I recently gave this presentation at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, in Toronto, and here is a pdf of the slide show. It’s bound to be somewhat bumpy, because the slide show is meant to support an ongoing lecture/commentary, but it contains a lot of good information that may be useful. Another bump: as a pdf, it doesn’t have the built-in animations that synched with the lecture/commentary and helped the flow.
We often see assertions about what good leadership entails. Recently I got a marketing email from someone claiming to help leaders develop “mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion.” These are certainly good qualities, but leaders may also have to be, depending on the situation, perceptive, astute about whom to trust and for what, strategic in prioritizing initiatives, decisive, and in some ways ruthless.
What such claims about essentials in leadership miss is that leadership doesn’t operate in a vacuum. A leader creates a culture, or comes into a culture that already exists, in an environment in which the group or organization has to survive and accomplish goals. The success of the leader will depend on her or his ability to configure or reconfigure the group or organization’s culture around the dynamics, characteristics, relationships and economics that are relevant to its current challenges, opportunities, and necessities. The leader exercises leadership on the fly; while the group or organization is doing whatever it’s doing. And in the action of leadership there is a moral dimension; the question of which value priorities the leader expresses in goal-setting and decision-making.
This is so fundamental that I would expect it to be widely acknowledged in theories and discussions about leadership, but I don’t find that it is. Instead, people tend to talk about leadership as if it were a single ability or skill set. The great psychologist George Kelly, back in the 1950’s, noted that different kinds of groups and situations require different kinds of leaders, but I don’t find that insight to be widely acknowledged, even today.
What, for example, about being “mindful, selfless and compassionate?”
Sometimes leaders have to be more mindful, sometimes less. It depends on what they have to be mindful about, in the current situation of the organization. If they are mindful about the wrong things, the focus won’t be where it needs to be. A lot of leadership coaching (and therapy for that matter) is about helping people to be more mindful about some things and less mindful about others.
Sometimes leaders have to be more selfless, sometimes more selfish. The narrowly selfish leader needs to be more selfless, to identify with the organization’s well-being rather than seeing it as serving himself (or herself). The leader who is so selfless that necessary goals are lost sight of will not be effective. As psychologist Robert Ornstein said, the mystical-minded person who, upon being approached by a man-eating tiger, thinks “Here’s one of God’s creatures about to eat another of God’s creatures,” will probably not contribute to the gene pool.
Sometimes leaders need to be more compassionate, more aware of the experience of people around her and of those whom the organization comes into contact with. But sometimes leaders need to be less compassionate; for example, avoiding difficult conversations and personnel decisions out of compassion for people who may be hurt by them can result in weakening and undermining the organization.
In his “Reflections,” the Sufi author Idries Shah wrote: “Right time, right place, right people equals success. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong people, equals most of the real human story.” If we look at leadership from this perspective, we may be able to see more of what is really happening.
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.
This is an edited summary of my blog post of May 31, 2013, in response to inquiries about how to have difficult conversations more effectively.
Communication fads come and go, but difficult conversations are here to stay, so information that helps us to have them more productively is welcome. The books, “Difficult Conversations,” and “Crucial Conversations” describe a number of ideas, attitudes and skills to help. Most of the concepts I’ll mention come from “Difficult Conversations.” “Crucial Conversations” looks at the same territory in a somewhat different way, with one very important difference.
We All Have Difficult Conversations
Communication fads come and go–there’s a new one every few years in the worlds of human education, therapy, human relations and organizational training—but difficult conversations are here to stay. In my work, four impressions have become clear:
1. Many difficult conversations that go badly don’t need to be had at all. They occur because of a misunderstanding that could have been cleared up through simple inquiry, or because people acted on feelings and assumptions they should have taken time and effort to understand and manage rather than “letting them out the door” prematurely.
2. Many difficult conversations that should be had are avoided, because the people who need to initiate and manage them don’t know how to. The result is that bad consequences happen because no one is dealing with a problem that needs to be dealt with.
3. When difficult conversations are necessary, there are attitudes and skills that can help them to go better. Such conversations can be useful and even healing.
