Monday, June 9, 2014

The Sufi Tradition (II)

An interview with Idries Shah by Elizabeth Hall, published in Psychology Today, July, 1975, reprinted in Robert Ornstein's The Psychology of Consciousness, revised edition, 1985. Part 2 of 2

Hall: Many of the great Sufi teachers seem to regard the
ecstatic experience as only a way station.

Shah: Oh, yes. The ecstatic experience is absolutely the
lowest form of advanced knowledge. Western biographers
of the saints have made it very difficult for us by assuming
that Joan of Arc and Theresa of Avila, who have had such
experiences, have reached God. I am sure that this is only a
misunderstanding based on faulty stories and faulty
retrieval of information.

Hall: Sufis also seem to take extra-sensory perception as a
matter of course and as not very interesting.

Shah: Not interesting at all. It is no more than a by-product.
Let me give you a banal analogy. If I were training to be a
runner and went out every day to run, I would get faster
and faster and be able to run farther and farther with less
fatigue. Now, I also find that I have a better complexion,
my blood supply is better, and my digestion has improved.
These things don't interest me; they are only by-products of
my running. I have another objective. When people I am
associated with become overwhelmed by ESP phenomena,
I always insist that they stop it, because their objective is

Hall: They are supposed to be developing their potential;
not attempting to read minds or move objects around. Do
you think that researchers will one day explain the physical
basis of ESP or do you think it will always elude them?

Shah: If I say it will elude the scientists, it will annoy the
people who are able to get enormous grants for research
into ESP. But I think, yes, a great deal more can be
discovered providing the scientists are prepared to be good
scientists. And by that I mean that they are prepared to
structure their experiments successively in accordance with
their discoveries. They must be ready to follow and not
hew doggedly to their original working hypothesis. And
they will certainly have to give up their concept of the
observer being outside of the experiment, which has been
their dearest pet for many years.

And another thing, as we find constantly in metaphysics,
people who are likely to be able to understand and develop
capacities for ESP are more likely to be found among
people who are not interested in the subject.

Hall: Is that because disinterest is necessary to approach the
subject properly?

Shah: Something like that. Being disinterested, you can
approach ESP more coolly and calmly. The Sufis say: "You
will be able to exercise these supernatural powers when
you can put out your hand and get a wild dove to land on
it." But the other reason why the people who are fascinated
by ESP or metaphysics or magic are the last who should
study it is that they are interested in it for the wrong
reasons. It may be compensation. They are not equipped to
study ESP. They are equipped for something else: fear, greed, hate, or love of humanity.

Hall: Often they have a desperate wish to prove that ESP is
either true or false.

Shah: Yes that's what I call heroism. But it's not
professionalism and that's what the job calls for.

Hall: You've also written a couple of books on magic:
Oriental Magic and The Secret Lore of Magic, an
investigation of Western magic. Today there's an upsurge
of interest in astrology and witchcraft and magic. You must
have speculated somewhat about magic in those books.

Shah: Very little. The main purpose of my books on magic
was to make this material available to the general reader.
For too long people believed that there were secret books,
hidden places, and amazing things. They held onto this
information as something to frighten themselves with. So
the first purpose was information. This is the magic of East
and West. That's all. There is no more. The second purpose
of those books was to show that there do seem to be forces,
some of which are either rationalized by this magic or may
be developed from it, which do not come within customary
physics or within the experience of ordinary people. I think
this should be studied, that we should gather the data and
analyze the phenomena. We need to separate the chemistry
of magic from the alchemy, as it were.

Hall: That's not exactly what the contemporary devotees of
witchcraft and magic are up to.

Shah: No. My work has no relevance to the current interest
whatever. Oh, it makes my books sell, but they were
written for cool-headed people and there aren't many of
those around.

Hall: Most of the people who get interested in magic seem
to be enthusiasts.

Shah: Yes, it's just as with ESP. There's no reason why they
shouldn't be enthusiasts, but having encouraged themwhich
I couldn't help-I must now avoid them. They would
only be disappointed in what I have to say.

You know, Rumi said that people counterfeit gold because
there is such a thing as real gold, and I think that's the
situation we are in with Sufi studies at the moment. It is
much easier to write a book on Sufism than it is to study it.
It is much easier to start a group and tell people what to do
than it is to learn first.

The problem is that the spurious, the unreal, the untrue is so
much easier to find that it is in danger of becoming the
norm. Until recently, for example, if you didn't use drugs in
spiritual pursuits, you were not considered genuine. If you
said, "look, drugs are irrelevant to spiritual matters," you
were considered a square.

Their attitude is not at all a search for truth.

Hall: Many people seem to use drugs as an attempt to get
instant enlightenment.

Shah: People want to be healed or cured or saved, but they
want it now. It's astonishing. When people come here to see
me, they want to get something, and if I can't give them
higher consciousness, they will take my bedspreads or my
ashtrays or whatever else they can pick up around the

Hall: They want something to carry away.

