The recent terror attacks in Egypt reminded me of many things from my own life. Because the majority of people killed were Sufis, I thought about how I used to read poetry and stories written by the Islamic mystics.
Before I became psychotic the first time, I used to read a lot about mysticism, spirituality, and religion. I had several books about the Sufis (the mystics of Islam). I was fascinated by the poetry and stories of this sect of Islam. One story that I read (and I have never been able to find it again, and that alone would make a good Sufi story), was about a man who went on a “Sufi Journey.” In his travels, he had meetings with some Sufi masters. One such meeting was with a man, and at that man’s house, a woman was walking around in her nightgown unraveling a tangled ball of yarn. She walked, unraveled, walked, unraveled. When the man trying to learn more about Sufism asked about her, the master said something like; she needs to untangle the yarn. She will be fine. On his journey, he visited that master’s house a couple of times over a several year period, and the woman was always there, always in her nightgown endlessly trying to unravel the yarn. Years later he saw the same woman, she was a successful businesswoman in London, living a remarkable life.
When I read the story, the woman was described as someone who was mentally ill; possibly suffering from something like schizophrenia. Her task was to unravel the yarn, but you never really think she will and then amazingly at the end of the story she is living a “normal” life in a bustling city.
If you are familiar with Sufi writing, it often seems almost nonsensical. I think it is supposed to get your out of your regular or habitual form of thinking, to question, to seek, to accept mysteries. I read this story almost twenty-five years ago, and it stayed with me. I wish I could find the story again. I would like to read it now, as someone who has traveled the journey of mental illness for nearly three decades. I wonder how I would interpret the woman unraveling the yarn and being absorbed in that task so much so that she doesn’t dress or go out in public but wanders the property and house of a Sufi master?
Was the woman mentally ill? Did she recover? Is it possible that some of us must “unravel” in our minds in order to become a new person?
I rarely look at mental illness from other cultures or other perspectives. I don’t do this because there is no way I am going to stop taking my medications and walk a different path than I am right now. I must admit the way that non-westerners see mental illness is of interest to me at times even if I don’t plan to adopt a view outside the medical model.
If you happen to know this story, or where I can find it, please let me know. I think reading it again would be interesting. I wonder if my memory is as solid on this issue as I think it is?