In the Stream of the Friend
The thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, Jalal al-Din Rumi says:
It is the duty of lovers
to search for the friend.
Like an unstoppable torrent
without regard for their lives,
they rush headfirst into
the stream of the friend!1
He opens this poem by making the point that there’s an inherent force within human beings that seeks divine love and union with the Lord, or the “friend” that’s within each one of us. Rumi calls our seeking an “unstoppable torrent,” which rushes headfirst towards the Lord, since it’s our “duty” to follow the inner attraction our soul feels towards its divine origin.
Mystics and spiritual teachers throughout time have explained to humanity that each one of us has a soul within us that is a spark or drop of the same essence as the Lord. To paraphrase, Baba Ji has said that love is the core of our being. It’s the link to our divine heritage, and it’s natural for us to be drawn towards that source, in the same way that a stream of water flows without heed for any obstacles in its way.
Divine love is the way that our innermost heart experiences our relationship with the friend, who, to Rumi, is both the inner Lord, and also the master or Sheikh, which in his case was Shams-e-Tabrizi. The master is the mirror within whom we can catch a glimpse of the elusive Lord. And the master provides us with the example and inspiration that divine union is possible. True seekers are willing to give up anything in the world in order to experience this connection.
Rumi often uses images of water to describe divine love. In another poem, he says:
Don’t give value to a life lived without love.
Accept love – the Water of life –
into your heart and soul. (Ibid, p.23)
He’s saying that we need love in the same way that we need water, and again that love flows like a constant stream from the Lord. Our job is to be receptive to it, in the depths of our being. He continues in the original poem, speaking about the friend, saying:
He is the seeker and we his shadows.
All our talk and conversation
are words of the friend.
He’s changing the imagery here, by saying that we are the same as the Lord, just in a shadow form, which is a very revealing image. A shadow is an opaque and fleeting shape that mimics a real shape because of the way the light shines on that shape. The light illuminates the shadow as similar to the real shape, but not quite the same. Shadowing is also a term used to follow or imitate someone. So Rumi is saying we are a somewhat darker reflection of the Lord. We’re like him, but a less substantial or developed version.
He’s also implying that everything the shadow does is directed and inspired by the Lord. The Lord is the mover behind our actions, and his love and intent are expressed in everything we do. When we examine and understand our actions in life, we see that everything that happens, and all our movement towards the Lord, are through his guiding hand.
We all come into life with a destiny assigned to us to fulfill, in order to resolve obstacles that stand between us and the Lord. These are our karmas, or debts from prior actions that must be repaid and balanced in order for us to be reunited with the Lord. So, it’s in our best interest to positively face our destiny and fulfill our obligations by leading a clean, positive, moral life and not creating new obligations to tie us to this creation.
But everything we do is being directed by the Lord, as we are his shadows. This is the way He’s designed to pull us towards Him. The poem continues:
Sometimes we flow happily like water
in the stream of the friend.
Sometimes we are confined like water
in the pitcher of the friend.
Sometimes, as we boil like carrots in a pot,
He stirs us with a spatula of thought.
That is the nature of the friend.
The stream of the friend doesn’t always flow smoothly. This is just how life works – what Rumi calls “the nature of the friend.” Just as water rushes and ebbs and flows in and around obstacles and rocks and waterfalls and deep pools, the flow of our lives isn’t smooth either.
Spiritual teachers point out that life is about learning to make decisions that take us in the right direction towards the Lord. The great Persian mystic saint, Zarathushtra, called life the “fiery test of truth,”2 in which we constantly have to make choices between going towards that which is eternal and truthful and away from that which is temporary and untruthful. It’s the nature of life and destiny that we’re faced with situations in which we need to learn how to turn to the positive, and away from the negative.
Rumi continues by saying:
He stealthily puts his mouth to our ear
to fill our souls with the fragrance of the friend.
He’s explaining that the friend gives us inner guidance by whispering in our ear and filling our soul with the fragrance of divine love. Here he’s referring to inner sound and music, the Voice of the Lord, or divine inspiration or intuition that helps us to know right from wrong. This is the creative power of the Lord, the Shabd or Nam or Audible Life Stream, which we learn how to contact in our meditation practice, and which slowly and slowly helps to steady and guide us on the spiritual path. The Shabd is our true inner friend or master.
In another of Rumi’s poems, he says:
A wondrous Sound comes
from the sky every moment.
That Sound cannot be heard except
by someone who has risen within. (Ibid, p. 322)
The Lord is constantly guiding us from within, but we aren’t always tuned into the right frequency to receive His message. In another poem, Rumi says:
The Beloved has constant interaction
with your heart and soul.
