A Race Against Time

 

thumbnail_Email - Saiqa L - Outlook
Art@TamaraPhilips

“Another world is not only possible, but she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear breathing.

Arundhati Roy

Time is running out. I keep hearing this from friends fast approaching forty and contemplating parenthood. They volley back and forth between cautious optimism and despondent resignation as they relay all the circumstances that led them to where they are now. It’s also the same phrase I hear spoken by environmentalists. We’re running out of time. There is a theory that once the Earth reaches a point beyond no return, it will begin to reset itself, with no guarantee of Homo sapiens securing their place. We’re in this together, I keep hearing. We’re in the same boat, say invisible voices. I ponder for a minute. Should the word ‘boat‘ be exchanged for ‘storm‘? Then I realise there’s no need. The storm has already taken a nasty turn and revealed our different means of travel. Not only are we not in the same boat but we seem to be heading in different directions. One side is continuing to follow the signposts leading towards extinction, a well-maintained route that has been regularly policed with ships loaded with firepower over the last 400 years but leads to nowhere because all the places that could have been colonised have already been colonised. Just as the short term pleasures of cigarettes and sugar help us to forget the delayed risk of repercussions to the physical body, only now are we able to feel the pain of the legacies of tobacco and sugar plantations. Pain travels down families until someone is ready to hold it.

Slavery has an ancient history, existing long before it underpinned Greece democracy, passed down to the Romans and formed a common bridge between Christian and Islamic Empires with their European, Arab and Black slaves. But somewhere along the line, existing injustices and inequalities took a sinister turn and became super-sized when conquests for more land led voyagers past the seas into the oceans. Horsepower was replaced with immense power in hands poorly trained to serve humanity. A sacred balance was lost and became toxic. The feminine had to first become divorced from the masculine, so all around Europe women were rounded up and burnt at the stake. The men could relax, their conscience and any feeling parts of them went up in smoke with them.  Women thereafter learnt to become silent or become like men if they wanted to be heard. Racial superiority overtook religious exclusivity, the former often masked in the latter. Honouring cycles of nature became replaced by linear growth measured by clocks and calendars and economical growth. Machinery became more reliable and worthy than the natural world which was never quick enough to meet demand. Still, there remained those connected to their hearts and used their privilege to speak out against their own people. Nonetheless, slavery came back from the ashes as indentured labour, which in turn gave rise to migrant workers. My grandparents were some of the lucky ones. They flew in by air, through their own free will.

It has been said of economic life in Europe that ‘What made it extraordinary was less the capacity to invent than the readiness to learn from others, the willingness to imitate, the ability to take over tools or techniques discovered in other parts of the world, to raise them to a higher level of efficiency, to exploit them for different ends and with a far greater intensity.’

The East In The West, Jack Goody.

Slow down my heart tells me. Emotions are running high, my head can’t keep up with my racing heart. Each day brings a new revelation of old running injustices. This is my  tenth  eleventh attempt writing today, I’m not sure it’ll be the last. All that I read and see is nothing new, and yet what is new is that voices familiar to me have shifted from the fringes to the mainstream. The collective efforts of many hands over many centuries has finally led to the tipping point where opposing teams are beginning to unite for a common cause. A small virus of unknown origins has swept the world and pushed populations and communities from scapegoat status to sacrificial lambs. For all of our technological advances, the primitive rituals of human sacrifice still pervade our world.

Retreats are meant to be a time for going inwards to come to terms with how we harm ourselves and others with our actions before we go back into the world of activity. Having had over forty days to breathe, rest and recuperate their senses, the newly awakening inhabitants of industrialised nations are starting to realise that they’ve been treated like racehorses chasing a fake rabbit to make them run faster and earn more money for those betting on a divided world. But the odds seem to be against those hoping to earn a fortune from the misfortune of others. The veils are lifting. In a world where disease and war are more profitable than peace and health, a visible backlash has begun against the industrial-military complex that informs much of modern healthcare.

But there is hope. A network of groups that are ahead of the curve that began locally, are starting to get more attention and love. Like economic systems rooted in the life-giving properties of the earth, grounded in equity and respect. Food production methods that give back to the earth and reap back the rewards in added nutrients and vitality. Less becomes more because energy is optimised. However, it would mean letting go of a dominant health model that promotes masking and suppressing symptoms for one that is centred on curing disease through self-responsibility and support in releasing personal and collective trauma. Maybe only then will we stop treating the Earth and its resources as horrendously as we treat our own bodies and those held down at the bottom of social hierarchies.

Time is running out. Watching Black Americans walk to the streets and unite the world into supporting their cause, I know a seismic shift is occurring when groups facing similar oppressions hold up banners of #BLM in solidarity. As a South Asian, my position is somewhat precarious between the two. Collaborators of white supremacy, ambitious South Asians were strategically placed in colonies as alien masters of indigenous populations. To this day, enormous wealth was and still is held in families sourced from natural resources. Nepotism keeps the spirit of colonialism alive in tinted bodies kept brown enough to be accepted as natural as the earth. In the journey from West to East, racism morphs into casteism, religious exclusivism and a toxic strain of tribalism. It takes a bit of effort and searching but behind the shadows there remains a richness of spirit of traditions preserved in art and culture born from shared timeless knowledge and techniques balanced and kept in check by opposing views.

Slow down my heart reminds me. When money, resources and wisdom flow openly, it naturally attracts abundance and health. Disease is often likened to disharmony when trapped pathogens, intoxicants, emotions and memories build and accumulate around energy centres in the electromagnetic field of the body. If not resolved at the energetic level, symptoms mark the physical progression of disease but it can be some time before it manifests as bodily changes. There’s a fine subtlety around chronic ill health in the early stages that cannot be caught or measured by blood tests or radiographs, much to the mutual frustration of doctors and patients alike. There are limits to a worldview based on rational empiricism over clinical intuition, and these limits are causing needless suffering. I wonder if COVID has come into our world as the catalyst to push us into the waiting world of quantum physics, where innumerable realities and potentialities exist. Harmonies are not created by one voice, they’re created by many different voices complementing and blending together.

“The destruction of biodiversity translates into the destruction of the diversity of the livelihoods of the large majority of Third World people who make their living as farmers, fishermen, craftspeople and healers. The diversity of life forms is also fast becoming ‘green oil’ or raw material for the next industrial revolution based on the emerging biotechnologies. Industry is reorganizing itself as the ‘life sciences’ industry, changing property laws, environmental laws and trade policies to create markets for genetically engineered products and to establish monopolies in the vital sectors of food and medicine.”

Tomorrow’s Biodiversity, Vandana Shiva

Energy needs a conductor and love of humanity and of this world and what it could be and already is, seems to be uniting many. It seems almost inevitable that the conversation will soon turn from equity and justice to discriminated communities leading the way to economical and ecological justice. A problem can never be resolved at the level it was created. Until dominant populations can become humble enough to accept that they are the driving force behind climate change, the 100 companies creating 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to create distractions and hide behind the mask of denial. 

If there are shadows, then it must pre-suppose that there is light. If there is light, it must be that ancient wisdom still remains alive. Even when people become forgetful, the elements are always there to remind us of our origins. Ancient cultures all talk of human beings connected to the elements around us, that we are composed of a mixture of earth, fire, water, air and a mysterious fifth substance hovering above us. With the first spark of life ignited, the heart is the first organ to form in an embryo and begins to beat in as little as 22 days. The necessity of prioritising an organ needed to exchange nutrients and waste right from the outset stands testament to the importance of cleansing the spiritual heart in a world overflowing with toxicity and dangerous leadership. It’s in our water, our soil, our food and medications to keep people separated from the seat of their soul and from each other. Arrogant leaders may find ways to try and circumvent justice but they only delay their own downfall and sometimes under their own noses. Having rounded up all the Israelite men from their wives on the advice of his astrologers foretelling the conception of the Prophet Moses (AS), the Pharoah fails to prevent an act of love at the very gates of his palace.

Pharoah left, Emran slept then by the gate.

His wife at midnight came, though it was late.

She kissed his lips and lay down, pressed so tight

Against him, rousing him from sleep that night.

Emran woke up and saw his own wife there

Kissing him fondly in the open air.

Emran asked, “Why did you now come to me?

She said, ‘‘Out of desire and God’s decree.”

Masnavi III, 876-883

The whispers of the heart are like gentle flutters, they guide us to actions, places and situations that can have profound effects on ourselves and those around us, in the tension between Divine will and free will. Instead of listening to it, we can push down uncomfortable feelings with more effort until we get sick. The toxicity overwhelms our heart and organs and we have to choose between the expectations of society or our health. Ten years ago to this day, I stood and declared ‘in sickness and health’ when despite not knowing what health actually was because I’d suffered from chronic disease all my life. When I woke up in ITU a few years later, I was given a new chance in life. I happily took it. My material wealth lost its value and unhealthy relationships became non-negotiable. Dis-ease became my route back to ease and so, as I watch the world struggling to breathe, I take a moment in gratitude for having had a headstart in making the journey back to health. Sometimes we have to be pushed into the shadows to know the value of light.

Shadows may be a sign of the sun’s presence,

But only the sun offers life-giving light.

Shadows bring on slumber, like evening talk,

But when the sun rises the ‘moon is split apart.’

Maqalat-e-Shams

Light and air, so many in our world are denied these basic needs in life. I was taught to honour and respect my elders but I increasingly find myself redirecting that respect to generations younger than me. My hope and faith lie in them. They have the least to gain and the most to lose. They’re like the child in the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, while the crowds cheer on the Emperor to celebrate his ‘new clothes’, a lone child is the only one willing to state the obvious, that the Emperor is in fact naked. As hierarchies begin to falter, I wonder where it all went wrong, when Divine justice was put on hold for a world beyond this one. As I watch communities turn to each other in solidarity, I see them taking it upon themselves to ensure social responsibility, away from the poster boys of religion, politics and science with vested interests. 

I have to go further back into history if I want inspiration, at a time when even kings knew their place in the Divine order. Like King David (A.S) and his relationship with a freed African slave considered by some a prophet, Luqman the Wise (AS). In the human challenge between governance and arbitration, the struggling King bound to his kingdom sought the assistance of Luqman to help him govern, but the wandering wise man refused the task.

“The selection of an ex-slave to reveal David’s shortcomings addresses an important contradiction. At one level, Luqman’s actual socioeconomic position at the bottom of the social hierarchy is compensated for by his unreachable spiritual status. Such a plot restores equality to a society that had only recently begun to experience the phenomenon of stable, visible political and economic hierarchies.”

‘Mind, Economy, Discourse; The Social Origins of Islam’, M.A Baymeh

As worlds and realities collide, I see those with worldly power coming back into union with those embued with spiritual wealth, perhaps the Luqman’s of the world are finally ready to join forces now when they’re the most needed. The outer coming together with the inner in concentric circles, as in some indigenous cultures where the women were traditionally protected during rituals by a circle of male members of the tribe. Imagine, a world where those who have the knowledge and devotion to restore our world back into balance, are given protection by those who have the power to protect them. It’s a telling sign that this momentous year began with the Australian bushfires that reproduced the Aboriginal flag in the burning skyline. In between the narratives of ‘them‘ vs. ‘us‘, are fine graduations of inner darkness and light ultimately merging into One, each playing a vital unique role in the journey from the relative to the Absolute. The catalysts, facilitators and stewards acting as midwives for an emerging world.

I can’t breathe.” “Mama.”   Time is running out, my mind tells me. Slow down my heart tells me. 

 

 

Dutch Courage

e72e323d-d255-452e-beff-4f54833bc8e5

Rajab has gone out and Sha’ban has entered; The soul has quit the body, the Beloved has entered.

The breath of ignorance and the breath of heedlessness have gone forth; the breath of love and the breath of forgiveness have entered.

Mystical Poems of Rumi, trans AJ. Arberry

The lungs are a remarkable pair of organs. Flicking through my old anatomy books, I’m reminded of their sponginess and of a springiness that surprises you when you poke your fingers through them. In university teaching rooms held in a windowless basement, I remember as a young student feeling nothing but a deep fascination for the remains of people who had donated their bodies for the benefits of science. It’s not hard to imagine a tree turned on its head with its branches of tiny blood vessels turned downwards hidden in each person’s chest, a silent communion of air kissed between man and nature. In a natural passing, the final in-breath completes the cycle of creation that according to the Sufis began with the breath of compassion.

