Sunday, September 30, 2012

Whirling Words of Wisdom

“When we are dead, do not turn your eyes to the ground seeking my grave! My grave will be in the hearts of the wise” ~ Mevlana Jelaladdin Rumi

Poet, mystic, dancer, humanist, scholar, seeker; Rumi was all of these, and to his followers he embodied the light of divine love on earth. His life was entirely devoted to the search for union with the one God and believed the only real path for man was to discover knowledge of self. Rather than philosophy and its method of reason, which introduces doubt through the rhetoric of disputation, Rumi considered the way to understand love of God and others was through the experience of love itself. In other words, faith needs faith.

Mevlana Rumi was born about 1207 in Balkh, on the Iranian border with Turkistan, where Zoroaster was from; a city of many faiths reputedly founded by the Magi.
His family fled a few years later to escape the Mongol invaders, and after wandering through Persia, visiting Mecca for the Hajj and staying a while in Damascus, they eventually moved to the capital city of Seljuk territory, Konya, where his father was renowned as a teacher.
Living in the medrese, or theological school, Mevlana grew up learning scripture from the most esteemed tutors of his day. After succeeding his father as professor Mevlana went on to establish the Mevlavi Sufi order of mystical Islam.
“Come, come who or whatever you are. Should you be an unbeliever or a heretic, still, come. Our lodge is not a lodge of despair. With a hundred repentances unheeded you may be, still, come.”~ Mevlana Rumi

Mevlana Rumi is the inspiration behind and first to introduce into formalised religion the phenomenon of the trance dance “Sema”, commonly known to the world by the name of its devotees the Whirling Dervishes. Although also performed for tourists who arrive daily in the city of Konya to visit Rumi’s final earthly resting place, its practitioners take the dance with its accompaniment by drum and flute, seriously. Divided into seven sections, the dance represents the movement of the universe and the passage of a spiritual seeker through the stages of his or her quest to unite with God. The ‘turning’ of the Dervish dance symbolizes the fundamental condition of existence; everything turns in harmony with all other things.

The planet turns, the galaxy spins, protons and electrons within the atoms that make up the human body all spin and turn in a magnificent pattern, and so do the dancers. The rotation of the dancers mirrors the eternal balance of the forces of nature in the material universe, whilst the ‘turning’ from outward things to inward thoughts emulates the elevation of the mind to love and service of mankind; from the turn to truth and abandonment of ego to union with God and a re-turn to the earth in death before becoming a mature spirit.

I was raw, then I was cooked, now I have been burnt.”~ Mevlana Rumi

When I was a child I loved to twirl in circles, to become dizzy with delight as the blood would spin quickly through my brain leaving me feeling light as a feather. So, I do understand this sensation of pleasure that can come from the Dervish dance and from the exhilaration of light-headedness. Many cultures use music and dance as a means of achieving the impression of divine connection, and there is a great history of poetic and rhythmical attempts to express this sensation of bodily transcendence. However, simple physical exertion to escape corporeal entrapment of the soul doesn’t encapsulate the totality of understanding this method of attaining bliss. True ecstatic union is achievable only through fruitful activity.

Archaeologists, historians and all manner of academics seek tangible proof of their theories; if it isn’t material culture it is disregarded as unverifiable. To dig something substantial from the ground is remarkable, to use linguistics to unlock written codes is clever exegesis, but to discover that connection through experience is revelation. As an anthropologist I trust in participant-observation; that is, to enter within and yet stand outside, to analyse from knowledge.

Although icons, relics, places of pilgrimage and holy books, or the enactment of rituals give time and substance to help connect with belief in a concrete way, true faith is neither dependent on nor validated by material objects or hallowed ground; it is more about awareness, a consciousness of spirit within the atoms that create what we call real.
When knowledge acquired by mystical experience strikes the heart it becomes a helper. When knowledge acquired through the body strikes the senses it becomes a burden. ~ Mevlana Jelaladdin Rumi

Mevlana commented at various times on all topics, including the realm of science, for which he offered additional words of wisdom that stand as admonition to much of the work being done today:
“the wise men of our time split a hair into forty parts and are well versed in things which are no concern of theirs. In fact, what is of real importance is that which is closest to them. In other words, they are ignorant of themselves.” ~ Mevlana Jelaladdin Rumi
To Rumi, the goal of the mystic is to attain truth through self-knowledge that is revealed by love, only through love can love be understood, and the process of reason is inherently incapable of explaining love. Love, he said, leads to service; a compassion for helping others in this life, and the final section of the dance is the expression of servitude.

