I belong to a group that meets monthly to study teachings and practices given by Hazrat Inayat Khan and other Sufi masters. The circle gathers in a comfortable room in a center for Vedic studies that’s housed in a big, one-hundred-year-old Victorian house in Denver. As the days get longer, our evening classes begin while sunlight still pours through old-fashioned stained glass windows, the sort that decorate the entryways and living rooms of the former homes of the barons of industry.
This month we began to explore the topic of Contemplation. For myself, I am truly just dipping my toe in this ocean of wisdom from which teachings and practices come. But as the woman who guides this class shared a series of quotes describing the way that some Sufis understand the nature of Contemplation, some of the words resonated with me, and a string of lights went on in my brain as it associated these suggestions with other areas of life that have had my attention lately. For example, she read:
Contemplation is about relating to something, moving from outside to inside. The highest form of contemplation is relating to the divine. Contemplation engages the heart and the sense of meaningfulness. Love always focuses us. No one has trouble being concentrated on the Beloved. Seeing with the eyes of the soul is a good doorway into contemplation. If the beholding is experienced fresh, if there is an unveiled encounter with the object, then it is a portal into a deeper connection and meaning. We long to live our lives not just on the surface. The process of contemplation is the way in to the center. (The attribution of this passage is “From Ischtar and Gayan.”)
I think I first felt my spirituality through relating to objects, elements, and plants, the non-speaking, (mostly) non-moving energy entities around me. I felt a special connectedness to materials like the bricks in the wall of a building (especially if they were old), or the water in a lake, soft and vibrating with life against my skin. In the long walks I took around my town as an adolescent and teenager, I frequently felt the urgent impulse to stop and touch things, to meet and experience them with the flat palms of my hands and all of my fingers stretched out and receptive. These interactions opened parts of my being that had, at that time, never stirred in my relationships with human beings. In fact, I recently started to understand this part of my personality as a capacity to actually be in love with the non-human. (Now that adds another dimension to polyamory!)
As I continued to follow this pull toward the inanimate world, and to relate with objects as beings, the impressions that formed in my mind began to express themselves in poetry. This remained a strong theme in my writing in that format – the exploration of ways in which we can see ourselves, our ideas, and the divine reflected in both natural and human-made things, and the existence around us of a variety of beings that we don’t typically recognize as alive. Though it’s been a long time since I regularly wrote poetry, since I have been doing the practice that I wrote about here, I’ve also found this aspect of my creative self reawakened (to my great joy!). When I saw the National Poetry Writing Month challenge, I had the strong feeling that it would be really good for me (and my mental health) to participate. I haven’t written every day, but I’ve written poems on a lot of days this month, and the awareness that the part of me that thinks in poetry is waking up, stretching, and reintegrating itself into my life is – well – awesome.
So all this was the background as I heard the passage that I quoted above. It hit at least two bulls’ eyes in my heart: the place that has always honored relating with things as a pathway (one among many) to understanding life and the Divine; and the place in which poetry has just woken up, famished, after a long hibernation.
As part of this class, we have exercises that we are supposed to do at home during the month between meetings. The ones from this month were reviews of previously learned concepts around Concentration, and introductory “first steps into the ocean” of this new topic of Contemplation. They are designed, it seems to me, to prepare us for and open us to the possibilities of explorations to come. And one of the gates through which we enter this realm is a practice in which we choose an object to contemplate, and, through a combination of breath, concentration, and interest, get to know the object – inquire as to what its nature is, below the surface of its exterior. The does not mean to think about the materials or parts that make it up – or at least, not only to do that. Rather, it’s asking what this object is about, what it’s here for, in the world and in our own vicinity. It’s becoming receptive to messages and teachings which this object may carry to us from Spirit. For, after all, as the foundational truth of Sufism, la ‘ilaha ‘illa allah, states (in one way of understanding it, anyway – as always, one among many), there is nothing that is not part of Allah; all of existence is part of Allah; there is nothing that exists that is outside of Allah; there is nothing but Allah.
So today I sat down to try this at home. I hadn’t pre-planned what object I was going to try contemplating. My eye first fell on a large conch shell that I brought back from the Bahamas, which now sits on my altar. I thought it would have a richness of impressions to offer! But then my gaze wandered over to the right of the altar, where I keep my musical instruments. And I thought, Hey. I’d really like to get to know the inner essence of my ukulele. ‘Cause we work together. And maybe we could work together even better if I was more aware of what it wanted.
