religions have an esoteric core, for example the Jewish Kabbalah, or Sufism which is known as the heart of Islam. Yet, at different times in history religions have banned or persecuted as heresy esoteric teachings and their practitioners. Early Christianity had a known esoteric dimension, for example in the teachings of the Gospel of Thomas that point to an inner spiritual mystery, as in the words of Jesus: “I disclose my mysteries to those who are worthy of my mysteries.” Sadly the orthodoxy of the early Church banned the inner, esoteric aspect of Jesus’ teachings, and the Gospel of Thomas became heresy, its copies destroyed, until one copy was rediscovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945.
The esoteric, spiritual teachings that can be found within many religions, shamanic and other traditions form part of our spiritual heritage. They remind us that we are not just physical beings in a physical world, but that our lives and also our bodies have a spiritual dimension. We are beings of light as well as flesh and blood. There is a world within and around us to which we can have access that is very different to the physical world. Yet the spiritual and physical worlds are not separate, but interpenetrate and nourish each other.
At this present time there is a hunger for direct inner experience, a need to reclaim our spiritual heritage. While our materialistic culture tries to keep our attention firmly in the physical world of the senses, many of us sense a longing to know this hidden mystery of what it means to be human. And so we are able to turn to the teachings and traditions that have been given to us, whether in yoga, Buddhist meditation, Sufi dhikr or other spiritual practices. It is important to recognize the root of our longing, that we are no longer prepared to live in a purely physical world, but need the living presence of the spiritual. We need to know and be nourished by the invisible world that is within us and all around us. We need to reclaim the mystery and magic of being fully alive.
We also need to confront the specter of death. So many people, knowing only the physical world, remain frightened of death. Religious teachings create a clear division between this life and the afterlife, which may carry the promise of heaven or the threat of hell. Spiritual experience can lift the veils between the worlds, allowing us to glimpse a spiritual reality while we remain present in the physical world. Many people have had near death experiences in which they see a light at the end of a tunnel. Our spiritual heritage can give us access to this light while we are still in this world. This is the light found within the heart, the light of our divine self. It is beautifully imaged in the Gospel of St. Matthew which speaks about the oneness of real inner perception: “If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
Spiritual life can take us beyond death. In Sufism this is called “to die before you die,” to awaken to the world of light while still alive in this world. Then you know that there is no such thing as death, or in Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Thomas, “Whoever discovers the interpretations of these sayings will not taste death.”
Spiritual truth is at the heart of all religions, and yet it is also beyond the divisions that plague our world. It is about the oneness, the love and the light that is within us all, and to which as human beings we can have access. Spiritual teachings and their practices can give us each our own individual experience of this very human reality, help us to live in the light of this oneness rather than stumbling in the darkness of so many divisions. I feel that our present spiritual reawakening is a deep longing, a need to step into this light.”
“In order to change our present global predicament we need to go to the root of the attitude of consciousness that created it. Otherwise we run the risk of trying to solve the problem with the same conditioning, the same thought process, which created it. It is essential at this critical moment that we understand the origins of our present mindset that sees the Earth as a resource, the “environment” as something separate from our self. Some say this attitude is rooted in the Age of Enlightenment and a Newtonian consciousness that sees the Earth as an unfeeling mechanism separate from us and which we can control and master. And certainly the developing tools of science and technology have seemingly given us this ability. But in order to more fully understand this sense of separation it is necessary to go deeper, back in our Western consciousness to when early Christianity persecuted the pagan and Earth-based religions, cut down their sacred groves, and slowly began the process whereby the Earth became no longer something sacred, in a way unthinkable to an indigenous person. We are the inheritors of this culture that banished the relationship to the sacred from the Earth.
Much of our Western civilization has now forgotten the sacred nature of the Earth, and we are unaware of how this forgetfulness crucially affects our relationship to the environment. If the Earth is just a resource then there is no real responsibility. We can use and abuse it, as we are doing at the present time. If it is sacred then how can we justify our present attitude towards the environment, our acts of ecocide?
Because of this there is a pressing need to reclaim this primal relationship to life and all of creation. If we are to sustain a living, sacred Earth that nourishes our souls as well as our bodies, we need to reconnect with this ancient knowing. It is not something new to be learned, but something essential to be remembered, something that has always belonged to us, only forgotten or censored by our present culture.
The “sacred” is not something primarily religious. It belongs to the primary nature of all that is. When our ancestors knew that everything they could see was sacred, this was not something taught but instinctively known. It was as natural as sunlight, as necessary as breathing. If we embrace the sacred within all of life, we will find that life will speak to us as it spoke to our ancestors. A veil will be lifted and this innate knowing will be present again. This is the ancient wisdom of the Earth itself, the Earth which has evolved and changed over millennia, whose wisdom we desperately need at this present time if we are to avoid an even greater ecological disaster. Again to quote Thomas Berry:
“We need not a human answer to an earth problem, but an earth answer to an earth problem. The earth will solve its problems, and possibly our own, if we will let the earth function in its own ways. We need only listen to what the earth is telling us.”
We still carry this primal relationship to the Earth within our consciousness, even if we have long forgotten it. It is a primal recognition of the wonder, beauty and divine nature of the Earth. It is a felt reverence for all that exists. Once we bring this foundational quality into our consciousness, we will be able to respond to our present man-made crisis from a place of balance, in which our actions will be grounded in an attitude of respect for all of life.”
“The unspoken poverty in our culture is a poverty of spirit, a real hunger for what the West has forgotten: that not just individual life but all of creation is sacred. This connection to a sacred Earth always made us feel and know we are part of the great mystery of creation, of its rivers and winds, its birdsong and seeds. How could it be otherwise? And how can we now regain this simple but forgotten element, this ingredient as essential as salt?
First we need to recognize that this connection is missing, that there is an ache, a loneliness, within our heart and soul. And from this there will come a grief for what we have lost — because our soul remembers even if our mind and our culture try to make us forget. We are not “consumers” needing only more stuff, but souls in search of meaning. And from this grief, this sorrow, can come a real response that can return us once again to what is sacred within our self and with our life. As the Buddhist environmentalist Joanna Macy explains, our pain is evidence for a deeper interconnectedness — otherwise we would not feel this loss. It reawakens our care for each other and our love for the Earth. Our heart knows what our mind has forgotten — it knows the sacred that is within all that exists, and through a depth of feeling we can once again experience this connection, this belonging.
We are not here on Earth to be alone, but to be a part of a living community, a web of life in which all is sacred. Like the cells of our body, all of life is in constant communication, as science is just beginning to understand. No bird sings in isolation, no bud breaks open alone. And the most central note that is present in life is its sacred nature, something we need to each rediscover and honor anew. We need to learn once again how to walk and breathe in a sacred universe, to feel this heartbeat of life. Hearing its presence speak to us, we feel this great bond of life that supports and nourishes us all. Today’s world may still at times make us feel lonely, but we can then remember what every animal, every insect, every plant knows — and only we have forgotten: the living sacred whole.”