|by Abdulkarim Soroush
When you don’t lose yourself, a fly can fell you
When you lose yourself, elephants fall before you
When you don’t lose yourself, you’re a cloud of grief
When you lose yourself, mist and fog parts for you
When you don’t lose yourself, the beloved turns away
When you lose yourself, the sweetest wine comes your way
When you don’t lose yourself, you’re as dispirited as autumn
When you lose yourself, your January is like spring
All your restlessness is out of your desire for stillness
Just desire restlessly, then, love will fill and still you
All your unhealthiness is out of your desire for health,
Just abandon health, then, even poison will heal you…
This ode/ghazal in which Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumi speaks of the differences between life when “you lose yourself” and life when “you don’t lose yourself” is one of the jewels of the Divān-e Shams, and you would be hard pressed to find another ghazal that compares to it in terms of revelations about the secrets of wisdom and the riches of vision. It is as if, here, all in one place, Rumi has bequeathed to us the quintessence of his mystical and transcendental experiences; divulged his inmost, spiritual discoveries; and laid bare the fruits of his ardent, mystical journey.
It is generally assumed that in the Masnavi, Rumi is a teacher and that in theDivān-e Kabir, he is a besotted lover. There, he complies with the code of conduct of the classroom and, here, he abandons himself to the “misconduct” of love; for, “the conduct of love is misconduct through and through”. This is a correct assessment and anyone who has had the good fortune to read these spiritual and inspirational works will know that, in these two tomes, he is faced with two Rumi’s: the sage and the lover. It is not for nothing that the Masnavi has been called Hesāmi-Nāmeh (The Book of Hesameddin), whilst the Divān-e Kabir is known as the Divān-e Shams or Shams-Nāmeh. In the nightly sessions in which the Masnavi was born, Hesameddin would sit like a pupil. Pen in hand and eyes glued to the teacher’s lips, he would listen to the master’s teachings and put them to paper. In Rumi’s own words, in the Masnavi, he behaved like an astute ruler, who thought about combining form and meaning. And, notwithstanding his inebriation, he minded his conduct and imparted the fine points of morality and religion like a dignified teacher. And if, now and then, in mid-sentence, his thoughts strayed to Shams—robbing his mind of concentration, his heart of serenity, his words of composure and his soul of tranquillity—he would hastily give himself a shake, bite his tongue, swallow the impassioned words and bellow to himself to stop thinking and speaking of Shams-e Tabrizi, “Else, there’ll be ruin and disgrace”.
But, in the Divān-e Kabir, this same Rumi becomes a great madman, who is robbed by love of the serenity to teach like a sage; who looks down on the ladder of “the way” because he has reached the rooftop of “the truth”; who, like a piece of gold, has become unneedful of the science and practice of alchemy; who reveals secrets so frenziedly as to force Hallaj to call for him to be hanged: “The people hanged Hallaj for his insinuations / Hallaj will have me hanged for my frenzied revelations”.
Rumi, who—judging by his works—was very fond of stories involving animals, was well-versed in the story of the lion and the deer; a lion that was so awe-inspiring and terrifying as to make the deer faint and fade away, so that nothing remained of it but a pale shape. The deer forgets its own being and is lost in the lion’s being. It is as if the deer is so brimming with the lion as to be empty of itself, and the lion fills the deer’s emptied mould. From then on, the deer that has “lost itself” becomes a lion that has “not lost itself” and behaves in a lion-like way.
In fact, the lion was no one other than Shams-e Tabrizi and the deer was no one other than Jalaleddin Rumi. The story of the deer and the lion was the tale of Rumi’s own encounter with Shams, who made him lose his senses and “lose himself”. And it was in this “losing himself” and losing his senses that he crazily composed the ghazals, which told the story of his madness and his love. He was transformed into another lion and another Shams; nay, a thousand Shams-e Tabrizis dangled from each hair on his head. (Aflaki’s Munaqib)
The Divān-e Kabir is the product of those rare moments when you lose yourself. And although respect for a teacher’s code of conduct is not to be found there, the secrets of love are hidden therein. The lion that the deer of Rumi’s soul saw was not a life- devouring lion, but a life-giving one. And it was this new life that poured new meanings into old words and built the world anew.
