Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Great Books

Class VIII: Rumi: Fihi ma Fihi

Well.  Much to my surprise, there was a bit of concern with the reading this week.  Rumi, it seems, is obscure, unclear, confusing, contradictory, too verbose, not talkative enough, arrogant, unsure, way too confident and generally never seemed to say what he meant.
Rumi,  by Tom Block
At first, I was taken aback by this commentary on our excerpts from Rumi’s Fihi ma Fihi, which was actually written by Sultanwalad, the eldest son of Rumi, and describes many important Sufi concepts (using aphorisms, short tales, descriptions, allegory, metaphor and other literary devices).  But then I saw it as a natural outgrowth of the clash between our western, linear way of thinking and the Sufi manner of presentation: circular, confusing, ebbing, flowing – using literary devices to break down arguments, not build them up and “prove” them, or even cleanly assert them.  Indeed, Rumi assures that we must “sell our cleverness and buy bewilderment,” and he helps us along with his manner of teaching!
I breathed a sigh of relief.  Rumi would remain central to my conception of the pathway into the spirit.
Rumi does not offer religious or prescriptive ideas.  His stories obscure known answers and raise deeper questions.  Some things he says are directly contrary to virtually all mystical paths we have encountered thus far.  For instance, he assures that marriage is vital to the spiritual way, “so that we can endure the trials of living with the opposite sex, to listen to their demands, for them to ride roughshod over us, and so in this way to refine our own character.”
At least we chuckled over this!
We still struggled with coming to terms with the messenger.  Although written by his son (and it should be noted that there were travails in the relationship between father and son, due to some of Rumi’s life choices with his own teacher named Shems-i Tabrizi), Rumi’s ego shines through.  He is presented (as one of our more Rumi-dubious participants assured) as having "achieved," something a true mystic almost never asserts.  As if speaking from some lofty spiritual heights to peons down below.  There was an arrogance, this person assured.
His message also seemed at odds with Meister Eckhart from last week – Eckhart seemed to guarantee that unity here on this earth was possible, while Rumi says that the spiritual paths will only unify after death.  Until then, we must have diversity.
I noted that I thought this was a beautiful sentiment, as appreciating and accepting diversity here on earth – with the myriad cultures, ethnicities, religions etc. – would be the first step away from “otherness” and toward a sense of healing respect.  While we might not all practice the same spiritual path, each and every one of them would have the same “weight,” be accorded the same respect and appreciated as valid.
We talked about Rumi’s idea of emptying oneself for God.  The room is only big enough for one of us – God or me.  And God isn’t going anywhere, so we had to still our desires and our ego to allow God to become present within us.  Rumi’s somewhat odd story of the two birds was mentioned:
Tie two birds together, and despite their familiarity and the fact that their two wings have been changed to four, they will not fly. That is because duality exists. But let one bird give up its life and the other—even though tied to the first—will fly, because duality has vanished.
We discussed the tension between “giving in to God’s will” and yet still striving, still engaging, still living life and struggling to make oneself and the world a bit better.  I noted that I felt the Baghavad Gita had the answer to this:
Be intent on action,
not on the fruits of action;
avoid attraction to the fruits
and attachment to inaction!

Indeed, many of the thinkers we have encountered this semester –Chuang Tzu, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius and others – echo a similar sentiment.  You are not to go to bed and remain there – and in this Rumi is very clear.  One lives life.  They get married, they undertake a profession and perhaps even a passion.  Yet they release themselves from the desire for worldly success and acknowledgement: the fruits.  (This is not to say that these fruits might not appear, just that they are a by-product, and not a goal.  Important but subtle distinction.)
We talked of worldly yearning, and specifically cozying up to people with power to advance our own careers.  Must this entail hypocrisy or compromise?  I believe it does.  And as Rumi assures:
Not all gallows are made of wood.  Official positions, exalted rank and worldly success are also very high gallows.  When God wishes to catch someone, He gives him a great position or a large kingdom in the world.  All that is like a gallows on which God puts them so that all people may be aware.
To traffic with those in power for one’s own betterment – even if the ultimate goal is to accrue power so that one may make the world better – only dilutes to the power of “goodness” or sincerity in the world.  One cannot compromise spiritual values without a loss, even though one might not be able to reach as many people or affect as much change because of this lack of spiritual fungibility.
We noted the parade of ass-kissers falling over each other to get at Donald J. Tump’s bum, when just six months ago they couldn’t get far enough away from him.  Not a single spine among the whole Republican Party!  And the lack of the same within the other major American political party is well-documented (we’ll get ‘em next time!).
We talked of perspective.  The human mind recoils from the mystical point of view because it offers too much perspective, too much information: most of us just can’t handle it.  A mystic perceives the big and small, the great and huddled, the broken and successful – and sees them all on the same plane of existence.  No difference between them.  Just various and sundry representations of God.  They open themselves to the pain of the downtrodden, the blind arrogance of the wealthy, the yearning hope of the failed, the hopelessness of the abject.  All of the energy.  But who amongst us can take all of that?  The rest of us shield our gaze, remaining within the vision provided by our eyes, in a normative reality described by newspapers and seen on TV.
Rumi assured that we must not turn away.  Pain, regret and suffering are proof of God’s existence.  Without these forces, we would have no conception of God, we would be self-sufficient.  The challenge is to move from seeing the cause of pain as being in others, and to begin seeing it in ourselves, experiencing, “owning” it, learning from it.
The purpose of life – the ultimate purpose of life – is twofold: knowledge and love.  The knowledge, of course, is not book learning or of the Periodic Table: it is of the “real.”  And love – how to open oneself to others and the world, accept everyone as their own representation of God, accept that everything is exactly as it should be, yet try to change it for the better, nonetheless.
Realizing Mystic
We talked at length about Rumi’s assertion that: “All are doing God’s service; reprobate and righteous, sinner and disciple, devil and angel.”  How could this be?  How does it fit with our conception of “good” – is “good” little more than things that don’t hurt us, that make us feel “good?”  In a cosmic sense, might “good” have a very different meaning, especially since pain and regret are necessary, and the true purpose of life is to learn and love?  Pain and failure lead to knowledge and humility far more assuredly than success and riches. 
We spoke of much more – how three hours in a small room in the Lower East Side talking of such matters is nurturing and perhaps even necessary; of God’s service in terms of each of our lives; of the inherent aspects of God; of alchemy, the difference between “seeking” God and “allowing” God, of listening to others, of thoughts standing-between instead of leading-to.
But enough has been said of all of that.  So I close this week’s blog and turn to the Hasidic masters, our teachers for next week.  Perhaps they can, once and for all, solve the riddle of existence for us?  And if not them, maybe Simone Weil, the week after that?

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