I should be following the election returns. Instead, I’m sitting in a darkened auditorium, watching the Whirling Dervishes.
If I don’t see them tonight, I might not get another chance. They haven’t performed in the United States since 1978. In their homeland, Turkey — where the government is hostile to religion — they’re allowed to perform publicly only once a year.
Yet for seven centuries the dervishes have kept alive the tradition of whirling. They whirl as an act of devotion. They whirl for a glimpse of God. It’s an odd form of worship, but so is nearly everything we do to dissolve the boundaries, leapfrog this crippling sense of separateness: chant sacred mantras or eat peyote buttons or meditate for years in a cave. The staid Quakers got their name because, when filled with the spirit, they would quake and tremble. The Shakers danced themselves into a religious fervor. Some Buddhist monks seek enlightenment by meditating at cremation grounds and eating from bowls made of human skulls. (I bet they don’t overeat.)
As children, my sister and I used to whirl — probably our first experiment in altered consciousness — until we’d collapse in a stupor, the room spinning around us. But for the dervishes, whirling is a highly choreographed meditation that requires tremendous balance and discipline. They whirl without staggering, without falling — except into a trance, which is the whole idea.
To the melancholy wailing of a Turkish flute, the dervishes enter the stage dressed in long black coats and tall woolen hats. It’s a dramatic moment even if you haven’t done your homework. (The black coats symbolize the imprisonment of spirit in the world; the hats, tombstones.) They throw off the coats — as, when we die, the spirit throws off its cloak of flesh. (The hats stay on.) Underneath, they wear short white jackets and long white skirts, which symbolize funeral shrouds.
The whirling begins.
They turn with arms outstretched, their white skirts billowing around them. They turn with their right palms open to receive blessings, their left palms down to bestow those blessings. They turn because there’s nothing in the universe that doesn’t turn: the electrons and protons and neutrons inside the atom; the earth on its axis; the stars of distant galaxies.
Seven hundred years ago, Jelaluddin Rumi, spiritual father of these dervishes, began his impassioned turning in a garden in Turkey. Rumi improvised verses as he danced, and the torrent of words was transcribed by his followers: tens of thousands of poems expressing Rumi’s love of creation.
I’m here tonight because Rumi is a beacon for me, shining through the centuries. He started out as a scholar, an eminent professor of religion, but turned from his books toward something bigger and more beautiful. I love the story of his initiation: The spiritual vagabond Shems came into Rumi’s life when Rumi was still a professor. One day, when Rumi was surrounded by his students, Shems snatched Rumi’s learned manuscript out of his hand and threw it down a well. Then Shems asked Rumi, “Would you like me to take it out of the well? It will be dry.” Rumi took a deep breath and said, “No.” That no transformed his life.
Rumi knew, three centuries before Copernicus, that the earth revolves around the sun. He knew that life, too, spins on an axis of joy and sorrow; that to experience real love — not a sentimental love but an exalted state of awareness — we must embrace all of life. “We are the mirror,” Rumi said, “as well as the face in the mirror. We are the pain and what cures pain.”
On stage, there’s one dervish who turns with a particularly rapt expression, his head slightly tilted, his dark eyes fixed on his outstretched hand, his look so tender, so reverent, he could be gazing into the eyes of a lover. I wonder if this is how Rumi looked, whirling in his garden.
But watching the dervishes for too long is like watching someone meditate. The endless spinning induces a state of ecstasy for the dervishes — but not, alas, for me. After an hour I’m bored. Maybe I’d feel less restless if, instead of sitting in a big university auditorium, I were in a musty dervish lodge in Turkey, watching them spin on an old wooden floor. Maybe the problem is that I’m not more spiritually evolved, not subtle enough to see the shimmering energy leaping off the dervishes’ bodies as they whirl from this world into the next. Maybe I can’t appreciate a seven-hundred-year-old tradition because I’m not sufficiently devoted to any practice myself. (Two days ago I meditated. Yesterday I was in too big a rush. This morning, groggy, I decided to meditate lying down.)
