Workshop participant Guy Crittenden shares beautiful insight into Sufi Dance of Oneness® at Menla Retreat Center last month. Original post can be found here.
Over the weekend of November 4 to 5, 2017 I was privileged to attend a workshop in Sufi whirling dance with renowned international teacher Banafsheh Sayyad. It’s not an overstatement to say the experience was life changing.
The weekend was an exotic blend of different dance teachings, freestyle explorations, and formal whirling that Banafsheh calls The Dance of Oneness™— her branded term for an innovative teaching that brings the presence of the Divine Feminine into what has, for a long time, been an almost exclusively male-dominated style of connecting to one’s inner divinity.
Sufi whirling (or turning) is a form of Sama or physically-active meditation. If you’re looking for an alternative to Buddhist-style seated meditation, this could be for you.
Sama originated among Sufis, who represent a deeply mystical side of Persian Islam best known from its most famous son — Rumi — the 13th Century sage whose poetry is often quoted in a wide range of spiritual circles. (His full name is actually Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī but he’s usually referred to by his nickname which means “the Roman.”)
Sama means “listening” and Sufi ceremony can also include dhikr or zikr (“remembrance”, which is chanting the names of the Divine); its whirling dance is still performed by Sufi dervishes of the Mevlevi order, among others (such as the Rifa’i-Marufi).
Wikipedia reminds us that the aim of the Sama is to reach the source of all perfection, or kemal:
This is sought through abandoning one’s nafs, egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun.
My own journey into Sufi whirling began a few years ago when I lived in Collingwood, Ontario, when my friend and Banafsheh student Caroline gave me informal instruction on the hardwood floor of her living room, starting with the most basic component of the movement.
Imagine — as they actually did in Turkey — wrapping the large and second toe of your left foot around a nail in the floor, and then turning around it, she said.
I turned with my left foot in one place, and my right foot stepping in a circle. My arms were raised, with the right hand above the shoulders and the palm up, to invite energy from the sky, and the left hand just below shoulder level, palm down to shower the energy into the earth.
We’d whirl for short periods to rhythmic Turkish music, then sit and have tea and read from Rumi and enjoy philosophical discussions.
This was perfect background for my formal training with Banafsheh. I was picked up in Toronto by Caroline’s daughter Kathi Coyle, who runs a transformative arts and wellness studio in Collingwood called Sanctuari, where such things as yoga, Pilates and even some whirling are offered (along with other modalities). Both Caroline and Kathi have attended Banafsheh’s Dance of Oneness training in the past; this time Kathi drove with me to the MENLA Center for Health and Happiness near Phoenicia, New York for the workshop.
MENLA was a beautiful and auspicious venue for the training, a fact augmented by the appearance of a full moon over the weekend. The center features a main building with reception desk, dining hall, gift shop, lodging rooms and other amenities, and a variety of other substantial out-buildings, including various lodgings, meeting halls and a large spa. The whole complex sits in a valley surrounded by mountains thrown up millions of years ago by a meteor that ploughed six miles into the Earth. (The magnetic properties of this buried meteor are reputed to account for there being two per cent less gravity at MENLA.) This special place is now a property of the Dalai Lama, and Tibetan art and statues enliven the property at every turn.
After a pleasant drive that lasted nearly seven hours and included an overnight stay en route to the venue, we arrived at MENLA midday Friday. After check-in we had a few hours to relax in our simple but well-appointed rooms and enjoy the property before dinner in the main hall, where I met some of other workshop delegates, all of whom were women. Being vegan myself, I was pleased to discover almost everything at the buffet was vegan or at least vegetarian, and delicious. MENLA runs in part on volunteers engaged in work-stay programs, wherein they get to participate in programs. I doubt this extended to the chef (who knows?) whom I learned was new. The food was excellent.
