The Sufi Whirling Dance
The Sufi Whirling Dance
New York – I recently went to a week-long Sufi whirling seminar in the French countryside. We stayed at a gorgeous farmhouse near the town of Crest, in nature and away from “civilization.”
The seminar came at a time in my life where I was struggling with spiritual and emotional issues and going through a dark period in general. I had met the teacher, Rana Gorgani, when she came to New York City to give workshops on Sufi and Persian dances. Although the Sufi segment of her teaching lasted only about three and a half hours, I was deeply impacted by it.
I had never thought about doing whirling. However, at an ancient mosque in Islamic Cairo, almost five years ago, I was mesmerized while observing a ceremony of whirling dervishes that was open to the public. There were musicians and dancers who seemed transported to a magical realm as they performed their art. They looked as if in a profound trance, an ecstatic state I had not witnessed before. As I watched them, the nature of time changed; three hours went by but it felt as if it had only been five minutes. I never forgot this experience and often thought about it. I fell in love with the artists or mystics. I particularly remember a gray-haired man in his late fifties, dressed entirely in white, who played the cymbals and whose face expressed pure bliss, shuttered eyes and lips perpetually lifted upward. He was beautiful.
During Rana’s New York workshop, we began with a meditation where she guided us to relax and to gradually, with eyes closed, begin to move and later, to turn, always towards the left, the side of the heart. The first time one attempts whirling, one experiences fear. You feel unstable, afraid, and think you will fall. Many rational and irrational fears are triggered and brought to the surface. You also feel dizzy from spinning. I remember Rana’s voice, saying over and over, “trust yourself, trust yourself.”
I instinctively and strongly trusted Rana and did what she asked with little resistance. I began to move as she asked us to and later, to turn and turn with my eyes closed. I accessed a state that perhaps others attain during meditation and that is difficult to convey with words. The best I can do is say it felt like profound peace, elation, certainty, love towards all beings including myself, confidence, and yes, trust. These states alternated and at times co-existed with fear.
As the workshop continued, we whirled faster and faster, now with open eyes and sometimes wearing Sufi skirts. Rana told us the skirts are so hypnotizing because they represent the soul of the dancer. In reality what pulls us and fascinates us is not the skirt, but the dancer’s soul. If you don’t believe this, it does not matter. The aspect of the dance which attracts you is irrelevant; if you think it is just the skirt, this is fine too, she said.
We danced to sacred Persian music made by instruments like the ney, the daff, the sittar or the kamancheh, and to chants of remembrance of God, dhikr. The sounds made by these instruments are heavenly. The music, which is a key component of the dance, is the reason whirling works so well for me. I am intensely moved by Persian Sufi music and absolutely love it. It is soul-stirring music. The cries of the ney, the flute, can transport me to heaven.
As we continued to whirl, I lost my fear of falling and of losing balance and control. I experienced a sort of trance or high that was new to me and the clear and loud message I received was that I would now trust myself in dance and in life. I felt no shred of doubt this would happen. It was done.
This was huge for me. I have not always trusted myself because I believed I had made wrong choices in my life. In reality, these choices were exactly right as they were sources of learning and personal expansion, leading me to where I am now. I am grateful for them. I am grateful for all experiences. Our experiences make us. We are built by them as much as we are by the food we eat, the books we read, the music we listen to.
Because of this profound experience, I very much wanted to study with Rana again. I thought of going to Paris, where she lives and teaches, to take classes with her. When I saw she was holding this seminar, I immediately decided to go. Being able to attend was an enormous blessing. An entire week of whirling for hours to sublime music shook me out of my state of darkness and progressively allowed me to access a state of reflection, spiritual connection and joy. It was not an easy week, but it was wonderful and transformative. We had an intense schedule, working during most of the day.
Rana is a teacher unlike any other I’ve had. She is fully invested in her work, sincere, deeply knowledgeable, intuitive, and able to see through each of her students and to treat each the way they will learn best. She can be tough, and is strict and disciplined. These are qualities that to a certain extent I lack and therefore greatly admire. If Rana said we must be in the classroom at 9:30, that meant that on the dot, at that time, she would begin the class and we all better be sitting down ready for the day. She was strict about taking breaks, about not listening well, about talking too much, and about our physical form when we danced. I had not experienced a teacher who gives so much to her students and completely directs all her energy to them and to her work the way she does. It is a powerful way to teach.
When I returned to New York, the first thing I did was check whether there was enough space in my apartment to whirl while wearing the skirt. There was, thankfully. Every morning I have been doing this practice after I write and before I pray. Something about it is magical. There is no other way to describe it. In a way I cannot explain, the dance is healing and transformative. I am, daily, in a grateful and positive state of mind. I have a strength that I was lacking in the past months, and feel, again, close to God and spiritually connected, grounded. Whirling is a form of prayer and it also allows me to be fully present when I pray in other ways and to do so with sincerity.
