Today I had the privilege of working with a homicidal patient who is partial to philosophy. This can present a challenge as a therapist, in that one must steer the patient away from an unhealthy amount of overthinking – and yet insight comes from a certain degree of thinking beyond the garden gate.
My patient quoted a line from a poem by Rumi (see below), so I brought it up on my device and together we tried to untangle the mystery of whether the darkness of mental illness is a guest in our lives, or if we are a guest in the darkness.
We wrestled with how to achieve mindfulness; to tolerate, endure and to even embrace the unexpected or the unwelcome. We contemplated how to find balance. We considered if it is pain or freedom that is fleeting and temporary.
While we mused, she played in the kinetic sand tray on my desk. Afterwards, I observed aloud how, when talking about her pain and darkness, she stabbed at the sand and carved deep but symmetrical gashes. When she spoke of healing and hope, she used the roller to smooth it out. Someone had left the sand in mostly one half of the tray; I commented that as she had approached it, she met it where it was – she did not attempt to rearrange it, only made impressions on it.
“What do you make of that?” she asked.
“Mmmmm….” I paused, “What do YOU make of it?”
She broke out in a broad smile for the first time I’d seen.
Yes, “meet them at the door laughing and invite them in!”
Here is how she left the sand – what do YOU make of it?
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks