Dear Rumi … Why Am I Here?
Tell Me About Work And Life Purpose
Why am I here? Is there a purpose to my life?
What about work, is there a relationship between my making a living and my purpose?
Rumi tells us that yes there is a reason we are here and we do have a true purpose.
“Someone said: ‘I have neglected that true purpose.’
Rumi replied: When this thought enters a person’s mind and they criticize themselves, saying, ‘What am I about, and why do I do these things?’ When this happens, it is a sure sign that the person is actually loved and cared for. ‘Love continues so long as reprimands continue,’ said the poet. We may reprimand our friends, but we never reprimand a stranger.” ~Rumi 
In Rumi’s wonderful and paradoxical ways, your pain and confusion about why you are here is the sign that you are loved and cared for. So let us see what else he can tell us in response to our questions.
Social self and essential self
As we shall see, our true purpose has to do with how we see ourselves, that is to say how we identify ourselves. Let us provide some background first. Rumi says:
“At first, man is in bondage to eating and sleeping; ultimately he is higher than the angels.” ~Rumi 
“There are three kinds of creatures. First there are angels, who are pure higher intellect. …
Second are the beasts who are pure sensuality, they do not have conscience, the kind of intellect to restrain them. …
Lastly, there remains the poor human being, who is a compound of higher intellect and sensuality. We are half angel, half beast. Half snake, half fish. The fish draws us toward water, the snake toward the earth. We are forever in battle. If our higher intellect overcomes our sensuality, we are higher than the angels. If our sensuality overcomes our higher intellect, we are lower than the beasts.” ~Rumi 
We are this complex multifaceted being, “forever in battle” and potentially evolving to know and identify with our higher self while still in our physical body with our unique personality traits. Let us use the term “social self” for our “sensual” aspect including our ordinary intellect, our unique life history and personality traits. And let us call our “higher intellect” aspect; which is our core and essence; the “essential self“. The social self is our familiar self which is shaped around our essential self and is developed in relation to others with its roots in our history beginning with the history of our family of origin. In contrast our essential self lives in the here and now independent of our personal history. Our essential self is present and that is why it is “real”; unlike our social self which experiences a distorted version of reality filtered through our conditioned mind, our memories, ideas, and beliefs.
By the way if you are wondering this might mean we suffer Multiple Personality Disorder, the answer is no. The self is only one; the point is weather we identify more with our social self or more with our essential self. Whether our life is driven and guided more by our social self or our essential self; while still operating in the world with our physical and personal characteristics.
Even though spellbound by this world; in your inner sense you are a jewel mine.
Open your inner eye; return to your origin…your essential self. ~Rumi 
Our purpose, the most important task that only humans are capable of
In Discourse-4 of Fihi Ma Fihi Rumi tells us:
“There is one thing in this world that must never be forgotten. If you were to forget all else, but did not forget that, then you would have no reason to worry. But if you performed and remembered everything else, yet forgot that one thing, then you would have done nothing whatsoever. All things are assigned a task. The heavens send rain and light for the herbs of the field to germinate and spring into life. The earth receives the seeds and bears fruit, it accepts and reveals a hundred thousand marvels too numerous to tell. The mountains give forth mines of gold and silver. All these things the heavens, the earth and the mountains do, yet they do not perform that one thing; that particular task is performed by us.
We did indeed offer the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains;
but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof;
but man undertook it; he was indeed unjust and foolish.’
So, people are given a task, and when they perform it, all their unjustness and foolishness is dissolved.” ~Rumi 
What is this most important task and what is meant by the Trust that humans have undertaken? In the following poem Rumi tells us about the purpose of creation and our intertwined true purpose:
“The universe is created for the purpose of manifestation; so that the treasures of wisdom and wonders may not remain hidden. The Truth said: ‘I was a hidden treasure’. Hearken! Do not let your essence be lost, become manifest!” ~Rumi 
Our true purpose is then to uncover our essential self (Do not let your essence be lost), to “become manifest”. Rumi’s son and commentator, Sultan Valad also writes:
“Hence, journey within and know yourself, since there is no benefit in knowledge of other things. The key is to know oneself, that which belongs to you. Putting effort into knowing other things is like working on someone else’s land, the profit of which would not be yours.” ~Sultan Valad 
Therefore, that most important task is to know oneself, to realise oneself.
What is the above-mentioned Trust then?
What does this purpose of self-realisation actually mean?
