It was autumn of 1998 when Rumi and I became friends. I was in my first semester of junior year in college; bubbling with excitement and preparations for the following semester which I would spend in Sevilla, Spain. During Thanksgiving break at home, I received a couple of gifts from my brother who had just returned from a business conference in Minneapolis. As the baby of the family, I was accustomed to this. What I did not expect however, was to receive a gift from his friend and co-worker Don, who had also traveled with him. I opened Don’s package to find a small book with a red cover containing 2 CD inserts. The word ‘Eshgh’ (love) was written on the cover weaved-in with its English title, “A Gift of Love Deepak and Friends Present Music Inspired by the Love Poems of Rumi”. Inside the cover, I found an autographed dedication from Deepak Chopra who had been a speaker at this conference.
Being Iranian and from Khorasan, Rumi/Molana was a household name. My grandmother, who passed away when I was 6, is always remembered for reciting this poetry as a cure for everyone’s troubles. Although she had limited formal education, there were two things she read with passion and typically from the archives of her memory, the Quran and Molana. Far from admiration for Rumi, she had woven his essence into the fabric of her life and could hear his wisdom in every situation and scenario. Rumi stayed at her side through her life’s battles, including her final days fighting cancer in a hospital bed in Paris and eventually followed her home to her burial spot under the Imam Reza mosque in Mashhad.
A great deal of time passed and I found myself distances away from my birthplace, my grandmother’s memory and from the crumpled Rumi that I kept in the suitcase of my forgotten heritage. He laid there patiently, waiting for me to grow and mature and one day seek him out. Perhaps I had taken too long, because now it was he who had come to find me. Hiding under a new and surprisingly dazzling, anglicized and commercialized packaging, history repeated itself. In 1998, at the age of 21, I befriended Rumi, just as my grandmother had a lifetime ago. Later I read him in Farsi as well as English and the romance languages of my childhood. I still have the CD Don gave me and listen to it every once in a while. It serves as a reminder of that first drop which turned me toward an ocean and for that I am grateful.
The year is now 2007 and the world unites with UNESCO in celebrating Rumi’s birth. Most of us know more about Rumi than we do about our own roots and ancestors, and that alone speaks volumes. Consider the human memory; how many of us remember what we did on our first vacation or what we had for dinner last Wednesday? 800 years is a long time to be documented, remembered and still relevant. 800 years of existence and he continues to live through the many that discover, study and adore him. Rumi’s books have been translated into innumerable world languages, and in every corner of the globe he continues to be a bestseller. Here, in the United States, Rumi is second only to the Bible, pushing even poor Shakespeare aside. His work is often referred to as a bridge between religions and cultures, and perhaps the answer to many of our modern-day troubles.
At this point, two questions are most likely crossing your minds:
1. What could possibly be significant enough in one man’s message to withstand the adversities of over 7 centuries – with all its wars, revolutions, innovations, transformations, and progress – while not only retaining its validity and relevance, but also its capacity to inspire?
2. Why is it that despite all the academic scholars and researchers that have devoted their lives to answering this first question has this publication (Peyk) chosen me to honor Rumi?
Before you respond, let me quickly add that we do in fact have access to many of these Rumi experts, and nothing that I articulate here is intended to weigh against their examinations and assessments. Regardless of qualifications, I feel more than sufficiently entitled to pay homage to Molana. I believe the key to unlocking the first question, lies in the answer to the second question.
Since the dawn of time, mankind has struggled to sustain a balance between two simultaneous components of its existence; the physical and the spiritual worlds. Despite the expansion of knowledge and its ensuing wave of technology, our story continues in much the same fashion today as it did in the earliest accounts of life. We enter the world through a predestined pathway and begin to absorb what our immediate environment offers us. We eventually learn a skill or trade by which to satisfy our instinctual needs and assure our security, well-being and survival. The rest of our existence is spent indulging our spiritual being. We struggle with the soul we each hold prisoner inside our physical body, and much of our energy is spent unraveling the world around, as well as the equally vast world within us. The balancing tug of war between the two worlds may vary for each human being; however, the struggle itself is undoubtedly universal.
Today, we have specialists and experts in almost every imaginable field. For every possible question that our minds may pose, there are just as many answers and theories offered. A quick walk through a library or even a search on Google is sufficient proof of all the remedies at our disposal. Yet in 1995, Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi pushed all of these modern remedies aside to become an international bestseller. It has since sold over half a million copies; further evidence of Rumi’s unparalleled insight into the human condition. One theory on Rumi’s widespread popularity is explained by Barks: “Through Rumi comes a transmission of the divine to this planet in the regions of love. His poetry is a record of his enduring the experience of living at the core. In each human being there is a meeting with the divine. That intersection is the heart. Sufis say the heart is ‘the comprehensive human reality’ and that the way of love is a path of annihilation.”
This concept of the human core is perhaps one of the most solid and complete explanations for how Rumi is able to penetrate diversity with such ease. Our race, culture, and customs may vary but strangely enough that “core” that Barks refers to-perhaps a reflection of our common humanity-is identical. We all have loved in our lives and we all continue to seek our heart’s fulfillment. Each one of us is capable of receiving Rumi’s message and making it our own. Each one of us is capable of drawing inspiration and meaning from both the complexity and the simplicity of his vision. How else could his words resonate across so many languages and over so much time?
