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Recommended Reading for Dietas 3. “One-Handed Basket Weaving” – Poems on the Theme of Work by Rumi

September 17, 2013

Rumi dancers Reza Sepahdari

At the last moment I threw this book of poems by Rumi into my rucksack, along with the seven other books I had decided to take to my thirty day dieta. My friends keep advising me to buy a Kindle. I can see it would make traveling much lighter, but I like the feel of a book in my hands. I like physically turning the pages.

This is a collection of poems by Rumi (1207-1273), the great Sufi teacher and mystic, translated by Coleman Barks and selected by him from the Mathnawi Rumi’s six volume masterpiece that he wrote in the last twelve years of his life.

I have to say, too, that to my mind, Coleman Barks is by far and away the best translator of Rumi. He manages to use a mixture of contemporary and ancient language in a way that deeply honors the spirit of the poems and gives the poems an eternally present feel.

One of the advantages of the internet is that it makes people accessible. I tracked down his publisher’s site and wrote to Coleman Barks expressing my appreciation for his work in translating the poems in this collection. He replied: “I love that book too.  It got put together by something other than my ego.”

I already knew many of the poems in this collection. I had found consolation in the book in the darkest of days fifteen or so years ago when I was struggling with my work as a management consultant. At that time, the following poem was particularly meaningful.

The City of Saba

Once in the city of Saba

there was a glut of wealth.

Everyone had more than enough.

Even the bath-stokers wore gold belts.

Huge grape clusters hung down

on every street and brushed the faces

of the citizens. No one had to do


                You could balance

an empty basket on your head and walk

through any orchard, and it would fill

by itself with overripe fruit

dropping into it.

                           Stray dogs strayed

in lanes full of thrown-out scraps

with barely a notice.

                                 The lean desert wolf

got indigestion from the rich food.

Everyone was fat and satiated

with all the extra.

                             There were no robbers.

There was no energy for crime,

or for gratitude.

                          And no one wondered

about the unseen world. The people of Saba

felt bored with just the mention of prophecy.

They had no desire of any kind. Maybe

Some idle curiosity about miracles,

but that was it.

                         This over-richness

is a subtle disease. Those who have it

are blind to what’s wrong, and deaf

to anyone who points it out.

                                               The city of Saba

can not be understood from within itself!

But there is a cure,

an individual medicine,

not a social remedy:

                                 Sit quietly, and listen

for a voice within that will say,

                                                 Be more silent.

As that happens,

                           your soul starts to revive.

Give up talking, and your positions of power.

Give up the excessive money.

                                              Turn towards the teachers

and the prophets who don’t live in Saba.

They can help you grow sweet again

and fragrant and wild and fresh

and thankful for any small event.

Writing that poem out now, it feels extraordinary. I can’t think of a better critique of contemporary capitalism.

rumiDuring the dieta, I slowly read the poems in this book three times – it’s quite a short book! (128 pages). Like all good poetry, each time I read the poem I saw something different in it.

In some of the ceremonies, the poems would return to me and, hopefully this will not sound overly pretentious or aggrandizing,  I understood, (or better said), I saw more clearly,  their spiritual truth.

For example, and bear with me whilst I quote the first half of another poem:

The King’s Falcon

The king had a noble falcon,

who wandered away one day,

and into the tent of an old woman,

who was making dumpling stew

for her children.

                          “Who’s been taking care

of you?”, she asked, quickly tying

the falcon’s foot.

                          She clipped

his magnificent wings and cut

his fierce talons and fed him straw.


who doesn’t know how to treat falcons,”

she answered herself,

                                   “but your mother knows!”

Friend, this kind of talk is a prison.

Don’t listen!

                   The king spent all day

looking for his falcon, and came at last

to that tent and saw his fine raptor

standing on a shelf in the smoky steam

of the old women’s cooking.

                                             “You left me

for this?”

             The falcon rubbed his wings

against the king’s hand, feeling wordlessly

what was almost lost.

