A wise sage often uses stories to draw us into a new thought or send us in a different direction, and Rumi was no exception. Rather than just hand us the lesson, a sage allows us to accept their stories on several levels. We can always learn something, even from the most obvious level of the story. However, contemplating the symbolic language that was used, can take us on a journey with far-reaching effects.

In the Mathnawi, Rumi told the story of a man who had fallen into a deep sleep under an apple tree. Snoring loudly, with his head tipped back and mouth wide open, he was so far gone he didn’t notice that a small, yet deadly, snake was exploring the cavern of his mouth.

As it happened, a wise man was riding by and happened to notice the snake. The wise man thought he could grab the snake before it did any damage, but he was not quick enough and the frightened snake slipped down the sleeping man’s throat.

The wise man began beating the sleeping man until he was awake and then tried to force him to eat the rotten apples lying on the ground around the tree. When the sleeper protested, the wise man drew his sword and threatened to kill him if he didn’t start eating.

Feeling sure he was dealing with a madman, the sleeper complied and ate until he could swallow no more. He thought the madman would surely leave him alone then, but instead he began chasing him around the tree, waving his sword and screaming.

As they ran faster and faster, the sleeper felt certain this was the worst experience of his life. He screamed for help and shouted curses at the madman, but to no avail. Finally, exhausted and sick, the sleeper fell to the ground and vomited everything he had eaten, including the snake.

When the wise/madman threw himself to the ground shaking with relief, the sleeper finally understood the reason for the seeming madness. When he had recovered enough to speak, the sleeper asked the man why he had not simply shook him awake and explained what had happened.

“And risk giving you a heart attack, or have you faint?” asked the wise man. “If you knew what you had swallowed, you would not have been able to eat the apples, keep running or rid yourself of the snake. So instead of letting you die, I did what I had to do while continually praying it would work.” We could easily think the moral of Rumi’s story was nonjudgment or gratitude for everything that happens, but Rumi had something far deeper in mind.

If we’re in this world, we are the sleeper who has swallowed a poisonous snake. In our case, the poison is slow acting; it keeps us in a sleeping state, unaware of our true nature, while gradually but surely killing the body. The snake symbolizes the misperceptions that we swallow day in and day out from the moment of birth. It begins with social conditioning and grows as we collect our own attachments and aversions.

Instead, we’ve swallowed the snake whole and as long as it remains within, we continue a dreamlike cycle of birth and death as a body. The moment we vomit out these lies, we wake up and are once more aware of that we are not the body or the personality, but the eternal child of Divine Love.

Until we let go of our poisonous misperceptions, the sage often appears to be stark, raving mad. Their words sound like threats and their actions feel like an attack. But like the sleeper, we can’t see the deadly poison we’re carrying until some of it becomes evident to us.

Of course, Rumi understood that a sage can never beat the truth into anyone, although at times most sages wish they could. But that is only because they see so clearly that the misery of this world is completely unnecessary and could quickly come to an end if the poison of this world was vomited up.

Yes, the sleeper believed he was suffering as the wise man forced him to eat rotten apples and run, just as the little self feels that it is being wrongfully abused when it’s confronted with truth. But the sleeper felt that his ‘suffering’ was as nothing once he realized that his life had been saved.

When we first hear the words of a sage, it can be painful to us. And the pain can increase as we vomit out the misperceptions that have kept us in a drugged sleep. Ah, but when we look back, now understanding what life really is, we will be just like the man who nearly slept away yet another lifetime, nothing but grateful.

~ by Lee & Steven Hager in: Spiritual Awakening

The Man Who Swallowed a Snake

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