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.