|Publisher:||The Golden Sufi Center|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
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10 Practices to Reawaken the Sacred in Everyday Life
By Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Hilary Hart
The Golden Sufi CenterCopyright © 2017 The Golden Sufi Center
All rights reserved.
I have always loved to walk early in the morning, to sense the Earth at the beginning of a day, to feel Her pulse, Her beauty and magic, before thoughts and demands clutter my day. Waking early, I have a hot cup of tea, meditate in silence, and then, as soon as the first light comes, I walk down the hill to the road beside the wetlands where I live. Sometimes the frost is sparkling around me, sometimes the water is clouded with fog, an egret appearing white against the reeds. This is another time of silent meditation, walking, breathing, feeling the Earth. I try to be as empty as possible, just to be present in the half-light, aware of what is around me. Prayer, meditation, presence, awareness — these are just words for a practice that immerses me in a mystery we call nature. Here the sacred speaks to me in its own language, and I try to listen.
Now I live beside the wetlands, and the tidal water is part of this meeting, this communion. Other times, in other landscapes, it has been rivers and streams, the sounds of waterfowls' wings, the dawn rising across meadows. Or in forests, a different bird chorus, animals skittering across the path, a deer and her young. Always it is a listening awareness, a deep receptivity to what is around me, an honoring of a world other than people. It is a remembrance of what is essential, elemental, and its nourishment carries me through the day. It is a return to the sacred, sensed and felt, without words or thoughts — a primal consciousness as if of the first day.
This is a practice that has been with me since my teens — when I first started to meditate I also needed to walk. It was not taught or learned, but came as a need, a way to be, an antidote to much of the world around me — a world of people and problems, demands and desires. When one foot follows the other and the day has hardly begun, it seems these demands cannot touch me, as if I am immersed in something simpler, more essential. Placing each foot on the earth is a practice, but a practice that comes from my own roots, not a book or a teacher. Later I came to hear it called "walking in a sacred manner," and it is sacred, a return to what is sacred. But it also is deeper or more primal than any purpose. Nature speaks to me and I listen. Nature calls and something deep within me responds, and I just need to give it space. I am part of a life far greater than any "me."
The Earth gives us sustenance: the air we breathe, the food we eat. She is generous in so many ways, even as we forget Her and abuse Her. But there is also this deeper nourishment, this invisible, intangible giving. My early morning walk is a communion — if I am receptive, it is a wine drunk deeply. It comes through Her landscape, moss dripping from the trees, white and pink blossoms welcoming spring, the cry of a sea bird. Those first rays of sunrise are always a blessing. I do not understand this with my mind, but my soul feels it, needs it. Once again we are back at the beginning, in that elemental world we never truly leave. Our present culture may have forgotten it, disowned it, covered it over, may pretend we no longer need this communion, but my soul and my feet know otherwise. This is the landscape of the soul as much as it is the wetlands stretching towards the ocean. But it is also any landscape we walk. A walk on city streets is made of the same elements: feet touching ground, the rhythm of walking, breathing, the same sky overhead, the wind touching the face.
I would like to say it is easy, but so often I have to remember to reconnect, to empty the clutter of the coming day from my mind, my everyday thoughts. I have to stay in a place of awareness, sense my feet, feel the air, listen. I have to remember that I am not separate but part of everything around me. I have to push aside this great myth of separation, the great untruth. We are the air we breathe, the earth we touch, the same one life, alive in so many ways. We are the Earth awakening in the early morning, just as we are the buds breaking into color in the spring. To be fully alive is to feel how we are part of this embracing mystery. My morning walk is a remembrance, a reconnection, experienced in the body and felt in the soul.
* Walking reinforces our connection to the Earth, one step at a time. Attuning to the rhythms of one's feet, the swaying of one's arms, the in and out of breath, the ways walking moves us through time and space, helps develop this relationship, reminding us consciously and unconsciously just how much a part of nature we are. Nature is cyclic and rhythmic, and walking — when we are not focused on where we are going — attunes us to this non-linear reality.
* Walking practice is perhaps best begun alone, when the intimacy of nature's communication can be sensed without distraction. Just as when we meet a lover in the early part of a relationship, we do not want to share that meeting with others. Choose a time when you can be alone, when listening, hearing, and sensing can take place. Perhaps the start or the end of the day, before life's clamoring takes hold or after it lets go. Lunchtime or an afternoon break from work might be more difficult, but if that is the time available, then make sure the walk is long enough for you to let go of work thoughts or tensions of the day.
