By John P. Clark
Rumi’s “Muhammad and the Huge Eater” is a story that tells us how obsessive desires devastate the soul and rob us of things of true value. It also shows us how we can be saved from such destructive forces. In this story, Rumi epitomizes all the sick desires that plague human beings through the ridiculous and revolting image of a figure called the “Huge Eater.” When I read Rumi’s depiction of the Huge Eater, I imagine a character something like “Mr. Creosote,” the extraordinarily large eater in Monte Python’s film The Meaning of Life. The charming Mr. Creosote not only gorges himself to the point that he vomits periodically with the force of a firehose, he continues stuffing himself until he literally explodes. In some ways, Monty Python outdoes Rumi in expressing this deeply disturbing image of obsession and excess.
However, Rumi outdoes even himself in his skillful use of the image of the Huge Eater to convey crucial insights concerning the human condition. He begins by saying that he is not speaking “to materialists,” the Huge Eaters themselves, but “only to those who know spiritual secrets.” He assumes that his readers have some degree of moral and spiritual insight, and that they seek things of true value and desire wisdom about life, including knowledge of how to relate to the Huge Eaters around them in the world. Heobserves that the things sought by those with spiritual insight might be described as “praiseworthy,” but that in fact they have no need for our praise. According to Rumi, “What the sayer of praise is really praising is himself, by saying implicitly, ‘My eyes are clear.’ Likewise, someone who criticizes is criticizing himself, saying implicitly, ‘I can’t see very well with my eyes so inflamed.’” Rumi’s question is not so much one of praise or blame, but concerns, rather, whether we have insight and clarity concerning what is good and valuable, and wisdom about how to pursue them.
Regarding this pursuit, Rumi states a bit cryptically, “Don’t ever feel sorry for someone who wants to be the Sun, that other Sun, the One that makes rotten things fresh.” He means by this the spiritual Sun that illuminates the truth, and whose light emanates through the lenses of the clear-eyed. One hears echoes of Plotinus’s idea that “No eye that has not become like the Sun will ever look upon the Sun.” Rumi adds to this, “Don’t ever envy someone who wants to be this world,” warning against the desire to identify with a lusterless, un-illuminated world. There is, for Rumi, a numinous reality that shines forth through the illuminated world. He implores, “if the nut of the mystery can’t be held, at least let me touch the shell.” True, the reality always goes beyond our perception and understanding, but we do have a kind of access to the numinous realm. Rumi depicts this mode of access as a form of both “seeing” and “touching,” but he also introduces an auditory image. “Awe is the salve that will heal our eyes. And keen, constant listening.” It seems strange to say that “listening” is a cure for the eyes, but Rumi’s point concerns the importance of an all-encompassing awakened awareness, which goes beyond any particular sense. He seems to be describing a kind of spiritual synesthesia and which many “doors of perception” are opened at once.
Another key idea that is introduced at this point is the pivotal nature of awe in the experience of deeper realities. Thus, while “praise” may not be the correct response to the numinous, awe is. Rumi is concerned with a reality that is deeply moving and awe-inspiring, and with our susceptibility or lack of susceptibility to this reality, our capacity to be moved and to be awed. We must open ourselves to this experience and what it reveals. As we will see in the narrative to come, we must not allow our biases and preconceptions to stand in its way. It is important to note that while Rumi says we should shun “the world,” in another sense, he urges us very explicitly to venture out into the world and to embrace it, if we wish ever to encounter the object of our quest. “Stay out in the open like a date palm lifting its arms. Don’t bore mouse-holes in the ground, arguing inside some doctrinal labyrinth.” Here, Rumi implores us not to get wrapped up in our own thoughts, ideas, and theories, and thereby to neglect the marvelous and miraculous world beyond our preoccupations. In addition, he introduces a word that perhaps best describes our proper response to such a world. This takes us an important step closer to the story he is about to tell. The word that describes one’s openness to the wonders of the world is “love.”
