Category: Issue 94

Archives 94 – Winter Issue


There are times when we find ourselves shrinking from life, from beauty, from the truth. From the story of love unfolding all around us, and within ourselves. It often happens in the moments where we allow the mind to transport us; when we allow the material world and language to determine the limits of our understanding and experience. As Mark Nepo describes, these tendencies can construct a prison of our own making, within which only sorrow and sadness grow. READ MORE






by Alireza Nurbakhsh


by Mark Nepo

by Mary Gossy

by Jawid Mojaddedi





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A conversation with Nipun Mehta
Interviewed by Russell Leung and Rita Fabrizio

Interview with David Godman
Interviewed by Reid Pierce

Mehri Habibi Parsa 1931-2017
by Safoura Nourbakhsh



by Sholeh Johnston


The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness
by Emily Esfahani Smith
reviewed by Philip Edmondson

Things that Join the Sea and the Sky
by Mark Nepo
reviewed by Gregory Mize


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by Alireza Nurbakhsh

by Roger Loff

by Chris Ellery

by Gregory Angus

by Chris Hoffman







Print and digital subscriptions available. Buy SUFI now.


There are times when we find ourselves shrinking from life, from beauty, from the truth. From the story of love unfolding all around us, and within ourselves. It often happens in the moments where we allow the mind to transport us; when we allow the material world and language to determine the limits of our understanding and experience. As Mark Nepo describes, these tendencies can construct a prison of our own making, within which only sorrow and sadness grows.

This issue of SUFI explores the different effects of this retreat, and the routes we can take to return to presence.

The experience of beauty, writes Alireza Nurbakhsh, has the potential to cultivate divine love. Navigating the delicate line between worldly desire and divine inspiration in interpreting our experience of beauty, says Nurbakhsh, can be aided by the spiritual community and the guidance of a master. David Godman further expands on the importance of a guru. Sharing insights from his many years in Arunachala, India, he reflects on the importance of a guru not only for receiving verbal guidance, but also for “direct transmission”—quietening the mind and accelerating the process of awakening— most powerfully in silence. Yet is it precisely this silence which can frighten us most. In “Unoccupied Prayer” and Divine Love, Mary Gossy observes that “Doing nothing is not for the faint of heart.” It is in silence and complete surrender to God that the impasse of logic and over-thinking is overcome. By surrendering to “whatever breath of grace there is that moves the foot to take a step into empty air,” we can begin to walk a path beyond the limits of what the mind thinks is possible. Indeed, beyond words.

It is after this leap of faith that the heart and the mind can work together.  In his reflection on Rumi’s life and work, Jawid Mojaddedi unpacks the paradox of Rumi’s intellectual rigor and scholarly knowledge being both an impediment to spiritual insight, and also a powerful medium through which to communicate the importance of seeing the mind as a servant of the heart. Tech entrepreneur Nipun Mehta takes us one step further: from mind and heart to action. He shares his vision for change through service and how, by combining the head, heart and hands in everyday acts of kindness, we unlock the power to transform ourselves and the world. It is in the doing that we can become the “instrument of a larger flow,” find release from the anxieties of our ego, and become part of a collective consciousness that becomes community, generosity, equality and compassionate models of leadership— all shifting the cultural narrative from transaction to transformation. We hope you enjoy reading. We’re also releasing monthly doses of Sufi poems and music via our newsletter.

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Interviewed by Russell Leung and Rita Fabrizio

We believe in the inherent generosity of others
and aim to ignite that spirit of service.
Through our small, collective acts,
we hope to transform ourselves and the world.
—Nipun Mehta

At the age of 12, Nipun and his family left India to live in Santa Clara, California. He received his computer science/ philosophy degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and began his career working for Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley. Utilizing his technology background, Nipun began his experiments in giving by co-creating an online, spiritually based, humanitarian community called ServiceSpace, with its focus on small acts of service that “catalyze inner and outer transformation.”

