I’ve been exploring Sufi spiritual teachings for over twenty years, and felt it might be useful to explain how these help me to live with and respond to the climate crisis. My sense is that a spiritual path and practices can help a lot in this process.
So what do I mean by Sufi? It’s an elusive idea: there’s no creed or text to define it. Here’s one summary I like: a Sufi is one who takes a heart-centred approach, seeing the divine unity in all forms of life. I’ll share examples of how I put this into practice.
I believe a change in consciousness is crucial to the transformations the climate crisis needs: seeing Nature as including all forms of life, including the human and divine. A key Sufi belief can help with this, summed up in an Arabic phrase: la illaha ill’allah. Which could be interpreted: there is no reality except divine unity, which includes all life, and is beyond our conceptions of it.
Try a Wazifa practice
Many Sufis use wazifas: typically a sound mantra which evokes an aspect or quality of divine unity. The sound of certain languages has particular power, and Arabic mantras are often used by Sufis. This sequence of four wazifas is one that I find especially effective in handling feelings of overwhelm around climate change, and seeing a bigger picture.
If you want to try this, read the whole section, and give yourself some quiet space and clear time. The best way to work with wazifas is to speak to the sounds out loud, and repeat each one quite a few times, e.g. 33. The sound ya before each wazifa helps to call in or invoke the quality. I find it’s best to do this walking or standing, and using the hand gestures for each wazifa described below. You could try walking slowly and repeating the whole sequence numerous times, or repeating each wazifa on its own for a while, and then moving on to the next.
These four wazifas are all named in one Sura or chapter of the Koran, 103, to help individuals and communities to find a sense of purpose and coherence in life.
Ya haqq (pronounced hukk): starting where you’re at, recognising the truth of the situation, the ground you stand on. For climate change, this probably means letting in and feeling the alarming scale of the crisis. Hand movement: both hands at hip height, palms facing the earth, to help you connect with the ground of the situation.
Ya sabur (pronounced sahbour): this invokes patience, stepping back to see the situation in perspective, and give time for insights and responses to evolve. A useful antidote to understandable panic. Hand movement: hold your hands cupped together, palms facing upwards, on the lower abdomen, to help you connect with the quality of waiting patiently.
Ya iman (pronounced immahn): this wazifa is linguistically akin to the word amen used to affirm prayers. Both invoke trust, opening for support from divine power and wisdom, and also grounding, a reconnection with the support of the Earth. Hand movement: both hands on your heart, to help you relax into the quality of trust.
Ya salik (pronounced salleek): here, we’re opening to the greater good we can find in a situation, and in particular to how our own life purpose can flow through us to serve in this. Hand movement: repeatedly open your hands out from the heart into an expansive gesture, ending with the arms spread wide.
In many Middle Eastern spiritual traditions, what we might call prayer took quite active and embodied forms, so part of the power in the practice above is that it has been done for centuries, by many people. Speaking or chanting the wazifas out loud, and using the hand movements, helps us feel the full meaning of each one in the body.
Transforming your viewpoint
A feature of many Sufi teachings is to seek entirely different viewpoints to illuminate a situation. One of these is seeing all of Nature – trees, mountains, as well as animals – as having sentience and intelligence, a view shared by Thomas Berry and others.
The climate crisis is getting ever more difficult to cope with by conventional thinking, so this is a good time to consider totally different viewpoints. Sufi poets like Rumi, Hafiz and Shabistari can help with this. An example is Rumi’s famous poem, A Chickpea Leaps.
While life in general, as well as climate change, gets more challenging, I find that the fellowship and support of groups gets even more valuable. Sufi gatherings are part of this, and I like their inclusiveness: they are usually open to people of any spiritual belief, and draw on practices from a range of traditions. If you’d like to know more about the Sufi order I’m part of, and events they offer, see www.ruhaniat.org.uk
NOTE: The interpretations of the wazifas above are based on the work of Neil Douglas Klotz, including his book The Sufi Book of Life, which is a good introduction to the topic.