Ancient wisdom across cultures speak of the tendency of grief and shock to lodge themselves in a person’s airways and make it hard to breathe. With its ears turned to the lobes on the left, the heart hears the whimpers of the lung and lends a hand by doubling its efforts. One organ helping out another. Like trees that divert nutrients and water to a weaker tree through underground fungal networks. Such was the case of my Dutch friend Corina. While still curled in her mother’s womb, her grandfather passed away before she was born, marking her entry into this world with a special case of heart and lungs. We met three decades later at a writers retreat. I had abandoned my career and was back living with friends in a Buddhist centre organising retreats for meditators, all the while pretending to my family I was still living in Paris and working as a dentist. The benefits of living abroad act as an excellent subterfuge in creating an illusory life.

I was lost, confused and directionless other than knowing I wanted to write a book. She came to the retreat as a winning entrant to a writing competition. I huffed and puffed my way through the mandatory morning yoga sessions, always finding an excuse to miss them if I could, while she mildly complained of some fatigue but kept up anyway. Every afternoon we would walk around the grounds set in the heart of the French countryside, finding writing inspiration with our backs to the trees that supported us. She carried her notebook and pen in a crossover canvas bag with rainbow colours and a motif of the Dutch nations favourite mode of transport, the humble bicycle. It was only at the end of the week that she decided to conceal her innermost truths over an intimate share all in a post-retreat lunch. I confided all to her that I couldn’t to my closest friends and family. She opened her heart to me. She was waiting for a lung transplant but it was a risky affair. We became inseparable from that point on, keeping our pact to remain truthful even when it was painful. We kept up visits in each other’s countries over the years and created a mutual life as housesitting writers. We traded care of pets for homes centred around areas in the UK that she considered sacred. We wrote our blogs and mapped out our epic masterpieces on the dining tables of strangers, turning their homes into our own and raiding their fridges. When we weren’t writing we moaned about being writers who didn’t write and just helped ourselves to more cake.

Restricted to travelling by car and ferry, her four wheels became her third lung that carried her distances that until then she had only dreamed of. Top of the list was Scotland where she could lose herself to the might of nature, her natural Celtic spirit seamlessly blending into the lochs and highlands. She taught me to honour the changing of the seasons in the festivals she celebrated and her admixtures of plant and conventional medicine. While she followed her grandmother’s herbal ways, I learned to slow down and step in line with her, our shared practice of nazar-bar-kadam, watching the step. We would often pause in the middle of the street when she got breathless, habituated by then to the concerned looks of pedestrians unable to see her invisible disability aside from an occasional blue glow around her lips. 

For years, our lives crisscrossed on like this but then at some point we both realised our housesitting days were over. I got tired of moving every two weeks and went back home and reconciled with my family who by sheer exhaustion have finally forgiven me for being the failure they perceive me to be. And she went back home to the small fishing village near Rotterdam where her ancestors have lived for generations, carrying a surname that translates to ‘lobster‘ in Dutch, a name that always led her back to the sea. But she was finding it harder to cross the wide blue expanse that divided us. She began to carry oxygen in public to lighten the load on her heart. Her vulnerability cracked open and she allowed her disability to become visible with the plastic tubes sitting on top of her lip like a nose clip. It also invited an authentic love that crossed the ultimate wish in her bucket list, a partner who loved her for she was. 

We kept planning our next housesit together anyway. Even when her messages over a two week period were becoming increasingly worrying. Her legs were swollen as wide as an elephant. She couldn’t walk past the sofa. Her partner had to bathe and dress her. Her intuition told her to stay at home and avoid a deadly virus spreading in hospitals and streets. By the end of the week, I put gentle pressure on her to reconsider. It was the weekend she said, I’ll go Monday. Come Saturday, it was her 37th birthday. I sent her a picture of Little Miss Stubborn. She promised to go see her doctor. Never at any point did either of us dare to pick up the phone. Our statutory two-hour conversations were halted to a fearful silence. It was as if our souls had conspired to not interfere with her free will and give her space to decide her fate for herself. When I did call it was too late. When Monday morning arrived the doctors advised her to say goodbye to her inner circle. She sent me a message telling me that she loved me. She couldn’t talk because she couldn’t breathe, but she was still hopeful. Her body disagreed and said no. It’s deceptively easy to maintain friendships through long distances but painfully difficult to lose them when you’re not within reaching distance. Within days Europe went into lockdown and the world as we knew it ended. A week later, the Earth kept turning and transitioned into spring. The beauty of her swift passing with the least time spent in hospital still amazes me. Like a lobster that expands beyond the limits of its body and then hides behind a rock to shake off its shell, she shook off her outer casing and left this land to become a drop in the ocean and merge with the sea that she loved so much.

Only in solitude can you discover a sense of your own beauty. The Divine Artist sent no-one here without the depth and light of divine beauty. 

This beauty is frequently concealed behind the dull facade of routine. Only in your solitude will you come upon your own beauty. In Connemara, where there are a lot of fishing villages, there is a phrase which says: ‘is fanach an ait a gheobfa gliomach,’ i.e it is in the unexpected or neglected place that you will find the lobster. In the neglected crevices and corners of your evaded solitude, you will find the treasure you always evaded.

Anam Cara, Celtic Wisdom.

And now the pressure’s on me. She died with her book still in her. So now I write for her too. The book I began four years ago is still in me but now it demands to be birthed in the face of protests by my ego telling me I’m not ready or polished enough. But then the voice of Corina overrides that of all others and encourages me to keep writing anyway.  For years I’ve been reading and researching the shadows of the world, coming up for air every once in a while when the darkness got too much. It helped put into context my own personal struggles in finding my place in a world where as Krishnamurti once said, “It is no measure of health to fit into a sick society.” Patterns emerged in a race by different creeds and cultures all competing to plunder resources in as quick as time possible and the implications for us all forecasted by voices hushed to the sidelines. I often felt demoralised and overwhelmed watching the world sleepwalking their way through life, ignorant of the truths becoming apparent around me. I found solace in ritual prayer and kept committed on the path that was being paved for me, as I remind myself that prayers are often answered in the most unexpected ways and always for the highest and best good for all. What is good for one must be good for all. All plant life. All animals. Not just men in suits, pitting one group against another. The cure to destruction is creation, and all creation begins in the realms of imagination. The shared vision of so many is starting to gather momentum as I sense an undercurrent of excitement for the blessings coming in a post-COVID world. Of a mass awakening rooted in the wisdom of trees and the mysterious workings of the human lungs.  Perhaps it will open the doors of empathy for those whose countries are being destroyed by the waste produced by industrialised nations in an unfair exchange. 

As the world presses the pause button on an oil-based economy and given a chance to breathe again, I say another prayer for the lungs of the Earth, the Amazon rainforest and those further in the East, in the hope that nature can forgive mankind for all the abuses it has had to endure. Tonight, on this full moon eve, millions in their homes will be praying in a night dedicated to forgiveness before fasting tomorrow morning until dusk. Some believe it’s the night when a celestial tree contained in the heavens will shed leaves containing the names of all those fated to leave this world in the coming year. It’s a true test in unconditional love to keep the airways of communication and emotion open in the absence of form and body as a testament to the immortality of the soul.

If I should die                                                                                                                                 I bid you carry me                                                                                                                        To where my love might lie                                                                                                         There let me be                                                                                                                              And if she would give my cold lips just one kiss                                                                    Believe me, I would live again by this.”    

Trans. AJ Arberry.

To God we belong, to God we return. Inshallah I hear her say, as she often would. Ameen I reply back. In memory of my writing partner Corina Kreeft, I have added a short excerpt of one of her final articles published. With love.

One foot goes after another. Slowly. Very slowly. Up the misty Scottish mountain. My heart is beating so loudly that I fear it wants to jump out of my chest. I wonder, with every beat, if this will be the last one. I ask too much of my body. Even though I can’t see myself, my lips are turning into a dark blue colour similar to blackberries. My lungs are protesting with a feeling of thousand needles that are dancing around in my breathing organs. And yet, the words ‘giving up’ don’t come to mind at all. Despite all the stress in my body, there’s still a smile on my face.
Only, mother nature decided not to make it too easy for me today. The white clouds are hiding the old man I want to see so badly. Behind me, the sky is turning into an ominous red. It’s the warning of hurricane Ophelia, who’s terrorizing Ireland and the United Kingdom. Here, on the Isle of Skye, she’s predicted later this afternoon. So there isn’t much time left. Will this be a trip with a disappointing end?
If I had asked my lung physician’s permission, he would have voted a big NO. In capital letters. That’s why I never ask for his consent. For anything. Ever since I’ve been on the waiting list for a double lung transplant. I try to explore my boundaries. Well, explore. It’s more like going beyond those boundaries. This is one of my most dangerous ideas. No, I’m not rock climbing. No, I’m not going to jump off the cliff. I’m just hiking. Nothing exciting about it. For any other, healthy, person that is. I think it takes an average human-being 30 minutes to hike up as far as I am on this mountain path, maybe less. It takes me an hour and a half, and still I’m not at the top. With pulmonary hypertension, I have a heart double the size of a ‘normal’ (what is normal?) person and right now I’ve probably an oxygen level of 60 percent. Not the best state for one’s body. To compare, a healthy person has an oxygen level of 98 – 100 percent. So what am I doing here, crawling up this hill?
I came all this far to see this natural wonder, the Old man of Storr. Not some ancient wise druid, but an ancient pinnacle rock on this unearthly isle. To be more precise, I drove 1500 kilometers from the Netherlands, all by myself, on the wrong side of the road. (Well, for this Dutch woman it is.) Just a dream I had for many years, and if an opportunity comes along, healthy or not, I must take it. So here I am, as an accidental travel blogger and house-sitter, but that’s a story for later to tell.
I think a snail just passed me by. Ok, that’s enough, it’s time to go back. I look up, one more time. It is if I just have said some magical words. The weather gods lift up the white veil and there he is. The mainstage actor who eventually decided to turn up for the show. It is breath-taking. And not only literally. I’m just back in my car in time when Ophelia decides it’s time for her appearance.
In loving memory of Corina Kreeft, 07.03.1983-09.03.2020

Solitude In The Crowd

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

83699524_202467037600549_7172693464193171456_n

It’s 5am and as the city sleeps, I’m wide awake. It’s the quietest time I can find for inner reflection and writing down my thoughts. Normally I’d stay in bed and allow my thoughts to endlessly rewrite over each preceding script churning in my mind, but today I jumped out. Today is a morning that needs to be honoured and celebrated. February is a difficult month for many with its short days and unpredictable stormy weather, but for some of us, the storms aren’t restricted only to weather patterns outside. Almost twenty years ago, two policemen knocked on the door of the family home with the news that every parent dreads. The words ‘sorry‘, ‘son‘ and ‘car accident‘ followed by the call to the hospital in a city far from home only to be told, ‘sorry we couldn’t save him,’ have become synonymous with dark February mornings. By a strange coincidence, my cousin lost her long fight with cancer many years later within days of my brother’s anniversary. Each culture and faith has its own way of honouring the dead, but it seems that the more technologically advanced a nation becomes, the greater the fear of death becomes in a dominant worldview where events occur seemingly at random with no purpose. Perhaps it’s this subconscious fear that drives so much hate and prejudice. As nations contemplate building walls and closing borders, nature has had to come and remind us that She can’t be subdued by manly structures. With the rubbish and litter in the streets piling up into a stink around the takeaway restaurants in the streets I live in,  I see a recipe for disaster brewing with all the ingredients on hand for a perfect storm. If a small virus entered here, it’d find the perfect ground to replicate and spread as quickly as the global media frenzy around coronavirus.

I find myself alone with these thoughts around the people I live with, so I keep them to myself. My constantly wayfaring ways came to a halt last summer and never really resumed as I thought they would. I’ve got used to family life again, becoming a stable figure in the lives of the children in the extended family I’ve added myself to. For many years I felt I had no option but to be constantly on the road because my unconventional ways were too triggering and painful for my loved ones. By some miracle, this sore wound has finally healed itself and I find myself being accepted for who I am for the first time. It’s easy to be liked for what you’re not but much harder to be accepted for who you really are, and even rarer to be loved for it. It just takes time I guess and much faith and perseverance. But in my darkest moments I always felt the love of my passed away brother.

