The Hospitality of Being a "Guest House"

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - 4:35am
Photo by Marco Secchi

The Hospitality of Being a "Guest House"

Rumi's mystical poetry often helps me regain perspective on life. In this poem, I love his notion that being human is like being a "guest house." Unexpected visitors occasionally show up and stay for a while, including some you'd really like to throw out!

Welcoming them and learning what they may have to teach you, or where they may lead you, isn't always easy. But in my experience, it always pays off — if for no other reason than it hastens the day of their departure!

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.
He 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.

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Parker J. Palmer

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

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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The following is a piece I wrote some time ago about showing hospitality toward our own emotions. It's a reflection on my experience with a young man with a speech disorder that made it hard for him to communicate. Rumi's poem has meant a lot to me, and the young man's experience opened my heart to the poem's message.

To Welcome the Tears and Not Be Afraid

There are days when Todd cries without any apparent discernible reason. It's different than the times when he cries because his head hurts or because he's anxious about a test at school or because he's mad at someone. We can ask questions, get answers, suggest solutions, and help him return to his usual state of happy when the tears have words. Other days when he cries, he's inconsolable. His tears seem to come from a primal place deep within him, an expression of something that no improvement in his cognitive capacity or speech function would ever give voice to.

When the inconsolable tears come, we don't urge him to talk. We give him space, let him cry without the burden of a lot of questions and the need to comfort us by giving us an explanation for the way he feels. He could never express it, but he has a way of making sense of it himself. It never lasts long, a few hours at most. Our first clue that it's over is the blaring stereo from his room. He sings along at the top of his voice, dancing wildly to the music's beat. The tears are his sackcloth and ashes. His dance is ritual, a way of marking the end of his sadness. The music bathes him in joy, washing away the darkness of the longings and loss expressed in his tears. Whatever it is that births the tears gives way to a contentment and joy that is equally devoid of explanation.

I don't know what it means for him. There's always a temptation to put words to his experience. His speech disorder invites that kind of power-over response. We work hard to understand the ways in which he does communicate with us, but there is a fine line between understanding and interpreting. All too often, I fear, I cross that line. I hate that it takes away what little voice he has.

I don't try to interpret the meaning of his inconsolability because I believe there is much about his life that it is painful and for which there is nothing that brings comfort. The space to cry affirms his sense of anger and outrage, of despair and longing that comes from being made fun of or ignored because he's different or from wanting something more out of life. The emotions proclaim loudly that he deserves better. I believe he needs to hear their message.

While I don't want to interpret his experience, reflecting on it has become a window on my own life, making visible the depth of sadness and anger that I sometimes feel with or without explanation. The weeping comes and I can't explain it. It scares me. I'm afraid if I welcome it, it will never leave. I fear its power and worry that it will consume me.

Todd has taught me to practice hospitality toward my own emotions. I'm learning to welcome the sadness and anger when they come, even when I can't directly connect the feelings to a specific experience. I think the tears that come from a deep place in my soul are planted by the winds of a spirit that connects me to the universe, to the generations that have come before me, to a world that groans with the pain and suffering we cause for ourselves and others. They play the part of prophet, a messenger of God naming my brokenness. They speak of what's not right and demand justice.

I still fight sadness and anger when they show up, but I'm learning to welcome them as trusted friends in my life. I don't always like what they tell me. But when I listen, they speak truth and bring healing. They don't stay forever, and when they do go, I find that they've left gifts. Peace and strength take up residence in their place, giving me freedom to embrace all that is good, to enjoy God, to celebrate this human life.

The tensions and tragedies of life demand lament. Thank you for sharing how that place opens in your life and the young mans. Love putting the record on and dancing into a refreshing space.

" The tensions and tragedies of life demand lament."
I must imprint this on my heart. Many thanks.

May I repost this on Facebook Linda?

Yes. I would be honored.

Thank you, JM. I'd be honored for you to share it.

Thank you for posting this; I appreciated reading it .

Thank you, Gioconda.

