Symbology Activity of the International Sufi Movement
Zirat represents a mystical awakening, experienced through working upon oneself, freeing the mind from unwanted thoughts and regrets which, like weeds, present a hindrance on the path of inner culture. The word Zirat means agriculture, referring in this context to the symbolic work of the farmer digging out old roots to prepare the soil for the new crop, and watching over the various stages in the cultivation of the precious seed.
Lecture on Zirat (Agricultural Symbology) Amir Smits Summer School Katwijk, July 14th 2015
(I am very grateful to Halima Vissers for typing this manuscript on the basis of the audio recording)
Talking about something that in the old days you were supposed to be silent about (the name of the activity was not even written in full, but often abbreviated to Zt) requires explanation. Perhaps the whole idea of secrecy should not be taken literally, as it is certainly not the intention to make Zirat a kind of ‘secret sect’ within the International Sufi Movement. It is rather that the attainment on the path of Zirat is something we preferably do not talk about. Just as we all know that there is an Inner School which is not a secret, yet we are supposed not to talk about initiations and practices. The same applies to the Zirat. The activity itself is not a secret, however, it is simply too precious to talk about the deeper side of life which is revealed to us by the work we do in the Zirat.
We already have so many activities in our tradition: the Inner School, the Universal Worship, the Brotherhood and the Spiritual healing. Why this activity? What does it add to all the treasures we already have in our Sufi tradition? Sometimes it is said that language can only bring us to a certain point, to the surface of the soul. But that reality beyond, that reality which is beyond words, can only be reached by a more subtle language. And that is the language of symbols. Of course, there are different methods of symbology. In our Sufi tradition we focus on agricultural symbology. The meaning of the Arabic word zirat is agriculture. However, it is quite interesting that in Farsi the word sirat means bridge; in an esoteric sense the bridge between the worlds seen and unseen, the bridge that can be crossed by means of the study of symbols.
The inner work in Zirat consists of several phases that can be compared to the stages of agriculture. Of course, in the end the aim is to have a good harvest which can be distributed. Yet, in order to have a harvest we should first sow the seeds. And before we can sow the seeds, the agricultural land needs to be in a good condition. A lot of ploughing and harrowing needs to be done before we can start with the actual sowing. There is a whole sequence of activities in Zirat that we have to go through, step by step.
We start with the ploughing; removing everything from the soil that does not belong there. Old roots, stones, it should all be brought to the surface and examined critically. After this process of understanding the things that do not (or do no longer) belong to us, we can let go of it. For example, 2 the impressions in our mind and in the depth of our heart that are negative and that are an impediment on our path of attainment; we have to dig them all out, bring them to the surface and then let go. Only when we are able to empty us of what is “unreal”, we can start to sow the seeds of reality.
Then there is the harrowing, a much more subtle work. It is not as hard work from a physical point of view. Ploughing is really hard work, a lot of physical power is needed. Harrowing is done with an instrument with little pins that only clean out the surface of the agriculture land. And that may sound as very smooth and easy, but in fact it is hard work, because of the subtle, disturbing phenomena in our mind that we hardly notice, but which can really hinder us on the path of attainment.
Once we have done this preparatory work -the ploughing and the harrowing- the actual sowing can start. And then we can patiently wait for the harvest to come up, to reap the harvest and then finally we enter the processes of threshing and garnering. When we go through all these stages -and for each stage there is an initiation or a promotion in Zirat – we finally may become farmer.
A word of warning is in place here. Once you think that you are advanced on the path, you will most probably start to realise that a new cycle of ploughing and harrowing is needed. The work never stops and it is not a smooth process going from one phase to another to find fulfilment. It is not a rigid linear process, but there are important phases that you can distinguish and which can help you on your inner path. In that sense Zirat is a way of experiencing a deepening of the Inner School. And for those who are attuned to the language of symbols, Zirat really may add to the deepening of our inner path.
The ceremony: the importance of spiritual hierarchy
The first part of the Zirat ceremony consists of the so-called linking. It is so beautiful that the concept of spiritual hierarchy and the place of Murshid in that hierarchy really has a firm place in the Zirat ceremony. First we greet the Owner of the Farm, the Only Being, and the Great Farmer (Our Murshid, the spiritual Teacher). Next, those who have a special responsibility in the activity are acknowledged (the most experienced farmer and the experienced farmer).
