Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sufis and Trance: Self-Knowledge from Experience and Why Altered States of Consciousness Bring Practitioners Closer to God

This report presents observations from four visits to a gathering of Namatollahi Sufi practitioners at a private residence in Oxley, Brisbane, in April 2010. This paper will discuss the rituals and gestures observed during those meetings and explain the significance and ascribed meaning for the practitioners. The means by which altered states of consciousness (ASC) are achieved will be briefly examined and the complex layers of outcomes desired by advanced Sufi practitioners when they enter a state of trance explored. Finally, this report will discuss the relevance of social and cultural artifacts in ASC, emphasising that the ASC experience cannot be separated from the socio-cultural context in which it occurs.

It is first necessary however, to provide a brief definition of Sufism and to address some popular myths surrounding it. Embedded within Sufi philosophy is that “all answers lie within the self, deep in the heart” (Azmayesh, 2002; p.15) and Sufism’s emphasis on personal development through experience suggests its nature is individual rather than collective. Azmayesh (2002) defines Sufism as “a set of personal practices…designed to help the follower develop hidden and unexploited capacities, with the goal of developing knowledge of the self and the visible and the invisible world and guiding the seeker or “traveller” along the spiritual path… ultimately acquiring truths of his existence and a certain vision of the world.” (p. 14). While Sufism is considered by many as the ‘mystical branch of Islam’ – in much the same way as the Kabbalah is to Judaism (Matt, 1996) – Sufism does not require conversion to Islam or any other belief system, save that of “the belief in the existence of divinity, of an invisible world, and of the immortality of the soul.” (Azmayesh, 2002; p. 14). Another widely-held fallacy is that all Sufi practitioners engage in trance dancing akin to the Whirling Dervishes from central Turkey. Whilst all Sufis believe that union of the body and soul leads ultimately to re-union with God/The Divine Spirit, they contend this can be accomplished in various ways, and indeed several techniques to elicit ASC were simultaneously employed by the Namatollahi practitioners in Oxley. Specific techniques will be discussed in detail later in this report; however, the principle underlying Sufi trance is that the expression and appreciation of love and beauty brings about self-transcendence and connection to the Divine.

All student practitioners at the Oxley Sufi gathering were Caucasian, and the majority were native English speakers born in Australia, New Zealand, England and Scotland, and more than 40 years of age. There were also two Persian student practitioners (one male, one female), who were younger than the majority. Furthermore, the ‘teacher’ was in his sixties, Iranian-born and had been living in Australia for sixteen years. Meetings were held weekly on Sunday evenings, and although attendance was ad hoc, there were eight students present at each gathering, with equal numbers of males and females attending. It was observed that those who attended most regularly were male and played a musical instrument. It was also noted that few women played a musical instrument, and many were reluctant to play the drums provided to accompany the musicians (sitar and flute). Both Persian practitioners played the sitar, however, the male practitioner attended more frequently than the female.

The gathering was facilitated by ‘teacher’ and Sufi ‘master’, Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, who most frequently performed technical functions (such as turning music and lights on and off; inviting a new attendee to take a cushion through gesture) and gave few, if any, direct instructions to the participants. Although Sufism acknowledges the private and sacrosanct relationship between student and teacher, it does not insist the teacher is omnipotent. Instead, followers are encouraged to “develop the capacities to discover for [himself] themselves the answers to [his] their existential questions.”(Azmayesh, 2002; p. 15). Nonetheless, in much the same way as those learning tantric yoga require the guidance of a “master” who has walked the same path to assist their students navigate the union of body and soul (Yeshe, 1987), Sufism “requires many years of exercises punctuated with successive spiritual stages that are always under the responsibility and surveillance of a competent guide or ‘master’ who knows, having experienced it himself.” (Azmayesh, 2002; p. 15).

It was thus apparent that each student had individual practice aims which were executed in the group setting. Whilst the ‘community’ of practitioners is important, practitioners do not actively participate in each others’ spiritual evolution, and collective teaching is practically forbidden (Azmayesh, 2002). Furthermore, group meetings are not regarded as social meditation (e.g., the AUM Meditation, Appendices A&B), nor are practitioners considered ‘mirrors’ of each other to facilitate self-knowledge (Carrivick, 2005). Nonetheless, humility is considered an essential character trait in the Sufi adherent, and regarded as an attribute that should be practiced in a social context as well as in one’s own relationship with God. Philosophically, Sufis believe there is no difference between Oneself, The Other and God, but from a procedural viewpoint, Sufism teaches that practising humility facilitates release of the ego, which in turn separates the veils of illusion between the material and immaterial worlds and brings the practitioner closer to God/The Divine.