4. When difficult conversations happen without the necessary attitudes and skills, they can be counterproductive, with people feeling worse, and attitudes, perhaps based on incomplete information, hardened.
The book “Difficult Conversations,” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, takes an in-depth look at how difficult conversations can go wrong, and describes a set of concepts, attitudes and skills to support having difficult conversations more effectively and productively. I’ve found it useful in my work in individual and couples therapy and organizational consultation and training. It’s on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-What-Matters/dp/0143118447/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1508357024&sr=8-1&keywords=difficult+conversations+how+to+discuss+what+matters+most
Some Key Ideas From “Difficult Conversations:”
1. Shift from a Conflict Conversation to a “Learning Conversation.”
The purpose of applying the “Difficult Conversations” methods is to move difficult conversations from being antagonistic or adversarial conversations, in which people are attacking and defending, or trying to achieve goals through power or manipulation, to being learning conversations in which both parties are listening to one another as well as saying what they need to say.
2. The “Three Conversations.” A key idea in “Difficult Conversations: is that every difficult conversation is really three conversations: 1. The “What Happened” conversation, consisting of “3 stories” (see below), 2. The “Feelings” conversation, and 3. The “Identity” conversation.
3. What Happened: The Three Stories. There are three stories about “what happened” in every difficult conversation: each party’s story or version of events, and the “third story.” The “third story” is the story which might be told by an impartial third party, such as a mediator, which includes elements of each party’s story without casting any blame.
For example, in a school situation, a parent and teacher might need to have a difficult conversation about a child’s failure to complete his homework. Let’s say that Johnny, a fifth grader, has stopped handing in his homework and is falling behind in class. The teacher’s story is that she is sending homework home with Johnny but his parents are not following through to make sure that he does it. Johnny’s parents both have demanding jobs and the teacher thinks that they are just too drained when they get home to have the energy to do the difficult work of making Johnny do homework, especially if he doesn’t want to do it. She also thinks Johnny’s parents might feel guilty about spending so much time away from home at work, so they might be overly permissive and allow him to avoid homework.
Johnny’s parents’ story, on the other hand, is that Johnny is being bullied by a bunch of kids at school, and he’s hurt, sad and angry about it, and doesn’t want to even think about school once he’s out of there. So that’s why they think Johnny isn’t doing his homework. And they think his teacher is either accepting other students bullying him as normal behavior and letting it happen, or she’s too weak to stop it, or she is just too inattentive to even notice that it’s happening.
The “third story” is that Johnny is not doing his homework and falling behind in school, so now his teacher and parents need to look at this together to try to understand why he’s falling behind and see how they can work together to help him get back on track.
The “Difficult Conversations” authors suggest starting a difficult conversation with the “third story.” Johnny’s teacher might do that at the beginning of her meeting with his parents, to start the conversation on a good foundation that she can “reframe” back to if the conversation is in danger of becoming undermined or blown up as it progresses.
4. The “Feelings Conversation.” According to “Difficult Conversations,” every difficult conversation is powered by feelings, which are often not acknowledged. It can be very important to acknowledge these feelings without letting them undermine the conversation. For example, Johnny’s parents may feel angry about Johnny’s being bullied at school, helpless to do anything about it, and let down by his teacher. His teacher may feel let down by Johnny’s parents, and angry at them for unfairly blaming her, like a scapegoat. It’s important for both parties to acknowledge and respect one another’s feelings, while not letting them derail the conversation. If someone becomes too upset, taking a time out and returning to the conversation in a few minutes, or even rescheduling it to another day, can help to keep it on track.
5. “Reframing.” Reframing is one of the most important “Difficult Conversations” skills. If Johnny’s parents accuse his teacher of not caring about him, she could allow the conversation to get blown off course, by reacting defensively or counterattacking, or she could reframe the conversation by interpreting their comments as an expression of their concern, emphasizing that she is concerned too–that’s why she called the meeting–and getting the conversation back on track.
