Sitting Among Sufis
Tearing the Bandage Off: Dance
Lately I've been having dreams of being naked in public. Not the kind where you're giving a public speech and suddenly realize you don't have any clothes on, but ones in which I'm running and dancing with a wild, abandoned, exhilarating freedom.
The first time I had one of these dreams, I dreamt I was dancing through the mountains, sprinting up giant piles of boulders, jumping into streams, and splashing through them barefoot. Some of these mountains and streams careened through towns and although no one was paying any attention to me, I became more and more self conscious. Gradually, as I ran, I began to put my clothes back on.
In each dream I've had since that first one, though, I ceased being self-conscious and danced through the mountains with the freedom of a lifelong nudist. In one, a brilliant sunset appeared before me, and in another, I ran down from a peak to a pristine, secluded beach on the shores of the ocean. Without pause, I ran like a small child into the waves.
These dreams of transparent freedom represent for me the past ten years of my life, a time when I've been discovering a new level of spirituality. That began in a new church where I found a heightened sense of love, acceptance and freedom; it continued when I became involved in Judaism, where my vision of God expanded to include a Being of mystery and passion; and it's now also being deepened by Sufism, where I've begun to embrace a God beyond religious description - a God who dances and laughs and embraces every human being, regardless of his or her beliefs or religious affiliation. Such a God releases us to endlessly re- experience God in new and exciting ways.
For me, this has meant the freedom to find God in my own, personal way, rather than trying to conform to what's expected of me - spiritually - by others. For most of my life, that's been far from true. During my childhood, I longed to be like the "church kids." As an adult, I spent much of my life believing it dangerous to question anything I was taught. And even when I began to loosen my spiritual rigidity, I continued to fear judgement and criticism, trying continually to make myself acceptable to those who might be upset by the changes in my life.
I remember one morning in particular, not long after I'd left a church where I'd experienced a great deal of pain, my husband Mike called to say that a friend wanted to stop by to "talk" to me. Mike wanted to know if it was OK if this friend dropped in for lunch.
Immediately, though, I began to wonder how I'd answer this friend's questions. I knew he merely wanted to quote Bible verses and instill a sense of fear and guilt in me about my rejection of some of my prior beliefs. Panic seized me at the thought of the "conversation," and I began shaking and crying. I still felt I needed to appease people with whom I no longer agreed, and it caused me a lot of anguish. I called Mike back and told him that I'd changed my mind and asked him not to bring the man home with him. I still find myself hiding who I am in some ways and with some people, even though I'm now in my 40s, but that's changed in significant ways. I still prefer not to spend my lunches with people who want to convince me that they hold "the Truth," suggesting, somehow, that I do not, but neither do I have attacks of anxiety around them. My involvement with Sufism is helping me "take off my clothes" and risk spiritual transparency. In my dreams, I run and dance tirelessly through the mountains, surrounded by majestic, earthly beauty. In my life, I'm learning to run and dance with God, immersed in the Beauty of the Divine.
Many Sufi orders incorporate either dance or symbolic movement into their zikrs. Samuel Lewis, who led the Sufi Ruhaniat International order before his death, and was affectionately known as "Sufi Sam" in the 60s, created many dances which are today known as Dances of Universal Peace. Lewis developed the dances by combining the divine phrases and Names used in Sufi zikrs with folk dance movements from all over the world. He began doing this after receiving a series of dreams and visions.A few months ago, Mike and I, along with a number of others, ushered in the New Year with these dances.
Around 8pm, after gathering wood for the fire that would blaze in the middle of a giant tipi in a wooded area of Fort Worth, we shoved back the flap and ducked inside. Nirtana Teri Thompson, who has led the dances for 12 years, arranged candles around the fire, and we meditated for a few moments before the dances began. Then, in a spirit of reverence, we stood as Teri taught us the words and movements of the dances.
"Let my heart reflect thy light, Lord," we sang, as we faced the center of the circle, hands crossed on our hearts, then opening up and out as a symbolic gesture of receptivity.
