Solitude: A Sufi Practice

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“Although you have a form made of clay
, your inner being is a treasury of gems,
 shining with the Divine light. 
Return to the root of the root of your being.” — Rumi

We are living in troubled times. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people have to stay home, work remotely and deal with difficulties of life. This can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, separateness or even abandonment.

Let’s transform this social necessity to a positive opportunity for spiritual practice. In this way, we can better manage our life. Here, I would like to share some suggestions from a Sufi practice called khalvat, which is usually translated as “solitude.” Perhaps this is a better word for our staying home nowadays. Solitude creates a positive mindset. It puts you in charge. It brings in a new fragrance to our environment and a sense of peace to our life.

The word khalvat actually means “making an empty space” because Sufis believe that solitude requires that we empty our mind of all things of the outside world, all thoughts of pleasing this or that person, achieving this or that position, and so forth. Once our mind is an empty space, we can then create and construct with love and joy.

How can we practice solitude? A 14th-century Persian Sufi text, A Lamp for Guidance and A Key to Abundance (Mesbâh al-Hedâyat va Meftâh al-Kefâyat), has given a detailed description of the practice of solitude. This book has not been translated into English. Although it was written for practicing Sufis, we can still adopt its suggestions in a way that works for our own life.

The book lists nine steps for the practice of solitude; these steps co-exist and function in synergy:

• The first step is intention. The practice should be our own choice; it needs inner motivation. Because intention directs the entire process, it comes first.

• The second step is to maintain hygiene. Cleanliness of the body has a particular light that shines both outward and inward. Sufis usually wash their hands and faces three times before prayer, meditation or similar rituals. The body should not go idle; hygiene keeps the body and the mind fresh.

• The third step is to avoid overeating. Eating should be in moderation to nourish the body. We should not eat out of boredom, stress or obsession. Eating should be disciplined; overheating is harmful.

• The fourth step is avoiding oversleeping. Sleeping also should be in moderation and in its own hours.

• The fifth step is avoiding too much talking to others or in our own head. Words and thoughts are closely related. If we reduce our speech, the mind also becomes silent.

• The sixth step: We should not be caught up in memories of the past or worries of the future. Too much thinking and worrying disturbs our mind and distracts us from our practice and life. Of course, this is not easy, but we should simply let past and future, neither of which really exist, simply go. Step six creates stillness.

• The seventh step: We should not develop an excessive desire to meet and chat with others or (by extension to the modern world) occupy our time with the TV and Internet. These are all distractions.

• The eight step is prayer and remembrance of God (by whatever name you may call That). Prayer has a hidden power, because it connects us to the Source of All. In solitude and emptiness we can feel the Divine presence. This brings strength and inner support to our life.

• The ninth step is watchfulness or taking care of the present moment. Our energy and attention should be focused on what we are doing presently, whether it is prayer, meditation, eating, cleaning, writing, working, and so forth.

The practice of solitude is found in many spiritual traditions, and one does not have to be a Sufi or Buddhist to do it. Even if we are troubled with health, work, family or financial problems, the steps involved in the Sufi solitude practice tremendously help us to stay healthy, think clearly, be energetic and focused, work well, do better, and deepen our spiritual awareness. Happy solitude!

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