At the bottom of my bed is an old tan leather suitcase filled with his things, pages written in his signature handwriting filled with doodles of car designs. Later on today I’ll take it downstairs and show it to the children and remind them of the uncle they never met. Pages upon pages are filled with his designs that were never seen and will forever remain as tokens of his unfulfilled dreams. At my desk hangs a picture of my father in his youth with a handwritten poem written in a language I can barely read. For years I’ve been haunted by the sentiments of unrealised dreams of deceased members of my family. Their silent nods of approval have kept me going when it became hard to face painful separations with living members of my family. But in every trial we gain an extra quality of the Divine we never possessed before. A seed must be pushed deep into the ground broken before it can shoot upwards. An oak seed perhaps doesn’t know it has the potential to become a giant oak tree one day, so how can we ever know what are true potential is?

Time after time I came to your gate                                  with raised hands, asking for more and yet more.      You gave and gave, now in slow measure, now in sudden excess.                                                                          I took some, and some things I let drop; some lay heavy on my hands;                                                        some I made into playthings and broke them when tired; till the wrecks and the hoard of your gifts grew immense;                                                                          hiding you, and the ceaseless expectation                      wore my heart out.                                                                                                                         

Take, oh take-has now become my cry,                              Shatter all from this beggar’s bowl;                                  put out the lamp of the importunate watcher;              hold my hands, raise me from the still gathering heaping of your gifts                                                          into the bare infinity of your uncrowded presence.

”Take, oh Take’ by Tagore                                                                                              

Perhaps it’s because I’m no longer in conflict with my family and enough has time has passed, but I no longer feel the storms of grief I once felt at this time of year. Maybe the real source of my anguish all these years has been the deeply hidden inner knowing that the responsibility of living an authentic life was now mine. Pain travels in families until someone is willing to clear it. Living a life filled with passion and purpose seems to be the only way to rise above the troubles of the world, not becoming immune to it but just knowing that by doing that which I love heals me and the people around me. I find myself being filled with gratitude for all the trials that led me here. I’m thankful that I was able to overcome the painful realisation that the life I had previously built was an illusory one built as weak as a sandcastle washed away without a fight by the tide. Though materially I may not be as successful as I once was, I have confidence that my foundations are firm enough to weather any future storms and from that, I take much comfort. My years of solitude have paid off and I find myself happily singing to my own tune amidst the chants of recants of the crowds around me. But that too is an illusion, we’re never alone. Even when I’m alone in the crowd, I hear and sense the silent footsteps of fellow companions on the path just like snowdrops blooming in January before the flowers of spring.

This is a Divine Feast, and all those present have been invited from pre-eternity when the souls were gathered in the Divine Presence to pledge their eternal worship and loyalty to their Lord. At that time those who were destined to meet in love in this World were gathered near to one another, and it is for this reason that their hearts are drawn together in this world. Whoever is attending has been invited from that day, the Day of Promises, and it is impossible that any of you be late or absent. Now all of us are taking our shares of that Divine Feast. 

Sh. Nazim, ‘Divine Sources.’

In recent months I’ve been gifted with the rare treasure of life-enriching friendships that mirror my struggles of recent years. When I hear them speak, I hear my own words reverberating back to me and I have to take a moment to smile and thank the Beloved in sending me angels disguised as humans to help me settle back into the world. To enjoy solitude in the crowd knowing that I’m always connected to my soul family. My years of feeling alone are slowly coming to an end, and when on occasion feelings of loneliness resurface I only have to place my head in prostration on my prayer mat to elevate my heart and I’m reminded of all the secrets I’ve been blessed to witness. I am human after all, I’m prone to forget all the hidden potential that lies in all of us. The cure to forgetfulness is remembrance and so that’s what I do when facing personal tragedies and those collectively accumulating in the world.

Tradition has it that the sacred Trust by God was bestowed upon mankind after it was refused by the mountains and the heavens because it was a burden they wished not to carry. To be alive today is to be conscious of the responsibility of being gifted with this ability to make lasting change. With so many fires raging in the world today it can feel overwhelming to know how to make a difference, to remember to go inwards and heal our own shadows before moving outwards to heal others. As our capacity to hold our own pain expands only then can we witness and transmute the pain of the world.  As I’ve climbed higher up the mountain of consciousness, the rise in altitude has often made it hard to breathe and so I’ve had to let go of excess baggage in order to set myself free. And when the clouds occasionally part, I allow myself to rest and take in the views and remind myself of how far I’ve come instead of worrying how far I still have left to go. I chase breadcrumbs left by fellow travellers higher up the mountain and sense their presence which buoys my confidence and propels me forward. Sometimes I’ll open my Masnavi as my map to guide me, and on this day it tells me,

“It’s not the time for tears and lamentation; it’s time for joy and much congratulation.” 

Masnavi II 2757

But tears aren’t just for grief, they’re also for moments of joy. Behind grief always lies love. All grief is really unexpressed love waiting to be showered on someone else. Who that other person may be is never really in our hands either, only the Beloved knows best. Happy Valentine’s everyone.

Contemplating in The City

Pont Neuf, Paris
Pont Neuf, Paris.

My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom-freedom from violence and falshood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.”

Chekhov’s Letters

In a few hours, British Summertime will officially end. The hour that was lost in spring will mysteriously reappear after the stroke of midnight. The days will get shorter and mornings will begin shrouded in darkness. For the last few weeks, I’ve been waking up an hour earlier than usual, almost as if to try and turn back to claim more time. Telling my body clock that time is just an illusion does little to help the adjustment. My recent early mornings have begun with the sight of a full moon progressively waning each night directly in my line of vision through the slanted attic window. A sign from the Universe to count progress not in months or years but by cycles and phases.

When I reflect on the last few years much of it was spent waiting for a door to open when knocking on doors that were never meant for me became too exhausting. I took a massive leap into the unknown thinking a net would appear to catch my fall. It did, but only in the form of raw materials. I’ve had to learn to weave my own web like a spider to catch opportunities on the rare occasion that they’ve come.

Patience and perseverance deserve their own reward, so I gifted myself by renting a  small monks room for the summer in the sprawling metropolis that is Istanbul. In my last blog post, I felt the call to leave behind my solitary life secluded in nature to come back into the world. Staying true to my word, my summer began immersed in city life and continues now as the seasons change. For three months, Istanbul became my home as past acquaintances became solidified into deep friendships. It was the perfect ground to practice the dance between my spiritual and material life. When I recall Ramadan in May, I remember a whirlwind month spent with dervishes seamlessly navigating from one fraction of their lives to another. I learned to take down the walls that divided different areas of my life as I felt gratitude that I know now what my purpose is even if the road ahead isn’t clear. The secular and religious divides within me began to blend as I felt a weight lifted off me. I use these words with caution in the knowledge that religion and secularism are heavily loaded words that mean different things to me as a British female than my friends located east on the compass. New friendships from diverse sections of society pushed me out of my comfort zone to reveal parts of myself that I didn’t know existed. I tentatively showed parts of myself that I didn’t dare in other places.

Sulemaniye mosque
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

For years I’ve hidden my intuitive healing abilities. I thought I could channel it into a conventional medical education, yet all my years spent in medical school and dental school did nothing but quash my intuitive abilities under textbook definitions of health and disease. It followed me nonetheless throughout my career that began in the UK and eventually crashed in France. The years that have followed have been heavy with grief. When God gives you a gift and you feel like you have to leave it behind, a deep sense of failure follows your every step. But a true gift never quite goes away, it grows silently waiting for the right time to rebirth itself. Like a growing piece of fruit, it’s best to wait for it to ripen to get the sweetest taste. If you wait too long though, the moment is lost and the fruit gets spoilt. Timing is everything.  Earlier this year, I was given a second chance and I gladly took it. The joy I feel at being reunited with my healer self knows no bounds. It feels like coming home. After nearly two decades of searching, I’ve finally found a healing modality that feels natural and effortless. As a distant healer, my most important job is to maintain high frequencies in a deep state of meditation, in a process that has transformed my life and that of others. I’ve let go of the struggle and fully embraced the unknown areas of unexplained science. I can’t promise miracle cures any more than I can explain the mechanisms of distant healing. But what I can testify to is the joy I’ve witnessed when a person lets go of a weight they’ve been carrying for too long to finally set them free. True healing comes from the empowerment of self- healing, in a gift that keeps on giving. In return, they’ve set me free too by opening up a new world for me now that I’ve let go of the narrow confines of my former profession. To break the rules you have to master them first. But perhaps I’m not really breaking any rules, I just mistook the foundations of my learning as the height of my potential.

It’s not clear which direction my life is heading but I know I have a precious jewel that will serve me and others well, and that it’s only now that I’m able to handle it with love and care. On my weekly hikes up the hill that led up to the Sulemaniye Mosque, I mapped out all the city’s bookshops. Twice in the same week, I came across the story in the Masnavi of the man who hounds Moses (A.S) for gifts he’s not ready to receive. Divine intervention decrees the man be given the gift to hear the language of animals against the wishes of Moses. What begins as a gift turns into a curse as the weight of knowledge is no match for his untrained ego in an abuse of power that eventually leads to his downfall.

To learn the Unseen’s secrets, one is fit,

Only if one can seal one’s lips with it.

Masnavi III, 3388-89

My disappointment at not having succeeded in bridging the gap between conventional medicine and the healing arts has finally begun to dissipate. I’ve come to realise that having knowledge doesn’t mean I have to practice it solely in the way I was conditioned to. Divinely orchestrated meetings with doctors, nurses and therapists have given me a second chance to share and support others to better work with their patients while giving me the satisfaction that I’m still part of the medical community, albeit at the fringes. It’s easy to come out of the closet with strangers but less so with family and friends. A summer of being my authentic self on the streets of Istanbul came to an abrupt end on my return back to the U.K.  An unexpected health crisis of a family member thrust me back into the medical system as I was reminded of the shadow side of modern medicine that measures disease in squares that can be ticked off a sheet. Watching a young child scream in pain after the last of the morphine wears off has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It forced me to admit to my family my true vocation which was almost as painful. I sucked in my breath as each doctor and surgeon passed through the ward, each differing in their diagnosis but all equally dismissive of a patient who was of the opposite gender, much younger and a few shades darker than their caucasian skin.

I felt rage, I felt helpless and then I realised they probably felt it too. Trained professionals taught to heal want to do just that but they’re trapped in a system that’s woefully lagging behind rapidly evolving consciousness. We aren’t taught that food chosen by emotions can negatively impact our organs, that the human body wasn’t designed to live off artificial chemicals or chronically stressful situations, that there is an electromagnetic field around our cells that fires off signals before the cells themselves change. Treating disease purely at a biochemical and cellular level is a dying trade that’s starting to look at bit shaky with its exposed foundations. To say that surgery and pills are the only solution is a gross disservice to all those needlessly suffering at the hands of a system of experts holding all the power when conventional methods fail to work. It’s only inevitable that the growing weight of practitioners hiding in the closet will reveal themselves and dare to speak their truth. I long for that day to come, but change takes time. Symptoms of disease are quick to be shot down by medication and surgery before finding the root cause. It’s also incredibly difficult to witness the suffering of another without the skills required to give comfort. But the wheel of fortune is always changing, I see beautiful things happening when diagnostics and technological advances marry with instinct and intuition.

I see an invisible central thread moving through the causes of disease, war and the environmental crisis. Passing through the streets of upmarket Istanbul, women in black robes frequenting designer boutiques looked no different from the veiled women standing in a queue outside the Syrian consulate. Designer handbags in one pair of hands, refugee papers in another. Just as I was once the wealthy professional trying not to notice the growing number of refugee tents along the river Seine near Gare d’Austerlitz on my way to work. As the world slowly moves away from a fossil-fuel based economy I wonder where the future fortunes of the world lie when the narrative of the scarcity of resources inevitably changes to the harms of monopolisation and overconsumption in a game of power, poverty and inequality. In the same way the planet has been artificially divided and separated, so has the human body. When one organ is separated and treated at the detriment at the rest of the body, it’s accepted as casually as the innocent loss of life in avoidable conflicts. Yet we all suffer, only some are more aware of it than others. 

