Desert Wisdom

by Neil Douglas-Klotz

The Past Flies Away

“The past flies away, coming months and years do not exist:
Only the pinprick of this moment belongs to us.
We decorate this speck of a moment—time—
by calling it a flowing river or a stream.
But often I find myself alone in a desert wilderness,
straining to catch the faint echo of unfamiliar sounds.”
—The Secret Rose Garden
by Sufi poet Mahmud Shabistari, thirteenth century

Desert FatherEvery part of the earth has evolved crucial insights and wisdom that can offer solutions to the unfolding story of the human species. This wisdom comes through the mystics, prophets, poets, and artists who, by their own willingness to experience a sense of deep com­munion with the universe, give voice to enduring meaning and beauty.

Many people have begun to listen seriously to voices of the native traditions of the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Likewise a voice of desert wisdom from the Native Middle Eastern tra­dition is waiting to be heard.

The term Native Middle Eastern may seem unusual. By this I mean a spirituality that arises from a bioregion that ranges from northeastern Africa around the Mediterranean Sea to the Anatolian peninsula (present-day Turkey) and extends southeast through the Arabian penin­sula and northeast through present-day Iran into the Caucasus Moun­tains. Human beings in this area of the earth evolved unique forms of cosmology, spirituality, and psychology over the past eight to ten thou­sand years that helped to connect them with the natural world and make sense of their lives. This wisdom can be heard as separate voices and as a harmonious chorus. Just as Native American spirituality presents many varieties of ritual, spiritual practice, and tribal organization, yet can also be heard as a unified voice, so also can the heart of Native Middle East­ern spirituality offer a perfume that transcends its apparent differences. The fact that this perfume is hard to catch has much to do with the his­tory of relations between the European West and the Middle East.

For the past two thousand years, the West has extracted, refined, and harnessed the spiritual resources of the Middle East to create and fuel its version of modern culture and religion. Foremost among these products were the European versions of Christianity and Judaism, whose prophets were born in the Middle East and spoke Semitic languages. Conflicts between and among the Western versions of these “classical” religions and their various sects, heresies, and competing orthodoxies have dominated political and cultural life in the common era.

Even the roots of modern science and mathematics arose in the Islamic Middle East and were carried to Europe during its “dark ages.” Scientists then fought with religious hierarchies over who would domi­nate the spiritual and imaginative life of the West. When the politician and the industrialist both entered this battle about three hundred years ago, they irreparably tipped the scales away from a shared worldview of spirit and nature. Without any common vision of purpose, which is the gift of cosmology and spirituality, human life became an ever-more divi­sive fight for resources and wealth.

Over the past century, the West has returned to the Middle East to extract, refine, and harness its earth energy resources—oil—as it previ­ously did the Middle East’s spiritual resources. In elaborate political chess games, Western nations carved out countries and engaged in a belated spasm of empire building to protect their “strategic” interests. Most recently, in various attempts to further peace in the region, the West has not only confronted its own previous interference but has also found itself embroiled in conflicts that are deeply rooted in the indige­nous spirituality of this region. After a few hundred years of ignorance, fear, and manipulation, how can anyone in the West make sense of the deeper story embedded in the spirituality that has evolved there and that controls events?

Like a person awakening from amnesia, the West now turns to the Middle East with vague inklings of the childhood of Judaism and Chris­tianity, with fear and mistrust of the little it knows of Islam, and with virtual ignorance of the varied indigenous spiritualities that were never labeled “classical religions” by the West. As drilling for oil contin­ues, another type of digging continues to unearth ancient manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, which call into question the previously accepted stories of the origins of Western Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism.

On the deepest level, what are we trying to get from the Middle East? What does this region mean for us in the West and for all of humanity at this time? What answers can it contribute to the overall question of human survival on earth?

This collection offers to begin a process of recovery by sharing the words of Native Middle Eastern mystics linked to the indigenous spiri­tual practices that make their wisdom an embodied experience. Ulti­mately, myth arises from a profound, direct experience of the natural world and intimations of its connection with the entire cosmos. Spiritual practice opens the door to such direct experience. Trying to take the myth without the embodied practice is at best a form of voyeurism. At worst it is a form of spiritual strip-mining: It raises psychic and mental energy without really grounding it—that is, giving it back to the earth through our own bodies.

