The use of mindfulness-related methods for the treatment of a variety of psychological, somatic and interpersonal problems has increased dramatically in the last decade. Almost all mindfulness-based therapies include the practice of meditation in addition to various cognitive and/or behavioral techniques. The source of inspiration for mindfulness has traditionally been Buddhism, while Islamic thought has not been present in this development despite the similarities in philosophy and a growing need for mental health support among Muslim populations throughout the world. It is in this context that Suﬁsm and especially Rumi’s teachings seem to be promising both in terms of research on consciousness and in terms of culturally sensitive methods of healing.
The aim of the present article is to highlight the commonality of mindfulness-based therapies and Rumi’s religious philosophy. Introducing concepts, images and metaphors based on Rumi’s universe can constitute a meaningful alternative to Buddhist-inspired practices in the transcultural clinic, especially in encounters with clients with Muslim background.
Keywords: Mindfulness Transcultural Psychotherapy Rumi Suﬁsm Meditation
- Mevlana Jalal-ad-Din Rumi: Theologian, Mystic, Poet
- Religious Philosopher and Profane Poet
- Mindfulness-Based Therapies
- Principles of Mindfulness in Rumi’s Psychology
The key concepts in Rumi’s teachings are as follows: acceptance and acknowledgement of both positive and negative experiences; unlearning of old habits and looking at the world with new eyes; decentering, changing one’s focus from Self to Other; and attunement of body and mind through mediation, music and dance. The attainment of these psychological and spiritual states requires a facilitator or a teacher just as mindfulness training necessitates a person in authority to whom the patient turns for help. Likewise, "intentions" are considered as the foundation of development and change in both practices. Vows play a major role both in Rumi’s teachings and in more recent forms of mindfulness such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Patients are guided toward ﬁnding their deepest intentions, and they then formally commit to them (Rosch 2007).
Accepting the Present Moment — Facing Sorrow and Pain
The cure for pain is in the pain
Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both,
you don’t belong to us.
When one of us gets lost, is not here, he must be inside us.
The acknowledgement of the dark sides of existence and accepting to maintain contact with unpleasant and painful internal states, thoughts, sensations and emotions is a recurrent theme in Rumi’s poetry. He stresses the importance of openness to all forms of experiences. In contrast to “experiential avoidance” which refers to the escape from negative experiences, Rumi could be said to advocate a lifestrategy of “experiential approach”. A series of mental disorders and much human suffering are exacerbated by efforts to avoid unpleasant thoughts or escape from painful memories or bodily sensations. Accepting and containing whatever arrives to us is for Rumi an act of courage and a means of gaining insight. It is comparable to the unbiased receptivity of mind that is encouraged in all mindfulness-based therapies which facilitate insight into that part of reality which remains hidden from view when we refrain from consciously experiencing what we feel.
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Facing reality and accepting its many aspects often leads to the processes of reassessment and reframing. The term reframing in mindfulness-based cognitive therapies refers to restating the client’s problems so that they can be seen in new ways. The techniques of looking at a problem from a different angle, of re-interpreting it, re-diagnosing and giving it a novel character, have always been part of any creative therapeutic practice.
Also, the Suﬁ teacher works with stories, metaphors, poetry, spiritual practice or music, in order to get beyond and behind the defences that people generally use in order to protect themselves from fear, shame and guilt. Shifting points of view, letting-go and yet remaining observant and attentive lead to new ways of understanding and knowing, and thus to a re-interpretation of one’s situation and new ways of coping. The good Suﬁ teacher is one who helps the learner to overcome obstructions to the experience of joy and love as well as pain and suffering:
Close the door of words
That the window of your heart may open
The Moon’s kiss
Through an open window
Unlearning and Looking at the World with “A Beginner’s Mind”
Most Suﬁ stories aim to help us “unlearn,” that is, to go beyond the emotional boundaries and mental concepts which are based on previous experiences and learning. In Umberto Eco’s terms, most people travel knowing in advance what they are on the verge of discovering because past reading has told them what they are supposed to discover, and they tend to interpret their experiences on the basis of “background books” (Eco and Weaver 1998).
