Holy Cross Monastery, West Park
This past weekend I conducted a Meditation Retreat here in our guesthouse, together with my friend and co-worker Mary Gates. It was a very good time: the silence was deep, the participants worked diligently on their meditative skills, and their questions were thoughtful and perceptive. It is Mary's habit to begin many of the meditation sessions with a verse of scripture or a poem, and this weekend she used a poem from Rumi, the Sufi mystic:
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.
I have been certain of the power and the truth of those words since the moment I first encountered them years ago. I knew that this poem was speaking something important to me in spite of the fact that it ran counter to most of the lessons that I had absorbed about how to live my life. I knew that painful and difficult situations were to be avoided or denied or analyzed away, and painful physical symptoms were to be medicated. Even though I felt the wisdom of Rumi's words, I had no idea how to put this wisdom into practice, or even how to think about it.
But it continued to gnaw at me. At the time I was suffering from a very debilitating condition involving a host of food allergies and some damage to my intestines. Many doctors had expressed their puzzlement. Many alternate health care providers had worked dilligiently on me. Still the condition continued and at one point I was pretty much disabled by it.
Could this poem hold a way forward? It seemed unlikely, but it also seemed important. So, with the help of a skilled meditation teacher I decided to try it out. "Welcome sickness!" " Whatever you have to show me, let me know." "I want to know more about this illness; what do you have to show me?"
What happened? Nothing. Nothing whatever. Except I kept asking the question, and feeling more and more frustrated at my body's refusal to answer. Everything was as it had been. My openness as answered by silence.
"No problem" my teacher said. "These things take time." "Just like any relationship, the relationship with your body takes time to develop." Not a welcome message. I didn't want it to take time. I wanted an answer NOW. "Just keep at it." he said. "Crap" I thought. Why did I go on? I guess it was mostly because I trusted my advisers and my teacher and because some little part of me kept whispering that there was wisdom here.
When the answer came it arrived from a completely different direction than I expected. I've since learned that this is characteristic of intuitive work like this: you work and work and work at a problem and in the end a different problem is answered than the one you were working on.
In this case, I was sitting at my computer one morning, working against a deadline on a document that had to be done. I noticed that I was beginning to develop a headache. I'm not sure to this day why I decided to practice the technique at that moment. I suppose it was some combination of interior prompting and habit. But I turned the new technique on the pain: "Welcome headache. What are you here to tell me?" I was completely astounded to get an answer: "You are pushing yourself too hard. Close down the document and take a nap." "Ridiculous" I responded. "This has to be finished." Silence was my answer. Again, I can't tell you why I decided to actually pay attention, but I did. I got up from the desk, went to my room and lay down. The headache vanished almost immediately. I rested. When I got up, refreshed, it took only a short time to finish my work, and I felt like my life had turned a corner.
Then the next time I had a headache I ignored the message. This time the work was too important. I couldn't let it go. I had to get it finished. In this case the answer was also immediate. The answer was revenge: a monstrous headache that took hours to banish with the help of some powerful pain killers. I learned that I had opened up a sensitive part of my interior, and you don't do that without consequences.
Many years later I wish that I could tell you that it is always clear to me what is going on when I have a headache and that I always make a response that leads to healing. I wish I could tell you that I have been completely healed of my intestinal illness. But I can't tell you that. What I can say is that I have started a relationship with my body and my interior being that goes on growing and flourishing in the curious twisted paths that relationships do. I'm not compltely cured, but I have a much greater sense of wholeness. My headaces are often still a mystery, but my body has responded to my willingness to ask the question and to be open to what is going on. I am more well than I have been in years, and I am joyful about the path that has brought me to where I am.
I also know that part of my path must be to directly face whatever guest appears at the door of my perception: whether "a joy, a depression, a meanness" or "some momentary awareness" and to do my best to welcome this new guest. Many strange guests have appeared a the door of my awareness and the task of welcoming them has challenged me on every level of my being. It has also deepend my interior freedom and my sense of peace.
Rumi is right.