What I’ve Learned from Spinning


© isabel cooney

It occurred to me this morning that the expression “being in whirling dervish mode” is a serious misnomer. For most of my existence thus far I’ve felt like a whirling dervish incarnate. From the moment my feet hit the floor in the morning to the moment I flopped into bed, running on empty, my days were a series of back-to-back sprints.

Rest remained a foreign concept. An empty spot on my calendar was nothing other than a gap to fill. If all of my tasks for the day had been dutifully checked off, this only meant I had time to cram some other activity in: start a load of laundry, walk the dog, call a friend …

My wellspring of must-do’s and should-do’s never ran dry. The animal I most resembled was an ant, for its tireless chin-up, march-on attitude. The squirrel was a close second, for its jumpy, scurrying frenzy, its up-and-down, back-and-forth gathering and stashing. In such a rush that it loses track of more than half of its own hiding places.

After a (long) while, I started paying attention to my marathon mentality and began, little by little, learning how to slow down. I’m still learning, and practicing, of course. Each day there seems to be another clue or sign to guide me toward that place of stillness and equilibrium.

For reasons I can not explain, I had a curiosity about, and felt drawn to, whirling dervishes, for much of my life. I was vaguely conscious of having dreamed of spinning, in my sleep. It remained in a corner of my mind until the day I received an unsolicited invitation to participate in a whirling dervish workshop, in the small French university town where I live. One of those inexplicable gifts that falls into your lap, that you were waiting for without quite knowing it. One of those mysterious guiding signs.

The discovery was both frightening and liberating. A door had been opened, and I wanted to keep crossing its threshold. I realized I could spin!

Over the course of the last couple of years, I have renewed the experience, both with my teacher, Aya, and on my own: at home, in an empty stone church, on a dance floor, in a grassy park. The more I practice and understand of this moving meditation, the clearer it becomes that whirling in dervish mode is anything but frenzied.

To enter into the appropriate trance, you must cease to be elsewhere. You must cease to hold onto little details and peripheral distractions. If you did try to hold on to something, the centrifugal force would draw it away anyhow.


© isabel cooney


You become inhabited by breath: your breath, which fuses with the breath of the great unknown. To remain solidly on your feet, to truly turn freely, you must abandon your grasping, your illusion of control. Thus, you become an axis, joining the earth and the sky. You are at the center, and the center is within you.

This rooted position, with its built-in winged lightness, seems to me to be the true opposite of the reckless chaos so often attributed to a whirling dervish, at least in common parlance. Having tasted both, I find the flavors different to the extreme. Perhaps the gentle, warming spice of whirling as a dervish can be better appreciated when you have known the sugar-sweet jolts and acidic plunges of whirling in your own chaotic bubble.

A certain balance, between all of these forces and flavors: this remains what I seek.

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