Elias Amidom - 'The Sufi Way'
An interview with Iain McNay
Iain:Hello and welcome to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay, and today our guest is Elias Amidon.
Elias: Hello Iain
Iain:Elias is a Sufi teacher, and we’re going to talk about his life, his journey, his teaching, his work. He travels a lot. It’s going to be I think a very fascinating interview. So, Elias, let’s start at the beginning when you were a child. From our conversation earlier, you were saying that actually, you had a very happy childhood.
Elias: I did. I was fortunate in that regard. Loving parents, I wasn’t oppressed by poverty or any other conflicts like that. My parents were very open, artistic. They were Unitarians. I think that essentially when I was two or three, I can remember some of my earliest recollections were of… my father loved classical music. He would play Bach and Schubert and so on, and on Sundays mornings especially, I would lay on the living room floor, the sunlight would be around, and I would hear this music, I had no idea what. The essence of well-being, safety and a kind of wonderous joy. The whole atmosphere invited it into my heart. I think that gave me a sense of stability. These are thoughts about what came about, I’ve always felt I’ve been blessed with a sense of security, no matter what’s gone on. I’ve had my share of tragedy, conflict and trouble, but underneath it all, a sense of everything is alright. I’m safe, we’re all safe. That feeling, I would trace back to those early memories.
Iain:It’s a great starting point in life. With so many people we meet on a spiritual search, haven’t come from that initial reference point, basically feeling safe. I guess that helped you to have a broader picture of life as such, is that right?
Elias: Well I think it was an important ingredient because it allowed me to venture outside my comfort zone. I remember in my teens feeling limited. Limited by a kind of parochialism I would call it, as if I was too safe. I was too American, too kept so, early on, as soon as I passed through puberty, I started venturing out. I got on my bicycle, rode for five hundred miles. The moment I left high school, seventeen I think, I got on a little motor scooter. I called it “Rocinante”, after Don Quixote and travelled out across the country, just wandering. I had a romantic notion of finding my destiny somehow. So, I could venture out and have all kinds of experiences, but at root was a feeling, I’m ok. I’m going to be alright. So, I could take risk quite a bit
Iain:And what did finding your destiny mean to you at that time?
Elias: I wanted to be a poet, so I was finding in a way material… but I wanted to play my heart, the heart strings. I wanted this life to have all sorts of music. I wanted to meet the most profound people who were alive in the world. I wanted to experience extremes of all sorts, dive into life. That’s always been a theme. Now I’m sixty- five, it hasn’t stopped.
Iain:Still diving into life.
Elias: I think so, God willing
Iain:I know when you were twenty- one you had experimentation with LSD. In fact, your first trip with LSD you took with your father which is quite an unusual situation.
Elias: We’re a small footnote in psychedelic history actually in the States, in that my father initiated me, gave me my first LSD. Usually if it ever happens it’s the other way around. He was quite opened minded, had been studying with Stan Grof, Tim Leary, Ralph Metzner, Ram Dass. So, he was awake to that kind of exploration. He was trying to find in his own way the truth, or direct recognition. What was unique and really a blessing for me, was that there was a great concern given to set, and setting. So, it was very calm. My mother handled any telephone calls, or whoever might come to the door. It was in a beautiful place. Not only was it held in a setting of beauty and safety… it wasn’t actually my father, but people he knew would come and used quite intense Socratic questioning on me. I was twenty-one, and with the usual kind of bewilderment for a twenty- one year old, this set of questioning dove right into what are your problems. What is troubling you? Those kinds of questions.
Iain:This is during the trip?
Elias: Oh yes. There were about three of them when this happened. The whole process led to… it was quite excruciating actually, to tell you the truth. It led to finally I was afraid to die. There was some almost primordial sense of fear. And that sense of fear, not matter what else I might have projected onto, came down to death.
