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—