top of page

The Valley of Bewilderment and Astonishment

By Thea Iberall

The sixth valley in Attar’s Conference of the Birds is the Valley of Bewilderment and Astonishment. In this valley, all one’s passion and fire are frozen. Sorrow is mixed with eagerness. It is day and night at the same time. Bewildered, amazed, how can one continue? Everything acquired is lost. Even their disappearance is lost. Knowledge changes, and actually becomes useless. Attar says, “I’m in love, but with Whom? I don’t know Him. He is neither a believer, nor an unbeliever. So, if it’s like this, what am I? There is both my heart filled with love, and also nothing, so empty! (Attar, 2015a, p. 294)

This is a simplified story that Attar uses to explain this valley:

One night, Ayaz has a dream where a beautiful princess abducts him. She takes him to her palace, covers his body with fine silks and luxurious oils, enflaming his every pore. He has never known such sensations. Her fragrant perfume makes his head dance in its honeysweet nectar. Her fingers gently massage the oil into every crevice of his body. His skin takes on a new dimension and he feels alive in a way he has never felt before.
When he awakes, he can still smell her perfume, and feel her soft silky skin. Even though it was nothing but a dream, he is devastated and he tears his clothes and pulls his hair. It is impossible to describe what I have seen, he says, no one else can ever see it except in a dream. People want to know what he experienced. He cries out, “I heard everything, but there is nothing to hear. While seeing nothing, I saw everything. I am in love, but I don’t know who is the object of my love. I have everything and nothing. My heart is both full and empty. For one whole night I reveled with a beauty who is without equal. Who and what she is I do not know. Only love remains, and that is all.”

Here we are at another valley just as mysterious as the first five where I learned to see beyond what I was brought up to believe, see beyond what reason tells me is true, see beyond what I think I know, detach so as to want nothing, and unify all opposites into one.

I have wanted things all my life. Wanted to feel love, to feel safe, to feel at peace, to feel smart, to be known, to be heard.

All my growing up years, people talked at me. Drinking helped deal with my pain. During my first year of sobriety, I dated a woman who was a wise shining star. I was amazed she was interested in me. I was learning how I had used alcohol to fill the bottomless hole inside me. She was searching for ways to cope with the grief of losing her son. We were like two empty vessels looking for someone else to fill us. Caught in this dance, I filled her but she had nothing to give. Still, I was dazzled by the attention. The dance ended the day I stopped in my tracks walking along Venice Beach and I said, “I hear you.”

The lesson was that I finally gave myself what I wanted. I once attended a workshop where the facilitator talked about being in a wanting state versus a being state. In a wanting state, we come at another person with energy that is heavy with discomfort. In a being state, we are nurturing ourselves and we can approach someone else in a way that creates a space for them, a nurturing nest.

I’ve prepared for thirty years to be where I am today. I didn’t know where I was heading and I still don’t. Can I truly walk through this valley?

The love in this valley goes beyond love of self, love of other. I am in love but I do not know with whom. All life is delivered on account of the grace that comes from love. Cravings have been satisfied. It’s like the summit experience that Maslow speaks of. It’s a moment that exceeds one’s perceptions of time and space, forgetting all human concerns, integrating with the universe. Maslow says people who live this experience become more heart-felt and appreciative of life, not allowing the problems of life to be a burden. A situation that appeared so important can now seem meaningless. One notices the existential purpose in everything. The amazement is from the knowing that even the smallest thing has meaning.

But I am still in a wanting state. My deepest want is to be remembered in history, I don’t want to be one of the nameless people who lived and died on this Earth. I don’t know what it will take for me to release my wants. I don’t know when another moment of clarity will occur where I stop in my tracks and understand. Maybe this is just part of my bewilderment and amazement. I am amazed at how I got here, wherever here is, and I am bewildered by both the clarity and lack of it.

"You asked me, "What is courage?" And I took

The dictionary down and spelled it out.

For such a little boy, the heavy book

Was ponderous. You twisted it about;

You said, "It's being brave-and what is that?"

You said, "It's not to fear - am I afraid?

Does courage arch its back up like a cat,

And spit at everything it meets?" you said.

Perplexed, we closed the book and took a walk,

And came where fire had worked untimely death;

The woods were gone. But on a slender stalk

A flower inched for life. I caught my breath.

"Courage," I said and took you by the hand,

"Is one white flower in a fire-swept land."

