My Week as a Dervish

by Dwight Newton

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning, we come round right.
                                    -from Simple Gifts, trad. Shaker hymn

The Way of the Dervish workshop at Omega Institute, 1991. 
I am at the far left, front row. The instructor is 4th from the left, also front row.

As Sufism is esoteric Islam, Dervish is esoteric Sufism. In 1991 I spent five days at the Omega Institute in upstate New York attending an intensive workshop entitled The Way of the Dervish. I was interested in clarifying my long-standing confusion about the nature of Islam -- I've never quite gotten a handle on what it's all about. In my earlier studies of comparative religions, there has always been some essential nugget of understanding that I could refer to internally. From Judaism I learned that the unexamined life is not worth living, and that revealed scripture is subject to many equally valid interpretations. From Christianity I learned about sacrifice, giving and tolerance. From Buddhism I learned about compassion and self-revelation. From Baha'i I learned that all truths come from the same place and that many truths can live peaceably together. Islam had me stumped and I can't honestly say that my week as a Dervish helped me much in this regard. 

The most interesting thing I learned from the workshop is that in Islam all sacred acts are done to music. There is a form of breathing meditation in which either a singer intoning verses from the Koran or a solo flute player will express phrases of music in long, deep breaths. Those seated in meditation would breath along with the sounds. In Islam all prayer is sung. It is a special voice used to address the infinite.

The instructor for the workshop was a Mevlevi Dervish whose name I have since forgotten (please let me know if you happen to know who I'm talking about). He was a small, wiry man, probably the most physically fit human I've ever met. He was a fruitatarian. He recommended that those participating eat very little if anything during the week, preferring that we fast if possible. Maybe a little weak tea, perhaps a bit of fruit, or if you are really having a problem, a small bowl of rice. 

The dining facilities at Omega are superb organic gourmet vegetarian, one of the great benefits of going there. I wasn't about to fast and had I done so the experience would likely have killed me. This was late summer and it was unbelievably hot and humid the whole week. The greatest difficulty was getting enough water -- I ended up becoming dangerously dehydrated. 

Dervish practice is extremely physical. What you see as the famous Whirling Dervish dance is a highly stylized and advanced form of meditation. It takes much physical and spiritual preparation so there will be full understanding of the ritual. For the first few days we sat while our teacher told stories, we played drums and sang songs, and we participated in strenuous exercises performed to music. I can truthfully say that I have not worked as hard on a purely physical level at any time in my life before or since. The heat and humidity were awful, I had blisters on my feet from exercising on the wooden floor in bare feet. I had only two sets of appropriate clothes all of which were drenched and smelly by the third day and would not dry out. My body was so stressed I couldn't eat much, but I forced myself to drink water when I could. By the end of the week I had lost over seven pounds.

The fundamental principle was discipline and surrender. The practiced Dervish knows how to die by willfully giving up his soul to Allah. By surrendering to the physical challenges, we attain a connection with baraqa, or god-energy. The whirling dance is performed with one hand raised to god and the other lowered to the earth. In the sacred turning the Dervish is essentially channeling energy from god to earth in a mystical transformation that is reminiscent of the Christian rite of Communion.

On the fourth night of the workshop, our teacher did a public performance of the classic Whirling Dervish ritual. The assembly hall was dimly lit with a row of candles in an arch along the front of the room demarking the performance area as a stage apart from the rest of the hall (there was no proscenium). The workshop attendees, as his disciples, were allowed to sit in front. The performance began with recorded music and chanting which went on for some time. Eventually he emerged from behind a curtain and walked slowly around the perimeter of the stage. He was dressed in a black cape and a dark cap. After circling the stage a number of times, he eventually stopped and dropped the black cape out of the way on the floor. Underneath he wore all white -- a tunic over a long flowing skirt. This transformation symbolizes the emergence from the illusions of this life into the reality of the next. He began to turn and as he did he moved around the stage. It was an amazing thing to watch. He turned at roughly one revolution per second with one arm to god, the other to earth, and his head inclined towards the ceiling. His skirt flowed out as he turned and it was very clear that in his trance state he always knew exactly where he was. He would move along the arch of candles at the front of the stage and his skirt would almost touch them, but never quite did. He turned for roughly twenty minutes like this and then came to a sudden stop facing the audience. He then walked over, donned the black cape again and walked off stage.

On the last day we were doing a particularly energetic exercise which suddenly turned into whirling. The thing about spinning in circles, as you may remember from childhood, is that it's fine as long as you keep going. It's when you stop that your inner ear tells you you've had way too much to drink. When it was time to stop turning (after about five minutes) I grabbed the nearest post, slid to the floor and hung on until the world stopped spinning. I understand you can train yourself to spin without getting dizzy, but I wasn't inclined to make a career of it.

My experience as a novice Dervish taught me a lot about myself, and a little about Islam, Sufism and Dervish. My feeling about extreme practices inducing trance or trance-like states is that they do this by tying up your brain in so many knots you can't really think of anything else. I learned this when sitting in Zen meditation. There is a technique called kyosaku where a monitor will occasionally whack you on the shoulder with a stick if he sees you drifting. Other traditions use drumming, chanting, psychoactive substances or self-flagellation, but they are all trying to achieve a highly focused god-consciousness.

In a nutshell, I guess what I learned from Islam was about surrender to a greater truth, and that music and dance can be sacred acts.

Dwight Newton, August 18, 2002