Rumi and the One Thing You Must Never Forget
After the seminar, I went back to re-reading books I have about Sufism. Today, as I sat down after whirling to pray and meditate, in a clear and loud voice I heard this idea, which I know in the depths of my soul to be true: “You have to honor yourself, By honoring yourself you honor God.” What a concept. In the past weeks, I was reflecting on these words of Rumi:
There is one thing in the world which you must never forget. If you were to forget everything else and remembered this, then you would have nothing at all to worry about; but if you were to remember everything else and then forget this, you would have done nothing with your life.
It is as if a king sent you to a country to carry out a particular mission. You go to that country, you do a hundred different things; but if you do not perform the mission assigned to you, it is as if you have done nothing. All human beings come into the world for a particular mission, and that mission is our singular purpose. If we do not enact it, we have done nothing…
Now, if you were to say, “Look, even if I have not performed this mission I have, after all, performed a hundred others,” that would mean nothing. You were not created for those other missions. It is as if you were to buy a sword of priceless Indian steel such as one usually finds only in the treasuries of emperors, and were to turn it into a butcher’s knife for cutting up rotten meat, saying, “Look, I’m not letting this sword stay unused, I am putting it to a thousand highly useful purposes.” Or it is as though you were to take a golden bowl and cook turnips in it, while for just one grain of that gold you could purchase hundreds of pots.
Or it is as though you were to take a dagger of the most finely-wrought and tempered steel and use it as a nail to hang a broken pitcher on, saying, “I am making excellent use of my dagger. I am hanging my broken pitcher on it, after all.” When you can hang a pitcher on a nail that costs only a few cents, what sense does it make to use a dagger worth a fortune?
Remember the root of your being, the presence of your lord. Give your life to the one who already owns your breath and your moments. If you don’t, you will be exactly like the man who takes his precious dagger and hammers it into his kitchen wall for a peg to hold his broken pitcher.
You are more valuable than both heaven and earth.
What else can I say? You don’t know your own worth.
Do not sell yourself at a ridiculous price,
You who are so valuable in God’s eyes.
It is easy to squander our lives in hundreds of different things and to completely lose sight of the fact that we each have a particular purpose, unique to ourselves. It is a waste, a complete waste, to have, let’s say, a scholar, spend his days as a construction worker. Neither of them is more valuable than the other. We need both scholars and construction workers. But I believe there is an innate talent, a divine seed within each of us, in our nature, that with the right conditions and nurturing allows us to flourish into the being we are meant to be, to live our singular purpose, the one thing only we can do and excel at. The seed of a cypress tree will never grow to be a cactus, no matter how much we want it to. In that seed all the possibilities of the cypress tree are contained, but the possibilities of a cactus plant are absent. Yet, we proceed, at least I have proceeded, much of our lives in a wasteful manner. We waste our talents and our lives in doing things that are not meant for us. We forget the one thing in the world we must never forget. And then, it is, as Rumi says, as if we have done nothing. And deep down we know it.
Imagine a person you consider to be self-actualized. A person who embodies purpose and who you know has manifested his or her potential. I can think of a few such individuals. One would be Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed, who is the most sublime person I know. He has dedicated consistent, daily effort for decades to become who he is. He is the most spiritually evolved person I have met. Dr. Sultan embodies the prophetic character and manifests divine attributes to the greatest level I’ve encountered. He is also successful in the worldly sense being a brilliant physicist. Then, there is Rana, my Sufi dance teacher. She is young and already a powerful person and teacher, a serious and talented artist and mystic. What a waste it would be if she had decided to be a legal clerk, for example. Or Dr. Sultan had thought he can make the most money by opening a chain of supermarkets. There is nothing wrong with either supermarkets or legal clerks. But in these particular cases, the world would be at a great loss. And this is what many, many, if not most of us, do.
We have picked up things throughout our lives that do not belong to us. Expectations and attachments from our parents or from society that we need to shed if we are to be true to the core of our being and return to our essential nature. Only in this way can we make a significant contribution. I have realized, to my chagrin, that nobody can tell you what your unique purpose is, what that core of your being is. Not even the most gifted or intuitive of teachers. This, you must discover on your own and it takes unwavering focus, courage and effort to do so. Yet, I believe it is essential if our life is to have meaning.
If we recognize and fully realize our worth, we understand there is no other way to live but as our true selves, which have been eclipsed by countless foreign thoughts, attitudes, and values, an accumulation of clutter of all sorts. The only way to know ourselves is through silence, through regular, preferably daily, periods of silence and reflection. Being who we are is difficult and can be scary. Freedom is scary. So we avoid it. We spend our days, our years, our lifetime and our precious God given gifts and talents chasing after meaningless things, engaged in superficial work and entertainment just to avoid who we really are, and to avoid freedom.
I will end this article with a helpful quote from a book called “Love Is a Fire,” an apt title for ultimately, it is all about love, by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee:
“We have to discover what really matters to us, what is the most important thing in our whole life, and then have the courage to live this deepest dream. Carl Jung said, ‘Find the meaning and make the meaning your goal.’ Whatever is most meaningful should be our purpose, whether this is to be a successful businessman or to climb a mountain. But if this one thing is to realize the Truth, then you are a mystic. And to follow the path of a mystic takes courage because you are doing something which does not belong to the mind or to the senses, but to the unknown and the unknowable.”