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Sufi Psychology Articles:

The Relevance of Sufism
and Psychology

Sufism and Psychiatry


By Arthur J. Deikman, M.D.

Arthur J. Deikman, M.D. is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School and is Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology. Until he retired, he was Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He is a pioneer in the scientific investigation of meditation, the mystical experience and consciousness, and has divided his time between research, teaching, and the practice of psychotherapy. He has published numerous articles and books on the subject of mysticism and its relation to psychotherapy.

The questions, "What is the purpose of living?" and "Why do I exist?” haunt modern Western civilization and the absence of an adequate answer to them has given rise to the "illness" of meaninglessness or anomie. Psychiatrists, themselves, are afflicted with this same illness, partly because the problem of the meaning of life is solved by a special type of perception rather than by logic - psychiatry is trapped by its commitment to rationalism.

Sufism, on the other hand, is a tradition devoted to the development of the higher intuitive capacity needed to deal with this issue. By taking advantage of the special science of the Sufis, Western civilization may be able to extricate itself from its dilemma and contribute to the development of man's full capacities.

"I think it not improbable that man, like the grub that prepares a chamber for the winged thing it never has seen but is to be - that man, may have cosmic destinies that he does not understand." - Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (3,p.vi)

Psychiatry can be defined as the science of reducing mental suffering and enhancing mental health. To date, the field has been primarily concerned with the first part of the definition. For example, in the Index to the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (19),the word "neurosis" has over 400 references. In contrast, "health" is not even listed. The imbalance tends to be true of contemporary texts as well. This situation is understandable because psychiatry originated to deal with disordered function. The question, "What is the function of a healthy person?" which requires the further question "What is the purpose of human life?" is not usually asked because it is assumed to be answered by simple observation of the everyday activities of the general population (ii) (18,p.122).

Underlying all of our activities are purposes that give meaning and direction to our efforts. One might go to college to become a lawyer, or save money to buy a car, or vote to elect an official; all of these actions are vitalized by purpose and if the purpose is removed, the activities may cease. That being the case, what is the purpose of human life, itself? What answer do we have to the question, "Why am I?”. A direct answer is not usually attempted in our culture but an indirect answer is there, implicit in scientific publication and in the world view that permeates from scientific authority to the public-at-large. We are told either that the question lies outside the scope of science or that the question is false because the human race has developed by chance in a random universe. Erwin Schrodinger, the physicist, commented on this problem:

"Most painful is the absolute silence of all our scientific investigations towards our questions concerning the meaning and scope of the whole display. The more attentively we watch it, the more aimless and foolish it appears to be. The show that is going on obviously acquires a meaning only with regard to the mind that contemplates it. But what science tells us about this relationship is patently absurd: as if the mind had only been produced by that very display that it is now watching and would pass away with it when the sun finally cools down and the earth has been turned into a desert of ire and snow" (9,p.149).

We pay a price for the ‘nonanswer’ of science. Psychiatry has recognized the existence of "anomie” - an "illness" of meaninglessness, of alienation or estrangement from one's fellow men. Anomie stems from the absence of a deeply felt purpose. Our contemporary scientific culture also has had little to say about meaning itself, except to suggest and assume that man imposes meaning; he does not discover it. That this assumption may be incorrect and productive of pathology is a possibility that needs to be considered. It may be that the greatest problem confronting psychiatry is that it lacks a theoretical framework adequate to provide meaning for its patients, many of whom are badly handicapped in their struggle to overcome neurotic problems because the conceptual context within which they view themselves provides neither meaning, direction, nor hope. That context derives from the modem, scientific world view of an orderly, mechanical, indifferent universe in which human beings exist as an interesting biochemical phenomenon - barren of purpose. Survival is a purpose, but not enough. Working for the survival of others and to alleviate suffering is a purpose but it loses its meaning against a picture of the human race with no place to go, endlessly repeating the same patterns, or worse.

The issue of meaning increases in importance as one's own death becomes less theoretical and more probable. Life goals of acquisition become utterly futile, for no achievements of money, fame, sex, power, and security are able to stop the relentless slide towards extinction. Our bodies age and our minds grow increasingly restless seeking a solution to death. As former goals lose their significance, life can easily appear to be a random cycle of trivial events and the search may end in the most profound despair or a dull resignation. The widespread use of sedatives, alcohol, and narcotics is related to the wish to suppress despair and substitute sensation for meaning.

