Jul 20 2012

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – Fasting

Published by at 7:49 am under Poetry

by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

English version by Coleman Barks

There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.
When you’re full of food and drink, Satan sits
where your spirit should, an ugly metal statue
in place of the Kaaba. When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
Fasting is Solomon’s ring. Don’t give it
to some illusion and lose your power,
but even if you have, if you’ve lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast, like soldiers appearing
out of the ground, pennants flying above them.
A table descends to your tents,
Jesus’ table.
Expect to see it, when you fast, this table
spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages.

— from The Illuminated Rumi, Translated by Coleman Barks

/ Photo by bennylin0724 /

I featured this poem and commentary a couple of years ago, but I thought it would be appropriate to send it out again today in honor of my Muslim friends who are beginning Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and rededication…

There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.

Fasting is something we’re not too comfortable with in the affluent West. Even though all religious traditions, including Christianity and Judaism, have rich, ancient traditions of fasting, we often don’t have a real sense of what spirituality has to do with food — or its avoidance. We tend to take a rather intellectual approach to spirituality. Even in modern New Age teachings, we have the notion that all we have to do is change our thinking and transformation occurs. But the results of that approach are often spotty. One reason is that mind is much more than thoughts, and transforming the mind requires deeper work. Thoughts are built on ingrained energetic patterns. For real transformation to occur, we have to get down to those foundational patterns. Very often this requires not merely changing one’s thoughts, but tunneling beneath them. This is the purpose of deeper spiritual practice.

Fasting is a simple, universal, and powerful way to clear the mind and confront those more fundamental energies in the awareness.

But why? What does food have to do with any of this? We are not two things, a mind separate from a body, or even a mind that inhabits a body. The mind and body interpenetrate one another. If your body is injured, that physical pain demands attention, affecting the awareness. The state of the body impacts the clarity and focus of the mind. Feeding the body pure, healthy foods in general, and periodically allowing it to rest from the tiring work of digestion can profoundly free up energies for the awareness to tap into.

Here’s something else you won’t hear much: Food is a drug. Every food is a narcotic. Does that sound bizarre to you? I don’t mean that normal foods are literally hallucinogenic. But every single thing you put into your mouth, affects consciousness in some way. We use food to control emotions. We use food to shift moods and change awareness. Think of the instinct to grab a pint of ice cream from the freezer after a terrible breakup. Everything, even a salad, affects consciousness in some way. The resulting psychic shift after eating something can be relatively positive or relatively negative. It can help us to feel solid and grounded or expanded and open. It can tantalize the senses and flood us with feelings of satiation or leave us frustrated. None of this is necessarily bad, but we must understand how profoundly food affects awareness, and utilize food wisely… and sometimes not to consume food at all.

A fascinating thing happens when you fast as part of a spiritual practice: After you ease past the initial psychic tension and your body moves through any initial discomforts — the mind naturally settles and grows quiet. So much of the agitation of the mind arises from the foods we eat.

Recognizing this, food and fasting become an important part of spiritual practice.

The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.

The first few times I tried to do just a one day fast, I was frankly terrified. I knew intellectually that a healthy human body can go for days without food, no problem. Many times in the past I had forgotten to eat breakfast, and it was no big deal, but on a day when I intentionally decided to fast, I’d be sweating and panicky by mid-morning. It took me a while to understand that fasting, even a mild fast, is a confrontation with death. It is the willingness to temporarily abandon that constant hunt to satisfy every desire by attempting to slough off the fundamental hunger for food. How do you just have a desire and sit with it, without attempting to immediately satisfy it? That’s a pretty frightening question, when you really ask it.

With a little practice, you discover that what we often assume is physical hunger is actually mental hunger. For well-fed Westerners, it can take days, literally days, for true physical hunger to arise. The hunger we feel when we miss a couple of meals is really just mental habit, the reflexive desire to use food in order to regulate consciousness and control emotion. Follow that reflex to its root, and we find it originating from the ever-fearful ego, which is endlessly attempting to reinforce its fragile construction of a limited self inside a limited world by keeping the mind perpetually agitated.

