The room was dimly lit. I was one of fifty dancers standing in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, holding hands. Our leader, Johnathan, stood in the middle of the circle with his guitar. He said he was going to lead us in a practice to experience the aspect of God that existed before time began.
One skeptical dancer asked, “How can anyone know what it was like before time began?” Johnathan answered, “It is my aim to give you a real experience of this concept. If you still have your question after this practice, let’s talk.”
Johnathan directed us to begin moving. A sidestep to the right. As we moved, we became more synchronized and although we were connected before, we were now truly moving as one. We began a monotone chant of the words, “Ya Azalee.”
Johnathan asked us to close our eyes.
Our feet were moving. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that our feet were moved. After some time, I lost awareness of moving my feet.
“There is no way to find yourself until you discover how utterly to lose yourself.” (Rufus Jones, 1941)
Johnathan’s guitar guided our voices to become softer and softer until sound disappeared. He told us to sing the words in our mind. Sing the words in our heart. Allow the words to drift away.
As our voices faded into silence, everything was softer. My skin felt permeable, my feet disappeared, all perception merged. The hands I was holding dematerialized. Somehow I was still conscious but I was also completely gone. The “me” that was separate from the group dissolved.
I wonder whether an observer would have seen us shimmer, fade, and then evaporate. Maybe. I would believe it if an observer said that’s what they saw, because that’s what I was experiencing!
When we were completely settled into this silent, invisible, timeless place, Johnathan spoke the words that the sages have imagined God speaking while creating reality, “I was a hidden treasure, and I yearned to be known.”
Time restarted; we regained our identities as facets of the jewel of existence; the dance resumed.
As the practice ended, everyone drifted away in silence. Our skeptic was convinced. I don’t recall making eye contact with others. I’m not quite sure what we did right after the dance. I remember feeling stunned by the experience, and I also remember that we were allowed time to simply be and absorb our experiences after the practice ended.
This was the most profound dance of a very rich Sufi weekend. It centered on the experience of complete silence. As a group, we encountered the ultimate mixture – we all disappeared and became one organism.
“In worship we have our neighbors to right and left, before and behind, yet the Eternal Presence is over all and beneath all. Worship does not consist in achieving a mental state of concentrated isolation from one’s fellows. But in depth of common worship it is as if we found our separate lives were all one life, within whom we live and move and have our being.” (Thomas R. Kelly, 1938)
I have a confession to make: I think during meeting for worship. Now you know my dirty secret. I know it might be better form if I tried harder to quiet my overactive synapses, but I sometimes enjoy the movies that my brain makes for my entertainment.
One day during meeting, my mind was on water, pure still water. I was having Deep, Profound, and possibly Poetic thoughts about how water connects us. Praying on the scarcity of water is probably not out of the ordinary during a drought year in southwest Colorado.
This is where my mind was taking me that day (forgive me if this is not scientific - I do have a personal rule against Googling during meeting!): The water on this planet has existed for countless millennia. The water I drink today has sustained thousands, maybe millions of lives before me.
The molecules of water in my body have been filtered through animals, plants, clouds, and the earth. These molecules have followed their own paths through millions of years on their ways into my body. My body is just one stop these molecules make, and then they move on. (You know, this could be really profound or totally gross, depending on how detailed you get with it.)
As I was wading neck deep in my watery thoughts, a Friend stood up to give vocal ministry. She began by saying, “Today, Friends, I’m thinking about water. . .”
“I know I’m nothing. . . I’m just a wild-assed spark of the Infinite functioning in the Finite! This is the magic that each of us has within us.” (Sufi mystic Joe Miller, circa 1960)
I have a second confession to make: I am both a member of the Religious Society of Friends and an initiate of the Sufi Ruhanayat. I hope we can still be Friends. These practices feed me in different ways, and they also share many similarities. I do not have a sense that I need to be a different person within each of these two traditions. Rather, both communities help me discover more about myself and the infinite.
Sitting in the silent surrender of Quaker practice has changed me. I leave meeting feeling calm, grounded, and ready to face the week ahead. By making space in my week to slow down and enjoy simply being alive, I find myself accessing the spirit of that quiet time throughout the week. This isn’t something that has happened through a great deal of effort. It has unfolded and seems to be still unfolding.
Although Sufi practices are generally more active than Quaker worship, the same process of unfolding applies. During our gatherings, we sing, dance, hold hands, and gaze into each other’s eyes. At first, I found these traditions – especially the eye gazing – to be challenging. But over time, I have grown to cherish the connections we make when we collectively agree to open up to each other through these practices.
I was drawn into Sufi circles because of my love of music and singing. I sometimes feel euphoric after Sufi dances because I have just been part of creating something beautiful with fellow humans. I aspire to transmit that joy into my everyday life. Just as I take Quaker silence with me everywhere, I carry Sufi songs everywhere. I find
myself singing in the shower, in the car, and in Quaker meeting (in my mind, of course!). These songs have given me another way to bring prayer into my daily life.
There is a Sufi idea about the “caravan of beloveds.” As we journey through life, we are surrounded by teachers, leaders, guides on the path. Often when Sufis gather together, we take time to look around the circle with intention and savor the beloveds present in the room. Similarly, in Quaker worship, I value the contribution of each person present.
How do I listen to others?
As if everyone were my master
Speaking to me
His cherished last words
– Hafiz (1315-1390)
Samuel L. Lewis, who founded both the Dances of Universal Peace and the Sufi Ruhanayat, said that if people could “eat, dance and pray together, the world would know peace.” I used to think that the key words in that quote were “eat, dance and pray,” but now I believe that the key word is “together.”
The stories I shared above happened in community. It took a combination of people for those events to unfold. In-person togetherness is especially needed today, when countless forces are working to keep us separate – the isolating effects of technology use, political polarization, and economic stress, for starters. We can actively counterbalance these disconnecting influences through intentional community participation.
By gathering together, we can lift each other up as we collectively navigate challenging times. When we come together, we listen, support, and recharge each other to direct our lives toward good work. I have heard that the electromagnetic energy field of the human heart extends eight feet beyond the human body. Early Quakers intuited this. They advised Friends to sit close together during worship – to help focus the energy of the group. Sufis share their heart energy by hugging profusely at the end of every dance session.
One of the exciting things about anticipating a Quaker meeting or a Sufi dance circle is wondering who will show up. Will it be a large group? Small? Energetic? Quiet? What will the mix be today? Will there be new people? Will it offer reports from exciting places? Will it produce a sweet, intimate, tender energy? Or the feeling of a celebration?
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.
– Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)
Ruth Cutcher is a first year Master of Divinity student at the Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. She is a member of Durango Friends Meeting (IMYM).