Rumi: What you seek is seeking you.
A couple of weeks after I quit my corporate job in 2010, I went to Turkey. After hanging out in Istanbul and at the beach with a friend, I got on a bus alone and went to Konya – the small city in Central Anatolia where Rumi is buried. I planned to spend five days there, reading his poetry and dropping into the love he’d so famously captured in words. Because of course there has to be more love in the air around Rumi’s tomb than most other places… right?
The reality of Konya wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated. For a start, I hadn’t done my cultural homework. It took me a day to figure out that in traditional Turkish culture, when a woman smiles at a man it’s a signal she’s ready to take their courtship to the next level.
By then, I’d spent some time drinking tea and chatting and smiling and even laughing with a man who owned a carpet gallery and was the only person who spoke English to me after I arrived at the Hotel Rumi and went out for a walk. For the next five days, he showed up at the hotel or at random places nearby asking me to drink more tea and eat meals with him and make plans to travel together. It seemed as if he was following me around town.
By my third day in Konya I felt alone and scared. It was out of tourist season and there weren’t a lot of Westerners around. The more frightened I felt, the more I seemed to get unwelcome attention from the local men. I’d deliberately dressed conservatively in long black pants and a black jacket but even after I stopped smiling at anyone, every man who passed me on the street stared at me like a starving man looks at a steak.
In desperation, I took a black shawl and wrapped it over my blonde hair so only my face showed. And the strangest thing happened – I became instantly more visible to women and invisible to men.
With dark sunglasses on, I could observe everyone’s reactions. The women looked at me more closely because they could see my clothes were Western and my head covering wasn’t quite right. They wanted to figure out who I was.
But the men no longer even saw me. Their gaze slid over me as they walked past, as if I didn’t exist. I became familiar with the surreal sensation of walking through the streets feeling extremely vulnerable and yet invisible.
Fresh from a 15-year corporate career, my mind was mostly controlling my experiences. The murmurings of my heart were usually drowned out by the loud voices in my head. When I got scared, my heart shut down completely.
It may not surprise you to know that trying to connect with one of the world’s great mystical poets via a fearful, closed heart doesn’t really work.
There were only two places I felt safe in Konya. One was in the shaded cafe at Alaaddin Tepesi – the large central park, where I spent hours each day reading Rumi and drinking apple tea. The other was in the walled rose garden outside Rumi’s tomb, where I went each day to sit and try to feel the love.
It was springtime and the roses were in full bloom. I spent a happy afternoon photographing their beauty. But I still couldn’t feel the love Rumi wrote about.
I’d tasted the white light of spirit. Wanting more had drawn me to Rumi’s tomb. But I hadn’t yet felt my Soul’s love for me.
So the love in Rumi’s poems remained a beautiful fantasy. When I read his words, I’d feel a rush of sentiment but my heart would ache and feel empty.
Something was missing.
It was like I craved honey but all I could taste was the metallic/chemical tang of artificial sweetener. I spent the next few years chasing the taste of honey around the world, desperately seeking what I could never quite capture and filling myself up with artificial sweeteners as a poor substitute.
Each year, I’d get to Valentine’s Day and get hooked by some social media post or an advertisement I noticed. I’d feel sad because I still hadn’t known the kind of love Rumi described. I began to wonder whether I ever would.
And then, in the summer of 2014, I did.
But this is not a happily ever after story – not yet. Because since then I’ve been dancing in and out and around a conscious awareness of that love. Some days, it’s deep and strong. I can feel Her presence wrapping, enfolding, embracing me.
Other days – especially a few days before my period or whenever I think I’ve made a mistake – it’s like I forget She was ever here. Those days, if I’m not careful I can collapse into doubt and shame and despair. That collapse is a self-betrayal that feels annihilating.
On those days, if I can hold my ground and sit in the despair without trying to reframe it or distract myself, I encounter the dark, swampy ground of self-loathing… a place I’d rather not go. But if I’m prepared to wade through the muck, I find that it doesn’t kill me. And I know from experience that if I can hold the despair in my heart, She’ll help me love it to pieces.
I still don’t enjoy Valentine’s Day. Even now, it’s so easy to get caught by some overblown description of soulmates and feel the beginning of a victim story about how I still haven’t found that. It’s so easy to look outside myself and see only what isn’t there.
But if I stop and breathe and be quiet for a while, She’s here again. And She’s reminding me the incessant seeking for love out there only ever exhausted me. To find love, I had to look in here – inside my own heart – and find that She was waiting.
It’s Valentine’s Day soon. This year, I’m taking the time to move slowly. Because I want to notice any tiny whisper of story about what I don’t yet have, so I can send compassion to the parts of me that still feel unloved.
Rumi said: “Only the soul knows what love is.” So this Valentine’s Day, I want to feel that I’m wrapped in Her. I want to taste the sweetness of Her love.
Because She tastes like honey.