Nobody likes hospitals, but I like them less than most. I think it’s because my father was a doctor, an oncologist, and when I was young he’d drag me along while he did his rounds. He’d park me in the cafeteria, a fluorescent purgatory that reeked of burnt coffee and fear, then go see his patients. “Be back in twenty minutes,” he’d say. An hour or two later he’d show up, apologetic. One of his patients had died. They always died. And they always died in hospitals. So, my eight-year-old brain concluded, if I just avoided hospitals I would never die. It was airtight logic. And aside from a broken leg at age seventeen, that’s what I managed to do.
Until one warm August evening, not that long ago, when I found myself in the emergency room. My friend Michael had driven me there as I sat in the passenger seat, doubled over in pain. At first, I’d dismissed it as indigestion, but this was unlike any indigestion I had experienced before. They took some X-rays and CT scans, and a few long minutes later the ER doctor walked into the examination room, grim-faced. Something was wrong, though exactly what kind of wrong he couldn’t say. The lines of worry on his face sent a spike of panic through me. A surgeon was en route. They had to interrupt his dinner party, he said, thus layering my terror with a film of guilt. Just wait here, he instructed, as if I were going anywhere with an IV dangling from one arm and a hospital gown wrapped around me, though “wrapped” was an overstatement and, for that matter, so was “gown.” Little separated me from the chilly, sterile air of the examination room.
I was shivering, partly from the cold, mostly from fear. Is it cancer? Something worse? What, I wondered, is worse than cancer? There must be something worse than cancer. I was pondering what this might be when a nurse walked in. She was about my age and, judging from the accent, originally from the Caribbean, or maybe West Africa. She leaned over to draw blood and must have smelled my fear because she paused, maneuvered close to my ear, and said, slowly and clearly, words I will never forget: “Have you found your God yet?”
It was one of those moments when your mind takes a long time, much longer than usual, to catch up with your ears. Have I found my God yet? “Why?” I asked, once I could breathe again. Will I be meeting Him soon? Have you seen my CT scan? Do you know something? She didn’t answer. Just gave me this wise, knowing look, and left me there alone with my careening thoughts and inadequate paper towel of a gown. I knew her question was not exactly standard operating procedure, even at a hospital called Holy Cross, but there was nothing malevolent or accusatory about it. She said it matter-of-factly, not exactly like “Have you found your car keys yet?” but close. Her words also conveyed a maternal concern, and the quiet certainty of someone who has already found her God.
The hours in the ER turned into a few days at the hospital. Tests were performed, blood drawn. I did not have cancer or that thing that is worse than cancer (I never could figure out what it is) but rather an unusually severe and prolonged case of…gas. Yes, gas. Apparently, my colon did not take kindly to the stress inflicted on it as I met an insane deadline imposed by a tyrannical editor. I was, in hospital parlance, discharged.
Within a week or two, I had fully recovered physically, but the nurse’s words stayed with me, like an image burned onto a TV screen that’s been left on too long. Have you found your God yet? Those were her exact words. Not have you found a god or the god or just plain God, but your God, as if there were one out there just for me, waiting.
For a while, I tried to forget about the incident. There is nothing to know, I told myself, no God to find, or at least not one I am capable of finding. Just drop it. Go back to your books and your single malt. Go back to the “world of dust,” as the Chinese call our everyday existence. This worked. For a while.
Then the nurse’s words returned, burrowing into my brain like a groundhog in early winter. Who, or what, is my God? I was born Jewish. That’s certainly my religious heritage, but not necessarily my God, which is another matter altogether. The truth is: I have many doubts about God’s existence. Yet calling myself an atheist doesn’t feel right either. Too coolly confident. I’m not certain about anything. I’m not certain about argyle socks. I’m not certain about soy milk. How can I be certain that God does not exist?
Agnostic? The word means literally “one without knowledge,” and that certainly describes me when it comes to matters of faith. Agnostics, though, strike me as atheists without the conviction. Agnostics are covering their religious bases, just in case there is an all-powerful Creator capable of granting eternal bliss. (“See, Lord, it says right there: ‘agnostic.’ Can I have my eternal bliss now please?”) Also, implicit in the agnostic’s creed is not only “I don’t know if God exists” but I don’t particularly care. That steady drip, drip, drip of doubt can pool into a kind of wish fulfillment. Doubt God’s existence long enough and He doesn’t.
Perhaps I fall into that most elastic of categories, the “spiritual-but-not-religious.” These seekers align themselves with the world’s wisdom traditions while distancing themselves from anything that smacks of doctrine or, God forbid, an actual belief system. The spiritual-but-not-religious like their yoga without Hinduism, their meditation sans Buddhism, and their Judaism God-free. This approach is tempting. It strikes me as easy, and who, after all, doesn’t like easy? Alas, the problem with the spiritual-but-not-religious is that it is too easy, too convenient. Also, too herbal, and I am, if anything, a fully caffeinated being.
Since no off-the-shelf spiritual category seems to fit me, I find I must invent one: Confusionist. As the name implies, we Confusionists are confused—deeply and profoundly—when it comes to questions of God and religion. Wait a second, you’re probably thinking, isn’t “Confusionist” just another word for “agnostic”? No, we Confusionists lack the smug uncertainty of the agnostic; we are, in a way, pre-agnostic, or maybe meta-agnostic. We’re not even clear exactly what it is we’re not clear about. We Confusionists throw our arms skyward and shout: We have absolutely no idea what our religious views are. We’re not even sure we have any, but we’re open to the unexpected, and believe—no, hope—there is more to life than meets the eye. Beyond that we are simply and utterly confused.
I blame my confusion, as I do most things, on my parents. I was raised in a secular household where God’s name was uttered only when someone stubbed their toe (God damn it who put that chair there?) or ate something especially delicious (Oh my God this is to die for). We were gastronomical Jews. Bagels and lox, of course, but also rugelach, whitefish salad, challah, latkes, hamantaschen. If we could eat it then it was Jewish and, by extension, had something to do with God. As far as I was concerned, God resided not in Heaven or the Great Void but in the Frigidaire, somewhere between the cream cheese and the salad dressing. We believed in an edible deity, and that was about the extent of our spiritual life.
Oh, once a week, I did attend Hebrew school (my parents enrolling me owing to that other Jewish tradition we maintained: guilt), but I found it much less relevant to my life than, say, breakfast. I couldn’t understand what these ancient peoples, who weren’t even smart enough to invent indoor plumbing, could possibly teach me about life. My family attended synagogue once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It wasn’t a lot of fun. I had to wear this blue polyester suit and clip-on tie, and all the adults were crabby, owing to the fasting, no doubt. The fasting bit really confused me because, as I said, I equated God with food so I couldn’t figure out why on this, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, people weren’t eating.
Later, my years as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio did little to rehabilitate God in my mind. I saw firsthand what was done in His name, and it wasn’t pretty. I lived for a while in Jerusalem, the city of peace, though it was anything but. Even a blind person, especially a blind person, could detect the tension that hung over the city like an L.A. smog. The thunderous kaboom of an Israeli fighter jet breaking the sound barrier alternated with the kaboom of a young Palestinian detonating a charge of explosives strapped to his chest. So similar were those sounds that we journalists developed our own auditory bomb-detection technique: A kaboom followed by the roar of a jet engine meant you could go back to your morning coffee; a kaboom followed by sirens meant a mad dash to a horrific scene.
I also lived in India, the overachiever of the religious world (over 330 million deities served!), and there found myself more perplexed than outraged. I once attended the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival that attracts some eighteen million people to the banks of the River Ganges. People traveled for days, weeks, in order to dunk themselves in the filthy, brackish water. It supposedly promoted good fortune and health. Yes, I thought, if the dysentery doesn’t kill you first. “It’s faith, only faith,” one of the holy dunkers told me. “Isn’t that enough?” I didn’t know what to say. Huck Finn’s words sprang to mind: “You can’t pray a lie.” But who was I, a foreign journalist with a microphone that I wielded like an assault rifle, to say what was a lie? Shortly after, I remember driving with an upper-class Indian playwright to an Ashura ritual. That’s when Shiite Muslims commemorate the death of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. The playwright got out of his SUV, removed his Ralph Lauren shirt (folding it neatly, and placing it in the backseat), then, using a long metal prong of some sort, began to flay his naked back, again and again, in order to feel Ali’s pain. I saw dozens of other men doing the same. Then I felt a fine mist of red liquid spray my face. Blood. It was raining blood. India made me long for the God of the Frigidaire.
I was—and still am—a rationalist. I believe that reason and its offspring, science, are good. I question, though, whether reason alone is sufficient for a happy, fulfilled life. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever reasoned herself to a state of pure bliss. Reason is an excellent tool for solving problems but offers little guidance in identifying which problems we should solve and why. Reason makes a wonderful servant but a poor master. Reason cannot account for those moments in life that “bewilder the intellect yet utterly quiet the heart,” as G. K. Chesterton observed.
I also believe in words, in the power of words, and for decades my philosophy, such as it was, mirrored that of the great student of myths, Joseph Campbell, who when asked what spiritual practice he followed said, “I underline books.” Me too. I’m a promiscuous underliner, also circler, highlighter, scribbler, margin-writer, and dog-earer. I’m not sure why; maybe I’m like a cat marking its territory; maybe underlining a passage makes it real, makes the author’s ideas my own. Then again, maybe they already were. The act of underlining always contains an element of self-recognition.