Shah: They are thinking in terms of lose property, almost
physical. They are savages in the best sense of the word.
They are not what they think they are at all. I am invited to
believe that they take bedspreads and ashtrays by accident.
But it never works the other way; they never leave their
wallets behind by mistake. One thing I learned from my
father very early: Don't take any notice of what people say,
just watch what they do.

Hall: Let's get back to your main work. What is the best
way of introducing the Sufi way of thinking to the West?

Shah: I am sure that the best way is not to start a cult, but to
introduce a body of literary material that should interest
people enough to establish the Sufi phenomenon as viable.
We don't plan to form an organization with somebody at
the top and others at the bottom collecting money or
wearing funny clothes or converting people to Sufism. We
view Sufism not as an ideology that moulds people to the
right way of belief or action, but as an art or science that
can exert a beneficial influence on individuals or societies,
in accordance with the needs of those individuals and

Hall: Does Western society need this infusion of Sufi

Shah: It needs it for the same reason that any society needs
it, because it gives one something one cannot get
elsewhere. For example, Sufi thought makes a person more
efficient. A watchmaker becomes a better watchmaker. A
housewife becomes a better housewife. When somebody
said as much in California last year, 120 hippies got up and
left the hall. They didn't wait to hear that they weren't going
to be forced to be more efficient.

Hall: But there must be more than efficiency to it.

Shah: Of course. I wouldn't try to sell Sufism purely as a
means to efficiency, even though it does make one more
effective in all sorts of ways. I think Sufism is important
because it enables one to detach from life and see it as near
to its reality as one can possibly get.

Sufi experience tends to produce the kind of person who is
calm, not because he can't get excited, but because he
knows that getting excited about an event or problem is not
going to have any lasting effect.

Hall: Would you say that it might give a person an outlook
on the problems of this time similar to the outlook he might
presently have on the problems of the 16th century?

Shah: Very much so. And such an outlook takes the heat
out of almost every contention. Instead of becoming the
classical Oriental philosopher who says, "All reality is
imagination. Why should I care about the world," you
begin to see alternative ways of acting.

For example, some of the finest people in this country
spend a great deal of their time jumping up and down
waving banners that condemn the various dirty beasts of
the world. Such behaviour makes the dirty beasts delighted
at the thought that they are so important and the jumpers
are so impotent. If the Trafalgar square jumpers had an
objective view of their behaviour, they would abandon it.
First, they would see that they are only giving aid and
comfort to the enemy, and second, they would be able to
see how to do something about the dirty beasts - and if it
were necessary to do anything about them.

Hall: In other words, Sufism might help us solve some of
the enormous social, political and environmental problems
that face us.

Shah: People talk about Sufism as if it were the acquisition
of powers. Sufi metaphysics has even got a magical
reputation. The truth is that Sufi study and development
give one capacities that one did not have before. One would
not kill merely because killing is bad.

Instead, one would know that killing is unnecessary and, in
addition, what one would have to do in order to make
humanity happier and able to realize better objectives.
That's what knowledge is for.

Hall: When I read your books, the message came through
very clearly that you are not interested in rational,
sequential thought - in what Bob Ornstein calls left-hemisphere

Shah: To say that I'm not interested in sequential thinking
is not to say that I can live without it. I have it up to a
certain point, and I expect the people I meet to be able to
use it. We need information in order to approach a
problem, but we also need to be able to see the thing whole.

Hall: When you speak of seeing the thing whole, you're
talking about intuitive thought, where you don't reason the
problem out but know the answer without knowing how
you got it.

Shah: Yes. You know the answer and can verify that it is an
answer. That is the difference between romantic imagining
and something that belongs to this world.

Hall: Ornstein, who seems to have been profoundly
influenced by Sufi thought, has suggested that most people
today tend to rely on logical, rational, linear thought and
that we tend to use very little of the intuitive, non-linear
thought of the brain's right hemisphere.

Would you say that Sufism can teach one to tap righthemisphere

Shah: Yes, I would. Sufism has never been over-impressed
by the products of left-hemisphere activity, although it's
often used them.

For instance, Sufis have written virtually all the great
poetry of Persia, and while the inspiration for a poem may
come from the right hemisphere, one must use the left
hemisphere to put the poem down in the proper form. I
think that the behaviour and products of Sufism are among
the few things we have that encourage a holistic view of
things. I don't want to discuss Sufism in Ornsteinian terms,
however, because I'm not qualified to do so. I can only say
that insofar as there is any advantage in these two
hemispheres acting alternately or complementing one
another, then Sufi material undoubtedly is among the very
little available material that can help this process along.

Hall: Why are the traditional Western methods of study
inappropriate for the study of Sufism?

