Originally published, with a sidebar (“Ten Things That I’ve Learned From the Sufis”), in Arthur No. 35 (August 2013).
Illustration by Kira Mardikes
As surely as we inhabit the environment, the environment inhabits us.
— Pir Zia Inayat-Khan
I kept the rubber breathing tube clutched firmly between my front teeth. I probed it with my tongue to make sure that a small movement would not separate me from it. What if a bug above ground crawls in? I’ll have to blow it out. . . or eat the critter.
I didn’t know if I could get out of my earthen grave. The weight of the earth above my naked body prevented me from taking a full breath. When I inhaled, the earth pushed back on my lungs, informing me of my limited capacity. I took small sips of air and imagined the winter woods above as the cold came through the narrow plastic tube. In 30 minutes my partner, Isfandarmudh (“angel of the earth” in Persian), would dig me out of the grave. Then I would bury her.
I turned my attention away from the fear of things that could go wrong. I relaxed my active mind with a long, slow exhale, imagining my skin fading into the earth that pressed against it.
My bones, teeth, and nails conversed with the minerals in the stones and tectonic plates of the earth. The heat in my body reached out to find the molten core of the underworld. I wondered if the bugs that crawled behind one of my ears, under my arm, around the top of a fingertip, and all along my body were taking in moisture from the thin layer of perspiration on my surface. I felt something behind my knee.
I am made mostly of water, I thought as I considered the geothermal waters that filled veins in the earth and made up most of my body, the rain that poured from dark cumulonimbus clouds and saturated the ground from which I myself drank. There is one water on earth, I reminded myself.
From head to toe I felt life wiggle and walk. Don’t panic, Jehanara. This was my new Sufi name. This is what it feels like to host life. Giving up fear to the forces of gravity and the magnetic fields that banded the planet, I knew that I could never overwhelm the massive systems with my worry. I felt no different from a tangled root or a wedge of clay. The grave smelled like mildew and growth.
It was good to be the earth. I reviewed a long history: a singularity split in two, gaseous explosions, a hot lava-covered sphere of volcanic eruptions and shifting plates, a cooler water world, a single cell advancing to more complex organisms: fish, bird, mammal. I was curious. What next?
Life’s lust is life, I thought as I considered that life’s persistence over billions of years has led to me. I felt obliged to use my senses so that this life could know itself.
The feeling of earth that pressed against me from every direction changed my view. I imagined it as a hug. You are loved. That’s what the Sufi teachers said to do if I ever forgot that I was loved: Feel the tug of gravity. In this moment death did not feel definitive. My sense of self expanded to include all time. I remembered the words that I had read in that little book written by a Sufi. Nature is the truest book.
The sound of a metal shovel breaking through the ground above me brought me back. I hope she doesn’t hit me with that!
* * *
Sometime in the mid-’90s I was thumbing through a book by Idries Shah when I noticed a reference to the Freemasons. Shah called them a bastard sect of the Sufis. That got my attention because I had been exploring the occult, and was particularly attracted to the Masons due to their tendency to keep secrets.
I ended up loving Shah’s book (The Sufis, 1971) because it told what a Sufi is by telling what a Sufi isn’t. As I read, I sensed that there was more available in the text than what I was able to read, a code hidden. I was intrigued. Soon I discovered that many Sufi texts are coded — some can be read on as many as seven levels. The level a reader perceives is a match to his or her own tuning, which may change. In this way the writings of Sufis are like barometers.
Once I got past the surface fascination that I had with secrets, I noticed that the words of Sufis rang out what had been in my heart throughout my life. They spoke of a singular reality in which only one thing exists. They described a perspective in which our individual senses are the senses of the universe. For the Sufi, humans are the way that the world knows itself. This matched my own experience of what it felt like to be human. I listen to my senses. Not just the common senses, but spiritual senses like inspiration, and instincts like repulsion and emotions. I honor what came through because I understand it to be divine. There have been many intersections in my life in which I had to choose between acculturated knowledge of our culture and my own inner voice that I learned to call common sense. Maintaining this perspective had helped me choose wisely.
Over the next few years, I worked on a number of conceptual art projects in New York on the theme of materialism. I thought often about the many Sufis in history who tried to offer a remedy for the lust for stuff. I tore through Sufi books and did Sufi practices. I didn’t imagine that I could actually connect to Sufis, who I figured to be half a world away. I decided that if I acted like a Sufi, then I might find out more about them. So, in game-like fashion, I did what I thought a Sufi might do.
The Sufis are known for wearing whatever cloak is necessary for the task at hand. I started to change the way I looked. I swapped out traits of my personality for features that were not my own, thinking that this might shift my view and lead me to a clue. I wondered what shy people experience, so I practiced being meek. I went out into the world wearing the persona of a bashful person. People who never before noticed me—scientific types and other shy people with personalities too refined to have approached the formerly animated personality that I now hid away—suddenly found me approachable. Life opened up, my perspective widened. When I felt boredom, I switched it for an itch on my foot. I changed anxiousness to curiosity. Each experiment led me into worlds that had always been there but that I had not noticed or had access to.
