April 1, 2008 · Print This Article
Sufism – The Mystic Tradition of Islam
Sufism is the mystical tradition of Islam. But you don’t have to be Islamic to gain benefits from its practices. Wisdom exists in everyone, from your local grocer to the Pope. You just have to be open to experiencing it. I’ve never formally studied religion, so what I share with you, I share from the heart of my understanding.
I was introduced to Sufism by my personal life coach, Marilyn Gustin, who is the author of many books on the Christian spiritual path. What she shared with me was the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, two of the most well known saints of this mystic tradition.
The heart of Sufism is the belief that you can have a personal experience of God, namely in the form of love. Consequently, Sufis try to discern and experience love in every thought, word and action. Every experience becomes an opportunity to experience love, and thus, experience God.
Sufism also believes in God as both manifest and unmanifest. Here’s the way I see this: God is so great and amazing that our limited human mind cannot possibly conceive of Him in His entirety. However, God is omni-present, meaning he is a part of everything. Consequently, while one cannot conceive of God, one can experience God in the world through different people and objects that are manifest, because God is a part of everything, from a rock to a flower to a newborn baby. Sufis make an active effort to experience God in everything, primarily through the experience of Love.
The poetry of the Sufis is powerful. Just consider this; the Sufi saints (mostly from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries) were persecuted for their beliefs. They met secretly and shared their knowledge through poems. Each poem is a metaphor, with hidden symbols that describe the spiritual path.For example, a state of drunkenness is often used to describe the love a Sufi feels when he or she is closely connected to and aware of God’s presence. The drunk is used to symbolize the Sufi and wine symbolizes the spirit of grace.
Sufi poetry often describes the Sufi’s mystical experiences of God, but in a hidden way, using the symbols mentioned above, as well as other metaphors. Reading their words often propels the reader into a state of meditation, because the words themselves contain within them a piece of the mystical experience the poet is describing.
Practice the art of poetry as a part of journaling by writing poems about your personal experiences of Love or God. This can also provide you with a wonderful record to look back on.
The Practices of Sufi Meditation
Repetition of the Name
Sufi meditation is called Muraqaba, meaning to observe, guard or control one’s thoughts and desires. Sufi meditation has many different practices.Repeating the Name of God is one way a Sufi enters into a state of meditation. By focusing on the Name of God, you connect with the divine power manifested through the name of God.
To understand this practice of Sufism within the context of the Western, Judeo-Christian background, we can compare this to the Jewish Tetragammaton, which is the personal name of the God of Israel. In the Jewish tradition, from which both Christianity and Islam arise, God has many names which represent a conception of the divine nature.
In Islam and Sufism, the word Allah is used to describe God, which means “God without a second.” Muslims see Allah as the same God of Christianity and Judaism, and Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians use the word Allah when speaking of God.
In addition to the name Allah, Islam and Sufism have 99 Names of God which describe His attributes. For example, The Most Merciful, The Most Holy and The Ever Forgiving.
These names arise from the concept of the manifest and unmanifest. While there is only one God, that one God is impossible to conceptualize in Her entirety. Consequently, in order for you and I to talk about God, we must use words, hence the 99 names. It’s like me calling God a him or her. God isn’t either, but in order to talk about Him in the English language, we usually end up assigning Her a gender.
Instructions for Practice
To practice repetition of the Divine Name, choose a name of God to remember, either from Sufism or from your personal religious tradition. Sit comfortably and in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Close your eyes and repeat the name with the understanding that you are repeating a word that represents a divine quality or conceptualization of God. Try to feel the meaning of that word within you with as much feeling and power as you can at this moment.For example, if you are repeating “God the Most Merciful,” try to feel that aspect or quality of mercy within you.
Focus intently on the Name to the exclusion of all other things. If thoughts arise, or you find yourself daydreaming or thinking about something else, return your mind to the repetition of the Name.
As you deepen your practice, your experience of the Name will unfold naturally and spontaneously. The Name of God contains an aspect of divinity; Just as God is a part of everything manifest, God is also a part of all words. So the name itself contains an aspect of God, which can be experience through the repetition of Her Holy Name.
Experiencing a piece of God is like experiencing His entirety. My meditation teacher uses the analogy of a mountain. It might be very difficult for you to experience a mountain in its entirety, but if you pick up just one piece of rock off that mountain, you experience the entire mountain through the rock.
Remembrance of God
Sufism also has the practice of remembering God, called Dhikr. This practice is found in many other mystic traditions. In it, you make an active effort to remember God in every thought, word and action.This practice can be implemented by reminding yourself throughout your day that God is part of everything, and hence everything offers the opportunity to experience God.
It can also be implemented through the use of the repetition of the Name throughout your day, even when you are not engaged in formal, sitting meditation.
You’ve probably heard of the Whirling Dervishes. If not, check out the link and consider going to see them when they’re in your area. The Whirling Dervishes are a performance group that whirls, which is a spiritual practice of Sufism. I’ve seen the Whirling Dervishes perform at Centennial Hall in Tucson, Arizona. When I saw them, I didn’t understand the spiritual significance of the whirling. Since then, I have come to understand it as a true spiritual practice. Read about the specific aspects of whirling by clicking here. In essence, whirling is a ritual whose performance opens you to experiencing the divine bliss of God. I have not been formally trained in whirling. However, I do practice whirling in my own way by setting a central focal point and dancing around it while chanting God’s name. This is a powerful practice and lends itself to opening the practitioner to an experience of great Love.In my experience, as I chanted and whirled, I lost my sense of limitation, and felt deeply connected with those around me. I fell to the ground in tears of joy and love as I recognized that God was in everything, and consequently, was also in me. I had read the ecstatic love poems of Rumi and Hafiz, and admired them and their experiences. In that moment, I felt as if I was Rumi, I was Hafiz. I was all the great Lovers of God who I had ever written love poems to God. In that moment, I let go of my individual self and embraced my Higher Self, the part of me that is connected to everything else, through God.
Going on Retreat
In Sufism, going on retreat is encouraged to heighten your connection with God. In other religious traditions, going on retreat is something that great men and women did to connect more deeply with God. Christ did it…Muhammad did it…even Moses did it. Don’t you think you should too?Going on retreat is just setting aside an extended amount of time to be with God. It could be a day, a weekend, a week, or more, where you shut yourself away from the outside world and turn your attention inward. Turn off your phone, refrain from watching T.V., don’t take visitors. Turn all your attention to your spiritual practices. Read scripture, meditate, contemplate, or include any of your personal spiritual practices which you find meaningful and enhance your sense of connectedness with God.
In addition to doing this yourself, many people find it’s easier to go to a retreat center for a retreat program. This has several benefits as opposed to doing it at home. First, you get a change of location, which helps break old habit patterns associated with your space of living. Second, you gain access to the insights of the teacher of the retreat. Third, you get to share the experience with others who are also interested in the spiritual life. All of these things lend themselves to enhancing your experience and strengthening your personal spiritual practices beyond what you could do on your own.
You can practice Sufism on your own through repetition of the name, whirling, and retreats, or you may wish to seek out a Sufi spiritual teacher in your area. A Sufi teacher is a spiritual friend who has walked the Sufi path, and in turn, provides you with the teaching and guidance necessary to help you follow the same path. I do not know any Sufi teachers personally, although my spiritual teacher, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, borrows from many of the teachings and practices of Sufism. If you find or know of a good Sufi teacher, I would love for you to share it with me.