Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: Sufism for Western Seekers by Dr. Stewart Bitkoff

1.
The Book 

The Sufi work is foremost the quest for gnosis (ma'rifah) - the state of opening or illumination in union with God. Sufism undeniably exists as a living esoteric tradition of human transformation and as such is a valuable resource for the Western seeker. - The Sufi Conundrum, Jay Kinney


Sufism for Western Seekers: Path of the Spiritual Traveler in Everyday Life is Dr. Stewart Bitkoff's first hand account of spiritual learning in two modern Sufi mystical schools. The message is intended for western spiritual travelers and to help this transmission the author has successfully eliminated the labeling and semantics of words with which most people get caught up.

Years of study and walking in two modern day mystical schools operating in the West, has given the author Dr. Stewart Bitkoff valuable guidance to pass on his contribution to the present and next generations of seekers. This book Sufism for Western Seekers is a testimony to that transmission. The language is easy, written by the ink of one's direct experience with a self-effacing Spiritual Teacher. By God's permission, the Book will be beneficial for all seekers, whether from the East or West, whether following the Sufi Path or not. Truth manifests by Itself and sincere seekers shall recognize them in these pages. 

The valuable learning that Stewart presents through this book is a different genre among common Sufi literature because this learning is not filtered through the Religiously Islamic or any of the medieval sufi orders, but was designed to appeal to anyone, regardless of religious background. Additionally, this work examines spiritual learning across a lifetime, incorporating experiences of the two schools in which the author received guidance and training from. Examples are offered freely along its pages as how such learning can enrich and help ordinary people living in their daily, modern western life.

To present Sufism as an ancient mystical path that predates even any organized religion has its historical footings through a number of notable figures. Even Sufi Teachers such as Inayat Khan, Idries Shah were also from this school of thought. Aldous Huxley and others have referred to this path as the primordial tradition or perennial philosophy.

Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) was the best known teacher of Sufism in America and Europe in the 20th century. When Inayat Khan first brought Sufism in the West, as a wise teacher of this living tradition, he used the most universal of language to transmit the inner reality that is present in every single religion as the soul of that religion or tradition. He was deeply concerned that many of the western religious traditions had lost knowledge of the "science of soul", and the prayer and meditation techniques necessary to develop higher consciousness in mankind. He was also steeped in the Sufi notion that all religions have their value and place in human evolution. Similarly When Inayat began to teach and discuss his world view with different people who would ask what to call this mode of thought. For a long time, Inayat refused to give it a name fearing it would create barriers between people. He would say only it was ancient wisdom from the one and only source. He emphasized how none of the great spiritual teachers gave a name to their religious views. Finally, knowing that a body of thought needs some identifier to unify it, he told people it was Sufism.

Idries Shah (1924-1996) who was another teacher who opened the door of Sufism to the west through his writings also maintained Sufism as a universal form of wisdom that predated Islam. Emphasizing that Sufism was not static but always adapted itself to the current time, place and people, he framed his teaching in Western psychological terms. It is no wonder that Stewart's second and final training in mystical school happened through the very Society that Idries Shah founded in America and thus this work "Sufism for Western Seekers" is also written from this universal approach of the Path.


2.
The Writer

One moment's experience of the Truth is worth a thousand lifetimes of selfish prayer.
- Saying of Sam, Stewart Bitkoff's first Sufi Teacher


A little background about the Author of the Book, Dr. Stewart Bitkoff will help the readers appreciate the book even more deeply. Dr. Bitkoff is an avid student of Sufi Mysticism and the perennial philosophy. Professionally, specializing in the healing applications of therapeutic recreation, psychiatric rehabilitation and mental health treatment; he holds a doctorate in education and served on the faculties of six colleges and universities.

Stewart was raised Jewish in New York City and descendant of Rabbis. In his words, “To me, my early religious training was very confusing; very little of it made any sense and much of it was in Hebrew, a language I couldn’t understand…” Even though his grandparents were comfortable in the congregations, yet his own father was too buys to make a living and his mother was someone who loved to watch Billy Graham on tv.

His Jewish identity made him a victim of bullying in the streets of Manhattan, he would get into fights with other kids who pounded him and other boys with rocks as they would come out of their Hebrew school. Much of his early childhood memory carries this alienation with the very religion in which he found himself. He didn’t find much sense of life until his mid and early 20’s.