I read, and underline, anything I can get my hands on, but I have a particular weakness for self-help books. I love these books, though I dislike the term “self-help.” For one thing, it’s not accurate. You’re not helping yourself. The person who wrote the book is helping you. The only book that can accurately be called self-help is the one you write yourself. The other problem, of course, with self-help books is that they broadcast weakness, and thus invite judgment. That’s why my wife insists I keep my sizable collection hidden in the basement, lest dinner guests suspect she is married to a self in need of help.
Despite my compulsive underlining, or maybe because of it, I’ve never made much “spiritual progress.” (A term that also strikes me as very wrong; isn’t being spiritual about transcending self-defeating concepts like progress?) Reading these books, I’d experience moments of clarity. I would read, then underline, some wonderful passage by Meister Eckehart or Gandhi and think, Yes, of course, I’ve got it! We transcend our duality by uniting with the Godhead. Then I’d spend the next three hours obsessing over the best color—spruce green or desert khaki—for a shoulder bag I was ordering online, or endlessly staring at a mole on my neck wondering if it was just a mole or possibly Stage 12 melanoma. The books did little to relieve my outsize fear of death, or alleviate my chronic low-grade depression, and at some point I began to suspect that I was using these books, using concepts themselves, in order to avoid having an actual spiritual experience. It seemed like a plausible theory. In fact, I found an excellent book on the topic; in it, you will find many underlined passages.
To be clear: I don’t live only in books. I do get out of the house sometimes, where I am prone to peek at other people’s spiritual lives. I like to watch. Always from a safe distance, though. I’m the guy standing near the exit of the synagogue or the meditation hall, plotting his escape in case things get dull, or strange. Or real. I’m the guy mumbling the prayers just clearly enough so as not to call attention to himself but not clearly enough to absorb any meaning. Even in silent meditation, I’ve felt like a spiritual fraud, waiting to be exposed.
So that was me: mildly curious about God, but not curious enough to actually do anything about it. A spiritual voyeur, at best. A hypocrite, at worst. Someone who had, theoretically, entered Dante’s “age of wisdom,” a stage of life that begins at age forty-five. And that was okay, really. Until now. What has changed? Is it just my brush with gas, or perhaps something as pathetically clichéd as a midlife crisis? Maybe it’s parenthood. Being a parent forces us to confront head-on those nagging existential questions that we long ago stowed in our mind’s attic. How do I want to raise my daughter? As a gastronomical Jew like myself? Something more? Something less? Children are brutally honest and ask questions adults are too polite, or scared, to ask, and my daughter is definitely no exception.
“Dad?” she said not long after my hospital stay. We were riding one of those tag-along bicycles. I was in the front pedaling and steering and she was in the back pedaling, always pedaling.
“Yes, Sonya.” I was expecting another butt question. She’d entered the butt age and had many questions about that particular body part. But, as she often does, my daughter surprised me.
“Is God responsible for us?”
I nearly swerved into oncoming traffic. Two thoughts sprang to mind. First, that’s an awfully heavy theological question for a four-year-old. Second, this is one of those defining parental moments when we have a chance to impart lasting wisdom, to inspire and mold our child’s worldview in ways that will bear fruit for decades to come. Either that or make total asses of ourselves.
“Well, Dad, is He?”
“Just a minute. I’m thinking.”
Finally, I blurted out, “God gave us everything we need to be responsible for ourselves.”
I’m not sure where I pulled that one from—probably from the same part of the anatomy that my daughter was obsessed about—but it wasn’t bad, I thought. Sonya seemed satisfied, saying simply and sweetly, “He sure did.” As I pedaled, I marveled at her bigheartedness and thought of a wonderful line in a poem by Stephen Dunn:
you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,
only wonderful stories
A few days later, when I was putting her to bed, she announced that she saw God.
“Yes. He was in the sky, like a big cloud,” she said, holding her fist above her head in order to demonstrate.
“How did you know it was God and not just another cloud?”
“I could tell.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“I waved and said, ‘Hi, God,’” she said, as if it were the obvious thing to do and I was slow.
I am. The ER nurse had laid down the gauntlet, asking me a question that demanded a serious answer and not, as is my wont, a clever rejoinder, a joke. At the time, there was an urgency to her question—Have you found your God yet?—as I lay in that cold examination room, thinking I was dying. Is it any less urgent now? The fact is I am dying (we all are), though not quite as quickly as I feared. The nurse, wittingly or not, issued a call, in the old mythological sense of the word, and I feel compelled to respond, lest I end up like one of T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” those wretched, pitiful souls who hear a call but refuse to heed it.
The seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal coined the term “God-shaped hole” to describe that yawning void that is the human condition. I quite like the term. Every time I hear it I think of donuts, and of my life. Over the years, I’ve attempted to fill my God-shaped hole with all manner of stuff: food, sex, bags, success, more food, travel, drugs, books, more food, leather-bound notebooks, red Zinfandels, Cuban cigars, yet more food, pretentious foreign films, and once, briefly and ill-advisedly, a concoction of Guinness and Jack Daniel’s imbibed through a plastic funnel. None of this has worked. Why not try filling my God-shaped hole with…God?
I recently came across a passage from the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi. Speaking of the burdens we all bear, he asks: Would you carry your luggage on your head while on board a train? “You are not lessening the burden of the train by keeping it on your head but only straining yourself unnecessarily.” Likewise, Ramana says, we unnecessarily strain ourselves by laboring under the belief that we, and we alone, bear this heavy load called life. Put down that bag, he advises. Nothing disastrous will happen, and you might feel lighter.
I find that passage irresistible. (I have, of course, underlined it.) My wish, greater than any I’ve ever had, is that I can somehow, in spite of myself, find a way to live it. But where to begin?
CWM (Confusionist White Male), young at heart, open-minded, God-curious, seeks omniscient deity for fun, maybe more. Me: Funny. Endearingly neurotic. Loves books and bags. Likes to watch. Hoping for more. You: All-powerful but kind and loving. Sense of humor. Health-conscious. Good with kids. Talker. Please, no smokers or smiters. Are you the answer to my prayers? Serious replies only.
I look at the words I’ve just typed, flickering on the screen. Not bad, I think. They neatly capture what I’m looking for, and in a format that seems surprisingly apt. Romantic and divine courtship have much in common. Both demand courage, a high tolerance for disappointment, and an unflagging faith in the power of dumb luck. There is such a thing as spiritual compatibility. We do not find all Gods equally appealing any more than we find all potential mates equally appealing, and finding the right God, I suspect, is every bit as daunting as finding the right partner. I’ll take all the help I can get. I’m not sure where I’d place such an ad, though, and worry I might attract some crazy deity, one who looks nothing like his profile photo and is concealing a dark past. You can’t be too careful out there.
This is where flirtation comes into play. Flirtation is a safe way of taking a potential relationship for a test drive. The flirter signals the flirtee and waits for a response. If none arrives, no feelings are hurt, and both parties move on. If the signal is reciprocated, though, the flirtation accelerates and may lead to more—or not; flirtation, like cooking, possesses its own unconsummated pleasures.
Our divine flirtations have grown increasingly bold and, at times, frenetic. We are a spiritually promiscuous nation. Nearly one in three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime, according to a recent survey. It makes sense. We are a people that worships choice. Choice is freedom. Choice is good. If we can choose our elected leaders, our calling plan, our toothpaste, why not our God?
Choosing is not one of my talents, though. In fact, I am a terrible chooser. I always feel as if there is one, and only one, “right” decision, and live in chronic fear of making any number of other “wrong” decisions. So I tend to get stuck a lot, paralyzed by the fear of choosing the less-than-perfect thing. I find it helps to narrow my choices. I’ve been a vegetarian for the past seventeen years—not out of any concern about the treatment of animals (I don’t care that much) or health benefits (again, don’t care) but simply because it makes it easier to decide what to order in a restaurant. Really. I envy those who make choices effortlessly, and wonder: How can I possibly choose a God? I decide to look at the menu. See what my options are. I mean, how many Gods can there be out there?
Nine thousand and nine hundred, it turns out, with two or three new religions formed every day. That’s according to David B. Barrett, a former Anglican missionary who has been tracking world religions since the 1970s and knows of what he speaks. Nearly ten thousand religions! How can this be? I experience that same flash of panic I get at the supermarket cereal aisle. As the French say, Trop de choix tue le choix. Too much choice kills the choice. Excessive choice has another insidious effect: It creates the illusion of ease. A proliferation of health clubs, for instance, leads us to believe that it is easy to get into shape, and if we’re not, then—well, what the hell is wrong with us? Likewise, a proliferation of religious and spiritual options creates the illusion that it is easier than ever to know God. It is not.