Though he was married twice and had many children, his greatest love other than for God, was for his friend and advisor Shemseddin of Tabriz who was likely killed by jealous rivals for the position at the right hand of the mystic Mevlana. Prior to his final disappearance, probably drowned in a well in the city, Shems had fled from Konya after news that some of Mevlana’s disciples were plotting his murder. During this absence, Rumi shut himself off from his followers. Attempting to convey his overwhelming despair he wrote poetry to and about his friend and advisor. His sorrow, it is said, was like a river flowing or volcano erupting (something they know about in this area), and in time brought him to the perfection of love.

I reflected the images of your face like a mirror...
I want nothing but his perfection, nothing but his face…
Where are your precious words now?
Where is that mind that solves mysteries?
Where is that foot walking in the rose garden,
 That hand that held mine? ~ Mevlana Rumi

Famous for the Persian rubai, Rumi generally wrote his poems in the Mesnavi (Masnawi) style, which is characterised by verses in couplets that have the same measure and rhyme with each other. He wrote thousands of couplets, 25,618 on display at the Mevlana Museum alongside his marble sarcophagus, which was donated by Suleyman the Magnificent in 1565. His tomb is sheltered under the distinguished green cone-shaped roof of the mausoleum. Additionally, his vast collection of lectures and letters that touch on the themes of politics, love, religion, servitude and Sema have been preserved for presentation to the thousands of pilgrims who visit annually.

With the Muslim prohibition on graven images (not usually adhered to today) came the incredible calligraphy that adorns so many fabulous buildings in this region, and the Mevlana museum is exceptional in its use of this approach to decoration. Colourful and ornamental passages from the Koran and the poetry of Rumi adorn the walls and ceiling of this impressive building. The entire city is a living museum to the history of the Sufi way and the Mevlavi culture, and even its modern structures retain the character of these ancient architectural techniques.
Konya is a beautiful city of fountains and flowers, an oasis in the midst of the desert region where Anatolia meets Cappadocia, an extensive flat plain surrounded by massive distant mountains. It has the feel of a settled and calm retreat set amongst the hustle and bustle of contemporary business activities. While trams flash past and cars spin around busy traffic islands like metal dervishes, teagardens invite the passer-by to relax and enjoy the surroundings of ancient monuments and the permanence of a tranquil way.

I sat under date trees on a small rise beside the 800-year-old Ala'addin Mosque, drinking fresh orange juice. Looking out across the Seljuk Palace and beyond to the green dome, I breathed in the perfumed air of jasmine and honeysuckle, happy in the knowledge that I had witnessed this sanctuary for the enlightened. It is a place I will hopefully return to, to seek further knowledge and understanding of this discipline of the Sufi, and explore the valuable insights of the mystic mind of Mevlana Rumi.

“Either seem as you are, or be as you seem.”
~ Mevlana Jelaladdin Rumi


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Monday, September 17, 2012

Cleopatra's Bath
Out here in the middle of nowhere, beyond the edge of the map, is a place so strikingly majestic, so naturally endowed with healing properties, that Cleopatra would travel from Egypt to bathe in the thermal springs and relax in the restorative mineral waters that cascade down the sides of this mountain paradise. With her retinue in tow she would set up camp at the source of the natural spring, above the cliffs in the Roman city of Hierapolis, and be treated to a beauty regime even the wealthy of today would envy.
Pamukkale, as this region near the city of Denizli is called, is an attraction that draws visitors from all over the world. I first bathed in these travertine pools 20 years ago when on a drive back from Istanbul to our coastal holiday resort, my friends and I decided to detour over a hundred kilometres from the main road to see this spectacular landscape.

