The Beshara Lecture 2010: Jane Clark

Educating the Heart: Establishing a Spiritual Perspective in the Modern World

First, let me say what an honour it is to be asked to give this first Beshara Lecture. I first came across Beshara in 1974, which is an astonishing 36 years ago, and I regard my subsequent decision to do an intensive six month course at the Beshara School, which I embarked upon in 1977, as the pivotal decision of my life which opened up for me entirely different possibilities from those which had been presented to me during my upbringing and previous education. Being asked to speak today has demanded looking back over the intervening period – now more than half a life-time – and trying to say something coherent about what difference it makes to be a long term student of Beshara; not merely to do a course or two, or study a text or two, or do a retreat or two, but to live ones life with the kind of orientation which one is introduced to when one comes under its umbrella. God willing, something of interest has transpired, and if not, I beg your indulgence.

There were many themes which came to mind – and I think is in indicative of the nature of this orientation that almost anything could be the subject of a Beshara lecture – and in the end I decided on the ‘Educating the Heart’ because it seems to me to encapsulate something quite essential about what Beshara is. Also, in my present work as a support tutor for students with specific learning difficulties, I do a lot of work with young people who are studying within what we might call ‘the ordinary education system’. Living in Oxford, I am privileged to do much of my work with students at the university of Oxford, where this ‘ordinary’ type of study happens at the very highest level. So I am brought in close proximity every working day with the issue of education; what it is, what it is for, what it can do for us as human beings, and so feel that I have some real basis for talking about it.

Our ordinary education system concentrates almost exclusively upon development of our intellects – of our rational faculty – and this is something which was established on fairly sound foundations from medieval times, based upon the philosophy and ethos of the ancient Greeks, who emphasised the supremacy of the rational faculty in human beings. There are other aspects of education recognised by our contemporary system – physical educational, for instance, expressed by the emphasis on sports in schools, or social education, or musical education – but these have a much lower status; you won’t get into Oxford just because you are a good athlete or a good violinist. The kinds of skills that are developed are the ability to think clearly, apply universal principles to particular situations, analyse, make judgements and evaluate outcomes. There can be no intrinsic argument with all this; on the contrary, these are valuable skills which we need as human beings, and as a human race in a scientific age we very much need people who have developed these skills to a high degree.

However, it is quite a specific kind of knowledge which intrinsically involves breaking the world into parts in order to understand it – whether this is by physically identifying the different parts of say, the human body or the solar system, in order to describe the way in which they work together; breaking down thought into components so that we can develop an argument or a proof which proceeds step by step, or whether in our post-Descartian era, it is more essentially a matter of making a division between ourselves and the external world in order to come to an ‘objective’ view.

By contrast, all the great traditions of wisdom and spirituality have maintained that we have another cognitive faculty which is capable of seeing things as a whole – of seeing the underlying truth of things directly – not just by inference. We used on the blurb advertising this talk a saying attributed to Plato:

There is an eye of the soul which is more precious far than 10,000 bodily eyes, for by it alone truth is seen.

But there are equally people from all the traditions who would seem to be referring to this possibility of direct insight into realities which elude the intellect.

Richard of St Victor, the 12th century Christian theologian, said:

The outer sense alone perceives visible things and the eye of the heart alone sees the invisible.

Whilst the great leader of the native Indian tradition, Black Elk, who lived into the 20th century, said:

The heart is a sanctuary at the Centre of which there is a little space, wherein the Great Spirit dwells, and this is the Eye. This is the Eye of Wakantanka by which He sees all things, and through which we see Him.

Of course, although the words ‘heart’ and ‘eye’ recur in all these quotes, it does not follow that all these people understand this faculty in exactly the same way, and inter-religious studies is a field fraught with difficulty once one starts getting down to detail. Therefore in this talk I am going to stick with what I know and discuss this faculty according to the mystical tradition of Islam, and particularly as it is expounded in the works of the person who is the subject of my special knowledge, whose works form the core curriculum at the Beshara School, the 12th century philosopher and mystic Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. He refers to it just as ‘the heart’. Hence my title ‘Educating the Heart’ has this specific reference; ‘heart’ is not used in the sense of the physical organ, or even as being the seat of emotion, or of romantic love, but refers to this other faculty by which we directly perceive the underlying unity of all things. Henry Corbin refers to it as a subtle organ, similar to the chakras of the Hindu tradition, of which the heart is the central and most important, saying that is that organ which:

… produces true knowledge, comprehensive intuition, the gnosis of God and the divine mysteries… an organ of perception which is both experience and intimate taste.

