Learn the alchemy true human beings know:the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given,
the door will open.
Welcome difficulties as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by the friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets
that serve to cover, then are taken off.
and the naked body underneath,
is the sweetness that comes after grief.
-“Undressing” The Big Red Book Coleman Barks
The above lines are by Rumi, the poet. These are beautiful lines, and I have spent quite sometime just reading them over and over again. These lines have a powerful effect on my Stoic practice. Many stoics, classical and contemporary, have recommended to memorize lines and stoic advice in order to better internalize stoic theory into stoic practice. What better way than with poetry. Poetry has a strong ability to both touch at the roots of our existence, and sway with the movement of our everyday dance in life. I’d like to briefly touch on some Stoic themes that are contained in those ten lines.
Before listing them I’d like to just briefly summarize this poem into my own words to better make sense of them. They are extremely straight forward words. It might seem tedious, and you are free to skip this next bit. However, I find the practice of articulating other words into your own is helpful in order to internalize and to resonate them in our understanding. Hopefully they help the reader as well.
First is the acknowledgement that there is such a thing as a true human being that practices a certain kind of alchemy. Second is that doors will open if we are to accept the troubles that have been, for whatever reason, thrown on us. We do not choose to take these troubles; they just happen. However, one can, through the practice of reason, take these troubles and, not just simply cope with them, but use them in a positive way in order to develop virtue. We are to welcome difficulties as a ‘familiar comrade’; we are to joke with torment that a friend of ours brings to us (why would a friend bring us torment? Oh! To joke with! Such positivity!). Third is that these sorrows are to be temporary, but that they are also important for wearing. We wear these rags of old clothes and jackets in order to take them off. They give both clothing and they give an opportunity to ‘undress these rags’. By taking off these rags of sorrow, we are able to experience ‘sweetness,’ that is truly found underneath all troubles we might think.
What Stoic practices are involved in the above?
There are two Stoic practices that are involved in the above. First, it is worth repeating the importance of reason and being social. As explained by Pigliucci among others, the stoics made a distinction between human and non-humans, while at the same time recognizing the importance of nature and following the laws of nature. This can be interpreted as having a human nature. This human nature is marked by the unique ability of reason, and of the extreme sociability of human being. This should be seen as the backdrop throughout this whole poem. Furthermore, there is a social aspect that runs through these lines. Difficulty is a ‘familiar comrade,’ torment is brought by the friend. And it is only through learning the alchemy of the ‘true human beings’ can one have the doors open that allows us to make the negative into something more positive. In parallel fashion from this poem, the Stoics argue that we should use reason in order to develop our virtue, in order to live a good life. Is reason not the alchemy that we should utilize in our everyday life, both in terms of understanding and existing?
There are two Stoic practices that I find in Rumi’s poem. These practices are ‘negative visualization,’ and ‘self-denial.’ Both these practices are further articulated in William B. Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which I recommend you check out. Also do consult Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic, which I am currently reading.
The Stoics has a practice called negative visualization. Negative visualization is the process of imagining an unpleasant situation. According to Stoic practice, we should at times briefly dwell on the potential negatives in our thoughts and imagination that might occur in our lives. This could be anything that troubles you. The practice is supposed to allow us to have what I’d call some sort of mental experience to the situation at hand. When it actually happens, we are better equipped, with our mental experience, to respond to that situation. Furthermore, negative visualization allows us to better appreciate our actual existence right now.
A note of caution: this might not always work, and if compounded with existing issues, may actually be hurtful to practice. I am not an expert nor a professional surrounding mental issues. Be careful and seek professional advice and attention if you are, or suspect to be, in this, or similar, situation!
I have to admit there is a stretch in trying to find the instance of negative visualization in this Rumi poem. It is not so evident. However, I like to take creative agency and make it myself. For example, Rumi tells us to joke with the torment the friend brings. Torment are usually internal thoughts that we cannot let go, that plagues us, and that make us constantly worry about various aspects about our lives. However, torment can go away by transforming what could be torment into an opportunity to practice a form of negative visualization, where we utilize reason in order to better equip ourselves to both the thought and the potential negatives. Torment, such as having catastrophic thoughts about one’s life, can be ‘joked’ at through the process of negative visualization.
The second practice is what Irvine calls ‘self-denial’ (see chapter 7 of his book; Irvine also has a chapter dedicated to negative visualization). Self-Denial is a concept Irvine derives and discusses from Musonius. According to this stoic practice, we should actually practice being uncomfortable at times. We should consciously pick uncomfortable activities and tasks so that, once we experience misfortune and bad events occur to us that is outside of our control, we are better suited to respond (just like negative visualization!). Examples include taking a colder shower, walking an hour instead of driving for 10-15 minutes, ‘forgetting’ your umbrella when it’s raining, or slightly undressing when it is cold outside. We should of course avoid extremes. Stoics are not cynics; we don’t want to be uncomfortable for the sake of being uncomfortable. Rather, we should slowly, consciously, and in moderation, practice ‘self-denial,’ for the purpose of developing virtue. If one simply wants to be uncomfortable all the time for the sake of being uncomfortable, then that’s not a Stoic practice. one should not obsess and try to ‘race to the bottom,’ just like the Cynics did. There is a distinction between cynics and Stoics. Where cynics thought that all kinds of pleasure were problematic (because all we need is virtue, duh!), stoics clearly had ‘preferred indifferents.’ One should not practice, self-denial just like the cynics did. Rather, we should treat things that are indifferent as precisely that. We’d like stuff, but we should not depend on them, Our reason is not found on these externals.
Self-denial: this one is easy to derive from Rumi. Look at what Rumi says: welcome difficulties as a familiar comrade, joke with torment that was like brought by a friend (also what I like to see as a process of negative visualization), and wear the clothes that are like rags! Even these rags serve to cover us, with the addition of experiencing sweetness after we realize the alchemy true human beings experience.
Our Virtue as the sweetness we find
At the end of the day, the door will open for us to practice the alchemy true human beings know. Reason is that stoic alchemy. We must use reason in our lives to practice living well. We cannot not use reason; it is what makes us who we are. By developing and utilizing reason, we develop our virtuous life. And it is through seeing the world through poetry, that reason is given the nutrition to flourish.
Some Recommended Readings:
Irvine, W. B. (2009). A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford University Press.
Pigliucci, M. (2017). How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. Basic Books.