I was introduced to the poetry of Rumi while in a residential treatment center when a six-foot-tall, watery boy from California flung out his arms and yelled, “Beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field!” Then, swiveling his hips dramatically to face a counselor, squinting his eyes behind his glasses, conclude: “I will meet you there.”
I arrived in treatment as a 15-year-old girl. And like most 15-year-old girls I was wise beyond my years and astonishingly insecure. I got good grades, could jump through just about any hoop you gave me, and yet possessed enough self-doubt to set my own skin on fire.
After a few weeks in treatment, the chaos that brought me there began to feel like a distant, sterilized dream. I didn’t identify much with the girl who, one spring night, had fallen and busted her head open in an alleyway just before being searched by the police—the person who sat in the emergency room that night with staples in her head, telling anyone that would listen that she was fine. I couldn’t quite recognize this girl and as more time passed, the harder it was to believe she had ever existed in the first place.
While sitting in group therapy, I learned to dissolve my gaze easily into the posters on the wall. Under images of divers in neon suits who leapt definitively into deep water, beyond cursive encouragements to trust! I tucked my gaze safely into the blur between land and sea.
Yet the only thing wrong with my sophisticated reluctance to sobriety was my tendency to risk everything—at any point—in order to get drunk and high.
The most branding example of this is the night I arrived unconscious back at my mother’s house, less than 48 hours into my first break from treatment. On one humiliating branch of memory rests the image of her leading me up the stairs, putting me in the shower, putting me to sleep.
Back in treatment, I was given consequences, asked to explain. What happened? I had no idea. Why did I drink? No idea, no idea, no idea. Even from within such emptiness, not a single thought echoed with any sense.
A week after this incident, I walked into a new counselor’s office. She had an open face and a long, auburn braid. During our first meeting, she knit her hands in front of her chest and asked me what I liked to do for fun.
I found this question surprising—the prospect that pleasure could be a compass instead of a liability was truly startling. I opened my mouth. Closed it. Finally, I said softly, “I like to write.”
Before leaving her office the first day, this counselor handed me a poem called “The Guest House.” I stood in the hallway while other teenagers brushed past me, reading the first lines:
“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.”
In the weekly meetings that followed, this counselor allowed for a space to emerge beyond my rehearsed answers. After asking me questions about what I liked to do, and who I might like to be, she would smile at me with her oceanic blue eyes. Then she would simply wait.
At one point during my time working with this counselor, I took a three day period of silence, spending most of my free time alone reading and writing. My back up against a bookshelf or underneath the covers after lights out, I was looking for a place where my confusion could simply breathe.
Looking back, I realize that writing was becoming a place in my life that I could surrender to safely. Rather than handing myself over unconsciously to drugs and alcohol, writing gave me entry into my own true wilderness, revealing new spaces where I could get lost, be wrong, break things, and make mistakes. In other words, a place where I could live.
Though I would love to tell you that after leaving residential treatment I stayed sober, that is not my story. I continued to live in a cycle of addiction and its increasingly sad and frightening consequences until I walked back into my first Twelve-Step meeting when I was 18. Since that day—with varying degrees of willingness—I have stayed sober.
In my first year of sobriety, I started going to yoga classes regularly at a studio near my college. I would often lay in Shavasana in the dim light and let the tears slide sideways down my face. My yoga instructor never approached me about these tears, though sometimes she would kneel down beside me and quietly place her palms underneath my shoulder blades. Then she would simply wait.
The first yoga class I taught was a free class in the upstairs room of a public library. I remember when, during Shavasana, I knelt down and slid the back of a woman’s shoulders into my palms. Then, to my surprise, she took a shuddering breath and began to weep.
In that moment, I appreciated the gift that my first yoga teacher had given me, and my counselor years before: that sometimes the greatest way to greet another person’s pain is to admit that you can’t solve it, then simply stand beside it anyway.
I knew nothing about the story behind this woman’s tears, and I still don’t. But as her shoulder blades trembled beneath my hands, I held a stranger as she crossed through a small thicket of grief. In that holding, that silent crossing, that dusty upstairs library room was transformed into a kind of Guest House.
Almost nine years since that moment, I have come to believe that this is one of the greatest services yoga teachers provide: an experience where students can travel to necessary places in themselves without having to offer up a verbal, linear map.
In a society that is filled with bold and constant exclamations, to offer a room where people do not have to speak rationally—or even speak at all in order to be heard—is to provide sacred space.
I believe this is why, when I first read Rumi’s description of the human experience as a “guest house,” the image came as a relief. And why, over the years, it has become a kind of hymn, a rally to the openness that has been constantly required by my own life—which refuses to have the door slammed in its face, no matter how many times I have tried.
Finally, I am more comforted than terrified by this. Also because now there is more understanding of what I have always sensed—that the doors dividing one part of myself from another or separating myself from another human being—were never all that sturdy to begin with.
The Guest House
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.
~ Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
Author: Lilly Betchel
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photo: courtesy of the author, flickr