From this prelude, I want to make my way to explaining the ghazal that I mentioned at the beginning—which is a most thorough elucidation of “losing yourself”. But, first, I can’t resist citing the following two verses from Divān-e Shams, which is a soulful description of a brave soul who saw a life-giving lion and gained new life from it: “Our lion is a rare specimen and far from devouring a deer / It breathes into a roe’s shape and makes it bound and leap / It’s out of my love for it that I took up the lute / It cries out my feelings for me, as I sit stunned and mute”.
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Why does Rumi say, in his ghazal, that when you “lose yourself”, you find contentment, sturdiness, joy, the vitality of spring and companionship with the beloved; whereas when you “don’t lose yourself”, you feel sadness, weakness, wretchedness, autumnal lassitude and separation from the beloved? What about all the other paradoxes that he describes: The tranquillity that you find when abandon tranquillity; the purposelessness that you feel when you pursue an aim; the unpleasantness that stems from seeking pleasant things; and the beloved’s coldness when you long for its warmth?
If, in the realm of theory, we define “losing yourself” as “heedlessness and fearlessness”, this might answer some of our questions, but what virtue is there in ignorant, idle heedlessness? Perhaps sagacious unconcern/not caring may be nearer the mark: someone who cares about happiness is afraid of being unhappy and is saddened by any decrease in happiness; someone who longs for spring dreads autumn; someone who values disciples’ praise is hurt by their derision; and anyone who is trapped by these likes and dislikes is open to weakness and wretchedness, loses all courage, is ensnared by anguish, grows sad for fear of sorrow, and flees from one trap into another.
Although the idea of being contented, unconcerned, untroubled and unencumbered is very sweet and comforting, it raises two questions: First, how can gain and loss, joy and sorrow, life and death, purposefulness and purposelessness become equal so that neither side of the equation is preferable to the other? What would motivate desiring and movement then? And is the comfort of contentment not pleasurable in itself and is it possible to forego this pleasure? Secondly, why should such a moral demeanour and such a noble person be described as someone who has “lost himself”. And is “losing yourself” the same thing as being an unconcerned nonconformist or is it its begetter, and if it is its begetter, what is it composed of? Setting all these considerations aside, in the ghazal in question, although Rumi seems to turn his back on all the things that people desire, he lauds desiring. In other words, he doesn’t equate desiring and indifference. On the contrary, he asks us to desire restlessly and to adore the beloved’s cruelty, and this is desiring and caring, and it is incompatible with an absolute absence of desire.
In the Golestān, Sa’di, Rumi’s contemporary, tells the tale of a dervish who is asked, “What do you want?” “Not to want anything,” he replies. But this is clearly not what Rumi is talking about. Perhaps, what Rumi is saying is closer to Attār’s words when he said: “Poverty’s cap is adorned with three abandonments / Abandoning this world, abandoning the next world, and abandoning abandoning”.
Being a dervish rests on three pillars: Turning away from this world, turning away from the next world and turning away from turning away. In other words, not fighting desires, but transcending desires and finding another way of being. Isn’t this what a dervish’s “nonbeing” means? As Rumi put it, “There’s no dervish anywhere, the speaker said / and if there is a dervish, he isn’t”. This idea was also expressed by Sheikh Abolhassan Kharaqani when he said: “A Sufi is someone who isn’t.” In other words, a dervish is someone who is neither in this world, nor in the next world, nor concerned about abandoning this world or the next. It is a kind of lover’s freedom that Hāfez, too, discovered: “I’m the servant of love; free of both worlds”. Be that as it may, even if we equate “losing yourself” with abandoning abandoning, we must still take on board the idea of desiring, which Rumi hailed and acclaimed.
