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.

“Yunus Emre:” A Review of a Turkish Television Series

“Lovers yearn for You, but Your love slays them”  —line of poetry by Yunus Emre

Yunus Emre was a Turkish Sufi saint and poet of the 13th-14th century, and “Yunus Emre” is a Turkish television drama series, in 45 episodes over two seasons, based on his life (on Netflix, in Turkish with English subtitles).  I’ve been binge-watching it, because it seems to me to reach for, and often to succeed in capturing, romantic and dramatic themes of the spiritual life in a way that I haven’t seen portrayed.  It’s been a time travel portal into medieval Turkey that’s both entertaining television tourism and a welcome respite from contemporary American politics.  And the music is wonderful; reed flute, oud, and drums, enhanced with strings and voices, and well aligned with the action.

We meet Yunus Emre as he graduates as a Cadi, a judge of the Sharia law, at the preeminent Madrassa in Konya, Turkey, in the year 1268 (CE), and takes up his position in the city of Nalihan.  The new judge, dedicated to restoring and establishing justice, makes the wrong call in case after case, confusing his decisions with justice.  In the process he meets the Sheikh, the spiritual teacher of the local dervish lodge—while raiding it, self-righteously, in search of a dervish whom he mistakenly believes to be a murderer—and discovers that the Sheikh is the illiterate and visually impaired old timer and storyteller who had been his traveling companion on the road between Konya and Nalihan.  The Sheikh challenges Yunus’ judgement in sentencing an innocent dervish to death, which outrages Yunus but eventually prompts him to begin to review his judicial decisions.  Eventually, Yunus corrects his mistaken judgments, case by case, and resigns his high-status judicial position to become a lowly student of the Sheikh.

Aspects of Yunus’ personality emerge in his relationship with the Sheikh; his greed for respect admixed with his desire for justice, and different qualities of ambition, personal and spiritual.  Even as he is angry at the Sheikh for challenging his “justice” as Cadi, Yunus begins to listen.  The old man’s manner in talking with Yunus, personally open but firm on the issue, creates the opportunity for Yunus to enter into the spiritual friendship that has already begun to transform him.

The series seems to me to divide into three parts.  Part 1, episodes 1-6, involves Yunus’ coming to Nalihan, becoming the Cadi, making and repairing his judicial mistakes, and deciding to relinquish his official position to become a dervish.  Part 2, lasting the rest of season one and well into season two, involves his initial and transitional studies under the Sheikh, in which he struggles with himself to establish a psychological foundation for spiritual experience, through such assignments as cleaning the dervish cells and the toilets in the dervish lodge, while attending the Sheikh’s assemblies.  Part 3 involves Yunus’ spiritual unfolding as he becomes a Sufi saint and poet.  I thought the first two parts were more completely realized than the third, but that’s no criticism; spiritual experience can’t really be shown, and the portrayal of Yunus’ transition from scholar-jurist to dervish to God-inspired poet is credible.  As a psychologist interested in spirituality, I found the portrayal of the psychological issues involved in Yunus’ arriving at the decision to embark on a spiritual path, then struggling with himself at various stages along it, presents the process of achievement, renunciation, new achievement, consolidation, repeated again at each next stage, in a way that I haven’t seen in any other drama.

As Yunus’ personality transforms, so do his attitudes.   As the series begins, in his graduation examination at the Madrasa, Yunus is scornful and dismissive of poets and poetry; “They lie!”, yet by the end he has become a divinely inspired poet.  Early in the first season, he is contemptuous of dervishes as uneducated and misguided slackers, yet he becomes one as a spiritual student of the Sheikh.  All along, the Sheikh both recognizes Yunus’ potential and thwarts his superficial understanding and ambitions, setting him tasks that provide contexts to struggle with himself again and again.

The pace, I should say, is glacial, especially in the first season, which I welcomed as a respite from the the frenetic political environment of the new American presidency; one can only take so much of that intense emotional roller-coaster without losing one’s balance, and the long view of looking back from here to 13th century Turkey reminds us that “this too will pass.”  The second season seemed to have been written with more made-for-tv drama than the first; it moved faster and had somewhat more violence and sex, though very little by American standards.  The English subtitles were often just indications of what was really being said—a Turkish friend says the translation is “atrocious”—but that pulled this viewer in to guess what they were really saying.  I found it amusing when the translation differed between a scene happening in one episode and then its being featured in the extensive recap at the beginning of the next episode.  It suggested that the budget was spent on the production and there wasn’t much left over for English subtitles, or maybe they were an afterthought.  I couldn’t have watched it without them, so, thanks.

