For some time now I have been doing Sufi practices that have slowly but completely reshaped my relationship to the world and everything in it.
When I first began these practices, they felt like food. A daily nourishment, somehow very familiar and very necessary to a long-forgotten aspect of my being. My heart awoke, delighted, to connection, to the beauty that persists everywhere despite the depredations of modernity. A flower opened in my chest and turned to the sun. Sudden glimpses of joyous beauty, glorious shards, fell upon me, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Elephant and Castle roundabout on a grey November day, huddled passers-by, suddenly lit from within by the Real, revealed as part of the Whole. On my way to work, city trees shared their jokes.
This was the start of a process of reconnection, to the transcendental and through it also a connection to everything else, to the deeper aspects of nature and creation. This connection is something we collectively lack, that our culture has almost entirely lost. The loss of this connection is a key aspect of the global crisis we currently face. But we all have the seeds of deeper connection within us, and there are ways to nurture and grow it.
On the Sufi path this centres on the heart, and re-enlivening the heart. Western culture still has a folk-memory of the importance of the heart, songs and sayings about following your heart, but it’s generally understood as just a physical pumping mechanism with some romantic metaphors attached from earlier, less scientific eras. In Sufi understanding, the heart has an extraordinary spiritual aspect, and is in fact a centre of consciousness and perception. Above all, it is the point of living spiritual connection to a living presence that radiates throughout the world, and to its Source, that transcends it. All of our hearts have this potential and capability, but it needs to be nurtured, in the same way that our minds need education to reach their potential.
The beauty and strangeness of this education of the heart is that it is very simple at a practical level, but utterly transformative. A daily meditation and some recitations is somehow enough to cause deep and subtle changes, reaching in under the conscious mind into the hidden seven-eighths of the iceberg. A gradual process of attunement, alignment and inner prompting unfolds in a method of teaching and transmission that is almost entirely wordless; I would go so far as to say formless.
This makes it difficult to express verbally. Words are blunt, point in misleading directions. How do you describe the strange beauty of the erosion of hard rocks by soft water; the presence of seabed fossils on mountaintops? The metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly? These transformations are mirrored within us.
With this transformation has come many shifts and realizations, some joyous and some more challenging. I have gradually come to experience, and realize, that everything and everyone has a transmission that can be tuned into; and that actually affects your heart, whether you tune in consciously or not1. To tune in even sporadically in a place of human cooperation with nature, like an organic farm, garden or allotment is a joy. Wild landscapes, places where natural forces openly dominate, are intense (and not always particularly welcoming to humans, understandably). And not surprisingly, being around a great deal of modern culture is deadening and en-darkening. The attention-grabbing imagery of ads, the constant siren call to consumerism and distraction and… heedlessness.
Coupled with this shift in perception has come an unexpected change in the way I think about things. Without conscious effort or intention, many of my strongly held opinions have loosened, and some have fallen away, like dead leaves2. They haven’t been replaced by new ones, creating more space for reflection. And the way I reflect internally has shifted. While I still think things over ‘rationally’, I hold up the thinking and conclusions to my heart, to see how they appear in its light. Or I direct my thoughts in the direction it indicates. And sometimes suggestions and insights come from it unprompted. It can be like having a lodestone; other times it’s like being carried by a homing pigeon, or having a lantern.
Of course the thinking mind doesn’t always want to submit to the lodestone, despite the proven excellence so far of its direction. Sometimes the indicated route looks like hard work, and a superficially easier alternative becomes attractive. I have become much more aware of the different layers of self, the multitude within me. In particular, the petty workings of ego, always concerned with looking good, accumulating personal advantage, avoiding effort; always vying for control. I’d like to say that I regularly choose the lodestone over ego, but at a daily level the ego can be subtle and persistent, and has a lifetime of conditioning to back it up. I regularly fall back into its familiar constrictions. What saves and resaves me, is Grace.
Grace! When did that last mean anything in our culture? Grace is restorative, healing, cleansing, forgiving. Grace makes the hard easy, opens the door to the beautiful parts of our being, gives unearned tastes of what it really is to be kind, generous, true. I fall over a thousand times and this beautiful, mysterious, completely unearned Grace picks me up a thousand times and puts my feet back on the road. This Grace is somehow contained within the transmission that flows in via the daily practices. Sitting in meditation with a prescribed intention tunes in to this transmission, which also contains light.
