Ten Thousand Idiots is not one of Hafez’ most popular poems but it is one of his most important.
As the spiritual sojourner progresses on the path s/he moves through various “stages.” One such stage is that of initial awakening. At this stage the sojourner becomes enlivened by the new insights one gains as one begins study and practice. Often this person wishes people to buy into his/her new understanding and even self-appoints as the person who needs to teach others about the path.
Another stage on the path is the mimicry stage. At this stage one adopts the outward form of the chosen path. For instance, a nascent Buddhist might shave one’s head, a nascent Hindu might take a Sanskrit name, while a nascent Christian might adopt a life of ascetic minimalism, etc. What is sometimes lacking, however, is the inner transformation such outward signs are supposed to indicate.
Yet another stage on the path is the stage of false perfection. At this stage one begins to buy into one’s self-assessment of having arrived at a level of spiritual maturity where the fruit of the journey feels ripe, or even complete. It is this stage that Hafez is addressing in this poem.
At this stage one is particularly susceptible to the tendency of the ego to coopt spiritual progress and/or experience. “Look at me, the holy one!” is the unconscious attitude of someone who has given in to this tendency. Such a person might be impressed by one’s spiritual practice, the ability to dispense meaningful advice to friends, or the amount of knowledge one has accumulated. The ego loves this! The ego loves this because this type of self-perception, this state of false perfection can lead one to believe that one has little, if any work left to do on oneself. In other words, the ego is back in control: spiritual stagnation has set in. In Hafez’ words, “the ten thousands idiots” are back in charge and the sojourner is none the wiser.
Stay alert, my friends!
It is always a danger
when they begin
to believe and
as if the ten thousand idiots
who so long ruled
have all packed their bags
and skipped town
We live in a remarkable age. The human spirit has never been freer. For more people than at any time in history, the greatest individual achievements are more possible than ever before, in the arts and sciences, especially. At the same time, the human race has never been in greater peril. All seven billion people on the planet face the possibility of near instantaneous destruction via nuclear war, or some combination of global warming, terrorism, and regional conflict that could plunge the world into a new dark age. It is easy to be an optimist these days. It is also easy to be a pessimist. Energy follows attention…
We also live in an age that caters to our powerful, instinctual drives: sex, food, power, money, creature comforts, the digital world… all the material wants (real or virtual) for which one could ask are ours for the taking. Consequently, the vast majority of us have fallen asleep into the satisfaction of our instinctual drives. So it is little wonder very few of us are taking advantage of the freedom the human spirit now enjoys. It is also little wonder that very few of us seem to register the peril in which we live. We are asleep at the wheel… and the computer… and the ball game… and the five star restaurants… and the resorts… and the movies…
Yet, there are those who still sense life’s deeper meaning, those who never lost the gossamer thin but undeniable conviction that there is more to life than the satisfaction of our instinctual drives, and that we have some spiritual obligation to address the perils in which we live and honor the freedom of the human spirit by becoming more than materialistic automatons. We are to become awake!
This is what Rumi is trying to tell us in the following poem (He refers to the dead letter of theology here but he could just as easily refer to sex, food, power, money, creature comforts, the digital world… etc.). Though the world will sleep on – and it assuredly will - those who are awake, those who feel the pull of love are to let themselves be drawn by that love. Give up on the brain, Rumi tells us, rend the mental garment. Drink the dawn! Take in sunset like supper! Live from that sacred heart space. Then yours will be a unique Presence in the world and who knows, perhaps the siren call of the sacred that will draw some sleepy travelers to God’s majestic shores…
Stay awake, my friends! Feel the pull of love…
Those who don’t feel this Love
pulling them like a river,
those who don’t drink and dawn
like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper,
those who don’t want to change,
Let them sleep.
This Love is beyond the study of theology,
that old trickery and hypocrisy.
If you want to improve your mind that way,
I’ve given up on my brain.
I’ve torn the cloth to shreds
and thrown it away.
If you’re not completely naked,
wrap your beautiful robe of words