“If we do not strive for inner perfection, we will remain what we are now- talking animals. The world has never been without teachers. Each age has it’s teachers. Jesus, Buddha and Mohamed were some of the great ones, but there are always qtubs, special beings who take care of the world. The perfect man, the complete man, lies within each of us.”
Konya Sheikh Suleyman Loras
Amidst the chaos of changing apartments, I pause when I come across a flyer for an exhibition from the year before. Back in the summer of 2014, walking along London’s Southbank in the sweltering heat wave, I was stopped by an exhibition celebrating the seven types of love as described by the ancient Greeks. We’re all familiar with the butterflies in your stomach and a flutter in your heart that comes from eros and ludus, but lesser known forms of love include; agape– the love of humanity, storge– the love for family, pragma–long term love that develops between a long term couple, philautia–the love we give ourselves that comes from a healthy sense of self-respect and philia– the love that develops between people during a shared experience.
Resonating with this high-frequency emotion, I thought back to my Kundalini yogini room-mate who whispered a sentence into my ear that changed my life, ” the only way to overcome fear is through love”. I had been struggling with my decision to leave my native UK and follow my heart. I had fallen in love and wanted to go back. After living in six different cities, I had finally found the ‘one’. The city of lights, Paris. And so with a big dose of courage, I took the leap and came back to the city that stole my heart. Only this time I would no longer be a traveller on ´sabbatique’ and instead committed myself to a life of metro-boulot-dodo, train, work and bed.
As I walked through the Parisian street’s on my way to an interfaith concert in the city’s Left Bank, I saw the Latin fluctuat nec mergitur, ‘tossed but not sunk‘ graffitied on the walls. Reaching the small chapel I took my place in a row of pews as I watched the musicians take to their seats near the altar. A golden statue of Mary cradling Jesus took centre stage as a backdrop. Dressed in a flowing cream robe, the Sufi singer let out piercing cries of devotion in her native Arabic, marking the end of a minute’s silence held in honour of the 130 lives lost on French soil, breaking seventy years of peace, all in the name of hate and intolerance. Tears rolled down my cheek as her voice pierced my heart and the sounds reverberated in the high ceiling of the Chapelle Notre Dame des Anges.
As I sat watching the concert with occidental and oriental fakirs singing in unity al-hubbu dînî, “love is my religion and my faith”, I felt incredibly touched to witness the ability of music to break barriers as a permeable medium that flows into all hearts alike.
Listening to the beat of the daf, a Persian drum, I was reminded of the Tibetan drum I used to beat in the ten months I lived in a Buddhist retreat centre nestled deep in the French countryside. Days were book ended with morning and evening meditation sessions with the chanting of the Heart Sutra. It was a far cry from my conservative Pakistani Muslim upbringing in the UK.
There I rediscovered the joy of connecting mind, body and spirit through music and dance. I experienced moments of flow when heart and mind became synchronised culminating in a profound sense of peace. It reminded me of the whirling dervishes dancing their way to enlightenment in Istanbul. In a trance like dance, reaching up to God with one hand and delivering a message to mortals through the other, I was mesmerised by the ease at which their bodies moved with such fluidity and grace.
I realise now, several years later that this was my first spiritual experience with Sufism. It would take another four years before I would reconnect with this more spiritual branch of Islam. In my mid -twenties, lost and confused after one traumatic event too many I came to realise that I had formed my entire identity in pleasing my parents. Shrouded in a blanket of fear, I was so attuned to their expectations that I tried in vain to fulfil their every need at the consequence of my own and as a result became disconnected from my true self. I realised the basis of my religious beliefs were also rooted in fear and so as the fear lifted, out excited God. In those four years, I became a reluctant atheist who grieved the loss of God as much as I would in losing a member of my family. With a soft tender heart, I filled the gap left behind with hours of meditation that led to my spiritual awakening. I found solace in the stories of the Prophet Mohamed meditating in the Caves of Hira in Pre-Islamic Arabia, reassuring myself that a small part of me remained connected to my roots. Buoyed by my spiritual revolution I sought the support of an established meditation community as I made the leap from hiniyana, a personal path to that of mahayana, a more community-based approach to spirituality. The absence of God in Buddhism gave me space to nurture the values of my faith without the guilt of not following the traditional path.
In time I convinced myself that my life was wholly dependent on me, myself and I. I demoted fate and destiny as beliefs of passive people. I was going to force my own destiny. Reaching an impasse with the Buddhist path at the meditation centre, I eventually grew tired of the solitude of nature and found myself craving a more multicultural environment, leading me to discover Paris. Through chance or fate, my first home was in Republique, carved in the rive-droit, one of the cosmopolitan area’s devastated by the attacks of November 13th.
Within time, I felt my atheism soften into agnosticism by the city’s majority secular Muslims. No longer averse, I felt drawn to the art and culture of my original faith. Facing the everyday challenges of living in a capital city, I began to yearn for the belief in a Higher power, to whom I could surrender all my fears. I felt impotent in the face of events out of my control. I began to question the helpfulness of believing in a chaotic universe that served no purpose. Life surely served a higher purpose, or did it? Feeling uneasy at the thought of re connecting with my faith, I pushed all thoughts of reconciliation away and put it down to mere sentimentality.
