Shadow Work® co-founder Mary Ellen Whalen talks about her new path as a Sufi healer and what it means to her to step away from Shadow Work after 15 years.
Mary Ellen, or Maryam (pronounced MAHR-ee-um) to use her Sufi name, is in her third year of studies at the University of Spiritual Healing and Sufism in California, working towards a master’s in spiritual ministry. “Frankly, I didn’t sign up because I wanted the degree,” she says, “I signed up because I really wanted to learn what they’re teaching.” I interviewed Mary Ellen by phone, and our conversation touched on these topics among others.
January 11, 2006, by Alyce Barry
AB: Did you first get into Sufism as a result of your relationship with John?
Mary Ellen: Yes. A guy in John’s Warrior I-group had started connecting on this path and gone to the Sufi healing school. He’s an acupuncturist who started adding spiritual healings to his practice. John saw the changes that were happening in him and went to him for some healings, and it was really, really powerful for him. John started going to weekly healing circles in our local Sufi community and met Salima, our local teacher. This was right at the beginning of our relationship. Salima is the head of the community in a ministerial role. John was really impressed with her.
It’s funny, I’m going to become a Sufi minister, but it’s an oxymoron because Sufis technically don’t have ministers. Everybody has their own personal relationship with God.
AB: At the time, did you have a spiritual practice of your own?
Mary Ellen: I was doing my women’s pagan spirituality thing, and at the time that felt okay. There were parts that weren’t fitting, but I thought that was more about the particular group of women I was with. I could see what the Sufi circle was doing for John, but I didn’t feel drawn to it at all for several years.
In fact, when he took the Sufi promise, it freaked me out a little, frankly. The Sufi promise is when you make a commitment to put God first in your life. I thought, Oh Geez, now what are we getting into? But I could feel that it was important to him, so I was as supportive as I could be, even though I was scared.
A month or two after that, our Sufi guide, Sidi, was in Maryland. He lives in Jerusalem and is the caretaker and Imam at the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem. He comes to the States every summer and travels around teaching. John wanted me to come with him to a weekend Sidi was leading. I was in Colorado working and flew home. We had this big discussion about it, and I said I didn’t want to go. And John said, Salima says if you come, Sidi could marry us.
At this point, John hadn’t completed his divorce, and I said, Whatare you talking about? John said, Just come. So I went.
AB: What was the weekend like?
Mary Ellen: When we got there, Sidi was marrying one couple after another. They weren’t legal but more like spiritual marriages. Salima was gesturing for us to come up, and I was saying, “No! I don’t know what this is!” But I listened to the marriages and was really impressed at the vows that he was having people take. They rang true for me. So I turned to John and said, I can do that. And then Sidi stopped doing marriages and took a break!
AB: Easy come, easy go.
Mary Ellen: I wanted to know if Sidi could still marry us when John was still legally married to somebody else. So John suggested we go talk to him.
A few months earlier, John had made the Sufi promise and received a Sufi name. Your Sufi name is inside of you already. Sidi energetically goes into your soul and feels the deep quality of your soul that God has given you. He asks God to show that to him, and then he tells you what it is. John had taken the promise with Salima, and she had told Sidi about John over the phone. He’d told her, His name is Amin, which means, The one that the people can trust to be faithful.
This workshop was an outside event, and Sidi was sitting in a screened tent. Sidi doesn’t speak very good English, although there are stories about him needing to speak another language and God giving it to him for a short period of time.
We walked into Sidi’s tent, and John, who had never talked to Sidi in person before, said, Hello, Sidi, can we talk to you? Sidi said, Yes, come in. And John said, My name is Amin, and Sidi said, I know. And I thought to myself, O-k-a-y.
John explained our situation, that he wasn’t yet legally divorced and we wanted to get married. The name Sidi means Teacher and Grandfather, it’s an affectionate nickname for someone who’s in that elder-teacher role. I liked his energy, but I had no idea what he was understanding of what John was saying.
Mary Ellen: Basically, what he said to us was, “Your legal marriage are about the laws of this country, and the laws of this country have nothing to do with God’s law. I can marry you.” And that was totally what I believed! That really spoke to me.
So when he started resuming teaching later on, he did a few more marriages, and one of them was ours. It was very beautiful. But I still walked around that whole day saying to people, This is great, but this is not my path.
AB: And when did that change?
