What is this bliss, this sweet intoxication known to lovers of God? What is this bewildering state of the heart in which the mind is dissolved and the soul is awakened? Rumi, a thirteenth century Sufi teacher, and one of the world’s greatest poets of mystical love, knew of these mysteries of the heart. His verses tell the stories of the soul’s love affair with God, whom the Sufis call the Beloved, the love affair that leads from the pain and anguish of longing until we are reunited with our divine nature. This is the great mystical journey that draws us from ourself back to our Beloved, until
The Beloved has permeated every cell of my body Of myself there remains only a name, everything else is Him. (1)
Rumi was a learned scholar until one day in the marketplace of Konya he met a wandering dervish, Shams-i Tabriz, and fell at his feet after the ragged dervish recited these verses,
If knowledge does not liberate the self from the self Then ignornace is better than such knowledge.
Shams was the spark that ignited the fire of divine longing within Rumi, awakening the passion of the soul, such that Rumi said of his life “I burnt, and burnt and burnt.” His time with Shams transformed him, and the love that was awakened still speaks to us now, so many centuries later:
The tender words we said to one another Are stored in the secret heart of heaven: One day like rain they will fall and spread, And our mystery will grow green over the world (2)
Beneath all the words is the cry of the heart, the primal cry of the soul separate from God, the “reed torn from the reed bed,” “whose lament has caused man and woman to moan.” And from this longing the lover is turned away from himself back to God, back to the Source. This is the great mystery of love, the way in which our heart is awakened to its divine nature, how love burns away the impurities which cover our heart and soul, until gradually we begin to taste the truth of whom we really are: not a separate self, a dysfunctional ego, but part of a whirling, cosmic dance in which every cell praises and glorifies God:
we came whirling out of nothingness scattering stars like dust
the stars made a circle and in the middle we dance
every atom turns bewildered
and it is only God circling Himself(3)
Rumi left us this legacy of love, the world’s greatest treasury of mystical love poetry, and we follow stumbling, knowing at first only a discontent, a sadness, a longing. Somewhere, we sense, our Beloved is waiting for us, that our heart can offer more than loneliness and need. But all we experience are the thorns of the rose of love, which seem to stick into our heart and tear us apart. We leave drops of our heart’s blood on the path behind us, and know only the grief of separation, the heartache, the despair of abandonment. In these moments, hours, days, months, even years, we do not realize the mystery that it is He who is drawing us back to Himself, who is crying within our own heart, opening us:
It is He who suffers his absence in me Who through me cries out to himself. Love’s most strange, most holy mystery-- We are intimate beyond belief.(4)
Through this painful intimacy of love our heart is changed. No longer caught in ourself we are open to the Beloved. Ruined in the tavern of love we can taste the intoxicating wine of His presence. This is when the bliss begins. At the beginning it may come as a gentle lover’s foreplay, like butterfly wings at the edge of the heart, but in this gentle touch the whole of oneself is saturated with love, a love that runs through the body and soul, in which nothing is excluded. Then one is really reborn, reborn in love, in the deep knowing of one’s true nature and the love that is present in oneself and in everything.
Later the states of bliss deepen and intensify, become almost painful and one wonders how the body can bear it, and yet it continues, sometimes for hours. Sweetness, intoxication, drunkenness, these are the words the Sufi use to describe such states: the ecstasy of love:
the sugar sack is ripped spilling sugar everywhere
I am so ruined with love that beggar children stone me in the alleys
I am so mad with love that madmen say “Be still!” (5)
What is the nature of this bliss? In the moments of intoxication one does not know, one does not care, there is no mind, no self, just the currents of love that have taken one away from everything one knows into a different world, a world without difficulties or conflict, in which everything is alive with love. And in these states the heart can grow and expand, until the heart is everything, the call of every bird, the taste of every tear. As Rumi writes:
I am the pangs of the jealous, I am the pain of the sick I am both cloud and rain: I have rained on the meadows.
