Wednesday, July 27, 2005

finding a safe place

If you walk with your eyes closed, for sure you're lost,

But count on sight and you invite damnation.

Don't look within the monastery or mosque

To find a place that isn't a location.

#254: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

Search words: safe, secure, sure

My mood this morning is one of feeling safe and secure, self-assured and sure of the way ahead. I've been struggling with the emotions aroused by an incident yesterday. Not exactly only one incident. I came across a handful of people who left their mark on me. Some invited wonder, some pity or disgust, some admiration. One, in particular, made me angry and it is that anger that I am trying to work through. My natural instinct is to fight back: an eye for an eye. He humiliated me and I want to humiliate him back. He asserted his power over me and I want to assert my own over him. I have the means to do it but I'm wanting to do things differently. Rather than simply attacking him (writing a vicious letter of complaint to his superior) I'm inclined to write more about his impact on me and compare that with the impact of other people employed there. In other words, make sure to include what happened inside me, and not simply what was evident for everyone to see.

This is also Rumi's theme here today. What we see through the sight of our eyes is different from what we see through insight. And yet he maintains a small ambiguity in this verse. Not only do we need both sight and insight but we need to understand that we cannot count on either for the unknown is ever present and we are damned if we fail to take account of that. If we operate only on the basis of what we know, what we understand and can predict, we will constantly be tripped up by the real world. As I was tripped up yesterday.

The second idea in this verse - about "a place that isn't a location" - is a clever way to refer to the interiority of deity. Within a Muslim world it might be heretical to speak of God as the higher Self, as Hindus and Buddhists are so comfortable with. Rather than a being it is a place that is sought. This suggests that the place is where the being resides, rather than being the being itself. He is saying, in effect, that God resides in the human heart and not in religious edifices. He does this, however, without reference to the resident but only to his residence. It's one of those neat turns of phrase in Rumi that would probably work in translations to most other languages.

Sometimes I believe that this is what Rumi's aim is: to write in a way that is translatable. By using essentially simple ideas and phrases and avoiding complex idioms or specifically Persian wordplays, he universalizes his message. I may be influenced in this belief by the apparent accessibility of these and other translations of Rumi. I'm simply impressed with a lucidity that shines through in almost all translations I've come across, not only those by Coleman Barks which are the most famous. This is an aspect of Rumi that I want to delve into further.

In Rumi's time and place, the monastery and mosque might have limited the way that people could experience deity. No doubt those in power also dictated how people could experience life in general. Rumi was strongly affected by this because his early developmental years were unsettled as the family moved away from the terrors of the invading Mongols toward the greater security of more Western Islamic centres. It was these fierce warriors and their territorial ambitions that dictated where Rumi was to establish his roots, in Turkey where he lived until his death instead of in Afghanistan where he was born.

With a force like that of the Mongols it is sensible to flee, foolhardy to stand and fight. As a Persian both by heritage and by preference in writing his poetry, Rumi must also have felt oppressed at times by the Arabic culture and language imposed by Islam. To this day Muslims claim that the Koran can only be properly understood in its original Arabic and even only in correct forms of recitation. The vast majority of native Arabic speakers cannot understand the obscure Arabic of the Koran, thus confining access to deity to a meagre handful of specialized scholars of which, ironically, Rumi was clearly one since he was a Muslim jurist and theologian.

This is what most fascinates me about Rumi. He knew both kinds of tyranny: that wielded by the sword and that wielded by enforced ideology. He knew how to emerge free from both without needing to fight, attack or hurt anyone physically or even emotionally. His poetry achieved that because it was simple enough to seem transparent and clever enough to express insights that his oppressors simply couldn't see or, where they could, they could then not clearly extract the heretical content for all to see. It is brilliantly done and nowhere more so than in this verse today.

I want to achieve a similar victory and I know I can't use a solution identical to Rumi's, since it relied on his legal and religious authority and his ready ability to publish what he wrote. At this point in time, I'm not sure how I'll manage but I am sure that Rumi is a great inspiration and sets a great standard to emulate.


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