Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self
by Kabir Edmund Helminski. Book Review by DT Strain.
Kabir Helminski is a publisher and translator of numerous books of Sufi literature. He has worked for many years promoting Sufism and Jalaluddin Rumi’s works. He is also a producer and writer of Sufi music and a representative of the Mevlevi tradition founded by Rumi.
In Living Presence, Helminski gives an insightful and fascinating tour of some of the most universal, deep, and yet practical aspects of Sufiism. I had not been very knowledgeable of Suffism, but was surprised to find so much in common with my own practices as a Spiritual Naturalist, Stoic, and Buddhist.
Helminski begins by describing what he means by presence…
“A common theme runs through all the great spiritual traditions. It goes by many names – awakening, recollection, mindfulness, dhyana, remembrance, zhikr, presence – and by no name at all.”
This presence refers to a higher state of consciousness, or awareness, than we normally tend to operate within. It affects how we exist, moment-to-moment, how we see our lives and our surroundings, and how we act within those surroundings. Helminski says this kind of presence is often buried under mundane concerns, desires, emotions, and distractions, yet he calls it a “passport to a greater life”. Through knowledge, practice, and understanding, we can begin to cultivate it, and eventually learn to activate it at will.
Much of Helminski’s book is very insightful, applicable, and accessible. But just after his introduction he chooses to begin with an intriguing – if opaque – chapter called, “The City of Separation: A Tale of Transformation”. Here, he talks about people who live in different places. He starts with a dark city covered in clouds, and moves outward to the countryside while describing the lives and views of the inhabitants therein. I’ll not spoil this fascinating description by recreating it here, but it serves as a metaphor for the life experience of someone who moves to newer places as they go through the transformation toward greater presence. This chapter, and its meanings, give much to discuss or think about.
But such transformation doesn’t often come on its own. It requires what Helminski calls “the Work”. That is, the diligent practices that bring about transformation over time. As we have often described in the Spiritual Naturalist Society, Helminski also denotes the distinction between intellectual knowledge and deeper intuitive grasping. He states, “Realization, in its fullest meaning, is not merely knowing something, but making it real in oneself.”
Helminski also points out the important difference between the Work, religion, and philosophy…
“The Work is an approach to Spirit involving a total commitment and way of life. A religion is a system of beliefs and rituals that may or may not be a form of the Work for any particular person. A philosophy is a system of ideas, an investigation into the principles that underlie knowledge and reality; it is primarily a mental system.”
He refers to such a life as a resistance to the cheapening and conventionalizing of Reality. Like SNS Advisory Board member and prominent Christian Naturalist author and speaker, Rev. Michael Dowd – Helminski capitalizes Reality and says, “For Reality, after all, is what we mean by God.”
And in this, Helminski does speak of God, and of a greater Spirit. While he shares my (and the Buddhist) view of our enslavement to the “tyranny of the ego”, he also speaks of an “Essential Self” as an ideal, which may seem at first blush to be contrary to the Buddhist notion of no-self. Yet, there is so much more, so deep, here in Helminski’s book that it is well worth the reader’s time not to be too distracted where seeming disagreements in language might appear. There are so many ways to approach these concepts that a Spiritual or Religious Naturalist should be able to come away enriched for the experience, at the least.
Helminski explores the nature of the ego, its tricks and how we can begin to view a larger framework. He covers perspectives on Nature and Being, love, and meditation in insightful and helpful ways. In addressing the aspects of the ‘false self’ and the differences between it and the ‘essential self’ it begins to sound conceptually more in harmony with what the Buddhists refer to in Right View.
Not unlike complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman, who suggests a definition of God as being the inherent creative capacity of the universe; Helminski often mentions the creative nature of the world, and says, “The human being is a channel for the creative power of the universe.” Speaking of a tangent faculty, I cannot help but be reminded of Carl Sagan’s similarly integrated view of humanity and the cosmos when he says, “We are a way for the universe to know itself”.
In perennial fashion, just before a classical Sufism list of seven stages from false self to essential Self, Helminski concludes one chapter…
“Is the essential Self something that is veiled from the conscious mind and that can be known only indirectly, like Jung’s unconscious? For Jung, the Self was an archetype of the wholeness of the unconscious. All our images of wholeness – including Divinity, Christ, and the Tao – represented this unconscious archetype, which would never be known directly. This reveals a fundamental truth of the essential Self – that it is infinite and can never be fully comprehended by consciousness alone – but it is only a partial truth, because, at the same time, we can see with the eyes of the essential Self, hear with its ears, act with its will, forgive with its forgiveness, and love with its love.”
Further on the author moves into learning how to listen, relating to others, and an integrated living practice. In all of this, the importance of being able to control one’s faculty of attention is ever-present. Helminski describes it in an interesting way, “Attention is a sacred faculty, but when it is drawn to whatever pulls strongest, it has no force of its own; it is passive. If attention is not connected to will, a human is not fully a human being.” The Stoics would agree.
In “Gathering the Fragmented Self” Helminski refers to techniques for broadening our awareness. He makes no mention of the following, but I personally was reminded of Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness. In the IIT, Tononi has created a mathematical approach to how one might approximate levels of consciousness in any system. It is the integration of information that yields higher ratings of consciousness in a system. Helminski outlines ancient disciplines for integrating our awareness which call me to want to learn more along these lines.
“To work on awakening is to extract attention or awareness from the stream of events, to cultivate an awareness that includes events, thoughts, and feelings but is not totally absorbed, or identified with them.”
Helminski then turns focus to the great transformer – love. These chapters are so insightful and make for a wonderful summary of why and how love must be the core of any truly transformative and wise spiritual practice. I am reluctant to spoil any more for the reader, suffice it to say that I would highly recommend Living Presence for anyone to read.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.