My Journey towards Sufism
Growing up, I had an awareness of something greater than myself, understood as “God”, but the notion was vaguely rooted in new age theories that did not really seek to pursue the reality of this presence. It was with my father, whose eyes would glint fiercely, gripped with an intensity that I now understand was barakah, that I first became aware of the tangible presence of God.
Meditation was something I was interested in, but I never found it easy to sit still. At nineteen I was drawn to Tai Chi, which brought a sense of balance and efficiency to my life and began a journey into energy work, improvisation, performance and somatic studies including the study of dance techniques. At college I finished a BA Theatre Studies focused on the area of presence and performance within the tradition of dance improvisation. The aim of improvisational practice, which broadly means performing without a pre-set choreography or composition, is to refine your perceptual ability so as to create work from a recognition of balance and harmony within the moment and to develop enough virtuosity within the body to compose movement in relation to these perceptions. Practitioners of improvisation talk about a phenomenon called ‘being in the moment’ and for my BA dissertation I went to New York to interview dancers about what they understood this to mean. My own practice was driven by my interest in understanding ‘presence’. I liked the feeling of unity that ‘being in the moment’ brought to what I was doing, and was searching for techniques to increase the time I felt conscious in this way. When experiencing this state the dance would arrive effortlessly, my perception charged with the interrelatedness of everything, and I would find a balance of both freedom from a restrictive self conciousness and clarity within the creative present.
I realised while dancing however that the experience of ‘being in the moment’ was not always available to me. I recognised the importance of surrendering to what was present and getting out of the way to allow something other than myself fill the movement on stage, but this was not always enough to arrive at that liberated state. After college I continued to study dance and performance but found it difficult to reconcile the desire to go deeper into these more meditative experiences and the exposing demands of the performance framework. Sometimes the intensity of ‘being in the moment’ would leave me standing still, not wanting to move at all. I started to attend movement classes that focused more on self development and during this time became aware of devotional practices. However, not drawn to any particular religious path, I was still focusing on body work as a way to develop the ‘self’, believing that conscious embodiment could undo the layers of conditioning that restricted my ability to be present in life.
In 2001, I started working at the Greenwich Arts and Cultural Office. A woman about my age was working there and I was touched by an unusual warmth and kindness that she showed towards those around her. She was patient in her dealings with our colleagues and there was a quality about her that made me want to spend time with her. She wore hijab and I was intrigued to find out how a young, white, English woman had come to convert to Islam. When I asked her about her spiritual practices she spoke about them generously but carefully, as though she were protecting something very precious; she did not talk too much about Sufism and never tried to persuade me to attend meetings.
Toward the end of my time at Greenwich I went on a yoga retreat to Egypt. It was the time of Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast. On arriving at Sharm el Sheikh, the power of the land was immediately discernible and I suddenly understood the term Holy Land. I had always been sensitive to the strength of nature and was drawn to mountainous and energetic areas of the world, but this place had a very particular quality to it. It was here that I also heard, for the first time, a sound which seemed to pierce my heart; although I had no idea what the words meant; the Adhan, or call to prayer, resounding from the Mosque in the mountains seemed to communicate very clearly to me.
On returning to England I asked my friend if I could meditate with her at her home. The meditation was not in anyway remarkable but I knew I wanted to do it again and to visit the group with whom she meditated. When the group manager asked me why I had come, the answer articulated itself in my head as, ‘to know what was true’. ‘Certainty’ and ‘Truth’ are key terms in Sufism, something I knew little about before that night. The clarity of this insight was startling. Up until then I had not realised what I had been looking for. It was as if the question illuminated all the points that led to that moment and the answer resonated in me as clearly as had the call to prayer. Surprisingly, I found the hour-long meditation that night easy to complete and, drawn to the warmth and well-being I experienced whilst doing it, I continued to practice the daily meditation with very little effort.
It was a year before I met Hazrat, the shaykh of our order. He would stay with the London group manager and his family, and the house was opened to Hazrat’s murids. A beautifully sweet presence of peace and tranquility would reside in the house when Hazrat was there and I was drawn to be there as often as I could. These annual visits generated a busy time when everyone would strive to meet the needs of the shaykh; I observed students of Hazrat fret over the making of his tea. These forms of adab were foreign to me but as I started to understand the significance of the student/teacher relationship in moving closer to Allah, I could see their value for the student.
