The alarm goes off at 3.30 am, while it's still dark. You get out of bed, make a pot of tea and heat up a roti for sehri. You are alone, the house is quiet and dark and motionless, except for the rhythmic swinging of the lampshade over the dining table. You eat the roti with mango jam and gulp down lots of water. Your stomach feels distended like a leather water pouch. No matter how much you drink, you'll be battling thirst during the day. Temperatures are soaring in the 40s. Ramazan has arrived at the height of summer, and a typical fasting day spans fifteen hours.
Around 4:00 am you hear the azaan from the nearby mosque. You take your last gulp of water. It’s still dark when you settle down in a rocking chair and wait for the first signs of daybreak. You converse silently with the Friend. It's a strange, sacred time, this pre-dawn hour. The window creaks on its hinges and this sweet, rusty sound takes you into some unexplored region beyond the knowing mind. You hover in that space. Faded sounds from childhood float up—your beloved Dadiamma is waking you up, making you eat sweetened lacchi soaked in milk. It was so long time ago when you lived in that courtyard house with the leaky roof in Chittagong, with your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. It was a time when living seemed decidedly easier.
Quietly you waft back to the present and wait for the familiar morning sounds—the comforting call of the koel, the swish of the servant's broom in the neighbor’s garden. The fronds of the banana tree are caught swaying like whirling dervishes in the glass panes. The hour when the fast begins is a sacred hour as are the minutes just before the fast ends. Both times are boundary times—about moving on, about transitioning. The banana fronds are like dervishes whose bodies and souls are whirling, never staying too long in any one station.
Dervish is a Persian word meaning one who is poised at the boundary of two worlds. The dervish is one who waits at the threshold between the corporeal and the non-corporeal world, with her body in the corporeal world, and her soul in constant awareness and keenly reaching out to the unseen ghaib, non-corporeal, non-material world. (Reinhertz, 2001)
This planet with its seven billion plus inhabitants, its flora and fauna, even its wondrous bacteria and viruses that outweigh its people, animals and plants—this planet with its mountains and rivers and clouds is also a dervish, a ceaselessly whirling dervish. You experience its motion most profoundly at boundary times. Dawn and dusk fill you with deep reverence. This dervishi planet has been whirling and will continue to whirl till we don’t know then. You are a part of the planet's dance from one eternity to another.
Speaking of dervishes, aren't you also one flitting between two worlds? You’re no dervish perhaps, but you too have left behind a familiar world. Old desires cling on to you: to see yourself established, settled, known. You feel uncertain. Not alone. Just uncertain.
Looking for guidance to offset your growing uncertainty, you come across this passage by Syed Hossain Nasr:
“The person who already feels a lack of wholeness has received a gift from heaven ... it is a positive sign ... the important thing is ... never to relent in one's quest for wholeness. The great danger is a kind of momentary and passing state which appears as equilibrium or a small degree of wholeness, and which leads to forgetting that this was just a step. The danger is to become consolidated and petrified in that station."[i] (Syed Hossain Nasr, 2007).
These words you repeat: quest, wholeness, never relenting, being true to oneself. These are not merely words, these are spiritual states you wish you could cultivate. Some words and states you must never get stuck in: equilibrium, forgetting, consolidation, petrification. And yet, how you crave the equilibrium of those very stations that you are meant to denounce. How you crave small degrees of deceptive wholeness!
You are wavering at the crossroads of inner and outer states. Disenchanted with the outer but not quite sure of the inner, success in either eludes you. You ask: what after all is real success? Certainty and settledness? Reaching equilibrium, ease, stability—is that success? You continue to hop across the borders of your intuitive-inner and rational-outer selves, even as your soul prompts you to forsake the outer and delve into the inner. This you sense acutely in your solitary hours, but consciously you know very little of your soul's topography. Years of modern education hasn't prepared you for goal-less soul-searching, or to listen, watch and wait. You are all about setting goals and achieving results.
To navigate your still, inner terrain, you almost need another set of senses, tools, another vocabulary. Words like goals and results must go. Guiding yourself through moments of absolute quietude, between those boundary moments at daybreak and dusk, in the rocking chair by the window, watching the dervish-like fronds of the banana tree, you receive quick-to-vanish intimations. They’re wordless. The rational in you resists the truth of these formless intimations.
Fretting, you turn to poetry. Adrienne Rich speaks to your equivocations:
force nothing, be unforced
accept no giant miracles of growth
by counterfeit light
trust roots, allow the days to shrink
give credence to these slender means
wait without sadness and with grave impatience[ii]
Trust your own roots, give credence to slender means, wait without sadness, wait with grave impatience? How does one do that?
