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Welcome back.

It’s been a little while since we’ve been together.  For those of you who are new, and for those who were here last time but don’t remember, we’ve been talking about a 12th Century Sufi poem called The Conference of the Birds, written by the Persian mystic Farid ud-Din Attar.  The poem relates the principles of Sufism and the elements of the spiritual path through the lens of a story about the birds of the world coming together to find their king. 

When we last left our heroes, the birds had gathered in congress and identified that they need a king to rule over them.  Then one bird, the Hoopoe, steps forward to tell them about a mythical bird called the Simorgh, dwelling in a faraway land, surpassing all other creatures in power and magnificence.  This, says the Hoopoe, is their king, but the way to reach him is long and hard.  So now that the birds know of this, they have to decide whether they are going to make the journey.  And that is where we pick up in our story today, as the birds are deliberating whether to embark on this adventure. 

We often find ourselves where the birds are.  We have some experience with spiritual realities—astral journeys, higher state of consciousness, etc.—or, like the birds, we’ve heard stories of those realities from those who have experienced them, but we know, if we’re honest with ourselves, and if we have the right teacher, who is honest with us, that approaching those realities and fully realizing the totality of all they have to offer, is going to take dedication, patience, and sacrifice. 

And that is the trouble, isn’t it?  We have become so accustomed to our suffering that we have grown to love it.  We’ve developed a type of Stockholm syndrome towards our own personal mental cages.  The pleasures of this world, our attachments, our desires, our false and ephemeral sense of self, have consumed so much of our daily, lived experience that we cannot conceive that there could be anything better than the mental, physical, or emotional pleasure we get from the impressions of the senses. 

This reminds me of a story that the 13th Century Sufi mystic Rumi shared in one of his discourses:

The story is told of a man who wandered into the desert on his way to the pilgrimage and was overcome by great thirst. Finally, at a distance he saw a ragged little tent. Going there and seeing a woman, he cried out, “I can receive hospitality! Just what I needed!” And there he descended. He asked for water, but the water they gave him was hotter than fire and more brackish than salt, and it burned his throat as it went down. Out of compassion he began to advise the woman, saying, “I am obliged to you insofar as I have been comforted by you, and my compassion for you has been stirred. Take heed therefore of what I say to you. The cities of Baghdad, Kufah, and Wasit are nearby. If you are in dire straits, you can get yourselves there in a few marches, where there is much sweet, cool water.” And he also listed to her the great variety of foods, bathhouses, luxuries, and pleasures of those cities.

A moment later her Bedouin husband arrived. He had caught a few desert rats, which he told the woman to cook. They gave some to the guest, who, destitute as he was, could not refuse.

Later that night, while the guest was asleep outside the tent, the woman said to her husband, “You've never heard the likes of the tales this man had been telling.” And she told her husband everything he had related to her. “Don't listen to such things,” the Bedouin said. “There are many envious people in the world, and when they see others enjoying ease and comfort they grow envious and want to deprive them of their enjoyment.”

 – Rumi, Signs of the Unseen, Chapter 18

It is worthwhile, as we walk on this path, to look deeply into the nature of our experiences.  Often, the things we think are giving us pleasure are, in fact, another form of suffering, and we content ourselves with the dross of our mundane existences simply because we have no concept or experience of the richness that awaits us if we could only pierce through the veil of our own ignorance. 

So with that as our preface, let us rejoin the birds as they converse with the Hoopoe and begin to express their doubts…

The nightingale made his excuses first.
His pleading notes described the lover’s thirst,
And through the crowd hushed silence spread as he
Descanted on love’s scope and mystery.
‘The secrets of all love are known to me,’
He crooned. ‘Throughout the darkest night my song
Resounds, and to my retinue belong
The sweet notes of the melancholy lute,
The plaintive wailing of the love-sick flute;
When love speaks in the soul my voice replies
In accents plangent as the ocean’s sighs.
And though my grief is one that no bird knows,
One being understands my heart – the rose.
I am so drowned in love that I can find
No thought of my existence in my mind.
Her worship is sufficient life for me;
The quest for her is my reality
(And nightingales are not robust or strong;
The path to find the Simorgh is too long).
My love is here; the journey you propose
Cannot beguile me from my life – the rose.
It is for me she flowers; what greater bliss
Could life provide me – anywhere – than this?
Her buds are mine; she blossoms in my sight –
How could I leave her for a single night?’