Shah: They are inappropriate only up to a point. Both the
Western and Middle Eastern methods of study come from
the common heritage of the Middle Ages, when one was
regarded as wise if he had a better memory than someone
else. But some of the teaching methods that Sufis use seem
rather odd to the Westerner. If I were to say to you that my
favourite method of teaching is to bore the audience to
death, you would be shocked. But I have just results of
some tests, which show that English schoolchildren, when
shown a group of films, remembered only the ones that
bored them. Now this is consistent with our experience, but
it is not consistent with Western beliefs.

Another favourite Sufi teaching method is to be rude to
people, sometimes shouting them down or shooing them
away, a technique that is not customary in cultivated
circles. By experience we know that by giving a certain
kind of shock to a person, we can - for a short period -
increase his perception. Until recently I wouldn't have
dared speak about this, but I now have a clipping indicating
that when a person endures a shock he produces Theta
rhythms. Some people have associated these brain rhythms
with various forms of ESP. No connection has been made
yet, but I think we may be beginning to understand it.

Hall: Recent studies of memory indicate that unless
adrenaline is present, no learning takes place, and shock
causes adrenaline to flow. We also know from experience
that when you find yourself in a situation of grave danger,
you tend to notice some very small detail with great clarity.

Shah: Exactly. Concentration comes in on a strange level
and in an unaccustomed way. But using this knowledge has
traditionally given Sufi teachers a reputation for having bad
manners. The most polite thing they can say about us is that
we are irascible and out of control. Some people say that a
spiritual teacher should have no emotions or be totally
balanced. We say that a spiritual teacher must be a person
who can be totally balanced, not one who cannot help but
be balanced.

Hall: People in the United States seem to be looking for
leaders, whether spiritual or political, and they keep
complaining because there are no leaders to follow.

Shah: People are always looking for leaders; that does not
mean that this is the time for a leader. The problems that a
leader would be able to resolve have not been identified.
Nor does the clamour mean that those who cry out are
suitable followers. Most of the people who demand a leader
seem to have some baby's idea of what a leader should do.
The idea that a leader will walk in and we will all recognize
him and follow him and everybody will be happy strikes
me as a strangely immature atavism. Most of these people,
I believe, want not a leader but excitement. I doubt that
those who cry the loudest would obey a leader if there was
one. Talk is cheap, and a lot of the talk comes from
millions of old washerwomen.

Hall: If so, the washerwomen are spread throughout the

Shah: They're not called washerwomen, but if we test them,
they react like washerwomen. For example, if you are
selling books and you send a professor of philosophy
something written in philosophical language, he will throw
it away. But if you send him a spiel written for a
washerwoman, he will buy the book. At heart he is a
washerwomen. Intellectuals don't understand this, but
business people do because their profits depend upon it.
You can learn much more about human nature on Madison
Avenue than you will from experts on human nature,
because on Madison Avenue on stands or falls by the sales.
Professors in their ivory towers can say anything because
there's no penalty attached. Go to where there is a penalty
attached and there you will find wisdom.

Hall: That's a tough statement. You sound as if you are
down on all academics.

Shah: Well, in the past few years I have given quite a few
seminars and lectures at universities, and I have become
terrified by the low level of ability. It is as if people just
aren't trying. They don't read the books in their fields, don't
know the workings of them, use inadequate approaches to a
subject, ask ridiculous questions that a moment's thought
would have enabled them to answer.
If these are the cream, what is the milk like?

Hall: Are you talking about undergraduates, graduate
students, or professors?

Shah: The whole lot. Recently I've been appalled at the low
levels of articles in learned journals and literary weeklies.
The punctuation gone to hell, full of non-sequiturs, an
obvious lack of background knowledge, and so on. I went
to a newspaper and looked up the equivalent articles from
the 1930's. A great change has taken place. Forty years ago
there were two kinds of articles: very, very good and
terribly bad. There seemed nothing in-between. Now
everything is slapdash and mediocre. Why are so many
famous persons in hallowed institutions now so mediocre?

Hall: Critics like Dwight Macdonald have said for years
that as education becomes widespread and people become
semiliterate, the culture at the top is inevitably pulled
down. But you're not really hostile to all academics, are

Shah: No, some of my best friends are academics.

Hall: That is no way to get out of it.

Shah: Of course, I'm not hostile to all academics. There are
some great thinkers. But I do not believe that it is necessary
for us to have 80% blithering idiots in order to get 20%
marvellous academics. This ratio depresses me. I think that
the good people are unbelievably noble in denying that the
rest of them are such hopeless idiots. Privately they agree
with you, but they won't rock the boat.
For the sake of humanity, somebody has got to rock the

Hall: For the sake of humanity, what would you like to see

Shah: What I really want, in case anybody is listening, is
for the products of the last 50 years of psychological
research to be studied by the public, by everybody, so that
the findings become part of their way of thinking. At the
moment, people have adopted only a few. They talk glibly
about making Freudian slips and they have accepted the
idea of inferiority complexes. But they have this great body
of psychological information and refuse to use it.

