Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee | Embracing the Beloved

Learning the flow of love

Romance was a loving and painful way to be cooked. There were different ingredients, different herbs and spices. On the deepest human level there was a soul-link, a relationship and love that belong to a different dimension, that we brought with us from before. I always knew that Anat was the one woman I would really love; about this there was never a question or doubt. I also sensed that we had come together for a certain work, a purpose beyond our own individual life. Years later, when we came to California to start a Sufi Center, this purpose became clearer.

But in those early years there was just the intensity of loving, and the soul-link was combined with a powerful projection. She was my goddess, and embodied the beauty and mystery of the feminine world. I was held fascinated, enthralled. One day, some years later, I was shown the simple power of this projection, and how it can turn an ordinary woman into a mysterious goddess. By this time I had realized the real inner wonder of the anima and no longer needed to project her. But in the short space of an hour I saw this projection fall onto a woman and transform her. It happened after meditation one day in my teacher’s flat, as I visibly experienced a woman suddenly become mysterious, profoundly beautiful, and alluring. For fifteen minutes she carried the irresistible attraction of the goddess, and my eyes and my whole inner attention were drawn to her. Then something in me withdrew the projection, and to my astonishment she was suddenly just an ordinary woman. There was no mystery, no allure. She was just another woman in the room. Again my projection fell on her, and in that moment she changed back, once again carrying the magic of a goddess. Then finally the projection was again withdrawn, the curtain that caught the light of my own soul was lifted, and the woman in front of me was again dressed in the clothes of this world. I had been allowed to witness the wondrous power of the anima projection.

For about seven years I was lost in the magical whirlpool of romantic love. I had found my soul’s idol and worshiped her. I tasted the honeyed nectar of the goddess and also encountered her terrifying power. I was torn between the opposites of the divine and the ordinary, between the projection and the personality, between the heart’s desire and the difficulties of two strong individuals living together. Through prayer and pain I tried to reconcile these impossible opposites, and was taken inward, along the maze of the psyche, forced to confront and accept many difficult aspects of myself.

I began to learn about the nature of human loving, the mysterious ebb and flow of love that happens between two people. Like everything in this world, love has masculine and feminine qualities. The masculine aspect of love is “I love you” and it carries a commitment to stay true to this statement of the heart. For me this was easy, to be steadfast in loving whatever the difficulties, for it carries the quality of a challenge and the drive to persevere. Whatever the difficulties, the love remained, and I knew that love was the only lasting reality. Once, when the relationship seemed to be swamped by psychological difficulties, I inwardly asked my sheikh, and in a dream he just told me, “Love is the wine.”

I found the feminine nature of love more difficult. my Sufi teacher often quoted the lines of an Italian love song, “to hold love with light hands,” and I had to learn this wisdom. While the masculine holds firm in loving, the feminine nature of love is its eternal flow and change, the fluctuations of the heart. The currents of love would carry me back and forth, sometimes deeply in love, sometimes withdrawing. I began to understand the sacredness of the space between two people, and how that space holds the real magic of the relationship, its invisible quality. At the beginning I wanted to always hold her, for the wonderful closeness to be always there. But gradually I became aware that this limits a relationship, limits the ability of love to flow. When we were married, my teacher quoted to us the passage from The Prophet by Kahil Gibran:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls
… Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Learning to give space to another’s loving and another’s life is not easy. I wanted to hold, to possess, to feel the security of ownership. Soon after I was married I felt a primitive instinct to take my wife off to a cave of my own, where she would belong only to me!

Spirit and matter

The Sufis say that the only real relationship, the only real loving, is with the Beloved. But through human relationships we can learn to love Him, just as a little girl plays with dolls, because one day she will become a mother. Through the power of projection I was drawn into the arena of human loving, into the touch and taste of lips meeting. I began to understand my own human nature, as well as the ways of love. I finally put aside the cloak of the ascetic, my desire to renounce the world. I had found love, not on the remote mountain-top or in the desert, but in a physical embrace, in the magic of the feminine.