No one was there to tell him that there could possibly be a different dimension of inner experiences to the outer teaching, or religious forms. Eventually his sense of inner emptiness, restlessness and inward searching led him to participate in a modern Sufi school and the circumstances of it was the least that he expected.

Birth, collage by David Adams via flickr
3.
The Schools

If you take one step towards God, God will take ten steps towards you.
- Sacred Tradition


The first modern mystical school of Sam operated at the very work place, in a psychiatric hospital where his teacher Sam taught through conversation, sometime through prayer, meditation and companionship. Sam was a doctor in that very hospital where Stewart was working. One day Stewart was invited by a co-worker who happened to introduce him to Sam to have lunch together and that meeting eventually became his initiation to higher studies.

Sam’s Spiritual Path that he was teaching was “the golden path, the superhighway to God. It was the same path that had been passed down from the beginning and was the same path that Moses and Muhammad offered to humanity. This was the original religion, and mankind had distorted this religion into something else. It was the fastest, most efficient way for the traveler to reach the beloved. Sam claimed this method was perfected a millennia ago; there was no better system." According to the author, "the teaching is continually updated and presented in a form the traveler will understand. This is accomplished by the grace of the path and living teachers; no community is without them."

The number one thing that Stewart and others who became companion to Sam learnt was, "to love God, and that God was living, loving, vibrant and creative.. though direction perception, and the teacher's intervention by reflecting the Light upon our hearts, we experienced and became one with an entity or energy that seemed to be the very life source of the universe."

“Herein, is a presentation of this teaching that was offered to a group of western spiritual travelers; no one had to put on an exotic garb, follow a different religion or leave their work and family to drink of this wondrous element. It was offered within the content of everyday life; in a large city, at work in a psychiatric hospital, and during lunchtime … What was offered was an experience of a timeless, ancient teaching that was updated into modern language using question and answer. Yet beneath this verbal exchange was a palpable spiritual experience of energy, an essence that transcended the moment and connected us to universal consciousness.”

Eventually when time came the Master dissolved the school and sent the students to another School. This was with an instruction to write to the Society for Sufi Studies and await for instructions. After 6 month of waiting period, instructions came to read and totally familiarize the books written by Idries Shah and the task took about 10 years for Stewart to internalize the message and it was a complete process, even though from outside it may not look like so. "Now a days, with the Internet and so many schools and colleges offering long distance degrees, the concept of learning at a distance is more familiar. However, consider a spiritual school that at a distance is able to assist learners all across the world by offering a body of written material and monitoring outcomes; sending energy to its learners while they are sleeping; and help provided for the traveler during their daily life, all the practical experience necessary." Stewart offers hints, "If the traveler would like more information about this tradition of hidden guidance, see, Ernest Scott's, People of the Secret, Octagon Press, London, 1983."

Nkimadams photo stream via flickr
4.
The Masters

The great sufi sage, Bayazid was asked, what would be the most important indication of a master who knew the secrets of the Sufi Way. He answered, "When he eats and drinks, buys and sells, and makes jokes with you, he whose heart is in the sacred domain, this is the greatest sign of his being a Master." - from Risalat i Malamatiyya


Stewart's first Teacher is a remarkable man who chooses to remain anonymous. He is introduced in the book as Sam (reminds us of Shams, Spiritual Guide of Rumi, doesnt he?), may God continue to bless him and his work. Stewart's training under him lasted for approximately four years during the early 1970s in a state funded psychiatric hospital. Sam was originally from Pakistan and his own father was also a Sufi. He had a very different approach of transmission free from any labels and appropriate for the kind of people he attracted. Sam's spiritual teacher was al-Julabi al-Huwiri, an eleventh century servant of God who's final resting place is in Lahore. Once after prayer and meditation at al-Hujwiri's tomb, which is a famous shrine, Sam was given the authority from the inner plane to teach.

This phenomena, even though rare, but exists in Sufi tradition which is known as Way of Uwaiys or Uwaiysi (also written as Ovaisi, Owaisi etc.). The history of the Uwaiysi Path goes back to the legendary figure, Uwaiys-i-Gharan (also written as Uwais Qarni), who lived during the time of the Prophet Mohammed (swa). Uwaiys did not see the prophet but nonetheless became one of his outstanding followers and students. His love for the Prophet was paralleled  and ecstatic. When Prophet died, he asked his close companions to give his mantle to Uwaiys, since through his inner vision he knew well of his sincere love towards him. Uwaiys' way of understanding - receiving inspiration and teaching from a physically absent teacher - became a way known as Uwaiysi Mashrab, the way of Uwaiys.