Such "existential" despair is so culturally accepted that it is often defined as healthy. Consider the following extract from The American Handbook of Psychiatry:

"To those who have obtained some wisdom in the process of reaching old age, death often assumes meaning as the proper outcome of life. It is nature's way of assuring much life and constant renewal. Time and customs change but the elderly tire of changing; it is time for others to take over, and the elderly person is willing to pass quietly from the scene" (5,p.251).

So we should end, according to the voice of reason, neither with a bang nor a whimper, but in a coma of increasing psychological fatigue.

The problem is illustrated concretely and poignantly by the dilemma of many psychiatrists themselves. A recent article in the American Journal of Psychiatry concerned a number of professional therapists, ages 35 to 45, mostly of a psychoanalytic background, who formed a group which at first provided peer supervision and later attempted to function as a leaderless therapy group for its members who, as it turned out, were in a crisis:

"The original members of the group we have described were remarkably homogeneous in their purposes in joining. The conscious reason was to obtain help in mastering a phase in their own development, the mid-life crisis. We refer to that stage of life in which the individual is aware that half of his time has been used up and the general pattern or trajectory of his work and personal life is clear. At this time, one must give up the normal manic defenses of early life - infinite faith in one's abilities and the belief that anything is possible. The future becomes finite, childhood fantasies have been fulfilled or unrealized, and there is no longer a sense of having enough time for anything. One becomes aware that one's energy and physical and mental abilities will be declining. The individual must think of prolonging and conserving rather than expanding. The reality of one's limited life span comes into sharp focus, and the work of mourning the passing of life begins in earnest"(4,p.1166).

The "healthy" attitude recommended here would seem to be a stoical and courageous facing of a reality defined by certain assumptions prevalent in our culture: limited human capacity and limited meaning to life. From this point of view, it can be maintained that the second half of life should be used to adjust oneself to the final termination of individual consciousness. The grimness of such a goal may have resonated in the authors' minds for they go on to brighten up the picture.

"In Erikson's terms, the individual must at this time struggle to achieve intimacy and creativity and avoid isolation and stagnation. If the work of mourning one's lost youth is carried through and the realities of the human situation are fully accepted, the ensuing years can be a period of increased productivity and gratification" (4,p.1166).

"Increased productivity" and "gratification" are invoked to suggest that something good is still possible after 40, but the possibilities still would seem to call more for resignation than for vitality and continued growth. This ultimately circumscribed view of human life is widely held by psychiatrists. Even in the relatively affirmative writings of Erikson the Eight Stages of Man have some of the flavor of a survival manual (1).

In contrast to our scientific culture and its psychology, Eastern introspective (mystical) disciplines have focused on meaning and purpose but have employed a strategy in which the use of intellect and reason is neither central nor basic to the process of investigation. Procedures such as meditation, fasting, chanting and other unusual practices have been employed as part of an integrated strata whose exact pattern and content depended on the nature and circumstances of the individual and of the culture in which the teaching was taking place.

Unfortunately, the literature of Eastern psychological disciplines has not been much practical use for contemporary Western readers. Academic study of such texts does not seem to develop wisdom or improve personality functioning, and exotic practices themselves have proven to be elusive and tricky instruments. For example, procedures such as meditation that were once part of a unique and individually prescribed pattern of development are now extracted from their original context and offered for consumption as if they were a kind of vitamin that was good for everyone, ridiculously cheap, and devoid of side effects. Those who use these components of a specialized technology may obtain increased calmness, enjoyment, and improvement of efficiency - but without noticeable gain in wisdom. They answer the question, "Who am I?" by reciting dogma, not by realization, and for all of the "bliss" that may be displayed, the person's essential knowledge appears unchanged. For those who fare less well meditation, schizoid withdrawal, grandiosity, vanity, and dependency flourish under the disguise of spiritual practice. Perhaps the worst effect of indiscriminate and unintegrated use of these techniques is that people come to believe that the effects they experience are the measure of Eastern esoteric science. The end result is that they confirm and strengthen their customary conceptual prison from which they desperately need to escape.

The crux of the problem is that modern Westerners need technical means specific to their time and culture. Although such a statement makes perfect sense to most people when the subject concerns the training of physicians or physicists, training in the "spiritual" is believed to be a different matter. Programs and techniques 2000 years old are assumed to be adequate to the task: indeed, it seems that that the older and more alien they are, the better they are received.