At my first meeting with Hazrat I was guided into a predominantly empty room where he sat on a thin mattress. Prior to this introduction, it was suggested I have some questions ready and I was told what I might expect. However, my meetings with Hazrat were never how I expected them to be. I had spent days preparing a question which I thought was important but once in his presence the words seemed to collapse and the meaning of the thoughts slipped from my helpless mind. Hazrat waited for me to try to articulate what I wanted to say and then told me, “If you don’t know the question, you will not be able to find the answer.”
In Hazrat’s light all that did not come from the heart diminished to nothing and it became clear to me that my question had not been sincere. This focus on the heart and articulation of ‘truth’ was something I continued to be taught by Hazrat. Later, when I showed Hazrat a poem I had written, to my dismay he would ask me what it was that I was trying to say. I had hoped that the poem would have made it clear but he made me see that my meanings were often veiled. Hazrat encouraged me to write and I think that this may have been one way to keep me focused on him. Within the context of poetry Hazrat taught me the importance of completing a poem, to stay focused on the end goal and to say what I wanted to say in the most direct and sincere way. All this, I later realised, had deeper spiritual connotations.
More often than not, however, I did not understand how Hazrat was teaching me. At the time my ego was confused at the seeming insignificance of our meetings. They were often brief and I found it difficult to understand how someone could teach me without knowing anything about who I was! Hazrat tried to help me see that as long as the heart is connected, the external formalities of the teacher/student relationship are of no concern, but I found this difficult to understand. A lot was going on behind the scenes that I had no understanding of, yet I was aware of much change in my everyday life. Situations that had become stuck started to shift, resulting in some quite difficult but transformative upheavals in my life, and in a relatively short period of time I came to trust Hazrat implicitly.
This trust seemed to grow from inside me and by the time my intellect recognised the effect he was having on my life I had already entrusted my heart to Hazrat. I recognised the love that abounded when he was with us and the transformation of states that took place when we were in his presence. When I was with him I would become excruciatingly aware of the constructs of my personality, yet his presence would also transport me out of my constricted state and enable me to experience a more expanded one.
Hazrat came into my life by the Mercy of Allah. In those brief initial meetings Hazrat seemed to perceive the obstacles that lay in the way of my progress. In remarkably subtle ways I began to recognise that to submit to Allah I would need to take the step of submitting to a teacher/student relationship. All of this was done through the heart. Hazrat never spoke about it and, unexpectedly did not even encourage me to take bay’at. Instead he pointed out the commitment becoming a Muslim would ask of me and placed the responsibility of the decision firmly at my feet. The unpressured approach he took with me assured me, even more, that this was the path I wanted to embark on.
After Hazrat left that year, my certainty about Islam and my teacher became deeply rooted. The transmissions were revealing the essence of Islam to me and I knew that I would not be able to go as far as I wanted to on this path without embracing the religion these practices were rooted in. Rather than something that inhibited choice, I was experiencing Islam as a way to undo long held behavioural patterns and release the self from the constricting grip of the nafs. This lifting of the heart’s veils is incredibly palpable. I found that discovering what it means to be a true Muslim did not reduce life to blind faith but instead enabled me to experience degrees of God’s presence in all its immensity. I was reinspired, connected to a sense of the infinite and a growing affirmation of life beyond the dunya. However, rather than disconnecting me from the everyday, the practices intensified my experiences, making my worldly relationships more precious, my actions more conscious, and brought relief from an over-analytical mind and dominating emotional states.
Hazrat opened the beauty of religion to me, the beauty of seeing the shimmer of Divine light that only a man close to God can help us to perceive. Through the subtlest of teachings he helped me to understand the strong hold I need to form with Allah and the importance of worship in changing my focus from the divided self to the Oneness of Allah. Realising that I am on a path that, whilst opening the door to the Ultimate Reality also unlocks the conscious potential that has come to lie dormant within the human being, is something I am sincerely grateful for. I pray that I am blessed with faith and constancy on this most straight path and give thanks for being guided towards such a blessed teacher who made it possible, insha’allah, to travel closer to Him Whom I seek to know with all my heart.