Llewellyn Vaughan – Lee is a Sufi teacher who has had mystical experiences since his teenage years. As a Sufi, he focuses on connecting to God through the yearnings of the heart, which when realized turn everything on its head. I was particularly taken by a teaching video on love in which he eloquently – even rapturously – explores his own experiences in the context of the Sufi understanding of love.
I have created a hypothetical conversation between myself and Llewellyn based on the transcript from the talk.
A Conversation with Lewellyn
Marty: Lewellyn, I’m particularly excited to hear from you about the topic of love because even a cursory glance at modern civilization suggests that for all of our greed, materialism, and superficiality, many people still perceive love as the pre-eminent quality of a life well-lived. Why is love still the “Pearl of Great Price?”
Llewellyn: “Sufis say that if you have five dollars in your pocket and that’s all you have that is really important to you…but if somebody puts five million dollars in your other pocket, somehow the five dollars don’t matter so much, and this is what happens with love. You get loved in a way that is limitless because love’s nature is limitless. The very nature of love is limitless. You can’t buy it you can’t sell it but you can be given it.”
M: Where can we find this infinite love?
L: “We all look for love, but it is everywhere. Once you learn to see love…everything is made of love. This chair is made of love, this table is made of love. I think love is like the space between the atoms. Love is also what the mystic sees; it is what makes the atoms turn. They turn on an axis of love….Otherwise [they] wouldn’t really exist. Everything comes into existence through love; the foundation of life is love, but as a Sufi you learn to work with it, you learn to make it conscious, you learn to breathe with this love.”
M: This reminds me of a favorite line from fellow Sufi Kabir Helminiski, “We are knee-deep in a river searching for water.” All the inner traditions say it’s here, if we only we have eyes to see. So who can receive such wisdom, Llewellyn?
L: “I have met people who seem to be wrecks and have nothing – neither elegance nor beauty nor attractive intelligence, and yet the pearl sat in the palm of their hands….The passionate and all-consuming love of God is the immortal element within us, and with courage and skill we can find the pearl. Without it we may find and own everything else, but what are other jewels [compared] to the pearl of all worlds and heavens?….Love is the greatest secret of the universe, and yet it is the simplest thing that exists and one needs to be able both to love and to be loved. This is the core of Sufism.”
M: Tell us about your background, Llewellyn. Did you learn these things first from your family?
L: “I had an interesting English upbringing in which I never knew about love….The family I grew up in – love was never mentioned, and I don’t think it was very present either. There was material security, but there wasn’t love. I can’t remember, looking back in my childhood, love ever being mentioned. I was sent off to boarding school at the age of seven and there wasn’t any love. There was lots of football and cricket but not much love.”
M: So how did you go from a life devoid of love to one being devoted to it?
L: “It wasn’t really till I was 19 and I met this Russian lady [Irina Tweedie] with these piercing blue eyes that I began to become introduced to love. So in a way the love that I was introduced to was this other form of love, and the love in fact that Mrs. Tweedy had for her sheikh, this mysterious relationship of teacher and disciple that was both incredibly impersonal and incredibly absorbing, and it was a love that was beyond life and death. It belonged to the soul; it was much deeper than any other aspect of love.”
M: You have also had your own experiences of love in meditation, too, right?
L: “It wasn’t until I was – must have been 29 – and I remember the afternoon I was lying down in meditation in my teacher’s meditation room, and suddenly there were these butterfly wings on the edge of my heart…then slowly this love was infused into my body, into my being, first through the heart, and then it went into every cell of my body, and it was pure love. There was nobody there. There was no person. It was just love. It was just this essential quality of life that went from my heart through all of me it like it went through the veins of my body, of my being, and I actually felt it in every cell of my body. This love that was nourishing me… feeding me and this is this quality of love, this energy of love, that is….incredibly powerful.”
M: It’s all so alluring, yet so mysterious, too. You know there is always a debate in the traditions whether this Source is personal or impersonal. What was your experience?
