Of all the practices designed to help man make contact with God, dhikr occupies a special place. Sufis call dhikr “the pillar on which the whole of the mystic Path rests.” A correctly performed dhikr involves concentration, contemplation and awareness. In this way it is immediately made up of three practices, and hence the effect created by them is also multifaceted and intense.
Dhikr (for anyone who does not know) is the practice of remembrance of God. The classics of Sufism, founded as they are on the legitimacy of this practice, provide quotations from the Quran, which talks about the necessity of always remembering your God wherever you are, but I shall not waste time on this, because it only takes a minute to find these online. In any case, dhikr is one of the main mystical practices used by Sufis. From the outside, it seems technically simple enough to perform—the seeker repeats either one of the Names of God or a passage from the Quran aloud or to himself. The difference between silent dhikr and loud dhikr depends on this. What part of this is mystical is not entirely clear, at least, until the point when you get some exposure to this practice.
These are its three components: first, concentrating on the Name, then contemplating all the levels of meaning of the name, and finally sustaining a permanent level of self-awareness, so that you do not “swim” beyond the mind and sink into mechanical unconscious babble. Concentrating on the Name is followed by repetition, and both the body and the mind are involved in the practice at this point. Both of them enter into the rhythm of the repetition, which to begin with demands a certain effort, and then the action continues under its own momentum and demands far less application of force. Contemplation of the meanings of the Name happens in sequence—the seeker should not think about them and should not try to meditate upon a specific theme. He just looks at the Name, holds it in his own field of concentration, and that is all. The body and the mind are occupied with the repetition, attention is directed towards the Name, and by itself this examination begins the process of revealing all the possible meanings contained in this Name. To begin with, attention is directed at the qualities of the Name pertaining directly to God, and seeing their manifestations, the mind automatically shapes them into particular verbal formulae. By itself looking at meaning leads to verbalization of meanings, but this is not ordinary thinking, rather it is a process of contemplation, a process that is far more purposeful than a succession of alternating thoughts. Look, don’t think—this is what the seeker is taught in the practices of self-awareness and in performing muraqabah—the Sufi meditation technique. That is to say, performing dhikr in the way that I am describing requires skills in awareness of the self and preliminary work in mastering the skills of observation and looking.
After exploring the meanings of the Name relating directly to God, the seeker turns his attention to how the quality of a particular name manifests itself in human life and in the world generally. By means of this kind of contemplation he gets to the very essence of the meanings of each Name he works with, and his level of understanding grows. Contemplation is one of the best practices, as it brings a person to an understanding of the essence of things; performing the dhikr as I have described facilitates the development and consolidation of the skill of contemplation in the practitioner. Both repetition and introspection on the meaning of the Name requires you to maintain a state of vigilance so that performing the practice does not become mechanical. An effort of awareness is therefore necessarily present in this kind of work. A spiritual effect arises from all the above-mentioned efforts, which come up in the practice of dhikr, but in order to understand how the mystical effect happens, one has to examine certain aspects of Reality we have not yet talked about.
How does interaction with God work if, as I have already pointed out, he is infinitely far away from us, indeed on different planes of Being altogether? This is the most important question for anyone who wants to get to the essence of Truth and one can only receive a concrete answer to it through the path of personal experience—through an in-depth refining of one’s perception. In as much as directly describing the situation around the possibilities of interaction may serve to further confuse things, I am forced use an analogy. The simplest way to illustrate this story is with the example of sunlight. There is a source of light—the star we call the Sun. It is at a great distance from the Earth, but as its light reaches the earth’s atmosphere it is cleansed of various harmful rays and becomes a source of nutrition to all living things. Being under the Sun’s rays, we are exposed to its effects, whether we like it or not. When we lie down to sunbathe on the beach, we consciously expose ourselves to the effect of the energy from sunlight and to an extent we are interacting with the Sun itself. And yet direct contact with the Sun is impossible for us, because attempting to get close to it would end in our complete dissolution and death. And this is something like what happens between us and God.
In other words, the Source, or if you like, the Absolute, is infinitely far away from our physical plane of Reality. At the same time, His Presence pervades all levels of human existence, and is palpably present on the physical plane. The Hindus talked about Consciousness, which all matter and all living things are filled with; Sufis talk about Presence. Essentially, all this is an attempt to at least somehow express the inexpressible and find the words that might give those trying to understand ideas to work with which, while distorted, are not altogether false. And it is the energy from Presence that we are interacting with. It belongs neither to the Downward nor the Upward Stream, rather, it incorporates them both within itself. It is difficult to understand, but Presence pervades everything, and wherever a person might be—in the mountains or the lowlands, in Tibet or Moscow—the quality of the energy of Presence does not change. The energies of places may change—it’s true; and it is easier to work on yourself in certain specific places than it is in others, but this has nothing to do with the strength of Presence, which is the same everywhere, like a mathematical constant. That said, I would not contend that Presence and Consciousness are the same thing. I have written a lot about consciousness and have always maintained that matter contains within it a portion of Divine Consciousness, which is diluted within that matter. But Presence becomes a completely active force when man begins to interact with it. And if I were to compare the energy of Presence with something else, then it could perhaps only be attention. Presence, to a certain extent, is God’s attention. Though this claim is of course also a simplification of the real situation.
