Sunday, July 19, 2015


Excerpt from "The Emergence of Mankind from the Chrysalis"
by Leonard Lewin (1971)
Preface to The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West:
An Anthology of New Writings By and About Idries Shah
Edited by Leonard Lewin
Keysign Press, Boulder, Colorado (1972)

The Institute for Research on the Dissemination
of Human Knowledge (IRDHK) is a non-profit corporation
founded for the purpose of advancing public
education and information in certain selected areas,
with the aim of stimulating a wholesome forward
movement in the development of both the individual
and the local society in which he operates, and of
which he forms an integral part.

The 'knowledge' referred to is contained both in
the products of current Western thought, particularly
in the fields of sociology and behaviorism; and also
in the so-called ancient wisdoms, often, but quite
erroneously, associated only with Eastern
philosophies. Since the central core of this wisdom
is experiential rather than informational, the ways
in which it can be transmitted and presented depend
essentially on a particular form of human contact
and involvement; though some aspects of it can be
written down and transmitted in literary forms.

This written material, now available, has been
revealed for the first time in the West only in the
last few years and stems from the pen of Idries
Shah, Director of Studies of the Institute for Cultural
Research, a learned society in England. The
material, much of it in the form of stories (superficially
resembling parables) is valuable reading, 
not only as entertainment, but primarily because,
encoded in narrative form, it embodies the essential
wisdoms which constitute a part of the priceless
cultural heritage of all mankind.

In the incredibly complicated and ever more rapidly
changing setting which is today's world, many
traditional values are now seriously under challenge,
while new ones vie for support.

To most observers it is far from clear what it is that
is taking place; what fresh patterns of human thought
and activity may be emerging from the matrix of
mankind's vast evolutionary past.

When the present upheaval which is beginning to
manifest in social and cultural unrest, both national
and international, has finally disclosed the true nature
of the world of tomorrow, we can all then participate
in that knowledge of the further evolution of
the human state. But meanwhile, in the present uncertainty
and confusion, many must be asking such
questions as, 'What really is happening?' or, 'What
does it all really mean?' or just, 'Where do we go
from here?'

To answer such questions when in the midst of it
all is not easy if only because, preoccupied in day-to-day
details, one cannot readily discern the wood
for the trees. The familiar can be a bridge to the
unfamiliar. Sometimes a well-chosen analogy can
be used to enable one to stand back, as it were, and
survey the scene from a greater distance. The appropriateness
of any such analogies can then be assessed
by the insights that they ultimately bring;
and this is indeed the only valid criterion to apply
since, after all, this is precisely what they were
introduced to accomplish.

Here, then, is one such:

TransformationWhat does the caterpillar know
of the destiny of the butterfly? The caterpillar eats
and eats and eats, and grows and grows, molting its
skin a number of times, until, under the influence
mainly of internal factors (themselves the product
of external factors via evolutionary forces acting
over a long period of time), the caterpillar changes
its mode of living and turns into an apparently quiescent
chrysalis. Again under the influence of internal
and external factors, the contents of the
chrysalis are transformed and restructured until a
butterfly, long latent within, begins to take form.

Shortly before emergence its outline can be clearly
seen inside the pupal case. At last it breaks
through the protective casing (provided the latter
has not hardened to excess to form a prison's
walls) and the mature insect emerges to fulfill its

A butterfly does not look at all like a caterpillar,
yet it is, in some sense, the inevitable eventual
form that it must take.

Mankind is now preparing to emerge from the
chrysalis. Not his physical form, but the quality
of his consciousness is about to undergo a transformation
to a new condition long latent within. The
protective casing which must be breached is a mental
prison-shell compounded of vanity, self-love,
self-deceit, greed, mental arrogance, prejudice,
selfishness, and years and years and years of conditioning.

In all cultures, and at all times, a few, a very
few, individuals have been able to free themselves,
and have helped others also to escape. Now this
opportunity is being made available to all who are
able to perceive its reality. The social turmoil of
our times can be seen as an external manifestation
of this process.