Fortunately, some traditional materials have recently been made available in a form suitable for contemporary needs; they offer practical benefits of interest to psychiatry as well as the general public. These materials address themselves to the question, "Who am I?" but they do so in a unique manner:

Why We Are Here

"Walking one evening along a deserted road, Mulla Nasrudin saw a troop of horsemen coming towards him.

His imagination started to work; he saw himself captured and sold as a slave, or impressed into the army.

Nasrudin bolted, climbed a wall into a graveyard, and lay down in an open tomb.

Puzzled at his strange behavior, the men - honest travelers - followed him.

They found him stretched out, tense and quivering.

'What are you doing in that grave? We saw you run away. Can we help you?'

'Just because you can ask a question does not mean there is a straightforward answer to it,' said the Mulla, who now realized what had happened. 'It all depends upon your viewpoint. If you must know, however: I am here because of you, and you are here because of me'" (11,p.16).

"Why We Are Here" is a teaching story adapted from the classical literature of Sufism. Teaching stories, in a form appropriate to the modern reader, are the means now being made available to prepare Western intellects for learning what they need to know. The stories, such as "Why We Are Here," are built of patterns, depth upon depth, offering resonance at the reader's level, whatever that may be. Teaching stories have more than one function. They provide the means for people to become aware of their patterns of behavior and thinking so as to accomplish a refinement of their perception and the development of an attitude conducive to learning. Some stories are also designed to communicate with what is conceived to be the innermost part of the human being.

Speaking metaphorically, Sufis say the stories make contact with a nascent "organ" of superior perception, supplying a type of "nutrition" that assists its development. It is this latter function that is of particular importance to understand; it is the key to the possible role of Sufism in helping to diagnose and cure, eventually, the basic illness that afflicts psychiatrists as well as their patients.

Sufism is usually thought of as a Middle Eastern mystical religion. According to Idries Shah(iii), that description is misleading. Referring to copious Sufi classics, he states that Sufism is the method of developing the higher perceptual capacity inherent in human beings and vital to their happiness.

This method is referred to by classical Sufi authorities as a "science" in the sense that it is a specific body of knowledge, applied according to the principles known by a Teacher, to achieve a specific and predictable result. That result is the capacity to know, directly (not through the senses or the usual intellectual functions) the meaning of human life and the inner significance of ordinary events. The change in consciousness that results is regarded as the next step in the evolution of the human race, a step that we must take or perish.

Ordinarily, we do not consider that the zone of normal perception may be so limited as to preclude the experience of a significant dimension of reality, the one with which mystical disciplines were ordinarily concerned. According to the Sufis, meaning is just such a perceptual problem.

An illustration of this issue at the level of biology has been described by C. F. Pantin, former Chairman of Trustees of the British Museum:

"A danger in this sort of behavior analysis - one which I fell into myself - is that it looks so complete that if you are not careful, you may start to imagine that you can explain the whole behavior of the sea anemone by very simple reflexes - like the effect of a coin in a slot machine. But quite by accident, I discovered that apart from reflexes, there was a whole mass of purposive behavior connected with the spontaneous activity of the anemone about which we simply know nothing. (Actually, this behavior was too slow to be noticed; it was outside our sensory spectrum for the time being)" (2,p.80).

Similarly, the purpose of human life may be outside the perceptual spectrum of the ordinary person. To widen that spectrum, to provide "sight," is the goal of Sufism.

The Sufis claim that mankind is psychologically "ill" because people do not perceive who they really are and what their situation is. Thus, they are "blind" or "asleep" because their latent, higher capacity is underdeveloped - partly because they are too caught up in the exercise of their lesser capacities for purposes of vanity, greed and fear. The development of the necessary perception itself is called "awakening" and the perception, itself, is called "Knowledge". It is often said that the science of awakening mankind has been present for many thousands of years but, because of the special nature of the process and of the Knowledge that it brings, the dissemination of the science has fluctuated throughout history and has never taken place on a large scale, partly because of the resistance this idea provokes (14,p.18).


“I was once in a certain country where the local people had never heard the sounds emitted from a radio receiver. A transistorized set was being brought to me; and while waiting for it to arrive I tried to describe it to them. The general effect was that the description fascinated some and infuriated others. A minority became irrationally hostile about radios.

When I finally demonstrated the set, the people could not tell the difference between the voice from the loudspeaker and someone nearby. Finally, like us, they managed to develop the necessary discrimination of each, such as we have.

