Meditation of the Heart: A Review of Living from the Heart

By Netanel Miles-Yépez

In September of 1910, an Indian Sufi master and classical musician departed India on a ship bound for America intending to fulfill the last direction he had received from his own master: "Fare forth into the world, my child and harmonize the East and West with the harmony of your music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by Allah, the most Merciful and Compassionate." Thus, over the next 17 years, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) evolved a harmonizing approach to spirituality that was essentially universalist in both view and practice. Though Sufism continued to be at the heart of his teaching, it was longer exclusively bound to Islam; for it was his belief that Sufism was something perennial, an approach to spirituality that one could use to enhance and activate one's own spiritual practice, no matter if one was a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. Thus, the teachings, prayers, practices and lineages that he inspired are now commonly distinguished from Islamic-oriented Sufism as Universal Sufism.

Today, his spiritual heirs have spread his universal message of "love, harmony, and beauty" all across North and South America, Europe and Australia, and his teachings have even filtered back into the land of his birth in the Indian subcontinent where the practices of Universal Sufism also have their origin. While all of the lineages inspired by Hazrat Inayat Khan continue to practice dhikr or 'remembrance' in various forms, they also have in common a number of breathing techniques developed long ago in an early InterSpiritual fusion of Muslim Sufi and Hindu Yogic ‘spiritual technologies.’ These include the unique dhikr of the Chishti order, linking breath and movement, as well as various concentration and alternate-nostril breathing practices similar to those found in the Yogic tradition.

Beginning in the late 1960's, Hazrat Inayat Khan's student, Murshid Samuel Lewis (1896-1971), and his eldest son, Pir Vilayat Inayat-Khan (1916-2004) began to add new dimensions to these practices, teaching them more broadly and often adapting them in unique ways for their students. This is perhaps especially true of Pir Vilayat, who was widely known and celebrated as a meditator par excellence. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that two of his own senior students, Puran Bair, and his wife and teaching partner, Susanna, have developed a meditation that integrates different aspects of Universal Sufi practices into one holistic process. In their book, Living from the Heart, Puran describes the initial insight that led to the development of this practice:

"I conceived Heart Rhythm Practice during a two-week solitary meditation retreat in New Mexico in 1982, under the guidance of my meditation teacher [Pir Vilayat Inayat-Khan]. I had an experience there I'd never had before, of the affinity between my heart and the sun. In that state of consciousness I experienced that my heart was the sun, and the sun in the sky was my moon, a mirror of the light shinning from me. Then when I looked over to the mountain range to my right, I saw my arm, and my arteries became its streams. My body stretched out supine as far as I could see, and it all pulsated, throbbed, with my heartbeat.

"What I discovered was that by meditating on my heart, I could find in my heart the power of the heart of the sun and the rhythm of the heart of the Earth. What started out as an inner-directed practice reached "that" deep within me that is not personal but is shared among all things. "That" is what I am, I realized, and all of "that" beats in the heart rhythm.

"After my experience of the heartbeat of the planet, I kept up the awareness of my own heartbeat as a focus in meditation. This led me to discover the benefits of this practice for my physical heart and to be able to stay centered in my emotional heart. Then I discovered that my teacher's teacher [Hazrat Inayat Khan] had written extensively about this particular form of meditation: in the 1920s he had recommended awareness of the heartbeat as a technique for developing a heart-centered life."

What Puran Bair found in this meditation, and suggested in the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, was a truly foundational meditation practice—based upon a stable breathing rhythm coordinated with the heartbeat—that could be used by anyone, Sufi or not. Thus, he quickly began to gather all the references to the ‘heart,’ ‘meditation,’ and ‘breathing’ found throughout the master's writings, and in time developed a powerful technique integrating the traditional practices of the Universal Sufis with this profound insight.

What is unique about this practice is that it allows you to develop an intimate connection with your own heart and its intrinsic wisdom in the midst of a deeply effective and satisfying meditation experience. Though the basic elements of this meditation practice are found in many spiritual traditions, it is the unique integration of them in one fairly simple technique that makes the difference. Another important element in its effectiveness is its skillful presentation: the ‘how to's,’ providing simple building blocks, and combing breath and meditation technique with consciousness-pointers.

In 1988, Pir Vilayat Inayat-Khan suggested that Puran and Susanna begin to teach this practice more broadly (outside of the Sufi context) to ordinary people looking for a practical means of achieving balance in their personal and professional lives. Thus, they founded the first incarnation of what later became IAM, the Institute of Applied Meditation, later writing the books, Living from the Heart (1998), explaining the Heart Rhythm Practice and applying it to real life situations, and Energize Your Heart (2007) exploring the psychological dimensions and applications of heart rhythm work.

Recently, a second revised edition of the popular Living from the Heart (edited by Asatar Bair) has been published by Living Heart Media, restoring Susanna Bair's name as co-author (omitted in the first edition), adding a great deal of supplementary text and improved graphics, and completing what will surely be considered a classic among meditation texts.

Because of its universal applicability and the powerful meditative stability it can produce in a relatively short period of time, I would like to suggest both the book and the technique to those who may be searching for a deep and satisfying meditative discipline, or even for experienced meditators who may be looking for an alternative practice.