"As the moon reflects the light of the sun." We turned to the person next to us, palm to palm...
"In love, always in love." Taking someone's hand, we made a half turn, then returned to face the center of the circle, our hands again over our hearts.
"Hu Allah, Allah hu Allah, Allah hu Allah, Allah hu," we sang, circling to the right and then to the left, symbolically releasing God's love in every direction.
As we moved, Teri continually reminded us that it didn't matter if we "messed up" the dance; it was about the worship in our hearts and the spiritual energy we created by being together. "We're dancing our prayers," she said. "If you're uncomfortable about using the name ĎAllah,' remember that Arabic speakers all over the world, including Arabic- speaking Christians, call God ĎAllah.' It's just another language."
Half of the people present, Teri told me later, had never done the dances, but everyone danced as if they'd been doing them all of their lives - not because our movements were perfect, but because we entered fully into the spirit of the dance. Closing our eyes, we concentrated on the Divine Presence among us, bumping into one another, apologizing the first few times, then taking the collisions in stride, and moving deeper into prayer and worship. As we danced, Teri sat in the middle of the circle, near the fire, and pounded an easy, quiet rhythm on her drums.
My introduction to these dances had come through Shahabuddin at the Caravan of the Beautiful, and each time I've participated since then, I've felt more deeply the powerful sense of spirituality created through the message of the dances. As we join hands, I feel the bonds of community. When we turn in place, singing a Name of God, I sense God's love and purity deep within me. And as we move to face a partner, looking into that person's eyes (look gently, both Nirtana and Shahabuddin tell us; don't bore into the other person), I'm aware of the connection each of us shares - an essence created in the image of God.
In Spiritual Dance and Walk, Samuel Lewis gave eleven keys to help us embrace the spirit of the dance, making it a prayer of the heart. Concentrate on the feeling deep within your heart, he writes, and ignore the intellectual badgering that reprimands you for doing something "wrong." Concentrate on the sacred phrase given you by the dance leader and let it touch your being in a "deeper and deeper way." Move together, concentrating on the unity that the dances evoke. And "soar with your whole being," submitting yourselves to Allah/God "in Whom we live and move and have our being."
There's also a reminder for the musicians who set the tempo of the dance: "The music should accentuate the natural rhythm of the sacred phrase," he wrote, and drummers should take particular note, allowing the "sacred phrase" to dominate. "If you play your instrument correctly," wrote Lewis, "no one will even notice you. Isn't that wonderful?"
As with all Sufis, Lewis wanted the focus to be upon God, and used the admonition to remind us of one of Sufism's most valued attributes - that of humility.
While the sacred phrase is the most important element in the Dances of Universal Peace, the various movements of the body have symbolic meaning. Hands are joined or stretched towards the center of the circle, both of these representing unity; they're placed upon our hearts, reflecting the spiritual journey within; and they're uplifted, recognizing the presence of God all around us. Moving together around the circle or spinning in place reminds us that we are microcosms of the always-moving universe.
The movements also create an actual, physical change. Certain movements, said Lewis, promote the "translucent Angelic moods hidden within us." As we move around the circle and gaze into the eyes of others, we evoke a sense of unconditional love, seeing in another the essence of the Divine. And as we chant in various sacred languages and mimic the movements from many religious traditions, we gain an "immediate, accessible feeling for another tradition."
To understand the importance of movement, we only need to look at how it affects us in everyday life. When we rush somewhere mindlessly, we're filled with tension and worry. When we walk slowly and look around us, though, a feeling of tranquility absorbs us and we begin to appreciate the moment we're in. The rhythmic flow of Tai Chi, for instance, or the breath-conscious poses of yoga create an inner quietness, whereas, say, a gesture such as shaking your fist at a driver who has just cut you off creates aggression and hostility. These sacred movements don't bring God into our presence. God is always present. But creating an atmosphere in a room and in our hearts through symbolic and meaningful movements of our bodies helps bring God into our awareness. We close our eyes and search for God within. We dance with another, looking into their eyes, and we see God in another human being. Lifting our hands towards the heavens, then bringing them back to our hearts, we sense God's spirit within and without. As we turn in place, we feel the eternal movement of God through the mysterious yet perfect movement of the universe. It is the dance of zikr, and through it, we are remembering God.