Despite it being so well known in traditional systems of knowledge, this faculty of ‘the heart’ is not widely recognised in our society today – or at least where it has been recognised, because I will show towards the end of the talk that we do have cultural precedents, it is not acknowledged as being really important at the level of policy-making, in the way that we set up our educational systems or conduct our businesses, etc. Therefore we are not generally educated either about its nature or the ways in which we can cultivate it. But in this lecture I am going to argue that it is important for several reasons. One is that it is clear from all the traditions that this is the highest form of knowledge – higher than our rational faculty – and therefore in neglecting it, we are failing to realise our full humanity – to achieve our true potential. Another is that in our present age, we are very much in need of a unified perspective as we begin to realise just how interconnected everything is, whether this be the financial markets or the world’s ecosystems. Our very survival as the human race depends upon us developing much more global, joined up modes of thinking and the intellect alone cannot deliver this because, as we have already pointed out, the intellect is intrinsically divisive in its mode of operation. In fact, it is quite possible to argue that we are in the mess we are in the first place because we have relied upon it – particularly on sciences based upon rational thinking alone – too much, but this is not something I want to go into today.

The operation of the ‘heart’ is very different in some ways from the operation of the intellect, and in what follows, I am going to sometimes contrast these two modes in order to illustrate my points. This has validity, in that in some ways the heart and the intellect are at odds with each other, or demand different things from us. But I do not intend to imply, by making this contrast, that we have to choose one or the other absolutely. On the contrary, the best situation is where both faculties operate fully and in harmony, in recognition that they are in reality complementary. This can be very clear when one considers really great intellectual achievements such as the inception of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, where intuition and reason went hand in hand. In fact it was Einstein who remarked that:

Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.

Therefore, in asserting the need to educate our heart with the same energy and intensity that we devote to educating our minds, the idea is not that we should abandon rationality, but rather that we are correcting a present imbalance in which we give theories and procedures based upon rational thinking alone an inappropriate level of control over our selves, our lives and our societies.
What therefore are the differences between the knowledge of the heart and the knowledge of the intellect?

One is that the heart sees spiritual realities directly, as self-evident truths which do not require the kind of logical support that intellectual arguments do. This has been so well put by Jalal al-din Rumi that I thought that rather than entering into a lengthy exposition, I would just read you this short extract from the Mathnawi in Nicholson’s slightly oldfashioned but still very beautiful translation:

Since wisdom is the faithful believers stray camel, he knows it with certainty from whomsoever he has heard it.
When you say to a thirsty man, “Make haste, there is water in the cup; take it at once”
Will the thirsty man say: “This is mere assertion; go from my side, oh pretender…Or else produce some testimony and proof that this is of aqueous kind and consists of the water that runs from a spring.”

Or suppose a mother cries to her suckling babe: “Come I am mother, listen, my child”
Will the babe say: “O mother, bring some proof, so that I may take comfort in your milk.”
When in the heart of the community there is spiritual perception from God, the face and the voice of the prophet are as an evidentiary miracle.
When the prophet utters a cry from without, the soul of the community falls to worship within,
Because never in the world will the soul’s ear have heard from anyone a cry of the same kind.
That soul in exile by immediate perception of the wondrous voice has heard from God’s tongue: “Truly I am near”. And when he finds himself absolutely in front of it, how should there be doubt? How should he mistake himself?