Inner light is somewhat analogous to sunlight, if sunlight was alive. It pours in, sometimes warm and calming, other times bright and literally illuminating of dark inner corners, and sometimes piercing, laser sharp, almost painful. The flow isn’t consistent, it changes depending on many elements. I gradually came to understand that my own receptivity is one of these elements. And if the vessel it flows into is sound, it can accumulate, fill and illuminate. Over time I began to realise I was catching this precious light in a rusty bucket, full of holes. Daily habits of unconscious behavior sometimes drained it, or even blocked the flow. I needed a proper structure – a suitably sturdy cup to catch it in. And gradually, slowly, I came to the dawning realization that ritual was this cup.
And here was the rub for me, and a revelation. I had always resisted organized religion. The formal structure of Christianity had been enough to put me off, and ritual had appeared to be useless activity. Yet Sufism is intimately linked with Islam, a religion that appears formidably structured and regulated from the outside, full of ritual and obligations to pray and fast.
The Sufi group I belong to is open to both muslims and non-muslims, so I had plenty of opportunity to see these rituals in action. People prayed, observed Ramadan, but didn’t proselytize. And slowly, I noticed that these actions were linked to light, were a type of form to hold the formless. And eventually, after few years of meditating, I decided to try them for myself.
And this turned out to be a stunning discovery that I did not expect at all, the beauty, connection and power of ritual prayer3. I find the quality of the connection to be quite different to meditation, although complementary to it – as the conscious self is involved directly. Suddenly, the idea of doing it five times a day became very appealing and necessary, in the way that eating, and drinking each day is both appealing and necessary.
It is hard to explain this properly. Rumi describes, in Fihi ma Fihi, his book of discourses, a precious treasure that is kept in a strong box. The box is forbidding from the outside, and many people only ever engage with its exterior. But those who open the box4 have a quite different experience.
And now here I am, some years on, in a relationship of deepening alignment with the Divine, Something/Not-thing/All-thing5 unutterably vast, beautiful, tender, terrifying and far beyond my capacity to comprehend. Something complex and intricate that is unconstrained by the weak and artificial barriers and rigidities that we humans are always putting up.
Not so long ago I returned from pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a sacred place of quite extraordinary power, to a family visit to the West Country, Wells in Somerset. I found myself reflecting on the similarity of the transmissions I felt in Al Aqsa (the Dome of the Rock and its environs) and Wells Cathedral. And also the complementary ones within the West Country landscape itself, alive with a very English sacredness. On a walk I encountered a particular oak in a field, full of presence and joy, so beautiful I wanted to pray right there in its company. I felt strongly that connection to the transcendental is also connection to everything else, to the deeper aspects of nature and creation.
And now we find ourselves in this time of… reckoning? consequences? and this path, both inner and outer has been, is being, for me, a rock, source of strength and nourishment – and challenge.
This crisis, slow motion but rushing towards us, is far too big for the mind. The enormity of what is happening is too much for the poor husk of the ego to grasp and accept its relationship to. Sufism describes material reality as four elements: earth, water, fire, air. These correspond to the core elements of the global commons that we are collectively poisoning, to the detriment of all – the soils, the oceans, the atmosphere – fuelled by the colossal misuse of energy and the insatiable desires of a billion egos6.
Faced with this reality, my mind gabbles, veering between distractions and ‘fixes’ or apocalyptic despair. I am so thankful for the anchor of my heart. The transmissions in meditation are steadying and nourishing and remind me to connect to the beauty, vitality and sufficiency in the everyday and the present. The deeper currents are far larger and stronger than human activity, and unscathed by it. My mind wants to rush ahead, to try to concoct grandiose solutions, but my heart draws me back, to begin with the inward. The inner produces the outer.
We have no idea what awaits us and I have no more inkling than anyone else. The outer signs are terrifying, as a glance at any newspaper headlines show. But the inner transmissions speak of other possibilities still open to us, if we can collectively awaken.
(1) It’s nowhere near as mechanical as it sounds – the degree to which I have found I can tune in is affected by many subtle factors, and varies greatly.
(2) This was slightly alarming when it began – I hadn’t realized how much my identity was bound up with certain fixed opinions.
(3) I didn’t discover it straight away of course, it takes a bit of time and daily effort to establish a ritual of this nature.
(4) Or have it opened to them, which sometimes happens. You could also say this is what happens every time.
(5) There isn’t a satisfactory English word for this Reality – the word God is far too poor and small.
(6) I’m thinking here of the richest billion, which includes me and probably anyone reading this.