Witnessing a "sema" (religious ceremony) of the Mevlana Order was important to me to gain an insight on the communion with the spirit world that dervishes say they achieve by their ritual whirling.
Like the vast majority of people, I was brought up to believe in ghosts, spirits and gods but, after a considerable inner struggle, I managed to rid myself of such beliefs which, as I now see it, are obstacles to the discovery of what we humans really are and how we fit into the universe. I finally came to think in terms of probabilities concluding that the existence of ghosts, spirits, gods and other immaterial entities was vastly unlikely.
It was not easy to exclude myself from the mainstream of believers who find solace in the thought of a life after death in some form of spiritual world. The abandon of all reasonable hope for an eternal life and the acceptance of my definitive mortality were nevertheless dictated by the absence of the slightest shred of objective and verifiable evidence of such a spiritual world. That step would have been an easy one to take had it not been the numerous allegations of so called "mystical experiences" transcendental to the material universe.
Many alleged mystical experiences can be discarded as outright fabrications used as sources of power by the priestly classes since man first trembled before thunder and lighning. A great number of legends, myths and dogma concocted by the clerical classes to establish and maintain their power can also be readily discarded as self serving.
Some allegations of transcendental experience must however be recognised as being the sincere testimony of honest individuals who faithfully report on the subjective perception of events they describe as "illumination", "enlightenment", "being born again", "living in the spiritual plane" or "communion with God"
I found these honest subjective testimonies most troubling because they give meaning to the lives of believers. I could not accept them as evidence of the existence of a spiritual universe because the events they report cannot be reproduced nor proven false. They did however make me hesitate before finding extremely unlikely the existence of the immaterial entities that most people believe in. These honest reports of mystical experiences call for material explanations because less honest individuals present them as proof and use them to manipulate their followers into doing their bidding.
Explanations are forthcoming for there is a growing accumulation of indications that "mystical experiences" are artefacts of the human brain. This new insight does not disprove the existence of "ghosts, spirits and gods" but it does irrevocably disqualify reports of "communication with God" as proofs if His existence and as indications of the ultimate meaning of life.
I wanted to see Sufi Dervishes in action for myself to get a direct impression of the meaning of the "loss of one's ego" and of the "feeling of oneness" they report achieving by their whirling. I went to see them at the Galata Mevlevihanesi in the Museum of Divan Literature on Galip Desi Caddesi near Tunel Square.
Sufis seek mystical union with God through various means. Dervishes are the followers of Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th century poet and mystic now called Mevlana who developed a ritual of chants, prayers and whirling to sacred music that produces a state of trance that is said to be perceived as communion with God by well trained disciples. The Mevlana Order is nominally Muslim but it is open to anyone who seeks mystical union with God as expresses this Rumi verse:
Dervishes had a profound influence on the political, social and economic life during the Ottoman Empire as several sultans were Sufis of the Mevlana Order. This may explain the relative tolerance of the Ottomans towards the religions of their subjects, tolerance that contrasted sharply with the intense proselytising efforts of the preceding Muslim hegemonies and also with those of the Christian states of that time. Their importance has waned now in secular Turkey but they still survive as "cultural associations" and manu of them have migrated to the US west coast where half a dozen "tekke" (dervish lodges) can be found.
There were not more than 50 of us seated around the octagonal floor of the semahani (ceremonial hall). One of the balcony sections was occupied by musicians playing "ney" flutes, drums and other percussion instruments.
The dervishes filed in black robes and sat on sheepskins laid out on the floor. Then, these two senior Sufis came in and sat down for prayers.
As far as I could tell, the two senior were presiding as honoured guests for the semazenbashi (dance master) sat down with the nine dervishes on the left.
After chants and prayers, the dervishes went round, each bowing to the old masters and to each other a number of times in recognition of each other's souls.
Then the nine dervishes took off the black robes that symbolise the limited, material aspects of their beings. The semazenbashi, also called seyh or sheik, came forward to watch as each dervish saluted the elders in turn.
Each dervish received the elder's blessing under the attentive gaze of the sheikh and moved off spinning counterclockwise on their left foot.
At first with hands clasped and soon with arms extended with the right hand facing the sky to receive God's benevolence and the left hand facing the earth to distribute it to all mankind.
A hypothetical explanation of the dervish trance goes as follows. Their whirling causes the part of the brain responsible for spatial awareness (the parietal lobes), to have difficulty in reconciling the information it receives from the five senses with that provided by the semi circular loops of the inner ear. This would bring on dizziness that would cause anyone to stop spinning or to loose balance and fall but the dervish's intensive training enables them to continue until the persistence of contradictory signals overloads the spacial association centre to the point of causing it to shut down.
This part of the brain, the superior parietal lobes, provide us with the awareness of the spatial extent of our body. It tells us where we end and where our outside environment begins. An injury to this area so cripples our ability to maneuver in physical space that we would not be able to figure out the distances and angles needed to direct our movements to get from our bed to a chair across the room..
When the intense overstimulation of whirling causes the momentary deactivation of his spatial centre, the dervish looses awareness of where his body ends and the outside universe begins. Thanks to his training other parts of the brain maintain his ritual movements while he has the impression of being freed from the limitations of his physical body and individual ego.
Loosing awareness of his body's physical limits translates into a feeling of oneness with the whirling universe around him and it takes little prompting to cause this exalted feeling to be interpreted by his temporal lobes as communion of his self with God.
I watched the faces of the dancers as they whirled past me. Some of them indeed looked as if they were out of this world part of the time.
They whirled and whirled faster and faster for more than 10 minutes, rested a few minutes and did it again four times. Not one fell down. That shows their high degree of training for it would be almost impossible for the average human with a normally functioning spatial awareness centre to achieve such a feat.
The look of profound contentment they wore as they filed out was an eloquent statement that they had undergone an extraordinary experience. Was it communion with God or was it an artefact of the human brain made possible by ardent desire and intensive training?
I have my own idea but I don't really know. What do you think?
You might wish to consult the following websites for more detailed information
on Turkey's Whirling Dervishes
Les Arts Turcs