Rumi tells us that if we are to manifest the openness and engagement with the world that we call love, we need to pay attention to certain evils that stand in its way. There are four specific vices of this kind, labeled by the Qur’an the “four birds.” These birds are identified as “the rooster of lust, the peacock of wanting to be famous, the crow of ownership, and the duck of urgency.” Some of these evils are traditional ones that are mentioned by many of the great philosophers, who often identify them as the destructive pursuit of “pleasure,” “fame,” and “wealth.” The one that he labels “urgency” is a bit more unusual. Yet, it also has a long history in the wisdom traditions. Interestingly, Rumi does not say that these evils should be eliminated or repressed entirely. Rather, he recommends that we should “kill them and revive them in another form, changed and harmless.” This approach is reminiscent of what Tibetan Buddhism did with all the demons of the old religion, changing them into Bodhisattvas, Deities, Dakinis, etc. William Blake, who abhorred the “braces” of repression and esteemed highly the “relaxes” of open expression, also followed this approach. There is a marriage of Heaven and Hell, not a war of annihilation between the two. Such a procedure recognizes that all these evils contain at their core something important to the human psyche that can be redirected toward beneficial ends.
It might seem strange that of the four metaphorical embodiments of evil, the most pernicious creature of all turns out to be, of all things, a duck. “Help, I’m possessed by a duck!” A different kind of moral and metaphysical imagination might have envisioned it as a ferocious dragon or some kind of “many-headed monster.” But who really relates deeply to such dramatic images? Rumi is more realistic in suggesting that when you are afflicted with this evil, you find something like an annoying duck inside you, pestering you, driving you crazy. Buddhism goes in a similar direction when it describes one of the worst and most ubiquitous mental afflictions as “Monkey Mind.” It is much easier for most of us to escape the monsters and dragons than to conquer the monkeys and ducks. The duck, Rumi says, frantically grabs at one thing after another “like the robber in an empty house cramming objects in his sack, pearls, chickpeas, anything.” We are confronted with certain imperious urges that are obsessive, compulsive, insatiable, greedy, all-consuming, appropriating, predatory, and domineering. In a quest for satisfaction through dominion over the objects of desire, we open ourselves up to all forms of domination.
This is another point at which Rumi’s Sufism converges with the Buddhist diagnosis of the human condition. The underlying problem in both cases is all-consuming obsessive desire, what Buddhism calls trishna or taṇhā, an unquenchable thirst for what cannot possibly be attained. This is also the theme of David Lynch’s great film, Lost Highway, which depicts the murderous nature of such desire and culminates in a scene in which “Alice Wakefield” the fantasized object of desire, says to her doomed, unawakened and unawakenable pursuer, “You’ll never have me!” According to Rumi, the victim of such obsession is “always thinking, ‘There’s no time! I won’t get another chance!’” But it’s really the same sick process, over, and over again. Buddhism depicts those with the character-structure of Rumi’s “Huge Eater” as a “Hungry Ghost,” a distorted being with a huge stomach, somewhat like Monty Python’s “Mr. Creosote,” but with a narrow, tiny neck, so that it can’t possibly stuff enough food down its throat to satisfy itself, but must spend all its time trying. It grows more and more desperate, more and more grotesque, as a result.
The next passage suggests that Rumi is not only revealing age-old truths about the human condition, but that he has a message that is particularly well-suited for our own age. Ours is the era in which the “Huge Eater” has reached an unprecedented level of enormity. Rumi describes the Huge Eater as a kind of being that is “so afraid of missing out that it’s lost all generosity,” and one that has “frighteningly expanded its capacity to take in food.” Especially if we take “food” and “eating” in the metaphorical sense that Rumi intends, this seems like an apt description of the ideal consumer in the Age of Mass Consumption. It’s not only that the masses massif themselves as a mass through mass consumption. “Frighteningly,” each consumer strives to turn him or herself in a mass. Perhaps the most frightening thing of all is how few are frightened today by this sad state of affairs.
Finally, in concluding this part of the text, Rumi mentions the alternative to the Huge Eater. Once again, we find commonalities between Rumi and Buddhism. The alternative to the Huge Eater is the Mindful Person who is diligent in seeking the good. As Rumi states it, “a True Person is more calm and deliberate. He or she doesn’t worry about interruptions.” We will haer more about this Person later. At this point, having explained the nature of the disease, and having briefly mentioned what a cure might look like, Rumi is ready to present the core of the text, the details of the story of the Huge Eater.
