Rumi’s Desert

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

Translated by Coleman Barks

This is one of the most popular Rumi quotes in the west. This translation finds itself recited at wedding ceremonies, when intellectuals have a particularly contentious debate, and in therapists’ offices and meditation halls all over. When I speak of my love of Rumi, a common response is to inquire whether I know this poem.

And to be frank, until recently I hadn’t come across this poem in Farsi. I eventually did some research and found these verses:

از کفر و ز اسلام برون صحرائی است
ما را به میان آن فضا سودائی است
عارف چو بدان رسید سر را بنهد
نه کفر و نه اسلام و نه آنجا جائی است

When I translate these verses, I arrive at a very different place. Not the attractive field where we drop all of our ideas and disagreements into the grass in which we lay and become filled with oneness, but a stark desolate land of disillusionment:

Out beyond wrongdoing and right doing, there is a desert

The desert beckons us as if it were the oasis

We long to hold one another in its lush grass

and drink from the clear spring

The moon whispers in my ear:

I have one foot in that desert

But don’t ask me to meet you there

For in that desert of disillusionment,

just as with right and wrong,

you and I and even oneness

cease to exist

This poem has brilliantly tapped into both the dissatisfaction and the illusion-conjuring power of the mind. It is as if the poet has gone through different stages of seeking and has found each stage a mirage and unsatisfactory at its core. First, seeking the love of others, becoming dissatisfied, and turning to fame and wealth as salvation. And when that failed too, the seeker turns to spirituality, but that can become a mirage too. In the end, it is the great illusionist of the mind that takes on the challenging feat: To make an illusion of disillusionment.

The desert beckons us as if it were the oasis…

In this verse, Molana Rumi hints at the desperation and longing of a man who has gone through all the stages of seeking and has arrived at the final one. But before entering, non-duality is seen as a state in which one can comfortably take a neutral stance at every happening since, after all in this land, no wrongdoing or right doing exists. This illusion, like all illusions, is a deeply personal one in which we seek and ask God, the universe, and the saints to grant us the winning lottery ticket, making us the chosen one, so through our wealth, insight and in this case enlightenment, we can truly help others. In essence, this illusion is trickle-down economics at its finest, in its most grand and exulted conclusion. In this luxurious land, no hardship of life can touch us and this can only be good because others can only benefit from being in our presence.

The moon whispers in my ear…

Here, Molana Rumi talks of the realized one. In my translations, I use the metaphor of the moon as the witness, the realized one. She knows that in a non-dual state, there is only emptiness. There is no grass, no clear spring and no lovers to be united. It is the greatest disillusionment, naked, unadorned, and devoid of everything, including love.

So if we dare to venture into the barren land of Nothingness as Attar, Rumi’s teacher, wrote about it in the “Seven Valleys of Love”, yes, we must forego the ideas of wrongdoing and right doing. But unlike a personal illusion, this land is the embodiment of the impersonal. There is no family, no friends, no personal comfort, and no You or I. We must abandon everything and everyone we know and love. Still eager for your jaunt into that grassy field?

*Here’s a recording of the poem in Farsi

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