That's not to say that people have changed much over the last two thousand years; that's not true. It's the life conditions that have changed, and all the changes that have happened to people have to do with that fact. In the last hundred years, there has been a great deal of emphasis on education, and therefore the skew toward the mind, the identification with it, and the fixation on its states are now much heavier than they used to be. The informational workload has become denser; distances are being traveled faster. As a result, the life pace and the number of daily experiences have increased accordingly. Survival has ceased (or almost ceased) to be a pressing issue for most people in the Western world. That means that death has also ceased to be a companion of each person's life—at least, that is the illusion most people live with these days, and because of this, they have lost the ability to separate the important from the secondary. Consumerism has oriented people toward the continuous production of desires, and everyone is concerned with manufacturing and consuming more and more goods. People have gained control over matter, albeit limited, and are able to quickly destroy the planet they live on at their will. Due to all the above, they began to lose the living need for God, and the illusion of their power appeared instead, which seemed to give them control over their own lives. The amount of knowledge available to people has grown by orders of magnitude, and all this situation, of course, could not but affect their condition, and those who have taken on teaching seekers the mystical Way have to take that into account.
Ancient teaching stories often said that man, having come into this world, had forgotten the higher reality and his higher purpose. These days, this oblivion has become even worse. Many spiritual and mystical movements have degenerated, and spirituality and mysticism are turned into a commodity, the primary purpose of which is to deliver welfare and happiness, i.e., to serve human desires. Meanwhile, the essence of human nature and basic human needs have remained the same. Leaving aside the basic human needs (food, sleep, warmth, etc.), one can identify two primary needs, which, as a rule, are rarely directly recognized. One is the need to go beyond oneself and overcome one's limitations and separateness from reality. If you observe what people do, you will notice that, in very many cases, they seek to merge with something greater than themselves. Unconsciously, they want to disappear into something, to connect with something that will absorb them. This desire partly explains people's tendency to identify with external things - to lose themselves while watching movies, reading books, and listening to music. Some feel like merging with nature; some are drawn to join a fan club or dissolve in a loved one - the essence of all these acts is the same - to transcend yourself and become something greater than you are now. The feeling of belonging to a family or clan, being a member of a political party, or a club of Spartak fans gives you the illusion of unity, which partially compensates for the first basic human need. Sufis believe that only merging with God and disappearing into Him can bring true satiation of this need, and nothing else can satisfy it completely. But most people fail to realize this simple fact precisely because they are vaguely aware of this need and seldom come up with its precise definition.
Another essential human need is the need to serve. People serve ideas, community, family, or other organizations they join to satisfy their first need. That gives them a purpose and adds meaning to their lives so that their existence is justified to whatever degree. This perfectly worldly meaning is illusory from the Higher perspective, yet is sufficient for people to satisfy their longing to be of service. It is apparent to Sufis and other mystics that true fulfillment can be found only in being of use for God. The latter is not to be confused with adherence to rituals and activities prescribed by religious rules (because this is just one more way to serve ideas); instead, it is a direct following of God’s Will that is revealed to you personally. That is what Sufis strive for and what Sufi Path is about.
Throughout the history of Sufism, quite a few descriptions of stages or stations have been proposed to help a seeker get his bearings on the Path and in his work on himself. In general, stations have always been used as technical terms that define a state of a person who has reached a certain stage of the Path and a form of practice he currently works on. Unfortunately, many of the former descriptions of the stations on the Path are now obsolete or desperately need more accuracy. Moreover, what worked well in the past only sometimes seems applicable in our time. In addition to a gap between old and modern times, let us also account for the difference in cultural backgrounds - for modern people who grew up in the bosom of Western culture, the information must be presented somewhat differently.
In our School, we distinguish the following stages of the Path:
1. The stage of purification of inner space
2. The stage of the opened Heart
3. The stage of dismissing one’s own will and accepting the Will of God
4. The stage of one's disappearance in God
5. The stage of dwelling in God's presence
The last three stages are similar to those generally accepted in all Sufi orders, although most consider the stage of giving in one’s own will and following the Will of God as two separate stages.
The purification stage involves the work on repressed energies, including emotions, feelings, and desires, as well as developing awareness of one's ego and conditioning. This stage prepares a person for the subsequent stages, which otherwise would be simply impossible to accomplish. The second stage pinpoints the first qualitative change in the being of a person who hit the milestone of the Heart opening and discovered God's Realness. However, one cannot say that after the opening of the Heart, the person is already completely purified; usually, it is not the case. He still has to work off his ego and conditioning, but the opened Heart allows him to begin to prepare for giving in his will to God. When the seeker arrives at it, there comes a period of service, that is, the realization of one of the human's top necessities. Service to God is full of mysteries and helps Sufis to reach their ultimate creative potential. Through serving, the Sufi comes to disappearance in God, which is a mystery in itself and brings his second main necessity to fruition - merging with something supreme and transcending one's boundaries. And after the stage of disappearance in God, there is the stage of residing in Him, in which service to the Lord and union with Him go hand in hand in the most mystical sense.
There are two ways of learning on the Path: by instruction and by personal experience. In order to start moving toward one's higher realization, having a desire is insufficient; one must first learn a great deal. The action is exercised in mind first; if the mind does not understand what to do, it is helpless. That is why one needs to be informed about the Path, where it leads, and how to move along it. That is, textbooks and explanations by a living teacher are indispensable. Having said that, the principle "the right knowledge at the right time" is to be considered because, sure, you can tell everything at once; however, a piece of knowledge becomes truly precious only when one is truly in need of it. That is why it is helpful to reread textbooks from time to time and to get oral explanations as the need for them arises. A question driven by the need to process some experience creates an advantage of getting a precise and to-the-point answer. However, the answer sometimes can come from books and even directly from the Lord.
