I have been in spiritual groups where there was a definite way of acting and speaking and I can see some advantages to this, but it’s not something we do. Some of the Sufi groups have a really beautiful manner when dealing with each other. It seems to me that adopting such a manner would support our work.
Yes, the Sufi manner is very attractive. They call it adab. It’s a code of etiquette which encompasses morals, decorum, decency and humaneness. Most of these customs can be traced back to Abrahamic traditions in pre-Islamic Arabic society that were adopted into Islam following the example of the Prophet.
So, why would we not adopt this code? First, it is based in a culture that is not ours. We are westerners, for better or for worse, and we have not been brought up in this tradition. For us, it would be mimicry with lots of uncertainty and misunderstanding. Our culture, as poor and rough as it sometimes is, also has its advantages, including its directness. In any case, sleep is sleep. ‘Good’ conditioning is still conditioning. Presence and attention do not have cultural biases or preferences.
Second, our work depends upon sincere efforts including ruthless honesty with oneself and members of the work group. This is the essence of fourth way methodology. We do not need the extra challenge of what could easily become practiced insincerity. Recognizing and dealing with our spasmodic reactions to others is how we work on self. My experience of Sufi schools and is that they could sometimes benefit from more honesty and their adherents might gain from a greater appreciation of what is actually going on inside themselves. Generally speaking, I would say that idealism is one of the greatest dangers on the spiritual path.
But having said this, we can adopt the essence of adab if we understand its real meaning beneath the cultural forms. The essence of adab is what some Sufis have called nigah dasht. This phrase has unfortunately been taken over by religious Sufis to mean constant vigilance over the mind and heart to prevent evil thoughts and desires from arising. This would typically involve not looking at tempting distractions and not visualizing things that are immoral. Obviously, from our point of view, this approach is full of rules-based self-judgment which defeats observation of self and the invocation of attention and presence.
The inner meaning of nigah dasht is to know where attention is, in the moment, your attention and the attention of those who are with you. Involuntary attention is continually connecting us to phenomena and acting as a highway for the impressions from them to enter us. The remarkable thing is that attention can spy on itself. It can notice where it is, in real time, so that you can then think about it and place it elsewhere. Only the attention is fast enough to cognize its current location or locations and return home to itself.
How does this relate to adab?
I see that I have fixated on a beautiful object in your home and I am beginning to experience envy. I release the fixation before it disturbs you or me. I excuse myself from your presence to make a telephone call. I explain this to you so that you do not wonder at my absence which would have forced some of your attention to leave the room with me. I see that I am curious to know more about the details of your life which are currently upsetting you but it is clear that I would increase your discomfort, so I desist. I see that I have some attention glued to an argument I had yesterday with my boss so I am therefore not really listening to you. Real adab is seeing the interplay of attention and respecting it. That is our work. The cultural forms and habits that have arisen over centuries are not our work.