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The nightingale and the rose: from attachment to renunciation

For those engaged on a spiritual journey, delving into the works of great spiritual figures can be a way to connect to God and benefit from the spiritual lessons contained in these works. In this regard, Ostad Elahi points out that the miracles that may have been performed by great divine personalities in their times are useless to us today. Their works, on the other, hand “guide us on the right path and never become obsolete”. Among these works, he mentions in particular The Canticle of the Birds (also known as The Conference of the Birds) by the poet Attar, and the “thousands of useful points” it contains for us (Ostad Elahi, Words of Truth, draft of the forthcoming English translation, Saying 300).

We will of course not attempt to elucidate here those thousands of points. Some of them did however strike us as particularly relevant and modern, even though they were written some nine centuries ago. This new series will give us the opportunity to reflect on them.

A few words about this work and its author.

The Canticle of the Birds was written around 1177 by Attar, the poet and apothecary from Nichapur (a city in the north of Iran, in the Khorassan region). It is a 9,448 verse long prose poem constituting an outstanding sacred chant. It recounts the story of the quest for the Truth (the search for the supreme Being) from the perspective of the birds. Guided by the hoopoe, symbolising the poet as a spiritual guide and designated messenger of King Salomon, the birds go through a spiritual adventure filled with doubts and discoveries, much akin to the path of those who engage in the process of spiritual perfection. The goal is to reach the Simorgh and only the hoopoe knows where it dwells and how to get there. The Simorgh is the bird symbolising God’s thought:

We have a Sovereign; past Qâf’s mountain peak
The Sîmorgh lives, the Sovereign whom you seek,
And She is always near to us, though we
Live far from Her transcendent majesty.

(Fârid-ud-Dîn ‘Attâr, The Canticle of the Birds, Diane de Selliers Éditeur, transl. A. Darbandi & D. Davis, 2013, d. 713 to 715)

Despite their ardent desire to draw closer to the unparalleled beauty, the birds are hesitant, afraid to engage. The hoopoe works very hard at convincing them to engage in this quest. It is a long journey: they will need to cross seven valleys, symbolising the different stages to go through in order to defeat the ego, and in the end only thirty of them will reach the Goal and understand that the Truth they were seeking was within each of them, so close and yet so away…

The substance of their being was undone,
And they were lost like shade before the sun;
Neither the pilgrims nor their guide remained.
The Sîmorgh ceased to speak, and silence reigned.
(d. 4286-4288)

Excerpt 1 – Renouncing the pleasures of this world

The Nightingale’s excuse
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 lovesick flute;
When love speaks in the soul my voice replies
In accent plangent as the ocean’s sighs.
When winter comes I see my love has gone –
I’m silent then, and sing no lover’s song!
But when the springs return and she is there
Diffusing musky perfumes everywhere
I sing again, and tell the secrets of
My aching heart, dissolving them in love.
The men who hears this song spurns reason’s rule;
Grey wisdom is content to be love’s fool.
My love is for the rose; I bow to her;
From her dear presence I could never stir.
If she should disappear the nightingale
Would lose his reason and his song would fail,
And through 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 Sîmorgh 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?’
(d. 750-771)

The Hoopoe answers him
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 feels you 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.
(d. 772-777)

What lesson can be drawn from this account?

Renunciation is at the foundation of all spiritual endeavours. It can take many forms, as many and as diverse as the attachments any given person may have. These attachments lead us to fully and actively engage in this world. In that sense they are of course necessary to our spiritual life. But they often (too often) become excessive and invasive, as we keep submitting to them: then like the nightingale mesmerised by the rose, we pin ourselves to materiality and prevent our soul from taking advantage of life in this world and in this body to fly toward its Beloved.

The summer break offers an occasion to reflect on the nature of these attachments and more specifically on their excessive manifestations within ourselves. To help us in this introspection, we have designed a reflection tool that you will find in the activity below. The answers submitted will be used in the context of a follow-up article. Feel free to also share your reflections and experiences in the comments section. Let us note from the outset that the purpose of this exercise is not to pass judgment on one attachment or the other, for the nature and importance of these attachments is highly dependent on the context and on the person, and dealing with them in a balanced way is sometimes also part of our ethical and spiritual duties. The goal here is rather to better grasp which of these attachments (and in which circumstances) constitute the biggest obstacles to our spiritual progress and, from there, to get some idea of the type of renunciation we should seek to engage in.

The form must be filled out and submitted in a single session. It is however possible, if you wish to do so, to go back to your answers later and amend them or add some elements. In order to do so, click on “Edit your response” immediately after submitting your form and copy and save the page’s URL. This link will allow you to retrieve your answers and amend them throughout the summer.

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image begin activity - canticle of the birds

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  1. Elsa Jul 14, 2017 9:30 pm 1

    Thank you so much for providing us with such a wonderful article. The activity was an absolute eye opener for me as to how neglecting I am! Superb! It gave me a lot of incentive and direction as to where to begin on my path to equilibrium!

