- A shrine in Old Bukhara.
“I must see the dervish.”
The man on the other side of the reception table was much taller than me. At least 6’2” with a neatly trimmed beard and a prominent belly.
“It is imperative that I speak with the dervish before the ceremony.”
I was the doorman for a public presentation of the sama’a, a ceremony of whirling practiced by Sufis in the middle east and Central Asia. Sama’a means hearing, the same as the Hebrew word shema. The dervish giving the demonstration had said that no one was to disturb him while he was dressing and preparing inwardly for the ceremony.
Feeling intimidated, I straightened myself and tried to plant my feet more firmly on the floor.
“As I said, the dervish has left clear instructions that nobody can see him now.” The man replied in such a commanding voice that all the heads in the room turned in our direction.
“Go and tell him Nobody is here to see him. I am Nobody!”
“Aha,” I said, smiling. “That’s very clever. Like Odysseus. Still, you cannot see the dervish.” The man turned and walked out without looking back.
In the ceremony the dervish wore a black cloak meant to represent a casket. He embodied one who is dead to the world of things and phenomena and whose attention is absorbed in consciousness. He removed the outer garment and set it aside. Underneath he was dressed all in white.
Beginning to turn, the dervish held his hands high in an attitude of crucifixion. His right hand was turned up in a receptive gesture, and the left hand down, transmitting. He whirled faster and faster until his flowing skirt became a blur. When he stopped, suddenly still, arms crossed on his chest, an atmosphere of profound peace filled the room.
As I watched the dervish turn in his flowing white robe the question resounded in my mind. “What does it mean to be nobody?”
Though the demanding man gave the impression of being a somebody, which is to say he was full of himself, my conversation with him stayed with me. Over the ensuing years I held the question in my mind and it became a beacon in navigating my life.
After decades of searching, I found myself in a mosque and madrasa in Old Bukhara, in Uzbekistan. This was one of the places that the Sufi order called Malamati, or people who follow “the way of blame”, had its center prior to the invasion of Uzbekistan by the Soviets in the early part of the last century. Through a guide I had found a representative of the brotherhood. He agreed to meet and speak through an interpreter.
The man’s gray beard and lined face suggested age but his movements and bearing showed the vitality and lightness of youth. We sat together in a quiet section of an enormous mosque under a high roof supported by stone pillars. Sitting in silence with legs crossed on the floor I was struck by an atmosphere that vibrated with crackling stillness. I immediately recognized this quality from the ceremony of whirling.
Without any introduction the man began to speak about the precise inner work I was doing at the time. It is a practice relating to the lataif, or “subtleties”. The lataif are energetic qualities analogous to chakras, but in the emotional center instead of the body. Each of them has a location in the chest associated with higher emotions which are so called, in part, because they have no opposite.
“This is the secret place,” he said, pointing to a location in his breast. “It is the source of longing for completion. It is our wish and yearning to be, from which true evolution begins.”
And then the man was silent and I had the impression that he had returned to the energetic stillness of his practice. I struggled to keep his intense gaze which seemed to have in it both love and radical indifference.
“How do we develop this wish to be?” I asked.
When he spoke again it was as though the bell of his being had been struck by my question. His voice came from an acoustic chamber full of resonant cavities adding subtle harmonics to the sound.
“Stop thinking of yourself and be nobody,” he said.