So you decide to fast with the intention to honor the wordless, the intuitive. It's Ramazan and you’ll fast even though you aren't a ritual-loving, devout Muslim. Yet you feel voluntary hunger might heighten the state of dreaminess for a stumbling wayfarer like you and help you explore the geography of your inner dimension. You fret, you’re skeptical: isn't fasting a highly ritualistic regimen? Your reply: I'm fasting to challenge my physical stamina. I want to see how many days I can fast at a stretch, how many 15-hour days I can go without food and water. How well I can overcome my caffeine-addiction.
First day of fasting:
Your empty stomach heaves by mid-day and the mind registers plaintively, Oh, no! No water, no tea till evening. It’s a physical but also an emotional loss. You expect to have a throbbing caffeine withdrawal headache. But you surprise yourself by not getting one. You make other discoveries about the body: That pot of tea to go with the reading of the morning papers, those habitual three meals a day. Lunch time. Tea time. They come and go. You reason with your growling stomach. You watch it growl, and you watch its growling subside. The interruption of meals and snacking between meals, rituals of unmindful eating are suspended, and surprise-filled moments of emptiness arrive. Moments of silence and wonder. By late afternoon, a sweet, intoxicating weakness sends your thinking mind into a no-thought zone. You label it a side-effect of dehydration, but you also sense a trance-like, half-awake, half-asleep state. This is something else. The frenetic chattering of your questioning mind is in abeyance; a contemplative, insightful quietude has taken over. This is very different from the post-lunch, nap-needing lethargy of your normal eating days.
More unexpected surprises arrive as the fasting progresses. Your body takes you on a journey of solitude. You call it the veerani of the body, this solitude. The body, deprived of all its preoccupations with food—time spent thinking of, shopping for and preparing food, time spent eating and time spent digesting food—this deprived body opens up feeling fresh and young, and full of wonder: What am I? What am I for? The body's veerani isattuned to its innermost quiescence, its natural state. The body at rest from externally located preoccupations translocates itself into a field of light. The body feels like a weightless, formless, body-less body.
You debate: should you coil into yourself, turning contemplative, sit still and pay attention to the body's veerani? Or should you do something more productive? There’s a conflict of interest. There's the admonishing from your rational, goal-oriented, left-brain. ”You are a rational being; you shouldn't just sit back aimlessly. You are giving in to laziness, low motivation, low spirits, indecision, depression.” And a weak, persistent voice from your intuitive self says: don’t reduce your sadness to a clinical, treatable diagnosis. Don't degrade this sadness by medicalizing it. Yours is an existential sadness, it's the sadness of existence. Labeling it a medical condition, calling it depression is denying it its dignity. Call it by some other name—and allow yourself to stay with the dreaminess. See where the body's solitude takes you. Sit still in its inner rooms, listen to the echoes of your intuition in those rooms.
This other voice is the voice of insight, intuition, spiritual guidance. Weakened by the rigors of daily fasting, you choose to listen to this voice over the rational, blaming voice.
Al-Ghazali and All-you-can-eat Iftar buffets
You remember reading about the benefits of fasting in a translation of a medieval Sufi text, Kimya-e-Saadat (Alchemy of Happiness) by the 12th century Sufi philosopher and psychologist, Al- Ghazali. Among the ten benefits of voluntary hunger or fasting mentioned by Al-Ghazali is the ”purification of the heart and awakening of intuition, as well as giving vent to perception.” Unlike satiation, which “causes dullness and blinds the heart, and increases fuzziness in the brain, in the same manner as does drunkenness, until it overpowers the elements of thought, burdens the heart, and slows down both the thinking process and quickness of perception.”
Thanks to Al-Ghazali, you begin to respect your hunger-induced vagueness, your indecisive and intuitive expansiveness. If this expansiveness and emptiness were merely a physical phenomenon, why would Al-Ghazali recommend it so strongly as a spiritual practice? To Al-Ghazali, fasting was an indispensable spiritual tool. Voluntary hunger, he believed, heightened emotional and psychic communications with the unconscious self.
Your emotional states are linked to your physiology. How you react to a situation on an empty stomach differs greatly from how you react to it on a full stomach. Some days, while fasting, you feel so weak that you don’t have the energy to react at all. Some days physical weakness makes you so irritable that you snap at the slightest thing. You grow uncomfortable with your own emotional unpredictability because you like to think you are an emotionally mature adult. You are expected to be consistent and fair and you believe you are! But this self-estimation is severely challenged during fasting. Fasting is like walking an emotional tightrope. There is no guarantee of an emotionally balanced fasting self. Each step has to be taken very intentionally or you tumble. Emotional mastery is a hard-to-achieve goal on most normal days, but is especially tough during fasting. You begin to understand why fasting has been called one of the most challenging and transforming spiritual exercises.
