The Autumn of Our Own Existence

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 5:21am

The Autumn of Our Own Existence

I’ve been blessed to live in places where the time of fall is magical. In upstate New York, North Carolina, and Iran, I’ve gotten to see streets paved gold and red, with leaves crunching under my feet. As a kid, I used to love to dive through piles of raked leaves. (OK, that was this week.)

A lot of people celebrate fall season with pumpkin pie, sweaters, and taking in crisp mornings. I love all of those, but mostly fall is a season to meditate on colors, death, and divine presence.

Before becoming a scholar of religion, like every Muslim student at the university, I studied medicine. I remember learning in a botany course about the reason that a deciduous tree's leaves turn colors. The reasoning astonished me then, and I have since come to see more and more spiritual wisdom in it as I enter the autumn of my own life.

Leaves are usually green because of chlorophyll. It is chlorophyll that gives leaves their distinctive green color, and it is (along with sunshine) the key ingredient in the magical, life-producing process of photosynthesis.

The hidden secret of fall: the leaves don’t actually “turn” colors. With the winter season coming, and the process of photosynthesis being without the key ingredients of warmth and sunshine, trees begin to break down chlorophyll. With the “green” gone, the other colors that have been there all along — the magical reds, golds, and oranges — begin to express themselves.

(Stanley Zimney / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

That’s the secret: there is no turning, no changing. There’s only the death of what has been masking the colors inside. The beauty has been there all along. And we as human beings are like this. Each one of us contains hidden jewels inside.

Every breath of your life’s breaths
is a jewel.
Every new atom
is a guide towards God.

—Farid un-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

Each of us contains “colors” inside, which remain hidden by our mere humanity. I see the colors as being different divine qualities that are present inside each of one of us at all times: compassion, justice, kindness, forgiveness. Most of the time these divine qualities are masked, covered up, hidden by our ego self. Greed, lust, anger, selfishness mask these divine qualities. What masks the divines qualities (the colors) is not our humanity, something I see ultimately as a reflection of God but rather our ego, our tendency to see ourselves as a mere terrestrial creature. We see ourselves a mere flesh creature, cut off from God, cut off from one another, cut off from the natural cosmos.

The hidden mystery of the fall season is that when one “life” dies, the colors inside are on display. And there is something similar that happens inside us when we let go of this ego self, of selfishness, of being cut off and isolated. To put in a religious language, we have to “die” to our ego, to our selfishness before we can become “born again” in a bigger, more interwoven, more compassionate, more divine reality.

(Blinking Idiot / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

The Qur’an hints at this in a lovely, mysterious verse:

(We take our) color from God,
and who is better than God at coloring?

—Qur’an 2:138

This fear of letting go of our notion of a limited self is real. We are all afraid of death. Any death. All death. Letting go of this earthly life is frightening. Letting go of any prejudice, any preconceived notion, any notion of identity is a form of death. As more wise sages have told us, we come into this world covered in feces, urine, and blood; we leave it naked covered in a cloth. The mere reflection on our own mortality frightens us. Most of us spend our life in denial, pretending that we are eternally immortal.

What beauty there is in letting go and accepting.
What wonder there is in embracing the colors inside.
What loveliness there is in the death of one color, and the shining through of all the divine colors.
How lovely is this human creature when the divine colors of compassion, kindness, mercy, justice, and forgiveness shine on through.

(Nubobo / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

It reminds me of the poem of the great, incomparable Rumi.

I died as a mineral
  and became a plant,
I died as plant
  and rose to animal,
I died as animal
  and I was human.
Why should I fear?
When was I less by dying?

Yet once more I shall die as human,
  to soar
With angels blest;
  but even from angelhood
I must pass on:
  all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e'er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist!
  for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones,
  'To God we shall return.'
—Rumi, Masnavi 3: 3901-03

Why fear one “death” when every death has revealed something more colorful, more luminous, more beautiful. The references to “mineral” and “animal” in the poem below is a reflection of the old Islamic (also Greek) philosophical insight that each of us contains within us the souls of all the beings. There is a level in us that corresponds to the mineral soul, an animal soul, a human soul, and so on. This Islamic model of evolution is not so much the evolution from shared biological ancestors, but a mythic, poetic notion of cycles of ascension into embrace of all the Divine qualities within.