L: “What I want to do is… take it out of this personal sphere into which we have trapped love. We have personalized it so it’s lost its power. We have done that of course with many many spiritual energies in the West. I was even thinking recently how we’ve actually done that with the gods and goddesses. We have made them into our own personal images, our own even psychological icons and stripped them of their power. So that we can have a personal relationship with them, we’ve lost their numinous energy, their authority, their power and in a way in Sufism one has to reclaim this primal energy of love because that is what you work with, that is what nourishes you, that’s what feeds your soul.”
M: Sounds incredible. Do your experiences simply continue to grow over time?
L: “You can go deeper and deeper and deeper into what the Sufis called non-being, into the what is behind creation – into this dazzling darkness. And you can go deeper and deeper and deeper and what I discovered…is a place where out of the nothingness, out of the emptiness, love comes into existence – like there is a doorway or there is like a stream coming out of the ground, out of this primal emptiness that is behind creation.”
M: Yes, I’m certainly familiar in my Christian tradition with “kenosis” or “self-emptying,” and in the Buddhist tradition there is “sunyata,” which also means “emptiness.” Both East and West, then, see ultimate value in letting go into what appears to be “nothing,” what is sometimes called the Void. This is such a hard paradox to comprehend, and perhaps even harder to trust. But it sounds like it was your experience. Tell me more.
L: “Out of this vast unknown unknowable, there is a place where love comes into creation, where this energy of love begins to flow and it is an energy, it is a power, it is a really a source of life. And there is no person, there is no there, not even the drama of lover and beloved. That is so central to Sufis. It is really out of the darkness that comes this energy and actually at the beginning when you first experience it, it is dark, it is black, it is the same color as the nothingness out of which it comes. And then it comes into creation and there is this extraordinary moment like happens to light because light, spiritual light, is very pure. It has no color, which is why the Sufis talk about the color of God being like the color of water or the color of love being like the color of water. It has no color of its own. It is so pure, it is so fine, and then it hits the planes of creation and then becomes this rainbow colors of love.”
M: Out of darkness comes the rainbow of God and love…this is extraordinary! I realize that you speak in such rich metaphors that are so far beyond any kind of literal understanding. What other symbols of infinite love come from your tradition!
L: “The Sufi is just somebody who wants to discover, who wants to drink the water all around them, and maybe one day to make this journey to the far shores of love, to go into the ocean of love and to see what happens on the other side of love.”
M: The water imagery is very interesting to me. About two weeks ago while half-asleep I had this sense of being a river and wanting to surrender to the ocean of love. But I decided not to slide into the ocean. What happens when you do surrender and become the ocean?’
L: “Something extraordinary is born. That is where stars come into existence, that’s where universes are born in the melting pot of love and you can go there, or you can be taken there…that is the part of the secret of love beyond the ocean of love.”
M: Love creates new things in the universe. Certainly human love-making is an extraordinary micro-example of this cosmic principle. Maybe love is also what we need to deal with with respect to the environmental crisis, an area of great interest of yours. We certainly need to create new attitudes and new approaches with regard to our planet. On your website you quote Buddhist monk Thich Not Hanh who says, “Real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.”
L: “Where love comes into existence a certain change is taking place [regarding the environment]…It is a crisis, but the world has been through many crises, but when the very note of love as it comes into creation [things] starts to change. Something is happening in the very substance of creation, something is waking up in the very core of creation because something is being put into the love as it comes into the world that wasn’t there before.”
M: Let me ask you about the nature of love in terms of cosmology. The current worldview in which we live assumes that matter is dead and unconscious. Yet all the traditions view nature as alive or “vital,” containing prana or chi or other forms of spiritual animation within it. What do you believe?
L: “It’s this energy that comes out of the uncreated world. It is this dark power, very mysterious, that is at the foundation of creation and then it comes into creation where it becomes all these many many colors and qualities. And that to me is an affirmation of human love and it’s very tangible qualities. In a way as a mystic you learn to live both with the intangible and the human because this power of love, this passion of love – that is what takes you on the journey – is both an incredibly fine spiritual substance but it also goes into every cell of your body.”
