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The Restful “I”: Rumi, Psychology, and the Discovery of Love


The potential to make and to love, argued the Iranian psychologist Abdol Reza Arasteh, is the most important element of our humanity. From the 1960s to his death in 1992 at the age of 65, Arasteh described this potential by developing a theory of “final integration”: the process by which young people draw on their individuality to become independent, creative and loving beings. It’s an apt term; Arasteh’s personal and academic lives both trace the path of integration. A scholar of Sufism and Islamic history as well as psychology (and a professor at both the University of Tehran and Princeton), Arasteh strove to find common ground between psychotherapy and religious experience, east and west. His work ranged widely in psychology, sociology and Sufi theology, but his foremost subject was another well-traveled, boundary-breaking figure whose work exposed the hidden grounds of love: the 12th century mystic and poet Rumi.
 
Arasteh’s unlikely syntheses were a product of his personal search for meaning. As a young academic, he was highly influenced by the work of Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget, both of whom focused on creating intricate theories of childhood development. Arasteh felt that, while Erikson and Piaget both identified early modes of development, no thinker had yet laid out the road map toward the more mature stages of personal growth. Arasteh was, in his own words, a “social man” – a husband, father, professor, and emigre. Psychology, he believed, had largely ignored the importance of culture in creating the man he now was. Arasteh chose to study the lives of great thinkers and mystics throughout history, studying their environment and circumstances to derive a theory of intellectual and psychological growth.
 
Rumi’s life story bears remarkable resemblance to Arasteh’s. Born of noble parentage in 1207, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi became a husband, father of four children and successor to his father, a prominent Sufi theologian, by age 24. After a period of extensive study of classical Sufism, Rumi began to question the limits of his own knowledge and success. Travel in Turkey, Greece and Persia all exposed Rumi to different ways of life and different sources of knowledge. None satisfied him. Rumi saw law, culture and reason as tools, available for good or ill. For people of all faiths, he recognized, behavior was changed by attitude, not knowledge. “Within man,” Arasteh writes, “Rumi had found the forces responsible for his restiveness; a force possessing a secret energy, which, if used in the right way, would move toward infinity.”
 
United by circumstance and heritage, if not time, Rumi would become Arasteh’s exemplar.
 
Love is the Astrolabe of God’s Mysteries
 
No longer content to focus on his own achievements, Rumi began to study under Shams of Tabris, a Sufi mystic Rumi described as “the light of my eye, the clarity of reason, the brightness of the soul, and the enlightenment of the heart.” Shams was himself an exile, the son of a traveling basket-weaver who rejected his culture’s classical Sufism and its reliance on authority and scholarship. Through a process of mostly silent contemplation and conversation with Shams, Rumi came to believe that a sea of reality subsisted below the layer of culture. The cosmic or true self, Rumi believed, lived in this sea. To find it, Rumi dedicated himself to a life of study, forsaking his public leadership roles and subjecting himself to the rejection of his community. “Having given up fame,” Arasteh writes, “[Rumi] was not afraid of infamy. Existing in a state of neither peace nor strife, neither king nor beggar, neither servant nor master, he wanted only to find himself.”
 
In Shams, Rumi had fallen in love with a man he felt was nothing less than perfect. “The sun of Tabriz is a perfect light,” Rumi wrote, “A sun, yea, one of the beams of God!” Shams’ state of perfection, which Rumi called “individuality in no-individuality” was in some sense metaphorical: by understanding Shams as a person removed from culture and thus not limited by it, Rumi could love Shams as a stand-in for what was beautiful about all humanity. Rumi’s dependence, Arasteh suggests, was part of a complicated dance in which Rumi became one with his mentor so that he could become one with his mentor’s creator; Shams was “the remedy to all ills” and “an unfolding of mankind in the memory of the universe in evolution.”
 
Upon Shams’ death in 1248, Rumi had already begun to cultivate a more universal affection, using Shams as a symbolic starting point. Increasingly interested in the power and scope of love, the divisions between the parts of himself began to close. With new knowledge, Rumi began the process of rebirth again. “Ceasing to be born in [Shams],” Rumi wrote, “I am born in love now. / I am more than myself, for / I have been born twice.” It was love, Rumi felt, which linked all earthly things to one another and love which, absent the barriers of the physical world, would triumph. In his most prolific stage, Rumi became the troubadour who sang for love as the cure for mental unrest and the force behind all human creativity. Rumi established an order to guide others through his discoveries, an order which remained intact for thirty generations. Rumi “declared that man produces love,” Arasteh writes, “but in actuality and in a creative sense love produced him.”
 
Shams is not today the founder of any world religion. He is not regarded as a particularly wise man like Socrates, nor a spiritual leader like the Buddha. He has no other known disciples. He was, in all likelihood, an average mystic of his time and place. It is from Rumi’s love that the particular man named Shams becomes a universal symbol of the specialness of human existence. Similarly, it is from Arasteh’s exegesis that Rumi becomes the perfect example of the integrated human person.
 
The Beloved You Seek is None Other Than You
 
From Rumi, Arasteh understood culture as an integral element of the self, but also a serious barrier to more advanced personal development. The ideal culture, he writes, would provide both for a person’s physical needs and for the intellectual freedom to develop one’s selfhood. Most cultures and subcultures – political, religious, and social – fail to meet this tall order. As a result, Arasteh argues, anyone who does not at some point separate themselves from the culture of their birth is “a chooser, not a creator,” able to ensure some material and social success, but unable to imagine for themselves a different sort of life. Arasteh argues that men and women are driven not by preservation but activity: “the problem of man is no longer ‘to be’ or ‘not to be’ but ‘to become.'” Rumi’s first step towards integration, Arasteh posits, was his careful study of neighboring cultures. This new set of values produced a “shock instigating existential awareness”: a realization of the variety of ways human beings live and flourish.
 
