... whether we view meditation as a daily spiritual practice or just an occasional break in our lives, learning and growing through it often calls for some guidance.
The Everything Meditation Book is designed as both a practitioner's handbook and teacher's guide to understanding the many dimensions of meditation experience. It covers a wide range of traditions, including Yoga, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, and Christian contemplation. It also shows how metaphysical approaches – like Astrology and the Qabala – can contribute to an individualized program that develops in rhythm with your own interests and lifestyle.
You'll find this valuable guide at most bookstores and metaphysical booksellers, featured on "Everything Series" stand-alone shelves.
Author's note: The Everything Meditation Book presents a detailed overview of the sacred traditions that employ meditation in its many forms. But perhaps due to the unfortunate circumstances of our times, half of the material written for the Islamic tradition (Chapter 12) was cut from the final copy of the book before publication in November 2002. In fairness to all my readers and those who follow this tradition, the uncensored material is reproduced here. Adams Media has not offered a viable explanation for this action.
Some words can steer us into high regions of thought and feeling. Aside from expressing ideas, they can also be stepping stones that create pathways to understanding profound mysteries. Poets know this, they take us on such journeys in moments of quiet reflection.
Combined with movement, words are also keys to liberating us from the ordinary world. Nearly every culture has an expression of this and comparing the common threads that run through them is a fascinating study. Words of wisdom and insight are passed down through generations that tell the same story, though perhaps in different ways. Melodies may accompany them, along with gestures that have special meaning. Altogether, the oral heritage is a respected approach to self knowledge, because it encourages the listener to reflect on meaning, based on one’s own experience.
One who is absorbed in the Beloved and has renounced all else is a Sufi. – Najm ad-Din Kubra
The Islamic Tradition
Islam (“submission”) is a religious practice that espouses submission of the individual will to the will of the Creator. Most Muslims – practitioners of the Islamic religion – live in an area that encompasses a wide swath over half of the Earth, from Africa to the Mideast, and continuing to Asia and the southern Pacific. Two main groups comprise this tradition, the Sunni and the Shiite.
The largest group of Muslims (85 percent as of the year 2000) is the Sunni, most of whom live in West Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. A subgroup is the Wahabi, who mostly live in Saudi Arabia. The Sunni consider their following to stem from Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed and his only immediate descendant. The minority group is the Shi’ah, with most of its followers in Iran and the remaining in Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. The Shi’ah consider their following to stem from Ali, who was Mohammed’s son-in-law.
In the 1st century following the Hegira, or flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina (622 C.E.) a small group arose, the Sufi’s. The name is derived from the Arabic suf (“wool”) because of the white woolen robes worn by their members. The movement came into being as a reaction against the warrior cult of the Umayyads. Its members chose a mystical path, and moved toward an esoteric interpretation of Islam.
Over time, Sufism acquired a meaning that departs from religious connotations. Rather, it indicates a mystical or occult approach to spiritual experience. In most Islamic countries, a mystical seeker is now regarded as a Sufi no matter what the country of origin or religious persuasion. It has come to denote a state of being that emphasizes a unity the practitioner feels with others and with God.
The Five Pillars
In Islam, divine law is presented in the Qu’ran (“the reading”). This holy book was given to the prophet Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel, following an extended period of meditation and asceticism in a cave outside of Mecca. In it, Suras (“chapters”) present mystical concepts and a historical record of the human race. However, in essence the Qu’ran is a guide to living in oneness with God and with others in compassion and forgiveness. Observances are presented for this, and they comprise the Five Pillars or fundamental precepts:
• Shahadah (“the affirmation of faith”): the essential belief of Islam that there is no god but God and Mohammed is his prophet.
• Salat (“the five prayers”): given throughout the day at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and at night by all adult male and female Muslims.
These are said following ritual ablutions, and always on Friday, the Lord’s Day.
• Sawam (“observance of Ramadan”): from the time of puberty, all Muslims fast during the ninth holy lunar month of Ramadan.
The abstentions include food, drink, sex, and tobacco from dawn until sunset.
• Zakat (“offering of alms”): sharing wealth through assisting the poor and orphans. This purifies the donor from greed and stinginess.
• Hajj (“pilgrimage”): a journey to Mecca, the holy seat of Islam, is made at least once in the lifetime of the practitioner.
There is no priesthood in Islam, and the artistic representation of animated beings is prohibited in art. However, this has not prevented a rich reservoir of literature, architecture, and science from accumulating over time.
Islamic Mystical Literature
Islamic culture is infused with the oral tradition of poetry and storytelling. Through these arts, a combination of history, morality, and spirituality are woven into fantastic stories that have caught the imagination of many throughout the ages.