So just to comment upon this; firstly, I don’t believe that these lines need to be interpreted within a context of formal religion. Rumi was writing within a very well-established mystical tradition in which the prophets were not just regarded as bringers of particular religions and external religious laws, but were also – in fact, predominantly – understood to be messengers sent to call people back to remembrance of their origin, which they, like people in exile, have forgotten. i.e. they are sent to address people’s interior reality – their heart and soul – and to call them back to the truth which, if they have hearts open to hearing it, they recognise instantly as being their own reality. In this sense, we do not have to interpret what Rumi says within a theistic context, but take what he is saying as a general statement about anything which speaks to our hearts and which we recognise directly as being true. Indeed it is a very important principle within even the Islamic mystical tradition, where the revelation given through prophecy is central, that anyone or anything in the world can be a messenger or agent for this kind of awakening. In our contemporary context, we are fortunate that we have available to us the wisdom from many different traditions – it seems to be a characteristic of our particular era – and I am sure that everyone here will have some taste of finding this kind of resonance – with texts or music or whatever – from a variety of cultural sources. It is also possible that the things of the natural world can be messagers to us, as we shall see later.

Secondly, the poem makes it clear is that the knowledge of the heart is like remembrance of something already known, not of something acquired, and the taste and quality of it, which Rumi expresses so beautifully, is this awakening to something which we already love and long for, like a parent who reappears after many years of separation and who invokes in us all those feelings of intimacy and familiarity which we had forgotten. This idea also goes back to Plato, who developed it in the Meno dialogue – and I have discovered that it has a name – anamnesis. This motif of remembrance and return is a central one, as I am sure that many of you will know, in all the spiritual traditions.

In this quality of direct vision, there are clearly in some ways radical disagreements between what we see, perceive, understand through the faculty of the heart and what we perceive through the intellect. This can even manifest in seemingly quite rational fields like mathematics, where there are some people – and I have taught some children like this – who can just ‘see’ the solutions to mathematical problems, and can write down the answer immediately. And this is because there is a reality to numbers – they are not just mental constructs that we make up for convenience. You might think these children show a certain kind of natural brilliance which we would want to encourage, but in fact it is not acceptable in our present educational system to do this; you have to show the steps which you took to reach your answer. So these children have to put this ability aside and learn to do it in the other, more usual way, and after a while they tend to lose the ability to see directly.

At the higher levels of operation in mathematics in particular but also in the other sciences, this ability can be more appreciated, and there are many cases where this ‘immediate’ vision has given us some of our most comprehensive and most abstract theories. I think of the case in particular of Einstein, whom we have already mentioned, and the extraordinary mathematician Ramanajan, who had a very high level of this kind of direct perception of numbers and the relationship between them. Some of his theories, set down in the early part of the twentieth century and which all good mathematicians acknowledge as self-evidently true, have not yet been proved in the normal way.

But usually what happens in really well established scientific theories is a combination of the two approaches, where the results of a great flash of insight is then backed up or developed by the application of reason, and the result is ‘proved’ according to logic, etc. In these cases, one can see that the unitive approach of the heart and the discriminative approach of the intellect are two routes to the same end. But mathematics is a very specific and relatively trivial example of the situation; when it comes to approaching great existential questions such as; does God exist? Who are we? What is our purpose on earth? there is no set answer. Ibn ‘Arabi, who was of course a great exponent of the vision of heart, describes a conversation on this subject which had he had soon after coming out of a very eventful retreat when he was still in his teens with the great Andalusian philosopher, Ibn Rush, or Averroes as he is known in the west. Averroes asked him whether he thought that the truths perceived through mystical intuition and those deduced by the speculative intellect were the same, and Ibn ‘Arabi replied: ‘Yes’. And then he said ‘No’, expressing very succinctly the notion we shall come to later, which is that the ability to sustain paradox is a characteristic of the knowledge of the heart. By the ‘No’ he indicated that there are truths and realities which can be perceived by the heart which are inaccessible to the intellect when it operates by itself. And as such, he, along with all great spiritual writers, regards the heart as the higher faculty which can penetrate further, deeper and more comprehensively into reality. In other words, any truth perceived by the intellect can also be perceived by the heart, but not necessarily vice versa; there are truths which the intellect cannot grasp but the heart can.