This intellectual journey forces the seeker to separate and objectify the influences that led them to particular goals or habits. Sufi thought holds that the conventional self, prior to rebirth, is divided into separate social, historical, national, and parental identities. Because of this fragmentation, human beings often have conflicting desires. Erikson and Piaget, along with many of their contemporaries, saw the life cycle as a progression of identities: as people get older, they move from being responsible for their own well being to that of a small intimate group, their community, and eventually the whole world. Arasteh preferred instead to route personal development around these fragmented selves. The simplicity of childhood, Arasteh argues, breeds a “one-ness” with the world of created things which fades as men and women grow into new responsibilities and begin to separate conflicting ideas. From this sense of “he-ness,” Arasteh believes, individuals can move into a state of “I-ness:” conscious of the importance of their social interactions with others but driven by something else altogether.
 
The journey toward final integration, whether through religious or secular means, must be rigorously planned. Only by making a clean break from the teachers he considered untrustworthy could Rumi effectively separate his permanent self from that which his culture had made, just as other mystics have fled to the desert or philosophers shut themselves up in their studies. For Arasteh, identity requires a constant process of rebirth: objectively examining the limits of one’s own values, breaking with those values and developing a new identity with new opportunities for growth. Through this process, we not only develop a moral self, we abandon the phenomenal expectations created by culture. Put another way, virtue and individuality are built together. Each new development serves not to reject old identities or even progress towards an ultimate new identity but to weave together the fragmented self into one coherent actor.
 
During this second rebirth, Arasteh writes, the seeker becomes trans-cultural. While recognizing their separate identities as useful to the outside world, they are no longer dependent on those identities to form meaning. Removed from the expectations of success and familial obligation, Rumi was able to devote himself entirely to loving Shams and analyzing that relationship. Such an experience is open to everyone. By desiring a person or a thing in its purest form, and by performing acts of loving kindness without expectation of reward, seekers of final integration begin to experience joy and satisfaction. The way they conceive of themselves also changes: they are no longer “related to place and time, but to production, activity and creative behavior.” While the unintegrated Rumi was identified entirely as a product of his family and profession, the integrated Rumi is identifiable by what he wrote and who he taught. The two goals of such a life – “to produce externally and create joy internally” – reveal the two intertwined tools of the fully integrated person: creativity and love.
 
From You, the Brightness of My Garden
 
Rumi found love for God by finding what was god-like about Shams, and love for humanity by finding what was human in God. “Love,” writes Arasteh, “is a vehicle for actualizing union.”
 
To define love, Arasteh draws on the unique doctrine of his mentor Erich Fromm. Rather than an unpredictable passive force, love is, in Fromm’s view, an active skill cultivated through practice and intention. Final integration is essentially learning how to love: first by loving a mentor, then by loving the divine, and then by loving creation. The process of love develops discipline, concentration and patience, which in turn strengthen the self. By sitting with ourselves, we resolve our inconsistencies, love ourselves as a created image of the divine, and find ourselves able to love those qualities in one another.
 
From that love, Arasteh argues, we strive to create. While Rumi’s work begins by glorifying Shams, it evolves to glorify creation and contemplate how human beings ought relate to each other and the world. It is that first love, whether for a person, a thing, or an idea, that sends us to our desks or our easels to commemorate a feeling or solve a nagging problem. The creator is no longer worried about their role in the world around them – he has begun to express, with a sort of healthy impatience, what that role is. Creativity is how people begin to close the gap between themselves and that which they love. Not coincidentally, it is also the final stage in becoming who they are. “In real creation,” Arasteh writes, “the restful ‘I’, the real self within us, manifests itself.”
 
Creativity, Arasteh argues, comes in a ratio of awareness – our engagement with ourselves – to cultural maturity – our ability to re-enter the culture as objective beings. The earnest desire for an object – person, idea, thing – requires relating to that object in an I-thou way, without selfishness, interested only in an exploration of beauty and intimacy. Creatives must love. By relating to the object of love on an I-thou level, the integrated person creates as a mirror creates, reflecting the insights and benefits he gains from love and proximity. Like a mirror, such creation is instinctual. What is created from our love, then, seems far less important than the reasons it was created for.
 
As Arasteh’s road map would suggest, the deepest thinkers and most elegant artists are self-directed, trans-cultural personalities: acknowledging the culture they inhabit, but creating according to an inner voice. In undertaking the journey towards integration, Arasteh writes, the seeker has gone:

from himself to himself, from oneness to oneness … he has experienced qualities of every type of life, ordinary human experience and intellectual life; he has felt himself variously as a famous man, an ambitious one, and a religious man, and has passed beyond all of them finally giving birth to a fully comprehensive self. He has become an image of his community, mankind, and the rest of the world. He accepts them all, feeling related to them. In essence he is all of them.

No matter how much our minds and our hearts may change, Arasteh asserts, there is still a commonality, a self, which from deep inside directs us towards the new and the different. To mature is not to know one’s self but to decipher it. At the culmination of that seeking, where the creative vision is realized, lies happiness.

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Chase Nordengren is a graduate student in Seattle, WA, and is currently writing a book called “Navelgazer: The Practice of Finding Yourself” which is seeking a publisher. For more information, or to contact Chase, please visit chasenordengren.net.