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.