Averroes and Ibn ‘Arabi had their conversation in a context of a fundamentally shared world view; in his time, there was no real disagreement between the philosophers/scientists and the mystics about the existence of a divinity, or of the reality of the spiritual realms, or even about the basic form and constitution of the cosmos. The conversation was about the means by which knowledge is acquired and the level and degree of it. In our times, the situation is very different and there is radical difference between the understanding given by our science and the spiritual traditions in almost every respect; about the origin of the universe, about our own origin and constitution, about the very purpose of human life. And many scientists are very definite in their rejection of a spiritual perspective, and maintain that a belief in the existence of a God or of a spiritual dimension is just a childish, dogmatic, irrational nonsense. But in doing this, they assume that the views of people who adhere to a faith or a spiritual perspective are commensurate with their own intellectually based worldviews. But in fact it is much better looked at as difference between people who adhere to the truths of the heart and those who operate only with reason, and for whom, for reasons it is not for me to fathom, the truths given through the heart just do not seem to be visible.

Therefore the predominance in our culture of scientifically-based world views presents quite a challenge to those whose heart has been opened up and who wish to develop this way of seeing and being further. There are not many obvious ways of doing this – it is not our social norm – and there are many discouraging influences. So it is really necessary to point out that there is an alternative way of understanding the world, and to demonstrate that it is equally valid. In this respect, the work of people like Ibn ‘Arabi who express a profound spiritual knowledge in ways which are compatible with rational principles are extremely important, because they show that this alternative view can be coherent and intelligible, and not just a subjective aberration. I am presently studying Ibn ‘Arabi’s autobiographical work with a group of students in Oxford – a book called “The Holy Spirit in the Counselling of the Soul” – and one of the things which has struck me on this read-through is the great emphasis he places upon the ability to argue the case for mystical intuition against doubters within his contemporary community, using the tools of analysis and argument. In this, I think that he is very much in tune with the Buddhist tradition, whose spiritual training also develops skills in argument and debate alongside contemplation and the practice of compassion.

But perhaps more important, is that the work of Ibn ‘Arabi – and again, I want to repeat that I am speaking of him because I have studied his work to some extent, not because I think that such things do not this exist within other traditions – presents us with a whole world-view based upon the unitive vision of the heart – a view which encompasses all aspects of ourselves and human life, and all aspects of the world. And he shows that such a perspective is more comprehensive in its scope and more beneficent in its effect that the knowledge gained only through intellectual analysis. Such an exposition is very helpful to us, because the spiritual path can be considered in one way as a process of opening up of the heart, but in another way it can be seen as the establishing an already existing contact with reality so that it becomes the constant and irrefutable fact of our existence. This is because there must have been some impulse which drew us to undertake this path in the first place; it does not of course have to be a grand vision like St Paul on the road to Damascus but there does have to have been some initial intimation or indication of truth, some hearing of a call to return. But at the beginning this intimation may not be fully seen or understood, and it is probably not continuously present in terms of experience. Therefore, in looking back over my thirty-odd years with Beshara, it seems to me that the real process which goes on in spiritual education could be best described as a re-orientating of the person, so that what was initially a mere hint or glimpse becomes the central motivating force and focal point of ones life. This process has a different trajectory for each person, but there are clearly, in terms of what one can draw from the vast experience of human history, certain required elements. One of these is the need to make sense of the process one is undergoing and to put it into a proper context; and another is the practice of orientating oneself around this knowledge, so that all the faculties and myriad different elements of ones constitution cohere around it, such that over time they become unified and consistently orientated towards the truth. Bulent Rauf, who was so important in establishing Beshara, used to say that the measure of a person’s spiritual development is the constancy of their awareness. And the older I grow, the more I understand what a profound insight this is.

So I am going to talk about each of these essential elements in turn; first a bit of theory, then a bit of practice.

So first theory; for Ibn ‘Arabi, the major characteristic of the heart is that it is intrinsically and indefatigably, incorrigibly, unifying in its action. This is not only a matter of the kind of direct vision we have just spoken about, which is intrinsically holistic, and dense, such that just a moment of such insight can take a lifetime to understand or express, and even then perhaps it is done imperfectly. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the heart is also a place where things which are considered by the intellect to be opposite and mutually exclusive are witnessed as being simultaneously true. Therefore, as I have already intimated, it is a place where the answer to a question can be simultaneously ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, not just in the sense that is meant in the academic world, the stuff of a million essays, where the answer ‘Yes and No’ means that in some respects it is true, and in some respects not. Ibn ‘Arabi’s answer to Averroes was more complex; he said: “Yes-No. Between the yes and the no, spirits take wing from their matter and necks are separated from their bodies” – indicating that the resolution of the matter requires one to move beyond the standpoint of the speculative intellect as it appears in a particular material context – i.e. in our own body – into another, more mysterious realm accessible only to the spirit.