This is the oneness of divine love, the unity that underlies everything, and is also beyond everything:
I am not of water nor fire, I am not of the froward wind, I am not of moulded clay: I have mocked them all. O son, I am not Shams-i Tabriz, I am the pure Light, If thou seest me beware! Tell not anyone what thou hast seen! (6)
When one returns from the blinding light, when one’s mind is given back and a sense of self returns, then and only then can there be an inquiry into the nature of this bliss. It belongs to the nature of the soul. In Sanskrit it is known as anandamaya kosha, the sheath of the soul. For most people the only experience they have of this bliss is in the brief moment of sexual orgasm, which in reality is not a physical experience but a momentary immersion in the bliss of the soul. It is given to humanity for the sake of procreation. But for the mystic the real love affair is never a physical encounter, even though they may use the metaphors of sexual love to describe it.
If physical union is sweet, the real union of the soul, of lover and Beloved, is far sweeter:
“The clothes of the body were sweet silk,
but this nakedness is sweeter.”
And if one can hardly describe the ecstasy of the body, what happens within the heart is an even more intimate mystery, as Rumi continues:
This subject can go no further. What comes next must stay hidden…. When that boat sinks, you are the fish, neither silent nor speaking, a marvel with no name. (7)
Intoxicated with bliss, knowing neither oneself nor one’s Beloved, the lover stumbles back to the world. We are known as “His own personal idiots.” We are the fools of love, drowned in love, lost and bewildered. What does the world matter, with its buying and selling, when we have been immersed in this vaster ocean? The poison of divine love has seeped through all of our veins. We have been taken from ourself and given to Another. But who is this invisible Beloved who has ruined us with His love? He will always remain unknowable, untouchable. And we become drunkards, longing for just another sip of divine love, gamblers who will give anything for another roll of the dice that might draw us back into His embrace. Divine love and the bliss it brings are the most dangerous of draughts, the drink that will destroy everything.
It is easy to speak of divine love, to read poems about its ecstatic nature, to dream of being taken in rapture by a divine lover. But to live this passion is different. It is heartbreak and devastation, despair and burning. One thinks of Rumi and his relationship with Shams, who for Rumi embodied the divine light. Rumi’s disciples became so jealous of their close and intoxicating relationship that Shams had to leave Konya and go to Damascus; then Rumi became so desperate that finally his son Sultan Walad went and begged Shams to return. Shams returned, but then one night Shams went out never to return, murdered it is said. It is even suggested that another of Rumi’s sons was among the murderers. Rumi did not know he had died and twice went to Damascus to find him. He could not be consoled and was thrown into the despair known only to lovers: “You are the sugar and you are the poison, do not torture me furthermore.”
Only when Rumi had traversed this spiritual darkness of complete despair and abandonment did the light of Shams once again reappear, this time within his own heart and he knew there could never again be any separation. “Although we are far from him in the flesh--without body or soul, we are both one and the same light--you can see him, if you so desire, or you can see me. I am him, he is me. O seeker, why do I say me or him, when he is myself and I am he? Yes, all is him and I am contained in him.” (8)
It was from this inner union that the poems started to pour from Rumi: the story of the heart’s mystery that is experienced by every lover, the love affair that draws us to union:
The moment I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere They’re in each other all along.(9)
Ecstasy and bliss are bought at a price, and that price is oneself. Everything one thinks one is, is attached to, believes in, one’s very self, is torn away, burnt, left behind, dissolved in the currents of love that flow from the depths of the heart. Love is as cruel as it is kind, as devastating as it is sweet, as dangerous as it is precious. When Rumi writes:
This Love sacrifices all souls, however wise, however “awakened.” Cuts off their heads without a sword, hangs them without a scaffold. We are the guests of the One who devours His guests, The friends of the One who slaughters His friends…. We are like the night, earth’s shadow. He is the Sun, He splits open the night with a sword soaked in dawn.(10)
he is not speaking mere metaphors of love, but lived experience. Shams was his Sun and the sword that killed him. Divine love is the most destructive power that exists, because it destroys everything, everything that keeps us imprisoned in the shadowy world of the ego, everything that stands as a veil between us and our Beloved. Only when we have been betrayed, devastated, ruined, killed, does love reveal its hidden face. Then the bliss of the soul is all around us, His light is everywhere. Everything is a love affair; every cell of creation dances this whirling dance of divine intoxication. And what of the lover, of the one who has died?
I drained this cup; there is nothing, now, but ecstatic intoxication
were I ever other than this I regret being born
if forever it is this I’ll trample both worlds and dance ecstatic forever!
O Shams I am so drunk! what can I say, but I am so drunk on love (11)