One year in France quickly turned into three. Now living in a neighbouring arrondissement, I still frequent my former home often, as I did on that fateful night. Watching the events of the night quickly escalate I found myself struggling as shock turned into despair. With barely any time to mourn the dead, I found myself, along with France’s five million Muslim inhabitants, sandwiched between the fear of further attacks by extremists on both sides of the spectrum.
They say at times of traumatic events, stripped away of our ego we become closer to our true self, our Source. While I found some comfort in the Buddhist compassion practice of tonglen, my usual meditation practice and spiritual literature failed to calm my volatile emotions. I tried in vain to block out the sounds of the gunshots fired in rue Bichet, still ringing in my ears. Furthermore, the usual humdrum of my adopted city was constantly broken by the incessant sirens of the emergency services in the days proceeding. The line between false fear and real had become blurred.
Spiritual music based on the essence of Islam was the only powerful medium to bring me relief from a brain in lockdown. The music touched my soul and as the dopamine flowed, I allowed myself to reconnect to my faith without daring to utter the word ´God’ a word which still makes me nervous.I was amazed then, to find myself singing all the words to Sami Yusuf’s Al-Mu’allim (‘The Teacher’). Every word etched in my heart, I sang with ease the lyrics of a song last heard twelve years previously. I wondered if Sami, the most well known British Muslim musician in the spiritual world, had included his signature anthem during his performance at the now infamous Bataclan in 2011 at an interfaith concert.
History is filled with ancient mystics like Meister Eckhart communicating their love to the Divine. I felt a release from all my fearful thoughts and allowed myself to finally surrender to a benevolent force greater than me. To feel loved and guided in challenging times by pausing and accessing the God within. And most difficult of all, I allowed myself to admit that I’m not strong enough to go through life without the strength of something greater out there. And is it really so bad to trust in something I can’t physically see?
Looking for an antidote to the Islamaphobia ravaging the media, I discovered the Sufi term ´muraqabah‘. Quite simply it is the emotional awareness that comes from watching your thoughts without judgement. I smile in recognition of the first lesson I learnt in mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition, “you are not your thoughts“. I momentarily berated myself for not having discovered Sufism earlier. But the truth is, I was filled with too much aversion against Islam to even begin contemplating it’s take on spirituality. The truth is, all the recent Islamaphobia in the media triggered and reminded me of the judgemental and inner critic within me during my brief spell as an atheist. Filled with a tender sadness and gratitude in equal measure that I have made peace with my faith, I understand that spirituality is not a linear process. Making the journey from fear to love takes time and ultimately we cannot force our beliefs. Quite simply the prodigal daughter was not ready for Sufism five years ago.
In truth the time away from my faith allowed me to become autonomous in my thinking as my journey from a fear based religious being to becoming a love focused spiritual one. It has been profound and made me all the more open and tolerant of other peaceful paths of faith and non-faith alike. I worry about the submissive culture of Islam where angry preachers with their soul less extreme exoteric views influence malleable individuals looking for external validation of their inner rage before looking within first. It is my experience that there is little tolerance by mainstream Islam for those not subscribing to the traditional path. And those who do are often subjected to mockery and shame even by the moderates.
It takes great will and courage to go against the norm’s of society to follow your own path rooted in different traditions. Chogyam Trungpa warned against ´spiritual materialism’ in that we should commit to one path wholly. While I agree it’s good to have the foundation of one main tradition, I think it would be a shame to shut out a myriad of other teachings for fear of not being committed enough. Surely at the basis of all spirituality and religion is love.
I’m reminded of the histoire du circle, whereby all the world’s traditions are linked together to form a circle in which at the heart lies the divine centre. As we get closer to the divine within us, the circle contracts dissolving differences and bringing all traditions closer.
I finally understand the concept of no-self, like a moment in time that can never be recaptured, our souls are ever evolving in the face of impermanence. Adhering to labels only leads to suffering when our beliefs will inevitably evolve into muddy waters. I’m a spiritual being having a human experience. No longer passive or forceful, I’m in the happy place of the ´middle path‘ as a conscious co-creator in my life in spiritual partnership with the Universe. And when the frightened part of my personality appears I channel my painful emotions into authentic power, trusting the universe knows best for me and will guide me in the right direction to fulfil my highest potential. I allow my intuition to discern the times when I need to push forward and those times to surrender and let go knowing greater forces are at play. I have hope what with the growing popularity of mindfulness that the age of consciousness is slowly gathering pace in all area’s of society and sifting its way into the mainstream.
Ultimately my voice may not shout as loud as Daesh with their cancerous mutated version of Islam, but it’s just as valid. Society is ravaged by individuals unable to transmute their inner turmoil, choosing instead to externalise their mutinous emotions. I hope that spiritual individuals from dogmatic cultures reclaim their voice and conquer the avalanche of fear by communicating their message of love, beauty and joy through art and music. I hope by writing this article It encourages others to come out of the shadows. Now more than ever we rely on individuals promoting their messages of peace, creating a chorus of hope, tolerance and openness, regardless of their spiritual path.
Spreading our light of love and peace is the only way to illuminate the dark shadows. Slow and steady wins the race. L’amour est ma religion. Le sourire est ma devise.