In 2005, Nipun and his wife, Guri, went on a walking pilgrimage across India, performing small acts of kindness “with great love,” and living on $1 per day. Today, they live in Berkeley, California, and ServiceSpace has grown into a global multi-faceted ecosystem working to “create a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community.”

NIPUN MEHTA… “Two, three weeks ago we just had Karma Kitchen in Krakow, Poland, which is twenty minutes from Auschwitz, which is where Schindler’s factory was. They never had anything like Karma Kitchen in that place.”

RUSS LEUNG: What about education? Can you train people, teach people to become compassionate and generous? Have you developed a workshop, an educational program for that purpose? Yeah, so a lot of people come to us and say, hey what you guys are doing is beautiful, what ServiceSpace has done unimaginable, unexplainable, but I love it. My heart is awakened; I want to bring this into my context. Maybe I’m in government, maybe I’m in the private sector, maybe I’m in a family, maybe I’m in the medical field, maybe I’m a teacher… I want to bring this here. Can you help me? And, what we would say is that I wish it was cut-and-paste, because here you go, right? If it was just in the field of matter, then I could just give it to you. But it has to be awakened. Like there’s an element within you that needs to be activated for this to make sense on the outside.

We formed the first one with six people, and three “anchors.” And what we tell our anchors is that their job is not to help people find answers, but to actually help them hold the question. So it’s very different. They’re sort of in the back themselves—they are modeling that—then what happens is those that finish a Circle, they’ll come back and they’ll say, I want to volunteer to be an anchor. And so then they support the next people. And there are all kinds of people, there are people from nineteen counties that have done this. And most recently, now, there are themed Circles. With people that are just in business, or people who are just in medicine. They come together and say, look, I can use a little bit of this humanity; I could use this inside-out approach. The most recent one that we just completed two weeks ago was business. One guy was a Russian billionaire, he kind of lost it all, and he says, this whole cycle is not really for me—I want to know how to create a kind world; how do I create systems around that? And so he joined the Circle! … One of the volunteers was actually somebody who was Obama’s lawyer in his first term: Obama’s General Counsel. And she came and she said, I know how. I’ve been taught how to climb up the ladder, but I actually want to learn about how to hold space from being in the back.




Interviewed by Reid Pierce

David Godman is one of the leading writers on the life and teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. While he was attending Oxford University in the early 1970s, he found himself drawn to the teachings of Sri Ramana. In 1976, he traveled to India, intending to make a brief visit to Sri Ramana Ashram. He is still there today. He has now edited or written fifteen books on Sri Ramana, his teachings, and his direct disciples, including the famous anthology Be As You Are.

I think that is a good segue into the teachings of Sri Ramana as that book was my introduction to Sri Ramana… Let’s discuss self-enquiry. This seems to be the root of his teachings, asking yourself “Who Am I?” Could you briefly explain this seemingly simple practice? I will, but in advance I will also say that while this is what he is most famous for, he never thought it was his principle teaching, or even his most important teaching. He frequently said, “My most important teaching is silence.” He said those who could sit quietly in his presence or think about him from a distance were getting the most direct form of communication, the unmediated teaching. If they couldn’t assimilate that silent radiating presence, or if they wanted something to do, a spiritual practice, he then might tell them to do self-enquiry. However, he wasn’t prescriptive in the sense that he never told anybody to take up a specific spiritual practice. If you went to him and asked for advice on what to do spiritually, he would probably ask you what you were doing already. If it was a reasonable practice, he would say, “Carry on.” He had no missionary zeal whatsoever. He didn’t have any interest in making people do self-enquiry. He did though think that it was the quickest and most direct way to realize the Self, to gain enlightenment. Despite this conviction, he had no agenda and no idea or feeling that all people should be following this practice. He just wanted people to assimilate what they could from his presence or being in the ashram. If you went there with a personal story, he would listen, be sympathetic and give advice. But he functioned on a whole range of levels depending on what you wanted and needed. Some people wanted to worship him as a form of God; other people simply wanted to use him as a Mr Fix-it. In India you go to a guru when you want a promotion, or if your wife wants a baby. If you wanted to talk philosophy, he might talk philosophy. And if you wanted liberation, then he might give you advice on how to do it. So, it is somewhat misleading to say that self-enquiry was his main teaching or even something that he recommended to everybody. It’s what he is most famous for, but he never pushed it on anyone.

