Updated: Jan 22, 2021
by Thea Iberall
Attar of Nishapur was a 12th century Sufi master who wrote the Persian poem The Conference of the Birds. The wisest of the birds lead the other birds, each of which represent a human fault, into and through seven valleys towards enlightenment. These 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.
Along the way, stories are offered up as lessons for learning the message of each valley. One story that I particularly like is from the Valley of Detachment.
Ayaz was on a spiritual quest and he meet a man who shares a story. “I was a spiritual man for thirty years and gave up everything because I fell in love. She was the daughter of a dog keeper. Her father told me that if I loved his daughter, I had to become a dog keeper, too.”
Ayaz is taken aback. “But how could you give up a spiritual path to become a lowly dog keeper?”
“It was not a hard decision,” the man answers.
“How could it not be a hard decision? To seek a spiritual path and to give up your studies for love? I am searching for spiritual understanding. How could you walk away from thirty years of spiritual living?”
The man replies, “How do you know what is a spiritual path? You see someone praying, and you think, that is a spiritual person. How do you know you see things as they are? You don’t really know. You only think you see what is true.”
Ayaz doesn’t understand. “But now you walk around tending dogs. How spiritual is that?”
“I would rather look ridiculous than only appear as if I know the meaning of a spiritual life.”
The man gets up. “Let me show you what I mean.”
The dogs surrounds them, jumping and running about. He hands Ayaz a soft brush and towel and shows him what to do. Each dog has to be carefully brushed, cleaned, and clipped. At the large feed bin, they fill gourds with food and set them out for the dogs. The dog keeper shows Ayaz how to fill other gourds with water from the well. The next day, Ayaz gets up and repeats all the chores he did the day before and then walk the dogs. That night, Ayaz sleeps better than ever before. For the whole next week, he repeats this daily routine. Brushing the dogs, feeding them. Week after week, month after month. With the simple work and peaceful existence, Ayaz lets go of the pain of his life. He thinks about what he is gaining as he detaches from his search. He is enjoying the simple gift of taking care of innocent creatures. It is enough to be living a homesteader’s life.
The book ends with these words: If you wish the ocean of your soul to remain in a state of wholesome movement you must die to all your old life, and then keep silence.
I think about this story from the Conference of the Birds a lot. Whenever I am asked to do something when I would rather be doing something else, I think of the dog keeper. If we need groceries and I’d rather be writing, I think of the dog keeper. If the dishes aren’t done and I’d rather be researching, I think of the dog keeper. Do I want to look spiritual or be spiritual? Thy will not mine be done. I’ve heard the phrase ‘acceptance is the key to all my problems.’ It’s about doing, not just thinking about it. It’s about finding meaning in the littlest of things. There, we touch our hearts and not just our heads. And when I do service for friends, family, and pets, I am ultimately filling my well. That is my spiritual path.
I’ve had dogs all my life. I had a mini poodle and two toy poodles. They filled my life, especially when my children went off to college and I got sick. After two of the dogs died at the age of 18 years, we were left with one. I spent her last three years feeling so close to her. I find myself talking about life from her point of view because she lived in the moment; her perspective was gratitude. She still lives on in my heart. Spending time and caring for someone who is dependent is a spiritual practice.
The key for anything to become a spiritual practice is to be present, and sometimes when things get to be routine, we lose the ability to be present because of the routine. We also have the opportunity to be mindful in the routine. I’m feeling very present this morning because I’m on vacation. I’m in a lovely expanse of wilderness.
Detachment – it seems that Buddha and Thich Nat Hahn, in particular, say we can find meaning in washing a dish. We can find meaning in sweeping the floor. It is really true that we have to detach in order to become present. Also, I began thinking about opposites, how we can’t really attach and find meaning until we can detach into the finiteness of what we’re doing. And then enough of those finitenesses lead to, what I never understood in grad school, countable infinite sets. That’s a hard concept. I really believe that the times that I am present most is when I have detached from everything around me and concentrate on what I’m doing, what’s before me. Only in that do I see everything is infinite and everything is sentient. Everything has feeling when you are in a state of detachment.
This reminds me of yesterday’s theme of letting go of old stories.
What a beautiful reading that was. That was just lovely. Bird do have conferences. It’s such a beautiful sound. When you were talking about your dogs, I totally relate to that. Having cats literally keeps me going. I want to meet their every comfort as best I can and give them love. I am weary. It’s been 10 years since I’ve been on a vacation even for a night, so loving them is like a vacation. Last night, I emptied a bag of ice from the cooler onto the ground in the dark on my driveway. I saw raccoons for the first time and I heard the chirping. It was a young mother and a baby. Then I heard crunch crunch crunch. It was the baby eating the ice. It was delightful.
I too have always had a dog. I have a mini poodle. He loves to look right into my eyes. He will come up to me and paw my arm, and he won’t stop until I turn and face him directly and look deeply into his eyes. He has taught me. I’m reminded of the Avatar saying ‘I see you’. ‘I see you.’ The auras are going back and forth, like talking soul to soul. I try to bring that same essence when I am talking or listening to people. I strive for that direct ‘I see you.’