The great Sufi mystic Rumi was in the throes of a dervish ceremony called a sema; a ritual dance ceremony that he created. A fellow Muslim came to him, knocked on his door and told him it was “time for evening prayer.” Rumi without missing a beat or twirl said, “We are praying.”
Every major religion has some rituals that use movement to attune to a higher level of consciousness. The bobbing back and forth of Hasidic Jews is called “davening.” The Buddhists have a walking meditation called circumambulation. Catholics kneel, bow, sit and stand throughout Masses, but there is also a form of walking on one’s knees when praying a labyrinth. Hindus have yoga. Islam has the Sufi dervishes.
A dervish is a Sufi dancer who spins in a circle counterclockwise and uses certain gestures and hand movements to help him find the center of his being. The whirling act of dancing serves to create what the Sufis call al fana, or an extinguishing of the self to remind them that they are never separate and apart from God. The act of relinquishing the intellect and abiding by the presence of mind in finding the center to maintain balance and bodily control is a practice that has been taught and passed on for over 700 years.
In his book “Awakening,” Pir Vilayat describes the dervish as “not a dance but a sacred ritual movement.” One of the most famous is the Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes. Vilayat notes “Dressed in white robes, crowned with their tall, cone-shaped felt hats, arms outstretched, the appear as graceful as a host of luminous stars and planets spiraling through the galaxies of the Cosmos.”
The clothing worn by the dancers symbolizes the ego and the falling off of the ego. As the dancers spin the skirt worn by them twirls and is symbolically removed as the ego is lost and the recognition of the Oneness of God takes over.
It’s a mesmerizing action. A dervish can dance this way for hours, never losing sight of the true intention of erasing the worldly illusions and attuning to a place where the world meets God.
The audience observing the ceremony are hypnotized by the ecstatic dancing and drawn into its mesmerism. Some have noted that an energy of light can be seen in the dancers.
This is not unique in the Sufi experience, ritual spinning and dance was incorporated in early primal societies. Primal societies would initiate ritual dances around totems to initiate a concept of axis mundi. Finding the center of the universe was the key for tribes and through the rites and ceremonies these tribes had transcendent experiences.
There’s a lesson here for the average person. We are consumed by time. It is one of the most precious entities we possess and it escapes us to no end. We fill our days with activity and don’t take the time to enter quiet like we can. Like Rumi, we need to actively engage in finding the heart of God within. We need to move into the presence of Mystery and endeavor to seek it out.
My theater friend and mentor, Joe Garry, received a prestigious award for lifetime achievement. In his acceptance speech, he said some profound things. Having worked with aboriginal tribes to retain some of their ancient rituals, he noted that there is not a marquee above their names. The art was created as a ritual experience. Garry said, “Sustaining ancient rituals remind us of the true power of what art really is. It’s a sense of awe and looking deep into the face of Mystery.”
That’s right, Joe! It’s time to dance into Mystery and marvel at the sacred center that is found in every gift of life.