I was born near New York City and grew up in a Catholic working-class family, and had a strong interest in spirituality even before I knew what spirituality really was. In my university years, I began to study the Far Eastern traditions, particularly Buddhism, and I studied Sanskrit for a few years. That was my entry into the subject of consciousness because it was really consciousness and human development that I was interested in, more than religion in the conventional sense of the word. I see Sufism as being a discipline of human development through love, through the awakening and purification of the heart, which is the core knowing of the human being, the fundamental cognitive instrument that we have.

So what to do with the heart, how to develop it, how to awaken it, I think this is a very fundamental human question if not the fundamental human question

I was studying these things during the late ’60s, which was a time when spiritual teachers from around the world were coming to North America and where there was a great new interest in consciousness arising. I had an opportunity to meet a number of these spiritual teachers and not just meet them, but to actually work with some of them, including a little bit of time at the Zen Center in San Francisco with the great Suzuki Roshi and also with a teacher who focused on the practices of Gurdjieff and Zen. And so I had met masters of awareness, masters of will, masters of consciousness, but when I met a master of love, everything changed. That was a man in his ’80s from Turkey, whose name was Suleyman Dede. He was the Mevlevi Sheikh of Konya, Turkey, and that is a Sheikh of Rumi’s tradition.

When I met Dede, as we called him, I felt somehow a radiating love that was unlike anything that I had experienced. And to me that seemed like the true gold compared to other precious metals. This was an entirely different experience and I realized, this really is what I was looking for, and I believe what every heart yearns for. He was a humble, in a way very ordinary man, but his ordinariness was truly extraordinary. Even though he was a rather unsentimental and simple man without a great deal of education, we felt a kind of melting process going on and tears came to our eyes. I’m now speaking for my wife as well, and for other people that came to know him.

That experience of being loved was a very central experience in our lives. Not that I think we are very needy or even knew we were looking for that, nor was it the feeling of being loved by just a particular human being. It was more cosmic than that. It was the realization somehow that we live in a universe of love and that we were created to know this, and we were created to experience the true dimensions of what, for lack of a better language, I’ll call the divine love. That this is really the nature of being, this is the nature of the reality we live in, and it never became so apparent as when we were in the presence of this Sufi Sheik, and not only him, but other Sufis and other Sufi Sheikhs. He wasn’t unique, but he was exemplary, you might say.

There was a beauty in this experience that touched my heart. And I think for a long time I had been interested in something about the human beings. Some sense that human beings have a higher capacity for emotion than we normally think. That there are higher levels of emotional experience that are far beyond the typical emotions that psychology treats, like anger and fear, and desire, but that there are much subtler levels of human emotion that could be experienced. And I was always interested in this. Now, I was beginning to get the real material and to be among people who seem to know how these experiences could be cultivated.

The science of the heart is a science of qualities, not of quantities

It was as if there was a science of love, a science of the heart. But to call it a science is a bit misleading because the science of the heart is very, very different from our quantitative sciences, such as physics and chemistry, and biology. It’s different because the science of the heart is a science of qualities, not of quantities. And it’s the human heart, this instrument that we have, which is our core subjective experience. It’s through this heart that we have a qualitative experience of this life.

What I mean by that is, every human being, every normal, healthy human being at least, longs for relationship. Relationships are one of our most important and treasured experiences. What is it that is sensing the importance, the beauty, the necessity of relationships? You could say it’s the heart that is the organ of relationship. And to just simply be in relationship to another conscious being who is simply here, present with us, is one of the greatest experiences of life.

But that’s not the end of it because the heart also can begin to move through stages of this experience to the point where we begin to sense that there is a presence operating in existence that we could also have a relationship with. I don’t mean to present this as if we’re relating to some great infinite person in the form of a conventional idea of God, but know that there’s something operating in all the events of life and all the manifestations of life and intelligence, a compassion, a nurturing, that is guiding and educating a soul.

As the heart begins to awaken, we begin to sense, not only are human beings tender, sensitive beings, but we begin to experience that this whole life is animate

When the heart is awakened, the heart becomes very sensitive to this presence. And as this develops in a mystic like Rumi, for instance, he begins to talk of some very great You. You with a capital Y, and one of the first questions to answer when considering the poetry of these mystics and of especially Rumi is, what is this You? Who is this You that he’s talking about? He may call it the beloved. That kind of gives it a metaphoric, personal form, but it’s something that’s beyond the personal. It is something truly cosmic. For somebody like Rumi and for Sufis, the presence of this You is something that is experienced through the heart. It touches us deeply. I don’t think it’s wishful thinking; I don’t think it’s fantasy. I think it is perceived by this instrument that we call the heart, and can be verified by the mind, or it can be thought about by the mind, but it is not an experience of the thinking mind. It’s an experience that comes to the heart when we begin to sense that this life is somehow purposeful and meaningful. And that there is just something going on beyond appearances that doesn’t have to do with beliefs or theologies, but it’s a lived experience.

Let’s talk about the heart, when the heart is numb as opposed to when the heart is awake and alive. Many of us in the contemporary world are living with numbed hearts. Meaning, when the heart is not enlivened and healthy and awake, everything out here is just things. Even people are just things that we can exploit, manipulate. But as the heart begins to awaken, we begin to sense, not only are human beings tender, sensitive beings, but we begin to experience that this whole life is animate. That there’s nothing inanimate. The native Americans, or first nations have a good sense of this. For them, all the animals, the trees, the rocks, all have a living quality. To me, this is a sign that the heart is awake. But when the heart shuts down, when it does become numbed, there are only things. This is a terrible poverty. To live in such a state is less than human. It’s a crippled state of our humanness.

So the question for all of us is, how do we overcome our numbness, which is often caused by pain or trauma? Sometimes it’s caused by overindulgence, which also is often a reaction to our own emotional pain. We feel emotional pain at one level, we just want to sort of shut it down. And so we indulge in substances or drink or even food or entertainments. All of this contributes to a numbing of the heart.