In the Sufi tradition, we begin community gatherings with the Invocation.
Standing hand in hand, speaking into the space in unison brings us together and reminds us why we gather. In the second line of the Invocation, we invoke the qualities of love, harmony, and beauty. I feel a tingle up my spine and a resonance within my heart hearing the power behind the words as the group speaks as one.
Once that passes, pessimism settles in though and I wrestle with those ideals. Love, harmony, and beauty seem so far away at times.
As an activist, with a strongly ingrained sense of duty and responsibility, it’s hard to make space for those qualities. The impressions that get lodged in the heart from bearing witness to incidents like Standing Rock, people beating one another during white supremacy marches in Charlottesville, and images of emaciated animals as the seventh mass extinction unfolds are all enough to crowd love, harmony, and beauty out of the heart—unless we have a practice for healing, grounding, and heart softening to counter those realities and find spaciousness for it all.
Only since developing a meditation practice and cultivating heart qualities have I begun to see the rigidity and desperation that engulfs me when working in activist spaces. My heart leaps in without a safety net. My mind feels frenzied and only has the capacity to make the black-and-white distinction that someone is either with me or against me. My body races with adrenaline, all systems sounding the alarm that something is seriously wrong and we must act.
I know my system-wide response stems from fear that the atrocities and harm I’ve watched the human species inflict will overpower the love, harmony, and beauty of life on Earth. Every call to action feels like the most pivotal battle in a war.
Does that desperation ever keep you up at night too?
In a CD for new students, Pir (the title given to the guide of a Sufi order) Shabda says that a Sufi is one who harmonizes with all things. If we aren’t in harmony with the entire universe, than that which causes resistance or “dis-ease” becomes our teacher.
“Great,” I groan to the CD player, “You’re basically telling me that my entire desired career is now my teacher that I have to find a way to harmonize with!”
I drive along, seething at Pir Shabda as he continues his lesson, completely unaware of the discomfort he has caused me by this challenge. We each have something we wrestle with in life though, and if we can bring some curiosity to the situations that cause us angst, we can ask ourselves, “What does harmony really imply? What would that look like in day-to-day life?”
There are times when we may be too blinded by emotion and habitual patterns to answer that question though, so we can instead start by looking into the opposite.
“What is disharmony or discord?”
Immediately what comes to mind for me is knowledge from classical music training. Put rather basically, when studying music, discord (or dissonance) is when two notes are either too close or too far apart. Most music has discord in it, but when a composer wishes to resolve the dissonance, he or she usually incorporates harmony. When two notes are played together at just the right interval, it is accepted with ease almost reflexively by the ear.
Harmony of notes simply requires the right spacing—and the same is true for life.
Though music without dissonance would be dull, and life without dissonance impossible, it is also true that regularly staying in states of dissonance is not sustainable. At some point, the composition must come down from its climax and find resolve through the right spacing of notes. So too must we find the right space with everything around us.
If our edge is always recklessly crashing into another’s edge like two tectonic plates, or is creating vast chasms of distance, we create discord. In one scenario, we are too close (this often arises in response to clinging, desire, overidentifying, and needing control). In the other, we are too far (often due to aversion, turning away, fear, anxiety, burnout, and distress).
Both are void of harmony. Both create discord within the body, heart, and mind that make us sick. I started to change my behavior only because I started seeing and feeling the harm in my own life, thanks to my meditation and Sufi practices. It is hard to change, because fighting for a good cause feels noble and necessary in a world of such need. Once we see and know for ourselves the toxic taste of disharmony and constantly wanting the world to be other than it is, we know change is the wiser response.
Once we see the discord in our lives, we can take a peek at harmony and give her a chance. Here are some of the ways to help harmony manifest in our lives:
When we begin feeling tension in the body or an adamant feeling of, “We are right, they are wrong,” we can take a moment to see how close we are to the issue and if that is blinding us from taking in the larger picture. Conversely, if we feel apathetic, cold, or numb, explore if we’ve distanced ourselves from the issue and why.
The melody, or headline, always reigns supreme in the chorus room or the newsroom. It’s the very basis of a song or a call to action. If we dive right in, we’ll likely just become noise, crashing around trying to fill in the missing note or sing other people’s notes we’re not meant to sing. We’ve got to stick to our own parts and listen well. Harmony is not about domination, but instead requires a blending of voices and a tenacity to stick with it until we find the right note.
3. Know our Instrument
A good musician always knows the touch required to elicit the sound they are listening for. They also know how to care for and repair their instrument. In life, our instruments are the body, heart, and mind. As we learn to find harmony within ourselves, our emotions serve as a key marker along the way. It’s helpful to touch into our feelings so we can understand the underlying need associated with each feeling. From this understanding, we can become less controlled by our emotions. Rather than reacting from places that are wounded or shut down, causing more pain, we can come into harmony with ourselves.
Understand that this takes risk. It’s easy to sing the melody, but life asks more of us.
5. More space
Should we choose to accept the challenge of harmonizing, we must allow room for imperfection. The bad days or losses help us appreciate the good days and humbly remind us of our vulnerability and human limitations. This doesn’t feel good in the moment, but it’s something to slowly turn toward and uncover. Pema Chödrön says to turn up the corners of our cheeks when we face fear. It’s hard, so start somewhere.
“Oppression takes the breath away. And when we aren’t breathing, when we are unable to reach a state of reorganization and homeostasis, we die…we are dying. We need to change the way we are living.” ~ Michelle Alexander, Skill in Action.
When we are captured by fear or agitation, breathe into it and through it. Oppression leaves none of us unscathed, but how we choose to respond is critical. Notice where constriction, either as a drawing back or a rearing up, takes place and just breathe.
My Sufi guide says, “We are breath being breathed.”
Let the breath through.