Once, I choose a popular book, thin and lightweight, Flatland: A Book of Many Dimensions, a novella by Edwin Abbott, and vowed to read it without ever opening the cover. Having no idea how I would do such a thing I declared willfully that this was something a Sufi could do. I stowed the book in my backpack. When I opened my pack and the cover peeked out, it prompted a comment, “Flatland! Great book,” said a tall salt and pepper haired man who looked like a professor. “Yes!” I said careful not to reveal that I had not read it. He was the first of many to share their impressions of Flatland. I listened with peculiar interest and gathered the comments that flowed in, never revealing that I had not cracked the cover and did not intend to. It took one year for me to obtain the book’s contents without reading it. I could confirm the achievement by having two-way conversations about the book with those who’d read it the traditional way, page by page.
The point of this exercise was to see that everything hidden could be revealed by uncustomary—but never unknowable—means. The game prompted me to consider that the most ordinary aspects of life could be awe-inspiring. Magic was buried in the obvious and plainly evident. I began to make time to notice the veins in the leaves that fell to the ground. I studied the sound of the wind with marked interest. I savored the scent of whatever the breeze carried my way. I was stunned to realize that I had missed the richness that permeated life. I included people as part of nature — I met each face and every person as a representative of this world. The shared thoughts and feelings of others became treasures, authentic reports from the universe.
* * *
I did manage to connect to real-life Sufis in person one time. I’d heard about a gathering place in lower Manhattan. One evening, trying to remain unnoticed, I slid into the space through an unmarked door and tip-toed into a crowd that twirled on colorfully woven handmade carpets. An hour passed before the whirl inside slowed and the Sufis flowed out and onto the street. I could not at first understand why it was so hard to find a cab. Then I looked at a clock. It was somehow 1am. The strange orbit and river of sound had enveloped me for four hours.
* * *
In 2004, after a year of playing Sufi, I decided that it was time to seek out the mysterious dervishes whose secret keys to nature would surely help me to discover a decommodified life. In a small community garden near my Brooklyn apartment, under a giant tree that canopied the lot and the two that neighbored it, I opened my laptop and punched the words “Sufi New York” into a search engine. The first thing to pop up was a four-year study in Sufi philosophy at a Sufi school in upstate New York. It was laid out in 10-day increments three times a year, and was set to begin in two weeks. When I called to enroll, the woman on the phone told me only initiates could attend. I was not a Sufi and the Suluk Academy was for Sufis. I told them that I had to be there and somehow we’d have to work this out. The woman on the phone reluctantly but graciously allowed me to join and added a big opt-out clause. Twelve days later I was surrounded by old forest and lush medicinal gardens at a former Shaker village, a couple hours’ drive from Manhattan. I was with the Sufis. I had absolutely no idea what to expect of the adventure about to begin, but I did know that I was where I was meant to be. It was as right as rain. I knew the minute I arrived that I was home.
* * *
During my first year with the Sufis I learned that it is their habit to visit the outposts of the senses and by doing so extend the edge of the map that marks life’s reach. I had come to the Sufis to obtain the magic keys to access nature. What I learned from them is that we are those keys.
As a teenager in the materialistic ‘80s, I’d always felt a misfit for the culture in the suburbs of New York where life was shaped by acquisition and consumption. In grade school kids competed over things that I had no interest in, things like branded clothing. Unwilling to participate, I handbuilt forts in my yard and I made stuff. Creativity offered me a kind of repose. As an adult I found that I remained unmotivated by money. But what was it I was motivated by, then? When I met the Sufis, I learned the value of an ideal.
Some say they don’t believe in God. Ask the same people if they’ve ever felt disappointed by the world, and if so, what they were comparing it to—what were their expectations? The answer they give is their god ideal. Sufi practices help one discover their ideal so it can become a life path. What I find lovely about this philosophy is that, like a mirror, it reflects the practitioner back to himself or herself rather than to someone or something outside. The Sufis taught me to uncover an ideal and turn it into a purpose. Purpose is the foundation for making anything of value—even a new world. The Sufis showed me that every effect had a cause and every cause had a reason. Reason that springs from purpose, led by ideals, creates the world.
Because we are part of the first generation to see the whole world for sale, ideals are especially important today. Each of us has to decide what it is to be human. Are we limited and mechanistic (that is: consumers) or unbounded and creative (that is: creators)? Ghandi used to touch the sleeve of another and ask, “Is this homespun?” A yes meant there was hope for India, and indicated that the British had not completely wiped out their domestic, indigenous economy. Ghandi’s question is relevant today, reshaped but essentially the same. “Did you make this?” A yes indicates that we have not become fully commodified and our skills have not been lost to industry. We are creators.
Following the same ideal, I’ve spent the last seven years living as a maker of things and building a homestead in New Mexico. I’ve discovered that I am more than I knew myself to be. Today I can build a building, make fuel, wildcraft medicines, and make the goods I need to live. In fact, I can make them better and more responsibly than the commodified world has. In recent years I’ve become a writer because it furthers my ideal. I will become other things that I am not yet because what I learned to be is a maker of life.
My book The Good Life Lab shares what I have learned so far. I hope that it helps others to notice the difference between presence and representation, real world and mimic, commodified from what is living. The book invites everyone to come along and dream aloud, to discover their ideal and become makers of the world.
A portion of this piece is excerpted from The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living, courtesy Storey Publishing, © 2013 Wendy Jehanara Tremayne. storey.com