A Garden Among the Flames

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Sometimes as the days pass by — ordinary, uneventful days — we might be visited with the feeling that we’re missing something, that there must be more to life than this. We get out of bed in the morning and go through our routine much the same as we did yesterday and much the same as we garden firewill tomorrow, and as day follows day we can feel dulled by a kind of weariness, or a lack of intimacy, or a shallowness of contact with the people and events of our life.

Sufis call this kind of low-level despondency the “fire.” It’s a fire on low-burn to be sure, but add fuel to it — trouble at work, a quarrel with your husband, money problems, a suspicious swelling on your body the doctor says must be biopsied — and the flames lick higher. Add even more fuel — the death of a loved one, you lose your job, your wife leaves you, you receive a terminal diagnosis — and your whole life awakens in fire.

In a famous poem* by Ibn ‘Arabi, “Gentle Now, Doves,” we find these lines:

Pasture between breastbone
and innards.
a garden among the flames!

Breastbone and innards are this embodied life, our embodiment in flames. There’s no way we can put out that fire for good — it’s what embodiment does: burn. Even our satisfactions and momentary pleasures burn up, along with everything else dear to us.

And yet, wonder of wonders! “A grace like new clothes strewn across the garden!” Rumi shouts, “free medicine!” A garden among the flames!

What? What grace? What garden?

Ibn ‘Arabi points between breastbone and innards to an invisible pasture — the heart — that takes up no space (after all, how much space is there between your breastbone and innards?) This “heart pasture,” where is it really? In your chest? In the fire? Is it here? Is it over there?

Sufi literature employs the image of the heart, and “the eye of the heart,” to signify the seat of the indefinable, primordial, spontaneous presence, the place of what is called “the secret” and “the secret of the secret.” Naming it like this aids Sufis in teaching and in writing exquisite poetry, but names only go so far. The names we attribute to notions like “the heart” or “the secret” can’t avoid reinforcing the belief that there is, in this case, a quality over there called “the heart” that I can perceive from over here, thus keeping dominant the dualism of subject-object, self and other.

But in the next line of his poem, Ibn ‘Arabi tells the secret:

My heart can take on any form…

How can this happen? My heart can take on any form to the extent it can relax into its basic openness, its clear spaciousness, the spaciousness that spontaneously appears as everything everywhere. If you look gently into the heart quality of your being, right now, you can sense this spaciousness. In a way of speaking, “my” heart and “your” heart are like windows looking into this infinite heart that holds, and shows up as, the whole cosmos. It is what Tibetan Buddhists call “the Vajra Heart.” We live “inside” this heart, and can never be exiled from it, except in our minds.

That is how, in the heart’s pasture, the seeming division of reality into this over here and that over there, becomes transparent. The flames and the garden are not in opposition. Me and my “ordinary” days, me and my money problems, me and my terminal diagnosis are not in opposition. It’s all happening at once yet it’s not going anywhere — an extraordinary display of light forms of the heart’s spaciousness.

My heart can take on any form:
for gazelles a meadow,
a cloister for monks,

For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Quran.

If we look out the window at a stranger walking down the street, or at a squirrel in the tree jumping from branch to branch, or remember an old friend we haven’t seen in years, or imagine a mother in her clay hut in Sudan, gazing down at her nursing infant’s face — if we let the invisible garden of our heart envelope them, be present with them, be the space in which they appear and be the appearance too, our “letting” this be is effortless, unconditional love. This love is effortless because it’s what’s already happening — what we call “love” is the grace, the force, by which everything appears.

Ibn ‘Arabi concludes his poem with this creed:

I profess the religion of love.
Wherever its caravan turns
along the way, that is the belief,
the faith I keep.

The flames of embodiment that hurt — our despondency, anxiety, grief, and loss — don’t stop appearing, but we see through them. We see that there is no other. “Yours,” “mine,” “his,” “hers,” “here,” “there,” are transparent designations, momentary flames, momentary waves in the shoreless heart-ocean, right here between breastbone and innards.


* Translation by Michael Sells.