In stark contrast with the humility demonstrated by Sufi ‘master’, Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, participants at a different Sufi gathering held in Woodridge, Brisbane, insisted that the “dreams of the student belonged to the teacher” and emphasised other matters of personal spirituality as being the property of the teacher, much in the same way that some interpretations of passages in the Qur’an and the Christian Bible insist that women’s spiritual development is ultimately the dominion of their husband or closest male relative (Karmi, 1996; Schleuter, 1997). At the Woodridge meeting, this seemed to a means of imposing discipline amongst the students and establishing the teacher’s authority, and was thus rejected for further study.

The meeting room in Oxley was plainly decorated with neutral paintwork and similarly neutral-coloured wall-to-wall carpeting. Rectangular foam floor cushions upholstered in white cotton were arranged around the perimeter of the room. Stretching across one wall were low wooden bookshelves varnished in mahogany woodstain and containing books pertaining only to Sufism. When I asked about the meaning of observed “rituals in this sacred space”, the Sufi ‘master’ denied any ritual was performed, and also refuted the sanctity of the space. Sometime later, however, he conceded the presence of ritual but insisted the space itself is “...just a room, it’s the people inside who are sacred.” (personal communication with Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, Sunday, March 28, 2010).

An observed ritualistic gesture performed by a few practitioners was to touch the ground, then touch the side of their head (right temple) upon entering and exiting the meeting space. Exiting the room involved going out backwards, as turning one’s back on fellow practitioners was considered contrary to the intent of gesture, which signified humility in the face of ‘superiors’ (which all those present are judged to be) and respect for the ‘community of practitioners’. Some expanded the gesture to include kissing their fingers in between touching the ground and touching their heads, to indicate love as well as respect. However, the majority present did not perform the gesture and, furthermore, did not exit the room in the ‘unusual’ way. But this was not deemed rude. Each was free to do whatever they felt appropriate.

A ritualistic gesture employed by the majority was clasping the right wrist with the fingers of the left hand while seated and in meditation. The gesture signifies the heart (left hand) providing gentle restraint to the mind (right hand) (personal communication with Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, Thursday March 18, 2010). However, no explicit instructions were given concerning gesture – the onus appeared to be on the student practitioners to enquire about or perform any ritual or gesture, if and when they desired. Approximately half the practitioners wore white clothing, and it was apparent this too was a matter of personal choice, though probably did indicate the practitioner’s commitment.

An important ritual was service of the tea, which occurred perhaps four or five times during the two-hour long meeting. Once again, when I asked about the ‘tea ritual’, the presence of ritual was denied. What was emphasised, however, was the ‘intent’ held by the server towards his fellow practitioners. Rich honey-coloured tea was served in tiny clear glasses on a silver tray, accompanied by biscuits and dates. The server offered the tray to each practitioner in turn, who took a small saucer and placed it and the tea glass in front of them on the floor. Sugar, dates and biscuits were then offered from the same silver tray and the practitioners placed their selection on the saucer beside their glass. This was all done in complete silence, save for the gentle tinkling sound of glass against saucer and spoon against glass. For the main part, the server’s eyes were cast downwards, though communicating thanks and sufficiency was surprisingly unproblematic. I silently observed that the taste of the tea was particularly pure and seemingly without any tannic aftertaste. After the meeting I was moved to comment upon its qualities, but was assured that the tea was actually a very cheap and bitter brand. The humility of the person preparing and serving the tea was believed to positively affect the tea’s taste.

The meeting was conducted similarly at each occasion, comprising a half-hour meditation to classical Persian and Sufi music – usually instrumental, though sometimes vocal recordings were played instead. Poems were read by the students either before or after the meditation. Discussion arose only if a student had a specific question; the program did not routinely include formal analysis of the texts. The second hour was dedicated to a brief reflective ‘talk’ given by the Sufi ‘master’ on a topic that arose from those poems followed by live musical performance and singing. Music, like dancing, is particularly emphasised by Sufis as a means of reaching ecstatic trance. Similarly repetitive chanting and poetry are employed to induce an ASC, certainly in part because they reflect the culture in which Sufism is situated (Islamic Persia). Sufis enter into trance states using textual (poetry), visual (meditation) and sensory (music/chanting/dance) stimuli; the first and second stimuli tend to predominate in Western culture, but the third is more frequently identified with shamanic cultures (Hume, 2007), although cultural synthesis has been evident since the establishment of land trade routes and the concomitant exchange of not only goods, but also of cultural artifacts and traditions.

