Archive for the 'Poetry' Category

Sep 12 2014

Bibi Hayati – Is it the night of power

Published by under Poetry

Is it the night of power
by Bibi Hayati

English version by Aliki Barnstone

Is it the night of power
Or only your hair?
Is it dawn
Or your face?

In the songbook of beauty
Is it a deathless first line
Or only a fragment
copied from your inky eyebrow?

Is it boxwood of the orchard
Or cypress of the rose garden?
The tuba tree of paradise, abundant with dates,
Or your standing beautifully straight?

Is it musk of a Chinese deer
Or scent of delicate rosewater?
The rose breathing in the wind
Or your perfume?

Is it scorching lightning
Or light from fire on Sana’i Mountain?
My hot sigh
Or your inner radiance?

Is it Mongolian musk
Or pure ambergris?
Is it your hyacinth curls
Or your braids?

Is it a glass of red wine at dawn
Or white magic?
Your drunken narcissus eye
Or your spell?

Is it the Garden of Eden
Or heaven on earth?
A mosque of the masters of the heart
Or a back alley?

Everyone faces a mosque of adobe and mud
When they pray.
The mosque of Hayati’s soul
Turns to your face.

— from The Shambhala Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Poetry, Edited by Aliki Barnstone


/ Photo by Jane Rahman /

There are several important themes and images in this poem, but for now let’s bask in the poem’s rich aromas. Take a slow, deep breath…

Is it the night of power
Or only your hair?
Is it dawn
Or your face?

In addition to a nectar-like sweetness, many mystics experience a scent that can be rapturously overwhelming or tantalizingly subtle. The aroma is the intoxicating scent of what I sometimes call the Celestial Drink, variously called wine, amrita, rasa, dew, honey. But this blissful scent can also be understood as the perfume worn by the Beloved that awakens sacred ardor upon the spiritual journey.

And, of course, perfume is scented oil, oil being the substance used to anoint and initiate.

Is it musk of a Chinese deer
Or scent of delicate rosewater?
The rose breathing in the wind
Or your perfume?

To suggest the almost erotic sense of divine union, sometimes the earthier scent of musk is described. Musk is the aphrodisiac oil of the musk deer. Deer, being creatures of profound silence and shyness, are themselves symbols of the elusive Beloved.

In Bibi Hayati’s poem here, she carries the language of sacred aroma over to the scent of flowers, as well. Blossoms and flowers are natural symbols for enlightenment, the unfolding of awareness and the opening of the heart. Let us not forget, though, that flowers have a direct connection to the Celestial Drink, for their sweet perfume emanates from the sweet nectar they hold.

And, of course, the flower precedes the fruit, whose juice ultimately yields wine…

Is it a glass of red wine at dawn
Or white magic?

Let’s take a moment to contemplate this image more deeply. Let this form a visual image in your mind: a glass of wine held up to the rising sun at dawn. The rim of the glass catches the light of the early sun, lighting up in a ring of white, with the sun reflecting itself as a single starburst of light along the edge — it is an evocation of the Muslim symbol of the star and crescent. The rim of a glass catching the light — that is the crescent — and within it is held the star or sun.

One way to understand this symbol is that the circle represents the world, or perhaps the individual soul. But, to be spiritually awakened, that circle must be broken open. That edge, which is the wall of separation, is broken open by the star — the light of God, enlightenment. The crescent and the star of Islam for Muslim mystics is a succinct expression of the proper relationship between the human or the worldly with the divine reality.

The closing lines get to the heart of everything:

Everyone faces a mosque of adobe and mud
When they pray.
The mosque of Hayati’s soul
Turns to your face.

Every sacred ritual is always an outer enactment of what we must realize within. What good does it do when we face a mosque or altar or the rising sun, but our souls are turned away from the all-enchanting beauty of the Beloved?

Bibi Hayati

Iran/Persia (19th Century) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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Sep 05 2014

Muhammad Shirin Maghribi – Each Way I Turned

Published by under Poetry

Each Way I Turned
by Muhammad Shirin Maghribi

English version by Mahmood Jamal

Each way I turned
I turned to You;
Each place I reached
Was the path to You.

Each place of worship
I entered to pray,
I saw the arch of Your brow
In every arch and every doorway.

I saw the face of worldly beauty
But I saw it in the mirror of Your face.
In the manifest and the hidden,
In the ideal and the real,
All have looked and only to You.

Don’t ask about Maghribi.
He is by madness struck –
By those dark lashes of Yours!

— from Islamic Mystical Poetry: Sufi Verse from the Early Mystics to Rumi, Translated by Mahmood Jamal


/ Photo by AlicePopkorn /

I really like this one… It is a work of profound devotion, without an ounce of dogma.

Each way I turned
I turned to You;
Each place I reached
Was the path to You.

Each place of worship
I entered to pray,
I saw the arch of Your brow
In every arch and every doorway.

It suggests a spiritual journey of great intensity and yearning, yet, at the same time, at rest with the constant recognition of the Beloved — everywhere!

I saw the face of worldly beauty
But I saw it in the mirror of Your face.
In the manifest and the hidden,
In the ideal and the real,
All have looked and only to You.