There is a Sufi story about a man who went into a shop and
asked the shopkeeper,
"Do you have leather?"
"Yes," said the shopkeeper.
"Then why don't you make yourself a pair of boots?"

That story is intended to pinpoint this failure to use
available knowledge. People in this civilization are starving
in the middle of plenty. This is a civilization that is going
down, not because it hasn't got the knowledge that would
save it, but because nobody will use the knowledge.

The Sufi Tradition (I)

An interview with Idries Shah by Elizabeth Hall, published in Psychology Today, July, 1975, reprinted in Robert Ornstein's The Psychology of Consciousness, revised edition, 1985. Part 1 of 2:

The Sufi Tradition

"Some gurus are frankly phoneys, and they don't try to hide
it from me. They think I am one too."-- Idries Shah

EH: Idries Shah, you are the West's leading exponent of
Sufism, that rich religious tradition growing out of the
Middle East. Why, at a time when new cults are springing
up, do you refuse to be a guru? You could easily become

IS: There are a lot of reasons. But if we are talking about
the teacher who has disciples, it's because I feel no need for
an admiring audience to tell me how wonderful I am or to
do what I say. I believe that the guru needs his disciples. If
he had a sufficient outlet for his desire to be a big shot or
his feeling of holiness or his wish to have others dependent
on him, he wouldn't be a guru.

I got all that out of my system very early and, consistent
with Sufi tradition, I believe that those who don't want to
teach are the ones who can and should. The West still has a
vocation hang-up and has not yet discovered this. Here, the
only recognized achiever is an obsessive. In the East we
believe that a person who can't help doing a thing isn't
necessarily the best one to do it. A compulsive cookie
baker may bake very bad cookies.

EH: Are you saying that a person who feels that he must
engage in a certain profession is doing it because of some
emotional need?

IS: I think this is very often the case, and it doesn't
necessarily produce the best professional. Show an
ordinary person an obsessive and he will believe you have
shown him a dedicated and wonderful person - provided he
share his beliefs. If he doesn't, of course, he regards the one
obsessed as evil. Sufism regards this as a facile and untrue
posture. And if there is one consistency in the Sufi
tradition, it is that man must be in the world but not of the
world. There is no role for a priest-king or guru.

EH: Then you have a negative opinion of all gurus.

IS: Not of all. Their followers need the guru as much as the
guru needs his followers. I just don't regard it as a religious
operation. I take a guru to be a sort of psychotherapist. At
the very best, he keeps people quiet and polarized around
him and gives some sort of meaning to their lives.

EH: Librium might do the same thing.

IS: Yes, but that's no reason to be against it. Why shouldn't
there be room for what we might call "neighbourhood
psychotherapy" - the community looking after its own?
However, why it should be called a spiritual activity rather
baffles me.

EH: One can't help getting the feeling that not all gurus are
trying to serve their fellowman.

IS: Some are frankly phoneys, and they don't try to hide it
from me. They think that I am one, too, so when we meet
they begin the most disturbing conversations. They want to
know how I get money, how I control people, and so on.

EH: They want to swap secrets.

IS: That's going a little too far. But they feel safety in
numbers. They actually feel there is something wrong with
what they are doing, and they feel better if they talk to
somebody else who is doing it. I always tell them that I
think it would be much better if they gave up the guru role
in their own minds and realize that they are providing a
perfectly good social service.

EH: How do they take to that advice?

IS: Sometimes they laugh and sometimes they cry. The
general impression is that one of us is wrong. Because I
don't make the same kind of noises that they do, they seem
to believe that either I am a lunatic or that I am starting
some new kind of con. Perhaps I have found a new racket.

EH: I am surprised that these gurus tell you all their secrets
as freely as they do.

IS: I must tell you that I have not renounced the Eastern
technique of pretending to be interested in what another
person is saying, even pretending to be on his side.
Therefore, I am able to draw out gurus and get them to
commit themselves to an extent that a Westerner, because
of his conscience, could not do. The Westerner would not
allow certain things to go unchallenged and would not
trick, as it were, another person. So he doesn't find out the

Look here, it's time that somebody took the lid off the guru
racket. Since I have nothing to lose, it might as well be me.
With many of these gurus it comes down to an "us and
them" sort of thing between the East and the West. Gurus
from India used to stop by on their way to California and
their attitude was generally, let's take the Westerners to the
cleaners; they colonized us, now we will get money out of
them. I heard this sort of thing even from people who had
impeccable spiritual reputations back home in India.

EH: It is an understandable human reaction to centuries of
Western exploitation.