I want to shift the conversation to your encounter with a master who was alive then—Nisargadatta Maharaj. He was also seemingly an ordinary man, a beedi (cheap hand-rolled cigarette) maker and seller, yet he was a jnani—a Self-realized being. Could you tell me about leaving Arunachala temporarily to be in his presence in Mumbai? How did that happen? And what was it like going from Ramana Ashram to being in front of a living master? I think that this was one of the questions I had when I went to see him—was it necessary to have a living human guru? I did question him a little bit about this. Maharaj always insisted on the necessity of a guru. He himself had had a guru, and he said that he attained realization when he put his complete faith in this guru. After struggling to understand what his guru had been saying to him, Maharaj finally accepted that his guru was not lying to him when he said, “You are the Self.” Before then, even though his guru had told him this, it puzzled him. These words were revolving in his head in a very unsatisfactory way. One day he suddenly thought to himself, “Why would my guru tell me something that wasn’t true? What he said must be the truth of who I am.” In that moment he accepted that his guru was telling him the truth of who he was, rather than giving him a puzzle to solve. Immediately, he got the full experience of the Self. It was simply necessary for him to have absolute faith in his master.





Interviewed by Safoura Nourbakhsh

This is what Mehri joon says about herself and her involvement with Sufism: I loved reading monajats [devotional prayers] and fasting when I was younger. At dawn, during the month of Ramadan, I loved to listen to monajats. Our neighbor had a radio and I would go to the yard and listen in. When I got older I fell in love with Hafez first and then Rumi. I also fell in love with my high school lit teacher because nothing spoke to me like poetry. Then when I was older I thought I was in love with Imam Ali. I thought he was a perfect human being, but later I was not sure. How could one love anyone more than God?

Then, I had this life-changing experience as a young married woman. My first child was a year and a half old. I was wrongfully accused by my husband and his family of something I had not done and which was so removed from my character. I remember I was so crushed because, before this happened, I could swear by my husband. I believed in him, I trusted him. But then when this happened, I understood that I cannot put my trust in any human being. I turned to God completely and called on him genuinely and said “I only want you and no one else.” So what happened made that detachment possible for me.

Was the master accessible to you? Was it easy to see him? I mean the environment was very masculine and he sat in the men’s jamkhaneh. Did you feel that as a woman you were excluded in some ways? Yes, always; I always envied the men. I envied their physical proximity to the master. They could see him all the time.

Did other people in the community also object to your ways? Did they also see you as a radical woman breaking traditions? Yes, from the beginning I would give my poetry to the master and he would give the singers my poetry to sing and recite for the gatherings. Some men would always make fun of me and my poetry afterwards. Most of my poetry was love poetry and to them a woman had no business writing love poems. Sometimes I would also doubt my own feelings and question myself. Perhaps I was suffering from some kind of lack or deprivation that I was so attached or in love with my master. But after examining myself carefully I would come to the conclusion that this love is the love I was seeking all my life, a love that consumes you without any expectations. I wanted to experience that love, and I had finally.




A Discourse

by Alireza Nurbakhsh

Our experience of beauty and the sublime in the world is a gateway to our experience of the divine, which in turn gives rise to our love for God. Though they are often spoken of together, beauty and the sublime can produce different effects in the human heart and mind. For the Sufis, beauty and the sublime are two aspects of the same Reality. Loving God means loving both aspects of this Reality.

