Practices of Sufism*
Sufism is an ancient tradition of spiritual development. It is widespread at present.
Sufism originated inside Islam. Some Sufi teachers-sheikhs say, however, that Sufism cannot be limited to a particular religion, historical period, society, or language. They call Sufism “the pure essence of all religions” and believe that Sufism existed always: it is only its outer appearance that changes according to the contemporary cultural-historical environment.
The Sufis, who often call themselves “people of true beingness”, from age to age bring to the world together with their teachings their art, which reflects their perception of the beautiful. The Sufi symbolism, images, and themes are found in a significant part of the oriental folklore, literature, especially poetry. Such is almost all Persian-Iranian classic poetry, which is recognized throughout the world. Widely known are the names of Sufi poets: Sanai, Rumi, Hafiz, Jami, Nezami. One can say the same, though to a smaller degree, about the Arab and Turkic literature, poetry, folklore.
What is Sufism?
The root Sufi means “pure”. It corresponds to the essence of the Sufi teachings and spiritual appearance of its best representatives. The true masters of Sufism, the true Sufis* are indeed pure from the dogmatism and fanaticism, are free from confessional and national prejudices. A strong aspiration to the ethical purity and impeccability, peculiar to the Sufis, contributed to their receiving another name in the Arab world — Knights of Purity (Sahiba-i-Safa) .
Thanks to large pliancy and openness to outer influence, Sufism at present is not a uniform system. Its different trends, directions, schools, groups differ from one another by methodological aspects they emphasize, by practical methods they prefer. Among Sufis, there are well-known orders with ancient traditions and also 12 main (“parental”) brotherhoods. In addition, there are many other structures in Sufism: smaller brotherhoods, communities, centers, circles.
Let us talk about the fundamentals of the Sufi teachings:
— Sufism holds a belief that the universe consists of 7 “planes of existence” . This concerns multidimensionality of space.
— The subtlest dimension, which the Sufis call Zat, is the Abode of God in the aspect of the Creator. The Creator and the whole diversity of His Creation (Sifat, in Sufi terms) compose the Absolute. The Creator pervades the entire Creation with His Love.
— The multidimensional human organism, which is similar in its structure to the multidimensional structure of the Absolute, can reveal in itself more subtle forms of beingness. One realizes this by cognizing and perfecting oneself.
Thus only by knowing his true essence man can achieve the direct perception of God and union with Him. This is expressed very laconically in the hadith of Sunna* which reads: “He who cognizes himself cognizes God”. On the final stages of such cognition, the individual human consciousness merges with the Divine Consciousness. This final goal is described in the Sufi tradition as the highest state of consciousness Baqi bi-Allah (Eternity in God). Hindu and Buddhist synonyms of this term are Kaivalya, Mahanirvana, Moksha.
The foundation of Sufism is love (mahabba, hubb). The Sufis even say of their teachings as of “hymn to the Divine Love” and call it tassawuri — love-vision. Love is considered in Sufism as the power which strengthens one’s feeling of being contained in God. This process results in understanding that in the world there is nothing but God, Who is the Lover and the Beloved at the same time.
One of the tenets of Sufism is “Ishq Allah Mabud Allah” (“God is Lover and the Beloved”).
A truly loving Sufi gradually submerges, sinks, and becomes dissolved in the Creator — in his or her Beloved.
The principle of regarding God as the Beloved originated from the Sufi direct experience. The Sufis describe this in the following way. When man traverses a certain part of the Path of Love, God begins to help him more actively by drawing him to His Abode. And then man begins to feel more intensely God’s Divine Love.
Let us see how such love, leading man to God, develops according to the views of Jalaluddin Rumi .
1) through the development of the emotional, cordial love for all the beautiful and harmonious in the world;
2) through active, sacrificial love-service to people;
3) and then — through extending this love to all manifestations of the world without discriminating between them; the Sufis say: “If you make a distinction between things originating from God — you are not man of spiritual Path. If you think that a diamond can ennoble you and a stone lowers you, then God is not with you” ;
Obviously, this concept of love is identical to the one described in the Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament: it has the same milestones and accents. The true love is regarded in Sufism in the same way as in the best spiritual schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity — as the only power capable of bringing man to God.
Quite often Sufi sheikhs live in the world being occupied with common worldly activity. They can operate a shop, workshop, smithy, can compose music, write books, etc. The Sufis believe that one does not need seclusion to go to God. They say that the worldly activity by itself does not separate you from God if you are not attached to its fruits and if you remember about Him. Therefore on all steps of the spiritual ascent, man may be involved into social life. Moreover according to Sufism, it is social life that provides one with the possibilities for perfecting oneself. If every life situation is considered as educational, then one can live side by side with the most awful and despising people. One can be subjected to the most coarse influence — and do not suffer from it; on the contrary, one can be joyful and calm, and perfect oneself through these social contacts given by God.
