The Guest House by Jalaluddin Rumi: an analysis
Mindfulness is not only a discipline for the intellect, it is also very much a discipline for the heart.
And what speaks better to the heart than poetry, with its wordings that go beyond our logical sense and speak directly to our emotional side.
In mindfulness courses all around the world, the poem ‘The guest house’ Rumi is read. The poem reminds us to not resist our thoughts and feelings, but on the contrary, to welcome them as if they were noble guests that we were eager to see.
Let’s first read the poem before we go deeper into its meaning:
The Guest House
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.— Jellaludin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
What is the meaning of this poem?
The poem teaches acceptance
This poem embodies exactly what is meant by ‘acceptance’. As I said in my article on this topic, acceptance is not about the exterior, but about the interior.
What I mean by this, is that we do not just accept other people to treat us badly but we accept the reaction that this is causing us.
Let me give you a small example. If somebody insults you, you do not have to pretend that it is ok. Anger comes up towards this person, and this is normal. So we do not repress the feeling of anger, but we watch it mindfully.
When anger is seen in this way, the power it has over us is greatly reduced.
Better yet, thoughts and emotions that are seen mindfully, have the tendency to evaporate in the long run.
If you instead resist them, they tend to get stronger.
If we let them go, we start to learn
The poem talks about further stages of meditation
When we first start meditation, we have a hard time just concentrating. We do do not see the thoughts and emotions that arise in the way described by Rumi.
No, it is more like blurred emotions that confuse us. Furthermore, we often have the impression that they are quite permanent. We certainly do not see the individual guests that arrive.
But once we reach a bit further in the meditation, you start to see that emotions indeed arise and pass. Exactly as Rumi says.
When you reach even further on the path of meditation, you start to acknowledge that all the emotions that come up, appear for a reason.
The reason is that they were in you and that in order to reach true happiness, you need to let them go.
That is why Rumi says we need to be grateful when they come. Every seen unpleasant emotion and thought that is met with openness brings us its small dose of happiness.
Rumi was deeply religious, so he interpreted that the thoughts and emotions were sent to us from the beyond.
If you prefer, you can also interpret this in a secular way and say that our thoughts are sent to us by our sub-conscious mind. But you might agree with me that this ‘entity’ of the subconscious mind is also a bit of a mystery.
The poem does not tell us to revel in our emotions
The danger of the poem is that it might be interpreted as a free pass to start to revel in our emotions or depressions.
We should be careful with that too or we might get stuck. Yes, we should invite all guests in, but only when they are present at the door.
And we should let them leave on their own accord too. Nowhere it is said to try to keep the nice once longer or to get rid of the nasty ones as fast as possible.
The poem is not about real persons
When I first read this poem, many years ago, I had a lot of resistance to it. Why would I let people do this to my house? Just to be friendly?
Obviously, it only talks about our internal guests.
But because of the implication of a real guest house and real people, I found it hard to accept the message that was made explicit to us by the meditation teacher.
If you have the same, then my advice is to let it rest for now. And come back to it after a few years of meditation. In my case, the years of meditation made the meaning crystal clear.
Features image by Gustavo Minas
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Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009.
Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.