The Five Aspects of Prayer and the Five Elements
by Pir Zia Inayat-Khan
aspects of prayer are described by the Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat
Khan. I have found a correspondence between these and the Five
Elements to which we attune through the Purification Breaths.
time for the breath practice is first thing in the morning, outside
or in front of an open window. Practise it standing, or if necessary
sitting with your back straight. Once you are familiar with the
breaths, it is better to keep the eyes open, but at first you can
close your eyes.
element is Earth, and the first aspect of prayer is gratitude.
breath is inhaling and exhaling through the nose. To attune to ones
relationship with the earth one needs to awaken to ones subtle
energetic body. In the same way that the physical body is
continuously nourished by digesting and metabolizing the physical
substance of the planet, on a subtle level our magnetic field is
nourished by the magnetism of the planet.
useful to first locate the rhythm of your heart. Then see if you can
find the echo of the heartbeat in your hands, feet and head.
Scientists used to speak of the heart as the pump of the circulatory
system, but now it is understood that the heart itself is pumped by
the collective action of the entire circulatory system. So you cant
think of your heart as being limited to your chest. In fact, if you
feel the pulsation of circulation in your hands, fingertips, feet and
head, you may feel that there is no definite boundary. When you eyes
are closed, your hands dont feel as if they are made up of
five fingers, but rather you feel the vibration that pulses through
the hands, expanding in all directions and forming a field that
emanates into space.
have attuned to your electromagnetic field, as you inhale you can
become conscious of how your life field expands with the influx of
energy from the earth through the soles of your feet, through the
palms of your hands and through the base of your spine. Then as you
exhale, feel yourself collapsing into the gravitational field of the
earth, sinking down to be composted and recycled in the body of the
earth. So you have to overcome the idea that you are separate from
the earth. Remember that your cells are always dividing, new cells
being born and old cells dying in the space of five years,
ones entire body is recycled. So one thinks of oneself as a
cell in the body of the earth, in which the earth has articulated
itself in order to experience itself.
open your eyes.
the element earth is a specific quality of prayer, which is
thanksgiving. Every day is an opportunity to count ones
blessings, instead of the opposite which is to enumerate our troubles
and of course in doing so we attract more trouble to
ourselves. For example, if we give a gift to someone, and that person
appears indifferent and shows no gratitude, we are less likely to
give a gift to that person again. Its the same way with the
is not only for the sake of obliging the one who has given us
something; it is for our own sake, because when one is inattentive to
the blessings of life, even that which one has been given is as if it
were absent. But for the one who is grateful, even when that for
which one is grateful is no longer with you, it remains present
because of your gratitude. Gratitude immortalizes ones
experience because in gratitude one lives life vividly. That for
which you are grateful engages your full attention and comes alive in
So we can
always remind ourselves to count our blessings, and you will find
that it really does affect your attitude in life. When you realize
how much has been given to you, you simply feel happy. and if you are
happy, then other people are less likely to feel threatened by you,
and so consequently they are more likely to be nice to you.
minute now. Invoke one object of your experience: a person, animal,
plant, object, or an aspect of nature like the blueness of the sky.
As the Sufis say, taste it, savour it, enjoy it in your mind, feel
what it means to live in a world in which you have the privilege of
experiencing that thing.
return to our breath, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through
the mouth. One becomes attuned to the more fluid dimension of one’s
subtle being. The body from the outside looks solid, but we know that
we are more than 75 percent water. A Sufi poet once said, ‘That
which I took for stillness was the essence of movement’. He
meant that when I walk and move around, I feel that I am solid, but
when I sit in meditation, I feel the motion within, in the same way
that water is buried deep under the earth. The pulsation of the water
within carries the memory of the state of the womb – that state
of primal unity in which we were bathed in the water of compassion;
and the pulsation of the mother’s heartbeat that filled the
womb carried a deeper memory, the memory of the primeval ocean from
which our life emerged. The ebb and flow of the waves of the primeval
ocean carries the memory of the ocean of light.
the breath we become conscious once again of this ancient lineage of
pulsation that continues to flow through us. Feel yourself washed
within as the water flows through every particle of your body and
washes away everything that is superfluous, bringing movement where
there was no movement, washing away the blockages and obstructions
that allow emotion to flow freely, because the true nature of emotion
is motion. As Hazrat Inayat Khan says, the water that purifies the
heart is the continual running of the love stream.
We come to
the aspect of prayer that relates to water, and that is repentance,
which is most beautifully expressed in tears of repentance. There is
the story of a Sufi who was in the habit of praying five times a day.