After dinner and a quick change into comfortable clothes, we walked about half a kilometre to the large yoga studio where our dance training would take place, starting with a Friday night orientation that began at 7:00 pm. The studio had wondrously smooth varnished hardwood floors (a boon to our whirling) and large windows, two full washrooms and a table on which hot water and a selection of teas was always available. In time all but three of the registered participants entered the building (the others would arrive the next day), hung up their outerwear, and joined the circle on meditation cushions in the center of the room.
Banafsheh reviewed the overall plan for the weekend and some of the logistics of staying at the facility. Then each participant introduced themselves and described their intention and personal expectations. These varied widely; as some had trained with Banafsheh before, they conveyed nuanced goals. If there was any overarching theme, it was to deepen the relationship with what’s called in the tradition “the Beloved.” As Banafsheh herself explained in a short review of Sufi philosophy and the nature of the Sama, this relates to Sufism and the poetry of Rumi, in which the dancer is the lover and the Divine/God is the “Beloved.”
The almost erotic conceptualization of embodied spirituality was one of the things that drew me to Sufism. Having studied nonduality in its modern and more cerebral forms, I was actively seeking a less bloodless, more fragrant and sumptuous expression of the connection with my higher Self, which I knew to be pure love. Is this possible through the dance? I wondered.
And so, when my turn came for intention sharing, I expressed those ideas, along with a quick recap of my having been a “seeker” who’d worked with Amazonian teacher plants and related forms of shamanism, and had also taken a workshop with American shaman Bradford Keeney on the shaking medicine of the bushmen of the Kalahari. This seeking had ended, I told the group (a bit self-consciously) with my experience of 5-MeO-DMT in the form of the secretions of the Sonoran desert toad (as recounted in an earlier blog entry). Now I wished to embody what I’d learned via a somatic dance modality: to literally imprint the knowing in myself, as a state of being, a deep abiding. (This is precisely what happened during the weekend.)
In time we rose, put away our cushions, and were led by Banafsheh through a series of warmup exercises, some freestyle dancing and then in a short whirling session. With our right hands raised to heaven and our left hands facing the ground, we turned and turned, first in a short step with our right feet planting four times to demarcate a circle, and then two steps (which requires a sharper turn of the ankle). I was reminded, and impressed, that (contrary to what you might think) the turning does not make one dizzy, as long as you focus on grounding and you surrender to being whirled by the dance, as much as being the active whirler.
In a way that’s reminiscent of seated meditation in which one focuses on a mantra, or one’s breath, the dancer pays no attention to thoughts (which distract) and enters a “no mind” trance-like state.
As Banafsheh intimated, the goal (and the experience) is not really one of transcendence, per se. Hers is not an approach that views the body as a shameful thing to be jettisoned in favour of releasing some ghost from within the machine. Instead (and these are my words, not hers) the body is the expression of — the flowering — of infinity itself. These hands, this neck, this spine, these feet — all of it — are how the Divine manifested in this incarnation, an expression of the whole universe. One could take my body and reverse engineer the entire cosmos from it, made up as it is of chemicals born from particular types of soils and seas, and elements of the Periodic Table minted inside stars and supernovae, and the specific gravity of our solar system and galaxy.
This is a Oneness that’s hidden so perfectly in plain sight that we miss it!
I slept beautifully that night in my room, which was set up for two or more people but granted to me for my own use, due to the occupancy level that weekend. I fell asleep reading A Forest of Kings — a landmark and comprehensive history of the Mayan civilization which, with its human sacrifice and bloodletting, made a strange bookend for my experience with the dervish whirling of archaic Persia.
The next day — Saturday — we had three sessions (morning, afternoon and evening) punctuated by vegan meals in the main dining hall, and an extended mid-afternoon break during which I set aside for a hike in the surrounding woods, but during which I simply slept (quite deeply).
Each of the Saturday sessions followed a similar pattern: a warm-up routine, some freestyle dancing, and then a more formal whirling Sama with Turkish-style music.
God but I learned to love that music! Its drone element, its mesmerizing rhythms, and the heartbreaking joyful sadness of its melodies and singing, steeped in an Arabian Nights kind of mystery, an age-old longing, with the jewel-like shimmer of Aladdin’s cave. It was easy to imagine oneself in a great Mediterranean hall with marble floors and lapis lazuli tile work, whitewashed walls and hammered copper lamps.