I stumble across something called “rational-choice theory,” and I like the way that sounds. (The rational part, not the choice part.) Proponents of this theory believe we choose our religion in much the same way we choose a new car or a house or a breakfast cereal. We weigh the benefits of a given faith against the costs and then make a “rational” choice. I’m skeptical. Choosing a religion is fundamentally different from choosing a breakfast cereal. Yes, we want something out of it, but we also want something that we don’t yet know we want. (“Behold my need which I know not myself!” cried Archbishop Fénelon.) How can we possibly choose something of which we’re not aware? Choosing a faith is an act of faith, yet we don’t have that faith yet, which is why we’re looking for one in the first place. You see the problem.
Maybe my choice doesn’t matter. Maybe I could just throw a dart at the list of religions and take my chances. Hard-core atheists like Christopher Hitchens say sure, throw the dart. Religion, Hitchens says, is all mush, so feel free to choose your mush—or even mix various kinds of mush. In the end, you’ll just get more mush. On the other extreme lies the politically correct belief that all religions are equally valid. In one study, nearly half of those surveyed agreed that “all religions of the world are equally true and good.” I find this extraordinary. Would we say that about anything else? Would we say that all forms of government, be it totalitarian or democracy, were equally true and good? Would we say that all corporations were equally true and good? Would we say that all toaster ovens were equally true and good? Yet when it comes to religion we jettison our powers of discernment. Saying all religions are equally true and good is like saying none are, and that brings us full circle back to the atheists.
Religion, at its best, helps us grapple with, if not answer, the three big questions: Where do we come from? What happens when we die? How should we live our lives? In this sense, religion is a kind of applied philosophy or, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, “What a man does with his solitariness.” All of which, I figure, makes choosing the “right” religion that much more urgent. “Seek and you shall find,” the Bible says, as if it were so easy. Seeking (the word derives from “sagacious”) requires a robust dose of intuition, a sort of spiritual intelligence. Do I have that?
I print out a list of religions. Page after page materializes from my printer until I am holding a sheaf fifty-deep. I sigh. There must be a way to narrow this down. Some religions I can eliminate immediately. Zoroastrianism, for instance, is a very old and fascinating faith but one that does not accept converts. The Rastafarians intrigue but smell like an excuse to fly to Jamaica, listen to reggae, and smoke some weed. Sadly, I scratch the Rastas. At this point, my father’s advice springs to mind. “Eric,” he said, “never date a woman crazier than yourself.” He was right about women (a lesson I learned the hard way), but I’m not so sure the same applies to gods. One man’s crazy is another man’s liturgy or, as author and mathematician Martin Gardner puts it: “Exotic doctrines and legends always seem funny, just as everybody else’s big toe looks funny.” Besides, I’ve always found much wisdom loitering in life’s margins. So, no, I don’t dismiss “crazy religions.”
I do eliminate cults, though, which I define not by their oddness or newness but by their coercive tactics. I eliminate the “parody religions” such as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a faith invented in order to mock faith. I eliminate religions that require the use of hallucinogens, owing to a bad experience I had in a New Jersey dorm room in the 1980s that I would rather not talk about. Some religions seem overly narrow, such as Hungarian Folk Religion; others, such as Unitarian Universalists, overly broad. Believing in everything looks a lot like believing in nothing.
In the end, I come up with a list of eight faiths, eight possible answers to the ER nurse’s question. A smattering of monotheistic, polytheistic, and atheistic religions. Some, like Catholicism, solidly mainstream; others, like witchcraft, solidly not. I have chosen not entire faiths but, rather, slivers of belief. God slices. I figure it is easier to wrap my mind around, say, Sufism, than it is all of Islam. Likewise with Kabbalah and Judaism. I am naturally drawn to the mystical paths, which strike me as a necessary counterweight to my head-heavy existence.
Religions aim high but often fall short of their own lofty ideals, as even a cursory glance at the day’s headlines reveals: Muslim suicide bombers, Catholic pedophile priests, various doomsday cults. These perversions explain why so many of my friends give religion, all religion, a very wide berth. For them, nothing is worthy of belief. Belief is for suckers. Mentioning God in anything other than a mocking, ironic tone is viewed as laughably atavistic, like an outbreak of acne at age forty. If I am going to find my God I will need to disarm this caustic cynicism, kill it, while leaving unharmed its necessary sibling, skepticism. This won’t be easy.
Indeed, I’m not sure how to launch my search, so I resort to my default strategy: I read. Books, I reason, have steered many a person to faith. “Pick it up and read it” were the words, uttered by a child, that inspired Saint Augustine to read the Bible and thus transform his life from one of self-degradation to bliss. I read Tolstoy and Huxley and Merton and Heschel and Gandhi. I read a lot of William James. Brother of the novelist Henry James, William studied medicine but soon discovered he was more interested in matters of the mind, and the heart. He became a philosopher and, a new profession at the time, psychologist.
His masterpiece is a thick tome called The Varieties of Religious Experience. As the title suggests, James was not much interested in rituals or theology. He wanted to know how religion affected people personally, not what they believed but what they experienced. The book, published in 1902, is often cited as the first scientific approach to the study of religion. It is no mere taxonomy, though. On each page, I sense James’s quiet yearning, how he envied those he wrote about, those for whom “religion exists not as a dull habit but as an acute fever.” James never experienced that fever himself. He wrote like a world traveler confined to home, forced to rely on secondhand accounts of journeys he desperately wished to take himself.
Like me, James suffered. Throughout his life, he was prone to bouts of depression, and had recurring thoughts of suicide. Perhaps ashamed of his melancholy, as am I, he hid it from public view, writing about it only briefly under the guise of a “French correspondent,” whom he quotes as saying, “I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing.”
Like me, James could not pray. (He felt “foolish and artificial.”) Like me, he was obsessed with death, and like me William James was a case study in competing impulses. He complained about Americans’ mindless worship of the “Bitch-goddess SUCCESS” yet tracked his book sales with greedy eyes. He was a hard-nosed scientist but also a “tender-minded” one, as he put it. Ultimately, as his biographer Linda Simon writes, “he was convinced of his own essential complexity.” James was, in today’s parlance, high-maintenance—something else we have in common, at least according to my wife. William James died in 1910. When doctors performed an autopsy, they found that the cause of death was “acute enlargement of the heart.” Of course, I thought. How could it have been anything else?
As much as I admire William James, I do not seek to emulate him. He may have been brilliant, but his brilliance never extended beyond that of an interested observer, nose pressed against the window, peering into people’s religious lives from a safe distance. I realize I’ll never know that “acute fever” through books, even good ones. No, I need to try on these eight faiths, see if they fit. I need to experience the varieties of religion. I need to get my nose out of these books and onto an airplane. So I do. My nose and I fly to California, which seems like as good a place as any to launch a spiritual quest.
I motor north toward Mendocino, venturing deep into California pot country, listening to the Doors and wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. I’ve signed up for a weeklong Sufi camp. It was a spontaneous decision based partly on the tantalizing juxtaposition of the words “Sufi” and “camp,” and partly on the seductive nature of the brochure. “Come drink with the beloved,” it teased, accompanied by colorful illustrations of chunky wine goblets that looked like something from an Elizabethan tavern. Not only is Sufism the mystical heart of Islam, the way of poets and ecstatics, Sufis are also known as “the drunkards of Islam.” I’m hoping there will be wine.
Besides, I want to dive into Islam straightaway. More than any other faith on my dance card, Islam necessitates a reaction. That one word—meaning both “submission” and “peace”—elicits fear, admiration, puzzlement, full-body scans. Islam is a religion of either peace and beauty or war and intolerance, depending on whom you ask, and when. People may not know a lot about Islam, but everyone has an opinion about it, even if they keep it to themselves. Allah is the eight-hundred-pound God in the room. I can’t ignore Him.
Overseas, reporting for NPR, I had witnessed firsthand the dark side of this faith. Not only terrorism committed in the name of Islam, but also a general harshness, an aridity, that left me cold. Islam seemed as severe and unforgiving as the Arabian desert from whence it sprang. There were exceptions. In India, I had caught whiff of another, softer Islam. I was living in a Muslim neighborhood in Delhi called Nizamuddin, named after a thirteenth-century Sufi saint. There was no harshness there; only light and joy. Nizamuddin was alive with colors and music and a welcoming vibe. People smiled. Moreover, they smiled at me, an infidel. Were the Muslims of Nizamuddin an aberration, or had I stumbled across the “real Islam”?
That question nests in my mind as I stalk the Pacific with my rented PT Cruiser and mangle Jim Morrison. Don’t you love me gladly, wanna be her badly. Then I spot a hand-painted sign with a little red heart on it (Sufis are big on heart) and an arrow: Sufi camp this way. I turn down a dirt road and am enveloped in a cathedral of towering redwoods. Immediately my blood pressure drops. Then I notice that I’ve lost my cellphone signal and my blood pressure spikes again. No, I tell myself, this is good. Yes, this is very good. There is a long tradition of retreating into nature in order to find oneself: Thoreau, Gandhi, that South Carolina governor who hiked the Appalachian Trail. They didn’t freak out over a few missing bars, and neither will I, no sirree. I am going to embrace the blessed isolation. Besides, maybe they have WiFi at the campsite.
I follow a few more heart-signs, the road grows rougher, the trees taller, and then I arrive. I park and walk to the check-in desk. The air is fresh and cool, much cooler than I expected or packed for. I look up and see the redwoods stretching toward the heavens like spires, blighting the sun. These trees, which wear their height so well, existed for centuries before I was born and will survive for centuries after I am long gone.