We must also not equate “losing yourself” with alienation, which means mistaking an other for yourself. Alienation is “not losing yourself” combined with not knowing yourself. And it goes without saying that this is furlongs away from “losing yourself”.
And we must not equate “forgetting your soul” with “losing yourself” either. “Forgetting your soul” is a reprehensible condition which, according to the Qur’an’s teaching, results from forgetting God: “Be not as those who forgot God, and so, He caused them to forget their souls.” (Hashr, 19)
The same can be said of the term diminution or “loss”, which is the opposite of robustness and heftiness and conveys a sense of being insubstantial and being “at a loss”. This is a long way away from “losing yourself” in the laudable sense. According to the Qur’an’s teachings, a human being (who is by nature pure and good) loses something of himself and becomes thinner when he sins, and he weighs less when measured on the scale of justice and truth, unless he compensates for the lack and the thinness by having faith and doing good deeds. (“Surely Man is in the way of loss, save those who believe and do righteous deeds.” Al-Asr)
Now, let us see whether “self-regard” is akin to “not losing yourself” and “disregard for yourself” is related to “losing yourself”. Rumi extracted this relationship in the most eloquent way in the tale of the grammarian and the sea captain in Book I of the Masnavi. After the grammarian had irritated the sea captain by telling him that he’d wasted his life since he’d never studied grammar, the sea captain warned the grammarian that the ship was approaching a whirlpool and that, in such circumstances, only people who had studied the “grammar” or the method of self-effacement could proceed with confidence.
It would seem that “the method of self-effacement” is, in effect, a lesson in “losing yourself”, abandoning haughtiness and self-esteem, and practising death. Of course, not focusing on yourself has a moral sense, which is humility and modesty, and it has a mystical sense, which is to see one’s self as a veil and to strive to step out of the way.
It may be fairly straightforward to see how arrogance and conceit—also sometimes known as “me-ness”—are akin to “not losing yourself”. Someone who has “not lost himself” is preoccupied with “me”. He sees others as “nobodies” and sees himself as “everybody”. And this bloated kind of “me” is effectively an illness and it is also a source of illness. In the Masnavi, Rumi tells the tale of a lover who knocks on the door of the beloved. When the beloved asks, “Who is it?”, the lover replies: “Me.” This “me” is enough to make him deserving of being rejected and sent away. The story continues until all his many “me’s” burn away. Then, he returns to the beloved’s house. This time, when the beloved asks, “Who is it?”, he replies, “Here, too, it is you, my darling heart.” And, so, he is allowed into the house by the beloved, who says: “Since you’re me, come in; otherwise, two me’s don’t fit in one house.”
In Rumi’s view, anyone who has a “me” and a “self”, in truth, has not one “me” but a different “me” and a different “self” at each moment. In Rumi’s words, such a person has “a thousands me’s and we’s”. And it is in the chaos of all these “me’s” that he forgets who he is.
For Rumi, at least one meaning of “losing yourself” is casting away these “multiple-selves” and arriving at “a single self”. And although this contains a cure to haughtiness and self-esteem and the method of self-effacement within it, it is not identical to this kind of moral improvement. It is a movement in your being, not in your morality; it is a vertical leap, not a horizontal one; and it is deliverance from polytheism, not from grime.
Killing your appetites or combating your appetites may seem close to the idea of “losing yourself”, but it is, of course, not identical to it, and far from being a purging of the self, it is a preening of the self. And although this cleaning and preening of the self is morally laudable, it is far away indeed from “losing yourself”, which amounts to transcending beauty and ugliness. Of course, Rumi believes that understanding God’s unity requires that you part with your appetites; that a mind that is sullied by bodily desires is incapable of understanding the Transcendent. So, he is of the view that commanding people to combat their appetites on the path to understanding unity does not contravene God’s compassion. But all these battles fall within the realm of learning and morality, which concern the good and bad effects of “the self”; they do not cut down to the bone to remove “the self”.