Fasting, used carefully, with balance, and as part of a larger spiritual practice, becomes a way to help identify and unseat the despotic ego.

This is why fasting is practiced in all religions. And you don’t even have to have a religious “faith.” Just try it sometime, for a day, for half a day, wrestle your way through, and see what happens in you.

Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

Afghanistan & Turkey (1207 – 1273) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

I haven’t yet sketched out a short biography about Rumi. It always feels a bit foolish to try to distill a rich, full life into just a few paragraphs, but it’s especially difficult with Rumi since so much has been written about him and his life.

How about just a few interesting details about Rumi:

Rumi was born in Balkh, Afghanistan. While he was still a child his family moved all the way to Konya in Asia Minor (Turkey). They moved to flee from Mongol invaders who were beginning to sweep into Central Asia. Konya, far to the west of the invaded territories, became one of the major destinations for expatriates to settle, turning the city into a cosmopolitan center of culture, education, and spirituality.

In fact, Rumi wasn’t the only famous Sufi teacher living in Konya at the time. The best known spiritual figure in Konya at the time was not Rumi, but the son-in-law of the greatly respected Sufi philosopher ibn ‘Arabi. The wonderful Sufi poet Fakhruddin Iraqi also lived in Konya at the same time as Rumi.

“Rumi” was not his proper name; it was more of a nickname. Rumi means literally “The Roman.” Why the Roman? Asia Minor (Turkey) was referred to as the land of the Rum, the Romans. The Byzantine Empire, which had only recently fallen, was still thought of as the old Eastern Roman Empire. Rumi was nicknamed the Roman because he lived in what was once the Eastern Roman Empire. …But not everyone calls him Rumi. In Afghanistan, where he was born, they call him Balkhi, “the man from Balkh,” to emphasize his birth in Afghanistan.

Rumi’s father was himself a respected religious authority and spiritual teacher. Rumi was raised and educated to follow in his father’s footsteps. And, in fact, Rumi inherited his father’s religious school. But this was all along very traditional lines. Rumi was already a man with religious position when he first started to experience transcendent states of spiritual ecstasy. This created a radical upheaval, not only in himself, but also within his rather formal spiritual community as everyone tried to adjust to their leader’s transformation.

One more note about Rumi’s father: It was only after his death that some of the father’s private writings were discovered, revealing that he himself was also a profound mystic, though he had kept this part of himself private, apparently even from his son Rumi.

Many of Rumi’s poems make reference to the sun. This always has layered meaning for Rumi since he was deeply devoted to his spiritual teacher Shams of Tabriz… as the name Shams means “the sun.” The sun for Rumi becomes the radiance of God shining through his beloved teacher.

The spiritual bond between Rumi and Shams was profound, but the two individuals were very different. Rumi was a member of the educated elite within the urban expatriate community, while Shams was a poor wandering mystic who rarely stayed in one place long. Shams would often disappear unexpectedly, then return months later. Many of Rumi’s family and students were jealous of Shams, resenting the closeness he shared with their master. Finally, Shams disappeared, never to return. Some believe that he was actually kidnapped and murdered, possibly by Rumi’s own sons! Or he may have simply followed his dervish nature and journeyed on, never to return to Konya.

You’ve heard of “whirling dervishes,” right? Not all Sufis practice that spinning meditative dance. That is specific to the Mevlana Sufis, founded by — yes, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. The story is told that Rumi would circle around a column, while ecstatically reciting his poetry. The spinning is a meditation on many levels. It teaches stillness and centeredness in the midst of movement. One hand is kept raised to receive from heaven, the other hand is kept lowered to the earth, thus the individual becomes a bridge joining heaven and earth.