M: Let’s talk about the character of love as it enters a human soul. We commonly see people who are “in love” who seem like their lives have been temporarily altered. Then there are the mystics across all the traditions who seem to have regular experiences with divine love. I know you have said in your own life you went kind of AWOL as a very young man when you first encountered these invisible dimensions. You stopped eating and sleeping, and only gradually over 9 months were you able to begin to live again in the “normal” world. The “other world” was so awe-inspiring and alluring that you had a hard time grounding yourself. It seems you have “lived in love” for months at a time. Tell us what you learned.
L: “Sufism is about being immersed in love, it is like being drowned in love. These are the metaphors, these are the images that Sufis used to describe this experience. You are drowned in love, you are lost in love, you are merged in love….Love is the essence of my being. Love is fire and I am wood burnt by the flame. Love has moved in and adorned the house….You see me, but I no longer exist. What remains is the beloved.”
M: What you are describing seems so much greater than human love.
L: “It goes through all of you and what always intrigues me is in personal relationships, which is where we have been taught to look for love. We have really been educated in this culture that that is where you get love. You should have got it from your parents, and if you didn’t get it from your parents, you must look for it in the relationship with another and in your partner, your parent substitute, or maybe even in your child. We are educated that’s where you find love, and yet in this personal love there are all the barriers…to protect ourselves so we don’t get violated, so we don’t get hurt, so we claim our own identity and these are all important psychological tools that we learn to keep ourselves separate to protect ourselves. Yet with this other love when I was lying in meditation and I felt this love inside of me, there was no person, so there was no drama of protection. I had no barriers because it came from the inside of my heart, it came from within. It melted me from within and that is why it is so potent and so powerful.”
M: You are describing metaphorically the death of the ego in these fabulous terms of love. But this still must be a death, which is painful, right?
L: “The love that the Sufis work with, that’s the love that you have to be able to bear, that is the love that is about annihilation, this incredibly painful and sweet and bitter pill. That is what makes you a lover of God…and you can learn to love God…This was actually one of the first real experiences I had of love, of what I would call real love, and it’s so dangerous and that is why the Sufi says keep away from the lane of love because everything else you can protect yourself against, and we are very good at it. We’ve been educated to protect ourselves, we’ve been educated to isolate ourselves, but the Sufi actually says take one sip of this wine of divine love and you are lost forever because it is so potent. It doesn’t come through the places in ourselves where we have this resistance. It goes from the inside of our heart. That’s where it starts and we have no resistance there and that it is why it is so dangerous and so powerful.”
M: One of my teacher Cynthia’s favorite lines is a quote from William Blake, “And we are put on this earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” Or as St. Paul says, “Love bears all things.” I’m a little nervous to ask about this, but tell me more about the necessity – to use a Sufi phrase – “to die before you die.”
L: “As a Sufi one has to be able to bear that element of love, that dynamic of love, that power of love, that passion of love – because this is what in a way tears your heart apart and takes you back to God. This is what you work with and you have both to bear it to have a heart strong enough. You even actually need to have a physical heart that is strong enough to bear love, but also a spiritual heart that is strong enough to bear this love. To be prepared to work with it, to be prepared to be engaged with love, to be prepared to be loved by our beloved, [we have] to be taken apart and remade with love so first…you can put aside all the images you have of love. It is the terrible beauty of love because it cuts through everything – every resistance, every pattern, every identity. It doesn’t care. It just wants to immerse you in love. It just wants this love to flow through your veins to awaken your mind so you remember that you are loved, so you remember that you belong to love, you remember your divine heritage.”
M: But this is so counter-cultural. Actually, it sounds like some kind of fantasy to hear you speak. This kind of love turn the world’s values on its head.