For Ibn ‘Arabi, the unity of all such sets of opposites can perceived – so there can be perception of the identity of the states of both high and low, here and there, inside and outside, me and you. This he explains – ‘explains’ in inverted commas – as an indication of the fact that there is in reality only one being, one existence, which is the essence of all the separate things and states of being which we perceive in ourselves and in the world. Therefore, we can say that this single reality is the essence of something which is here, and at the same time, it is the essence of another thing which is ‘there’; therefore in a one sense there is unity or identity between the two things, in another there is a difference.

This may seem perplexing, but in fact it is not so unfamiliar to us in the present day, because we have been given a very clear example of such a phenomenon from quantum mechanics, where an electron or photon can appear either as a discrete solid particle-like thing, or as a wave. This has long been postulated – Einstein again! – but since the 1990’s this has been witnessable phenomena as scientists, notably John Bell, have succeeded in setting up a real experiment based on the Einstein, Podalsky, Rosen thought experiment – which they call a ‘metaphysical experiment’ – where this phenomenon can be physically witnessed. In this, they can demonstrate that it is really true that when you put up a particle counter, the photon manifests as a particle, and if you put up a set of slits, it manifests as a wave. I was privileged to know, in my science journalist days, one of the scientists involved in these experiments. He was a follower of Rudolph Steiner, and he was very clear that this phenomenon is a kind of modern day icon – meaning that it is something we should contemplate. If we really take it on board and focus on what is before our eyes, rather than just getting on with solving the equations in the rather mechanical way that people do, then we begin to see that what is being demanded, is that we develop this different faculty of perception which can accommodate paradox and mystery, and does not demand that something should be either this or that, but can be simultaneously in both states.

This understanding of the dual nature of matter, and many other phenomena in quantum mechanics, radically undermines the classical Descartian view which is still the foundation of scientific enterprise even 100 years after quantum mechanics came onto the scene. In this, there is a very sharp division between our interior – our intellect – which observes and understands, and the exterior world which is ‘other’. This assumes that these two realms have independent existences; the world ‘out there’ is not dependant in any way upon us, and when we are not observing it, it has its own independent life – well, life not perhaps not quite the right word given the Descartian perspective; we could say ‘carries on by itself’ and we can just drop in now and again and have a look at what is happening. But quantum mechanics demonstrates that things are much more complex and interwoven; we cannot in reality separate ourselves from the world. The subject which constitutes the ‘observer’ and the object which constitutes the ‘observed’ are deeply connected at the level of identity, and locked into a relationship of mutual cause and effect, witnessing and response, in ever-changing configurations.

And this brings me to the third major characteristic of the heart I want bring out today: that its function is to perceive meaning. The intellect, in making a primary division between the observer and the world – self and other – objectifies the external world and sees a multiplicity of separate things. It is not devoid of unifying action, as it too wishes to understand the cosmos as whole, but its tendency is to create unity by looking at the external connections, so that they are tied together in a mechanistic way, as a great structure, even when considering living things such as plants and animals, or the human body. Whereas the heart, whose fundamental knowledge is that of a single identity, sees samenesses, correspondences, and relationships. It is concerned with the interior connectivity of things. Ibn ‘Arabi’s world is one in which it is not just a matter of one ‘thing’ like the electron appearing in two different ways depending on how we approach it; it is a matter of one global, encompassing being who appears in a multiplicity of ways as every ‘thing’ that we see. It is a cosmic view in which the observer and the observed – the self and the other – are locked in a relationship of mutual dependence and reflection; where everything that we think of as being ‘outside’ of ourselves has a connection, or a correspondence to something ‘inside’ of us, and is therefore meaningful to us; i.e. it shows us something about ourselves, or reveals some aspect of beauty or order which reminds us of our reality and our origin. This is a world which is very far from inanimate and self-subsistent, but alive, ever-changing, always engaged in the task of communicating truth to us. One of my favourite lines from Ibn ‘Arabi’s great opus magnus “The Meccan Revelations” says that:

Nothing walks in the cosmos without walking as a messenger with a message… Even the worms, in their movements, are rushing with a message to those who can understand it. (Futuhat 2, 372/10).

