Among various religious practices that are used to get in contact with God, Dhikr’s place is special. Followers of Sufism say that Dhikr is a pillar on which the Mystic Way rests. When practiced correctly, Dhikr encompasses the dimensions of concentration, contemplation and perception. Consisting of three different dimensions simultaneously, its effect is complex and powerful.
For those who do not know, Dhikr is an act of remembrance of God. Classical Sufis base the legitimacy of the act on those verses of the Qu’ran that state the necessity to remember God anytime, anywhere. I will not spend time describing what these verses are as it is easy to just google them. What is important to understand, however, is that Dhikr is one of the main mystical practices of Sufism. On its face, it seems to be a relatively simple act: the seeker invokes, either aloud or silently, one of the names of God or a Quranic verse. Invoking the Name either silently or aloud is what distinguishes the silent and the loud Dhikr. It is not immediately clear what makes this act so mystical until one tries to practice it himself.
There are three components of the act. First, one concentrates on the Name; then, one contemplates on the different meanings of the Name; and, finally, one maintains constant perception of oneself in order to avoid having the mind slip away into mechanical unconscious mumbling. Concentration on the Name has to be accompanied by repetition. Both body and mind have to follow the rhythm of repetition. At first, this requires some effort. Once accustomed, however, the seeker’s actions will gain momentum and the effort will be much lighter.
Contemplation on the meanings of the Name needs to occur without involving the process of thought. The seeker should not even reflect on this subject. He only looks at the Name, keeps it in his sight, and this is it. His body and mind are busy repeating the Name, and this act alone launches the process of revelation of all possible meanings that the Name contains. To begin with, attention is directed to the qualities of the Name that are intrinsic to God: seeing their manifestations, the mind automatically generates some verbal formulas to express them. Looking at the meaning in itself leads to verbalization of the meaning. However, this is not a simple thinking process, but a contemplative process, which is more holistic than a sequential flow of thoughts. To look but not to think: the seeker learns to do it while he attempts to perceive himself by practicing Muraqaba, a Sufi meditation technique. This means that practicing Dhikr in the form that I’m describing requires self-perception discipline, as well as a lot of preliminary work in building the skills in observing and looking.
After contemplating on the meanings of the Name that are intrinsic to God, the seeker directs his attention to the qualities of the Name that manifest themselves in people’s lives and in the world in general. Through this contemplation, he penetrates deep into the heart of the meaning of each Name that he is working with, and his understanding grows ever richer. Contemplation is one of the best practices that can lead one to understand the essence of things; performing the Dhikr I am describing encourages development and strengthening of the practitioner’s contemplation skills.
Both repetition and penetration into the meanings of the Name require a constant state of awareness lest the ritual becomes mechanical. This is why increasing awareness is necessarily present in Dhikr. A certain spiritual effect that accompanies practicing Dhikr results from the efforts described above. To understand what creates the mystical effect, on the other hand, we need to consider some aspects of Reality that we have not yet discussed.
How do we interact with God if He is not only infinitely far from us, as I noted, but also exists within different dimensions of Being? This is the main question for anyone searching for the Truth. One can receive an answer only through his own experience after having much sharpened his sense of perception. Since a direct description of a situation involving a possibility of such an interaction may cause even greater confusion, I will have to resort to an analogy. The simplest illustration to use is an example of sunlight. There exists a source of light: the Sun. It is far from Earth, but its light, having reached the Earth’s atmosphere, is cleansed from harmful radiation and becomes essential for all things alive. Being in the sunlight, we are affected by it whether we want it or not. When we take sunbaths, we consciously let ourselves be affected by sunlight’s energy and, on a certain level, interact with the Sun itself. Nevertheless, a direct contact with the Sun is impossible for us because an attempt to get close to it will cause us to entirely disappear and perish. This is pretty much the kind of interaction that exists between us and God.
In other words, the Source itself or, the Absolute, if you will, is infinitely far-removed from our physical plan of Reality. However, His presence permeates all levels of human existence, and is quite perceivable physically. Hindus talked about Consciousness that imbues all matter; Sufis talk about the Presence. In essence, these are only attempts to express the inexpressible and to find some words that would be able to provide a distorted, if not entirely false, description to those who want to find out. So, this energy of the Presence is exactly what we interact with. It does not belong to either the Descending or to the Ascending Flows; rather, it encompasses them. It may be difficult to understand, but the Presence permeates everything regardless of a person’s – either in the mountains or in the lowlands, either in Tibet or in Moscow – and yet the quality of the energy of the Presence does not change. What changes is the energy of each particular place, and it is a fact. It is easier to work at self-improvement in some specific places rather than in others, but it has nothing to do with the power of the Presence which is as constant anywhere as an invariable in mathematics.
However, I would never assert that the Presence and Consciousness are one and the same. I have written a lot about consciousness and have always stated that any matter contains a fraction of God’s Consciousness that is dissolved in that matter. Rather, His Presence becomes quite active whenever a person starts actively interacting with Him. If I had to compare the energy of the Presence with anything, it would be with attention. To a certain degree, the Presence is God’s attention, although this statement, too, is a simplification of what really is.
