How Rumi Can Change Your Life
It was late on a balmy summer night in Edinburgh, and a friend and his wife were giving me a ride home after a professional event. The conversation turned to the healing powers of poetry. I am used to encountering a wide variety of responses to this new passion of mine: indifference, incredulity, interest and, once in a while, a level of enthusiasm that matches my own. It is rare, however, for someone to be even more excited by this idea than I am. But that’s what happened in the car late on that balmy evening in Edinburgh, when Ilaria Nardini-Gray told me and the other passengers how the poet Rumi had changed her life. I found her narrative so intriguing, so full of glittering nuggets, that I knew I must hear her story again when I was back home and able to record it. She kindly agreed – and here it is:
Ilaria: Transformed by Rumi
I have been thinking a lot about that moment in the car in Edinburgh and the conversation we had about Rumi, and how he has been so life changing for me. To explain I need to give you a little bit of a back story.
I have to take you back to 2014, when I was working in the corporate world and doing really well. I was actually in the drinks industry, selling alcoholic beverages. I was in a relationship and moved abroad with my partner at the time. After being there for about six months, I got unexpected news that my Dad was very ill and probably had only about four weeks to live. As you can imagine, that came as quite a shock. That was a watershed moment in my life.
After my Dad passed, the relationship I was in started to crumble because I began to ask deep soul questions: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Am I happy? How am I contributing? And if I were to die, would I have regrets? And that line of questioning set me off in a direction, because the answer to most of those questions was “No.” So, within three months, my relationship ended, and I moved back to London. One of my friends saw I was in a very fragile state and kindly flew me out to the Philippines. I was there for about three weeks, and it was there that I really did some deep soul searching. For me, that time was, as they say, the dark night of the soul. I was very depressed, very lost. I had a lot of anxiety. I was suffering from panic attacks, and agoraphobia. I was really struggling and felt disconnected from everything.
Reflection, Religion & Spirituality
As I reflected on my situation, I realized that all my life I had failed to understand who I was as a person. I was very insecure, never really feeling good enough, never feeling that what I was doing was quite enough. It occurred to me that there had to be something more to life. While I was in the Philippines I started to meditate. And again, these questions just kept coming up about who I was, and what my soul and life were all about. I became obsessed with finding answers. I had been brought up Catholic but I’ve never really been religious. I went to Sunday school but I didn’t really connect to the church or God. I started to think about people who have a religion, a sense of meaning or a God, whatever that is. And I started to research a lot of religions—Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. I loved Buddhism and elements of Hinduism, and I started reading about Islam. That is when I came across Sufism, the spiritual practice of Islam. At the time I didn’t realize that Rumi was a famous Sufi, but I decided to get some of his books. I came back to London and through the process of my meditation, I decided to leave my job. I had no money and in many ways things were not good, but I had this fire in me to find who I was and to change my life, an urge to heal myself because I realized that what I had previously been doing was not working.
Then my Mum called and told me she was struggling with the loss of my Dad. So, I decided to leave London and go back home to Edinburgh. I wanted to become a coach and help others, and help myself at the same time. I had packed up my belongings, including my books, for the train journey home. The two books I had with me were The Big Red Book and The Essential Rumi, both translations by Coleman Barks. I was a bit hesitant to read them because they were poetry. All I knew about poetry was what I learned in high school English. I remember reading the poems of Philip Larkin, and feeling, “I just don’t get it.” It seemed like something for intellects, not someone like me, who was more a sporty person, and I really struggled with it. That was the last I ever thought of poetry. I had never thought about poetry again – until now. And here I was with two books of Rumi’s poetry. I wondered, “What if I read it and don’t get it and just have to put it all aside?”