Participants' Reflections

  • That was fantastic. I got more out of today’s valley than the others. I combined it with the zigzag path people’s lives take, one thing leading to another (see The Valley of Unity post). One of the lessons I’ve learned is in embracing ambiguity. Things are like a pinball machine where you finally get to the goal. A critical lesson I’ve learned is about living in the moment and being able to do carpe diem. When an incredible opportunity presents itself, being willing to abandon what you were doing before. I changed careers on 9/11. That day, there was failure to connect the dots. I am a right-brain intuitive type and realized then that I had skills to help the left-brained people. So I changed careers.

  • Thank you, there was much I took with me from your reading. The duality was a big one, the mystery, sitting in that space. My young grandson spent the night last night, he felt it was a safe place and wanted to get out. His journey was difficult for him. He had to let go of his family. He set a time limit. When he reached that moment, he decided to make the step, a leap of faith. I thought it was wise for him to make a moment for the leap, and then he had a wonderful time. It was a wonderful journey in being brave and taking leaps of faith. A leap of faith takes a lot of courage.

  • Thank you so much. I take your words into the meditation, into my day, and into my week. I carry all of your words with me. There’s a saying that we die three deaths: the actual death when our blood stops pumping, the second death when we are buried, and the third death is the last time someone speaks our name. There’s a human trait to want to accomplish things. There are the Abraham Lincolns and DaVincis whose names are repeated over centuries. During the meditation, I felt my father and I talk about him to my grandchildren. Authors live on. In Attar’s story, the man had a dream that changed his perspective and his life. It wasn’t something he accomplished, but it was an experience that changed him. Part of my humanness is to think I haven’t accomplished enough. One of the ways I temper that is I say ‘I am my father’s daughter.’ It’s not something I did but something I was blessed to be. For all your accomplishments, these morning meditations have such an impact on everyone in the group and will carry through to future generations.

  • It’s just so interesting to me how everyone’s experiences, on hearing the same reading, can be so different depending on where you are. The message I got is that courage only happens in the face of fear. My friend since kindergarten is ill and has stopped eating and drinking. Her spouse is afraid to have hospice come in because of Covid. I am writing him a heart-felt letter about how we take risks for our loved ones. Precautions will be taken. She is dying anyway, and if she gets Covid, it might allow her to go quicker. It is so hard to write, and hard for him to read. I am being careful in what I am writing because there is too much room for hurt and misunderstanding. It’s a time that takes so much courage. There are so many levels of letting go.

  • That was beautiful. This valley confused me more than others. Weeks ago, I was leaving my house. I saw my neighbor with her dog who was up on the stone wall. The dog was looking and sniffing. I wanted to roll down my window and tell her how wonderful it was that she let the dog pause and sniff. I’m grateful because I keep thinking how nice that was. I think over my life. I would never commit suicide. I’d like an angel like Clarence help me see what I have accomplished. I look at you all and hear such accomplishments. I think about what I have done. I haven’t done much. But I’m glad you mentioned being your father’s daughter.

  • It’s never good to compare oneself to another. It’s good to have insights into self and awareness about it.

  • Thank you. Several things came up for me. I am trying to figure out where I’m going to be living right now. I’m in a place of transition. I believe that if I put myself in the right places, I will hear what I need. I came out of the meditation with the concept of soothing myself. If I can soothe me and those around me, that’s all I need to do and the answers will come because the resistance is lessened. Then as people talked, more came. The story about 9/11 was spot on for me. I decided to write down what people were saying. It started out about a career change, then bravery and the journey, letting go of family and ties which is really big for me right now, coming home, getting oneself a moment, a leap of faith takes courage, the three deaths, to trust whatever purpose we have individually and together will be enough and just right, and the thought that I haven’t accomplished all that I want—that’s the little voice in me that screams I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I’m supposed to leave here. Then it was said courage happens in the face of fear. So I can be courageous, soothe myself. Just soothe myself and it will take care of itself. Find the joy, live in the moment, and trust that I’m going to look up and go ‘here it is, I’m in it already.’ And then jump up on the stone wall and take a smell. I’m going to land where I’m supposed to land.

  • What a summary of what we are learning today.

  • I’ve been reading Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write in English. Her book wasn’t printed for 300 years. So what she did with her life in that moment of time was not necessarily obvious what she accomplished. But it’s carrying out now. I try to not think about other people’s accomplishments. As long as I follow what I am supposed to do, that puts out an energy that will never die.

  • Thank you so much all for joining us today. Thank you for sharing and your insights. I hope you all have a gentle and blessed 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

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page