Four Sufi Spiritual Practices

Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

At the highest level, the major spiritual traditions converge at the same ultimate destination. The words might be different, the paths might not be the same, and there sure is plenty of cultural variation and “lower truth” that obscures the unifying higher truths. But deep down, all faiths converge at the highest level.

This is not only an idea that encourages respect for other faiths. It also is a clue that we can learn from other spiritual traditions and use these traditions to better our own.

One spiritual path with insight that can benefit the Vedanta practitioner is Sufism.

The Naqshbandi spiritual order, a branch of the Sufi tradition, offers 11 exercises, or principles, for living spirituality and getting closer to truth.

Eight of these spiritual exercises came from the Central Asian Sufi teacher, ‘Abd ul-Khaliq Ghujduwani (d. 1220). The other three were added by Baha ad-din Naqshband (d. 1389), founder of the Naqshbandi Order.

The Golden Sufi Center has put together an article that clearly explains these 11 spiritual exercises central to Naqshbandi practice. In a previous essay we highlighted four of these 11 spiritual exercises, namely awareness in the breath/awareness in the moment (“hush dar dam”), watch your step (“nazar bar qadam”), the journey home (“safar dar watan”), and solitude in the crowd (“khalwat dar anjuman”).

Here we reprint the remaining four from ‘Abd ul-Khaliq Ghujduwani. We will highlight the last three exercises in the coming months.

Remembrance (Yad kard)

Concentration on Divine Presence. For the Naqshbandiyya, remembrance is practiced in the silent prayer, dhikr.

Keep God, the Beloved, always in your heart. Let your dhikr be the prayer of your heart.

According to Khwaja Ubaydullah Ahrar, “the real meaning of dhikr is inward awareness of God. The purpose of dhikr is to attain this consciousness.” The purpose of the dhikr is to keep one’s heart and attention entirely focused on the Beloved in love and devotion.

The dhikr is not just repeated as words, but is in the heart.

Remembrance of the tongue becomes remembrance of the heart. Abdu’l-Qadir al-Gilani said: “At the first stage one recites the name of God with one’s tongue; then when the heart becomes alive one recites inwardly. At the beginning one should declare in words what one remembers. Then stage by stage the remembrance spreads throughout one’s being—descending to the heart then rising to the soul; then still further it reaches the realm of the secrets; further to the hidden; to the most hidden of the hidden.”

Returning (from distraction), Going Back (Baz gasht)

Travel one way. Return to God in single-minded pursuit of divine truth.

This means banishing and dispelling every thought, good or bad, that comes to mind involuntarily during the dhikr. When performing the remembrance, the heart is required to attain the calm contentment of: “Oh Allah, my goal is You and Your good pleasure; it is nothing else!” So long as there is any space left in the heart for other interests, such calm contentment cannot take shape, and the remembrance cannot be genuine. Even if this tranquility cannot be attained at the outset, one must not abandon the remembrance, and it is necessary to persist in its performance until this feeling is acquired.

The meaning of baz gasht is the return to Allah Exalted and Almighty by showing complete surrender and submission to His Will, and complete humbleness in giving Him all due praise. The reason, mentioned by the Holy Prophet in his invocation, ma dhakarnaka haqqa dhikrika ya Madhkar (“We did not Remember You as You Deserve to be Remembered, O Allah”), is that the seeker cannot come to the presence of Allah in his dhikr, and cannot manifest the Secrets and Attributes of Allah in his dhikr, if he does not make dhikr with Allah’s support and with Allah’s remembrance of him. As Bayazid Bistami (d. 874) said: “When I reached Him I saw that His remembering of me preceded my remembrance of Him.” The seeker cannot make dhikr by himself. He must recognize that Allah is the one making dhikr through him.

“Beloved, you and your approval are my purpose and desire.” This attitude will rid one of impure thoughts and distractions. It relates to the path of absorption. One Sufi was concerned that he was not sincere, and was ashamed. So his sheikh took him to a Sufi who was on the path of absorption, and this sheikh told him that absorption, not hair-splitting, would free him from his problem. The wayfarer realized that in his worry about his dishonesty and shame, his wants and needs, he had been focused on himself, separating himself from his Beloved.

According to Khwaja Ahrar, the saying “returning” means that we have within us the goal of our striving. The seeds of transformation are sown in us from above and we have to treasure them above all possessions.