Hume (2007) argues that ASC are achieved through culturally prescribed methods which use one or any combination of the senses as well as devices designed to stimulate the senses. Indeed, I experienced my breath being taken away by the poem, ‘The Song of the Reed’, by Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi (Appendix C), which was read aloud with remarkable feeling by one of the student practitioners. Furthermore, I entered an ASC when chanting, “Yo, Ali” repetitively to music. However, neither the reader’s skill nor the poignancy of the words themselves generated the ASC – otherwise I would have experienced this on the other occasions when I heard poetry read aloud. Likewise, if chanting on its own was capable of eliciting an ASC, then singing would have produced an ASC at other times. Consequently, when examining ASC, it is critical to include the social context the ASC occurred. Separating an ASC from the context it occurs reduces the ASC experience to a series of biological responses that can be measured and quantified. However, some researchers (Winkelman, 1997) acknowledge there are universal stimuli which elicit a trance response as well as admitting that ASC are determined by the environment in which they occur. My experience not only concurs with Jilek’s (2005) assertion that ASC can be achieved through sustained and repetitive rhythmic stimuli, but also supports Desjarlais’ (cited in Hume, 2007) view that culture is critical to the ASC experience. Indeed, Desjarlais (cited in Hume, 2007) found that even culturally unfamiliar stimuli could invoke ASC through acculturation.

Whilst an experiential state is considered by Sufis as the pathway to becoming ‘One with God’, there are nonetheless multiple layers of outcomes from the trance state, dependent on the practitioner’s knowledge and skill. Sufism teaches that an invisible and sensory world containing supernatural and paranormal phenomena exists which may be perceived by the soul, if techniques such as ASC are employed (Azmayesh, 2002). Perception of the paranormal however, is not a specific goal of Sufism. Azmayesh (2002) explains that as the practitioner develops the potential of their unique soul through awareness of their own experience, they achieve self-knowledge which brings forth a higher level of consciousness. This higher consciousness gives rise to perceptive capacities beyond that observed by the ‘ordinary’ five senses. The result is personal and experiential knowledge of a world beyond the physical realms, which lifts the veils between the material and invisible worlds. Poetry, for example, like the practice of humility, is considered by the Sufis as a means by which the veils between the visible and invisible worlds can be dissolved, thereby bringing the practitioner closer to God/The Divine. However, satisfying any questions arising in the novice student’s rational mind is emphasised at first. Sufis assert that not until all mental constructs are wholly addressed can the student practitioner move into an experiential state (personal communication with Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, Thursday April 15, 2010) in the same way that Hume (2007) discusses moving from a “less cognate, more sensate” epistemology to understand cultural phenomena (p. 2).

Sufis believe that the dissolution of the veils between both worlds is an important technique in achieving re-union with The Divine Spirit by perceiving (knowing) the soul as unattached to the physical universe. In their view, mastery of perceiving invisible realms not only assists the soul’s re-union with God, but also assists the soul transcend the physical body at death (and any attachments to a material existence). It also assists the practitioner consciously and voluntarily leave their physical body during meditation and while dreaming. Indeed, in the same manner that a shaman can occupy both the mundane and the spiritual realms and act with conscious awareness and control in both (Harner, 1990); an advanced Sufi practitioner can “show himself on one level and act at the same time in the other world” (Azmayesh, 2002 p. 41). Importantly, while dreams are regarded as indicators of the student practitioner’s spiritual progress, and are used by the teacher to direct the student along his unique spiritual journey, Sufis are directed to live in the real world, and not in the world of dreams (Mozzaffri, 2010). Mozzaffri (2010) insists that the Sufi’s role is to be a useful member of society by serving fellow human beings; nonetheless the emphasis is noticeably on the ‘human’ world rather than the ‘natural’ world. This attitude can be understood as a reflection of the humanistic culture from which the Sufi tradition emerged.

Indeed, when examining cultural artifacts, it is both impossible and imprudent to separate the artifact from culture. Rituals may be subtly or overtly executed, and sometimes those performing rituals are unaware of ritualistic gestures because they are embedded within the context they occur and thus unable to be perceived as separate phenomena. Whilst it is possible to ‘essentialise’ an ASC experience by reducing it to simple, biological elements, unless the socio-cultural context is incorporated, true understanding of ASC cannot be realised. For Sufis, trance states enhance their connectedness with God; however, those from another cultural tradition might simply view an ASC as a shift to the transcendent and perhaps even without any religious significance.


Azmayesh, SM 2002, The Teachings of a Sufi Master, Simorgh Sufi Society, New York.

Carrivick, AD 2005, Veeresh: Bliss Beyond Fear (2nd ed), Koregaon Publications, Germany.

Harner, M 1990, The Way of the Shaman, (3rd ed), HarperCollins Publishers, New York.

Hume, L 2007, Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses, Berg, Oxford/New York.

Jilek, WG 2005, ‘Transforming the shaman: Changing Western views of shamanism and altered states of consciousness’, Medigraphic, vol. VII, no. 1, pp. 8-15.

Karmi, G 1996, ‘Women, The Qur’an and patriarchal interpretations’ in M Yamani (ed), Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives, New York University Press, New York, pp. 69-83.

Matt, DC 1996, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism’, Harper, San Francisco.

Mozzaffri, A 2010, ’Darvish Information’, Unpublished, Queensland.