And, when I questioned them afterwards, all swore that what they had imagined from descriptions of radios, however painstaking, did not correspond with the reality" (12,pp.13-15).

If, instead of talking of a radio receiver, the term "intuition" is used, the meaning of the analogy might be more clear. Ordinary intuition, however, is considered by the Sufis to be a lower level imitation of the superior form of intuition with which Sufism is concerned. For the moment, however, some consideration of the place of ordinary intuition in the activity of the scientist may be helpful in illustrating the practical reality of the Sufic position.

Although the scientific method is taught as if data plus logic equal discovery, those who have studied how discoveries are actually made come to quite different conclusions. Wigner, a Nobel prize-winning physicist comments:

"The discovery of the laws of nature requires first and foremost intuition, conceiving pictures and a great many subconscious processes. The use and also the confirmation of these laws is another matter . . . logic comes after intuition" (2,p.45).

An extensive, detailed study of the process of scientific discovery was made by Polanyi, formerly Professor of Physics Chemistry at the University of Manchester and then Senior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford (7). Polanyi studied scientists' descriptions of how they arrived at their "breakthroughs" to a new view of reality. He found, like Wigner, that logic, data, and reasoning came last – another channel of knowing was in use. There was no word for that channel in ordinary vocabulary so he used an analogy to convey its nature:

"And we know that the scientist produces problems, has hunches, and elated by these anticipations, pursues the quest that should fulfill these anticipations. This quest is guided throughout by feelings of a deepening coherence and these feelings have a fair chance of proving right. We may recognize here the powers of a dynamic intuition. The mechanism of this power can be illuminated by an analogy. Physics speak of potential energy that is released when a weight slides down a slope. Our search for deeper coherence is guided by a potentiality. We feel the slope toward deeper insight as we feel the direction in which a heavy weight is pulled along a steep incline. It is this dynamic intuition which guides the pursuit of discovery" (2,p.60).

Not only do the Sufis contend that man needs more than intellect and emotion to guide him, but that those two "servants", in the absence of the "master", have taken over the house and forgotten their proper function:

The Servants and The House

"At one time there was a wise and kindly man, who owned a large house. In the course of his life he often had to go away for long periods. When he did this, he left the house in charge of his servants.

One of the characteristics of these people was that they were very forgetful. They forgot, from time to time, why they were in the house; so they carried out their tasks repetitiously. At other times they thought that they should be doing things in a different way from the way in which their duties had been assigned to them. This was because they had lost track of their functions.

Once, when the master was away for a long time, a new generation of servants arose, who thought that they actually owned the house. Since they were limited by their immediate world, however, they thought that they were in a paradoxical situation. For instance, sometimes they wanted to sell the house, and could find no buyers, because they did not know how to go about it. At other times, people came inquiring about buying the house and asking to see the title-deeds, but since they did not know anything about deeds the servants thought that these people were mad and not genuine buyers at all.

Paradox was also evidenced by the fact that supplies for the house kept 'mysteriously' appearing, and this provision did not fit in with the assumption that the inmates were responsible for the whole house.

Instructions for running the house had been left, for purposes of refreshing the memory, in the master's apartments. But after the first generation, so sacrosanct had these apartments become that nobody was allowed to enter them, and they became considered to be an impenetrable mystery. Some, indeed, held that there was no such apartment at all, although they could see its doors. These doors, however, they explained as something else: a part of the decoration of the walls.
Such was the condition of the staff of a house, which neither took over the house nor stayed faithful to their original commitment" (15,pp.211-212).

The Sufis specify that the development of man's superior capacity has its own rigorous requirements: adequate preparation of suitable students, the correct learning situation, and the activity of a Teacher - one who has reached the goal and by means of that special knowledge is equipped to teach according to the needs of the particular culture, the particular time, historical period, and the particular person. Because of these requirements, there is no set dogma or technique that is utilized in a standard fashion: the form is only a vehicle and is constantly changing.

"All religious presentations are varieties of one truth, more or less distorted. This truth manifests itself in various peoples, who become jealous of it, not realizing that its manifestation accords with their needs. It cannot be passed on in the same form because of the difference in the minds of different communities. It cannot be reinterpreted, because it must grow afresh" (17,p.264).

