Saturday, December 10, 2011

Of Tattoos, Lions and the Divine

In Book I of the Mathnawi, Rumi tells this story:

It was the custom of the men of Qazwin to have various devices tattooed upon their bodies. A certain coward went to the tattoo artist to have a 'device' tattooed on his back. He wanted it to be the figure of a lion. But as soon as he started to feel the prick of the needle, he howled with pain and said to the tattooist, "What part of the lion are you painting?" The artist replied, "I am doing the tail." The man cried, "Never mind the tail, do another part!" The tattooist began to do another part, but the man again cried out and told him to try somewhere else. Wherever the artist applied his needles, the man raised similar objections, until at last the tattooist threw all his needles and pigments on the ground and refused to go on any further.

This is a wonderful story on many levels. It is fascinating that these Persian men had a tradition of tattooing themselves, especially since this tradition is strictly haraam (forbidden) by Islam (remember, Mevlana Rumi lived in the 13th century).

More importantly, this is really an allegory about the spiritual path and the One Being. There are many who want union with the Divine, but, inevitably, the going will get rough at some point and there will be pain.

This walk is all part of the process where one lets go of the false elements in one's being so that what is really true can shine forth (from fana to baqa). There are few souls who embrace this fully because it can and does mean going into our own darkest corners and confronting, embracing and then going through what we have accumulated in this existence and emerging on the other side. This is spiral learning on a very powerful level.

The gift of the acceptance of one's pain is realizing (either quickly or after some time has passed) that this is Universal and that, with variations on the circumstances and details, all beings have passed through something similar. That, in turn, helps us to release and heal, thus allowing our light within to shine brighter.

The choice of the lion as the device in this story is no accident: in Sufi circles, this is the symbol for the God-conscious man or woman. Perhaps the man in this story really wanted to wear the lion, but just wasn't anticipating what the reality of that might entail.

As we come to the end of another calendar year, going into the darkest season, we can reflect on what may or may not be necessary in our lives anymore. What can we jettison now?

As we proceed from the shortest times of daylight to the re-emergence of longer days, we can nurture this birthing process in ourselves and allow a bit more of that lion to be tattooed on our beings. Who knows what beautiful 'device' each of us may become?

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