L: “It makes no sense at all of the values of our culture because even in our human relationships we have been taught to parcel out love. You know you give a little bit of love and you hope to get some love back. It’s why actually a friend of mine…she said one of the greatest preparations for her for spiritual life was working with autistic children because she said with autistic children, however much you love them, you’ve got nothing in return. So it broke through the barriers of which we have conditioned ourselves, which is you give love and you expect love in return. And love for God doesn’t work like that. Sometimes you are loved so much, and you know you are completely worthless, you have done nothing to deserve it; you are not worthy to be loved and sometimes you love and you love and you love and it seems you get nothing back.”
M: Well, this seems like such an important issue. You seem to be saying we need to love recklessly, to give ourselves away without hope of it being returned. For a lot of us, that’s a frightening prospect.
L: “What matters is not having love but wanting love…Don’t look for water. Be thirsty! If the magnet were not loving, how could it attract the iron with such longing….We are the iron filings attracted by this magnet of love. Once it has been woken up, once your heart has been touched by this substance of love, it’s very very dangerous. People don’t realize how dangerous love is because you can have no defenses against love.”
M: You are not pacifying my fear, but confirming it!
L: “Everything else you can defend yourself but you won’t with love. Everybody is hungry for love. Find me somebody who doesn’t want to be loved…yes it’s psychologically disastrous. It creates all sorts of projections and they don’t matter because all that matters to you is the love to be loved like that…where you want nothing for yourself….It is very very very powerful. Again, we have forgotten the power of love. Love can change everything; it is the substance of life.”
M: Can you say more about the pain of love, Llewellyn?
L: “To be able to bear this terrible terrible love….We can suffer psychologically, we can suffer physically, and many people do, but if you suffer with your heart that is a different category of pain altogether. I don’t want to talk too much about it today because the sun is shining and the Bay is beautiful and it’s a nice afternoon…[but] this other quality of love…is like a knife. It goes straight into your heart and then it twists inside of your heart. So if it’s called a longing, it’s a nice word; if you really experience that knife inside of your heart, I don’t think there is any…pain that is more potent because just as you have no resistance to the sweetness of love, you have no barriers to this real pain of love and that’s what puts many people off.”
M: Well, you’re changing my image of what it’s like to be a Sufi! I had always kind of wanted to dabble in your practices, but now I’m re-thinking.
L: “They begin, ‘Wouldn’t it might be nice to be a Sufi,’ and do some dancing or do some chanting or hang around with some Sufis. You know it sounds nice and you can read this poetry and I remember somebody, they’ve been coming to our group for about eight years and they said to me, ‘I didn’t realize it actually happens to you.’ You know they read about it in in the books, in the poems, but then something started to pierce their heart, to go right to the core of their heart, because it opens you up through pain, through the sweet pain this poisonous pain of love. Love is a madman working his wild schemes, tearing off his clothes running through the mountains, drinking poison, and now quietly choosing annihilation. These are beautiful poems, it sounds so nice you know, but at 2:00 AM in the morning when your heart is breaking and that 2:00 in the morning goes on day after day, week after week, month after month, and nobody knows about it. It’s a secret of love, you cry, yes 2:00 in the morning, you cry and you cry and you cry and but nobody knows about it.”
M: Again, we say people seem like they can be superficially “crazy in love,” but you seem to be suggesting that this is part and parcel of the Sufi tradition. Is that right?
L: “We all want it, but if we get given it in its purest substance – like hundred percent proof alcohol – it makes your mind crazy. It really is why Sufis have been called drunkards and fools and idiots of God, and that is what you need to be able to bear [it], you need to be able to bear being turned upside down by love when all your values – everything you think is important – and then you get loved and then you will give up everything just for another sip of love, you will sit at the feet of your teacher just waiting to be loved.”
M: I think of our culture how we throw around love so cheaply, but you are talking about something very different – the potency and as well as the pain of love. And that this is not just an emotion, but the very stuff of reality, of the universe. Your descriptions are really beyond imagination!