An example of this great tradition is The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of stories first presented to Western readers by the French scholar Galland, who discovered the Arabic original and translated it in the 18th century. As the stories subsequently captivated readers, poets, and historians, the mystical character of Persian and Arabian culture unfolded. For though the Nights is highly entertaining, many believe it to be a book of initiation. Even in the title, the “thousand nights” alludes to the crown chakra, the thousand-petaled lotus of the Yogic and Buddhist traditions. Within the book, the stories can be seen as an account of spiritual progress by the soul as it masters the powers of the mind and the world. For example, certain djinns (spirits living in caves and lamps) are metaphors for mental and emotional qualities that the hero must tame or free from their confining lairs. At the same time, each has a “gift” or lesson to impart.
Meditative wisdom is also reflected in the tales. The Nights has at its center the heroine Scheherazade, who courageously marries a powerful sultan despite his plan to end her life after the wedding. Instead, she recites wondrous stories night after night in order to delay the deed, thus preserving her life in the end. As she recounts the trials and adventures of her protagonists, she also instructs the sultan in life’s difficulties:
“Tell him who is oppressed with anxiety that his anxiety shall not last:
As happiness passes away, so shall anxiety pass away.”
One of the devices that Scheherazade uses is the same approach we must use in meditation. The practice is never completed, the story is never fully told. As there were the thousand nights in the story, there are the thousand petals in the lotus. There is always the promise of a new experience, and another relevation that lies ahead.
Islamic mystical literature is really no different from Native American warrior tales, the mythological chronicles of Africa, or the great sagas of ancient Greece. While they do preserve the cultural values of nations, they also reveal the aims of their spiritual traditions. That is why such reading becomes a stimulus for meditative experience. Here is how you can derive value from such reading:
• Choose a book of stories or collection of tales from a culture that you admire.
• Keep this book at your meditation oasis as a reminder of what you wish to explore.
• Before starting a meditation session, read from your book. It does not have to be a full chapter or story.
Remember: at the next session there will be more to read and more to reflect upon. It is never really finished.
Union with the Beloved
Omar Khayyam was a Persian astronomer, born in the second half of the 11th century. He was known in his day as a proficient scientist, always seeking knowledge to improve his status with the sultan Malik Shah. But he is most known in our day for his ecstatic, sensuous poetry, which reflects a desire of wine, beauty, and joy. His words also discount the rewards of the hereafter. Instead, the present moment of pleasure is elevated. Historians have suggested that Khayyam wrote on these themes to balance out the pedantic hours spent with his scientific instruments and charts. It is more probable that he was a member or at least an admirer of one of the Sufi brotherhoods in the region.
Omar Khayyam’s best known work is the Rubaiyat, a set of quatrains that speak of visions, thoughts, and impressions on the mysteries of life. They are excellent to employ as seed meditations, as his approach is to soothe the soul through sense experience. We can all relate to that, as there are often moments in eating, drinking, lovemaking, and walking in a garden where all thought is suspended and the mind is awakened to new dimensions.
Like other Arabic poetic literature that followed, Khayyam’s is permeated with the metaphor of divine love. This can be taken several ways:
• Love of another brings us to realizing the divine nature.In one of his most well-known verses, he expresses just these insights:
A book of verses underneath the bough,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread – and Thou,
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh wilderness were Paradise enow! (Stanza XII)
And on the quandary of pursuing religion to attain immortality:
Of threats of Hell and hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – this life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is lies,
The flower that once has blown forever dies. (Stanza LXIII)
Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes
Many paths lead to God,
– Djalal ad-Din Rumi
The 13th century in the Islamic world brought a great proliferation of literature with mystical religious expression. At the time, a son was born to the Muslim theologian Baha ad-Din Walad in what is now Afghanistan. He was a member of a Tariqa (“pathway”), a mystical Islamic brotherhood. After moving his family to Turkey to spread this tradition, Walad died prematurely. But his son, Djalal ad-Din Rumi, succeeded him and subsequently went on a quest to acquire “a union with God.” In the process, he began a great literary work, the Masnavi, a book that took 43 years to complete. And along the way, he founded the order of Mawlawi Tariqa, a brotherhood of mystics known to the world as the “dancing dervishes.”
The Sama (“turning”) is the sacred dance of the Sufi. It is believed to emulate the turning of the planets around the Sun. It is also a metaphor of the soul’s turning toward and away from the spirit throughout one’s life. And it is an expression of divine love, which is also love of other human beings, a “oneness.” But just as the Zen meditator attains Satori, the Sufi eventually moves into Fana (“extinction”). Here, all barriers are removed to experience the oneness with the creative spirit.
