The Heart-Breaking Work of a Dervish

A section of the Wisconsin River winds through towering, 500 million-year-old rock formations composed layer upon layer of honey-coloured sandstone. Called the Upper Dells, the cliffs were cut by ancient glaciers. They’re remnants of a time when the continent was covered in desert.

Upper Dells, Wisconsin river. Photo by Dailah Merzaban
Upper Dells, Wisconsin River

During a boat tour meandering around the imposing cliffs and traversing dazzling river narrows, a few dear friends and I marvelled at the protruding rocks that cradle a several-mile stretch of the river. Our guide described how these Cambrian-period rocks are some of the oldest exposed bedrock on Earth, a testament to their strength and endurance. And yet the Dells are essentially created from sand, making them also among the softest rocks in existence. Being incredibly porous, they let water penetrate into them. This enables lush clusters of pine trees to grow supported by deeply embedded roots. The surface is also soft enough for swallows to burrow nests into the sides of the sandstone.

The incredible robustness of the Dells paradoxically relies on their delicacy and receptivity, a fitting analogy as I reflect on my journey as a dervish, or disciple, of Mevlevi sufism.

It’s been just over a year since I made a public commitment to the path that traces back to Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the greatest mystics and poets the world has ever known. This period has marked the most rigorous and transforming spiritual and psychological training I’ve ever undertaken. It’s complicated to describe the subtle realisations that unfold on a personal journey to attain nearness to God. What I can put into words is that, above all else, my heart has become more porous, receptive and tender.

The changes in me are both subtle and profound. Rather than simply dropping a pound in the cup of a homeless neighbour as I may have before, I’m more inclined to look them in the eye and ask how they are and what they need. Instead of finding fault in another I deem has wronged me, I pause before reacting to understand their vantage point, not judge them from mine. I’m more merciful with myself, tuning down that once roaring inner critic that constantly questioned my worthiness, intelligence and goodness.

What’s shocked me on this journey is just how hard and rigid my heart had been. In his book The Knowing Heart, my teacher and shaikh, Kabir Helminski, describes the heart as “an intelligence beyond intellect, a knowing that operates at a subconscious level, and the only human faculty expansive enough to embrace the infinite qualities of the universe.’’

Understanding the heart as a threshold between the world of material existence and the world of spiritual Being, I’ve learned that in order for my heart to be supple enough to allow Allah, or the Divine Reality, to flow through me, I needed to be brutally honest about the ways I’ve been inflexible. Rumi references this process in his poetry:

How should Spring bring forth a garden on hard stone?
Become earth, that you may grow flowers of many colours.
For you have been a heart-breaking rock.
Once, for the sake of experiment, be earth!’’
(Mathnawi Book 1, 1911-12, translated by Camille and Kabir Helminski, Rumi Daylight)

In practical terms, this has involved intensive self-reckoning to challenge and unlearn rigid thought patterns, beliefs and assumptions of what’s right and wrong. For one, I’ve re-imagined my relationship with Islam, skewed by a lifetime of dogmatic and patriarchal interpretations that never sat comfortably within me. Leaving behind the religion of fear, I connect with a Divine Reality that is in actuality infinitely Loving and Compassionate, not out to harm and punish me.

Upper Dells
High Rock, Upper Dells

It’s also involved spending time in contemplation to analyse tendencies within my psyche to lay bare the true hold that my ego, or false self, had over my heart in fear, envy, shame, self-deprecation, pride and vanity. My spiritual work has encouraged me to look objectively at these inclinations as idols that block my ability to be guided by my innermost self. As these feelings arise, I witness and engage with them. Gently, I allow their grip to ease through daily prayers, meditation, zikr and music.

Witnessing the ways I’ve been unconsciously beholden to my ego’s compulsions and judgements of myself and others can be incredibly painful. Yet slowly, the damaging patterns of thought that guided me for decades — learned from family, traditions and popular culture — are losing their hold. On the other side of the agony and tears, I find my heart emerges softer, more conscious of Spirit. The pain, as Rumi describes in his poem The Ruby, dissolves like a “drop of vinegar in an ocean of honey.”

With a more humble heart, I’m better able to detach from my ego to react with compassion and truth, rather than learned behaviours rooted in fear. I complain less and approach daily interactions — from disagreements with loved ones to a stranger cutting in line at the supermarket or a colleague offering tough feedback — as opportunities for spiritual growth.

From the vantage point of a tender heart, I’m more open to what is rather than what I think should be, and my experience of life becomes more beautiful and tranquil. I can better grasp the Oneness that transcends the labels that mainstream religions and cultures too often use to superficially divided humanity.

Lush trees grow atop the sandstone rocks
Lush trees grow atop the sandstone rocks

On that warm July afternoon as the sun glistened on the river, I was awed at how those ancient, sturdy Dells let water flow into them freely. Unlike other varieties of rock consigned to being barren by their hardness, the Dells permit rich vegetation to spring forth simply by being soft.

My heart, I realise now, has the capacity to be both. It is my choice to cling on to the stony qualities that erect a barrier to experiencing the Divine Reality in every moment. Or I can choose to wipe the surface clean of the psychological distortions my ego clings to. The more I do that, the more I contact my heart’s intrinsic nature: firm yet tender like the Dells, ready to nurture and be nourished by Divine Love.


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