You see only what happens
in the outer layer. (Ibid, p. 175)
Again, he’s emphasizing that the Lord is always connected to us, and constantly guiding us from within. But we’re distracted by outer appearances and can’t always feel His presence. He’s always there, and we can’t get away from Him, even when we try. But we often ignore Him.
Rumi continues in the original poem, speaking about the presence of the Lord by saying:
Because he is the Soul of our soul,
we cannot escape him.
In the world, I have not seen one soul
who is an enemy of the friend.
So we are soul with a small “s,” and the friend is Soul with a capital “S.” Because we are of Him, we cannot escape Him. We are in the friend, and the friend is in us. Rumi also points out that the friend is in everyone; He has no enemies, since we all have this same essence flowing through us. All human beings are the same on the inside. We may look different on the outside; we may have different life experiences, or come from different backgrounds and cultures, or speak different languages, but inside we’re all the same as the Lord, which makes us all the same as each other.
Rumi continues speaking about the friend by saying:
His coyness will melt you
and make you weak as a strand of hair,
but in exchange for both worlds
you would not give up even one hair
from the friend.
The master and the Lord play a game of love to pull us within. We’re made to feel completely out of control and weak to increase our receptivity and inner reliance on Him. But can we quit this path? Not easily. Not even if we received everything we might desire in this world. For a seeker, the love of the friend has a higher value than anything. But sometimes we don’t recognize the Lord and his ways. We don’t make room for him to reveal Himself. The poem continues with Rumi saying:
Sitting with the friend we keep asking,
“O friend, where is the friend?”
Drunken with pride we ask, “Where? Where?”
even though we are in the land of the friend.
We act as if we’re separate from the Lord, and that we’re seeking something that is outside of us, which we cannot find. We keep looking everywhere outside to find this inner happiness and fulfilment. We’re so full of our ideas about how right we are that we become “drunken with pride,” so that we cannot even see that what we’re seeking is right within us, closer than our own breath, as Huzur used to say. We’re with the friend all the time, but we think we have a different identity that is unique and special.
It’s this identity that keeps us from experiencing the Lord. It’s what creates a barrier and an inability to see anything beyond this material life, which we assume is here for our enjoyment and exploitation. He’s here with us all the time, but it’s we who become distracted and turn away from him. In another poem called The Secret of Harmony, Rumi says:
Go become one with the friend’s shadow –
don’t show a sign of yourself. (Ibid, p.328)
He’s telling us that the key for the shadow to truly be one with the friend is to “not show a sign of our self.” He means that we’re a shadow, after all. How can a shadow exist separately from the entity that is creating the shadow? We can’t exist without the Lord.
In the Introduction to the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi book, from which these quotations are taken, the author speaks about Rumi’s emphasis on humility (faqr) as the way to divine union, by saying:
Only when the ego is fully annihilated is God automatically confirmed as the one, true, everlasting existence. When a seeker understands this truth, then he understands that everything, including his own self, belongs to God. He is just a beggar who possesses absolutely nothing. This experience brings about a profound sense of liberation and deep gratitude to God.3
This attitude is woven throughout all of Rumi’s poetry, that if we can just get our small self out of the way, we can fully appreciate our oneness with the Lord and be grateful for everything He’s doing for us every minute of every day. We can live in that presence. Baba Ji even said recently that humility is as simple as listening to others and taking into account their point of view, whereas pride is assuming you’re right all the time. How can we develop our relationship with the friend, when we can’t or won’t even listen to Him?
Rumi continues in the original poem:
A weak nature creates bad images
and indecent thoughts.
These are not the way of the friend.
Rumi is saying here that we need to strengthen our character in order to fully appreciate the Lord. He’s saying that when we give into negative ways of thinking, we pollute our minds and turn them away from the Lord. It’s only when we can focus on uplifting our thoughts and actions that we can be receptive to the love and guidance that comes from within. We need to still our errant thoughts through meditation in order to quiet the mind and experience our oneness with the Lord.
Rumi ends his poem by emphasizing the importance of quiet meditation. He says:
Stay quiet so He will describe His attributes.
Your empty words and noise
cannot be compared
with words and noise from the friend!
- Jalal al-Din Rumi, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (Selections), trans. Farida Maleki, Beas: RSSB, 2019, p. 130
- Taraporewala, Irach J.S., The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra, Bombay: Hukhta Foundation, 1993, Yasna 30.7
- Jalal al-Din Rumi, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (Selections), p. 12