Exhausted from the excitement of the big city, as we lounged in the soothing thermal waters under the burning sun, churning the fossilised rock of thousands of years into jelly, even then we recognised the peril of unabated tourism to these magnificent natural creations.

For several thousand years these bright white cliffs and pools, called travertine, have been a health resort for those seeking effective management of a variety of medical conditions.
The spa water is apparently an effective remedy on everything from rheumatism to kidney and urinary tract infection, from eye disease to ailments of the respiratory and circulatory systems. With a temperature of 36c degrees the water is comfortably warm, and with a Ph value of 5.8 and radon value of 1480 picocuries per litre it provides a much sought after invigorating infusion.

The spring water, high in calcium carbonate, flows down the cliffs at 260 litres per second to form the travertine pools and slopes that have a texture and structure similar to a coral reef.
In the past the water flowed at 390 litres per second and the travertine were much more numerous. In much the same way that coral reefs are being destroyed by over fishing and tourism, the Pamukkale travertine are disintegrating due to exposure to foot traffic and endless coach loads of curious visitors.
Although steps have now been taken to reduce the traffic over the travertine, allowing visitors access to a small but still significant portion of the mountain, there has clearly already been a damaging impact on the fragile calcium constructions.
As an ancient natural formation it is of course right that all people should be allowed to view and benefit from this area, however adequate measures must be in place to ensure its continued growth and lasting beauty.
Three-quarters of the world's coral reefs are at risk due to over-fishing, pollution, climate change and other factors.
The organisation Reefs at Risk Revisited collates the work of hundreds of scientists from around the world and spent three years compiling documentation on the health of coral reefs that was publicly released last year. The main reason for that change, the report claims, has been a massive increase in damage from exploitative fishing, particularly in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The damage ranges from simply catching more fish than nature can replace to the use of extreme fishing methods such as dynamiting fish to stun or kill them, which also blasts the coral formations to dust. Other major threats are pollution carried in rivers, coastal development, and global climate change.
Coral polyps are tiny creatures that live in partnership with algae to provide nutrition to build the reefs and give corals their array of pastel and vivid colours. When the water gets too hot the algae are expelled and the coral turns white, a process called bleaching. If climate projections become reality, then by 2030 roughly half of the world's reefs will experience bleaching in most years, peaking to 95% by about 2050.
Having evaluated more than 2,500 protected areas of reef, the report compiled by a group of more than 20 research and conservation organisations, led by the World Resources Institute in Washington DC, concluded that even though over a quarter of the world's coral is nominally protected only one-sixth of the areas offer sufficient safeguards.

In Pamukkale, a UNESCO World Heritage site, matters have improved over the past twenty years as the management organisation has tried to balance the demands of tourism with the protection of this unique and delicate environment.

When I first visited people swarmed over the cliffs in flip-flops, swimming in the pools and jumping from level to level without regard for the chunks of calcium and carbonate stone that chipped off under their feet. Thankfully, evident disregard for the monumental precipices no longer happens.
There are still thousands of tourists arriving every summer, but access has been limited to certain areas that are frequently monitored for harmful effects. Also, the day-trippers (yes, I recognise my place in the hordes of sightseers) are now asked to remove all footwear and can only view most of the site through cameras and strategically positioned binoculars.
The normal condition of the travertine is a dry, solid state, so some of the natural spring water is artificially directed over parts of the travertine to create the stunning and visually dazzling vista most people associate with the site. Many people still bathe in the accessible thermal ponds, and rub the soft mineral-rich mud all over their bodies in hopes of a curative for ailments or skin beautifying enhancement.

Therefore the pools are regularly emptied and dried to prevent the build up of moss and dirt that can discolour or erode the rock face, and to preserve the beauty of this exceptional location for future generations.

