Forty Days: A Diary of a Traditional Sufi Retreat, by Michaela Özelsel

Published by Threshold Books

An excerpt from
Forty Days
The Diary of a Traditional Solitary Sufi Retreat
With an Accompanying Scientific Commentary

Day 8

In the morning, the ezan, actually a choir of muezzins, is particularly lovely. Because of the widely differing starting times it goes on for almost 20 minutes. It’s supposed to start when “with the naked eye, you can tell a white thread from a black thread by the dawning light.” Evidently all the muezzins who call out within earshot of me have very different levels of visual acuity.

The temptation to just go with the sound and lie there till the last one finishes is very great. But that’s dangerous, I could easily fall asleep again. So at the first sounds of “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar” I make a point of jumping up to perform the ablutions. The unheated little bathroom and the ice-cold tap water wake me up fast. I think of the contemporary author As Sufi, who speaks of the “sweet shock of cold water,” which forms a line of demarcation between daily profane activities and the time when the believer consciously steps before his Creator.

Today for some reason I’m crying a lot again. I have also suffered a major relapse: my obsession makes itself conspicuous again, overshadowing everything else! And I really thought I’d outgrown that! But I suppose that would be too simple, such a sudden change after being stuck for so long. Hz. Mevlâna says: “There is that in me that has to be told 50 times a day, Stop hunting, step on this net”. I suppose that’s how it is, the relapse is something that says to me: Stop hunting, it doesn’t work the way that you imagine.

The power fails for an hour. How quickly it gets noticeably cold! And again the tears come. I sense my helplessness. It’s so simple for this obsession to take hold of me again! In the chill air I roll up under the covers with my copy of Fihi ma Fihi. And once again, the very passage that I come to seems tailored to my situation:

Fishermen don’t pull a big fish out all at once. If the hook is in his gullet, they pull on it to make him lose consciousness and get weaker and weaker. Then they let go, then they pull again till it gets very very weak. And even when a person has gotten Love’s hook in his throat, God pulls him in by degrees, so that this useless faculty and the blood within him come out slowly, slowly… God squeezes and lightens up. (p. 202).

The Qur’an mentions over and over that signs are there for those who “are endowed with understanding.” And Muhammad (s.a.) himself prayed, “Show me things as they really are!” I wonder how many more signs I need before I can actually see.

What a faithful traveling companion Hz. Mevlâna is! His words give my experience a framework, they give meaning amid what might otherwise be my overwhelming incomprehension of the processes that I find myself in the middle of. On the other hand, some of my inner discoveries I am undoubtedly only making by virtue of his words” having leveled the ground for the realization in question. So in fact it’s circular: I experience with the help of his words, his words give my experience meaning, etc. etc. Maybe it’s even a kind of spiral which provides my gradual realization with the structural framework it needs? “Words drive the seeker to seeking and idlers to weariness,” says Hz. Mevlâna.

At some point my tears stop. In the middle of the zhikrAllah ya hayy, ya qayyum” super-intense ideomotor movements kick in. It practically yanks my head this way and that, and then later up and down. Then at some point, all at once with practically no transition, the deepest tranquility, inner peace. And colors. Patterns that appear before my inner eye and disappear again… A huge eye with long, thick lashes rises up, looking at me motionlessly. In the Sufi view humanity is the pupil of the eye through which Allah observes Himself… I look into the eye before me; who is looking at me through this eye? I’m in a trance, my head is reeling (it’s going right through me???).

Day 9

Behold, the false is quick to fade.
Sura 17:82

The unpredictability of each day’s progress has become almost predictable: days that begin in banality often end with important insights. Days that start promisingly mostly end up quite the opposite!

Feel pretty weak physically, spend part of the morning drifting back and forth between sleep and exhaustion. Put my contact lenses in for a change, to keep my eyes used to them. My, how seeing more clearly also helps the everyday world out there to invade once more! Concentrating on the essential thing immediately becomes harder. So what is supposed to happen when the halvet is over? How will I protect these new insights then from what is obviously the mighty grip of the everyday world? “Prayer protects,” says the Prophet (s.a.). Can I maybe keep myself safe if, in the times to come out there, I really perform the five daily prayers? Or maybe these constantly present quasi-electric bodily sensations will serve to remind me of the real truths? Forty days is such a short time to do so much lasting work. I just have to have faith.

And suddenly the obsession is gone again, as if it just shoved off and left me. “And say, the truth has come, and falsehood has disappeared. Behold, the false is quick to fade,” so I read in the Qur’an (Sura 17:82).