Rumi comes knocking...

Senior Mindfulness Instructor reflects on opening the door to the pain that was present and welcoming mindfulness to her body.

There’s a poem by the Sufi poet Jalalludin Rumi that we often use in mindfulness classes. Here’s the text:

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’re 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 whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

This is a story about a recent “guest” of mine.  

Almost six months ago, without any clear warning, I began to experience pain. It was in my upper back, the left side of my neck, a bit on the top of my shoulder. I couldn’t remember having pulled something, or there being any particular reason for the pain. It was a nuisance. Some days it was barely perceptible; some days it made me irritable. 

I took ibuprofen. I stretched. I did strength training. It didn’t budge. Then, something worse happened: It started to interfere with my sleep. I’d get into bed at night and turn to my side, and within seconds, there’d be a dull throbbing. My favorite sleeping positions made the pain worse. For any relief, I had to sleep on my back, my arms held a certain way, which felt like a straitjacket. My breathing became tight and fearful.

I had an x-ray to rule out anything serious; it came back negative.. “Oh,” I thought, with some disdain mixed with sarcasm… “So now I have chronic pain? Is that what this is?” And I doubled down on the ibuprofen and stretching, and I set my jaw–which definitely made the pain worse. But I couldn’t let go.

Finally, after many months, I saw a sports medicine physician who prescribed physical therapy. Weeks later, the PT cradled my head, and as she did I felt the rigid muscles begin to melt. Without warning, tears came to my eyes… 

This being human is a guest house, and pain was my guest. At first I had bucked and bullied my way through. But when Martha held my head in her hands — nothing more — just held my head, she reminded me of Rumi — and what else I could do, which was to meet the guest; open the door, and welcome it in.

Lynn Koerbel, MPH Assistant Director, MBSR Teacher Education & Curricula Development
Headshot of Lynn Koerbel

She reminded me how simple — and how hard it was — to hold open the door to what was present. 

After that first session, I resolved to listen more, to bring mindfulness to my body — which was in pain. 

This meant that when I noticed I was breathing shallowly, I would pause and let my breath slow, which helped it deepen on its own, without force. This, in turn, allowed my shoulders to soften along with my face and jaw. 

In another PT session, I heard an inner voice say “Baby yourself.” Some wiser part of me was coming to the fore to meet the pain. How was I to baby myself? It turned out to be simple: Listen and respond. Stop trying to obstinately sleep on my side, and surrender to my back — with love, knowing that I’d feel better for it in the morning. It wasn’t, in fact, a straitjacket, it just wasn’t my preference. 

I still have the pain but it’s changing. I know it better, and am more responsive to its needs.  When I’m tired, I go to bed earlier. After spending hours sitting at the computer, I make a point to move, to stretch, to go outside, to be in nature, to drink in the season and the changing sky. 

I don’t like the pain, but I have an interesting fondness for it. It is of me… not “mine” but visiting. I’ve opened to it, because blocking it or ignoring it makes it worse. The pain is here for now, and it is teaching me. It’s teaching me patience, and kindness, and finding the right mix of ease and discipline.  It’s teaching me that things change, and that welcoming the changes, all the changes, surprisingly, offers peace.

I was lucky to have someone supporting me. Through her care,  my PT reminded me that I could relate differently to what was knocking. Often, we get this kind of “help” from those close to us: a friend who suggests we’ve been out of sorts lately, a spouse who asks why we’re so snappish. We can attend to what’s knocking–whether it’s physical pain, disappointment, a situation where you feel helpless or angry. Conversely, it might also be some small or large joy that lands in your lap. We want to practice answering the door: It’s here anyway… we can let it all in. It’s our life–and why miss it, even the hard stuff?

Watch the recorded webinar:

Prompts for your own exploration:

You might consider: 

  • Who or what is knocking at the “door” of your life? 
  • What do you most NOT want to let in? 
  • How can awareness support you–in simple, easy ways–to be more available to the full range of what shows up?

Continue your curiosity.

Wherever you may be on your mindfulness journey — whether just starting to explore what it has to offer or advancing your practice and career — we have options to support your learning.