IS: It's understandable, but I deny that it's a spiritual
activity. What I want to say is, "Brother, you are in the
revenge business, and that's a different kind of business
from me." There are always groups that are willing to
negotiate with me and want to use my name. On one
occasion a chap in a black shirt and white tie told me, "You
take Britain, but don't touch the United States, because
that's ours." I had a terrible vision of Al Capone. The
difference was that the guru's disciples kissed his feet.

See What I Mean?

Nasrudin was throwing handfuls of crumbs around his
"What are you doing?" someone asked him. "Keeping
the tigers away."
"But there are no tigers in these parts."
"That's right. Effective, isn't it?"


EH: Gurus keep proliferating in the United States, always
with massive followings. A 15-year-old Perfect Master can
fill the Astrodome.

IS: Getting the masses is the easy part. A guru can attract a
crowd of a million in India, but few in a crowd take him
seriously. You see, India has had gurus for thousands of
years, so they are generally sophisticated about them; they
take in the attitude with their mothers' milk. This culture
just hasn't been inoculated against the guru. Let's turn it
around. If I were fresh off a plane from India and told you
that I was going to Detroit to become a wonderful
automobile millionaire, you would smile at me. You know
perfectly well the obstacles, the taxes, the ulcers that I face.
Well, the Indian is in the same position with the automobile
industry as the American with the guru. I'm not impressed
by naive American reactions to gurus; if you can show me
a guru who can pull off that racket in the East, then I will
be surprised.

EH: Before we go any farther, we'd better get down to
basics and ask the obvious question. What is Sufism?

IS: The most obvious question of all is for us the most
difficult question. But I'll try to answer. Sufism is
experience of life through a method of dealing with life and
human relations. This method is based on an understanding
of man, which places at one's disposal the means to
organize one's relationships and one's learning systems. So
instead of saying that Sufism is a body of thought in which
you believe certain things and don't believe other things,
we say that the Sufi experience has to be provoked in a
person. Once provoked, it becomes his own property, rather
as a person masters an art.

EH: So ideally, for four million readers, you would have
four million different explanations.

IS: In fact, it wouldn't work out like that. We progress by
means of NASHR, an Arabic word than means scatter
technique. For example, I've published quite a number of
miscellaneous books, articles, tapes and so on, which
scatter many forms of this Sufi material. These 2,000
different stories cover many different tendencies in many
people, and they are able to attach themselves to some
aspect of it.

EH: I noticed as I read that the same point would be made
over and over again in a different way in a different story.
In all my reading, I think the story that made the most
profound impression on me was "The Water of Paradise."
Afterward, I found the same point in other stories, but had I
not read "The Water of Paradise" first, I might not have
picked it up.

IS: That is the way the process tends to work. Suppose we
get a group of 20 people past the stage where they no
longer expect us to give them miracles and stimulation and
attention. We sit them down in a room and give them 20 or
30 stories, asking them to tell us what they see in the
stories, what they like, and what the don't like. The stories
first operate as a sorting out process. They sort out both the
very clever people who need psychotherapy and who have
come only to put you down, and the people who have come
to worship.


If A Pot Can Multiply

One day Nasrudin lent his cooking pots to a neighbour,
who was giving a feast. The neighbour returned them,
together with one extra one - a very tiny pot.
"What is this?" asked Nasrudin.
"According to law, I have given you the offspring of your
property which was born when the pots were in my care,"
said the joker.
Shortly afterwards Nasrudin borrowed his neighbour's
pots, but did not return them. The man came round to get
them back.
"Alas!" said Nasrudin, "they are dead. We have
established, have we not, that pots are mortal?"


IS: In responsible Sufi circles, no one attempts to handle
either the sneerers or the worshippers, and they are very
politely detached from the others.

EH: They are not fertile ground?

IS: They have something else to do first. And what they
need is offered abundantly elsewhere.


I Know Her Best

People ran to tell the Mulla that his mother-in-law had
fallen into the river.
"She will be swept out to sea, for the torrent is very fast
here," they cried.
Without a moment's hesitation Nasrudin dived into the
river and started to swim upstream.
"No!" they cried, "DOWNSTREAM! That is the only
way a person can be carried away from here."
"Listen!" panted the Mulla, "I know my wife's mother. If
everyone else is swept downstream, the place to look for
her is upstream."


IS: There's no reason for them to bother us. Next we begin
to work with people who are left. In order to do this, we
must cool it. We must not have any spooky atmosphere,
any strange robes or gongs or intonations. The new
students generally react to the stories either as they think
you would like them to react or as their background tells
them they should react. Once they realize that no prizes are
being given for correct answers, they begin to see that their
previous conditioning determines the way they are seeing
the material in the stories.

So, the second use of the stories is to provide a protected
situation in which people can realize the extent of the
conditionings in their ordinary lives. The third use comes
later, rather like when you get the oil to the surface of a
well after you burn of the gases. After we have burnt off
the conditioning, we start getting completely new
interpretations and reactions to stories. At last, as the
student becomes less emotional, we can begin to deal with
the real person, not the artefact that society has made him.

