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Contemplating the First Three Valleys of Attar

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

by Thea Iberall

The Conference of the Birds by the Sufi master Attar ends with the statement: “If you wish the ocean of your soul to remain in a state of wholesome movement, you must die to all your old life, and then keep silence.” It will take me a lifetime to understand those words and put them to action.

I’ve been tested. I have done some really hard things, like climb out of the Grand Canyon, defend a PhD dissertation, and leave my partner after 18 years of building a life together. I have also faced moral challenges, some of which I have failed. I have great shame about that.

Attar says condemnation is a stage. The point is to continuously examine oneself and correct the mistakes. He says, “That you should see a grain of your own shame is better than seeing the Unseen or the hundreds of lights that hold the Unseen.” I’ve spent the last 30 years righting my moral failures.

But how do I die to my old life, to my shame, to my pain, to my sorrows, to my grief? Do I have to also let go of the joyous moments, the things I am proud of, as well?

Attar talks of letting go of others’ values in the first valley, being in my heart and letting go of reason in the second valley, and not letting knowledge cloud my mind in the third valley. He points out that memory and imagination hold us back. We want to hold on to pleasant memories and creative imagination because we believe they are good. We are brought down by our painful memories and fearful imaginations because these feel bad. Attar says, “Is a rose in one place a thorn in another?” It sounds like acceptance is the key.

On March 3, 1990, I accepted a higher power into my life and my decision to turn my will over to the care of that higher power put me on a new path. I could no longer stay in a career focused on detailed perplexing scientific problems. I listened to the men and women expound on their latest research and I wanted to know what was in their hearts. I walked away from the career path I had trained for, the one my background, culture, and family expected me to follow. I let go of reason and found my heart. I became a poet. And as a poet, I searched for heart-centered truth and a way to convey it. And the best wisdom I have found is the seven social sins that Gandhi has shared with the world. True worship is with sacrifice. True politics has principles. True knowledge has character. True pleasure is done responsibly. True commerce comes from a moral center. And so on. The key underlying these is empathy. Empathy for others, empathy for myself.

I have learned so much from you all and I’ve put your wisdom into a poem:


I want to choose going past the suffering and

surrender to the ride on the water wheel.

I will send up energy for another’s highest good

while I listen with compassionate ears

in all my communications.

The wisdom of my soul witnesses

the struggle of my humanness

while nature—the squirrels and the beech trees—

are so far beyond us in their wisdom.

I choose to go beyond fear into connection

because everything looks so small when we view

it from the mountaintop.

The Universe is weaving together life

but it’s hard to see it unless we look back.

The goal is to not resist, allow grace to enter

and let that star be a guide to self-forgiveness.

Participants’ Reflections:

  • All the things you read were powerful. I am very stressed out because my family member came home from college and is meeting with friends. I’m struggling how to deal with the Covid risk. He thinks he had it so he doesn’t see himself as a risk, but you don’t know. He doesn’t understand and thinks I am overreacting. I’m trying to deal with it. This meditation is helpful to calm my mind and try to have empathy in the midst of fear and the unknown.

  • It is challenging. You have to take care of yourself in the process.

  • Thank you so much. I love your lessons on the seven valleys and your reflections on them. I see wisdom in taking time instead of rushing forward. Inquiring deeper. Yesterday, was a King Midas in reverse day. Everything I touched seem to break, everywhere I turned was an insurmountable roadblock. One of those days. I got worked up until I stopped. I was outside freezing and asked God, angels, guides, ancestors, anyone listening to intervene on my behalf. From there, I calmed down and things seemed to work out. During the meditation, I went really deep. In the first month of meditation, I would get a slow-motion tear. Then tears started flowing faster. Today, I got another one of those slow-motion tears. Lots of healing and shifting in the meditations. The first thing that came to me is that there are times where it’s not just stop and take time to inquire deeper, that I don’t have to rush to find an answer and to figure things out. I can sit in the question. And maybe it’s like that quote “maybe I’ll live my way into the answer.” Sometimes I have to step back even further and figure out a way to formulate the questions. So I thank you for that reminder.

  • I really liked your summary of where we are in the book of Attar. It was helpful. When we got to empathy, it moved me to thinking about where we are with the Covid stimulus package. It is failing at the moment. And I feel empathy for the people who need it so badly. And I don’t understand the failures of our leadership to get it done even if it’s not perfect. We are so sheltered in this group for the most part. And those people who need help are losing their businesses and homes. I get so frustrated, there seems to be so little that we can do.

  • We can pray. We can breathe. We can pray for the highest good for everyone.

  • What you wrote is so calming. During the meditation, I thought about the quote often attributed to Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I think all of nature has so much wisdom. When I am coming home in the evening, sometimes I roll down my window and pause. Along a street that goes up a hill are two beech trees. I imagine they were planted at the same time. They have soft gray weathered bark. One has lost all its leaves, the other one still has its leaves. I keep thinking that the wind perhaps hits one first and it is protecting its friend. The other one has its leaves left. I thank them for being so beautiful and for giving a home to all the creatures around. All the animals and plants communicate. I feel like they are giving us messages that we as a society are not getting. There isn’t enough listening to how they all cooperate.

  • It reminds me of that sentence ‘everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten.’ I think what you are saying is that everything I need to know I can learn from nature. Very profound.

  • I’ve been thinking in the last few days about yearning and what I yearn for. I think about it because I’ve been eating a lot of Christmas treats and watching TV. I know as I am doing it that this cheesecake or fudge isn’t what I am really yearning for. It’s so hard to sit with the yearning. Knowing that’s not what I am yearning for. Like someone said, how do you sit with the question? I don’t even know what to ask for. I know I am yearning for something. I am just sitting with it.

  • The questions will come from the sitting. The answers will come from life. It’s when you let go that you can find the answers.

  • Thank you for spending time in silence for yourself today. Have a blessed and empathetic day.

Photo credit: Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Folio from an illustrated manuscript dated c.1600. Paintings by Habiballah of Sava (active ca. 1590–1610), in ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper, dimensions 25,4 x 11,4 cm.[2]

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