When you realize the difference between the container and the content,
you will have knowledge.—Sufi saying
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
There's a traditional story from Afghanistan that reads like a "Twilight Zone" episode or a theoretical physicist musing about parallel universes. At the same time, this tale conveys depth of meaning. It has the title "Paradise of Song" and relates a series of events in which a protagonist named Ahangar, which literally means "making of the self," sings a song about a distant, paradisiacal valley.
Some who hear Ahangar's song believe in the reality of the valley, while others do not. The latter group challenges him to find the place described, which he does after an arduous journey involving many ordeals. Ahangar discovers that the valley looks just like the one he came from. The story relates that something very strange was happening, but doesn't say what it was.
Some months later, Ahangar hobbles back into the village an old man. He appears to have aged many years. His neighbors ask what he found and he has difficulty answering. He seems weary and even hopeless.
'I climbed and I climbed, and I climbed. When it seemed as though there could be no human habitation in such a desolate place, and after many trials and disappointments, I came upon a valley. This valley was exactly like the one in which we live. And then I saw the people. Those people are not only like us people: they are the same people. For every anybody whom we have here, there is another one, exactly the same in that valley.
'These are likenesses and reflections to us, when we see such things. But it is we who are the likeness and reflection of them—we who are here, we are their twins...'
Everyone thought that Ahangar had gone mad through his privations. Ahangar rapidly grew old and died. And all the people, every one who had heard this story from the lips of Ahangar, first lost heart in their lives, then grew old and died, for they felt that something was going to happen over which they had no control and from which they had no hope, and so they lost interest in life itself.
At first, the story doesn't seem very particularly substantive. Is it a children's bedtime fantasy about a world next door populated by doppelgängers? When I first read it some decades ago I had the feeling that it was meaningful but I couldn't put my finger on its precise meaning. It was only the other day that a window opened onto a deeper significance.
The event occurred when I was at a party. It was an obligatory social gathering, though not unpleasant, and I was using the occasion to practice staying present in sensation in my body. I had selected my hands and feet as anchors for attention, and as is usually the case, the presence in sensation came and went. I would hold onto it for a few seconds, or even for a whole minute, and then wake up again some minutes later realizing that I had completely forgotten about my inner task.
I knew most of the people at this gathering and felt comfortable that we were all of a similar sensibility. Then one of the assembled spoke up and intimated he had happily voted for the current US president. As he said it I was present in sensation in my hands, and I noticed my body tense and my mind change; my attitude towards the person instantly and automatically adjusted from one of habitual, assumed camaraderie to equally habitual mistrust and mild revulsion. At the same time I continued to sense my hands, as though I knew the inner reaction was a real and albeit unexpected opportunity.
In that moment of being filled with a subjective reaction and at the same time striving to be present in a neutral but palpable sensation of my body the separation was crystal clear. I saw that the part of my nature that can be presenced has dimensionally greater reality than the reactive contents of "me," my beliefs, opinions, and biases.
In reality the me that calls itself "I" is an imposter, a holographic reflection of a truer self. This self is real and palpable and eminently available when I can muster or be drawn into a deeper attention.
It may be that touched by this realization, an old me can quickly age and die, and make way for an immanent individuality. Once begun, a sense of urgency enters the process for, as the Zoroastrian aphorism posits, "Blessed is he who has a soul, blessed is he who has none, but woe and grief to him who has it in embryo."
* From Wisdom of the Idiots by Idries Shah (Octagon Press, 1969).