A student once went to his beloved teacher and said, ”Master, I have this bag of nuts, could you distribute it among the students?”

The teacher took the bag and asked, ”Should I distribute them according to God’s laws or according to our human laws?”

”According to God’s laws,” the student answered.

So the teacher took a handful of nuts out of the bag. To some students he gave two nuts, to others five nuts, and yet others ten nuts. The student looked at him in astonishment and the teacher smiled and asked, ”Should I distribute them according to human laws?” 

The student nodded, the nuts were collected, and every student was given the same amount.

Nasruddin folktale

The etymology of ‘crisis‘ denotes a “turning point in the decisive point in the progress of a disease” or ”that change which indicates recovery or death” as described by Hippocrates. With only a few letters separating his name from the word ‘hypocrisy‘, I wait for the tides to turn from the sin of pretending to virtue to genuine Hippocratic healing that chooses harmony over chaos. As a woman, I eagerly await the recognition of the ‘mothers‘ of future medicine to take their equal place on the mantle.

I came full circle this summer by ending it in Paris. Three summers ago, I left the city unable to reconcile the differences within me. I briefly returned earlier this year as the writer I always wanted to be and the medical intuitive I was always meant to be. It’s so much easier to be in the world without masking my true self. While my writing career is still very much in the beginning stages, I take heart in the helping hands that bear gifts as I progress in my creative journey. A book of short stories by Chekhov purchased in a seaside charity shop exactly a year earlier. A signed bookmark a year before that by one of my favourite Kashmiri writers with words of encouragement to keep going. And a poem inscribed at the back of a handpainted frame given on my final birthday celebrated with my Parisian friends,

“Trust in your dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.”

Khalil Gibran

As the world becomes more chaotic, my solace lies in the infinite ability to transform grief and sorrow into freedom and joy, one person at a time. Tomorrow marks the new moon of Diwali, celebrating the inevitability of light after darkness. Fireworks will light the skies all over the world, but perhaps not in the Kashmir Valley. Throughout the joys and sorrows of this summer, I constantly reflected on the dilemma of Prince Arjuna and the counsels of Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.

 “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.”

6:32

I’ve come to terms with taking imperfect action over inaction when required. Other times I need to stay silent and take a step back. To learn to keep joy and sorrow both equally in the palm of my hand. Now that I’m back in the world, I’m sure there’ll be ample opportunity to practice. For now, I’m ready to hibernate back into obscurity now that the clouds of ill health casting their shadow on family life have finally parted to reveal a pot of gold at the end of a glorious double-arched rainbow. Health really is wealth. On my wall is a postcard copy of Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Turtle Trainer that followed me everywhere I went this summer. It reminds me to have patience with a world slow to change and heal, but change it will. It took me long enough.

thumbnail_IMG_0157

 

Being in The World, But Not Of It

 

E7ECB9D8-77E7-4F48-A402-0F6A78B324F1

 

The first blush of white blossoms of spring on the pear tree in the garden have come and gone. The same pear tree from my previous post A Tree In Four Seasons has proven resilient in the face of a mysterious infestation, being uprooted and close to death. It will take time for its branches to grow again and provide a sanctuary for the soft-bellied blue tits and house sparrows I so love. The tree bark once covered in spores has now recovered and grown thicker than before. Somehow in the changing seasons, the cycles of destruction and reconstruction have come and gone, moving swiftly to another target in need of help.

It’s the small triumphs of nature that give me hope that human nature can find its way back to vitality against the odds. Regardless of what colour skin we possess, participation in the toughest school in the Universe that is planet Earth in 2019 requires a thick skin and the stomach for a steep learning curve. In a healthy functioning body, the skin is designed to keep out harmful organisms but open enough to release toxins. But in a world overflowing with the rapid release of centuries worth of suppressed emotions, it’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed with the release of so much toxicity.

If I could choose which type of plant I could be, I’d probably choose to be a succulent. With thicker skin perhaps I’d be able to thrive better in harsh conditions, without getting washed away with each wave of polarisation. Though I’ve loved my long spells in nature, it’s left me feeling ill-equipped each time I venture back into society. I spent the New Year in the New Forest, one of Europe’s most ancient woodlands. Accompanied by my Rhodesian Ridgeback canine buddy, I walked for miles many a time without a soul in sight. Where solitude was once a struggle for me, I now struggle with being in the world.

 

FAD701D4-FB47-4A36-A2EA-33CAB3B493EE

 

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” 
And he replied: 
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” 
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East. 

‘Gate of The Year’, Minnie L. Haskins

After a month without much WiFi or phone signal, I was ready to come back into a civilisation that struggles to remain civil. Since walking away three years ago from structural systems that I once depended on, I’ve been left unsure of my place in the world and what my role is. Following my bliss has to be balanced with an ability to navigate my way around society just enough to ensure my needs are met without being pulled into my old ways of life and the thoughts that accompanied them. It’s so easy to get distracted by my fears and doubts sometimes that I forget why I left it all behind in the first place.

Someone said; “There is something I have forgotten.”

Rumi replied; There is one thing in this world that must never be forgotten. If you were to forget all else, but did not forget that, then you would have no reason to worry. But if you performed and remembered everything else, yet forgot that one thing, then you would have done nothing whatsoever.

It is just as if a king sent you to a country to carry out a specific task. If you go and accomplish a hundred other tasks, but do not perform that particular task, then it is as if you performed nothing at all. So, everyone comes into this world for a particular task, and that is their purpose. If they do not perform it, then they will have done nothing.  

Discourse 4, Fihi Ma Fihi

My sense of self-worth has had to learn to disconnect from material wealth and outwardly signs of success.  I’ve had to let go of external validation of my inner knowing, just because it can’t be seen doesn’t mean it’s not real. But I’m only human and each time I evolve to a greater sense of peace, I’m met with the twin experience of my shadows. So it is with the world, as more souls awaken and light up the world with their unique gifts, the more the shadows will come up.

My anxiety that I don’t have thick enough skin is still rooted in seeing my sensitivity as a weakness. It’s the masculine side of me telling me to toughen it out, but then the feminine side of me turns this perceived weakness into a tool of power. It takes a lot of discipline to remind myself to physically move my body when my mind becomes busy, with so many events in the world demanding my attention. My sensitivity has become the fuel for sacred body practices across traditions. By following the daily cycle of the rising and setting of the sun, it’s helped me stay committed to the choices I’ve made and the path I’ve chosen when my shadows make an appearance. Something magical happens when I train my body to move in a certain way following the rhythms of nature. With my head on the ground, my heart is elevated above my mind and back in charge. I know when my masculine energies have become imbalanced with my feminine essence when my womb begins to violently contract and forces me to switch from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ mode.

I’m becoming more attuned to my body working in rhythm with the moon cycle, just as the gravitational pull creates the dance of rising and falling tides. Women take in the energy of the world into their womb whether they know it or not. Ancient feminine wisdom asks us to transform this energy from a space which can hold new life, creating new worlds imagined with blueprints sent out through the energy of the heart.

Each day brings a daily round of insults to our nervous systems with images repeated in our mind’s eye that cannot be erased and flow into our bloodstream and seep into our muscles. Those who are wise and able enough will turn that poison into food to nurture an emerging world. Many others sadly become poisoned and the whole vicious cycle is repeated.  The human hand is designed to grip all that we need to survive, to lend a helping hand, to comfort, to touch and soothe. Freewill also means the hand of the Divine will not stop determined hands from pulling the trigger of a machine designed by men to destroy and create chaos. Joy and grief, all lie in our hands.

These were some of my thoughts as I followed the actions of over a million school children stand for climate change, yet the actions of one man in New Zealand overshadowed all their efforts. As if echoing their voices, Cyclone Idai came out in full force in response to so many collective injustices that are killing our world. The children of tomorrow seem to know this while many of our elders feign deaf and blindness while still expecting sympathy. If we lived in a just world, those committing the crimes would be the ones to feel the force of their actions, but this is exactly the simplistic thinking that keeps our world small. I have to remind myself that ultimately, we all suffer. Empaths and those sensitive enough to hold opposing viewpoints equally feel the pain of the victims and the perpetrators.

A Sufi is not a Sufi until he takes it upon himself the whole of creation as a family charge.

Sheikh Shibli

The shadows of humanity have decided to come out en masse, yet just like the teenagers demanding justice for assaults to the environment, the world is becoming united in collective grief. For all those who have been praying for world peace are starting to see their prayers heard. Peace however cannot come until the pain is witnessed, so that it may be transformed and healed. It would be a disservice for all those who have suffered in silence carrying the wounds of those who came before them, not to have their hurts acknowledged. In an imperfect world, I wonder if the cycle of hurt will ever end.

It sometimes feels like we’re tangled in a messy net of global grief, with all of us at different stages for different reasons. Denial can quickly jump to depression and fired up again into anger before bargaining is exhausted into acceptance. Individual grief adds a separate dimension, but as I recently experienced, personal grief can transform itself in the presence of world events.

 As long as one is completely absorbed in his own grief, arising from the death of a dear one, there is no way of gaining victory over pain or release from the numbing bitterness of loss. He may gradually forget, as most people do, but that is to accept the numbness rather than fully to adjust to reality. If, one can identify in feeling with the experience of others who similarly suffer, he will be freed from his own grief by and in a compassionate oneness with all living beings.

This oneness instrinsically brings an enduring peace and joy that are superior to grief-superior because they spring not from hopelessly trying to evade its causes or stoically steeling the mind to its impact, but through overcoming the evil to oneself by the good of a deep and fully satisfying love for others. 

Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha

I recently lost my first meditation teacher who was the first to introduce me to the teachings of Buddha. Lonely and dealing with loss many years ago in a small coastal city in the North of England, I was struggling with the weight of belief systems that perpetuated my suffering. She came into my life like a beacon of hope. Last month I stood in a woodland together with all her former students at her funeral where a silver birch tree now marks her grave. All my unexpressed love towards her welled up in my eyes and wet the earth that now held her. The mark of a good teacher is one that is not attached to the path their student takes, with the wisdom to know that all paths lead to the same Summit. Our deep bond transcended race, faith, and age without invalidating the differences between us and the unique challenges that arose from them.

In the same city where my grandparents had first arrived in England from the hills of Kashmir, I had unwittingly recreated the religious pluralism that had existed for so many centuries in the land of my ancestors. My taste for vipassana led to a deep immersion into the meditative practices of Mahayana Buddhism following the path of Sufi mystics long before Post-Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. I’ve been blessed to meet many teachers from various traditions, but you never forget your first spiritual teacher. The blossoms from trees owe their existence to the seeds they first planted.

“The wise saying is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.”

Hadith of Knowledge

I feel grateful to have met a genuine teacher at a time when so many of my friends are coming to terms with the abuse of power by teachers they trusted and who I once knew. I’ve vicariously experienced the ensuing fallout in the community we once lived and worked in, one that I walked away from a few years ago. Always an outsider, my words from years ago have been remembered and excavated by friends who now see things differently. It’s been a harsh reminder of the dangers of a concentration of power in the hands of a few. Though validating, it’s been painful nonetheless to witness their varying stances from denial to anger and confusion.

It’s brought back personal memories of being ignored about issues that were only a concern for a few. But a few eventually become many and the truth can no longer be ignored. For as long as those in positions of power only surround themselves with those similar to them, they unwittingly create grassroots uprisings where the power is taken back and the balances readdressed. Brave are those who return to dismantle the power structures from the ground up.

Three years ago I began a cycle of deconstruction in my own life, naively thinking this cycle wouldn’t last so long. Each time I’ve prematurely attempted to reconstruct my life, I’ve faced obstacle after obstacle, the timing has never been right. So I wait patiently on the peripheries of society waiting for the green light to come back into the world with both feet forward. Only this time, I refuse to make myself small enough to fit into existing structures. Either they’ll have to fall first or make space for all parts of me or none at all. It’s not thicker skin that I need but greater acceptance of myself just as I am. Until then, I’ll keep working on my breath and body to make space for the world around me, all parts of it.