6. The “Identity Conversation.” The “identity conversation” could be described as the stake that each person’s ego or self has in their personal or professional role in the conversation. For example, if Johnny’s parents accuse his teacher of not caring about Johnny, they are attacking her identity as a teacher. If she then gets stuck in defending herself–”of course I care about him, I’ve been a teaching for a dozen years and I care about every one of my students!”–or gets too upset to remember her agenda for the meeting and keep managing her role as facilitator, the conversation is likely to become useless or counterproductive. And of course the same thing could happen if she counterattacks Johnny’s parents with: “If you took your parenting responsibilities more seriously, you’d make sure he got his homework done!”
7. Reframe From Blame to Contribution. The “Difficult Conversations” authors regard the establishment of blame as not a useful strategy. Instead, they assert, it’s more useful to think in terms of the relative contribution of each party. In our example, it doesn’t really help anyone for Johnny’s parents blame his teacher or his teacher to blame his parents. But if, as a result of the difficult conversation, Johnny’s parents and teacher can have a learning conversation, the teacher might realize that she’s contributed to the problem by not being aware that Johnny was being picked on (or at least feeling picked on), and his parents might realize that they’ve contributed by letting Johnny avoid his homework.
8. Avoid “Intention Invention.” By “intention invention,” the authors mean that we make up reasons about why we think someone we’re in a conflict with is doing whatever they’re doing, when in fact we don’t really know why they’re doing it. “Intention Invention” reminds me of two rather complicated ideas, which I’ll mention without going into in depth: “attribution” in cognitive psychology, and “projective identification” in psychoanalytic psychology.
The “Difficult Conversation” authors emphasize that most of what we do has multiple motivational sources. In our school example, Johnny may be falling behind in his homework partly because he’s being picked on, partly because he feels the teacher doesn’t like him, partly because he finds the work difficult and would rather avoid it, partly because there are more enjoyable activities for him to do after school, and partly because he can get his parents to let him, which makes him feel special as well as getting away with not doing it. His teacher and parents will have similar multiple motivations contributing to their own perceptions, feelings, and attributions. So it’s generally a mistake to think that someone we’re in a conflict with is doing whatever they’re doing for only one reason,; or that we ourselves are. We are almost always operating on the basis of a mixture of motivations. “Intention invention” is a modern version of the old saying, “Give a dog a bad name and hang it.”
9. Authentic Listening. Authentic listening is a key skill in any difficult conversation. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to listen, but people often just go through the motions of listening, and sooner or later the other person usually gets this. You don’t have to accept what the other person says, or thinks, but you have to really be there, and really listen.
“Crucial Conversations” and the importance of truth
Another book that provides insight, attitudes and skills for having difficult conversations effectively is “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High,” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. “Crucial Conversations” provides ideas such as “Speaking Persuasively, Not Abrasively” and “Making It Safe” in a conversation, and many others, covering much of the same territory as “Difficult Conversations,” in another way. But one key difference between “Crucial Conversations” and “Difficult Conversations” is in the attitude toward truth. It’s on Amazon at: (https://www.amazon.com/Crucial-Conversations-Talking-Stakes-Second/dp/0071771328/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1508357115&sr=1-1&keywords=crucial+conversations+tools+for+talking+when+stakes+are+high).
“Difficult Conversations,” holds that each person has their own truth; there isn’t necessarily an objective truth per se, so what’s important is that the parties can listen to one another and have a learning conversation about how each other is seeing things. “Crucial Conversations,” on the other hand, sees objective truth as existing in situations, so much so that the goal of conversational skill is to be able to speak the truth about a situation in a way that everyone in the conversation can hear it. So, in “Difficult Conversations,” there’s my truth, and your truth, and we have to work it out. In “Crucial Conversations,” there’s the truth, and we have to be able to acknowledge it together.
In my work, I’ve coined the phrase, “the minimum necessary truth.” In a difficult situation, we may not have have access to the complete truth—when do we ever?—or even to a larger view of what’s true, but there is a minimum necessary amount of truth which must be acknowledged if things are to get better.
“Them and Us:” Arthur Deikman
Psychiatrist Arthur Deikman (www.Deikman.com) makes an important contribution in his book, “Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat.” Deikman discusses the effect of propaganda and how cult-like thinking can foster the illusion of debate of issues rather than genuine consideration. “In most conflict situations, disagreements are based on differences in interpretation and in the priorities given to different values, but these differences are seldom stated, and, lacking that clarification, we absorb highly selective information, are swayed to one side or the other, but end up no wiser…opposing propagandas do not assist the democratic process but produce partisans, each with the mind-set of a cult member…” It’s easy to see how the same attitudes undermine the necessary difficult conversations of life, when the participants try to win (however they define that) rather than have an actual conversation.
