Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Traveling the Sufi Path | Interview with Dr. Stewart Bitkoff







"Lets remember
who we are.

each moment
is another opportunity
to draw closer."

- Stewart Bitkoff

"As our society moves forward in its study and growing understanding of different spiritual paths, one of the things required is a dialogue concerning the nature of personal enlightenment. Or said another way, after studying a particular spiritual path, for the average traveler, what does personal spiritual development look like?"
- Enlightenment: An Initial Discussion

. following is part 2 of the dialogue with author and educator Dr. Stewart Bitkoff. It was conducted on early October, 2008. the first part can be read here.

Sadiq // Your training in sufi path is quite unique given that it happened in the heart of the west by an eastern teacher who in sufi term was a hidden teacher and timing wise it was in early 70's, which was also a very unique, changing times (equally true from planetary evolution perspective). Tell us something about the nature of this initiation with regard to the path, teacher and training.

Dr. Stewart Bitkoff // Basically, there was training in 2 schools. The first part was with the Teacher/Master, occurred at work and lasted for approximately 4 years. This occurred in the early 1970’s and was in a state funded psychiatric hospital. The teacher was a psychiatrist, from Pakistan and his father was a Sufi; 3 years into things we learned he was a Muslim. There were many other students; some of whom accepted what was taught and others left it for something else. There was no emphasis upon a particular religion, exotic clothing, or giving money to fund a specific church/mosque/synagogue. When we were asked to donate something, it was always up to whatever charity we wished and at a comfortable level. We were taught to love God and experience God in every moment; the teacher taught by shining the Light upon our hearts and other experiences; we learned how to perceive our own spiritual nature and connect with God.

One day, the teacher called us into his office and said it was time to move onto the next teacher. We were to write the Society for Sufi Studies and await instructions. After 6 months time, instructions came to read and totally familiarize myself with 20 books written by Idries Shah; a list was included. At first, I balked at this, having read 5 books by Shah and wondered why I needed to do all of this. Anyway, in time I set about this task which took over 10 years. In the process, I learned much from this material: it is a complete body of work, which according to Shah, supersedes all other previous Sufi material. It is a complete course, if you will, of what the western seeker needs to travel the Path. When Shah died in 1996, many people considered him to be the Sufi Teacher of the Age and his job, in part, was to offer this material to the west. Also, my teacher told us that Shah, prior to his death, was the Pole; which in Sufi tradition has many levels of meaning. Also, when alive, Shah was elected King of the Sufis; historically, there have only been two people who were given this title and spiritual authority. The other being Rumi; when the world was being attacked by Mongolian hordes of Genghis Khan.

Interestingly enough, I have just finished a book entitled, Spiritual Traveler: Reflections & Adventures, which speaks to the point of my initiation in the first school, and different experiences and thoughts in both schools; and how this learning has woven its way into my life. I have recently sent it off to the publisher and await their comments.

Our first teacher is still alive and when approached by possible students, tells them to read certain titles by Shah (The Sufis, Learning How to Learn, The Way of the Sufi, and A Perfumed Scorpion); he no longer entertains questions about the path, is very gracious, and concerned about all of us. He still chooses to remain anonymous.

One of the first things, a student will say: look I want spiritual experience, not reading from books. The books answer this question: first you have to learn how to learn or have the right attitude/posture about this sort of thing. It requires a serious or mature student/traveler- who is able to suspend or push aside certain thoughts and prejudices.

. To my understanding, this (the sufi path you walked) was a very harmonious, universal, totally non-dogmatic, transcending religious boundaries - what one may call 'Organic Spirituality'. Am I correct to characterize it? When you look back at it now, how do you describe it?

You know, this is the natural path to God/Light; it is the path before there was organized religion; and is the inner current of religious training. Consider what if you never heard of Shah, or read this interview, don’t you think this experience or way of spiritual knowing, if you required it, would be made available? It is very simple and very complex. “‘Love God with all your heart and soul.” The first commandment. If the concept/word God is bothersome substitute- The Light.

