4 min read

The Drowned Book

The Drowned Book

Surrendering Notebook Knowledge and Living Your Own Beautiful Questions

Before the great poet Rumi rose into his own, he traveled from town to town teaching from his father's notebook. His father, Bahauddin, had been an important mystic, and his book overflowed with personal notes and wisdom. It was of immense value given its cultural impact on the communities who had looked to Bahauddin for spiritual guidance. It was also of immeasurable importance to Rumi: the book connected him to his father and to his father's wisdom.

But it wasn't Rumi's book.

One day, many gathered around to hear Rumi teach. He rested his father's book on the ledge of the town's fountain. As he spoke, an old man stepped forward from the crowd. Grabbing the book, he threw it into the fountain. Everyone stood in hushed disbelief.

In deep confusion and anguish, Rumi howled "who are you and why are you doing this?" The man replied:

"There comes a time in your life when you have to live what you know. You have to speak from where the voice comes from. It is time for you to live what you have been reading and speaking of. But if you want, we can retrieve the book. It will be perfectly dry. See?"

And he lifts Bahauddin's notebook out, "Dry."

The eccentric old man was Shams, a mystic from the edges of the desert. Rumi followed his advice and set aside his father's book. Freed from the chains of his father's experience, Rumi lived the teachings and found his own, personal, embodied wisdom. Only with this authentic voice was Rumi able to become one of the most greatest poets and spiritual teachers the world has known.

The story of Rumi and The Drowned Book came to me recently in a strange way, and during a difficult time. Its appearance in my life has felt like a synchronicity.

Rumi is a poet who has had a significant impact on me. I have one of his poems on the wall of my office. Translations of his work sit on my bookshelf and on my night stand. I carry with me notes, quotes, snippets of poems... I quite literally travel with my own notebooks of his knowledge.

In 2020 I discovered the online community of notetaking, zettlekasten, "second brains," and other forms of Personal Knowledge Management™. 2020 was for me, as it was for many, a time of great uncertainty. In addition to all the world events, turmoil in my personal life and marriage left me feeling deeply vulnerable and anxious. I become obsessed with Roam Research, which added gasoline to an insatiable drive to catalog and "make" (not "take") notes on the countless books, articles, and videos I consumed.

I thought this behavior came naturally from my innate curiosity and my archetypal Inner Student. But after everything finally fell apart, I was forced to confront my infatuation for what it had been: a last ditch effort to avoid the deeply uncomfortable truth that I was not in control.

This was not an enlightened seeking inspired by my curiosities; it was a desperate clinging driven relentlessly by my fears.

I was afraid. So afraid. I was afraid of all the ways in which the world could hurt me. Of how I could be rejected. My incessant need to collect "wisdom" was my defense mechanism. If I could just somehow learn the right things, reason about it in the right way, capture and catalog all the greatest mental models, then I could be safe and loved.

Safety and love was what I really wanted, not knowledge. I wanted to learn alchemy not for the pursuit of wisdom, but to create a love elixir. I just wanted gold—but the philosopher's stone is useless without lead.

I also believe since this was not my knowledge it relieved me of some personal accountability. Rather than pulling from and respecting my own lived wisdom, which felt paltry, I reached for quotes. I had a neurotic need to trace every idea back and cite all its possible sources and influences. I didn't understand that when you live a teaching, it is yours. You cannot plagiarize wisdom. Its genius lies within your own soul.

I didn't have faith in myself and my own intuition. My soul was not happy with this. My soul wanted to be heard. Within the depths of my subconscious it had knowledge and wisdom that needed to be exercised. My soul also needed to be fed—and the food for the soul is living fully.

So, my soul conspired with the universe to arrange interventions until I began to listen. (And it's not done yet 🤣😭).

The events that have happened for me since 2020 have been an ongoing Shams cycle. My soul-Shams continuously throws my notebook in the fountain and beseeches of me to live. Each time I do, I learn new wisdom. But when I see the notebook is still dry after being pulled from the fountain, I begin to read it once more. Then, predictably, soul-Shams returns to do the necessary again.

I am becoming ok with leaving the book in the fountain. I reach for it less now.

I used to think I was in tune and "knew myself." I have learned I had no idea what that really felt like. What the soothing strength of that "invincible summer" can feel like. What it feels like to look at your own eyes in the mirror and see something deep and strange within: a second soul of sorts, that is also you. I have a lot more to learn but I know my soul will show me: if you begin to walk towards the calling of its voice, it will meet you.

Shams said you must live what you know. As I have been allowing more life to seep into my bones, I've realized this knowing feels less like answers, and sounds more like a question mark.

Rilke, another poet who's words I carry with me, said so beautifully:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Now I ask: what beautiful question am I asking through my living?

Every day I feel a little bit closer. I pray that if I ever find the answer to that question, that it reveals only more beautiful questions.