  2. NE Jul 15, 2017 8:46 am 2

    Thank you very much for this article

  3. Rosh Jul 15, 2017 4:01 pm 3

    What I understand is that maturity comes more with age and life experience. However if it wasn’t for the spiritual aspect of my life, it would have been 100 times even 1000 times bumpier and less tolerable and darker for someone like myself.
    Spirituality has given me more strength, less worries, more self acceptance, less taboos, and thus an ability to accept the world with less judgement.
    I have become freer from negative thoughts; when things bother me I direct my thoughts toward inner understanding and seek the light within; and by asking for Divine help I try to let go of my wants and wishes. At such a time I end up with only one wish, namely, to always seek His satisfaction.

  4. pigeon Jul 16, 2017 3:07 pm 4

    This brought home to me that while I think of myself as a “spiritual” person–99.9% of the time I am neglecting that side of myself. Thank you.

  5. PS Jul 19, 2017 12:32 am 5

    Thank you for this wonderful article and the illuminating exercise. It appears that I often neglect my ethical and spiritual duties for some other acts that I believe are ethical or spiritual in nature when they are in fact neither. For example, the other day I spent a good couple of hours during the day listening to my co-workers about their life problems trying to comfort them. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do. However, I’m not sure my intention was purely spiritual, and I ended up neglecting several other duties. Upon reflection, it became quite evident that this is a common pattern with me: I convince myself that some act is either ethical or spiritual and I MUST urgently do it when in fact I’m completely off base.

  6. kbld Jul 19, 2017 1:03 am 6

    It reminds me of the very beautiful song sung by Françoise Hardy on how the rose’s experience of life shows us – her friend – that life on earth is ephemeral: https://youtu.be/uu6_WhVscio

  7. A. Jul 19, 2017 10:01 pm 7

    Thank you for this! What I have experienced is that the more you give in to your attachments, the stronger your imperious self and the weaker your soul become, and the more likely you are to give in to your attachments again.

  8. tom Jul 19, 2017 10:47 pm 8

    Listing my attachments gave me a chance to reflect on the choices I make with respect to priorities. During this introspection, I made a sad discovery: based solely on my actions and my intentions, I have little care for spiritual tasks such as prayers. I do them once all of my other material tasks are done, and after I have relaxed, and only if i feel like it. When I was a student, I was extremely diligent and hardworking and had enthusiasm for studying and working hard. Yet now, when it comes to my spiritual education I am a slacker. I am attached to my material activities (work, fun, relaxation) to the point that my spiritual tasks are 2nd tier. This to me, based on my actions, means I do not think they are important and do not enjoy doing them. It’s kind of like in the movies, when they say ‘love is not just words, it is an action! You have to show me you love me!’. Well, based on my actions, I really do not like doing spiritual work!

    This is only a small part of my discovery (i knew this about myself for a while, but I guess I never made the comparison to myself as a student in college/grad school until now). The major part of my discovery has to do with my sincerity towards God. Shouldn’t I make more of an effort to pray simply because He is worth it? When I do something for my husband or my child, I do it with such love, passion, diligence, and sincerity because they are worth it and mean so much to me. Why not the same for Him? Should I not be eager to talk to Him the way I am with my family?

    When I do not make spiritual work a priority, I feel like I am not making Him a priority, and that dilutes my sincerity towards Him…I hope to work on this by making an effort to spend time with Him everyday, the way I do with my family.

  9. Linda Jul 21, 2017 3:49 pm 9

    I constantly find myself going back to the drawing. So detailed, so pretty, so telling… I am wondering why there are two of each? Poor nightingale… if only he could see how deceiving the rose is! Of course she is laughing at him and not for him. It’s never good to follow one’s imperious self. Always ends up badly. Always.

  10. PF Jul 21, 2017 4:16 pm 10

    Thank you so much for sharing this article.

  11. J Jul 22, 2017 8:20 pm 11

    The feelings of jealousy I encounter due to the fact that my current partner has been involved in more relationships than I have sometimes leads me to transgress her rights through my thoughts, words, passive-aggressive behaviors, and deeds. I have discovered that I am emotionally immature during arguments, and this also leads me to transgress her rights. Every day I discover something about myself that reveals to me that my imperious self is still something I have to be very careful about in certain circumstances.

  12. SM Jul 24, 2017 5:57 pm 12

    It is very interesting to evaluate the value we place in certain areas of our life. I am realizing that the way I think I am and wish to be is far different than what I actually engage in my daily life. Although I am mindful of my spirituality on a daily basis, I still place far more emphasis on my material life. I find myself so exhausted by the material world that by the time I sit down to do something to benefit my soul, I am not in the “right state of mind” and I put it off. However, when it comes to relaxing by surfing the web, I can easily spend the bulk of my day doing so.