Bring on the sweater. Bring on the crisp morning. Bring on the pumpkin pie. And bring on the death of that ego self that masks those glorious, divine colors within.

As I enter this autumn season — and the autumn of my own existence — I am growing slowly more comfortable with the becoming less and less, so that more and more can be revealed.

Bring on this Autumn of the soul.
Welcome these colors shining through.


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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection



My autumn may have begun when I was 42 but it was a beginningless beginning, truly a yin/yang as are all ages/stages. Yes, I have felt all written here accompanied by rainbows of color along with way leading to an extended time with autumn, having some wisdom but still yearning for more with an appetite for understanding: I see in the mirror dimly but soon face to face. Hopefully...

Yes, wow. We die to ourselves (ego, pride, vanity) so that God may be glorified. Thanks Omid for this beautiful perspective-altering reflection.

Thank you dear Hannah. I am so glad that this touched your heart.


How true, and stated so eloquently. So glad that you are a contributor and looking forward to future essays from you.

What an amazing thing - the whole world around me speak the same language -despite color, religion, belif… I shall let my ego die to reborn in LIFE!!! Thank you for those poems and wisdom!

This essay is quite lovely. My husband would have been 90 years old on October 27. We lost him suddenly only 4 short months ago. Your words hre give me great solace. Thank you --

dear Mary, hoping that the sorrow now is but the shadow of the beauty and love you shared over a lifetime.

Thank you for this blessing of deep reflection. Much to savor. Much to digest. Much to release.

Lovely . . . thank you for sharing. Perhaps you can read "Freddy the Falling Leaf", a beautiful tribute to not being afraid of change and letting go.

Tashshakkur, Ustaad jaan, for this beautiful meditation on transformation.

Struck by a similar chord, I wrote this just last week.

Autumn leaving

To write,
I need an empty
room with
four secure
walls, an open glass door
for light and breeze only --
no distracting views!

and maybe
the soothing beat
of the upstairs tenant’s
clothes dryer,
although light and steady
traffic by the graveyard
will do as well.

What I don’t need
is a garden,
especially this
sumptuous garden
with its peachy
and lemony leaves
out of the corner
of my eye
onto the patio,
onto the very table
where I am trying
to write.

What sort of person
could disregard
the delicate landing
of a weeping katsura leaf
on her forearm?

Its orange-apricot
color has hibernated
the summer long,
waiting for this moment
when the chlorophyll
cools and
the bright green

Then the rich
luminous hue
comes forth
to light the leaf
in splendor
before it falls.

What brightness
may come
in the autumn
of our life!
And what grace
might be found
in the fall of it?

For everything here
is on the move:
From bud and blossom
and petal fall
to fruit and leaf-fall,
time runs the line of
a circle
affirming eternity’s

Beautiful! Thanks for sharing this inspiration.

Sally, lovely to read your comment!

So beautiful. I am moved to tears by the beauty of this poem. And yes, it is a perfect compliment to the wonderful essay. Amen.

P.D. --Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. It's so meaningful to meet in this poetic space.

Autumn has always been my favorite season, and now that I have reached the point in life to describe myself as "closer to 70 than 60" Autumn takes on even more meaning and significance. Thank you so very much for this reflection.

Beautiful. I'll take these words with me. Thank you.

My heart is singing as I revel in your words of Birth..Life..Death..and New Beginnings. I know that I know your revelations are truth. As I enjoy the "eighties" of my life cycle , The Light becomes brighter each season... ,the Colors more beautiful than I remembered .... and my Heart filled with Gratitude.

Absolutely beautiful. And to learn to let go of what we build with the grace of the trees. That's a blessing.

