Mysticism is not an escape from the responsibilities and pressures of life. The Sufi master Bhai Sahib descrihed mystical life as “to bear the heat and burden of the day.” We have to learn to live the life of the soul, which itself is embodied in this world of form. The life of the soul embraces the two worlds, the outer dimension of time and space, and the timelessness of the eternal moment. As a mystic you stand with “both feet firmly on the ground and with your head you support the sky.” This is why mystical life is so demanding and why it is only for responsible men and women.

For many of us there comes a time when there seems to be no way forward, no way that echoes what we value or aspire to. This is the moment when we need to step aside from the stream of the collective, when we need to allow ourselves to become confused and lost.

For those who have the courage to become lost, a silent metamorphosis begins to take place. While our conditioned values tell us we need to know where we are going, the wayfarer begins to walk a different path – one that leads away from form and definitions towards the undefined and unexplored. If we step with both feet into this space of not knowing, a real hope can then surface. This is not the hope of a better future, not the hope born in patterns of time, but a hope that belongs to the rhythm of the soul, to the real becoming of ourself.

At this time those who want to make the journey leave behind the shore, while others stay close to the land, within the seeming security of the known. This is when mystical life becomes a lived possibility. when we can make the transition from a tangible world to one based upon the intangible sweetness of God’s love for us. For each of us this moment of transition will be different, and yet underneath it is the same because we are turning from our life to God’s life. We begin the great adventure, the search for what is real amidst the illusions of the world.

Taking this step is frightening. The wayfarer must leave behind everything she knows about her world. The sense of abandonment and loneliness can be overwhelming, and one must be strong and determined. But once you have seen through the collective bargaining of life, the mad rush of buying and selling that we have come to call progress, then a different picture can form. As in Plato’s story of the cave, you step away from the shadows falling on the wall, and see beyond the entrance of the cave to where sunlight is reflected on the water. Then you can know the real laughter and joy of being alive for God’s sake. In this moment something else is born, a quality of being and becoming that belongs to the soul.

If we base our life and sense of purpose upon the ego, then we will be left with the shifting shadows of its illusory self. This is one of the oldest philosophical truths that has been engraved into the foundation of so many cultures before our own. The ego is an illusion and so its perception of life, its values and goals, are based upon an illusion. Yet today we have become experts at building upon this sand, forgetting the primal truth of the flow of the tide, and the storms that build up out at sea, the unexpected hurricanes that wash everything away.

Those who have the courage to lose what others consider precious can leave behind these shifting foundations. They can step into the hinterland of their own soul, and begin to take responsibility for what is really theirs. The responsibility of the soul takes us where we can never imagine, into both terror and beauty. And it allows us to reclaim what our culture has lost, the wonder of what it means to belong to God.

For those interested in spiritual life, worldly challenges hold little interest. Instead, they are called to use their gift of consciousncss to praise and honor God who gave them this gift, whose divine spark they carry within their heart. ln order to praise God more fully, these individuals are drawn into religious or spiritual lives. Through the teachings and practices of the path, through prayer and devotion, they are able to purify themselves so that they can worship God more completely, so that their spiritual aspirations can become less obstructed by worldly desires or by instinctual drives. The work of purification helps us become more accessible to divine love, so that we can listen more attentively to God’s voice and be more sensitive to divine guidance.

Much of religious or spiritual life is a process of purification, whether this is done through exercise, chanting, fasting, or prayer. The more the practitioner works upon herself, the more she has access to her spiritual nature, the part of her that looks towards God. Gradually more and more of her consciousness becomes accessible to spiritual purposes; she is able to use more of this divine gift for its higher purpose: to praise and witness God. This work is a lifetime‘s struggle, a continuing process of purification, and the individual is constantly challenged by conflicting feelings and thoughts, by the desires of the ego and the pull of her own lower nature.

Today much of the process of purification takes the form of psychological work: confronting and integrating the shadow and other conflicting aspects of our psyche. Finding our faults is not just a process of separating the light from the dark, but also of integrating our darkness. For each of us it means taking upon ourselves the responsibility of being human. As we are taken into the realm of our own complexities, the price of self-knowledge is always more responsibility. We have to become responsible for our own darkness, for our own pain and lack of self-worth.

Slowly, gradually, the effort is rewarded; light is found in the darkness and it becomes easier and easier to look towards God. The religious or spiritual life becomes all-embracing as the individual is drawn more completely into the circle of remembrance. Divine love shines then more directly into our lives; the path of the soul is more visible. Those who remember, look towards God and come to know how much they are loved and supported in all aspects of their lives, in every moment of every day.

