“Die before death and live forever.” Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan
Dhikr is possibly the central practice of most Sufi Orders, and of course there are many ways of doing it and saying it and chanting it and singing it. It is the core of the Dervish ceremony, of course, there is a great deal of lore out there about its practice and the miracles it brings. All I can do is tell you about it from the perspective of what it has given to me over nearly 40 years of practice.
My teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, pointed out early on that the most apparent difference between dhikr and wazifa—or mantra—is that the practice of a mantra is about experiencing and enjoying the divine qualities of whatever it is we call God. Dhikr, on the other hand, is beyond that: it is about coming to the reality of God, beyond the qualities, beyond worlds and universes and beings… Dhikr is the way God is. And if one is going to come to That, one must go beyond all these things and into the Absolute…where one finds oneself emerging. It occurs to me, as I attempt to think about all this, that Dhikr is somewhat akin to the Samadhi practices of the Yogis, to contemplative Buddhist practices, to the Kyrie Eleison of the Hesychasts, and to the early Chassidic practices that eschewed form for meaning. I have no doubt that there is some form of it in all contemplative practice. Really, I suppose, it just depends on one’s intention and one’s travel plans when one embarks on this journey. If done well, however, it is not child’s play. It is an advanced practice, and should be undertaken only with the help of a trusted guide. Of course, having said that, we must then give thanks for “all those, whether known or unknown” who have bravely, and with sincerity and commitment, taken the journey when it was there to be taken. However, I suspect there is always a guide where the intent is true. I have found this to be true in my own practice, again and again. The Sufis say there is really only one Teacher, the Spirit of Guidance, and that This permeates all seeking. Perhaps key to a safe and successful journey—or rather, this particular leg of the journey—is sincerity.
I experience dhikr in approximately four stages, each of which is its own world of understanding. First is what some would call the abasement, or the dark night of the soul, in the alchemical terms my teacher loved and taught:
“La illa ha…” There is no God, there are no beings…
In that dark night of unknowing, as St. John of the Cross called it, one turns away from and relinquishes all one’s concepts about reality. Classically, this is done sweeping the head in a sort of clockwise circle, a gesture of negation: “all that I thought to be true about the world and God and reality…was a lie.” One is annihilating one’s concepts (not oneself). That comes next.
Bringing the head down to the chest,
One stabs one’s own heart with a lance of light from the third eye. It is a symbolic crucifixion, wherein one annihilates—again, not oneself—but one’s concept of oneself. “All that I thought I was and am, none of it exists, and none of it matters.” There is a sense of having destroyed all one’s concepts about oneself and the world and God, and what is left? The alchemists call it “dissolution,” in the classic formula, where what is gold is separated from what is lead. Out of this, a sun rises, a flower blooms, the resurrection takes place:
Having realized what one is not, there is a new birth, because in the annihilation, a new seed is planted, the seed of a new soul. The crucifixion of Christ beautifully represents this, and there are numerous similar stories about Sufis and other mystics who undergo this process. Al Hallaj, for instance, who was dismembered because, while in the state of God consciousness, he said, “I am the truth.” Finally,
And that is the fragrance that persists after the flower has long gone to other seed. It is what our lives are about: the dhikr sings itself through our days and nights, and it is the meaning within it all. I find that it is both the symbol and the reality of this journey I’ve undertaken, and it sings itself through each new adventure that comes. It evokes the words and pictures for a new kind of story, and helps me to forget the stories I have fabricated to make my life bearable, so that there is now the possibility for a new song, a new story, a clear playing field.
I have friends who are Sufis and also Buddhists or Jews or Christians (Father Frank, are you still out there?); sometimes we laugh and say that we are “Bufis,” or “Jewfies,” and that is all quite as it should be. The outer forms of religion are just that: outer forms. Words like dhikr or mantra or prayer all express our chosen methods of travel. In the culture I grew up in, it was all about dying and being reborn, and I find that meaningful, if properly understood, but I might also think that it is about sleeping and awakening. Recently, when working with dhikr, I have, in the second stage, when my third eye meets my heart, perceived an enchanting desert scene: it is twilight, and the colors of the landscape are all pinks and mauves and fawns. Stars twinkle overhead. I stand on a soft, dusty road, walking into that twilight, and somehow I know that I am waiting at the other end of it…and yet: is there an end at all?
The Message is a call to awakening for those who are meant to awaken, and a lullabye for those who are still meant to sleep. –Hazrat Inayat Khan