Whirling is an ancient devotional exercise associated with Sufism, a mystical (and sometimes controversial) branch of Islam. It originated among communities of Sufi holy men in Persia (modern-day Iran and Turkey, approximately) in the late 1200s. As the dervishes turned, they fell into ecstatic, trance-like meditative states. As part of a larger spiritual program, whirling is supposed to help you abandon your ego and, ideally, achieve union with God.We arrived at the venue, a large candle-lit room annexed to a Sufi bookstore, and sat down among about 30 serene-looking men and women. It was clear that our fellow would-be whirlers had a lot more meditation experience than we had; one was sitting on a folding chair in the lotus position. Luckily, we weren't expected to wear the long robes and fezzes that practitioners often do.The teacher arrived, accompanied by a musician. After 45 minutes of hypnotic music and spoken Sufi poetry, we folded up the chairs, took off our shoes, and spread out so that we all had room to whirl. This wasn't "Tasmanian devil" spinning; frenzied speed was not the goal. The teacher insisted that gentle whirling was easy enough, and wouldn't make us dizzy, as long as we followed his four simple rules: stand straight and make an axis of your spine; turn slowly counter-clockwise ("towards your heart"), using your right foot to pivot around your left one; keep your eyes open, unfocused, and level; when you stop, stare at a fixed spot on the floor until you feel yourself stabilize.We began. At first, it took some concentration to avoid looking at or hitting other whirlers--and to avoid giggling at a few Frankenstein-like lumberers. It was also tricky to keep your eyes level, yet not really look directly at anything. After a few minutes, though, most of the whirlers got into the groove. There was a quiet intensity in the room, the way there is when many people focus on the same work.
Still, the evening was a fun, low-key way to put an ancient Sufi tradition into practice. If you're given the opportunity but think whirling sounds like a waste of time, try it anyway--you might get turned around on the issue.