Sufism and mindfulness

Mevlana dervishes dancing in the museum, konya

“Mind-body medicine,” or the integration of spiritual practices with techniques for healing, is a big topic these days. While many of the practices that go under the heading of mind-body medicine are – how shall we put it? – scientifically dubious, mindfulness meditation and similar introspective techniques have been shown to be clinically effective in dozens of studies. But most meditation practices used in Western settings stem from Buddhism. Are there any other contemplative traditions out there that might be useful to 21st-century medicine? One researcher thinks that Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, may have the answer.

Sufism is a tradition of meditation, music, introspection, and prayer that became well-known throughout the Muslim world by the 12th century. Today, Sufism is known in the West primarily through the writings of the great Sufi poets, especially Rumi – currently one of the world’s most-read poets. But Sufism isn’t just about poetry and music. It’s a complex cultural system that attempts to free people from illusory experience and to allow them to engage with a divine reality. To do so, Sufis use tools such as spinning in time with music, boldly facing pain and sorrow, and intentionally opening themselves to new experiences in order to force themselves out of their habitual modes and confront divine reality directly.

How is Sufism relevant to modern medicine? In Sufism, the illusory self, or nafs, is roughly equivalent to the Western ego: it’s driven by physical desires and pain, experiences limitation instead of freedom, and is self-oriented rather than generous and giving. By taking part in rituals such as reciting the different names of Allah, Sufis claim to overcome the limitations of the nafs and transcend their selfish egos. In many ways, the nafs is similar to the atman or atta of Buddhism – the illusory “self” that is the root of all suffering. To be free of the delusions of the nafs is, thus, to overcome suffering itself.

One scholar at the University of Copenhagen, inspired by the numerous conceptual similarities between Sufi and Buddhist psychologies, claims that Sufi practices and philosophy may be useful in clinical settings for producing mindfulness and psychological clarity, just as Buddhist philosophy has inspired mindfulness exercises and meditation techniques. Writing in the Journal of Religion and Health, Gretty M. Mirdal points out that the psychology of mindfulness is deeply sympathetic with the worldview of Sufism. For instance, Western, Buddhist-inspired mindfulness is based on non-judgmental awareness, being patient with oneself and with the world, and experiencing the present moment fully. Meanwhile, the ethics of Sufism expounded in the poetry of Rumi value fully experiencing both pleasant and unpleasant emotions, learning to focus on others rather than on one’s self, and radical openness to new experience.

To contemporary eyes, these sorts of injunctions may seem vague or cliché. But the fact is that mindfulness, including non-judgmental awareness of one’s emotions and thoughts, is actually, empirically good for you. So if mindfulness inspired by Buddhist psychology helps people to feel better, and Sufi philosophy and meditation practices encourage many of the same behaviors as Western mindfulness practices, can Sufism be used in clinical settings to help treat mental dysfunction, depression, and other disorders?

Mirdal thinks the answer is yes – but with a few catches. First, she acknowledges that transplanting practices from one culture into another without taking context into account can be problematic. The fact is that Sufi practices evolved in Muslim cultural settings, and to pretend they can be smoothly integrated into a Western psychological or clinical context while cutting all ties to Muslim theology, philosophy, or culture is simply absurd. Secondly, because of this, Sufi practices such as whirling, chanting, or walking meditation may be best suited for clinical application in exactly the areas where they would be most familiar – that is, among Muslim populations in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Mind-body practices are increasingly gaining recognition as highly effective forms of therapy for depression, chronic pain, and other conditions that plague Muslims, Christians, and everyone else. But, as made clear above, the techniques Western clinicians use for enhancing patients’ mindfulness are almost universally rooted in Buddhist thought. Understandably, this can be a problem for people who strongly identify with Islam or another world religion. In the case of Islam, teaching mindfulness using Muslim, rather than Buddhist, philosophy and psychology may help spread the benefits of mind-body medicine to people outside the traditional bounds of the secular Western clinic. While Mirdal doesn’t give specific recommendations for how this kind of clinical practice would work, she raises a good point. Mindfulness should be available to people of any tradition or culture, in a form that makes sense for that setting.

Additional source: Carl W. Ernst, “The Psychophysiology of Ecstasy in Sufism and Yoga,” North Carolina Medical Journal 59(3), May/June 1998.

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