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a sufi's perspective on relationships
Photography by amy from make-a-wish

a sufi's perspective on relationships

by Joe DiSabatino joe disabatino
Cultivate Relationships | Couple

Sufism and the layers of the heart
A Sufi is someone who has made a total commitment to return to the One by traveling the path of the heart, the path of love. Sufis are experts on the inner landscape of the heart. Sufis say it is only in the awakened heart that we can begin to taste and experience our true divine nature. The great Sufi mystics of the past gave us a model or map of the heart’s road that leads back to the Source. Early writers such as al-Hakim al –Timiridh describes four primary layers of the heart, and subsequent writers elaborated on the 28 “stations” or subdivisions of the four primary layers of the heart.

For the sake of simplicity, I have found the “four-layers of the heart” model to be an extremely useful and timeless spiritual perspective on all aspects of my life, especially for understanding relationships. Put simply, the four layers of the heart are as follows:

Layer 1: the uppermost layer of the heart, or the ego self. Layer 1 is where the ego is rooted in the heart; it is the emotional underpinnings of the ego. We all need a healthy ego to function in the world but the downside comes from the ego needing to be in control, to dominate, criticize, put itself first, to grasp and horde. The Sufi word for the lower tendencies of the ego is “the nafs”. The ego uses emotions from the surface layer of the heart—such as anger, jealousy, fear—to fuel and justify its limited and separative view of itself and the world.

The ego also has a higher side—the rational mind with its capacity for logic and objectivity. The rational mind can hold and reflect a certain degree of spiritual light, according to the Sufis, if it is connected to the deeper layers of the heart.

 Layer 2: the inner heart. In Arabic, the word for heart is “qalb” which means “that which turns”. This definition is profound because the heart does seem to turn. Sometimes it feels open and full, other times it feels contracted and empty—oftentimes for no reason we can identify. Sometimes the heart faces the world and is overly influenced by externals that disturb it; other times the heart faces the Source within and finds itself at peace despite whatever is happening on the outside.

In Layer 2, the heart begins to free itself from the demands of the grasping ego. It is in Layer 2 that the expansive feelings of unconditional love, joy, compassion, awe, prayerfulness, gratitude, the appreciation of beauty, serenity and contentment are experienced. Greater sensitivity and the ability to attune to subtle shifts in feeling, atmosphere, mood (your’s or others’) come in at this layer.

Layer 3: the soul. This layer is less personal than Layer 2 and even further removed from an ego-based perspective. Sufis teach that it is in the soul where our spiritual jewels or divine qualities reside in seed form. The divine qualities are the archetypes that find expression in the world in manifold ways. Expressions of power, love, wisdom, justice and patience are examples of the divine qualities made manifest, although usually they are distorted by the personal heart and the ego. There is a deep stillness and profound silence to be experienced in the depths of Layer 3 that contrasts with the waves of emotion closer to the surface in Layer 2 of the heart.

Layer 4: the secret. What is the secret? According to the Sufis, it is the truth of our oneness or unity with the Divine. It is difficult to use words to describe this experience. At Layer 4, the bubble of the separate self dissolves and transforms into the Ocean. All definitions of ourselves—“I am this”, “I am that”—are experienced as temporary illusions that veil us from the reality of our true Self.

Each layer of the heart has a corresponding inner “voice” that whispers advice in our ear and urges us to take certain actions based on its own perspective. Sufi learn to discriminate between these voices, to distinguish between the voice of the “nafs”, for instance, and the voice of the deep heart.

So how can this Sufi map of the heart be applied to relationships?

When in relationship, particularly in romantic relationships, the first three layers of each person’s heart, consciously and unconsciously, come into contact. When in the throes of “falling in love”, the average person experiences feelings from Layer 2 at a deeper level than he/she usually does on their own. Those expansive feelings tend to recede after a few months because they are dependent on an outside source. Then the relationship gradually settles into default mode, an arrangement where person A’s heart Layer 1 is relating to person’s B’s heart Layer 1. In other words, ego to ego.

That can work as long as each person’s ego needs—for affection, passion, attention, security, material goods, laughter, excitement, whatever--- are getting mostly fulfilled. But let something important change in that formula and then there’s trouble. “My needs are no longer getting met in this relationship” goes the old refrain. “You’re not the same as you used to be.”

Partners who are listening to the voice of their “nafs” will blame, punish the other in various ways, manipulate, dominate, submit, threaten and strive to control the emotional climate and amount of intimacy permitted in the relationship.

Sufis are taught how to access the deeper feelings in the 2nd layer of their hearts without relying on another person or “falling in love” to awaken that capacity. Every heart is thirsty for love but once you realize that the Source of the love is within you, then you stop seeking or demanding it from another person. That doesn’t mean Sufis become self-sufficient, no longer interested in relationships.

The shift that occurs is that a Sufi shares the love with a partner that he/she is already getting internally from the Source. When both partners are able to do that, then there is a qualitative difference in the nature of the relationship--it’s lighter, sweeter, deeper, more expansive, with much less conflict of wills than in ego-based relationships.