Attentiveness (Nigah dasht)

Struggle with all alien thoughts. Be always mindful of what you are thinking and doing, so that you may put the imprint of your immortality on every passing incident and instance of your daily life.

Be watchful. Be aware of what catches your attention. Learn to withdraw your attention from undesirable objects. This is also expressed as “be vigilant in thought and remember yourself.”

Nigah means sight. It means that the seeker must watch his heart and safeguard it by preventing bad thoughts from entering. Bad inclinations keep the heart from joining with the Divine.

It is acknowledged in the Naqshbandiyya that for a seeker to safeguard his heart from bad inclinations for fifteen minutes is a great achievement. For this he would be considered a real Sufi. Sufism is the power to safeguard the heart from bad thoughts and protect it from low inclinations. Whoever accomplishes these two goals will know his heart, and whoever knows his heart will know his Lord. The Holy Prophet has said, “Whoever knows himself knows His Lord.”

Sa’d ud-Din Kashgari said: “The seeker must, for one hour or two or whatever he is capable of, hold onto his mind and prevent thoughts of other [than God] entering.” Another description from the Munahej ul-Sair has it that: “[Nigah dasht is the] guarding of the special awareness and presence which have resulted from the noble dhikr, so that remembering of anything other than the Real does not find its way into the heart/mind.”

Yet others have written that nigah dasht also applies to the time of the dhikr itself: “Nigah dasht is when the seeker at the time of the dhikr holds his heart/mind upon the meaning of LA ILAHA ILLA ‘LLAH so that thoughts do not find entrance into his heart, because if thoughts are in the mind then the result of the dhikr, meaning presence of the heart/mind, will not manifest.” It has also been said, “Nigah dasht is an expression meaning the prevention of the occurrence of thought at the time one is occupied with [repeating] the fragrant sentence [of LA ILAHA ILLA ‘LLAH].”

Abdul Majid Il Khani said that the meaning of preserving the heart/mind from incoming thoughts is that they lose their hold on the mind. In this connection Khwaja Ubaydullah Ahrar said: “The meaning of preserving the mind [from thoughts] is not that the seeker can avoid thoughts at the beginning [of his attempts], but rather that thoughts do not disturb the attendance and presence [required for the dhikr]. [Thoughts] can be likened to straw which has fallen onto moving water and yet the water is not prevented from its course. ‘Abd ul-Khaliq Ghujduwani said: “It isn’t so that thoughts never enter the heart/mind, but rather that at times they do and at times they do not.” His statement seems to be supported by Khwaja ‘Ala al-Din al-‘Attar who reported: “Succeeding with thoughts is difficult or even impossible. I preserved my heart for twenty years from thoughts, after which they would still appear but they then found no hold there.”

Continued Remembrance / Perpetual Invocation (Yad dasht)

Have constant awareness in the presence of God. “The complete experience of divine contemplation, achieved through the action of objective love.”

Those on the path maintain that when inner love is always present in one’s dealings with the world, then one has achieved this mindfulness.

This is the last stage before transformation is completed. The seeker becomes aware that his loss of “self” will be compensated by objective love. The humiliation (abnegation of self) that leads to this stage ceases to touch the seeker for he discovers the unlimited joy that Truth will bring.

Yad dasht refers to the durability of the awareness of the Real in the path of “tasting” (living in the multiplicity of illusion). In the Rashahat-i ‘ain al-Hayyat it is stated: “Some have said that this is a perceiving/witnessing which is the domination of witnessing the Real in the heart through essential love.”

Ubaydullah Ahrar said: “Yad dasht is an expression meaning the durability of the awareness of the Glorious Real.” He said further: “It means presence [with God] without disappearance.”

Regarding the use of the term for the period of the dhikr itself it has been said: “Yad dasht is that which the dhakir (person practicing dhikr) during the dhikr maintains [fully the meaning of] negation and affirmation in his heart in the presence of the Named.”

Khwaja Ubaydullah Ahrar has described the principles five through eight as following each other in this manner: “Yad kard (Remembrance) refers to the work of invoking/remembering. Baz gasht (Returning) means turning to the High Real in the manner that when saying the fragrant sentence of the dhikr the seeker follows this in his heart with ‘God you are my true goal!’ and nigah dasht (Attentiveness) is the holding on to this turning [to the Real] without words. Yad dasht (Recollection) means constancy/firmness in [the holding on of] nigah dasht (Attentiveness).”

These exercises and their explanation come courtesy of the Golden Sufi Center. Reprinted with permission.

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