A young man in another state contacted me for online consultation, having learned that I’d written about Sufism, particularly Idries Shah’s work. He was reading Shah’s books, and wanted to include this interest, as well as other issues in his life, in our discussion. I made it clear that I am neither a Sufi nor a spiritual teacher of any kind, and that such information about spiritual psychology as I’d gathered over the years was not he same as being a qualified spiritual teacher. We could try a consulting relationship as long as we had that straight.
It turned out that he had an intense desire to find “the truth,” and thought he could do that by reading Shah’s books by himself and finding the way to break through from where he was into that truth. He seemed like a good guy to me, responsible to his customers and company in his work, striving to live a morally good life and treat other people well, and genuinely called to inquire within himself for the mystery of being. However, he was very introverted both by nature and upbringing, having been restricted to his home while growing up by a parent with rigid religious beliefs and acute fear of the outside world. Aside from his job, which he liked well enough, he spent most of his life by himself at home, had few friends, close or casual, no romantic life, and no hobbies or other interests aside from video games. On his job, he barely earned enough to get by and was not on a career path for advancement; although his company did offer some opportunity for that.
It didn’t take a Sufi to see that he was unbalanced both in his approach to spirituality and to life; living an over-isolated lifestyle in the name of his quest for truth, and concentrating his ambition on achieving a solitary spiritual breakthrough, rather than reaching out for life, love and learning while continuing his spiritual quest. I pointed out that, as far as I knew, spiritual development requires being able to live a normal life in society, to have relationships with people of different backgrounds, and to have a balanced life of which the spiritual search was a part. Accordingly, I advised him to seek more social life, and more engagement in life in general, outside the solitude of his apartment. That was several months ago, and he’s trying. Although he lives in a city that has at least some resources for social, recreational, educational, vocational, and other life enrichments, he doesn’t find it easy to reach out.
This young man’s situation is an example of how the spiritual search can become co-opted in the service of one’s existing personality and behavior patterns. The truth is that psychological growth, whether in our ordinary lives or in spirituality, often involves disconfirmation of how we think of ourselves, others and life, and requires stretching ourselves into new experiences which may be unfamiliar, unexpected and uncomfortable. In my model of how the brain learns in psychotherapy and spirituality, this involves the development of new neural networks, and new interconnections among existing neural networks. In fact, multiple examples of how people short-circuit their spiritual search are included in Shah’s literature, which this young man had read. Fortunately, because he was familiar with this literature, he was immediately able to recognize his situation when I pointed it out it to him.
Sometimes psychological growth involves confirmation of subtle experiences that we’ve tended to ignore. I advised him to pay attention to small experiences of perception, “little ‘e’” enlightenments, rather than looking for a “BIG E” breakthrough; which reflects an approach to learning also mentioned in Shah’s literature, and in fact supported by it. But he still craves that “big breakthrough;” even though he has read that such cravings are more often characterized by unfulfilled emotional needs than genuine spiritual ones, and that too much emotion decreases rather than increases perception, spiritual or otherwise.
Of course, there are congregations and paths that privilege emotion and call it spiritual, and perhaps he’ll find his way to one of them. Eventually that might even be a way for him to realize what emotion can, and can’t, contribute to the spiritual search. One of my clients is a chaplain who was, for a time, a member of a charismatic sect, which cultivated highly emotional experiences within a cult-like atmosphere. It served his needs for a time, and when it didn’t any more, he moved on.