Sufism and Science: Purification of the Heart as a Path to Better Health

“Sufism and Science: Purification of the Heart as a Path to Better Health”
by Rev. Summer Albayati
[First published in the UU Mystics Fall 2016 Newsletter]

Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, is connected to science in many ways. A perusal of the literature will speak about the following with regard to science and Sufism: space-time, light, physics, nature, biology, electromagnetic waves, brain, and psychology, to name a few. The field of neurotheology looks at the brain as it is connected to religion or spiritual beliefs. It is here that one may focus on Sufism since the Sufi seeks to experience the oneness of the divine via mystical experiences. And these mystical experiences may benefit us in many wonderful ways.

Mystical experiences, it is thought, can be experienced during prayer or meditation. It is a sensory experience. That is, it is an experience of the divine while using the senses — hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. These senses aid us in experiencing the divine, a mystical experience that sometimes cannot be captured in words. The whirling dervish uses the body to whirl around while listening to music, and touching the ground, thus using multiple senses. The dhikr, a form of meditation and prayer, in which one remembers the attributes of God, can be seen as using the senses to perceive or sense the divine spirit as well. Some Sufis incorporate the repetitive speaking of God’s name with movement, perhaps outside where one can not only feel the earth under the feet, but through the wind on one’s face and through its intoxicating aroma. It is primarily by using these senses and applying repetitive movements and chants that the Sufi may experience the various scientific modes listed above, as well as the effects of the neurotransmitters that can make one feel good. Thus, the Sufi may experience feelings of ecstasy associated with an increase of endorphins.

It is the feeling of the divine that may be what benefits us most. For the Sufi, the view of the heart is central. The heart is seen as the main organ to be cultivated in order to invoke compassion and love within us. And it is when this heart is purified that we can gain wisdom or enlightenment, thus perhaps experiencing the divine wisdom even more. So how can one cultivate a more loving and compassionate heart?

For the Sufi, focusing on opening the heart is what will help us to express love and compassion and it is through meditation and prayer that we are able to experience the love of the divine. The effect may be an opening of our heart to all that love offers us. But without utilizing the tools of prayer and meditation, we may not experience such love. And the heart is so central in Sufism that without it we cannot experience God. That is, God is found through our heart and this heart is so important to finding God.

In science, it is known that the brain sends messages to the body so that the body functions. We know that feelings of stress via thoughts and emotions affect our health. And so we have been told that we need to be able to manage our stress through diet and exercise, and perhaps some way that helps our brain to empty — emptying the mind, so to speak, in order to manage our thoughts and emotions. Stressful thoughts lead to sadness and anger and all of the negative emotions that can hurt our physical body over time.

But it is emotions that can be linked to our heart in a physical way that we may witness. How many of us have experienced our heart racing if we are nervous or scared? What about the real feeling of our heart aching after we have experienced significant loss? It was thought before that these feelings in the heart were connected to the brain’s messages only. That is, our thoughts and emotions emanate from the brain and send messages to our heart which results in our heart racing or aching. But research now tells us that the heart sends messages to the brain as well. It is no longer a one way street. The heart may have some say in how we feel. With this knowledge, we may see how perhaps the Sufis got it right when they focused on opening the heart. By opening our hearts, through meditation and prayer, in order to experience more love, we may just be helping the rest of our body as well. The brain sends messages to the whole body, so the heart could help the body be healthy by sending messages of love to the brain. Now that’s a real reason to experience more love in our lives. Better health? Sign me up!

Most of us know the ancient Sufi mystic, Rumi, whose central message was love. Let us end this article with Rumi’s message about the heart. May its words guide us as we seek to open our hearts more to love. May the words that we speak, hear, read, help us so that we may experience better health in the months to come.

Surely there is a window from heart to heart:
they are not separate and far from each other.
Two earthenware lamps are not joined,
but their light is mingled as it moves.
No lover seeks union without the beloved seeking;
but the love of lovers makes the body thin as a bowstring,
while the love of loved ones makes them comely and plump.
When the lightning of love for the beloved
has shot into this heart, know that there is love in that heart.
When love for God has been doubled in your heart,
there is no doubt that God has love for you.
[III, 4391-6]

Ameen. May it be so.