Or maybe I’m just worried about the election.
Vaguely embarrassed, hoping my friends in the audience don’t notice, I leave before the performance is over. In the car, I turn on the radio: the news is even worse than I’d feared. It’s a slam dance, reactionaries and fundamentalists shoving their way onto the crowded floor, Republicans taking control of Congress for the first time in forty years.
I spend the next day brooding.
The dervishes are right: to everything a season. Even Thomas Jefferson called for a revolution every twenty years. But Newt Gingrich is no Thomas Jefferson. The next Speaker of the House acts as if the misfortune of others is beyond his comprehension, as if suffering were a foreign language and he’d left his pocket dictionary at home. Better that poor people should be hungry or sick than dependent on the government, Gingrich thinks. Being dependent on the government is bad for them. (Why has it never been bad for the rich or the middle class?) Gingrich speaks for the bullies who stand at the end of the American dream and insist we do things their way. Of course these people aren’t genuine conservatives, any more than Bill Clinton is a genuine liberal. If you’re a genuine conservative you value the past, not your own political future; you fight for traditional values, not against teenagers who can’t afford to feed their kids.
But the fear among voters is genuine. They fear shrinking paychecks. They fear there will be nothing left for their children: no jobs, no God, no Sunday afternoon spent with their own kind. They fear universal health care and they fear dying. They fear liberals and pacifists and beautiful women nursing their young in restaurants. They’d fear Jesus if he showed up at their door.
Republican politicians capitalize on these fears, claiming solidarity with working-class families — though the first thing they’ll do when they take office is cut taxes for the rich. Regrettably, money dominates politics no matter who’s in office. And no wonder: we live in a culture that tells us the way to love the world is to own as much of it as possible. When spending becomes a form of worship, it doesn’t matter whether we’re kneeling before a $50,000 automobile, a $50 pair of broken-in jeans, or a $5 comic book (which kids now buy as an investment). Every dollar sign is holy.
What’s our moral obligation to those who can’t afford broken-in jeans, who break them in the old way? Once, I imagined Clinton might know the answer. In the 1992 campaign, I was moved by his humane instincts. I wanted to believe he would be a populist president. But Bill Clinton is no Thomas Jefferson. (Let’s face it: even Jefferson was no Thomas Jefferson.)
Over lunch, I talk with a local activist who gamely insists he isn’t discouraged. The solutions offered by Republicans won’t help, he says, but neither did those offered by Democrats. The real work goes on unheralded, regardless of who’s in Washington. In health clinics on the reservation and in the barrio. In the upstairs office of the legal-defense fund. In night schools where men and women learn to read. At the desk of some civil servant who still serves the God of Love.
I admire his passion, but I know that decisions made in Congress will affect those schools and clinics. Will there be money for books? For medicine? I can’t shake my sense of gloom. I’m sad the Republicans need an enemy; that I’m their enemy. I’m sad the country seems to be asleep — but how awake am I? Still afraid of long stretches of aloneness, of my wife being attracted to other men, of my daughters not taking my advice: Mr. Republican. Do I remember with every breath to be thankful for this life? Do I remember, with Wallace Stevens, “The way through the world / Is more difficult than the way beyond it”?
That night I dream about Gingrich. He looms before me, his face immense and bloated, a malevolent spirit in a suit and tie. I try to push him away. I can’t. I try to change his appearance, as if that would change him. Into a dark-eyed dervish, a lover of humanity. Or maybe, for just one night, into a seventeen-year-old black girl, six months pregnant. But this is no dream of transformation. Gingrich stubbornly remains himself, his face larger than life — like those presidents we carved into a granite peak, the one we call Mount Rushmore, on the sacred land of the Sioux.
For information about the dervishes, thanks to Kabir Helminski, Erik Goldman of Rhythm Music Magazine, and Inayat Khan.