Most beautifully, after each whirling session (while most of us were kneeling prostrate on the floor, trembling), Banafsheh expressively recounted Rumi poems in Persian, followed by the English translation. Somehow the poems always resonated with the feelings that rose for me during the sacred dance.
I’m a 57-year-old man inhabiting the body of someone who sits for long hours at a desk. Despite my dedicated attendance at the gym, it’s work for me (at this time) to touch my toes (I never was very flexible) and my craft is cerebral. This weekend was intensely physical, athletic, embodied. Damn but I wasn’t used to this! It took true concentration for me to stay with it, to not yield to my body’s pleas to rest. And yet the practice itself held me up, exhorted and extolled me to go further, beyond, and deeper… ever deeper.
The first whirling session on Saturday was, for me, perhaps the most intense. The most raw. Though I can’t prove it, I think it was also the longest, and for that I’m thankful.
After first crossing our arms across our chests and bowing deeply in the traditional manner, we danced through something like three long melodies, one of which went on and on and on. Though it was only the first of three whirling sessions we’d have that day, a voice from within invited me to push myself, to really go for it.
Since you’ve whirled for this long, and haven’t stumbled, why not keep going? the voice seemed to say. Why not make this the dance that really counts?
Why not get what I need from this weekend right here! Right now!
I accepted this invitation and pushed myself. Or should I say surrendered? Around and around I whirled, faster and faster, in tighter and tighter circles, with my body making dozens of tiny micro-adjustments. Move the left ankle faster and more decisively, was one thought. Stand straighter, was another, as well as Raise the right hand a little or look more to the centre.
These were never more than half thoughts, because to stay with a thought was to invite imbalance, outright thinking, and then getting caught in the topsy-turvy realm of ordinary consciousness.
In time I no longer sensed myself spinning. Instead, my arms and left hand appeared to be motionless: it was the room around me that was moving! I was the still point in the turning wheel.
In my peripheral vision I caught the occasional glimpse of one of the women stopping and slowly falling to her knees, kissing the ground in the traditional way. But I was not for stopping! Not until the music ended — whenever that might be. In time I knew I could go on forever! Or at least until my legs gave out from absolute exhaustion.
An intuition presented itself, rising like an undercurrent from a dream inside a dream. A powerful feminine presence gradually filled my consciousness and my physical being. I knew I was meeting the Goddess, and recognized her — in the way one senses a person standing behind you — as one and the same as the Mother I’d met in the thrall of the shamanic drink ayahuasca. A series of lessons imparted themselves telepathically, to do with the love of the Mother, starting with my own mother, who is 82 at the time of this writing. I revelled in the reveal that the same presence that was holding me up in the dance and spinning me was the same that cared for me, through her, as a child, and throughout most of my life, and would care for me through other forms in my old age, and even through my death and afterlife. She was all one and the same, and was even the love I showered on my children, before and after my marriage ended.
It was somehow me and not me, all at once. Tears flowed down my cheeks and I gave out sighs and deep sobs.
Eventually the music stopped and I stood still, crossed my arms on my chest, and slowly fell to my knees. I then moved forward onto my hands and elbows and pressed my forehead onto the floor, and kissed the ground, in the same position as Islamic prayer. I must have been noticeably sobbing because someone — Sherry — brought over a box of Kleenex and placed it beside me.
I had met the Mother, and I knew now that she was me.
The details of the warmups and other preparations for the next two dances aren’t important to recount, only that the next two Sufi dances that day and the one that followed on Sunday morning fulfilled the exhortation of the four stages (“salaams”) of the Sama, which Banafsheh wrote in both Persian and English on a flip chart in the corner of the room:
Awakening to the Divine origin of the universe and realizing you have been created in the image of the Divine.
Recognizing the Divine in all creatures, seeing or hearing the Creator in the Created.
Annihilation in the essence of the Divine, as the Beloved — Union.
