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.
The Naqshbandi Sufi tradition teaches that dreams are very important. How are they significant?
Dreams have always been valued on this path as a way to listen to your soul. And there is a particular way of listening to one’s dreams and working with them that opens up a channel of communication between your deeper self and your conscious mind.
How do you interpret the images in dreams, which sometimes can be very abstract and odd?
My understanding of dreams is that if you took them literally you would be in trouble, but if you learn how to work with the symbols, how to hold them, how to allow the energy of the symbols to speak to you, then it opens a new door to understanding how to work with dreams.
People often interpret dreams within a psychological framework. How is that different than viewing them from a spiritual perspective?
I was taught to understand dreams in a spiritual way as well as a psychological way. Sometimes we’ll have a dream that might be very disturbing to look at it purely psychologically, but if you looked at it spiritually, then you might say: “Oh! This quality of dying or death actually may mean transformation. And there is a deeper understanding.” I feel that the psychological [approach] only takes you so far, and then you step into the next level, which is the spiritual perspective. And then sometimes things are completely upside down.
I read on your Web site that you had a dream that led you to start your foundation, DreamWeather. Can you tell me about that dream?
There was a time when I knew that I had a purpose in my life, but I didn’t quite know what it was. So I prayed one night for an answer. I was camping, and I began asking, “What am I here for?” I expected this kind of grand answer and nothing happened, and I went back into my tent and went to bed. That night I had a dream in which I was shown the Earth from distance far above it. The Earth was a big, beautiful, blue jewel in space, but at a closer look I saw areas where there was violence and war. And then I was shown the moon, which was shining a light down onto the Earth in waves, almost like sunlight, and this light came down directly on the areas of the Earth where there was conflict and war. And a voice in my dream said, “Wherever the feminine touches, there is healing.” And I woke up, and I knew that was my work.
So your work focuses on feminine spirituality, but not a spirituality that is specifically for women. It’s more of a spirituality with an emphasis on qualities we typically think of as feminine.
That’s right, although most of my work is with women, because I feel that they have a deep understanding that’s been covered over after centuries of what I would call a rejection of the feminine principle.
There has been a lot of suffering over centuries, and we women carry this even today. I think there is a real need among us to understand who we are and how we can contribute to the world right now.
Before you started work teaching about feminine spirituality you were a journalist. What led you to leave that career?
I absolutely loved writing, and I traveled all over Asia, and then we moved to Panama, and I was interviewing a government official, and in the middle of this interview I knew that he was lying to me. He was giving me a spin. And I suddenly sat there in the middle of an interview going, “Why do I want to spend my life speaking to people about things that aren’t true?” I knew that was the last interview I would ever make. And I came back to the United States, came back to California, and was actually offered a job on a newspaper, and I turned it down. I had two young children at the time, and I felt that there was some other reason I was here, and so I continued writing, but it was more writing things that I wanted to write. And then I started writing my own books.
And then you became a nutritionist, right?
I wouldn’t call myself a nutritionist. I studied traditional Asian food philosophy, dietary philosophy for many years, and I had learned certain aspects in Hong Kong. So I taught this to people.
You told me you worked with women teaching them about nutrition and food, but you realized they were actually hungry for something else. Can you tell me more about that?
I was working with a woman who wanted to know how to improve her health, and so we were talking about food, but there was nothing I could tell her about food that she didn’t already know. And so I thought, “Why is she here?” And I just sat there for a moment and — I think it was my first conscious recognition of intuition — I knew that she wanted something else. So I asked her a few questions, and I realized that this woman wanted a spiritual path. She wanted to find her own heart.
People’s relationship to food is often a way to cover up a deeper longing. But she actually wanted a deeper nourishment of the soul. And that was the beginning of my work at that level. And then I just found I couldn’t talk about food anymore. I felt that I had found my real work, which was to listen and to reflect to women what it is that they are really looking for. And what it is that they really want to understand about their lives and what their purpose is.
So how do you actually work with women? What shape does it take?
Mostly, I work with groups, and more and more I’m going to places in the country where there is already some kind of an organization like a nonprofit women’s center or a church or a meditation center. This month I’ll be going to an Episcopal church in Georgia. One of the women ministers there invited me after coming to a retreat I’d given a year earlier. They will be inviting women from the Air Force base to attend.
Wives and girlfriends of soldiers who are in Iraq or have come back from Iraq?
I expect that, yes, there will the spouses of those who are either involved in the military here or involved in Iraq.
What do you think these women are needing, do you think?
I know from my own life what happens when you go through a relationship where the person that you love has experienced a shock, how the personality changes. There can be anger, depression or a profound loss of connection.
In the case of many women, living with someone who has post-traumatic stress can range from difficult to devastating. They need a certain support to strengthen themselves, to strengthen their own inner spiritual connection. In my work, I share a meditation of the heart that calms their minds and helps them to see their difficult experiences as opportunities for learning. And I show how they can work with their dreams to access their deeper wisdom. This wisdom lives in every woman, although many have forgotten it exists or simply don’t know how to find it.
Many people are worried about the state of the world today. Religion, which many believe is supposed to bring us peace and joy, has once again become a spark for war and hate. What do you feel we can do to heal these wounds and become a peaceful planet?
I wish I had an answer. I can only say that just as in my own life when there were times of great difficulty — and you could even say warfare! — I was told in my dreams to focus on what was new. What was growing. What was green. What was being born out of the darkness.
And I feel that this is what we need to do in the world today. There is tremendous darkness and tremendous suffering. And yet through our awareness and our compassion, if we can also look to see what is being born in this time, then that’s the greatest contribution we can make.
I have been shown so many times that there is a possibility for us — meaning all of humanity — to understand that we really are part of one being. We are one family, and we have only the possibility to discover a place of peace and a place of oneness within ourselves.
By David Ian Miller
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.
His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in SFGate.com look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.