Sometimes people ask: why do we have to focus on a teacher, on Murshid? Can we not immediately connect to the Divine? I think it is so wonderful that in Zirat Murshid has that central place as it gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role of the Teacher and the beauty of spiritual hierarchy. Murshid once compared the human consciousness with a house with different floors. He says that most of us are only really conscious of the ground floor. We know there is a first floor and that there are stairs to higher levels, but we hardly go there. Perhaps we do not even dare to climb up to the higher levels, afraid as we are for the unknown.
Murshid says: “you can use the stairs to climb and the Murshid is that ladder to climb, it is a help, an instrument”. And then Murshid says that people often ask him if we really do need a teacher? He answers: “if you think you can climb to the top floor without stairs, then it is not impossible, but the stairs are there for your convenience”. And then he adds: “and that is why in the East we have great respect for the teacher”.I think Murshid may have spoken these words with a hint of irony, as his Western mureeds did not always understand and respect the role of the teacher.
In one of the classes for mureeds Murshid gives a touching example on the importance of the teacher. He says that a new-born baby cannot eat, it needs the help of the mother, it needs to be nurtured. But once the child has teeth and can eat itself, it can become independent. And the same applies to the mureed. The mureed needs to be nurtured for a certain time. Murshid says: “I am like the mother, nurturing the baby, but once the baby has teeth and can stand on its own feet, it is left in the hands of the Divine”.
A last symbolic way of describing the role of the teacher is when Murshid says: “the Divine light is so bright. We cannot look in the sunlight, it would blind us. But once the light is reflected on the calm surface of a lake we can enjoy the sparkles of that light”. And that is the role of Murshid. Through the glance of his eyes we are connected to the Divine. We do not worship Murshid. We do not turn him into an idol. Murshid reflects the Divine reality.
Often people raise the question: should the teacher be Murshid or can it be another illuminated soul? Of course we are all free in how we shape our path of attainment, but I think there are (at least) two reasons why it is so wonderful to attune to Murshid:
The first reason is that he is the Messenger of our time. In the past, Prophets and Messengers brought the Message, but it became corrupted as man-made things were added to it. We have the privilege that we still have acces to those pristine words that Murshid entrusted us with, clear words that directly come from the Divine. That is a tremendous gift.
Besides, there is such power and beauty in the initiations given and received from generation to generation in our Inner School, and also in Zirat. The Blessing, the Baraka, which goes from open heart to open heart, travels from generation to generation. These Blessings directly connect us to our Murshid, to the Great Farmer. Therefore, Murshid can be a living reality to us, at least if we open our heart to that reality. The privilege of being part of this spiritual caravan of souls, this white brotherhood, is something which cannot be expressed in words.
The method of working After the linking, the next part of the Zirat ceremony focuses on the method of working. For people who do not have any background information, this part of the ceremony may seem somewhat peculiar.
We greet the elements, earth, water, fire, air and ether, and we do that with movements and also by pronouncing the sounds: lum, wum, rum, yum and hum.
It is a very important and intriguing aspect of the ceremony, because these sounds are derived from the yoga tradition and they are directly linked to the centres of the body. By attuning to the elements, different centres can be “opened” which gradually gives us access to the “higher floors of the building”, to the other planes of existence; the planes of Malakut, Jabarut, Lahut and Hahut.
Therefore, in Zirat we can deepen our understanding on how to work with the symbolic importance of the elements. In his early teachings Murshid wrote quite a lot on the importance of the elements and the centres. Later on this topic almost disappeared. And then, in 1925-1926, it reappeared and got its firm place in the Zirat.
The rest of the Zirat ceremony is a dialogue between the farmer and the experienced farmer, asking questions and getting answers on the principles of farming, after one or more workers are initiated or promoted. The ceremony ends with the de-linking. We then temporarily break the connection between all the workers on the farm and also with the farmer, the experienced farmer and –if present- the most experienced farmer. We all go our own way and do our work silently in the outer world. But we never de-link from Murshid, the Great Farmer, and certainly not from the Only Being, the Owner of the Farm. These connections always remain and inspire us in our work in everyday live.
The different stages of farming
Ploughing and harrowing
Let us now take a closer look at the different stages of farming. What does it mean to plough or to harrow?
The ploughing is the working on our personality, becoming aware of all the imperfections, the impurities in our mind, the different roles that our ego sometimes plays. In a way the first stages of farming are all about how we can remove the impurities, so that our small human will may be in accordance to the Divine Will. Yet, how can we know whether our human will aligns with the Divine Will? It seems to be an enormous and perhaps even impossible question to answer.