As for the students-murids, Sufi sheikhs say that not anyone wanting to become a Sufi can become it, not everyone can comprehend the Sufi teachings. The Sufis say that one cannot be taught anything: man can be only shown the way, but he has to walk it himself. Therefore, if an aspirant is not capable of using the teachings for his or her spiritual development, the education is meaningless: the teachings will pass through such a student as water passes through sand.
Aspirant’s capability of comprehending the teachings is determined by the sheikh. For this purpose sheikhs often use provocative methods. They put aspirants into various situations, involve them into innocent talks — with the purpose of determining their level of development. If aspirants look promising, then sheikh watching them for some time, determine their individual features and to what extent they can comprehend the teachings. And then, according to this, every murid is given certain tasks for the whole period of learning and corresponding parts of the teachings.
After determining specific features of the student’s development, the sheik can send him or her to other orders, brotherhoods, educational centers. The neophyte moves from sheikh to sheikh and gradually comprehends and masters the program. After a long and all-round learning, the murid returns to his or her first sheikh. And then the sheik gives the murid “final polishing” and so-called ijaza (permission) to continue the sheik’s tradition and preach the teachings.
The sphere of the Sufi teachings includes both esoteric and exoteric sides. That is, murids develop not only ethically, intellectually, psycho-energetically: they also master the methods, the secrets of their sheikh’s craft or art. Later this helps them in life.
* * *
The process of Sufi teaching can be subdivided into several stages.
The initial stage of the spiritual practice — sharia (law) — concerns strict obedience to all religious precepts. Initial learning of sharia is an obligatory condition for entering on the path of spiritual development.
The esoteric learning begins on the next stage — tariqa (path, way). Mastering the tariqa is related to mastering a series of steps-maqams.
In the ethical aspect, maqams imply fundamental reassess of one’s values. They imply finding one’s own vices and repentance (tauba), abstaining from the forbidden (zuhd), strict distinction between the allowed and non-allowed (wara), refusal of non-spiritual attachments and desires (faqr). Murids learn patience (sabr), “swallowing something bitter without showing distaste”.
Constant remembrance about death, about its inevitability leads murids to reassessing many things. In particular, murids develop a careful attitude to the time which they have on the Earth. Reflections on death are an efficient means of fighting unwanted attachments and habits. Al-Ghazali said: “If you like something of the world and an attachment is born in you — recall about death” .
On the stage of tariqa, one performs intense intellectual work. Sheiks constantly suggest to their students new themes for reflection, talk with them about the fundamentals of the teachings. Murids become acquainted with various literary sources, which present many parables, educational stories, etc.
As the murid goes through all steps of this stage, he or she develops a strong desire to attain the unity with the Creator and enters the state of rida. The Sufis define rida as “unruffled attitude toward one’s predestination”, that is the state of serenity, calm in respect to what is happening.
They who successfully passed maqams of tariqa receive the possibility to go further the path of marefat — meditative cognition of God. On this stage, further ethical “polishing” of the student takes place; student’s love (in its different aspects), wisdom, and power are perfected. The Sufi who traversed this stage really cognizes the multidimensionality of space, “illusiveness” of the values of material life, receives living experience of communion with God. As arif (he who has cognized) such a person receives initiation into sheikhs.
Some arifs managed to reach the forth stage — haqiqat (haqq means truth), on which one finally masters the true beingness. It brings the arif to the full mergence of the individual consciousness with the Goal of his or her aspirations — with the Creator.
Spiritual work on these stages corresponds to the one performed on the stages of buddhi yoga.
* * *
An integral part of the spiritual work on all stages of murid’s spiritual ascent is psycho-energetic practice, which significantly accelerates the processes of ethical and intellectual self-development. Let us talk in more detail about psycho-energetic methods of tariqa.
The psycho-energetic teaching in Sufism is performed so that all students receive special tasks from the sheikh, according to their individual peculiarities and capability of comprehending. At the same time, the sheik gives psycho-energetic training for groups of students.
On the initial stages of psycho-energetic practice, the sheik suggests to murids many different exercises for development of the ability of concentration, for stopping the flow of thoughts and achieving the “mental pause”; they also work with images. After that, various psycho-physical exercises are used: rhythmic movements to music, Sufi whirling, etc.
