It Doesn’t Take A Sufi…

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.

At the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions

The Parliament of the Religions of the World—often shortened to the Parliament of World’s Religions—was first held in Chicago in 1893.  A century later it was reconvened in Chicago (1993), and has been held four times since; in 1999 (Cape Town), 2004 (Barcelona), 2009 (Melbourne), and in Salt Lake City in October of 2015.  My presentation on “Psychotherapy, Religion and Spirituality” was among the many programs.

The Parliament is an event that is certainly like no other I’ve heard of; thousands of people from all over the world convening to participate in what looks like hundreds of presentations, emphasizing the sacred in our relationships with the natural environment, the economy, people around the world, one another, and ourselves.  The sheer diversity of people, and the wonderful diversity of attire, was a visual feast!

Women’s identity, equality, empowerment, and sacredness, was a theme of this Parliament.  For example, I am writing these notes in a long hallway whose walls are filled with dozens of vivid silk hangings of representations of sacred women and goddess figures from several traditions.

I attended a program called “Changing Tides,” presented by a panel including Barbara Morgan (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, chaplain at MIT and Harvard and assistant professor at Brigham Young University), Lucy Forster-Smith (Presbyterian, Head Chaplain at Harvard University), Maytal Satiel (Jewish chaplain at Yale), in which these chaplains at major universities discussed their experiences with changing attitudes and needs in the students with whom they work.  More students are identifying as “spiritual but not religious,” or, if identifying as religious, still want to learn about other faith traditions.  Even among chaplains, I was surprised to learn, there are some who do not identify with a specific faith tradition.

The Plenary 1 session was entitled “Focus on Women,” and featured addresses by women of several faiths who have achieved prominence in education, administration, human service, care of the earth, and nurturing in faith and in the spirit, including Dr. Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, Grandmother Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe Elder, and several others.  I was blown away by Marianne Williamson’s address—what a smart powerhouse!—in which she challenged the faiths represented at the Parliament, as often being responsible for the subjugation of women.  This was a particularly gutsy observation in a gathering of people advocating that the principles of their faiths support the equality, empowerment, and sacredness of women.  Williamson spoke her piece forcefully, and received enthusiastic applause.

In the programs that I attended, the emphasis on women’s natural sacredness and oppression was powerful, but seemed one-sided in a way.  The implication often seemed to be that, if only society would stop being so wretched in abusing and suppressing women, women would assume their natural role as sacred healers, nurturers, and goddess-types.  The learning, the effort, the self-confrontation, the sorting-out of the essential from the superficial, identifying what really matters most from what one has been conditioned to believe, getting past errors in perception and action acquired along the way, finding and living one’s way into a fuller life—which every human being has to do, and which each of the speakers undoubtedly had to do, in order to achieve her accomplishments and role in life—seemed somehow to be taken for granted, not included in the narrative.

My presentation was part of a two-part shared presentation, which began with “Diversity and Interfaith Dialog in Counseling and Psychotherapy.”  The panel of presenters included three who are active in the Pagan tradition—little did I know that there was such a tradition, so developed!—including Shel Skau, the moderator, Drake Spaeth from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and the very impressive Vivianne Crowley.  My presentation, “Psychotherapy, Religion and Spirituality,” followed, and seemed to go quite well; the audience seemed to be attentive, most stayed throughout the presentation, there were more people than seats (some sat on the floor, in a room seating about 50) and people laughed at the right places, always a good sign!

As I left the huge Salt Palace convention center for the last time, I passed a scruffy, disheveled looking young man, long-haired and bearded, sitting on the ground by a tree, surrounded by a bunch of signs that ran up the tree, with various aphorisms. One was about turning knowledge into action, which is certainly a key theme in spiritual life, and in psychotherapy too:  we rarely learn things about ourselves in therapy that we didn’t know, in some way, before, but weren’t acknowledging and living.  It seemed to me that this man was himself exemplifying what his sign said we shouldn’t do; as if he believed that, sitting on the sidewalk with his signs, he was turning knowledge into action.  He was a living sign, albeit unconsciously.

A Special Kind of Reading Experience: “The Sufis,” by Idries Shah

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,