Spiritual Exercises from the Naqshbandi Path

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

It is not enough to talk about spirituality. We must live it.

There are many ways to live spirituality on a daily basis. Vedanta gives four main paths, or “yogas,” for living spirituality. Other traditions offer additional ways.

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.

Whether a Sufi, a Vedantin or a Christian, these exercises can help us improve our spiritual life if faithfully applied.

The Golden Sufi Center has put together an article that clearly explains these 11 spiritual exercises central to Naqshbandi practice. We reprint four of these exercises here, and will highlight the other seven in the coming months.

Spiritual Exercise 1: Awareness in the breath/awareness in the moment (“hush dar dam”)

“Every breath which is exhaled from within must be exhaled with awareness and presence of mind and so that the mind does not stray into forgetfulness.”

Baha ad-din Naqshband said: “The foundation of our work is in the breath. The more that one is able to be conscious of one’s breathing, the stronger is one’s inner life. It is a must for everyone to safeguard his breath in the time of his inhalation and exhalation and further, to safeguard his breath in the interval between the inhalation and exhalation.”

As the seeker becomes occupied with the exercise of the moment (i.e. remembering the breath), he turns his attention from remembering the past and thinking of the future, and focuses on each breath until it is expired.

Sa’d ud-din Kashghari added: “Hush dar dam is moving from breath to breath so there is no heedlessness but rather there is presence, and with each breath that we take should be the remembrance of the Real.”

Sheikh Abdul Janab Najmuddin al-Kubra said in his book, Fawatih al-Jamal: “Dhikr (remembrance of God in the breath) is flowing in the body of every single living creature by the necessity of their breath—even without will—as a sign of obedience, which is part of their creation. Through their breathing, the sound of the letter ‘Ha’ of the Divine Name Allah is made with every exhalation and inhalation and it is a sign of the Unseen Essence serving to emphasize the Uniqueness of God. Therefore it is necessary to be present with that breathing, in order to realize the Essence of the Creator.”

The name Allah, which encompasses the ninety-nine Names and Attributes, consists of four letters, Alif, Lam, Lam and Hah (ALLAH). The people of Sufism say that the absolute unseen Essence of Allah Exalted and Almighty is expressed by the last letter vowelized by the Alif, “Hah.” It represents the Absolutely Unseen “He-ness” of the Exalted God (Ghayb al-Huwiyya al-Mutlaqa lillah ‘azza wa jall) in which the mystic loses his separate identity with every “hah” in his breath. The first Lam is for the sake of identification (tacrif) and the second Lam is for the sake of emphasis (mubalagha).

The soul has long been thought to be in the breath. “For the early thinkers the soul was visualized sensuously as a breath-body.” Awareness of the breath makes us aware of the soul and the inner body, inner self, which belong to the moment.

In the path of the Khwajagan (the “masters”), awareness in the breath is a very great principle. Those in this path regard it a great transgression to become unconscious of the breath.

Spiritual Exercise 2: Watch your step (“nazar bar qadam”)

Direct yourself constantly towards the goal.

Sa’d ud-din Kashghari added: “Looking upon the steps means that the seeker in coming and going looks upon the top of his feet and thereby his attention is not scattered by looking at what he should not look at.” When the beginner’s attention is taken by shapes and colors outside of himself, his state of remembering leaves him and is ruined, and he is kept from his objective. This is because the beginning seeker does not have the power of the “remembrance of the heart,” so when his sight falls upon things, his heart loses its collectedness, and his mind becomes scattered.

“Watch your step” can also refer to watching circumstances, feeling when is the right time for action, when is the right time for inaction, and when is the right time for pause. Some have said that nazar bar qadam is an expression that refers to the wisdom inherent in one’s natural disposition.

Fakhr ud-Din Kashifi added: “Nazar bar qadam may be alluding to the seeker’s traveling through the stages of breaking from existence and putting behind self-love.”

Of these three interpretations, the first refers to beginners’ use of this aphorism, the second refers to those in mid-progress on the Way, and the third to the attainers.

Spiritual Exercise 3: The journey home (“safar dar watan”)

Your journey is towards your homeland. Remember you are traveling from a world of illusion to a world of reality. The wayfarer travels from the world of creation to the world of the Creator.

The journey home is the transformation that brings man out of his subjective dream state so that he can fulfill his divine destiny.