Well done.

i keep intending to spend some time reading Rumi, as every poem I hear or encounter leaves me in absolute awe. I admit, I am not keen on this time of year - I hate cold weather, and especially I find the bare, leafless trees so depressing. In anticipation of winter's approach, I struggle to allow myself to enjoy the beauty of the colors. Your essay is giving me additional reason to enjoy this glorious, but brief season of color. Thank you

I am convinced atheist. I loved reading what you wrote. I think it is deep and beautiful. It speaks to me. It is not often so with religious texts. So I thanks you with my heart.
Carlo Rovelli

I agree Carlo. With or without religion, this piece is a beautiful touch at the core of what it means to be human and alive.

I feel elated in reading this, how nice to be reminded of a bigger picture outside of the self/ego that we hold in place as an almost divine truth. I just wonder the multitude of positive change that would transpire if culturally we expressed more of a welcoming of our temporal shell as opposed to trying to keep it looking youthful.

Absolutly awesome thank you for sharing this. Blessings and Peace

I am struck not only by your pictures, both visual and literal, but also how your language is that of the core of all traditions, fromChristianity to Buddhism all the way to The Course in Miracles.
Thank you for the poignant reminder of the Indwelling Divine.Yu have poetically reminded me to stop, look and really see both within and out with.
Be blessed.

Autumn has always been my favorite season and I love both the biological explanation of the colors and the metaphor you have provided. All physical life can be metaphor for transcendent living if we slow ourselves sufficient to listen and learn. Thank you for your wisdom and your guidance. This has provided me a morning devotion from which I begin my day and my writing, refreshed. Namaste, Omid.

Enjoyed reading your article. I have been living in Indiana,Ohio and Illinois for the past thirty five years. Still I am so fascinated by the colors of Autumn. As Iwake up I see them through all my windows,on my walk in my neighborhood take a lot of pictures, send to family memberswho have not experienced it. But I never did a study on them. So, Thank You.

Thank you for sharing . Looking forward for more

Beautiful. Thank you.

So beautiful! thank you!

"Autumn leaves that collect weight in the ashes of Summer
are cracked and broken by my intruding step
Foreign thoughts that invade my questioning
of death's cold cold waiting

No bait will deter the ancient stalker
whose colour I'm not sure of
who's walked between this path
and with icy fingers, prepared thus morbid corridor of bracken
to take my steps closer there all the time

Then your fingers, hard and comforting, write softly through my hair
all that we're afraid of in each other
all that may die between us without death to take the blame

To play games so unprepared
To dance 'round fires unguarded
Tears become blood of sorrow
and my pulse keeps time so badly
with the tune you play to me

My steps down streets which remain unchanged but change so many
will just vanish like yesterday
Don't think dark thoughts you tell me
Yet all our fate waits prepared in darkness

And my hand will fumble for the door
whose handle is too high for me
Whose wood is from those mighty trees
Trees that lay down their leaves so recklessly

My light remains flickering in Autumn
And musky smoke from blazing bonfires
will rise like incense from the funeral pyre
in preparation"

- "Echoes Remain For Ever"

Very beautiful reflection. That rings truer and truer each day I let go a little more. Thank you.

WOW, this is the perfect marriage of science and spiritual-BEAUTIFUL !!!!!!

Thank you for your beautiful essay. These past weeks, I've been wandering the hills, canyons and creeks where I live just to drink in the beautiful changing and yellow, burnt umber, crimson and coral. Touched by a sense of melancholy, a poignancy that I could not identify but that comes to me every autumn. The impermanence of so much beauty. I can't help but pick up leaves and bring them home. Your essay helped me realize that what I am feeling is a death, a completion of a cycle, a letting go. And how like my life right now. The fear of letting go of a certain beauty and love in my life, relationships, security, pain, anger. Your writing gives me hope that just as the green of spring turns to the red and orange of fall, so letting go of one thing allows the birth of something new and bright and shining. As we change form and empty ourselves of ego, we come closer to the divine within ourselves and within all there is.