We don’t have to strain our eyes looking, looking, looking. Wherever we are, whichever path we are on, we just have to see.

Catching constant glimpses of the Eternal in the minute and mundane and manifest, as well as in the most elevated and most inward… everything in and out and all around becomes a window to the Divine. Who can then act sober and sane?

Don’t ask about Maghribi.
He is by madness stuck –
By those dark lashes of Yours!

Muhammad Shirin Maghribi

Iran/Persia (1349 – 1406) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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3 responses so far

Sep 03 2014

Granum Sinapis

Published by under Poetry

Granum Sinapis
by Granum Sinapis (Anonymous)

English version by Karen J. Campbell

In the beginning
high above comprehension
is the word, eternally.
O rich treasure,
where the beginning eternally bore the beginning!
O paternal bosom,
out of which, in bliss,
the word flowed forth eternally.
Yet the womb still
held fast to the word, truly.

Of the two, one flowing forth,
ember of love,
binding both,
known to both,
so flows the sweetest spirit
in complete symmetry,
inseparable.
The three are one:
do you know, what? No,
it alone knows itself completely.

The enmeshment of the three
harbors deep terror.
No reason has ever
comprehended this circle:
here is a depth without bottom.
Check and mate
to time, to shapes, to space!
The circle of mysteries
is a source of everything;
its point of origin rests, completely immutable, in itself.

Leave your doings
and climb, insight,
the mountain of this point!
The way leads you
into a wondrous desert
which extends wide
and immeasurably far.
The desert knows
neither time nor space.
Its nature is unique.

Never has a foot
crossed the domain of the desert,
created reason
has never attained it.
It is, and yet no one knows what.
It is here, there,
far, near,
deep, high,
so that
it is neither the one nor the other.

Light, clear,
completely dark,
nameless,
unknown,
without beginning and also without end,
it rests in itself,
unveiled, without disguise.
Who knows what its dwelling is?
Let him come forth
and tell us of what shape it is.

Become as a child,
become deaf, become blind!
Your own substance
must become nothingness;
drive all substance, all nothingness far from you!
Leave space, leave time,
eschew also all physical representation.
Go without a way
the narrow foot-path,
then you will succeed in finding the desert.

O my soul,
go out, let God in!
Sink, my entire being,
into God’s nothingness,
sink into the bottomless flood!
If I flee from you,
you come to me,
if I lose myself,
I find you:
O goodness extending over all being.

— from German Mystical Writings: Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, and others, Edited by Karen J. Campbell


/ Photo by Hamed Saber /

This is an amazing poem to me. It gives us so much to explore and meditate upon, but let’s particularly look at the references to the experience of God as a desert.

This language almost has a Buddhist feeling to it, a sense of a great spiritual vastness, a living emptiness, “God’s nothingness.” You could say that the desert is what the Buddhists would call Nirvana.

The desert is eternal, “The desert knows / neither time nor space.” It is unlike anything else (since all of creation emerges from its emptiness), “Its nature is unique.”

“Never has a foot / crossed the domain of the desert…” Not only does this line tell us that the desert is not a physical location; it is also revealing the more subtle truth that you — the little you, the ego you — cannot enter the desert. The desert cannot be comprehended by the logical mind (“created reason / has never attained it”), it can only be directly experienced.

What a haunting riddle:

It is, and yet no one knows what.
It is here, there,
far, near,
deep, high,
so that
it is neither the one nor the other.

You can say that the desert is what it is, beyond the ability of the conceptual mind to define it. It is everywhere and always. It is not limited by the duality of this as opposed to that; it is the living harmony of all things at once.

I love the truth of the lines: “it rests in itself, / unveiled, without disguise.” There is no effort in its existence, and for us to perceive it, we too must become truly effortless, natural, stepping free from the constant work of the ego-mind’s distractions. To do this we must, “Become as a child, / become deaf, become blind!” We must “Leave space, leave time…” We must be completely open and free from the safe limitations of preconceptions, we must even “Go without a way…” “Then you will succeed in finding the desert.”

It is only when we leave behind the little self that we can finally discover the vast Self of God. “O my soul, / go out, let God in!” “…if I lose myself, / I find you” Then and only then do we find the “goodness extending over all being.”

Granum Sinapis (Anonymous)

Germany (14th Century) Timeline
Christian

The poem “A Grain of Mustard Seed of the Most Beautiful Divinity” or “Granum sinapis de divinitate pucherrima” (usually referred to simply as the “Granum sinapis”) probably dates from the early 1300′s in Germany.

Although its author is unknown, it is thought to have been written by a student of the great German mystic Meister Eckhart. Some suggest that it was Eckhart himself who was the author.

More poetry by Granum Sinapis (Anonymous)

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Aug 27 2014

Mahmud Shabistari – One Light

Published by under Poetry

One Light
by Mahmud Shabistari

English version by Andrew Harvey

What are “I” and “You”?
Just lattices
In the niches of a lamp
Through which the One Light radiates.

“I” and “You” are the veil
Between heaven and earth;
Lift this veil and you will see
How all sects and religions are one.

Lift this veil and you will ask –
When “I” and “You” do not exist
What is mosque?
What is synagogue?
What is fire temple?

