The Sufi Approach to
Opening the Heart

Robert Frager


The heart is a temple that has been placed by God in everyone, a temple that houses the Divine spark within us. In a saying much beloved by the Sufis, God reveals, "I, who cannot fit into all the heavens and earths, fit in the heart of the sincere believer." Therefore, this temple within each of us is more precious than the holiest shrines and temples on earth. The earthly temples were built by great saints and prophets, but the temple of the heart was built by God to house God.

Many of us have neglected our heart temples. We have also allowed in our hearts the worship of idols. By idols I mean the ephemeral things of this world. We have worshipped worldly success fame, money, and power and devoted ourselves to hungering for them and pursuing them. Most of us have spent far more time on these worldly goals than we have in seeking God or in seeking personal transformation. One of the fundamental practices of Sufism is to repeat the phrase, la ilaha illallah, "There are no gods but God." One level of meaning of this sacred phrase is, "There is nothing worthy of worship but God." The discipline of Sufism includes cleansing our hearts of the idols we have enshrined there, making them suitable temples for God's presence.

My Sufi master taught that the goal of Sufism is to develop hearts that can pray. Anyone can learn the outer forms of worship, but it is much harder to teach our hearts to pray. The outside is always easier than the inside. For example, it is not difficult to make our outsides clean by bathing and putting on clean clothing, but it can be very difficult to cleanse our insides. Through sincere, patient practice of worship, service, and other spiritual exercises, the heart becomes cleansed and expanded.

In the kundalini yoga tradition, the heart is often described as the mediator between the three lower chakras and the three upper chakras. If the heart is opened, energy will not remain stuck in the lower chakras. The heart helps draw the energy upward, activating the upper, more spiritual chakras.

In the Sufi tradition, the heart is seen as a mediator between the outer influences of the world and the spiritual influences within us. If our pride, greed, and other negative tendencies become involved with things of the world, they put out a kind of heat and smoke that distracts us and hides the spiritual light of the heart. The more we open to that inner light, the more we can see clearly our own negative tendencies, and also, the more we strengthen our positive and spiritual tendencies.


One essential element in the knowledge of the heart is the practice of what we know. Heart knowledge is deepened by experience. One of my teachers once said, with great humility, "I don't know a great deal about Sufism, but I have loved whatever I have learned, and I have lived it for over forty years." These are the words of a real Sufi and a real master. Sufism is a lived teaching. A little knowledge that is applied brings wisdom, whereas too much book learning results in mental and spiritual indigestion.

In the Middle East, there are many stories of Nasruddin, a Sufi master who taught with a great deal of humor. In the following story Nasruddin clearly distinguishes between the experiential knowledge of the heart and the abstract knowledge of the head.

Nasruddin was serving as the local judge. A woman came to him with her son and complained that her son had an uncontrollable sweet tooth. She asked Nasruddin to tell the boy to stop eating sweets all the time. Nasruddin nodded sagely and told her to come back in two weeks. When they returned, he simply said to the son, "Boy, I order you to stop eating sweets!"

The mother then asked, "Why did you make us wait for two weeks? Couldn't you have said this to my son when we first came to you?"

Nasruddin answered, "No, I couldn't possibly have told that to your son two weeks ago."

"Why not?" asked the mother.

"You see, I love sweets myself. First I had to stop eating sweets, and only then could I tell your son to stop."

Our knowledge is not complete unless we act on what we know, and, also, every action affects the heart. My master taught that a kind word or helpful act softens and opens the heart, while a harsh word or harmful act hardens and closes the heart. He would add that our actions also affect the world around us, and that every kind word causes a rose to bloom while every harmful word causes a thorn to grow. As the heart begins to open, we become guided by our inner wisdom and intuition. Now, it is essential to act on our wisdom and insight, or else our connection with the heart will diminish. Even though we know how we should behave, our old habits and tendencies may still dominate or distort at times, and so we have to continue to struggle with these tendencies.

If we would remember that our hearts are divine temples, we would be transformed. From this perspective, we are not worldly creatures seeking the spiritual; we are spiritual beings seeking to discover our own true nature. What we truly are, what we are all seeking, is to be found in our heart of hearts.


If we remember that everyone's heart is a divine temple, then we will see everyone else differently and behave with far greater love and caring. This image of others is the foundation for the Sufi practice of service. In serving others, we are actually serving the Divine in others. When we remember that the human heart is the holiest of shrines, then we become more compassionate and heedful in all our dealings with others. Remembering to honor the heart in each person is a great discipline. We so often forget. But if we could remember, our lives and all our relationships would be transformed.

To be a Sufi is to remember that the heart of each person we meet is God's temple. To be a Sufi is to honor and serve others. Many hearts have been wounded in this world, and we can serve God's creation by working to heal those wounded hearts. This kind of service will also heal and open our own hearts as well.

One day someone asked a Sufi teacher how to reach God. The teacher replied that the ways to God are as many as there are created beings. The teacher went on, "The shortest and easiest is to serve others, not to bother others, and to make others happy."

Sufism gives us a context by which we can relate to one another, a context based on the fundamental belief that God is within each of us. We can see our own and each other's faults within this context. Some people are stingy, others don't keep their word, some have bad tempers. But that is not who we truly are. We all have habits, and we have to remember that we are not our habits. The habits are temporary, and what is real and eternal is the Divine within us. Anything that helps us come closer to God, or bring out the Divine within us, is the truth. Anything that obscures this is not the truth. The popular psychology notion of "sharing," and unloading on others all our negative thoughts and feelings is absolutely wrong from this perspective.

When we focus on another's faults, we make those faults more real both in the other person and in ourselves. If we see the beauty in someone else, we do them a service and we also do ourselves a service. For example, if someone else is a compulsive over eater, and I gossip about their weight and their addiction to food, I harm them and I also harm myself. Their overeating may be a fact, but that is not who they truly are. The truth is that they are souls. The negative traits of the personality can be transformed, and the fundamental truth is that we all yearn for union with the infinite.

The Sufis try not to let their egos get all upset by someone else's ego. We have all done this often enough in the past, and we need to change how we see ourselves and each other. We must first see the Divine in ourselves. Unless we view ourselves as having God in our own hearts, we will not be able to see others that way.

An Exercise for Opening the Heart

The more aware you are of your heart center, the more the heart becomes open and energized. As you are going about your daily business, think of your heart as a miniature sun that radiates light to everyone and everything you meet. While your head and your mouth are busy with conversation, let the light from your heart touch and warm the heart of the other. It is as if there is a second, heart, interchange that is going on beneath the conversation.

Let your heart-sun touch the heart-suns of everyone you meet. No matter who they are or what their personality is like, their hearts are just like yours; their hearts yearn for the divine light, just like yours.

Robert Frager, Ph.D., received his doctorate in psychology from Harvard University. He is the past president of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology and the founder of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, where he is currently Coordinator of the Spiritual Guidance program and professor of Psychology. Dr. Frager is also a Sufi teacher, or sheikh, in the Halveti-Jerrahi Order and has written three books on Sufism: "Essential Sufism," "Love is the Wine: Teachings of a Sufi Master in America," and "Heart, Self, and Soul: The Sufi Psychology of Growth, Balance, and Harmony."