One of the first responses I received to my recently published book, Darkening of the Light: Witnessing the End of an Era, was that it was “a tough read,” and “I wish he would have been clearer as to what steps we can do in our complex lives to try the best we can to return the soul of the world to its former strength and beauty.” Normally I am reluctant to tell people what to do, as we each have our own inner wisdom, our own guidance and way to reconnect with the soul of the world. But this request struck a chord and in a moment of inspiration I came up with a “Four-Point Plan” to respond to this darkening.
The subtitle of the book, Witnessing the End of an Era, is really the first of the four points: Witnessing—an awareness of what is happening in the inner and outer worlds. It means a state of awareness that sees without judgment, without expectation, without wanting anything, and in particular without wanting anything to change.
This is a very, very important esoteric spiritual practice—to witness, to watch. In Sufism the witness is called shahid. Part of our spiritual practice is just to watch—to witness. Initially you watch your self, you become aware of your self just through witnessing. You watch your reactions; you watch the patterns you live by. You don’t try to change them, because only too often when you try to change patterns you use the same attitude of consciousness that created them—then you just create a variation rather than any real change. It is actually a very important step “on the spiritual path not to want anything, not to try to change, but just to be aware. This gradually creates a quality of consciousness, or awareness, separate from the ego and its patterns, desires and fears—and is the beginning of bringing the consciousness of the Self into your life.
The work of witnessing that we practice on an individual level can also happen on a global level. Sufis have been called “a brotherhood of migrants who keep watch on the world and for the world.” We watch what is happening in the inner and outer worlds. The outer world is of course more visible, more directly perceived. But as mystics and spiritual practitioners we also have access to the inner worlds, the world of our individual soul and the world soul, the anima mundi. For example, through meditation you can begin to be aware of how the light within you changes, when you have access to more light, greater inner clarity. You may also become aware of how certain outer actions or inner attitudes effect your inner light, or how your generosity or loving kindness changes, grows or lessens depending on your behavior—what Sufis call your adab. Just as you can be aware of these changes within your self, so you can become aware of changes within the Greater Self—your soul and the world soul.
We watch our self and we watch the world. Nothing is separate, everything is interconnected. And in today’s world it is much easier to keep an awareness of what is happening in the world. For many years I have begun each day with a practice of inner and outer awareness. I like to get up early, and I begin with a cup of tea, followed by meditation, followed by prayer. In my morning meditation I create a receptive space and inwardly ask if there is anything I need to see or be aware of during the day—I am inwardly attentive. Then, after praying for others, I listen to the news on the radio or read the news on the Internet to see what is happening in the world. So I begin my day attuned to the world. This was something my teacher Irina Tweedie taught us—she was often awake in the night and would listen to the BBC World Service on the radio, and she said it was like seeing a game of chess, an invisible hand moving pieces around the board of the world. In this way we can see things happening in the world not from any judgmental point of view but just from an awareness—a witnessing.
Then, as the first light comes, I go for a walk. I am fortunate to live in nature, and my walk beside the wetlands with the changing tides is a way to consciously connect to the natural world—to begin the day aware of its beauty, its rhythms and quality of presence. Through these simple practices I start the day with an attitude of witnessing, a communion with the world which is also an inner prayer. I am aware of the interconnected world of which I am a part, and I bring my consciousness into this inner and outer web of life.
We are part of this living world. Thich Nhat Hanh says very clearly: “We will survive and thrive together with our Mother Earth or we will not survive at all.” Part of our next step in evolution is an awareness of this living unity, this oneness which is life itself. We are now a global community, and I think as responsible global citizens we need to be aware of what is happening in the world, whether it is the oil spills in Nigeria or the nuclear disaster that is still unfolding in Japan. Nothing is somewhere else, everything is in our backyard, and we need to hold an awareness of what is happening—like a light shining in the darkness.
Although as a culture we only value action—doing—there is a power in witnessing that can stop something getting worse in a particular way, the light of consciousness can hold back the darkness. While there is an outer awareness of our ecological devastation there is little awareness of what is happening in the inner worlds, which is part of the reason I wrote Darkening of the Light. And during the last five or six years I was made to witness this tragedy unfolding in the inner worlds, what I have called the loss of the light of the sacred. I saw what was being lost and it was so painful for me that I would block it out, sometimes for months at a time. I did not want to see, but something made me witness the inner effect of our outer actions—how the outer ecological crisis is reflected by an inner crisis that is even more tragic because it is unreported, unacknowledged, hardly witnessed. The darkness of our culture of greed and global exploitation, of forgetfulness of the sacred, is covering the light of the inner world, of the world soul.
Witnessing is more important than we realize. There is a mystical tradition that we are the eyes and ears of God in this world. Ibn Arabi says “the mystic is the pupil in the eye of humanity” because the mystic sees with the single eye of truth.
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Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D.