— from Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom, by Andrew Harvey / Eryk Hanut


/ Photo by Pieroc /

“I” and “You” — What is Shabistari talking about here? “I” and “You” is the normal perception of separation. Here “I” stand, and “You” are a separate entity over there. It is the perception of duality in which we see the entire universe as a fragmented existence of separated beings and objects. On the one hand, that perception allows one’s self to feel supremely important in contrast to all else, but it also isolates us and imprisons us in a physicalized notion of reality. Even when we touch, we never quite make contact. The heart ever yearns for real unity.

To show us the way out of this perceptual trap, Shabistari has given us an image to contemplate: a lamp surrounded by latticework. The lamp shines with a single light, but the lattices divide up the radiance into several individual shafts of light. He tells us the world of separation between “I” and “You” is like that — one light divided into many rays.

Think about this image a little more. So long as we look outward, we continue to only see separated beams of light reaching through the air patterning the wall. But the moment it occurs to us to instead follow the light, we turn around and discover the single light that is its source. Finally seeing that single light, we then know that there has only ever been that one light. Does the lattice somehow create many lights of the one light? No. It is still the one light, but expressing itself through the many beams. To prove this to ourselves, all we need do is remove the latticework (“lift this veil”), and then the light shines everywhere, undivided. And the whole time the light itself has never changed its action or nature.

Shabistari makes an interesting shift in the second verse. The separation of “I” and “You” is expanded to be understood in the realm of the world’s religious divisions. And the metaphor of the lamp’s lattice has become a veil (which, of course, covers the face of the Beloved). Even the many sects and religions are one — when we finally look inward toward the light that shines at the heart of each tradition. To one who has lifted the veil and witnessed the underlying Beauty, the distinctions of each tradition and theology no longer separate them. Instead, we can say that the best of each religious tradition adorns the Face differently — but it is the same Face.

Lift this veil…

…and separation is lost, the soul’s isolation ends. And every place becomes a place of worship.

Mahmud Shabistari, Mahmud Shabistari poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Mahmud Shabistari

Iran/Persia (1250? – 1340) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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Aug 22 2014

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – Secret Language

Published by under Poetry

Secret Language
by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

English version by Coleman Barks

Every part of you has a secret language
your hands and your feet
say what you’ve done
and every need brings in what’s needed
pain bears its cure like a child

— from Secret Language: Rumi A Celebration in Song (Music CD), by Ramananda


/ Photo by woodleywonderworks /

The continuing crackdown by police against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri has inspired me to mediate on our ideas of race…

Looking at me, most Americans would call me white, but less and less does that mean something to me. Ethnically, I’m a typical American mutt, with ancestry from numerous countries, not all of them European. I have always had a diverse group of friends, from different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

My closest friend in early childhood was a Nigerian boy, the son of students who had moved to the United States to attend the local university. Though I certainly don’t claim to understand race from his perspective, our friendship alerted me to questions of race and racism early on.

More recently, my friendship with a Pawnee man has led to several fascinating conversations on race and identity. He said something that startled me: There is no such thing as race. There is culture, there is appearance, but there is no race. My initial reaction was that it’s a nice idea to espouse as a countermeasure to the ongoing problems of racism, but race itself is a simple fact, isn’t it? It took a bit of deeper thought on my part before the truth of what he was saying struck me — the actual, biological truth of the statement, not simply the ethical rightness behind it.

Let’s take a few minutes together to go beyond the question of racism and see if we can dismantle the underlying presumption of race itself…

There is no such thing as race. Yes, there are noticeable physical characteristics, and we can loosely identify some characteristics with populations from specific geographical areas, but there is no such thing as a white race, a black race, or any other race we want to name.

A white person may be someone with fair skin and blue eyes and we may be accurate in saying that he has some ancestry that goes back to northern Europe, but it is false to say he is a member of the white race, as distinct from other races.

The fact is that there is no central characteristic of a white race or black race or any race. How can that be, you ask? We could mention several details like hair or eyes, but the most obvious distinction is skin color.

But think about skin color for a moment. That northern European may have very pale skin, but if we travel south through Europe to the Mediterranean, the common skin tone is much darker. Are they still “white”? Are we still talking about the same “race”? (The 19th century was uncertain on this point, by the way.)

Let’s go further south, down the boot of Italy, through Sicily, and hop the Mediterranean to northern Africa. The average skin tone has gotten darker still, but it hasn’t changed as much as some might imagine. In many ways Mediterranean Europeans have more in common with their Mediterranean African neighbors than with their fellow Europeans further north. By crossing the Mediterranean, have we switched races yet? How much change in skin tone constitutes a change in race? What is the definitive border? Can we mark it on the color wheel?

We can keep going south, across the Sahara into central Africa. And though we keep asking the same questions, the answer keeps eluding us. Where is the clear dividing point between the races?

There is no such racial borderline. The only time that border exists is when we don’t look for it. In truth, there is no race, only a spectrum of human appearance. The idea of distinct groups of people that we divide into races is an artificial cultural notion built on assumption and sloppy observation.

A question to take with you into the day: If we are not a world of black people and white people and every other race, but simply people of varied appearance, what does that mean in our day-to-day lives? What does that mean to the tensions in Ferguson?

