Mystical content and symbology of Bahá'u'lláh's Four Valleys
by David Langnesspublished in Seeker's Path
THE FOUR STAGES OF THE HEARTIn the closing pages of The Seven Valleys, Bahá'u'lláh wrote that "the heart is endowed with four stages, which would be recounted should a kindred soul be found" (p. 41). Then, in The Four Valleys, written some time later to a Sufi mystic Bahá'u'lláh esteemed as a friend and a devoted admirer, He outlines the spiritual journey, saying that "those who progress in mystic wayfaring are of four kinds" (p. 49). This more recent, simplified version of the traditional seven-stage path in the Seven Valleys parallels other four-stage maps drawn by psychologists, searchers and thinkers. But the mystical directions in The Four Valleys reach a new pinnacle, because the profound path Bahá'u'lláh maps there not only instructs but inspires. In gorgeous, lofty language, The Four Valleys speaks directly to the true seeker's innermost being. Bahá'u'lláh describes these four stages without naming them, but writes about a specific theme in each one:
The Four Valleys commences as all paths do, with an unfettered search after truth and an exploration of the self. In the second stage, which Bahá'u'lláh calls "the station of primal reason," the tests begin. "On this plane," He writes, "the traveler meeteth with many a trial and reverse." (p. 53) Knowledge results, and the third valley -- which Bahá'u'lláh says cannot be pictured in words -- opens up, characterized by the "beauty of love." "This plane," He writes, "requireth pure affection and the bright stream of fellowship.... The denizens of this plane speak no words -- but they gallop their chargers" (p. 55). Then comes the "realm of full awareness and utter self-effacement," that penultimate state that all of us seek, the apex of consciousness, where we experience delight, nirvana, ecstasy, and unity.
These four basic stages of human spiritual growth have close parallels to Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, among many others. The Vedantas express this four-fold idea -- defined as gross, subtle, causal, and ultimate -- with each level of consciousness representing a reduced reflection of the highest consciousness. Ken Wilber points out that the Buddhist vijnana psychology "holds that there are four classes of consciousness, each being a stepped- down version of Universal Mind" (Eye to Eye, p. 168). Psychologist Rollo May's description of this four-fold model of consciousness, although divorced from the spiritual and mystical meanings, explains the psychological basis for the four-fold path:
We have seen that becoming a person means going through several stages of consciousness of one's self. The first is that of the innocence of the infant before consciousness of self is born. The second is the stage of rebellion, when the person is trying to become free to establish some inner strength in his own right. In greater or lesser degree rebellion is a necessary transition as one cuts old ties and seeks to make new ones. But rebellion is not to be confused with freedom. The third stage we may call the ordinary consciousness of self. In this stage a person can to some extent see his errors, make some allowance for his prejudices, use his guilt feelings and anxiety as experiences to learn from, and make his decisions with some responsibility. This is what most people mean when they speak of a healthy state of personality. But there is a fourth stage of consciousness which is extraordinary in the sense that most individuals experience it only rarely. This stage is most clearly illustrated when one gets a sudden insight into a problem -- abruptly, seemingly from nowhere, pops up an answer for which one has struggled in vain for days. Sometimes such insights come in dreams, or at moments of reverie when one is thinking about something else: in any case, we know that the answer emerges from what are called subconscious levels in the personality. Such consciousness may occur in scientific, religious or artistic activity alike; it is sometimes popularly called 'dawning' of ideas or 'inspiration.' As all students of creative activity make clear, this level of consciousness is present in all creative work. The classic psychological term for this awareness is ecstasy. The word literally means 'to stand outside one's self,' that is, to catch a view of, or experience something, from a perspective outside one's usual limited viewpoint. Temporarily we can transcend the usual limits of conscious personality. This creative self-consciousness is a stage that most of us achieve only at rare intervals; and none of us, except the saints, religious or secular, and the great creative figures, live very much of our lives at this level. But it is the level which gives meaning to our actions and experiences on the lesser levels. It is as though for a moment one stood on a mountain peak, and viewed his life from that wide and unlimited perspective. (Man's Search for Himself, pp. 138-141)
Renunciation, sacrifice, and surrender all function as code words in the sacred literature for this ability to reach creative self- consciousness, to transcend:
Christ was like a seed, and this seed sacrificed its own form so that the tree might grow and develop. Although the form of the seed was destroyed, its reality became apparent in perfect majesty and beauty in the form of a tree.... When the form of the tree was sacrificed, its perfections appeared in the perfect form of leaves, blossoms and fruits. -`Abdu'l-Bahá (Some Answered Questions, p. 121)
Our own sacrifice, understood in the context of growth and spiritual development, calls for moving beyond our lower nature and ascending to the higher. In hindsight, this movement from weakness to strength hardly qualifies as sacrifice, rather like a baby giving up crawling when walking works better. In reality, of course, this requires no sacrifice at all, but simply the courage to evolve and change.
( -end of book excerpt-)
Bahá'u'lláh's Four Valleys represents, for me, a modern model for spiritual search and growth that has long historical reverberations across many spiritual traditions. When He wrote The Seven Valleys, which functioned as a response to an unfriendly Sufi cleric's challenge to His learning, Bahá'u'lláh used the traditional seven- step Sufi spiritual structure. This framework, initially drawn in Attar's Conference of the Birds and later used by Rumi and many others, posits a fairly complex spiritual journey through varying levels of detachment from the physical world and initiation into the numinous.
But Bahá'u'lláh discarded the traditional Sufi model when He wrote the Four Valleys. In fact, the Four Valleys has always marked for me the point of departure in Bahá'u'lláh's corpus of revelatory writing when He ceased thinking and writing as Mirza Husayn Ali and began to write as Bahá'u'lláh. (see, for example, the two-page section at the end of the Four Valleys, which is devoted to allusions to the nearness of Baha) In this four-step model He reveals an ancient and yet completely new way of seeing the human progression through spiritual search and attainment.