Sufi Meditation

Netanel Miles-Yépez

As with many spiritual traditions, Sufi meditation actually covers a spectrum of practices which, like the concept of meditation itself, are often difficult to distinguish. These practices include: dhikr, the mantric recitation of divine names; fikr, linking these names with breath-work; muraqaba, the meditative technique of stilling the mind; muhasaba, contemplation or discursive meditation; and wird, Sufi prayers.

Of course, the most characteristic meditative practice of Sufism is dhikr, or ‘remembrance.’ This is a practice of repeating one of the waza’if, sacred phrases or divine names, to create a kind of ‘fly-wheel’ effect in consciousness, so that one is in continuous remembrance of God—Allah. On another level, this practice may also lead to a melting away of all discursive functioning, leaving only interior silence and the presence of God.[1] Dhikr can be performed in a variety of ways, vocally (dhikr jahri) or in silence (dhikr khafi).[2] Often different Sufi orders are even distinguished by the style of their dhikr; for instance, Qadiri Sufis are known for their passionate vocal dhikr. Moreover, most Sufi orders have a distinctive mode of vocalizing the phrase, La illaha illa-llah—‘No god, but God’—sometimes with accompanying movements. This is done both as a group and in solitary practice, and usually with the aid of a tasbih, a string of ninety-nine beads carried by most Sufi initiates.[3]

Though fikr is sometimes used as a general term for contemplation, its more particular usage has to do with linking the remembrance of the sacred phrase, or wazifa (singular form of waza’if), with the rhythm of the breath, so that “not a single breath passes without the remembrance of God.”[4] Because the wazifa is remembered silently in fikr, it is also known as dhikr al-qalbi, the ‘remembrance of the heart.’ In some orders where dhikr al-qalbi is the dominant mode of practice, it is sometimes said that remembrance is a ‘spiritual wine.’ Thus, they say, doing it aloud is like spilling the wine down your shirt, while silent recitation allows it to flow directly into the heart, creating holy intoxication.[5] One simple, effective practice used among Universalist Sufis, is to put the English phrase ‘Toward the One’ on the breath:[6]

Without changing your breathing pattern, begin to think ‘Toward the One’ with each inhalation and exhalation. As you breathe in and out, identify with the breath going in and out of your body. Now, make the length of your inhalation and exhalation even, breathing in a calm and refined manner. Continue in this manner for at least ten minutes.

The practice of meditation as popularly understood, as a breathing or concentration practice leading to the stilling of the mind, is known as muraqaba in Sufism. In some ways, this is a false distinction, as dhikr, fikr, muhasaba, and even wird may also lead to the stilling of the mind and opening to the Divine. Nevertheless, in terms of technique, muraqaba has most in common with the more familiar yogic concentration and breathing practices found in Hinduism and Buddhism. Muraqaba ranges from specific concentration techniques focusing on objects and images, to techniques focusing on the breath, especially in different lengths of inhalation, exhalation and retention.[7] Both muraqaba and fikr can also be done as walking meditation practices.

Muhasaba is a word that has to do with ‘balancing accounts’ and ‘precise calculation’ and is used in two senses: self-examination, or taking account of one’s own personal thoughts and actions; and a thorough examination of spiritual ideas and ideals, contemplating them in a discursive meditation. As mentioned before, fikr, meaning ‘reflection,’ is in some ways a better word for the latter type of contemplation. Nevertheless, the accounting quality of muhasaba tells us something important about the nature of discursive meditation. It must be more than ‘simple reflection.’ It must be a deeply penetrating, thorough examination of a concept in all its details, including all of its associated thoughts and feelings.

The final meditative practice of Sufism is wird, the prayer of the Sufis. This is prayer apart from salat, the normative prayer practice of Islam, or from any other tradition. Extra or supererogatory prayers such as these are usually called nawafil, but wird has a more specific usage in Sufism, being the prescribed prayers of particular Sufi order, the daily work of its adherents. While prayer is not generally associated with meditation, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, at least, it has never really been separate from meditation. For it has long been acknowledged in these traditions that deeper levels of prayer lead to ecstasy, to profound contemplation, and even to interior silence.



1. The classic description of dhikr is found in Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali’s Deliverance from Ignorance, nicely translated in Massud Farzan, The Tale of the Reed Pipe: Teachings of the Sufis (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1974), 51-52. 

2. See the interesting discussion of vocal and silent dhikr in relation to the successors of Muhammad in Gregory Blann, The Garden of Mystic Love: Sufism and the Turkish Tradition (Nashville, TN: Sundog Press, 2005), 14-15. 

3. The ninety-nine beads are for the ninety-nine ‘beautiful names’ of God.

4. Javad Nurbakhsh, In the Paradise of the Sufis (New York: Khaniqahi-Nimatullahi Publications, 1979), 34. 

5. Nurbakhsh, In the Paradise of the Sufis, 34-35. 

6. Universalist Sufism is a perennial Sufism associated with the first Sufi to come into the West, Hazrat Inayat Khan (d. 1927). “Toward the One” is the first line of his famous prayer of the same name composed in English by Inayat Khan. 

7. Perhaps the most accessible presentation of a Sufi murraqaba practice is found in Puran Bair, Living from the Heart: Heart Rhythm Meditation (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998). Another excellent traditional presentation is found in Nurjan Mirahmadi, The Healing Power of Sufi Meditation (Detroit, MI: Islamic Supreme Council of America, 2005).