2012-03-03

Being Human is a Guest House

This being human is a guest house. I love that line. It’s from the 13th-century Persian Sufi Muslim poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Here's his poem, as translated by Coleman Barks:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Have you ever thought it might be fun to be the proprietor of a cute little Bed and Breakfast place, maybe out in the country? Rumi is telling us: we are. Visitors come. Our job – our only job – is to be a good host. At any given time, wherever you are, the space around you is a house. You’re the host for whatever enters yours space. Some of the visitors are pleasant – charming even. Others might seem obnoxious.

Rumi’s examples are feelings: Be welcoming and hospitable when joy arrives. I don’t always do that. How about you? I’m too busy to pay her any attention. Or I’m so distracted I don’t notice her in the distance headed my direction, and I don't unlock the door, turn on the vacancy sign, and get some cookies in the oven with a wafting aroma to entice her in. So all I get is a glance at my closed front door as she passes by. Or she does come into the parlor, but I don’t relax and enjoy my ebullient guest: I don’t en-joy. Maybe I think my house – my life, my being – is too shabby an accommodation for such an exalted guest. If I subtly or secretly believe I don’t deserve a grand visitor, I probably won’t be very good at making her feel comfortable.

Be welcoming and hospitable when sadness arrives. I don’t always do that, either. You? I don’t want him moping around the place in his drab gray overcoat, out of season and out of fashion. I offer coffee – whatever stimulant is at hand – and I fish for a compliment: “How is that coffee?” I ask.
He says, “meh.”
I don’t need this. “Maybe you’d be more comfortable at an accommodation down the road,” I say.

Or anger comes knocking. When anger comes for a visit, I find it hard to maintain a good host's balance. A good host is interested and engaged, but not too interested -- attentive while also self-defined, comfortable in his own skin, nonanxious. Anger storms in the door, marches over to the thermostat and turns up the heat. I might try ignoring her -- pretending that it's not getting hot. If another guest were to ask, "Is it getting hot in here?" I'd say “No, not at all. I’m not hot.” That's not being attentive to the reality.

Or, alternatively, I might try indulging her. If she asks to change the soft background music to some raucous station, I say "Fine." If she then asks to turn the volume way up, I say "Yes, yes." I join her is some arm-waving, head-banging dance of wrath. You know that dance? That's not being self-defined and nonanxious.

Good hosts know not to ignore the spoiled children guests, and know not to indulge them either.

This being human is a guest house. The essential skill – the one skill that sums up everything important in life – is hospitality: the skill of knowing how to be attentive and interested and engaged while also not indulging. It’s being a nonanxious presence: Fully present, yet without taking on the anxiety or reactivity of your guest. Nonanxious, yet without being detached and withdrawn.

Often, we are neither nonanxious nor present. There are two main strategies for this. One is detachment. This is my usual mode of inhospitality. I appear to be nonanxious by being withdrawn. I'm trying to achieve nonanxiousness by not being present. The reality is that withdrawal is a strategy for dealing with my anxiety. I'm not present, but I'm not really nonanxious either.

The other main strategy is to go the opposite direction and take on and display, perhaps even magnify, the anxiety of your guests. Perhaps this is your usual mode of inhospitality. You're trying to achieve presence by being anxious. The reality is that taking on the guest's anxiety is a strategy for dealing with your fear of simply being present to their condition. You're anxious, but you're not really present either. What our guests most need is our gracious, calm attention.

This being human is a guest house. My job – really, ultimately, my only job – and yours, too, as best you’re able – is hospitality to whoever comes. Hospitality to the visiting emotions prepares us for hospitality to experience generally -- any experience, including the hospitality to other people.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "Radical Hospitality"
Next: Part 3: "We Belong to Those Who Need Us"
Previous: Part 1: "William Ellery Channing's Radical Hospitality"