“Welcome, campers,” bellows Richard, the camp director, a well-aged man dressed head to toe in black. I hear the word “campers” and I am ten years old again. Sufi camp, though, is different. It’s devoted to mysticism and spiritual exploration—and, I hope, some fine California Merlot, or perhaps a nice Zinfandel. First, though, explains Richard, there are a few earthly matters that need to be addressed. Every morning we will meet in the main hall for meditation at six thirty. Then the conch bell will sound at precisely seven, indicating that breakfast is served. Afterward, we’ll all head to the redwood grove to receive “the sacred manuscript of nature,” whatever that is. “There will be insect repellent,” adds Richard helpfully.
I look around. Most of my fellow campers are aging hippies. Some have aged better than others. The ponytails are still there, but the hair is thin and gray, and the legs don’t curl so easily into the lotus position. Some have brought their children, who seem to have followed in their parents’ rebellious footsteps, though their rebellion manifests itself mainly through hair color. I see one teenager with purple hair and what looks like a dog collar around his neck. Another has hair like a snow cone. All of the mainstream religions are represented here, from disillusioned Jews to recovering Catholics. They’re happy to have found a freestyle faith where, as one woman puts it, “Nobody is telling me I’m doing it wrong.”
Richard tells us to consult the menu of activities for the week. It’s all optional, we’re told, we need not do anything, but I feel that old adolescent peer pressure welling up inside me. I look at the menu. It’s a smorgasbord of spiritual offerings: Hindu yoga, Buddhist meditation, Japanese tea ceremony, writing workshops, Jungian dream analysis, astrology. There’s a bit of Sufism thrown in too, but not much. I feel like I’ve fallen down some New Age rabbit hole.
The next morning, at six thirty, I join the others in the large main hall, which looks something like a hippie ski lodge. Hanging from the rafters are nine flags representing nine religions. Over the fireplace is a photo of a bearded Indian man staring cross-eyed at something in the distance. It’s Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian musician and mystic who brought Sufism to America in 1910. Americans have always been a nation of restless souls. The nineteenth-century transcendentalists, Whitman and Emerson and Thoreau, epitomized this spiritual yearning. Read their words and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re reading a translation from Sanskrit or ancient Chinese. Consciously or not, they borrowed heavily from the eastern traditions. And the east borrowed back; Gandhi was inspired by Thoreau.
“Good morning, holy beings,” says our instructor, a man named Shabda (formerly Peter). But I am not holy, barely a being, frankly, at this hour, and without my morning coffee. We meditate. More precisely, others meditate while I watch from the sidelines, near an exit. A woman sidles up to me and says, “You won’t get it unless you experience it,” and I know she’s right but now she’s talking about smoky green tea from China that is good for digestion and something about antioxidants. “Take in the deliciousness of the air entering your lungs,” says Shabda. “Fill your heart with lovingkindness.” (Fine and good, but I’d rather fill my heart with loving caffeine, and stat.)
Finally, I hear the sound of the blessed conch bell and we are served a plentiful and delicious breakfast, accompanied by a robust dark roast. “He who tastes, knows,” the Sufis say. They are speaking about a direct experience of the divine, but the same concept applies to breakfast.
Our stomachs full, caffeine coursing through our veins, we take off our shoes and form a circle, “a self-correcting circle,” I’m told. We’re circling and circling and within seconds, I’m holding hands. We dance to the goddess Tara, who has something to do with bliss and virtue, I think, but nothing to do with Islam. “We’re doing a full-body prayer,” says someone, and then the pace picks up. I can’t get the dance moves right. I kick someone next to me. I’m tired and tell the person attached to the hand I happen to be holding at that moment that I’m going to take a break. “Good,” he says. “You’re in touch with your body.”
They look like one giant organism, expanding and contracting, in constant flux. I admire their proficiency and am filled with spiritual envy. This is not good. I need to get back in there. Which I do and immediately regret because the next “dance” entails looking into one another’s eyes and saying, “May God’s presence illuminate your heart now and forevermore.” This makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know these people. How can I say this? Plus, I have a hang-up about eye contact and avoid it at all costs. My partner is a teenage girl with a nose ring. She looks me in the eye and says, “May God’s presence illuminate your heart, now and forever.” The strange thing, the thing that catches me completely off guard, is that she seems to genuinely mean it. I parrot the words back to her, but I don’t mean it. I wish I did, but I don’t. Does that make me a bad person?
And so it goes at Sufi camp. We begin the day with a Buddhist sutra, then some yoga and perhaps a Japanese tea ceremony. On Friday evening, we celebrate the Jewish Sabbath, and are told that the braids of the challah bread represent the five pillars of Islam. Someone says, “May Allah turn to face you and grant you shalom. Shabbat shalom [good Sabbath].” Sufism is the mystical heart of Islam, and has been for centuries, but these California Sufis have stripped it of its Islamic roots. Everyone here considers themselves Sufi but hardly anyone considers themselves Muslim. Instead, there are so many Gods here, rubbing up against one another, that I’m suffering from spiritual whiplash. I ask someone about this and they say, “Sufism doesn’t make me choose. I get to experience all of these wonderful things.” It’s the Mr. Potato Head approach to religion. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Whatever works. I’m skeptical. It’s one thing to experiment—Mahatma Gandhi was a huge experimenter and titled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth—but eventually you have to conclude the experiment, to choose or, to put it in the consumer vernacular of our age, head for the checkout line.
But we don’t, which is why we’re fast becoming a nation of “nones.” A recent survey by Trinity College found that the fastest-growing religious affiliation is people with no affiliation at all. The “nones” believe in something; only 10 percent consider themselves atheists. The rest, presumably, can be found grazing at the divine buffet, going back for seconds. And why not? At no time in history have so many faiths been available to so many, and with relatively little risk. The odds of being burned at the stake have, thankfully, plummeted in recent centuries. We live in the age of no-fault conversion. “Whirl is King, having driven out Zeus,” said Aristophanes two thousand years ago, and whirl we do, mixing and matching faiths like so many accessories. Churches offer yoga courses, synagogues meditation classes. We can have it all, or so we think.
Feeling adrift, I gravitate toward fellow outliers: a recently divorced pediatrician who is here for the dancing, an Afghan beauty queen—and an oil contractor named Hodi, aka Marlin, who, with his plaid lumberjack shirt and chunky, unstylish glasses, looks as out of place here as I do. Hodi, though, has been a practicing Sufi for decades. He invites me to tag along as he heads into town to pick up supplies. I eagerly agree.
What exactly is Sufism? I ask as we rumble along in his Dodge pickup. “An opening of the heart,” he says. “A love of God.” Sounds good, I think, but couldn’t that define all religions? Sensing my doubt, he elaborates: “Sufism is wisdom school. All of reality is set up to prompt us to greater wisdom, like the house odds in Vegas.” Sufis are in the world but not of the world, he continues, uttering a phrase I will hear many times over the next few months. Contrary to what we may think, he says, mystics have not checked out of the “real world” but are, rather, deeply engaged in it. “They throw themselves into reality with a big splash,” he says, and I wonder what that would sound like.
“That’s nice,” I say. “But what about the dancing and the hand-holding and the staring into one another’s eyes? You know, the goofy stuff.”
“Yeah, we do all kinds of goofy stuff,” he says unapologetically. “All religions do goofy stuff.” He has a point, as anyone who has ever witnessed a Catholic mass or a Jewish wedding can attest.
“Rumi writes about the greater pleasures,” Hodi says, invoking the name of the great Sufi poet who wrote in the thirteenth century but reads like yesterday. “You need to acquaint yourself with these greater pleasures. The problem is that Christianity took a left-hand turn,” says Hodi just as we make a right turn onto the Pacific Coast Highway, which briefly confuses me, “and got into this guilt and shame thing. It turned people off.”
I ask Hodi how I can get the most out of my time at Sufi camp. “I would challenge you to stop thinking for a while,” he says, and I wish he hadn’t. Better he had said, “I challenge you to complete an Ironman Triathlon,” or “I challenge you to grow a new appendage.” Anything, anything but cessation of thought. For me, thinking is like breathing, only less productive. “Try dancing,” suggests Hodi when I tell him about my thinking problem. “It’s great for turning off the mind.” I don’t mention that I’m a terrible dancer and, given a choice, would rather stop thinking than start dancing.
While Hodi gets supplies, I dip into a café and check my e-mail. Nothing. Apparently the world is getting along just fine without me, which I find reassuring, and disappointing. Hodi picks me up and, driving back to the campsite, I mention how it’s like two different worlds, there and here. “Only to the extent that you make it so,” he says sanguinely, and I just sit there in his Dodge pickup truck, which reeks of Marlboro Lights, silently contemplating that one.
On day three of Sufi camp, Islam makes an unexpected appearance. It does so in the visage of a towering bear of a man named Bilal. He’s a former California surfer dude, but you wouldn’t know it looking at him now. He has a long, reddish beard and narrow eyes that make him look like he’s always squinting even if he’s not. He’s wearing a Muslim skullcap and one of those long, flowing tunics favored by imams everywhere. In his hands, he’s fingering a pair of cocoa-brown misbaha, worry beads. He looks like he just stepped out of a Cairo mosque, which isn’t far off. He studied Sufism in Sudan, and it shows. His Arabic pronunciation is excellent. Even his hand gestures, the way he moves them like a conductor, seem authentically Arab. Now he lives in Berkeley where, despite his unusual appearance, no one notices him. Granted, it’s extremely difficult to get noticed in Berkeley. One would have to be on fire. Or Republican.