Deikman indicates four areas that can usefully be clarified in the discussion of a controversial problem:
“1. The key data. (Are they disputed?)
2. Interpretations of the data.
3. Value conflicts. (Reason for giving one value priority over the other?)
4. Error indicators. (What events or facts would indicate to each side that their belief or strategy should be changed?)”
Clearly these ideas, and the attitudes underlying them, can usefully be included in many difficult conversations. “Them and Us” is on Amazon at: (https://www.amazon.com/Them-Us-Thinking-Terrorist-Threat/dp/097200212X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1508357180&sr=1-1&keywords=the+and+us+deikman).
Application: From Passive to Active Understanding
The attitudes and skills for having difficult conversations more successfully are not easy for most of us to acquire and use. We generally don’t learn them through our professional education, or even our moral, religious, or spiritual education. Doing difficult conversations well requires a lot of executive functioning; staying on task, not taking criticisms and attacks too personally, continually monitoring the conversation and reframing as necessary.
Psychologists distinguish between different forms of learning, such as semantic and procedural. It’s one thing to know the key ideas about how to have difficult conversations more effectively so that one can define them or answer multiple choice questions about them. It’s entirely another thing to know them deeply enough to apply them in actual situations. When I’ve taught these concepts to groups with lecture and slide show, I’ve often found that people seem to understand them intellectually pretty well, but when we start discussing cases or role playing, they revert instantly to a “them and us” attitude.
One of my favorite teaching stories is about Ibrahim Ben Adhem, a prince who, like the Buddha, left his royal home to seek knowledge. As he was walking down the road he came across a stone on which was written: “Turn me over and read.” Turning the stone over, Ben Adhem read: “Why do you seek more knowledge when you pay no heed to what you already know?” (Retold by Idries Shah in his Caravan of Dreams, within the narrative, “Encounter At A Hermitage.” On Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/Caravan-Dreams-Idries-Shah/dp/178479015X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1508355989&sr=8-1&keywords=caravan+of+dreams+idries+shah)
This is why experiential learning is so important when it comes to learning difficult conversation skills (and many other relationship skills!). Discussion of actual case situations, and role playing of actual and simulated situations helps to bring home the meaning of attitudes and skills for difficult conversations. Even participants who just watch can potentially benefit from watching others.
Learning a concept doesn’t necessarily mean knowing it deeply enough to apply it, and we all tend to revert to old habits and “them and us” attitudes in actual situations. So, in addition to presenting the information, I recommend depth learning through experiential methods, including discussion of cases in detail, role playing, and pre-conversation preparation and and post-conversation reflection and debriefing.
(I don’t know why one Amazon book link came out live and the others didn’t!)
Freud and his followers thought that they had discovered the human tendency to project one’s own assumptions and preoccupations onto others. When this happens in therapy, it’s called “transference” (patient projects onto therapist) or “countertransference” (therapist projects onto patient). However, this tendency has been well known, in at least some circles, since ancient times.
Idries Shah gives a tale illustrating this in his “Special Illumination: The Sufi Use of Humour.”
One day a scholar ran into a gang of bandits who threatened to kill him. “I think you are a spy or a police agent,” the chief said.
“No I am not. I am only a poor scholar,” said the unfortunate captive.
“‘How can you prove it?”
“I can read from a book.”
“That’s no good to us: we’re all illiterates. How do we know you will really be reading, and not just making it all up?”
So they killed him. “I didn’t become head of this band of outlaws by believing everything people told me, you know,” said the chief. And his wisdom was, of course, unanimously applauded by his men. (Octagon Press, 1977, p 40-41)
Shah comments: “The attributing of one’s own characteristics to others, so common amongst—for instance—generous and stingy people alike, needs both illustrating and fixing in vivid tale. The brevity of this tale enables one to shock someone out of this habit pattern. The need to point out the syndrome is there because Sufi understanding cannot come to people who are too extensively self-deceived. To imagine, therefore, the other person’s motivation is what is actually one’s own is self-deception.”