Once a mureed asked Murshid this question and our teacher said that in fact the answer is quite simple. Once our actions and the things we say have a harmonious result, we know that we work according with the Divine will. If disharmony is the result, we know it stems from our ego, our false self. And that is why Murshid once said: “Not only before you do or say anything, but even before you start to think or feel anything, always ask yourself: what will be the result of my thinking, feeling, talking or acting? Will it have a harmonious result? If not, reconsider your thouhjts, feelings, words or actions”.
This may sound simple, but in practice this is an advice that is not easy to follow. It requires an immense amount of mastery to ignore the impulses where the “animal” in us tries to break free. It is hard to keep on controlling our thoughts and emotions and to remain faithful to our deep principles.
An interesting way of ploughing, a way to become aware of our impurities, is that every now and then we ask the questions: “what were the moments today that the things that I have been saying or doing caused disharmony”? And: “what was the reason that brought me to this disharmonious behaviour”? I guess that all of us will notice after some time, that there is only a limited number of “red buttons” that can bring out the worst in us once they are pushed. It is a kind of self-analysis. It is a relatively easy way to get to know us better and to understand which are the weak aspects in our personality that we can work on.
That is the ploughing on the rational level. I think it is important to take to heart the advice Murshid gives : fight, as this is the real jihad, the fight with the nafs, with the little ego, but fight with the sword of self-respect. Do not drag yourself down and say: “I am a sinner”. After all, the Sufi path is not meant to make us feel bad. It is meant to lift us up, to live up to our ideal; to allow the Divine aspects hidden deep down inside of us to come alive. So when you do this kind of work, do not be too hard on yourself. Do your work with an inner smile. And if you feel you have failed, try to learn from your mistakes and move on.
The ploughing often concerns the aspects of our personality that are really problematic and that we are also aware of. You find something in the ground, a large stone. It is there, clearly visible and you immediately understand how it makes your life difficult. However, the harrowing is a much more subtle work. It concerns the small impurities in our personality that we hardly notice. It is very hard to even become aware of them. The harrowing to a large extent concerns the growing awareness of our preconceived ideas. A wonderful way to become aware of them is by not only looking through our own eyes, but also look through the eyes of other persons. It really broadens our consciousness and helps to free us from our preconceived ideas.
When doing the harrowing it is important to break down the walls of two prisons, two mental prisons. The first prison is the prison with the name: “this is how I am, this is my personality, I cannot change it”. But you can always change it. When you have an ideal of who you want to be, you can strive for that ideal and step by step you can become a different person; an improved version of yourself.
The second prison is: “this is my life, it has always been like this and it will always stay the same”. Of course, these are self-fulfilling prophesies. We can gradually remove these impressions or at least give them a brighter colour, so that they do not hinder us so much on our path.
So far, we focused on a rational analysis of ploughing and harrowing. However, we also have to do work at the deeper levels of our being. At the level of feelings there are beautiful ways of ploughing and harrowing which are connected to the elements. In his early work Metaphysics, Murshid writes about the elements and how they are linked to certain feelings. He makes the distinction whether the element is encapsulated in the denseness of the earth or that the light of Divine intelligence is shining on it.
Let us look at the earth element. When there is no light of intelligence shining, it is the element of fear. It can paralyse you. Once the light of intelligence shines on the earth element, fear can transform to cautiousness, which is a great virtue. The fire element. When there is no light of Divine intelligence shining on it, fire is the element of anger that can destroy. Once the light of intelligence is shining on it, that destructive element can transform into will power. When all this energy is aimed at our ideal, it can help us to reach our goal in life. A last example: Ether. Without the light of intelligence it produces sadness. But once the light of intelligence shines on ether the sadness transforms into peace.
Ether with no light of intelligence shining on it…… How can we understand that? After all, ether is the Divine essence. How can it ever be lacking Divine light? However, that is the condition on the earthly plane, where ether is encapsulated in the denseness of the earth. There is a feeling of being homesick. The soul feels it has lost something of vital importance. It realises that once it inhabited a world of light where everything was whole and undivided. Once the soul does not have this sense of unity anymore, a feeling of deep sadness may arise. But once the light of Divine intelligence shines on the ether element, this sadness will transform into peace. We can start to feel that: “we come from that perfect Source and that we are also bound to that perfect Goal. And that the light of that perfect Being is kindled in our soul”.
