Let’s retrace our steps from dramatic recent news to the last couple of years when the world witnessed a disconcerting modern phenomenon – mass migration of people desperate to leave their homelands due to wars, drought and more.
We have entered an era where our emotions consume us, our ideologies divide us, our culture binds us, and our beliefs build barriers. Yet we all share a humbling commonality with all other life forms, including the lowly bacteria: We breathe. So let’s take a step back from the noise, and ask ourselves a fundamental question – How do we become more human amid the chaos that surrounds us?
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was a man who wrote some of the most beautiful poems the world has ever read. He breathed life into words when most of us struggle to communicate our most basic emotions. He turned his tragedies into life lessons powerful enough to spark change in people. His work has become a continuous source of inspiration and enchanting music to the world today, even making him the most beloved poet in America.
Gathered here are selected poems from The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks. They are Rumi’s life lessons on how to be human and navigate the complexities that come with it.
1. We are nothing but breathing human beings
Rumi speaks to the human in all of us in one of his most beloved poems, “Only Breath”. We are often so blinded by our differences that it’s easy to forget that we are all the same. We may not share the same values and principles, but the core idea we collectively fight for is for the strength to protect our communities.
Ultimately, there is only one community — a global breathing community.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
2. We fear people and the things which are different from us
This is a reality. It’s our survival instinct. But what if, there is more to our fears than we know? What if we start to understand our fears? Can it help us rethink the decisions we make?
The Uses Of Fear
A donkey turning a millstone is not trying
To press oil from sesame seed. He is fleeing the blow
that was just struck and hoping to avoid the next.
We look to ease our pain, and this keeps civilization
Moving along. Fear is the architect here.
Fear keeps us working near the ark.
Sometimes though, it is fear, a contracting,
That brings you into the presence.
3. Our lives may be different, but we all experience life’s beginning and end
The most human experience of all is the experience of love and loss. If there’s anything we can be sure of, it’s that no matter how differently we live our lives, we will one day experience the loss of a loved one or we ourselves become the one who moves onto an end. It’s important to appreciate our differences because it’s a great reminder of how much we have in common in desiring a life worth living.
Notice how each particle moves,
Notice how everyone has just arrived here from a journey,
Notice how each wants a different food,
Notice how the stars vanish as the sun comes up,
and how all streams stream toward the ocean.
4. The trials and tribulations of life can be disheartening but they are our greatest teachers
Pain and strife are parts of life. However, there is no shadow without light. Accepting our weakness, darkness and demons, balances our compassion and love for ourselves and others. Begin by listening to the universe, for it has much to teach you.
But that shadow has been serving you!
What hurts you, blesses you.
Darkness is your candle.
Your boundaries are your quest.
You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.
5. The origin of fear lies in our culturescape
How we understand fear is how we have been taught to understand it. Many leaders are misled by their own emotions. They project this onto you, and so you begin to shape the world a little bit differently from your neighbor. Most of the time, their fears are baseless. So it’s time to question the origins of your fears.
Craftsmanship And Emptiness
Don’t listen to them!
They seem to protect,
But they imprison.
They are your worst enemies.
They make you afraid
Of living in emptiness.
6. It’s easy to lose sight of our place in the bigger picture
Because it’s so easy to feel small in this world, we need to constantly remind ourselves that indeed ‘We are Enough’.
On The Turn
I am so small I can barely be seen.
How can this great love be inside me?
Look at your eyes. They are small,
But they see enormous things.
7. Love and compassion is what defines us as human beings
Being human, we share a universal power to love. Rumi eloquently speaks of how much we are capable of, when we are truly connected to our body, mind, spirit and soul. With each physical quality, there’s a beautiful emotion that strengthens it. Our human race is dependent on our capability to love another.
All Rivers At Once
What is the body? Endurance.
What is love? Gratitude.
What is hidden in our chests? Laughter.
What else? Compassion.
8. We can start over and make the world a better place
It begins with accepting our faults and failures. From pride and pain, we can turn our energies into pride and passion. Believe that you have what it takes to make your world better. Start over.
The Wandering Elephant
Whatever customs humanity had
Becomes waves of compassion.
Nothing with shape and dimensions can keep still when passions move.
Start your lives over.