Poetry and Her Path
But then I started reading one of the books, and something wonderful happened. Excuse me if I get emotional while I tell it because it was such a defining moment in my life, in my healing. I was on the train and as I began to read Rumi’s poems, the words just healed my soul. I felt a rush of energy pass through my body, my hair stood on end. This was the answer. This was what I had been impatiently looking for about life, about spirituality, about love, the key to everything. There I was on the train, in tears, sobbing my heart out. And everybody around me was looking at me, but I didn’t care, because those were tears of joy, of relief, of “This is it.” I got it. And I feel that my soul shifted and my heart opened. And that’s what happened. And since then I have tried to live by the essence of love. Every day I try and practice and go deeper into that feeling of love. There is a quote by Rumi: Love is the bridge between you and everything. And I have it tattooed on my body because it is so true. It was so different from how I’d been living previously—through fear, through anxiety, through limiting beliefs, and not feeling good enough. It was simple. I realized that If I just change my life and live from a vantage point of love every possible minute, my life would be transformed. And you know what? It was. And some days I’m better than others; I’m only human, of course. But my life changed from there, and I can say that wonderful things have happened to me since reading Rumi’s poems. I believe he is one of the great souls and one of the greatest spiritual teachers. He shows us our glory.
I agree with Coleman Barks that Rumi wants us to be more alive and wake up, and he does so in such an accessible way. And that for me is key because I didn’t think that poetry could ever be accessible to somebody like me. And that’s why I love him and I’m sure that’s why people across the globe resonate with him because the way that he writes is accessible and beautiful and healing, so much so that I often read his poetry and return to my favorites time and again.
I realize that my story sounds almost magical. But discovering Rumi was the turning point for me, and the force by which healing took place. Rumi sent me on that path to go in search of healing my soul. And the life coaching program that I did was fused with neuroscience and mindfulness. And it was just a phenomenal course that opened me up even more. I then went on to train as a spiritual healer, and that again is just based on love and helping others, and that mysterious flow of energy, which Rumi talks about a lot in his poetry. About six months later I met my husband, and it was an unbelievable, magical moment of two souls meeting. And he then showed me also what love is on a level that I had never previously experienced. A few months after that, I got pregnant. That was amazing to me since people had been saying that at my age —I was 34 when I lost my Dad— “You’ve got to meet somebody. How are you going to have children?” But had let that go and say to myself, what will happen will happen. I didn’t know if that was ever going to be my story, to be married and have children. But just by practicing this embodiment of love — love for myself and others – by practicing and living in that state that I learned through Rumi’s poetry, that change occurred. It brought love into my life, first through coaching and helping others, then through my husband. I don’t know if words can express how much I love Rumi, but to give you some indication, we named our daughter Rumi.
As I think back on my life, I realize that I have suffered emotionally since my early twenties. Since finding Rumi four years ago, however, and shifting my life from fear to love, my panic attacks, depression, agoraphobia, and suicidal thoughts have all dissipated. Rumi helped me face all my fears from a place of love and compassion rather than ignoring them and pushing them away into the depths of my being. I have no doubt that Rumi helped me with this change of mindset, and luckily I have never had any of these emotional problems since.
Ilaria Nardini-Gray and her husband, Alister Gray run Mindful Talent, a coaching and leadership company, that serves companies and clients all over the world.
Two Poems by Rumi
Rumi was extremely prolific and wrote hundreds of poems. The Essential Rumi in which celebrated translator Coleman Barks has chosen his choicest poems runs to approximately 350 pages. Incidentally, we are fortunate to have such a superb translator of Rumi as Barks, who is a poet in his own right. To choose just a few delicacies from this feast is clearly to offer a very modest sampling of Rumi’s works, but perhaps it will whet your appetite for more. I have chosen the following two poems not only because they are among his most popular, but also because they embody some of the healing principles that are at the heart of this blog: Acceptance and Reconciliation. I will present each of these first in their written form and then read by Ilaria Nardini-Gray so that you can hear how they sound when they are read to you.
The Guest House
By Jalaluddin Rumi
Translated by Coleman Barks
This being human is a guest house.
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.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
When we consider the astonishing Rumi-inspired transformation that Ilaria describes, it may sound too good to be true. She does, however, suggest that the mechanism by which her life changed involved acceptance of the worries and unhappiness within herself, as she put it:
Rumi helped me face all my fears from a place of love and compassion rather than ignoring them and pushing them away into the depths of my being.
That is the essential message of The Guest House, presented above. Healers of all types have converged on this message: accept your emotions, even when they are unpleasant and hard to face.