More poetry by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – Fasting”

  1. Gerryon 20 Jul 2012 at 11:22 am

    Today’s message really spoke to me, dear Ivan! I’m someone who feels very sorry for herself when I must fast for some medical event. I’m printing this so I can re-read Rumi’s words AND your amazing and helpful thoughts. Those of us who are vegetarians or try to limit calories will benefit from your words, too. As a westerner, I know I’m over-fed!!

  2. jim carlinon 20 Jul 2012 at 4:47 pm

    after a year in a war torn third world country
    hunger gains an entirely new meaning

  3. Mohammad Ishaq Khanon 20 Jul 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Ivan, for your brilliant exposition.You have deeply and fully understood the meaning and purpose of fasting. I am 66 and have over four decades experienced and realised that fasting is the most powerful and fruitful discipline of spiritual and social significance for both curbing the false ego and elevating the inner self.

  4. Michael K'shatria Youngon 20 Jul 2012 at 8:18 pm

    There are many levels to fasting. The physical is the most visable. Yet in our day and age, with all our addictive communication media, I wonder if another level of fasting would be to unplug from phones, internet, the web, even radio and tv. Surely they feed the false ego as much as does food. Perhaps silence can be as beneficial as physical fasting.

  5. Ram Krishna Singhon 20 Jul 2012 at 10:51 pm

    Ramzan, the fasting period to realize the ‘hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness,’ has begun from today. Let the music of heaven echo in the minds and souls of the brave friends observing the one month fast. Fasting is Allah’s grace to humans for their own bliss.

  6. yohannanon 21 Jul 2012 at 5:03 am

    I read today’s sending very unusely today,just when woke up,after a havy sleep and dramatic waking up”my stomac still full,almost explosing if not imploding, by his contain,huge parts of red sweet watermelon I use to stuffed at nights every day lately , this week!It has become like a religous ceremony for me to find the store where they are not so expencif,choos them,cut them swalow them!
    Now,I feel like a camion just roled over me!God how I like this fruit!and I know how to choose them!(when hited by your palm,it must sound empty,not full)And its soooo good and sweet and beautifull and rafreshing it’s just unbealiweble!Thank you Ivan for remind me the” other side of the watermelo.It’s so true that every food is a drug for us and to choose bliss and clarity over hell and confusion is a job given to us by the one who created watermelons and us.Sweet days for all.

  7. Barbaraon 21 Jul 2012 at 8:40 am

    Thank you, Ivan, for this post and for all that you do. The seeds you plant are profound.

  8. kirk klingsmithon 21 Jul 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Great commentary and poem as usual
    One question form a friend, what toes “Chaikhana” mean, and it’s significance.

  9. Ivan M. Grangeron 21 Jul 2012 at 2:04 pm


    A “chaikhana” is literally a “tea house.” Here’s a note I have posted elsewhere on the site:

    A chaikhana is a teahouse along the legendary Silk Road pilgrimage and trading route linking China to the Middle East and Europe. It is a place of rest along the journey, a place to shake off the dust of the road, to sip tea, and to gather together to sing songs of the Divine…


  10. Lakshmion 23 Jul 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Yes Ivan, What Rumi has said and you have explained is so true. I have always wanted to fast, but was scare and decided I could not do it. But now, I think I will start. Slowly not 24 hour fasting 🙂 but start by not having dinner then go.

  11. Paula Rasmussenon 27 Jul 2012 at 7:58 am

    As a Craniosacral Yoga therapist working with 5 fasting, cleansing clients a day, 5 days a week, for over 10 years, fasting is not new to me. You are your relationship with food and your relationship with food is you. In other words your relationship with food reflects your relationship to yourself. Fasting is another form of Self Realization. but, not everyone wants to engage with it in that way. And in my program, in which i treated people from all over the world, They were alllowed to make fasting be what they were ready for it to be. With an opportunity always available to allow it to enlighted them. The results were incredible. Amazing transformational healing happening daily. I am in Houston, Tx. available to those that need support in their fasting and cleansing rituals. email: stillpointbliss@yahoo.com/ Paula Rasmussen

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