Rumi’s Poetry and Meditative Life: The 800th Anniversary

The renowned Persian poet Rumi was born on September 30, 1207. This year, UNESCO has issued a Commemorative Medal in his honor, and many literary, cultural and spiritual organizations are celebrating the 800th anniversary of Rumi’s birth. This article is devoted to this occasion.

People often think of poetry as something for a special mood, a rare moment-something aloof and detached from our daily life. Yet, spiritual poetry can orient our daily life and work in a meditative way, and in this regard, Rumi’s poetry is particularly helpful. I say this from my own experience. Over the past three decades, Rumi’s poetry has been with me everywhere-in Iran, India, Japan and the U.S. Simply reading a few lines from his poems and meditating on them has soothed my mind. Here I share my impression of Rumi’s poetry.

Jalâluddin Rumi, the great Sufi master and Persian poet of the 13th century, has become the most widely read poet in North America in recent years, thanks partly to Coleman Barks and others who have rendered his poems to the free verse in English. I am delighted to see Rumi’s growing popularity, because his vision is badly needed in our violent, divided world, and his poetry is a source of fresh awareness in our life and society.

Why are Rumi’s poems so popular, penetrative and touching the deepest layers of our being? Answering this question, I think, also reveals the significance of spiritual poetry in our life and society. The anthropologist and writer Loren Eiseley has a beautiful saying: "There is nothing more alone in the universe than [hu]man." Rumi discovered the core of human life-love or the lack thereof. Whether poor or rich, uneducated or highly educated, belonging to this or that religion or nationality, a person’s loneliness, longing, separation, fulfillment, happiness or simply being able to be peacefully alone are all based on the dynamism of love in his or her daily life. Rumi’s poems suit all these situations because his path is that of love.

One of Rumi’s most famous poems is about the reed-flute:

Listen to this reed-flute

How it complains:

Telling a tale of separations.

Since I was cut from the reed bed

Men and women have cried in my lament.

All separations have the same tale, and Rumi, who likens himself to a flute cut from its source (you can all it God, happiness, home, peace, nature or simply the Beloved), takes us on a journey of love, longing, union and joy. This short poem indeed opens a window to the entire metaphysics of spiritual life.

Elsewhere, Rumi suggests:

In this earth

In this soil

In this pure field

Let us not plant any seeds

Other than seeds of compassion and love.

A farmer who has lived in an intimate relation with the soil, water and seed, and who knows by experience that we reap what we toil, would better appreciate this poem. Compassion is the metabolism of the spiritual body. Rumi says that each of us is like a farmer in our life and world; plant love and reap its fruits. The alternative is disaster and destruction.

The content of Rumi’s poetry is love, but love for whom, for what? Through his own mystical experience, Rumi had realized that love, lover and beloved are all one unity in the Divine. But his perception of this Divine love was not (and thus does not develop) a dry, sad, reclusive and exclusive religious psychology. The Divine love, as Rumi sings in his poetry, is extended to the entire creation and to human life. That is why the boundary between the Divine and human love is deliberately kept open in Rumi’s poetry. It is easier for his readers to relate their life to his mystical poetry and imagery.

Love, like light, is the same force and has the same source. The light is too strong for us to look at the Sun (the Divine love) directly, but we can comfortably see the Sun through its reflection on a lake. In Rumi’s view, human love and the myriad energy of love flowing constantly in the world are reflections of the Divine love. That is why, metaphysically speaking, the world and life is always fresh, recreated every moment (it is only because of ignorance that we feel it to be dull or dead). And that is why, ethically speaking, the expressions "God is love" and "Love thy neighbor" either go together or go nowhere.

Rumi was not a poet by profession but he was a prolific one, and more remarkably, he recited his poems in a state of ecstasy, dancing, joy, contemplation or prayer. He never wrote down his poems (like many other poets who revise and polish their lines); his poems were spontaneous. Rumi started poetry when he was in his mid-30s, and for the following three decades (until his death in 1273) he composed about 70,000 lines of poetry. Except for a few lines, none of his poems are about his own past. Rumi appears to have lived in a moment-to-moment awareness of his pure being (rather than being attached to the desires of becoming or to the regrets of not-becoming). He created his poems by living a meditative and simple life. That is why Rumi transcends geographic and linguistic barriers and reaches us centuries later. His poetry is always fresh. Reading a few lines from him daily can be a meditative experience, nourishing our life.

Didn’t I say:

Don’t go there; I am your friend.

In this mirage of existence, I am the river of life.

Didn’t I say:

I am the sea and you are a single fish

Don’t jump onto dry land; I am your sea of comfort.

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