You Are Not All Sweetness and Light
When I was in my thirties, I decided to undergo psychoanalysis. For six and a half years, four days a week, I would faithfully make my way to my analyst’s office. It was a small room situated in the basement of his home, dimly lit, paneled with dark wood, and furnished with a simple green couch behind which he would sit in a desk chair and listen to my ramblings. Every now and then he would intervene with brief comments, most of which have long since been forgotten.
One comment, however, I remember clearly because it was so often repeated: “You are not all sweetness and light, you know.” Of course I wasn’t. Nobody is. What my analyst was attempting to do was to peel away my defenses, as advocated by Freud. According to Freud and his disciples, defense mechanisms are at the core of neurotic unhappiness. Analyze them, expose the underlying drives and feelings, and relief will follow. So my analyst was using a time-honored analytic tradition of peeling back defenses to uncover unwelcome feelings. But there was a slightly jarring quality to how he did it. By being told that I was “not all sweetness and light,” I felt as though a little joke was being made at my expense.
I contrast that with the tone of Rumi’s Guest House. With his opening line, “This being human is a guest house,” he makes it clear that the guest house is a metaphor for the human condition. Each of us is like a guest house, and the occupants are our emotions. Although Rumi makes passing reference to joy, most of the “guests” are of the nasty variety: “Depression, meanness, shame, malice, and a crowd of sorrows.” And it is well that the focus should be on these nasty guests, because they are the ones that cause us trouble, the ones we have trouble acknowledging, and with whom we need the most help. And Rumi offers us that help.
What is Rumi’s advice? “Welcome and entertain them all!” At first glance, this may seem crazy. Even for those who acknowledge that we need to accept negative feelings, the idea of welcoming and entertaining them may seem a bit much! What psychological explanation could there be for this advice? Likewise, for Rumi’s next piece of advice to “treat each guest honorably.” As I see it, this is wise counsel. Negative feelings (as well as positive ones) are a part of who we are. We come by them honestly, even honorably. They reflect our experiences of the world, past and present. When we fail to honor our feelings, we register at some level that we are disrespecting an important part of who we are. We set up a conflict between opposing aspects of ourselves. When we honor our feelings, we begin the work of reconciling this internal conflict.
Rumi’s advice makes me think of a conversation I had with a supervising psychiatrist when I was a junior resident in psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. We were taught and supervised by eminent psychiatrists, several of whom were household names in New York City, which is surely one of the psychiatric capitals of the world. I struck up a friendship however with one of the less distinguished psychiatrists who I felt had something to teach me that was different from what I would learn from the others. I asked him if he would supervise me unofficially, and to my delight, he agreed. I will always remember his childlike enjoyment of the world, and the naughty twinkle in his eye that developed when we discussed some of the characters who peopled the Institute. On one occasion, he told me a story about himself in his younger days.
“In my training years, I looked around me and everyone else seemed more accomplished and successful than I was. It was as though their plates were full, and mine was half empty. I envied them, and envy is a painful emotion. So I worked day and night to pile up my plate as full as theirs so I didn’t have to envy them. As a result I had so little time for myself or for any fun that life became insufferable.”
“So how did you resolve it?” I asked.
“I decided it was just easier to envy them,” he said, with his mischievous smile and twinkle in the eye.
I don’t know whether he had ever came across Rumi’s Guest House, but I have no doubt he would have approved of the poet’s advice with regard to unpleasant emotions: “Welcome and entertain them all” and “treat each guest honorably.”
Rumi closes the poem with a final word of advice – to be grateful to these “guests,” even when their arrival is unwelcome because they may be sent as a guide from beyond. Here Rumi shifts from practical advice about handling emotions to spiritual suggestion. Yet even here, by suggesting that our emotions can be a valuable guide, Rumi is once again spot on. Emotions carry with them valuable information. They are a type of intelligence. Fear can steer us away from danger; anxiety can provide a critical warning signal; sadness can tell us to conserve energy and lay low; joy can signal opportunity and propel us to action, and so on. People who cannot feel pain might put their hands on a hot stove. We ignore our feelings at our peril. We prosper when we treat them honorably.