In earlier times, Sufis used teaching stories that included several levels of meaning and helped uplift the understanding of seekers and laypeople. Today, this teaching method is less potent because, due to the audience's higher level of knowledge and background, many things can be conveyed directly rather than allegorically, i.e., through tales and parables. Although the illustrative teaching method has retained its value, relying on it alone these days makes no sense.
Hands-on experience--hence, personal knowledge--is earned by performing practices that are given to the seeker for this very purpose. Depending on the mode of action, practices can be categorized into three types: purification, development, and transformation. At the same time, the practice of mindfulness remains the fundamental and essential for one's cleansing and everything else, as, without self-awareness, advancement on the Path is simply untenable. Some practices develop perception and specific skills; other techniques help induce transformations, but a seeker can only execute them with a proper level of self-awareness.
You can't find God in the outer world; the doors to Him are hidden within. To make it and get inside, one has to go a long way toward self-knowledge and work through one's psychological problems. Human psychology has always been an integral part of Sufi knowledge. In modern times, nothing has changed in this regard except for descriptive language, which has become more comprehensive and precise. Desires, fears, how they are related, and the laws that describe their interaction - are part of education because, without this knowledge, it would be very difficult for a seeker to purify their inner space, which will keep the doors to experiencing the Truth of God closed for them. In theory, there is a possibility for one to achieve purification through dhikr and prayers alone, but in practice, such occurrences are very rare. In reality, there is a requirement for combined efforts in self-awareness, working on emotions and desires, and practices of interaction with the Highest. Experience proves such an approach to be the optimum one for advancement on the Path.
This is not to say that there is a drastic difference between modern and former old Sufi teaching methods. The basics remained the same, but specific mindsets of contemporary people and cultural discrepancies between the medieval East and the modern West call for an adjustment in education strategies. I have written more than once that using practices developed for people who lived a thousand years ago is pointless. Many Sufi orders employ a similar approach by assigning seekers a set of practices approved by tradition--once and never changing them down the road. For example, a student is given a particular name of God to be recited in individual dhikr and must work with it until the very end, in the broadest sense of this word. With all the benefits of reciting the name of God considered, such an approach can hardly produce a powerful effect. Yes, you see some benefit at first, but then the mind will grow habituated and tired; subtle passive resistance will creep in and bring all the efforts to naught. With no significant results achieved, the seeker will feel disappointment or despondency at his inability to succeed at anything at all. I have heard many stories of the sort, and they all boiled down to the fact that lifetime exercises stop working after a year or two, and the person loses motivation and quits. Moreover, giving out a set of exercises once and for all does not foresee a learning process - in fact, it is a form of independent work on oneself, that's all. Even if the exercises are accompanied by motivational meetings and conversations about the sublime, it does not make the difference because there is no perspective in doing something the same way forever, as such an approach completely ignores your possible development and the changes that it brings or complete absence thereof. Education is a process in which practices must evolve as the student grows and progresses and take into account his or her current state and challenges. If, at the very beginning, you are given everything at once and there is nothing new to expect in the future, then this is not education but a kind of mercy or even charity from the one who revealed this set of practices to you and suggested to perform. Imagine that you are in the first grade of elementary school and they give you a set of textbooks arbitrarily pulled across the entire school curriculum to study. Physics textbook for the ninth grade, Russian language textbook for the fourth, chemistry textbook for the tenth, etc. And then, they would tell you to do the tasks from these textbooks to master the entire program. This is the analogy of what happens when you are presented with a set of exercises without follow-up on the results and revision of practices.
Education should embody the integration of theory and practice to ensure students’ progress. Clearly, the study process under the direct supervision of a teacher is ideal; nevertheless, modern means of communication make remote education an option as well. Regardless, our School has examples of online students receiving impulses of God's Grace and making significant progress in their inner work. It is a matter of willingness, patience, and persistence.
Despite humanity's success in creating a second nature and discovering some of the mysteries of matter, God has not gone away, and people's basic needs have not changed either. The Path still exists and is followed by those who have recognized the need for something greater than self-realization in the material world and endless compensation for an inferiority complex. Learning opportunities are available, too--just as long as you're ready for them. Because if you haven't yet figured out what you want precisely, yet think you're prepared to learn, and it's time for the teacher to show up, most often you're not. There are two signs that you are ready to learning: a clear understanding that the world cannot give you what you seek and an understanding that you need a profound inner change. Even if you aspire to God, you must understand that you cannot come to Him in your current condition. And if you like to think that you're already perfect and enlightened, then you don't need the Path or education.
Sufi Sheikh Sayyid Yahya wrote: "Now learn, my dear one, that there is no limit to the manifestations of Truth. Should there be hundreds of thousands of manifestations, none will be like others. Even if you live in this world for a thousand years, these manifestations will be one higher than the other. If there is no limit to the Truth, there is no end to the manifestations. If manifestations of Truth were comparable with each other, the lover would soon become satiated. Therefore, as Truth does not want the lover in sorrow to say: "Lead us along a straight path," he finds a life unlike any other on this Path, and each time he surrenders himself to a contemplation that is each time unlike any other contemplation, whereby approaches the spiritual soul." The Path is endless, and those who embark upon it should remember that their learning will be lifelong. At every stage of the Path, something previously unknown is revealed, and even in the stage of being present in God, you continue to learn newer and newer levels of the Truth. And while in the beginning, you need a teacher's assistance, later, it will be God Himself, the Opener of mysteries, teaching you. His teaching will be the most perfect of all possible, yet at first, you still would have to go through the stages of ordinary learning to prepare you for perceiving and following the Truth. That is how Sufis attain, and such is the Sufi Path.