Iain:That’s a very deep realisation to have then. At that point I was encouraged, it took a few times because it was so intense as you can appreciate, finally I felt there is no way out. I was encouraged, it’s ok you can die. It was actually to use your word earlier, a palpable experience of departure, death, of leaving everything that I was, every identity that I had, dropped away. It was as if I couldn’t breathe, as if I left behind even breathing. At that moment, and this moment, because it’s actually not any different from this moment when we sit here together, it was complete freshness. Complete openness without having a reference point. This is then the struggle of all teachers, all human beings when they come to this, is to try to describe, a sense that rather than being a somebody in here, or in there who is trying to work out, understand, know things, to chose and so on, all of that was left behind. You can appreciate it even now. This moment is always that moment, a past moment. So, there is no that moment any more, only this one. It’s always only been this one, and this moment is pure freshness for each of us, for any one who might be watching. Forgive me whilst I’m trying to describe this. In my experience or my own apprehension of time, as if everything that had ever been, the past that is, is unfindable. We have memories, but those memories are thoughts, images which when we look for them, there is nothing there. Similarly, with the future we have ideas … this interview will end, we’ll go on with our day, something else will happen, but that too is a thought, images. It’s as if this moment that we have, that we’re sharing right now is like an infinitesimal synapse between what has been and what will be. When we look for this moment, where is it? It’s always vanishing from itself. This moment has an obliteration of this time, and that’s freshness. That’s this innocence that we share not only with each other, all living beings, but everything. Everything that appears, appears in this infinitesimal synapse, now. Completely fresh, a magical display as the Tibetan’s call it, that arises out of what? Nothing, then vanishes into nothing, itself nothing, and yet it’s as if reality is a continual exhalation. Your wife mentioned earlier this word ‘Logos’ – in the beginning was ‘The Word’. In the beginning was vibration, beginning, again time. As soon as there is a beginning there is time. This beginning, this word, this vibration, we’re only vibration, light. This is just light happening. You can appreciate how it joins, it’s at one with, it’s vibrating, to whatever it’s vibrating to, it’s light, it never is other than pure this, pure now, pure this. It’s now even in the beginning there was the word and now there’s not even the word that’s how it seems to me. I know this is a way of talking and thinking, so we can dream up really interesting conversations about this kind of cosmology, but for me it’s only useful if we if we have a direct experience of ‘Oh’. It’s how you appear in this moment, how I appear in this moment, actually fresh.
Iain:It was an amazing experience you had. What happened after the trip?
Elias: It was extremely powerful. I remember it later as lasting about forty hours, this sense of absolute clarity, innocence. And then, I had no background, nothing about mysticism. I had no training. I had no anything. I don’t know, soon fell into a quarrel with my girlfriend or something like that
Iain:On the other hand, you said your father was friends with Ram Dass, Tim Leary, so there was obviously some kind of input there.
Elias: For sure, and so it started. For a couple of years, I thought well if I take more of this stuff, it’s in the pill.
Elias: It’s something if I take it, it will do this thing, but it doesn’t. It’s just a substance by grace…
Iain:It gives you a taste.
Elias: A taste, but I realised after a while, something. That whatever this is, this fresh realisation is, it’s not going to be certainly as a result of a physical substance I imbibed. I was guided one way or another to… there must be people in the world that know about this… who could guide me
Iain:So, you could have the experience without having to take the drugs.
Elias: Exactly, and that it would be sustainable, so my quest began. I was fortunate enough to find after a few years a Sufi teacher ??? 15.49. He had a school in England at that time, in Surrey. A Hankar, they are called so I stayed there for five years, deeply trained in Sufi practices.
Iain:What does that mean, training in Sufi practices, what does that entail?
Elias: At that time, in this particular tradition, any number of things. We did a lot of zikr, which is a sort of mantra practice. We practised arts of wakefulness, that is to say every morning you wake up, in the deep of the night let’s say two in the morning, someone would come to your bed and whisper in your ear while your asleep, “prayer is better than sleep, prayer is better than sleep”.