For the past twenty years, I have studied the spiritual practice of the Native Middle Eastern tradition with Sufis, dervishes, rabbis, Kab­balists, monks, mystics, and shamans. I have researched their sacred writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Persian, and other languages. I am aware of the religious and theological differences that divide creed from creed and sect from sect. I leave these to those for whom they have interest. I am also aware of a greater common ground of spirituality that unites not only the “great” religions but all religious experience in this area. What I have experienced and understood I offer here in transla­tions, commentary, and body prayers that evoke the wisdom of the Native Middle Eastern tradition.

The approach to the wisdom we need now cannot be made as though from the outside, in a pseudoscientific, reductionist way. As the findings of the new physics show, there is ultimately no “outside.” Observing something changes it, and we are all “inside” whether we like it or not.

Particle and Wave
Hebrew

An expanded translation of Genesis 1:1
King James Version: “In the beginning
God created the heaven and the earth.”

In the beginning . . .
which means:
in archetypal form—­
with the power to be something in
principle­—like a point that unfolds itself
in wings, in flame,
in all directions,
conceiving the idea of a universe
for better and for worse . . .

In that time before time and space,
the Being of beings,
the I-They-Who-Are,
the One that is Many,
the Ultimate Pronoun . . .

Drew upon unknowable Otherness,
to convert into knowable Essence
two tendencies of our universe-to-be:

The cosmic tendency toward the Limitless
the ocean of light, sound,
name and vibration—
that shines in glorious space,
that rises in sublime time
as well as
the cosmic tendency toward the Limited:
a formed and fixed energy that moves
straight toward goals and solutions:
the sense of purpose that we see in
earth, water, fire, and air.

In Principle,
In Beginning-ness,
Oneness envisioned the wave
and the particle.

Binding and Letting Go
Aramaic

A translation of Matthew 18:18—20 from the Peshitta version of the Gospels. King James Version: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

This occurs because
wherever two or three
gather and wrap themselves
b’shemy—in my sound and name,
in my atmosphere and light, in my experience of
the wave reality of the cosmos—wherever this power becomes tangible
and names itself through their devotion,
then “I Am” is really there
among, around, and inside them.
My being is present in their own simple presence,
Ready for the next instant of reality.

The Next Thing
Arabic

A meditation on the Holy Quran, Sura I: Fateha, “The Opening.”
We affirm that the next thing that happens occurs only
Through the waves of the whole universe yearning toward a goal,

By means of the entire unfolding cosmos,

In the light of one single unity of purpose—which is the clear sign and name of the Only Being
he Ultimate Force behind being and nothingness.
We begin
With the Divine Void calling our name before we rayed into existence.

Unity’s Disguises
Arabic

Version from a recorded saying [hadith] of the Prophet Muhammad.
Yusuf Ali Version: “God has Seventy Thousand Veils of Light and Darkness.”

Cosmic Unity has seventy thousand ways to hide.

The One Being wraps itself in countless disguises:
It veils itself in light and darkness,
In appearance and disappearance,
In sage guidance,
a torch to understanding,
And in foolish advice,
the extinction of wisdom.

In the rising and setting of enlightenment.
One moment we shield our eyes from the glare,
the next we shudder in shadow.
Eclipse and Brilliance both obscure from mind’s view
the Universe’s single-minded purpose.

The Right Time and Place
Avestan

A version of the Zoroastrian prayer recorded in Ysana 27:14, from ancient Persia, approximately 1700-1500 B.C.E.

To do rightly by the cosmos depends on timing:
right doing, right being
at the right time and place.
This right guidance, found in every heart,
finds its source in the universal Heart.
This rightness is ultimate good,
ultimate happiness and joy.

The joy comes naturally to and through a life
lived in moment-by-moment contact
with the truth behind all nature.

for its own sake and not for anything else. —Avestan

The Past Flies Away
Persian

From The Secret Rose Garden by Sufi poet Mahmud Shabistari, thirteenth century.

The past flies away,
coming months and years do not exist:
Only the pinprick of this moment
belongs to us.