The analogy to the caterpillar's transformation
is a weak one because it is too superficial. The purpose
of the description was to help guide the imagination
in a realistic and constructive way. But the
mind is much more complex than this. Most of its
operation is beyond the reach of consciousness. An
analogy, to be fully effective, must relate also to
those deeper levels. This is the function of the so-called
Teaching Story, whose inner structure relates
simultaneously to the different levels of the
individual's mental organization.

Like a formula in, say, physics or chemistry, it
relates different variables in a way which quite
precisely corresponds to the way these things are related
in actuality. And, also like the formula, it
requires a correct practical setting to reveal the
full nature of the reality which, compactly encoded
in symbolic form, resides latent within the pattern
of its structure.

It should, perhaps, be emphasized that these
creations are highly ingenious and sophisticated
works of art, though their true character is never
perceived in its entirety at first glance. They have
to be 'lived' with, and 'worked' with, in order to reveal
their secrets: as is indeed the case with, for
example, the equations of physics -- who would have
suspected that so simple a relation as Einstein's
famous energy relation e = mc2 could underpin anything
so dramatic as, say, the tremendous release of
atomic energy with which we are now so familiar?
And so it is with the constructions called Teaching

'What is done for you -- allow it to be done.
What you must do yourself -- make sure you do it.'*

* Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi.

Ancient Way to Freedom

An Ancient Way to New Freedom 
by Doris Lessing (1971)

For a long time 'mysticism' has been almost a
joke in the West, although we have been taught
that at the heart of the Christian religion have
been great mystics and religious poets. If we knew
more than that, it was that these people's
approach to God was emotional, ecstatic, and that
the states of mind they described made ordinary life
look pretty unimportant. But our information, in a
Christian-dominated culture, did not include the
fact that the emotional road was only one of the
traditional, and very ancient, approaches.

Recently, a feeling that the kind of education
most of us get is not giving us information we ought
to have has led to curiosity about Eastern cults,
Buddhism, gurus of various sorts, or the dozen
or so Yogas. Since the Holy Man, the Sage, has
been no part of our culture for centuries, we have
had no yardstick to judge the gurus by; but the
more eccentric in behavior, wildly bearded, and
sensational in utterance they are, the more
attention they get. Our biases (since in the West
we are preoccupied with money, the gaining and the
keeping and spending of it) are likely to let us
judge a Sage, genuine or not, by whether he takes
money, and how much, and by the way he 
outwardly arranges his life.

A man who lives in a damp cave on lentils is
considered more holy than one who lives an
ordinary life in society. But as a result of so
many cults, gurus, crazy diets, people standing
on their heads, meditations, and mantras, many
sincerely curious have been put off and have
retreated into an attitude summarized by this

'What is your view about inner knowledge?'
asked a dervish of a theologian.
'I have no patience with it.'
'And what else?'
'It makes me sick.'
'And what else?'
'The idea is revolting.'
'How interesting that a logical and trained
mind like yours, when asked for a view
on a matter, can only describe three
personal moods.'

A Sufi would say that people living in a society
where Sufism has been openly at work, and respected
for what it offers, must regard all these
attitudes towards mysticism as ill-informed, to say
the least. 'You will have to learn through that most
banal of all things,' says the Sufi to the would-be
student, 'you must learn through ordinary life.' And
he is likely to have nothing to say to people looking
for excitements and sensational experiences. A
dervish on a journey met a yogi who was trying to
plumb the secrets of the animal kingdom. The dervish
said that a fish had once saved his life, and the
yogi exclaimed: 'In all my years of meditation and
discipline I have never approached such depths of
knowledge! May I travel with you?' After some
days the yogi said: 'Now that we know each other
better, do please tell me how the fish saved your
life?' The dervish replied: 'Now that we know each
other better, I doubt whether it is any use telling
you, but I will: I had not eaten for three days, and
I was starving. That fish saved my life all right.'

