Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The original cast of Hair

“I'm Briony and I'm currently a nomad.”

I'm sitting in a broad circle of Californians. We've been asked to say our name, where we live and why we're here.

“I'm here because In April I got a new job, to conduct an experiential study of human fun and ecstasy.”

Gasps and ooos. Great job. Mumble mumble.

“What's happened in London is that our leisure and pleasure space has become really narrowed and is now mainly focused around alchol and quite passive ways of having fun - the cinema, the restaurant, the pub. I'm employed by a non-profit that is aiming to open up that space and bring in some of the richness that's still alive elsewhere. My job is to explore what else is going on, what's possible, and what we could be doing.”

The Californians erupt in spontaneous applause.

I've found myself at Esalen, a kind of Californian Findhorn, with the original cast of Hair.

Or maybe, the inspiration for Hair. About forty silver haired flower children have gathered for a Sufi Zhikr ritual, which involves repetitive breathing and movement exercises to live music, which, in a group over the course of an hour, is intended to produce the experience of 'Fana,' the Sufi term for ecstasy, also described as union with the divine, Nirvana, and annihilation.

“Fun? Ha! I know about that,” says the beautiful, silver haired Martine as we walk briskly up the hill towards the first meeting.

“I used to know a woman called Princess Funmaker. She had a baby with my husband about the same time I did, then disappeared into New Mexico. I haven't seen her since.”

New Mexico is pale desert territory of San Pedro cactus, hallucinogenic frogs and a higher than average density of shamans.

Later, Martine and I sit sciving together outside the workshop, talking about the '60s.

“It was so much fun!!”

“What kind of things did you do?”

She looked long into the distance, out across the sea. This place is luminous. I think it's because half of it is made of sea and sky.

“A lot of dancing and drumming. And singing. Dancing, drumming and singing. What more do you need?

“And Art Erruptions. My dear friend, now deceased, would say, 'right! We're meeting at 6am to paint the street! And we'd rush to gather paints and brushes and rags and a broom and we'd cluster bleary eyed the next morning, and sweep the street, and say, what shall we paint? The group mind would come up with something and it would grow and grow, and the cars would approach and say, 'oh, they're painting the street, we better go around,' and passers by would join in. We didn't have any permit or anything. Then a dog would run up. Shit! The dog's going to run over our painting! Everyone would go silent in horror and the little dog would run over the painting and its colourful little footprints would become like birds and butterflies around the picture and it was beautiful. You have to trust in the... the...”

“The Chaorder.”

“Yes! The chaorder. You have to trust the Chaorder.”

I like Martine.

* * *

This particular Zhikr became cool in 1960s New York through the influence of Sufi immigrants.

“We all went to Chille for a month,” a woman told me over lunch. “We practised every day and - ” she leaned over and lowered her voice, “we took a laat of acid.”

And Oscar would say, 'DON'T SLEEP WITH THE SUFIS!' And I was like, 'Oscar, Calm Down.' We were having sex with everybody else! What was the problem?”

The lunch assembly explains the Zhikr thing to me. Zhikr is the Sufi term for a practice or exercise that leads to Fana, aka ecstasy or divine union. Different Sufi orders are characterised by their particular Zhikrs. They're different, some are silent, others involve playing instrumental music, others involve whirling, and so on. There are perhaps a dozen different Zhikrs, someone says. I suspect there are more.

Wikipedia has it down as 'Dhikr' and says this:

Followers of Sufism engage in ritualized dhikr ceremonies, the details of which are the primary difference between Sufi orders or tariqah.[4]Each order or lineage within an order has one or more forms for group dhikr, the liturgy of which may include recitation,singing,instrumental music,dance, costumes, incense, meditation, ecstasy, and trance.[5] Dhikr in a group is not limited to these rules but most often done on Thursday and/or Sunday nights as part of the institutional practice of most orders.

"A group dhikr ceremony in Arabic countries is usually called the hadrah.