However in almost all organizations we can see examples where the attachment to form and dogma, results in them becoming stiffened and ossified. For example if we take the field of psychiatry, itself, in Freud's time, the Vienna Circle was open to all who had sufficient interest and capacity to participate, regardless of what formal degrees or titles they possessed. Today, the American Psychoanalytic Institute will not accord full membership to anyone not possessing an M.D., even though the functional relevance of a medical degree for the theory and practice of psychoanalysis can scarcely be discerned.

How Far You Have Come!

"Originally, you were clay. From being mineral, you became vegetable. From vegetable, you became animal, and from animal, man. During these periods man did not know where he was going, but he was being taken on a long journey nonetheless. And you have to go through a hundred different worlds yet" (17,p.102).

According to the Sufis, only with the knowledge that perceptual development brings, can human beings know the meaning of human life, both in terms of the particular events of a person's life and the destiny of the human race.

"Once upon a time there was a city. It was very much like any other city, except it was almost permanently enveloped in storms.

The people who lived in it loved their city. They had, of course, adjusted to its climate. Living amid storms meant that they did not notice thunder, lightning and rain most of the time.

If anyone pointed out the climate they thought he was being rude or boring. After all, having storms was what life was like, wasn't it? Life went on like this for many centuries.

This would have been all very well, but for one thing: the people had not made a complete adaptation to a storm-climate. The result was that they were afraid, unsettled and frequently agitated.

Since they had never seen any other kind of place in living memory, cities or countries without some storms belonged to folklore and the babbling of lunatics.

There were two tried recipes which caused them to forget, for a time, their tensions: to make changes and to obsess themselves with what they had. At any given moment in their history, some sections of the population would have their attention fixed on change, and others on possessions of some kind. The unhappy ones would only then be those who were doing neither.

Rain poured down, but nobody did anything about it because it was not a recognized problem. Wetness was a problem, but nobody connected it with rain. Lightning started fires, which were a problem, but these were regarded as individual events without a consistent cause.

You may think it remarkable that so many people knew so little for so long.

But then we tend to forget that, compared to present day information, most people in history have known almost nothing about anything and even contemporary knowledge is daily being modified - and even proved wrong" (12,pp.140-141).

Most psychotherapy focuses on uncovering the fantasies that shape neurotic action and on clarifying and resolving the conflicts of wishes and fears that lead an individual to the repetitive, self-defeating behaviors for which they usually seek therapy. These functions of psychotherapy are necessary and important. However, the resolution of neurotic problems, while it may be a necessary first step for an individual, is neither the measure of health nor of human potentiality. Freud's model of man as an organism seeking relief from tension, forced to negotiate a compromise among instinct, reason, and society, leaves even the most successful negotiator in a position of impoverishment as pathological, in its own way, as any illness listed in the diagnostic manual. This is because the usual psychiatric concept of health is both barren and narrow. Even the most "humanistic" of current psychologies that offer, in principle, equal attention to such dimensions of human experience as the playful, the creative, and "the spiritual," have no clear concept of the nature of the problem and little to suggest for its solution. "Self-realization" is advocated, but just what the self is that is to be realized and what that realization might be are not made explicit.

All of these therapies and theories are in the same boat because they share the fundamental limiting assumptions about man that are basic to our culture. Unwittingly, they help maintain the lack of perception that is the basic dysfunction of the human race and hinders the development of the higher capacities that are needed. In this sense, psychiatry, whether of the neurochemical or psychoanalytic variety or a combination of both, perpetuates the endemic illness of meaninglessness and arrested human development - it has no remedy for the cultural affliction that cripples normal people. Thus, we arrive at the dilemma of the group of psychiatrists in "mid-life" crisis described in part one. They illustrate the point. Their science is caught within the same closed room in which they find themselves; indeed, it helps to bar the door. Psychoanalytic theory, the masterpiece of a genius, is so powerful and encompassing a schema that all phenomena seem to be contained within its walls; its proponents have come to love their city - storms notwithstanding, and they are almost never forced to reappraise their world.

However, existentialism has helped same psychiatrists look to the underpinnings of their profession. Rychlak, writing in The American Handbook of Psychiatry, summarizes:

"Building on the theme of alienation first introduced by Hegel, and then popularized in the writings of Kierkegaard, the existentialists argue that man has been alienated from his true (phenomenal) nature by science's penchant for objective measurement, control, and stilted, non-teleological description" (8,p.162).