Sufism works through such jokes as this one,
books, lectures, all sorts of everyday activities.
A Sufi can be a scientist, a politician, a poet, a
housewife, the usherette in the cinema and may
never be known as one, since Sufism may have
nothing to do with outward appearance and behavior.
It is in operation all the time, all over the world,
in every country, sometimes openly, sometimes
not. The people offering it can be well-known, as
it were, beating a drum to say, 'We are here.' Or
they may teach secretly.

But what, you ask, are they teaching? What is
Sufism? In a Persian dictionary, the entry for Sufi
goes, in rhyme: 'Sufi chist? Sufi Sufi'st. .. "A Sufi
is a Sufi.' This is not a form of coyness but an
acknowledgement of the difficulty of defining something
that must be experienced and in a different
way for every person according to his or her state
of development. 'God is love' can be the highest
experience man can have, or some words scrawled
on a poster carried by a poor old tramp -- in between
are a thousand levels of experience. How to guide
the student from one level to the next is the knowledge
of the Teacher.

'Man must develop by his own effort, toward
growth of an evolutionary nature, stabilizing his
consciousness. He has within him an essence, initially
tiny, shining, precious. Development depends
upon man, but must start through a teacher. When
the mind is cultivated correctly and suitably, the
consciousness is translated to a sublime plane.'
(from The Sufis by Idries Shah). As Robert Graves
wrote in his introduction to this book: 'The earliest
known theory of conscious evolution is of Sufi origin....
The child's slow progress into manhood or
womanhood figures as only a stage in his development
... for which the dynamic force is love, not
either asceticism or the intellect.'

Now, all this is at a far remove from the sort of
thinking regarded by us as 'rational.' But it is no
odder than things we do believe or institutions we
take for granted. In the West we all live beside one
version or another of Christianity and believe, half
believe, or have to put up with some pretty bizarre
ideas. Perhaps the most useful thing I personally
have been invited to do in my own approach towards
Sufi study is to 'find out why you believe the things
you do believe; examine the bases of your ideas.'

Here is an approach to this philosophy that may
seem a long way around; it is to take a look at those
great Islamic civilizations that blossomed all over
the Near East, Spain, Central Asia, North and West
Africa, for a thousand years or more. In these,
Sufism was always a strong visible force, dervishes
being kings, soldiers, poets, astronomers, educators,
advisers, sages. Sufism was the core of Islam.

The contention is that the river of knowledge
'from beyond the stars' that has run since Adam,
through Noah and Abraham, and on through a hundred
wise men and prophets, ran also through
Jesus and then Mohammed. It is not a question of
one's being better or worse than another,
smaller or greater, but of these men's being
different aspects of the same Truth, or Way,
manifesting as Divine Messengers. Both started
world religions, both fed the inner heart of
religion. During early Christianity this inner
knowledge was available, then was lost, or went
underground. But it was able to survive the death
of Mohammed and his Companions and to
illuminate Islam wherever it took root.

But it is very hard for us to look in this direction
at all. Our history has made it almost impossible.
You can try this small experiment: Go down
to the nearest paperback-book shop, and leaf through
the first dozen textbooks on popular astronomy, the
history of art, meteorology, medicine, psychiatry,
archaeology. In each will be found versions of the
following: 'Between the decline of Greece and Copernicus,
science stagnated in superstition.' 'Those
temperate latitudes in which all civilization has
flowered.' 'Europe, the cradle of civilization … '
'Science was the creation of the Renaissance in Europe.'
'Before Freud the unconscious did not exist.'
'Jung's theory of the archetype .... ' A much trumpeted,
and very flattering, history of civilization,
on television, is the history of art in Europe --
with a few side-glances elsewhere.

