An Interview with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D.

In 1961, Irina Tweedie, arrived in India, where she met a Sufi master, Bhai Sahib. She became the first Western woman to be trained in the ancient Sufi lineage of the Naqshbandiyya-Mujadidiyya. She carried this transmission to England, where in 1973, Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee met her, studied with her and, later, became her successor. In this interview, he discusses his journey, the mystical path of Sufism and the niyamas.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How did you begin your spiritual journey.

Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee (LVL): Looking back now, it was very simple. When I was 16, somebody gave me a book on Zen—Zen was just becoming popular then in the late ‘60s—and I read a koan. The koan was: “The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection, the water has no mind to receive their image.” And this koan was like a key that opened a door inside of me. I had been living a middle class life. I went to boarding school, I didn’t even know spirituality existed, I had never heard of meditation. I knew about religion because I had been brought up in the Church of England. To me, spiritual practice meant going to church, singing some hymns and reading the Bible. But, the idea of esoteric spirituality, didn’t exist in my mind or my experience. Then, suddenly, this koan opened a door inside of me that I didn’t even know existed. I started to meditate in the traditional Zen way of empty mind and I began to have—as some do when they start the journey—very, very deep experiences.

IYM: What did you experience?

LVL: I experienced a reality far beyond the physical world and the world of my boarding school. I saw light dancing around everything and felt joy and beauty. It was an incredible awakening. So I continued those practices and I also studied sacred geometry with Keith Critchlow, one of the first people to teach that particular spiritual tradition. But it became apparent, after a while, that I needed a meditation teacher—I couldn’t go any further on my own.

I happened to go to a weekend workshop on sacred geometry and there I met some young people. When they walked in the room, the kundalini energy inside me exploded and I was completely on fire. I spent the weekend with them and I got the sense there was something special about them. They didn’t say anything—at that time, spirituality was very secret and you didn’t talk about it in public—but I sensed that there was something else there. It turned out that they were students of Mrs. Tweedie. A few months later, I was introduced to her and that was that. It was a very powerful experience.

She was teaching in a very small room in north London, beside some train tracks, and there were a few of us young people who would sit and meditate with her every Friday evening. She had these incredible blue eyes. I had never seen anything like them. I looked into her eyes and I knew that she knew. I didn’t know what she knew because I had no conscious framework for this. I had read a few books like, The Secret of the Golden Flower, the I Ching, books by Lama Govinda, and a few others that were available in the late ‘60s. When I looked into her eyes, I knew she knew and I wanted that. I wanted it with a desire that I hadn’t even know that I had. That was all that mattered and I knew that I was going to stay with her until I found it, and that became my life. If you’re shown something so unbelievably precious, then you just stay with it—whatever may come. I got introduced to this whole tradition of the teacher and it became my life.

IYM:  It sounds like you had a mystical experience in meeting your teacher. What is the difference between spirituality and mysticism?

LVL: There’s a lovely Sufi story that I think will illuminate the difference: Once, there was a group of moths and one moth said, “I’m going to go and try and see what the nature of fire is.” So he flew very close to the fire and he came back and he explained, “Fire is warm.” Another moth said, “I think there’s a bit more to fire than that.” So, he attempted to get closer to the fire and his wings got singed. He flew back and told the moths, “Fire burns you!” Yet another moth said, “I think there must be more to fire than that.” So he flew straight into the fire and he never came back. . .

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2013 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.