We decorate this speck of a moment—time—
by calling it a flowing river or a stream.

But often I find myself alone
in a desert wilderness,
straining to catch the faint echo of
unfamiliar sounds.

Wisdom Bread
Aramaic

A translation of John 6:35 from the Peshitta version of the Gospels.

Isho’a said:
King James Version: “I am the bread of life.”

Simple Presence is Wisdom’s daughter,
the food of human energy.
The ego fully aware of its ephemeral nature
fuels our passion for the fresh and verdant.
The depth of Identity is the ground of our life force.
The germ of individuality’s seed grows fruit of natural vigor.
The eye of desire’s hurricane feeds the life of all bodies.
The self-conscious of its Self energizes our animal existence.
The “I am” is the bread of Elemental Life.

In the Doorway
Persian

From the Diwan of Shams-I-Tabriz by the Sufi poet Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, thirteenth-century Anatolia.

My eyes gleam because there is Another inside:
if water scalds you, there was fire behind it—understand?
But I have no stone in my hand, no argument here.
A rose garden is known for its sweetness, not thorns.
So what you see in my eyes comes from another universe.
Here’s a world, there’s a world—
I’m seated in the doorway.
Only those who sit between can deliver wordless lectures.
It’s sufficient to give this hint:
say no more—stop talking and
reverse the use of your tongue!

Gambling the Self
Persian

From The Secret Rose Garden by Sufi Poet Mahmud Shabistari, thirteenth century

The stakes are high for real prayer,
You must gamble your self
and be willing to lose.
When you have done this,
and your self shakes off
what you believed your self to be,
then no prayer remains,
only a sparkle of the eyes.
Knower and known are one.

If you penetrate the center of time and space,
you can bypass the addictions of the world:
You become the world yourself.

Resurrection
Aramaic

A translation of John 11:25 from the Pershitta version of the Gospels

Isho’a said:
King James Version: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Simple Presence is the energized repose of individual wisdom.
The depth of identity remains tranquil and vibrant after embodied sensation dissolves.
The self-conscious of its Self envelops us with warmth and life after death.
The ego fully aware of its limitation creates a calm, creative refuge after a journey of agitation.
The eye of the tornado of “I” offers peace and power when the small selves unravel.
The germ of individuality’s seed still grows in tranquillity after the plant dies.
The “I am” resurrects our purpose in life when the small “I” fades away.

Love After Death
Persian

From The Diwan of Shams-I-Tabriz by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, thirteenth-century Anatolia

This is Love: to fly without limits;
to cut through all the veils—now!
The first instant—to reject the life you knew.
The last step—to give up feet entirely.
To see right through materialism,
To refuse to see addiction as inevitable.

“My heart,” I said, “be grateful that
you have entered the circle of lovers,
that you look beyond what the eyes see,
that you feel the heart’s twists and turns.
My inner self—are you out of breath?
My heart—what’s all this commotion?
My bird of a soul—speak in your own language:
I can understand what’s behind your song.”

My soul-self answered:
“I remember now:
I was in the pottery studio . . . clay and water are mixing . . .
a new body being made, which is . . .
another workshop, another studio, my new home . . .
then I feel fire, something’s baking . . . I am trying to escape!
But they grab me. When I can no longer resist,
they begin kneading and molding me into shape,
just like all the other lumps of clay.

About Work and Rest
Aramaic

An expanded translation of Matthew 11:28—29 from the Peshitta version of the Gospels.

Isho’a said:
King James Version: “Come unto me, all ye that labor (a) and are heavy laden (b), and I will give you rest (c).

Come to me,all of you, all of yourself,
in your frenzied weariness,
your movement without end,
your action without purpose,
not caring in your fatigue
whether you live or die. (a)

Come enmeshed by what you carry,
the cargo taken on by your soul,
the burdens you thought you desired,
which have constantly swollen
and now exhaust you. (b)

Come like lovers to your first tryst:
I will give you peace and
renewal after constant stress:
your pendulum can pause
between here and there,
between being and not-being. (c)

Neil Douglas-Klotz is on the faculty of the Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California. Reprinted from Desert Wisdom. © 1995 by Neil Douglas Klotz. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.