* Turn off the cell phone, or better yet, leave it at home or the office. There is a way that the vulnerabilities that come with being alive have been squelched by our daily-life safety tools, like cell phones. If you can be without the protection and constant access they provide, try it. Social media will not miss documentation from your walk.
* Find a park or a path through a quiet woods if you can. Let the rhythm of your steps soothe your mind and create a space for listening. Feel how your feet connect with the earth, how the air moves through your lungs. Follow your attention as it is drawn inward and outward both — to the inner movements of your body and to the feeling of warmth or cold, the sight of birds, the sound of a distant plane. Let your thoughts and impressions move through and out, as part of the natural rhythm of walking. Just as we come back to the breath in silent meditation, return your attention to your feet and their meeting and letting go of the ground.
* Commit to walking every day if you can. Walk without expectation, with an attitude of openness and gratitude. If you feel a longing inside you — a need to connect, a desire to be closer to nature — let it motivate and guide you.
The nineteenth-century existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote in a letter to his niece, "Every day, I walk myself intoa state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it."
Breathe slowly, silently, and naturally. When you inhale through the nose, the belly gently expands. When you exhale through the mouth, it releases, effortlessly. With each inhalation imagine that you are drawing-in the pure energy of the universe. It spreads through your entire body, refreshing and renewing you. With each exhalation, you release the old, unneeded energy.
Taoist breathing practiceCHAPTER 2
Breathing is living. If we are not breathing we are not alive. Breathing is the most primal rhythm of our life, along with the beating of the heart. With every breath we bring the oxygen we need into our blood and body. But how many of us breathe consciously, are aware of the breath?
My teacher had been trained in India, and she taught me a yogic breath: when you breathe in you feel your belly expand, when you breathe out you feel it come back in. This is a way of breathing deeply, with awareness, very different from the shallow breathing of those who are so busy with their lives they are barely aware of their breath at all, who have forgotten how to breathe deeply or — because they are so disconnected — how to live deeply. Ever since then I always breathe in the way my teacher taught me. It is a profoundly purifying practice, and like all true practices, what begins with effort and attention eventually becomes just a way of life, a natural way to breathe. My teacher's teacher was trained in the old ways, and when he meditated there was no in- or out-breath; he breathed "internally" so as not to disturb his meditation. Such yogic techniques are far beyond me, but simple awareness of breath, belly expanding and contracting, is central to my life. It is so simple, yet it is so profound.
The breath is central to spiritual practices across most of the spiritual traditions. Yogis practice pranayama, the control of the breath; Taoists use breath control to increase their chi, their life force. Vipassana meditation begins with focusing attention on the breath in order to concentrate and clear the mind. Sufi dhikrs are chanted or repeated with the breath, and the Jesus Prayer practiced in the Orthodox Church is also said in conjunction with the breath. My own Naqshbandi Sufi tradition teaches that awareness of breath is the foundation of inner work: "The more one is able to be conscious of one's breathing, the stronger is one's inner life."
The soul has also long been thought to be in the breath and is sometimes visualized as a breath body. In Sufi teachings the soul comes into the body with every out-breath, and with each in-breath returns to its spiritual dimension. This is why the last breath of a dying person is said to be an in-breath, their last gasp of air. On that final in-breath the soul returns to its own plane and does not come back into the body. While we are alive, with each cycle of the breath the soul makes its journey into this world and then back to the Source. Spiritually we aspire to make this journey conscious. It is the lived prayer of the soul, an offering of our self to the mystery of life and its all-embracing relationship to the Divine. With each breath we consciously connect the two worlds, the world of the spirit and the physical world. We are present in the love affair that is the relationship between the Creator and the creation.
But we no longer recognize that connection of love between the worlds, between spirit and matter. Our world is starving for spiritual nourishment as we collectively assert that the material world is all that exists. Our consciousness then creates a barrier between the worlds, rather than helping to link inner and outer: isolating the world soul (the spiritual principle within matter) from the manifest world, we choke the flow of spirit into matter, and the conscious connection of the soul to the outer world is lost. In the process, the world soul, the anima mundi, also becomes increasingly disconnected from the outer world.