Iain:You didn’t always think that at the time, did you? (laughing)
Elias: Then you would get up and do your practices for two hours, then at four o’clock, go back to bed. So that kind of discipline and trying to find clarity again, any number of practices like that. Fasting, we did monthly fasts. Itinerancy was another one where we were sent on journeys, in a way similar to how I’d done as a young man, older boy. There might be a destination given, or something that you had to go and get, and bring back, or just experience something. Go far. Go to the ??? 17.39. At that time, we had a whole fleet of motor cycles in India, so we would go there and travel around India. Basically, putting ourselves through extremes of experience, and of all this to break though habits of mind, assumptions of who we are. Put yourself in the situation, breaking through parochialism, I found my guide in that.
Iain:How was this for you?
Elias: All sorts of things. It was scary, exuberant, and a great adventure as these things are. I deeply loved my teacher. He was a quixotic man with many different aspects to him, but he had a mystic glance and steadiness which deeply touched me. I trusted his guidance, and he never took advantage of it that I experienced with me. He was always trying to break through… Sufis have a word for it, unlearning. We have to go through a process of unlearning before we can open in a more consistent way to this moment
Iain:So, what did unlearning me for you?
Elias: Unlearning through the whole range of my life has been a process of dropping away from assumptions, constructions, ideas of who I am, or what reality is.
Iain:It’s like a programming that we build up over the years
Elias: Yes. Talking at this time about itinerancy, it does help to jar, or bewilder, or break open my take on reality, my point of view is somehow the most verifiable one. As you travel, you’ve done a fair bit yourself, you realise how many points of view there are. In fact, infinite points of view, and yours are a mere one of them. This is humbling. Humbling is perhaps another way to say unlearning, isn’t it? The primacy of my take on the world loses what ever idea I had that it’s the true look, the true point of view.
Iain:It’s a stepping back, a coming back and saying that is not me. There is something else and that is not me.
Elias: That’s right. Over time what occurs is a kind of loosening, a space occurs between are dearly held values, ideologies, descriptions, interpretations of reality. A space occurs. They still arise but this space has a quality of who am I, if not my opinions? Who am I if not this point of view with its interpretation and descriptions of reality, what’s going on here? You can appreciate it even in this moment. We have points of view from our experience and so on…
Iain:It can be freeing and frightening, the two are equally true.
Elias: Exactly. Fear. In a way the ego, the self-sense is built out of that fear. It’s very nature is insecurity. It’s always trying to find some stability, some sense of I am this. I am my opinions, I am my interpretations things. When that is called into such deep question, then what am I? That opens up into the primal question, what is this? What am I? Right now, for all of us that is always the question. Questioning has always been a deep kind of theme throughout my life.
Iain:You were inquisitive, weren’t you?
Elias: Yes. There is something about a question which is very freeing, and in a sense very innocent. When you truly ask a question, when you are the question itself there is an openness. You’re not filling in an answer. You may be, in which case it’s not a real question. It’s just another way of being didactic, and arranging your point of view. But if a question such as what am I, where am I. If you look for example for yourself, as if you could turn 180 degrees around and look for yourself, each one of us, in the moment if we are honest would say, I can’t anything there. I mean, I’m here, but what’s here? I know I’m here because we are sitting talking to each other, but what is it that I’m talking, about, the I that is here. Where is here anyway?
Iain:There’s something watching the whole thing isn’t there?
Elias: Is there. Is there and Iain, or Elias…
Iain:Well that has been my experience, sometimes. I can’t get it any clearer at the moment, but there is something watching everything, that’s just is always there.