The story begins with a large group of Muhammad’s guests arriving at his home. The guests are “unbelievers,” that is, they are people who have no interest in the “spiritual secrets” mentioned by Rumi. Each of Muhammad’s friends takes responsibility for one guest, desiring to help Muhammad to be a good host. However, they all avoid one guest, the Huge Eater, whom they find repellant. So Muhammad himself takes this guest in. It would seem that the intuition of Muhammad’s friends was correct, since this guest turns out to be an extraordinarily greedy and voracious character. He breaks all the rules of good guesthood, going so far as to consume everything in the house, including “the milk of seven goats and enough food for eighteen people!” Everyone is appalled, and when the Eater later goes to his room for the night, the resentful maid locks him in.
This is where the story gets extremely interesting, if also extremely gross. During the night, the Huge Eater feels “strong urges.” He desperately tries to pry the door open, without success. He gives up, falls into delirious sleep, and then, while not literally exploding like Mr. Creosote, “squeezes out a huge amount, and another huge amount.” He emerges slightly from his oblivion and realizes that he and the covers around him are all covered in excrement. He begins to become vaguely aware of certain connections. He remarks, “my sleep is worse than my being awake. The waking is just full of food. My sleep is all this.” He begins to consider the possibility that being awake is better than being asleep. Maybe a life in which one is fully awake might be better than one consisting of various levels of oblivion. One might even sleep better when one is asleep if one is awake better when one is awake.
This is where the link to the society of mass consumption becomes most evident. It is significant that the person who helps Muhammad teach the Huge Eater a lesson is a maid or housekeeper, someone responsible for the condition of the household or oikos. By locking the Eater in, she teaches him that there is a connection between his voluminous consumption and his inordinate production of waste. Even more important, the Eater learns a lesson about the connection between an unawakened waking life and a nightmarish sleeping life. Rumi describes the Eater’s waking life as being awake only to the objects of obsessive desire, and the rest of his existence as a kind of sleep or oblivion. However, the oblivion is not quietude. It is traumatically shaken by the return of the repressed; we might even say, by the materially or spiritually undigested. The repressed returns materially through the torrent of excrement that is unleashed. And it returns mentally and spiritually as the Eater becomes “conscious enough” to perceive the filth all around him and to “shake with spasms of shame” as a result.
Here, Rumi describes a momentous phenomenon. He shows how the trauma of confronting the Real can have a transformative effect. The confrontation with the Real in this case consists of the Huge Eater’s traumatic awakening to the effects of his gluttony, but it describes equally the point at which the members of the society of mass consumption begin to experience traumatically the consequences of their devastation of the natural world, and the degradation of their own social world. The problem so far, according to the story, has been that even as the traumatic effects have gotten worse and the household has become more and more defiled, devastated, and despoiled, the Huge Eater, the well-disciplined consumer, has not yet awakened fully to what is happening. The Eater is like the person of today who has some awareness of the catastrophic direction we are headed in, but cannot become fully aware, or act in accord with this awareness. The Eater is like the person of today who does not completely deny reality, but rather recognizes it and then disavows it. the result of the disavowal is the same as the result of denial. Catastrophe.
But Rumi’s story does not stop here. It continues, and there is a happy ending. The last part of the story is truly wonderful. It is a kind of warning that trauma may be salutary but not ultimately salvific. It often creates only a temporary wakening, and then the shaken and partially awakened person lapses back into obsession and oblivion. So, Rumi explains how more can be done to make the transformative experience a form of true and enduring liberation.
In the end, the Huge Eater is saved! The manner in which this deliverance is carried out sounds like a miracle. Muhammad “becomes invisible so the man won’t feel ashamed.” In doing this, Muhammad gives us excellent advice. We just have to become invisible and then we can do all kinds of good things! Unfortunately, we often find this rather difficult to do. We not only want to save, we want to be a Savior. But this is just the opposite of what we need to do. Rather than being conspicuous, we need to “become imperceptible” (as Gilles Deleuze says in a related context), and merely help the person in need do what is necessary. Muhammad says we should be like Laozi’s Anarchist Prince, the ruler who rules by not ruling. Laozi says that the best rulers are perhaps not even known by the people, and they are certainly not known as “rulers.” Like Muhammad in Rumi’s story, they quietly help create the conditions so that “all happens as it needs to happen.” This is possible for someone who is in no way self-absorbed, but rather completely absorbed in what some call the Divine, and others call the Dao.
