WHAT THE SUFIS TAUGHT ME by Wendy Jehanara Tremayne (Arthur, 2013)

Originally published, with a sidebar (“Ten Things That I’ve Learned From the Sufis”), in Arthur No. 35 (August 2013).

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Swap-O-Rama Rama founder Wendy Jehanara Tremayne wanted to understand what motivated her life-long anti-consumerism. She found the answer underground…

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.

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