Purification is an essential aspect of spiritual life and religious life. Yet one of the distinguishing features of this work of preparation is that it remains focused on the transformation of the seeker herself. While the seeker might use her own effort to free herself from old patterns and offer herself in service, the mystic knows that real transformation can happen only through His grace. Only through His grace can something open within the heart, can the path become visible. Without His grace we remain locked in the prison of the ego, in the illusions of our own self. Progressing through predominantly linear and often predictable stages, the process of purification brings the seeker along the spiritual path towards the goals specific to her spiritual system. Much of contemporary spirituality that centers on personal development and transformation uses models of purification as the basis of its approach. lt is here that real mysticism is distinguished from spirituality, as the mystical journey is never about the mystic.

For the lover of God, purification is only preparation, part of the work that takes us to the arena of love. The real mystical journey is what happens when we lose ourselves, when we become absorbed in God. Within the circle of divine love, there is no path and no wayfarer, just a deepening absorption, a dissolving into what cannot be named. Here, the mystical truth that “there is no dervish, or if there is a dervish that dervish is not there” becomes a lived reality.

The mystical journey belongs to love, and not to any practices of purification. Having drunk the wine of divine intoxication “before the creation of the vine,” the mystic is born into this circle of love. She carries its hidden imprint as a scar within the heart. For the mystic there is neither the safety of a journey of spiritual ascent nor the certainty of redemption; there is neither paradise nor purgatory. The lover of God is not interested in personal salvation or enlightenment. Rather, she is destined to live a passion that has no boundaries, only the all-consuming nature of divine love.

That the mystical journey is not about the wayfarer, or leads to the death of the wayfarer, is so alien to our culture of self-identification as to be almost incomprehensible. Consequently, mysticism is generally misunderstood in the West. Even contemporary spiritual traditions more often than not confuse the work of preparation and purification with real mysticism. Spiritual traditions that have flourished in the West, have simply given Western values of individuality and progress a spiritual twist. Replacing material with spiritual well-being has placed spirituality firmly within our collective horizon. We have been given a spiritual rather than material dream to pursue. This may have made spirituality more accessible to a Western culture, but has done nothing to support a true mystical orientation.

Our culture is so addicted to achievement, to progress, and the siren of success, that we seem unable to escape this fantasy. We imagine that spiritual practices and techniques will free us from the limitations of our egoself, not realizing that the images of progress and goals that we project onto our new-found spiritual stage belong to the ego. No longer focusing on a better material life, we aspire towards spiritual goals, not realizing that we have just recreated a different form of self-interest. Is the enlightenment or inner peace we seek fundamentally different from the American dream of prosperity? Are we not just becoming slaves to another god or demon, another illusion? Sadly we do not recognize how easily we can lose the thread of our soul’s devotion in the mirage of conditioned spirituality.

How can we reclaim mysticism from the clutter and confusion of our contemporary spiritual marketplace? How can we discern the true freedom of our soul, the freedom in which everything is given, from the promises and practices of personal liberation? The mystic who has given herself to love knows what is beyond the borders of culture and conditioning. She inhabits a region of the soul where love and service are given freely and there is neither striving nor achievement. Living a relationship of oneness, she recognizes that the deepest longing of her heart belongs not to herself but to her Beloved.

Those who belong to this “brotherhood of migrants who keep watch on the world and for the world”, live without leaving traces, and are usually unrecognizable. In the outer world they are part of the crowd, playing their part, indistinguishable and unnoticed. Yet they hold the keys to the inner world, to the dimension of the soul and the real freedom that belongs to love. Belonging neither to this world nor to the next, they are the servants of love and carry the wisdom that comes from a commitment to love.

Unattached to form or structure, God’s lovers flow with the need of the time. wear the clothing and follow the outer customs of their environment. But inwardly they belong only to love, and are the guardians of the ways of love. Since the beginning of time they have played their part in the world, keeping open the gates of love and ensuring that divine grace flows freely into God’s creation. Because they belong only to their Beloved, and seek neither material nor spiritual gain, they can do this work. Empty of intention, they are a part of the will and ways of their Beloved.

There is a need for the ways of love to be reclaimed and made conscious, for the hidden ways of devotion and mystical belonging to be made known. In their simplicity and ordinariness, those who belong to God have remained hidden. enabling them to pursue their work of devotion and remembrance without interference. But underneath our present collective clamoring for spirituality there is a hunger for what is Real; there is a longing for pathways unpolluted by the conditioning of self-interest. God’s lovers hold the keys of these pathways in their heart, and can read the signs that lead seekers to the truth.

From The Signs of God, by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.