You rouse yourself from your trance-like state in the late afternoon and enter the kitchen to prepare iftar, feeling the walls of your stomach collapse like an empty sack against your abdominal wall. Your walk has slowed down as has your speech. You are grateful. Closeness to God is easier when you move slowly and speak less. Al-Ghazali lists heightened sensory perception as another benefit of curtailing unnecessary speech, which happens rather easily when you feel too weak to speak.
Your ability to notice extraordinary aspects of the ordinary becomes sharper. For example, as you peel and slice a fruit, you sense and smell the fruit. You don't just see its colors and textures, you sense them too. The creamy white of melons, the glistening saffron of mangoes, the dense, dark brownness of dates—extraordinarily rich colors and textures that speak to your hunger. The crimson of Rooh Afza transforms itself into a screen of condensed pearls on the outside of the glass jug.
Just before iftar, you sit still in the gathering dusk. After a hot and humid day, the breeze is cool and birds are clamoring for shelter. Sitting in the garden, cradling the collapsing emptiness of your stomach, you meditate on hunger. The koel sings. You lean back and look up at the stray wisps of clouds. A few kites are floating like freckles in a smooth-skinned sky. All your attention is fixated on the hot-oil smell of pakoras wafting from the neighbor’s kitchen. It's almost time for azaan, and you wonder at the body and its singular focus on food. The clanging of pots and ladles from neighboring kitchens becomes eager sounds. You hear the neighbor call out to one of her helpers: "It's almost time. Come get your iftar." And then, just before you hear the first notes of azaan, an eerie hush submerges all other noises in a mysterious, momentary silence.
The azaan announces the end of fasting. Another boundary moment. You say Bismillah and step back into the house and take the first sip of chilled lemon Rooh Afza, and bite into your first date. Dates, melons, mangoes, and pakoras fill you with surprise and gratitude. You succumb, giving yourself wholly to these wonderful tastes and textures. How strange to discover that taste is not an absolute and inherent property of food, but a neural and emotionally mediated experience, enhanced by food deprivation. At the end of each fasting day, you taste the other truth about food.
You are a different person after iftar. Sated. Bloated. Less intense. Less contemplative. More opinionated. More judgmental. You go for a walk in the neighborhood park. Living outside the park's boundary walls is a laborer’s family. The children are the usual children of poverty: snot-nosed, bare-foot, with distended bellies. The father has lost his job. He moved to the city to find work and now he has no work in the city. They came to this mega-metropolis looking for food and shelter.! You hand them food packets you brought to give away but your compassion is tinged with cynicism. Gone is the seamless sense of oneness of reality in which you were embedded while fasting. On the walking track in the park, you feel discomfited, ill at ease with the poverty set against your own easy plenitude. When you were hungry, you were more compassionate, more accepting of life's vicissitudes. You weren’t driven into debates normal for a well-fed body.
A billion people, that is every seventh person on the planet, is now chronically hungry. [Patel, Raj. DAWN, July 26, 2012. A fierce drought.]
But newspapers continue to advertise sumptuous buffets, all-you-can-eat deals for the wealthy in air-conditioned dining rooms of five-star hotels. Your phone beeps. Another iftar ad arrives. An iftar for two at one of these joints will cost you the average monthly wages of the man living outside the park who is out of work. How to rationalize these contradictions? How to explain largely man-made global inequities? You are struggling to grasp something intuitively, trying to touch that universal core of compassion, by practicing something seemingly insignificant: voluntary hunger. You are trying to soften your heart, curb your egotistical self, and live in a state of gratitude like a true lover. What hunger feels like in the mind-body isn't an attempt to find answers to the disquieting, puzzling phenomenon of human greed and evil and inequality. It's about surrendering to the Beloved.
You recollect a quote by the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan: “It is simpler to find a way to heaven than to find a way on earth.” There's mystery and learning embedded in this simple sentence. Finding a way is difficult. When you get disillusioned with the ways of the world, you are tempted to cling to simplistic solutions, political and economic theories. Perhaps the Friend wants you to struggle in another way to understand the pain and feel the pain in your heart rather than scramble for a quick-fix to what seems like an abhorrent and unjust world.
Nothing but my selves?
