Sailing with Rumi

by Matthew Koslowski on October 21, 2009
in Essays

or, Never Thought I’d be a Boat

In This Essay

The Essential Rumi by Jalal ad-Din Rumi (Coleman Barks with John Moyne, eds. and trans.)

Though I cannot explain it — and if I could, I don’t think I would explain it — I have always been attracted to the mystical. Perhaps I am no different than others, but I believed that there was something beyond this world when I was a child.

But it wasn’t just a belief in God. It was a belief that the world and our experience of it was completely unreal while being thoroughly more real than we can imagine.

What makes me different is that I have carried that belief into my adulthood.

What Did Your Face Look Like Before You Were Conceived?

And what I’ve carried with me is not the supposed mysticism of high school physics and vernacular quantum physics. Atoms are made up nearly of space. We are not really here. You can divide things infinitely small, so you can never actually bridge the gap between people. Our cells are replaced every seven years.

Yet what is wrong with using the metaphors of basic physics as metaphors? Nothing. If that is your entry, welcome. But the further you enter into it, the deeper it becomes.

Each of us is a miraculous thing. They say that we have more neurons in our brains than their are stars in the sky. Each of us is a universe. The different parts of our brain inhibit other parts of our brains when active and excite other parts in turn. Our neurons make constellations. Now this one is ascendant, then that one.

Tell Me a Story

Each of us is a narrative poem. That is to say, our egos are. In a very real sense, we are the stories that we tell ourselves. We are the hero, or often in what I have seen in America the anti-hero, of our own stories. The details of the story matter and the angle from which we see those details matter. We have a great freedom in being able to view ourselves from a number of angles.

This is what makes literature so intense and so vivid.

Often I have cried when a story ends because I have cared to care so very deeply for the characters. I have spent hours with these imagined people and yet I feel their parting, even if as the story finishes the character lives at the end, in a very physical way even though I know I can read the story again be reunited with these characters.

If you tell me what you did last week, if you tell me about a family reunion that you slogged through, or if you tell me about the party you enjoyed, you are telling me a story. If I have not met the people in your story, they are no more real to me than the characters in a work of fiction and they are, also, just as real to me as the characters in a work of fiction.

And if I have met them, they are less real to me than a character in a work of fiction. Well, certain characters. With real people, I have my narrative of them meshed with their own narrative and that net encircles them. I am not privy, as I am with most characters, their thoughts and their motives, their raw emotions and unseen motivations.

Even some great authors appear like fictional characters.

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
–William Butler Yeats, from “Among the School Children”

I know almost nothing about Rumi’s biography except what little I have gleaned from the introductory essay in The Essential Rumi. And yet his soul is alive to me through the actual poems.

Rumi is said to have had a mystical friendship with a man named Shams. They were kindred spirits and they pushed each other to deeper levels of spiritual awakening. Shams disappeared as suddenly as he appeared.

Rumi awoke one day to realize that he had taken the soul of Shams into himself. He was both himself and his friend and yet he was no longer either of those. Just as Yeats could not tell the dancer from the dance, Rumi could no tell himself from Shams.

This experience of dissolving is something by which I am fascinated. I have had glimpses of it. I remember one time when I was writing by hand that the words seemed to be writing themselves but even more than that the ink from my pen seemed to be creating the words themselves.

The souls of some poets — I am thinking here of W.B. Yeats and Robert Browning especially — are disguised. W.B. Yeats and Robert Browning were both very conscious of the narrator in a poem. But Rumi seeks to give his soul to the world. And in so doing hopes that we will find ourselves reflected in him.

Where can I find me?

Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick. I try to stay
just above the surface, yet I’m already under
and living within the ocean.
–Rumi in The Essential Rumi, page 12.

I have been thinking about this as I read the poetry of Rumi.

The other night, laying in bed, I thumbed through the poems in The Essential Rumi. I was looking mainly at his short verses that did not have separate titles, that by English language convention would be known by their first line, when I came across two poems. These two poems both employed imagery of boats and called out to me.

While reading them both I had moments of that dissolution that I am seeking. For a moment, I became myself, I became Rumi, I became his boat. I was all three and neither.

In a boat down a fast-running creek,
it feels like trees on the bank
are rushing by. What seems

to be changing around us
is rather the speed of our craft
leaving this world
– Rumi from The Essential Rumi, page 194.


One Response to “Sailing with Rumi”
  1. This was not at all the essay I set out to write. When I first thought about this topic, I pictured writing a something a bit more formal, a bit less personal. I pictured writing an analysis on the imagery of boats in two poems of Rumi. Rather, through Rumi, I wrote a rumination about me.