Elias: Right, but if we explore that one even. Is there something watching, and I’m not even filling in an answer I just ask the question. Is there something I kind find that is watching, or is there watching? Watching is one of the words, listening is another beautiful word for this. This is watching, there is listening, there is this awareness for sure. Yet if I look for awareness, I don’t find an “awarer”, an entity that is aware. I can’t find it. It might be there, I don’t know, but I can’t find it. That not being able to find it, as you say, it can be frightening, but if we relax at that moment, and don’t demand an answer to what am I. where am I? Who’s watching, who’s listening. If we don’t demand an answer there but actually are the question, I don’t know, I can’t find it. I don’t know what I am, who I am. I’ve never been able to find that, I don’t think any of us can. To relax at that moment in that spaciousness, in that stillness, that’s what’s termed unknowing. Living in unknowing. You are not in something though. Our language always butts up against…
Iain:A vast unknowing that does not seem to be any where
Elias: Exactly. Don’t demand any more interpretations. We use questions, we’re using our minds, having a conversation with concepts that serves us up to a point. Then, when the inquiry gets this direct, there is no more room for the mind to supply an answer. If it does, it’s just going to be one more construction or thought. Then we inquire into the substantiality of that thought, or of that idea that has come up, and we realise nothing more can be said. Nothing more can be said, puts us in direct experience, puts us in. I am using these terms, our whole language our syntax of mind, conversation, always drags us back into subject/ object relationship. If we don’t, if we relax into this unknowing this, spaciousness, just openness by itself- ‘just’ the word we use, just this, just that, it’s an attempt to make our language break open- to this moment, this clear presence. It doesn’t show up as anything itself, but it shows up as everything. It’s a mystery (laughing)
Iain:That was a wonderful description. I want to try and keep a sequential side to your journey because I think that’s also interesting for people. I know you stayed with this teacher for about five years I think, then you moved on. I wonder what made the decision to move on? How were you with that?
Elias: There came a time in my life to raise a family, to try to make a living, to explore my life in ways that drew me on, but that was enough. The theme in my life as you know is what occurs as one more and more confidently opens. I was thirty- five, forty by that time. Something about opening the heart- to Sufis it’s important the heart opening, they are famous for this type of quality. I think its true for, it doesn’t matter what you call them Sufis or human beings. As we open into this clear moment, the quality of it is you could say gratitude, or love, or identity, not as I am this man, this person, and all of these ideas, but identity as we all share this identity of clear openness. That itself is experience as love. That’s a little word that takes a lot of burden too, to carry. It’s simply…Buddhist call it compassion. Perhaps you could say it’s simply the sense, of wanting somehow to be of service, to ease, to console, to be kind. To share with others who perhaps haven’t been as fortunate this primal sense of safety. It’s ok, let’s just relax. It’s alright, just rest here. Here allows us all the beauty, the rapture, the intensity. It opens us into life itself. That’s a long- winded way of saying that the next part of my life which thankfully hasn’t stopped, has been very much engaged in reaching across the sense of what divides us as human beings, one from another.
Iain:I’m just going to go back a little bit, because I’m interested in when you came out of this intense period when you were in the community, then you went into the world, and you got married and had children. How was that transition? Here you were rooted in a deep spiritual practice, then you were going out presumably more out in the world, the challenge of expressing your inner, and your outer actions. What I would call integration, if you like realisations, how was that for you, that process?
Elias: Uneven. Sometimes easy, just without any thought. Other times confusing. Going out into the world in the sense of being responsible, having to make money, the anxieties that accompany our daily life in this society, I shared that with all of us. But something playful about life I would say, even though I had my struggles, but I would say a playfulness, an ease. If I found myself getting uptight or anxious, at one point or another I would let it go
Iain:There was an awareness that that was happening
Iain:That’s half of it. If you’re aware that that is happening, you can start to allow something else to happen.
