By Komal Mathur
To be ‘in the world, but not of it’ is the Sufi’s ideal. Free from ambition, greed, pride and blind obedience to custom, the Sufi’s heart abounds with love and laughter
If I know, I’ll name itWords,
I speak no words.
What can I say?
I left my voice outside the sama.
Feel, Dance, Whirl,
I watch my bliss, from outside.
This body, that holds, my self,
Like the skin of a drum
Holds sound, reverberates.
Spinning in the arms
Of a presence,
For sound and breath
And dance to be one.
Yearning, for there to be no I
Just the silence of the Universe
In slow kaleidoscopic motion,
Like the sun and the stars,
In the dance of love.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim,
not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen.
Not any religion, or cultural system.
I am not from the East or the West,
nor out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal,
not composed of elements at all.
I do not exist, am not an entity in this world
or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve
or any origin story.
My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless.
Neither body nor soul.
I belong to the beloved
have seen the two worlds as one
and that one call to and know,
First, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human
—Jalaluddin Rumi, ‘Only Breath’
When I was a child of 12, I saw a picture in an encyclopedia of the whirling dervishes. It evoked a strange longing inside me. I discovered that dervishes are Sufi mystics of Turkey and Persia and whirling is one of their modes of worship. Sufism got its content and rituals from Islam , but also picked up elements from older religious practices. Sufism developed gradually in early Islam, but there is little proof of real Sufism before 800 AD. Today there are some five million Sufis, mostly in Egypt and Sudan.
There is extensive Sufi literature and the Internet abounds with information on Sufism. There are Sufi-psychology associations in the West; it is a topic of interest to therapists since it opens up an entire new dimension in the realm of healing the mind, body and spirit.
‘Why would I advise Sufi practice? Because it is the most liberating experience. It opens the heart; creates a space where you can live freely. The concept of separation ceases to exist. There is a feeling of merging with the cosmos and being part of a living Universe,’ says Delhi psychotherapist, Akash Dharmaraj.
Osho also prescribed it and at the Osho commune in Pune, India, there are guided whirling sessions.
For its followers, Sufism is the secret tradition behind all religious and philosophical systems. Sufi is a quality that is inexplicable in terms of psychology or morals—whoever understands it is a Sufi himself. The Sufi belief includes conscious evolution whereby, through an effort of will, one can develop new faculties, for example, telepathy and prophecy. According to Sufis, this conforms to belief in the ‘limitless or perfect man’.
The natural Sufi may be someone like you or me—a soldier, a sweeper, a businessman, a lawyer or a housewife. To be ‘in the world, but not of it’, free from ambition, greed, intellectual pride, blind obedience to custom, or awe of persons higher in rank is the Sufi’s ideal. There is joy and laughter in the Sufi heart.
The core of Sufism is to leave ordinary life and be closer to God, truth and knowledge. There are various routes the Sufi may follow to bridge the gap between God and himself, love being intrinsic to each. Techniques vary, but they have three things in common—rhythm, repetition and endurance. This is manifest in the use of chants, music and dance.
Through the celebration of dance, song, music and whirling, Sufi gatherings become joyous ceremonies of blissful love and ecstasy of the union with the Divine. An entire body of art forms has emerged from this ecstasy. Sufi poetry, love couplets and quatrains composed in praise of the Divine, an invocation of that presence and the effect of melding with that presence, has evoked emotion in the hearts of many across the globe.
Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) a Sufi master of Konya, Turkey, who had a life-transforming encounter with Shems of Tabriz, another Sufi master of that time, has written passionate odes and poems of longing, desire and fulfillment. Full of allusions to the ‘beloved’, these poems were an essential part of Sufi gatherings, then and now.
Sama or sema, the Mevlavi ceremony of whirling that symbolizes union with existence is partly the inspiration of Rumi and partly that of Turkish culture. Sufis refer to their gatherings as kharabat or ‘temples of ruin’—destruction of conditioned and automatic living being the pre-requisite of union with oneself. Samarepresents a journey to growth by shedding the conditioning of the mind and ego. The experience is mystical and psychedelic, but without the use of intoxicants. Love is the only substance used! The technique used is whirling.
Revolving is the fundamental condition of existence. Electrons, protons and neutrons in atoms revolve. Consequently, everything revolves. Stars, planets and their satellites revolve in a cosmic dance. In living beings there is circulation of blood, the flow of life. Life itself is a revolution—rising from the Earth and returning to it. Therefore, whirling is as natural as life itself.
‘Music is to develop the consciousness, poetry is wisdom,’ said Prophet Mohammad. Music, an essential accompaniment to whirling, is repetitive and rises to a crescendo, evoking a yearning for completion.
Most Sufi paths offer aspirants a gradual opening of the heart’s perception through dhikr or zikr, the remembrance of God. This exercise may involve chanting, physical movement and breathwork. These practices are designed to achieve faqr or inner emptiness, leading to fana or non-being and ultimately to baka, an altered state of being.
My experience of Sufi practices began with Gurdjieff dances last July. We used breath, dance and music as techniques for centering. Akash Dharmaraj, psychotherapist, facilitator and transformer, introduced other Sufi practices during a hundred-day meditation program. What was earlier only theoretical now became actual experience. As Rumi said: ‘He who tastes not knows not.’ This was a time of extended experience, a time of growth. I observed myself relating to the beauty in my world—in nature, in people, in living. There came a new feeling of being connected and an unfamiliar ease and comfort with myself. This ease empowers me to live in the moment.
One Sunday in May this year, twenty ‘people like us’ responded to the ‘call of the Sufi’—La illaha illallah—there is no God but God, nothing exists but existence. On that mystical day, at a venue called Shems, we were Sufis. With zikr, Sufi greeting, dervish dancing, affirmations of our selves as beings of the heart inviting Divine Presence, melting in the beauty of the poetry of Rumi, we enhanced our lives forever. We concluded the day with sama.
I met my fellow Sufis/ I greeted these souls/ The beings of light/ That have glowed/ Around me/ For centuries/ And today I turned/ And today I saw/ They were here/ Beside me….
Twenty-seven years after my first encounter with Sufism, I too whirl. As the beat increases, I whirl faster and faster, my body revolves around a central axis of light and I can go on for hours. Arms raised to the skies, in invitation to the Divine, I spin round and round. Tears of joy flow from my eyes. Visions, illusions and colors flash before my eyes. As my outer body responds to the music and to the pull of forces, my inner body suddenly settles into stillness. My inner spaces seem dark and silent. And there I find myself, my truth and reality.
Being a Sufi means more than just whirling and being centered in one space. It is about emanating that energy. For me the experience has enabled love—I love my Universe and myself. I rejoice and celebrate life. I carry the feeling in my heart and practice it in my life.
According to The Sufis, Idries Shah’s noted work, the Sufi aspirant is guided by a teacher, who is the link between the disciple and his goal. The Sufi keeps awake the spiritual attention that is dormant in others. The Sufi is asleep to ‘things of the day’, which refers to the familiar struggle for existence, and is vigilant while others are suffering the ‘nightmare of unfulfilment’.
To be a Sufi, the world need not be abandoned. Instead, bring the Sufi quality to your life. In this age of transcending time and space, when life is a quest for the meaning of life itself, when the individual is contemplating and questioning cultural and social definitions, Sufism is an adventure: looking at life differently and growing with changed perceptions.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
And frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
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