by Ari Honarvar, creator of Rumi’s Gift Oracle Cards.
Myths, told from a different perspective, can change our outlook and inject our life with a sense of joy and freedom. One of my favorite retellings is featured in the “Confidence Card” of Rumi’s Gift Oracle Set.
In the Greek Myth of Narcissus, the ill-fated chap falls in love with his own image in the lake. This adoration renders him unable to move until he dies. But the Persian version of this myth has Narcissus diving into the lake. Unable to swim, he risks everything to unite with his beloved. When he drowns, two magnificent narcissus flowers emerge on the edge of the lake. These flowers are his eyes, seeing all of life as a reflection of himself and in their pleasure they emit the most heavenly fragrance.
This perspective gives Narcissus a destiny that changes his story from a cautionary tale about the trappings of vanity to an expression of mythical love.
But how does one frozen in the state of unripe narcissism embark on the journey to become a mythical lover? The “Transformation Card” suggests we shed our sterile medium of psychopathology, leave the sad world of concrete literalism and step into the kingdom of ecstatic poetry. We can enter this wondrous realm through this Rumi poem:
Love said: If you are not mad, you are not welcome in this house!
So I became mad and stumbled through the wilderness
Love said: If you are too clever and sober, you are not welcome!
So I became intoxicated with love
I drowned myself in the sacred wine
Love said: Oh Candle, you are using your light to attract a crowd
So I screamed: Take my light, take my light!
Now I’m nothing but smoke
Perhaps our afflictive narcissistic tendencies are there because we’re still staring at our own image, too afraid to dive in. The true problem is that our narcissism has yet to fully flower.
This poem shows that our first step is to see that finding love isn’t the conclusion of our journey, but only the beginning. Our beloved is there to open the door to a world beyond a small personal love affair.
Whether it is years of practice, a shattering heartbreak or a social injustice that shakes us to our core, we get a glimpse of ourselves as the whole of life. Naturally we freeze, seeing that what lies ahead is far less reassuring than we imagined. It is downright frightening as love asks us to take the risk of a lifetime and dive into the unknown without offering any guarantees for our safety. In fact, it is most certain that the one diving in will die and a new creation will emerge.
This death and renewal finds itself in numerous examples of Persian poetry and mysticism. Even the word love, eshgh in Farsi, comes from ashagheh, a vine similar to sandalwood that attaches itself to another plant’s root, commandeering all the resources for its own purpose. In the end, the original plant dies having given it all to ashagheh.
What uproots and transforms us so profoundly is our narcissism truly opening into a radiant glorious love. It then becomes impossible not to see ourselves in everything. In this state, we see that all of life is deserving of our love, our generosity, and undivided attention. So what can we do but give ourselves fully to this love, to share our treasures, and to make choices that benefit our ever-expanding community?
Ripened narcissism is not only healthy, but precisely what the world needs.
Living from this perspective, we cannot continue to destroy the earth, to turn our backs on refugees and to ignore racial and economic injustices. We cannot help but break out of the prison of self-obsession and fall in love with all of life.
This of course sounds great in theory, but the world is riddled with seemingly insurmountable problems when we can barely manage our own personal life. How can we become Ripened Narcissists? To help us along our journey, here are some ways we can increase our capacity to embrace all of life while welcoming the mystical death and renewal:
I interviewed the Psychologist and trauma expert Peter Levine for an article on the power of joy. He explained that joy is an experience of expansion, whereas fear is one of deep contraction. “Imagine if every time you stretched a rubber band, it would become more resilient, so rather than wearing out, it would increase its capacity, able to take more stretches without breaking,” he told me.
So even when there are obstacles that cause contraction, that expansion afforded to us by joy comes to our rescue. “The more we increase this capacity, the less overwhelming emotions will be,” Levine said. For instance, trauma stretches us beyond our capacity to deal with a certain challenging situation, and we become overwhelmed. The problem isn’t that the sensations and emotions are too strong but that our ability to hold and process them is maxed out. Cultivating joy is an important component of resilience as it increases our capacity to face difficulties.
The neuropsychologist Rick Hanson told me that when we slow down during pleasant experiences, our system is given a chance to hardwire the experience in our brain. With practice we can overcome the hardwired negativity bias—the tendency to absorb and remember potential threats and unpleasant experiences, while ignoring positive experiences. The negativity bias evolved out of our need to survive. Predators, poisonous plants, and other perils made a profound impression on our ancestors, and those who survived learned to avoid such dangers in the future.
Unfortunately, negativity bias ends up being a liability for us: One bad experience ends up occupying much more of our attention than many neutral and good experiences, thereby preventing us from learning from our beneficial experiences and turning them into a lasting neural structure. To remedy this, we can practice pausing to listen to the sounds of birds chirping, relishing a bite of food or a good cup of coffee, smelling a flower, or enjoying a pleasant thought about a loved one. Over time, we rewire our nervous system to support our mental and emotional health.
Volunteering fosters physical and mental health and is a great example of recognizing others as a manifestation of ourselves. The beauty of pouring ourselves into such endeavors is that we can choose what we have an affinity for and what we are passionate about. I’m lucky I’m able to volunteer with a few organizations. My favorite work is dancing with refugees as part of Musical Ambassadors of Peace. For the past few years, I’ve been holding drum and dance circles in Tijuana, Mexico for asylum seekers who are waiting to be processed by the US immigration authorities. At the end of every session, we chant, “Somos una familia sin fronteras.” We are one family without borders.
Rumi says, “tell a new story and both worlds become anew.” When we read books and allow ourselves to ponder new ideas and characters, we inhabit new worlds and increase our empathy and emotional intelligence. We become healthier in our bodies too as a result of the interconnectedness, one of the features of this wonderous realm. This is a robust step in the direction of ripened narcissism. We don’t have to necessarily stop at pondering new characters and ideas. Instead we can play with processes and outcomes, telling our own story.
When I wrote my novel, A Girl Called Rumi, I wanted to do right by my past by honoring the trauma of war and oppression that was part of me. But I also hoped to tell the story from a mystical perspective that allows for both integration and redemption.
Just like dwelling in the present moment, enjoying a story we love can provide our inner landscape with enough nourishment to navigate the world with compassion and clarity. What new story would you like to tell?
Ari Honarvar was born into a long line of Persian poets and Rumi lovers and raised in Shiraz, the city of majestic gardens, love poems, and wine. She is a translator, writer, and an artist who blends calligraphy and painting to present Persian poetry in new and evocative ways. In her musical poetry performances, she brings forth the spirit of Rumi’s poems in the form of “deklameh,” the Persian art of becoming the poem. She is the founder of Rumi With A View (www.rumiwithaview.com) dedicated to building bridges through the enchanted medium of Persian poetry. Carmen Costello (www.carmenbcostello.com) is a self-taught artist. She works around traditional and experimental techniques, adjusting, inflecting, and twisting given forms to create new images. Working in a state of intuitive action, she creates a riotous display of brilliant colors, choppy swirling brush/hand strokes and abbreviated figures and symbols that invoke ancient modes of dance and ritual.