EH: Is this a very long process?

IS: You can't predict it at all. With some people it is an
instant process; with others, it takes weeks or months. Still
others get fed up and quit because, like good children of the
consumer society, they crave something to consume and
we're not giving it to them.

EH: You say that conditioning gets in the way of responses
to Sufi material. But everyone is conditioned from birth, so
how does one ever escape from his conditioning?

IS: We can't live in the world without being conditioned.
Even the control of one's bladder is conditioned. It is
absurd to talk, as some do, of deconditioned or
nonconditioned people. But it is possible to see why
conditioning has taken place and why a person's beliefs
become oversimplified.

Nobody is trying to abolish conditioning, merely to
describe it, to make it possible to change it, and also to see
where it needs to operate, and where it does not. Some sort
of secondary personality, which we call the "commanding
self" takes over man when his mentation is not correctly
balanced. This self, which he takes for his real one, is in
fact a mixture of emotional impulses and various pieces of
conditioning. As a consequence of Sufi experience, people
- instead of seeing things through a filter of conditioning
plus emotional reactions, a filter which constantly discards
certain stimuli - can see things through some part of
themselves that can only be described as not conditioned.

EH: Are you saying that when one comes to an awareness
that he is conditioned, that he can operate aside from it? He
can say, "Why do I believe this? Well, perhaps it is

IS: Exactly. Then he is halfway toward being liberated
from his conditioning - or at least toward keeping it under
control. People who say that we must smash conditioning
are themselves oversimplifying things.

EH: A number of years ago an American psychologist
carried out an interesting experiment. He had a device that
supplied two images, one to each eye. One image was a
baseball player, the other was a matador. He had a group of
American and Mexican schoolteachers look through this
device. Most of the Americans saw a baseball player and
most of the Mexicans saw the matador. From what you
have said, I gather that Sufism might enable an American
to see the matador and a Mexican to see the baseball

IS: That is what many of the Sufi stories try to do. As a
reader, you tend to identify with one of the people in the
story. When he behaves unexpectedly, it gives you a bit of
a jolt and forces you to see him with different eyes.

EH: When one reads about Sufism, one comes upon
conflicting explanations. Some people say that Sufism is
pantheistic; others that it is related to theosophy. Certainly
there are strains in Sufism that you can find in any of the
major world religions.

IS: There are many ways to talk about the religious aspects
of Sufism. I'll just choose one and see where it leads. The
Sufis themselves say that their religion has no history,
because it is not culture bound. Although Sufism has been
productive in Islam, according to Sufi tradition and
scripture, Sufis existed in pre-Islamic times. The Sufis say
that all religion is evolution, otherwise it wouldn't survive.
They also say that all religion is capable of development up
to the same point. In historical times, Sufis have worked
with all recognized religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam,
Vedanta, Buddhism and so on. Sufis are in religion but not
of it.


Early To Rise

"Nasrudin, my son, get up early in the mornings."
"Why father?"
"It is a good habit. Why, once I rose at dawn and went for
a walk. I found on the road a sack of gold."
"How did you know it was not lost the previous night?"
"That is not the point. In any case, it had not been there
the night before. I noticed that."
"Then it isn't lucky for everyone to get up early. The man
who lost the gold must have been up earlier than you."


EH: What is the Sufi attitude toward mysticism and the
ecstatic experience?

IS: Sufis are extraordinarily cautious about this. They don't
allow a person to do spiritual exercises unless they are
convinced that he can undergo such exercises without harm
and appreciate them without distraction.


Moment In Time

"What is fate?" Nasrudin was asked by a scholar.
"An endless succession of intertwined events, each
influencing the other."
"That is hardly a satisfactory answer. I believe in cause
and effect."
"Very well," said the Mulla, "look at that."
He pointed to a procession passing in the street.
"That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because
someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy
the knife with which he committed the murder; or
because somebody saw him do it; or because nobody
stopped him?"


IS: Spiritual exercises are allowed only at a certain time
and a certain place and with certain people. When the
ecstatic exercises are taken out of context, they become a
circus at best and unhinge minds at worst.

EH: So the ecstatic experience has its place but only at a
certain time at a certain stage of development?

IS: Yes, and with certain training. The ecstatic experience
is certainly not required. It is merely a way of helping man
to realize his potential.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Conscious Evolution

Conscious evolution: our challenge for survival

There is now a wealth of physiological and psychological data on the mechanics of consciousness, such as our sensory selection system and linear experience of time. Scientists know how these mechanics evolved for survival and how they limit and distort our perception, contributing to the seemingly intractable problems in the modern world: misdirection of effort in medicine and education; ecological shortsightedness; propensity to brainwashing; the constant failure to understand people from different parts of the world.

