Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207–1273) was, by common assent, the greatest poet in the history of Islam. He wrote in Farsi and his work is known and loved throughout the Islamic world and beyond. More recently, according to Publisher’s Weekly, Rumi has become the most widely read poet in America.
In many poems, Rumi deals with aging and old age. In “A Man Talking to His House”, Rumi opens with a message, a sweeping statement that the “caravan” of life, or succession of generations from young to old, is actually a pilgrimage of sleepwalkers. No one is fully “awake” to the human condition and to the possibilities for higher consciousness, which would entail “waking up” to a different reality. The mystical branch of Islam is known as Sufism, and one of the goals of Sufism is to “die before you die”: that is, to “wake up” right now, in this life.
LIFE UPSIDE DOWN Rumi is telling us that our ordinary picture of life is upside down, which is of course a difficult message to express as well as to receive. In Rumi's allegory, ordinary life is like sleepwalking, and while we sleep, a “thief” proceeds to steal what is most precious to us. The poet understands that his message is not likely to be well received and he states flatly, “You're angry at me for telling you this.” At this point the poem abruptly shifts tone. Having risked angering his readers with bad news, the poet now proceeds with a joke: The human body is compared to a house that is constantly breaking down, and Rumi imagines a man speaking to his house, which is his body.
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner wrote an inspiring book titled When Bad Things Happen To Good People. But Rumi turns Kushner's idea upside down by inviting us to consider so-called bad things as a message, a wake-up call. In another poem, “The Guest House,” Rumi expands on this theme:
This being human is a guesthouse. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight . . . Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Rumi's metaphor of the mind as a guesthouse gives readers another way of thinking about negative states of mind. Think of this “crowd of sorrows” as perhaps “clearing you out” for something greater. But how do we make this transition in thinking? Contemporary culture puts roadblocks in our path; the American emphasis on cheerfulness makes it ever more difficult to accept the inevitable losses and sorrows of later life. The final lines of Rumi's poem “The Guest House” offer a clue as to what the shift to self-transcendence entails. Not only should we see our changing states of consciousness as temporary “guests,” we should cultivate an attitude of gratefulness “for whoever comes.” A transpersonal perspective reminds us that each of these “guests,” even sorrowful or troublesome ones, can be appreciated “as a guide from beyond.” An attitude of transcendence ultimately depends on our affirming something that is “beyond.”
Another of Rumi's poems is a very explicit account of old age:
Why does a date-palm lose its leaves in autumn? Why does every beautiful face grow in old age Wrinkled like the back of a Libyan lizard? Why does a full head of hair get bald? Why is it that the Lion's strength weakens to nothing? The wrestler who could hold anyone down Is led out with two people supporting him, Their shoulders under his arms? Love answers: “They put on borrowed robes And pretended they were theirs. I take the beautiful clothes back, So that you will learn the robe Of appearance is only a loan.” Your lamp was lit from another lamp. All Love wants is your gratitude for that.
Note Rumi's utterly unsentimental attitude toward aging. There is no optimistic sense here of “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be!” Rumi understands the losses of aging. He poignantly describes the aged wrestler whose power has ebbed and who has become utterly dependent on others. The picture bears no resemblance to the modern celebration of one's “locus of control” or the idea of “decrement with compensation.” What one might ordinarily choose to celebrate as successful aging, Rumi saw as just one more version of sleepwalking. The losses associated with age, like the guests in the guesthouse, are important, even necessary reminders to us of who we really are. In Rumi's poem, the images of loss each begin with a question: Why, why, why? Can caregivers for the very old and frail escape asking this question? The accomplishments of our lives, so arduously built up in the first half of life, begin to diminish with age. But were these accomplishments ever ours to begin with? In Rumi's account, these accomplishments and strengths were really “borrowed robes” which, later on, God takes back. Those who see life otherwise are, like the travelers in the caravan, “asleep.” When those borrowed robes are taken from us one day, we will know the true nature of our relationship to God.
A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY
Rumi's final point in this poem is that the whole of life was only a kind of learning opportunity, a chance to wake up before we die. The second half of life, from midlife to old age, is a series of reminders that the lamp of our consciousness was actually “lit from another lamp.” In this phrase, Rumi invokes an image from the Koran's “Verse of Light,” where trans-personal consciousness is depicted by analogy to an oil lamp (Koran 24:35). What does the world look like when this lamp of higher consciousness has been lit? In a single word: gratitude.
Rumi's message is not unique or limited to the Sufis but is echoed by great mystics and spiritual teachers the world over. For example, the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it this way: “If the only prayer you say in your lifetime is ‘thank you,' that is enough.”
A MAN TALKING TO HIS HOUSE By JALAL AD-DIN RUMI I say that no one in this caravan is awake and that while you sleep, a thief is stealing the signs and symbols of what you thought was your life. Now you're angry with me for telling you this! Pay attention to those who hurt your feelings telling you the truth. Giving and absorbing compliments is like trying to paint on water, that insubstantial. Here is how a man once talked with his house, “Please, if you're ever about to collapse, let me know.” One night without a word the house fell. “What happened to our agreement?” The house answered, “Day and night I've been telling you with cracks and broken boards and holes appearing like mouths opening. But you kept patching and filling those with mud, so proud of your stopgap masonry. You didn't listen.” This house is your body always saying, I'm leaving; I'm going soon. Don't hide from one who knows the secret.