* * *
We said that, on the way to “losing yourself” and arriving at the fruits of this condition—i.e., contentment, sturdiness, joy and beauty—the least that you must do is to strive for “a single self”, escape division and dispersal, become “whole”, drive away the devil and greet the angel of glad tidings. Now, assuming that “multiple selves” have been cast away and the “single self” has been achieved (which is possible by turning away from bodily appetites, reducing desires, shunning vices, acquiring virtues, talking less, eating less, sleeping less, etc.), what steed will allow you to make the journey from “a single self” to “losing yourself”? How, in the realm of theory and practice, is it possible to achieve the contradictory concoction of “a self that has lost itself”? Logically, there are three possible ways:
1. You must cease to exist—in a totally non-metaphorical sense—and succumb to death. This is not at all a seemly course and it is not an acceptable answer, because the purpose of “losing yourself” is for you to remain who you are while achieving the state of “losing yourself”. And by destroying yourself you destroy your capital and make it impossible for you to strive towards perfection.
2. You must become bewitched by and disappear into another and put him in your place. This amounts to losing yourself, but it is a loathsome kind of losing yourself. This is the alienation that we spoke of earlier and it involves giving yourself up and receiving an “alien self” and mistaking the alien for yourself. This is a combination of surrendering yourself and not knowing yourself; it means spending a lifetime in estrangement, entrusting the house of your being to a stranger, working under the yoke of another and playing the role of someone else. “Love of faces/forms” is, in Rumi’s view, this kind of estrangement and alienation. You’ve lost yourself but you’ve failed to remain who you are.
3. You have to become empty of yourself and put someone in your place who is “more you than you” and “more yourself than yourself”. In this way, you both “lose yourself” and remain who you are.
Rumi’s works testify in a hundred different ways that he travelled this third course and that what he meant by “losing yourself” was not drunkenness and heedlessness, or alienation and estrangement, or self-denial and self-flagellation, or humility and meekness; although humility, selflessness, courage, decency, even-temperedness and sagacious unconcern are some of the sweet fruits of “losing yourself” in the mystical sense. Rumi recommended loving someone who is “more yourself than yourself” so that when it fills your being, it both uproots your “self” and replaces it with someone richer and more fitting. Rumi did not recommend or aspire to an absolute emptying of the self. He also wanted to be filled; being filled by someone who also carries along the “self”, but at a higher and richer level.
Rumi believed that a lover should be empty of himself, but filled with the beloved; a beloved who bears, contains and completes love. A beloved who both kills the lover and brings him to life. Both destroys him and perfects him. And this was why he associated “losing yourself” with “love”. He considered this to be the reward of a lover who has lost his heart to a superior beloved who is “more me than me” and “more myself than myself”. Quite simply put: “The life of lovers lies in death / you’ll only find your heart when you lose it”. In other words, it is only when you lose your heart that you become aware of it; it is only when you fall in love that you become aware that you had a heart. And this happens when the heart joins “a heart that is more of a heart”, and the self combines with “a self that is more of a self” and the soul surrenders to “a soul that is more of a soul”.
So, the reason why love is the cure for haughtiness and conceit, and the reason why it is our Plato and our Galen is because, first, it turns dispersal into wholeness and multiple-selves into a single self, and, then, it entrusts this self to “more of a self”, the greatest blessing of which is “losing yourself”.
In the tale of the lover from Bukhara and Sadr-e Jahān, after the lover has been able to negotiate all the impediments, obstacles and rebukes and, finally, reaches the beloved, the first thing that he hears from the beloved is that he should not fear that “losing himself” means being emptied; quite the reverse, it means being filled with “more of a self”. Hence, it is not a losing but a winning; it is to give copper and receive gold.
In the tale of Bāyazid, what Rumi tells us is that the gracious pauper had been so filled with God that, in that state of losing himself, he made claims to godliness: “When the phoenix of ‘losing himself’ soared high / Bayazid began to speak and said: / There’s no one in my cloak but God / Why do you keep looking for Him in the sky?”
