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Stay Close

There is a photograph of Hazur Maharaj Charan Singh, fifth in the present line of Beas, India, spiritual Masters, standing in the desert. Around him there is nothing but white sand as far as the eye can see – rolling hills of sand with ripple patterns made by wind stretching all the way to the horizon. Hazur stands in the foreground, his hands on his hips. The sun is bright, and the wind must be blowing because his kurta is flying out to the side, and so is his beard. In all that expanse of sand, there is only one footprint that you can see, and it is right next to Hazur’s foot.

This photograph could have been the perfect illustration to accompany one of the treatises written by medieval Sufis about the Master-disciple relationship. The Sufis had a metaphor to describe the spiritual path. They said that the spiritual path was like an unmarked route through the desert, where the sands are constantly shifting. The winds blow, and the sands move. So there’s no visible track, no path. It is a route across the desert which is discernible only to those who have travelled it many times.

The shape of the landscape in the desert is constantly changing, shifting. A hill of sand that was in one place today might be in another place tomorrow. But someone who has travelled across to the destination many times can guide a traveler across. That someone is the Master.

The Sufis used to say that from the time of the beginning of the world, 124,000 prophets had come before the Prophet Muhammad. Sharafuddin Maneri, a thirteenth-century Sufi Master from Bihar, wrote in a letter to a disciple:

Imagine what it must be like on that Road along which 124,000 prophets have travelled, and yet no trace of their journey remains! Without a guide who knows the way, it is impossible to travel along this Road.1

No trace. No tracks. No footsteps. At least no footsteps that are visible at our level of consciousness.

So, in this analogy, what are those shifting hills and ripple patterns in sand in the desert landscape?

These are our concepts, our ideas about the spiritual path. With our ideas about spirituality we construct a landscape for the path to go through. But concepts are not reality. They are not fixed. They are not permanent.

Just to take one example, we generally say that we must rise up, we must go to higher levels of consciousness, so that we can meet and merge into the Lord who was before the beginning, who brought everything into existence, who sustains the creation moment by moment, who is the mover behind all motion, who is One beyond all duality, who is Oneness itself.

The Taoist mystics generally say that we must go down, we must go to deeper levels of consciousness, deeper and deeper until we attain and merge into the Tao which was before the beginning, which brought everything into existence, which sustains the creation moment by moment, which is the mover behind all motion, which is One beyond all duality, which is Oneness itself.

The words may be different, but the destination must be the same. So, which is it: up or down? Do we go to higher levels of consciousness or deeper levels of consciousness? If something as basic as up and down are mental constructs – just ways of thinking about the spiritual path – then I think it is safe to say that everything we think we know about the spiritual path is just a conceptual framework, a way of thinking about the path.

Everything, that is, except what we have experienced for ourselves. We may have experienced feeling happy in meditation. That’s an experience. We may have come to satsang and felt an atmosphere of peace, of stillness. That’s an experience. We may have heard Hazur’s laugh, that deep belly laugh that was so relaxed and free – and even though we might not be able to assign it any meaning, it was an experience. But all our ideas about the spiritual path that are beyond our own experience are like those sand dunes and ripple patterns in the desert blown around by the wind.

No wonder Baba Ji says he is here to confuse us. If the path is like being in a desert with a guide, the worst thing would be if we were to wander off, thinking we know the way. For example, suppose we had read a book and it said to turn right at the big sand dune, and we wanted to insist on going that way!

So he has to confuse us. Because, he says, once we are really truly confused, and we really know that we don’t understand anything, then we just give up and say, so tell me what to do – and then we do the practice that will bring realization. Then he can guide us across.

Just suppose, if you were in a desert with a guide who knew the route – a route you couldn’t see any sign of – and in that whole expanse of sand there was only one footprint that you could see, and it was right next to your guide’s foot – what would you do? I think you’d stay real close to the guide. I think you’d keep him in sight. You’d be really careful not to let him out of your sight. Maybe you’d even catch hold of a corner of his shawl and clutch it tight in your fist. Just in case a big sand storm blew up, or night was falling, you’d want to keep clutching that little fringe of the shawl to make sure you didn’t get lost.

In one way or another, you’d make sure to stay close to the guide. For us, this is our simran. Repeating simran and remembering the Master keeps us close.

Narhari Sonar has several poems that keep coming back to this theme of staying close to the mystic. Narhari was a mystic saint from Maharashtra whose poems appear in Many Voices, One Song. In one poem he writes:

A painter strokes his brush on a wall –
  this is the world, nothing real here …
If you really want to achieve something real,
  just repeat the name, says Narhari,
  and stay close to the mystics.2

Narhari says that everything in this world is temporary. It is evanescent. All the things we work so hard for in this world are fleeting; they don’t last; in that sense they are not real, not permanent. If you want to achieve something that is real and lasting, he says, there are two things you have to do:

  • First: Repeat the Name. ‘Repeat’ means it is a practice, something to do over and over. Do the meditation. Do the simran and bhajan. Do it every day.
  • And second: Stay close to the mystics. Just stay close. And if the mystic confuses you… just hang in there and stay close.
What is this all about, this staying close to the mystic?