This is the true meaning of what Aristotle called phronesis or “practical wisdom,” and what in Buddhism is called upaya or “skillful means.” It requires that we always be ready to expect the unexpected, including the unexpected things that each unique situation requires of us. Rumi points out that, unexpectedly, or counterintuitively, “many actions which seem cruel” in fact flow from “a deep Friendship.” Nietzsche wisely said that to be a good friend you must know how to be a good enemy. But Rumi knew even more about friendship than Nietzsche did, as this story shows. Rumi also says that “many demolitions are actually renovations.” This is reminiscent of Bakunin, who said that the urge to destroy is also a creative urge. But Rumi knew more about creative destruction than Bakunin did, as the story shows. In his story, the adversarial acts, the cruelty, and the destructiveness are all at the service of deep love. This becomes clear as the story proceeds.
Muhammad takes on the task of washing the Huge Eater’s filthy bedclothes. All of Muhammad’s household and friends offer to help. This shows that Muhammad’s compassionate example has already had a transforming effect on everyone, for earlier they had shunned the Huge Eater, and would certainly not have touched his dirty linen. Given the centrality of this act to the story, it also shows that the most important work in the world is work that seems to many to be mundane, if not degrading. It has been called “women’s work,” “servants’ work,” and even “shit work.” Rumi’s point is similar to Dogen Zenji’s message in his wonderful text, “Instructions to the Cook.” In that little work, he explains that to be the cook is the highest possible spiritual calling and the greatest possible honor. As the famous Zen saying goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” To which Dogen adds, “Do the cooking.” And Rumi adds, “Wash the bedclothes.” Muhammad rejects a follower’s suggestion that he should not engage in the mundane, because “Yours is the inner heart-work.” However, Muhammad shows through his action that the inner heart-work can also be the outer hand-work. “There is great wisdom in washing these bedclothes,” he says, “Wash them.”
Finally, the Huge Eater returns to the scene. He has been profoundly transformed—though perhaps not yet deeply enough. He needs further instruction, a further traumatic experience through an encounter with the mysterium tremendum, and something more. We are told that the Eater “has left behind an amulet that he always carried.” We might interpret this amulet as a kind of Lacanian objet petit a, in which the object of consumption is the object of obsessive and self-destructive desire, part of a failed fundamental fantasy that still needs to be overcome. In fact the related Lacanian conception of the agalma as the alluring quality of the object is even more apt, since the term originally referred to a “cult object” or amulet. Rumi tells us that in his effort to regain this object, the Huge Eater “enters and sees the Hands of God washing his incredibly dirty linen.”
This is the transformative experience. At this point, the Huge Eater comes into contact with something much more vast than his small egoic self (something symbolized as “the Hands of God”), and he comes to a realization of how his own well-being, indeed his own being, depends on this greater reality. So, the Eater “forgets the amulet.” His commodity fetishism goes down the drain with the filthy laundry water. Instead, “a great love suddenly enters him.” The love that was directed toward his own egoic self, and toward the objects of his compulsive craving (which are only extensions and “inflations” of that very self), is redirected toward the world. He experiences a great turning within the depths of his being, a turning toward spirit. This is what Joel Kovel describes in his classic work History and Spirit as “what happens to us as the boundaries of the self give way.”