From the Rashahat-i ‘ayn al-hayat: “[The journey home refers to] that traveling which the seeker makes within his human nature. In other words, travel from the qualities of humankind toward the angelic qualities, moving from blameworthy qualities to laudable ones.” Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624) said: “This blessed expression [traveling in the homeland] means traveling within the self. The source of its results lies in putting the final [practice] at the beginning, which is one of the characteristics of the Naqshbandi Way. And although this [inner] traveling can also be found in other tariqas [schools of Sufism], [in those] it is found only in the end after the ‘traveling on the horizons’ [referring to the Qur’anic verse (41:53): ‘We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within their selves until they know He is the Real’].”

“Traveling on the horizons” is traveling from place to place. At the beginning of the journey it can mean leaving home to find a guide or teacher. Also it happened in former generations that when the wayfarer had become established in a place, got accustomed to it and become familiar with its people, the wayfarer took on traveling in order to break down habit and comfort and cut away from renown. The wayfarer would choose travel in order to experience complete emptying.

It means traveling within oneself, looking at oneself, examining oneself and one’s reactions and how they act upon one.

This reflects the stress that the Naqshbandi path puts on the inner states, stages, and processes.

Be an external resident and let your heart travel. Traveling without legs is the best kind of travel.

Spiritual Exercise 4: Solitude in the crowd (“khalwat dar anjuman”)

There are two kinds of retreats. One is the outward kind in which the seeker, far from people, sits alone in his cell until he comes into contact with the spiritual world. This result comes about because the external senses withdraw themselves and the inner senses extend themselves to signs from the spiritual world.

The second kind of retreat is the hidden one where the seeker is inwardly witnessing the secrets of the Real while he is outwardly surrounded by people. Khalwat dar anjuman is of this second type of retreat: outwardly to be with people, inwardly to be with God.

In all your outer activities remain inwardly free. Learn not to identify with anything whatsoever.

Khwaja Awliya Kabir, one of the deputies of ‘Abd ul-Khaliq Ghujduwani, explained khalwat dar anjuman as follows: “‘Retreat within the crowd’ is that state when one is so constantly and completely absorbed in divine remembrance that ‘one could walk through the market-place without hearing a word.’”

They are with their Lord and simultaneously they are with the people. As the Prophet Muhammad said, “I have two sides: one faces my Creator and one faces creation.”

‘Abd ul-Khaliq Ghujduwani himself was known to say: “Close the door of the formality of sheikhhood (being an elder), open the door of friendship. Close the door of khalwat (solitary retreat) and open the door of suhbat (companionship).” Baha ad-din Naqshband said in this connection: “Our path is in companionship. In [physical] retreat there comes fame and with fame comes calamity. Our welfare lies with the assembly and its companionship, on condition that [self-] negation is found in one another.”

When Baha ad-din reached Herat on his journey to Mecca, the Amir Hussein arranged a gathering in his honor. At the assembly the Amir asked him, “Since with your Presence there is neither audible dhikr (worship), nor voyaging, nor audition of special music and poetry, what is your path?” He answered, “The pure words of the tribe of ‘Abd ul-Khaliq Ghujduwani, which are ‘retreat within the crowd,’ and we follow in their Way.” “What is retreat within the crowd?” the Amir asked. “Outwardly to be with the people while inwardly to be with God,” said Naqshband. The Amir expressed surprise and asked whether this was actually possible. Baha ad-din replied that if it were not possible God Most High would not have indicated it in a Qur’anic verse which describes those who are not distracted from the remembrance of God even while in the marketplace: “Men whom neither business nor profit distracts from the recollection of Allah” [24:37]. This is the way of the Naqshbandi Order.

Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindî, Mujaddid-i-alf-i-thani (the Renewer of the second millennium) said: “Retreat within the crowd is derived from traveling in the homeland since if traveling in the homeland is properly accomplished, then retreat within the crowd will properly occur. The seeker within the diversity of the crowd travels in his own land, and the diversity of the horizons finds no way into the meditation cell of his inner self. This treasure will manifest with difficulty at the beginning and with no difficulty in the end. And in this tariqa (path) it is the portion of the beginning while in other paths it is at the end. This is so because the treasure is derived from traveling within the self (with presence in the moment), which is at the beginning of this path, while traveling on the horizons takes place simultaneously. This is the opposite of the other paths which make the traveling on the horizons the beginning and the traveling within the self the end.”

In the words of al-Kharraz: “Perfection is not in exhibitions of miraculous powers, but perfection is to sit among people, sell and buy, marry and have children; and yet never leave the presence of Allah even for one moment.”

In constant communion with the Beloved within, a stranger to the world. Those endowed with such beauty are rare indeed in this world.

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


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