Listening to the Reed

Listening to the Reed January 4, 2021

It would be impossible to separate my heart’s awakening with my Sufi master Rumi from awakening to music, and in particular the music of the Turkish reed flute, called the ney.

Outwardly, I suppose it wouldn’t seem surprising for a disciple of the Mevlevi tradition of Sufism to be drawn to the mystical instrument described in the opening lines of Rumi’s poetic masterpiece, the Mathnawi. Mevlana’s description of the ney is the entry point into a universe of 26,000 verses conveying in extraordinary detail the human being’s journey toward union with the Divine Beloved.

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Turkish reed flute, photo by Uzma Taj

Yet for someone like myself, who had never learned to play an instrument, my desire to approach the ney came as an absolute shock. From the moment I unexpectedly birthed that elusive first sound about three years ago, I’ve sensed that this instrument is seeking to teach me something about my essence, and more precisely, how far I’d strayed from my Self. I, like the reed torn from the reed bed, was dry and void of life until the Breath of Love enlivened my heart. It was, truly, an experience of love at first sound.

Rumi says:

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
how it sings of separation:
Ever since they cut me from the reed bed,
my wail has caused men and women to weep.
I want a heart torn open with longing
to share the pain of this love.
Whoever has been parted from their source
longs to return to that state of union.

[Mathnawi I, 1–4]

Looking back at the past few years of my journey as a dervish striving to embody Rumi’s guidance, it is as though these lines have come to life in my body. They have resonated against the inner lining of my being and ignited a fire that has consumed many self-limiting beliefs that were holding me back. Studying the Mathnawi and living and breathing Mevlana’s teachings has opened me up to greater creativity than I ever fathomed possible. A once hollow existence is now brimming with more music, poetry, companionship and love than I could have ever imagined I deserved.

Something stirred in my heart with that first note from the reed that is difficult to put into words, other than to say there was a palpable longing to connect to the Mystery behind the sound. It felt magical. In that single, breathy note, it was as though beauty became real for me. For the first time, music became a possibility. I’d never imagined myself as a musician. During my turbulent childhood years, there wasn’t space for me to explore this possibility. So, as with so many of our human gifts, that potential lay dormant, waiting to be ignited. Which brings me to a few more of Rumi’s opening lines in the Mathnawi:

This flute is played with fire, not with wind,
and without this fire you would not exist.
It is the fire of love that inspires the flute.
It is the ferment of love that completes the wine.

[Mathnawi I, 9–10]

My understanding of these lines has deepened as my feet journey on the hot coals of awakening. The reed is a superb metaphor for an awakening human being, slowly emptying of the beliefs and psychological conditioning that erect barriers to the Divine Breath seeking to resonate in our bodies. To reconnect with our deepest voice, we need to be carved and hollowed like the reed.

In my case, my ney is so much more than a metaphor of the spiritual journey. She is also a very real companion — perhaps the only companion that has intimately travelled with me through the many life-altering changes that accompany spiritual growth. She was with me when I walked away from toxic relationships and played her in empty rooms with tears streaming down my cheeks. She has comforted me as I witnessed and confronted destructive patterns of behaviour in myself. When I’ve felt the agony of just how separated I have been from my Heart, she has been there to help guide me back, one note at a time.

A fuller sound emerges from my reed with every journey deeper into the wounding of my psyche. Deeper into the wounds of abuse suffered in childhood, into traumas of cultural and colonial conditioning, and into the pain of inherited sexual shame and feminine repression. At times, it can physically feel like rocks are being drilled out of my body and cleared away to reveal the gems hiding beneath. That clearing, or hollowing, creates more space for Divine Breath to move through me and bounce off the walls of my body. As I empty, this Breath flows more fully into the ney to create a richer texture of music.

I say I’m learning to play the ney, but it doesn’t feel accurate to call it playing. If anything, it often feels like I am the instrument. I am also a student and the ney is a very intuitive teacher. She demands attention and consistency of practice. If I neglect to press my lips against hers for even a few days, when I return she often holds back her affectionate sounds for a little while until our breaths have a chance to get reacquainted. The same goes for when I’m stressed and distracted. At these times, my breath is shallow and, as a result, the notes she produces are weak.

Alternatively, when I am truly present, breathing from my belly and genuinely connecting with her, my ney rewards me with ever-deepening tones. The reed flute is also shy, often revealing sounds to me in private that I can never seem to replicate in front of my teachers. I suppose that’s the case with any beloved: There will always be secrets reserved for the container of intimacy:

The reed is a comfort to all estranged lovers.
Its music tears our veils away. Have you ever seen
a poison or antidote like the reed?
Have you ever seen a more intimate
companion and lover?

[Mathnawi I, 11–12]

Watching accomplished neyzens produce piercingly beautiful music is a humbling reminder for me of the boundless potential of tonality and sound that can emerge from this mesmerising instrument. I am learning that the possibility of birthing more passionate music never ends. In this way, the musical journey with the ney is not dissimilar to the spiritual journey of connecting with my Sustainer, my Rabb.

At times, it can feel overwhelming to think of how far I would have to travel to achieve such maturity of sound. My inner perfectionist often reprimands these shortcomings, urging me to give up since my lack of musical knowledge has left me with a lot of “catching up” to do.

And yet, in those moments, if I can remember to breathe, my ney gently reminds me of one of her most beautiful qualities. No matter where I am on the journey, she will help me create music. This is a promise she has continually delivered on. The only condition she has is that I be willing — willing to try and willing to keep showing up.

When I meet my ney where she is and she meets me where I am, I like to think we heal a little more of each other’s separation. From that space of intimate connection, music is born.

I leave you with a poem inspired by my ney:

Blowing music

From the depths
of hollowness
Vacant of all but the
only Breath
Emptied of all but
Freed of life and
its pretence
From that void
within the reed
Music pours forth
with such force
There isn’t a soul
that’s not trembling
Not a single atom
escapes the vibration
Every taksim
a revelation
Direct from the
Divine station
Coursing through that
hollow core
Surging into the air
I breathe it in
I can feel it working
The contents in my chest
the script slowly stripped away
With each note
birthed in the
Same moment
it dies
A veil pulled away
from these eyes
In the pain
one subtle demise
After another
creating a blank place
Reflecting the Face
of the eternal Friend
She takes a pen
and starts scribbling
The secrets contained
within the abyss
That’s opening
from the centre of
This broken heart
to the surface
Streams of ink
fill empty spaces
Like breath gliding
through the holes of the reed
Spilling tunes in the air
She’s blowing music
Right there
in my breast

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