Thank you - "the fine line between understanding and interpreting" - brilliant and true.

Shared this also. This line really captures where we are currently also. Thank you.

Absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for posting

I'm in health care and work as a pain specialist. Every day in the morning before beginning my patient interactions I read and reflect on Rumi's Guest house. Its a ritual that has helped me gain clarity and approach my day with compassion towards self and towards my interactions with others for the day. A poem that came to me from these reflections:

"May I Remember This..."

May I remember this for you,
with you,
but may I know that I can never carry any, for you.

May I be moved yet resilient,
for our collective struggles,
May we discover that curiosity,
That lost trail that rejuvenates every time...

May I be the rock,
timeless and enduring at once,
May I learn in that silence, that we breathe reassured...

May I be the canvas,
to paint, spill and pour,
May I also be there when it peels off and withers away...

May I be the sieve,
to filter, sort and reflect
May I see it different but never know more or know better.

May I have a moment of light,
That I share with you in privilege...
That sense of familiar with you,
a stranger,
That makes it all worth at once, for ever...

May be it would be a scavenger hunt,
I with a list and you discover,
May we find all that we are looking for...

And as we part,
With our shades on,
May I know that humbling truth
That the honor has always been mine - to nurture and to grow,
In those moment of light, darkness and rainbows...

To tell in brief a story I tell at length in "Let Your Life Speak," a therapist once said to me: "You seem to image depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Might it be possible to image it as the hand of a friend trying to 'press you down' to ground on which it's safe to stand?" It took time, of course, but that way of thinking about the kind of depression I had—and not all depressions are the same—helped me receive it and learn from it in the spirit of Rumi's poem...

I am a therapeutic storyteller and I really enjoyed the Rumi poem. I continue to be amazed at the power of words. May those who need this poem the most embrace it. Thank you.

I love Story Corps when I hear the snippets on the radio. I am so relieved to know the actual interviews are 40 minutes long I thought I was hearing the entire thing. One little question and answer. It seemed so futile to waste the love I was hearing between persons. This was a great interview with David Isay.

Thank you for this, as a control freak, it's good to be reminded that it all belongs, not just the parts I deem "happy"..

we cannot control the life. we can just accept and enjoy it. This poem well describes this feature of the life.

I was recently introduced to this poem, by a friend. The initial understanding that I had was a sense of empowerment shared by Rumi; to be capable of being unaffected by uncontrollable forces of the world.

This is something that I understand, as I am in this part of my journey where I am reaching for these. I aspire with varying degrees of success to be that rock, unperturbed, accepting and fluid. Further more, in a light hearted exchange I shared that the clearing of furniture would be fine, and seen as an opportunity, given that my bank account would allow. This was the slightest shift of my paradigm; my proverbial bank account of emotional and spiritual holdings needs to be maintained.

This suggest that I can not start the day with out, in my own way, affirming my purpose, Like SUBA pointed out, and my natural curiosity prompted me to look further into how others interpreted Rumi's poem. As I hoped for, all of those who presented their experience and insight help me to further shift my thoughts; reminding me that I have a choice in how I relate to each 'Guest' and with that choice I am able to choose my response which determines my reality.

So, Rumi, thank you for your contributions to my evolving reality, and the tech support of you, the contributors; and to the daily guest that have been sent to guide me.

I am not a good hostess. Most often, I find that I have entertained dark thoughts, selfishness, and meanness unawares. I only notice when shame comes to call and brings it to my attention. Awareness is important- I am learning that. Rather than looking ahead and hoping (and praying) that I am visited by charity, kindness, selflessness and their lot or looking back, in the company of sadness, at my time spent with resentment, impatience and anger, I an trying to just be aware in the moment and look whoever is with me in the eye. It's a nice surprise when I find love, who's coming around more often these days.

Beautiful! Trying to do this more in my life...inviting whatever comes...whatever has been sent to make me more wise!

Your column is always medicine for me. As my husband moves forward into treatment for newly diagnosed cancer, I will look forward to your words each week. Thank you for being there, dear Parker!