A Sufi not only feeds the heart of his/her beloved but also strives to be a “container” during the times when the partner’s heart is contracted with difficult feelings. This means staying grounded in one’s own inner connection to the Source while “being there” for the other. Sufis learn the art of intuitive listening and the deeper skill of literally feeling into the heart of another person.

When your partner is talking, you listen not only to the words but, with inner ears and inner eyes, to the condition of the partner’s heart. Healing love energy can be sent into the specific places in the other person’s heart where there is pain. This is done without giving advice which usually comes from the head and not the heart. I recall a trained Sufi healer and friend saying to me once, as I was sharing some difficult feelings, “Joe, when I look into your heart, here is what I see.” And then she told me what she saw and it was totally accurate but not at all evident from the words I was speaking. I never felt so understood.

In this kind of relationship, person A’s heart Layer 2 is primarily relating to person’s B’s heart Layer 2. In other words, deep heart to deep heart. The exchange of love is much more unconditional because the giving is not dependent on what you are receiving from the other person, but rather it is a sharing of what is received from the Source.

Partners listening to the voice of their deep heart will strive to understand, nurture, forgive, provide support, be generous with appreciation, and express their love in novel and creative ways. A Sufi friend of mine occasionally arranges surprise holidays for he and his wife--she doesn’t know where they are going until they get on the plane. Is it possible to actually see and experience your partner’s soul, to see beyond their personality to the spark of divinity that lies at Level 3 of their heart? This is what the great spiritual masters through the ages do. They are not interested in your personality, they are only interested in watering the seeds of your divinity that they can see in your soul. This ability is latent in all of us.

Of course you will only see in others what you see in yourself. Although there are certain moments when insight into the soul of another comes as a gift-- I have spoken to mothers who say that during pregnancy or shortly after birth, they became aware of their child’s soul, the unique divine essence inhabiting the physical body of the child. Some could see the beautiful light that the child’s soul carried with it into the physical plane.

Two people can live together for decades and never really know each other’s deep heart or soul. One way to do this is during meditation when you are feeling connected to your own soul. Then spend a few moments traveling inwards and try to “see” your partner’s soul. A Sufi teacher I know conducted family workshops where one of the exercises was for the parent to do that and to send love to their son or daughter’s (who were not present) soul. It was not uncommon for a mom or dad to report back later that their teenager, who they had been in conflict with, had run up to them upon returning home and say with a big hug “I love you, mom!”, “I love you, dad!” You can communicate with your partner’s or to a family member’s soul. You just have to connect to your own soul first and then move around in the borderless world of the 3rd layer of your heart to connect to the soul of a loved one.

Partners listening to the voice of their soul at heart Level 3 will support and encourage their partner’s spiritual growth. They meditate together, read inspiring spiritual literature to each other such as Rumi poetry, attend workshops with a spiritual theme together, do community service together or simply delight in the sparkle in their beloved’s eyes that comes from his or her’s joyful connection to the Source.

Sufis marry for the sole (soul) purpose of supporting each other on their journey Home. Experiencing the 4th layer of the heart, the secret, is an individual achievement. The 4th layer of the heart is deepest place within us that no one else can enter except the Real Beloved. You can’t take another person there or go there with them. Two souls can temporarily merge as one in sexual union or at other times but that is not the final goal. Sufis understand this and therefore do not place unrealistic expectations on their partner. Unending union with the partner is not the goal; whereas unending union with the Real Beloved is. Knowing this fosters a healthy sense of spiritual independence rather than co-dependence.

Partners listening to the silent voice of the secret at heart Layer 4 keep that part of themselves hidden from everyone except the Real Beloved. No other human being can go there. It’s the secret garden. In Sufi relationships, everything is given but something essential is withheld. That is why they work---because Sufis are married not only to each other but to the Real Beloved within.

What if one partner is a Sufi, and the other person isn’t a Sufi? Will it still work? 

Love is self-communicative. The partner with a Sufi perspective can awaken the other’s deep heart and touch his/her soul with or without their conscious knowledge or participation. Research at Heartmath has demonstrated that the heart of a person feeling love or appreciation sends out frequency waves that alters the brain and heart rhythms of another person within a measureable distance of five feet (the distance is probably greater, the physical equipment is limited to a short range).

“Love has to spring spontaneously from within; it is in no way amenable to any form of inner or outer force. Love and coercion can never go together; but while love cannot be forced upon anyone, it can be awakened through love itself. Love is essentially self-communicative; those who do not have it catch it from those who have it. Those who receive love from others cannot be its recipients without giving a response that, in itself, is the nature of love. True love is unconquerable and irresistible. It goes on gathering power and spreading itself until eventually it transforms everyone it touches. Humanity will attain a new mode of being and life through the free and unhampered interplay of pure love from heart to heart.” - Spiritual Master Meher Baba