As I begin the painful process of separating from my husband of 36 years I will hold your wise and beautiful words in my heart. They are so timely. Thank you.

This is beautiful! It will help me in my journey on letting go of limiting beliefs so I can let the let the divine colors shine. Thank you, Omid.

Thank you for this lovely article. All the best to you ...

Thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful essay. This has come to me as I am
struggling with my relevance in the world at the age of 77 when so many comfortable ways of life are changing................I embrace the vibrant colors
underneath the green and find joy in knowing that i continue to be a beautiful
and compassionate soul ( only different) more at peace with the autumn of my life
and in wonder of what will come next.

Thank you for this beautiful meditation on the kinds of fall we all experience. You have given me the perfect piece to share with a student who asked me to describe him in my college recommendation of him as "humble." I have been contemplating how to respond to him concerning this impossible request. You show in your words and verse choices what true humility is. Thank you for giving me this perfect teaching moment.

This is such a beautiful article. I am from the Philippines and I've always wondered why in our country, when the trees shed their leaves they go bald; and why in the west during autumn, trees literally bloom. What a beautiful analogy. This fed my soul and gave me much to ponder upon.

I so appreciated the distinction you made between being human and the ego, the former as a reflection of God, and the latter which masks our divine colors. Thank you for your lovely reflections.

written a couple of years back and happily awakened by your inspiring words..thank you!!

Is Autumn Our Middle Age
Is autumn our middle age
Twig, vein and leaf laid bare
Soft sway, rustle and quiet rage
Now naked to sun and air
Stripped of summer's sinful green
Radiant colors proud and true
From tip to root now lean and sage
But too soon for winter's shroud

Thank you for this compassionate reassurance that we become more by becoming less.

"Each of us contains within us the souls of all the beings..." This is a deeply-held conviction of mine. It is how I process the fact that I was born on the Roman Catholic Feast of All Souls, and during Dia de Los Muertos. Thank you for writing this piece, and I'm so grateful to have read it on my birthday.

I live in the northeastern United States, where the glorious tapestry of color surrounds us in the fall, in the winter, in the spring and summer. We are soon approaching the time of year when my oldest son died 12 months ago. Upon his death, the radiant colors that were and are his life clung to me like a warm cloak. Thank you for this article about the revealed miracles within us. I will look again at the world around me and know hope.

so very lovely

I think that what you so beautifully and thoughtfully share about the small deaths to ego makes us better humans within and for ourselves. If practiced, it may also begin to unveil that 'light' which makes us better relationally with others of our humanity (and planet). I think the practice of little deaths can ultimately prepare us to contemplate that final doorway with a sense of contentment and completeness.

Beautifully written Omid. I too am in the Autumn of my life and have come to understand the dying of my ego, my false self as a truly wonderful gift. God has revealed such beautiful colors in me as I have aged and learned to let goof so much that was holding me back. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts.

At 62, I've been only thinking of the green draining away. This feels like a colorful beginning. Thanks.

You write so beautifully and a lovely analogy. Nature teaches us what we need to know when we observe it! Thank you.

I heard my teacher say once "When someone close dies, he transforms from daily/ routine to poetry"

Only good memories and virtues remain, we tend to forget the bad feelings and things. After reading this, I realize how we have to strugle to pursue a brighter personality before leaving those we love behind. I'm yet to reach the Autumn of my life and I'm sure to enjoy it.

Beautiful RUMI poem and
thank you!

Omid Safi....just wow, amazing write! I thoroughly enjoyed your insight and wisdom.... and autumn! I am a haiku poet from the UK and can relate to everything in this article! My eyes lit up even more when you presented Rumi as you can imagine! I see this was posted a year ago so i apologise for only just seeing it...

I would like to leave you with a 1 line haiku of mine from last year's autumn which,for me, captures everything you have said so beautifully if i may...

autumn colours all my words are breath


Namaste my friend and thank you for brightening my day

warm regards