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The Relevance of Sufism
and Psychology


Sufism and Psychiatry




THE RELEVANCE OF SUFISM AND PSYCHOLOGY

By Fleur Nassery Bonnin


Whilst much of the world rightly looks to modern psychology for the understanding, management and treatment of psychological illness, historically less attention has been paid to the issue of the advancement of a spiritually integrated model of well-being. Today there is a growing movement to identify a model that incorporates our current psychological and scientific knowledge and the higher, spiritual aspects of man.[1]

Within the ancient teachings of Sufism lies a psychological path which can enrich the spectrum of modern psychology by offering a balanced approach to developing the capacity necessary for accessing the higher aspects of man. This expanded approach to psychology presents an unfolding process of psychospiritual integration and transformation, based on inner reality and inner balance which existed long before the onset of modern psychology.

This integrated approach has much to offer in terms of the relationship man has with his ego/self, and consequently with his pathology. Sufi psychology looks at the purpose, potential and meaning of life, and recognises that we have an essential nature that is spiritual, and that we are on an earthly journey in order to uncover this essential self. Sufi doctrine holds the view that the potentiality for transformation of the self to reach this goal was placed within us, however it is not usually accessible to us because of our limited perception and identification with our ego/self (false self). From Sufi psychology perspective, this would be the root cause of the turmoil experienced by the ego/self and at the same time its potential for transformation to balance and inner harmony.

Indeed in Sufism the path of knowledge of self is not seen as a separate psychological journey from the spiritual journey. It is seen as a vital and necessary process in order to fully realise one's potential. Its doctrine of psychology offers a means of discovering who we are, why are we here, where we are going, and identifying the purpose of this life's journey.

Harvard trained psychiatrist and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, Dr. Arthur Deikman who is a pioneer in the scientific investigation of mysticism and its relationship to psychotherapy, says[2]:

"It is possible that the meaning and purpose of human life are outside the spectrum of ordinary consciousness, whose widening and deepening are the concern of the mystical tradition. In fact, some see the evolution of consciousness as the principal task of the human race. Western psychology, in its attempts to explain away the sense of meaninglessness and its attendant symptoms, may have much to learn from mysticism, which sees meaning as something real and accessible to consciousness, provided the appropriate perceptual capacity has been developed."

The spiritually integrated psychological model within Sufi psychology requires a paradigm shift in the uncovering of the relationship of the soul to the self. As a person becomes less preoccupied with 'self', and more engaged with the deeper levels of his being and consciousness of God the Creator, he moves more towards the balance between the physical and the spiritual dimension of his self and his emotional and psychological health fundamentally alters.

Whilst western psychology has made remarkable progress in understanding emotions and behaviours, it still struggles to understand and define the concept of the 'self', and as long as the 'self' is misunderstood the potential for fully experiencing life is very limited. Sufism asserts that there are higher aspects of the self that exist and can be accessed, and once a person experiences these states, a change in the ego-personality will follow. This raises a number of questions such as: what is the 'self' and how do we begin to identify, understand and experience these higher states?

Deikman[2] suggests that modern psychology is missing an understanding of what he calls the "Observing Self". His explanation of this 'observing self' can be used to give us an insight into the paradigm shift that is necessary to perceive the nature of the 'self':

"The most important fact about the observing self is that it is incapable of being objectified. Whatever we can notice or conceptualise is already an object of awareness, not awareness itself, which seems to jump back a step when we experience an object. Unlike every other aspect of experience - thoughts, emotions, desires and functions - the observing self can be known but not located, not 'seen'. ... Thus everyday consciousness contains a transcendent element that we seldom notice because that element is the very ground of our experience. The word transcendent is justified because if subjective consciousness - the observing self - cannot itself be observed but remains forever apart from the contents of consciousness, it is likely to be of a different order to everything else. We realise that the observing self is featureless, it cannot be affected by the world any more than a mirror can be affected by the images it reflects."

Using a Sufi analogy, all of the colours are being created by the Colourless, and all of the shapes and forms are created by the Formless. In this expanded understanding of the self, lies a key to experiencing our most personal and universal nature. Sufi psychology views the integration of this transcendent aspect into the rest of the self not only as a functional method of restoring balance, but also as the very purpose of life itself.