A Pilgrim’s Pit Stop in Santiago de Compostela

pic santiago

As late autumns-cum-winters go, it feels mild to me in Santiago de Compostela, except for when the damp air feels heavier than the overcast skies above. In my wafer thin mac and Kashmiri shawl wrapped around my neck, I stand somewhere between the pilgrims in their trekking shorts and thermal tops and the local Galicians with their heavily padded coats and woolly hats. Occasionally, in this corner of Northern Spain, the dark clouds in the final spell of autumn disperse long enough to reveal a sky blue enough to light up the terracotta tiled roofs with their satellite dishes that dominate my view from the apartment window.

Sometimes on a clear day, from the kitchen window I can see the peak of the ‘Sacred Mountain’ El Pico Sacro . It welcomes the pilgrims walking the camino as they enter the city to pay homage to the remains of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral. There are various testimonies of how his body landed in the Iberian penninsula from Jerusalem. Until the middle ages, Santiago was a centre of pilgrimage, third only to the Holy Land and Rome.

These days, the camino attracts people from all walks of life and from all directions. But I didn’t arrive in Santiago with the pilgrims, not unless you count my 2-mile, thrice-weekly walks to a local osteopath’s clinic. My short walk into the camino was guided by arrows with their yellow-scalloped shell on a bright blue background set into stone pillars and signposts. In place of nordic walking sticks, I used the metal point of my umbrella in its dual use as an aid to my uneasy gait and the constant threat of rain.

And yet, though I haven’t walked the camino, I’m still a pilgrim in my only little way. I keep trodding on with my small carrier suitcase appropriately embellished with a tortoise badge.  When my legs get tired, I rely on budget flights and trains caught at times free from the constraints of a 9-5 life. But the only catch is that I have had to become my own tour guide with no map or guarantee of staying in a destination long enough to call home. And oh how I’ve tried, but the Universe decrees otherwise. It’s difficult to explain to others why I’ve embraced such an uncertain life despite my own fears and insecurities, so I’ve stopped trying. The honest answer is that my body is my guide, not that I always follow its advice. It tells me which direction to go in but it’s not the best of communicators, or maybe I’m not the best listener.

I’m not sure with what intention I came to Santiago, but somehow my body knew. Suffering reveals itself in many different ways, and for one dear Buddhist friend, my body was crying out for healing and she was the only one attentive enough to hear its call. Still, it took me over two years to accept her invitation for healing that bypassed the mind and went straight to the body. So here I am, my mind rebelling the whole time while her team of osteopaths, therapists and body specialists have stretched and reconnected the schisms of separation from long ago.  Doctors, surgeons and physiotherapists may have mechanically cut and forced my legs into the textbook standard of ‘normal‘ but nobody thought to consult or educate the rest of my body. Until now that is. In two weeks, two decades worth of tension locked in a body forced into assimilation and compressed like a spring, uncoiled itself reluctantly.

A torrent of emotions unleashed themselves as memories buried deep in the folds of my muscles resurfaced. Sleepless nights from angry protestors on the streets of Santiago, drunken revellers leaving the bars at 5am and screeching police sirens smashed apart my naive expectation that a place of pilgrimage could be a place of peace. The only moments of grace have come with the sound of rain, the only thing Spaniards hate more than early nights.

I was reminded that sometimes it takes a state of near delirium to reduce our minds into dysfunction and let the body take over the controls from auto-pilot. I wondered if pilgrims walking the camino had the same experience of having their body pushed to the limit in order to cast out their demons. So I walked the cobbled streets of the Old Town continuously in a bit of daze going round and round the same streets with no real purpose or anything to do. Occasionally I would cross paths with a padre or a group of nuns. I came close to seeking refuge in one of Santiago’s many monasteries, but my inner guide shook her head and made it clear that now was not the time to hide and return to my comfort zone.

Struggling with a wall of rigid stances I’ve erected as protection, I have felt the first signs of that wall crumbling. My ambivalence towards motherhood and feminine values have begun to change. I sense the walls built by women in my mothers and grandmothers generation have fortified my own barriers, my inheritance of protection against a harsh world. I often think of all the refugees I’ve met over the last year and wonder if one lifetime is long enough to heal the wounds they’ve acquired in such quick succession. I wonder if their children and grandchildren will be the ones to finally liberate muscle memory with the benefit of time and distance.

Having had a lifelong struggle with the muscles and ligaments in my legs, I often feel trapped by my own body and frustrated by its limitations. In an often recited story in Sufi circles spanning across various traditions, it is said that God made a statue of clay in His image and asked the soul to enter it. The soul refused to give up its freedom in order to enter the prison of a mound of clay. So the angels played Divine music and intoxicated the soul which eventually drifted into the body of clay. Human beings have been searching for freedom ever since.

Yet after two weeks of intense work on my body, I feel lighter, more open and at ease. I’ve learned to uncurl my spine and walk with my head and body aligned. By simply raising my ears and tipping my nose a fraction, my chest is less constrained by my ribcage and I finally have room to breathe again. My heels still don’t touch the ground but that’s ok, I’d still rather be closer to heaven than earth. Maybe in time that will change. As I adjust to my new body I’ve begun to think of possibilities I’ve never envisaged before.

My shoes with their freshly fitted new soles replaced by a local Spanish shoemaker are itching to go to unchartered territories. Mecca and Medina have been calling me for a while but now Jerusalem has added her voice. It began with a soft whisper but now I hear her loud cries. I feel her pain, but I reply that I feel helpless in healing her centuries long heartache. Men have fought over her, tried to possess her body with force, yet none have been able to conquer her infallible spirit. I wait with baited breath for the #MeToo movement to shift its focus to the oppressive domination by patriarchy of many of the worlds sacred sites. Yet men and women with healed hearts and peaceful spirits still go. They walk in the footsteps of Sufi saints like Al-Hallaj who is said to have walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and lit up four hundred oil lamps with his finger.

In need of bit of Divine illumination, I tried hard to connect with the spiritual energy of Santiago but I really struggled. The closest I got to eliciting a reaction was during Sunday mass at the Cathedral. Black cloaked musicians blowing into oboes and trombones preceeded the swinging of the incense-burner, a brass gilded botafumerie, smoking with frankincense all the way up to the ceiling vaults. I wish I could have stuck my head under it. A centuries-old tradition it held a practical purpose in that the antiseptic properties of this ancient incense purified the pilgrims and the air around them. Frankincense is also known for its healing properties as a powerful cleanser of the aura and psychic planes.

Yet psychically, like the ash of incense, I sensed a residual antipathy towards the Muslim Moors in this  North-Western region of Spain. This is not surprising when stories are repeated and retold of Muslim conquerors who destroyed the early church above the relics of St. James, the gates and bells taken to be added to a mosque in Andalucia later reclaimed by a Christian King during the Reconquista. A lasting symbol of the power struggles between Christian and Islamic leaders, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is said to have the captured bells from Santiago de Compostela, now hanging in the bell tower that was once a minaret. For most of modern Spain, it seems that the peaceful co-existence of the Abrahamic faiths in Andalucia in times past is as believable as Franco’s realisation of Spain as a homogenous, monolithic body devoid of any cultural diversity.

Yet for young Muslims like myself caught up between cultures and growing up in a postcolonial era, the historical spirit of co-existence in Southern Spain is kept alive by hopeful hearts willing for peace and reconciliation. In an age of intolerance, it takes a huge amount of willpower and faith to separate spiritual truths from religious interpretations through the lens of political empires. Perhaps the advantage of the rise of individualism is that separation becomes easier, and we can judge for ourselves what rings true.

Near the pulpit of Cathedral de Santiago, stands a statue of Mother Mary dressed in a flowing gown as blue as a turquoise sea. I watched women crowd at her feet before lighting a candle. I thought back to my aunt’s recent experience in Jerusalem.  Walking the streets of Via Dolorosa, she’d watched mostly older women carrying wooden crosses, following in the footsteps of Jesus (AS). I found it symbolic of the many women I know silently working as healers unseen and unheard while they carry invisible burdens before sending them back to the light.

Almost inconspicuously, I have witnessed a flickering of curiosity that has genuinely grown into a flame of love. Side by side with my love of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), my heart expands with Christ the healer (AS) raising the consciousness of humanity with unconditional love. Equally, the women that carried them in their wombs have carved a place for themselves in the chambers of my heart.

Though my perception of Mother Mary and Jesus (AS) do not match the perceptions of Western artists and sculptors, I wonder how differently they were depicted centuries ago. It is said that upon returning to Mecca and entering the Ka’ba, the Prophet  Mohammed (pbuh) ordered all icons to be removed. Except one. An icon of Mother Mary (AS) and Jesus (AS) was singled out and saved. Yet beyond the physical borders in our polarised world, the greatest frontier lies in our heart. I think of Ibn Arabi’s heart that was expanded enough to be imprinted with visions of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (peace and blessings upon them all.)

I thought of this as I celebrated the birth of the Prophet (pbuh) in solitude as I watched the annual Christmas lights brought out by the city men to light up the streets of Santiago. I thought of the symbolic sash of chivalry passed down from Abraham (AS) and Jesus (AS) before being handed to the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) by the Christian monk Bahirah. Stories of Jesus (AS) healing the blind and the leper in the Quran have an altogether different meaning when seen through the eyes of the heart. When hearts are blind, they are veiled from the beauty and healing potential of Divine light. Spiritual leprosy is harder to detect, it disfigures souls and spreads disorder undetected while humanity falsely points its finger at the physically disfigured.

Surely the death of ignorance can allow us to come back to life with the breath of knowledge. Perhaps miracles still exist. It is the month of Hanukkah afterall.

 

 

 

 

A Pilgrim Between East & West

east&west

“Come, come whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair, come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet come again, come, come.”

 

In Sufi lore, there is a cosmic mountain, Mount Qaf. It is said to mark the boundary between the unseen world and the visible. Beyond it, lie the furthest cities to the East and West, the mythical cities of Jabalqa and Jabarsa. It is in the quest for this legendary mountain that from thousands of birds, only thirty manage to complete the pilgrimage to meet the great Simurgh. But then there’s a twist, and I won’t spoil it for you. Not that I’ve managed to complete a single reading of ‘The Conference of The Birds.’ It’s been five years since I discovered it while on silent retreat at a Buddhist meditation centre.  It took another two years, in a different Buddhist monastery (this time Zen) to actually begin reading this epic allegory penned over 800 years ago. When the Buddhist nuns discovered my religious origins, they told me of a visiting Muslim dervish from Malaysia who had been sent by his Sufi teacher to study with the Buddhist monks. The signs were clear. It was time to return and seek the hidden treasures in my own faith tradition.

For the soul of every bird that reaches mount Qaf                                                                    Confers glory on the whole family of birds

Masnavi IV

In Attar’s allegory, the birds pass through seven valleys, each one representing the spiritual stages in the ascension process towards union with God. Firmly rooted in the first valley of ‘seeking’, I decided to do what all seekers do and go on pilgrimage. At this very moment in time, millions of pilgrims are circumambulating around the Ka’ba in Mecca, as we slowly approach the final days of Hajj.

But I didn’t go to Mecca.  Instead, I aimed closer to home and set my compass to the Ka’ba of lovers, the mausoleum of Maulana Rumi in Konya, Turkey. Arriving in Istanbul, nobody bothered checking my tourist visa. It only reinforced the sacredness of my journey. Making my way into the city, I began my pilgrimage in the same place as where I ended it ten days later, on a park bench in the square between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet.

IMG_8105

It took a while to find the right bench with the exact backdrop of located palm trees and towering minarets. The same bench on which my father had sat on only a year earlier, a few months before his passing. The orange marigolds from last summer have since changed into yellow petalled floral displays, but they still draw nourishment from the same soil and light and adoring onlookers.

 

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

Blake

Taking the scarf around my neck and wrapping it around my head, I separated myself from the crowds of sighing tourists by simply uttering the magic word ‘namaaz’. The security guards waved me in for after-hours entry. It wasn’t my first visit to the Blue Mosque. I’d been once before many years ago and remember begrudgingly offering prayers to appease a family member. This time, however, there was no compulsion in my worship. I’d come alone, on my own terms for no other reason than love alone.