The minute I heard my first love storyThe poetic works of Rumi are another source of mystical seed meditations. As with Khayyam, “the other” is always present, the beloved. It is the student calling for the teacher, the soul is crying out for its source.
In the early morning hour,The Brotherhoods
The Tariqa (“pathway”) is a mystical expression of Islam. In the time of their greatest influence, from the 12th century onward, most were associated with the ascetical life of monastic communities. Others were groups of wandering mendicants who usually gathered around a sheikh (“master”). Besides studying the Qu’ran, part of the practice included chanting, song, music, and sacred dance.
The aim of membership in the tariqa is enlightenment. Through study and effort, the student moves from the literal practice of Shari’a (“Islamic law”) to Haqiqa (“divine reality”). This is done through ascetic practices in diet and dress, and the exercise of moral behavior – humility, charity, and sincerity. Most importantly, the recitation of Dhikr (“divine names”) is performed, in order to enter the state of meditation.
Few of the brotherhoods survived the Middle Ages, but those that did continued to spread Sufism in the West.
Ibn’ Arabi and the Tariqas
Ibin Arabi was born in Spain in 1165, and at an early age he entered on the mystical path of Islam. This took him on journeys to Cairo, Jerusalem, and Mecca, where he began his spiritual poetry, The Interpreter of Longings. At the same time, he fell in love with the relative of an eminent shiekh, and this became the inspiration for both his writing and his search for divine love. His work in these realms was prolific and explored all areas of spirituality besides Islam. As a result, it was rejected by the mainstream religious body but adopted by several Tariqas.
The central theme of Ibn’ Arabi’s many works is the “unity of existence.” In it, he sees that the visible world is the very existence of God, and that there is no separation of creator and created. That being reality, human beings possess divinity, and it is possible to discover and develop. As fundamental as this thinking appears, Arabi presents his ideas in Zen-like, paradoxical terms. This is itself a contemplative exercise, as when he says “The universe is God’s own shadow.”
The Sufi Experience
Though it may appear at first glance that the Sufi pathway is more spontaneous than prescribed, there is a science of achieving the unity with God that is the central aim of the practice. It is outlined in three stages:
1. Sair ita Allah: progress toward God. This leads to Fana.The third stage can not be approached through study or receiving teachings, only direct experience. And experience has four components:
1. Dhikr: chanting the name of God;Rumi advocated the calling of the divine name as the supreme approach to awakening the divine presence within. In the Sufi tradition, this is performed in conjunction with rhythmic breathing.
Five Purification Breaths
The exercise that prepares the practitioner for rhythmic breathing is the five purifications of the soul. The universal elements are the focal points, being Earth, Water, Fire, and Air.
1. Begin at sunrise if possible, when the elements are at their peak. Posture should be standing upright.
2. Breath slowly and deeply, keeping in mind the energy of the Earth. Visualize it as the color Yellow, entering your body as you inhale through the nose. It travels upward from the ground through your spine to your crown. As it does so, the Earth element filters out all impurities. It returns to the ground when you exhale through the nose. Repeat four times (a total of five).
3. Breath slowly and deeply, keeping in mind the energy of Water. Visualize it as the color Green, entering your nose as you inhale. The Water element moves upward from the stomach, through your spine to your crown. As it does so, the liquid washes away all impurities. It exits from your stomach when you exhale through the mouth. Repeat four times (a total of five).
4. Breath slowly and deeply, keeping in mind the energy of Fire. Visualize it as the color Red, entering your body through your heart as you inhale. The Fire element moves upward to your crown. As it does so, the fire burns away all impurities. It exits from your heart when you exhale through the nose. Repeat four times (a total of five).
5. Breath slowly and deeply, keeping in mind the energy of Air. Visualize it as the color Blue, entering your body through all of your pores as you inhale. The Air element moves through all the organs and tissues, blowing away all the impurities. It exits through the pores when you exhale through your mouth. Repeat four times (a total of five).
The Divine Name
Following the breathing purifications, recitation of the divine name may proceed. In Islam, the names of God are manifold, but there is only one God. This dictate is cited in the Qu’ran and becomes the Sufi mantra for awakening the divine presence within:
La ilaha illa-llah: Mohammedan rasul Allah.
There is no God but God: and Mohammed is his prophet.
Sufism is an expression of Bhakti Yoga, the experience of seeing the divine presence in everything and honoring that divinity. There is a simplicity in this approach, along with a rich and resonant love that transcends (but also includes) the personal realm. However, the Sufis depart from the Bhakti Yoga tradition in that they do not revere gurus or teachers. Rather, they seek truth within themselves, and follow no living teacher. They can only be guided by angels.
