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Rediscovering Who We Really Are — with the Persian Sufi Poets

by David Fideler


Today we often think of poetry as a form of self-expression, so it might seem strange to learn that Rumi and the other Persian Sufi poets used it to communicate a shared body of teachings in an often-rigorous way. But the idea that poetry is well suited to communicating a deeper vision of life is not surprising at all. Poetry has always been favored as a way of speaking in deeper ways. Our actual experience of the world is not dry, abstract, and linear; in many cases, music and poetry can capture living experience with far greater immediacy than some type of academic lecture.

According to the Sufis, our original self is fully open to the beauty and depths of creation; it exists in a natural state of harmony with the divine. As we mature and the ego crystallizes, we gain an important sense of self, but something else is lost at the same time. The real problem occurs when the ego starts responding to others and to life’s situations in ways that are automatic, compulsive, and even obsessive. When this happens, we identify with an artificially constructed or false self, losing the sense of our original, deeper nature. In the end, much of the work of spiritual growth that everyone faces involves a balancing act: finding a way to reconcile the demands of our inner, essential nature with the outer demands of human society.

Sufism, like other spiritual traditions, gives us methods and tools to rediscover a deeper glimpse of who we are — and one of these tools is poetry. While some Sufi poems are beautiful expressions of devotion and longing, and others are teaching works, the most remarkable works — at least for me — are the genuinely mystic poems that transport the reader into another way of seeing. By using an element of surprise, the mystic poems can subtly short-circuit our habitual perceptions and expectations. The impact they carry can nudge the conditioned self out of its ingrained ways of seeing the world, at least for a moment, and offer a living sense of reality’s deeper, spiritual dimension, which the conscious mind often filters out. Such a sense of depth and mystery is conveyed by the poem “Invisible Caravans,” which is only four lines in the original Persian:

Love’s concert is calling,

but the flute can’t been seen.

The drunks are in sight,

but the wine can’t be seen.

Hundreds

of caravans

have passed

this very way —

Don’t be surprised

if their trace can’t be seen.

Many of the best mystic poems convey an almost overwhelming sense that there is a deeper, timeless dimension that is just on the very edge of human perception — and only slightly out of reach. If we can change the way we look at things just a tiny bit, this deeper dimension of life suddenly comes into focus.

The Sufi emphasis on love also takes the reader outside of the habitual, conditioned self, to experience the depths of the world and human nature in a more tangible and profound way. The remarkable thing about love is that it leads us to go beyond our own selves and value another person more highly than any other “thing” in the world. For better or worse, in true love, one is no longer in control; the ego or personal self surrenders to another. The importance of the “I” melts away, no longer acting as the central focus of self-concern.

In the experience of love, the Sufi poets discovered an opening in which they and their readers could most deeply taste the kind of selflessness that is the goal of the mystic — the goal of the spiritually mature human being. As one poet wrote, “when I went beyond myself, the pathway finally opened.” As another writes, “that which frees you from your tiny self is love.” The Sufis sought a level of intimacy with God — the Beloved — that only the language of love is capable of capturing. Rather than worshipping a God who is a distant idea or abstraction, for the Sufi, a sustained, intimate relationship with the divine is possible:

The distance

to the Beloved

is only one step —

Why not, then,

take that step?

Another poet, ‘Abd al-Wasi’ Jabali, celebrates the freedom from the false self that genuine love can inspire:

My head was full, overflowing with conceit —

I was staggering, drunk —

wasted on the wine

of my imagined greatness.

But your love made me low —

it brought humility.

It made me free

from having

to worship

myself.

Above all, the Sufi poets celebrate a central paradox of human nature: when, in the end, we go beyond the self, we discover a deeper vision of who and what we really are. In what first seems like emptiness or even ruin, there is an unexpected depth of experience; in the experience of loss and sacrifice, freedom and gain may be found.

____________________________________________________

Based on the book Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition © 2010 by David & Sabrineh Fideler. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com <http://www.newworldlibrary.com/> or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

____________________________________________________

David Fideler with his wife Sabrineh is the translator of Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition, published by New World Library. In addition to making translations, David and Sabrineh perform Sufi poetry in Persian and English with musical accompaniment. Their website is located at www.sufipoetry.com.


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