In fact, as religious historian Huston Smith points out in several places, most notably in his book Forgotten Truth, the models of stepped spiritual search which exist in the world's great mystical religions can be roughly summarized as comprising between four and seven steps -- with four serving as the absolute, irreducible minimum. These four levels of being -- which Smith, Schuon and others generally describe as body, mind, soul and spirit -- function as stages in human spiritual evolution, both individually and collectively. Ken Wilber puts it this way:
That was Hegel's and Auribindo's and Teilhard de Chardin's message; evolution is moving through the links in the Great Chain of Being -- starting with the lowest, or matter, and moving to biological structures, then to mind, then to subtle and causal realms, and finally to supermind or omega point. (Eye to Eye, p. 160)
This perennial philosophy, which echoes throughout all the major religious traditions, represents being or consciousness or the growth of spirit as a hierarchy of steps, dimensions or levels, which move, as Wilber says, "from the lowest, densest and most fragmentary realms to the highest, subtlest and most unitary ones."
So the model of the four-step or four-fold path exists throughout religious history, charting spiritual growth as a movement from self to selflessness. It has been represented symbolically with the stages of mineral, plant, animal and human; metaphorically as the movement from infant to child to young adult to elder; and analogically as a progression from inner-directed to other- directed. (These four-step models closely correspond, IMV, with many of the posited level-specific moral growth models such as Kohlberg's and Maslow's.)
Ken Wilber uses the Vedanta notion of cosmology when describing his syncretistic four-level model: gross, subtle, causal and ultimate or Turiya state. "The point, with reference to bodies," Wilber explains in Eye to Eye, "is that the body or substance of a physical entity, such as a simple rock, is actually a reflection downward of the freedom and vitality of the subtle body associated with mind, and the subtle body itself is merely a trickle of the causal body -- and that is just a contraction in the face of eternity or turiya." (p. 168)
What I have adduced from the Four Valleys model over the past several years, especially as I have spoken to college psychology and theology classes about my upcoming book and the structural construct that Bahá'u'lláh builds with His four-stage model, revolve around a simplified hierarchy which takes its progression from the first line in each Valley.
For my own reference, then, I call the first Valley the Valley of Self, because in the First Valley Bahá'u'lláh says "this station appertaineth to the self..." "On this plane," He continues, "the self is not rejected but beloved; it is well-pleasing and not to be shunned." This Valley, which corresponds nicely with the first of the Seven Valleys and indeed the first of all the perennial philosophy models, focuses on the discovery of self as the starting place for all spiritual attainment. Here, Bahá'u'lláh encourages the seeker to study first the map of his own soul, and to look within for the impetus to truth which guides all search.
In the Second Valley, Bahá'u'lláh writes that "this is the station of primal reason...." In other places, notably the Seven Valleys, the Blessed Beauty uses the word reason almost interchangeably with the word knowledge. But all of the four-level cosmologies use some variant of this concept of self-knowledge or the discovery of logic and reason to describe the opening of the higher mind to spiritual search and the promptings of the soul. I usually term this step the Valley of Reason or the Valley of Knowledge. And here, in the Second Valley, the newly-discovered self transcends its self- awareness, trading it in on a broader consciousness which allows it to see beyond the boundaries of the First Valley, and into the heart of symbols and signs.
[Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbols defines a valley, btw, as representing
"a neutral zone apt for the development of all creation and for all material progress in the world of manifestation. Its characteristic fertility stands in contrast to the nature of the desert (symbolically a place of purification), of the ocean (which represents the Origin of life but which, in relation to man's existence, is sterile), and of the mountains (the region characterized by snows and the ascetic, contemplative life, or by intellectual illumination). In short, the valley is symbolic of life itself and is the mystic abode of shepherd and priest. (p. 339)]
In the Third Valley, Bahá'u'lláh states that "no soul may dwell on this Kingly Throne save the beauty of love." "On this plane," He goes on to say, "neither the reign of reason is sufficient nor the authority of self." Here He emphasizes the attainment of love for the Beloved, after the stages of search after self and growing self-knowledge have been surpassed. This stage focuses on the great yearning of the human heart and soul for the meeting with the Maiden. Bahá'u'lláh clearly says that "This realm is not to be pictured in words.", and indeed spends most of the short duration of His description of the Third Valley quoting from the Quran and Rumi's Mathnavi -- "The lover's teacher is the Loved One's beauty." I call this valley the Valley of Love.
The Fourth Valley Bahá'u'lláh terms "the apex of consciousness and the secret of divine guidance," "the realm of full awareness, of utter self-effacement." He says that "Astonishment here is highly prized, and utter poverty essential." The name of the Seventh Valley -- True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness -- resonates here in the Fourth. And the idea of nothingness agrees with the negative names of all these "highest-state" hierarchies, such as the Buddhist nirvana (nir-vana, or "non-drawing", as a fire ceases to draw); with the Hindu nirguna (nir-guna, without qualities); in Judaism the 'en-sof, the not-finite. Indeed, no term except its negative (In-finite) can characterize this state literally, and only poetry can attempt to name it in positive terms. This valley, then, I refer to as the Valley of the Apex of Consciousness.
I have seen these four-step models of human spiritual growth go a long way toward assisting readers in their understanding of Bahá'u'lláh's The Four Valleys, at least on a rudimentary basis. For a longer and more in-depth study, I often recommend the perennialists (especially Fritjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions), Ken Wilber and Huston Smith, and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.