                                    This falcon is one who,

through grace, gets to sit close to the king,

and so thinks he’s on the same level

as the king.

                  Then he turns his head for a moment,

and he’s in the old woman’s tent.

Don’t feel special

in the king’s presence.

be mannerly and thankful

and very humble.

A falcon is an image of that part of you

that belongs with the king.

fb-seek-those-who-fan-the-flames-rumiI have lost count of the number of times I have ‘turned my head’ in ceremonies and found myself back in the old women’s tent. Thankfully, La Madre Ayahausca is very forgiving.

The first four of the last six lines are the best advice you could get about how to approach La Madre Ayahuasca.

It’s going to be hard not to include every poem. Best to get hold of the book yourself. Here is one more poem which I think expresses beautifully that feeling that sometimes come to all of us at the end of a ceremony:

This We have Now

This we have now

is not imagination.

This is not

grief or joy.

Not a judging state,

or an elation

or sadness.

Those come

and go.

This is the presence

that doesn’t.

It’s dawn, Husam,

here in the splendor of coral,

inside the Friend, the simple truth

of what Hallaj said.

What else could human beings want?

When grapes turn to wine,

they’re wanting


When the nightsky pours by,

it’s really a crowd of beggars,

and they all want some of this!


that we are now

created the body, cell by cell,

like bees building a honeycomb.

The human body and the universe

grew from this, not this

from the universe and the human body.

And just to show that Rumi was way ahead of the film ‘The Matrix’ and that furthermore, whilst optimistic, he is not peddling any kind of wishy washy, new-age philosophy, but has an uncompromising fierceness:

The Dream That Must be Interpreted

This place is a dream.

Only a sleeper considers it real.

Then death comes like dawn,

and you wake up laughing

at what you thought was your grief.

But there’s a difference with this dream.

Everything cruel and unconscious

done in the illusion of the present world,

all that does not fade away at the death-waking.

It stays

and it must be interpreted.

All the mean laughing,

all the quick, sexual wanting, those torn coats of Joseph,

they change into powerful wolves

that you must face.

The retaliation that sometimes comes now,

the swift, payback hit,

is just a boy’s game

to what the other will be.

You know about circumcision here.

It’s full castration there!

And this groggy time we live,

this is what it’s like:

                               A man goes to sleep in the town

where he has always lived, and he dreams he’s living

in another town.

                          In the dream, he doesn’t remember

the town he’s sleeping in his bed in. He believes

the reality of the dream-town.

This world is that kind of sleep.

Well worth thinking about what are “those torn coats of Joseph” that we each wear.

Finally, to conclude, two short passages from poems that could be the best advice you will ever receive.

1. From ‘Humble and Active’:

The saying, Whatever God wills will happen,

does not end, “Therefore be passive.”

Rather, it means, Forget yourself,

and get ready to help.

2. Turning Towards Kindness

Anyone who genuinely and constantly with both hands

looks for something, will find it.

Though you are lame and bent over, keep moving

toward the Friend. With speech, with silence,

with sniffing about, stay on the track.

Whenever some kindness comes to you, turn

that way, towards the source of kindness.

Love-things originate in the ocean.

Restlessness leads to rest.

  1. Riley M. permalink

    beautiful poems…thanks for sharing. I hope everything is going well with you…

  2. Michael permalink

    Well done Paul.
    Any commentary which I might make on the words of Rumi would be totally superfluous.

    I will have to start thinking about which books to take with me for the trip back to Iquitos in October. I heartily recommend “Secrets of the talking Jaguar” by Martin Prechtel, which I’m reading at the moment.
    It’s an eminently eloquent, and fascinating tale of his time amongst the Maya in Guatemala.
    Really enjoying it.

    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      Hi Mike. I have read that book by Martin Prechtel and also the two that follow. They are all excellent. He’s a very good writer apart from having a very interesting story to tell. I loved the part at the beginning about his vivid dreams when he nearly dies, then arriving in the village on Lake Atitlán, recognizing it as the place from his dreams and the shaman approaching him and saying: “What took you so long to get here?”

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