Rumi tells the story of a wise man who was travelling in Turkey on the back of an old, weak donkey. When he arrived at the inn, he gave the inn keeper specific instructions on how to care for his beloved donkey. The next morning he awoke to find it neglected and hungry; the inn keeper had failed in his duties. Rumi concludes his story:
There are such vicious empty flatterers
in your life. Do the careful,
Don't trust that to anyone else.
There are hypocrites who will praise you,
but who do not care about the health
of your heart-donkey
Be concentrated and leonine
in the hunt for what is your nourishment.
My heart-donkey gets hungry so often. Instead of feeding it, I often wish that there were someone lying next to me who could do the difficult work of loving me so that I could just collapse in their passion. Morning after morning, I look in the mirror to find only my own two eyes staring back at me. I feel weary of the lonesome journey through the desert and eager to find an innkeeper to care for my heart-donkey.
At moments, the mirage of an inn on the horizon arises. I hope with all my heart that I've arrived, and sometimes there are people there who promise to feed my heart-donkey and to keep it safe and warm.
But the difficulty is not so much that others aren't willing as that they aren't able.
And this is my message: only you can feed your heart-donkey.
Being in a relationship won't fix the loneliness for good. Having people accept you the way you are won't fix the emptiness. Having your dream job won't fix the emptiness.
Think back to how many times people have given you a listening ear or showed you great compassion. None of it finally healed the wounds at your core.
You have to begin by being willing to care for yourself and to do the dirty work, the "careful donkey-tending work." You have to hunt for what is your nourishment.
Selfhood was the gift the universe gave to you. And what a strange thing it is--you are a miracle. A self that can transcend itself. You are both a subject and and an object. The feeler and the felt. The face and the mirror. The traveler and the donkey. Your being is utterly unique in creation.
You are unprecedented.
Within the duality of self is the capacity to be your own caretaker and to look after your own needs. It begins with compassion.
When someone you care for comes to you with a problem, the appropriate response is not to turn them away and tell them it's stupid. You listen, you accept their pain into your heart, and you give them what you can. Instead of rejecting your own weaknesses, flaws, and loneliness, accept them. Feel them. Acknowledge them. Be with them. And then give yourself what you can.
Joseph Campbell says that "the principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship."
I've found that my feelings most often transform themselves when I greet them with "participatory companionship." If I don't shout at my heart "I don't want to feel this way!" or at life "give me something different!" and instead bow to my pain, sorrow, loneliness, fear, and the situations life deems fit to grant me, greet them with a smile, treat them as dear friends, and say "darling, you are welcome here," the feelings are no longer frustrating. They become kind teachers and mentors.
In another poem, Rumi says "these pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them." The reason no one but yourself can do the donkey-tending is that no one can or ever will be able to understand completely how you feel. Only you can delve into the depths of self and emerge triumphant with the light of being. Follow your personal trail of tears until it leads you to the fountain of living water within. Tend to your emotions; trace them back to their source.
Inner wounds are born from untended thoughts and feelings. Inner healing begins in an embrace.
This reminds me of a poem a friend and I wrote together:
It’s better to cry than to be angry;
Let the heart experience sorrow fully and heal fully.
Bitterness taints sweet wine,
And it is better to lie down.
For armor is heavy,
And rust riddled.
Sorrow is a kind mentor.
Like a mother duck gently leading her ducklings to water,
Leads to the inner fountain that quenches
Float in the still waters of the fountain.
At least we can be at peace with the sorrow
And greet it as a friend.
And so to the self-critical, lonely, and afraid person that we all are from time to time, I say this: stop looking outside yourself for peace. The only cure for your heart-wounds is already inside of you. Tend to your own heart-donkey instead of searching frantically for someone to do the work for you. Follow your feelings to their source, and bask there in the arms of peace.
"The way is not east or west. It's in."
“Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”
― Kahlil Gibran
"If [a teacher] is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”
― Kahlil Gibran