I positioned it (okay, I really call it her) on my bed, far enough away that I could see the whole thing without having to move my eyes, close enough that I could see the grain of the wood and my fingerprints on the body from the last time I played her. I fluffed up the comforter at one end so that she’d be resting on her side at a jaunty angle, and so I could clearly see each of the four tuning pegs. Then I closed my eyes and watched my breath for a while. I tried to clear a space in which I could receive whatever awareness she wanted to share with me. When I opened my eyes, I tried to keep a softness in my vision, allowing for a little blurring of edges, not just of the physical object I was looking at, but of the boundary between ordinary perception and the other, energetic senses. (I think of Lynn Woodland’s teaching that when we are engaged in spiritual or deep internal inquiry, what comes to us through our imagination is often a communication from our higher self.) Here are some of the ideas that came to me as I contemplated my ukulele.
First I got some images of the journey of the wood from which the instrument is made. When my old ukulele broke (it was a very cheap, but very cute, model, with a rainbow and a palm tree painted on the front), I asked my partner’s mother to bring me a uke from Hawaii, where she travels from time to time. She did bring me one – which, to my amusement, turned out to have been made in China. No matter, I thought; it had been on the island, it had absorbed something of the vibe, which I could access when I played her. Now I felt the distance from which the pieces had come, and some trace of the hands of the people who had assembled it; I even got a little notion of the power of the glue that held the parts together. Then I felt the wholeness of the ukulele as an instrument. I sensed that in her utilitarian design, plain but much sturdier and more resonant than her predecessor, she reflected to me an awareness of the growth and strengthening of my own spirit and my development as a creative person offering words and music to the world.
I noticed that the shape of her body is like mine: round at the shoulders, round and wide at the hips, with a lot of fretting at the head, and a big hole right over the heart, which is simultaneously the most sensitive, undefended part of both of us, and the only place from which the healing sounds can emerge.
I imagined us just being together, tuning to each others’ pitches. I tried to hear the music she wanted my to play on her, the pressure of my fingers on her strings that would feel just right to her, and allow her to express what was inside of her.
I got the sense that musical instruments carry an energy of potentiality about them. At rest, they are still always poised on the cusp of sound. They are like cords that connect us – the amplifiers – to the divine, say, lead guitarist. When we take them in our hands, we plug ourselves in to that source, so that the song that is always already being played may flow through us and be heard by others.
But then, she reminded me, we humans are not just amplifiers but also instruments ourselves, not just in our art, but in our whole lives. So really, my uke and I are more peers than I thought. Something I read recently on the website of the International Sufi Movement about the heart as an instrument came back to me. I believe these are the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan, though it’s not stated on the site:
Krishna is pictured in Hindu symbology with a crown of peacock’s feathers, playing the flute. Krishna is the ideal of divine love, the God of love. And the divine love expresses itself by entering into man and filling his whole being. Therefore the flute is the human heart, and a heart which is made hollow will become a flute for the God of love to play upon. When the heart is not empty, in other words, when there is not scope in the heart, there is no place for love. Rumi, the great poet of Persia, explains this idea more clearly. He says the pains and sorrows the soul experiences through life, are like holes made in a reed flute, and it is by making these holes that a player makes the flute out of a reed. This means that the heart of man is first a reed, and the sufferings and pains it goes through make it a flute, which can then be used by God as the instrument for the music that He constantly wishes to produce. But as every reed is not a flute, so every heart is not His instrument. As the reed can be made into a flute, so the human heart can be turned into an instrument, and can be offered to the God of love. It is the human heart which becomes the harp of the angels; it is the human heart which is known as the lute of Orpheus. It was on the model of the heart of man that the first instrument of music was made, and no earthly instrument can produce that music which the heart produces, raising the mortal soul to immortality.
The instructions for the object contemplation exercise conclude, “We allow the object that we perceive to touch us. The world is full of meaning when we listen.” I believe that this is so. I think that Spirit has many messages for us, and that guidance is ALWAYS there, all around us, in every aspect of our existence – if we are able to read it, hear it, see it, get it. I believe I’m aware of about one gazillionth part of the continual stream of divine guidance that is beamed directly to my own personal internal satellite dish every microsecond of every day. But on the other hand, every additional gazillionth that I’m ever able to recognize has an inversely proportional impact on my life: that is, it’s huge. So the value of contemplation, regularly practiced, is immeasurable. It puts me into a mindset of wonder, which helps me to make myself, and all the potentialities with which I was born, available for God’s purposes. In that state of mind, I don’t need to know how the song goes. Like the ukulele, I just need to be.