L: “[Love] is the very first energy that comes into creation. It is actually the underpinnings of everything, it is it is the foundation of everything. Again that has all been censored from our culture….It is like to too deep, too essential to be spoken about in the casual way that we in the West talk about love…very censored, very personalized understanding of love. We have kind of a hole marked love. It has become this Hollywood phenomena. As a mystic one needs to reclaim or re-understand or re-tune one self to a very different love.
I met somebody number of years ago and it was actually the first time I went to Omega [retreat center] and I met her on a table sitting outside eating and she said, “What are you doing here?” I said I’m giving a seminar and she said seminar on what and I said Sufism and she said “Sufism, oh, that’s about the darkness of love.” And I was kind of really impressed that this person knew about the darkness of love because…in many ways it’s a mystical secret. It is very very different to the love that is popularized in the West, the love that everybody seems to clamor for, to cling for, to get themselves into knots about.”
M: No wonder this is the road less traveled. Certainly this gives me a new consideration of the joy and pain of Jesus, who we often associate more with divine love than perhaps anyone on the planet. He must have understood the dark side of love.
L: “What is this passion of the soul? What is this medicine for madmen? It’s called love and it suits some people. It’s a little bit too crazy for [others]; they like a sensible path with stages and where they can progress. You can’t progress in love, you don’t get diplomas in love.”
M: What I’m struck by is that across the traditions the problem is always the analytical mind – which wants “progress” and “certification” – that is associated with the ego. The barrier to this heart love is the mind, which just happens to be the chief characteristic of the self in the modern era!
L: “It bypasses the mind….[but] it is incredibly addictive because it is so pure….That is why it can be so confusing.”
M: But how can we survive in the modern world if we bypass the mind? I’m not sure that’s really possible.
L: “It is interesting to see actually how it gets played out in the human arena because when you fall in love, which is an important human experience for many people, you can become a little bit forgetful. You maybe forget your appointments, your mind doesn’t work as well as it was before….It is actually one of the qualities of love [that] it disturbs the mind. [One of] the great Sufis said when love comes reason disappears. Reason cannot live with the folly of love because it is this other substance that just goes into the heart and it bypasses the mind. It makes you a little bit crazy, it makes you drunk sometimes you can be literally drunk on spiritual love. Most of us have had the experience of being drunk on alcohol; it’s kind of an initiation of youth in our culture, but you can be drunk on love and really you can be even unsteady on your feet sometimes, and you just go around in a haze. You’re completely drunk on love and that is why Sufis are called drunkards, so physical fools. That is why Sufis talk about the “tavern of ruin” – this tavern, this place of drunkards that destroys you, that ruins your reputation…I [become] a drunkard, a lovesick fool, a slave of my senses made senseless by desire.”
M: Being drunk for God is such a foreign concept. What’s the ultimate goal of being “drunk on God?”
L: “It is so intoxicating, it is so sweet, it is so dangerous….Almighty God has a wine for his friends such that when they drink of it they become intoxicated and once they are intoxicated they become merry and once they are merry they become purged and once they are purged they become melted down and once they are melted down they become purified and once they become purified they arrive and once they arrive they become united with the divine and once they are united with the divine there is no distinction between them and their beloved and it’s all done through love. It just happens through life, through this sweet intoxicating divine poison that goes straight to your heart and from your heart spreads through your psychological self through your physical self through your mental self through all of you love is here like the blood in my veins and skin, it goes through all of you. This is love, this is this terrible beautiful poison that is so terribly terribly sweet, it is so tender, you know, it is so soft. And sometimes you look into the eyes or somebody when they come out of meditation they have been in that place of love, and there is this sweet light of tenderness and you know they have been with God in love, you know they have been lost in love.”
M: Llewellyn, entering divine love involves more than I bargained for. Be careful what you wish for, huh? But why the pain? What is the source of the pain?
