Life Being Lived

CLF - Olmstead Parks

And yet, though we strain

against the deadening grip

of daily necessity, I sense there is this mystery:

All life is being lived.

Who is living it, then?

Is it the things themselves,

or something waiting inside them,

like an unplanned melody in a flute?

Is it the winds blowing over the waters?

Is it the branches that signal to each other?

Is it flowers

interweaving their fragrances,

or streets, as they wind through time?  — Rilke

Recently I received, from a well-known academic and Muslim here in Chapel Hill, a blanket criticism of American Sufis, pointing out that “we” do not understand the true meaning of Sufism, but veil our understanding within the bias of  “our” Western capitalistic world view.  He gave, as an example, Deepak Chopra who, he says, charges $5,000 for a weekend seminar.  The implication is that real Sufis are not materialistic, and do not practice the kind of engaged spirituality he believes is the correct way of life for a true Sufi.

Well.  Where do I start?

First of all, I wasn’t aware that Deepak Chopra bills himself as a Sufi.  Second, I was not aware that he is an American, but I will admit I do not know, because his words do not attract me, nor does his being.  Third, I object to blanket statements about any group, particularly from a noted academic who ought to be capable of more critical thinking.  Finally, I am not aware that the practice of Sufism means that one is “this” or “that” or holds a particular world view . . . and I find it astonishing that someone who is supposed to be an “expert” on such matters would make such an irresponsible statement.

As for me, I just sit on my porch and watch the birds and listen to the trees.  It seems to me that the trees know where they stand, and the birds refuse to favor one position over another, and thus they demonstrate, for me, the meaning of the word Allah.  I will say one thing about “we” American Sufis:  sometimes we can be rather naive and uninformed about the Islamic framework in which Sufism has become known to the Western world, but it seems to me that such constructs are really only the “basket that carries the flowers,” and I think the essence is available to us all, regardless of our station in life or our political views or our geographic location in space and time.  I was reminded, recently, by my new favorite book, Physicians of the Heart (see below) that the word Allah is derived from the Arabic verb waliha, which means to love passionately, intensely, totally:   “crazy love.”

That’s it.

The teacher who brought me up told stories about the rishis in the Himalayas, the Desert Fathers, the Yogis and the Madzubs, the Chassids, the contemplatives of all the varied ways to illumination  who refuse to “join the club (or the “old boys’ network”),” those ones who refuse to believe the lies, those ones who hold the world up in space, who keep it spinning, wobbling, staggering along because they say Allah . . . and leave “them” to their devices.  And Allah is a name that can be called in many, many ways . . .

Let us not forget:  in the Al and La of Allah are the words yes and no.  The rest is just excuses.


The highest good is like water.

Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight: No blame.  

Tao te Ching

Dhikr

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“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.  Some form of it appears in all the esoteric schools:  the Kyrie Eleison (God have mercy of the Desert Fathers, the Hesychasts), the Ein Keloheinu of the Chassids (There is no God but God) and, I think, Om (relating to Brahman, the Absolute) and Om Mane Padme Hum.  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 remembrance, coming home to the reality of God, beyond the qualities, beyond worlds and universes and beings…  Dhikr is the way God really is.  And if one is going to come home to That,  one must go beyond temporal  things and into the Absolute…where one finds oneself coming and going.  I suppose it just depends on one’s intention and one’s  travel plans when one embarks on this journey.  If done properly, 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, whether seen or unseen.  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,

“Ill’a”

 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:

 “Allah”

      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,

“Hu.”

      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 weaves itself through all adventure.  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.

     The outer forms of religion are just that:  outer forms.  The words that reveal our travael plans are only words.  I have had, in the second stage of dhikr, when my third eye meets my heart, perceived an enchanting desert scene that seems planted right there:  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…

But is there an end?

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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