The Silent Center

The following essay was inspired by my visits to the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order in New York City.

Catching sight of the Masjid heightens my anticipation. Other days of the week, I rush home from the office to join my family for dinner; but on Thursdays I go to the Masjid for the Dhikr, the “Remembrance of God”. Upon entering, I leave my coat, briefcase and shoes just inside the door, and greet my brethren. Our mosque is small and humble, a rectangular room ornamented by nothing more than a few lamps, some carpets and a Ficus tree beside the simple tiled mihrab. I recall that Christian cathedrals are modeled after the cross upon which Jesus became the Christ, and I smile – it seems a tree is involved in every transformation. Christ, the fruit of Holy Rood, and Buddha beneath the bodhi; a tree’s roots stretch into the depths of chaos, its branches into the realm of heaven, but the hulking trunk is of my daily world, and of me.

As the Dhikr has already started (the Sheikha is leading the congregation in chanting the names of God), I quickly insinuate myself into the outermost circle of people holding hands and gyrating around her. As we chant and turn, shy smiles broaden, brows unfurrow. From the first moment, it strikes me that we are not just remembering God, we are evoking, and conjuring – our concentric orbits around the Sheikha’s center mimic celestiality, our rhythmic movements call out to primal origins, where the primordial soup of our creation continues to simmer.

The reverberation of chanting never fails to amaze me. Our voices merge into a tide that erodes individuality, and, prompted by some collective sensibility, the space between each person narrows and our circles tighten toward the center, moving faster. A universe collapses into itself until we are so densely packed together that our movement slows to a halt, and we find ourselves facing the center, all hands resting on the shoulders of those before us. Having reached the Dawn of Creation, we pause, allowing the breath of this knowledge to pass through us. Then, like the instinct that must have propelled the Big Bang, we burst outward into individual bodies, each of us a galaxy that slowly starts to turn on its own. We begin to whirl.

In this dance, my body intuitively forms the axis of a newly-born universe. Rotation begins with my left foot, rising and falling in place. Revolution commences with the first step of my right foot around the left. As with God’s creation, this movement produces a center from which all things flow. And yet, I see that I am still outside the center, among the world of all things, looking in. I am dancing around my own heart, but the heart is the sanctuary I seek to enter.

As I whirl, I raise my left hand, palm upward, and create the Sun. The moon is born from my right hand, held palm downward, below the waist. In between the Sun and moon, I become an Earth that is both giving and receiving. My head leans toward the Sun.

These are lovely metaphors, you might be thinking, nothing more than ideas; but the movement of my body tells me otherwise: this is the experience of creation, a visceral knowledge that is apart from intellect. From the vantage point of this experience, a vista extends in every direction. It seems I can stretch into the outer worlds of space, and into the realm of atomic universes within every cell of my body. Like the tree of transformation, I serve as the channel that renders the macrocosms and microcosms of Heaven, Earth and Body indistinguishable from each other.

The awareness that all realities are One is my breakthrough to the silent center, the sacred place at the core of whirling where there is no movement at all. The universe expands and contracts, galaxies spiral, solar systems turn, planets rotate, dancers whirl, atoms gyrate: all this movement around an unmoving center. Time becomes an eternal “now” and space an infinite “here”, the only perspective from which all existence should be regarded. From the center, I see that I am not just the man with the briefcase and the family; I am the culmination of all that has gone before me, back, back, back, to the very beginning of time, and I am the seed of everything that will come, more and more new life, until the end of time.

Whirling has revealed that all things share a rhythm, a source and a direction. Stars are born and die in winking tempo, seasons mark the beat of a year, my body dances through birthdays and stages of life. All of it flows from itself into itself. This wisdom is the Remembrance of God.

I lower my arms and slow my pace now, able to stop the dance because the center has become a place I can carry with me wherever I go. In time, I don my coat and shoes, take up my briefcase and leave the Masjid. Walking down the street, I revel in my particular body, surrounded by particular people, alive in the particular world. I have an impulse to run up to strangers, embrace them and exclaim, “Isn’t it all wonderful?” But if they aren’t carrying the center with them, that would only alarm them.

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