by D. Patrick Miller
Reshad Feild (born Richard Timothy Feild; 15 April 1934 – 31 May 2016) was an English mystic, author, spiritual teacher, and musician, who, as Tim Feild, originally came to prominence as a founder member of the folk-pop group The Springfields. He was later the author of more than a dozen books about spirituality, and Sufism in particular.
On a sunny Saturday in Santa Cruz, California when I was in my late twenties, I experienced one of the most instructive disappointments of my life. I had signed up for a workshop with Reshad Field, a teacher from the Sufi tradition — a teacher who was hardly known outside a certain circle, but respected enough within it to draw fifty people to a daylong event. I had read and enjoyed several of his books, but what sold me on the occasion were the reports of an ex-girlfriend who had joined Reshad’s mystical school in Boulder a few years earlier.
She and I talked a lot on the phone back then, sifting through the shards of our failed romance, and for a few months it seemed that every other sentence out of my friend’s mouth was about her remarkable teacher. She had become so enamored of his personality and his path that at she requested a private audience with Reshad to announce her decision to dedicate herself wholly to his way.
“That’s wonderful, and I hope you follow through on your commitment,” Reshad had told her. To her great dismay, he added, “But I’m leaving and you can’t go with me.” Indeed, his school soon disbanded and thereafter he took his show on the road, eventually settling in Santa Cruz for a while. My friend moved on with her life, but I was fascinated by this story and decided that I had to see this paradoxical teacher in action for myself. I knew from my reading that the Sufis tend to teach by indirection and contradiction. Thus the shock that the teacher had delivered to my friend was really in keeping with his tradition. Secretly, I was in the market for some kind of shock myself.
At the time I was hardly living a spiritual life. Having given up on becoming an investigative reporter a few years earlier, I was working for myself as a freelance graphic designer and occasionally published writer, dreaming of the day I would have saved enough money to write full-time. My work life was halfway satisfying, my love life seemed more or less okay, and I didn’t have the slightest idea of what my purpose on this earth might be. I felt that I’d always had a spiritual side, but the center of my life was unhappily wrapped up with self-preservation and a sardonic suspicion of the world at large.
While I kept telling myself and a few friends that I was going to the workshop purely on a lark, I was privately imagining a far more dramatic purpose. Somehow I expected Reshad to see through me, to single me out and expose my failings, hypocrisies, and half-heartedness before the world ─ or at least in front of the workshop participants ─ and then deliver some kind of spiritual shock that would finally get my life going in the right direction. I anticipated that the experience would be difficult, perhaps even humiliating, but worth it in the long run. In short, I expected to get "all shook up." Something deep within was telling me that it was about time.
Just another revival meeting
From the moment that I arrived at the registration table for the workshop, I was already feeling uncomfortable ─ but not in the way I expected. People I had never met greeted me like a long-lost friend, and I immediately sensed an agenda of drawing people into Reshad's school. In fact most of the workshop attendees seemed to know each other already and thus any newcomers received special attention; we were told enthusiastically of the wonderful experiences that lay just minutes ahead. Already I felt singled out, but only as the recipient of a sales pitch.
Things got steadily worse once the program started. Reshad didn’t even show for the first couple hours, while a variety of veteran students stood before the group and testified to the saving graces of the path they had been following under their teacher’s wise direction. Marriages had been saved, money had come at just the right time, outright miracles of physical healing had occurred; all the stuff one might expect at an old-style revival meeting, but somewhat Californianized. I began to wonder if my few years as an investigative reporter had been too many, because I felt more cynical than ever. It seemed that I was surrounded by deluded, unthinking sycophants wearing insincere smiles. By mid-morning the day ahead was looking dismally long. I was decidedly not on the way to a spiritual breakthrough.
When Reshad finally appeared just before lunch, I felt embarrassed for him and increasingly angry about what I was witnessing. Unless my eyes deceived me, he was three or more sheets to the wind, slurring his words and rambling incoherently about themes from his books that I already knew well enough. He had written about overcoming alcoholism through his spiritual discipline, but it looked pretty clear to me that he was relapsing.