Bilal tells us we will be doing dhikr (pronounced zikar). Dhikr means literally “remembrance” or “repetition.” For Sufis, it is an essential practice. It is not mere rote repetition of words and phrases but an invocation that is done with one’s entire being. “This remembrance travels from the tongue to the mind to the heart, where it has always resided,” writes Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian-born scholar. Dhikr is similar to the prayer of Christ. Thy will be done. When one does dhikr, explains Nasr, “one must surrender all of the will and mind to God and place the whole of one’s being in God’s hands.”
The Muslim God, of course, is Allah, which is often followed by hu Akbar (is great), which is sometimes—rarely but, still, too often—followed by a loud explosion. It’s easier to approach a religion with an open heart than an open mind. My knowledge, imperfect, incomplete, trips me up. I know just enough about Islam to alarm me, not enough to inspire.
Bilal starts us off with the shahada, the most important Muslim prayer. Muslims say it every day. For them, it is like breathing. For me, it is like breathing under water. It does not come naturally. I suspect it’s all that baggage weighing me down. La ilaha illallah, Muhammad rasulu-llah. “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His messenger,” Bilal says, palms open, eyes half closed, and in impeccable Arabic; then we join in, with peccable Arabic. Arabic is a vibrational language. Sounds matter. It takes me awhile but then I get it. I have to admit: There is a musicality to the words that is soothing, almost hypnotic. Over and over we say those first few words: La ilaha illallah.
There is no God but God. What does that mean? I always thought it was intended to establish Allah’s primacy. There is no God but my God. No, says Bilal, it means: There is nothing but God. Sufis see God everywhere. They are not pantheists—they don’t believe that everything is God—but they do believe there are traces of divinity all around us, if only we look carefully enough. As the Koran says: Wherever you look is the face of God. Not God exactly, but God-in-disguise, the “hidden treasure that loved to be known.”
That is what Sufis endeavor to remember, memory being a form of knowledge. Plato says true knowledge is recollection. In other words, we never learn anything that we didn’t already know, even if we didn’t know that we knew it. Sufis’ knowledge is not book knowledge. They love reading but, I suspect, are not huge underliners. The knowledge they seek is that of direct insight, an intuitive knowing (or, as the mystics would put it, an unknowing). It is the way you know that the stove is hot or that you are going to marry that woman across the room whom you haven’t met yet. Sufis are not anti-intellectual, but they aim to balance what they perceive as a head bias with a large dose of heart.
Bilal is all heart. He’s gesturing with his hands, like a Muslim André Previn, stomping his foot and urging us on. La ilaha illallah, over and over again, varying the rhythm and intonation. “We need to be passionate and crazy and freak out,” he says, his surfer-dude persona bursting forth. “This isn’t just love. It’s crazy love. It’s the madness of infatuation. That’s the kind of madness and passion we’re talking about.” La ilaha illallah. “Okay, breathe in the positive only God,” he says, implicitly acknowledging that not all of God’s ninety-nine names are equally appealing. Sufis don’t focus on God The Destroyer but rather God The Exceedingly Merciful, and who can blame them? Now Bilal is really worked up, and the cultural dissonance is flying fast and furious. “Give it your all,” he says, “give it your oy vey feeling,” and I wonder which of Allah’s ninety-nine names he might be invoking now, God The Mensch? La ilaha illallah. “Give it a little oomph at the end—illallAH—in order to get that rage out.” I do and, sure enough, discover a surprisingly deep reservoir of rage to draw upon.
After we finish the dhikr, the room bathed in a plush silence, I sense movement coming from somewhere behind me. I pivot and see a woman. She is whirling like a…dervish. Which she is. I’ve heard about this but never seen it. It takes my breath away, what is left of my breath, that is. She is spinning and spinning, as if she could go on like that forever. Her dress is floating, like a disk, yet her feet remain pinned to the floor. Turning, as Sufis call this practice, is a form of dhikr, of remembrance. It is prayer in motion. I am smitten. At that moment, I decide I am going to do that. No matter what it takes, I am going to turn.
On my fifth day of Sufi camp I discover I’ve been holding hands wrong. Someone points out that my fingers are intertwined incorrectly. They’re very nice about it but, still, it’s embarrassing. Why didn’t someone say something sooner? For some reason, this sends me over the edge. I need to get out of here. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take the hand-holding and the hugging and the gluten-free food and the self-correcting circles and the made-up names and the snow-cone hair and the cultural relativism and the utter and complete lack of irony. I feel vaguely depressed, which is a ridiculous statement, actually. All depression is vague. If it were specific sadness, we would feel it, process it, and move on. Depression is sadness stuck. I don’t know how to get unstuck, and could really use a drink, so I ask someone, Where’s the wine? You know, drink with the beloved and all that?
“That was a metaphor, man,” he says. Now, for the record, I am a big fan of metaphor, huge. I love metaphors like a seal loves fish, like a cat loves mice, like a…well, you get the idea. But you can’t drink a metaphor. A metaphor doesn’t swish around your palate, full-bodied and robust, with just a hint of fruitiness. And, ingested in moderate quantities, a metaphor won’t make you feel all warm inside. Even the sober-minded William James saw the benefit of occasional intoxication: “Drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man.” Yes! And only a real glass of wine, not a metaphor, can help us achieve that blessed state. Besides, Sufi camp has turned out to be considerably more camp than Sufi. These children of the ’60s have imported Islamic Sufism, extracted the Sufi part, or some version thereof, and largely discarded the Islam part. The resulting concoction is musical and fun and harmless enough. But is it Sufism?
The New Age movement has a way of converting even the most robust, ancient traditions into mush. Religions are like cuisines. They don’t always travel well. They get watered down, diluted, and next thing you know you’re ingesting the spiritual equivalent of chow mein. No, I need to go to the source. But where exactly? Sufis are active in dozens of countries. After some digging, I settle on Turkey. Turkey is where Rumi, Islam’s poet laureate, penned his verse. Turkey is where the whirling dervishes took flight. And, I hear, Turkish wine isn’t half bad. Yes, I will go to Turkey.
The next morning while everyone is busy checking in with their hearts, I check out. I slip in Jim Morrison, crank it way up, and this time get the lyrics right. Don’t you love her madly? There is no God but God. Don’t you need her badly? There is no God but God. Turning onto the Pacific Coast Highway, I fire up my iPhone. Reception, at last.
I arrive in Istanbul and it is raining. A substantial, moody rain that is different in quantity and quality from anything back home. The sheets are broad and weighty, each drop, it seems, straining under all that history. The rain bears this burden so that the city need not. Istanbul wears its history well. A Byzantine-era cathedral lounges unpretentiously between a four-star hotel and a McDonald’s. Cobblestone streets nuzzle against four-lane highways. These juxtapositions materialize effortlessly.
The name “Istanbul,” according to one explanation, derives from a misunderstanding. After capturing Constantinople in 1453, Turkish soldiers asked a group of Greeks where they were going. “Istimbolin,” or “To the city,” replied the Greeks. Thus, “Istanbul” was born. The city continues to operate on misunderstanding, and therein lies its genius. Outsiders can’t figure out Istanbul. Is it European or Asian, religious or secular, ancient or modern? Istanbul, of course, doesn’t care, and laughs off that lazy cliché about its being a “city of contrasts,” an observation that, while true, is meaningless. Every large city, even seemingly monolithic Tokyo, is a city of contrasts. A city’s greatness hinges on how it accommodates these contrasts. Istanbul does so by excluding nothing, and finding covert value in everything. No wonder poets love the city. Intersections make the best muse.
I check in to my hotel and chart a direct course for the bar. For me, no arrival is fully consummated without at least one drink at the hotel bar. On this evening I have two, maybe three, owing to my dry spell in California and the enormous task that lies ahead. I want to learn how to whirl, like a dervish. I want to find the “real” Sufism, not some tie-dyed version. Most of all, I want to find a way out of my thickening depression. No longer an intermittent presence, it has taken up full-time residence, like an uninvited houseguest who won’t leave and yet stubbornly refuses to announce his intentions. This particular guest breaches the confines of metaphor; it possesses actual physical qualities, weight and mass.
The root of the problem, I think, is my fear of death. My friends say it is irrational. They are wrong. My fear of death is entirely rational. I will die. That is a fact. That I don’t know precisely when or how affords small consolation. Simply put, the thought of not existing freaks me out. I don’t know how people get out of bed in the morning knowing that each day brings us twenty-four hours closer to nonexistence. Theologian Paul Tillich defines neurosis as “a way of avoiding non-being by avoiding being.” He’s right. Neurosis is a psychic purgatory that leaves its victim suspended between pain and relief. It’s also exhausting. The care and feeding of my pet neurosis increasingly leaves me with little energy for anything else. Like my family, for instance. Whatever success I’ve achieved has been in spite of myself, not because of myself. This has to change, and I don’t mean change in the narrow, cynical sense that Freud suggests. I do not want to transform my neurosis into “ordinary unhappiness,” as the good doctor prescribes, but something else. Something more.