What happens during Dhikr? Here, I have to resort to the analogy of the sunlight again. When a ray of light goes through a prism, it is dispersed into its rainbow spectrum components that would have been impossible to see without the prism. Even though these color components would not have been visible without the prism, it does not mean that the ray did not contain them before it went through the prism. It simply means that the conditions for the entire spectrum of energies to manifest themselvesdid not exist before. So, a similar process occurs during the Dhikr reading with the Presence acting the role of the ray of light and the mind and attention of the seeker being the prism.
As we know, the mind channels our attention directing it either externally or internally depending on a given situation. Whenever a seeker concentrates on the Name of God, repetition and concentration as well as directing one’s attention to the meaning of the Name will generate emission of energy of corresponding property from the spectrum of the Presence’s energies. And, of course, the seeker becomes the vehicle for that energy in accordance with his abilities. These abilities depend on how much he is filled with suppressed energies that result from his desires and emotions, as well as on how adequate his efforts to fulfill Dhikr are. At any rate, the effect of the energy of Presence is experienced by all who treat the repetition of the Name seriously.
There is another important aspect that is missed by many Sufi groups in Russia. In order for the mind to fulfill the prism function, the Name has to be pronounced in the language native to the seeker. Then both contemplation and channeling of the energy of the Presence are possible. If the Name is repeated in Arabic due to some idea that that language is holy, then the Name becomes a mantra that means very little for the mind, and the expected effect does not occur.
Similar to a rainbow, the Presence’s spectrum of energies have their own vibration frequencies, so to speak. Different names invoke very different feelings during the act and have very different effects in the long run. Some names will have a narrow effect; others will have a wider one. A Name that is chosen well may move the seeker down the road to internal transformation rather quickly.
Sufi classicists differentiate between different types of Dhikr based on the place and the type of performance of the ritual. Therefore, they talk about the loud and the quiet Dhikr: the Dhikr that is only performed by moving one’s lips (and the mind) is contrasted with the Dhikr that is taking place within one’s heart. Sufis think that if a seeker succeeds in transferring his understanding of God from his mind to his Heart, he accelerates his transformation and gains significant ground in moving along the Way. In essence, it is true that such practice assists in opening one’s Heart. The Heart that is open, in turn, feels the connection and is ready for a possibility of Surrender, which is all that a mystic needs to achieve his goal.
I am describing a practice that distinguishes different internal stages that are not related to the forms of repetition but do reflect the effect of the Name on the seeker. There are four stages, but only those who work with the same Name for a long time can clearly differentiate between them. During the first stage that may last for about two weeks, Dhikr can have a clear and a rather strong effect mostly on the mind of the practitioner. It is a cumulative effect resulting from contemplation on the meanings, the novelty of the act itself, as well as from changing one’s usual sensations to the sensations generated by interaction with the energy of the Presence. The seeker clearly feels the effect of Dhikr and becomes very enthusiastic. However, after a while these sensations lose its novelty and can seemingly disappear altogether. This is the effect of habituationthat is part of almost any practice. The initial impact that first appeared so strong changes some of the seeker’s energy structures; these changes, however, are not deep. Habituation is a consequence of the fact that the mind and the body have already adjusted to the practice. This is why, once these initial changes have taken place, there is always a period when the next step toward transformation requires a cumulative effect of a much larger effort than in the beginning. This is the second stage, and seemingly nothing is happening. Of course, the body will experience short consequences that will temporarily alter its state, as is with any practice. However, this is not what the practitioner expects from it. The stage where seemingly nothing is happening may last for a long time, and its duration depends quite a bit on an individual. As I noted, the duration of this stage directly depends on how much of the suppressed energy the individual has, as well as on the quality of his efforts. If the seeker has problems with neither the suppressed energies nor with his efforts, then the second stage can be quite short. Since the effectiveness of contemplation on the meanings also gets used up during the first weeks of the practice, I recommend that the second stage is the time to start directing part of one’s attention to the center of the heart simultaneously with repetition of the Name.
The third stage is characterized by the resonance created within the practitioner by the property expressed by the invoked Name. It develops, or crystalizes, within three lower bodies and changes their initial state in terms of sensations, reactions and vibration frequencies. The property of the Name becomes a property of the seeker as he reaches a somewhat different level of being. This is the main spiritual result of Dhikr. The duration of the third stage also depends on an individual; however, when the seeker reaches this stage, he stops worrying about the result or how fast he progresses.
The fourth stage brings along the main mystical effect of Dhikr: when he begins to invoke the Name of God, the seeker immediately enters the Presence of God, feeling it with his entire self. This Presence is infused with the property of the invoked Name, but at the same time it is also absolutely holistic in itself. There are no further stages after this; there is only existence within the Presence, and this existence soon becomes possible even outside of the act of Dhikr.
Through the centuries of the existence of Sufism, Dhikr has acquired various and often rather unusual forms. There are groups who practice Dhikr as a means to enter altered states and who turn the practice into an almost shamanic ritual. Other groups read Quranic verses and treat them as mantras as they expect some magical result from their practice. There are many ways to express the world around us, as well as to distort any Way however straight it may have been in the beginning. Nevertheless, Dhikr, when performed correctly, has been and still remains one of the most powerful mystical practices that have been developed by the human race. This is what has been and still is true.