Mary Ellen: About eight months later, Salima was doing a workshop called “Creating Holy and Loving Relationships.” John asked me to go with him, and I went. For the first day and a half, John described me as a bobble-head dog because I was nodding at everything Salima said. It really spoke to me. A knowing in my heart just opened up.
At some point, I turned to John and said, I think I might have to make the Sufi promise. He almost fell off his chair! He had pretty much reigned himself that I would never join him because I had been so adamant about it not being my path. So I took the Sufi promise, and I was off to the races.
AB: What’s it like when you make the promise? Is it a ritual?
Mary Ellen: Four or five of us took the promise with Salima on the same day. One at a time, we knelt down with her, and we held all our four hands together, with her hand on top. She had me repeat some formal words after her and then some promises. The Sufis say, “I promise you, Allah.” Allah is the Arabic word for God, which literally means, “The One,” “The All.” We often use the masculine pronoun, but God does not have a gender. If you have a gender, you’re not in The One, you’re in part of The One.
There are a number of things you promise. One of them is, I promise to take care of my mind, my heart, my soul and my body. One of them is promising to take Sidi as your guide, to help walk you closer into connection with God.
When Sidi gives the promise, he’s being with what God gives him to say each moment. That’s what Salima did with me. The way she describes it is, she reads the promise off your heart. She was reading what was in my heart and putting words to it. It was very emotional for me because she would say something, that I repeated after her, that was very true for me but that I hadn’t realized in a conscious way. She was making conscious and explicit what was in my deepest heart.
AB: That strikes me as remarkable, because I think of that as one of your greatest skills, to put into words what’s happening around you.
Mary Ellen: When I went into that workshop, I had heard from John and other people about the teacher telling people what was going on for them. From my Shadow Work place, I was saying, That’s just wrong! That’s what we like to call projection! My Risk Manager was very suspicious about a facilitator putting their agenda on people.
I was flabbergasted and floored at the work that Salima did with people. It was clear to me that she was not projecting when she was telling people what she was reading in them. She did it in a very polite, respectful way that gave them lots of room to disagree. It was such a different way of being than we have traditionally been in Shadow Work. She wasn’t staying a step behind. It was more even than we do in an AFT process.
AB: I think you’re referring to the Tombstone, God-Split and Predator processes, where we explain a certain wound, and how we’re seeing it in the person’s work, when we’re suggesting a certain process to address it.
Mary Ellen: It was clear to me, I’m not sure how or why, that Salima was bringing truth through. I was so watching, and I was positive that this was not her projected agenda.
She said she was so tuned into her own heart that God was showing her what needed to be brought to the person. And I realized I wanted to learn how to do that. It was so different from holding back my own insights or intuitions, as we do in Shadow Work. I really had a fear of putting my agenda on people, and I saw her doing this in a way that was so clean.
I also saw her handle container-busting objections. I’d never seen anybody be as good as us in Shadow Work at handling challenging participants. Since then, my experience with the faculty at the healing school is that they are as good or better than we are in Shadow Work at handling challenging participants. They come at it in a slightly different way, but they do the same thing: help hold the person, bring them some healing, but contain them so the group can keep going. Sometimes the situation becomes the teaching for the whole group.
So it was those things I saw Salima doing that led me to want to go to the healing school.
AB: Are you saying that’s when you realized you wanted to become a Sufi minister?
Mary Ellen: I don’t think so. I knew I wanted to go and study, to learn what she was doing. The workshop was in June, and I started at the healing school that October.
AB: What are the trainings like?
Mary Ellen: In some ways it’s similar to Shadow Work. It’s very intense, emotional work. The lectures are different because the teachers are consciously doing what they call “transmitting,” energetically transmitting from their hearts to the hearts of all the people in the room. You hear the words but it’s a deeper experience than just listening to a lecture.
Sometimes a teacher leads everybody through an inner process at the same time, very similar to the way we do a group Tombstone visualization. The main difference is that all Sufi processes are about walking through, or washing, to use Sufi lingo, so that you move closer and closer to proximity with God. Any issue you have is about you being in separation from God in some way. The ultimate goal is to live from a place in your heart of what they call The Unity, where you are in constant connection with God in a deep way.
There are also small-group activities where we exchange healings with each other. It wouldn’t be all that unfamiliar to you.
