Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
Turning to Light, Not Chasing the Shadow
Based on an interview with Fleur Nassery Bonnin
Following on from our recent articles on Moulana Rumi and the transformative writings in his Masnavi, we were made aware that some of our readers were hungry for differing levels of approach to his work, for example how it applies to the practical aspects of the path, as well as the metaphysics of love that subsist in most of his writings. In view of that, we are pleased to present to you an article based on an interview with Sheikha Fleur Fatima Nassery Bonnin on the occasion of the 800 year anniversary of Rumi’s birth (1207-1273). UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) had chosen 2007 as the "International Year of Rumi” to commemorate his vast spiritual and cultural contributions because of the universality of his spiritual message.
As part of both Iran and Turkey's celebrations (the countries of Rumi's birth and death), Fleur was invited to give a talk on Rumi and his work in the conferences held in both countries, and this interview, on ABC Radio's Spirit of Things, occurred after her return to Australia that year.
Importantly the interview atmosphere gives us the chance to hear a Sufi Sheikh talk in a more simple way about aspects of the path and the use of Rumi's teachings in a way that formal writings on Sufism rarely do.
Interviewer: Thank you for being here Fleur Bonnin, and I think you're the only female Sheikha we've had on the Spirit of Things.
Fleur: Thank you very much, glad to be here.
Interviewer: Well, you've just been in Tehran and Tabriz presenting at conferences on Rumi, is there a great deal of interest in Rumi in Iran?
Fleur: Oh yes Moulana Rumi, Moulana means 'the knowledgeable one', and that's what became his nickname, is a part of Persian culture. So his sayings and his poems are on the lips of Persians all the time. You can't have a conversation without people resorting to some of his poetry to make their point.
Interviewer: Well, you're from Persia, how long did you live in Persia and when did you leave?
Fleur: I lived there until I was 18 and then I went to England and to the United States to study.
Interviewer: So you left prior to the Iranian Revolution?
Fleur: Yes I did.
Interviewer: Well, you're a psychologist and I suppose that's one of the ways in which you integrate other ideas and perspectives into Sufism.
Fleur: Yes it was psychology that brought me into Sufism. It's funny that I had to leave my family of origin which was so close to Sufism and Rumi, and I went and took on Western thinking through the observation of the self, and through psychology I kind of turned around and became aware of that which the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, 'He who knows his self knows his Lord', and that is what I am active in these days, Sufi psychology.
Interviewer: There's a wonderful quote on your website and I'll just quote from part of it, and this is from Rumi:
"I have thought that I was myself,
but I was entirely you and I didn't know it."
Interviewer: Well where is the self then in Rumi's psychology?
Fleur: In Rumi's psychology it is believed that there are two selves, the self that is the ego-self, it could be thought of as a narcissistic self, the self with which one is preoccupied, the self that one's day-to-day life depends on. Then there is a higher self and in Sufism one tries to connect and deal with that higher self. In Sufi psychology one goes through the transition from this lower self to the higher self.
Interviewer: So then the task is to discover the higher self?
Fleur: Correct, yes.
Interviewer: Fleur this is radical in the field of psychology to introduce the spiritual dimension, this other self, this Divine self.
Fleur: There are some psychologists who have done that for some time now, it's becoming more and more recognised that without the real knowledge of the Self and the obstacle of the ego-self one really cannot reach a point of contentment and peace within one's self.
Interviewer: When someone comes to you in your counselling rooms with a range of anxieties what does it indicate to you.
Fleur: Many things! The question is: What would I do with that? I keep them separate because if there is a person coming to see a psychologist and basically wants to deal with their personality issues, that's what I will do. If they want to go further and they are open to other possibilities and they want to develop different aspects of themselves then obviously I include Sufi psychology.
Interviewer: Let's presume that a patient comes to you who is interested in Sufi psychology. What is it that they have to overcome?
Fleur: The first step is for them to realise that their reality is not real and that is quite a big shock to people because their thinking is all that they have, but all the problems we have, are due to the thinking of this imagined self as well as the neediness of that self and one can never be at peace because all of that is at odds with the reality of oneself.
Interviewer: ….and I think you're talking about capital R reality?
Interviewer: So in coming to comprehend or embrace that other reality, actually how does one do it?