According to historians, no one knows how the Uwaiysi path developed. It is not clear how an order developed through Uwaiys, as he was in the state of ecstasy and annihilated in the Divine. History relates that Uwaiysi Sufis did not establish a regular sufi order, in the traditional sense, since their affiliation with the teacher is not through the usual transmission of a chain. It is based on the guidance from the invisible teacher rather than a physical human teacher. So according to Stewart's teacher Sam's own account, his authorization from eleventh century mystic al-Hujwiri is an Uwaiysi transmission, a hidden guidance. Hazrat al-Julabi al-Hujwiri, considered as one of the greatest of Sufi saints, is known to have written the oldest Persian treatise on Sufism, his appointed task was to take Sufi Message to Indian Subcontinent and his titles were, The Selected among the Sufis and the Munificent One among the people of India.

Receiving transmission from such a powerful master (and from others), Sam himself was also bestowed with special blessings, few of which are mentioned in the book which in ordinary world we can only call as Miracles. For the Sufi Masters, this is known as Karamat when grace of God comes uninterrupted through the Master that defies ordinary laws. Stewart himself was recipient and witness of such incidents in the company of Sam which are mentioned in the Book.

About his teacher, Stewart mentions, “In the mystical school, Sam never told us to follow this creed or that religion. What he said was that if you followed the Path and were a servant of God, you would become a better Christian, Muslim or Jew. The religion of your birth was more or less an accident, and as you progressed along the path, you would embrace your own religion that much more. It wasn’t until I had been studying with Sam for 3 years or so that I learned he was a Muslim. A friend told me this and we began to read the Koran. Sam never instructed us to do this. It just happened; and I became familiar with the Koran and other books of the great religions, I came to see that they are all joined in the Light of Truth.”

To summarize Sam's spiritual path, Stewart writes, "The religion Sam followed was a simple one. It was love of God and service to humanity. The point of religion was to make a more complete traveler who would be of better service to others. Sam stated that his business was not making converts and handling out mystical states, but of making better travelers who loved God. This religion had always existed and would always exist. It was the inner path of all the religions and he was just a servant doing his job."

Sam chooses to remain anonymous.

Sam himself instructed his pupil to move onto the next teacher and this was again based on Uwaiysi model of receiving guidance from behind the veils and without physical contact. This time it was the Society for Sufi Studies and the teacher was none other than Idries Shah.

Some consider Idries Shah as Sufi Teacher of the Age (Qutub al Zaman, Pole of the Time, literally), a very significant designation which traditionally is very rarely used and indicates a supremely gifted and rare individual. Shah's body of work for the spiritual traveler supersedes all previous written Sufi Material made available to the West. His job, in part, was to offer Sufi Knowledge through his writings to the West. Idries Shah returned to his Lord in 1996 and was living in London. His work and the Society he founded still continues the transmission.

Making the Scrolls of My Life, Collage by David Adams
5.
More on the Book

Sufism for Western Seekers is not a historical or theological work about Sufism written for the academic market. Instead, this book is recommended for anyone seeking an easily relatable introduction to mystical thought and spiritual self-help practices from someone who has spent his life on a spiritual journey. The lessons and activities presented will challenge your perspective of reality and inspire you to improve yourself and to help others. - C. William Gee

"Written for the beginner as well as the intermediate traveler, Sufism for Western Seekers helps equip its reader with the necessary psycho-spiritual exercises and tools required to awaken dormant human faculties. The book also acts as map and guide helping to transition the contemporary traveler from the realm of seeking, into the realm of perception and finding." - Adeel Merali from Quebec, Canada

"Beyond religion, beyond individual creed and spiritual form, there is a knowing that arises from the heart." - Stewart Bitkoff

About Sufism a famous saying goes, “Long before there was a name (Sufism), there was a reality. Now there is a name without a reality.” Stewart Bitkoff’s Sufism aim to address that reality, that original spiritual consciousness beyond any religious identity or label attached to it.

“Whether we realize it or not, all of lives are spent on a spiritual journey; indeed, every one of us is a spiritual traveler.. there is much learning and enlightenment to be found in what would otherwise be considered mundane or ordinary. Enlightenment can be achieved in daily life, doing just about anything; and both sets of consciousness, the everyday and the spiritual, operate simultaneously.”