Through existentialism, purpose and meaning have come to have advocates such as the psychoanalyst Avery Weisman:
"The existential core of psychoanalysis is whatever nucleus of meaning and being there is that can confront both life and death. Unless he accepts this as his indispensable reality, the psychoanalyst is like a man wandering at night in a strange city" (21,p.242).

How can the psychoanalyst find that nucleus of meaning, let alone accept it? The group of psychiatrists in mid-life crisis are missing that center because it is missing from the very discipline they practice and teach. Psychiatry cannot address the issue of meaning because of the limited nature of its concept of man and because of its ignorance of the means needed to develop the capacity to perceive it.

In contrast, Sufism regards its task as the development of the higher perceptual capacity of man, his conscious evolution. According to Sufi authorities, the knowledge of how to do this has always existed. It had a flowering in Islam during the Middle Ages, during which the term "Sufis" came into use, but it had other names, centuries before. The Sufis regard Moses, Christ, and Mohammed as Teachers of the same basic process - their external forms and the means they employed were different, but the inner activity was the same. The traditional forms that we see around us in current times are said to be the residue of a science whose origins extend back to the beginnings of man's history. The problem is that our thinking has been conditioned to associate "awakening" to vegetarian diets, chanting, chastity, whirling dances, meditation on "chakras", koans and mantras; beards, robes and solemn faces — because all of these features of once vital systems have been preserved and venerated as if they were still useful for achieving the same goal. The parts, or a collection of them, are mistaken for the whole. It is as if a car door, lying on the ground, were labeled "automobile" and hopeful travelers diligently opened and closed its window, waiting expectantly for it to transport them to a distant city.

Meditation, asceticism, special diets and the like, should be regarded as technical devices that sometimes had a specific place in a coherent system prescribed for the individual. When used properly by a Teacher, they formed a time-limited container for a content that was timeless. Now, many old and empty containers labeled "spiritual" litter the landscape. The importation and wide use of these unintegrated forms attest to the immortality of institutions and customs, rather than the present usefulness of the activities.

The Sufis maintain that, nevertheless, amid all this confusion, the science of "conscious evolution" continues in a contemporary form, invisible to those expecting the traditional. "Speak to everyone in accordance with his degree of understanding" was a saying of Mohammed (10,p.18). Idries Shah states that he is one of those speaking now to contemporary man, Eastern as well as Western, in a way appropriate to the task of educating people who do not realize how much they have to learn. R. L. Thomson, writing in The Brook Postgraduate Gazette, agrees:

"The problems of approaching the Sufis’ work are such that Idries Shah's basic efforts do seem necessary. Little help is to be found in the academic approach based on linguistics and history" (20,p.8).

Most of Idries Shah's writings consist of carefully selected and translated groups of teaching stories, including the ones I have quoted. His translations are exceptionally clear and digestible to a modern reader. The stories provide templates to which we can match our own behavior. We accept them because they are so deceptively impersonal - the situations are preserved as the history of someone else. The story slides past our vigilant defenses and is stored in our minds until the moment comes when our own thinking or situation matches the template - then it suddenly arises in awareness and we "see" as in a mirror, the shape and meaning of what we are actually doing. The analogical form can evade the categorizing of our rational thought and reach other sectors of the mind.

The Design

"A Sufi of the Order of the Naqshbandi was asked:

'Your Order's name means, literally, "The Designers". What do you design, and what use it is?’

He said:

'We do a great deal of designing, and it is most useful. Here is a parable of one such form.’

Unjustly imprisoned, a tinsmith was allowed to receive a rug woven by his wife. He prostrated himself upon the rug day after day to say his prayers, and after some time he said to his jailers:

'I am poor and without hope, and you are wretchedly paid. But I am a tinsmith. Bring my tin and tools and I shall make small artifacts which you can sell in the market, and we will both benefit.'

The guards agreed to this, and presently the tinsmith and they were both making a profit, from which they bought food and comfort for themselves.

Then, one day, when the guards went to the cell, the door was open, and he was gone.

Many years later, when this man's innocence had been established, the man who had imprisoned him asked him how he had escaped, what magic he had used. He said:

'It is a matter of design, and design within design. My wife is a weaver. She found the man who had made the locks of the cell door, and got the design from him. This she wove into the carpet, at the spot where my head touched in prayer five times a day. I am a metal-worker, and this design looked to me like the inside of a lock. I designed the plan of the artifacts to obtain the materials to make the key - and I escaped.'

'That,' said the Naqshbandi Sufi, 'is one of the ways man may make his escape from the tyranny of his captivity"' (16,p.176).

