The following is a version of a talk I gave at the closing of Circle Camp, the six-day music and dance gathering in Sirincé, Turkey. The talk was not written out ahead of time and I took liberties with both Rumi and Hafiz’s poems, with apologies to both poets and their translators, Coleman Barks and Daniel Ladinsky. Since Rumi mostly spoke his poems and someone wrote them down, then they were translated to English, it’s not exactly a fixed composition. And so I took some freedom.
And yes, it’s a bit long. But at least you don’t have to sit through a double translation in Turkish and Farsi! Take your time with the ideas and come join the gathering, wherever you may be, with whoever is at your side.
As you know, my grandson was born two days ago. On such occasions, the whole world feels a flash of hope—maybe this boy will accomplish all that we have failed. He arrives fresh with promise, an unwritten book whose plot we can’t make out yet, but we hope will be filled with joy and laughter and fulfillment. Each baby born is like another chance for us frail and fallible humans, a renewed hope that this next generation will do it better. Each is born free, open, joyful. And yes, also filled with grief, sounded in the great birth cry from leaving the floating bliss of the womb to some new air-breathing world with a hunger in the belly. But as they feed and touch and look and listen and begin to move and explore, the world is a vast playground filled with pleasure in the smallest things.
And then that baby, who is all of us, grows toward adulthood and those fearless exploratory urges start to narrow down. The doors of perception begin to close, the flowing river of possibility hardens to dull habit and self-doubt, the wonder shrinks down and the fear rises up. It is the conversation between the fear and the fearlessness, the openness and the closing down, that will determine a lot about the kind of person we will become. And all of this great drama happens within a cultural context where family, school, religion, politics all set to work to make us question our shining brilliance, make us long for the good life with perfect hair, shapely bodies and foolproof deodorant, make us doubt the validity of our strange thoughts, make us feel ashamed of our profound desires and extravagant feelings. It’s hard to be a genuine human being in such circumstances.
So many people are afraid of life, afraid of the wrong things—of their bodies, of their mind’s dreaming, of their heart’s desires. And so they begin to close them down, build some kind of walled fortress around them, lock the doors and hide the key. They take small comfort in the company of others who have agreed to do the same. And some of them rise to positions of power where they try to close down others. The most threatening thing to a powerful priest or politician is a free man or woman who reminds them of all they have shut away. And so they seek to shut them up, lock them up, close them down. From Jesus to Hafiz to Gandhi, so it has been and shall ever be.
It takes great courage to trust the body’s intelligence, to open the heart to its yearnings, to think thoughts that you can’t find on TV or in public discourse. It’s a risky business. If you follow the body’s urgings, you may look clumsy or awkward in full sight of your neighbors. If you open your heart, it means you will feel the full pain as well as the full joy. If you follow your mind, you may be ridiculed by the ignorant. You can’t do this work easily nor should you! After all, you will need some protection on that slippery slope that can lead to sense of worthlessness in the public eye and even lead to madness.
The question we should ask, wherever we are, is “What we are here for?” What is the point of this body, this heart, this mind? Here’s what a poet named Rumi had to say about it:
An eye is meant to see things.
An ear is meant to hear things.
A heart has only one use: for loving a true love.
Legs are for dancing.
The soul is here for its own joy.
Not bad. Use your eyes to see the wonders of this world. Use your ears to listen— to music, to birds, to each other. Use your heart for love and for goodness sakes, dance! Our souls are here for joy! Let’s remember that in every decision we make about how to be in this world.
And then there’s Rumi’s spiritual brother-in-poetry, Hafiz. He says:
You carry all the ingredients to turn your life into a nightmare—
Don’t mix them!
Isn’t that right? We all have the capacity to hurt and harm as well as help and heal. The raw ingredients are right there on the table as we cook our life. Hafiz recommends strongly: “Don’t mix them!”
You have all the genius to build a swing in the backyard for God.
That sounds like a hell of a lot more fun.
Isn’t that wonderful? Build a swing for God and have fun! Nice description of the kind of play we’ve been doing here. Duke Ellington’s said the same thing a different way: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!”
Let’s start laughing, drawing blueprints.
Gathering our talented friends.
Did Hafiz foresee that fellow countrymen and women from Shiraz would take his advice, travel to the Turkish countryside and spend six days laughing, make new plans for the future, gathering together with such talented people? Seems like he did.
Hafiz will sing a thousand words you can take into your hands and hold in your hearts…
That’s how I saw my job, my fellow teachers’ job. To choose the songs and sing the words that praise and celebrate and inspire and make you laugh yet harder (even one word “choco-la-te” can be the occasion for great merrymaking!). Songs you can touch and remember and take back with you in your suitcase without any questions from the Customs agent.
You carry all the ingredients to turn your existence into joy.
Mix them! Mix them!
And we have, yes? That’s what we did here in Circle Camp and what a great name for our gathering. The circle is the sacred space for this work, the place where no one can hide, where the teachers are side-by-side with you in the circle, the place that moves around so you try out different places in the circle and keep your points of view fluid, the place where the dangers of the outside world are kept out by the protection of your fellow seekers and you can dance in the middle, free, supported, safe. That’s what we’ve done for each other and isn’t that marvelous.
I often wonder what it would be like to invite those who have walled themselves in their isolated fortresses to come join us. Especially those in power. To help them discover that their fear of vulnerability is real, but not necessary when in a sacred space. But of course, they never will. They like riding the high horse of power and the only way then will come to us is on their knees, when the horse has thrown them and they’re crippled and abandoned by their fellow power-seekers and hurt and need help. It’s not too late then. But why wait?
Like everyone, I worry that these people in power, whether they be politicians, religious leaders, corporate bosses or schoolteachers, seem to keep mixing the ingredients of fear and greed and intolerance and cynicism. When we leave here, some of us will return to a situation where everything we hold as beautiful will be called ugly and in some cases, against the law to enjoy. Some will come back to situations where our neighbors are indifferent to our joy or treat it frivolously or ignore it altogether. They will sow seeds of doubts in our mind that the kind of opening we experienced here is real and valuable and perhaps the most real of all the ingredients we can mix. So we have to hold each other up even as this circle disperses.
The thing that I am afraid of is not my own body, heart and mind, but the way the world seems to be heading backwards away from freedom, away from justice, away from joy. Like every one, I can grow despairing and despondent by the daily news. But there is one thought I’d like to close with that gives me great hope and that’s this:
Here we are, over 50 people that teach children. That is an enormous power. If each of us teaches, say some 200 children, and do our work to keep them open, to keep them free, to keep them alive and alert and curious and thinking and feeling and enjoying life, than we will have released 10,000 whole human beings into the future. And imagine if each of them became teachers doing the same for the next generation! That’s the only hope that feels real to me. For us to do the joyful and difficult work that will inspire the next generation to carry it forward. It can be! It is! As Gandhi said, it begins by being the change, by living the change, we want to see in the world, in each class we teach, in each workshop gathering. Imagine the world as a perpetual Circle Camp (with the one change that we would also be doing the cooking and cleaning the toilets and discussing hard issues at town meeting and simple ones like, “Who took the garden rake?”). That’s the dream we’re dreaming together.
Thank you for your work, your dedication, your courage to open and be free and be loving.
May it continue!!