A Short Guide to Chilla
the program sessions, logistics, resources
About the Sufi Way
First, a couple of words about the Sufi Way… Our heritage is a classical Sufi lineage, our approach is current and universal, and Sufi Way teachings and practices draw from many traditions in a spirit of respect and creativity. While you are here, also look under Programs for the on-land programs that we offer. And for possible community in your area, look under About Us / Local Centers. We would love to meet and interact with you not just online but in person as well.
About This Year’s Sessions: What Is Chilla?
Many ideas for and about chilla are described in the announcement for the program. For convenience I’m reviewing that announcement here and adding background information.
Adventures in Being Here — A new direction …
There are many ways we humans avoid being here. We resist what is, we evade what we’re feeling, we deflect who we are and who we might become. To help break through these avoidances, Sufi teachers have often prescribed to their students unusual tasks or out-of-the-ordinary challenges that have the power to disrupt routines and reveal unexpected insight and transformation.
These tasks are called chilla. A chilla is essentially an adventure in being here. It is an experience you take on willingly and wholeheartedly — a chilla is never obligatory or forced. Some chillas take only a few minutes to accomplish, others may take hours, days, even years. Often chillas are given by a teacher, but they may also be chosen by oneself or through an oracular process like throwing the I Ching or opening a book at random to find guidance.
In this year’s Living Sufism program, we will take a deep dive into the experience of chilla. Each session will begin a month-long adventure in which we will be challenged to open beyond habitual patterns and ways of experiencing our lives.
Interpolation: Origin and Historical Use of Chilla in Sufism and other traditions
The word chilla is adapted from Persian tradition, where it originally referred to forty-day transitions between seasons. In Sufi circles in Persia and India the same word came to be used for a forty-day retreat, generally in isolation, combined with different kinds of rigorous practice. In some places the word chilla was used for a place of retreat or practice, sometimes also called a chilla-khana. An especially rigorous chilla, called chilla-yi, involved the retreatant hanging upside down in a well.
Traditional Sufis were often challenged by religious ideologues to justify what they believed and did, so they would look for precedents in scripture. One precedent cited for doing chilla was a 40-night vigil said to have been prescribed to Moses. In some orders, a chilla could only be given by a very senior teacher. However, the great Persian poet Shemsuddin Hafiz is said to have, at the age of 60 and on his own, drawn a circle around himself and refused to step beyond the circle for forty days. It is said that his poetry after that chilla was even more profound, brilliant.
Chilla also became a practice in some musical schools, like those among Indian classical musicians, and their tabla (drum) players in particular. A great Indian classical singer is quoted as saying: “It is a great burning, and at the end of the forty days either all the impurity is burned away or you are left with a heap of ashes…”.
Introduction in the Sufi Way
In 1978-79, Murshid Fazal Inayat-Khan, founder of the Sufi Way, introduced a different form of chilla into the community. These chillas were also tasks, activities, experiences offered in response to a secret wish or intention of the person requesting the chilla. Sometimes the person giving the chilla – usually Murshid Fazal – did not know who the person requesting the chilla was. The time period generally ranged from 1 to 3 days, different levels of intensity could be selected, and writing a report after doing the chilla was encouraged.
Once he had launched them, Murshid Fazal made extensive use of chillas, developing them in style and approach over many years. I was quite involved with the early years of what we might call the Chilla Project and was deeply inspired and even shaped by those ideas and experiences. Some of the aspects were
Sharing a framework that explored the idea of Inductive psychology, and how it differed from Deductive psychology.
The importance of framing an intention or wish, so there was an element of self-guidance in the chilla.
How new energy and resources might be uncovered in response to strong challenges and in attempting something beyond habitual boundaries and comfort zones. How the chilla-doer might surprise themselves by responding/reacting to an experience in an unusual way, and how that new perspective and new energy might become an integrated part of the chilla-doer’s life.
The aspect of the oracular, of receiving chillas that were given without the giver knowing who the receiver was. This connected with the idea of synchronicity, the idea that events that took place in the same moment were connected on a different level of significance and meaning.
In later years Murshid Fazal developed a nuanced and very diversified vocabulary in the Chilla-sphere. He integrated more contemplative and reflective aspects into the chillas he framed. Where earlier they had been mostly oracular, he now tailored them to specific people, often setting them to be done over longer periods. Sometimes he personally debriefed them, sometimes he did that together with others. There were chillas of activity and chillas of repose, chillas of being in harmony with and chillas of being out of harmony, chillas with a clear goal and chillas that seemed to go nowhere … etc.
One aspect seemed to remain: the initial impulse or suggestion of the chilla was grounded in action, in a doing, in having a new experience or a familiar experience somehow framed in a new way that gave it a special focus and even intensity.
