The Wisdom of the Sufis

Geometric tiling on the underside of the dome of Hafiz Shirazi’s tomb in Shiraz via Wikimedia

When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, I had a course in religion and literature that really changed how I viewed both topics. The course had a long reading list and the professor (Thank you, Dr. Ellen Weaver!) had us read many books of both fiction and source non-fiction.

One of those books was The Wisdom of the Sufis which is printed in many different forms. I learned about things that were totally new to me: prayers and legends of the Sufi mystics, dervishes and how this mysticism grew out of medieval orthodox Islam.

In class, we learned about the Latifa prayer and tried it as a group in the classroom in a spiritual, not religious, way. This ancient Sufi prayer is meant to connect us with the essence of our being. At one time, this prayer was secret knowledge meant only for initiated disciples because it was considered to be a very holy and powerful practice.

I use the word “prayer” because that is the word used in translations and because it does come from a religious tradition, that is a loaded word to use for non-Sufis or non-religious people. You could call this a meditation if that makes more sense to your practice. I have tried to use it as a morning practice.

It is a simple prayer but one thing that makes it different from other prayers is that the words are accompanied by hand movements. The words are connected with a specific body part.

Non-Sufi believers now use the prayer as a guided meditation and I have seen yoga centers that use this much like the chakras in Indian spirituality.

The Latifa prayer was once a secret prayer only for initiated disciples, but the prayer is out there now. I’m not sure this pleases the Sufi followers or if they are gladdened to see their practices being more widely understood.

The prayer is a succession of seven themes:

I exist
I long
I hope
I trust
I release
I love
I am prepared

But then, the movements…

When you say, “I exist,” you place your right hand on your left hip with the help of your left hand while thinking about why you exist.

With your left hand, place your right hand on your right hip and say to yourself: “I desire” while thinking about the things you desire and how they influence your life.

“I hope” is connected to your right hand on your left lung aided by your left hand. Think about what you are hopeful about and how that feels.

Move your right hand to your right lung and say “I believe and I trust.” Trust comes out of hope and trust makes you stronger.

Now, your right hand goes to your neck as you say “I let go.” Think about what you need to let go of – maybe sadness or anger.

Move your right hand to the center of your chest and tell yourself “I love.” Think of a love that is strong and pure and try to feel that radiate through your body.

To finish the prayer, your right hand goes above your navel, and you place your left hand on top of it. Now, say “I am prepared” – to face the world and to know your own voice within.

Something else that separates this from what you may know as prayer is that it is for inner peace and self-affirmation. That may not be what you associate with prayer since many people pray for things. We pray for the material things we want, things we want to happen or not happen, things we want to change. The Latifa is about finding things in yourself, not outside.

The Sufi parables in those books of wisdom were short and reminded me of Zen parables.

An example:
An old man accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life.
Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive.
“I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl, and this is how I survived.”

There are many Sufi parables online and in books if you’re interested in reading them. Many have been translated in modern English versions but are rooted in classical Sufis, such as Rumi, Attar, or S’adi.

A video of someone doing the Latifa and showing the movements with the words would be very helpful, but I couldn’t find one. I did find a guided version of the prayer, but it doesn’t show the movements. If you find a good video of this, please leave a comment here for others.

Since religion can be divisive and even political, I will mention here that Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism. Though it has produced some beloved literature (such as the love poems of the 13th-century Rumi) it has also come under attacks by other modern-day Islamists because Sufis cherish tolerance and pluralism – which are not qualities that in many religions unsettle extremists.

An earlier version of this post appeared at One-Page Schoolhouse

Regimens, Rituals and Practices

How do you do meaningful, creative work, and earn a living at it?

That is a question that Daily Rituals: How Artists Work attempts to answer.  This is another example of a blog (the now-defunct Daily Routines), that became a book.  Mason Currey collected the daily rituals/regimens of  many creative people. The implication is probably not intended to be that by studying them, we can find the rituals to make us creative. Oh, ’twere it so. But, if you are already creative but lacking regimen and ritual, the book could help you.

In a story on NPR about the book and rituals,  they pass along an essay title from the satirical The Onion: “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.”

That piece of satire digs at any of us who want to believe that “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” That quote (often attributed to Confucius, but probably much more contemporary in origin) is such a wonderful goal – and seems so very unlikely to be attainable for most people.

The Onion essay may be satire, but it is more likely that you can pursue your passion outside of work hours and maybe that is not so terrible. It is certainly better than not pursuing a passion at all.

That passion may be painting, playing the guitar or writing. People do make a living at these things, but the number who do is quite small. I enjoy writing on my blogs. People turn blogs into books. I might be able to do that one day, but it’s not why I write or my goal in writing.