In our highly secularized world, we are prone to identify these mechanics as the sum total of our human nature. But we know they are not. Modern research also points to more “advanced” capacities in our nature — capacities often associated with the brain's right hemisphere such as context formation, intuition, or “whole-patterned” thought. Though latent or less developed, these capacities are in evidence at the very heart of human creativity. They are reflected in our art, literature, music, scientific inspiration — even in the gravity-defying moves of a skilled basketball player.

Recognizing the pitfalls in our automatic “default” mindset and the need to train more advanced capacities are not new themes in human history. We find them in myths and stories that recur in all times and cultures, in the core insights of the world's great religions, in the writings of great thinkers such as Plato and El Ghazzali.

The gift of modern science has been an expanded framework for taking charge of our own evolution — for creative, focused application of new and traditional insights to education, health care, communication, resource planning, and international relations. What we do with this gift may well be the key to our continued survival.

Further reading on conscious evolution:

By Robert Ornstein:

The Psychology of Consciousness
The Evolution of Consciousness
The Right Mind
New World New Mind (with Paul Ehrlich)

The Sufis by Idries Shah

Traditional Psychology

Traditional psychology: key insights as old as humanity


“It is possible to have great affection and regard for individuals and groups of people without in any way reducing one's awareness of their currently poor capacity for understanding and preserving their heritage.

"The present state of ignorance about distant and former cultures is not unique to this time. Unfortunately, though, the people of our time are not employing their superior resources to retrieve and develop the remnants of wider knowledge possessed elsewhere and also at other times.

“This is because, while the tools and the general freedom are there for the first time, desire, resolution and breadth of vision are absent, also for the first time.

“The endowment is therefore at risk. For the first time.”

--Idries Shah, Reflections

We think of psychology as a modern science, rooted in late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century work of Western scholars such as William James, Wilhelm Wundt, Ivan Pavlov, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. But the most important insights about human thought, behavior and motivation — including some of the “new” ideas put forward by these thinkers — are much older....

In fact, the insights and methods we most urgently need to move beyond the limits of our error-prone nature and conditioning, to forge a conscious phase of human evolution, are available to us today, but outside the reach of scientific inquiry or modern psychological practices alone.

As Jung himself wrote in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, “Psychoanalysis itself and the lines of thought to which it gives rise — surely a distinctly Western development — are only a beginner's attempt compared to what is an immemorial art in the East.”

Though most often associated with the East, these “ways” are transmitted through all ages and cultures, as evidenced in the core teachings of the world's great religions; in the world's greatest poetry, literature, art and architecture; in universal myths, stories and traditions.

Uncovering these traditional psychologies, seeing how and where they intersect with modern research on the mind and brain, and finding ways to apply this important part of the human legacy to solving the most urgent needs of our contemporary culture, is a major focus of ISHK's work.

Further reading on the human legacy:

A remarkable presentation of this great human legacy can be found in Idries Shah's seminal book, The Sufis.


The following exploration of Mulla Nasrudin, the legendary teaching figure dating from at least the thirteenth century, is extracted from The Sufis, by Idries Shah: 

Mulla (Master) Nasrudin is the classical figure devised by the dervishes partly for the purpose of halting for a moment situations in which certain states of mind are made clear…Superficially, most of the Nasrudin stories may be used as jokes…But it is inherent in the Nasrudin story that it may be understood at any one of many depths …it bridges the gap between mundane life and a transmutation of consciousness in a manner which no other literary form yet produced has been able to attain…

Humor cannot be prevented from spreading; it has a way of slipping through the patterns of thought which are imposed upon mankind by habit and design. As a complete system of thought, Nasrudin exists at so many depths that he cannot be killed…

Nobody really knows who Nasrudin was, where he lived, or when. This is truly in character, for the whole intention is to provide a figure who cannot really be characterized, and who is timeless.

If we look at some of the classical Nasrudin stories in as detached a way as possible, we soon find that the wholly scholastic approach is the last one that the Sufi will allow:

Nasrudin, ferrying a pedant across a piece of rough water, said something ungrammatical to him. “Have you never studied grammar?” asked the scholar.


“Then half of your life has been wasted.”

A few minutes later Nasrudin turned to the passenger. “Have you ever learned how to swim?”

“No. Why?” 

“Then all your life is wasted—we are sinking!”

Because the average person thinks in patterns and cannot accommodate himself to a really different point of view, he loses a great deal of the meaning of life. He may live, even progress, but he cannot understand all that is going on. The story of the smuggler makes this very clear:

Nasrudin used to take his donkey across a frontier every day, with the panniers loaded with straw. Since he admitted to being a smuggler when he trudged home every night, the frontier guards searched him again and again. They searched his person, sifted the straw, steeped it in water, even burned it from time to time. Meanwhile he was becoming visibly more and more prosperous.
Then he retired and went to live in another country. Here one of the customs offices met him, years later.