Look, we all have an innate spiritual nature, and what we are discussing is maximizing our potential in this area; in order, that this capacity becomes part of every day life. This learning and capacity is to be used across our lifetime- to help self and others.

Spiritual learning being different than organized religious training; religious training being the starting point for more advanced spiritual experience/learning.

. According to your personal experience and from your own walking in the path - how would you introduce to a western lay person if you are asked, 'what is sufi way?'

My daughter has been interested in the Sufi Way for sometime, and she is always offering examples of trying to explain what she believes/experiences to others, who ask about her beliefs. This is not a simple thing. Basically, we are trying to put into words, what other teachers have called an ‘essence’ an ‘attitude’ or ‘way of experiencing reality.’ Some have said, ‘Sufism is learned in the company of other Sufis.’

To me, Sufism is the experience of ultimate reality through your own innate spirituality. There is a part of us that knows where it came from and where it is going, and when this part is awaken, slowly, it becomes the inner voice that knows the way home. Sufism is using your own inner, spiritual voice to enrich your life and the lives of others.

. What is the future of sufism in the world today, specially in the west?

The message of Sufism is a hopeful one; that there is a God, who loves his/her children, and has created a way for his/her children to attain unto Him. Also, there is a Plan for humanity, and this Plan involves the awakening of certain capacities within each traveler, one person at a time, to help make this world a better place. Traditionally, the Sufis are the guardians of this Plan and help make sure that it is accomplished.

For the western traveler, Sufism holds the promise of an individual relationship with Ultimate Reality. Always, this relationship is one of Love, Joy, and Forgiveness. There is no boundary here and each traveler is created with an individual potential: to love, work, experience, and serve. Each is a child of Light; the son and daughter of a King who creates their own reality.

This world is a giant market place, and we are free to do whatever we like. Within our free will choice, we create our own reality moment by moment. The problems of the world and life, for the most part, are the creation of individual travelers. Our responsibility is to create reality, that is our mission, and the problems of greed, destruction, war, and hunger for the most part are solvable by travelers, if they chose collectively to do so.

In each moment, there is a potential, and to choose the higher destiny, is the Sufi Call.

. What you think would be the correct vision to meet the spiritual thirst of American people in terms of spiritual orientation and training?

America is a special place; America is the spiritual freedom, alive in each person’s heart to choose what is best for them self and others. Here, in this country, each traveler can freely choose their own life and how they wish to live it.

Our higher destiny is alignment with Ultimate Truth and helping others. Some Americans quickly forget that this country was founded by travelers who wanted to be free of the restrictions, rules, and the tyranny of others. Leaving the countries of Europe, with their monarchies and religious authoritarianism, these travelers chose to find a world where they could help create a reality more like the spiritual freedom within.

The message of Sufism is the same; you are a child of the Light; free to create your own reality; and when you help another, in the name of the Light, you rise higher than the angels. The spirit of Sufism transcends individual religion and creed; it is the song of love, freedom and joy that is alive in your heart.

According to some reports and tradition, there was a hidden Sufi presence on the Mayflower and in writing the Declaration of Independence. So you see America and Sufism have been entwined since the beginning; mysteriously the Plan unfolds, and each rises up, like the smoke from the evening fire, becoming a better version of self.

. Who is Stewart Bitkoff?

'Who is Stewart Bitkoff?' This question makes me laugh; I have been trying to figure that out for 62 years. When you find him, tell me, so I too might meet him.

To date, the closest I have come to understanding myself is the following: I am a spiritual traveler, who has stopped to rest in the shade, with a few stories to tell, a few people to love and kiss, then, I must be on my way. On the other side, awaiting me is another adventure: with some old friends and some new ones as well.

