We all have psychological blind spots, aspects of our personalities that are hidden from our view. My own tend to boil down to fears that feel too threatening to acknowledge, and so are easier to tuck away. This is why I’m deeply grateful for Sufi practices that bring these distortions into conscious awareness through zikr, the repetition of Divine Attributes.
I often linger on the line in the Mevlevi Wird that offers an antidote for approaching my phobias: “Facing all fears, (say) ‘there is no god, but God.’” These words, La Illaha illa Allah, have been part of my life since I was a child, yet only since moving away from the religious understanding has the immensity of their spiritual significance unfolded for me. In my impression, the six words have been usurped by religious authorities to divide people based on those who worship one supreme lord, and are thus bound for “heaven,” and those facing a more sinister fate because they worship a collection of gods.
This superficial interpretation is dangerous because it keeps our focus outside, leaving us prone to fixating on comparing ourselves to and judging the actions of others. What is more meaningful and ultimately more challenging is to witness our interior world and all the false “gods”— the contradictions, obsessions and preoccupations — that consume our attention.
Welcoming La Illaha illa Allah into my days for a few years has brought to light the crowd of idols within me, and it’s bigger than I care to admit. From the sometimes debilitating desire to be acknowledged and validated, to more subtle idols, like the tendency to speak to myself in a self-deprecating way, the zikr has opened a gateway to my shadow side.
My experience is that zikr works on an incredibly subtle level and is a gradual unfolding, like a germination process for the spiritual heart. At first, it didn’t feel like anything was happening; I had to trust that this seed I was planting in my inner world would eventually blossom.
Each time I’d breathe out La Illaha, letting go of the falsity in me, the seed would get moistened with a few drops of water and lay its invisible roots.
Warming rays of sunshine would penetrate the seed with every inhalation of illa Allah, affirming Being within.
Contemplating its meaning at spontaneous moments during the day might sprinkle a dash of fertilizer on the soil around it.
As time passed, and after enough nourishment, the seed cracked open and a tiny shoot emerged. The growing stem lodged itself in my heart, softening it as it flowered. Meanwhile, the roots were stirring things around in my subconscious as they embedded themselves deeper and deeper. By then, I’d spent enough time in stillness to hone my ability to be present with my breath and receptive to the sensations arising in my body. And one by one, different fears started rising to conscious awareness, due to triggers in my interactions with family, friends, colleagues or strangers.
It’s been humbling to witness how suffocated I’ve been by the fear of disappointing my family. Or how my fear of writing anything that wasn’t “perfect” inhibited my creativity. Scared of rejection, I’d regularly work into the night to be worthy of praise. I was even afraid of my curls after decades of internalizing familial and cultural messaging that straight hair was more attractive.I could go on, but the point is I’ve spent a lifetime scared, in a series of compulsive and subtle ways, of embracing myself. The refined energy of La Illaha illa Allah brings into plain and painful the bars that are holding me, holding me captive.
And yet the beauty of zikr is that it doesn’t leave us stranded as we lay bare our darker sides. As La Illaha shows me a fear, illa Allah reveals my very own conduit to divinity, that center of authenticity and wholeness where each human being is connected to Infinite Love.
Like the way fragrance of a red rose or lily penetrates every particle of surrounding air, or how the undulating notes of the reed flute pulsate throughout a room, La Illaha illa Allah transforms the energy of the inner world, as one of the beloved guides of our tradition, the late Suleyman Dede, describes:
“When a human being performs zikr, their spirit, their heart starts to open. Their intelligence becomes more refined and more expansive. Their bodies become healthier. A beautiful condition comes about, similar to the one that is brought about by good music. The whole being opens up like a flower, and the divine secret—the things you couldn’t understand or know about before—begin to be revealed to you.”*
With exposure to La Illaha illa Allah over time, fears naturally loosen their grip. The anxious sensations that often accompany them may linger—the pang in the chest or the tightness of breath, for instance. But zikr helps me witness these reactions with some objective distance, as though they are weeds I’ve pulled from the earth.
This conscious witnessing is life-altering because it empowers me with choice. Rather than pretend the fear isn’t there or berate it for being there, I allow it to guide me to that part of me that’s scared of expressing sadness, of scarcity, of being imperfect, of speaking her truth, etcetera. In a sense, La Illaha illa Allah prepares the soil of my psyche for the garden of Divine Names to bloom.
My teacher says there are times where you stop doing zikr — and it starts doing you. Perhaps in my metaphorical interior garden, that’s when whatever Divine Qualities are needed for my spiritual and psychological growth spontaneously burst forth from the fertile soil I’ve been tending; flowers that were always there behind the shadows, waiting to manifest their many hues.
That fearful part of me may be showered by the love of the Infinitely Loving One, Ya Wadud. She may bask in Ya Rahman, the Most Compassionate, or feel the incredible rooting quality Ya Aziz, connecting her with the most mighty and dear core of her being. As she calms and integrates little by little into wholeness, the delightful fragrance of the Quranic promise, “in the remembrance of God, hearts find rest,” fills the air.
The vigilant energy of La Illaha illa Allah has transformed my experience of working with my shadow, shining a light on the crevices of my psyche where the zikr performs its alchemy, melting all our fears into Love.
Or as Rumi says in a poem honouring the teachings of his beloved Shams,
The light of zikr creates the full moon,And brings those who are lost to the path of Reality.At the times of the morning and the evening namaz,make yourself a prayer, saying, La Illaha illa Allah.
* The Voice of Dede, Threshold Society
* Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, Quatrain 11