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

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

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4 responses so far

Aug 20 2014

Mary Oliver – Can You Imagine?

Published by under Poetry

Can You Imagine?
by Mary Oliver

For example, what the trees do
not only in lightning storms
or the watery dark of a summer’s night
or under the white nets of winter
but now, and now, and now – whenever
we’re not looking. Surely you can’t imagine
they don’t dance, from the root up, wishing
to travel a little, not cramped so much as wanting
a better view, or more sun, or just as avidly
more shade – surely you can’t imagine they just
stand there loving every
minute of it, the birds or the emptiness, the dark rings
of the years slowly and without a sound
thickening, and nothing different unless the wind,
and then only in its own mood, comes
to visit, surely you can’t imagine
patience, and happiness, like that.

— from Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, by Mary Oliver


/ Photo by Marco Arment /

From the towering redwoods and ancient yews, to the forgotten blades of grass beneath our feet, plants are our teachers.

I’ve often contemplated how the plant world embodies such pure life and beauty, without the constant anxiety to be somewhere else. Wherever it has purchase, a plant lives out its purpose with unrestrained green joy.

They find a patch of earth, a place of sun, and settle into the long rhythm of days and years, quietly becoming themselves.

surely you can’t imagine they just
stand there loving every
minute of it, the birds or the emptiness, the dark rings
of the years slowly and without a sound
thickening, and nothing different unless the wind

Perhaps we can imagine it. With the sweep of the wind and the turning of the year, perhaps we can even imagine they dance.

A bush upon a windswept bluff leans into the stream of air and itself becomes the fulfillment of the landscape. A sapling seeking sunlight beneath a canopy of elder trees reaches out for that golden touch and, over time, becomes the pathway of its own seeking.

surely you can’t imagine
patience, and happiness, like that.

Perhaps we can.

Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Mary Oliver

US (1935 – )
Secular or Eclectic

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Aug 15 2014

Rabindranath Tagore – On many an idle day

Published by under Poetry

On many an idle day have I grieved over lost time (from Gitanjali)
by Rabindranath Tagore

English version by Rabindranath Tagore

On many an idle day have I grieved over lost time. But it is never lost, my lord. Thou hast taken every moment of my life in thine own hands.
      Hidden in the heart of things thou art nourishing seeds into sprouts, buds into blossoms, and ripening flowers into fruitfulness.
      I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed and imagined all work had ceased. In the morning I woke up and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.

— from Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore


/ Photo by XpopsicleX /

It has been a difficult week for the heart, if you follow the news. There is, of course, continuing desperation and tragedy in Israel/Palestine. The rise of ISIS in Iraq. The images of militarized police responses in Missouri.

And then we hear of the suicide of Robin Williams. Sometimes we can bring ourselves to grieve for a lone individual we recognize, when numbers in the hundreds and thousands numb us.

Some weeks are especially heartbreaking for the empathic soul. Be nurturing with yourself and loved ones this week. And let that inner burning strengthen your steel…

I thought the image of a garden and growth would be healing–

This chapter from Tagore’s Gitanjali, like most of the book, is addressed directly to God as a sort of a prayer. But Tagore is not asking for something. He is acknowledging a surprising truth, he is proclaiming to God the dawning realization that growth is taking place in his “garden” of spiritual awareness always, secretly, quietly, even when he despairs of his own efforts. He “imagined all work had ceased” — he felt his own spiritual work had come to nothing and his deflated spirit temporarily gives up — but he wakes up surprised to find his “garden full with wonders of flowers.” This happens all the time for those striving spiritually, but why?

The metaphor of a garden to represent one’s spiritual awareness is an ancient one used throughout the world, and it is perfect for what is being said here. Think about a garden for a moment. What is it? First, it is a place where things grow, a place of life. It is the opposite of death, which is the state of nonspirituality. The plants of the garden are rooted in the earth, yet they reach upward toward the light of the sun. On an even subtler level, a garden is a place of nourishment and of beauty. What grows in our spiritual gardens feeds us through its “fruitfulness,” and it brings beauty, the awareness of harmony to our consciousness. The flowers of the garden represent the spiritual qualities that have opened within us, that in turn cause us to open to the Divine. The flowers are within us, and we are the flowers. From the yogic point of view, the flowers sometimes represent the chakras that open during spiritual awakening. Also, a garden is a place of contemplation and rest. It is a place where we give ourselves permission to simply be, to settle into the present moment. The garden represents the soul at rest in the living presence of the Divine.

But, returning to this verse from the Gitanjali, why is a garden such a perfect metaphor here? Because every plant of the garden grows with a life of its own. The gardener, the spiritual aspirant, may need to till the ground and plant the seeds, water them regularly, keep them free from encroaching weeds — but for all that work, the gardener does not actually make the seeds grow and flower. The gardener just prepares the environment, but it is the divine spark of life “Hidden in the heart of all things” that nourishes “seeds into sprouts, buds into blossoms, and ripening flowers into fruitfulness.”

