An eye is meant to see things.
The soul is here for its own joy.
A head has one use: for loving a true love.
Legs: to run after.
-“Someone Digging in the Ground”, Book 8
(Most of this Intro is loosely paraphrased and all quotes are taken from Coleman Burks excellent volume The Essential Rumi)
For Jalal ad-Din Rumi, life was filled with prose, each moment poetic in some way. He saw God as a Lover, and as a consequence wanted nothing more than to drown himself in God’s passion. He was totally immersed in his search for God, and according to his poetry, incredibly joy-filled for doing so. Yet how was his joy shown and where did it come from? These are easy questions to answer if we only look to Rumi’s life and poetry.
Rumi, a word that literally means “from Roman Anatolia”, was born Jelaluddin Balkhi on September 30, 1207, in Balkh, Afghanistan, which then was part of the Persian empire. His family emigrated to Konya, Anatolia [modern Turkey], under threat of invasion from the Mongol armies sometime during his late childhood. His father was a sheikh, or master, of a Muslim order, the members of which were called dervishes, or persons who are “poor in spirit”. When his father died, Rumi succeeded his father in the position of sheikh in the dervish learning community in Konya. His life seems to have been a fairly normal one until the late fall of 1244, when he met the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz, with whom he became inseparable. Their relationship became one of the great friendships in history. They spent months together in vibrant conversation without appeasing human needs. When Rumi’s students began to complain about their teacher’s neglect, Shams disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. At this point, Rumi became a mystic poet. His poetry became his conversation with God, the dervish community, and Shams. When Rumi and Shams met again, they fell at each other’s feet, humbling themselves to one another, and took up the mystical conversation once again. Shams stayed at Rumi’s home and married a young girl in his household. On the night of December 5, 1248, as Rumi and Shams were talking, Shams was called to the back door and was never seen again (he was most likely killed by Rumi’s son, Allaedin). His mysterious disappearance consumed Rumi’s existence. Rumi searched for Shams endlessly, even journeying to Damascus to look for him, but after months of disappointment, he realized that in his search for Shams, he was actually looking for himself, for they were the same. At this point, the search ended and their union became complete. (Barks, On Rumi)
Rumi’s poetry, the lyrical discussion of his and Sham’s union with each other and with God, became the centerpiece of his teachings and of Sufi tradition. Three particular characteristics stand out for me in Rumi’s poetry: love, humility, and passion for the divine. Let’s consider them one at a time.
The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind I was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.
-Book 8, pg. 106
Rumi’s life of joy was intricately enmeshed with his ability to love God and others. This ability came directly from his fundamental belief that knowledge of God could only be experienced, not taught. His poetry shows us that in order to truly connect with one another and more importantly, with God, we need to find our inherent loving nature within and allow that nature to pervade our entire being. That love will bind us together and to God in a weaving that cannot be distorted.
Rumi’s poetry also suggests that love of self is not less important but less demanding than love of God and others. We know our needs already and should not try to discern their meaning. True meaning comes only from God revealing God’s nature within us. Rumi’s love flowed from the meaning he found in his search for God. This was also the source for his joy. If his love was to ultimately show God’s Divine nature, then joy would have to intermingle with the love he felt and bestowed upon others. His life’s joy would equate to his delight in loving another and in loving God. Thus, only in his love for God and others would Rumi truly experience joy. This explains Rumi’s constant attitude of loving devotion. His life, filled with love, was consequently also filled with joy.
Passion for the Divine
In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.
-Book 10, pg. 122
Rumi developed a sacred whirling dance for his students that allowed them to better experience the Divine within themselves and each other. The dance, known only from the Sufi order – Mevlevi – in which it began, was intended to develop within the dancer such a riveting passion for the Divine that he would not know himself from the Divine. Huston Smith, in his Introduction for Rumi’s poetry, states that in Rumi’s original version of the dance, the dancer circled a pillar in the mosque; with one hand cupped around the pillar, the dancer leaned back as he gyrated. In later versions of the dance, the dancers formed a circle, then revolved first around a red sheepskin representing Rumi’s teacher, Shams of Tabriz, and then around Rumi himself. The dancers whirled around with both arms extended, one palm cupped upward to receive God’s grace and the other cupped downward to empty that grace onto the world. From the practice of this dance, Rumi’s disciples soon became known as the Whirling Dervishes. (Barks, xii-xiii)
Because Rumi was a mystic, the experience of the Divine was only known from within his being. The dance therefore speaks first from the outside in – in seeing split second fractions of each person’s face the dancer would understand the universality of God within all of us – then from the inside out, allowing the dancer to feel enmeshed with the Divine and with all of humankind all at once. The dance was developed as part of Rumi’s meditative practice. His ever present need to experience the Divine drove him mad with passion and the dance allowed him to vent that passion. His poetry sprang from the dance, and the expressive dance sprang from the madness.
Humble living does not diminish. It fills.
Going back to a simpler self gives wisdom.
-Book 13, pg.146
Dancing. Poetry. The spinning madness of the Whirling Dervishes. Passion for the Divine within each one of us. All of these were consuming aspects of Rumi’s life. Yet, like Jesus, his humility before God and others may have been his greatest joy. From his dancing, which specifically focused on the ways in which we are the same, to his poetry, which often showed how different we all are, his life sang of joy through simple living and avid respect for each human being. Yet what were the facets of this humility that abounded in joyful living?
To answer this question, we must first examine why Rumi was humble in the first place. As I said earlier, Rumi was the Sufi spiritual master within his area. His poetry was famous within his lifetime, spreading from his own disciples to many others within his land. He created a dance that soon became synonymous with Sufism. His disciples perfected the art of the dance, which they attributed completely to Rumi, and respectfully placed their master in the inner circle of their whirling. Rumi had power and prestige, two characteristics most people crave incessantly, within his lifetime. So why was he humble?
Rumi believed whole-heartedly that everything that occurred within his lifetime came from God. Everything he thought of, including the dance and his poetry, was from God and was therefore God’s. Part of Rumi’s humility came from the fact that he did not own the things that had made him famous. God owned all that Rumi did, and Rumi held himself accountable to this ownership. If Rumi lapsed into ownership, believing himself to be the source of all of his greatness, he simply drove the madness of his passion for God deeper into his psyche. In the madness, he believed so completely that he could be one with God that he did not see anything else. Everything he accomplished within his life was therefore a joint venture, with the ownership of the accomplishment residing on God’s side.
Imagine if you didn’t take credit for anything you did that was a positive influence in other’s lives or your own life. How would you feel? Probably pretty joyful or pretty depressed, depending on which way you look at it. If you look at this kind of ownership from a point of view that springs from a desire to please yourself, then you’d probably be pretty depressed if you couldn’t take credit for your positive accomplishments. You did the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual work to accomplish these things; why shouldn’t you take the credit for them? Yet, if you look at ownership from a point of view that springs from a desire to please God, then you’d probably be pretty joyful in your lack of ownership. Your joy would reside in your knowledge that God was the source of your positive accomplishments and really deserved the credit for them anyway. Taking this latter point of view could allow you to live in fame and riches, but not own either since your accomplishments only exist for the glory of God. At a moment’s notice, if you believed God wanted you to, you could give up everything you had accomplished. This, I believe, was exactly how Rumi felt about his life. Thus, Rumi lived in humility and in joy because his attitude towards ownership decreed it.