I’m glad to see progress in the conservation work happening at this amazing place, and hope my contribution to a healthy and beautiful world has an influence, regardless how small, on maintaining the sanctuary of this site for others.
I enjoyed the experience of the therapeutic effects and delighted once again in the visual splendour of this outstanding wonder of the world. I wish you too could experience this magical radiant region, climb the strangely grainy cliffs to bathe in the thermal mineral water where Cleopatra came to rejuvenate surrounded by the scenic beauty of this natural environment, and participate in the conservation of these spectacular travertine pools.
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Saturday, September 01, 2012

Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere
There’s an old joke that goes like this: A group of women are protesting at the American nuclear naval base at Holy Loch in western Scotland, watched over by a few bored sailors. One elderly lady holds up a placard and shouts to a young recruit, “hey, why don’t you take those nuclear missiles and stick them in the middle of nowhere?” The sailor replies, “lady, I’m from Brooklyn, believe me this is the middle of nowhere.”

It’s amusing the way perceptions are coloured by different visions of the world and one’s sense of place. What may seem off the beaten track to one person is the centre of the social world for another.
Whether humans emerged in a particular place then spread around the globe in a manner of diffusion, or there was a simultaneous but divergent evolution of the species in various parts of the planet we might never know, but either way we’ve since managed to circumnavigate Earth, mapping time along the way. We’ve also pretty much run out of places to discover, populate and exploit that haven’t already seen activity from some culture or other.
Even so, there are still amazing and jaw-droopingly stunning places in this world that most Westerners don’t know exist.
There are fascinating cultures with fine art and complex architecture, beautiful music and dance and stories as rich as the tapestries draped in great cathedrals that some simply don’t understand or appreciate. The same applies to people in other places whose awareness of the world is also tainted by religious and ethnic stereotypes and government propaganda insinuated into the imagination of its populace through a complicit, or at the very least acquiescent media.
Global news organisations are controlled by a very few people and hugely wealthy organisations whose interest lies in distributing a version of events that maintains the power structure of the industrial-consumerist enterprise, and the people who report for them are simply cogs in the machine of the crisis and disaster business. I’ve become so disgusted by and yet indifferent to the biased accounts of events I see regularly on the corporate news channels that I’ve simply stopped watching television.
You wouldn’t believe how much less stress I have in my life because every minor problem somewhere that is blown up into a major incident by these hounds of tragedy no longer actually affects me personally. In fact they never did, but now at least I don’t have to hear about it from these in-your-face soundbite-programmed sources.
Perhaps that sounds a bit like I’m hiding from the world here in the middle of nowhere. On the contrary, I’m more involved now than I had been for a few years before leaving the security of middle England and America, not simply letting life wash over me filling my mind with sadness and trouble.

I'm definitely somewhere. Most westerners may not be familiar with here, but it’s the heart of my world and the pulse of life is all around. Observing actual experience and becoming a participant is liberating and gives one a direct sense of influence over what is happening than sitting in front of a flickering screen absorbing the negative and harmful ions that beam out at us from all corners of the globe.
I worked for many years in hospitals and homes for the mentally ill, and it is interesting that schizophrenics would frequently present themselves saying that “rays and beams” were being aimed at them. Naturally, this is a culturally constructed manifestation of the condition of paranoia (one of the 4 attendant symptoms of the diagnosis), however, how far from the truth are they?
Their extreme response and inability to adapt to the stress of life pushed them over the edge into that ‘abnormal’ state of mind where treatment became necessary. But the rest of us, the sane ones, we simply put the madness of the world on the back burner, bury it in some closet of the mind and carry on about our business while the bombs drop and the children starve and the truly insane ones behead people for dancing.
I had a friend who slept with the radio tuned to a news station all night, and woke up every morning feeling depressed and run-down. I told her I used to do that but had realised the negative effects of hearing bad news, even in my sleep, was causing me to feel more weary than rested. I suggested she try what I had done and listen to easy listening or classical music. She didn’t, and her constant anxiety and frantic behaviour continued.
While I hope she no longer surrounds herself with the depressive misfortunes of this world that dragged her dreams into darkness, I now sleep to the chant of crickets and wake to the songs of birds. What a difference it makes to one’s state of mind to slumber to the lullaby of nature.
Everybody knows this is nowhere ~ Neil Young

Over the past few weeks I’ve been on the road again, down the coast past the middle of nowhere to the beautiful Mediterranean city of Antalya, with its many extravagant fountains and urban parks in full bloom. I visited the region on assignment and stayed a few nights at a lovely hotel on the famous Lara Beach where I was the only native English speaker.

