Reflections on 'The Guest House'
Posted by Simon Parke, 08 May 2020, 8.43am
Today I offer reflections on the poem ‘The Guest House’ by Rumi.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house, every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness of spirit, some momentary awareness
Comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
Still treat each guest honourably, 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 whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Rumi, the author of this wonderful poem, was a 13th century poet born in present-day Afghanistan.
But despite the distance of time and place, I often think of him when sitting with a client who is finding life difficult; and in particular, I think of his poem, The Guest House.
It has come up in a thousand ways in a thousand different conversations. But here’s an example of how the conversation might go:
‘I’m noticing your anxiety,’ I say.
‘Oh yes, I’ve always been an anxious person.’
‘I don’t believe you’re an anxious person. But I see that anxiety passes through you.’
‘Big time, always has – I can get anxious about anything.’
‘It kidnaps you.’
‘That must make life difficult sometimes - and not only for yourself.’
‘No, others suffer as well. I get tetchy, I know I do. I pass the anxiety on.’
‘And is it getting better as you get older?’
‘No, it’s getting worse. Much worse. I’ve got this thing about my health at the moment. I’m forever checking for cancer, checking for HIV or worrying about a cough that won’t go away – and if it isn’t that, then it’s something else. I worry about my work as well, how I’m perceived in the office. I need to sort it, I don’t want to pass it on to my children - but what can I do? You can’t help feelings!’
‘No – but you can start to notice them.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Have you ever come across a poem called The Guest House?’
We then talk about the poem, about the image of the human as a guest house, welcoming every character who turns up at the door, turning no one away, rejecting no thought or feeling as unacceptable. There is no good or bad feeling; and no good or bad thought.
These visitors may do damage during their stay, turning over some furniture even; but we are a guest house, so they cannot stay. And once we have welcomed them and let them in, and once we have spoken kindly with them, we allow them to pass through, for we are a guest house and they do not live here.
‘Then I think I may have squatters’ as one woman told me.
Like all genius, the poem is simple but universal. It’s challenging - yet quite the opposite of a call to self-punishment. As we shall see, Rumi has no wish for us to read the poem and then feel bad about ourselves.
A negative self-image is a frequent visitor for many and definitely one to speak with and ask to move on.
He was not the first person to use the idea. The Buddha also talked about the human as a guest house, encouraging us to receive the guests rather than turning them away.
‘The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.’
Buddha says we should not just welcome the guests but understand them: we are to understand what there is to be understood about the guests; let go of what is to be let go of about the guests; and develop what is to be developed as the guests come and go.
Here is direct knowledge of both the guests and ourselves, which makes life easier, freer. We now understand the difference between saying ‘I’m an anxious person’ and ‘I’m a person through whom anxiety is passing.’
Some guests are more welcome than others; different visitors bring different responses from us and how could they not? The guest of joy is not the same as the guest of depression or malice – though none, not even joy, can stay.
So we cannot always be grateful for our guests. Sometimes they prove damaging, disruptive, violent even.
‘Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture…’
Both the Buddha and Rumi encourage us to give the guests our fullest attention, to see them clearly, to be mindful of them so that they do not loiter in the shadows or hide secretly in the cellar for years - but pass through us, travel on, for they are not who we are; they are only thoughts and feelings.
And I am not my thoughts; and I am not my feelings.
So we ponder the picture of you as a guest house. How does it sound to? Liberating? Impossible?
It is teaching us to name our visitors; and yours might be different to Rumi’s. Perhaps victim comes to your door, or fear , superiority or self-disgust. It is good to get to know our most regular visitors.
And as we let them pass through, we create in ourselves a space less encumbered by the unprocessed sediment of the past or anxious worry about the future.
We welcome these guests; we speak with them kindly, for each has a story; we let them go.
This poem is a beautiful ‘how’ of living mindfully in the present.