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Opinion | How a Persian Mystic Poet Changed My Life

My manic, psychotic break from the rest of the world’s notion of reality was clinical and terrifying, but it started out soulful and electrifying. For a brief moment before the hallucinations, delusions, restraints, seclusion and hospitalization that ensued, an intense calm washed over me. Standing on my Atlanta balcony watching the sun rise over Stone Mountain, I felt a deep connection to every atom back to Adam and before, and to the divine spirit within each one of those atoms. However clumsily, I had stumbled into the land of mystics, the land of my father, the land of Rumi.

At long last, I was beginning to understand this poetry that had spoken to my father since he was a child in Shiraz. For what modern medicine lacked by way of explanation, Rumi provided through my father’s voice, visiting me on the locked psychiatric unit of the same hospital where he had performed thousands of surgeries and delivered hundreds of babies:

In love with insanity, I’m fed up with wisdom and rationality.

While Rumi considers insanity a mark of divine favor, he distinguishes between types. The madness he promotes is rooted in ecstatic love; the one he condemns, in petty fear. The former creates a mystic, the latter a lunatic.

When I first began studying Rumi with my father in late 2014, years after that psychiatric hospitalization, properly diagnosed and medicated for bipolar disorder and in recovery, I never expected that within a few short years my extended family in Iran would be barred from visiting us in the United States. Nor did I ever expect that our country would become so deeply divided.

But here we are, more isolated than ever, and as an Iranian-American Muslim feminist living with a mental health condition, I feel the weight of this isolation every day. Heavy with fear’s warped wisdom and rationality, crazier than anything mania ever induced in me, this weight is a reminder that clinical psychosis, even absent any mystical tendency, seems sensible compared with our current political reality. Thankfully, as a student of my father and Rumi, I have learned how to counter the toll of this weight. In Rumi’s words:

Become the sky and the clouds that create the rain, not the gutter that carries it to the drain.

Of course it’s easier to be the gutter than the sky, to imitate rather than to create, but imitation builds cults, not communities. It may seem counterintuitive, but true community demands originality, not conformity. I know this firsthand, because every time I write something new it helps me feel less alone, reminding me that we are all inextricably linked to and through a sacred spark within each of us.

It seems so obvious, but it’s also painfully easy to forget how deeply connected we are. More than any other factor, it’s ego that makes us forget, filling us with a sense of superiority. This false feeling of being somehow “better than” our fellow human beings allows us to forget the common source of our humanity and thus to disconnect from the divinity within ourselves and one another. This is why, for Rumi, ego is not only the worst of our natural and inescapable human afflictions but also the root of them all. His solution?

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