What truly captivated me was the longing for a form that lives in the unknown. Barks eloquently expresses my exact sentiments: “His poems help us feel what living in the ruins is like, in the blank state of knowing nothing, of loving one we do not know and have never met, yet who is deeply familiar. Heartbroken, wandering, wordless, lost, and ecstatic for no reason. It’s the psychic space his poems inhabit”. I carried these thoughts loosely with me for years, without the ability to form or express them. Understandably, when I stumbled upon the following poem, I felt incredible chills. I still feel that way each time I read it.
From the beginning of my life
I have been looking for your face
But today I have seen it
Today I have seen the charm, the beauty,
The unfathomable grace
of the face that I was looking for,
Today I have found you,
And those who laughed and scorned me yesterday
Are sorry that they were not looking as I did
I am bewildered by the magnificence of your beauty
And wish to see you with a hundred eyes
My heart has burned with passion
And has searched forever
for this wondrous beauty that I now behold
I am ashamed to call this love human
And afraid of God to call it divine
Your fragrant breath
like the morning breeze
Has come to the stillness of the garden
You have breathed new life into me
I have become your sunshine
and also your shadow
My soul is screaming in ecstasy,
Every fiber of my being is in love with you
Your effulgence has lit a fire in my heart
And you have made radiant for me the earth and sky
My arrow of love has arrived at the target
I am in the house of mercy and
My heart is a place of prayer
Rumi invites us to seek out questions, in lieu of answers. He challenges us to evaluate our success by the joy in experiencing the journey instead of our proximity to a desired destination. He asks us to remain open to all the elements surrounding us and allow them to inspire, teach and surprise us. He invites us to give in to silence and sit down with the emptiness inside us, simply to observe.
After days of feasting, fast
After days of sleeping, stay awake
one night. After these times of bitter
storytelling, joking and serious considerations, we should give ourselves
two days between layers of baklava
in the quiet seclusion where soul sweetens
and thrives more than with language.
Rumi celebrates life by staying engaged in every moment and with every breath. He calls us to join him in celebrating this collective consciousness where we each have our individual meeting with the divine. Rumi invites us to truly LIVE, and what that will ultimately signify for each one of us may be entirely different than the other; but that does not matter. The conclusion is not nearly as important as the practice itself.
He wants us to experience both joy and agony eagerly, refusing neither and understanding the interdependence of these elements and their significance to our overall appreciation of life. Rumi asks that we surrender to love without fear and embrace the outcome, whether it be pleasurable or painful. He believes that only when we are willing to gamble can we ever have a chance at experiencing something significant.
You wreck my shop and my house and now my heart
but how can I run from what gives me life?
I’m weary of personal worrying, in love
with the art of madness! Tear open my shame
and show the mystery. How much longer
do I have to fret with self-restraint and fear?
Friends, this is how it is: we are fringe
sewn inside the lining of a robe. Soon
we’ll be loosened, the binding threads torn
out. The beloved is a lion. We’re
the lame deer in his paws. Consider
what choices we have!
Rumi experts occasionally dispute over factors ranging from interpretations of translations to his family roots and origin. Some disagree on his Persian nationality and claim him as their own. Others hold opposing views regarding his religion or intentions with references to God, divinity and the Quran. His relationship with Shams is also a subject of debate. Only a few undisputable facts remain, such as Farsi being his native tongue and the original language of his work. Much of the rest becomes irrelevant as his message transcends above any barriers we may impose. In my opinion, this is because Rumi’s true holder is his audience which is all of humanity. I am fairly certain that he intended for all of us to connect with him as directly and unshakably as he connected with us-the human spirit itself-and as convincingly as he wants us to connect with our own existence.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, Sufi, or zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
During these days when we are surrounded with darkness and full of questions, we are also faced with many quick offers of flashy recipes for enlightenment in pre-packaged solutions. Many speak on behalf of not only Rumi, but the prophets, and even God himself; and many of us blindly line up behind them to listen. In my case if I have learned anything from Rumi, it is that the only connection worthy of engagement – in nature, love or divinity – is the one that is direct. For this reason, I do not think it would matter to Rumi if this humble reverence to his memory was written by Coleman Barks, a Sufi dervish, my grandmother, or even me. In fact it is precisely this direct connection with people from all walks of life that is the key to his immortality. Nor do I think he cares that I found him in a CD more than if it had been in a workshop, meditation, old Farsi book, or the middle of a disco. I think he is simply happy that I let him in long enough to steal my heart. Regardless of the manner in which we find him, we should all try to emulate him and build our legacy around love with the hope that one day we too can be consumed by it. For me, nine years have passed since the day I first opened The Gift of Love and I continue to feel the ripples it sends my way; and for that very reason, life is much sweeter in the pond. Rumi is now my companion just like he was once my grandmother’s and just as I know he is yours.
Mersedeh Mehrtash is the English editor of PEYK magazine published in San Diego California where this article was first published.