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.
They 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.

-Rumi

This old chestnut, right?

I am often surprised when someone tells me they don’t know Rumi’s Guest House as it often appears to be as ubiquitous as all the other chestnuts from the mindfulness creed that has become so dominant in our culture over the last two decades.

If you’ve ever done an 8 week mindfulness course, your abiding memory of that course, other than the meditation exercises, will probably consist of these three things::

1/ Rumi’s Guest House
2/ Examining a raisin for a substantially long period of of time
3/ John Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulnessness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

As with mindfulness which came out of a chiefly oral religious tradition (Buddhism), this poem was not “written” by Rumi. Coleman Barks wrote this poem in the 60s, animated and inspired by the poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.

Rumi never actually wrote a poem called The Guest House. What he wrote was a whole bunch of stuff, including the Masnavi, a 50,000 line “Quran in Persian” from which Coleman Barks cherry-picked a few lines and images to make his American Buddhist flavoured poems.

The section from the Masnavi that this poem comes from is probably this one:

“Every day, too, at every moment a thought comes, like an honoured guest, into your bosom. O soul, regard thought as a person, since a person derives his worth from both thought and spirit. If the thought of sorrow is waylaying joy, it could also be considered as making preparations for joy. It violently sweeps your house clear of everything else, in order that new joy from the source of good may enter in. It scatters the yellow leaves from the bough of the heart, in order that incessant green leaves may grow. It uproots the old joy, in order that new delight may march in from the Beyond.”

Not quite as snappy and quotable, is it?

That said, let us not look a gift poem in the mouth. I have learnt that this is especially true when it comes to poetry. Because a poem is often a portrait of a fleeting moment or mind-state, even a religious fundamentalist (Hopkins) or an imperialist (Kipling) are able to write the occasional humane, universally wise and true poem.

It is universal because it expresses a fundamental psychological truth: most of the thoughts, feelings, situations, and bodily sensations that irk and discomfort us, we have scant, or even no control over. And for this reason, would be better served by not doing what we normally, neurobiologically (i.e. by default) are inclined to do when upset or irked: avoid, control, problem solve. Avoidance and control can at times be really helpful, but when they don’t work as strategies, time to consider a few other options?

It’s hard to put aside our default strategies. I even ended up using one of them (controlling/changing) on this poem. Because there’s a line in this poem that doesn’t sit well with me.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Meet them at the door laughing?

Can this even be done through free-will and choice, or does it need to be bolstered by a religious doctrine, which in the original Rumi poem, it is? I think we’re all capable, with a bit of practice in meeting these difficult internal states/guests with kindness, curiosity, even acceptance, but laughter?

Rumi’s exhortation to meet the unwelcome guests in a more modulated fashion comes earlier on in the poem in the dual meaning of the word “entertain”, both in terms of providing entertainment as well as giving attention or consideration to (an idea or feeling). I prefer this version of the poem (my controlled/changed version!), which is the one I’ve also learnt by heart and recite on an almost daily basis:

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.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door with kindness,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Whichever version you decide to learn by heart, I would really encourage you to learn this poem if it speaks to you. This poem is powerful poetic medicine for when the shit hits the fan, but I also find it forcing its way out from my lips when dealing with those things in our experience that fall short of expectation. Which is to say, for some of us, almost everything, almost all the time. Sometimes the old chestnuts are genuinely the most useful reminders.

 

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