Tagore is surprised to realize that his only job is to prepare the garden bed and keep it ready, but the growth of the seeds is effortless, for the seeds are alive with the vitality of God. Even when he can conceive of no further effort, the seeds still grow. The seeds WANT to grow. And they will grow. It is their nature to grow once given the right environment. All we have to do is prepare ourselves, make ourselves ready. The spiritual growth will happen of its own accord. Then one morning we wake up surrounded by “wonders of flowers!”

Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore poetry, Yoga / Hindu poetry Rabindranath Tagore

India (1861 – 1941) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu

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4 responses so far

Aug 08 2014

William Blake – The Divine Image

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The Divine Image
by William Blake

To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is God, our Father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is man, His child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity and Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

— from Music of the Sky: An Anthology of Spiritual Poetry, Edited by Patrick Laude / Edited by Barry McDonald


/ Photo by poivre /

This poem is from Blake’s Songs of Innocence, a collection of poems addressed to children. It has an intentional sing-song quality, easy to remember.

If you’re like I am, you probably cringe at that line in the final stanza referring to “heathen, Turk or Jew.” The phrase sounds disparaging taken out of context. But reread what Blake is actually saying: He is using the common prejudice of the day, that white European Christians are superior to all others, and he turns it on its head. He declares that “Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell / There God is dwelling too.”

In other words, Blake is offering a truly universal vision of God that transcends religious, racial, and cultural boundaries. God isn’t limited to specific dogmas. God doesn’t favor one skin color or one national flag. God dwells where the human heart in fruition has made a home for “Love, Mercy, Pity, and Peace.”

Where there is love, where there is mercy and compassion and empathy, where there is deep peace — that is where God is found among people, regardless of who those people are or by what name they call God.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

If more poems like this were read, think how different the world would be.

William Blake, William Blake poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry William Blake

England (1757 – 1827) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic
Christian

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Aug 06 2014

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – This moment

Published by under Poetry

This moment
by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

English version by Coleman Barks

This moment
This LOVE
comes to rest in me,
many beings in one being
In one wheat-grain
a thousand sheaf stacks.

Inside the needle’s eye
a turning night of stars.
This moment –
This LOVE.

— from The Illuminated Rumi, Translated by Coleman Barks


/ Photo by Ha-Wee /

Leave it to a poet like Rumi to give us a phrase like–

Inside the needle’s eye
a turning night of stars.
This moment –
This LOVE.

The beauty of the image and words is so transporting that we can miss the profound esoteric truth being revealed here:

The human spirit, in its constant quest and hunger, looks for ever larger, greater experiences that expand our reach until we can encompass and hold everything. Even in the spiritual journey we want to be so big we don’t have to deal with the mundane moment. And this is the hardest part — letting go of that impulse.

You see, here’s the secret Rumi whispers to us in these lines… Don’t get bigger; get smaller. Become so small that you can finally rest in the tiniest of spaces — “this moment.” Do that, come to rest here, right here, fully, and this moment, which you feared would be so small you’d suffocate (“inside the needle’s eye”), surprises you by becoming a window to the Infinite (“a turning night of stars”).

Do that, and your heart unfolds in ways you hadn’t known possible, flooding you with an all-encompassing awareness of bliss and love.

It is not a journey of years, it is a journey of one moment–

This moment –
This LOVE.

(PS – The book this poem is taken from — The Illustrated Rumi — comes with some stunning artwork, digital collages you can spend a hours gazing at… along with the wonderful poetry, of course!)

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

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

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3 responses so far

Aug 01 2014

Dariya – Who can describe the Source of the universe

Published by under Poetry

Who can describe the Source of the universe
by Dariya

English version by K. N. Upadhyaya

Who can describe the Source of the universe,
Containing this world, the underworld and clusters
      of galaxies manifested in higher regions?
The One whose luster, like a luminous gem,
      illumines the universe,
Which poet can comprehend and follow
      the pattern of His manifestations?

It is the Merciful Lord
      who bestowed His grace on me,
And I could see the glory
      of His entire manifestations.
The play of love of the Limitless Primal Being,
      I did see in entirety.
This is an inaccessible and unfathomable Divine Wonder,
How can any poet give its description?

— from Dariya Sahib: Saint of Bihar, Translated by K. N. Upadhyaya


/ Photo by Topo3486 /

Who can describe the Source of the universe…?

This is a question often raised by sacred poets. Even those overcome by the most profound vision of the Divine find the art of words failing them.

This verse is the mystic’s dilemma: The Grand Vision can be witnessed, participated in, but the mind can’t comprehend it or define it in a way that can be truly communicated.

Which poet can comprehend and follow
      the pattern of His manifestations?

The reason for this is that the reasoning mind understands reality by dissecting it. The intellect slices reality into manageable pieces that it can comprehend and manipulate. But the Divine Presence witnessed by mystics in deep communion is the Wholeness of reality.

That Totality permeates everything, has no boundaries. The physical eyes do not see it; it is not a play of light and dark, but an eternal all-pervading radiance or presence.

The One whose luster, like a luminous gem,
      illumines the universe…

It is formless because form is defined by boundaries. How then can the poor intellect (or the poor poet) hope to describe that which transcends every definition?

This is an inaccessible and unfathomable Divine Wonder,
How can any poet give its description?

