I was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith. From an early age I was encouraged to learn prayers and regularly participate in church services and ceremonies. Growing up I had a copy of a children’s bible and was mesmerised by stories of the Prophets. I read books about saints and developed a strong connection with a lot of Orthodox Christian saints through my readings. A lot of the saints that I read about were mystical and pure characters that performed miracles, healed the sick, helped the needy and gave up their worldly life to serve God. As a result, I was also drawn to the more mysterious and mystical aspects of Christianity. I was also exposed to some new age theories, which I found at times contradicted traditional religious teachings. Teenage adolescence led to a period of rebellion. None of my peers, friends or relatives practiced religion. In the 80’s and 90’s Orthodox Christianity was just making a comeback from the post-communist era; however my family were at odds with this trend. This became a major sticking point for me. While I no longer wanted to attend church services and offer prayers, I retained my faith in God and still felt a strong connection with the saints. I entered adulthood, feeling conflicted and confused, searching for clarity, understanding and a deeper meaning.
I was introduced to Sufism in my early 20’s in February 2008. By then, I had already moved countries and lived in New Zealand. I was married to a Muslim man. I had experienced an Islamic marriage at a mosque, which was a mind-blowing, beautiful and mystical experience. This experience was a huge contrast to the civil marriage ceremony that my husband and I had had earlier. I was a vegetarian. I was a yoga disciple and had a yoga Guru. I was deeply immersed in yogic life practicing it daily. I was teaching yoga and I strongly believed in its greater benefits. I felt some level of spiritual fulfillment. And yet something was missing, and I felt unsettled.
In spite of my yogic training and practices I was never really drawn to the practice of meditation in itself. Being in a state of stillness was challenging. Instead I craved the physical movement that yoga gave me. I certainly had never imagined that I would embark on a journey where daily meditation would become a core practice.
I knew very little about Sufism. Whatever I knew was mostly from my husband who was actively searching for an authentic Sufi experience and teacher. When we scheduled our first meetings to learn about the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order meditation, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But nevertheless, I wanted to try it.
My first meditation was with the New Zealand group manager who represented the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order on behalf of the shaykh, and could teach me about Sufi meditation. I learned that teachings were open to students of all walks, faith and paths. Even though Sufism has its roots in Islam, I was neither required to commit to the Islamic faith nor give up my practice of yoga. So, I was able to receive my first lesson. The group manager gave me my first niyah (intention) and we meditated together for a period of time. Afterwards we talked about my experience. While I can’t recall the exact details of my first experience, I know that I left that day with the goal of trying to practice meditation as much as possible.
Initially I approached my meditations based on my experiences with yoga. After saying my intention, I used to sit with my back straight in the middle of the room, with my legs crossed trying to concentrate on my body or my breath. It took me a while to realise and accept that the Sufi meditation was in fact very different to yoga. No particular sitting posture was required. I did not need to concentrate on anything. I neither had to do anything with my thoughts nor try to control them. In fact, all I had to do was sit in a comfortable position, say my niyah and wait. Sufi meditation, as I learned, is a process of waiting to receive blessing. This was something I could relate to given that I had retained my faith in God; I wanted to experience and feel the blessing while also yearning to experience closeness to God.
I appreciated the fact that Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi meditations are very experiential. No lectures were given. No one told me what to believe in and there were no set expectations about what I would or should experience. Students explore and discover every step for themselves with the support of their teacher. This allowed me to observe, get clarity and grow a stronger connection with meditation and Sufism over time through my own personal experiences. I also came to realise that while a lot of students were doing the same practices and walking the same paths, individual experiences and perceptions varied.
I made attempts to be regular with my meditations. Starting with 20-minute meditations daily or every second day, and then gradually increasing it to 40 minutes. I continued doing my yoga practice daily and taught yoga while also doing the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi meditations. Every week punctually my husband and I went to our group meditation together. There along with the other Sufi students we sat in meditation. We also had one-on-one weekly meetings with the New Zealand group manager who sat with us in meditation, and afterwards would talk to us about our practices and experiences while drinking lots of tea, having ginger biscuits and frequently having a good laugh. These are some of my fondest memories.