So working with the elements, and the feelings linked to it, can be done in a meditative state asking the question: “what are the things in life that I am so afraid of, that make me angry or that I am so sad about”? And then in a deep meditation let the Divine light shine on it. In such a restful and peaceful state – by Divine grace - these difficult feelings can sublimate, can transform. A profound and deep healing can be experienced.
The deepest level ploughing and harrowing can be done at the level of our inner heart. We all come to earth with an open heart. At some point, however, we try to protect ourselves against the pain of life. There are all kinds of fears, disappointments or even traumas that we have accumulated over the years. We then tend to close our hearts and develop survival mechanisms.
The purification breath is the ultimate way to plough and to harrow, to become aware of those aspects of our being that ask for healing. One way of using the breath as an instrument to prepare the soil for sowing, is to carefully examine at the end of the purification breath if you feel a part of your body asking for attention. Sometimes a part may feel painful or cold, or asks for attention in some other way. In that case just breath. Send your breath, direct your breath just to the point in question and feel whatever there is to feel. Let us not forget that our body is a magnificent spiritual instrument and that it gives us information about the state of our being and the aspects that are asking to be healed. It is very important that in case something painful comes up, not to escape to a rational level by asking: “where does this come from”? Or: “how can I solve this”? Just keep on breathing, send your breath to that place and feel whatever there is to feel. It is incredible how “just” by breathing we can remove, or rather transform, old pain. Sowing
So far, with the harrowing and the ploughing we have focused on preparing the soil so that it can be cultivated. Hopefully now the soil is ready to receive the seeds that we want to sow. Our mind should be still, like the calm water of the lake which can reflect the sunlight. Now the real work, the sowing can start. What is it that we want to sow? In the end, it is what we want to reap. But what is the nature of the harvest that we are so deeply longing for?
The Persian mystic Sa’adi says it so beautifully: “Each and every soul that comes to earth has a light kindled in it and in that light is encapsulated the purpose of our life”. For each of us that purpose is different. Or, as Murshid says: “we are all destined to produce our own individual tone. Each one of us makes that own personal contribution to the symphony of life”.
All we need to do is to find out: “what is that personal tone, that ground tone”? This is what sowing is all about. Coming into contact with our innermost desires, our ideal, the purpose of our life. How can I come beware of this? And how can I live up to that ideal and bring it into practice in daily life? This of course relates to the reaping of the harvest on the earthly plane. But first we need to understand what our Divine ideal is What does it mean to be human, to be the perfect version of myself? Essentially, this is relates to the notion of the God Ideal, which has such an important place in the Inner School (going through the stages of fana-fi-Shaikh, fana-fi-Rasul and fana-fi-Allah).
There are different ways in which we can come in touch with our ideal. We can ask: “who are the people I really admire; people I know personally, or persons from the past, such as the Prophets, Messengers. And which are the characteristics of them that I admire so much”? Or you can ask yourself: “which are the qualities that I really need to succeed in life? Do I need patience or more will-power, in order to become a more complete human being”? These questions will help us to get in touch with those Divine qualities that we need so much and to which we can attune with the help of wazaif.
The intense contemplation on these qualities is almost like pointing the antenna towards the inner world in order to pick up the signals that are meant for us. For each one of us it will be a different set of qualities, as we are all unique human beings with a unique potential that we want to discover and develop.
And what a wonderful thing it is - and that is what the actual sowing is all about - that once we have been absorbed in this deep contemplation, that in the deep silence that follows the silent life begins to speak to us. In this stage of meditation, which really is mystical relaxation, we are no longer there. There is no longer an “I” involved. We are passive, receptive, our hearts wide open for whatever is given to us from the inner planes. Then, the ideal on which we have so strongly concentrated and contemplated, will become a living reality. A reality with which we can communicate. Reaping
Once we come in contact with the ideal, we can start embodying the ideal in our everyday live. This is the actual reaping of the harvest. However, before focusing on the reaping as well as the subsequent stages of farming, it is important to raise the question: who is sowing the seeds?
It is not us. It is in the state of stillness during our meditation that the Divine plants the seeds in our heart. We “only” need to have open hearts, to be receptive, and gratefully receive whatever is given to us. And once we have gone through that phase and have come into contact with our ideal, then comes that phase of realisation. First we cherish the dream and then we make that dream a reality. The essence of Sufism is that we can become aware of our deepest dreams and that we can make them a reality in our everyday life. Not to satisfy our ego, but to serve all that lives.
