"Sweep Out the Chamber of Your Heart" by Jeannie Zandi
When I was 10, I was in love with Miss Walker. After a series of wrinkly and stern grandma types who had been teaching for decades, in fourth grade there was twenty-something Miss Walker. Miss Walker at the chalkboard. Miss Walker in short skirts that showed her beautiful legs, Miss Walker with her electric-curler-created brown curls bouncing as she walked briskly down the hall…
—Sacred Heart by Cristie Henry-
Go sweep out the chamber of your heart.
Make it ready to be the dwelling place of the Beloved.
— Mahmud Shabistari, 13th-century Sufi
When I was 10, I was in love with Miss Walker. After a series of wrinkly and stern grandma types who had been teaching for decades, in fourth grade there was twenty-something Miss Walker. Miss Walker at the chalkboard. Miss Walker in short skirts that showed her beautiful legs, Miss Walker with her electric-curler-created brown curls bouncing as she walked briskly down the hall. I would sign her name as if it was mine: Miss Nancy J. Walker. It was the first year I got straight As, and that was out of my deep adoration which demanded expression — I wanted to give something to she who seemed to lack nothing.
According to the dictionary, to adore is to “worship as God or a god” from the Latin adorare, which means “to pray to.” It is a deep, often rapturous regard that pours from the heart without concern for social custom or convention and, in its pure form, looks for nothing for itself but to love and pay homage to the beloved.
For the 13th-century mystic and poet Rumi, the adoration of his beloved teacher Shams of Tabriz led him into the wilderness of his heart, taking him through the depths of its dark pockets of longing and pain, and ultimately opening into the wide vista of his love for God and for all that is. The human heart, hung heavy with disappointments and sorrows, complete with sealed-off passages and hidden lonely caverns, longs to be known, to express itself fully in this world. It desires to bring the love that we are, beneath our accumulated pain and confusion, to this earthly plane through our eyes and our hands. For some, the yearning to live as love is so acute that there is no other choice but to travel this seemingly dangerous road of Rumi.
Traveling this road may mean wholeheartedly devoting one’s life to knowing the oneness of God. For others, it may mean a simple practice of allowing what we feel to be experienced and touched, without distraction or minimization so that we may come to know the depths of who we are. The shining truth and beauty of our hearts leaping at the sights or sounds that touch us can act as a tractor beam, drawing us onward as we explore and touch every desolate corner that stands between us and our inner beloved, and therefore also between us and all of creation.
In India, ashrams exist where a pilgrim can fall completely in love with an embodiment of God and seek shelter and solace in the haven of regular food, regular lodging and regular contact with the beloved while undertaking the heart’s journey. Given that the teacher is one of integrity and clarity, he/she can hold a space for temporarily allowing the devotee to see the teacher as God on the way to knowing him- or herself as God. The guru holds the space for the exploration of the longing, desperation, self-loathing, doubt and sorrow that come from living a human life. This way is revered in India, so a God-crazed love dog is generally treated by others within and without the ashram with tenderness and understanding.
The following poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, sheds light on the idea of a love dog:
One night a man was crying,
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
”So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of the souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
”Why did you stop praising?”
”Because I never heard anything back.”
”This longing you express is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of the dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
In our country, it is rare to find a circle where this tenderness and understanding are extended to one who deeply hungers for God and expresses it through great devotion, nor are there many socially accepted containers for traveling the path of adoration all the way to its end. We Americans tend to sexualize all adoration (that is, assume that it must be sexual), becoming suspicious of the man who adores the girl, the woman who adores the woman, the man who adores the man, etc. Gurus are widely suspected, seen as megalomaniacs or manipulators, and their followers are viewed as naive sheep. (This is not to say that there aren’t examples of men who adore girls that we should be suspicious of or gurus who are megalomaniacs.) The only widely accepted forms for expressing adoration are within a heterosexual couple or between parents/grandparents and children. The therapist/client relationship can also be an accepted container for this adoration to flourish and find its true home in the client’s own heart.
I remember the first teacher I met who allowed others to praise him and it felt clean. He came from a tradition in India, though he was American, and devotees were encouraged to write him poetry, to extol his virtues, and as far as I could tell, he was simply standing in for the Holy while we sang the reverence that was in our hearts. How wonderful to let loose the devotion I had felt for so many, but had held inside out of fear of being laughed at, rejected or rushed to bed, or used to fill someone else’s bottomless pit. For most, our egos are so hungry for validation that we can’t hold space for another to adore us — we are too interested in it, too starved for it ourselves to invite and hold space for its expression. We think it means something, and something about us, rather than seeing it as the natural expression of the holy through a human being.