In case anyone might wonder how traumatic this ultimately transformative experience really is, Rumi gives us a few hints. The Eater tears his shirt open, beats his head against the wall, shrieks wildly, and then lapses into silent quivering. Rumi is here describing certain obvious withdrawal symptoms, but they relate not only to physiological and psychological withdrawal, but also, and above all, to withdrawal on the most fundamental ontological level. The Eater is in the process of overcoming his addiction to the experience of obsessive consumption, and the objects of that obsession, something that can only be achieved through a break with his identification with his voracious ego as his “true self.” Rumi points out that, for this break to succeed, an intermediate stage in the process of liberation must be traversed. This is a reactive stage in which the break with egocentrism and excessive self-assertion leads to a process of excessive self-negation. The Eater shows that he is at this stage when he tells Muhammad, “You are the Whole. I am a despicable, tiny, meaningless piece. I can’t look at You.” The Eater has gone from being huge and constantly expanding to being less than nothing. He has gone from thinking of himself as the center of the universe to thinking of himself as an insignificant and worthless detail of that universe. At this point, further compassionate intervention is needed if the healing and transformation process is to continue.
There might seem to be enormous (huge!) obstacles in the way of such compassionate action. The Eater is the horrifying antithesis of everything in Muhammad’s message. It is not surprising that initially all of the Prophet’s followers were repulsed by him and shunned him contemptuously. Rumi shows that this is not the correct attitude toward those who are enslaved to destructive impulses and obsessions. In contrast to his friends, Mohammad responds to the Huge Eater with limitless love and compassion. True, it is tough love. But the toughness is entirely in the service of the love. The toughness is conditional, but the love is unconditional. So “Muhammad bends over and holds him and caresses him and opens his inner knowing.” It is striking that it is ultimately this compassion that heals the Eater, not the original negative trauma or any formal, conceptual instruction concerning the good, as helpful and even necessary as these means certainly are. It is, in the end, an act of love that converts the Eater from his egocentric, alienated, destructive path.
At this point, Rumi concludes the narrative and begins to address the reader more directly. He introduces an image of the nature of things that is the dialectical opposite of his image of the Huge Eater. The Eater is a being who responds only to his own obsessive desire to consume. He always takes and never freely gives. He hoards all that he appropriates. He is in the grips of a kind of demonic possession, both in the sense of being possessed personally by his demons, and also in the sense of participating in a larger system of possession, or property system, that is at its roots demonic. In such systemic possession, what is consumed and accumulated is cut off from the normal psychological and ecological cycles and flows. It is cut off from the whole, the natural and social oikos. The distortion and alienation of the psyche or soul is the result of obsessively feeding the growth of the all-consuming ego.
This distortion and alienation is expressed in the grotesque physical image of the Huge Eater, but it is fundamentally about a grotesque spiritual distortion. It is just as likely (and today is perhaps more likely) that the Huge Eater will be fashionably thin and quite attractive physically. “You can never be too thin or two rich”—for spiritual death. Sometimes, the thinner and richer, the better. Similarly, the disruption of the ecological dimension is expressed through the disturbing image of Huge Eater’s enormous retention of feces that ultimately pollutes everything around it. The Eater defiles even the household of the Prophet’s through his self-indulgence. Similarly, the inordinate processes of consumption and accumulation in the society of mass consumption pollute and ruin everything around it, including the sacred Earth household. In both cases, in the psychological or spiritual realm, and also in the ecological one, there is a disordered relationship between the “inner” and the “outer.”
On this topic, Rumi reveals one of the “spiritual secrets” that are sought by his true readers. He depicts a quite different relationship between “inner” and “outer,” a relation that is not only the correct spiritual path but that also follows the path of nature. He observes that “The cloud weeps, and then the garden sprouts. The baby cries, and the mother’s milk flows. The Nurse of Creation has said, Let them cry a lot.” This passage is reminiscent of Laozi’s beautiful passage concerning the Way of Nature: “Heaven and Earth combine to drip sweet dew. Without the command of man, it drips evenly over all.” Rumi explains that just as the sweet dew of vivifying rain falls equally on all (something that in our own era can no longer be taken for granted), so the sweet dew of compassion must fall equally on all. Even on the Huge Eater! Even on the Consuming Masses of the Spectacular Commodity Economy!