What do you do with yourself in those long hours when time stretches and expands inside your body and you feel ballooned out as an extension of space-time? You ask a friend. She uses the word ethereal to describe that expansive emptiness. And suspended is another word you come up with for the transcendent evening hush that hovers just as the fast is about to end. You’re suspended between reality and unreality, between hunger and satiation, between conscious and sub-conscious perception, between alertness and a fading of alertness. It’s about hunger, thirst and weakness. But it’s also about body and spirit getting tamed, and yet strengthened. Wide awake. You feel wide awake, like a body that is coming home to a new self. You remember reading when you reach the station of no station, “there is no tongue, no property, no name, no attribute—only sheer stupefaction and utter muteness.” Stupefaction and muteness are the states of your fasting body.
Are you finding excuses for your laziness? You are not being socially or intellectually productive, nor engaged in meaningful activism to end world poverty or hunger. You read, you write, you fast, you meditate. There's nothing concrete to show for all your fasting, reading, writing, meditating. Nothing meaningful. Nothing other than the sense you have of this growing inner stillness. There’s an ethereal dreaminess which makes you stiller than normal, physically weakened yet spiritually awakened.
You doze off wondering what is and what isn't useful, purposeful work. You are awakened by a wordless voice that keeps repeating: Stay with the dreaminess. Whose voice is it? It seemed like your own yet it isn’t. It said, stay with the dreaminess. What you were dismissively calling your laziness is perhaps the dreaminess you're meant to stay with. A dreamy, budding, creative state that may lead to further openings. You listen to the voice, but continue to question its wisdom. Much later you come to accept it as a gift.
The next morning you open an English translation of Ibn Arabi's Fusus-al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom). You're not sure why you are consulting another medieval Sufi text. The answer comes in the form of a long footnote in the second chapter. Caner Dagli, Ibn Arabi's contemporary translator, explains what "spiritual hearing" means:
"The word ma’na can also be used to refer to the inward faculties of man as opposed to his outward faculties. One’s ‘meaning’ hearing is the dimension of the Heart that forms the principle of one’s sensory hearing. It is one’s spiritual hearing. Often when Ibn Arabi speaks of something occurring “in meaning” he means that it occurs in one’s soul as opposed to manifesting outwardly. The meaning is the inward reality at work in the outward, the formless in the form, the hidden in the apparent...... Form and meaning interweave and together comprise the objects of the world and hence the objects of our knowledge."
Thanks to this long footnote, you begin to trust your inner hearing, your dreaminess, the voice of your "spiritual hearing." What you get from reading Ibn Arabi is that God's voice and yours are inextricably entwined, so you end up hearing within yourself what god wills for you to hear. Since you could only understand God's message in a sensory form, you hear it as a voice. If it didn’t materialize as a voice, how would you hear it? How would you get God's message for you?
Your doubts are laid to rest. Every intuitive message is God’s self-disclosure to humans according to Ibn Arabi. Your hearing that voice and coming upon an explanation of what you heard in a book, are seemingly mysterious and miraculous events, and yet they are not so mysterious or miraculous because God’s communication with Her creatures is constant.
As to the question of timing: Why now? Why so late? Because now is the most perfect now for revealing that which needed to be revealed. If these revelations came earlier, you wouldn’t have comprehended them or been able to tolerate their impact. You were too young, too immature, too emotionally unstable; the outer world and the whims of your intellect and ego ruled over you. The path to truth lay through the many stations of suffering. You were meant to suffer, but not get stuck in suffering. You were not to confuse those stations with destinations.
Self-acceptance comes. Fasting has led to self-acceptance. You are less afraid of the opinion of others, no longer interested in proving yourself to the world, and though your ego is far from annihilated, you can observe its antics more dispassionately. You can get on with life’s journey in a way that makes you the mistress of your journeying soul. Travelling at your soul’s slow pace, some days the message is to simply rest and stay in dreaminess, so on those days you rest and stay with the dreaminess. And recollect your divine gifts. Courage. Clarity. Compassion. Creativity.
A "wild patience" has brought you this far and it had to take this long to get you there in Adrienne Rich’s words:
A wild patience has taken me this far.
but really I have nothing but myself
to go by; nothing
stands in the realm of pure necessity
except what my hands can hold.
Nothing but myself? . . . My selves.
After so long, this answer.
Sitting on a mattress with your back against the wall, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Earlier you only saw a face that was sad, tired, and marked with lines. Today you see that face, but you also see your new emerging selves. Selves resting in stillness and radiance. You can’t say where these selves have come from, but their beauty is like lamplight on a misty evening, glowing, radiating outward from the veerani of your fasting self.
Nighat Gandhi is a mental health counselor and writer based in India. She is the author of Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories (Tranquebar Press, 2009)