The décor is all white and minimalist. My chair is hard plastic and swivels. Were it not for the view of the Bosporus, churning furiously outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, I could be in L.A. or New York. I crack open Leslie Wines’s biography of Rumi. The bartender notices and nods his approval. “A great man,” he says between shakes of an Absolut martini. Seven hundred years after his death, Rumi remains a rock star, and everyone wants a piece of him. The Turks claim Rumi as their own, since he lived most of his life here. The Afghans claim him too, since he was born there. The Iranian people (not the government) also claim Rumi, since he wrote in Persian. Fortunately, there is enough Rumi to go around. He was so prolific, and full of heart.
Sufis say every student needs a murshid, a guide. My guide to Rumi and the world of Turkish Sufism is a woman named Dilek, a friend of a friend. She strikes me as perfect for the job. She knows her way around the various tariqahs, paths, of Sufism, and has been following one particular path herself for years. She also happens to be an actual tour guide by profession, and this, I soon discover, is not only bursting with symbolic significance but comes in handy when attempting to decipher all this history, or haggle over the price of a carpet.
The next morning dawns dark and rainy, the winds whipping off the Bosporus with particular fury. Dilek and her boyfriend, Tan, a professional basketball player turned travel agent, pick me up from the hotel. “We’re going to the other side,” announces Dilek, as she does everything, with a theatrical thrust of her arms, palms aimed skyward. The other side. I like the way that sounds, and assume we are about to enter some mysterious parallel world, William James’s “unseen order” perhaps. No, explains Dilek, we’re going to the Asian side of the city. Istanbul bisects the European and Asian continents, and Turks think nothing of hopping to Asia for tea or lunch, or, in our case, a sohbet, a Turkish word with no direct translation but usually described as “mystical conversation.”
We cross a bridge to the Other Side, Tan’s little Fiat slicing through the sheets of rain, and before long we arrive at a ferry landing where we are met by a clutch of Dilek’s friends, fellow Sufis, and then board a sturdy old boat. It’s called the Mirae, which means “ascension to Heaven,” and I like the way that sounds. Dilek says it’s a sign. With the Sufis, everything is a sign. The boat is basic, not the least bit luxurious, but it feels solid and reassuring. We sit on hard wooden benches and wrap our scarves tight. A man—a boy, really, no older than fifteen—comes around with hot tea, which he pours expertly into small glasses. The sea is rough, and I struggle to drink my tea without spilling it. The others, I notice, have no such trouble.
I like the feel of the hot tea in my palms. I like the spray of the water, and even the rocking motion of the boat. We are embarking on an adventure. Shouting to make ourselves heard above the roar of the boat’s engine, we talk. Inevitably, Ataturk’s name comes up. His portrait is everywhere, including on this ferry. The beloved founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk forged a purely secular state. When he came to power, he banned all Sufi orders. That ban has since been lifted, for some orders, but Sufism still resides in the shadows of Turkish society.
Muslims everywhere tend to view Sufis as backward and something of an embarrassment, much in the way many mainstream Christians view the snake-handling Pentecostals. Sufis, with their music and dancing and juicy poetry, not to mention their veneration of saints and relatively liberal attitudes toward women, are not seen as “real” Muslims. Sufis counter that they are in fact upholding the tradition of the Prophet and the spirit of the Holy Koran. Indeed, their aim is to “reproduce within themselves that state of mind that made it possible for Mohammed to receive the revelations of the Koran,” says the religious scholar Karen Armstrong.
William James would have agreed with that sentiment. Though he never had a mystical experience, he thought it wrongheaded to dismiss them out of hand. “One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.” He also recognized that mystical experiences can be unsettling, for while they offer a glimpse of previously unknown terrain, they “fail to give a map.”
But what exactly is mysticism? It’s not a distinct religion but, rather, a way of relating to the divine. Mystics are less concerned with outer, exoteric aspects of religion and much more concerned with the inner, esoteric ones—with “personal first-hand knowledge,” as Evelyn Underhill put it in her classic definition. The conventionally religious seek to know about God; mystics seek to know of God—and not in some theoretical hereafter, but now, in this lifetime. It’s the difference between spending decades studying wine and taking one sip of an especially fine Pinot Noir.
I ask Dilek about her Sufi life. She wasn’t born into a Sufi family, she says, but discovered it later in life. She hints at some personal crisis, but stops short of revealing more and I don’t press. “I’m simply a seeker, a humble seeker,” she says, asserting a basic Sufi tenet of humility, or maybe parroting it, I can’t tell. “What is Sufism?” I ask, having never nailed that down in California. “For me, it is an all-embracing concept,” says Dilek. “It is the instinctual search for truth.” That sounds nice, but couldn’t the same be said of any religion, and of science for that matter? And what exactly does she mean by “truth”?
Those questions will have to wait. We’ve arrived at our destination: one of the Prince Islands, so named, Dilek informs me in her best tour-guide voice, because in Byzantine times princes who fell out of favor with the king were blinded and dispatched to these islands. Today the islands serve as a summer getaway for harried Istanbulites and a year-round residence for a few hearty souls. Dilek has arranged for me to meet one of those souls, a Sufi sheikh named Mehtin. He’s a pharmacist by profession. There is no such thing as a professional Sufi; they always have a secular vocation. In the world, but not of the world. Mehtin is special, I’m told. “If you’re ready, he’ll put you on a rocket,” one of his students later told me. She didn’t say where this rocket takes you, but I like the idea of catapulting clear of myself. Yes, a rocket would be nice.
We disembark and, after much negotiation conducted through wild gesticulations, board a couple of horse-drawn carriages. There are no cars permitted on the island, lending a quaint, timeless feel to the place. And then we’re off, the horses clomping and me hanging on tight to the straps inside the carriage. A few minutes later, we arrive at a simple but pleasant house perched atop a hill. We take off our shoes—Sufis, like all Muslims, believe that shoes are anathema to spiritual progress—and join some fifteen others, sitting in chairs and overstuffed love seats, sipping tea. At the center of this informal circle is a middle-aged man wearing a striped sweater and wool vest. Eyeglasses dangle from a cord hanging around his neck. He has bright, intelligent eyes, expressive hands, and a soft smile. Mehtin. I like him immediately.
He announces that we are about to embark on a sohbet, a word that I have yet to fully grasp. “Heart talk” is how it is sometimes defined. Or, as Mehtin explains, deploying multiple metaphors, “A sohbet is not a restaurant, it’s a picnic. Everybody shares something. It’s like jazz improvisation; each time it is different, but the aim is always the same: a state of transcendence.” I come to think of it as a spiritual bull session, which it is too. We talk for hours. Outside, the sky turns from gray to black, and still we talk, stopping only briefly to pile our plates with fresh cheese, bread, and figs. Mehtin does most of the talking, but he listens well too. Inevitably, the subject of heart arises. For Sufis there is nothing more important than heart. But what do they mean by it?
“The heart is not this pump,” says Mehtin, pointing to his chest. But neither is it the sappy organ that westerners croon about. Heart is not raw emotion. It is possible to be dripping with emotion yet completely out of touch with your heart. The Arabic word for heart is qalb, whose root means “always changing, turning.” For Sufis, the heart is an instrument of perception, and knowledge. “Seeing with the heart’s eye” is a common Sufi expression.
The Turks have a word I like a lot: gönül, which means “knowing heart.” Mehtin explains: “The gate to gönül can only be opened from the inside. Gönül is an intimate place, like the bedroom of the house. Only lovers can be invited into it.” His choice of metaphor is no coincidence. Sufis often express themselves in the language of romantic love. These Sufis did not borrow from the romantics but, rather, the other way around. The very concept of modern romantic love stems, in part, from Sufi ideals.
On several occasions, when I suspect the conversation is getting a little too close to the bone, I resort to my old standby: humor. Others laugh, politely perhaps, but not Mehtin. “You like to make jokes,” he says, “but we are serious men talking about serious matters.” Oh no. He has my number.
At one point during the sohbet, I do something unexpected. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is all the heart talk, or the fact that I am on a carless island in the Sea of Marmara, out of my element, or that I am among strangers, or that we are serious men talking about serious matters. Whatever the reason, I decide to tell a story. It is a very personal story, the kind that is routinely mocked in certain circles, which is why, until now, I have shared it with only a few trusted friends.
My story unfolds on another island, this one much larger and definitely not car-free: the Japanese island of Honshu. I was living in Tokyo, working as a correspondent for NPR. Due to the time difference between Tokyo and Washington, DC, I often worked late into the night. This night was no exception. It was a pressing assignment, though now I can’t recall about what. I pride myself on being the kind of journalist who is good in a crisis, a clutch player. I always deliver. But this night I couldn’t. Try as I might, nothing worked. So I did something I’ve never done before: I gave up. Quit. I suppose you could say I surrendered, though I didn’t think of it in those terms. I went to sleep knowing that I was about to disappoint my editors, and myself, and I simply didn’t care.