Rumi summarizes the message of the story as follows: “This rain-weeping and sun-burning twine together to make us grow.” This is a dual image that refers to the realms of both oikos and psyche. It alludes to the literal rain that nourishes and cleanses the Earth and all living beings, and to the literal sun that illuminates the Earth and all living beings, and which gives them the power to grow. But it also refers to the spiritual rain of compassion and the spiritual sun of illuminating wisdom that that bring the soul to the Truth. Rumi’s Sufism here comes very close to the spiritual iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, in which the two great Bodhisattvas are Avalokiteśvara, the Boddhisattva of Compassion, and Mañjuśrī , the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. His injunction to “keep your intelligence white-hot and your grief glistening, so your life will stay fresh” reiterates this emphasis on the central place of both wisdom and compassion in the liberated and realized spiritual life.
The delusive conventional wisdom of the world, ever since the beginning of patriarchy, has exalted a kind of “strength of character” (rigid character-armor) based on domination and accumulation that represses and denies deep love and empathy. Thus, Rumi says, “listen to the Prophets, not to some adolescent boy.” World history has been under the sway of patriarchal power-seeking, the social ideology of the adolescent boy, and egocentrism, the social ontology of the adolescent boy. Rumi challenges this dominant course of history when he exhorts us to “cry easily like a little child,” that is, to live deeply responsive lives that are open to all the joys, suffering, and beauty of the world. “Diminish what you give your physical self,” he says. Stop feeding the egocentric, accumulating, appropriating self, alias, the Huge Eater!
When this happens, “your spiritual eye will begin to open.” As this eye opens, you begin see beyond the reductive hierarchical and dualistic vision of the system of domination, and achieve a kind of Blakean manifold vision of a restored wholeness and reconciliation that affirms the value and sacredness of the manifold beings in the world (Laozi’s “Ten Thousand Things”). According to Rumi, “when the body empties and stays empty, God fills it with musk and mother-of pearl.” Much as in the Buddhist concept of sunyata or emptiness, to be “empty” means, paradoxically, to be open the greatest possible fullness, for Rumi, by emptying oneself one opens oneself to the greatest richness of content. Renunciation of the illusory and impossible quest for egoic fulness means reconnecting with the fullness of the whole, which is in reality an always-becoming-whole and an always-becoming-full. Seven centuries before Freud verified this through dream interpretation, Rumi knew that possessive individualism was nothing more than a futile attempt to accumulate excrement as part of an ego-building quest for power and control.
Rumi says that in the process of spiritual liberation a person “gives updung” and “gets purity.” This is not purity in some obsessive-compulsive perfectionist sense. It is the kind of purity that results from the cleansing powers of “rain and tears.” It is the kind of purity that we find when we discover with Hakuin Zenji that “the very Earth on which we stand is the Pure Lotus Land.” Rumi realizes, of course, that we cannot achieve such liberation alone, but only in community. The concluding lines of this text are an amazing and prophetic description of the kind of compassionate community that is needed to achieve personal and social transformation.
Stay with Friends who support you in [the necessary disciplines].
Talk with them about sacred texts,
and how you’re doing, and how they’re doing,
and keep your practices together.
This is a depiction of the kind of sangha, base community, or affinity group that that we so desperately need at this crucial point in the history of the Earth. This is the community of liberation and solidarity, the community of awakening and care. In our era, the Necrocene—the New Era of Death, in both spiritual and biological senses, the Era of Nihilism and Annihilation—it must also be a community of revolutionary social transformation. It must be the era of a Great Turning of the kind that has only been seen twice before in World History, first in the Agricultural Revolution that gave rise to the state, patriarchy and private property, and then in the Industrial and Technological Revolution that gave rise to global state capitalism, mass consumption, and the technological megamachine. In the end, it has produced what we might describe as one “Huge Eater,” the reigning Monster called Empire that is intent on consuming the entire biosphere, and turning it into a wasteland.
We are now at the end of the system of domination, once called “Civilization,” that produced those great revolutions. The Huge Eater is not long for this world. The burning question is whether “this world,” in the sense of humanity and most of life on Earth, can survive the death of Empire, and regenerate and renew itself. The process of renewing the Earth can only succeed, in Rumi’s terms, if it is nourished by cleansing rain and the cleansing tears. Thus, everything depends on our careful attention and dedication, as transformative communities, to the regeneration of both oikos and psyche.