Coleman Barks, one of the world’s most beloved translators of Sufi poet Rumi, in his book, “The Essential Rumi” teaches us about the value of secret practices. A secret practice does not mean the technique is secret but, rather, refers to the relationship between our practice and the value of privacy in the work.
“The egg is Rumi’s image for the private place where each individual globe of soul-fruit becomes elaborately unique. Incubation in secret practices produces the lovely differences. Out of one leathery egg, a sparrow, out of a similar one, a snake.”
This privacy takes courage and a willingness to be alone. Every year around this time I notice that my writing begins to wane and that I can’t think of anything to paint. These symptoms, for me, are an inner calling that says it is time to go and practice, in private. Before I go, my attention has been drawn away from myself in an outward direction. I cannot concentrate on my arts in a fulfilling way. Secret practice, away from it all, is my favorite fix.
“Which is worth more, a crowd of thousands
or your own genuine solitude?
Freedom, or power over an entire nation?
A little while alone in your room
will prove more valuable than anything else
That could ever be given to you.” Rumi, The Private Banquet
The story of Mullah Nasradeen reminds of the value of solitary practice, it also teaches us how to work with the obstacles that show up along the way.
The Mullah was a gifted Sufi seeker. One day he was given a practice by his yoga teacher, which stirred the tingle of awakening. His teacher, recognizing Mullah's progress, told him to go to the forest and perfect practicing with the single goal of attaining enlightenment.
Mullah embarked on a long journey to the forest and found a place to sit and practice. After many seasons the seeker achieved great progress. So skillful was his practice that an angel appeared before Mullah. Very pleased with the seeker's efforts the angel offered Mullah a boon.
The angel said as your gift I have decided to serve you for all of eternity. I will do everything you ask of me as long as you keep me busy. However, the minute I am idle I will ruin you!
Mullah thought of all the difficulties in the world and his list of things to fix was very long, surely it would take the angel a lifetime to carry out the tasks.
“Ok Angel,” said Mullah, “I accept your terms.”
First, the Mullah asked the angel to feed the hungry. "Ok," said the angel, "that is a good use of my services." And whoosh he was gone... In just a couple of minutes as Mullah was sitting down to his practice, the angel was back. Mullah was surprised by the speed in which the angel solved such a big problem.
Next, he asked the angel to heal all the sick. The angel flew away to complete the task. Mullah once again sat down to do his daily work and after ten minutes everyone was healthy and the angel was back ready for more tasks.
As you can imagine it was not long before the angel had completed every task Mullah had in his mind, and Mullah quickly realized he himself was in trouble if he could not keep the angel busy. This time he asked the angel to go out and impose justice on the world. As soon as the angel left Mullah ran back to his master.
“Do not worry, “ said the teacher, “ there is a solution. First, have the angel install a very tall flag pole at the edge of the forest, then ask the angel to climb up and down the pole until you think of something for him to do.”
Mullah followed his teachers’ instructions. Keeping the angel busy he was able to return to practice, and soon achieved enlightenment.
In this story, my mind is the angel. During solitary practice, the mind is very powerful and able to complete many marvelous things. But my mind must also be restrained, entertained, or otherwise occupied when it is not put to task. I cannot be doing things all the time and this story teaches me how to begin the process of restraining the mind so it is rested when I need it for yoga, writing, or art. Otherwise, worry and distraction can interfere.
The Mullah was working toward enlightenment, the angel, though willing to serve the Mullah, was a distraction to his mission. As I head off into retreat, doubts and worries can arise. I can be overwhelmed by things at home I should be doing or will be doing or should have done. The flagpole in the story reminds me of the inner focus I need to maintain. This way the focus of all of my energy can be directed toward my art. Secret practices require stillness of the mind, a calm approach.
This teaching also comes with an additional message: Everything I need is within. The Mullah, as he progressed on the path, headed for the forest. He needed time alone to immerse, uninterrupted and undisturbed.
“Transformations that happen on retreat are comparable to the changes that come during the 9 months in a human womb. Meditation or any solitary practice (a walk before dawn, a poem every morning, sitting on a roof at sunset) gives depth and expands the soul's action.” Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi
This year I am traveling to Bangalore to stay for a few days with a friend then off to retreat for two full weeks. Full disclosure, although I am staying in a tent residence, this tent is pretty plush. Shreyas is a very nice resort with wonderful yoga and meditation teachers. I often stay there as a stop gap on my travels to Mysore but this year, Shreyas is my destination. The tents are situated in gardens of bamboo, fig, and palm trees. The birds are abundant and the weather is warm. Away from it all, I can practice yoga, read, write and paint. I can be very still for a sustained period of time. My schedule often includes asana and pranayama in the morning and private lessons in the afternoon. I meditate each day with instruction. I have plenty of time and energy to write and paint. It is really quite nice. There is no conversation, no interaction, just me.
“Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruption. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty, which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy then. A place apart—to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again…" Mary Oliver, Upstream
I am taking the story of Mullah with me, as a tool.
Below is a journal entry from my arrival in India 2016:
I always forget what its like. Somehow, I cannot remember the block-like shapes of the houses along the city road. I forget about the Bollywood billboards advertising a luxurious high rise, that is yet to be built but on its way. I forget about the darkness punctuated by sodium lights bursting from retail shops draped in blue tarpaulin or clad in metal, painted red and white, like Coca-Cola or Voda-phone logos.
I forget how the scrub is so much like Spain --- dry, low, and seeking a life out of the dusty red rock. I forget about the trucks and buses painted as happy as any tattoo. Gods on the dashboard, blessing the ride. The fences in India are worth remembering too, they are always painted in swaths of alternating color, white and blue or yellow and red.
There are entrances everywhere but only darkness behind them as I ride from Bangalore to Mysore. We don’t have this kind of darkness at home. The kind of darkness where you can see the stars. Here, the headlights illuminate the road, vehicles, and reflective signs but to the left and right is dark, black--dark. I forget about the wedding halls in every town, covered in Christmas lights, bright red, yellow, pink, and blue. I forget about the curbs painted black and white, zebra or skunk, warning of turns and circles. The village buildings are pressed against one another, ATM, snack shop, tailor.
I guess that’s why I keep coming back because a memory is so fuzzy, so dim. The bright lights of AC Residency don’t stick in my mind until I see them again and then I remember the taste, sweet like home.
In India, we drive on the left and the driver is on the right. To me, he sits in the middle of the road, where my husband, who is very British, says, “only makes sense.”
Indians flash their lights to pass and cooperate with each other. It is a sort of symphony as we beep and bump our way along the speed-hump dotted road that connects Mysore to Bangalore. India is waking while Baltimore settles in for supper, then sleep.
I forget the early riser wrapped in his shawl and the ubiquitous woolen cap. Where are they going I always wonder? How many ways are there to fill a life? To feed a family? To occupy one's mind? In two’s and three’s at bus stops or on scooters, India wakes. The trucks have been rolling all night but the pedestrians appear just before dawn. Our headlights illuminate their small frames. I forget their structured faces with deep brown skin.
When I get to India I remember I am home. I see my own size and shape. I see my face reflected everywhere.
And so finally my entrance to India is arriving. I look forward to heading off and being still. I hope you will find a way to join me on retreat. Perhaps create a simple practice that you can do each day alone. It can be anything, private, just for you. I also hope you follow my blog during this journey. This way we can remain connected, even as we do our work alone.
“There is a basket of fresh bread on your head,
and yet you go door to door asking for crusts.
Knock on your inner door. No other.” Rumi, A Basket of Fresh Bread