This doesn’t mean the intellect can’t try, by resorting to metaphor, but the communication of this truth ultimately comes not through words but through participation.

Dariya, Dariya poetry, Sikh poetry Dariya

India (1634 – 1780) Timeline
Sikh
Yoga / Hindu

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Jul 30 2014

Marina Tsvetaeva – I know the truth

Published by under Poetry

I know the truth
by Marina Tsvetaeva

English version by Elaine Feinstein

I know the truth — give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look — it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

— from Tsvetayeva: Selected Poems, by Marina Tsvetaeva / Translated by Elaine Feinstein


/ Photo by KellyB. /

I return to this poem regularly, and it brings me to a halt each time. There is such a mature, weary compassion in these lines.

The question is not whether we will live or die. We all live (though we may not always feel as if we do). And we all die (though we may discover that death is not what we imagined).

The real question is, while we move and act upon the earth, do we ease the suffering of others or add to it? Will we let each other rest above the earth, or only beneath it?

Life and death are a given. It is what we do with them that matters.

The whole while the earth says, “Is not every beautiful thing yours already?” And the night sky, for all its immense movement, is completely at peace. So what has humanity lost sight of?

May our eyes see, though our hearts break.
May our hearts break, that they may open.
May our hearts bleed, that we know life flows through them.

Marina Tsvetaeva, Marina Tsvetaeva poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Marina Tsvetaeva

Russia (1892 – 1941) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

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Jul 23 2014

Theodore Roethke – In a Dark Time

Published by under Poetry

In a Dark Time
by Theodore Roethke

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood –
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks — is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is –
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

— from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, by Theodore Roethke


/ Photo by mill56 /

This is one of those poems to keep close in difficult times.

In a dark time, the eye begins to see

The struggle against despair, disorientation, darkness. The solitary individual lost in a lost world. We have all been there at some point in our lives. Deep seekers have a particular tendency to travel through those shadowed spaces.

I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.

That despair is often a deep seated sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the human world presented to us. It can feel uncaring, limited, violent, broken, and incomplete. In other words, it is a place that does not accept the individual as he or she is. To operate in the human world, we are forced into games of pretense and self-disguise. It is a feeling of homelessness and isolation.

What does one do when the soul is at odds with circumstance? It creates a terrible crisis. As social creatures, we align with the group mind, often without awareness or consent. The more naturally we do this, the better we fit into society and exist in the human world. But what about the eccentrics and visionaries, those who resist that psychic pull in order to answer the soul’s need to be itself and see beyond social artifice?

The edge is what I have.

They tend to dwell at the edges. That is where both danger and possibility are found. There we gain the possibility of seeing clearly for the first time, witnessing reality as a complete and self-fulfilled individual.

But the danger is very real, as well. No longer relying on socially constructed reality as our boundary we also lose our safe landmarks. The psyche becomes disoriented and fragile.

To navigate this necessary dark night of the soul, the seeker and the artist must cultivate a highly refined inner sense of balance and discipline. This is an important reason for developing a vigorous spiritual practice. Without the necessary inner solidity, the tendency is to rely on dangerous crutches, like excessive drinking and drug use — a terrible problem for so many creative non-conformists.

Think of it this way: The normal consensus reality is like the rigid shell of an egg. It does an excellent job of safely containing the unformed individual and protecting it from exposure to the unknown outside reality. But, if the individual remains within that shell forever, he never experiences the fullness of life. Through spiritual practice, one awakens the fire of life and takes on inner solidity and form. Then, when the shell has become too confining, you can break free into the open air without danger of fragmentation, ready to encounter the new world.

…Those dark periods we experience, they do actually serve a purpose, awakening clarity of vision and a compassionate heart. When we feel most vulnerable and lost, we are often going through our greatest growth and transformation, readying for the blaze of light.

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Learn to work deeply amidst the darkness; discover what is really you slowly emerging from the shadows, for that is your stable landmark when all else shifts about.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke, Theodore Roethke poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Theodore Roethke

US (1908 – 1963) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by Theodore Roethke

6 responses so far

Jul 16 2014

Abdul-Qader Bedil – His Living Proof

Published by under Poetry

His Living Proof
by Abdul-Qader Bedil

English version by David and Sabrineh Fideler

The eternal mysteries,
following wisdom’s lead,
brought forth
the human form
as their living proof.

As long as the drop
hadn’t emerged from the sea,
the ocean
didn’t notice
the depths of its splendor.

— from Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition, Translated by David Fideler / Translated by Sabrineh Fideler


/ Photo by alainf1 /

The “human form” in this poem is not so much a reference to human physical body as to human consciousness. Bedil is saying that humanity was created by God to be a living witness to Divinity. This is the “living proof.” He is not stating that the human body itself somehow proves the existence of the “eternal mysteries;” rather, it is through the witnessing consciousness of humanity that the Divine knows Itself in fullness. The poet makes this more clear with the metaphor of the second verse: It is only when the “drop” emerges from the “sea” that the “ocean” can envision “the depths of its own splendor.”