Fleur: Since we're talking about Rumi, let me use Rumi for that. The basic message of Moulana Rumi is exactly that. Which is, one has to first awaken to the unreality and the neediness of this self, which is the self that will never allow us to proceed on the spiritual path, it's the biggest obstacle to getting close to God and to getting any kind of peace within oneself, let alone any discovery of the higher dimensions. So all of that depends on getting rid of or subduing this obstacle of self. Now, it's not very easy for a person to do that, this is where the guidance of a Sheikh becomes fundamentally important. In 'dying before you die' which is the teaching of the Prophet of Islam, and which Moulana Rumi is very much into, unless you sacrifice the lower, unless you get annihilated in something bigger than yourself you cannot really move towards the Reality, otherwise the whole thing is basically an imagined exercise for yourself. He's got a story where he talks about how we chase the shadow of a bird.
The bird is flying on high, and its shadow falls below
speedily flying above the ground, birdlike
Masnavi I: 417
A foolish person becomes the hunter of that shadow
Chasing and running after the shadow to exhaustion.
Masnavi I: 418
Fleur: Which is really the situation of the human being in life, chasing the shadows while its reality is in higher dimensions.
Not knowing that it is the reflection of that bird in the air,
not knowing where is the origin of the shadow.
Masnavi I: 419
He shoots arrows at the shadow;
his quiver is emptied in this hunt
Masnavi I: 420
The quiver of his life became empty, his whole life passed
in running hotly in chase of the shadow.
Masnavi I: 421
If the shadow of God was his nurse,
it would deliver him from the unreal shadow.
Masnavi I: 422
Leave the shadow, go and find a sun
Get hold of the skirt of the king of suns Shams of Tabriz
Masnavi I: 424
Shams of Tabriz, he plays with the word 'shams', which means the sun, but shams is also referring to Shams of Tabriz, and Sheikh and it is also a reference to God.
Interviewer: And of course Shams of Tabriz was his mentor and his beloved friend.
Fleur: Correct! But in these few lines he is talking about how we are chasing a shadow which is not real. So Moulana Rumi says 'go and find this sun and hold onto its skirt because he is the only one who can deliver you out of this misconception of reality'.
Interviewer: I suppose it means for people today, for people to find a Sheikh like you to help them through this way of looking at the world, but clearly it does not require the ordinary person to reject the world does it?
Fleur: No, no it does not. And Moulana Rumi never did that himself either, he managed to do other things alongside his role as spiritual master. This is where he emphasises being reborn, and Christianity does that too; "Unless you are reborn you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven". Moulana Rumi also says the same thing, that only through annihilation of the self do your inner eyes open, and when your inner eyes open you see things that you never saw before, reality changes for you because you realise the difference between unreality and reality. But that requires this passage from your ordinary perception and ego-self and gradually moving into a reality which you cannot do on your own because so much of that pseudo self is using all of your apparatus and all your wisdom and your thinking so you need to actually give yourself up to someone else. And that's exactly what Shams of Tabriz did for Moulana, by asking him to do things that were unheard of, but Rumi willingly did that.
Interviewer: Fleur, today a lot of people turn to cognitive psychology, a very popular form of psychotherapy in which people are taught responses to situations that arise so that they can handle them better. Do you think that one can also learn from the Rumi corpus of writing to change one's responses to the world and situations that arise which cause anxiety? Is that how you use Rumi?
Fleur: No I don't think that's possible. What you're saying has got its own use in dealing with difficulties and situational problems that people do face. That's very different, that's adjustment so that you are able to continue doing what you were doing before you became dysfunctional, to use psychology's terminology.
Change through Rumi's teaching or any spiritual teaching for that matter is not possible unless you experience them and go through them. Talking about them is never going to solve it or get you closer. If anything it is detrimental because sometimes you think you have got it but it is not possible by just thinking and by believing and wanting that to happen. You really have to go through the stages of the change and experiences in spite of yourself.
He has a story of a man on his horse in the wilderness and he sees another man sleeping on the ground and a black snake goes into his mouth and inside him while he was sleeping. He gets him up with a whip and he is going around him whipping him and whipping him and the second man is crying out to leave him alone but the first man keeps running him around and around whipping him until the second man gets so exhausted that he gets sick and vomits and a snake comes out of his mouth, and it is at that moment that the second man realises how the first man has saved his life. And further, that had he not done all that harshness there was no way he would have been able to get this snake out. And as Rumi talks about that, he says this is your self! You can't get it out yourself, you need that kind of a power to get it out of you.
Interviewer: So what do you do when you are conveying Rumi's teaching? Is it inculcating the texts into your listeners so that they will grasp them?