The hoopoe answered him: ‘Dear nightingale,
This superficial love which makes you quail
Is only for the outward show of things.
Renounce delusion and prepare your wings
For our great quest; sharp thorns defend the rose
And beauty such as hers too quickly goes.
True love will see such empty transience
For what it is – a fleeting turbulence
That fills your sleepless nights with grief and blame –
Forget the rose’s blush and blush for shame!
Each spring she laughs, not for you, as you say,
But at you – and has faded in a day.

– Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds (translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis)

I think it is not an accident that the very first bird to speak up, the Nightingale, speaks about his attachment to worldly, superficial love.  Samael Aun Weor, the founder of the tradition we follow in this meditation center, wrote over 60 books on religion and spirituality, laying out many of the details about the Way to God, for people at all stages along the Path.  But the very first book that he published, which revealed to humanity the gateway, or the door, to enter into that Path, was The Perfect Matrimony.  And the very first chapter, of that very first book, was about Love.  And in that book, he says:

Passion is mistaken easily for love.  Love and desire are absolute opposites…

Beware of the illusion of desire.  Remember that the flame of desire consumes life and then the dreadful reality of death remains…

With the terrifying fire of love, we can transform ourselves into Gods in order to penetrate into the amphitheater of cosmic science with full majesty.

– Samael Aun Weor, The Perfect Matrimony, “Love”

Love is the gateway of the Path.  Love is the door.  But we are lead astray from the paths of love by the allure of desire.  It is said that before he married Eve, Adam had two previous wives.  The first was Lilith, which means the night, representing desire.  The second was Nahemah, which means beauty, representing the allure of passion, beauty, and physical forms.  And only after overcoming both of these internal obstacles, did Adam find his true love in Eve. 

We, too, like the Nightingale, most overcome our affinity and attachment for vain, superficial loves, for passion, for desire.  Our mind and our culture tell us that we should pursue these things, that we should be attached to them.  Our media is saturated with messages telling us that youthfulness and beauty must be preserved at all costs, that our value as people depend on our appearances and how others perceive us, and that the pursuit and acquisition of these fleeting treasures will bring us lasting happiness.  This is a lie. 

As the Hoopoe tells the nightingale—that part of ourselves that is attached to those things—these vain, superficial loves we pursue fade and vanish.  And then what are we left with?  “The flame of desire consumes life and then the dreadful reality of death remains.”

Next came the peacock, splendidly arrayed
In many-coloured pomp; this he displayed
As if he were some proud, self-conscious bride
Turning with haughty looks from side to side.
‘The Painter of the world created me,’
He shrieked, ‘but this celestial wealth you see
Should not excite your hearts to jealousy.
I was a dweller once in paradise;
There the insinuating snake’s advice
Deceived me –I became his friend, disgrace
Was swift and I was banished from that place.
My dearest hope is that some blessed day
A guide will come to indicate the way
Back to my paradise. The king you praise
Is too unknown a goal; my inward gaze
Is fixed for ever on that lovely land –
There is the goal which I can understand.
How could I seek the Simorgh out when I
Remember paradise?’ And in reply

The hoopoe said: ‘These thoughts have made you stray
Further and further from the proper Way;
You think your monarch’s palace of more worth
Than Him who fashioned it and all the earth.
The home we seek is in eternity;
The Truth we seek is like a shoreless sea,
Of which your paradise is but a drop.
This ocean can be yours; why should you stop
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew?
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in its beams.
Turn to what truly lives, reject what seems –
Which matters more, the body or the soul?
Be whole: desire and journey to the Whole.

The peacock’s objection is very interesting, and it’s worth considering because it relates to what we typically believe we can “get” out of religion.  The typical sales pitch of religion is, “If you do this, and this, and that, and you believe this other thing, then you will get to spend eternity living in some luxurious paradise.”  Some religions also throw a bit of schadenfreude [SCHOD-en-froy-duh] in for good measure, wherein you get to watch all the people who disagreed with you in life suffer some unspeakable torment while they wish they had only listened to you when they had the chance. 

We take religion and we filter it through our attachment to the sensory world, and the reward, or the heaven, or the paradise we imagine as the end goal of religion is a world of sensory pleasures, because we think that the impressions of the senses will bring us lasting, genuine happiness.  That is why we continue to pursue them.  And yet, if we understand the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, if we look deep into what the experience of those sensory impressions actually is, we will realize that no matter how beautiful, or pleasurable, or perfect they are, they do not and cannot bring us true, lasting, genuine happiness. 