Service: Living as a lover in action, a messenger of the Beloved in the world.
Yes, many subtle lessons of this nature appeared in the four whirling dances that transpired over Saturday and Sunday, and it was clear that words can never, ever convey the power of the Mystery summoned and consummated by the dance. Of all the words, annihilation best conveys what happened to me, especially on Saturday evening. My ego was shredded and a love poured through my heart like a fire hose — with an intensity I’d only once experienced before, in the depths of a Santo Daime ceremony. I was broken on the wheel.
The Saturday afternoon Sama was all about ego dissolution for me, becoming one with the dance. Most of the drama was gone and there was no sobbing. Over and over I chanted hayy (Arabic for “life” and pronounced “high”) as I spun faster and faster.
“Gamble everything for love,” Rumi wrote. “if you are a true human being. Halfheatedness does not reach into majesty.”
And gamble I did, slowly releasing my attachment to caution or worry about falling over, with the room — the whole world — spinning around me faster and faster.
Most notably I felt like I was waltzing with an invisible partner in my arms — a dancer formed from light, who held me as I held her, and our combined centrifugal force prevented us both from toppling over.
Let me look after you, she seemed to say. Trust!
After the afternoon dance ended we went straight to dinner. The main dining hall was crowded by then with members of a large group of Kundalini yoga practitioners who’d arrived for a seven-day retreat. They were noticeable from their all-white cotton garb, including turbans, and long beards on some of the men. The presence of this group, who could be heard chanting in various barn-like structures on the property, underscored my own sense of being seduced away from such practices by the wilder movements of the Sufis.
As night fell our small group gathered at a large open-air log fire in the center of the property; it felt like the navel of the valley itself. We swayed around the fire softly singing an Arabic chant — la illaha il Allah — which can be translated as, “no God except the one true God” but which intuits for Sufis something more like, “I will accept no other love, and will exchange a thousand ordinary loves, for the one Great Love.”
Some other visitors joined us at the fire and must have wondered what on earth was going on! Especially when we collectively howled at the moon like wolves.
After the fire we returned and found the yoga studio — our makeshift palace — illumined with tea lights. The small candles were like prayers of light against the darkness that closed in like a black velvet cloak. Banafsheh gratefully accepted a present I’d brought for her: a small container of incense sticks made from crushed rose petals from the Kashmir Valley which I’d purchased at an Ayurveda store in Toronto. (The next morning when we entered the yoga studio the air was thick with the pungent fragrance of one of these incense sticks.)
The nighttime dance was different again from the others, and for me was characterized by an inescapably erotic undertone. As I whirled I was invited (commanded!) to make love to the Beloved! And she responded by making love to me. Visions of Shakti and Shiva danced in my mind, in the candlelight, and I distinctly heard the sound of a woman orgasming in the music, loudly crying in ecstasy.
Ah! This was the real grounding! The fragrant delight of pure pleasure in being. Love embodied, so far from the cerebral musings of the nondual teachers in their sat sangs. This was the sparkling jewel at the centre of the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra and every other sutra. Yet it was not even such an abstraction, but flowed with warm blood, as throbbing sexual energy.
I was whirling in a room full of whirling women, and very close to Banafsheh herself, with whom I joined in a chant in, the meaning of which was mysterious to me, but we were singing it out, over and over and over. And I can’t honestly say if this was something I really heard, that was in the music or coming from our teacher, or from an inner voice, or from the cosmos itself. A deep knowing settled into my mind and body that it is one and the same as the Divine: that everything and anything I might have sought outside myself or in some transcendent shamanic realm is in me — simply is me already. I am not this body, not exactly, but that which I really am was certainly moving it, and it hadn’t much to do with the person I think of as myself.
What beautiful love! My body! This Earth! All one. All Oneness.
In time the music subsided and Banafsheh led us through a series of winding-down exercises that somewhat mirrored the earlier warm-up movements before the dance, and again she repeated a poem from Rumi, who’s said to not have written down his thoughts but instead spoke them as he whirled, while his acolytes recorded them, perhaps feverishly.