In the Book Sufism for Western Seekers, the Author celebrates the fact that our day to day experience and any set of circumstances in daily life always offer spiritual training and opportunity for refinement of the being. He is set out to answer this question how spiritual trainings that is offered through Sufi Teachings can be applied in daily life, in ordinary life.

The position that Stewart adopt in the book is that Spiritual Science is the birthright of humanity. His intention was to add a new voice to the mix, a fresh perspective from someone who was raised and trained in Western Society and was placed in the unique position of receiving the Sufi training within Western context, which he shared through this work.

The book goes in the format of conversation between Master and his pupil even though this occur between different station of the mind as voice of competing streams. “… the basic format of this presentation is a stream of consciousness discussion between aspects of awareness.” One part is the everyday consciousness which is used to operate in the physical world and the other part representing higher consciousness such as intuition and spiritual capacity.

The book also provide daily activities or practices throughout it’s many chapters that could come helpful as a general guidance to adopt as regular spiritual exercise. In the conversations important questions which seekers may ask are confronted and answered using many real life examples and illustrations.

For those who will struggle to look for a form or label, it suffices to say that the essence of the Path that Stewart through his Teachers Sam and Idries Shah transmits can be named as the Path of submission to God. This remains as the golden path, the superhighway to God. "This path is the religion before there was religion."

The central prayer that was passed on to Stewart by his teacher Sam is the prayer of submission which is:

O Lord, I surrender myself to you.
I open myself to Your Will.
Guide me through my life, and guide me through this day.
Help make me into a better person who helps self and others.

The author's intention behind this book is summarized as, "What we are trying to do, through this written structure, is to create a measure of interest that will push travelers to seek their own answers. Hopefully, these words will reach the traveler’s heart, stir the inner flame, and push the traveler to test out what we are saying.

From a Sufi perspective all that is required is for the traveler to love God (Light) with all their heart and soul; and to seek to make their life an extension of the Divine Will. For when one is truly in love, all the traveler thinks about and everything they do is for their beloved. This is enough to complete the journey."

Antique Questions
His advice for the Spiritual Traveler is outlined as:

  Loving God
  Being citizen of the universe
  Aligning with the highest
  Loving one another
  Living fully
  Seeking excellence
  Being yourself
  Helping others
  Doing good deeds
  Practicing Gratitude
  Praying
  Traveling beyond teachings

The book ends with few appendices and one of which is the interview published @ Technology of the Heart (then called Inspirations and Creative Thoughts) with Stewart Bitkoff in two posts. You may read these two interviews to get a taste of the author’s perspective: On Mysticism and Mystery School and  On Traveling the Sufi Path


6.
In the Spirit of Helping Others | Joining with the Sacred Activism @ Technology of the Heart

Dr. Stewart Bitkoff's teaching is all about incorporating spiritual awareness to daily living and part of which is to help others as we continue to journey in our life.

Stewart has very graciously agreed to contribute sales from the book, “Sufism for Western Seekers” to Porshee Foundation, the Sacred Activism wing of Technology of the Heart, to help the poor and needy. We are very grateful to him for this.

I hope you will join the cause by getting a copy of this book for yourself or by give someone you love as a gift.

To order a copy of the book, please go to CreateSpace: https://www.createspace.com/3714317 and use ordering code: TKY8YVMZ to receive a special discount on the list price.
 
All proceedings from this goes to Porshee Foundation and you might well be joining in the blessing of feeding the hungry, distributing warm clothing to poor and putting tube-well to people who have no access of running and safe drinking water.

Currently Dr. Bitkoff lives on the East Coast of United States with his family. He is also the author of A Commuter’s Guide to Enlightenment (Llewellyn Worldwide, Inc.) and Journey of Light: Trilogy (Goldenpath). He is a frequent contributor to "Sufism: An Inquiry" and "Sacred Journey Magazine"; also a day/monthly writer for multiple online venues: Philadelphia Spirituality Examiner, Wisdom Magazine, New Age Journal, Ezinearticles.com, Witchvox.com, Mystic Living Today, and 2 spiritual blogs (caravanofdreams and mysticsaint). He teaches at Shooting for the Moon Spiritual Development Center, Snydersville, PA and can be reached at: drbitkoff@yahoo.com.

Official Website: StewartBikoff.com

Sufism For Western Readers
2011, Published by Abandoned Ladder
Page: 192
ISBN-10: 0615562809
ISBN-13: 978-0615562803


# Other Reviews:
* Customer Reviews of Sufism for Western Seekers
* Review via Gangleri
* Kindle Edition of the Sufism for Western Seekers


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