The Egg of a Duck: Inspirations on Renunciation and Divine Madness from Shams of Tabriz
The door to Love is one you can only pass through naked and empty-handed.
Along the way, everything must be left behind. Any attachment to possessions, comfort, status, even to belief itself.
No one would take this leap by choice. Why would you? But the call comes to all of us, in some form. It might be quiet at first, only later becoming irresistible, or devastating if ignored.
No matter how or when it appears, sooner or later, you must heed it or be torn in two.
The voice of the Heart beckons you beyond your limits, beyond the horizon of the known world. It will take you into strange, unfamiliar spaces where up is down, down is up, and nothing solid remains for you to hold onto. If you have the courage and trust to follow, it will guide you past the edges of the universe by turning inwards, into the mysterious realm of the soul where lover meets Beloved.
The Duck Egg Hatched by a Hen
“When I was a child, I had reached a strange stage, which no one knew, including my father. Once my father said to me, ‘Son, are you mad and what is the matter with you? You had no special training or anything like that (to follow the Sufi path).’ I said to my father, ‘Listen to me, our situation is like this: An egg of a duck is brooded under a hen, and a chick has been hatched. When it grows a bit, it can jump into water without hesitance while the hen, being a terrestrial bird, fails to do it. We are just like that. Dear father! My home is in the sea in which I want to swim like the sea birds. If you are like me, then come along or go with the domestic fowls.’”
–Shams of Tabriz*
It is madness for a hen to try to swim and madness for a duck not to. Born of Spirit, we live in this world, but we do not belong to it and it does not belong to us. We inhabit it for a time only. Forgetting our true nature, believing we exist merely in terms of matter and thought, we drift in a dream of separation, suffering, and madness.
It may sound extreme to characterize the normal human condition as madness, but how else to describe a prolonged schism from reality?
Shams of Tabriz was an odd duck indeed, a wandering dervish with brilliance and eccentricity in equal measures. Through their incandescent friendship, he was the unlikely catalyst for Rumi’s transformation from a well-respected religious scholar into the mystical poet we know and love.
In many spiritual traditions, you will find figures such as Shams who demonstrate a kind of divine madness—the avadhuta in India or nyönpa in Tibet, or the Christian holy fool who is actually much cannier than the clever ordinary folk around him. Such beings have transcended any reliance on rules and conventions, and live purely from the spontaneity of the Heart.
This freedom challenges social and religious order and shakes up those still bound by dualistic conceptions. Shams was not free from criticism for his provocative speech and unusual behavior, perhaps at the cost of his life.
It is disturbing and often unwelcome to suddenly be confronted with the abyss that lies between reality and our ordinary conception of it. Usually, our eyes skip over it to preserve the integrity of our cherished illusion.
Crazy wisdom, to use Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s term, shows us the gap with such brazenness that we can’t look away. It catches us off guard, all our weight on the wrong foot, so we are forced to fall out of our habitual, mechanical way of movement.
The avadhuta has no patience for teaching through reason and gentle suggestion. He or she is all but jumping up and down to wake us up, to break the momentum in which we are caught.
“I have such a feverish mood,” Shams said, “that many can’t understand it. However, those who listen to my words may be healed. When my words find roots among the public, they will become more powerful.”
Feeling separation from the Beloved, how could you not go mad from the pain of it? And is there anything sweeter than this madness? What could be more soothing to the soul than this fever which burns through every veil and annihilates all concepts?
The intoxication of love is just the remedy for the delusions of dualistic existence.
When ordinary conventions seem like madness, this is a sign you are becoming sane for the first time. You are giving up trying to be what you are not and remembering how to be what you have been all along.
No “Me” or “Mine”
The world owes us nothing, and we should avoid becoming indebted to it by investing ourselves in its offerings.
When a dervish whirls in the sema ceremony, his right hand is turned up to receive blessings from God while his left hand turns down to distribute those blessings to humanity, giving all and keeping nothing for himself. This emptiness is what allows the light to come through.
To come close to God, you must become nothing and less than nothing, to remain in utter non-existence at the feet of Existence.
Your eyes will be burned if you try to see the sun through them, so out of mercy, God puts a veil over Himself when approached with dualistic vision. So then “me” and “mine” appear to stand between you and God. Try as you might, you will never see through this veil of self. You have to look already from the other side.
You belong to no one and no one belongs to you, so you can meet the world in freedom and love, with no obligation to do or be anything.