I relished in the fact that as a woman, I could enter any mosque of my choosing throughout Istanbul, often entering through the same entrance as the men. As a lover of the Divine, history, and art, it was a heavenly mixture that grounded me in the face of the modern challenges in Turkey. In a city where East meets West, I felt whole. There are few places left in this world that can hold the weight of the different threads that make up my identity. I felt equally at home when walking through crowds of trendy hipsters in downtown Istanbul and the veiled women exercising their right to religious freedom. But appearances can be deceptive. The most confident women I saw were those treading both worlds, proving that it can be done.

Up until now, my experience of visiting mosques in the U.K has always been a disappointment. Devoid of the feminine dimensions of beauty, compassion, receptivity and awe, I am always left feeling energetically drained. Like the priests in black gowns walking their rounds, I can barely listen to a few words of the religious leaders in my community without my stomach wanting to churn. Yet, in Istanbul, something magical happened. Struggling with the heaviness of the grief that comes with the loss of a parent, I was passing Sirkeci station when I heard the call to evening prayers. In need of Divine healing, I answered the call. Standing shoulder to shoulder with random worshippers and the street cats, the imam recited my go-to verses when in times of strife,

“Did We not expand for you, your chest? And We removed from you your burden. Which had weighed upon your back. And raised high for you your repute. For indeed, with hardship (will be) ease. Indeed, with hardship (will be) ease. So when you have finished (your duties), then stand up (for worship). And to your Lord, direct your longing.”

Surah Ash-Shahr

Elevated by the imam’s recitation, I could have kissed the kaleidoscope of colours lining the inside dome and walls. The beauty of being in a foreign country is that you don’t understand the proceeding sermons, leaving just the soft melodious rhythms of an ancient sacred language still ringing in your ears.

Walking back onto the main road feeling lighter and happier, I was met by the sea breeze of the Bosphorus holding me in its embrace. It was pulling in the direction of the East, urging me to cross to the Asian side of Istanbul. Thus my itinerary for the following day was set. Hand in hand with google maps as my faithful companion, I was ferried to the Asian district of Beykoz.  There on the highest point of the Bosphorus, lies the tomb of Prophet Yusha/Joshua (pbuh), the succeeding Prophet after Moses (pbuh). Confusingly, there are two other sites claimed to be his, one in Jordan and the other in Iraq. Though it has to be said that his 17m long tomb is one of the longest I’ve seen and symbolises his reverence by Muslim, Christian and Jewish pilgrims alike. And being ‘Catstantinople‘ a tomcat gingerly slept at the head of the grave among fragrant white flowers, taking its place of honour among the towering humans.

Prophet Yusha

The one advantage animals have over humans is their magnetism to sacred sites of the past without a discriminating eye to which religion they belong. As we look back at the past, we are forced to hold together the beauty of sacred buildings together with the violent chaos witnessed by the eyes of walls, as each civilisation came and went at the beckoning of stronger conquering forces.

“The great kings of the world very often have been pulled down from their thrones  by those who for years bowed and bent and trembled at their command, but the Christ-like souls who have washed the feet of the disciples are still held in esteem, and will be honoured and loved by humanity forever.” 

Hazrat Inayat Khan

 

A serendipitous visit to Ravenna in Northern Italy only a few weeks earlier, had preempted my timeline to the past from Roman to Byzantine, to Seljuk and Ottoman. In the glowing heat of mid-June, I had walked the sandy coloured streets of Ravenna that witnessed the transition from a vanquishing Roman stronghold to the beginnings of a Byzantine dominion.  Their lavishly mosaiced churches formed the model for those still standing today in Istanbul, like the Hagia Sophia which was modelled on the Basilica San Vitale.

On the walls of the Basicilca are small squares of gold trapped between two pieces of glass forming a sea of gold behind idealised figures of Christ. I recalled the words of a Lebanese art historian at a lecture I recently attended. The two-dimensional images were an attempt by the Byzantine artists to bring the transcendental into the physical while retaining their otherworldly quality. In contrast, the geometry of the late Neoplatonic tradition and early Islamic civilisations were neither physical nor spiritual, rather somewhere in between the two. The patterns and formations allow the imagination to roam freely, its universal appeal taking any onlooker into a dream-like state of revelry.

As the mosaics made their way to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, it is said that Muslims and Jews were tolerated by the Byzantine leaders but Christian heretics were not. The past is not easy to eradicate and the Christian gnostics with their inherited elements of Greek traditions were prime targets for persecution and book burning. Sufi saints in the Islamic empires have often not fared better. Tales of battling with the orthodoxy is a common narrative. Religious exclusivism is not an easy beast to fight. It has dominated much of our recordings of human culture in its threats against pluralism and tolerance. In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that hidden texts called termas were buried for safekeeping in the knowledge that they would one day be rediscovered at a time when humanity was ready to understand their message. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, has brought us back into contact with the Gnostic texts after a gap of centuries. But will it bring us closer by reigniting the divine spark in all of us?

My summer of pilgrimage would not have been complete without paying homage to the great poets of the middle ages, one from the West, the other from the East. Though the city of Florence still lays claim to its most famous poet, Dante is in fact buried in the city of Ravenna among the jewelled Byzantine churches. Standing in the simple marble interior of his tomb, my love of literature and religion traversed paths.

From the ceiling hangs a lamp perenially burning oil from the Tuscan hills, a posthumous peace offering from the city of Florence that banished him for his scathing criticisms of its leaders. I sometimes wonder if the spirit of la convivinzia of Southern Italy and Andalucia had made its way to Florence, Dante would have still laid the charge of schismatic on the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Taking his secrets to the grave, whispers of furtive borrowings from the Islamic tradition grow louder to haunt the legacy of Dante. Perhaps now is the time to rebuild bridges that were burnt long ago, in spite of the insidious forces that still persist today.

Though my beliefs differ from that of a 15thC Italian poet, I share his passion for l’amor divino and the beauty of words strung together to create a literary masterpieceWe each have our personal definitions of heaven and hell, and my idea of heaven would be to be in a room full of the very same figures banished in Dante’s inferno. One person’s hell is another person’s heaven. What Virgil meant to Dante, Maulana Rumi means to me and beyond. Though Dante’s love for Virgil was compromised by his intensely religious views at odds with the Roman poet’s belief in “false and lying Gods,’’ my love for Maulana is unconditional and unbound by the limitations of reason.

O light and honour of all other poets,                             

may my long study and the intense love                               

that made me search your volume serve me now

Divine Comedy (Inf. 1.82-84)                                                                      

 

My spiritual heritage includes poets, saints, prophets and philosophers who in their all-consuming love for the Divine, insisted that the cup of love floweth onwards to all creeds and cultures. What greater lover of the Divine could there be than Maulana Jalal al-Din Balkhi, known more commonly to you and me as Rumi. With the imprints of the streets of Ravenna and Istanbul marked on the soles of my sandals, I continued onward to Konya in central Turkey.

IMG_7789

I reunited with familiar faces in a gathering of fellow seekers who have accompanied me on my spiritual journey for the last few years. But my heart always has room for more lovers of God, and I was overwhelmed with joy to be in the company of so many kindred spirits. It quickly became part of my afternoon routine to visit the green towered mausoleum of Maulana Rumi and take in the scent of rose water escaping from a treasure box bathing a strand of Prophet Mohammed’s (pbuh) beard.

On a signpost in the rose garden outside Maulana’s tomb, one sign pointed South-East to Syria. Only 616km in distance but a million light years away from the peace and love I felt in Konya. The most peaceful part of Konya was without a doubt at the tomb of Shams-i-Tabrizi. Though the identity of the encased remains remain under doubt, as one local dervish remarked, the tiny mosque holds the energy of those who love him still. Few of the manic crowds of tourists venture out here. Sitting on the bench outside the mosque, I observed devoted lovers for whom Maulana Rumi came as a pair inseparable even in death from his spiritual counterpart that was Shams, the sun that set his heart aflame. Without Shams, we would not have the Rumi we know today. The meeting of these two rivers has allowed us to drink deeply from the well of the Divine.

Meeting two rivers
The exact spot where Shams & Maulana met, ‘The Union of Two Seas.’

Following the rhythms of the Sun, my evenings were brought to life with ecstatic zikr ceremonies with local dervishes whirling, chanting and drumming with vigour to collectively awaken the Divine light within us all. Just as the Earth circles the Sun, and the Moon circles the Earth, harmony is maintained as we gravitate towards the orbits of our natural pathway.

Neither does it lie in the sun’s power to overtake the moon nor can the night outstrip the day. All glide along, each in its own orbit

Surah Ya-Sin, 36:40

The fear of darkness loses its hold in the light of day. Even in the cover of night, the memory of light is kept alive in the hearts of lovers, just as the Moon holds the light of the Sun in the night sky.

IMG_7840

Images of Ka’ba’s floating in the hearts of the dervishes tapped gently on my rusty heart. Tradition has it that seekers and saints would direct their caravans first to Konya to seek the blessings and benedictions of Maulana Rumi before making the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. The only other green domed mausoleum in the world is that of the “Master of the two realms”, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).  I hear Medina calling. In a mere six hours, I could theoretically fly from London to Jeddah with all the other white-robed pilgrims. But I’m old fashioned, I prefer to take the longer road to Mecca. My solo spiritual exploration of the East has only begun. It’s not Airmiles that I’m looking to collect, but parts of my soul that I’m seeking to reclaim. And it can only happen in certain places, perhaps only then will I feel complete. Then I can visit Mecca.

IMG_7792

“This place is the Ka’ba of lovers; he who comes here lacking is made complete.”

(Inscription at tomb entrance, Konya)

For the last few weeks, my caravan has been stationed at an English market town. On my daily walk to the local woods, I find myself reflecting and reminiscing on my summer of pilgrimage. Last week, I came upon a small stripey blue feather shed from a Bluejay bird. In indigenous cultures, blue feathers are messengers of peace. As the gap narrows between my Eastern heritage and acquired Western identity, I took it as a sign of encouragement from the Universe. I’ve put the Bluejay feather with the electric blue feather I found near the family burial ground in Kashmir last winter. The search engines tell me that it’s a feather from the Indian Roller, a magnificently colourful bird with large wings. Bluejays, the Indian Roller bird and the Hoopoe. These birds have been guiding my steps into the unknown. One day when I’m ready, maybe they’ll guide me from the valley of seeking to the next valley that awaits me. The valley of love.

IMG_8120

Building Bridges Over Troubled Waters

80

 

In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges, the foolish build dams.

African Proverb

I’ve been looking at my passport with greater attention lately. It worries me that much of my privileged existence is tied up in a pocket-sized book sealed with the stamp of approval by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. The much sought-after British passport. To acquire this privilege, I did nothing other than to come into this world in a hospital in an industrial city in the heart of England. The hospital no longer exists, but I still have my passport.

The golden coat of arms of the English royal family printed on the front has somewhat faded from frequent bouts of wanderlust and the thumbprints of strangers. Like the Border Control Officer in the port of Calais just a few weeks ago. Taking in my physical appearance, I’m sure he noted to himself that my face was not so different from the refugees trying to escape. Sitting comfortably in a rented car with friends, we drove effortlessly into a waiting ferry. It carried us back to the white cliffs of Dover across the English channel, a mere 25-mile stretch from the French coast.

We left behind towering security fences topped with razor wires. On the other side, thousands of refugees remain trapped between the homes they fled and a searing rejection in the lands they chose to seek refuge. In a mere five days, my life was shifted by those resilient to all that life threw at them and the people who buoyed their hopes in troubled times. Determined to join forces, me and my friends came together to offer a lending hand. From six different faith traditions, we went with one common cause. We pooled our resources to work with grassroots organisations taking the place of the Welfare State. We slipped into their cohort of an Anglo-French band of brothers and sisters, to offer hospitality to guests lost in the land of strangers.

On our arrival at Calais, the air around me felt heavy and burdensome as if trudging through thick mud. We drove a short distance to the charity warehouse hidden away in a desolate industrial estate. Straight away we joined in the hub of activity brimming with life. With two daily meals needing to be prepared every day for refugees scattered around Calais and Dunkirk, we chopped through endless boxes of vegetables whilst making sure the bread baskets were never empty.