Because this knowledge was not generally available in Western culture before Freud—along with others with whom he was in collaboration and conflict, often characterized by their own projections onto one another—created psychoanalysis, it has been incorrectly believed that the psychological projection of one’s own preoccupations onto others is a new discovery, and that only psychoanalysis can bring it into conscious awareness. In fact, it has been perennially known to genuine spiritual traditions, which include methods—for example, this story—for helping learners become aware of this process in themselves and others, and escape being controlled by it.
Someone asked me about how I became interested in the Sufi writing of Idries Shah, back in the 1970s. Here’s what I wrote:
I don’t have a comprehensive, or even coherent, narrative about my interest in Sufism (as presented by Idries Shah), but here are some parts.
First, a metaphor from life. I grew up in a home in New Haven in which the “maple syrup” on the table for pancakes was actually mostly corn syrup with a small percentage of maple syrup or flavoring, sometimes with butter flavoring. When I went to Vermont for college, I had real maple syrup. It was then that I realized what real maple syrup was, and that what I had been introduced to as “maple syrup” was an imitation; and also how to tell, by taste, the difference between the imitation and the real thing. Thus with Shah’s Sufi writings and activities, and what I had formerly been introduced to as “religion” and “spirituality.”
Second, as I read Shah’s books, along with books by other authors in various traditions, the situations and behavior described in Shah’s writings made more sense to me. They described human behavior as I experienced it better than other sources. The foibles and mistakes that they described in people seeking knowledge or claiming to represent knowledge traditions and authority seemed to describe the academic and professional psychologists and mental health specialists I was reading and studying among better than their own materials. Stupid psychologist and “expert” behavior was well described in the Sufi materials, albeit in the religious/spiritual context, rather than in the psychological materials I was reading, but the application was often obvious. And the characteristics of people who attained some access to deeper/higher perception/perspective were also better described in the Sufi materials than in psychological ones.
Third, the teaching stories provided access to insight like no other tool or method I experienced. Sometimes I would find a person or situation exactly described in a story. At other times, meanings in stories would unfold, sometimes at considerable length after reading them, when prompted by experience, and I began to see my own behavior in them, as well as that of others. Reading and listening to teaching stories with the attitude that I would find what I could in them now, and more later, was a method that worked for me, and tended to confirm the validity of the materials.
I saw Shah only once, I think in 1975, when he came to New York for a conference, where Bob Ornstein, Peter Brent, and Rene Dubos also presented. Shah made sense; was informative, ironic, occasionally wryly funny, not trying to recruit; challenging, not for its own sake but to point out our culture’s foibles when it came to seeking and trying to understand spirituality, and inviting us to be more knowledgable in our approach; and every presenter was informative and impressive, each in his own way. Reading the materials, listening to Shah at the time and then to the lectures on cassette, there was a sense of widening of horizons of information about human nature, pitfalls on the path of life, ways to avoid them by being aware of them, attitudes from which we could reach higher; and, just as importantly, not fall lower.
Over the years, the materials have continued to be a kind of touchstone and lifeline, a collection of windows and doorways (to mix metaphors!) into wider perceptions, which have helped to support and sustain my aspirations; and also provided some needed balance and ballast in life. Among the perceptions which the stories support is the recognition that society is much more primitive than we are taught to believe as we come up in it, and recognizing that disillusionment is a necessary part of the learning.
And the fact that, notwithstanding that Sufi materials hold the most discerning mirror up to human shortcomings, they come from, represent, and call something in us toward a higher level of being, from which such perceptions emanate; so they are both a hopeful message and part of the path toward that perception. I have had occasion to remind myself that it was Bahaudin Naqshband, no less, who said that someday everyone would have the perceptive capacities of Sufis. That has been something to hold onto, at times.
Shah advised people who were interested in Sufi materials to learn about conditioning, indoctrination and brainwashing, in order not to approach Sufi learning as if it were a cult. And I savored the economy, precision and fluidity of language in Shah’s writings, the way he expresses complex ideas simply, and the humor, the bite, and the insistence that humor and bite are necessary in this learning process.
