When these veils [wealth, rank and pomp, following precedent, and sin] have been pulled away, one's similitude is that of the person who has performed the obligatory purification and is prepared to perform the obligatory formal prayer. Now, he needs an imam to lead him in performing the prayer. That is the spiritual guide (pir), for without a spiritual guide, traveling the path will not be direct. The path to God is hidden and mixed with the paths of Satan. The path to God is one, but there are thousand paths to the false. How will it be possible to travel that one path without a guide? When one has found his spiritual guide, he must put all of his affairs in the guide's hands and set aside control over himself. He must know that his profit in the spiritual guide's error will be greater than his own correctness. Whatever he hears from the spiritual guide that he does not understand should remind him of the story of Moses and Khidr. That story is for the spiritual guide and his disciple, for the shaykhs know things which the mind of the disciple cannot entertain ...
Therefore when the affair is entrusted to the spiritual guide, the first act of the spiritual guide is to place one in a fortress so that evils do not circle around him. That fortress has four walls: one is seclusion, another is silence, another is hunger, and another is wakefulness. Hunger closes the way of Satan, sleeping little illuminates the soul, silence keeps the soul from the distraction of talk, and seclusion turns away the darkness of people from him and closes the way to the eyes and ears. Sahl Tustari (R) says: "The saints who have become saints became so by seclusion, hunger, silence, and wakefulness."
When one has risen out of the path of preoccupation, one starts to travel on the path. The beginning of the path is that one start to overcome the first obstacles of the path. The obstacles of the path are the blameworthy qualities of the soul. They are the root of the things from which one must flee - such as the greed for wealth and rank, the greed for comfort, haughtiness, hypocrisy, and the like - until the materials of distraction are cut off from within and the soul is empty of them. It may happen that a person be emptied of all of these until he is not polluted by more than one blameworthy quality. Then he must strive to sever that one by the means that the shaykh approves and considers more suited to him, for these vary with conditions.
Now that he has cleared the field, the sowing of the seed begins. The seed is the Remembrance of God Most High, since he has been emptied of all save Him. Then he sits in seclusion and continually recites Allah, Allah in his soul and with his tongue until the time when the tongue falls silent and the soul begins to speak. Then the soul, too, ceases to speak and the meaning of the word overwhelms the soul. The significance is not in the letters. It is not Arabic or Persian, for speaking with the soul is also speech. Speech is the sheath and the husk of the seed, not the seed itself. Then, the import of that must become firmly established in the soul, dominating and victorious, so that the soul not be forced to that state. Rather, it should become like a lover from which the soul cannot be held back by force. Shibli said to his disciple, Husri: "If from Friday to Friday when thou comest to me, thou lettest anything pass in thy soul other than God Most High, thy coming to me will be unlawful."
So, when the soul has been cleared of the thorns of worldly temptations and the seeds have been planted, nothing still remains that is related to free choice. The soul has chosen to be there in that condition. After that, one remains waiting for what will grow and appear. Usually the seed is not wasted, for God Most High says: Whoever desires the harvest of the Hereafter, We give him increase in his harvest. (42:20) He says "Whoever cultivates the work of the Hereafter and does the seed, We shall bestow in crease upon him.
From this point, the conditions of the disciples are various: there is the person to whom the meaning of the word begins to appear plainly, but spurious imaginings come to him. There is the person who is delivered from these, but the essence of the angels and the spirits of the Prophets begin to appear to him in beautiful forms, as though he were dreaming. He opens his eyes and still sees them. After that, there are other states, the discussion of which would be lengthy. There is no benefit in relating them because the way is for traveling, not speaking. Each person has a different experience. For whoever desires to travel that path, it is better that he not have heard anything about it, so that expectation not occupy his soul and itself become veil.
- Al-Ghazali, The Alchemy of Happiness, pp. 473-475