A Teaching Story on Mercy from the Conference of the Birds, a Sufi Fable by Farid ud-Din Attar

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The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ud-Din Attar is one of my favorite pieces of spiritual literature.  I first read it nearly 20 years ago and it has stuck with me as a regular source of inspiration and comfort.  What follows is one of many stories from the book, which is essentially a long poem about a group of birds that go about trying to find a king (God).  A hoopoe bird leads them on their quest to find, what Attar calls, the Simurgh, which is an old Iranian mythological winged being.  The birds go through many trials and tribulations all told through stories.  Here’s a story I have plucked out of this vast treasure house of stories after which I offer just a wee bit of commentary.

A man who drank too much often came to the point when he lost both his senses and his self respect.  Once, a friend came across him in this deplorable state, lying on the road.  So he got a sack and put him in feet first and put the sack over his shoulder and set off for home.  On the way, another drunk appeared, reeling along, supported by a companion.  At this, the man whose head hung out of the sack, woke up, and seeing the other in this pitiable state said reprovingly: “Ah, unhappy man, in future drink two cups of wine less, then you will be able to walk as I do now—free and alone.”

Our own state is not different.  We see faults because we do not love.  If we had the least understanding of real love, the faults of those near to us would appear as good qualities.”


When I first read that story I was convicted to the quick!  For years I went around criticizing others (usually in my head, but sometimes out loud with words or with rolled eyes), never once realizing I was just afraid to look at my own faults. 

Now I know everyone is a mirror, everyone is a teacher.  If I see a good quality in someone it is because I possess that quality, whether I am consciously aware of it or not.  Likewise, when I am critical and condemning of someone, I too possess the fault I am pointing out, and am simply unable or unwilling to deal with it.

And while Attar tells us real love overlooks the faults of others, he never says to condone abuse or irresponsibility.  He is talking about those things that we are always critical about in other people—all the fault finding and nit-picking.  Focus on ourselves, he is saying, and look for the good.  If I truly want to follow my dreams I will need to not only learn real love of others, but of myself.  I need to learn to look for the good in myself also. 

My own brand of self-centeredness used to manifest in my constantly putting myself down.  Just as I used to only see the bad in others, I used to only see the bad in myself.  Oh, I could idolize you and see good in you sometimes, but I didn’t know it was because I had it in myself too—I used it to compare myself with and to further put myself down when I always came out lacking.  My self-image, my self-esteem used to be horribly low—dangerously low. 

Today I extend Attar’s advice about overlooking the faults of others to overlooking some of my own.  I no longer have to be perfect at everything I do, think, or feel (and interestingly, the more I accept myself, the “perfect” I am becoming–in terms of being at peace with myself the way I am–the shame is lessoning).  I can extend the mercy I show towards others to myself.  And as far as dealing with those things that I do need to change in myself, for those I need other people that I trust to help me work through them—it’s hard for me to objectively see them—I’m too emotionally involved.

Lastly, I have EFT to help me accept and love myself.  Tapping through my issues, which live in the cell of my cells, has helped free me up
to become a channel for love and mercy, towards others and myself.

*while the second edition is much more expense it is the better of the two in terms of translations–very accessible.  And it is a prose translation.

Copyright Joseph Anthony of the Wonder Child Blog

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