The Face Before I Was Born: A Spiritual Autobiography
By Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Publisher: Point Reyes, California: Golden Sufi Center, 2012.
This is the account of one person’s spiritual journey, a “silent wayfarer walking the ancient highway of the soul.” It begins with the moment of his joyful awakening, and takes us through the discipline, struggles, and bliss of practice; from the fear of annihilation and the pain of losing his concepts and illusions about God to the beauty of longing and the peace of surrender. Most of all, it is a tale of a seeker’s love for his Master and his ultimate union with him. In the author’s own words, it is “how love revealed itself to me, how all my spiritual images were destroyed, how even the journey itself was tossed aside.” The author says that “the Beloved makes Himself known to Himself in the fragile container of the human being. [It] is a mystery beyond words, something that can be hinted at but hardly told.”
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, born in 1953, is a Sufi mystic, author, and lecturer. His approach integrates Sufi meditation practice with dreamwork based on the insights of Jungian psychology. His work explains the age-old universal mystical practice and journey in a modern context. It conveys an intensity of feeling, a sincerity of devotion, and a clarity of expression that incites the reader to greater awareness of his own inner path. Vaughan-Lee is present, compassionate, and shockingly honest as he relates the account of his journey and the perseverance he needed to discover his real, essential nature, which he calls “the face you had before you were born.”
When he was sixteen Vaughan-Lee came across the Zen saying:
The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection,
The water has no mind to receive their image.
Reading this, he had an experience of “life that just is… without psychological or mental distortion.” The sense of self, the projection of ego, was not needed or wanted. After this initial experience of awakening, his path was not easy and not always direct. He had a powerful longing for truth but no outlet for his longing.
I was driven by a desperate desire of which I had no understanding: I only knew its intensity, which manifested as impatience, an impatience to reach an invisible, intangible goal. I wanted to find something, desperately, crazily, and I did not care what it cost.
By the time he was nineteen he met his first teacher, Mrs. Irina Tweedie. He describes his meeting with her:
This was the first real ground that I had ever felt – not the shifting sands of the world of appearances, but something ancient and present…. Here was a presence that spoke directly of the mysteries I had heard hinted at in the books I had read, a fragrance of an inner reality beyond the mind and the senses.
Even so, as he came to understand, care was required. Tweedie stressed the need to focus on the truth of teachings and not to rely on emotions or constructs of the mind. Vaughan-Lee interpreted her message as, “Don’t trust my personality with all of its faults. Trust my soul which is merged with the soul of my teacher.” Although Mrs. Tweedie helped and guided him, he came to believe that his own Master was Radha Mohan Lal – known to his disciples as Bhai Sahib – who was Mrs. Tweedie’s Sheikh. This feeling was substantiated in a dream he had of Bhai Sahib, who appeared with his own Master Guru Maharaj Ji.
In the same dream Guru Maharaj Ji showed him an image of Guru Maharaj Ji as a young man flying a kite and conveyed the message, “If you want to fly high you have to have both feet firmly on the ground.” The dream helped Vaughan-Lee integrate the outer and the inner worlds, and “live a balanced, everyday life in the world while at the same time being lifted high by the wind of the spirit.” This, he understood, is the foundation of the spiritual path and necessary before spiritual progress can be made.
A balance of opposites is also required within the psyche. Vaughan-Lee gradually realized the need to confront the dark or shadow side of self in order to bring it, too, into the light. He was guided again by a dream in which he was told to read the works of Carl Jung. This led him to the Jungian process of individuation or psychological integration, a process which reveals how “the psyche is transformed on the spiritual path, the way opposites are [first] separated and then united within the self.”
Once this balance and integration were achieved he felt ready to access higher levels of reality. However, first the death of his limited self was required. He found that ultimately the aspirant needs to shed everything he believes in order to experience and realize the truth. He describes this experience as “being slowly stripped naked, the painful process of the clothes of conditioning and self-image being removed.” It was “the essence of suffering, pure inner psychic pain … but I knew with the knowledge that comes from somewhere, certainly not from the mind or ego, that I had to continue.” He knew that “something was being cleansed.” It was in this most painful experience that the strength, support and mercy of his master became most apparent.
I began to feel the presence of my Sheikh, him whom I loved and feared. I sensed that he was guiding this process, giving me an opportunity, an opening to something. The ancient spiritual training in which the disciple is pushed beyond every extreme was being lived within me, but only because I was being held by him.
Then he was suddenly in my heart and in a moment of simple wonder he made me conscious that I am a soul … that I am not just a physical, mental, or emotional being, bound by time and space, that my ego-identity is just a small part of my whole being.
He found that his concepts about God had to shift and drop away. “On the journey towards nothingness, everything has to go…. The divine does not belong to our images – we cannot imprison Him within our beliefs or concepts.” He quotes the Sufi Dhul-Nun saying, “Whatever you think, God is the opposite of that.” Vaughan-Lee explains that every concept is a limitation on the limitless. We simply have to let God be who he is. Similarly for the Master: “Only when we are free of the projection onto the teacher is the soul’s need fully answered from within.”
The eternal story of the mystical quest is of entering a darkness brighter than light, of losing everything and finding the nothingness that is our real essence.… It is a truth that demands only death, a complete giving of oneself.
He insists that such an objective, though it sounds transcendent and remote, is real and attainable. “Those who are drawn to this destiny need to know that it can be lived, and that this crazy passion has a purpose beyond what one can even imagine.”
Ultimately, the spiritual journey is a story of love, a love so strong that it tears you apart, a love that destroys the mind, a love that turns you away from the world and the self and only towards God. Vaughan-Lee writes, “The world was full of beautiful things until an old man with a beard turned my heart aflame.” Once that love is awakened, nothing else matters. That love propels the seeker from separation through annihilation, and into union. Ultimately, this is all the seeker wants. “The mystic only seeks to become featureless and formless, to be annihilated in love.”
After the struggle, pain, and passion comes the greatest gift of all: surrender to the one you love.
But it is in the moments, even the hours, when I can turn inward that the love becomes so all-embracing that there is no lover and Beloved, just a fullness that becomes a merging and melting. Then I close the door of my room, turn my face to the wall, and experience the intimacies that are known only to lovers.
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