This attitude is always implicit in our scholarship.
It is one of the great pillars of our thought;
but while Europe lay in the dark for centuries,
marvelous civilizations brought some sciences to
levels we have not approached -- medicine and psychiatry
among them. Individually, each one of us
may or may not be Christian; but like it or not, we
are steeped in Christian history. The centuries long
wars with Islam are done with; but the residual
mental blocks, the myopia, the parochialism, still
cripple our thinking. Nor is it only Islamic cultures
that suffer from our prejudices. When Copernicus
and Galileo discovered that the earth went
around the sun, this knowledge was not only a commonplace
in Islamic cultures, but, in Darkest Africa,
cultures that our scholars are only just beginning to
notice, let alone study, taught that the earth
was the sun's planet. Long before Lister had to
fight the medical hierarchy about germs and
infection, African witch doctors were using
antisepsis and other advanced medical techniques.

It is almost impossible for us to see Europe as
it was, a little dark provincial fringe to great civilizations
that sent emissaries, advisers, missionaries
out of the plenitude of their arts and
sciences to help the barbarians.

Then Europe came forward, in its particular
contribution to human knowledge, technology; and it
was the turn of the others to fall back. The newcomer,
like an adolescent, has had to believe that
he was the first to experience or to understand anything.

But already this insularity is beginning to
break down. When there has been an area of prejudice
in a culture, a dam in the mind, the time of its
dissolving is always exciting, one of sudden unexpected
advance. As one researcher put it: 'It is
exactly as if great heaps of treasure were lying
about in the open; but we were looking in another
direction, we were hypnotized by the words Greece
and Rome.'

But Sufism is not a study of past civilizations -
it must be contemporary, or it is nothing. Why is
it being offered again in the West now? For the
simplest of reasons -- Sufism works openly where it
can, silently when it must. Even fifty years ago,
the churches had so strong a hold on thought and
morals that the introduction of this ancient way of
thinking would have been impossible. But in an
Open Society, Sufism can be offered openly; and
perhaps we can now look calmly at the claim that it
is a philosophy that can be hostile to no true religion,
since all religions are the outer faces of an
inner truth. As for people like myself, unable to
admire organized religions of any kind, then this
philosophy shows where to look for answers to
questions put by society and by experience -- questions
not answered by the official purveyors of
knowledge, secular or sacred.

'Man has had the possibility of conscious development
for ten thousand years,' say the Sufis. This
thought shows itself differently in the claim that
man is woefully underused, undervalued, and does
not know his own capacities. I have believed this
all my life, and that the idea is central to Sufism is
one reason I was attracted to it. Put it this way: In
a circus, every child born to a certain family will
become a wonderful acrobat. Is this because these
children have “acrobats' genes" or because they are
expected to be acrobats? The implications shatter
our assumptions about education. I must have read
hundreds of manuscripts in my time. Very early I
saw that these authors have every bit as much talent
as I have: All writers' early efforts are very
similar. But some writers go on writing, others
fall out: We live in a society where we all think in
terms of success or failure. I am sure that the
manifold talents, creativity, inventiveness of young
children -- who can sing and dance and draw and tell
tales and make verses and whose view of life is so
very clear and direct -- could go on into adult life
and not disappear, as tends to happen in our system
of education.

We see as quite different the process of intense
concentration of the scientist or artist that results
in flashes of extraordinary achievement, telepathy,
second sight, hunches, the intimations of dreams ...
but these are seen by the Sufis as manifestations of
the same thing, the first stirrings of this evolving
part of humanity. But it is easy to waste this potential,
for instance, by using drugs to stimulate the
brain or by self-induced ecstacies. 'It is only those
who taste, who can know,' say the Sufis, reiterating
that this experience is not a question of intellectual

Every person comes to a point when the need
is felt for further inner growth. Then it is wise to
look for the Guide, the Teacher, the Exemplar, the
figure central to Sufism, who shows others what is
possible. This person, the product of a certain kind
of varied and intensive education, will be master
not of one trade but of a dozen, learned through
pressures of necessity, created by the people by
whom he has been surrounded from birth, people
whose duty it is to see that he should fulfill all his
capacities. The child will be protected from the
narrowing and littling of ordinary education, from
the idea that a person can be a tinker or a tailor
but not both, or if both, then he is to be
congratulated on his versatility.

