In an ancient story called “The Conference of the Birds”, a flock of a thousand birds, during a time of great upheaval and darkness, suddenly glimpse an image of wholeness — an illumined feather.
They thusly feel encouraged to take a long and arduous journey to find out what amazing bird this illumined feather belongs to. This narrative in poetic form was written in the eleventh century by the Persian Sufi mystic Farid ad-Din Attar.
It tells about a remarkable saga with many long episodes that precisely describe the psyche’s perilous journey to seek the Soul of souls. When the illumined feather floats down from the sky, one of the wisest of the birds reveals that this feather is in fact a precognition — a visionary glimpse of the Simorgh, the Great One. Oh, how the birds are buoyed up then. The birds are of many different kinds: short-beaked, long-billed, fancy-plumed, plain-coloured, enormous, and tiny. But, regardless of size, shape, or hue, the birds who have witnessed this sudden and evanescent sight of the lighted feather band together. They make thunder as they rise up into the sky, all in order to seek this radiant source. They believe this sovereign creature to be so wondrous that it will be able to light their darkened world once again. And thus the creatures begin the gruelling quest.
There are many old European ‘fool tales’ that begin with similar motif’s. There is one version, which is called “The Hidden Treasure”. The story revolves around a group of brothers who were told by their father the King that, whosoever could bring back to him the golden treasure of “what has great price and yet is priceless,” should inherit his kingdom. Two of the brothers rush off with their maps and plans and schemes in hand. They are certain they will reach the goal first. But the third brother is portrayed as a fool. He throws a feather up into the air, where it is taken up by the wind. He follows in the direction the feather leads him. His brothers jeer at him and say he will never learn and never be successful. After all, he is only a fool, and fools inherit nothing but more foolishness until the end of their days.
Yet, at the last, the fool does find the treasure, for the wafting feather has led him to more and more canny insights and opportunities. The feather has magical powers that guide the heretofore hapless hero to live more soulfully, and in full spirit and compassion. Thus he finds a way of being that is “of this earth and yet not of this earth”. There is a “great price” to be paid to live in such an attitude of wholeness, for it means one must abandon the old unconscious way of life, including, for the fool, some of one’s former self-indulgent foolishnesses.
At the same time, however, the ability to live while being “of this earth and yet not of this earth” is “priceless,” for such a stance brings contentment and strength of the finest kinds to the heart, spirit, and soul. Thusly, having found this truer way of life to be “of high cost and yet priceless,” the former fool lives free and claims his father’s reward.
Meanwhile, the other two brothers are still somewhere out in the flats, busily calculating where to go next to find the treasure. But their requirements for finding something of value are un-wise. They maintain that they will try anything and look anywhere for the treasure, as long as the ways and means to do so avoid all difficulty, yet also satisfy their every appetite. In seeking to avoid all peril, discomfort, and “all love that might ever cause us heartache”, they thus find and bring to themselves only the empty assets of self-delusion and an aversion to real life.
In “The Conference of Birds,” there are some birds who also wander off the path and those who flee it. The birds are, in essence, questing for the fiery phoenix, that which can rise from its own ashes back up into illumined wholeness again. In the beginning, the thousand birds set out to enter into and pass through seven valleys, each one presenting different barriers and difficult challenges. The thousand birds endure increasingly hostile conditions, terrible hardships, and torments — including horrifying visions, lacerating doubts, nagging regrets. They long to turn back. They are filled with despair and exhaustion. The creatures receive no satisfaction, nor rest, nor reward for a very long time.