Teaching stories, such as the above, are tools that depend on the motivation of the user and his or her capacity or level of skill. As understanding increases, the tools can be used for finer and deeper work. The more one experiences and uses them, the more remarkable they seem to be: they lend credence to Idries Shah's claim that Sufism is a science whose boundaries contain modern psychology but go beyond it. He states:

" . . . Sufism is itself a far more advanced psychological system than any which is yet developed in the West. Neither is this psychology Eastern in essence, but human" (14,p.59).

According to Shah, the initial step needed to be taken by most human beings is to become aware of automatic pattern-thinking, the conditioned associations and indoctrinated values that limit human perception and receptivity. The teaching story is used for this purpose, illustrating at one step removed, the egocentric thinking of which we are usually oblivious:

That's Why They Bunged It Up

"Nasrudin was very thirsty and was happy when he saw by the roadside a water-pipe whose outlet was bunged with a piece of wood.

Putting his open mouth near the stopper, he pulled. There was such a rush of water that he was knocked over.

'Oho!' roared the Mulla. 'That's why they blocked you up, is it? And you have not yet learned any sense!'" (13,p.48).

Personal Wisdom

"'I don't want to be a man,’ said a snake.

'If I were a man, who would hoard nuts for me?' asked the squirrel.

'People.' said the rat, 'Have such weak teeth that they can hardly do any gnawing.'

'And as for speed . . . ' said a donkey, 'they can't run at all, in comparison to me'" (12,p.187).

Teaching stories such as these have clarified patterns of my own thought, permitting me to notice similar patterns in my patients and to make appropriate interventions. One such story whose content is explicit, is the following:


"A Sufi sage once asked his disciples to tell him what their vanities had been before they began to study with him.

The first said:

'I imagined that I was the most handsome man in the world.'

The second said:

'I believed that, since I was religious, I was one of the elect.'

The third said:

'I believed I could teach.'

And the fourth said:

'My vanity was greater than all these; for I believed that I could learn.'

The sage remarked:

'And the fourth disciple's vanity remains the greatest, for his vanity is to show that he once had the greatest vanity"' (12,p.47).

Having read this story, I later observed myself using the same strategy as the fourth disciple; specifically, I was berating myself for a personal failing. The context differed from the specific situation of the story but the pattern was the same. The story flashed in my mind like a mirror and I understood the role of vanity in my self-reproach. The "illumination" provoked a wry smile and ended my self-flagellation. Sometime later, I listened to a patient present a similar pattern, recognized it, and, using humor, was able to point out the concealed intent.

The point of view and the learning principles presented in the teaching stories are tough minded and emphasize the responsibility of each person for his or her own conduct and fulfillment. Such an attitude is not unfamiliar to psychiatry. However, developing a correct attitude is only the first step in Sufic science, a step called "learning how to learn." Responsibility, sincerity, humility, patience, generosity - these are not ends in themselves but are tools that must be acquired before a person can proceed further. It is what comes after this first step that sharply distinguished Sufism from all of the psychotherapeutic and "growth-oriented" disciplines with which we are familiar. The Sufis regard their system as being far in advance of ours because it extends beyond conceptual and technical limits of our psychology and embodies a method for assisting man to develop the special perception upon which his welfare, and that of the human race, depends. When asked to prove their assertion, Sufis insist on the indications that we should pay attention to the necessity for undertaking preparatory training and then experiencing the domain in question. Such claims and requirements often provoke a haughty dismissal:

Three Epochs

1. Conversation in the 5th century.

"'It is said that silk is spun by insects, and does not grow on trees.'

'And diamonds are hatched from eggs, I suppose? Pay no attention to such an obvious lie.'

'But there are surely many wonders in remote islands?'

'It is this very craving for the abnormal which produces fantastic invention'

'Yes, I suppose it is obvious when you think about it - that such things are all very well for the East, but could never take root in our logical and civilized society.'"

2. In the 6th century.

"'A man has come from the East, bringing some small live grubs.'

'Undoubtedly a charlatan of some kind, I suppose he says that they can cure toothache?'

'No, rather more amusing. He says that they can "spin silk." He has "brought them with terrible sufferings, from one Court to another, having obtained them at the risk of his very life."'

'This fellow has merely decided to exploit a superstition which was old in my great-grandfather’s time.'

'What shall we do with him, my Lord?'

