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The Eternal Quest

EXCERPT: The pursuit of a meaningful life is more urgent—and more elusive—than ever before.
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On Thursday and Sunday evenings, a group of seekers gathered in a large room of my family’s home in downtown Montreal, where my parents ran a Sufi meetinghouse. Sufism is the school of mysticism associated with Islam, and my family belonged to the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, which originated in Iran in the fourteenth century and today has meetinghouses all over the world. Twice a week, darvishes—or members of the order—would sit on the floor and meditate for several hours. With their eyes closed and their chins to their chests, they silently repeated a name or attribute of God as traditional Iranian Sufi music played.

Living in the Sufi meetinghouse as a child was enchanting. The walls of our home were decorated with sculptures of Arabic script that my father carved from wood. Tea was brewing constantly, perfuming the air with the fragrance of bergamot. After meditating, the Sufis drank the tea, which my mother served along with dates or Iranian sweets made with rosewater, saffron, cardamom, and honey. Sometimes, I served the tea, carefully balancing a tray full of glasses, saucers, and sugar cubes as I knelt down before each darvish.

The darvishes loved dipping a sugar cube in their tea, putting it in their mouths, and drinking their tea through the sugar. They loved singing the poetry of medieval Sufi sages and saints. There was Rumi: “Ever since I was sliced away from my home of reeds, each note I whisper would make most any heart weep.” And there was Attar: “Since love,” he writes of the seeker, “has spoken in your soul, reject The Self, that whirlpool where our lives are wrecked.” They loved, too, sitting in silence, being together, and remembering God through quiet contemplation.

Darvishes call Sufism “the path of love.” Those on the path are on a journey toward God, the Beloved, which calls them to renounce the self and to constantly remember and love God at every turn. To Sufis, loving and adoring God means loving and adoring all of creation and every human being that is a part of it. Mohabbat, or loving-kindness, is central to their practice. When we first moved into our new home in Montreal, Sufis from all over North America came and stayed for days to help my parents convert the brownstone, formerly a legal office, into a space fit for majlis, the name of the bi-weekly gathering for meditation. When a homeless man knocked on our door one evening looking for a meal and a place to sleep, he was welcomed in. And when my father complimented a darvish on a scarf he was wearing, the darvish gave it with pleasure as a gift to my dad. (After that, my family had a general understanding that you only complimented another darvish’s possessions with great caution.)

On special occasions, like the visit of a sheikh or the initiation of a new darvish into the order, Sufis from Canada and the United States would stay at the meetinghouse for a few days, sleeping on thin cushions in the meditation room and library—really, anywhere there was space. There was a lot of snoring at night and lines for the bathroom during the day, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. The darvishes were full of joy and warmth. Though they spent many hours meditating during these weekends, they also passed the time by playing classical Sufi music on Persian instruments, like a frame drum called a daf and the stringed tar, always singing Sufi poetry to the music. I sat on a tattered Persian carpet and listened, dipping my sugar cubes in my tea, just like they did—and trying to meditate, just like they did, too.

Formal rituals also governed Sufi life. When the darvishes greeted each other, they said Ya Haqq, “The Truth,” and performed a special handshake by putting their hands together like a heart and kissing that heart. When they entered or left the meditation room, they “kissed” the ground by touching their fingers to the floor and then to their lips. When my mom and other Sufis prepared Iranian dinners, the darvishes sat around a tablecloth spread on the floor. I helped arrange the place settings and then waited with my parents for the other darvishes to sit down before finding a spot. The Sufis ate in silence. Generally, nobody spoke unless the sheikh spoke first—and it was understood that everybody should finish their food before the sheikh did so that he was not kept waiting. (Though, often, the sheikh ate slowly so that no straggler would feel uncomfortable.) These humbling rituals were important to the Sufis, helping them break down the self, which Sufi teaching considers a barrier to love.

Such a way of life appealed to the darvishes, many of whom had left Iran and other repressive societies to live in Canada and the United States. Some Muslims consider Sufis to be mystic heretics, and they are severely persecuted in the Middle East today. But even though many of the Sufis I knew had led difficult lives, they were always looking forward. Their demanding spiritual practice—with its emphasis on self-denial, service, and compassion over personal gain, comfort, and pleasure—elevated them. It made their lives feel more meaningful.

The Sufis who meditated in our home were part of a long tradition of spiritual seekers. For as long as human beings have existed, they have yearned to know what makes life worth living. The first great work of human literature, the four-thousand-year-old The Epic of Gilgamesh, is about a hero’s quest to figure out how he should live knowing that he will die. And in the centuries since Gilgamesh’s tale was first told, the urgency of that quest has not faded. The rise of philosophy, religion, natural science, literature, and even art can be at least partly explained as a response to two questions: “What is the meaning of existence?” And, “How can I lead a meaningful life?”

The first question addresses big issues. How did the universe come to be? What is the point and purpose of life? Is there anything transcendent—a divine being or holy spirit—that gives our lives significance?

The second question is about finding meaning within life. What values should I live by? What projects, relationships, and activities will bring me fulfillment? What path should I choose?

Historically, religious and spiritual systems laid out the answers to both questions. In most of these traditions, the meaning of life lies in God or some ultimate reality with which the seeker yearns to be united. Following a moral code and engaging in practices like meditation, fasting, and acts of charity help the seeker grow closer to God or to that reality, endowing day-to-day life with importance.

Billions of people, of course, still derive meaning from religion. But in the developed world, religion no longer commands the authority it once did. Though most people in the United States continue to believe in God and many consider themselves spiritual, fewer people go to church, pray regularly, or have a religious affiliation, and the number of people who believe religion is an important component of their lives has declined. If religion was once the default path to meaning, today it is one path among many, a cultural transformation that has left many people adrift. For millions both with and without faith, the search for meaning here on earth has become incredibly urgent—yet ever more elusive.

Excerpted from The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith. Copyright © 2017 by the author. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

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