Ibn ‘Arabi calls this ‘a high knowledge’, and one see that it illustrates well what I said earlier about the process of spiritual education, or education of the heart. In this aspect, it can be described as being one through which a person moves from the state of receiving a call to return through a glimpse or intimation in one particular form, to a state in which they are able to perceive everything, both inside and outside of themselves, as a messenger from their beloved, reminding them of who they really are. A central Quranic verse for the Islamic mystical tradition – not only Ibn ‘Arabi – through which the knowers of God describe this very highest state of realisation is Surat al-Buqara: 115: “Wherever may you turn, there is the face of God”.

Seen like this, it is clear that the heart is essentially a passive and receptive faculty; its function is to receive impressions, whether from the deep mysterious realms of interior being or from the external world, and unify them by recognising them as meanings which point to a single reality. This is a process in which there is, intrinsically, by definition, no expected outcome – no end-result. It is an open-ended process done entirely for its own sake. By contrast the intellect is a very active faculty which, as I said above, observes things, and is actively engaged in categorising them, sorting them, manipulating and reorganising. And in its modus operandi it is fundamentally quantitative, i.e. concerned with measurement, relative value, etc.

I am always being told, by books which come out and conferences I attend, that we as a human civilisation are now moving beyond a Descartian perspective, and that new ideas from quantum mechanics and chaos theory, and from ecology, are leading us to a more holistic paradigm, which would embody, one hopes, a more heart-centred perspective. But on-the-ground experience, the evidence of daily life, would tend to indicate the contrary; that we are continuing to move further and further in the direction of unmitigated rationality in the form of quantification in areas such as education, health and government; everything now has to be weighed and measured and given a value, usually in terms of money. In my own field of education, in the last twenty years, this aspect of measurement and evaluation has come more and more to the fore, so there is no longer any question of open-ended investigation; every teaching session has to have an expected outcome and must be evaluated against that. And everything is seen in utilitarian terms; i.e. according to how useful it will be to us. And this has significant consequences, even for basic skills like literacy and numeracy, as I know from my own work. Despite vast resources being devoted to teaching these skills, there are still a significant number of people who just cannot learn them, and this number seems to be growing rather than diminishing. At the same time, reading and maths are understood more and more to be mere mechanistic operations, or they are placed in a utilitarian context with no intrinsic meaning attached to them. But this is a very narrow approach which can be positively counter-productive for many people, who need to be able to make some connection to their inner world in order to learn. For Ibn ‘Arabi, by contrast, the very letters the alphabet were spiritual realities pregnant with meaning and symbolism; he had a great vision once whilst travelling in Algeria in which he saw all the letters of the Arabic alphabet as celestial intelligences, and experienced mystical union with each one of them, witnessing the particularity of its ‘messagership’. And he saw the vast potential of symbolism and beauty which their combination into words, letters, sentences, could express. From this moment, he describes, poetry just flowed out of him without any effort.

Similarly, numbers have been seen by all the wisdom traditions as containing the very secrets of the universe; the Greeks were not exploring the properties of irrational numbers or geometric shapes in order to compute their cash flows. They were trying to uncover sacred realities. And the builders of the great cathedrals, of Chartres, the Aga Sofia, the Taj Mahal, who designed according to the principles of sacred geometry, were expressing a profound understanding of the meaning of two-ness, threeness, etc.. And they did not do this because it was a cost effective mode of construction but because of their desire to praise and glorify God. The results are some of the greatest and most enduring achievements of humankind, and the creation of spaces which in their very structure act as reminders to the soul; to enter them is have an experience of order, beauty and infinity which awakens in us a memory of another, more essential place to which we belong. And we all acknowledge their power and grandeur; when I visited the Taj Mahal a couple of years ago, the thing which really struck me – apart from its really incredible beauty, which is quite overwhelming – was its obvious ability to speak to every human being, evidenced by the fact that the visitors came from every human race and culture, every religion, and were of all ages and types. These things have a universal appeal because they speak to that which is universal within us; i.e. our capacity to perceive and respond to the unity which is the underlying reality of the world.