“You can tell me now, Nasrudin,” he said. “Whatever was it that you were smuggling, when we could never catch you out?”

“Donkeys,” said Nasrudin.

…In another story, himself adopting the role of fool … Nasrudin illustrates, in extreme form, ordinary human thinking:

Someone asked Nasrudin to guess what he had in his hand.
“Give me a clue,” said the Mulla.

“I'll give you several,” said the wag. “It is shaped like an egg, egg-sized, looks, tastes and smells like an egg. Inside it is yellow and white. It is liquid within before you cook it, coalesces with heat. It was, moreover, laid by a hen…”

“I know!” interrupted the Mulla. “It is some sort of cake.”

…the trigger habit, depending on associations, cannot be used in the same way in perceptive activities. The mistake is in carrying over one form of thinking — however admirable in its proper place—into another context, and trying to use it there.

…we tend to look at events one-sidedly. We also assume, without any justification, that an event happens as it were in a vacuum. In actual fact, all events are associated with all other events. … If you look at any action which you do, or which anyone else does, you will find that it was prompted by one of many possible stimuli; and also that it is never an isolated action—it has consequences, many of them ones which you would never expect, certainly which you could not have planned.

Another Nasrudin “joke” underlies this essential circularity of reality, and generally invisible interactions which occur:

One day Nasrudin was walking along a deserted road Night was falling as he spied a troop of horsemen coming toward him. His imagination began to work, and he feared that they might rob him, or impress him into the army. So strong did this fear become that he leaped over a wall and found himself in a graveyard. The other travelers, innocent of any such motive as had been assumed by Nasrudin, became curious and pursued him.

When they came upon him lying motionless, one said, “Can we help you — why are you here in this position?”

Nasrudin, realizing his mistake, said, “It is more complicated than you assume. You see, I am here because of you; and you, you are here because of me.”

To someone whose perception is sharpened, more than one dimension of this and other stories becomes apparent. The net effect of experiencing a tale at several different levels at once is to awaken the innate capacity for understanding on a comprehensive, more objective manner than is possible to the ordinary, painstaking and inefficient way of thinking…

Sometimes Nasrudin stories are arranged in the form of aphorisms, of which the following are examples:

It is not in fact so.

Truth is something which I never speak.

I do not answer all the questions; only those which the know-alls secretly ask themselves.

If your donkey allows someone to steal your coat — steal his saddle.

A sample is a sample. Yet nobody would buy my house when I showed them a brick from it.

People clamor to taste my vintage vinegar. But it would not be forty years old if I let them, would it?

To save money, I made my donkey go without food. Unfortunately the experiment was interrupted by its death. It died before it got used to having no food at all.

People sell talking parrots for huge sums. They never pause to compare the possible value of a thinking parrot...

Further reading on Mulla Nasrudin:

Books by Idries Shah:

The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin
The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin
The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin
The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin and The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin (two volumes in one paperback)
The Sufis
The World of Nasrudin

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Examining Eastern Systems

excerpt from Changing Human Behavior by John Mann (1965):

Some Techniques of Eastern Religions 

    Certain preliminary generalizations can... be made before examining any particular system of Eastern religion. 

First, to achieve any substantial development, a tremendous amount of work is necessary. There is apparently no shortcut to paradise. The story of the great 12th century Tibetan saint, Milarepa, is typical. He was told by his teacher to build a house. After many months he was finished. His teacher then told him to take it down. When that was done, he was told to build it up again. This cycle was repeated several times. In this way, his teacher tested the firmness of his resolution and brought his work to a pitch of intensity that enabled him to attain the growth that he desired. 

 Second, work by oneself without the guidance of a person who has in fact himself extended his faculties is not productive. A teacher is necessary. It is not only the ignorance of the aspirant that will prevent his success when working alone, though certain kinds of knowledge are viewed as essential. Of even greater importance is the need for guidance from an impartial but benevolent source who can detect just those areas and issues that the individual would avoid. 

 Third, the nature of the work, whatever its specific content, is difficult and painful in the sense that it goes against natural tendencies of the person. The individual grows by opposing himself. The teacher functions in part to create the right kind of obstacles or to show how the ones that already exist can be attacked. 

Fourth, at some point complete surrender of individual effort is required. He must recognize his own helplessness and ask for guidance from his teacher or from some great spiritual source. 

Fifth, the process of work is gradual, though the rate of development at different times may vary greatly. After successive stages are past, new methods may be required: what is useful during one stage may be harmful at another. 

These five principles are sharply reminiscent of many of the psychological processes with with which we have dealt. Certain modern insight psychotherapies stress the need for difficult work under the guidance of a healer who helps the person to face those situations and aspects of his self he seeks to avoid. It is not surprising that the same principles seem to hold in very general form, since the process of growth must have certain common denominators regardless of the point from which one starts.

-- from Changing Human Behavior, p. 149-150.