People were inspired by the challenge and the mystery of what might lie on the other side, often something that couldn’t be put into words. Some found new levels of energetic potential, some people had new intuitive insights or found new levels of creativity. Some people felt that their chillas prepared them also for larger tasks or challenges in life, including maturing in relationship, dealing with crises and even ageing and dying.
Our Living Sufism Chillas
Our context for exploring chillas is different, quite unique — i.e., we are communicating them over the telephone, and to a group. Our requirements are different, and our possibilities are different. We have thought of what chillas can be for us today and created a program with a variety of experiences and purposes. Some may suit you well, others less so; we think if you keep an open mind you may find some value in all of them.
One common feature is that our chillas start with a given area of intention, or what you might want, hope to get. Those are the themes that will be explained in each monthly introduction. For example, one month a chilla may be about being of service, another month a chilla may be about acknowledging and honoring your own creative gifts, championing them.
Now, returning to the part of the Announcement that is about how this will happen:
During our on-line sessions together a senior teacher of the Sufi Way will introduce a theme and invite us to engage with one or more chillas on that theme during the coming month. In the first part of the next session, that same teacher will open up the microphones to whomever wishes to share their experience of the chilla they just completed. And then a different teacher will give the next theme and chilla
Debriefing can be an important part of the chilla process. Every session except this first one will begin with a half hour debriefing of the previous months chilla. Because of the limited time available for this during our sessions, a number of teachers of the Sufi Way will also be available for individual telephone or email debriefing of your chilla experiences. If you wish to connect with one of them after you have engaged with your chilla, you can find their email addresses, with a short bio, on the Guides page on the Living Sufism webspace, which is itself part of the Sufi Way website. If you wish to speak with one of the guides by phone, just send them an email and arrange a convenient time for a call or a Skype/Zoom meeting.
You will also find on the same webspace the recording of each month’s chilla presentation, plus the description of the chilla itself, and other resources for that month.
One last point: you are also most welcome to listen in on any of this year’s Living Sufism sessions without engaging in the suggested chillas. As you will see in the list of sessions, the themes we will be exploring are relevant for all of us at any period in our lives. Considering them in depth, and listening to how others engage with them, is an adventure in being here and in our uncommon communion together.
We will review and repeat this structure in each session but if you have trouble with it, please contact any one of us. Here is the structure in brief:
1. There will be 9 calls during the year, and eight chillas.
2. In each call, a new chilla topic is introduced and chilla(s) given by one of our teachers. Participants are invited to do that chilla over the following month
3. At the beginning of the next session there will be half-hour for sharing, debriefing the previous month’s chilla, then another teacher will give the next chilla
4. The chilla and some related resources will be posted on the Living Sufism website.
5. People who wish to discuss and de-brief their experience more fully can do it with any one of the guides listed on the website.
6. People who get confused, lose track of the process, find themselves questioning the entire purpose of the exercise can contact any of the guides for clarification, etc.
7. Remember that self-care is important, self-responsibility is key.
A couple suggestions to hold on to
Try, and trust the trying. Suspend disbelief for a while, see what happens.
If you find yourself thinking, I can’t do this, do the chilla anyway, maybe differently from how you were trying it earlier.
There will be deep intros from the chilla-givers inspiring you to see the value of these out-of-the usual experiences; you can review those intros online if you find yourself looking for inspiration
**** IMPORTANT: How to find the webpage with the information and resources about chilla?
On the home page or landing page for the Sufi Way, which is www.sufiway.org, to the right of the top banner will be a smaller, blue banner that says LIVING SUFISM. If you click on the banner it will take you to the Living Sufism section of the website, where you will find information about this program. In addition to the Introduction, which I reproduced above, there are sections that say
A few hours after each session, that month’s chilla will be posted under CHILLAS & RESOURCES, along with resources that the chilla-giver wants to share with you to help facilitate your chilla and make it deeper and more meaningful. A recording of the session will also be posted there in 2-3 days.
One more thing: These presentations are all happening in English, and that is not a first language for all of us. So, if you need translation or clarification in another language, we’ll also post a list of helpers who can assist in other languages including Dutch, German, French, Italian, perhaps Spanish, even Hindi. Some of them can even translate British English into American and vice versa!
About the Disclaimer
And now, a cautionary part of this introduction: Chillas are self-selected experiences, unsupervised, reliant on your judgment. We have tried to offer chillas that will work for different levels of ability, access, resources. Please be careful, use your judgment and mature care. There is a legal disclaimer on the web page, we – that is the Sufi Way — will assume you accept this fully and freely if you decide to undertake a chilla. Our support team is there to support you, answer questions, help you interpret language, listen to concerns. We don’t prescribe, advise, instruct.
Wishing you joy, deep experience and every success in your adventures in being here.