The acting is very good.  The cast established the characters believably; so much so that when one cast member—the Sheikh’s daughter—changed from season 1 to season 2, the change in how the part was played—not better or worse, but different—remained jarring well into the second season.  The mayor, in season two, is worthy of Lear, and Molla Kasim, the dervish who can never get beyond the rules of conduct to the meaning of conduct, is a perfect contrast to Yunus.  Yunus and the Sheikh, whose relationship is at the core of the series, kept me wondering what was going to happen next.  And the Sheikh, responding to each situation with stories and unexpected instructions and actions, portrays a spiritual teacher in the world—the world of that time—in a way that feels valid and true.  Of course, this implies that the screenplay is well written, and the directing also true to its intent; otherwise it could not have been accomplished.  Even the seeming miracles, such as the Sheikh’s occasionally knowing what others are thinking or what is happening at a distance, are integrated into the action so seamlessly that one could miss them.

The devotional context of Yunus’ studies in the dervish lodge is impossible to replicate today; there is no sense trying to train ourselves to live in medieval Turkey.  Yet “Yunus Emre” highlights issues that are part of the spiritual life wherever we live it, and in a most entertaining way.  And, at a time in American political history when the question of what is true often seems to mean whatever the speaker or writer wants it to, “Yunus Emre” refreshingly reminds us that truth exists as such.  When Yunus is adjudicating crimes, somebody committed them and somebody didn’t.  And spiritual truth exists beyond the rules and formats which are there to help us approach it.

On Real Maple Syrup, and My Interest in the Sufi Writing of Idries Shah

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.

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,

Branding Therapists

This article is reprinted from the winter, 2013, Illinois Psychologist, the newsletter of the Illinois Psychological Association.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine focused on “branding” as the solution for underfilled therapy practices.  Posted online as “What Brand Is Your Therapist?” therapist Lori Gottlieb described her problem establishing her practice after completing her training, and the role of “branding consultants” in advising therapists on how gain traction in the marketplace (12-24-12 edition).   The article produced online reactions both at the Times website and also on the IPA listserve (where I’m always glad to see substantial dialog!).

I suppose that “branding,” understood in this case as putting a superficial tag on something much more complex in order to make it recognizable in a marketplace that devalues complexity, is a very old problem.

The Sufi teacher Idries Shah tells a modern version of an old story about a spiritual teacher who teaches mainly through stories, the meaning of which unfold over time, partly through the effort of each student and of the group of students as a whole, partly through receptive absorption, and partly through interaction with the teacher through conversations and experiences.  One particularly superficial student was unable to learn.  He tried to torture a meaning from the stories, and when he couldn’t he tried to trick the teacher into giving the key to unlock them; as if there was one.  Finally the teacher sent the hopeless student away.  Several years later, the former student returned to visit.  He had become successful in the world, arriving in a lavish new car, upholstered in priceless carpets, with a uniformed driver, wearing a bespoke suit and gold jewelry.  “I am glad to see that you’ve become successful in the world,” said the teacher.  “And have you given up trying to torture a meaning from the stories?”  “Oh yes,” said the student, “I teach them now.”

So the student was better at branding himself than the teacher was, although branding may not have been the teacher’s priority.

Psychologically, it makes sense to look at branding from a neurocognitive perspective. Our brains operate perceptually as pattern-matching stimulus recognizers and information organizers.  This both makes us very efficient at recognizing things once we’ve learned to, and also gives rise to the problems of stereotyping and prejudice, cognitive-affective functions that underlie much of brand-perception.

The Times article focuses on therapists branding themselves in order to be perceptible to potential clients, as if the problem is entirely on the consumer side.  But the culture of professional mental health itself is by no means immune from branding.  The DSM, with its division of mental illnesses into categories which are often artificially distinct–you can have an affective disorder or a personality disorder–acts as a kind of compendium of “brands” of mental illness.  The diagnostic job is done when the label is conferred, even if little or nothing is understood about the client’s personality, cognitive style, history, social network, or existence within the larger culture.

Psychotherapy, too, is permeated by “brand” thinking.  “What kind of therapist are you?”  “I’m CBT.”  “I’m psychodynamic.”  etc.  Yet we know that relational, interpersonal, dynamic, and cognitive factors are present in virtually all therapeutic work, and that the personality, personal history and personal style of the  therapist make a huge contribution to how each therapist actually goes about doing therapy.

So, to be human is to be susceptible to “brand” thinking.  And if America has evolved a particularly brand-conscious culture, that is the culture in which therapists who work here have to succeed, while maintaining our integrity and without letting the more complex and nuanced perception of the nature and treatment of psychological problems, which good psychotherapy depends on, be lost in the process.