Let us consider another poem by Rumi, which has healing potential.
Out Beyond Ideas
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense
Right and Wrong
Who is in the right and who is in the wrong? That is a question that preoccupies many of us from childhood to old age.
I remember a mother who consulted me about strife at home between her young son and daughter, whom she instructed to sit in my waiting room until she emerged. Before long a furious neighbor banged at my door to announce that the children had ventured into her garden where she had found them dangerously close to a pond. The angry mother scolded the older child, who said, “He ran out first and I went after him to try and stop him.” The younger one responded, “She started! She was so mean. I had to run to get away from her.” So there it was. Who was right and who was wrong? And so it often is even with adult couples who consult me. They lay out their grievances as though presenting a case before a judge. We see this trope in our society, and across different societies. Endless strife, finger pointing and blaming the other. Who is right and who is wrong? What is to be done about it?
In his short poem, Rumi cuts right through the question of right and wrong, and presents us with a vision of what might exist “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.” He tells us that beyond those ideas there is a field and makes an offer: “I’ll meet you there.” It’s as though he is offering to make the first move towards reconciliation and invites us to join him. It is a gentle invitation, without preconditions or arm twisting. Rather, in just a few words he conjures up an enticing scene: Souls lying in the long grass, a world too full to talk, and differences of language, ideas and individual identity that simply melt away once we put aside ideas of right and wrong. It is a glorious vision, but does it have any foundation in reality or is it merely a poet’s dream. What do you think?
I would suggest that once again, Rumi’s vision embodies a deep truth. In my office I often have found myself pointing out to couples that I am not a judge and we are not in a court of law. We are trying to find a meeting place where two people can get together, lower their defenses and try to remember what attracted them to each other in the first place. One common exercise therapists assign to such couples is to ask each party simply to repeat what the other has said. Just the process of repeating the other person’s words can help you feel how it is to be inside the other person, as though you are lying together in the long grass.
One of the great encounters of my life was meeting the great writer, neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. In the living room of his summer house outside of Vienna, I asked him many questions, all of which he answered candidly and generously. When I asked whether he had forgiven the Germans for the Holocaust, he responded, “I’m not sure I really understand what the word forgiveness means. I would rather think of reconciliation, the idea that we need to put aside past grievances and get along with each other.” An amazing response from someone whose family had been cruelly killed and who had almost died himself in a death camp. That same conclusion has been reached in many countries where totalitarian regimes have oppressed and tortured their neighbors, then changed hands. In my own country of origin, South Africa, after the fall of the cruel system of Apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to allow those who confessed to their crimes under the Apartheid system to receive amnesty.
So, whether we think about children squabbling, couples arguing, or political strife, people all over the world have converged on the concept of reconciliation as the best solution. Once again, Rumi could have told them so.
Who was Rumi?
Rumi was a 13th century poet who lived for most of his life in present day Turkey. He was identified in his youth as a spiritual leader and many of his letters survive, which describe how he helped members of his community solve disputes and get loans from one another.
A pivotal incident in Rumi’s life occurred in 1244 when Rumi met Shams Tabriz, about whom Rumi said, “What I thought of before as God I met today in a human being.” It was after that meeting that Rumi began to write his greatest poems. The two men were such close friends for years that Rumi’s disciples became jealous and when Shams disappeared, it was believed that he had been murdered by one of Rumi’s jealous disciples, perhaps his son. Rumi searched far and wide for his lost friend but eventually had to accept the loss. He dealt with his grief by experiencing Shams as part of himself, writing, “his essence speaks through me.”
Rumi’s poetic production was voluminous, his reputation has grown over the centuries and he has sometimes been called “America’s most popular poet.” He was buried close to his father in Konya, Turkey, and his tomb has become a gathering place for thousands of visitors who have been touched by the great poet and healer.
If anyone deserves a place in the pantheon of those who have healed through poetry, it is Rumi.
Your engagement is appreciated!
In the “write a comment” section below I encourage you to share comments about this blog post, as well as to leave your favorite poem(s) and what they mean to you. I will monitor this and re-post selected favorite poems on my blog and the Poetry Rx Facebook group.