Fleur: The text has to go hand-in-hand with the practical aspect of teaching. I can sit down here and tell you that you need to let go of your ego and you know that, but next minute when somebody criticises you, look at your reaction! But in the actual practical setup of teaching you get confronted and you get criticised and your teacher looks at the degree of your reaction and then gives you exercises, and watches you to see when you can actually get over that hurdle so that next time you don't defend yourself when something like that happens. You see this ego has to become less and less colourful and only then in each stage you become less attached and less run by those ego responses. Rumi always says unless this ego-self gets less and less in charge the other one will not come to the focus. I always say to my students that if you close your nose for few seconds, your mouth is bound to open in order to breathe but if you don't close it your mouth stays closed.
Interviewer: How difficult is it to become a Sheikha like yourself? Did you have a
Fleur: I did and I still do. In Sufism you can't guide people unless you have gone through all these experiences yourself and not everybody who goes through these experiences can get to the point that they get permission. One has to reach a level that it would become clear for the teacher that one is capable of guiding and teaching others and that's where the permission is given.
Interviewer: Fleur, in Rumi's poetry there are certain images and terms that are used many times. For example 'mirror' and 'light', what does light mean for Rumi?
Fleur: For Rumi everything is a reflection of the Divine and that means that reflection is the light, but what he writes about a lot is the sight, seeing and hearing, which is also a light and that light again needs to come through in a person so that they go from the seeing and hearing of the senses to the inner senses of inner seeing and inner hearing.
Interviewer: A lot of people reading Rumi understand his poetry is highly sensual, infused with the senses and yet you seem to be saying that there is a whole inner world that is beyond the senses.
Fleur: Yes, but remember that Rumi said; at the beginning of the Masnavi
Everyone became my companion through his own perception
none try to know my inner secrets and notion.
Masnavi I: 6
In this world where love is something that we immediately relate to, where we know love with our whole personality, it's very easy to obscure the depths of what Rumi is talking about. Because if one doesn't go through those stages and steps that he is talking about, it's very easy to think that you are relating to what Rumi says but the ego is still there and does not allow you, in fact encourages that imagination. So this is why he says immediately after;
My secret is not distant from my outcry,
but eyes and ears do not possess the light.
Masnavi I: 7
And that is really the core of the issue, the ears and eyes need to possess that light in order to get closer to the reality of what he is saying. He goes on saying;
The blinkers covering peoples eyes are nothing but the secondaries.
Masnavi VI: 2313
'The secondaries' means 'me', 'you' and 'everybody else', so if you don't go beyond that, you are not one of the companions. Really he is talking about going beyond but it depends on to what degree people can go beyond and how much that inner meaning is being picked up.
Interviewer: Fleur, was the ideal that Rumi had really for only an elect group of people? Those within his circle who could see this light? How legitimate is it for us to assume that today all sorts of people can see this light?
Fleur: it's a very interesting issue about today and his message because at the same time it's very deep. We are living at a time in the world when we are entrenched with ego activity all over the world. The human ego has never been so predominant, especially with regards to narcissism and power hunger and all sorts of other things, we are so far away from anything like reality and spiritual reality.
But at the same time this is happening, it creates a search for something more real and deeper, and this is why Rumi has become so popular, particularly in America of all places, a country divided by self righteousness and egotism. So this black-and-white thinking and this darkness is creating a light somewhere. Carl Jung used to say 'Wherever there is a light there is darkness', but now it is the opposite, there is darkness and it is creating a light! Because how far can you go into the darkness? You can hardly get any lower than where we are now, and we are allowing these things to happen. But at the same time I think light is being shown somewhere all over the world such that so many people are turning away and wanting something different and they are realising the darkness that we have been living in.
Interviewer: And yet I suppose Sufism isn't exactly mainstream Islam is it? Do you think that a lot of people in mainstream Islam, for example the major traditions will want to turn towards Sufism?
Fleur: Well I'm hoping that would be also another positive thing that is going to come out of that. Because fundamentalism has got a limit to go just like this activity has got so far to go and out of that comes a light again that one automatically, somehow, turns to.
Interviewer: Do we know where he was buried?
Fleur: Yes definitely in Konya.
Interviewer: And I suppose you were just there as well and you went to his grave?
Fleur: Yes I did.
Interviewer: And I guess that it is a major place of pilgrimage, Sufi pilgrimage?
Fleur: Rumi has a verse on his shrine, but I found another verse that he wrote while he was alive…
"Why is it that the resting place of my body has become the place of worship by people of the world?
Because day and night everywhere in this place is filled with His presence."
Divan-e Shams 465
Interviewer: Sheikha Fleur Fatima Nassery Bonnin this is a great place to end.
Fleur: Thank you very much