We need a critical approach to our experience to make sense of it and avoid any pitfalls set by our own emotions and self-interest. A blind acceptance of our experience and its spiritual significance could push us towards fanaticism. In some spiritual schools, including Sufism, it is the community and ultimately the guide or the teacher who can provide the correct insight to unravel such experiences and ultimately help people to make a positive change in their lives. The validity of such experiences rests in how they can help us through the process of purification of the self and spiritual advancement.

This can happen only when we see the beauty in others, and following the example of the Sufis, we let the experience of beauty take us to the state of perpetual and unconditional love.




by Mary Gossy

About five hundred years ago, in a medium-sized city in Spain, there was a woman who was desperate, if sometimes afraid, to be alone with her Beloved. In her case, which is, admittedly, somewhat unusual, her Beloved was what she called God. But nobody would let her have any time alone with her Beloved.

The nun in question, who wanted to be alone with her Beloved, is Teresa of Avila.

… she found a way to start a new kind of monastic life, one in which the nuns would live together and apart at the same time. They would earn their own living by spinning wool, they would not accept endowments so they would not owe anybody anything, they would stay in their enclosure, and they would do everything they could to stay focused on the one thing they all had in common. There were only a few of them, but every one wanted to be alone with her Beloved.

Teresa founded this order, called the Discalced (or “barefoot”) Carmelites, with a young priest who was to become her close collaborator, and who is known as Spain’s greatest lyric poet. His name is John of the Cross. It is he who invented and theorized the oft-mentioned phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” Like Teresa, John was completely in love with God.

Unoccupied prayer is the straight route John of the Cross drew up the middle of his map of spiritual ascent (Collected Works, 110). This way is paved with the word, “nada,” (nothing,) and nothing else. There is no room on the trail for anything except whatever breath of grace there is that moves the foot to take a step into empty air. Gimmicks? Nothing doing. Nothing is not for the faint of heart.




by Jawid Mojaddedi

Rumi’s life-story corroborates the comment that he makes here, in that it involves not only a geographical uprooting from Balkh to Konya, but also subsequently an inner uprooting from the seminary of his father to the mysticism of Shams-e Tabrizi. Since Rumi produced all of his writings that one can safely date after both of these uprootings, thirteenth-century Konya would seem to have a bigger claim for shaping them than Balkh, although the most important factor was his spiritual master. However, Rumi’s account of his own poetry here is not very accurate, because it is not simply a vehicle for “subtleties, obscurities and rarities.” In fact, the unusually high degree of scriptural citations and allusions to seminary scholarship in his poetry are themselves lingering signs of the influence of his upbringing and education, when he was being groomed as a successor by his preacher father Baha al-Din Walad (d. 628/1231), who represents the Balkh tradition he refers to. At the same time, his poetry also includes many philosophical, literary and scientific allusions as well—which were presumably for the benefit of intellectuals in Konya—in addition to the high literary standards of his poetry, but these aspects are never as a display of learning or an end in themselves.

In conclusion, one could argue that the intellectual tradition in Konya captivated Rumi more than the more religiously pious tradition of Balkh. However, the intervention of Shams at a time when he was perhaps already growing weary of both traditions, made him see their limitations through hurling him into the maelstrom of spiritual illumination. After Shams’ disappearance, Rumi returned to his former audience and used his accumulated intellectual and religious knowledge as appropriate vehicles through which to teach them the mystical knowledge he had acquired while absent, taking special care to divert them away from a merely intellectual approach by breaking up his stories and giving his Masnavi an “unstructured” appearance that bamboozles those who wish to see a rational explanation and a linear mathematical logic to it. Rumi seems therefore to have viewed the intellectual approach as the most threatening temptation that could distract one from the mystical way, as someone who was himself more of a former intellectual turned mystic, than a pietist turned mystic, and did not see blind faith as constituting valuable knowledge about the world.