What was even more disturbing was that no one besides myself seemed to notice. People were nodding their heads and voicing expressions of amazement at every nonsensical pearl that dropped from Reshad’s mouth. I felt like I was in the middle of an “Emperor’s New Clothes” parade for the esoteric set.
After the teacher’s initial presentation I sat alone at lunch, morosely chewing through the vegetarian lunch I’d paid for while refusing several chirpy offers of companionship from the already initiated (or brainwashed?) members of the school. I considered escaping right then and there, but a morbid curiosity and a determination to wring some value out of the workshop fee kept me in place.
To make a long afternoon short, I came to regret that decision. By the time the workshop ended with a cloying, hand-holding, singing-in-a-circle session about six in the evening, I was utterly furious. I pounded on the dashboard for the two-hour drive home, alternately laughing and cursing about what a ludicrous waste of time the day had been. To say I had no interest in signing up with Reshad's apparent cult was an understatement.
An unexpected lesson
At the time, I failed to notice how disproportionate my anger was. Nor did I think it odd that I remained angry about the workshop for several months afterward, bad-mouthing the experience, the teacher, and those damned Sufis every chance I got. One day when I was reprising the bitter experience in my mind once again, I had a stunning realization: I was all shook up! The workshop had delivered a tremendous shock to me after all, but only because my expectations for it had been so thoroughly defeated.
Instead of publicly exposing me, Reshad had inadvertently revealed all my worst aspects ─ an insecure superiority, presumptuousness, and a self-reinforcing alienation ─ to myself. And now, months later, I finally grasped the spiritual lesson that would redirect my life from that point forward: Do not expect others to do your spiritual work for you. My bitterness over the whole experience abruptly dissolved into laughter, and I resolved never to underestimate the Sufi way again.
As revelatory as this experience proved, it would have an even more surprising postscript. About a year after the Santa Cruz debacle, Reshad passed through Berkeley for another daylong workshop. I signed up again, this time expecting nothing but nonetheless feeling a peculiar gratitude for the unexpected lesson I had learned from him.
This time, the workshop proved to be one of the most enjoyable and instructive experiences of my life. Reshad appeared sober, calm, and clear-eyed, conveying a number of useful insights throughout a well-planned program. With only one assistant on hand, there was no trace of the slavish followers in Santa Cruz, and not a hint of the hypocrisy that had seemed so evident a year before. Just before lunch, Reshad said he was going to drop a “pearl of wisdom” that he would not address during the afternoon session. Instead, we were to take the pearl home with us and see what we could make of it on our own.
“And here it is,” Reshad declaimed: “Gratefulness is the key to will. Now have a good lunch and we’ll get back to work in an hour.”
All through lunch I puzzled over what the hell that pearl meant, but waited in vain for Reshad to clarify. True to this promise, he never mentioned it during the afternoon. In fact, it would take me several years to understand the dynamic teaching of that pearl, but I did eventually get it. And I went home that day exceptionally grateful for the completely different kind of spiritual experience that had just been facilitated by this typically unpredictable Sufi. I kept wondering: Did the teacher change, or did I?
Eventually I decided that both of us had changed.
These memorable encounters with Reshad were just a couple tremors of my spiritual awakening; the major quake would strike years later in the form of a serious illness. But these early lessons in disillusionment and personal responsibility set the stage for all my later learning, and may well have saved me from far more time-consuming and destructive experiences with exploitive cults or gurus.
There is yet another postscript that remains perhaps my favorite memory of my first spiritual teacher. A year or two after the second workshop, Reshad appeared once again at a Berkeley bookstore. During the Q&A session he was asked for his opinion of the Sufi group based in San Francisco, which had recently earned some press attention for their dervish dancing performances. Reshad smiled mischievously and said only, “Never trust Sufis in a group.”
Inwardly I laughed and thought, “Now you tell me.”
This essay is a slightly revised version of Chapter 3 from MOSTLY A MYSTIC: Reflections on a Spiritual (But Not Religious) Life by D. Patrick Miller.
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