In Sufism the notion of 'two cultures' is nonexistent;
the idea that the arts and the sciences must be
hostile, absurd. Of the great figures who have successfully
combined mathematics and poetry (and
much else), perhaps Omar Khayyam is best known
in the West. The products of Sufi schools are
people who are prodigies from our point of view.
Our forms of education produce nothing like them.
People who, in our violent time, get whirled out of
their little ruts through different countries, climates,
ideas, languages, who have had to learn to
earn their living in varied ways, who lose the arrogance
of class and race are more likely to approach
the Sufi idea of the whole man.

Idries Shah, who is bringing Sufism into the West
now, is the product of this intensively varied education.
He has been living in Britain for fifteen
years and in that time has re-established Sufism
as a vital force. He exemplifies Sufic versatility.
For instance, he has just helped to decipher and to
have performed ancient Egyptian music unheard by
man for three and a half millenia. He has
patented scientific devices. He has been journalist,
explorer, traveler; has studied archaeology, geology,
economics, politics.

He writes books on travel, anthropology, magic,
Sufism, each unique in its field. He writes Sufic
fables and stories of his own. He has written a
prizewinning film script. He corresponds in Arabic,
Persian, English, French, Spanish with experts
in a dozen different fields. He is a husband,
the father of three, and runs, from his home, the
Institute for Cultural Research, which has hundreds
of members and is in vigorous operation. Two
years ago he started a publishing firm, which has
already put out a dozen books, all successful. But
he would say: 'Perhaps it is not me, but your ideas
about the possibilities of man that are extraordinary.'
And he discourages all those who approach
him with the idea of finding a 'guru.'

It does not do to say that a man, a book, an institution
is Sufism, which is essentially something
always the same, but taking different forms. 'If you
encounter two institutions calling themselves Sufic,
exactly the same, one of them must be a fake.'

Those who are likely to recognize a Sufic current
are those with noses for the fresh and the lively;
and this thing might be anything from a person,
a book, a sharply angled statement by a physicist
at a conference, the attitude of a politician, a new
trend in fashion, a poem, a play, a garden planted
and tended in a certain way. In every part of the
world, the forms of Sufism differ, since they are
shaped to fit the people living there. The way Sufism
is being taught in Britain now differs from
what happens in Morocco, Afghanistan, Greece,
South America; the teachers and the institutions
containing Sufism for this time are different from
those in the past, and always changing ... a far cry
from what our conditioning has taught us to call
'mysticism.' Before you can even start on Sufic
study, you must first try to 'learn how to learn' -and
everything is unexpected.

Sometimes, when we look back over our lives, we
may think: 'I learned more through that experience
than in all the rest of my life put together;' and the
experience may be a tough job of work, a phase of a
marriage, a serious love, an illness, a nervous
breakdown. This way of learning, a time of
crammed thoughtful living, is perhaps nearer to the
learning of the Sufi Way than any other. 

*Originally printed in Vogue, July, 1971; reprinted in 
The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West
An Anthology of New Writings By and About Idries Shah
Edited by Leonard Lewin
Keysign Press, Boulder, Colorado (1972)

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Commanding Self

On Sufism and Idries Shah's 
The Commanding Self (1994) 
By Doris Lessing

Most people's associations with the word "Sufi" go something like this: dancing dervishes; disreputable money-hungry "gurus"; exciting Oriental music, like Ravel's "Bolero" (which did, in fact, originate as a Sufi chant to be used for specific and exact purposes); and peculiarly irritating "disciples" who use "meaningful" phrases and a vague unworldliness like badges of superiority. This mishmash seems suspect because of an association with Islam: for while Islam is as varied as Christianity, and most Moslems no more fanatic than an average Christian, recent events have revived sets of mind reminiscent of the hundreds of years of wars against the dreaded Saracen. Even in respectable reference books Sufism is described as a mystical Moslem sect, but Sufis claim that their "way," or discipline, predates Islam, and is as old as humanity itself, is coeval with humankind's beginnings, is the inner core of every religion. We are talking here not of a word or even a vocabulary but a way of looking at life, and at the human story. Sufism is not to be associated with any one practice or belief, for Sufis may use any relevant method to convey their message and often without ever using the words "mysticism," "Sufism," "spirituality." This approach does disappoint people looking for excitement or intoxication.

