In our highly commercial world, the way we think of the heart’s emotional capacity is mostly limited to its role in romantic love. As wonderful as romance can be, this trivializes the heart. The heart is an organ of perception. It’s where we go to make sense of feeling states we can’t quite pin down, try as we might to encapsulate them in words.
At Intermountain Yearly Meeting (IMYM) in June 2022, thirty of us gathered for a workshop on “Embodied Practices for Re-Membering and Calling on God.” I was inspired through practice in a traditional Sufi community to offer this session; sharing it was a culmination of years of exploration as a Westerner into ways to get out of my head, to know praise in body and spirit together. Our experience at IMYM offered a glimpse of the heart-centered depths silent worship can reach when Quaker stillness is paired with physically active practices from Mideastern mysticism.
The Jerrahi order in which these Sufi practices were learned was founded in Turkey near the time when George Fox and other early Friends were spreading word of the Inner Light in Western Europe. Both forms of worship arose from a similar insight – that there’s a Light within that can guide us. Founding saint Nureddin Jerrahi was sometimes called the Surgeon of Light. Yet although these two faiths arose from similar impulses, the cultural contexts of Quakerism and Turkish Sufism led in very different directions.
Early Quakers adopted simplicity and stillness, eschewing expressions of the body in both lifestyle and religious practice. Turkish Sufism embraced physically active practices, arising within an Islamic context in which praise is expressed in the bodily form of salat, the prayers of prostration taught by Mohammad. The most widely known Sufi practice is the whirling ceremony, in which the dervish’s body becomes a pole between heaven and earth, with one hand raised to receive Allah’s grace while the other is extended downward, offering that grace to the world.
A core embodied practice of traditional Sufism is zhikr (pronounced “dzzzikrrr”), which means “remembrance of God.” Zhikr unites voice and breath with a simple side-to-side head motion that polishes the heart and then bows to Allah there. What we discovered at IMYM was that by practicing zhikr together before moving into our treasured silence, we were able to focus swiftly and go deep.
Since our workshop time at IMYM, I’ve reflected often on what happened there: How was it that these divergent forms of worship could so powerfully enrich each other? Vocal and bodily praise occur across the religious spectrum and are a part of many religious traditions. What I’ve understood is that the heart-focus and the audibly shared breathing of zhikr helped us readily reach that transcendent place we sometimes find in silent worship – the corporate One-ness.
As Friends, we experience heart perception in our meetings in other ways as well. In discussing contentious issues in Meeting for Worship for Business, we sometimes plant individual flagpoles about the way forward. If Friends can speak from the heart while bearing with the conflicting perspectives that surface, a heart-opening can emerge. We let the issue’s multiple facets in, we let go of our flagpoles, and we arrive in that blessed place that is a gathered meeting.
Friends may also find that body wisdom helps with discernment about vocal ministry. When we’re weighing whether a message that comes to us during silent worship has just personal meaning or is intended for all, one criterion can be: “Is this message making me quake?” If we tremble inwardly because a message insists that it be shared, perhaps that indication of vulnerability tells us that the tender place we’ve come to offers spiritual nourishment and deep testament for everyone.
Heart perception offers a universal connection with nature and other sentient beings. It’s present in how we communicate nonverbally with our newborns, our pets, and on rare occasions with wildlife. And although the biology of plants is so different from our own, plants are beings we can understand through the heart. Consider how a plant holds its leaves up to the light, enduring everything that comes its way, while remaining always rooted in one ground. There’s deep heart-wisdom there: Imagine the surrender – and the acceptance – it would take for you to be unable to move away from everything that bothers you!
In less than a century, we humans have created, through our intellect, two global threats greater than anything before in our history: nuclear annihilation and now, the possibility that all our environmentally damaging inventions may make Earth’s climate humanly uninhabitable. Could it be that the time has come for us to step beyond the limited consciousness of Descartes’s declaration, “I think therefore I am,” which has held sway in the West for centuries? Is this a moment when we could move beyond our collective mind-body split? In breathing together with a heart-focus, perhaps we can find new ways to bridge the differences we sometimes get stuck in as we conduct our affairs. Would a shared practice of active prayer help us find new pathways through the challenges our old ways have created?
And what would it mean in the world now if, bowing to our hearts, we were to say, “I love, therefore I am?” ~~~
Laurie Lange is a New Mexico Friend with ties to several monthly meetings.