Sufi meditation is a mystical practice followed by some Sunni Muslims. Its goal is to come from the confines of the illusory physical world and become one with Allah, or God. In order to do this, the practitioner, known as a dervish, first seeks unity with a mentor, then with the prophet Muhammad, and ultimately with Allah. In the Western world, dervishes and the practice of Sufism are most commonly associated with the "whirling dervishes" of Turkey, but Sufi meditation comprises a separate aspect of Sufi practice.
Understanding a few spiritual components of Sufism is key to understanding the practice of Sufi meditation. All Muslims believe in adhering to the five pillars of Islam in order to reach paradise after death, but Sufis believe that closeness to Allah can be experienced in this life through additional practices. The ultimate goal of Sufi belief is to experience unity with Allah by giving up things that bind one to the physical world and by encouraging a constant remembrance of Allah. Meditation aids the believer in this aim.
According to Sufi belief, the world as perceived by humans' physical senses is an illusion. Only meditation can allow a person to experience true reality, which is perceived through a second set of senses. In some Sufi traditions, one goal of meditation is to allow the second senses to roam freely and experience the sights, sounds, tastes, etc., of the entire world. Through this or other related practices, the dervish experiences what is known as "Noble Connection" to the unseen realities of Allah.
Sufi meditation typically begins under the guidance of a Shaykh, also known as a Sheikh or Mentor. Shaykhs are believed to have received authority from an unbroken succession of other Shaykhs leading back to the time of Muhammad. In the early stages of meditation, the dervish may be asked to concentrate on an image, either in his or her mind or with the physical eyes of the Shaykh, and to clear his or her mind of all other things. Meditation may take place in complete darkness to minimize sensory input.
Eventually, the Shaykh enters the dervish's heart completely, and the Shaykh and the dervish are unified constantly even while the practitioner is not in a state of active meditation. The dervish is then ready to attempt the next phase of meditation, in which the Shaykh guides the dervish to complete unity with Muhammad. If this is achieved, the dervish proceeds toward complete unity with Allah. People who reach unity with Allah say that phases beyond this cannot be expressed in words, but must rather be experienced. These people are then eligible to become Shaykhs and to lead others in meditation.
Like other types of meditation such as yoga, practicing Sufi meditation may have physical and emotional benefits as well as spiritual ones. The stillness and controlled breathing of meditation may reduce the physiological effects of stress. It may also lead to mental clarity and well-being.