Michelangelo’s statue of David was on the cover of the August 21 New York Times Magazine, whose feature story was “David’s Ankles,” by Sam Anderson. Subtitled, “My obsession with the world’s most famous sculpture—its imperfections, its infinite reproductions, and its potential collapse,” it was the kind of story we turn to the NYT for: long form, in depth journalism; in this case informed by the writer’s particular interest in this statue.
Anderson’s story emphasizes the popularity of “the David,” how people flock to see it, all the knockoffs of it, it’s “most famous sculpture” status. Yet it seems to me that the teaching of the story of David and Goliath has been lost sight of in the preoccupation with Michelangelo’s statue.
Michelangelo’s David is beautiful, strong, eye-catching for sure, a riveting hero, but this is not the David of the biblical story; whose meaning is all about David’s apparent insignificance until he defeated Goliath. So one level of the teaching is that appearances, and expectations and judgements based on them, can be deceptive. From this point of view, Michelangelo’s sculpture should have been of an ordinary kind of person we wouldn’t look twice at if we passed him in the street. David’s own brothers, camped among the soldiers of Israel, dismissed him, even derided him as not belonging among warriors and shirking his work as a shepherd. Only David knew his own capacity.
This recalls a proverb, given in Idries Shah’s “The Dermis Probe:” “None meets harm who knows his capacity” (p22). One of the levels of this saying is that we have depths of capacity that we have not yet discovered, and by discovering and engaging our hidden capacity we can become considerably more competent than we look, to those without perception.
David’s strength and skill in battle came partly from his experience protecting the flock against lions and bears. But he was also inspired by, connected with, divine purpose. How do we discover and align ourselves with divine purpose? How can the skills that we have learned in our livelihoods–“protecting the flock against lions and bears”–apply to other, greater challenges and purposes?
The story of David and Goliath highlights another dynamic: David wins, in part, because he brings a wider perspective to the situation, pointing a way forward through superior technology and strategy. Goliath’s armor and weaponry, his strength and his mastery of combat with the tools he knows, deters all challengers except David, with his slingshot.
Until 1964, when “The Sufis” was published, Sufism was mostly the preserve of scholars, at least in the West. “The Sufis” began a new era, opening a window on Sufi activity, history and influence. Shah presents new information in an accessible way, and many readers feel that it’s a book they’ve been looking for. Stories, history, unusually lucid perspectives on human nature and spirituality, and challenges to assumptions and established ways of thinking, are intertwined throughout, eventually combining to produce a special kind of reading experience.
“The Sufis” begins with the story of “The Islanders.” This is a “teaching story;” Shah’s name for a form of literature whose internal structure and dynamics can support and provoke experience in the reader (a Sufi speciality). Sometimes the learning happens at the time of reading, when the story helps us make sense of perceptions and experiences. Often, as Desmond Morris, author of “The Naked Ape” and ”The Human Zoo” observed, it’s a delayed effect that happens when we encounter situations in life that evoke a story. Morris is one of the leading observers of human nature who has commented on Shah’s work; others include author Doris Lessing, psychiatrist and author Arthur Deikman, and psychologist and author Robert Ornstein.
After “The Islanders” sets the stage, “The Travelers and the Grapes”—another teaching story—opens a discussion of the contextual background. Here we start to look at the history of interaction of cultures; often concealed because spiritual practices not sanctioned by the authorities could have brought severe penalties over the last thousand years or so. Here we also begin to see the Sufi approach to spiritual development; which I’ve found to be unparalleled in lucidity about human nature.
The chapter on “The Elephant in the Dark,” based on Rumi’s story, continues the intertwining of narrative, perspectives on human nature, and intercultural history. Then we meet the joke-figure Mulla Nasrudin, “one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics,” whose antics illustrate “situations in which certain states of mind are made clear;” usually when he’s acting the idiot. Subsequent chapters introduce classical Sufis, including Rumi, Attar, Omar Khayyam, ibn el-Arabi, and el-Ghazzali, and trace the influence of Sufi thought and action on Western figures (such as Chaucer and St. Francis) and groups. We also meet the work of Western Sufis, such as Richard Burton (whose “Kasidah,” a remarkable poem of great depth, is reviewed), and are introduced to The Dervish Orders, The Creed of Love, Magic and Miracles, and more.