Six months passed. My connection grew stronger. I could no longer go through a day without doing my Sufi meditation. After some time, I made a decision to focus on Sufi meditation only and let go of my yoga practice. I found comfort and harmony in my new Sufi practices and this was the journey I wanted to pursue and focus on.
To my surprise I started to feel an interest and a connection to Islamic prayers. I was often allowed to stay in the room for prayers during group meetings, sitting quietly and basking in the blessings of the prayer. As I observed the prayer, I felt there was something familiar and yet very new and profound about prayers. As I watched the prayer, I noticed that there was some similarity to the Orthodox Christian prayers that I had learned as a child. And for the first time I sensed a mystery and a much deeper meaning that I wasn’t aware of before. My heart was drawn to the prayer and I wanted to join the prayer to experience it for myself.
In November the same year Shaykh Hamid Hasan came for his first visit to New Zealand for our meditation retreat. This was the first time that I was to meet the Shaykh and I was still in the process of grasping what that meant and I was uncertain what to expect.
During my first meeting with the Shaykh we talked about my practices. The Shaykh was encouraging and reassuring and kindly answered all of my questions. There was a deep sense of reflection and awareness that I experienced in the Shaykh’s presence, which was unlike any other experiences I had had before. The Shaykh neither gave me a lecture nor told me what to do. Nevertheless, in his presence I experienced a different kind of teaching; a teaching that required no words and the one that sent me contemplating and reflecting for some time, long after our meeting had finished.
A year later, after seeing the Shaykh for the second time, I took bayat and embraced the faith of Islam. Bayat signified taking the Shaykh as my spiritual guide and my teacher. It also meant a commitment to the Sufi path. I finally found the connection and deeper meaning that I was looking for, along with so much more.
This was just the beginning of my journey. There is so much that I have learned through Sufi practices over the years. So much support and guidance that I have received that I am grateful for. So much growth and transformation that has happened. So much that I have been blessed to explore and experience. And yet words would lose their power if I were to try to express any of these in more detail. So perhaps I’ll mention just a few highlights.
Over time I developed a strong connection with Islam, the Prophet Mohammad (s) and the saints of our Sufi order. I gradually learned and transitioned to offering prayers. I have discovered the beauty and blessings of Ramadan. And to my surprise I have also developed a deep connection with other prophets who walked the earth. With this connection came clarity and a deeper understanding of faith and religion.
Perhaps one of the greater realisations is the importance of having a teacher and a guide on the spiritual path. I now know and understand that our personal perceptions can be deceiving. And while I might be perceiving that I am doing the right thing, the reality could be that my nafs (ego) is inflamed and is misleading me. Only the shaykh, the teacher who has mastered the path, can perceive my true inner state and therefore help me move forward along my spiritual journey.
Students of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order are encouraged to live in the world and fulfill their worldly responsibilities while engaging in Sufi practices in the mornings and evenings. In every aspect of our lives we are encouraged to constantly strive for balance and avoid extremism. Balance is something that I am aware of and strive for every day as a Sufi student, as a parent, as a wife and as a working woman. As I got introduced to parenthood, I had to define what that balance meant to me. As a new parent I certainly had my share of struggles. I felt frustrated as I was no longer able to spend as much time meditating and give as much of my time and attention to the Sufi practices. But I was always supported and encouraged by my shaykh to be patient and do as much as I could. Being a parent to my child was an important responsibility that I could not ignore. Fulfilling parenting responsibilities has its own blessings.
Life has its twists and turns, some we can foresee and some we cannot. My husband and I made a decision to move to Canada, with the blessing of our shaykh, leaving behind our friends and families, entering a world that didn’t have the comfort and support of our Sufi group. The move wasn’t easy. We certainly encountered our share of obstacles and challenges as we transitioned into our new life. And yet with the grace of God and support from the Shaykh and help of the Sufi practices we passed through those challenges. We have now established a local Sufi group and regular group meditations that I am grateful for.
So much more that can be said about the Sufi path and practices of Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order. However, I would like to finish on this note; Sufism has become my anchor and my vessel that carries me and supports me through life no matter what. Giving me strength, helping me grow and strengthening my faith in God; and allowing me to experience the connection that I never thought was possible.