AB: And when did you realize you wanted to become a minister?
Mary Ellen: This past November, for the first time we had some of our classes in our major. Alyce, I spent the whole week weeping, because it felt like I had come home to what I had always been meant to be. I could not stop crying. I always said that Shadow Work was like church and spiritual, there were inklings of that for me. Even years ago, I sort of knew that Shadow Work wasn’t going to be what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I just had no idea that it was going to be like, you know, being a minister, for goodness sakes.
I have had that feeling on the Sufi path before, that it’s been like coming home to a home I didn’t know I was looking for. That’s sort of the way I’ve described it. I couldn’t stop crying, because it was felt like such a gift, and such a blessing. This is who I was always meant to be, and finally letting myself have it or admit it.
AB: What was it that was hard to admit?
Mary Ellen: I think for a long, long time in my life, I was really embarrassed to be spiritual in that way. It’s still hard for my mind to get that I would be someone who would connect with, essentially, this monotheistic religion! With a religion at all! But it’s been what, in a deep way, I’ve longed for, and I made it not okay for myself to go there. Going into spiritual ministry has been very, very profound.
AB: Have you found in your classes that your Shadow Work experience in doing things energetically has helped you learn this kind of work more readily?
Mary Ellen: It’s funny, because I would say yes. But compared to what a lot of people can see and read in someone else, I was blind as a bat. I’ve learned a lot that’s really opened up for me.
I had several advantages. One is all the work I’ve done. Compared to a lot of people, I don’t have a lot of shame. So it was easy for me to trust what I was getting as the teachers were teaching us how to go in and feel what was going on for someone else. A lot of people have a hard time doing that. And I think all the work I’ve done on my emotional stuff helped me move through things much more quickly on the Sufi path than it has been for a lot of people.
AB: Are there ways in which the two kinds of work are similar?
This morning, I was talking with a healer in my class who did a healing with a client last night. The client said she wasn’t getting anything. The healer told me a little about this person: that she’s really depressed, she’s in her house all the time, she doesn’t go out at all, she’s gaining weight. I said to her, It sounds to me like she’s pissed off! I was able to give this healer a number of ideas about how to work with this person. A lot of that was based on Shadow Work.
AB: And how are the two different?
Mary Ellen: The Sufi personal practice is about learning to be in your spiritual heart in your body, in your upper chest, and that’s the doorway to all the deeper realms within. You want to be in your heart, and then energetically reach out and connect with someone else’s heart. You have God to show you what’s happening for them.
That was actually a hard thing for me to learn because it was so opposed to everything that I had always believed in Shadow Work. How could I know what’s going on with someone else? I’ve come to see that I can do that.
You need to be polite. You don’t say, This is what’s going on with you! That’s rude! But I’m learning more and more to trust and use what I see in a way that is really useful to my healing clients.
AB: How is your life different as a result of doing Sufi work?
Mary Ellen: I would say that my life is unimaginably better.
So the Sufi path is all about coming into unity with God. And it’s knowing that you are a holy jewel in your heart of hearts. Knowing that you are a holy jewel of God. And that is all about having a deep experience in your heart of Divine Love, of what Sidi would say is the Love, with a capital L. It’s about gnosis, it’s a path of gnosis, it’s about direct tasting.
They tell a story about the teacher holding up a jar of honey and saying, What is this? And the students saying, Honey. And the teacher saying, How do you know? They passed it around. And finally one guy took the jar and put his finger in and stuck his finger in his mouth and said, This is honey. And the teacher said, Yes, you know that it’s honey because you tasted it. Everybody else just looked at the jar.
That’s what this path is about, it’s about tasting, having a direct experience of the Love in my heart which helps me know who I really am in a way that nothing I’ve ever done before has ever brought that to me.
My marriage with John continues to go places that I never imagined, and it just gets better.
I have much more an experience of going through my life with this deep certainty at my core. Which doesn’t change that I get pissed off at the kids on the outside and have all kinds of crazy, hard, day-to-day stuff on the outside. But my inner experience of that is vastly different now. That’s what I mean by unimaginable, because I always thought somehow that I would do enough work on myself so that the outer would shift somehow, and that’s not how it’s happened.
AB: I’m not sure what you mean by the outer.
Mary Ellen: The outer self, and the outer circumstances, both. Things that happen, and my outer self. I more and more experience a difference between my personality and who I really am.