One of the goals of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as well as of Rumi’s teachings
is to identify and change such background books, such “petriﬁed”, “distorted” or
“unrealistic” ways of thinking, and thereby to inﬂuence emotion and behavior. For Rumi,
we go beyond constraining boundaries when we challenge and transcend the given and
traditional attitudes and norms. We ﬁnd ourselves in the province of what one may call
“wild mind.” We discover an inner landscape that is both richer and less controlled than
the safety of ﬁxed ideas and rules, as in the story of Mulla Nasruddin:
The Key in the Dark
It is late at night. The legendary wise fool, Mulla Nasruddin, is crawling on his hands and knees under a corner street light. A close friend discovers him and, thinking that Mulla may be a little drunk, tries to help:
“Mulla, let me help you up! Do you need help to ﬁnd your way home?”
“No… no, my friend…. I’ve lost the key to my house. Here…get down on your hands and knees and help me look.”
Groaning, Mulla’s friend lowers himself onto the hard pavement and begins to crawl around. He makes a thorough search, peering into all the crevices in the cobblestones, gradually and laboriously widening his search. After what seems like hours, his knees are aching. No luck.
“Mulla, I’ve looked everywhere within thirty feet. Are you sure you lost your keys here?”
“Noo….actually, I think I lost them about a block away, over there.”
“Mulla, Mulla– you idiot! Why are we wasting our time here then?”
“Well, the light was better here….”
Shifting attention from the Self to the Other is another important concept in Rumi’s teachings. This process is similar to “disidentiﬁcation” where one ceases to identify with one’s own thoughts, feelings and images. This process is similar to Piaget’s “decentration,” Safran’s “decentering,” Bohart’s “detachment,” Deikman’s “observing self,” Tart’s “dehypnosis,” Teasdale’s “metacognitive awareness,” Wilber’s “differentiation and transcendence” and Kegan’s “de-embedding” (Martin 1997; Wilber 2000).
Your thinking is like a camel driver,
And you are the camel;
It drives you in every direction under its bitter control
The concept of decentering used in the mindfulness therapies is tied to removing the focus of attention from the self toward others, in other words in becoming less egocentric and more receptive and attentive. In cognitive therapy, the term for a similar process is “cognitive-shifting”, a method used in awareness management and describing the mental process of re-directing one’s focus of attention away from a ﬁxed idea or recurring thought, and toward a different focus of attention.
One of the most important outcomes of mindfulness is the reduction in inner self-talk or rumination. “Only by quieting self-chatter — the running ﬂow of mental commentary, thoughts about the past and future, self-evaluations, judgments, and other extraneous reactions — can people remain highly attuned to their present experience” (Leary and Tate 2007, s. 251). Self-talk is reduced by continually returning attention to breathing or by mentally describing experiences with concrete, non-evaluative labels.
Also in Rumi’s universe, the task of the dervish is to act from tranquility and love: to view life through the lens of our individual self as well as from the point of view of the other. The true “jihad”, the real holy war for Rumi, is our own eternal battle with the “nafs”: the struggle with our false self (Reinhertz 2001).
If you could get rid
Of yourself just once,
The secret of secrets
Would open to you.
The face of the unknown,
Hidden beyond the universe
Would appear on the
Mirror of your perception
In Suﬁ tradition openness to the Other (as opposed to self-centeredness), a sense of feeling, devotion and compassion for others is cultivated at the outset. The development is described as spiral, the person’s movement becoming more “spiritual” as it shows less domination by the ego, public opinion or conventionality.
Meditation: Breathing and Walking
According to Walsh and Shapiro (2006), the term meditation refers to a family of selfregulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or speciﬁc capacities such as calm, clarity and concentration. Additional psychological mechanisms are relaxation, exposure, desensitization, catharsis and counterconditioning (Murphy et al. 1997). The physiological mechanisms related to meditation include reduced arousal, modiﬁed autonomic nervous system activity, stress immunization, hemispheric synchronization and laterality shifts (e.g., Cahn and Polich 2006; Davidson 2003).