Although most Sufi orders incorporate some sort of movement into their zikrs, each order varies in its approach and philosophy. Some movements begin slowly and symbolically and, as they proceed, increase in speed. Robert Gass, in his exhaustive research into the ritual of chant within numerous religious traditions, quotes Shaykh Robert Ragip Frager in explaining the reasons and results for this increasingly fast tempo:
"There is a powerful sense of energy, of joy arising in the heart and in the body," he says. "You are inexorably pulled into a different state of consciousness, close to God." At the end of this, writes Gass, there is an "exquisite" inner and outer silence.
I've found this to be true when watching others engaged in the sema, one of the most famous "dances" of Sufism, the whirling movement born of the divine friendship of Rumi and Shams. Every aspect of the sema is symbolic. The dervishes, explain Bayat and Jamnia, slowly walk around the room three times, each time kissing their teacher's hand. Then, suddenly, they throw off their black gowns, which symbolize their earthly bodies, and emerge in their "white gowns of eternal light, spinning around their axes as well as whirling around the center, as though the atoms were dancing around the sun."
The sema, however, is more than symbolic. Our bodies carry "within their very structure and cellular memory the circular motion of the stars, planets, and galaxies," writes Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. These forces, he says, "are aroused when the body rotates." The sema, then, through its particular type of movement, brings about the divine energy of God present in the workings of the universe.
A form of the sema is used by other orders, who simply call it whirling or the turn. The most moving example of this I've ever seen came from a young dervish from California named Aziz, whom I saw whirl during zikrs in North Carolina and at various places in Turkey. Clearly, Aziz, as he whirls, utterly loses himself in God, and he does so regardless of whether he's whirling in an auditorium or in a quiet, holy spot among friends.
How imprinted upon my heart and mind is an evening in Istanbul, in a massive, sprawling dergah called Ummi Sinan, where about 130 of us gather in a massive room for zikr. As we repeat the Divine Names of God, Aziz suddenly moves into the large, open space in the center of the room. After bowing symbolically towards the place where a Master would traditionally stand, he removes his coat and begins to slowly spin, his body turning in perfect rhythm as he moves around the circle - an image of the earth turning on its axis while it rotates around the sun.
After several rotations, a second man, Faruk, from Izmir, Turkey, enters the circle, bows, removes his black coat, and accompanies Aziz. Then a third, Raqib, joins them. Their white robes cascade around their bodies as they extend one hand towards heaven and the other towards earth.
As I sit absorbed, a lovely passage from Hazrat Inayat Khan's The Music of Life comes to mind, which I later look up and re-read. In the passage, Khan tells of the extraordinary effects of a snake charmer's music upon cobras in India. "First they [the cobras] come out of the hole in which they live, and then there is a certain effect on their nervous system that draws them closer and closer to the sound of the pungi. They forget that instinct that is seen in every creature of protecting itself from the attack of man or of other creatures. At that time they absolutely forget; they do not see anyone or anything. They are then aroused to ecstasy...and as long as this instrument is played the cobra continues to move in ecstasy. This shows us that, as well as the psychical effect and the spiritual effect that sound has on man, there is also a physical effect."
Aziz, Faruk and Raqib move to the sound within - the rhythmic voice of God. They're attuned to the divine music in their hearts and the soulful repetition of the names of God being voiced all around them. In ecstasy, a state of being in which only the Presence of God remains, the men whirl in the spirit of Rumi.
Perhaps fifteen minutes passes, perhaps thirty, but finally, the three men drop to the floor, reluctant to leave their state of deep communion with God. The atmosphere of exquisite inner and outer silence engulfs the room.