This Path, the Path the Hoopoe is having us embark on, is not about reaching paradise.  It leads to a place beyond the mind, beyond the senses, beyond the duality of pleasure and pain.  The destination we pursue is so much greater than anything the senses can offer us.  As the Hoopoe describes, even the most magnificent paradise is akin to a single drop in an endless ocean when compared to the Simorgh. 

But if we, like the peacock, remain attached to our desire for sensory paradises, we will get lost along the way.  This is why Samael warns us, in his book Christ’s Will:

You are before two paths.  The first path is the Logoic path, the path of starry skies, the spiral path of the Firmament.  The second is the long path of bitterness and woe that takes us to the very gates of the Absolute…

The Nirvanic path is a good work, yet the path to the Absolute is a superior work.  The Nirvanic path follows the spiral of life.  The path of the Absolute is the long path of bitterness and woe… 

The Nirvanic path is full of paradises.  The path of the Absolute is the desolation of the Gods.  The long path of bitterness and woe leads us directly into the uncreated light of the Absolute.  The long path of bitterness and woe leads us to the indescribable happiness of the Not-Being, which truly is the Reality of the Being.  The long path of bitterness and woe leads us to the profound darkness of the Not-Being.

 – Samael Aun Weor, Christ’s Will, “The Thirty-first Chamber”

The Path we are learning about here is not a path to paradise.  It is a path to the Absolute nature of reality, the true nature of our Real Being.  And there are many obstacles and temptations along the way, not least of which are those we carry within ourselves…

The coy duck waddled from her stream and quacked:
‘Now none of you can argue with the fact
That both in this world and the next I am
The purest bird that ever flew or swam;
I spread my prayer-mat out, and all the time
I clean myself of every bit of grime
As God commands. There’s no doubt in my mind
That purity like mine is hard to find;
Among the birds I’m like an anchorite –
My soul and feathers are a spotless white.
I live in water and I cannot go
To places where no streams or rivers flow;
They wash away a world of discontent –
Why should I leave this perfect element?
Fresh water is my home, my sanctuary;
What use would arid deserts be to me?
I can’t leave water – think what water gives;
It is the source of everything that lives.
Water’s the only home I’ve ever known;
Why should I care about this Simorgh’s throne?’

The hoopoe answered her: ‘Your life is passed
In vague, aquatic dreams which cannot last –
A sudden wave and they are swept away.
You value water’s purity, you say,
But is your life as pure as you declare?
A fool described the nature both worlds share:
“The unseen world and that which we can see
Are like a water-drop which instantly
Is and is not. A water-drop was formed
When time began, and on its surface swarmed
The world’s appearances. If they were made
Of all-resisting iron they would fade;
Hard iron is mere water, after all –
Dispersing like a dream, impalpable.”’

I think it is worthwhile to dwell on the duck’s objections for a bit, because there is more here than what it appears to be on the surface.  At first glance, it appears that the duck is reluctant to leave his home, the water.  But what is that home?  The clue is in the first part of the duck’s monologue, where he describes his virtue and purity.  The waters he is describing are the psychological waters, the depths of our own psychology. 

The Hoopoe confirms this when he describes the water drop reflecting the world’s appearances and then eventually fading away.  Because we go through life asleep, without really paying attention, the impressions of the world pass through our minds and become imprinted on our own interior psychological waters.  These include the sensory impressions, such as sight, sound, touch, etc., but also the mental and emotional impressions we receive.  All of it is getting dumped like toxic waste from a sewer line into the waters of our internal psychology. 

And over time, this accumulation of psychological detritus leads to biases, confusion, trauma, harmful desires, and in general all the various negative effects of our egotistical thinking.  And we don’t even perceive how broken we are. 

But amidst all that internal trash, we also carve out for ourselves some little corner that we perceive to be virtuous.  This is what we see as the “good” part of ourselves.  If we’ve been studying gnosis for a while, we may call it our consciousness or our being, or even our soul.  And this “good” part of ourselves exists in juxtaposition to the “bad” part, and often they struggle against one another.  And if we’re trying to be better people, we may try to clean or preen the “bad” part, like a duck grooming its feathers, to make it more refined, and more like the “good” part. 

