The Valley of Understanding

by Thea Iberall

The third valley in The Conference of the Birds is the Valley of Understanding where all worldly wisdom is useless. Attar says this because it disallows one to reach true understanding. Through this valley the seekers will find wisdom in all things. It comes after the first valley where the seeker lets go of dogma and after the second valley where reason is abandoned.

Here is one of the stories Attar uses to explain this valley:

A soldier was in love. Even if he wasn’t on guard duty, he couldn’t rest. Someone begged him to take a few hours’ sleep. The soldier said: ' I am a sentinel, and I am in love. How can I rest? A soldier on duty must not sleep, so it is an advantage to me to be in love. Each night love puts me to the test, and thus I can stay awake and keep watch on the fort.’
Being in love is a friend to the sentinel, for wakefulness becomes part of him; he who reaches this state will ever be on the watch. Do not sleep if you are striving for knowledge of yourself. Guard well the fortress of your heart, for there are thieves everywhere. Do not let brigands steal the jewel you carry. True knowledge will come to him who can stay awake.

In the Valley of Understanding, knowledge is based on your own abilities. Since people’s abilities are different, what occurs in this valley is in accordance with one’s skills. Attar says, “Everyone’s walk is slender perfection; everyone’s familiarity is light-headedly circumstantial. Were you to fly as the mosquito wanted, could you ever secure the speed and strength of the hurricane?” (Attar, 2015a, p. 273)

What does this mean that worldly knowledge becomes useless? It seems like a paradox. Like I have knowledge but at the same time I don’t. Like I am connected to all of you but at the same time, I’m not. Knowing but not knowing. Like my sister’s answer at her PhD dissertation defense when the professors asked her a question. She said she didn’t know the answer but she knew what book and what page it was on. Is that the idea? Or is it more like what Socrates said when faced with a statement by the Delphi Oracle. When she said, “Socrates is the wisest”, he reflected and said “I know that I know nothing.” Is it that only by assuming there is more to learn can we stop being a prisoner of our own knowledge?

Two days ago, when the snow was piling high, our landlord went out to blow the snow off the driveway. I refused to go out and help. In my mind was the fact that I sold my house so that I don’t have to deal with property maintenance. She couldn’t get the snow blower to work and I kept telling myself it was her problem. The next day, I remembered I could find solutions to the snow blower problem on the Internet. I became upset with myself that I didn’t do this the day before. I would have been the hero with the solution. It’s like my first thought that it was her problem clouded my mind. And then the shame around not having a timely solution clouded my mind again. The reality was that the snow blower was out of gas and I couldn’t have gotten the gas because the driveway was full of snow. Or could I have? Or did I have to? When will the haze of knowledge stop clouding my mind? When will I wake up? Believing in what I know stops me from really learning and seeing true wisdom.

A poem by the Dalai Lama XIV

No matter what is going on Never give up Develop the heart Too much energy in your country Is spent developing the mind Instead of the heart Be compassionate Not just to your friends But to everyone Be compassionate Work for peace In your heart and in the world Work for peace And I say again Never give up No matter what is going on around you Never give up

(Click here for the story behind this poem)

Participants’ Reflections

  • Thank you so much. I loved the example you gave about the snow blower. I wrote down a few lines, like ‘the fortress of your heart’ and ‘the haze of my knowledge