Elias: Exactly. We are graced. I come back to what we were speaking of a little earlier, how this magical moment that we can’t even find, it’s already vanished, so everything that I might struggle with or feel conflict with is already gone, is already released. It isn’t to the extent I hang onto it, repeat it in my mind, worry about it, chew on it, of course I can keep it going, keep my agony alive. But as we recognise it’s all swept clear, this moment is always pure. We’re always given infinite chances. It’s what Sufis call “The All merciful”, “The breath of the All Merciful”. No matter how much of a sinner, how much confusion you’ve created, how much you’ve disappointed people, or are disappointed by people, we’re given again fresh, this grace of the moment.
Iain:The grace of the moment gave you in 1999 the movement of selling your house, and with your family started travelling. You travelled almost non-stop for six years.
Elias: Our kids had left the house, so we were free, so as you say, we sold the house. My wife and I took off on a six- year pilgrimage. We are teachers, and had been very much involved over the years in environmental education. I’ve cared deeply about that throughout my whole life. In our generation, you and I have, many of us have seen a decline of natural systems. The beauty of the world has become let’s say, compromised with the growth of populations, cities, style of life has become hard edged, and more and more a degradation of the environment. So that was another theme through my life, my care for that. So, there have been years of training in that. I was a professor of environmental education, and then my wife and I went out into the world and basically trained people for a number of years in South East Asia, Buddhist monks, Christian ministers, and so on in there constituencies how to bring environmental awareness to the fore.
Iain:So, you were happy to work with people from other religious traditions and backgrounds, because you felt there was a common ground in the environment but also presumably you found common areas in your spiritual approaches, in how you saw reality.
Elias: Yes. It’s Schweitzer’s line of “reverence for life” and that is a sense unites all religious traditions doesn’t it, and people. When we find, recognise and find our reverence for life, when we say yes to life in all its forms. What brings life to cities, to towns, to families, to country sides? What it is? One of the ways I found through beauty. We often spoke about it and explored what beauty was in different cultures. Ecologists have said when an eco- system is damaged and begins to be degraded, the first thing that goes is beauty, and we can notice it…
Elias: So, we can begin to track what’s happening to our world. Obviously, beauty is something we can spend a long time talking about it and defining it, but we have an innate, intuitive sense of beauty, and if we can as individuals and communities, promote and cultivate beauty, life comes back. In a way it asks us this reverence for life.
Iain:You talk in your literature about the “open path”, and I guess this is the open path. It’s open to people from different traditions, find what you have in common for a higher aim. Is that, basically right?
Elias: The open path is a way of describing the what I consider it is a contemporary approach to Sufism, because Sufiism in itself at its best, as I understand it, is a universal, totally inclusive style of awakening and realisation of living. So, inclusive in the sense that we can pray at any church, mosque of synagogue, temple, that all of these forms are a delight, ways of celebrating, for example. Another quality of the open path besides it’s inclusivity, is it is experiential. When I say the open path it’s the name I give to the training and teachings I do, rather than getting too much involved with thought processes, and working it out, categorising reality according to a scheme or a doctrine, the dedication is to direct experience, to be a scientist of our own empirical moment. At a certain point all our thoughts about what is true as we’ve been discussing, we put those down. Direct experience is the teacher. This moment is the teacher.
Iain:What’s your direct experience now?
Elias: Sitting here talking together, a sense of realising it’s a beautiful question, any word that I’m tempted to put on it, slides of from being exactly true. I’m forced… going to preface what I say… I’m forced to lie a little bit. Words lie, they can’t help it. So, if I were to say that my direct experience is peace, and I feel that right now speaking with you, sharing our glance as we are now, there is a peace, an ease. But these words peace and ease, are again, ideas, aren’t they? So how could we describe this, that is our common moment, and I would imagine people would… the idea that one day, people will be watching this conversation, listening to it, part of it, sharing with us this moment, can we use words, this peace and ease, this relax in the present moment that is my direct experience, perhaps it’s available to everyone who shares this present conversation.
Iain:Can you give a few pointers to people who may be watching this programme and maybe want to feel their direct experience now?