And most beautiful of all is the allegory of the hen who invited a camel to her house: “When the camel the hen’s house entered / the roof fell in and the house crumpled”. Thus, the house is emptied of the hen and filled with the camel.
In a sense, “losing yourself” is a misleading term because it seems to convey a sense of emptiness and vacuity. This misleading appearance is deliberate. It ensures that the angel of glad tidings’ message does not fall into the wrong ears. It is: “So that Our sweetens in this world and the next / is hidden in a veil of sourness”. But it is clear to the worthy recipients of the angel’s message that that perdition is a veil for being, that that vacuity is a veil for the sublime and that that “losing yourself” is, in fact, “becoming yourself”; nay, “becoming even more yourself”. The secret of this transformation is expressed by the philosopher’s stone of love, which turns knowledge into the evident. It was not for nothing that Rumi was hostile to his “self” and found death as sweet as honey and sugar: “We’re the foes of our selves and the beloved is the one who kills us / Drowning in the ocean, the waves come and kills us / It is with the sweetest pleasure that we relinquish our lives / For it is with halva and sugar that the king kills us…”.
It would seem that “losing yourself” must be understood in two ways: impoverishment and empowerment. “Losing yourself” as impoverishment means being emptied or becoming an “other”; whereas “losing yourself” as empowerment means becoming “more yourself”.
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So far, we have explained the meaning of “losing yourself” as empowerment, as well as the liberating role of love. We also explained why this “losing yourself” makes you strong as an elephant and a lion, and as well-tempered as the spring and the beloved’s sweet wine. Heedlessness brings delusory strength, but being filled with the grand love of a grand beloved creates grandeur. Rumi viewed prophets’ stern countenance in this same light: “Anyone who has the sun behind him / Will have a stern countenance without shame or fear”.
But a few points still remain to be said, with which it may be useful to adorn and conclude this article: First, there is the notion of bewilderment. When a grander self replaces “the self” so that “you lose yourself”, this “losing yourself” goes hand-in-hand with bewilderment. Bewilderment is neither stupour nor fretfulness; it happens when a camel steps into the house of a hen. It is the outcome of the crumbling of the house of “the self”, because a guest who is more hefty and “more of a self” has entered it. All mystical, faith-related experiences are intertwined with bewilderment. And this bewilderment makes not only your being but also your speech tremble and quake.
On the noble Prophet’s Ascension, too, Rumi spoke about the bewilderment that strikes the chosen few. When Gabriel is unable to accompany the Prophet any further, the Prophet, alone, drives his steed towards God (and all of this has a mythical and metaphorical aspect). And bewilderment upon bewilderment follows.
Even more than this, Rumi considered it religion’s task to evoke bewilderment and he believed that anyone who has not arrived at a bewildering experience (which is the product of losing yourself) is not a true believer.
Secondly, there is the notion of formlessness and definition-lessness. Bewilderment results from encountering that which has no definition, form or name. What we can describe and name is within the grasp of our reason, but that which escapes definition bewilders reason. As long as an individual has “not lost himself”, he is in the realm of definition. But when you “lose yourself”, you arrive at the formless and the definition-less. And it is the realm of “the definition-less life-land” that gives rise to bewilderment. It is as if, before the definition-less, there was death and, after it, there is life.
And this definition-less, “lost self”, who sits beyond all definitions, cannot define and describe itself either. It does not fit in any mould and does not match any name or designation. This nameless, definition-less, “lost self” is, in fact, the nonconformist, whom Hāfez spoke of—who has abandoned all comforts and attachments. And although he mingles with all “faces” or “forms”, he does not stop at or fit in any face or form. He is “the servant of love” and “free of both worlds”. Because he is free of his “self”. This is a desirable love. And, so, “From desiring, I shall never desist, until I arrive at my quest”. And although love has been described as a blessing, the saying also goes that you must “Seek love!” It is when you stay still within “the self” that you become restless. So, be restless for love so that you can “lose yourself”, for this is the font of every stillness and every quest.
Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser
- The Growing Phenomenon of Rumi (rumichange.wordpress.com)