In Turkey the group ceremony is called Zikr-i Kiyam. The hadrah marks the climax of the Sufi's gathering regardless of any teaching or formal structure. Musically this structure includes several secular Arab genres and can last for hours.[6]"

I once did a very beautiful Sufi whirling workshop at Tribe of Doris, with the Coola Sheika as he became known. That kind of whirling was probably another Zhikr. The Sheikh would say profound things and then we'd get up and walk around in circles. It was a way of processing what he was saying, I guess. It was good. It gave it time to sink in. Robed musicians played elegant Sufi music and most people cried a lot. I cried my eyes out, got over my guilt about an old friend's recent suicide, and forgave my mother. Not bad for an hour and a half. I wouldn't exactly describe it as fun though.

This community practices the 'Arica' Zhikr, which is what we're doing all weekend. It has been developed and is kind of 'owned' by this guy,Oscar Ichazo, who picked it up from the Sufis in New York and, later, the Middle East. I wonder what Middle Easteners think of it. Everyone here is white.

For most people here, Zhikr has been their spiritual practice for many years, and this is their spiritual community. “I've done pretty much every recreational drug in the book,” one man tells me. “Nothing gets me as high as Zhikr.”

“The human body has everything it needs for ecstasy in it already,” says another. “Then it's a subtle art to reach it. But the idea that we need to take drugs to get there is a total scam.”

“It's a spiritual practice,” the drummer tells me. “It's not fun, it's work. You won't get there your first time. Some don't get there for years.”

I've just been scanning Zhikr and Dhikr videos on youtube. The closest thing I can find to what we did is this:

We did slightly different movements and formations, and no robes, but the qualities of choreography and repetitive movement, breaths, chanting and singing are the same.

It reminds me of the tribal war dances that Sabine Kuegler describes in her book Jungle Child, through which two tribes get into trance together prior to battle with bows and arrows. Repetition, rhythm, choreography, chant.

Honestly, the workshop isn't doing it for me. I realise a few things.

  1. There are some things that can produce ecstasy, but if they don't they're still really fun, like singing and dancing and making music. Then there are things that are designed to produce ecstasy and if you don't get there, they're just slightly strange things to do. I think that can be OK if it's a spiritual practice, but if it's not, it's just weird.
  2. A spiritual practice primarily provides a path for personal development towards a good life and away from suffering, and a community of deep shared interest and trust. In the name of that, you can happily do all manner of strange things. In my yoga community we take the action of the skin on the ankles terribly seriously. Crazy! Wonderful! For us. To outsiders? Crazy! I'm going to check this with the team but I'm pretty sure that the Fun Fed is not very interested in offering spiritual practices – unless play is a spiritual practice in itself?? - basically if you have to work at it for years to get the fun out of it, I think we're interested in things with a quicker payback.
  3. The Zhikr was a sombre ritual. There was nothing playful in it. At this stage of the research I think we can rule out sombre rituals because playfulness is such an essential quality of what we do. Something else to check with the team.
  4. I've discovered a curious thing in this and in a Quantum Light Breath workshop (where do they come up with these names?) at dance camp. I don't get off on inhalation-based practices. I'm asthmatic. It's pretty under control now but for a lot of my life it wasn't. There seems to be a kind of body memory of it. Repeated, sharp inhalations mean one thing to my fibres: an asthma attack. I don't like it. So while others are getting high, I'm wanting to slow my breathing down and, ideally, get the hell out of the situation. I'm not the right researcher for inhalation-based highs.
There are loads of videos of Dhkir (also written 'Zikir' and 'Zhikir') on youtube. It looks like in Sufism itself this is a deep, sombre and tender practice that is part of a broader spiritual framework with profound influence on the lives of participants.

Two themes are clear: repetition, and activities of group unity. These themes seem to come up again and again in ecstatic practice where the self dissolves into something like the divine.

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