In other words, Bedil is giving us an answer to that fundamental spiritual question: Why does separation exist within the universe? If all is One, if everything fundamentally exists in God, why is there this devastating sense of separation and duality? The answer many mystical traditions give is that Eternal Unity divides mundane perception into the duality of seer and seen as a way to deepen the full knowledge of Being. Humanity, in this sense, has as its most important role that of witnessing Divinity. From this viewpoint, you could say that humanity becomes the eye of God. Human consciousness becomes a reflection of the Divine consciousness, a mirror in which the Eternal Unity can view Itself.

But there is an added twist to the common perception of duality. When one fulfills the role of witnessing God beyond the dizzying and sometimes heartbreaking multiplicities of the dualistic universe… the dualism fades away, revealing itself as having been an elaborate illusion. In truth, everything has always been One from start to finish. So we have a circular game of awareness: unity seeks self-knowledge through duality, but self-knowledge returns us to unity. The drop no matter how high it is flung into the air, eventually falls back into the embrace of the ocean and merges once more. Even high above the waves, the drop is water. And once returned to the ocean, it is still water (but no longer imagines itself to be a separate drop).

Abdul-Qader Bedil

Afghanistan (1644 – 1721) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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Jul 11 2014

Umar Ibn al-Farid – They say to me: Do describe it (from The Wine Ode)

Published by under Poetry

They say to me: “Do describe it (from The Wine Ode (al-Khamriyah))
by Umar Ibn al-Farid

English version by Th. Emil Homerin

They say to me: “Do describe it,
      for you know its character well!”
            Indeed, I have word
      of its attributes:

Purity not water,
      subtlety not air,
            light but not fire,
      spirit without body,

Lovely features guiding
      those describing it to praise;
            how find their prose and poetry
      on wine.

One who never knew it
      is moved by its memory,
            just as one longing for Nu’m
      is stirred when she is recalled.

But they said: “You’ve drunk sin!”
      No, indeed, I drank only
            that whose abstention
      is sin to me.

— from Umar Ibn al-Farid: Sufi Verses, Saintly Life, Translated by Th. Emil Homerin


/ Photo by drainingraven /

A meditation on wine today…

(So it doesn’t sound as if I am encouraging everyone to stock up at the corner liquor store, I will mention that I don’t drink alcohol myself, and I never have. Much to the surprise of my friends and family, I chose not to drink from an early age. I don’t, however, think there is anything wrong with drinking in moderation. But the wine we are contemplating here is of an entirely different sort…)

While sacred wine imagery occurs all over the world, the theme is perhaps most fully developed by the great Sufi poets.

This is especially interesting because of the complex relationship Islam has with wine. In Christianity, wine is the sacramental drink of the Eucharist, but in traditional Muslim observation, wine is forbidden. Yet, surprisingly, wine is promised to devout Muslims in heaven. Sufi poetry thrives on this tension.

But they said: “You’ve drunk sin!”
      No, indeed, I drank only
            that whose abstention
      is sin to me.

The forbidden worldly drink is also the sacred drink. That which is most profane is somehow transformed to become that which is most sacred. What is the difference? What changes the forbidden into the most holy of substances?

The mystically inclined might understand the paradox in this way: As a spiritual practice, alcoholic beverages are to be avoided, along with anything that fogs the awareness. This prepares the awareness to receive the infinitely more delightful wine of heaven.

Is it always understood and practiced this way? No. Sufis often dance in the gap between the forbidden and the promised, turning religious formalism on its head. Amidst sober orthodoxy, Sufis sing drunkenly of wine, wine, red wine! This allows authoritarians to dismiss them as drunkards and fools, leaving true seekers free from the snares of societal approval in order to continue their outlaw love affair with the Divine.

Bliss is sweet — literally. When you relax deeply into it, it becomes physical as well as transcendental. Not only is bliss an internal realization of wholeness and at-one-ness, it is also perceived through the external senses as the purest delight each sense can comprehend.

For many mystics, the sense of taste is pronounced, and bliss is experienced as a sublime, fulfilling sweetness resting upon the tongue while it warms the heart. Tasting this rarified substance is intoxicating; you feel giddy, smiling for no reason. You are no longer yourself. You may tremble and shake. You appear to all the world as if you are drunk — and so mystics speak of drunkenness and wine.

Often accompanying the experience is a feeling of deep purity, a sense of etheric subtlety, and the vision of all-pervading light–

Purity not water,
      subtlety not air,
            light but not fire,
      spirit without body

Ibn al-Farid gives us an interesting statement that implies drinking the sacred wine inspires words and poetry:

Lovely features guiding
      those describing it to praise;
            how find their prose and poetry
      on wine.

Many esoteric traditions formulate this link: the secret drink = poetry = prophecy. Here spirituality and art overlap.

When the mystic becomes conscious of first tasting the initiate’s wine, the awareness of supreme unity that underlies the apparent variety of creation is so profound that you begin to exist in the primal state of metaphor. Metaphor ceases to be a literary device or a dramatic mode of expression; it is seen as the true nature of reality.

The heavenly wine also brings the awareness into stillness, free from inner dialog. — Silence — Yet, curiously, many mystics find that from that silence words flow freely. Or, more generally, you can say that your natural expression is unstopped. With some that natural expression comes through words, for others music, for others imagery. It is as if expression is no longer hindered by your own mind. From silence, expression flows generously.