Self-realisation is self knowing. It involves examining our familiar social self but does not stop there. We venture deeper into our inner realms to deconstruct our social self through inquiring into our thoughts, ideas, feelings, emotions, choices, reactions, relationships, hardships, loses and triumphs. It might sound esoteric and other-worldly but actually this journey is the most real one. Self-knowing is knowing oneself in the here and now facing the challenges of the world. The spiritual aspects of self-knowing do not carry the usual religious motivation and apparatus of hope and fear. It is not just metaphysical and is not about avoiding sins here in return for rewards and escaping punishment in here and the other world. Rumi clearly tells us that knowing God is knowing our essential self:
“Hence the Prophet expounded this (matter), (when he said), “Whoso knoweth himself knoweth God.” ~Rumi 
“You are your own bird, your own prey, and your own snare too;
you are your own seat of honour, your own floor, and your own roof too.” ~Rumi 
“No legs needed, choose to go within; be affected by the light, like the ruby mine.
Journey from your social self to your (essential) self:
it is such journey that turns into gold, the dirt of the mine. ~Rumi 
Other terms such as awakening, enlightenment, and Abraham Maslow’s self-actualisation convey similar meanings (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).
Knowing all else but our essential self (The learned dumb prince)
In another interesting story, Rumi emphasises that no knowledge; no matter how lofty, intricate and exciting; is as significant as knowledge of the self.
“A certain king entrusted his son to a team of learned scholars. In due course, they taught him the sciences of astrology, geometry, and the interpretation of signs, until he became a complete master, despite his utter stupidity and dullness of wit. One day the king took a ring in his fist and put his son to the test.
‘Come, tell me what I am holding in my fist.’ ‘What you are holding is round, yellow, inscribed and hollow’ the prince answered. ‘You have given all the signs correctly,’ the king said. ‘Now say what it is.’ ‘It must be a sieve.’ the prince replied. ‘What?’ cried the king. ‘You know all the minute details, which would baffle the minds of anyone. How is it that out of all your powerful learning and knowledge, the small point has escaped you that a sieve will not fit in a fist?’
In this same way, the great scholars of the age split hairs on details of all matters. They know perfectly and completely about all things external to them. But as for what is truly of importance and touches us more closely than anything else; namely our essential self; this, your great scholars do not know. They make statements about everything, saying, ‘This is right and that is wrong. This is allowed (halal), that is prohibited (haram)’. Yet, they do not know their own self, whether it is allowed or prohibited, true or false, pure or impure.
Now being hollow and yellow, inscribed and circular, these features are accidental; cast the ring into the fire and none of them will remain. It becomes its essential self, purified of all appearances. So it is with the knowledge of scholars; what they know has no connection with the essential reality that alone exists when all these ‘signs’ are gone. They speak wisely, expound at great length, and finally pronounce that what the king has in his hand is a sieve. They have no knowledge about the root of the matter: life’s purpose.” ~Rumi 
Hence, once again your purpose is to discover you as your essential self, and to be comfortably you.
Our excuses not to fulfill our task (Do not sell yourself short)
Let us go back to Discourse 4 of Fihi Ma Fihi;
“You say, ‘Look at all the work I do accomplish, even if I do not perform that task.’ You weren’t created for those other tasks! It is just as if you were given a sword of priceless Indian steel, such as can only be found in the treasuries of kings, and you were to treat it as a butcher’s knife for cutting up putrid meat, saying, ‘I am not letting this sword stand idle, I am using it in so many useful ways.’ Or it is like taking a solid gold bowl to cook turnips in, when a single grain of that gold could buy a hundred pots. Or it is as if you took a jewel studded dagger of the finest temper to hang a broken gourd from, saying, ‘I am making good use of it. I am hanging a gourd on it. I am not letting this dagger go to waste.’ How foolish that would be! … A poet once said:
‘You are more precious than heaven and earth. What more can I say? You do not know your own worth.
You are priceless, do not sell yourself short.’
Still you offer another excuse, saying, ‘But I apply myself to lofty tasks. I study law, philosophy, logic, astronomy, medicine and the rest.’ Well, for whose sake but your own do you study these? … When you reflect on this matter you will notice that you are at the core of all these (external) studies. You are the root and they are but branches of you. If these derivative subjects are filled with so many marvels and worlds of knowledge without end, consider what wonders the study of you would entail, you who are the root! If your branches have their laws, their medicines, their histories; think of what transpires within you who are the source; to know what spiritual laws and medicines affect the soul; what qualities a certain soul has and what she is made for!” ~Rumi 
As discussed earlier, the special bundle entrusted upon us contains love and choice. Love is the pulling force towards the truth but is not enough on its own. We also need dedication and determination to overcome myriad of distractions, dependencies and choices we come across in our journey. Rumi illustrates this point by a humorous story involving the love-crazed Majnun riding his camel to his beloved Leila.
