"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Tavern of the Soul

In Sufism, the most mystic branch of Islam (and perhaps a wisdom school that predates Islam's greatest Prophet), 'wine', 'alcohol' and 'the tavern' are symbolic of the highest spiritual and/or religious experiences. Perhaps, not unrelatedly, the renowned Swiss psychologist noted that the Latin for the "highest religious experience," spiritus, was the same as the Latin word for alcohol.

Paradoxically, the English word "alcohol" is derived from the Arabic name for the "kohl" tree, the bark of which was ground up and then distilled to produce collyrium, a fine metallic powder that was used as an eye shadow and made the wearer's eyes glisten. Islam, of course, prohibits the consumption of alcohol (as does Buddhism, which says we should refrain from intoxicants that dull the perceptive qualities of the mind). And turning "water into wine" was, of course, the first "miracle" that Jesus performed.

Jalalludin Rumi (1207-1273)
One of the first of Jalludin Rumi's mystic poems that Coleman Barks includes in his anthology of "The Essential Rumi" is the great Sufi poet's ode to the power of "wine" to transport the imbiber to this 'tavern of the soul.' In his poem, "The Many Wines," Rumi, the 14th century Afghani poet and Sufi teacher who has become one of the West's most popular poets in the past several decades, describes the transcendental power of "spirit" or "wine" in the following way:
"God has given us a dark wine so potent that,
drinking it, we leave the two worlds.
God has put into the form of hashish a power
to deliver the taster from self-consciousness.

God has made sleep so
that it erases every thought.

God made Majnun love Layla so much that
just her dog would cause confusion in him.

There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.

Don't think all ecstasies
are the same!

Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley.

Drink from the presence of saints,
not from those other jars.

Every object, every being,
is a jar full of delight.

Be a connoisseur,
and taste with caution.

Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,

the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about "what's needed."

Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it;s been untied,
and is just ambling about.
". . . a power to deliver the taster from self-consciousness." Is that not the power that every wisdom tradition points to in 'the tavern of the soul' which exists within us all? Perhaps the most essential message from Rumi is that the human thirst for truth and meaning - for what "glistens" - can only be quenched in the 'tavern of the soul' and not in lesser taverns or in ordinary wines and spirits.

We must recall that it was the alchemists who determined that "all that glistens is not gold." And, that the greatest of alchemists were the Sufis, who were concerned only with the "alchemy of the soul."

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