Sunday, January 8, 2017

Good Stories: A Treatment for Addiction to False Certainty

Layers of meaning circle and deepen into the heart, the essence, of the divine.

   The finest model of and manual on teaching-story that I’ve found has to be Mevlana Rumi’s Mathnawi. As perhaps befitting a gateway and excursion into the Unseen, the structure of the work sometimes seems mystifying. Seyyed Nasr in the Foreword to Rumi’s Mystical Design says:
“Over the centuries Persian speakers, as well as those reading the Mathnawi in other languages from Turkish to English, have benefited immensely from the content of the work on these levels. But for nearly all of them the work as a whole has appeared as a rambling collection of narratives like a vast ocean into which one must dive deeply in order to discover the precious pearls contained therein” (p. viii).
One of the greatest blessings bestowed through Rumi’s work (which includes the poets, translators, and interpreters of it) comes in the courageous engagement with the shape-shifting force we often give the name “Meaning.” How can a person make sense of a life that at any moment may thrill with unspeakable love and at the next drive home paralyzing tragedy?

   At times, to lay oneself bare before the experience of life becomes too much. Why do innocent children suffer? How can there be an all-powerful God given this as well as the torture of animals and earth? In the next to last page of The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, Harold Kushner, says:
“I find God in the miracle of human resilience in the face of the world’s imperfections, even the world’s cruelty. How are people able to survive tragedy (and that is what you do with tragedy: you don’t understand or explain it, you survive it)?” 
Although he says “you don’t understand or explain it,” as demonstrated in his two books on the problem of suffering, Kushner doesn’t mean that humans throw away the search for meaning. Forging our way amid the treacherous making of good versus evil defines us, even in the image of God, as Kushner asserts, “God is moral” (p. 197). The human journey distills in developing and living our moral sense.

   I’ve come to believe that the gift of story, especially teaching-story, allows me to approach the nature of meaning, including moral sense, in this world that stretches between love and loss. For several months, at about five pages a day, I’ve been absorbing as much of Rumi’s Mathnawi as can soak in from the wonderful book, Listen: Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana Rumi by Kenan Rifai and translated by Victoria Holbrook. A few days ago, my reading was shocked still with a three-word passage: “Meaning is God.”
“The Meaning is God…/ The sea of meanings of the Lord of all realms/ All of the tiers of the earth and of the sky/ Are chaff on that sea of spirit flowing by/ The jumping dance of chaff upon the water/ Comes of the agitation of the water…” (p. 429, ~couplet 3378-)
It’s a line from Book 1 of Rumi’s Mathnawi that I’d read several times in different translations, but they’d translated the Persian word as “Reality” instead of “Meaning.” 

   My breath stopped at “Meaning is God,” perhaps because it offered relief, if I stopped to take it. The pursuit of meaning, especially in an educational context that believes in right answers and a world defined by scientific certainty, pushes for a certain kind of knowing as if 100% is possible. But if God is the answer and accepting God as greater than human comprehension, then when meaning is God it’s okay, even necessary, to pursue truth and meaning with grace in not getting it.  Of course, we all know this; and still, the reassurance feels good. 

   And more importantly, humans need an ever-present reminder of the danger of satanic pride that veils our knowing that we don't know and that cloaks us in an aggressive arrogance of acting as if we carry the whole truth.  Rumi compares our knowing to a child riding a stick-horse:
"Your thoughts and fancy, feelings and perception   are like the hobby-horse of children's play."      Translation by Alan Williams, Rumi: Spiritual Verses, p. 316.
   Holbrook’s translation “Meaning is God” offered a special gift to me because it gave a clean, sharp thrust into the quick edge where the desire to know risks running into the presumption of knowing. The search for meaning can be devouring. Rumi’s layered development in this section on Reality included a story about a lion who deserved all that was found, not just the biggest portion. Another layer was about Balaam and Satan who were/are worshipped by people and who had “pride in perfection.” Rumi says there are “hundreds of thousands” like those two in arrogance, “coming to believe in their own lies.” Rumi advises us “You are God’s favorite, but within your bounds” (pp. 425-6 in Rifai). 

Meaning is God.

   Imagine the permeating reduction in hatred and war, the easing of self-inflicted personal damage, and no telling how much more if only we understood and accepted that Truth. The presumptions of dogmatic religious, political, and scientific agendas could be tempered with humility and thus reduce the probability of future crusades, witch hunts, and terrorist attacks. Since the danger of hubris has been long acknowledged as has the blessing for the meek, what keeps us from advancing into compassion?

   Rifai’s commentary on this includes:
   “The obstacles set up on the paths of such people [who cannot see the divine oneness and beauty, the light of God] are as wide as deserts. They think this broadness is wealth, plenty and ease.   They cannot tell that such deserts of position, fortune, wealth and lust are actually insurmountable walls of steel, and that all these obstacles have been set up according to the requirements of the measuring-out and destiny.   The human bodily eye cannot see these obstacles and imperfections pertaining to the soul, each of which is a trap…    As long as you fall in love with the beauty that is beloved of your [animal] soul and stay in love, you cannot see the light of the spiritual beloved.” 

   A significant value of accepting God, the great mystery, as Meaning as well as Truth and Reality, is reassurance. The human condition, when met with searching honesty, carries the born-with-sense of wonder, not certainty, and wander in search of the true original home or source. When our recognition that even given our best effort we come up short of complete meaning, we can feel reassured that, yes, that’s true. Our essence is to journey. Rumi puts it so piercingly, “I’m a slave to him who does not think he’s arrived” (p. 417). Each oasis in a layer of meaning is meant but for a short stay.
Each flower offers an oasis of wonder but for a short stay.