The easiest and most effective way to begin practicing mindfulness as a formal meditative practice is to simply focus one’s attention on breathing. “There are a number of different places in the body where breath can be observed. … No matter which location you choose, the idea is to be aware of the sensation that accompanies your breathing. Paying attention to your breathing means just paying attention. Nothing more.” (KabatZinn 1990, p. 51).
The word “spiritual,” comes from the Latin “spiritus,” meaning “wind” or “breath.” Suﬁ teachers, like mindfulness trainers or yoga teachers, direct their students to experience the awareness of breathing as a means to achieve higher levels of spirituality. Breathing constitutes a link between limitation (called nafs) and freedom (fana), between body and mind (Mirdal 1994, 1998, Mirdal et al. 1998). Awareness of breathing brings better sense of body awareness similar to that cultivated by eutony, relaxation, somatic experiencing and other somatic arts therapies. The student progresses from simple awareness of the breath (its direction, duration and intensity) to a gradual release of the blocks, to effortless breathing.
Breathing practices in the Suﬁ tradition elicit greater awareness as well as an interruption of habitual maladaptive patterns of breathing. In the use of these practices, one needs a teacher to ensure that one’s habitual patterns of breathing are not displaced onto the practice—thereby making the practice itself part of the problem.
Breathe into me.
Close the language-door
And open the love window.
The moon won’t use the door,
only the window.
Traditional Suﬁ walking practices are also encouraged because they enhance the ability to distinguish various states of awareness and control them. Since walking is a movement used in everyday life, the walking meditations in this Suﬁ tradition bridge the gap between the seemingly divine and seemingly commonplace. One source of these walking meditations is a traditional aphorism of the Naqshibandi Suﬁ order: “Look down and see whose feet are those that walk.” In the introductory walking practices, the participant may be told simply to walk breathing “in the feet” or another part of the body, or to be aware of the rhythm of the breath. After becoming aware, one is enjoined to try a different rhythm by comparison, a different direction or intensity of breathing, or a different intention of feeling (for instance, walking toward a goal). One is asked to become aware of any changes in the inner state, and any thoughts or emotions that may arise.
The next step in reﬁnement of the walking meditations involves concentration on breathing in different centers of the body. This involves altering the direction, intensity and duration of the breathing and enlarging the body awareness to notice small differences of perception. For instance, students may be encouraged to feel the elements as the body awareness of the bones/ligaments (earth), muscles/connective tissue (water), heart/lungs/ bloodstream (ﬁre) and skin (air) (Douglas-Klotz 2002).
The psychiatrist Eugene d’Aquili and radiologist Andrew Newberg have used brainimaging (SPECT) to study Buddhists during meditation and Franciscan nuns at prayer (D’Aquili and Newberg 1998; Newberg and Iversen 2003; Newberg et al. 2003, 2010). When subjects reported a feeling of boundless perspective and self-transcendence during meditation, the researchers found decreased blood ﬂow in the brain’s “object association areas” where perceptions between boundary and self are normally processed. Their hypothesis is that the ultimate mystical state of “hyperlucid unitary consciousness often experienced as God” (e.g. Nirvana, unio mystica) occurs when the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are both discharging at maximal levels, with neither predominating (Atran 2002).
Attunement of Body and Mind Through Music and Dance
Already in early times, the Suﬁs were attacked because of their fondness for music; a beautiful voice might induce them to ecstasy, regardless of whether the context of the text was from the Koran, the Divine word or a profane love poem. They often indulged in whirling movement to attain ecstasy in sessions called “sema”, where they whirled around their axis, often rending their garments so that not only orthodox circles but also more sober groups among the mystics were scandalized (Schimmel 1988).
A key feature of the creativity of human worship, not only in Suﬁsm but also in many mystical movements and meditative traditions, is the use of music in social ritual. In a survey of persons who reported a religious experience, music emerges as the single most important elicitor of the experience (49% of cases), followed by prayer (48%) and attending group services (41%). Reading the Bible (31%) and being alone in church (30%) trail signiﬁcantly behind (Greeley 1989).
According to Friedlander (1992), the dervishes develop an independent center of balance that can lead to a sense of “being turned” rather than turning. The dervish’s attention must absolutely remain on the breath, the arms are upraised, one palm reaches up, the other down “as the turning dervish presents the image of a funnel receiving from the heavens and giving to the earth”. The movement and the music reinforce the impression of transcendence to higher spiritual levels, and the experience of “not-self” gets stronger (Douglas-Klotz 2002).