And that’s part of what the Sufi path is all about. The Sufis say, Die before you die. Meaning, who you think you are needs to die in order for you to come into closer proximity with God. Because you are so much more than you think you are. And that’s part of what leaving Shadow Work is for me.
I really thought I was Shadow Work. Mary Ellen equals Shadow Work. And part of deciding to leave Shadow Work has opened up so much more in my heart because it’s like letting that identity die. Letting myself separate from thinking that that’s who I really am. For me, that’s why it’s important for me to step away from Shadow Work, because I don’t think I could — this is really good, Alyce, I’m going to cry, I didn’t realize this — that I got something in my heart, that who I really am isn’t Shadow Work. I have gotten that in a way since deciding to leave Shadow Work, and I don’t think I could have gotten that staying in Shadow Work.
I’m seeing the depths of my holy being separate from all the things my outer self likes to think I am, and that’s really what this path has brought to me and continues to bring to me. And not just from a place where, Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m really holy, I’m really special. But from a deep place of gnosis.
AB: It sounds like a huge change. Shadow Work has been a huge part of your life for a dozen years.
Mary Ellen: I think actually fifteen years. When I first started working with Cliff, it was 1990.
AB: Would you describe the healing work you do now?
Mary Ellen: I start by saying a few prayers and an invocation, which helps me step out of the way, so to speak. It isn’t me doing the healing, it’s me surrendering and opening myself to God that then allows God to come and do the healing.
The core practice is called Remembrance. You close your eyes and let your spiritual awareness drop into your upper chest. Then you repeat a sacred name of God. We Sufis use the word Allah. In many traditions, the “ah” sound opens the heart chakra, and Allah has that sound in it twice.
Then I might ask, as we do in Shadow Work, What do you want to have happen? Or I might ask, What do you want to focus on? The person talks about what they want, and we feel where that is in their body, and go there.
At first, I was afraid that this Sufi path might be a spiritual bypass: Just go to God and you’ll get over it. But it’s not. You feel what’s really going on with you, which I love. Then you bring God to that and see what happens. My job is to help you get down to what’s really going on for you in the moment. Whatever it is, you bring the name of God to that and allow God to do what God does. It’s like a shift in a Shadow Work process. I’m always amazed at what people get when they’re in there.
The healing happens over time, as it is in Shadow Work. If you come to a weekend and do a process, you’ll get something. But it’s when you do it over time that you’ll see a lasting change in yourself.
AB: In your own learning path, is there a cutting edge that you’re working with right now?
Mary Ellen: In my own healings lately, I’ve been working on a place in me that’s always been embarrassed or ashamed to be a deeply spiritual being. The family I come from is very religious, and when my Dad died, I know that my Mom’s relationship with God is what got her through. But it used to be just like hearing fingernails on a blackboard when she spoke it out loud. “Lord, I need you to help me, Lord” she’d say, and I’d feel, Yecch! In Shadow Work lingo, it put that part of me in shadow! But that is me, I think, and it’s still a little hard to say it to you.
I think my work in the world, cutting edge, is really standing as a minister. Really standing in that. I’m still walking through some stuff on that. That’s what I’ve been working on in my own healings as I’m being the client lately, is the places where I’ve been. And I can look all the way back, where in high school and college, I was the cool, punk rock, dressed all in black, chick. The avant-garde theatre chick. Taking on nihilistic poses, and not caring about anything. This definitely feels like stepping out of my coolness. And even, in Shadow Work, being cool in some way.
So that’s another piece of really owning and landing in who I really am. But it’s certainly been challenging to go, You mean that’s who I’m gonna be? What, are ya kidding? Come on, God, have a heart here! Can’t I be cynical and wise-cracking? You want me to be all gooey and spiritual?!
AB: Tell me about your Sufi name.
Mary Ellen: Unlike most people, my Sufi name, Maryam, is a version of my birth name. The Sufis honor Mohammed as The Prophet, but they honor all the prophets, so they honor Jesus, Abraham, Moses, all of them, including Mary. And my name means, She who carries the deep love.
When I first got it, I said, “MARY?!?” I’ve always hated it when people who just called me Mary! But this is Maryam, and I’ve grown to really like it. And now when I go into the bank and they call me Mary, I don’t freak out!
My mom got it right. Maybe my mom was really in tune when she named me.
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