Creating Paradise

جنة بغير ناس ما تنداس

“If you encounter Paradise and no one is inside, don’t enter…”

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In my time in Egypt thus far, I’m learning personal space is hard to come by.. Indeed it’s a luxury afforded to few, especially women.

I’ve been truly blessed to retreat into the love and generosity of my family here. Reconnecting after eight years or more, they have offered sumptuous feasts, patience and encouragement in practicing my Arabic, and facilitation in making this journey possible. The unplanned sacred moments following them to the Sea and storytelling along the way. And protection… even when I don’t want it.

The project of negotiating space for myself – space in my belly to breath between second and third helpings of meals, space for physical exercise (certainly in the way the works best for me in walking and biking outside), space when I’m not teaching or meeting with colleagues to socialize and adventure outside out the house – has proven challenging at times.

I followed their lead, from the ablutions, to the cycles of kneeling and prostrating that are strikingly reminiscent of a yogic sun salutation.

My first day in Cairo, catching up with my aunts, we talked about my work and the practice of cultivating health and fulfillment… I thought of people who are dear to me that work towards a certain image of success- the big house and flashy cars –  but lack the relationships to fill them.

Immediately one aunt recalled an Arabic adage: “If you encounter Paradise and no one is inside, don’t enter”

An ENFP to the core, I could totally appreciate it.  Where would I be without my tribe of mystics and misfits?

The next morning, as I sat in my regular morning meditation practice, they quietly tiptoed around me… not understanding what I was doing but intuitively understanding that I was holding a sacred space.

Yoga is not a religion but the science of inviting in the presence of the divine.

When I finished, they invited me to join the family one of the five daily Muslim prayers.  I very much anchor my spiritual identity as a Muslim but I’m not traditionally observant. In that moment however, it felt comforting and familiar to be immersed the community of a ritual I hadn’t practiced for so long.

Rusty, I followed their lead, from the ablutions, to the cycles of kneeling and prostrating that are strikingly reminiscent of a yogic sun salutation.

After prayer one aunt asked why I meditated. She inquired into Hindu and Buddhist origins of yoga. Why couldn’t I just pray? I’m Muslim after all, and prayer is one of the five pillars.

Meditation and yoga, I explained, is not a religion unto itself but the science of inviting in the presence of the divine into the physical body…My meditation practice, I continued, was intensely personal for me and prayer couldn’t override and replace it.

Ramadan is a communal covenant and celebration of devotion.

Next morning, my aunt and I got into a flare of emotions when I was expected to again join them for prayer.  Truth is … I couldn’t recall all the necessary recitations for prayer and resented the expectation that I would have to.

Why, I argued, is it religiously significant for me to pray with them if the pressure is coming from outside.  What does it matter if I’m just going through the motions?

Her face betrayed legitimate confusion and heartbreak.  “Dahlia, I want to see you in Heaven” she says, pleading in earnest.

“I know…”  I know culturally for her, she truly believes she is not doing her work as a Muslim if she is not trying to steer those around her towards the path to God as she understands it. I again joined them in prayer.

For the rest of my time with them, they never asked me to join them again in prayer. Instead before breakfast, my aunts would remind me to meditate.

We need community for our path. We are social animals and meant to exist in connection with one another. It’s when we come alive. And Ramadan in the Middle East is a nothing short of a communal covenant in ritual observance and celebration of devotion.

But certainly there is space for personal devotion. Space for individual cultivation of what it means to be connected to something greater outside of ourselves… whatever its form.

There is space for all of us.  If only we insist on it.

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