“When Majnun, as the story goes, was making for his beloved Leila’s home, as long as he was fully conscious he drove his camel in that direction. But when for a moment he became absorbed in the thought of Laila and forgot his camel, the camel turned in its tracks toward the village where its foal was kept. On coming to his senses, Majnun found that he had gone back a distance of two day’s journey. For three months he continued this way, coming no closer to his goal. Finally he jumped off the camel, saying, “This camel is the ruin of me!” and continued on foot, singing:
My camel’s desire is now behind, my own desire is before.
Our purposes were crossed, we can agree no more.” ~Rumi 
It’s not about worldly achievements (The dragon appearing as a worm)
There is nothing inherently wrong with being successful and a big achiever in worldly terms. Self-realisation, however, does not necessarily mean that all of us have to be successful or big achievers. Appearances can be deceptive, there can be highly successful, popular, influential, powerful and famous people on earth who are not awakened, who are stuck in identification with their social self. In contrast there can be those who might seem unpopular, lowly and obscure but are awakened to their essential self. Rumi describes this vividly as two worms inside an apple.
“Imagine the skies and the earth all to be an apple; manifested by the tree of Truth.
Now see yourself as a worm inside this apple; unaware of the tree and the gardener.
Inside the apple, there is another worm; but this one’s soul is connected outside, as if with a pole.
Its movements pierce out through the apple; the apple does not take this damage too well!
Its movements torn the veils; it appears like a worm, but is a dragon in truth.” ~Rumi 
Piercing out through the apple does not necessarily mean being an achiever, a real doer. On the path of self-realisation actions are of a different nature; they are rather “being” oriented than “doing” oriented.
“Know that my eyes are asleep, but my heart is awake; know that in truth, my seemingly inactive form is in action.
Your eyes are awake, but your heart is sunk in slumber; my eyes are asleep, but my heart is opening doors.
My heart possesses five extra sense organs; my heart experiences both worlds (material and spiritual).” ~Rumi 
It’s not about job promotions (Bosses of this world!)
Being diligent and an honest hard worker is a virtue but in many instances people can be exploited by their bosses if their focus is on being promoted rather than on their most important task which is self-realisation. Let’s read Rumi’s interesting story about this matter:
“A certain mystic once said: I went to the baths to expand my heart, since the baths had become the place of retreat for certain saints. I saw that the master of the bath stove had an apprentice. The master was telling the apprentice, ‘Do this and do that.’ The apprentice was working briskly, and the stove gave off good heat because of how nimbly the orders were obeyed. ‘Fine,’ said the master. ‘Be nimble like this. If you are always energetic and mind your manners, I will give you my own position, and appoint you to my own place.’ I was overcome with laughter and my heavy heart expanded, for I saw that bosses of this world all behave like this with their apprentices.” ~Rumi 
Relationship between making a living doing what you enjoy doing and self-realisation
Do you need to work jobs that you enjoy doing in order to be aligned with your purpose of self-realisation? Ultimately yes but not necessarily so all the time. Your focus must remain on your self-realisation task, not on jobs that you enjoy doing; or conversely on jobs you hate doing but are paid well for or attached to its prestige and power.
On the path of self-realisation, as we get to know ourselves more intimately, we gradually disidentify from our social self and begin identifying with our essential self. Our expectations and taste also change and become increasingly more aligned with our truth. Whereas following the desires and expectations of our social self could be misleading in discerning what we truly enjoy doing, and what ultimately serves us best.
“In this world everyone is preoccupied with one thing or another. One is in love with women, one is engaged in acquiring possessions, another in business, another in acquiring knowledge. Everyone believes that their cure, their joy, their pleasure and comfort can be found in that one thing, and that their thing is the Divine grace. But when they search there they cannot find, and so they return. After they have waited a while, they say again, ‘That joy and pleasure must be looked for. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough. I will search again.’ Then they look again, but still they cannot find their desire. So they continue, until that time when Truth removes Its veil. Then they know that was not the path.” ~Rumi 
The predominant modern worldview sees humans living in a purposeless universe where one is simply an individual responsible for creating one’s own meaning; influenced by others, the society and environment; yet separate from everything else. In contrast, Rumi (and Perennial Philosophy in general) offer us a different perspective. This perspective is not only more realistic but also more elegant and intuitively correct. In Rumi’s universe nothing is isolated, everything is connected to everything else and one’s life and work is an essential element of the whole. In this view, what we do for a living does not take its value from its worldly ranking, status or the level of enjoyment it provides. The value rather lies in whether what we do supports us in our mission of self-realisation or not.