Kathi led me back to the main building through the woods on a path she’d discovered earlier in the day; we were guided by the light of the moon. We needed no flashlights. I stopped several times to marvel in the cool night air, my clothes damp with sweat, at the silver moonlight falling through the forest and the occasional star above the dark mountains whose outline encircled us like the backs of whales. A persistent calm rose and fell with each breath.
After making ourselves tea from packets and a large hot water cauldron on the all-night self-service stand in the dining hall, we returned to the open-pit fire to discuss our experiences. We engaged in some conversation with other guests who, curiously, were talking about Amazonian plant shamanism, and remarked upon my clothing, as I happened to be wearing the white ceremonial clothing I’d bought in Peru for ayahuasca ceremonies. The shirt and pants are adorned with appliqué segments of the vine and colourful cosmic snakes.
Back in my bed, I read a few more pages of A Forest of Kings before succumbing to a deep sleep, and then a long period of semi-conscious lucid dreaming in the early hours before sunrise, replete with visions of sacred geometry and various angels and demons, and lesser beings from this realm and others.
The Sunday session featured a freestyle section in which I truly “danced like no one was watching,” throwing my limbs in crazy directions like an overly-limber puppet. This was followed by a short-ish Sama that I wished had been longer, but which afforded subtle lessons nonetheless. The themes recapped some of what had preceded during the weekend and hinted at some kind of mastery, initiation, or perhaps simply belonging. I felt technically at ease in the whirling, and simply enjoyed the experience with a wide smile. It was bliss, as thought the taste of golden honey was extended throughout my whole body.
The sharing afterwards of each participant in our closing circle was authentic and moving. As I sat listening, it crossed my mind that I hadn’t heard a single critical comment or admonishment from Banafsheh during the entire weekend. She simply led the exercises and the dance, and inspired us each to be the best we could be through her own actions. There had been much laughter and many grateful tears.
I was the last to speak. My own account centred on the lessons of the Mother, and my voice trembled throughout much of it. I decided to read a poem I’d been inspired to write early that morning, and pinched myself hard on my right leg to guard against my voice trembling too much. I’d awoken at 6:00 am, forgetting that it was Daylight Savings Time; the clock on my cell phone had automatically reset and I didn’t realize I’d purloined an extra hour of blessed sleep. I’d wandered somnambulantly down to the all-night coffee urn and poured myself a cup of black coffee, and banged out a poem as quickly as I could type. (Sometimes it’s like that with poetry: it just pours through.) The poem captures something of the nostalgia I felt at that time, along with our being in the Catskill Mountains and my sense of being held in the embrace of an invisible lover, about to enter the final segment of my life’s three-act play.
Here is that poem:
My donkey is weighed down —
We climb the trails.
I bring home treasure, though I walk alone
And my arms are empty,
Save for the gnarled staff I lean upon
While raising knobbed knees to navigate the slopes
Of snow-dusted stone.
Above the clouds behind me looms the mountain
Upon whose peak I once shivered, beneath a late-autumn moon.
Others were there: families with children carried up by gondola,
Drinking coloured water as they pondered the abyss.
I arrived from the west face,
Having slept two nights through storms,
My hammock pinned to the sheer granite wall,
Pitons and rope slung beside and below me.
Few — so few! — had traversed that pathless path;
Only a hammer mark or abandoned metal shard as testament
To their passing… up or down.
That was long ago, when my shanks stood firm
And my beard was dark.
Below me now the village lights shimmer through the fog
Like fireflies in morning mist.
Soon I will be home in my ancient cabin.
The rude wood door will open to my bed and piles of books.
I’ll build a fire, and dance alone tonight
In the embrace of my beloved,
Who kisses me now with her cool cedar breath
And bathes me in the light
Of her last morning star.
© Guy Crittenden, November 5, 2017 (Phoenicia, New York)
Guy Crittenden is a writer who lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and is the author of the forthcoming book The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls (Apocryphile Press, San Francisco).