The clear bead at the center changes everything,
There are no edges to my loving now,
I’ve heard it said that there’s a window that
opens from one mind to another.
But if there’s no wall, there’s no need for fitting
the window or the latch.
~ Jelaluddin Rumi
This marvelous poem begs the question, what is it that defines us?
We often love to say that it is not our work, our possessions that define us. But those are indirect answers to the question, focusing not on what defines us, but what does not.
Those things don’t define us, because they are the inessential things that reside at our periphery. They are not truly real, but merely activities and creations that flow from us. They are distinct from us, and are not our substance.
As for what defines us, we have to look a little closer to home.
Of the various dictionary definitions of the word “define,” some can be more confusing than clarifying in attempting to answer this question. These range from “set forth or define the meaning of” to “identify the nature or essential qualities thereof.”
For the most part, these still lie within the realm of the peripheral, those relative categories we like to say can’t define us, though the second definition, in using the word essential, comes a little closer to the core of what we’re after. There’s at least a suggestion of a substantial reality…
Another definition seems to be more pertinent, in context of our question: “to determine or fix the boundaries or extent of.”
Yet this idea that what defines us lies within a gray area that exists neither here nor there, but merely serves as an abstract line between the two, lays bare the awful truth of our common idea of identity.
Here’s the truth of our modern dualistic culture: Culturally, we are defined by our edges. You know, that flimsy line of demarcation we call skin? The line between self and other, the one dimensional place that is neither inside nor outside?
Sri Ramakrishna, India’s modern prophet of religious harmony, called this artificial division “a line drawn on water.” You can draw a line on water with your finger and for a moment, it seems a real division. But as an actual division, it never truly exists. It’s conditional appearance is a superimposition that only temporarily qualifies the same substance – water – existing on both of it’s sides. All is water on both sides of the line, and all is water in between the two sides. The water is never divided. There is no in-between. Only a line that persists for a moment, then disappears.
Was it even real to begin with?
Think about this deeply. What if Ramakrishna’s simile were not just an interesting story, but perhaps an essential truth pointing at the real nature of our world, and all the things and beings in it?
If there were a common substance permeating, running through everything, not only crossing all boundaries, but in reality never being divided by any of them?
From a dualistic perspective, these questions would make no sense. But the are at the heart of the quest, the driving motivation to know reality, of the great mystics throughout history. If you’ve read the literature, you know that the mystics said to have achieved spiritual realization commonly speak of an Ultimate Reality that is unified, and of which we are all an integral part. And it’s their wrestling with this problem, this cosmic paradox, which finally drives them beyond the boundaries of normal understanding.
Until they come to rest in that essential Existence which underlies the world of names and forms, and temporary appearances.
The Sufi mystic and poet Jelaluddin Rumi wrestled with this problem. If God is beyond all sorrow, all relativity, all division, then we must know Him. But how does one know infinitude, with a finite mind, which distinguishes this from that, self from other, inside from outside? A mind obsessed with the edges between everything? How can such a mind ever know the essential substance – God – in which all live, move, and participate in Being?
Obviously, edges are the problem. The transcendental cosmic Essence of the Divine Being divvied up between an infinite number of boxes. The problem is so subtle that the Jewish Kabbalah mystics could not use direct terms to approach it, but used the metaphor of a vessel containing the Light of the Creator, which had been shattered into an infinite number of shards, which divided the Ain Soph Aur or Infinite Light, into all these seemly separate vessels, called living beings. It’s said that the reason human beings feel a longing for something higher, or even for each other, is that the spark of the divine light which dwells within each of their limited shards, remembers the original condition of wholeness, when Creator’s light was not divided. It longs for a return to that completeness. Therefore, in Kabbalah, it’s said that our true mission in this life is to gather all the shards back together, to restore the original vessel to it’s original state. Stories of the Garden of Eden – before the fall – metaphorically relate to this original condition.
In relation to this deepest existential question, Rumi must have asked himself time and time again, what to do? He relates this spiritual anguish with great passion in his poem “The Reed Flute”:
Listen to the story told by the reed, of being separated.
Since I was cut from the reed bed, I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back.
But this longing is not enough for us, as it was not enough for Rumi.
We – and he – must have a resolution to this problem.
Now, remember where earlier I mentioned Ramakrishna’s simile of the line drawn on water? If you understood it, you’ll see that it points to our ignorance of the fact that there is no division. We are the water that cannot be divided by the line drawn on it. Another way of saying this, is that the original vessel was never shattered to begin with.
In other words, there is no problem.
In other words, Rumi finally knew there was nothing to resolve, and that the edges were a fiction. His saying “there are no edges to my loving now” is in essence the same as Ramakrishna speaking of a line drawn on water…
Any lingering doubts as to his meaning? Later in the same poem he says that like fishes, we “swim a vast ocean of grace, still somehow longing for it!”
Can the truth really be so simple?
It seems that Rumi thought so.
For deeper understanding of this subject matter, the following book by acclaimed philosopher Ibn Arabi, who most clearly expressed the Sufi philosophy of Wahdat al Wujud or the “Unity of Existence,” penetrates straight to the clear bead at the center: