Back in 1992 I met the first person I’d ever met who called themselves a Sufi: he was the Reverend Lesley Foot, an Anglican priest who explained he had his Bishop’s permission to be a Sufi too. This demolished most of my preconceptions about Sufis.
A year later, at a Sufi workshop, someone asked the leader, what does it mean to be a Sufi? He said, “it means to meet life from the heart, and to see the divinity in all forms of life.” I joined a Sufi order in 1998, and his definition is still the best I’ve seen. Since 2013, I’ve been sharing Sufi practices in some of the retreats and workshops I lead.
The Sufi approach to life is very different to the old-style Church of England approach I grew up with. Just look at the classic Sufi poets, Rumi and Hafiz: you’ll find delight, playfulness, creativity in meeting life. There’s a focus on joy, gratitude, connection, and a belief in the scope for positive change: at least in your attitude.
The Sufi path that I have grown into over twenty years is very integrated into everyday life and offers many simple practices, which you can do almost anytime, in a few minutes. So here are my five favourite practices for joy, wellbeing and renewal.
- Expand into a sense of divine unity: a key spiritual practice for many Sufis is known as zikr, which means remembrance. Zikr can take many forms, but often it focuses on an Arabic phrase: la illaha ill’allah. This means: there is no divine unity, and there is only divine unity. Like a Zen koan, this phrase takes you beyond rational thought: it means, there is no ‘divine unity’ because it is way beyond what human consciousness can encompass – and yet divine unity includes everything, it’s in every form of life.
- Imagine a personal connection with a spiritual teacher: one surprising feature of many Sufi groups is their inclusiveness. In Britain, I’ve met Sufis who’d call themselves practising Buddhists, Jews, Christians, pagans, and more. There’s a lovely Sufi practice called tassawury, which means creating a deep, embodied, personal connection with a spiritual teacher – who could be from any religion or tradition. Doing a walking meditation, where you seek to move, breathe, feel, like a chosen teacher, can be a powerful way to find new insights, renewal, and inner calm.
- Treat problems like guests: this is best explained by Rumi’s poem, The Guest House:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
(Translation by Coleman Barks)
4. Share devotional song and movement in a group: this is a focus in the Sufi order I joined. It may sound strange, but there can be huge joy, wellbeing and renewal in singing together prayers and devotional phrases from a range of spiritual traditions. Often this is combined with movement, which can be called body prayers, or Dances of Universal Peace. The movements are simple, but this is a powerful way to get out of the everyday grind and deepen your spiritual connection. You can see more at www.dancesofuniversalpeace.org.uk.
5. Use sound mantras to invoke qualities you need: many Sufis use wazifas, which are Arabic sound mantras that embody a divine quality. To help my wellbeing, I might invoke mumin: in his brilliant guide to wazifas, The Sufi Book of Life, my Sufi teacher Neil Douglas-Klotz explains that mumin helps us “to feel not only that the Divine Beloved carries us, but also that the whole universe is expressing the trust and confidence of Sacred Unity.” A form of this word completes Christian and Jewish prayers: amen, ameyn. Typically, I might speak a wazifa 99 times, then breathe with the idea of it to deepen the benefit.