There is this practice nowadays that is very popular in certain spiritual circles called Affirmations, in which people will say things like “I am beautiful, I am strong, I am kind.”  And through doing this, people try to affirm, or fortify, an idea of themselves that is more like the “good” part, and bring themselves more into alignment with their ideal. 

But both the “good” part and the “bad” part exist within this water of the mind, which the Hoopoe tells us is ephemeral, and eventually evaporates, like a dream. 

It is important to recognize that our sense of self, our sense of “me” or “I” is a mental structure, an idea, a thought, or a collection of thoughts.  And as we can easily observe if we meditate, thoughts dissipate when they cease to receive energy.  That means that what we think of as ourselves, whether it be the “good” part or the “bad” part, does not have an inherently existing reality.  Its existence is conditional on the receipt of the mental energies that sustain it. 

So neither the good part nor the bad part are genuinely real, in an absolute sense.  But like the duck, attached to the virtuous self he created in the waters, we are attached to our own sense of self, our own ego.  Like the waters feel like home to the duck, the ego feels like home to us.  We are accustomed to its prison bars and the turbulent nature of its passions and desires, and these things feel natural and normal to us, or even good. 

Through a combination of our own ignorance and the impressions we receive from society, with a whole industry teaching us to refine ourselves, improve our self-esteem, and generally “be better,” we become convinced that the purity or goodness of our ego is sufficient. 

But that is not the path the Hoopoe is leading us on to the Simorgh.  That is not the Way to the absolute nature of reality. 

Now I’m not telling you to give up your quests to better yourselves.  Being better is better than being worse.  And we often have to eliminate some of our most coarse qualities and establish ourselves in a solid spiritual practice, even if there is still ego there, before we can take the next step.  But don’t fall into the mistake that many people do believing that just because we are “good,” in the common understanding of that term, that we have reached our goal.  The journey to the Simorgh, our true king, requires passing beyond the duality of our superior and inferior selves.  As Samael said in The Spiritual Power of Sound:

In regards to psychological subject-matter, we must make a precise differentiation between the “I” and the Being. The “I” is not the Being, nor the Being is the “I.” Regardless, everybody says, “my Being.” Everybody thinks about their Being, yet no one knows what the Being is, thus they end up mistaking the Being for the “I.”

Many students from pseudo-occult, pseudo-esoteric schools, full of refined metaphysical ambitions, commit the error of dividing their beloved “I” into two arbitrary and absurd halves. They qualify the first half as Superior “I,” and they contemptuously watch the second half, saying, “That is the Inferior ‘I.’” What is most intriguing of all of this—what is simultaneously the most comical and tragic—is to see that wretched Inferior “I” desperately fighting to evolve and perfect himself in order to someday achieve the longed-for union with the Superior “I.” 

The wretched mind of the intellectual animal is ludicrous when fabricating the Superior “I,” when conferring divine attributes onto it, when giving it arbitrary powers in order to control the mind and the heart. The same “I” dividing itself into two; the same “I” wanting to amalgamate itself after having divided itself into two; the same “I” splitting and wanted to join again. The ambitions of the “I” has no limits, it wants and wishes to become a Master, Deva, God, etc.

The experience of Reality is completely different, distinct from everything the mind has experienced, ever. The experience of Reality cannot be communicated to anybody because it does not look like anything that the mind has experienced before. When one has experienced Reality, one then comprehends very deeply the disastrous state in which one is abiding, and then one only aspires to know oneself without wanting to become more than one is.

– Samael Aun Weor, The Spiritual Power of Sound, The “I” and the Being

“And Scheherazade perceived the dawn of day, and ceased to say her permitted say.”  The Way to the Simorgh seems like a noble journey, but the birds have doubts, misunderstandings, and attachments, as we do when we confront the realities of what the Path demands of us.  “The paths of God are intricate and strange.”  Wouldn’t it be safer, easier, more comfortable to stay where we are, rather than making the journey?  Like the Bedouin with his cup of salty water and his meal of desert rats, we would rather suffer in the familiarity of our spiritual poverty than make the journey to a strange and mysterious land with treasures beyond our imaginings.  The Hoopoe explains the error of their ways, but will his words be enough to calm the anxious flock?  And what other doubts and challenges will arise on the Way?  To learn that, you’ll have to return for another talk, on another day.