In the vision, the man runs through the desert, feet still bound and hands still shackled.
The teacher sends one of his disciples to find the man and bring him to the teacher for help, healing, and support.
With instructions not to speak to the man, the disciple sets out to find him. Less than two hours later, he arrives at the cave where the teacher had seen the man in his vision. The slave huddles inside, trembling.
Remembering that he has been commanded not to speak, the disciple tries to communicate that he has come to help the slave. It doesn’t work. Probably because the slave is terrified, still tied up, and hiding in a cave.
The slave tries to run and trips. The disciple is ‘forced to subdue’ him. I imagine that the slave is slung over the back of a horse like a very scared bag of grain.
At this point, the poem becomes so beautiful that I’ll just quote it (or at least Daniel Ladinsky’s rendering of it):
Every particle of existence is a dancing alter
That some mysterious force worships.
The earth is a church floor whereupon
In the middle of a glorious night,
Walks a slave, weeping, tied to a rope behind a horse,
With a speechless rider
Taking him towards the unknown.
Several times with all of his might the slave
Tries to break free,
Feeling he is being returned to captivity.
The rider stops, dismounts–brings his eyes
Near the prisoner’s eyes.
A deep kindness there communicates an unbelievable hope.
The rider motions–soon, soon you will be free.
Tears roll down from the rider’s cheeks
In happiness for this man.
The first time I read this poem, my entire body surged with a feeling of recognition, like a string of deep truth had been plucked.
The story moves at so many levels that we could spend hundreds of pages unpacking it. For the moment, I’ll tease out three themes that jump out:
Slavery and Freedom
The bondage of the man in the teacher’s vision works as a powerful metaphor for the process we all must go through as we navigate the path from childhood to adolescence to adulthood and beyond.
In childhood, we are enslaved by the threads of ‘fate.’ The surroundings into which we are born: our parents, neighborhood, community, families, schools, religion all print their priorities and beliefs upon us. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our actions and decisions grow from these foundational beliefs.
So we may find ourselves making choices to appease our parents. Or working ourselves to exhaustion in a job or career that, while it grants the outward trappings of success, feels somehow wrong at a fundamental level. Or we may find ourselves in relationships that check off certain ‘boxes,’ but make us feel small.
At a certain point, the bonds of this slavery become too restrictive, too uncomfortable. And we break free. . .
. . .only to find that ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ may not exist in a binary structure.
We break free of one set of bonds, one set of old stories or beliefs, and, like Hafiz’s slave, we are still bound in other ways. Perhaps we run for a time, fueled by the exhilaration of newfound freedom. Then we stumble, look down at our feet and, whaddaya know, there are shackles there.
We hobble along for awhile in those shackles until they become too restrictive, too uncomfortable. Then, with a mighty pull, we free ourselves!
Only to find another bond keeping us tied to an old way of being.
Once we begin the process of freeing ourselves from ‘slavery,’ it just keeps going, like peeling away layers of an onion. A great teacher, such as the one in the poem, may hasten the process. But there will always be more bonds to untie.
‘Slavery’ and ‘freedom’ are not absolute conditions, rather they exist on a continuum.
Even as he runs free, the slave is tethered by fear. Fear that he will be dragged backed into servitude, his old way of being. Fear that his tormentors will find him. Fear that his freedom is temporary.
This fear creates the lens through which the slave sees the entire world. It’s so all encompassing that when help arrives in the form of the disciple, he sees only a threat, panics, and ends up tied to the back of a horse.
The fear keeps the slave from seeing the beauty all around him, the ‘million candles’ in the sky.
Almost exactly a year ago, I, like the slave, found myself alone in the desert. Before me stretched a beautiful vista extending endlessly into a cloud-dotted horizon. Behind me, a storm gathered, dark clouds swirling and thunder rumbling across the sky.
I sat looking at the vista, but every minute or so I would turn around to look at the storm clouds. How long before the storm would arrive? How would I stay dry? What if I got hypothermia? How could I prepare?
Fear tightened my chest and hijacked my mind. As much as I tried to take in the beauty around me, I couldn’t open myself to it.
How much time do we spend letting fear of things that we have no control over, like the weather, keep us from experiencing the beauty of the present moment unfolding all around us?
When help finally arrives in the form of the disciple, the slave does not trust him and tries to run.
Later, when the disciple, still under orders not to speak, leans in to the slave to attempt to reassure him through his eyes, the slave weeps in terror, still not trusting that he could possibly be on the road to salvation.
In the poem, the Universe (or the Divine, whatever word you’d like) sends a vision to the teacher who sends his disciple to fetch the slave. The disciple, then, is a messenger of the Universe.
How many times do we miss signs from the universe simply because we do not trust that the Universe has our back? After all, who are we to be worthy of such attention? And, if someone or something does show up to support us, how often do we turn away, spurning or ignoring the support because, surely, it must be a trick?
There are two fundamental narratives that we can tell ourselves about the world we live in.
The first, the one most of us absorb as we grow up, is based on fear. The Universe is a dangerous, fundamentally unfriendly place that is, in one way or another, out to get us. It is right to be afraid of things we don’t understand. Ultimately, we can only really depend on ourselves. We are islands floating in a fearsome sea filled with serpents, eels, and other entities out to get us.
The story rules the slave in Hafiz’s poem.
The second story is something we learn, or remember, as we move through life. In this second story, the Universe is fundamentally supportive. It wants to help and, when we take the first step, will conspire to clear the way for us.
It may send us a mute disciple.
Or open doors that were previously closed.
Or gently nudge us in a certain direction.
When we’re in the thrall of that first story, the one based on distrust and fear, we may miss these ‘signs from the universe,’ these efforts to help. What if they’re all around us all the time and we simply fail to notice?
When we move from a core belief based on distrust to one based on trust, a world of new possibilities unfolds.
That transition is not easy. Sometimes the process is like being dragged behind a horse, sobbing in terror, trembling even while surrounded by beauty we cannot see. And it’s in those moments, when all seems lost, that love, healing, and support may be closest at hand.
At the end of the poem, Hafiz writes that the disciple weeps tears of joy for the slave. For he knows that the man’s torment, fear, and anger are almost at an end. When the man, supported by the teacher, learns to trust, the next layer of bonds of his former slavery will fall away and he will see the world with new eyes.
Sometimes, we are all the slave, being dragged who-knows-where. What if, instead of struggling against the Universe, we simply trusted signs, helpers, and our own intuition? What if we trusted that we are leading and being led to safety and support?
What if we allowed ourselves to set fear aside and embrace freedom? To look at each other as instruments of salvation instead of threats?
To me, that’s the invitation Hafiz’s poem makes. It’s up to us whether or not we want to accept it.