On other days, we sorted through clothes to help insulate our guests from distant lands,  not familiar with the cold European climate. Great efforts were taken to ensure each blanket and tent taken from refugees was promptly replaced. Somewhere in Northern France, there are piles of ripped tents and sleeping bags soaked with teargas. We kept warm in the freezing February temperatures with layers of hats, scarves and thick coats as we worked. When our feet became numb with the cold, we took breaks with steaming hot cups of tea. I wondered how much warmth is generated by the morning distribution of firewood given to refugees dispersed in the woods of Calais.

On the final few days, I had the opportunity to join the food distribution teams. Pulling up in our van on a disused plot of land, the landscape was bleak and barren of trees and instead dotted with pylons. Serving measured portions of curry, rice, and salad I was happy to remove my apron and join the crowds on the other side of the serving table.

I spoke to Eritreans, Ethiopians and Afghans in a language I didn’t know we had in common; Urdu/Hindi. In our globalised world it’s often easy to forget that we may have more common tools at our disposal than we realise. They spoke of their hopes and fears, their wish to join family members on the other side of the English Channel. Their deep faith and conviction shone through the downcast sky of late evening.

Driving to a food distribution site in Dunkirk the following day, we arrived at a somewhat different environment, to a quaint nature reserve. The reflection of a setting sun sank slowly into the lake near us as we served the evening meals. Communicating with some of the refugees through broken bits of English, I wished that I spoke Farsi or Arabic. But their English was good enough to understand my love for “Maulana.” A single word that still lights fires in hearts around our world. Like them, Maulana Rumi was a refugee who fled from war, in his case, by invading Mongol armies in modern day Afghanistan.

Soon enough, my thoughts had become distracted. I was haunted by the images of a scene I had witnessed the day before. Clouds of tear gas chased a group of refugees as they fled from people in power holding emptied canisters. I turned to the words of Maulana for guidance in how to hold opposing feelings in the palm of my hand, of joy and sorrow as my heart opened and closed,

Observe the qualities of expansion and

contraction

in the fingers of your hand:

surely after the closing of the fist comes the

opening.

If the fingers were always closed or always open,

the owner would be crippled.

Your movement is governed by these two

qualities:

they are as necessary to you

as two wings are to a bird.

MASNAVI III 3762-66

 

My memory sped back to just a few months ago, to the hills of Kashmir. As I had watched my father being carried to the ancestral burial ground, a golden crested Hoopoe bird had perched itself on a kikar tree directly in my line of vision. I was mesmerised by this majestic bird native to the region, as my father, shrouded in simple white cloth, was laid to rest in the soil deep in the earth. Through swollen eyes tired from red-eyed flights and an unexpected loss, the beauty of this orange-breasted bird momentarily cut through my grief. Even in the darkest moments, beauty finds its way back to us.

I resolved to keep the warmth of the refugees I met and to guard our interactions in my heart. I felt no anger towards those following orders and abusing their positions of power, only sadness. Somewhere along the line, their lives had hardened their hearts and made them immune to the suffering around them. My sorrow was reflected back to me in the darkness of cloudy Calais skies and the desolation of a grey seafront. The image of waves of murky water washed over me,

 Or its similitude is that depths of darkness upon an abysmal sea, covered by a wave above which is another wave, above which is clouds, creating darkness piled one upon another;

when he puts forth his hand, he would scarcely see it. He to whom God assigns no light, he will have no light.

al-Nur 24:40

I turned to my friends to buoy my faith. We spoke deeply and openly about focusing on the changes we could make, however small. Our kinship across different faith traditions and belief systems renewed my faith in humanity.

There was harmony in our exchanges to balance the dissonance caused by policies and decrees designed to separate and exclude. I reflected back and forth between our differences before resting on common ground. We created a circle of light between us, illuminated by awakened hearts. Our approaches were different but our aims were the same; to build bridges in order to transcend man-made frontiers. Working side by side, we worked with established groups of volunteers who had created a haven of inclusivity, respect, and mutual appreciation.

I reflected on the power of interfaith kinship in past times. I thought back to the first group of Muslims fleeing persecution by the Arab Elite in the 7th century. They crossed the Red Sea by boat to seek refuge in Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia. The ruling Christian King was urged to turn them away, their reputations smeared as criminals. When that failed, the wealthy elites tried in vain to create divisions by pointing out the obvious differences in belief between the Christian hosts and the Muslim refugees.

The elites failed to sway the King, who instead chose to honour their shared love of Jesus and Mary. The refugees were saved. I looked at my group of friends and recognised a shared value for humanity that overrides any differences in semantics. Were it not for intolerance and grossly disproportionate power struggles, many would not have had to flee their homelands in the first place.

I’ve come back home with a heavy dose of reality, countered by an unshakeable belief in the volunteers who remain in Calais. Regular updates tell me that the inclusive vegan meals suitable for all, given by the charity, have been halted as I write. Meat and potatoes have been replaced on the menu made by hands which don’t hold the same love of the people I worked with. Despite this, my experience has given me a sense of optimism and hope that I have never felt before. It’s not a lazy hope flimsily held by magical thinking and vague sympathies but rather an authentic hope founded on affirmative action taken in a constructive manner.

On our final day, the clouds broke free to let the Sun takes its rightful place. I smiled as I looked up at the blue sky sinking into a sea brightened by much-needed light. The colour matched a bright blue feather I had picked up near my fathers grave in late November. A well- recited verse circled in my mind,

And when it is said to them, “Spend from that which God has provided for you,” those who disbelieve say to those who believe, “Should we feed one whom, if God had willed, He would have fed? You are not but in clear error.”

Ya-Sin 36:47

 

Beyond the battle between the ethics of right and wrong, beyond the basics of food and shelter, is the need to nourish the souls of others. Somewhere between the shores of Dunkirk and Calais is a man holding a Farsi-English dictionary learning a new language through translations of the poetic verses of Hafez and Rumi. Maybe one day I’ll understand the Farsi version and he’ll know the English version off by heart. One word that is shared between our cultures is khuda hafiz, (“God protect you“) our shared etiquette of saying goodbye.

A Tree In Four Seasons

 

vincent-van-gogh-pollard-willows-at-sunset
Willows At Sunset Van Gogh, 1888

This world is like a tree, and we are the half-ripe fruit upon it. Unripe fruit clings tight to the branch because, immature, it’s not ready for the palace. When fruits become ripe, sweet and juicy, then biting their lips, they loosen their hold. When the mouth has been sweetened by felicity, the kingdom of the world loses its appeal. To be tightly attached to the world signifies immaturity; as long as you’re an embryo, blood-drinking is your business. “
Rumi, Mathnawi III, 1293-7

 

Another month, another season. I came tumbling down from the lofty mountains of New York and fell back into the streets of English suburbia. I didn’t plan on staying for long in my native UK, but Providence had other plans. My heart knows where I want to be, but I should know by now that there are always greater forces at play than just the longings of my heart. Who knows how long it will take for my-timing to synchronise with Divine Timing. After a tumultuous start, I have successfully passed the three-month mark, the longest I’ve ever been home in over a decade.  And to celebrate, I’ve come to spend a week in a sleepy coastal town in the South West of England. I’ve conjoined my wayfaring ways to cat-sitting for strangers. It’s a novel way to continue enjoying the few luxuries in life still available to me, at no cost (warning; flexibility required!).

 

From the kitchen table, I watch the evening sunset descend behind a row of trees as it disappears for the night into the surrounding sea’s that lead into the North Atlantic Ocean. When an early autumn breeze carries in warm salty currents through the wide patio doors, it’s tempting to believe that all is well in the world.  I almost feel guilty that I have been blessed with this haven of tranquillity while deep pockets of the world are incurring the dual wrath of Nature and human aggression. Behind the scenes of chaos, I see the Buddhist wheel of life where the pig representing ignorance feeds into the bird representing the poison of passion, making it difficult to stomach the resultant aggression, symbolised by the snary snake. But the shadows were always there, like a poisonous snake in waiting for its next victim. I console myself with the myths of Plato, like the myth of Politicus, as narrated by the Eleatic Guest;

 

The universe, says the stranger, has two cycles, in one of which it is guided by God himself and revolves for a certain period in one direction, but afterwards God ceases to propel it, so that the direction of it’s motion changes and it revolves for an equal period in a contrary direction. The reason for this is that it is impossible for that which has body to be without change of any kind, and this change, of the direction of it’s perfect circular motion, is of all changes the least.

The first period, when God was the Ruler and Shepherd of men, was the Golden Age, and even when the motion had changed, vestiges of the former perfection remained for some time until the growing discord among men impaired the beauty of the world.

The Myths of Plato

The ultimate free-will. The will to lower oneself to the lowest depths of depravity. Or equally, the will to manifest the highest potential of the perfection of God’s creation. Perhaps, as I keep reading, our world will not change by the will of God alone, not unless we change the condition of the world ourselves.

The thought of the political governance of the world solely entrusted into the hands of the human ego driven by free-will, doesn’t seem so far-fetched in some of our world leaders. Equally, I can’t help but see a connection between the benign fear-based religion that many follow in my faith community, without harming others, and the version twisted and bent out of shape to dominate news headlines. The same headlines used to define 1.8 billion of the world’s population, whether they practice the faith or not.  Though the tough shell of exoteric religion, abused and hardened by patriarchy and politics is slowly cracking open to reveal the hidden depths of its esoteric counterpart, it’s painful nonetheless to witness the cracking of the shell. As always, I turn to Maulana Rumi for courage, seeking inspiration from his timeless wisdom,

 

“Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

If the world is to be considered as a living breathing object that has been mistreated badly, you can hear the cries of Mother Earth and feel her pain if you listen carefully enough. But I can also hear the silent cries of those hell-bent on causing as much havoc and chaos as possible. They’re like trees planted in the shadow planes that grow stunted, twisting their roots to catch the few motes of sunlight that they can. With each act of tyranny, they inch further away from their primordial purity, their fitra. But to reject the shadows of the world, would be akin to rejecting parts of myself and separating myself from the world. A cancer cell doesn’t stop being a cell just because it’s malignant, and so the body suffers as a whole unit. In times of illness, it’s easy to forget how the body functioned without disease.  The Golden Ages of humanity seem as mythical and ancient as the words of Plato. But there are also cases of spontaneous remission, whereby cancer cells miraculously disintegrate and the body begins to operate in a healthy manner again.

I’m reminded of the fable of the tree in four seasons. A father sends out his four sons to view a pear tree over the period of a year. The first son visits in the throes of winter. The twisted branches of the barren tree shiver nakedly in the wind and the son leaves uninspired despite the early signs of tiny buds. The second son visits in the spring when the buds are starting to swell with potential, filling his heart with the hopes of a promising summer. The third son visits the following season and is graced with a tree in full blossom scenting the air. The fourth son visits in the final season to be met with a tree pregnant with ripe fruit, waiting to be picked. At the end of the year, each son argues the validity of his truth, unable to see the natural continuation of each of their experiences blending into one stretch of time.

I may not live long enough to see the buds of today ripen into fruit, but that doesn’t stop me from planting seeds to be sown by generations to come. Maybe it’s the job of my generation to replenish the land first with much-needed nutrients and create the ideal conditions. In one of my favourite Hadith, which mysteriously didn’t make the cut in Islamic jurisprudence priority, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) is said to have stated that,

‘Even if it’s your last day, you should still plant a tree.’

 

But the soil is tough and dry, it may take a while for it to become healthy enough to nurture fresh seeds. Pushed deep into the soil,, the seeds need to crack open in the depths of darkness to enable young shoots to push upwards towards the light. This is the most fragile time, but also the most exciting.

 

Tomorrow I’ll leave behind the sterile streets of this quiet coastal town as I swap a somewhat static environment for the challenging but dynamic environment of home. But I’m sad that most of my mixed community of varying creeds and cultures don’t share my love for the environment. Table talk in my family home has evolved from the police surveillance vans alternatively stalking (ir)religious fundamentalists and violent Neo-Nazi extremists, to the Government worker strikes that have left months of uncollected rubbish stewing on the streets. The local park is my sanctuary no more. It’s embarrassing to watch burka-clad women sidestep empty condom wrappers left by careless clandestine lovers. Much like the Parisian dog owners who refuse to clean up after their canine darlings, my local community expects Government employees to pick up their cans, confectionery wrappers and takeaway containers arrogantly tossed at the feet of young saplings.