In order to explain this integration it may help to picture two intersecting axes, one vertical and one horizontal. We can then place all the aspects of man on these two axes. The transcendent aspects of the self, between man and God, lie on the vertical axis. All the other aspects of both man and this world are placed on the horizontal axis. According to Sufi doctrine in order for this integration to occur there must be an interrelationship from the horizontal axis to the vertical axis, and through this interrelationship, (which is called 'rabeta'), the previously displaced aspects of man on the horizontal axis are given their proper placement. This in turn gives rise to the proper order of relations being made on the vertical axis. It is important to note that when integration takes place in relation to the vertical axis the outcome will reflect a particular level of self knowledge that is not possible to attain in any other way.

In Sufi psychology the familiar psychological route of making the unconscious conscious is taken, whilst simultaneously accessing the higher aspects of one's being. One method employed is the use of teaching stories. This method exists in many spiritual traditions but has reached its peak in Sufism.

The following example is a famous old Sufi story of the lost keys. This is a favourite of psychiatrist Dr. Claudio Naranjo, who amongst his many achievements is noted for bringing the Enneagram into modern psychology from its ancient Sufi origins. Incidentally, a lot of Sufi stories are centred on the character Mullah Nasruddin, a Persian wise fool:

"Once Mullah Nasruddin was on his fours in one of the alleys at the market place looking for the very key to his house. A friend joined him in the search. Only after a long time had elapsed without success did the friend think of asking him 'Are you sure that you have lost it here?' To which the Mullah replied 'No, I'm sure I lost it at home.'

'Then why are you looking for it here?'

'There is much more light here', explained the Mullah."


This Sufi story simultaneously points to and pokes fun at our blindness and tendency to look in areas that are comfortable rather than productive. Like all Sufi stories this is designed to teach us many things on many levels. For instance, since ontologically we can only experience life as truly meaningful when it is pursued according to its original purpose, when this purpose is not understood, we are bound to look for meaning in the wrong places. It is therefore understandable that disappointment, despair and depression often ensue. Sufi psychology throws light on the real cause of these problems and its relation to the purpose of life, while trying to gain insight into the construct of the 'self'.

The mechanism within the Sufi teaching story through which this insight is gained is outlined by Deikman as follows[2] :

"On its surface the story can be humorous, moralist or entertaining, or a combination of these. Such elements ensure the stories survival. However its teaching function depends on other qualities, one of which is the ability to portray a specific pattern of thinking or behaviour. As a result a person gains choice over previously automatic and unconscious behaviour.

No explanation, no direct statement of the story's meaning can substitute for the way it acts on the readers mind. The story provides an experience of meaning. Teaching stories are designed to have a series of specific impacts directed at a developmental goal."


Sufi teaching stories create an environment suitable for an increased capacity for intuition and insight. The insight is attained because the stories are "deceptively impersonal" allowing our usually vigilant defences to relax. When our own behaviour matches an aspect of the story, there will be an instant recognition of the truth of it and its relation to our own behaviour. This recognition suddenly melts the structure that is upholding the unconsciousness which obscures insight to the relevant behaviour.

At a more subtle level poetry also produces a similar effect. As the poetry bypasses the rational mind, the intuitive dimension of the person recognises the sublime meanings within the message. This might be conscious or unconscious, depending on the level of one's awakening.

From the spiritual perspective, western psychology's concept of the 'self' is often confusing and in fact part of the problem. This is particularly apparent today with an emergence of theories grappling to define and redefine this elusive concept. What has been lacking is a comprehensive, integrated psycho-spiritual model that understands the nature and function of the self, including the transcendent aspects of the self. Deikman reiterates the need for a different model of the 'self', saying[2] :

"The thought self, the emotion self, the action self, and the observing self are complimentary phases of consciousness; they are not the fundamental source of individual being. That source is beyond ordinary awareness. The observing self can be a bridge between the object world and the transcendent realm. Without the enhancement and development of the observing self, the further step to the Self cannot be taken. We cannot say exactly what the observing self is, but our inability to do so tell us something. It indicates that the accepted psychological model of the human being is deficient in a basic way. It points to an unknown region whose exploration requires a different model of the self, one in which "simple locality" is no longer assumed and the world view of mystics becomes a useful guide."

Such a model exists within Sufism and psychology. Sufi psychology is a well detailed holistic process that contains the means by which the self understands its own structure. It has been in existence long before the onset of modern psychology and facilitates not only the healthy functioning of a person, but goes beyond that level. It contains methods for the realisation and therefore transformation of the self to the Ultimate Self, which according to Sufism is the purpose of life's journey.



[1] Please note when I use the word "man" or the preposition "he" it is for both genders.

[2] The Observing Self, Mysticism and Psychotherapy. Arthur J Deikman, Beacon Press


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