It is not so difficult to say what Sufism is not, but hard to say what it is, particularly when questions are put in the hope of eliciting definitive replies: Is it this? or is it that? The Sufi Way, or Path, is fluid and always changing. Every fresh introduction of it into societies (such as Central Asia and the Middle East) where it is already familiar and part of the culture, or into those where it is not, such as the West now, involve fresh, or freshly presented traditional material, a new form or framework, and usually new people. The Sufi Teacher, or Exemplar, is central to Sufism.. For this time now in the West it is Idries Shah, who is the author of this book. Sufi sayings or aphorisms hint at the difficulties. "Speak to everyone according to his (or her) understanding." "He who tastes, knows." "There is a change of perception with every new stage of the road." Which is to say that people involved with the study may see it all--must see it all--differently at different times. This can be summarized thus: the phrase "God is Love" may be graffiti on a wall, or the moment of understanding of the highest spiritual truth, with a thousand different stages of understanding between.

At the start a student will almost certainly associate Sufism with religious or cults she or he is already familiar with. But "Learning How to Learn" (the title of one of Shah's books) means shedding ideas you begin with and allowing yourself to understand what exactly is being offered. This could be a definition of the Sufi Way.

During the last thirty years or so Idries Shah has been introducing Sufism into the West. Which is not to say that Sufism has not been in the West, but has not been openly offered, in this way, as a major contribution to thought. He is a representative of an ancient family traditionally recognized within his culture as the custodian of this ancient spiritual tradition. He is only the most recent in a long line. His father, for instance, was The Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, an equally extraordinary man, who represented India and Afghanistan at different times as a diplomat, and in cultural institutions designed to bridge the gap between West and East, and was a writer on religious and cultural questions, and a traveler whose books still fascinate. Idries Shah has lived in Britain since the Fifties. His mother was a Scots girl who thought she was marrying a wild Afghan tribesman, but she found the truth to be somewhat more complicated. She, too, has written memoirs about a life in courts and embassies. The followers of the Sufi Way number millions, and are to be found all over the world. The analogy with the Agha Khan is an easy but misleading one.

When Idries Shah began his work, his difficulty was, as it is for all reintroducers of Sufism, that previous manifestations have left behind "husks" of cults, semi-religions and practices (like dervish dancing) which were designed to be appropriate for their times. The last thing real Sufis want is to encourage people modeling themselves on the past. The world is full of deluded "Sufis" who are replicas of medieval persons. For Sufis have always been in the forefront of their times, and have often anticipated our discoveries. They were talking about evolution, the structure of the atom, the circulation of the blood, and psychological laws, we think of as our discoveries, centuries ago. This kind of claim has attracted academics, and books on Sufism pour from the presses. Nearly all are by non-Sufis, and are, say Sufis, valueless except to those satisfied by their own processes of analysis. What Sufis offer is learning, through experience. 

But if Sufism is not to be understood by people not involved in the process of becoming Sufis, or working with Sufis, what hope is there for outside enquirers; what use is a book like this one? But this is exactly where The Commanding Self comes in, and other books Idries Shah has been publishing which are part of a "course," if you like, and designed to introduce the interested to this way of looking at life, as well as teaching students. An analogy they use is that a dried peach is not a peach, but may prepare you to recognize fresh peaches when at last you eat one.