A secret turning in us
Makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
And feet head. Neither cares.
They keep turning.
“Flow” and Letting-Go
Passion is considered to be one of the nine attributes that create the power of ﬂow, a concept described by Csikszentmihalyi in the early 1990 s and the subject of considerable study and publishing since that time. Flow is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter (Csikszentmihalyi 1975, 1990). The experience of ﬂow comprises the following elements:
• Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible, and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities).
• Concentrating and focusing (a high degree of concentration on a limited ﬁeld of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
• Loss of the feeling of self-consciousness (the merging of action and awareness).
• Distorted sense of time—one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
• Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difﬁcult).
• Control over the situation or activity.
• Effortlessness of action.
Although the term “ﬂow” is not used in Rumi’s work, many of its characteristics are related to the elements of the state described above:
Let go of your worries
and be completely clear-hearted
like the face of a mirror
that contains no images.
When it is empty of forms,
all forms are contained in it.
No face would be ashamed
to be so clear.
This is to love: to ﬂy toward a secret sky,
to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment
First, to let go of life.
In the end, to take a step without feet.
To regard this world as invisible,
and to disregard what appears to the self
- Concluding Remarks
In this article, I have attempted to illustrate the compatibility between one of the presently most widespread forms of treatment in contemporary western psychology, namely mindfulness-based therapy, and a religious and poetic way of understanding and dealing with the problems of living, namely the teaching of the Suﬁ poet, Rumi. The aim of this article is not to encourage the introduction of new religious practices to professional psychotherapy; it is to draw attention to some concepts of personhood and to images and idioms which although rooted in non-western cultures can be a source of inspiration for modern approaches to the treatment of stress and suffering.
The common aspect of the different forms of mindfulness-based therapies is their use of some methods of Buddhist meditative practices. The success of mindfulness is however not due to a faithful transposition of Buddhism to modern psychology. As a matter of fact, eastern religious teachings are applied to mindfulness therapy without adopting Buddhist traditions and religious vocabulary, and most often, the translation of practices is conducted in highly unorthodox ways (Elsass, in press). This re-interpretation of the practices of an eastern religion in the light of the psychological and spiritual needs of modern men and women in western societies could be criticized from a religious or theological point of view. It has however contributed to making mindfulness accessible and understandable to a bigger audience for the beneﬁt of a large group of people. A similar process of reinterpretation could be attempted with respect to Rumi’s teachings, because the practices that he advocates are deeply embedded in local Muslim communities and convey a sense of continuity while intertwining with modern discourses of commerce, science and progress (Froggett 2001).
Most psychiatrist and clinical psychologist trained within a scientiﬁc and academic context ﬁnd it difﬁcult to incorporate a spiritual dimension in their professional work. With the exception of pastoral counsellors, the majority of health professionals are not trained to be attentive and receptive to the religious aspects of their patients’ lives, they do not feel comfortable with the subject and many patients do not even bring up spiritual issues in therapy for fear of being disapproved. This is possibly even truer of patients with a Muslim background, even when religion is a very important part of their existence.
The argument proposed in this article is that the universal wisdom of Rumi’s philosophy, originating from Islamic thought and yet adapted to the challenges of the modern world, could be a source of inspiration for transcultural psychotherapists. It is neither necessary nor desirable for western psychologists and psychiatrists to become religious counsellors, thereby assuming functions for which they are not qualiﬁed. It is however possible to cultivate an interest for the religious experiences of clients and patients and to listen to them with an open mind and an open heart. The healing potential of the therapeutic relationship is only activated when it is attuned to the meaning ascribed by individuals to their distress and suffering. I have argued that Rumi’s teaching and poetry could be a tool for the attunement of meaning in the alliance between patient and therapist, especially when they belong to different cultures.
- Translations and Collections of Rumi Poetry
G.M. Mirdal, Dept of Psychology, University of Copenhagen, Oester Farimagsgade 2A,
1353 Copenhagen K, Denmark; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org