Within the dream of separation, we don’t know what freedom is because we are mostly busy trying to own things and therefore enter into the domain of owning and being owned—ownership not only of material things but experiences, identities, relationships, and most of all, our bodies.
With this ownership comes demands—desires appear as urgent needs, as we are mistaken about cause and effect and about the source of happiness. Try to see things for just what they are, and suddenly the urgency disappears.
Wear Your Tombstone with Joy
This is how we start on a path of renunciation: clear vision and clear priorities.
Renunciation must come from a profound longing for freedom and it must go all the way through you. It’s not about wearing robes and making vows while on the inside aching for unfulfilled desires, but living under the shadow of your own tombstone, as the Sufis represent with their tall hats.
It means becoming dead to the world in the sense that ordinary concerns don’t touch you. You may have comfort and pleasures, but it’s all the same to you if you don’t. You aren’t denying those things but seeing through them. They don’t have what you’re looking for, so you’re not interested.
Imagine you’re walking on the street and a salesperson from a shop comes out to try and sell you some hair product. Fine, but underneath your hat, you’ve just shaved your head! What would you do with such an item? It doesn’t matter how good the product is or how fair the price, you’re not interested. You’re not offended by the offer, but there’s no question of buying. No discussion of maybe yes, maybe no, maybe if I can get a little discount… You just keep walking.
When you arrive at a point where you see unmistakably that the world has nothing to offer you—nothing more useful than hair product for a bald person—then you can peacefully go on with your true business here.
With authentic renunciation, you never feel like you’re missing out. Your eye is on something more important.
When you don’t expect fulfillment from that which cannot fulfill you, your spiritual life flows easily, and, in a way, your material life does too. Your weight isn’t leaning on it anymore, so the bumps don’t shake you.
We only get into trouble because there’s a part of us that still expects something from the world, still thinks there’s something juicy around the corner that life has been holding out on us, and we can’t rest until we’ve grabbed it.
How many times will you have to pounce on shadows before you catch on?
Offering All Desires to God
Renunciation by denial is not sustainable. It only gives more power to the desire you deny. Sooner or later, either the willpower cracks or the person does.
In the words of Sri Vinod Bihari Das Babaji Maharaj, a contemporary Vaishnava master:
“If you pick an unripe fruit and ripen it with carbide (a chemical to artificially ripen fruits and vegetables), it will gain the appearance of a ripe fruit but not the sweet taste that a naturally ripened fruit has. When a fruit ripens naturally, it falls from the tree on its own. One does not have to pick it manually. Similarly, a sadhak [practitioner] should not take renunciation while he has hidden desires in his heart. If that happens, he might wear the clothes of a renunciate, keep dreadlocks and beard but at some point, his desires start forthcoming and he becomes a fraud. […] The buried samskaras and desires, which were not visible even in Grihastha Ashrama [householder life], get reawakened after some time and the sadhak starts engaging in materialistic pursuits.”
So what to do while we are still in this mixed stage of spiritual aspiration and material desires? We are only human. We cannot force a process that is in the hands of God. Yet we can participate in it, from whatever level we are at.
Shams has a recommendation:
“If you take cumin to Kirman (where cumin grows in abundance), what value or price does it have? Such is the gate of God! God has no needs and desires. So, take you desires to Him. He, who has no desires, will like to have them.”
Come to God as you are. God loves us—this is the innermost secret of devotion, so simple to state and difficult to realize the scope of it. He wants you to come to Him in all your humanness and tender failings. No masks, no pretenses. What pretense could you maintain in front of the One who knows you better than you know yourself, who is closer to you than your own soul?
Whatever we have to offer, that is what we bring. When we are very full of ourselves, we might think we have a lot to give, but the fruits of the ego are not to the Beloved’s taste.
When we are empty, nothing, dust from dust, we bring our emptiness like a cup to be filled.
And the bigger the cup, the more water it can hold.
Every desire is an emptiness, a void wanting to be filled. It might take on the outline of a material object of desire, but a void it remains and every void is alike.
The essence of any desire is the same longing for union, the same keening sense of absence, which in its purity is the one attitude that attracts the Beloved’s merciful eye without fail.
*All quotations from Shams of Tabriz come from Prof. Erkan Türkmen’s Teachings of Shams-i Tabrezi, a selection of Shams’ oral discourses.
Naveen Radha Dasi is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.