The heart ideally needs a laboratory, in a sense, in its rocky course toward freedom, where many conditions are held consistent, such as (a) the adored and the one who is adoring are mutually aware of the holy context — in other words, that this is about God, and the adored holds that container if the adoring one gets confused; (b) the adored is willing to stay with the process (as opposed to lovers who sometimes leave); (c) the adored does not contaminate the container with his or her own personal needs; (d) the adoration doesn’t lead to anything concrete happening in the everyday world (such as dating, marriage, etc.); and (e) the adored is able (because he/she knows the territory) and willing (because he/she loves attending the birth of light) to witness and offer company through the gnarly parts of the journey without freaking out. Then the longing heart is free to adore, drool, blither, blather, be foolish; try its hand at poetry, at praising, at singing; descend into deep sorrow, feel jealous, try its wings.
Most of us know what it’s like to adore the average human and how much space he or she has for all of this. We have a certain amount of adoration we can tolerate before our “stuff” comes up, and we want to shoo the loving fan away, make fun of them, be mean to them, assume they are lying, assume they don’t know us, assume it’s all about us, assume perhaps the person is not “right” for us, etc. The task requires someone who has carved out her/his own heart to have space for another to play, and for that someone to create and maintain a clear laboratory for the exploration to proceed untainted.
Though we may not be aware of it at the time, when we are adoring another human being we are seeing God reflected in an earthly face, and our hearts call to plumb their depths. What we adore is the reflection of our own divine inner beauty — in a landscape, a flower, a serene face, a gentle manner. When we allow ourselves to adore, we become acquainted with the depths of our own hearts, allow ourselves to approach the grandeur within our own selves, and realize ourselves as love. When our hearts are still cluttered with old pain and fear, love moves only where it seems safe to move, only under certain conditions. The swept-clean heart is an indiscriminate lover: its nature is to love. It loves in every direction; it is love. It knows itself as love, and its joy is to love. It no longer is seeking fulfillment from the outside, looking with hungry eyes toward the false gods through which it was promised fulfillment. Instead, it has burrowed down through the rubble to the fresh wellspring of the Source and drinks there, overflowing outward.
What if we let ourselves love what we love? What if, at least within the privacy of our own solitude, we let ourselves notice what we adore? We have deadened ourselves out of not knowing what to do with the wealth of feelings inside. I recently met with a man in my travels who realized he unconsciously had stopped noticing that half the human race was made up of women. For him, acknowledging the presence of females almost always had ended in disappointment, discouragement, desperation and longing, and so on a subconscious level he had given it up. No wonder so many men gaze at images of women in the privacy of their own solitude: exposing that vulnerability to another human being even in the best of conditions can feel daunting, never mind the possibility of freshly eliciting scorn, fear or the unloading of years of a woman’s pain.
The simple invitation I gave this man was to walk around and notice that some people are women and to feel whatever was there. The point was not for him to get a woman, which is what men are taught will bring them salvation. The point was for him to reclaim the wilds of his own heart, to touch and explore them, and to return to a place where no woman could rival the internal love affair between him and his Source. Then we drink from our own inner spring, and relationship becomes a celebration of that rather than yet another attempt to squeeze a drop of love out of an external source that never will satisfy like the inner one.
When we adore, we tend to measure ourselves against our projected deity and we come up short. We are human, wanting, full of flaws, life-size, and the adored one seems larger than life. If we take the whole journey to reclaim our divinity, this is a temporary condition: painting our own holiness on another. Often, instead of honoring this opportunity to feel reverence and experience what is touched in our hearts, many of us use this flooding of insecurity to flee. Until the last decade, if I was attracted to someone, my strategy was to look at that person as little as possible and bury any sign of my attraction. What if the intensity of my adoration was seen, and right alongside, the squirming and writhing intensity of my self-loathing? What if the person decided it was something in particular — sexual attraction or an interest in dating or a supply to fill the black hole within — before I myself had the opportunity and space to explore it? It was better to stay safe and below the radar, doing damage control on those feelings, right?
Yet the key to plumbing the whole depth of the heart is precisely to dare to walk through this uncharted territory of squirmy things that rise when our hearts are drawn out beyond where we can maintain our cool. For many of us, that territory is gnarly enough to hobble us to the point of hiding forever, resulting in crowds of people walking around trying not to notice the beauty of their neighbors — throngs of hearts in hiding. However, the journey through this wild land is precisely what lets our hearts sing on this sweet Earth.
We can notice where we are drawn, where we love, consenting to have whatever feelings that come with it flood our bodies as we sit with them and let them sift and work themselves out. This willingness washes our hearts little by little until the full blaze that knows no fear is reclaimed, and we walk this Earth as love instead of looking for it. As Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky) writes, “Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying, with that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?”
(c) Copyright 2007, Jeannie Zandi, all rights reserved.
Originally published in The Eldorado Sun, November, 2007.