So this leads to the fourth and final point I want to make today; that the knowledge of the heart is undertaken for its own sake, not for any limited end; for praise and for the expression of beauty, not for achieving any measurable target. And this means that it is undertaken for love. I have said that for the Islamic tradition the heart is not the seat of love, because for them the emotions and the passions are located in the liver, not the heart. But as the place which receives and comprehends the myriad of meanings which are constantly manifest in both the interior and exterior, it is the locus within which the Divine love is enacted. Ibn ‘Arabi explains that this process, which we have already outlined, whereby the one reality manifests in all the different forms in the universe, is motivated in the first place by the Divine love. It is a very important, and perhaps unique, feature of his exposition that the notions of love and knowledge are indissolubly linked for him in a single movement; in this he relies upon a Divine saying, uttered by God through the mouth of the prophet Muhammad:

I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, therefore I created the world that I might be known.

So this process whereby the one reality manifests in a multiplicity of forms which impress themselves upon the heart and are seen there for what they are, i.e., the beautiful revelations of the One, is the enactment of the process of manifestation and witnessing which is the origin of the whole cosmos. And as this has no other end from the Divine side than the desire to be known and loved back, so the response, from our side, has to be equally unconditioned. Therefore the education of the heart consists, in a very essential way, of coming to a point where a truly free, unconditioned response is possible for us – i.e. without the interference of our ego, our desires, or our wish for power and control. As Bulent Rauf said in his very lovely short paper on The Essential:

The lover has to know for certain that love is returned for love, and not for any other consideration – riches, help, comfort or bargain…

So finally, then, in our last few minutes; how do we cultivate these qualities of the heart? Much has already been said, fortunately, else we would be here all night. But two things that it would be good to mention for completion. One is, that the heart is essentially a receptive faculty, and it appears, or flourishes, or however you want to put it, in stillness and silence. It action is contemplation, as opposed to activity, and in this it is pragmatically in very sharp contrast to the way that we operate when we are dominated by our intellectual mode. Therefore the fundamental practice needed for its development is withdrawal from our usual modes of operation – from actively seeking, actively organising, actively understanding – and the creation of a contemplative space where we can learn to be receptive to, to witness the ‘messages’ we are constantly receiving. We have spoken a lot in this talk about the ‘eye’ of the heart, but it equally possible, and perhaps more appropriate when talking about this aspect of ‘withdrawal’, to talk about ‘hearing’, as Rumi did in the very first passage which I quoted; what is ‘heard’ is the call, as he puts it, of God saying: I am near.

For Ibn ‘Arabi, it is not the outer form of the practice which matters, so I am not going to go into this at all, but the inner orientation; so this withdrawal could be physical, in terms of periods of actual retreat from the world. Or it can be shorter periods of time set aside each day or week for meditation or contemplation; or it can be a completely interior practice, of being able to withdraw into an interior space even though outwardly in the midst of life, and within the Islam tradition this last was considered to be the highest level of achievement, being the state of those who the Quran mentions for whom “buying and selling does not distract from the remembrance of God”.

Secondly, alongside this setting up of a contemplative space, is the practice of learning to tolerate uncertainty and lack of definition; to be able stand in front of, and stay with, that which we do not know, as my friend advocating ‘staying’ in contemplation in front of the mysteries of observation with quantum mechanical particles. It seems to me that we do have some precedent for this practice in modern European thought, in that this is very much what Keats refers to when he talks about ‘Negative capability’. This he defined as the state of:

…being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason

This attitude which was later expressed very well by another poet, Rilke (1875-1926), in his Letters to a Young Poet, as follows:

I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as you can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.

And as we have found ourselves in the European tradition, I thought it would be nice to end with another quote from the Romantic poets which seems to me to be very much in tune with what has been said in this lecture. These are Wordsworth’s famous lines from Tintern Abbey which describe his understanding of poetic sensibility as:

That serene and blessed mood
In which the affections gently lead us on
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.


Educating the Heart: Establishing a Spiritual Perspective in the Modern World

by Jane Clark