Once our perspective has shifted from worldly comfort and success to becoming real and knowing our truth, then the decision about what to do for a living becomes much easier. We would be happy and content with whatever job we can find that serves the community and supports us on our journey of self-realisation regardless of the level of income, importance or hardship.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” ~Rabindranath Tagore
-Hamid Homayouni (May 2014)
Copyright notice: Content and poem translations can be used freely for non-commercial use on the condition that they are clearly acknowledged and attributed. Commercial use without written permission is prohibited.
Translations: All English translation from Persian(Farsi) are by Hamid Homayouni, either originally or as review updates and/or corrections from available English translations. Mathnawi by R.A. Nicholson. Fihi Ma Fihi by A.J. Arberry.
1- Rumi, Fihi Ma Fihi (Discourses of Rumi), Discourse 6.
Discourses of Rumi OMPHALOSKEPSIS Publications. You can download a free pdf version here.
2- Rumi, Mathnawi, Book-IV, 1876
مرد اول بسته خواب و خور است // آخرالامراز ملایک بر تر است
3-Rumi, Fihi Ma Fihi (Discourses of Rumi), Discourse 17.
4- Rumi, Divan-e Shams, ghazal No. 120
هر چند طلسم این جهانی // در باطن خویشتن تو کانی
بگشای دو دیده نهانی // آخر تو به اصل اصل خویش آ
5- Rumi, Fihi Ma Fihi (Discourses of Rumi), Discourse 4.
6- Rumi, Mathnawi, Book IV, 3028-29
بهر اظهار است این خلق جهان // تا نماند گنج حکمت ها نهان
کنت کنزا گفت مخفیا شنو // جوهر خود گم مکن، اظهار شو
7- Sultan Valad (Rumi’s son and commentator). Cited in Minagar Eshgh, Karim Zamani, p 231
“سلطان ولد فرزند مولانا و مفسر آثار او می گوید: ” پس سیر در خود کن و به معرفت خود مشغول شو که معرفت چیز دیگر تو را سود ندارد و اصل، شناخت خود است که با تو این تعلق دارد. باقی در شناخت چیز های دیگر همچنان است که رنجی بر زمین دیگران می بری و منفعت آن بر تو عاید نخواهد شدن
8- According to Dr. Hossein Elahi Ghomshei in “365 Days in Conversation with the Qur’an”, (p 607), citing Rumi and other sages, the Divine “Trust” that humans were “foolish and unjust” to undertake (The Qur’an 33:72) refers to love and choice (free will).
9- Rumi, Mathnawi, Book V, 2114
بهر آن پیغمبر این را شرح ساخت // هر که خود بشناخت، یزدان را شناخت
10- Rumi, Mathnavi, Book IV, 807
مرغ خویشی، صید خویشی، دام خویش // صدر خویشی، فرش خویشی، بام خویش
11- Rumi, Divan-e Shams, ghazal No. 1142
وگر تو پای نداری سفر گزین در خویش // چو کان لعل پذیرا شو از شعاع اثر
ز خویشتن سفری کن به خویش ای خواجه // که از چنین سفری گشت خاک معدن زر
12- Rumi, Mathnawi, Book IV, 1869-1873
آسمانها و زمین یک سیب دان // کز درخت قدرت حق شد عیان
تو چه کرمی در میان سیب در // وز درخت و باغبانی بیخبر
آن یکی کرمی دگر در سیب هم // لیک جانش از برون صاحبعلم
جنبش او وا شکافد سیب را // بر نتابد سیب آن آسیب را
بر دریده جنبش او پردهها // صورتش کرمست و معنی اژدها
13- Rumi, Mathnawi, Book II, 3548 …
چشم من خفته دلم بیدار دان // شکل بی کار مرا بر کار، دان
چشم تو بیدار و، دل خفته به خواب // چشم من خفته، دلم در فتح باب
مر دلم را پنج حس دیگرست // حس دل را هر دو عالم منظرست
14- Rumi, Fihi Ma Fihi (Discourses of Rumi), Discourse-58, p 380
15- Rumi, Fihi Ma Fihi (Discourses of Rumi), Discourse 7, p 51