The Ancient Poem That Will Put Your Life in Perspective

The Ancient Poem That Will Put Your Life in Perspective

By Sean Braswell


Because sometimes you need to surrender to life and could use a good metaphor to get you started.

By Sean Braswell

In the wake of his “conscious uncoupling” from fellow mega-celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow in 2014, Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin found solace from his failed marriage in a somewhat surprising source: 13th-century Persian love poetry, notably a poem known as “The Guest House,” by the Sufi mystic Rumi. “That one Rumi poem changes everything,” Martin recounted to The Sunday Times in March. “It says that even when you’re unhappy, it’s good for you.”

Now, even if you’re not in the habit of adopting the self-help tips propounded by your favorite celebrity idols, you could do a lot worse than listening to Martin sing the praises of Sufi mysticism — Alec Baldwin’s advice on dealing with divorce and Jessica Simpson’s thoughts on planning the perfect wedding come to mind.

Part of Rumi’s consumer appeal … stems from those seeking an antidote to modern consumerism. 

“This being human is a guest house,” Rumi’s beloved poem begins in the English translation by 79-year-old American poet Coleman Barks, who reads from the poem on the “Kaleidoscope” track on Coldplay’s latest album, A Head Full of Dreams. “Every morning a new arrival.”

Those arrivals may include unexpected visitors like depression, sorrow or meanness, but we must “welcome and entertain them all,” says Rumi. Indeed, if the 13th-century mystic’s broad body of love poetry was about anything, it was quite conscious coupling, from the intense passion felt for a lover to the ecstasy of immersion in the divine. “Rumi was an enlightened lover, a true human being,” Barks writes in Rumi: The Book of Love; his “love poetry is meant to obliterate you lovers. Rumi wants us to surrender.” 

Rumi himself would eventually merge into the divine wholeness of the universe, only to be summoned back in recent decades by gurus and celebrities, from spiritualist Deepak Chopra to designer Donna Karan. Part of Rumi’s consumer appeal, rather ironically, stems from those seeking an antidote to modern consumerism. “Rumi stands as an inspiring source for contemporary quests for spirituality,” says Murat Umut Inan, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies. “His poetry encourages us to escape the excesses of consumerism and material possessions and focus instead on humane values.”

Is the “The Guest House” then best deployed to counter the First World problems of angst-ridden celebrities like Martin? One can imagine that being married to a megastar like Paltrow — and all of the designer, organic Goop-like baggage that would entail — would require seven or eight guesthouses to hold. But if you’re starving or getting shot at in, say, Rumi’s childhood stomping grounds of modern-day Afghanistan, then you’re not likely to be all that keen on inviting more sorrows in. You’re probably gonna want to bar the guesthouse door on that sh*t. F*ck Sufi mysticism.


In such cases, Rumi would likely say that you need such an understanding of love, and a lifeline like “The Guest House,” more than ever.  After all, as a child, the poet and his family fled the invading Mongol armies of Genghis Khan — not exactly fodder for a Coldplay album. But you can contemplate your own guesthouse visitors as you read Rumi’s masterpiece (below, from a translation by Coleman Barks).

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’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.