I came to realize that the particular power of the anima and the potency of being in love come from the combination of spirit and matter. The eternal beauty of a woman combines the two worlds, the Creator and the creation—as Rûmî says, “A woman is God shining through subtle veils.” In the face and body of her whom I loved I experienced the inner and outer worlds dancing together, the magic at the core of creation. One night I was told in a dream that the essence of the anima is “spirit impregnated with matter.” The anima belongs to the soul, to the spiritual center of ourself, but she carries the seed of matter, the wonder of the created world. The anima rises from the unconscious through the alchemy of love in which there is the need of the soul to be known, to be experienced here, in this world. Pure desire, solely physical attraction, will never constellate the anima.  Love alone can combine the two worlds, and the deeper the love, the more unconditional its nature, the more these worlds, the human and the divine, can be brought together. From this union of love, the qualities of the soul can become conscious.

But love drew me further, and I was not allowed to remain forever with my eyes and heart turned towards a woman. The very captivating quality of love, that it combines the human and divine, was also the crucifix that freed me. In the impossible moments, when the conflicts and the difficulties of human loving seemed just torture and betrayal, I cried to God, to the one Beloved who I knew could never desert me. I asked why I was made to love in this world of contradictions and imprefections, why I was caught in the web of loving a woman. In these nights of despair and soul-searching, when the opposites seemed irreconcilable, an alchemical inner process was turning lead into gold, transmuting my romantic nature into devotion. The inner feminine began to return to my own heart, to reveal the qualities of Sophia who opens us to the deepest meaning of life. She is the divine feminine who leads us into the presence of Truth.

One day I suddenly knew that I could never be in love again. I knew that this phase of my life was over; the clothing of the romantic had been put aside. I felt tremendous sadness at the time, as if a door to a human experience had been closed. Since adolescence I had felt the attraction of romantic love and the desire to worship a woman. The inner process of the path had freed me from this attachment, but I also regretted its passing. Once again I felt separate from the normal patterns of human life. I felt the inner aloneness of the mystic. But since then I have found a love that is far beyond anything that can be experienced between people, however much they are in love. I see the frailty of human love-affairs, and how much of an illusion is romantic love. With my Beloved there are no psychological problems, nor differences of character. There are not two people, but a merging and melting into oneness, and a presence that is always within the heart.

Recently I sat next to a young woman on a plane and we began to talk. I told her that I lectured on dreams and she shared a near-death experience she had had. I knew from the experience that she was an old soul who was destined to see beneath the veils of illusion. The young woman was just out of college, and was telling me about a man she loved, who did not seem to be in love with her. I asked her what she wanted from life and she replied, “To love and be loved.” In my heart I knew the truth of what she said, and how a man could never answer the depth of her need. However, as she talked about her boyfriend I saw that she had, as yet, no other concept of love. I said nothing, but felt the sadness of an old traveler who knows the length and suffering of the journey that awaits someone just starting out.

Shaper of beauty

There was another ingredient to my romantic loving which only now I begin to appreciate. I realize that what I saw in Anat was not just the numinosity of my projection, the beauty of the soul. There was another light dancing around her form, caught in the curl of her hair, in the curves of her body. Through the veils of form the beauty of the real Beloved was shining; a luminous epiphany permeated her being. Inwardly my eyes were open to this light. Seeing but unknowing, I was caught, entranced.

Over the centuries we have separated the sensual and spiritual. But lovers have left hints of the secret hidden within the physical world, reflected in its beauty. Sufi poetry uses the symbolism of a woman’s beauty to describe aspects of the divine: her curl signifies “the Divine Selfhood, unto which no one can penetrate,”[13] her beauty spot the “Divine Essence itself.” More explicit is the poetry of Mirabai, who knew of the soul’s rapture with her Dark Lord, Krishna, and speaks of the body’s “hidden treasures”:

O friend, understand: the body
is like the ocean,
rich with hidden treasures.
Open your innermost chamber and light its lamp.
Within the body are gardens,
rare flowers, the inner Music;
within the body a lake of bliss,
on it the white soul-swans take their joy.
And in the body, a vast market­ —
go there, trade,
sell yourself for a profit you can’t spend.
Mira says, her Lord is beyond praising.
Allow her to dwell near your feet.[14]

The body of a woman beckons to a man with the secret hidden within creation, the beauty of the Beloved’s face. The feminine holds this secret, which for the Sufi is symbolized in the very word of creation, Kun (Be!).