If we look back to the medieval Sufis, in all those books they wrote about the Master-disciple relationship, there’s one single line that I think says it all. Al-Qushayri, an eleventh- century Sufi from Nishapur, wrote: “Each wayfarer needs a Master from whom he can learn his path, one breath at a time.”3

So it’s not like: you read a book and then you understand – once and for all. And it’s not like: you get the gist of the path, ask for initiation, and you know the path. You learn your path, from the living Master, one breath at a time. He doesn’t even say that the wayfarer learns the path from the Master – no, the wayfarer learns his path from the Master. Each disciple learns his or her path from the Master, one breath at a time.

Maybe it means learning it moment by moment, from the Master’s living example – an example that might turn out to be quite different from your pre-conceived ideas. Maybe it means learning the path from some atmosphere we imbibe in his presence. In the atmosphere of the Master’s presence we breathe in a kind of stillness; from our jumbled thinking a certain clarity emerges and we remember what our real priorities are. Maybe learning our path one breath at a time from the Master simply means taking to heart what he says, following his instructions, putting them into practice moment by moment. As Soami Ji says in Sar Bachan (Prose):

Leaving everything else aside, one must implicitly obey the Satguru of his own time, and faithfully follow his instructions. This will lead him to success. This is the long and short of everything.4

The key phrase here is “the Satguru of his own time.” It is a living relationship with our own Master, not with the words written by some Master of the past.

As Hafiz is often quoted: “If the Master tells you to soak your prayer mat in wine, hurry up and do it for he is not unmindful of the Way.”5

We all seem to love this quote. We love to quote it, but – actually – if the Master tells us to do something that isn’t according to our own way of thinking, in fact we have a pretty hard time following it. So, to learn our path one breath at a time from the Master, we have to enter into what Narhari calls “The Holy Contract.” He writes:

How could one so low as I
  describe one so great as you?
O treasure of mercy and grace,
  one Wonder exists – it is You –
  no other is so full of mercy.
Enter into the holy contract, friends,
  embrace the Name within you
  and know that you’ll escape
  endless returns to the womb.
The method for human beings is
  to see all as equal, to love, to yearn,
  to meditate and to serve the Master.
When my mind concentrates in my Master,
  says Narhari, my vision of God holds firm.6

Why do we need the holy contract with a Master? Narhari explains that it is because the Master is so far beyond our comprehension. As he says:

How could one so low as I
  describe one so great as you?
O treasure of mercy and grace,
  one Wonder exists – it is You –
  no other is so full of mercy

We say Sant Mat is a path of God-realization. We like to say we are on a path of God- realization. But if in all honesty we don’t have a clue what or who God is, then what does it mean? We say we will meet God face to face… or we will merge into God, or realize God – but these are just words, concepts. We ourselves do not actually know what we mean. Even when we say the Master is God-realized, is one with God – this is all philosophical talk, metaphysical talk. The Sufi poet, Mahmud Shabistari said it poetically:

Holding the hem of the robes of the Master of the tavern
the Sufi is liberated from all metaphysical gibberish
and dry asceticism.7

It doesn’t mean literally grabbing onto the hem of his robe! But poetically, what a vivid metaphor for staying in the presence of the Master. It’s a great image – you’re hanging onto his coattails and whichever way he’s going, you’re just flying along behind him, maybe not really understanding anything, just hanging in there with him. And Shabistari says you get liberated from all metaphysical gibberish!

Instead of spending your life in empty philosophical talk, and instead of wasting away in dry asceticism, just hang on tight and follow the living Master. It think this is what Narhari calls staying close to the mystic, And, put another way, it’s also what Soami Ji calls implicitly obeying the Master of your own time.

The Sufi Master, Shafaruddin Maneri actually goes so far as to say that it is the presence of the living guide that breathes life into the spiritual path. He wrote in a letter to a disciple that all the spiritual practices of a seeker “who lacks a guide are devoid of originality and become routinized. They do not help him mature or progress.” He went further, saying that if a seeker wanted to learn about the path from books, “he becomes exactly like someone who associates with the dead – and he too becomes dead at heart.”8

If we want to become more conscious, more awake, more alive, we have to imbibe these qualities from one who has them. Soami Ji says everything in the universe can be classified as either chaitanya – alive, alert, awake, conscious – or jar – lifeless, inert, unconscious. He says only the Satguru is chaitanya, everyone and everything else is jar, inert. That’s all of us!