'Throw his infernal grubs into the fire, and beat him for his pains until he recants. These fellows are wondrously bold. They need showing that we're not all ignorant peasants here, willing to listen to any wanderer from the East. '"

3. In the 20th century:

"'You say that there is something in the East which we have not yet discovered here in the West? Everyone has been saying that for thousands of years. But in this century we'll try anything: our minds are not closed. Now give me a demonstration. You have fifteen minutes before my next appointment. If you prefer to write it down, here's a half-sheet of paper'" (12,p.26).

If history has any value as a guide, it indicates that we should pay attention to the information now being provided to us by contemporary Sufism and not pass this opportunity without investigating it. Robert E. Ornstein, in his textbook, The Psychology of Consciousness, concludes:

"A new synthesis is in process within modern psychology. This synthesis combines the concerns of the esoteric traditions with the research methods and technology of modern science. In complement to this process, and feeding it, a truly contemporary approach to the problems of consciousness is arising from the esoteric traditions themselves” (6,p.244).

Psychiatrists need to recognize that their patients' psychological distress stems from three levels: a) from conflicts of wishes, fears, and fantasies; b) from an absence of perceived meaning; and c) from a frustration of the need to progress in an evolutionary sense, as individuals and as a race. The first level is the domain in which psychiatry functions. The second and third levels require a science appropriate to the task. The special knowledge of the Sufis may enable us to put together materials already at hand: our present knowledge of psychodynamics, our system of universal education, our technology, our resources, and our free society, to create the conditions that will permit the development of man's full capacities, as yet unrealized.


(i) All of the stories quoted in this article are copyrighted by Idries Shah and are reproduced by his permission.

Stories from Tales of the Dervishes and The Way of the Sufi © by E. P. Dutton, New York, are reprinted by permission. Stories from The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, The Magic Monastery, The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, and Thinkers of the East by I. Shah are reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd., New York.

(ii) In fairness to Freud it should be noted that in his later philosophical writings, he did consider that question and when he did his answer was more in keeping with mystical literature than with modern psychology. "I may now add that civilization is the process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind" (18,p.122).

(iii) Idries Shah has written many books on Sufism.



Erikson E. Childhood and Society. W. W. Norton, New York, 1950.


Greene, M., Ed. Toward a Unity of Knowledge. Psychol. Issues, 6: (2). International Universities Press, New York, 1969.


Holmes, O. W. cited in Murphy, G., Human Potentialities. Basic Books, New York, 1958.


Hunt. W. and Issacharoff, A. History and Analysis of a leaderless group of professional therapists. A. J. Psychiatry, 132: 11, 1166, 1975.


Lidz, T. On the life cycle. In Artieti, S., Ed., The American Handbook of Psychiatry. Basic Books, New York, 1974.


Ornstein, R. E. The Psychology of Consciousness. W. H. Freeman & Co., San Francisco, 1972.


Polanyi, M. Personal Knowledge. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1956.


Rychiak, J. F. The Personality, In Artieti, S., Ed., The American Handbook of Psychiatry, Basic Books New York, 1974.


Schrodinger, E. What Is Life? Mind and Matter. Cambridge University Press, London, 1969.


Shah, I. Caravan of Dreams. Octagon Press, London, 1966.


Shah, I. The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. E. P. Dutton, New York. 1972. © 1966 by Mulla Nasrudin Enterprises, Ltd.


Shah, I. The Magic Monastery. E. P. Dutton, New York, 1972, © 1972 by Idries Shah.


Shah, I. The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin. E. P. Dutton, New York, 1971.© 1968 by Mulla Nasrudin Enterprises, Ltd.


Shah, I. The Sufis. Doubleday, Anchor Books. Garden City, N. Y., 1971.


Shah, I. Tales of the Dervishes. E. P. Dutton, New York, 1970.


Shah, I. Thinkers of the East. Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1972. © 1971 by Idries Shah.


Shah, I. The Way of the Sufi. E. P. Dutton, New York, 1970.


Strachey, J., Ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, XXI. Hogarth Press, London, 1961,


Strachey, J. Ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, XXIV. Hogarth Press, London, 1974.


Thomson, A. L. Psychology and science from the ancient east. Brook Postgrad. Gaz., 2: 1, 1973.


Weisman, A., The Existential Care of Psychoanalysis. Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, 1965.


Williams, L. F., Ed. Sufi Studies: East and West. E. P. Dutton. New York, 1974.

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