Schleuter, CJ 1997, ‘Revitalizing interpretations of Ephesians 5:22’, Pastoral Psychology, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 317-339.

Wilkelman, M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’ in S Blazier (ed), Anthropology of Religion, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, pp. 393-428.

Yeshe, Lama 1987, Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality, Wisdom Publications, Boston.

Appendix A

In 1975, Osho gave his student and devotee Veeresh D. Yuson-Sánchez the AUM Marathon to use in his work helping others. After many years working with the AUM Marathon, Veeresh created a condensed version of the 5-day AUM Marathon as a gift to his master Osho, which he called the AUM Meditation.

Following is the promotional text for the Osho Humaniversity AUM Meditation taken from the Osho Humaniversity Meditation Leadership Booklet (2007):

The Osho Humaniversity AUM Meditation is a 2 ½ hour guided tour through thirteen different aspects of being human. It is a social process in which you function as a mirror to each other to become more aware about yourselves, your feelings, and your attitudes towards life.

The process takes you from negativity to positivity, from anger to love, from catharsis to stillness, to finally bring you back into your centre. Then, you will understand that you are a unique and loveable human being. The final goal is friendship.

The Osho Humaniversity AUM Meditation is a social process to help you discover who you are by exploring the full range of your emotions. It will help you transform stress into creativity and well-being. The goal is to make friends with yourself and others.

The Osho Humaniversity AUM Meditation is a guided journey through your emotional life. It uses a range of techniques from catharsis to meditation in a group setting. It will help you transform stress and painful emotions into creativity and well-being. The goal is to make friends with yourself and others.

Appendix B

Following is a brief summary of the thirteen stages of the AUM Meditation:

• “NO” (requires shouting the phrase, “I hate you” to participants in turn, and then freely associating with the words and person facing you)

• “I’m sorry if I hurt you…” (meet all, or as many participants as possible, look into their eyes and say the words with genuine feeling)

• “I love you” (say the words and embrace all participants in turn)

• Second wind (physically going beyond that which you think possible)

• Kundalini (moving sacral energy through the body to connect to your creative force)

• Freak out (facing your fears of going crazy by letting go in a safe environment)

• Dancing (celebrating that self-transcendence has taken place by expressing elation through physical movement)

• Crying (with one partner, holding each other in a seated embrace)

• Laughing (demonstrating the possibility of rapid movement from an opposite emotional state)

• Dance of the lovers (connecting to one’s sexuality and discovering means of freely expressing it in the group)

• AUM chanting (generating spiritual group energy through sound)

• Wowing (observing the radiant beauty that exists within yourself)

• Namaste (meeting all participants and bowing with hands in prayer position, saying or communicating the intention: “I recognise the Buddha in you, as I recognise the Buddha in me”)

Appendix C

The Song of the Reed (part one) from The Mathnawi (Book 1) of Jalaluddin Rumi

1. Listen to the reed how it tells a tale, complaining of separations.

2. Saying, "Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed,

man and woman have moaned in (unison with) my lament.

3. I want a bosom torn by severance,

that I may unfold (to such a one) the pain of love-desire.

4. Every one who is left far from his source

wishes back the time when he was united with it.

5. In every company I uttered my wailful notes,

I consorted with the unhappy and with them that rejoice.

6. Every one became my friend from his own opinion;

none sought out my secrets from within me.

7. My secret is not far from my plaint,

but ear and eye lack the light (whereby it should be apprehended).

8. Body is not veiled from soul, nor soul from body,

yet none is permitted to see the soul."

9. This noise of the reed is fire, it is not wind:

whoso hath not this fire, may he be naught!

10. 'Tis the fire of Love that is in the reed,

'tis the fervour of Love that is in the wine.

11. The reed is the comrade of every one who has been parted from

a friend: its strains pierced our hearts.

12. Who ever saw a poison and antidote like the reed?

Who ever saw a sympathiser and a longing lover like the reed?

13. The reed tells of the Way full of blood

and recounts stories of the passion of Majnun.

14. Only to the senseless is this sense confided:

the tongue hath no customer save the ear.

15. In our woe the days (of life) have become untimely:

our days travel hand in hand with burning griefs.

16. If our days are gone, let them go! – ‘tis no matter.

Do Thou remain, for none is holy as Thou art!

17. Except the fish, everyone becomes sated with water;

whoever is without daily bread finds the day long.

18. None that is raw understands the state of the ripe:

therefore my words must be brief. Farewell!

19. O son, burst thy chains and be free!

How long wilt thou be a bondsman to silver and gold?

20. If thou pour the sea into a pitcher,

how much will it hold? One day's store.

21. The pitcher, the eye of the covetous, never becomes full:

the oyster-shell is not filled with pearls until it is contented.

(London: Cambridge University Press, 1926, translated by RA Nicholson)

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