J U N E 2 0 2 0
How marvelous this creature, the human being! What a wonder and privilege it is to be one!
I know it doesn’t always seem that way — we humans can be vicious and cruel, short-sighted, selfish, and petty — so to say that we’re marvelous can sound absurd. But perhaps in this strange, nervous, pandemic time when we’ve had to pull back from close contact and have become so wary of each other, perhaps it would do us good to remember, for a moment, the miracle at the heart of what a human being is.
This miracle is a constant theme in Sufi teachings and poetry. Ibn ‘Arabi, the great 13th Century Sufi mystic and metaphysician, described the human being as a barzakh, an “isthmus.” Human-being is an isthmus between the seeming polarities of matter and spirit, body and soul, the dense and the subtle. Like the Isthmus of Panama where the vast continents of North and South America meet, the isthmus that is human beingness is “the Towering Station” amongst all barzakhs. Ibn ‘Arabi:
The barzakh is between-between,
a station between this and that,
not one of them, but the totality of the two.
It has the towering exaltation,
the lofty splendor,
and the deep-rooted station.
This is what Rumi calls “the majesty that lives in the deep center of everyone.” I suspect it is a majesty that lives in the deep center of everything, in the tree and the mountain, the rabbit and the hawk, but in the barzakh of human being it can be known, and once known it becomes a source of wisdom and loving kindness. Rumi:
You are a joining point of sky and ground,
soul as witness, green compassion.
The binary name human being itself reveals the miraculous barzakh we are. Human is a word derived from humus, earth — the human is an earthling. Our extraordinarily complex and wondrous bodies are born of the earth — skin, bone, blood, and brain — a living system of matter and energy. The second part of our name, being, points to the ineffable quality of the creature we are: call it spirit, or presence, or awareness. Our nature of being awareness cannot be objectified in the way our earthling bodies can. Together, the two words suggest the barzakh we are: human-being — “a station between this and that, not one of them, but the totality of the two.”
It’s fairly easy to sense this in the moment: first you can know yourself as body, manifested as the sensuous organism of matter that you are, and you can know yourself as a locus of awareness, an ineffable presence, clear and ungraspable. You are human, being. An isthmus “between” matter and spirit, it is in this “Towering Station” that the seeming duality of matter and spirit can be recognized as not-two. As Rumi invites us:
Come out here where the roses have opened.
Let soul and world meet.
This is the miracle of human-beingness. In the place of meeting, in what Rumi calls “the spirit-form we are,” a wondrous alchemy becomes possible. Our spirit-being enlightens our earthling-nature, and our earthling-nature gives clear spirit a field of sensate beauty and impermanence in which to love and play, become attached, suffer, and with any luck, recognize “the towering exaltation” within which it arises.
One of the most profound and beautiful expressions of this earth-spirit-human-being miracle can be found in the concluding passage of Rilke’s Ninth Elegy. Here, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation, Rilke is praising to the angels the “Things” of the earth, and reveals how they become “invisible” in us, in our love and amazement and gratitude:
…And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within—oh endlessly—within us! Whoever we may be at last.
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Earth, my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you no longer
need your springtimes to win me over—one of them,
ah, even one, is already too much for my blood.
Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.
You were always right, and your holiest inspiration
is our intimate companion, Death.
Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller . . . . . Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.