Once, going to sleep late, he was going to miss his morning prayer,
when a supernatural creature came and woke him up. You would think
that must have been an angel, but it was the devil. You can imagine
how surprised he was that the devil should wake him up so that he
could say his prayers! The devil explained, ‘I saw that you
were going to miss your prayer, and I knew that when you woke up you
would be so disappointed in yourself that you would cry, and a tear
of repentance of such grace and beauty would fall from your eye that
it would wash away all the sins of the world’.
the perfume of repentance. Repentance is the act of accepting
responsibility for one’s mistakes, one’s shortcomings,
ones limitation. One needs to make the vow not to repeat the
mistake, and enquire into oneself to understand the condition that
gave rise to that mistake so that one learns from it, and then leave
the matter to the divine mercy.
natural tendency is for the ego, the small self, to perpetuate itself
by promoting its agenda and suppressing other people. Denied by the
ego, the impression of the mistake, of the harmful action, is
repressed and becomes unconscious, but it lingers within oneself as a
source of guilt. The mistake belongs to the ego, but there is another
part of oneself that never made the mistake, that is ones
soul. Since the ego denies the mistake and therefore the impression
of it, the guilt becomes a covering over the soul, covering that
which is purity itself. For the soul to reclaim its light, the ego
has to accept its responsibility, to bring the error back into
consciousness and attempt to grow and not repeat the mistake. Then
one finds that the soul becomes liberated because all of that residue
of guilt and sin is cleared, and the soul can shine through with such
confidence that every action becomes a holy work.
it seems like an unpleasant thing to do, to return to bad memories,
but one finds that there is much grace that comes when one finally
does face up to the Shadow, accept responsibility and turn to the
source of forgiveness. There was a Sufi named Samad who said,
‘Although I regret my error, I feel so privileged that my
limitation allowed me to experience the incredible beauty of Your
forgiveness’. In fact, the Sufis say that the most essential
qualities of the divine nature are mercy and compassion. So if there
were no error, mistakes, sin, then that which is most essential to
reality would have no scope to express itself.
we again take a moment in silence. This time, look to see if there is
something lingering in the depths of your mind that you don’t
feel quite right about, but you haven’t allowed yourself to
look at closely. Try to move beyond the rationales, the excuses that
you give yourself, and really listen to the voice of your conscience
which can see beyond that.
imagine what it would be like to be a child who has made a mistake,
admits it and turns to the loving embrace of a parent.
of fire is inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose.
The temperature of our body is an indication that we are in a process
of perpetual combustion. Combustion means that matter is quickened;
particles escape their frozen conditions and begin to move rapidly,
and as a consequence great amounts of energy are released. It is the
same as in history when great empires or institutions have fallen and
suddenly there are new opportunities and a great surge of creativity
and freedom. Physiologically the rate of one’s metabolism can
be intensified by consciously cultivating heat. What begins as heat
in the lower centres rises and is transmuted into light in the higher
centres. As one does this one can imagine what it means to have a
countenance, a face, like the sun.
to your natural breath.
direction of earth is spreading (gratitude); the direction of water
is descending (the mercy and grace that descends with repentance);
the direction of fire is rising: supplication, which means asking for
one’s need. Sometimes we wonder whether we ought to ask for our
need. I recently visited a church where they told the congregation
they must never ask anything from God. That is a genuine teaching,
but it belongs to a very high level of attainment, to the station of
one who has no expectations; but as long as you are hopeful of
something, then you have something to ask for. You might say, why
should I impose upon God to help me with what seems like a trifling
matter? And moreover it might be said that if God is omniscient and
omnipotent, it means that God already knows what I want and if He/She
hasn’t fulfilled it there must be a reason that I don’t
problem with that argument is that it is based on duality: God
outside there and me over here. But what if one understood one’s
relationship with God as the Sufis do, as two ends of a line. On one
end is a state of limitation, but nonetheless a state of
actualization, and the other side is an unlimited and yet
unactualized state. So the actualization of the unlimited can only be
through the limited being. In fact it is in prayer that the two poles
come together, because in articulating your need you bring your
desire into concrete reality, through your thought and emotion.
begins as a universal impulse of ishq, of longing, but still
very vague and unformed. Then when it becomes more clear it becomes a
desire. Then when the desire becomes more clear, it becomes a wish.
And when the wish becomes more clear it becomes a will, and it’s
through will that everything is accomplished in this world.
supplication is the process of clarifying one’s desire, letting
one’s desire resonate and pulsate within oneself and become
more and more strong and focused until it attracts its own
fulfilment. Hazrat Inayat Khan said something very challenging: if
your desire was not fulfilled it means that you did not know how to
desire. It’s also true that sometimes we pray ardently for
something and something else happens. This means that the universe is
not mechanical, it’s not a vending machine; if it were, there
would be no place for evolution. Evolution comes in dialogue: you put
forward your wish, your will, with all sincerity and clarity, and
that will be heard. The answer may not be the answer you expect, but
nonetheless it incorporates the message that you sent in your prayer.
