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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 from it. It’s a new phase of life.

May every moment of my life be like being at that volcano: living fully and accepting death.

May I be in a loving state in every moment, in touch with life, knowing it may be my last so that I, like the moth, can achieve enlightenment.

I awoke this morning in the gold light turning this way and that

thinking for a moment it was one day like any other.

But the veil had gone from my darkened heart and I thought

it must have been the quiet candlelight that filled my room,

it must have been the first easy rhythm with which I breathed myself to sleep,

it must have been the prayer I said speaking to the otherness of the night.

And I thought this is the good day you could meet your love,

this is the gray day someone close to you could die.

This is the day you realize how easily the thread is broken between this world and the next

and I found myself sitting up in the quiet pathway of light,

the tawny close grained cedar burning round me like fire and all the angels of this housely heaven ascending through the first roof of light the sun has made.

This is the bright home in which I live, this is where I ask my friends to come, this is where I want to love all the things it has taken me so long to learn to love.

This is the temple of my adult aloneness and I belong to that aloneness as I belong to my life.

There is no house like the house of belonging.

Participants’ Reflections

  • Thank you for your reading. I love how Attar words things. I think about the moth, it’s beautiful. And so was that poem. I couldn’t settle down very much during the meditation. I thought about the wise moth and the one enveloped in the flame. It reminds me of moments in my life where I am my true self. I remember when I had a long 800-foot driveway and it was hard to find someone to plow it. This nice man did, and I couldn’t pay him. I looked him straight in the eye and apologized. He said don’t worry, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. About a year later, I was still bringing him money and he said that no one had ever looked at him like that and no one had apologized for being late. Also, please think of my family member and pray that we don’t lose electricity because it would be disastrous if we did. Also, please think about the homeless people being out in this cold weather.

  • Thank you so much for the meditation reading and your reflections on the valleys. Attar’s words about the third moth that allowed itself to be completely consumed, all in, full commitment. It had me reflecting on what am I allowing myself to be fully committed to today. Since my experience of my marriage and my spouse’s death, I still resist being fully committed to anything like I was to him. Even my grandchildren I’m not fully committed to because I’m not fully responsible for their well-being. I love to garden and I recently planted seeds to create seedlings. Take this valley. In our society, we think of death as deprivation. We eat the peach and throw away the pit. And yet, that pit that we think is the end of the peach, contains the seed that can then grow a whole new peach tree. The seeds need a period of dormancy and even a period of freezing before they can even actually recreate life. So sometimes, I think of my experience. I’ve needed a period of dormancy after losing my husband. I’ve wondered how long does it have to be.

  • I’ve wanted to write a meditation for this group for quite a while. If we are all here just listening, we are an audience. And when we participate, it becomes ceremony. It’s an honor and privilege to be a member of this group and participate in ceremony.

  • It’s been a process, from me months ago tapping out on my phone text app what people are saying, to recording your reflections and transcribing them. You’ve all already become co-collaborators, so it’s just another step on the process we are on.

  • Thank you for saying something about the animals and wild animals.

  • I want to speak in awe of the third moth. I think that each person’s learning is a very individual journey. We may individually arrive at places that may look the same or sound the same or have the same knowings, but we do it by our own chipping away at the progress of going forward until we finally reach whatever it is we were supposed to learn. What the meaning of us being here is.

  • Thank you so much for joining us on this adventure and journey. That’s probably the end of the Attar valleys that I will be sharing. I am grateful you all stuck with this. We’ll hold in our hearts the people needing our prayers. Think of yourselves today and do self-care. Have a blessed, gentle day.

Photo credit: "The Concourse of the Birds", Folio 11r from a Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds) ca. 1600, Painting by Habiballah of Sava

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