  13. Saga Jul 24, 2017 8:17 pm 13

    I’m wondering if someone can give me some feedback. I spend all my time on work, school and my spouse. I’m not organized when it comes to praying, but I think that I’m mindful of trying to do the right things throughout the day. To me, school, work and my spouse are not material things, because I chose to forgo my interests and am becoming more pragmatic. So I feel that these efforts are of a material/spiritual nature. Even though I’m not particularly organized when it comes to praying and such, I think my life decisions are based on the right intention and are therefore spiritual. Am I blinded by my imperious self or am I thinking correctly? Thank you!

    1. kbld Jul 25, 2017 5:59 pm 13.1

      I would say there is no better devotion to God than making thoughtful and well-intended efforts for the sake of others. So, to me, you are right regarding the nature of your actions.
      I would only note that organization is good in every respect. If I had to choose between seating in a corner and praying on the one hand or being useful to others on the other, I would choose the latter. However, there is no such choice to make between being organized in prayers and being organized in doing one’s duty, on the contrary.
      If by “not being organized”, you mean not having a prayer routine, I would advise you to have one. It is essential to be able to deal with the ethical and spiritual aspects of our material life, as you say, whether it has to do with family, school or work.
      We just need it. It is not contradictory with our daily activities, on the contrary, and being “organized” in prayer can only be a good thing. What’s true, however, is that we can’t spend all of our time in prayers and the like, everyone has to find the right balance for themselves. But I am sure that it is possible to find at least, let’s say, five minutes a day to devote to prayer or more if it fits with our life.
      Of course, being useful to others does not mean letting them take advantage of us either. We have duties toward ourselves, and ought to see if our acts are sensible.

      1. Saga Jul 28, 2017 8:13 pm 13.1.1

        Thank you so much for your answers and yes I should and will begin my journey on becoming more organized!!!

      2. tom Aug 07, 2017 1:54 pm 13.1.2

        I could not agree more. I have had the same problem with organization when it comes to prayer, and decided to work on this through the OstadElahi inPractice Lab called “Connecting with the Divine”.

        During Phase 3, I spent two weeks experimenting with what prayer schedule worked best for me, and I have come up with something that works really well with my life, and helps me to work on weaknesses that lead to lack of prayer. I could not recommend it enough.

      3. Saga Aug 11, 2017 6:39 pm 13.1.3

        Could you share your experience and how you came up with a system that worked for you?
        Thank you!

  14. tom Aug 17, 2017 1:16 pm 14


    I decided that I needed to pray at least 3x a day. I then spent two weeks testing out different times throughout the day to pray that worked with my schedule (Phase 3 alotts 2 weeks of reflection). I tried various tricks to help me remember (various reminders on my phone and computer), different places (ie. getting on the train to go home was a good time to do a prayer). Importantly, I tested how the times worked on the weekdays v the weekends. I found certain times that worked best depending on the days of the week. Also, based on a suggestion I found on OstadElahi inPractice, I decided to also reflect on an attribute of God to help me focus before my prayer. I tested this and realized that it added a tremendous depth and helped me to focus my prayers anytime and anywhere, even if it was a brief moment. At the end of the process, I ended up finding 5 times to pray that I thought would work for me. I realized that if I could do my prayer 5 times, each time could count as two points for the day. So if i did my prayer 3 times that day, then I would get 3 * 2 = 6 points. This would help me with the analysis phase as well. I hope this helps and if you have suggestions please let me know!

    1. tom Aug 17, 2017 1:18 pm 14.1

      I should also add that the 2 point system allows me to give 1 point for accomplishing the prayer, and another for the quality of my prayer.

      Another point is that I am now in the Action phase and I am very motivated and feel energized by the system. It makes me feel like I am in school again (in a good way!)!

      1. fn Sep 03, 2017 6:18 pm 14.1.1

        Hi Tom,
        I wanted to thank you for sharing your experience with us, I found it very helpful.

      2. Saga Sep 04, 2017 6:51 pm 14.1.2

        Thank you so much Tom, I hope to be as successful with this as you one day!

  15. tom Sep 15, 2017 1:39 pm 15

    How would one work on attachment in an in vivo way? The only thought that comes to my mind is auto-suggestion, but what can we do -in contact with others- to help develop reliance on the Source?

  16. ia Sep 28, 2017 11:27 pm 16

    I realise that I spend a lot of time worrying and thinking and feeling guilty or anxious about who I am and what I am doing and what I am not doing or who I am not….It is the most draining and time consuming activity.

    I am realising that while these efforts are an attempt to improve myself, they stem from my ego and prevent me from being in the present moment, being focused and simply living my life and entrusting it to the Divine.

    So there is a problem of pride and of lack of trust in God and contentment in and with myself.

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