The twin states of proximity (qurb) and distance (bu’d) are common amongst us all. Whenever we set goals for ourselves, be they personal, professional or spiritual, that usually marks the beginning of a series of ups and downs. Sometimes we feel like we are close to achieving what we desire, and sometimes it feels like we never will.
Proximity and distance are twin states because, from the Sufi perspective, feeling close to divine union (or union with your ultimate goal) means you are further than you think you are, and feeling so far off the goal is usually a sign that you are closer than you think. Al-Qushayri writes,
When anyone notices proximity, this becomes a veil that separates her from proximity.
Why is this so?
Because the secret of proximity and distance lies in the fact that both miss the mark. If you feel like you’re finally close to accomplishing a spiritual goal–then the Sufis would consider that a sign that your ego has reared its head again, which means you have more work to do. If you feel like you are never going to reach your goal, then you are closer than you think because this humble state is the quicker way to self-realization. The wise man is he who knows he knows nothing at all.
The fact of the matter is our sense of being close or far off our goals is a game our minds play. In fact, it’s a game our ego plays because we are attaching some sort of value (or lack thereof) to our goal–and thus our progress becomes some sort of statement about our worth.
For the Sufis, it is not the goal that matters but the process. It’s the process of committing to daily rituals to align yourself with a truer vision of reality. It’s the process of returning to your commitments even if you’ve broken your vows to your self a thousand times or more. It’s the process of purifying your inner self, of turning to your inner self, of learning about your inner self, over and over again, in every moment and in every challenge. That is where the alchemy lies, in being with the process both in the rough patches and when it’s smooth sailing. And the final achievement, the unity of the Self (fana’ followed by baqa’), will arise spontaneously without any exertion of your will, but by the grace of God alone, in other words by the fulfillment of the Universal Will.
Translating this into yoga, the same principles apply. Wanting to be a “yogi” or “yogini” is futile in many ways. The closer you think you are to becoming a yogini, the further you probably are in reality due to your attachment to being considered so. The further you think you are, the more of a yogi you naturally become on the basis of your humility alone. True yoga lies in the daily practice that facilitates aligning with the Self, without attachment to the goal. As Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, liberation comes from acting without attachment to the fruit of your action. As a teacher of mine says, your right is to act but you are not entitled to the result of your action.
Cultivating such a state opens your heart to the influx of the grace of union because your heart isn’t already filled to the brim with expectations or disappointments. Rather, it sits free and open to all things, without limit. That state of expansiveness allows for true proximity.
Exploring Proximity and Distance
Take up a seated pose for extended meditation. As you sit, rest your focus lightly on your breath wherever it is most prominent for you (in the rise and fall of your belly or chest, or in the movement of air around your nostrils). Tune in to your stream of consciousness, and gently become aware of your thoughts. Begin to notice which of your thoughts express a state of proximity and which express a state of distance. Which thoughts feel completely neutral from both states? For example, one thought may be, “I’m feeling very relaxed and in tune right now,” (proximity) and another may be, “I can’t seem to focus. I keep getting lost in thought. I am not good at this” (distance).
Allow these thoughts to come and go, simply tagging them as “proximity” or “distance.”
Once you have a sense of whether or not the majority of your thoughts in this present moment express proximity or distance, take a deep cleansing breath in and release all your tension out with your exhale.
Settle into a natural breathing pattern again, and this time try not to tag any of your thoughts and see if you can instead move towards resting your awareness on the field of consciousness in which your thoughts arise. When a thought emerges, decide in this phase of your meditation that it is neither important, nor is it not important. Just let it be and fade. Be and fade. In the meantime, what is just beyond the thoughts that come and go? Can you get a sense of the process of thinking that is behind the individual thoughts themselves? Can you release yourself into this process, this consciousness, that allows for you to think?
Now let yourself go completely, and don’t try to do anything at all. Just sit and be with whatever is.
When you’re ready, become more aware of your physical body once more. Feel your arms and legs, your torso, your heart and head from the inside out. Then open your eyes gently and look at your body, appreciating it for what it truly is: the best vehicle for your spiritual journey.
Bring your hands to your heart, bow and say “Alhamdulilah” or “Namaste.”
This practice is adapted from a meditation session and advice Dr. Christopher Hareesh Wallis shared in a workshop with my YTT peers. He is an amazing teacher, and truly a source of great wisdom and experience on the spiritual path.
Similarly, while exploring physical yoga, pay attention to when you feel aligned with a pose and when you are struggling against it. Tag these moments as expressions of “proximity” and “distance” with regards to your goals. Then move into a state where you can cultivate a presence with whatever your body is feeling, whether it is challenged (dukkha) or at ease (sukha). See if you can make yourself aware of the energy of your body from the inside out.
Next time, we explore the spiritual station of Scrupulousness or Discernment, and how to figure out what is of benefit to our overall wellbeing, and how to have the strength to leave aside what isn’t.
P.S. I apologize for being so late with this instalment of the series! I just finished the final paper and exam for my Ph.D. coursework and am now free for more regular updates! Thank you for joining me on this journey ❤
See my introduction to this series: The Sufi Journey through Yoga.