L: “We have put love in a nice little pocket and said, yes, it can create a certain amount of pain, a certain amount of difficulty, a certain amount of bliss and psychological problems, but the raw power of love has been exercised, has been taken away, and as a mystic you have to reclaim it and you have to reclaim the fact that it is this energy of creation that wants you to go home, which is why for the Sufi it is a journey home. We talk about homesickness, we talk about the cry of the soul. You want to go home….I have been involved in this for almost 40 years now and there is this deep homesickness: you want to go home, you want to go back to God where you belong, and it belongs in the heart.”
M: So what do we do? How do go about navigating entry into divine love, if we dare do so?
L: “The only quality you need on this path is to be able to love and to be loved and to have a sense of humor because I say the whole thing is so ridiculous. Everybody else has to struggle for everything in this world. You know even particularly in this country I would say it’s a real shame this Puritan work ethic that everything is a struggle. You have to stand on your own feet and you do, but love is different.”
M: Well, I do think our Puritan work ethic has sometimes turned off our yearnings and replaced it with sacrifice in order to achieve. But Sufism says to explore one’s desires, which for many in the religious world is a taboo. The cause of suffering is desire, isn’t it?
L: “Sufism is really just about the stories of love. The quality you need for the journey, you don’t have to be strong, you don’t have to be wise, you don’t have to be intelligent. You just have to have longing, you have to have this homesickness, you have to have this poison and in fact in our particular path to which I belong our sheikh said the disciple progresses through love. The whole thing is about love, and he said if the disciple does not have enough love, then love is created in the heart. That is again part of the mystery, the esoteric mystery that has been forgotten.”
M: One of my favorite Scripture songs growing up was, “As the deer panteth for the water, so I long to worship Thee.” There seems to be a lot of resonance here with that song.
L: “The Sufis have all this imagery of the musk deer following…this scent of love. You follow it wherever it takes you, this mysterious fragrance of love. You don’t know where it comes from, you don’t know where it is going to because it is love. It’s not something you can buy or sell, you cannot bargain with it….God has so much love and he is just this love itself…. It is this that is so puzzling. The more I meditate on it…that this whole human dilemma is what we long for is all around us, but we don’t see it, we don’t taste it, except a little bit. It is like the fish [who] will go to search for water. We are like that – searching for love.”‘
M: Is love here now? Can you sense it?
L: “In this room now, it is now completely saturated with love, it is completely full of love. There are even angels dancing with love in this room now because I’ve been talking about love and your hearts have been open to love and angels love that spiritual beings love this kind of talk….Most of what human beings talk about doesn’t mean anything to them, you know, buying and selling in cappuccinos and cars…[but] they understand [that] love has a light that is both incredibly human and incredibly spiritual and so they come looking. They tell all their friends to come so they can hear the hearts of human beings talking about love. It’s why when there is a real spiritual gathering there are so many entities coming to listen, to be bathed in this particular fragrance of love that is both human and divine, that belongs to God, and yet is in the hearts of human beings. It is one of the great secrets of creation.”
M: Well, you finished as dramatically as you started, Llewellyn. This whole talk has been mind-expanding to say the least, and let’s hope it was heart-expanding. I feel so fortunate to have the privilege of hearing you speak so directly of realities you have experienced. God’s grace upon your journey and your sharing in the future.
What is Love?
In light of Llewellyn’s reflection on his experience within his Sufi Tradition, this is what we can say about love:
Love is the Pearl of Great Price
Love is the Foundation of the Universe
Love is What’s Real
Love is Dangerous and Leads to Annihilation of the Self
Love Makes You Crazy
Love is Painful
Love is Deeper than our Superficial Understanding
Love is Counter-Cultural
Love Leads through Yearning
Love is the Purpose of the Universe
Rather than some tidy conclusion, Llewellyn’s dramatic presentation invites deep contemplation and reframing of our narrow understanding of reality. It seems appropriate, then, to leave the last word to the great Sufi poet of love, Rumi:
“Love is the cure,
for your pain will keep giving birth to more pain
until your eyes constantly exhale love
as effortlessly as your body yields its scent.”