Elias: You know maybe there are two ways to describe peace. One being, alright we can calm our environment, our outer environment down, our mental environment. We can meditate, we can use different supports for encouraging tranquillity and serenity. This is sort of making a context, they do help, but they are not the peace I’m referring to. It’s not even necessary to stop our thoughts in order to recognise and to rest in the stillness of this moment, but it certainly helps. It certainly helps (laughing) to reduce the speed and volume of thoughts, to relax our bodies and be alert. Once that’s there, and there are various ways to do that, probably most of the people watching this conversation are part of it, would already know some of these. The second way I want to point to … one way in is to listen. Listen not only to this conversation, but begin to listen to for example sensations of your body, of the weight of your feet on the floor, your body on the chair, listen to that. Begin to listen to even what you’re even seeing, so listening becomes a word that… we listen to all the different data, and sense data. If there’s a thought going, listen, there is a thought, emotional. Weather comes through, listen, and then listen to the listening. I know that it’s a twist of words and it could easily be lost right there – oh yeah that’s poetry, but listen to the listening. You see the mind stops there. That’s why poetry is often a great gift to us, because you can’t go any further.
Iain:My mind scrambles as you say that
Elias: Exactly, and then it sort of relaxes. When we listen to the listening, we notice that listening itself. Whatever it is we’re talking about is still, is peace. Again, I’m using words that sound like attributes, so it’s even deeper than peace, deeper than ease, what they signify. It’s not a thing. Stillness is not a thing, peace is not really something. Let’s have some of it, put it here. Space is that way, spaciousness. Openness. What I was calling freshness, and innocence of this moment. All of these different words, are ways to point to this clear moment, shall we call it, that we share, that we’re made out of, to put it that way. That we arise out of and vanish into. Actually, there is no arising, vanishing, there is no time even for that. It’s exactly what is. So, what am I experiencing right now? This. We can never really get out of it. We can get involved with lots of thoughts, descriptions, but even those are just the momentary display of this. This clear… what could I say?
Iain:But you said it very beautifully. I know so many people their hearts desire is for their minds to calm down, just to find access to this place. I think once we find the true access, we know that it’s there. It’s not like, not necessarily easy to get back there, because we try hard with the mind – I want to get back to that place, it was great. Somehow over time, it becomes easier.
Elias: The key as you well know is don’t try, don’t try to get back to it. Get back where? You see as soon as we put it in time – it’s not here now but it will be if only …. (laughing)
Iain:It was there, it must be somewhere (laughing)
Elias: Those are just ideas, then we’re caught up in an idea world, which can be very comfortable to us. We spend most of our time in that, playing catch with our ideas, back and forth. There is nowhere to get back to because, here it is. It didn’t go anywhere. Nothing is ever missing. This is not missing. It can’t ever be missing. Even in extremis, even in the hour of our death, who knows how it will be… but even when things are really tumultuous and we’re being to lose awareness of body functions, we really have to leave it behind, it’s the same clear now. The words that comes to me today is exaltation in itself. It is exaltation. With the whole universe, think of the cosmos, oh my gosh – there’s galaxies, nebulae, the vast flight of light throughout everywhere, my goodness. It strikes me that the awe that we can have just sensing what we are a part of here. If you and I were 10,000 miles that way (pointing up), you can imagine if you see a star in the sky that little bit of light comes into your eye, and if you walk three feet, you can still see that star. So out of that star an entire sphere of light comes, and is everywhere, and they are all doing that. So, actually we are completely immersed in light. We are by nature this light happening, where? It’s amazing isn’t it? It’s safe, let’s put it that way. You can’t fall out of this.
Iain:Elias, we’re going to have to finish now. It’s a wonderful place to finish. I’ve really enjoyed the interview
Elias: I have too. Thank you, Iain.
Iain:Thank you for coming along. Thank you everyone for watching Conscious TV. A very special programme we did to today, and I hope we see you all again soon. Goodbye.
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