Of course, over the five decades since its publication, some things have changed. In his discussion of Sufi orders, which do not need traditional buildings and grounds except as required by local economic and political conditions, Shah mentions that “one Arabic publishing company is a Sufi organization. In some areas all the industrial and agricultural workers are Sufis.” This might have changed in the political, economic and military upheavals of the past fifty years, but the principle remains the same; the “order” is in the hearts and networks of people. The “beautiful tomb,” of the great teacher Data Ganj Bakhsh (Ali el-Hujwiri), in Lahore, “venerated by people of all creeds,” was bombed by terrorists in 2010. The Idries Shah Foundation print and Kindle editions of “The Sufis” omit the original Introduction by Robert Graves (I like Grave’s commentary but “The Sufis” is complete without it).
Still, five decades after its publication, “The Sufis” continues to be relevant. At first reading, and later re-readings after intervals, “The Sufis” continues to pack advanced spiritual psychology, eye-opening history, and impacts that both confirm and extend perceptions, and highlight and disconfirm prejudices and assumptions, into a special reading experience.
reviewed by Jay Einhorn, PhD, LCPC, www.psychatlarge.com
What we remember of what we have learned can depend on how well it was encoded when we learned it. For example, if we learn a word list for a test, we might be able to recall some of the words after half an hour or so, but we can recognize more of the words we missed if we are given a list of words to choose from, some of which were on the list.
So, if I learn a list of words—say, “cat, tree, chair, piano, table, box, pail, clock, glasses, radio, door”—and then say as many as I remember after half an hour or so, I might remember “cat, tree, piano, box, radio, door.” Then if I am shown a list of words that have all the words on the list in it, as well as a bunch of other words that were not on the list as distractors, I might recognize, “chair, table, pail, clock, glasses.” The words I remembered without any prompting would be the ones that were better encoded when I first learned them, and the words I didn’t remember at first but recognized from the list of possible words would be words that were were not so well encoded.
Now, encoding, like any other learning process, requires the formation of neural networks; tens or hundreds of thousands or more of neurons in the brain, distributed across various parts of it, interconnecting and forming this memory. The words that were better encoded, the ones that I remembered without prompting, had neural networks (called “neural nets” for short) with more neurons, and perhaps involving more parts of the brain. The ones that I didn’t remember but could recognize had fewer neurons in their encoding networks, perhaps distributed over a smaller portion of the brain.
That’s a rote memory example. Now let’s think about the understanding of meaning in language, by looking at a teaching story. I first came across this story in the Nasrudin stories gathered and edited by Idries Shah, but I’ve since come across it in business, educational, and other contexts, without Nasrudin appearing as a character; which is an interesting example of cultural assimilation. Nasrudin is down on his hands and knees outside, when his friend comes along and asks what he’s looking for. “I’ve lost my key.” So his friend helps him look, but they can’t find it. “Are you sure you lost it here?” asks the friend. “No, I lost it at home,” says Nasrudin. “Then why are you looking for it here?” asks his friend. “There is more light here,” answers Nasrudin.
Now, this story can be meaningful in a lot of different contexts. For example, in a military, business or educational context, it can mean that conventional thinking is not going to be able to solve the problem of how to succeed in a particular operation or project; or of what the military calls “lessons learned;” understanding, after the fact, what went wrong. I use this story in my work—in psychotherapy, diagnostic evaluation, consultation and supervision—to indicate that the way my client or student has been thinking about a problem may not lead to a solution.
What happens in the brain when a little story like this, a set of words that may not have much meaning for us except as a sort of joke showing how stupid people can be, suddenly illuminates an important problem in human thought and behavior, that has direct application in our own lives? Surely there is a huge expansion, extension, interconnection, of neural networks, recruiting many more neurons and involving much more of the brain than the original encoding of the story. Thus, the perception of meaning in metaphor can be understood as a significant event within the brain.
(See “links,” under the “resources” menu, for collections of Nasrudin stories)