Everyone is totally forgiven, no matter what.
9. Start living your life first
Instead of living vicariously, how can you live a life that is truly yours? Because there is no day in a calendar that is not there for the taking — for you to proclaim carpe diem. You can live your dreams instead of dreaming to live. You need only to align your purpose with yourself.
Not A Day On Any Calendar
My Life Is Not Mine—
Give up wanting what other people have.
That way you’re safe.
“Where, where can I be safe?” you ask.
This is not a day for asking questions,
Not a day on any calendar.
This day is conscious of itself.
This day is a lover, bread, and gentleness,
More manifest than saying can say.
Thoughts take form with words,
But this daylight is beyond and before
Thinking and imagining.
10. Forget what you have been told and led to believe because you can unfold your own myth
Now it’s easier to follow a common path that has a track record for “success”. Unfortunately, there are more lost souls coming and going from this path because it was actually never meant for them. Everyone has a unique voice, but not everyone can sing. Forget the success stories you’ve read before you. It’s time you unapologetically unfold your own myth.
Unfold Your Own Myth
But don’t be satisfied with stories,
How things have gone with others.
Unfold your own myth,
Without complicated explanation,
So everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.
11. Because there are two kinds of intelligence in the world
One form of intelligence takes shape in acquiring knowledge, while the other comes from within. You can be sure you’ll forget most of the contents in your high school textbooks but that doesn’t make you any less intelligent. Because there’s an existing library within you, filled with intuition, experiences, and most importantly, is one that is moldable to change. Share your life lessons with the world. It’s the one kind of intelligence that truly matters.
Two Kinds Of Intelligence
There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
As a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
There is another kind of tablet, one
Already completed and preserved inside you.
This other intelligence does not turn yellow or stagnate.
It’s fluid, and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
Through the conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead
From within you, moving out.
12. You have a purpose that only you can share with the world
Rumi calls for you to take a brave step into your quest for an extraordinary life. The first step from within is always the hardest. But taking this step is one that could be enough to create a chain reaction for every life decision you make going forward. Become your own catalyst — do it now.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
13. When in doubt, keep moving forward and steer away from fear
Retreating into our comfort zones and nests are survival instincts. It becomes counter-intuitive if we start falling back or making decisions based on fear to stop change from happening. By accepting events as they happen and refraining from building resistance, we are more likely to move flexibly in the face of fear.
On The Turn
Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances.
That’s not for human beings. Move within,
But don’t move the way fear makes you move.
14. Because it is easy to cower and live a life of complacency
In this long-form poem, Rumi writes what could be one of the most challenging parts of being human: Living Your Life’s True Purpose. And why is this so hard? Only because it’s so easy to fall prey to fear and live a life dictated by society.
Tending Two Shops
Don’t run around this world
Looking for a hole to hide in
There are wild beasts in every cave!
If you live with mice,
The cat claws will find you.
Try to close the one that’s a fearful trap,
Keep open the shop
Where you’re not selling fishhooks anymore.
You are the free-swimming fish.
15. Stand Tall and Speak Up
Once you have found your calling, it becomes harder to sit on the sidelines. You’ll be more hungry for the things that inspire you than the things that no longer align with your new-found stimulus. Harness this energy while you can. Amazing things happen when you start following your instincts.
Tending Two shops
Think that you’re gliding out from the face of a cliff
Like an eagle. Think you’re walking
Like a tiger walks by himself in the forest.
You’re most handsome when you’re after food.
Spend less time with nightingales and peacocks.
One is just a voice, the other just a color.
16. Embrace your life fully and start your days with an open invitation to your “guest house”
No longer lost in the sea of faces or silenced by louder voices. You are an individual and part of a collective, breathing life into this world and making a difference with every breath you take. Accept that to be human, you’ll need to allow yourself to feel both darkness and light existing within you. Listen to what you have to say to yourself. Give yourself the opportunity to become more aware of every moment of every day. Only then will you see your journey unfold into a life worth living.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent,
As a guide from beyond.
If you’ve been stuck in one place or one mentality for far too long, to the point that you have lost touch with how to be human, it might be time to start taking a journey inwards more than outwards. You can rewrite your story and become the best damn human being who has ever lived.