The Valley of Nothingness

by Thea Iberall



The seventh and last valley of Attar is the Valley of Deprivation and Death. This is the valley of forgetting all. Deafness, muteness, distraction, all come into existence here.


Attar says the thousand shadows which surround you disappear in a single ray of the celestial sun. When the ocean of immensity begins to heave, the pattern on its surface loses its form; and this pattern is none other than the world present and the world to come. The drop that becomes part of this great ocean abides there forever and in peace.


It's confusing, I know. Here is the story Attar tells in the Seventh Valley.


One night, the moths met together tormented by a desire to be united to the candle. They said: ‘We must send someone who will bring us information about the object of our amorous quest.’ So one of them set off and came to a castle, and inside he saw the light of a candle. He returned, and according to his understanding, reported what he had seen. But the wise moth who presided over the gathering expressed the opinion that he understood nothing about the candle. So another moth went there. He touched the flame with the tip of his wings, but the heat drove him off. His report being no more satisfying than that of the first, a third went out. This one, intoxicated with love, threw himself on the flame; with his forelegs he took hold of the flame and united himself joyously with her. He embraced her completely and his body became as red as fire. The wise moth, who was watching from far off, saw that the flame and the moth appeared to be one, and he said: ‘He has learnt what he wished to know; but only he understands, and one can say no more.’

The talk of a drop in the ocean reminds me of an experience I had in the Aegean Sea. In the year 2000, I sat in a small dingy in St. Nikolas Bay at Nea Kameni, a small volcanic island sitting next to the cliffs of Santorini. Below me, in the water, I could see bubbles popping to the surface like slow champagne. My sister was in the water in her scuba gear. She handed me a stopwatch and dove in, leaving me alone. I looked around. Nea Kameni is a barren island, filled with igneous rocks and old lava flows. I could see steam vents, a few blades of discolored grass surrounding them. In the distance, I could see the white pozzolanic ash of the Santorini cliffs. I had read about this volcano, its eruption in 1628 BC was the largest volcano eruption in recorded history. 42 billion tons of ash shot 22 miles in the air, destroying the island of Kalliste, leaving a C-shaped sliver of an island called Santorini.


The sound they say was louder than anything ever heard except perhaps for the cry of the sailors returning to find instead of their home, a mile-deep hole being filled in by the sea. - Thea Iberall, The Rocks of Thera, from The Sanctuary of Artemis

And I was sitting in a small boat above that deep hole. It was slowly dawning on me that while I was protected from the water by sitting in that boat, I was also sitting inside the caldera of an active volcano. We were there because my father thought this underwater volcano was a perfect environment for studying how life began, how the bubbles would percolate through the sediments and get covered by some sticky substance, like formaldehyde, and by not popping, they could have become the first multicellular life.


It is surreal to know at any moment the volcano below me could erupt and leave me in a state of nothingness. If it had, I would have been like that moth. I was measuring the origins of life while potentially being killed in the process. I would have learned what I wished to know, but only I would understand.


I have journeyed through Attar’s seven valleys. What have I learned about myself? I have learned to see beyond what I was brought up to believe. I have learned to see beyond what reason tells me is true, to see beyond what I think I know. I have learned to detach so as to want nothing in order to see what others want. I have learned to unify all opposites into one, and to accept all contradictions as being equal. Does going through this last valley mean I must die?


This journey through these seven valleys has been about finding the core essence of myself. I think Attar is saying that the essence of what is found at the end of an existential journey into self is an individual experience. And on that journey, everything that does not belong to the core has to be expelled. It takes a fearlessness to take a step towards being one’s true self with complete understanding. A fearlessness that embraces life and doesn’t shy away fr