“Ritual” evokes something vaguely religious, and “regimen” and “routine” sound serious and boring. In the past, I have used the term “practice” which can be daily, but can vary and is certainly not anything perfected.

Currey’s book suggests by example the many little tricks that people use to push them to be creative, such as setting a quantity of work be completed (maybe 5 pages of that novel) before the reward of going out for lunch each day.

If your passion is not your job and you do it in your free time, you still might need incentives to move forward. Yes, you write those poems, but why aren’t you sending them out to be published and why aren’t you going to more readings and open mics?

James Joyce’s daily ritual of waking at 10 a.m, staying in bed for an hour, getting up, shaving, sitting at the piano, lunch and then writing in the afternoon with a reward of the cafes later that evening sounds like a pretty sweet life. I don’t hear a paycheck in there.

John Updike, who did make a living as a writer, “put the creative project first” by writing in the morning without waiting for the muse to visit because “the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.”

“Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working.
They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.” – V. S. Pritchett

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” – W. H. Auden

If the topic interests you, there is an excerpt from Daily Rituals online to get you started.


Gratitude Practice


“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” -Lao Tzu

So, I’m having a conversation over coffee with a friend the other day and he says “You’re so cynical.” I’ve heard that before and yet I consider myself pretty idealistic. I also get “sarcastic” occasionally, but I think both of those are just tools of my humor.

Let me examine this situation. Four years ago I wrote a post about using a “gratitude journal.” It is a journal/diary that is supposed to be written in on a daily basis where you record things for which you are grateful. The idea is to attention on the positive things in your life. Sounds simple and easy. It’s not.

Some studies have shown that people who used gratitude journals felt better about their lives, and reported fewer symptoms of illness. They can be used to alleviate depression. In the study I had found four years ago, the greatest benefits were usually found to occur around six months after treatment began. I never made it that long and I wasn’t one of the successful participants that continued to keep after the study was over.

I also tried a basic daily gratefulness practice. I figured that it might be easier for me to simply review the day when I was settled into bed for the night and note at least one thing I was grateful for in that day.

A “practice” sounds so much better than a “habit” and a bit less pretentious than a “ritual.” You can engage in a practice in a more formal way, but it can be done anytime, anywhere, and as often as you want.

My gratitude practice was meant to be as simple as slowing down and being conscious of your breath.

There are lots of websites about all this but how hard is it really?

What am I grateful for from today? What did the day present to me for which I can be grateful?

I may have made it more difficult by not allowing myself the easy gratefulness: I’m pretty healthy. I have two great sons. I am happily married. I have enough money to do things I want to do. But those things can’t be used in my practice. I need to come up with things from that day. New gratefulness.

My answers quickly became rather trite. I’m grateful that when I went for a walk today I didn’t fall and hurt myself. Lunch today was great. What a beautiful weather day it was today!  I’m grateful that my sister did not call today with some new complaint.

“You’re so cynical.”

Is that what it is? Am I so ungrateful?

On the site,,  it tells me to sit down with pen and paper or at my computer and start with I am grateful for …

So, I am grateful right now that I can sit here and type this blog post and feel no guilt that I am wasting my time, and that I will click a button and it go out into the world and some people will read it. That is pretty cool and I am grateful for being able to do it.

Tiny Buddha says that by doing this I am tapping into something bigger than me and bigger than any current problems. This practice is “a bridge across those troubled waters to a resting place on the other side.” Now, that may be asking for too much from it.

They recommend that you write it down rather than just say or think it and I suppose it would be nice to be able to look back in my little gratitude journal and see 365 pieces of gratitude after a year.

I’m not sure that I agree with their advice that on a day when there is not a shred of gratitude you should just do it anyway. That sounds false.

They recommend – and this is very “practice” – that you choose a set time of day and stick to it. I like the end of day. By tomorrow morning, I have already forgotten a good part of yesterday.

Janice Kaplan  wrote The Gratitude Diaries and I’m not going to question her subtitle – “How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life” – I’ll just say that it did not work for me. She started on a New Year’s Eve and says that she realized that how she felt over the next months had less to do with the events that occurred and more to do with her own attitude and perspective.

I guess I have some work to do on my attitude and perspective.

(Janice Kaplan did a Talk at Google about her year - watch on YouTube.)

Sending Your Daily Practice Out Into The World

As a teacher, applying what you learn is one of my top goals for my students. It’s also a goal that I have in my non-academic life. I have written here about several of my attempts at a daily practice. The most successful one may be the poetry practice I was able to do 365 times in 2014.

