The Practice We Wouldn’t Choose
When we were children, we might have been urged to practice the piano. Our tennis coach might have told us to practice our serve. As adults, we practice our profession. We take up new hobbies and practice our skills. We may even seek out a spiritual practice of meditation. But some practices come uninvited into our lives. Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian mystic, tells a remarkable story of such an uninvited practice in “The Sheikh Kharraqani and His Wretched Wife”, that goes something like this:
A seeker goes off on a long journey to find an enlightened teacher, a Master who can bestow peace to his conflicted mind with a single glance. The young man becomes deeply touched by the teachings of one Master and spends months travelling across mountains in search of the sheikh. He arrives at the sheikh’s house, knocks on the door, and then his wife sticks her head out of the window and screams, “What do you want?” The man replies that he is intending to see the great, holy teacher, the sheikh. To which the wife lets loose with a barrage of insults, recriminations and accusations. With a sneer and a hoot, she yells, “You have nothing better to do than to waste your time travelling the world looking for a fraud? You are an idiot, a time waster! The sheikh is a parasite, and an arrogant, lazy imposter who fleeces the stupid ones. Go home and attend to the real rituals and ceremonial prayers!”
The young man is taken aback, but undeterred. He says, “I recognize truth and light in the words of the sheikh. Your angry words do not diminish his stature, nor can they stop my quest for wisdom. For you to try to blow out his candle is as futile as someone trying to blow out the sun.”
And so he continues his search. He goes into town and learns that the sheikh is in the forest collecting firewood. The young seeker runs to the forest, but now he has a troubling question on his mind. Why would an enlightened sheikh have such a wretched, miserable wife?
Suddenly, the sheikh appears riding on a lion. The sheikh has the power not only to tame the wildest of beasts but also to read the doubt in the young man’s mind. The sheikh immediately answers the unspoken question of the seeker. “I didn’t choose my wife, nor do I desire her company. But enduring her public disdain has made me strong and patient. She is my practice. In her presence I am forced to distinguish between what is true and what is false, what is kind and what is violent, what is ultimately important and what is a distraction.”
Rumi’s story suggests a whole new way of looking at what is troublesome, difficult or demanding in our lives by renaming those challenges: my practice. It could be a specific person or it could be our own grumpy, stubborn, self-centred personality that is the cause of our anguish. This is my practice. In its presence, I am constantly forced to remember my centre, my source of ultimate strength, what is most real. This is my practice. And while it causes an enormous amount of grief and trouble, I have become stronger and more patient. I would never have chosen its companionship, but it does bring a peculiar kind of blessing.
A dear friend once wrote to me and said, “I am glad and grateful you are here.” It struck me as one of the nicest things you could say to someone; something we ought to say to one another more often. But going even deeper, we need to say it about our own lives. I am glad and grateful I am alive in this creation, and I am glad and grateful for my own particular circumstances, and for my practice, especially the un-chosen practice.
I am glad and grateful for what challenges me. I am glad and grateful for what teaches me compassion. I am glad and grateful for opportunities to learn to discriminate between what is false and what is true. What is real lives in companionship with what is illusory. The soul lives with the mind. What is the best in us lives right next to what is the worst. We, too, may one day find ourselves riding on lions, when we are at last able to be grateful in every circumstance.
It Is Never Too Late
My advice to you all is to stop wasting your lives;
I fall at your feet to advise you to cleanse your hearts.
Only concentrating your mind
And meditating on his Name will help you.
Engage yourself in a business that will profit you.
What else can I teach you? asks Tuka.
Tukaram: The Ceaseless Song of Devotion