The use of the whole spectrum of these means creates a remarkable purifying effect, develops the energy structures of the organism (anahata, in particular). Some of these exercises cause “subtle attunement” of the body, mind, and consciousness, and bring the participants to the ecstatic state which the Sufis call hal. There are different kinds of hal. Most often the student gains the following kinds of this state: kurb — feeling of the nearness of God, mahabba — felling of the fervent love for God, khauf — deep remorse, shauq — passionate longing for God, etc.
Let us consider some of such practices.
Dances of dervishes, for example, require absolute relaxation of the body and achievement of the full mental pause. Against such background of relaxation and meditative attunement of the consciousness to the Creator, harmonious spontaneous movements of the body occur. They are not planned; they do not originate from the mind, but as if occur spontaneously, Usually, the dances of dervishes are performed with use of meditative music or meditative singing. This ensures proper attunement of all dancers and brings all ready participants to the state of hal.
Another interesting technique is Sufi whirling. It allows one, in particular, to move the consciousness out from the head chakras, what facilitates entering the state of hal. There are various modifications of this technique. Whirling can be performed to music or without it, with use of mantras, with concentration in certain energy structures of the organism. In the latter case, whirling contributes to the development of the chakras. The general rules of performing this exercise are the following:
1) one can start whirling not sooner than three hours after meal;
2) whirling is performed to any convenient side, against the background of full relaxation of the body;
3) the eyes are opened and fixed on one of the raised hands or not fixed on anything at all;
4) whirling is performed in individual rhythm, with as smooth beginning and end of the exercise as possible;
5) in case of falling during whirling, one has to turn on the stomach and relax;
6) after performing the exercise, it is necessary to relax;
7) also one needs to be fully confident in the technique, fully “open” when performing the exercise. The duration of the exercise is individual and can vary from several minutes to several hours.
On the “mature” stages of tariqa, one performs intensive work on developing, perfecting the energy structures of the organism. In Hindu terms, this concerns, in particular, the chakras and nadi (meridians). In this work, a special emphasis is put on developing the anahata — the chakra responsible for producing the emotions of cordial love.
One of the techniques of this kind is the meditation of laugh. Its participants lay on the back and completely relax. After meditative attunement, they place one hand on the region of anahata, and another hand — on the region of muladhara, to activate these chakras. Then they begin to move through the organism waves of soft light-laugh (from muladhara — to the head chakras). The meditation of laugh creates a purifying effect and contributes to the development of the chakras, the middle meridian, if it is performed on the due level of subtlety*.
Another technique used in Sufism is zikr. There are many variations, modifications of zikr — according to the traditions of the brotherhood or order, the sheik’s mastery. Zikr is performed in the following way:
All participants stand or sit in a circle. The sheik gives meditative attunement and then, by his instruction, the participants begin to perform a series of consecutive exercises. These exercises are rhythmic movements performed in ever-increasing tempo (for example, bows, turns, sways of the body). With movements, the participants chant praying formulas.
In some orders, they attach a great importance to music, to singing in meditation classes. They believe that music — the food of the soul (ghiza-i-ruh) — is one of the very powerful means contributing to spiritual progress. They widely use music that makes the body move spontaneously (tarab), facilitates entering deep meditative states (saut), etc. In some orders and brotherhoods, they have everyday listening to music, collective classes with singing of mystic verses (sama), ecstatic dances to music, etc.
The effectiveness of these techniques consists, in particular, in the fact that meditations are performed not only in motionless positions of the body but also against the background of movements.
Thanks to the complex use of different methods, one activates several “centers” of the organism: emotional, moving, intellectual ones*. Coordinated, harmonious work of these centers makes possible a quick change in the student’s psychoenergetic state.
Apart from ordinary methods, in Sufism there are “accelerated” techniques of spiritual development. By means of these secret techniques, murids can make very fast advancement. These techniques are given only to those who possess very high psycho-energetic readiness.
The Sufi meditation tradition is very rich and multifarious. It accumulated vast experience of work with the body, mind, and consciousness. The Sufis developed the ways of cognizing Wajd (Samadhi, in Hindu terms), the techniques for accomplishing correct “crystallization” of consciousness in the higher spatial dimensions, and methods for mastering Fana-fi-Allah (Nirvana in the Creator).
In Sufism there are many original things. However, one can see its remarkable similarity to the spiritual traditions of other best religious schools and directions — the similarity of goals, the ways of their realization, and even of the methods. This indicates an important thing: that Sufism, Hesychasm, Taoism, Buddhist mysticism, classic Hindu yoga, the way of the Mexican school of Juan Matus, and some other directions are based on the same laws of spiritual development. It is only the realization of these laws that can be different in different cultural and historical conditions. And always there are people who — independent of their spiritual traditions — can successfully walk the Sufi path.