A few hours later I was awakened, not by a dream but by a feeling, one so intense and unprecedented that I still struggle to name it. I have experienced moments of happiness in my life, flashes of joy even, but this was of an entirely different magnitude. Waves of bliss broke over me, inside me. Tears rolled down my cheeks. My body trembled, almost like a seizure, and on my lips came these words: “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.” I didn’t know such joy was possible. Slowly the waves subsided, and I drifted back to sleep.
The Tokyo Story, as I now think of it, was a one-off, and I soon forgot about it. Or nearly so. Every now and then I retrieve it, and wonder if I had briefly experienced the “acute fever” that William James observed among the mystically minded. I would have explored it further, were it not for the box problem. We need to store our experiences in a box. Without a box, an experience is easily lost, forgotten. Our culture provides us with many boxes: the family box, the career box, the consumer box. It does not, however, provide a box for experiences like the one I had in Tokyo, other than the catchall “what-the-hell-was-that?” box. Which is exactly where I stowed my Tokyo story.
Until now. I ask Mehtin what he makes of my Tokyo story. There is a long pause, too long, I think, until finally he answers: “Western people, rationalists, think analytically. They use their left hemisphere and they always want methods. The left hemisphere is male. The right is female. She is Sophia, which means wisdom. The left side is male and has analytical logic but the right doesn’t. The right hemisphere is holistic perception. With the right hemisphere, we feel wholeness and inspiration. Right now, the entire world is male-dominated. There is no motherhood, no affection, no mercy. The world needs more right hemisphere. You felt this yourself. This was an internal warning, a wake-up call for you. Like a bell. Rumi said, ‘Shut down the doors of your ears and eyes and look inside.’ Do not do anything. Just surrender, and this we call islam, submission.”
I have a problem with submission. It sounds defeatist, a close cousin of resignation. Submission strikes me as a form of failure and, frankly, un-American. We are taught to persevere at all costs. Never give up, never submit to anyone. I suspect, though, that I am misreading the word and ask Mehtin as much. To what, or whom, are we submitting? God?
“Not to God. This is a lie. We are going to our inside, to a place with no name, with no shame and with no images.”
“Yes, yes, very. You’re right. You become burdened, anxious, when you are looking into this darkness. This is a very basic anxiety. And this is so good, perfect.”
It doesn’t seem perfect to me, quite the opposite, actually, and I say so.
“When you encounter this fear, this anxiety, stick to it. The fear of the Void is the beginning of wisdom. When you can stay in that state, stay with the anxiety and the fear, then suddenly the darkness becomes lightness and the anxiety turns to joy. Suddenly. Like lightning. The whole body is electrified, purified. The goal of Sufism is this, and that’s what you experienced briefly in Tokyo.”
“So maybe I’m a Sufi and I didn’t know it?”
“Everybody is a Sufi, but not everyone knows,” Mehtin says, and flashes a toothy, slightly mischievous smile.
I ask about Rumi. How should I read him? I expect Mehtin to offer some sage advice about my gönül, or something like that. Not for the last time, he surprises me.
“Don’t read Rumi. You should not read him.”
What? This is like the pope suggesting I not bother with the Gospels. Why shouldn’t I read Rumi, the greatest Sufi poet who ever lived?
Mehtin answers with a story, which is a very Sufi thing to do. When he was young he asked a similar question of his teacher: How should he read Rumi? Any way you want, his teacher said, nothing is forbidden, and he handed Mehtin a book of Rumi’s poetry. It was all about burning and agony and separation. It made no sense, and certainly wasn’t inspiring. Who wants to be burned by the Beloved? Mehtin tossed the book aside. There was nothing here, no wisdom. His teacher, not surprised by Mehtin’s reaction, said, “The book of lovers can only be read by lovers.” Only years later, when Mehtin’s beloved teacher died and he was heartbroken, did he pick up Rumi again, and understand. “That,” says Mehtin, “is why I say you should not read Rumi. To find Rumi you have to find yourself first.”
I don’t have that kind of time, I think, but decide not to say anything. Besides, the sohbet is over. We ride the ferry back to the Other Side, then drive to the European, left hemisphere of Istanbul. I crawl into bed and, jet-lagging, promptly disobey Mehtin. I read Rumi. Mehtin was right. Much of it is puzzling, and dark. Take this line, for instance: “The man of God is distraught and astounded.” I understand astounded, but distraught? Or this one: “I’m at once the feast and the disemboweled victim.” What does that mean? And as Mehtin warned, there is much burning and annihilating in Rumi’s world. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Which is precisely the point, of course. “The path of religion is full of trouble and disaster, because it is not a path suited to anyone with a cowardly nature,” Rumi wrote. This does not bode well for me, I think, closing the book and trying, unsuccessfully, to fall asleep.
Rumi, the master poet, didn’t care much for poetry. For him, it was just another idol. The finger pointing at the moon, not the moon, as the Buddha put it. I have no time for poetry, Rumi proclaimed, but my visitors demand it. “So like a good host I provide it.” He did not want to be read, nor lionized in death. “Don’t look for my grave in the ground,” he famously said. “My grave is in the heart of lovers of God.” The next morning, I disobey Rumi (clearly, I have an obedience issue) and, along with Dilek and her gaggle of Sufi friends, fly to Konya, the city where the reluctant poet lived, and died.
We arrive in Konya at daybreak. My first impression is that it seems awfully flat and barren. Tan confirms that this is indeed the case. In fact, there are so few trees in Konya that the Turks have an expression. When someone does something especially stupid, they say, “He hit a tree in Konya.” A poster outside the airport shows a group of whirling dervishes, with their flowing white capes and serene expressions. I want that, I think again. I want to do that. I want to be that. I want to lose myself in God or ecstasy, or just silly dizziness—whatever it takes to shake my depression. I want to get out of my head, if only for a few seconds, and whirling at feverish speed just might do the trick. I express this desire to Dilek. The look on her face telegraphs the trouble that lies ahead. This won’t be easy, she says. Secrecy surrounds the semazens, or “whirling dervishes.” But she will try. Meanwhile, she suggests I look in my heart to see if this is something I really want to do. Dilek is always advising me to look in my heart, as if it were that easy, like checking the oil on my 2003 VW Passat, but maybe that isn’t such a good example because I’m not very good at that either.
Konya is a city past its prime—seven hundred years past, to be precise. Back then, in the thirteenth century, it was a crossroads of cultures and religions. Saint Paul once preached here. Konya’s favorite son, of course, is the Islamic scholar turned poet named Jalaluddin Rumi. He came here as a young man in his early twenties, his family on the run from the Mongols. It is here where Rumi wrote all of his fifty thousand verses. It is here where Rumi met his muse, a mysterious dervish named Shams (or “Sun”) of Tabriz. And it is here where Rumi died and, it is said, people of all faiths attended his funeral.
One of our traveling companions is Dilek’s friend Berrin. She is happy, quite possibly the happiest person I’ve ever met. Berrin warns me that during our stay in Konya, an auspicious time that coincides with Rumi’s death anniversary, people, women and men, might suddenly cry for no apparent reason. “Sometimes it’s so intense it’s almost unbearable,” she says. She suggests I don’t fight the tears. Sufis consider crying a means of cleansing the heart, and for Sufis there is nothing more important than a clean heart. As our taxi traverses Konya’s treeless streets, Berrin throws out this bit of Sufi folklore: If your tears are salty, your heart is not clean enough. If your tears are bitter, your heart is not clean enough. If your tears are sweet, then your heart is clean. What if your tears won’t come at all, I wonder silently. I could use a good cry—salty, sweet, BBQ-flavored, whatever. My tears are calcified, backed up. Depression, contrary to what we normally believe, is not sadness but an inability to fully feel sadness. Depression is sorrow denied.
“Of course you’re depressed, you’re writing about God,” my friend Jennifer told me, and she had a point. We have pathologized melancholy, transformed a complex human condition into a cut-and-dried disease, like diabetes or high blood pressure. The cure, by and large, is chemical. If Saint John of the Cross were alive today, doctors would no doubt prescribe Paxil for his dark night of the soul. I don’t deny that for some a genuine chemical imbalance exists, and for them medication can help, but I can’t help but wonder if my depression signals something else, a spiritual imbalance of sorts, one that no pill can cure. Or, as Rumi suggested, that no pill should cure.
Rejoice in grief; grief’s the way to melt into Him
Ascension, on this path, travels from heights to depths.
In the distance, I can see Rumi’s tomb: a green tower, rising above a dome. We pay a few Turkish lira then wander through an exhibit of dervish paraphernalia. There’s a ney, the long reed instrument that is played during the whirling performance. The sound of the ney, Dilek tells me, represents “the cry of the suffering soul,” and I do not doubt this. The ney is the most plaintive instrument ever invented. It is impossible to listen to it for more than thirty seconds without slipping into deep existential despair, assuming you’re not there already. The ney, Rumi wrote, represents pain of separation, the separation of the reed from the reed bed and, by extension, our separation from the Beloved, from the divine. “Anyone separated from someone he loves understands what I say, anyone pulled from the source longs to go back,” wrote Rumi.