Where Buddhist philosophy may emphasize the attainment of emptiness, Sufism moves toward the opposite state, fullness. The full perception of divine love and unity is sought. And all worlds – human, divine, and nature – fuse in the Sufi meditation on oneness.
In the West, Sufi dancing has attained considerable interest. It has presented some hesitation on the part of women’s participation, however. This is due to the traditionally segregated nature of Islam. Even though women played a significant role in the life of Mohammed, customs have prevailed in keeping much of the practice separated for men and women.
The Language of Sufism
• Hadith: the narrative record of the Qu’ran that explains its precepts and provides commentary.
• Taqwa: God consciousness, which is endowed to every human being.
• Tasawwuf: the true name of the mystical path known as Sufism.
In the 15th century, a religious teacher in what is now Pakistan attempted to remedy the segregation of the sexes and classes in religious practice. In addition, he also sought to reconcile the prevailing religious of his day – Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Guru Nanak founded the Sikh (“disciple”) movement, a mystical sect that practiced trance meditation and believed in one God and harmonious living.
Nanan wrote the Jap-ji, a collection of poems that are now the Sikh guiding principles. In them, he spoke of union with the divine presence and methods by which it could be realized. His spiritual approach was a fusion of Bhakti and Tantra Yoga with Sufism. One of the mantras of the practice expresses this cohesion:
Eck Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wha Guru.
“The Supreme is One, His names are many.”
There is also a similar recognition of the elemental forces that Sufism presents, though they are associated with qualities of mind:
Earth teaches us patience and love;Sikhs are now engaged in a war of autonomy with the Hindus. They are distinguished by their uncut beards and hair, which they wear in elaborate turbans. They have a strict practice of cleanliness and courtesy, being tolerant of all classes and religions. All men carry the surname of Singh (“lion”) and the women are Kaur (“princess”).
Unless you are a member of a Sufi tariqa, the modern experience of Sufism is limited to viewing dervish performances in theaters and events in some Muslim countries. Participation by outsiders is limited, though a welcoming attitude is always shown to the spiritual pilgrim. In the West, a movement called Dances of Universal Peace was established in the 1960’s to explore Sufi dancing as a meditative art form. Its founder, Samuel L. Lewis, was influenced by American dance artist Ruth St. Denis and the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan.
The program of Dances of Universal Peace seeks to unite participants of all religious persuasions in the experience of sacred dance. A typical gathering will begin with a rhythmic walking meditation in a circle, to unify the participants in mind. Then, music will accompany simple dances around the circle. There is an emphasis on meeting with each person in the circle through turning and greeting. This is an important aspect of acknowledging the oneness of all present.
Mantras or phrases of sacred names are also incorporated in the modern Sufi dances. There are recitations of the many words for God, “Allah,” “Yeshua” (Jesus), “Buddha,” and “Rama” (among many others). These are delivered in chant-like song to the rhythm of the music.
Many nondenominational groups around the world now sponsor Dances of Universal Peace on a regular or periodic basis. There are local chapters in some major cities in the U.S., and events can be found at Unitarian churches and on university campuses.
Sacred dance is not a new idea, and many indigenous cultures use dance as a major component in their mystical practices. As in Tantra, the fusion of the senses with mind can allow the meditator to depart from ordinary consciousness and enter exalted states of mind and feeling.
The Metaphysical Tradition
One of the modern exponents of esoteric Islam was the French scholar and mystic René Guénon. Born in 1886, he became interested in religion and occultism at an early age. He began a career of writing for scholarly journals on diverse subjects like Hindu doctrine and the Christian mysteries. But in the process, he also initiated a journey of discovering the metaphysical basis of all traditions.
Guénon was a modern day gnostic (“seeker of revelation”). Beneath the tangle of the world religions and mythologies he sought the underlying threads that are found in all. His writing reflects those discoveries, and the meanings that those threads can convey to thoughtful seekers. A collection of those insights is found in Fundamental Symbols: The Universal Language of Sacred Science. In it, he discusses “eternal ideas,” or universal themes that are found in all spiritual traditions. They include the well-recognized icons of the cross, wheel, the Sun, and the four compass points. His insights are valuable for those who wish to use the approach of Jnana Yoga (“the intellectual path”).
The problems of Western civilization were also of great concern to Guénon. He believed that tradition had been abandoned, and materialism was creating a society of “man machines.” In keeping with the path of the contemplative scholar, he moved to Egypt and took another name, Abed el Wahed Yahia, where he lived until passing away in 1951.