In the beauty permeating my beloved I felt for the first time this quality of divine immanence rather than transcendence. Before, I had always loved Him as beyond form, sought Him in the emptiness. Now I felt Her, saw Her, could even touch this divine quality. In this way the Beloved drew me nearer, revealed more of His secret. In Himself He is unknowable, but through His qualities, His names and attributes, we can come to know Him. I found Him as Al-Musawwir, the shaper of beauty.

The danger in feeling the sensuous beauty of the divine is that we may try to possess It. With my invisible Beloved I am always the victim, waiting for Him to come. In my longing I cry to Him, but I never know when I will feel Him in my heart. Sometimes He has been absent for months. But the physical world is a tangible presence. She whom I adore can be held in my arms. Reaching out I can feel her softness, sense the nourishment of the divine. To experience the beauty of the Beloved in a woman can be a dangerous addiction, in which physical desire can be confused with longing. Longing for God, feeling the pain of the heart, I would also know that there was a woman, a physical presence, with whom I could taste a bliss that was not just sexual. Whose scent did I really smell when the perfume of the Beloved was mingled with that of a woman? Longing and pain, confusion and bliss, the different realities interpenetrated. But through the ebb and flow of our relationship I have never been allowed to feel any sense of possession. I also knew deep down that no external beloved would be enough, no human loving fulfill me. Inwardly I was always looking elsewhere, crying out in my heart to be taken by God to God. The passion of my soul was only partly contained in a woman, long enough to know Her presence, to no longer reject this world as empty of love.

Finding the Beloved here, in the beauty of a woman, opened my heart. When the heart is opened it knows the source of its longing and turns towards this One Light. The power of the heart’s deepest desire helped drag me through the maze of the psyche, and also pull back the projection of my own soul. The light of the Beloved was a catalyst in this process, drawing me into the physical embrace, but not then allowing the divine to be limited to a single person. Finally I found this light all around me, saw His beauty wherever I looked.

Abi’l Khayr says that “love is God’s trap.” I was trapped long ago, my soul caught in His embrace. But I needed to put aside the limitations of the renunciate and bring this love into the world. For the imprint of His presence to be made real I was caught in the beauty of a woman, in the wonder that is hidden within creation. Slowly this wonder crept into consciousness. I was no longer alienated from this world, but began to feel the magic that is life itself.


NOTE: This memoir is an excerpt from Vaughan-Lee’s book, The Face Before I was Born: A Spiritual Autobiography, published by the Golden Sufi Center and reprinted with permission. See also Vaughan-Lee’s Working with Oneness: The Role of the Feminine and the Reemergence of the World Soul

[1] Rumi, Fragments, Ecstasies, p. 14. trans. Daniel Liebert

[2] Yellow is the Colour by Donovan.

[3] The Practice of the Presence of God, trans. John Delaney, p. 87.

[4] Quoted by Laleh Bakhtiar, Sufi Expressions of the Mystic Quest, p. 21.

[5] Hâfez, Sufi Symbolism, Vol. 1, Javad Nurbakhsh, p. 78.

[6] Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore, pp. 441-442, slightly edited.

[7] Told by Faridduddin ‘Attâr, Muslim Saints and Mystics, trans. A.J. Arberry, pp. 93-94.

[8] The Psychology of Romantic Love, p. 3.

[9] Trans. Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi, pp. 132-133.

[10] Song of Songs, 6:10.

[11] C.G. Jung, Emma Jung and Toni Wolff, A Collection of Remembrances, p. 53.

[12] The passage about the two dreams is adapted from the author’s The Call and the Echo, pp. 83-86.

[13] Nurbakhsh, Sufi Symbolism, Vol. 1, p. 75.

[14] Women in Praise of the Sacred, ed. Jane Hirshfield, p. 138.


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