There were the usual German, French and Turkish guests, though several parties of Iranians were also enjoying their summer holidays, and everyone was using English to communicate outside his or her respective group.
The global language, as some of my students have called it, is quickly becoming an indispensable tool. Whether of a personal or business nature people everywhere uses these same verbal symbols to establish contacts and relationships and exchange information for all sorts of purposes. However, the variety and form of English is subject to change according to education, employment and method of learning.
Regardless of the standard of teaching local parlance is still thrown in to the mix, which results in some very interesting compositions. With work in editing and publication coming my way, I know I’ve got my job cut out for me when I read some of the translations in magazines and brochures, and even published books.

Although this book, presented to me as a gift by the hotel staff in Antalya, has some stunning photographs of the region. Interestingly, one of the photos is almost identical to one I took myself while visiting Dudem Falls; apparently people go fishing daily in this same spot in the mist of the roaring water.
Wherever we may wander, wherever we may roam,
the centre of the circle will always be our home ~ John Lennon
The luxurious hotel I teach at a couple days each week is a strict Islamic complex with separate swimming pools for men and women and not a bar in sight; I’m always the only non-Muslim in the compound, and treated with great respect. This resort on the Med was fully integrated. There were a few women sitting around the pool area or on the beach wearing long coats and headscarves (God only knows how they manage in the 50c degree heat and stifling humidity reminiscent of the USA’s East Coast at its worst), however, most were in bikinis and happily benefiting from the therapeutic sunshine, drinking margaritas and splashing in the sparkling clear water.

I wondered how many Westerners have ever thought about Iranians taking holidays never mind wearing swimsuits, smoking and drinking alcohol and associating freely with people from other countries. Let's be straight about this, I don't want Iran having nuclear power, or the technology to make weapons. But, I don't want anyone having that power regardless of their political association or nationality, not the USA or UK or Israel, not Pakistan or India, not Japan or Germany, no one. There are alternative energy sources available if we would invest in the future of these cleaner methods.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every day people could cast out their line into the sea of culture and find something sporting and exciting to grapple with, just for the enjoyment of it? Difference is what makes us all unique, and in diversity we find similarities.

An anthropologist mentor from the University of Maryland once told me that differences within cultures are greater than differences between cultures. If everyone understood that simple fact then just maybe there would be less enmity and strife and unnecessary misunderstanding and we could rid the world of politicians and those who create and thrive on catastrophe and chaos. How much more civilised and cultured could we be as humans if everyone tried to learn from each other? What level of freedom we could enjoy if all people were able to express their culture in a tolerant and involved society.
Utopia: 1551 from Modern Latin, lit. “nowhere”, first used by Thomas More as the short title of his book (1516) about an imaginary island enjoying perfect legal, social and political systems, from Greek ou “not” and topos “place”.

Freedom has obligations as well as rights, and that means respect for others without harming anyone else along the way. Relativists consider all cultures and truths as equally valid, but how do we in the rest of the world deal with the mindless savagery of those people who abhor dancing and the ordinary enjoyment of gender-integrated companionship so deeply that they would kill those who engage in this natural human activity?
I’m a great believer in education and that through knowledge we come to understanding and compassion, though in the meantime, something must be done to prevent these acts of terror, everyone everywhere must stand against this insanity.

It seems to me that the middle of nowhere is a state of mind, and those who refuse to respect free will are smack dab in the centre of mystery and fear, and that is a dark and dreadful place.
It's a funny old world, as they say, but I love the variety and splendour of life in a liberated contemporary society, and through education and try to do my part to calm the choppy sea of confusion that other less well-meaning people spread with culutral disinformation and bitter lies about spiritual truths.

Let's hope a light will soon appear in the hearts and minds of these madmen and all people can live to express joy and happiness without fear of reprisal from the deceptive and violent evil ones who claim to act in the name of God. Love truly is the answer to all of life's most difficult questions. Through sharing that truth we come to wisdom, for love in all its many forms is the starting point and the finish line, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of wisdom.

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