Clear Vision and Indecision

Reflection on Attar’s Conference of the Birds (Week 10)

Conf. of birds imageIn reading Attar’s Conference of the Birds, I felt distraught by the ease with which I identified with the character flaws of the profiles that the particular birds represented. The overindulgence of the parrot, the pride of the peacock, and the overly zealous embrace of external constructs of ritual purity, for better or for worse, are all hats I have worn in my pursuit of God, knowledge, and truth, as well as less noble intentions.

However, the uncertainty expressed in the phrase quoted in this piece of calligraphy is the Achilles’ heel of my pursuits. For purposes of composition, the painting has the lines that resonate most soundly with me, but the fuller context of the passage is useful in discerning Attar’s sentiment:

An indecisive bird complains

Another bird declared: ‘As you can see,

I lack the organs of virility;

Each moment I prefer a different tree-

I’m drunk, devout, the world’s, then (briefly) His;

Caught between “No, it isn’t”, Yes, it is”.

The flesh will send me drinking, then I’ll find

The praise of God awakening in my mind;

What should I do between these two extremes,

Imprisoned by conflicting needs and dreams.”


And the hoopoe answers him

The hoopoe said: ‘This troubles everyone;

What man is truly single-minded? None!

If all of us could boast a spotless mind,

Why should the prophets mingle with mankind?

If it is love that prompts your fervent prayers,

A hundred kindnesses will calm your cares…

Through the study of religion, I am frequently presented with an array of beautiful and compelling views about the nature of reality, the purpose of life, and the best way to live. In the interest of open-mindedness, I try to allow myself to sit with these ideas and learn all that I have from them. But often, they appear so alluring that I find myself shifting my orientation toward myself and the other – whether other people or God. This kind fluttering about what I believe is indicative of a deeper and more troubling uncertainty, one that at times has plagued my waking hours and at others is unnoticed, but one that is always hovering not too far below the surface.

If I was to be honest with myself, the main personal reason I came to divinity school was to allow myself some time devoted to study and inquiry such that I might come to some sort of conclusion. I’ve taken classes mainly because of how they deal with the concept of uncertainty in their descriptions and I’ve attended meetings for the HDS Religious Nones as well as the HDS Catholics. This passage from Attar is comforting in that he describes this dilemma as intrinsic to the human experience. When he asks, what man is of a “single mind,” and answers, “none!” it reminds me of the fact that we often construct these cohesive narratives of our lives, but in reality, they are disjointed and inconsistent. The words of the existential phenomenologist Michael de Montaigne on this topic are quite insightful:

Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.

In this way, I have decidedly returned to the faith of my upbringing, but with new eyes, while attempting to embrace the uncertainty as an inevitable and valuable element of living. In response to the notion of being “imprisoned by my conflicting needs and dreams” the idea that without this confusion there would be no need for God to employ the prophets to lead people toward right insight and action to be a comforting notion of providence in this context. Finally, given this notion of continual striving, I’m fascinated by the notion that the birds are able to complete their journey. I’m intrigued by the implications of this from the mystical perspective; In what ways one is able to come to a point of certainty and contact with the Divine within the Sufi tradition that such that is not possible through a more doctrinal lens, and vice-versa?

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