It's not every day you're invited to be a whirling dervish. So when my colleague and I received an e-mail from a Sufi poetry interpreter offering to teach us to whirl in four easy steps, we couldn't say no.

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.
As we continued to turn, the teacher asked us to stretch our arms out a bit, raising our right hand slightly up and our left one down. In principle, we were receiving divine energy in our right hand, transferring it through ourselves, and emptying it into the earth via our left hand. Here again, some bumping and knocking occurred, but nothing that spun us out of control. We whirled for about ten minutes, then slowly came to a halt and fixed our eyes on our chosen carpet thread. It seemed to work--no one reeled drunkenly, though the teacher had to grab one lady who stumbled.After a five-minute breather, we started again. We were to create our "own spinning galaxy," the teacher urged. He also noted that the Earth and tornadoes whirl counterclockwise, so our cyclical movements were truly in tune with nature. Once again, we slowed down without mishaps--though right arms became a little stiff.Was it a mystical experience? While one of us felt "in the zone" and in sync with the others, it wasn't soul-shaking--though whirling did seem like a cool way to calm thoughts and induce a meditative state. With a group of people all in the same psychic place, it could have a powerful spiritual effect. When I tried it at home later, I didn't get the same communal vibe, though I did shake off some worries temporarily. I'm not sure I'd whirl alone often--spinning in my desk chair is more fun.

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.

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