Day: August 31, 2007
Sufism is typically thought of as a mystical branch of Islam whose practices developed in the Middle East during the eighth century and whose adherents can now be found around the world. But whereas some Sufis continue to identify themselves as part of Islam, others do not. Anne Scott has worked with the Naqshbandi Sufi path, a non-Islamic tradition, for 16 years.
Scott was attracted to the basic Sufi idea that love is the essence of God and that only through love can we humans draw closer to God. Followers also seek to resolve the dualities and apparent contradictions of life, believing that unconditional love helps us understand that everything — the good and even what we might consider the bad and the ugly — is a manifestation of the divine.
Scott, 56, through her DreamWeather Foundation, lectures and leads workshops and retreats for women on spirituality in everyday life. She is the author of “Serving Fire: Food for Thought, Body and Soul” (Celestial Arts, 1994) and “The Laughing Baby” (Celestial Arts, 2001). She spoke with me last week by phone from her home in Sebastopol.
Earlier you told me that your first spiritual experience involved a Buddhist chef, but you didn’t give me any details. Can you tell me more about that?
I was in China on a two-week trip as a photojournalist for Money magazine. I was doing a story on one of the first tour groups to be allowed into the country, and I had asked for vegetarian food, even though I’m not a vegetarian, because I didn’t want to eat the meat and the large quantities of unappetizing food they were serving to the other tourists. This caused a little problem because every place that we went they didn’t seem to know what to do with me, and each time I received a bowl of rice, a plate of cabbage and a bowl of peanuts. Everywhere! But I was so happy to be in China I didn’t care.
On the last few days of the trip, we stayed in a rural inn. Everyone was fed their usual fare, and I expected the same thing — the cabbage, the peanuts and the rice. But just as everyone else was nearly finished, out came a cook with a tray of over a dozen dishes of the most amazing vegetarian food that you have ever seen. It was absolutely beautiful! And there was silence in the room, because everyone was awestruck by the beauty and the reverence of this man as he carried the food and put it on the table.
Then he bowed before me and thanked me for [enabling] him to cook vegetarian food — because it turns out he used to be the head cook in a monastery, a Buddhist monastery — and of course with the Communists in power that was just not allowed and those monasteries were closed. After he left there was so much love in this food, so much love in his preparation that I could barely eat it.
I would think you’d want to dig right in after eating the same thing for two weeks.
Honestly, it was an experience that I had never had before, particularly all the bowing, and I was very uncomfortable — I didn’t know what to say to him. Anyway, that night I went to bed, and I had a dream about the Buddhist cook. I saw him bowing before me, and his bowing evoked something in my heart, and I felt a pain, like a great sorrow, and then — like a movie being repeated — he bowed, and bowed, and bowed again. Each time I felt that pain.
As I told you before, I had no religious or spiritual background before this. I had a few years of church training when I was young, but I had no belief in anything beyond my own mind, basically. But during this night it felt as if my heart had been broken open, and all the protection, all the defenses and all the barriers were melted by this love of this chef. Every time he bowed in my dream, I would again feel this pain — and I was crying and filled with love. I had never known love in that way.
The experience was so beyond the mind that my mind couldn’t wrap around it. And so I didn’t tell anyone about it, not even my husband, for about 10 years, until I began to realize what the experience really was — that it was a spiritual awakening.
You have followed the Naqshbandi Sufi path for 16 years. Can you tell me a bit about the basic beliefs of this tradition?
Like all Sufi paths, it’s a path of love. In Sufism, there is an understanding that this love is in the heart of every human being, only it’s covered over by our conditioning and by the ego and many other aspects that we accumulate during life that might give us a different impression of who we really are. And so the Sufi path helps you to uncover the truth of your own being and this love that’s in the center of your heart. The practices are very simple: meditation and awareness of the presence of the divine.
It’s also described a mystical path. What makes it mystical?
I would describe “mysticism” as a way of making a direct connection to the divine or to what Sufis call the “beloved.” There is no intermediary between you and God.
Many of us find it difficult to make that connection. The Sufi path helps you find it within yourself, often through a deep inner journey and through tremendous longing. I think longing is the stamp of Sufism — the longing in the heart.
What led you to Sufism in the first place?
It started with a book I read during one of the darkest times in my life. I had just taken my husband to the emergency room with a severe asthma attack in 1987, and I didn’t know if he was going to live.
The name of the book was “The Last Barrier: A Journey Into the Essence of Sufi Teachings,” by Reshad Field. It was about a man’s journey to find his spiritual path, which turned out to be Sufism. I had never heard of Sufism before, but I finished the book in about three hours. Afterward, I realized that everything that happened in my life, every seeming failure or sorrow, every difficulty, was not really a mistake. It had all been pointing towards this deeper journey, which I didn’t even know I had. And that was the journey to find the truth in myself — the journey to God.
I had been raised to think that if you weren’t really happy in life, then you were a failure. The Sufi path shows you that life is much bigger than that, and I realized that inside, what I thought was just sorrow, was really the longing for God. Suddenly, my whole life was given context. It’s like walking around with only one leg, and then you are given another leg, and you can stand there with full dignity because you understand yourself better. And you understand there is a purpose to your life that is much deeper than you ever knew.