Threshing and garnering
After reaping, bringing our ideal into practice in everyday life, there are two stages left in the process of farming. First, it is the phase of threshing, making the distinction between what it is that we need on the path of attainment and which are the things that we can ignore, which are simply not meant for us. It may sound so difficult. How do we know what is meant for us, and what should be ignored? But once we have come in touch with our ideal, it becomes less difficult. The God ideal may serve as a compass, guiding us through life.
However, at times it is not that simple. Sometimes we suffer from “path dependency”. Due to choices made in the past, we decided to follow a certain path. And once our ideal tells us to leave that path, we may be faced with painful decisions. It may be difficult to face the fact that our work, our relationships, our preconceived ideas, that they simply don’t fit anymore, that we have to give them up simply because our inner compass points in another direction. Of course, in the end all is well as every step on the path brings us closer to the Divine, the only source of true happiness. But the sacrifices that are needed can be painful.
The last stage of the work concerns the garnering. At this stage the harvest will be put in storage so that it can be distributed at a later stage. In this phase it is important to live life with an open heart, collecting all that is good and beautiful. During the garnering it is important that we are careful which impressions we allow to reach our heart, and which impressions we refuse access, because they may be harmful, or at least not beneficial.
Of course, we cannot ignore the pain in the world. It is there. But we can place guardians in front of the gate of our inner heart. Certain impressions may reach the surface of your mind, but you can decide not to allow them to touch the depth of your heart, where they may leave unwanted impressions. We can make the choice which impressions we allow to touch us deeply, and which ones can better be ignored.
When we watch the news we see a lot of painful and sad things in the world. And that is why it is so important to follow the advice given by Murshid, almost as a practice, to collect all that is good and beautiful. Just take some time during the day to focus on beauty. It may be music, poetry, a walk in nature, but give your soul that nourishment that it is craving for. These are such wonderful ways to connect to the Divine.
What is the farm that we are working on?
A lot has been said about the different stages of agriculture. However, not much has been said about the land that we should cultivate. Often it is said that Zirat concerns with the Art of Personality. And certainly, the first farm where we work is that of our own personality. However, Fazal Inayat-Khan distinguishes three different pieces of land that we can work on. And it is good to realise that there are other farms where work is needed and where we have important responsibilities.
As was pointed out above, the first piece of land concerns our personality. The main work here is to control our ego, to still the mind, and to come in touch with the core of our being, that spark of Divine light, that element of love that is in each one of us. We could say that the first farm, is the farm of love.
Once we have come in touch with our inner light, we can start to reach out to our fellow human beings, to all that lives on our planet. The more we recognise the Divine light in us, the more we start to recognise the Divine light in each and every aspect of creation. And this enables us to harmonise and to build a global brother and sisterhood and live in peace with all that lives on our planet. This is the work we do on the second farm, the farm of harmony.
And there is the third farm, which in a way is beyond words and imagination. Once we have become an empty cup and can be filled with Divine inspiration, we are no longer there. There is no longer me, looking through my eyes, hearing with my ears. It is the Divine, who can look through my eyes and hear with my ears. And the Divine can enjoy Her/His creation, through us. A creation of beauty which we have co-created by harmonising with all that lives, and which the Divine can love. Increasingly, the Divine can become aware of itself.
In fact, evolution comes to the point where there is no longer a lover looking for a Beloved; they have become One. Once the lover finally faces the beauty of the Beloved, once He/She has decided to lift the last veil, the lover instantly forget him/herself. Then there is no longer a ‘me’ that is attempting to do anything. By that time we have become instruments in His/Her hands. Here we finally live and work in a world where all is One. A One-ness that we have been longing for so deeply and which we have reached by successively working on the farms of love, harmony and beauty.
This farm is as wide as the universe, or even larger than that. The work on this land is something which cannot be put into words. It can only be captured in poetry, words which are part of the Zirat ceremony, the beautiful words taken from the Vadan:
Let Thy wish become my desire
Let Thy will become my deed
Let Thy words become my speech beloved
And Thy love become my creed
Let my plant bring forth Thy flowers
Let my love produce Thy seed
Let my heart become Thy lute beloved
And my body Thy flute of reed.