The Nature of Love and Happiness, Part II: A Shared Message Between Sufi Poetry and Ancient Stoicism
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
I recently went down a rabbit hole that started with finding this excerpt from a 13th Century poem by Rumi:
“Out beyond ideas of wrong(doing) and right(doing), there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
I’m no philosopher, theist, or literature student, but my understanding of these lines upon first reading them was romantic. It struck me as the sort of thing you might say to a lover with whom you cannot pursue a relationship due to conflicting societal or familial rules and expectations – a ‘maybe in the next life’ sentiment.
The thought expressed might also be that falling in love requires an appreciation of the true essence internal to another person, which transcends culturally-dictated value judgements. This interpretation sat more comfortably with me.
To investigate its actual meaning, I found the full translated poem, A Great Wagon, and started reading about the religious context in which it was written. Rumi practised Sufism, a style of worship within Islam that: rejects materialism; focusses on an inward search for God; and emphasises love, peace, and tolerance. This is not unlike sub-groups of other religions. [For insight into commonalities between various philosophies and religions, you may be interested in The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley.]
Coleman Barks’ English translation, however, appears to be biased towards secularism, translated in such a way as to avoid reference to Islam. Rather than “right-doing” and “wrong-doing”, the direct translation of the Persian words in the original verse are “religion” and “infidelity”.
Rumi also writes of the field as a place where: “ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense”. In some translations, the “field” is a “garden” or “meadow” and in others, a “desert”. Whichever translation you prefer, it doesn’t reference a physical location. The field is a conceptual place where an underlying truth and connection with others is found. By removing earthly barriers to understanding one another – man-made beliefs and prejudices – we rise above everything that might come between us. In so doing, we are able achieve a ‘oneness’.
It’s clear that to critique the complete poem I’d need a better understanding of how it was translated and its cultural context. So, to limit the extent to which I give an entirely incorrect interpretation of the poem as a whole, I’ll stick to my musings of the verse from which the above excerpt comes from.
Rumi used religious text and imagery to explore different interpretations of religious ideas, often challenging the status quo. More generally, there is a lot of symbolism in Sufi prose and poetry. So, rather than taking it at face value, a reader can interpret multiple meanings in Rumi’s words. According to Barks, religion is secondary to the underlying message of Rumi's poem.
Taken together, the underlying message of the verse for me, with or without religious connotations, remains: there is an unrestricted space characterised by compassion and love that transcends ideas of what is good (in Rumi’s world, Islam) and what is bad (in Rumi’s world, misdoings caused by unbelief).
Rumi goes on to ask that whomever finds the field should not go “back to sleep”, but embrace all it has to offer in learning (its “secrets”) and happiness (“what you really want”). Rumi thus implies that it is a sign of wisdom to liberate oneself from value judgements. This allows us to connect with others and find happiness. After all, one person’s good is another’s bad. Music, for example, might be good for one person, bad for another, and neither good nor bad if a person is deaf.
Ancient stoics believed that over-attachment to bodily and external things based on irrational judgements of their worth leads to excessive ‘unhealthy passions’ (fears, desires, and other destructive emotions). According to this philosophy, labelling external and bodily things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are ‘ailments of the mind’ because these judgements are not rooted in an ultimate truth.
If, for example, money bought happiness, happiness would only exist for those with more money. This isn’t what we see. While there is a link between money and happiness (up to $75,000 according to this study), the link exists only in so much as it is hard to pursue happiness if you cannot first maintain a baseline standard of living. Meanwhile, for those with extreme wealth, excessive materialism has a number of negative consequences, morally and psychologically.
Once basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing are covered, the number of problems that can be solved by throwing money at them is greatly reduced. Thus, Socrates cautions that:
“He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have."
Socrates teaches that happiness depends not on external things, but on how these things are used – towards or away from virtue. Towards virtue, ancient stoics focussed on fulfilling intrinsic values, namely to: think rationally, act ethically, and fulfil our obligations as citizens, leading to personal flourishing and a greater sense of fulfilment in life.
If we are wise, we seek to overcome irrational value judgements, focussing only on what we can control within ourselves. According to the stoic system of logic, once we learn that virtue and our resulting happiness lie in the pursuit of 'practical (moral) wisdom', from which we all benefit, the distinction between what is good for the self and what is good for others is moot. We are then better able to engage in benevolent love and affection for others.
For ancient stoics, another person is just another self (bringing new meaning to the phrase “if you want to be loved, love”). Thus, would-be enemies would not be enemies because differences no longer have their defining distinction or value.
Similarly, in Rumi’s field, where we transcend human-defined judgements of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the concept of “each other” stops making sense and we are able to unite.
As in this field, there is nothing in ancient stoicism that empowers us to judge other people negatively. We are encouraged only to love them whilst we focus on bettering ourselves. This reminded me of another quote stored somewhere in the back of my mind, only to find it was also one of Rumi’s:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world; today I am wise and so I am changing myself.”
I take from my limited understanding of Sufi poetry and ancient stoicism that love transcends the changing nature of externally-dictated knowledge, including the value judgements we make about things. I find these similarities, despite the vastly different cultures and time periods the ideas came from, fascinating.
Whether a field, garden, or desert plain, Rumi refers to a space unrestricted by the dualistic thoughts, emotions, and events that cause us conflict and pain. It is a realm in which compassion and love reigns.
By removing the multiplicity of ‘me’ and ‘others’, and the duality of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we gain empathy, resolve conflict, and reduce suffering.
I imagine that when two souls meet in this realm, earthly concerns are left behind; priorities change and happiness is achievable. It’s a place I hope one day to find, or at least glimpse at a little longer.
It also boosts my confidence in the belief that love (and emotionality) are not found at the negative end of the spectrum for morality or rationality. You can be both rational and loving, and achieve happiness insofar as happiness is about the journey rather than the destination. You can also love others better when you recognise that responsibility for your happiness lies within yourself.
In a world dominated by materialism, obsessed with outer beauty, and overwhelmed by competing egos, I rarely find myself 'happy' in the modern sense of the word. But, I am mostly free from resentment, bitterness, and longing for things that I don’t have. That meets at least some of the stoic criteria for happiness.
Ali, R. (2017). The erasure of Islam from the poetry of Rumi. The New Yorker
Author Unknown (2009). Jalaluddin Rumi: The Life of Rumi. BBC Website [archived]
Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (38), 16,489-16,493
Markman, A. (2018). Money, happiness, and socioeconomic status. Psychology Today [website]
Robertson, D. (2013). Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton
Stephens, W.O., (2020). Stoic ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource [online resource]
[I also extend thanks to a friend who helped me translate the original text from Persian and explained some of the religious context to me.]