This is how Sufis “find their prose and poetry on wine.”

Have a beautiful full-moon weekend!

Ivan

PS – I hope you will join me in sending healing blessings to the region of Israel/Palestine. The current status quo is untenable so, sadly, further violence from all sides is unavoidable until a more livable balance is found. For that reason, the blessings I send are not so much to quell the immediate chaos as to comfort those who suffer and to inspire wisdom and empathy among those in positions to redirect the situation in order to create a more livable future for the region. All the people in this holy land are in my heart.

Umar Ibn al-Farid

Egypt (1181 – 1235) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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Jul 09 2014

Sarmad – My heart searched for your fragrance

Published by under Poetry

My heart searched for your fragrance
by Sarmad

English version by Isaac A. Ezekiel

My heart searched for your fragrance
      in the breeze moving at dawn,
      my eyes searched for the flower of your face
      in the garden of creation.
Neither could lead me to your abode –
      contemplation alone showed me the way.

— from Sarmad: Martyr to Love Divine, by Isaac A. Ezekiel


/ Photo by Courtney /

I know that the poem emails have been less frequent in recent weeks. I have been working on the upcoming anthology (I know, I’ve been talking about it for a while, but it is coming…), balancing my day job, and still dealing with ups and downs in health. Besides, a little uncertainty is a good thing; it helps us to bring fresh eyes to each new poem.

Reading this lovely poem by Sarmad, I can honestly embrace either side of its point. He is saying that, no matter how beautiful and uplifting the the world around us may be, the Eternal is only found within the inner space of deep contemplation. And that is such an important reminder for the human world that is perpetually hooked by the senses and the desire to comprehend everything in terms of material reality. Even the purest appreciation of the most stunning panorama does not hold God. Always, always, the Eternal is found within.

And yet– physical reality, especially the natural world in all its life and beauty, reveals something to us of the deeper Reality. In the sunrise, in a flower, we do not see the face of God… but, when we learn to look, we can see there a suggestion of a smile. Spirit playfully hides just behind the physical. Grasping at the physical world leads to failure and blindness, but recognizing its beauty can lead us to inner stillness and true seeing.

So, should we agree with Sarmad, or disagree? Both, I think.

PS- Sending blessings and good wishes to all of my Muslim friends celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.

Sarmad

Iran/Persia & India (? – 1659) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi
Jewish

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7 responses so far

Jun 30 2014

Basava – The eating bowl is not one bronze

Published by under Poetry

The eating bowl is not one bronze
by Basava

English version by A. K. Ramanujan

The eating bowl is not one bronze
and the looking glass another.

      Bowl and mirror are one metal
      Giving back light
      one becomes a mirror.

            Aware, one is the Lord’s;
            unaware, a mere human.

                  Worship the lord without forgetting,
                  the lord of the meeting rivers.

— from Speaking of Siva, by A K Ramanujan


/ Photo by Gaetan Lee /

Bronze is a soft metal, easily shaped. It can be hammered into a bowl or flattened and polished, forming a simple mirror.

Basava is playing with a traditional teaching metaphor in this poem: both the bowl and the mirror are made of bronze. Mentally we label them as being different, but fundamentally they are the same substance, “one metal.”

The bronze can be understood to represent God. All beings, all things are made of the same substance, though we mentally distinguish them by outer shape. The only substantial difference between the eating bowl and the mirror is the form they have taken on. We can say that the mirror has recognized its nature as a bronze object. The nature of bronze, when straight and polished, is to give back light.

We are all constructed of the same God-stuff. When we become aware of our nature and polish ourselves we give back light and become a mirror.

Basava, Basava poetry, Yoga / Hindu poetry Basava

India (1134 – 1196) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu : Shaivite (Shiva)

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Jun 25 2014

Santoka – Hailstones, too

Published by under Poetry

Hailstones, too
by Santoka (Santoka Taneda)

English version by John Stevens

Hailstones, too,
Enter my begging bowl.

— from Mountain Tasting: The Haiku and Journals of Santoka Taneda, by Santoka Teneda / Translated by John Stevens


/ Photo by Benny Lin /

Just two lines, just a few words, yet this poem suggests so much to me.

Santoka was a wandering Zen monk at the beginning of the 20th century, and whatever he received in his begging bowl was his food for the day. For such a monk, the begging bowl is both survival and the medium of connection to the wider world. It takes on archetypal significance. The begging bowl comes to represent the awareness itself: whatever the self is to receive must first enter the begging bowl.

Rice and coin and flowers come to Santoka through the medium of his begging bowl. But it is the monk’s discipline to hold out his begging bowl and receive whatever comes to him with equanimity, as the meditator receives with balance whatever is witnessed. Hailstones, too, enter the begging bowl. Everything that comes is a gift, food for the awareness, whether or not it feeds the body as well.

To me, this poem evokes that perfect receptivity in which surprise, disillusionment, delight, and new awareness all mix together as the mind opens to what is actually present in the present moment.

Santoka (Santoka Taneda), Santoka (Santoka Taneda) poetry, Buddhist poetry Santoka (Santoka Taneda)

Japan (1882 – 1940) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

More poetry by Santoka (Santoka Taneda)

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