What happens during dhikr? Here I will have to go back to the sunlight analogy again. When a beam of light passes through a prism, the subsequent dispersion is broken down into the colors of the rainbow, which it would not be possible to see without that prism. And although they would be impossible to see, that does not mean that before it passed through the prism they were not already in that ray of sunlight. The conditions had simply come about in which the spectrum of the light’s energy could manifest itself. It is a similar process that takes place when reading dhikr, only the role of that ray of sunlight is played by the energy of Presence, while that of the prism is played by the mind of the seeker, combined with his attention.
The mind, as we know, channels a person’s attention, directing it outward or inward depending on his comprehension of the task ahead of him. When a seeker begins to concentrate on the Name of God, by means of repetition and concentration, as well as directing attention toward the meaning of the Name there is a discharge of a corresponding quality of energy from the energy spectrum of Presence. And of course the person becomes its conductor, precisely to the degree that he is able. This capacity depends on how full he is with the suppressed energy of desires and emotions, and also on the adequacy of his efforts in performing dhikr. Anyhow, the impact of the energy of Presence is felt by everyone with a serious approach to repeating the Name.
And there is another point here that many Sufi groups operating in Russia lose sight of. In order for the mind to perform the function of a prism, the Name must be uttered in its own native language. Then both contemplation and conducting of the energy of Presence are possible. If the Name is repeated in Arabic, based on some notion of its innate holiness, the Name is turned into a mantra, which means little if anything at all to the mind, and for this reason the anticipated effect does not happen either.
As in the case of the rainbow, the energy spectrum of Presence is divided according to the frequency of vibration, crudely speaking. Different Names bring completely different sensations during the practice and produce different effects through prolonged repetition. Some Names have more focused effects, some very broad. A well-chosen Name for the work may quickly advance the seeker along the path to inner transformation.
The classics of Sufism distinguished dhikr mainly according to how and where they are to be performed. This is why they had loud and silent dhikr, as well as dhikr spoken with the lips (and mind), as a counterbalance to which came dhikr created in the Heart. It was considered that if the seeker managed to transfer his understanding of God from the mind to the Heart, then this would speed up the transformation and was generally a sign of serious progress along the Path. And this practice really did help to open the Heart, it’s true. Yet in the open Heart there was also the sense of a connection, and the possibility of Surrender—generally, all that the mystic needs to achieve his aims.
In the practice of dhikr I am describing, there is a distinction in the internal stages that are not connected to the forms of repetition, but reflect the impact of the Name’s energy onto the seeker. There are four of these stages, but only those who work with the same Name for a long enough period of time can clearly discern them. In the first stage, which lasts around two weeks, dhikr has a clear, tangible impact, primarily on the mind of the practitioner. Here there is the effect from the contemplation of meanings, the novelty of the practice itself, the transition from habitual sensations to the sensations that arise after interaction with the energy of Presence—a little of everything. The seeker clearly feels the impact of dhikr and it imbues him with the spirit. However, after some time all these sensations begin to deaden and afterwards seem to totally disappear. This is how the effect of habituation manifests itself, which exists in almost all the practices. The initial impact, which seemed to be very strong, changes some of the energy structures in the seeker, but these changes are superficial. Habituation is a consequence of the fact that fine-tuning the mind and body through performing the practice has already happened. Therefore, after these initial changes a period begins where the next step towards transformation is to build up the effects of far greater efforts than in the beginning. This is how the second stage begins, where nothing seems to happen. Of course, there are brief after-effects in the body—as after any practice—which express themselves through a change in the body’s state, but this is not all that awaits the practitioner. The stage where nothing seems to happen can last a long time, and its duration is a personal thing. As I have already remarked, the length of this stage depends directly on how much suppressed energy the person has within himself and the quality of his efforts. If the seeker has no problems with either suppressed feelings or with his efforts, then the second stage will come quickly. In as much as the efficacy of contemplating the meanings is also exhausted in the first weeks of the practice, at the second stage I normally recommend that some attention be directed to the heart center, at the same time as repeating the Name.
The third stage is characterized by the appearance of the qualities identified by the Name within the practitioner themselves. One could say that it develops or crystallizes in the three lower bodies, altering their original state in terms of sensations, reactions and the frequency of vibrations. The properties of the Name become properties of the seeker, as a result of which he attains a new level of being. This is the main spiritual outcome of dhikr. The length of the third stage is also personal, but generally speaking, on reaching it, the seeker will stop worrying about the outcome and about chasing the speed of their own progression. The fourth stage holds the main mystical outcome of dhikr: as he begins to utter the Name, the seeker immediately enters into God’s Presence, and senses it at all levels of his being. This Presence is imbued with the quality of the Name that is uttered, but it is at the same time absolutely whole. There are no further stages after that, there is only existing in the Presence, which quickly becomes possible even without practicing dhikr.
Over the centuries that Sufism has existed, performing dhikr has taken various sometimes quite curious forms. There are groups that use dhikr as a means of entering altered states and almost turn it into a shamanistic ritual. There are groups that read passages from the Quran, using them like mantras, and expect some kind of magical result from the practice. The world is diverse in its manifestations and its ability to distort any Path, however straight it might have been at first. Nevertheless, correctly performed, dhikr was and remains one of the most powerful mystical practices ever discovered by people; thus it was before and so it continues now.