So much of the dervishes’ accoutrement is symbolic of spiritual death and rebirth: the cylindrical hats worn by dervishes, for instance, represent tombstones. Some Sufis carry axes, so that they can kill their nafs, ego attachments. (They don’t actually use the axes, Dilek assures me. It’s just another metaphor, like the wine.) Sufis believe we must “kill” our false self so that our true, divine nature can live. “O man of honor, die before you die,” Rumi wrote, echoing Jesus’s words. “Die unto thy self.”
I notice a black square of wood with a nail in the middle. It’s a practice board, Dilek explains. A dervish in training stands on the board and tries to turn while one foot remains pinned to the nail. Normally, the prospect of such pain would cause me to abandon a venture like this, but not this time. I still want to turn. Even if it hurts.
We enter the main hall, where Rumi’s tomb is housed. Normally, at a religious site like this, people would remove their shoes, out of respect, but there are too many visitors and not enough room to store the shoes, so instead everyone dons these blue plastic booties. We look like nuclear-power-plant inspectors or those people who work in “clean rooms” making microchips, and the sound of plastic rubbing against itself competes with the plaintive music of the ney. Lamps hanging from the high ceilings represent the divine light. “Light upon light” is how the Koran describes Allah. Inscribed on one wall is perhaps Rumi’s most famous, and to me, enigmatic, sayings: “Either appear as you be or be as you appear.” I could spend a lifetime deciphering that one. Dilek has been here many times, always leading a tour group, until last year, when she came by herself, for herself, and was overwhelmed by the experience. She felt at peace for the first time in a long time.
I find a place to sit. I try to take notes but my pen—my brand-new pen—refuses to write. Berrin says this is a sign that I don’t want to write. Perhaps. Or maybe my pen is broken. So instead of writing, I watch. There’s everyone from Japanese tourists to Iranian pilgrims. Some people walk around with one hand over their hearts, while others sit quietly, reading Rumi. I notice Tan across the room, sitting on the floor, his long basketball legs folded up like one of those collapsible chairs. The woman next to me is wearing a black-and-white head scarf, eyes closed, hand on heart, lost in…what? Thought? No, that is a silly expression. We are never really lost in thought. Thought, even discursive thought, is the opposite of being lost. When we are thinking we are not lost, and that is the problem. That’s why many spiritual paths demand a true loss of our thinking selves, our egos. No, she is lost in nonthought, some state so sublime I can’t even fathom. We may be fellow travelers, she and I, but I suspect she is further along the road than me.
I try putting my hand on my heart, this dead thing, but nothing. It’s like turning on a radio and hearing only silence. Why can’t I tune in to whatever station this woman next to me is clearly receiving? I remember something a German woman, a follower of the obscure Jain religion, once told me: “When you are desperate enough you will find your God.” How much more desperate might that be? I wonder.
I like this place. It is reverential and relaxed at the same time, a rare combination. So, unable to write, I sit. And sit. And then, right on cue, get antsy and wonder if they have a gift shop. They must have a gift shop. All sacred sites have gift shops. Where is the gift shop? (Later I would find it, tucked near the exit, selling little pamphlets of Rumi’s poems and glass figurines of whirling dervishes. Dilek and friends bought me one, and it still sits, and whirls, on my desk.) I’m about to go investigate when I notice a young man next to me, in jeans and ski vest, reading Rumi in a language that I think is Persian, Rumi’s mother tongue. The man introduces himself. His name is Nader and he is indeed from Iran. He tells me that in Iran, Rumi is frowned upon by the authorities. “They consider it against morality,” he says, and indeed some of Rumi’s poems might be construed as borderline pornographic, if one read them literally, which is not the way Rumi intended them to be read, of course.
I ask Nader what he finds so compelling in Rumi that he is willing to defy the Iranian government and embrace him. “I find happiness in Rumi,” he says. “When I’m desperate, sometimes I find something in a poem that charms my heart. His poems are very pure. When my daughter and wife are asleep I read Rumi and cry, a happy kind of crying. I cannot find that in any of the other Sufi poets.” He sees my copy of The Essential Rumi, a translation by Coleman Barks. This is good, he says, but it’s much better in the original Persian. He reads a few lines to me, and I close my eyes and think, Yes, it is; even though I don’t understand a word I can appreciate the musicality, the beauty, of the couplets.
I say goodbye to Nader and find Dilek and friends. We decamp to a nearby restaurant where Dilek orders platefuls of bread and cheese and unrecognizable dishes that are nonetheless delicious. I see out the window a sign for the “Dervish Driving School” and smile at the thought of learning how to drive from a whirling dervish. I imagine their students spend a lot of time going in circles, getting nowhere, but doing so beautifully. Plans are discussed. Dilek says we have to be zuhurat, which means roughly “open to anything.” Zuhurat is not fate, not exactly, she says, but it does involve an unwavering belief in a friendly universe. This becomes a running theme during our time in Konya. If something good happens, it is zuhurat. Even something bad can be zuhurat, the implication being that there is some hidden good to be found if only one looks hard enough. When I nearly walk into oncoming traffic, that is declared zuhurat, because I wasn’t killed.
“So I can do anything and it’s zuhurat?” I ask Dilek. “No,” she says, citing a Sufi saying: “Tie your donkey to a proper pole first then go about your business.”
The heavy lunch and Turkish sweets conspire against the possibility of a spiritual breakthrough. Now I understand why fasting is an integral part of so many religions, including Islam. It’s not easy finding God on a full stomach. Carl Jung believes one reason modern man is less spiritually developed than his medieval ancestors is overnutrition. Rumi, as always, put it musically: “There’s a hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.”
Dilek takes me to an event. A highly respected Sufi sheikha is giving a lecture. We enter a simple concrete building and walk up several flights of stairs. People keep coming and coming until the room is packed. The sheikha is thin, with dark hair, a pleasant smile, and an awful lot of energy. “No ego consciousness,” she says, “that is the key.” And then she tells a story.
There was once a very important politician who rose to the rank of prime minister. During an official function, he meets with a dervish. “What will you be after you are prime minister?” asks the dervish.
“I’m not sure,” replies the politician. “Perhaps I will be defense minister.”
“And after that, what will you be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ll probably retire and join a prestigious think tank.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t know,” says the prime minister, increasingly exasperated. “I will be a roving ambassador, something like that.”
“And then what will you be?
“Nothing!” screams the politician. “I will be nothing.”
The dervish smiles.
“Why are you smiling?”
“Because, Your Excellency, I am already nothing.”
Sufis aim for what Saint Teresa of Avila called “the clear perception of our proper nothingness.” Many Sufis, in fact, describe mystical experiences where they feel like a speck of dust, which strikes me as rather depressing, but they don’t see it that way. Thus, the paradox of the spiritual path: To become enlightened we must first become no one. Yet it is precisely this fear of nothingness, of nobody-ness, that terrifies me. Strip away my ego—my identity as father and husband and writer and, yes, as neurotic extraordinaire—and what is left? Nothing, the Sufis say. And isn’t that wonderful?
The sheikha then asks us how coal turns into a diamond. The answer, of course, is through heat. Burn something ordinary, like coal, long enough, and hot enough, and it turns precious. “God occupies us with all sorts of trouble because He wants us to be transformed,” she says.
Afterward, she agrees to meet with me one-on-one. For some reason, maybe it’s her kind smile or gentle manner, I unload on her. I tell her about my hospitalization and The Question—have you found your God yet?—and my determination to find an answer and about how much I love books and the underlining of them and how this seems to be getting in the way of my search and how every Sufi I meet tells me that I need to get out of my head and into my heart and how they make it sound so simple but of course it’s not so what am I to do?
Unfazed by my verbal onslaught, she answers. There are two types of mind, she says, and the way to reach the higher state of mind, a kind of heart-mind, is very simple: “You need to fall in love.”
“With anything. Even with a stone. It doesn’t matter. Just fall in love.”
What a remarkable statement. Sufis are indeed lovers. That I knew. “For us, the whole business is a love affair,” they like to say, but I always assume they mean love of God, not love of anything. But, in fact, that is exactly what they mean. Rumi took that notion a step further. He once said that the highest form of love is love with no object. Is such a thing possible? Or is that like saying the highest form of eating is when no food is involved?
On the drive back to the hotel, it’s Dilek’s turn to open up. She tells me how she was born Muslim but always wondered: If God is out there, why doesn’t He show Himself? She dabbled in other practices. An Indian guru taught her silent meditation, and that helped, a bit. She had small hints that “there was more,” as she puts it, but just couldn’t get into kundalini meditation, couldn’t do it. Then, a few years later, she became very interested in dreams. She read Jung, who had much to say on the subject. She started keeping a dream journal. “I found this fascinating world. I was so curious about myself. I wanted to decipher myself on a psychological level, and then spirituality followed.” Then she read a book called Catching the Thread, by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a British-born Sufi mystic. Something clicked. “It took me to my silent container,” she says. (Dilek is big on containers. She’s always talking about them.) In 2004 she met Llewellyn for the first time, in Germany, and that was it. Sure, she still had her doubts. Dilek describes herself as an “independent soul,” raised in the east but with a skeptical, western mind. A head person, like me. “But I was also so desperate,” she says.
“Desperate for what?”
Excerpted from Man Seeks God by Weiner, Eric Copyright © 2011 by Weiner, Eric. Excerpted by permission.
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