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The Valley of the Quest

by Thea Iberall

Two months ago, I gave a reading about The Conference of the Birds, written by Attar (see Sept 6 blog). In this 12th century Sufi master’s story, the wisest of the birds lead the other birds into and through seven valleys towards enlightenment. The seven valleys are: the Valley of the Quest where dogma and belief are cast aside; the Valley of Love where reason is abandoned; the Valley of Knowledge where worldly knowledge becomes useless; the Valley of Detachment where attachments are let go; the Valley of Unity where one sees that everything is connected; the Valley of Astonishment where one learns they have never known or understood anything; and the Valley of Nothingness where the self disappears.

As the birds travel from valley to valley, Attar offers stories as lessons of each valley. I’d like to share a story from the first valley, the Valley of the Quest:

One night, the sultan was riding alone and he saw a man sifting through the earth for gold. His head was bent and he had piled up here and there heaps of sifted dust. The sultan looked at him and then threw his bracelet among the heaps and rode off like the wind. The following night, the sultan returned and found the man still sifting. ‘What you found yesterday should be enough to pay the tribute of the world, and yet you still continue to sift!’ The man replied: ‘I found the bracelet you threw down, and it is because I have found such a treasure that I must continue to search as long as I live.’ Be like this man and search until the door is opened to you. Your eyes will not be always shut; seek the door.

Sufi stories can be very esoteric, causing one to think long and hard about what the message is. Even after all these years of studying Attar’s book, I’m not sure I can explain the message of this story. The first valley is about casting aside dogma and belief. What kind of beliefs must I cast aside? Attar says, “Bread is always a need of the hungry person.” It’s like he’s saying I will want what I think I need, and that other people have taught me what to value. And maybe those needs aren’t real. In order to learn who I am, I have to search within myself and let go of those needs. Attar says great knowledge is hidden in what may seem worthless.

It annoys me to think that I’ve been working on myself for the last 30 years and here I am facing only the first of the valleys. What will it take for me to understand this story? Can I be like that man digging, digging with my eyes closed, digging waiting for my eyes to open? Not just accept the first or second or hundredth shiny thing that appears to be the answer? But learn from the nuggets I do find? And can I keep believing that someday, if I keep on searching, the door to enlightenment will open?

I think Attar is saying that the most important quality to have as I move through the Valley of Quest is patience. Patience keeps me on the path. It is easy for me to mess up—to beat myself up for not being in acceptance or for getting into my fear. It’s easy for me to complain and cry about what I have lost. It’s easy for me to want/need things and to believe other people can fix me. None of this means I am a bad person or that I’ve fallen off the road towards enlightenment. It’s just a reminder to be patient with myself. To keep searching even though my eyes are not yet open. Seek the door and someday it will open. Today, I choose to be patient with myself and to look for rich nuggets of wisdom in whatever comes my way.

by Patricia Walter

We usually know what will happen

We are going to do this or that

We are going to go back and forth

We are going to be here or there

We are going to live up or down

We are going to feel happy or sad

Until we find out we really don’t know

Participants’ Reflections:

  • The quest is something you do your entire life. I’m not a Sufi, but it seems to me I end up working on some of the other things in the other valleys as well on the way to enlightenment. The quest seems to be the base, the spiritual grounding that takes place before I can do any seeking.

  • Thank you for that reading. What I was hearing as you were sharing was that the hole-in-the-soul sickness that that man seeking the gold had, it was never going to be enough. It is what I call a bottomless pit. Coming to terms with that, being patient, learning not to be restless seeking stuff we don’t really need is probably a lifelong journey as well. I call it recovery. It doesn’t matter what we call it. It’s being patient and not being so needy, and finding ways that are healthy to quiet our spirit I think is really good way to look at things. Being in a group like this helps, so thank you.

  • I liked the idea of searching and I know that I have searched in many wrong places for many years outside of myself looking for different techniques, and I’ve come to a place where it’s less about searching outside of myself and more about stillness and opening inside. That’s one of the values of this group, these words that inspire me every morning, to sit and be in stillness and open to it.

  • Thank you for the reading. I first went to thinking about suffering which is where I thought the story was going, that we have a compulsive need for suffering. In this culture, there’s an invitation to do that. If I’m doing something, I do it until I collapse. I give it my all. My mind went into the patriarchal form that we live in and that feels so prevalent that we don’t sometimes see when we’ve bought into that.

  • Thank you for your reading. The part that stood out was the bracelet part. The message to me was nobody can give me what I’m looking for, even though they might give me something that’s very valuable and they expect me to value it as they do and that’s supposed to be my answer. I have to find it for myself.

  • I’m so glad you mentioned the Conference of the Birds again. Just the other day I saw a small flock of birds. They flew through the sky and changed direction. It’s amazing how they communicate with each other, changing direction, and I ponder what it means. I saw them swoop up and when they changed direction, the light hit them so I could see all of their wings appeared gold. I also remember another time while driving and seeing a flock of birds in front of me, they suddenly flew up and I could feel the swoop of the energy as they moved. I’m so thankful for all the little gold nuggets in nature and animals that bless me. The littlest things that hold such value and joy.

  • Thank you for joining us all today in this wonderful time where we spent 15 minutes with ourselves. I hope you have a joyous, peaceful and blessed day. Be gentle with yourselves on your quest.

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.

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