And the answer in turn stimulates a new need, a new desire; it is in
this spirit that our desires themselves evolve and transform.
limitless, and we are creatures of limitation. That is precisely the
role that we have to play: we can offer forth our limitation, that is
our best gift. We can offer forth our sincerest need in faith, in
trust that the answer that is intended will come.
take another moment of silence now. Remember what Hazrat Inayat Khan
says, that the one whose desire is not fulfilled did not know how to
desire. He goes on to say, ‘Failure is due to indistinctness of
motive.’ In fact, our greatest problem in life is being at
cross purposes with ourselves.
imagine that a supernatural being appears, a genie of the lamp, and
says, ‘You can have whatever you want now’. What is it?
exhale through the mouth. Recall that if you were to look at your
body through an electron microscope you would have a very different
profile than the one that you ordinarily see. Your body would look
like the starry sky at night: points of light in the midst of vast
empty space. The points of light are all in motion, and so one’s
sense of solidity is belied by a profounder vision of oneself which
is not a form so much as a choreography. When one becomes frustrated
in the constraint of the more concretized mode of ones being, one can
revert to this dimension and experience the sense of freedom and
liberation that comes with it. Float above everything, and nothing
can weigh you down. One identifies with the primordial state of the
cosmos which was a swirling cloud of gas, rich with infinite
your natural breath.
The next aspect of prayer is invocation. There is a saying of Ali, a
great saint, who said, ‘Pray to God as if you see God’.
What does it mean, to ‘see’ God? It sounds paradoxical.
Of course we keep speaking about God and it seems to take for granted
that we all believe in God. Do you believe in God? If I ask you
whether you believe in God, you’ll probably say, ‘That’s
just a word. Define what you mean, and then I’ll tell you
whether I believe in God or not.’ But perhaps then I would
change the question and instead of giving you a definition I would
ask you to supply the definition of the God that you believe in. If
we did that we might find that we have as many definitions as there
are people. The Sufis say, there are as many paths to God as there
are breaths. Every path is an ideal, and everyone has an ideal.
someone will say, ‘I can’t relate to prayer because I
don’t believe in God and I feel it would be hypocritical to
pray to God whom I don’t believe in’. When you ask why it
is hypocritical, they answer, ‘It is contrary to my sense of
the truth, and truth is something absolute that can never be
compromised; it’s an essential principle; it’s of the
essence.’ Then suddenly a light comes on, and you see: it’s
something prior to all other phenomena; it’s of the nature of
essence, and it’s an absolute principle that cannot be
compromised. You have a God ideal: it’s Truth.
has an ideal; one could not live in this world without an ideal –
one would be broken. When Hazrat Ali speaks of praying to God as if
you see God, it is to bring that ideal from the abstract realm of
conjecture into one’s lived reality. So if one’s God
ideal is the Truth, it means living according to the Truth, reminding
oneself on all occasions of the imperatives of the Truth, seeking the
manifestation of Truth in all things. And you may find that that
which defines the ideal for a person is precisely what that person
needs to develop himself or herself, and it changes at different
times in one’s life.
says, ‘God is what is needed to complete oneself’, so
each of us is a work in progress and there are qualities that belong
to our essence but are not yet adequately expressed in our life and
are struggling to be born. They are brought to our attention in the
form of our ideal, and in life we are attracted to people who
manifest that ideal in a way that we are not yet able to manifest.
That person then becomes a mirror in which our true self sees itself,
because all of the perfection that we witness in the world is only
the reflection of that which exists within ourselves: you cannot
recognize it unless it’s already there in you.
means, to live with that quality of being just as you would live with
another person, to experience it as having such validity, such
vividness in your life, that it is a relationship perhaps more
important than any other relationship.
take another moment in silence. Open your awareness to perfection.
And receive the form, whatever form it is, in which that perfection
manifests itself to you.
return to the breaths, and we’ll review five breaths of each
element beginning with Earth…Water...Fire…Air…
breath return to its natural state, deepened and refined through the
purification of those four elements, feeling them balanced in your
constitution. In this balanced state intuit the presence of the most
fifth and most subtle element, ether.
yourself to the fifth aspect of prayer, which is ‘at-onement’
or communion. A great dervish once said, when you look for God, God
is in the look in your eyes. And so suddenly one realizes that it is
God that prays to God. And the person that you took to be yourself is
just a mirror in which the divine light reflects back on itself.
As we come
to the end of this meditation, feel the soles of your feet on the
ground, and open your eyes.
discourse is an edited transcription of a talk given in Suresnes, Paris
on January 28, 2005.