Service of the chaitanya (living or conscious) will lead to life, and service of the jar (lifeless or inert) will lead to inertness. All except the Satguru come under the classification of jar (inert). Therefore, all those who seek their own good and wish to be one with the chaitanya should devote themselves to the service of the Satguru.9

So Narhari says we need to enter into a contract with that one who is conscious, awake and alive:

Enter into the holy contract, friends,
  embrace the Name within you
  and know that you’ll escape
  endless returns to the womb.

A contract has two sides. You shake hands on it, you make a pact, and each side has committed to doing something. What is our side of the contract? Narhari says, Embrace the Name within you. Embrace Nam, cherish the Shabd, give it your attention, fall in love with Nam.

Then he sums up the basic principles of spiritual life:

The method for human beings is
  to see all as equal, to love, to yearn,
  to meditate and to serve the Master.

What a simple way to say it, and how much is encompassed in this! He concludes the poem, saying:

When my mind concentrates in my Master,
  Says Narhari, my vision of God holds firm.

We don’t know what God is. Actually, frankly, we don’t know what the Master is either. But we can see him, and we do have some experience of him. We can think of him. We can remember him. We can do the simran he has given us. We can follow his instructions. This is what Narhari calls staying close to the Master. And he says, “When my mind concentrates in my Master, my vision of God holds firm.”

In another poem, entitled, “Come Closer,” Narhari writes:

Repeating the Name and listening to the Sound –
  this is the foundation of all religions.
Live in mercy, forgiveness and contentment,
  and have the darshan of a Master.
Find him quickly and stay close –
  this is how you come closer to God.
This human body may not come again,
  so devote yourself to your Master.
Don’t immerse yourself in the world,
  just keep repeating the Name of God.
Everything else will pass –
  the Name alone is true.
Vithoba, Giver of Light to the Ignorant,
  will lead you to freedom one day.
Understanding this, Narhari bows
  with love at his Master’s feet.10

He begins by telling us that the simple practice the Master teaches us – repeating the Name and listening to the sound – is the starting point, the seed from which all the religions have grown. Just this simple teaching: repeat the Nam, listen to the sound. As Hazur used to say, we arrest the teachings, give them the shape of a religion, rites, rituals, dogma, rigid beliefs. The living Master draws us back to reality. He is, after all, the one who is chaitanya – alive, awake, conscious – and we are so ready to worship that which is dead and inert!

So then Narhari expresses the most basic, simple, essential principles of spirituality – spirituality when it’s not yet mired in ritual and dogma, before rigor mortis has set in.

Live in mercy, forgiveness and contentment,
  and have the darshan of a Master.
Find him quickly and stay close –
  this is how you come closer to God.

He says: find a Master, and once you have found him, stay close. And how can we go through life without losing our clarity, our purpose, our direction? He says:

Don’t immerse yourself in the world,
  just keep repeating the Name of God.
Everything else will pass –
  the Name alone is true.

We so easily immerse ourselves in the daily details of our lives. We plunge in, and then we find we are drowning, gasping for air as we lose track of our priorities and the purpose of our life. So Narhari says, yes, do your duty, live your life in all its complexity and challenge, but don’t immerse yourself. Don’t go under. How? Just keep repeating the Name of God, and you’ll keep your balance through the ups and downs.

Then Narhari makes an extraordinary promise. He says:

Vithoba, Giver of Light to the Ignorant,
  will lead you to freedom one day.

The Giver of Light to the Ignorant. There’s the tricky part: Can we recognize ourselves as the ignorant? If we are ignorant – truly ignorant, knowing that we know nothing – then the giver of light can fill us with his light.

There’s a story that when Socrates was a young man, he thought he know a lot. When he was a little older, he thought he knew a little. By the time he was an old man, he was finally able to say, “I know nothing.”

How long will it take for us to reach that point, to be able to say in all honesty, “I know nothing?” If we really know nothing, we can cross that desert of shifting sands just by staying close to our guide. If we are really ignorant the Giver of Light can fill us with his light and lead us to freedom. Narhari, concludes the poem with:

Understanding this, Narhari bows
  with love at his Master’s feet.


  1. Maneri, The Hundred Letters, tr. P. Jackson, p.26
  2. Narhari in Many Voices, One Song, p.166
  3. al-Qushayri, “The Testament to Disciples,” in The Teachings of Sufism, tr. Carl Ernst, p.152
  4. Soami Ji Maharaj, Sar Bachan (Prose), Bachan 116, 5th ed., p.100
  5. Hafiz, Deewan-e-Hafiz, p.29
  6. Narhari in Many Voices, One Song, p.202
  7. Nurbakhsh, Sufi Symbolism, 1:165; citing Gulshan-i Raz, 54
  8. The Hundred Letters, p.36
  9. Sar Bachan (Prose), Bachan 48, 5th ed., p.82
  10. Narhari in Many Voices, One Song, p.263