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 are 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 whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
—Jalaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273, Balkh, Afghanistan
Esteemed Read of Our Magazine:
Last summer, I sat in a field surrounded by fireflies. First, I watched the Brownian motion of the insects as they blinked on and off. Then I tried to focus on a particular insect and follow its trajectory through the darkness. Gradually, I began to discern the pattern of their flight and predict where a bug that had blinked out would blink on again.
As I concentrated on following a particular insect, I was touched by the subtle and unique pattern each bug followed. Tracking this took so much concentration that there was little room in my attention for asking why or to make meaning out of it. The blinking path was a kind of Morse code transmitting the nature of the being. The pattern of movement was random and at the same time delicate and precise.
In this experience of the fireflies, I realized that my path and the path of each of us is, in its way, similarly exquisite and poignantly exact. We move through our lives as a collection of positive and negative charges that guide all the reactions and responses. These patterns are predictable and even manipulable by the behaviorists and evolutionary psychologists that study such things. And yet, despite its automatism, there is something precious and profound in the delicate and definite trajectory followed by each being.
If I am vigilant and interested, curious even, I begin to see the subtle interplay of forces that shunt me around like a mote of dust in the air. I am sitting at my desk, writing, but something like a hungry parasite kicks inside my belly. Tea, I think, I want tea, and I get up to heat the kettle, ponder the selections. Pu-erh or Lapsang souchong. Chinese or Tibetan. Fermented or smoked. As the tea steeps, I see my cup is tarnished. Oh, I can polish it while the tea steeps, I think. Has anyone liked my Instagram post? How about burning some incense? I should really get more exercise. And on and on. A half-hour passes before I get back to my desk.
I'm like a car full of monkeys, taking turns behind the steering wheel. An interplay of forces is at work, and I watch as the whole conveyance is shunted about by fleeting interests and desires, by distates, dislikes, and aversions. On one hand, this is a sorry state of affairs, and on another, poignant, precious, perfect. The being that I am, like a firefly, flits around in the darkness, following its pattern.
And we are all like this, all the time, and each of our blinking paths through life describes the combination of factors and forces at work in us. We express this ragtag set of hereditary features, character type, and random agglomeration of conditioned behaviors in all our deeds, points of view, opinions. Observation answers the question of free will with stark clarity—we don't possess it. On another hand, when I observe with care and interest, I see the spark of life flowing through it all. I see the delicate and precious trajectory that is uniquely myself, and something in me feels compassion, for myself, for the helpless beings we all are.
At that moment, I see a glimmer of possibility, like a firefly blinking on. There is a choice, and really only one: To sacrifice what I think I want at this moment for the good of a greater whole.