. Lets consider an average American person (or western, if you like) who in his or her being feels very spiritual. In the process of discovering own human inner nature which is essentially spiritual - yet this person has a lot of wounds around conventional religion, has negative association with the very word and notion of 'God' as a result of misuse, abuse, mixing falsehood with truth, by the institutional religious organization and society - what and how would you offer advice to this person who is drawn to his or her original spiritual nature, buddha nature in far eastern term or 'fitrah' (basic natural disposition of spirituality instilled in all human heart) in Quranic term?

First, feeling spiritual is different than being spiritual. Feeling is an emotional state and spiritual experience is different than feelings. Often, emotions must be stilled for a time, so the spiritual essence may step forward.

Second, God/Light is different than religion and the actions of individual travelers; to understand who you are and the spiritual potential within, you must go beyond religion, country, family, expectation and individual desire; these are the sources of your wounds and hurt. Within, is your own individual, answer and healing to the question about the world’s injustice.

Remember, in this journey, we are both jailor and freedom; we have the potential to go beyond them.

Yes, it is true that religion has caused much harm and hurt; but it has also helped many along their journey. I too was injured, but it was precisely this hurt which pushed me to find my inner spiritual nature; was this pain then not useful in my journey?

O you who look for another way; don’t you see there is no other way?

. What is the concept and goal of enlightenment in sufi path or in a mystic school like one you were trained in?

Within our framework, enlightenment comes in small, gradual impacts, flashes of intuitive insight, spiritual states, and knowing. Simplistically, enlightenment is added spiritual capacity, which is natural, and useful in every day life. According to Idries Shah, if enlightenment were to come in a big burst it would be disruptive.

Within our training, we were taught how to turn every day activities, like driving to work, into spiritual practice. It was a matter of intention and focus; who were we doing these activities for?

Often, travelers think that enlightenment will free them from pains and sorrows of ordinary life. On this Path, spiritual responsibilities are in addition to those of every day life. Life is a multi-level experience and we are to experience it all.

. Looking at the contemporary world as it is, in its physical, emotional, political or cosmic makeup - what troubles you most?

What troubles me most, in this contemporary world, is that we do not seem to learn from the mistakes of the past. The problem of greed, self-interest, and travelers wishing to take from others, has been with us since the beginning.

History has shown that it is in everyone’s best interest, that our neighbor is fed, has medical services, and has the opportunity for education, work and a full life. If this is not so, then eventually, these people will rise-up guided by an opportunist leader to take what has been with held. Then, the cycle of injustice will start-up again.

The problems of the world are solved only by making better people; this is done one person at a time. Remember, if someone is hungry or sick, first you must help with their primary need, then, move onto other things like work, education, and proper shelter and, finally, a spirituality which transcends personal interest.

If you want to help make the world better, first, work on yourself. Use each moment to reach higher and help your neighbor. It’s pretty simple. You know, the Golden Rule. Help yourself and help your neighbor. Leave your camp site a little cleaner than when you found it. Give rather than take.

A better world starts with each of us; taking better care of our self, first, then, helping others, second. Why haven’t we learned this yet? That is the Sufi message: Treat others as equal to our self.

. Who is your most favorite personality and why?

My favorite personality or personalities are those travelers who emanate love. I have been most affected by those individuals who freely give to others, first, out of boundless love. Often, it was a simple act, making a sandwich because I was hungry or inquiring about my day and life. My mother was like this; so is my wife; my spiritual teacher; and countless others who I have been fortunate enough to meet. These are the people who have affected me, offering a hand when I have fallen and sharing my life.

. One of your earlier spiritual guide has left his body some significant amount of time back. Since then you have walked quite a lot and gathered all ranges of human experiences as we all do as long as we inhibit this body. If you were to meet your spiritual teacher again, today in a peaceful park what question (or questions) would your heart be moved to ask him?

If I were to meet my spiritual teacher, in a peaceful park, and we were to share a quiet moment together on a bench, it would not be to ask a question.

Slowly, a tear would fall from my eye, and I would thankfully whisper: “now, I understand.”


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