Dunya at Princeton Univ
Several of you have asked about my guest teaching at Princeton.
My task was to present a taste of Sufism within the context of Dance and the Sacred. The professor, the illustrious Ze’eva Cohen, had, as preparation, given the students (but not me) a paper discussing the Whirling Dervishes. The over-arcing inquiry for the course that we most zeroed in on was Art vs. Ritual: is the whirling art or ritual or neither or both and why? Ze’eva initiated some discussion, then turned the forum over to me; after a period, she played an excerpt of the Mevlana, then we all went into the studio where I taught beathing and movement and then a 15 minute Whirling period. At then end, I conducted a short concluding discussion during which most everyone was a little zoned out, that being their first whirling.
- My first objective was to stress that Sufi is not a museum, that it is a living tradition, one which they would all be part of after being taught the Whirling by a living Sufi. The practices do not define the lineage. Practices are a pitcher holding the water of the lineage. This pitcher is handed person-to-person.
- I was able to help them experientially distinguish between art as a performance, crafted to carry a message (like Charades) and art ‘being witnessed’ (like seeing the Sufis whirl.) These are blunt examples but the ideas are key.
- I was intent on introducing the concept that whirling and other Sufi movement practices (as well as themes in Islamic art) are not so much symbolic/metaphorical in the western sense of ‘this is like that’ or ‘this is that’, but rather provide a ‘nexus of contemplation’, a phrase spoken by Barbara Brend of the British museum. Contemplation can be intellectual or physical, but the idea – ie whirling – forms an anchor for a blossoming of understanding over time. (I discuss this in my book, Skin of Glass.)
- Aside from this I gave context to Rumi within the history of Sufism and as well as a cursory sense of the relationship between Islamic and Sufism. I then read a few excerpts of Niffari and Rumi to demonstrate the pivotal role of translation in reading Sufi poetry.
Regarding my Facebook comment about the pleasure of teaching smart people:
Smart is a loose term, like love. It could mean many things: A smart person has high test scores; a smart person is who you agree with therefor you think they are smart. A smart person is quick to quip, or thinks deeper thoughts. Etc. What I meant by smart with the Princeton students was that they have enough self-confidence to explore their own ideas and experience. Not only did they think about what I was saying and engage in inquiry with me, but when given an experiential exercise (we did a short witness hand dance in the middle of the lecture portion), they were comfortable reflecting on their physical experience, bringing their bodies into the arena of inquiry. In all of this, no energy was wasted on self-consciousness and defensiveness. We moved forward smoothly.