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 clouds my thinking.’ You made a decision to not have property maintenance and you didn’t want to do that anymore. Then the thought came to you to do research and it clouded your thinking. I know when I do that, on one hand, it abandons my heart. It’s all so interesting. It’s like self-sabotage. You talked about the shame, and your process. To me, that is abandoning my heart and myself. I can get caught up in that too. I do it with awareness now, which is huge. I liked what you said about develop the heart, not the mind. It’s wonderful and scary at the same time.

  • I also appreciated your words and the words of Attar. I was trying to take it in as to how it might work in my life. I totally get how I come up with my assumptions, especially when someone hurts my feelings. I can appreciate in that situation where, I know if I let go, there is a real chance for a connection. That makes sense to me. And then going to what I might feel from my heart. If my spouse says something and I feel compelled to repeat it the way I believe it should be, I could go to a heart-place in myself towards my spouse. I could do that. It’s a challenge. Then I started thinking when I have conversations with people who aren’t wearing masks or don’t believe they should wear one, how do I go to my heart when someone is either mad, vehement, in a place where things are not discussable. I don’t know how to make that work.

  • In talking about our hearts, just this morning, I read an article about the heart and the heart brain. That there is a brain in the heart and they showed photos of the ganglions. I was blown away by that. They said the heart-brain communicates with our mind-brain and the other way around. Of course we have it. It makes sense. It’s actually there.

  • That’s the science behind the HeartMath device. I am trying every day to get my heart and brain into coherence. Using it, I can calm my thoughts to move my heart into a state that is more conducive to health. It gets me centered in my heart. Another biofeedback device is the Muse.

  • I listened to a community minister talk about compassionate communication, or non-violent communication. I’ve known about it for a long time. He used Covid examples and did role-playing. One woman talked about not wearing masks. He would listen with his heart and try to figure out what was important to her. He wouldn’t do any rebuttals. He would say, ‘what you value is freedom and you think this impinges upon your freedom.’ And she would agree and she would go on with another thing. He responds back with how she is feeling. After a while, he would ask her if she is interested in hearing what he has to say about it. By that time, she’s calmed down and she wants to hear him. But in the conversations where people are just repeating back and forth what they know, you get nowhere. I thought this was a good example.

  • That’s a good description of how to deal with these things so that the other person really feels heard. That can change the world.

  • During this meditation, I went back to visit my parents. They were yin and yang. My father was analytical and thoughtful, my mother was more focused in her heart. My brother and I are playing out those same dynamics in this generation and we are a mixture. He’s analytical and I am less interested in that. I relate more directly through my heart. It was interesting to me to see that across the generations.

  • That Covid dialogue is terribly important. We are going to have to spend years trying to repair dialogue in this country. It sounds like a good model for showing empathy. People are hurting and people who have lost so much need to be remembered and helped.

  • I’m a trained facilitator on dialogue about racism. That compassionate communication is the same principles we use to approach racism. In dealing with our different perspectives on Covid is part of the healing momentum that is ahead of us for the next decade or two. Your reading today that spoke of understanding is the way of talking so that we can go into a flow of understanding. We always say we want to come to understanding. You do come to it, but in coming to it, you realize you can’t grab it. You have to keep moving with it because it is ever changing. What I believe what we are about now is opening the channel for that flow in understanding, not the doing, not the grabbing, but being in it.

  • It works within families as well, at all levels for communicating. Demonstrating you are interested by mirroring back and questioning to get the person to say more. It helps within families.

  • I was remembering, when I first moved here, it was when people were talking about math anxiety. I started thinking about what I can do to help my developmental students with their math anxiety. I offered a math anxiety workshop, like a learning circle. I started the first meeting telling my students that I’ve had math anxiety in my lifetime. No one comes through the birth canal knowing algebra. My words softened the atmosphere. Some of the best times I had in teaching was when I would present a problem to the class and ask for their ideas for an approach. They weren’t always great, but I would try them anyway. I often told my students that they would solve life’s problems the same way. They’ll try one path and if that doesn’t work, come back and try another. If I taught again, I would come from the heart more and listen. Tell them it’s okay if they are afraid. I was afraid too. They got to see me as a not-know-it-all. That was important.

  • Thank you all for joining us today in this meditation space. Thank you for giving yourself a place to spend 15 minutes with yourself. I hope you have a blessed day.


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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