I want to ask you about that strange, unsettling episode in your life I’ve only seen in the religious biographies – the story about your heart being taken out of your body.
In some versions, it happens just once, when you’re a child, playing with two other boys: Jibreel descends, lays you on your back and removes the heart from your chest. He then takes out “Satan’s portion”, the small darkened piece of an otherwise healthy heart, and washes your heart using snow, or water in a golden bowl, before replacing it back in your body. Unconscious for most of the procedure, you come out of it deathly pale – although who sees this is not clear. Your playmates are the terrified onlookers in this scenario, and they have already run back to the adults, yelling that you’ve been killed.
In other versions of the story, your heart is removed repeatedly: two, three and even up to five times. I understand the logic: your heart had to be purified at all the key moments in your life, from being a child of four or ten years of age all the way to your 40s, when you received the first revelation, and then once more before the Night Journey. Even the most orthodox biographers say this was a way of preparing “for the moment he would stand before Allah and partake of intimate discourse with Him.” In psychological terms I would say this was about activating deeper loyalties at times when the nafs might otherwise take over: first, at the point when a child perceives itself as a separate “I”; then at sexual maturity, when a boy begins to identify with a man’s physical drives and desires; and finally, when a spiritual purpose starts to supersede worldly ambitions.
But was it only symbolic? In one of the religious biographies, Hafiz al Qalastani admonishes, “Everything that has been reported about the opening of the breast and the removal of the heart, and all other extraordinary events, must be accepted, without any attempt to remove it from its literal reality, because Allah’s omnipotent power is well able to perform all this; none of it is impossible.”
I wouldn’t say this is just the belief of a non-Western, unscientific person. On this Path, even I have experienced a form of spiritual “open heart surgery.” That’s what it feels like, anyway. When I think about, talk about, or tune into certain people I have a heart connection with – including you! – I have such an intense feeling of expansion in my chest that sometimes it feels like my ribs are being forcefully pried apart. Often too, there is a sunny burning warmth that goes along with the opening sensation. At first this seemed to be a kind of melting, which reminded me of the verse from Rumi that says, “There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.” But recently the burning has started to feel more like fire than light. I feel the heat of it down into my belly and even through my back between my shoulder blades. (Apparently Rumi was also familiar with this sensation: “I am the fire,” he writes, “if it seem dubious to thee, lay thy face upon my face for one moment.”)
It’s not something I expected, and to be honest it has been a little unnerving. The expansion is one thing: that is intoxicating, like being borne aloft, the lovely feeling of flight. But the burning is something else. I don’t know if I can ever say I was comfortable falling in love – giddy, yes, also terrified – but at least I have had a sense of the person that my thoughts and feelings have started to revolve around. This is more like falling in love without any object at all, the love becoming a love-ing in the way that a fire keeps burning once the spark has been lit. The process has its own momentum: I am definitely not the one in control.
My nafs doesn’t like it, because my nafs wants to be in control more than anything else. (In dreams, I have started to recognize it in those figures who demand to be appeased, like a haughty maître d’ or a shrill old lady). Maybe the nafs knows that once the heart is well and truly on fire, its days as a tyrant are numbered (inshallah!).
Recently our group sat with a spiritual friend of Dede’s who said she has never known the pain of separation wrought by the ego’s idea of “me”; she said she has lived her whole life unveiled, in continuous connection with the Divine. Was it the same for you? Or were the episodes of your heart being removed the manifestations of a more gradual awakening?
I imagine that your heart was always sensitive. It must have been hurtful and bewildering to see the way that the rich and powerful treated the weak and dispossessed in the “time of ignorance” in your own society, before the Qur’an spoke through you. As a child myself I know how shaken I was by even everyday acts of violence; other kids fighting on the playground made me weep. I also felt distressed by other forms of brutality in America – everyone in their separate car, rushing by on big roads; the sprawl of ugly buildings taking over forests and farms; even the way people moved and talked that was so loud and shambling. Everything seemed out of proportion; grotesque. I felt like an exile from some other culture that prized dignity and refinement. I knew the world didn’t have to be so ugly. But in the confusion over what that meant and how to get back to the place of original harmony I felt, the mistake I made was to close my heart, and to try to separate myself from the society and the people who so jangled my inner register.
The work on this path for me has not only been to clean and clear my heart of those dark residues, but to allow my heart to stay open and fully feel again. Learning especially that compassion is not feeling for others but rather feeling with them: looking for the light and purity within each human being, even when shuffling through the overstuffed aisles of a store, or navigating through the sour faces at an airport.
In my life the moments when the angel has descended to remove Satan’s portion have been the most ordinary. Once, after teaching a yoga class, I looked out over my students’ bodies on their backs, resting in corpse pose, and was flooded by a wave of tenderness at their vulnerability and mortality – theirs and my own. Another time I was sitting around a campfire at a backpacker’s hostel in Turkey, listening to (mostly young) people exchange travel stories. As one older man began rattling off his breakneck itinerary, I suddenly heard the terrible anxiety beneath his bragging – that he would get too old to do this, that he would get sick, that he would die – and on impulse I reached for his hand. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I told him. “Don’t be scared.” When he looked back into my eyes, I saw that he wanted to believe me.
My dear, I want you to be proud of me for that moment, but I have to admit that I have also failed to open my heart when it could have made a difference. The time that haunts me most is the day that D found out his father died. We had only been married a few months, in the midst of trying out our new life in the States, and things between us were still okay. When the phone call came, it was a shock (his dad was only 52, felled by a first-time heart attack) but D leapt immediately into planning mode: booking his ticket to India, making more calls to his mom and sisters. Then there was a moment when all the activity stopped, and he just sat in the chair, staring at the wall of our studio apartment. I stood there, hesitating. Even from his back I could see he was in pain, but I didn’t know what to do. I guess I thought there wasn’t anything I could do. It would have taken me three steps to walk over and put my hand on his shoulder, but in that moment my own fears put an unbridgeable distance between us. And so I left him alone.
It sears me even now to remember it. And it brings home to me the truth of what it says in The Earthquake Surah: “Whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.” But we don’t have to wait until Judgment Day to be shaken by a truthful review of our lives.
I can’t change the past, even if I’m sorry for it. I can only be grateful for what brought me here now, to be on this Path and to have this incredible, wondrous gift of a connection with you. I hope, and I pray, that with the light and the purity I perceive coming through you, the Most Compassionate can wash the mirror of my own heart free of what clouds it, so that it can start to reflect more of the Divine Light.
Making my ablutions with the water you used for your own,
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