Like my favourite pair of young gingko biloba saplings on an adjacent side street. Struggling with exam stress induced asthma as an adolescent, I was offered no relief by inhalers prescribed by doctors. My saviour came in the form of small herbal tablets from the gingko plant, a tree native to China. My airways opened, I could breathe again. My love for this wonder tree was cemented for life. The words of William Blake come to mind,

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.

As a man is, so a man sees.

 

But there is one small square of green that still remains my sanctuary. It’s in the family back garden. And incidentally, there is a pear tree in the centre, lovingly tended to by my mother.  We may not have much in common, my mother and I, but the mutual love for this tree binds us together. As the leaves on surrounding trees turn into varying hues of golden yellow, red and brown, the autumnal wind has put an end to the continuous supply of ripe fruit that coloured my summer. Soon the branches will become as bare as Van Gogh’s Willows at Sunset only without the smouldering heat of the Provençal sun. The sun doesn’t burn so brightly in middle England as it does in the golden fields in the South of France, but that’s ok because I know behind the grey clouds, it’s still the same sun.

 

 

Torn Between Two Worlds

 

And to God belongs the East and the West. So wherever you turn to, then, again, there is the Countenance of God. Truly, God is One Who is Extensive, Knowing.

al-Baqarah 2:115

IMG_4763

A lot can happen in just one season. The cool April spring breeze tore me away from my beloved France and carried me across the Atlantic to a small corner of Upstate New York to join the American branch of my Sufi family. I feel like a tiny being, dwarfed by the majesty of the nature that surrounds me. The giant maple and cedar trees have shielded me from all the harsh energies that find their way into my daily Newsfeeds. It’s complicated being a spiritual wayfarer in 2017. I have to navigate around tightening border controls and global politics. But I was one of the lucky ones. In a country that has become synonymous with #MuslimBan, my US visa entry stamp happily sits next to my Pakistani tourist stamp from last summer.

 
For the last three months, I’ve spent my days immersed in study and contemplation, supported by hundreds of acres of undisturbed nature. Red cardinals and bright yellow finches dominate the skylines using the flower patches as their runway. As spring turned to summer, the pink azaleas gave way to orange lilies. Even nature takes it in turn to display its beauty. The evening sunsets are best viewed from the top of the mountain. The half hour trek up a stony trail is worth it for another turn on the ‘Bridge to Everywhere.’ A closed wooden bridge, it stands suspended in mid-air, held only by metal ropes on one end. I often lie flat on my back watching the clouds drift above a canopy of branches. Not for the faint hearted, I love it when the evening breeze rocks the bridge side to side as if I’m being cradled by nature.

 
I’m glad I made the decision to prioritise my spiritual and emotional fulfilment over material security before Brexit and American politics took centre-stage. But it’s an ongoing process. Faith is not a linear process, every disappointment tests me every day. Having hoped my stay would be more permanent in the US, the Universe decreed otherwise. Like a turtle, I will soon have to gather my belongings back into my shell as I prepare for the next stage of my journey.

 
It seems that the early summer winds are now blowing me along warm currents to the East. I’m both excited and terrified by the prospect. To date, my religious upbringing was dictated by patriarchal models cultivated in the East. My spiritual teachings, on the other hand, have mostly been taught by teachers in the West free from the restrictions of normative traditions. And therein lies my dilemma. I’m neither of just the East or West, I am both. How do I reclaim my faith and keep the spiritual freedom I’ve experienced?

 
Early on in my journey, I can see now how I was drawn to a spirituality that largely appealed to my European sensibilities. A child of the eighties, I was the lucky recipient of counter-culture Western seekers who brought back with them the essence of Buddhism without the baggage of cultural forms or prejudices. And so when I freed myself from the pain and exhaustion of upholding my own cultural norms, my Buddhist community provided a neutral zone where my authentic self could emerge. But the world has changed immensely over the last few years. White supremacists and religious extremists have joined forces to push me into reclaiming my faith and culture. And I was plunged into a crisis of identity.

 
Having never been an issue for me before, I suddenly became aware of being a brown dot in a sea of white spiritual seekers. Well-intending individuals who poured unconditional love into my broken soul found it hard to acknowledge my needs were different to theirs, that my needs were not being met in the confines of their monocultural setting. Finding it hard to express my frustrations, my words were clumsy and misunderstood. My struggle was made worse by the different interpretations of ego-identity. It was easy for fellow seekers who belong to majority population groups to dismiss my inner angst. I was told my suffering was self-inflicted by attachments to false concepts of self. And that ethnicity, gender etc are just mere illusions that perpetuate separation from others with layers of false identity. So I suppressed my pain, until it burst out of me, unable to contain feelings of frustration. I felt guilty that the love and acceptance of my friends just wasn’t enough.

 
Yes, we are equal on an Absolute plane of existence. But on a Relative sense, right here, right now, my challenges are different. I am a woman. I am an ethnic minority. I am a Muslim. My needs are different. Why did it take me so long to say these words? I’m not sure when diversity became akin to division, why is it so hard for the world to see unity in diversity? On the other side of the scale, I struggled to fit in all-Muslim Sufi groups. It felt at odds with my inter-spiritual approach, my love for spirituality extending beyond just one tradition. After years of searching, I have finally found an international community of mystics that encourage me to seek out what I need. In my Sufi community in the West, I am again a minority. But my needs are at least understood by my teachers. Nonetheless, my heart yearns to connect with a spirituality that honours my cultural roots but doesn’t come with conditions. I’ve come to the conclusion that when you live between two worlds, it is unlikely that you will have all your needs met in just one setting. It’s time for me to spread my wings again.

 

 

I had to fly three thousand miles to the West in order to find the courage to explore the East. As the doors close on me in the USA and mainland Europe, I take it as a sign to finally explore a spirituality closer to my roots. But it’s not without its consequences. As I contemplate which Muslim countries to visit, I have to take into consideration their strict narrow interpretation of religion, not to mention their volatile politics. My hyphenated spiritual-but-not-sure-if-I’m-religious status is unlikely to be understood. Even less likely to be understood is my Universalist approach to Islam. Sufi mystics with their message of love, harmony and tolerance are at the top of the list of wanted infidels targeted by ISIS. Am I ready to relinquish my freedom in order to seek out the treasures I desperately yearn for hidden in the East?

 
Despite my challenges with my parents, I feel blessed to have grown up in a family where I was given no less freedom than my brothers. France for me was the epitome of freedom, especially when married to beauty. I still mourn the end of my love affair with France. I was like Attar’s nightingale, who refused to part from the rose, not wanting to relinquish a lesser love for a deeper connection with Simorgh, the Divine King. As the Hoopoe says,

Dear nightingale, this superficial love which makes you quail is only for the outward show of things. Renounce delusion and prepare your wings for our great quest; sharp thorns defend the rose”

It was no contest, my love for God won. Towards the end of my time in France, I struggled to speak French. My lips refused to part, preferring to spill out songs of praise in Urdu and Arabic that had lain dormant in my heart for so long. Even during my estrangement I never lost my love for Islamic calligraphy, art and music. But they were always a painful reminder of a world that I had left behind. I have always secretly dreamed about living in cities resplendent with Islamic architecture and art born out of interfaith tolerant dynasties. Maybe the seeds of Sufism were planted in my heart in Istanbul, back when I was on the cusp of my crisis of faith. Then again, maybe the blessings of Ibn Arabi were bestowed upon me during my childhood years when visiting his final resting place in Damascus. But at eight years old, I was too young to realise the significance of this wandering Andalucian Sufi mystic, during an unplanned family trip to the Syrian capital. My heart constricts when I wonder if these ancient holy sites have been left unscathed under international missiles hijacking the Syrian skies.

 
Bibi Zaynab’s mausoleum, however, I do remember. I wonder if she, as the direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed blessed me with his love, when I rubbed my tiny hands on the gilded cage that carries her remains. I wonder if the spirit of her grandmother Khadijah rubbed off onto my childish heart and made me into the woman I am now. When I’ve been forced into situations that required assertiveness I have always looked to Khadijah, a widowed businesswoman who proposed marriage to her employee, the Prophet Mohammed. Considered by some as the first female Muslim mystic, she spearheaded a long line of ancient female saints silenced and sidelined by history. But their memories live on nonetheless. I live by Rabia’s rule of loving God for the Beauty of God alone, neither tempted by the rivers of heaven nor frightened by the fires of hell. The only fire that rages inside a mystic is in their heart.

 
It’s a far cry from the position of many women today. As a young single female accustomed to living in cosmopolitan cities, it has always pained me to see the restrictions placed on women when visiting majority Muslim countries. To this day, some Sufi Orders shun female members. Western females, however, are sometimes treated as honorary males but the language barriers remain. My desire to know the inner secrets of Islam is so strong that it’s a barrier I’m willing to overcome. Love, ishq, is the greatest driving force there is. It’s not Truth that I’m searching for, but Beauty. Maybe one day I’ll realise they were always the same thing.

 
My love and passion is understood well by those who equally love their own traditions. My greatest source of strength in recent months has been the love and support of my Christian and Jewish Sufi friends. Free from the baggage that I hold, they have renewed my love for Islam. They have provided a safe sanctuary for me to explore the inner dimensions of a faith that they see as a continuation of a Prophetic line. They have given me the key to a secret garden that I was denied access to by the custodians of my religion. It humbles me that they have taken the teachings of tasawwuf and sealed them onto their hearts without renouncing their own faiths.

 
With my fellow American Muslim friends, I have found kindred spirits. Our religion is a far cry from that of our parents. We’ve all had our struggles in reclaiming our birthright and forgiving our parents for misusing religion as a tool to control. I recently spent one of the holiest nights of Ramadan in a three storey townhouse in the fashionable district of TriBeCa, New York. Joined by an international crowd of fellow mystics, we allowed ourselves to be consumed by ancient devotional practices cultivated over the centuries. From dusk until dawn we used our voices as instruments as we sang to the heavens and connected to the angelic spheres, our hearts beating in rhythm with the musicians beating their drums. For the first time in five years, I prayed in the traditional Muslim way in a not so traditional setting. Standing shoulder to shoulder, men and women side by side, I allowed my head to bow down as a symbolic gesture of submission to a benevolent force greater than my own.

 
Inevitably, I have first had to process the lingering memories of the old Saiqa. The old me that was trying so hard to be devout that I became overly invested in the outer forms with no inner reflection. And sometimes I hurt others with my narrow-minded, judgemental views. The old me inherited a patriarchal version of religion, one that was created by men, for men. But my old personality was so disconnected from my feminine aspects that for a short while it worked. I can see now that my dominant masculine personality could never have understood, let alone appreciated the path of the mystics.

 
As my own evolution evolves my capacity to understand increases accordingly. I question translations and misinterpretations over the centuries. Now when I read passages from the Quran I do so with the eyes of my heart, chasing subtle clues hidden in the poetic verses of Maulana Rumi. Each person comprehends religious scripture according to their evolution and experiences. Even if I was to speak my truth it would make little impact on those deafened by calcified beliefs. So if I cannot speak my truth, I will embody it instead. As the rust in my heart slowly gets polished, I hope it can act as a mirror to reflect the light I receive and join other illuminated souls. The fact that I’ve managed to cultivate this spirit under the chaotic conditions imposed by the current US government gives me hope for the rest of the world. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I’m sad to leave the US but it’s time for this spiritual wayfarer to step down from the mountain and re-enter the world. As it happens I did see hummingbirds courting the rose bushes in the early morning light in the Herb garden. How befitting for a Sufi centre. It was a timely reminder that I am just a passing visitor and that my soul will continue to push me to ‘go as far as China to seek knowledge.

 

 

For the last few days, I’ve been on silent retreat. Alone in a cabin in the woods, my meals delivered by dear friends. I’m full of gratitude for all the generosity and kindness I’ve received from my teachers, guides and friends. But my heart tells me it’s time to let go of the safety net of large spiritual communities and venture forth alone. I’ve received enough love now to sustain me as I go further. It’s time to try the Eastern model of a more intimate setting and dedicate all my time to learning. Who knows where it may lead me. I just pray that I continue to walk my spiritual path with confidence and trust.