Breath connects matter and spirit. This is the basis of the simple Tibetan healing practice of visualizing the breath in the part of the body that needs healing: prana, life force, follows the breath, and, flowing from the inner to outer world, brings energy and healing to where it is directed. If we are conscious of our breath in our daily life, we connect the two worlds and bring a healing energy from the inner into the outer. When we breathe consciously, we live the cycle of creation, both for ourself and for the world. We help to reconnect the world and its soul.
Returning to the breath is a return to the soul, a reconnection with what is sacred. This simple and primary practice is essential for well-being and for healing, for the individual and the whole. When I walk I like to be aware of the breath, of my feet touching the ground in harmony with the rhythm of the breath. As that rhythm starts to take over, inner and outer once again start to flow together, and then the soul can start to sing, to sing the wonder of creation, the love song of all of life. I can feel it in the air around, in the magic present in nature.
In our present culture we have forgotten so much. We have forgotten the song of creation, the love song of the world soul. And we have forgotten how to breathe. We no longer connect the worlds together. We no longer live the mystery of the sacred. And so we are starved, isolated in a disconnected world, seeking distraction after distraction. But within us we have the simple tools of reconnection. Breath is our most primary prayer, just as it is a primary source of life. And it carries the secret of our connection to the sacred.
Remember to breathe and you remember what it means to be alive. Follow the breath and you follow the secret rhythm of life. Improving your breath you improve the flow of energy, of chi. Breathing well is vitally important for your health — the deeper the breath, the more you are able to dissolve energy blockages in your mind/body. This is well-known. But we are not separate; everything is interconnected. Our breathing is also linked to the energy flow of creation. When we breathe well we affect not just our own body but also the body of the whole; connecting with our soul, we connect with the world soul. We bring a healing energy into life itself and help awaken the sacred within creation.
Spiritual ecology is a recognition of the need to return to the source of our own sacred nature, and of the spiritual practices that affect both the individual and the whole, practices that can, through our own individual awareness and action, also help restore the connection between the Earth and its own Source. With the simple practice of awareness of breath we can help to keep this connection alive. We can help the pure energy of life flow between the worlds.
Because you are always breathing, you always have access to the sacred; you always have a refuge in the Real. This understanding informs a breathing practice that is simple, available, and easeful. You do not need to search for your breath or force yourself to breathe. This practice is about shifting your attention to what is already happening, already sustaining you.
* Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you can pay attention to your breath. Listen to your breath, feel your breath, be aware of your breath. Sensing how the breath infuses the body, you attune to a tenderness and a quietness within life. In today's over-stimulated world, most of us need access to this refuge that is gentle and rhythmic, simple and alive.
* Bring your attention to your breath throughout the day — when you are standing in a grocery line, waiting for a meeting to begin, watching a movie, or on hold with technical support. If you have a meditation practice, you might choose to begin meditation by following your breath as a means of relaxing into your body. At night, lying in bed, you can feel the weight of your body rise and sink gently before you go to sleep.
* Notice the state of your body as you breathe. It can happen that as you put your attention on your breath, your breath can quicken and your body can contract because you are suddenly more conscious than you have been, more awake or self-conscious. In the West, we are used to being highly stressed and stimulated, and our sensitive nervous systems can overreact to even the simplest switching-on of attention. In such a case, start a breathing practice combined with a walking practice, which naturally relaxes the body and mind. Or, consciously extend your belly outward as you inhale, and contract as you exhale. Using your muscles in this way can release some tension, and after a few such breaths, you can return to a more relaxed breathing.
* See if you can feel your breath reaching beyond the familiar boundaries of your self. Are you breathing alone or do you sense your breathing joins you to other living things, other realities? Ask yourself: Who or what is breathing?
This practice is not like the complex breathing practices of yoga or esoteric spiritual traditions. Just as life is simple, this is a simple shift of attention to what already is. The practice is natural, just as we are part of nature. It helps us sense and trust that other forces are moving through us, that we are part of something beyond ourselves, that we are connected. Perhaps most radically, it helps us understand that in our world of effort and willpower, what is most essential is taking place beyond our control. We are not breathing really; rather, something is breathing through us. As we become more aware of this truth, we release our grip on life and give ourselves to the mystery of how life sustains and heals itself.
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.
Excerpted from Spiritual Ecology by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Hilary Hart. Copyright © 2017 The Golden Sufi Center. Excerpted by permission of The Golden Sufi Center.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
4. Seeds and Their Stories,
5. Cooking with Love,
10. Meaning and the Sacred,