But, if you say “daily practice” I think many people think of something religious or spiritual. Hopefully, they don’t think of daily habits – such as getting a coffee at the local shop on the way to work.

When I was more serious about my meditation practice, it became important to me that the practice moved into some actions in my life. The idea of meditating peacefully on some hilltop or is some tranquil Zen monastery is very appealing. But it also seems very self-indulgent.

Buddhism is generally not taught in America as a religion. Buddhist teachings are offered in a very practical, nonreligious way, and students of any – or no – religious background can benefit from learning them and putting them into practice.

When i stumbled upon the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, that’s what I was thinking about.  EIAB has a mission to not only offer training but also “methods for using Buddha’s teachings to relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world. ”

The institute operates under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the world-renowned meditation teacher, scholar and writer, and Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition.

Of course, many people apply Buddhist teachings as a way to release tensions of the body, reduce stress and pain. Moving that into the lives of others makes the practice more powerful. Students in a monastic community profit from the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration and being surrounded by a harmonious community who wish to apply mindfulness into their daily lives. But can that community be made even wider.

I tried yoga twice, but it didn’t work for me. It does work for many others as a practice.

In a post about Yoga from the Heart by Seane Corn, she talks about a concept of “body prayer” where she applies her yoga practice to her humanitarian efforts. (Here’s a video excerpt of her demonstrating the movement of “body prayer”)

Meditation and yoga classes are offered in corporate centers, churches, hospitals, schools and storefront and formal fitness centers. It may seem new and hip but it is a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice even if it is being blended with technology,  modern medical science and with other religious and philosophical perspectives.

I did send my daily poems out into the world. The idea that there was some audience for them was important motivation for continuing. I had responses to the poems via comments, emails and some live conversations with friends and a few people I met through the poems. That was small compared to the way some practices change lives. Something for all of us to consider.

Writing the Day

I started a new daily writing practice for 2014 that I call WRITING THE DAY.

The idea is simple – and not totally original – to write a poem each day.

I wanted to impose some form on myself each day. I love haiku, tanka and other short forms, but I decided to create my own form for this project.  I wanted to do shorter poems and I thought about the many Japanese forms that I enjoy reading and writing. The haiku is the form most people are familiar with, and it is a form that gets far too little respect in the Western world,

People know that form as three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. But that’s an English interpretation, since Japanese doesn’t have syllables.

bridgerain400The main inspiration for me is the tanka form which consists of five units (often treated as separate lines when romanized or translated) usually with the following pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. Even in that short form, the tanka has two parts. The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”) and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”).

For my invented form, ronka, there are 5 lines, each having 7 words without concern for syllables. Like the tanka there is no rhyme.

My own ronka will focus on observations of the day as seen in the outside world and the inside worlds of dwellings and the mind.

From the haiku form I will try to use techniques like having seasonal words to show rather than tell – cherry blossoms, rather than “spring” or April.  Haiku also don’t include the poet or people as frequently as we do in Western poetry.

I am calling the form ronka – obviously a somewhat egotistical play on the tanka form.

wave crossing

William Stafford is the poet who inspired this daily practice the most for me. Stafford wrote every morning from 1950 to 1993. He left us 20,000 pages of daily writings that include early morning meditations, dream records, aphorisms, and other “visits to the unconscious.” He used sheets of yellow or white paper and sometimes spiral-bound reporters’ steno pads.

I already write every day. I teach and writing is part of the job. I do social media as a job and for myself. I work on my poetry. I have other blogs. But none of them is a daily practice or devoted to writing poems.

When Stafford was asked how he was able to produce a poem every morning, he replied, “I lower my standards.”  I like that answer, but I know that phrase “lowering standards” has a real negative connotation. I think Stafford meant that he allows himself some bad poems and some non-poems, knowing that with daily writing there will be eventually be some good work.

Read the poem, “Mindful,” by Mary Oliver and you’ll get a nice explanation of at least part of the motivation for doing this daily poetry practice – the joy I find every day in some thing, perhaps rather small, that I feel some need to record so that I will remember it in times when things seem less joyful. The poem comes her collection, Why I Wake Early, whose title fits right into the William Stafford writing practice that also inspired my project. She writes about the outdoors – crickets, toads, trout lilies, black snakes, goldenrod, bears and deer – and that is at least a third of what I expect my poems to have as inspiration. But I will be less disciplined about waking up early.

Now, I have been Writing the Day for 19 days and I don’t know if I can sustain the practice every day for an entire year. But, I know it is more pleasurable than resolving to lose weight, exercise more, spend less time online or any other of the common New Year’s boxes that so many people put themselves into in January.