Idries Shah writes in English. He has caused to be published or published himself Sufi classics considered still relevant, or mixed his own work with material from the past. All Sufi teachers have done this. It is hard to categorize Shah's books, or any Sufi book. They are not academic, nor like any genre we are familiar with. His books are very varied in style and method. Some Sufi books are written by the "scatter" method, where the material is arranged in such a way that "impacts" reach the reader by-passing the conditioned self, which is such a very efficient censor. A good example of "scatter" is in The Sufis, the book in which Shah introduced the new appearance of the Sufi Way in the West. People ask, "Does Sufism have a bible?" No, it cannot, because of their continual updating of the material, but this book is for our time a classic, a compendium of information, historical material, stories and poems and jokes. It is the book I found when looking thirty odd years ago for a teacher and a teaching. Reading it was the most remarkable experience of my life. Ideas, aspirations, intuitions, discoveries I had thought I could share with no one else were here, in this book. Why was I looking at all? I had reached the end of some road, and knew it: specifically, I had exhausted what I have described as "the intellectual package" of our time, which consists of material, both philosophic and that assumption of our culture that creature comforts must be everyone's chief aim in life; then, belief in one of the churches of Marxism; a belief that politics or a political party will solve everything; science in the place of God. I was by no means the only one to have tired of this "package." In my case it was writing The Golden Notebook that taught me I must look again.

The fact that we in the West are conditioned to material accumulation and to a belief that we are entitled to anything we may happen to want are barriers to understanding the Sufis. It is common for persons hearing about "mysticism" for the first time--as in my case, at the age of forty or so--to assume that all they have to do is demand it and it must be theirs by right. And many are put off when they hear, "Nearly everyone is fitted to contribute to the advancement of humanity," and not, "You want it? Fine, here it is." A hint of the Sufi attitude to evolution is conveyed in this miniature tale: a caterpillar is told that one day it will be a beautiful butterfly. "Show me now," says the caterpillar, "while I am crawling up this tree."

It takes a long time, perhaps years, to understand the Sufi claim that emotionalism may be a barrier. This is put in the Mulla Nasrudin joke, thus: Nasrudin summons the doctor. "My temperature is over 110." "You don't need me," says the doctor. "Call the fire engine." Nasrudin is a joke figure created by the Sufis to carry their message across frontiers, and many of our jokes originated in the Nasrudin corpus. We value emotions and emotionalism, an attitude caricatured in the television serial Star Trek. Mr. Spock is deficient because he has no emotions, but real people have emotions and are on a higher level. But emotion with us is a word that lumps together everything from puppy warmth to the highest reaches of intuition.

Idries Shah says that his task is first of all to supply information to a culture starved of it, information that is about a genuine mystical tradition. It is an astonishing fact, and one that I first encountered thirty years ago that someone may have gone through many years of our education or--as in my case--be pretty well read within our own literary tradition, and yet have not heard much more about the great spiritual traditions than that they exist. Yet they have all deeply influenced the cultures they are part of. At the best we may have read St. John of the Cross and The Cloud of the Unknowing, and if so, we have been given an inkling of what a real mystical tradition may be. But it is hardly a rare sight in our time to see a highly educated person encountering some cult or "guru" and losing all balance because unfamiliar and exciting material is rushing into an area of their brains left uncultivated, and so they have no defenses. They throw over their own traditions as if they have no value at all, and hasten to lose themselves in an ashram or cult (of which there are dozens, all over the world) amazing better-balanced onlookers who do not understand how these besotted ones have apparently learned nothing at all about how to assess people, have lost ordinary common sense.

In Moslem countries Sufis and Sufism are not exotics. The ideas and themes are part of the culture. Sometimes great Sufi classics are the foundations of a literature--in Iran,. for instance, with Hafiz, and Sanai, Sa'adi and Attar. A Thousand and One Arabian Nights originated with the Sufis. There are many other wonderful books hardly known to us in the West. The Sufis say that it took eight hundred years of hard and often dangerous work to get Islam to accept the Sufi claim. These are people who take a very long view: they complain that Westerners think we are showing concern for the future if we think of the welfare of our children.

This storyteller must confess that the Sufi use of tale and anecdote and poems and jokes has been and is a most intense delight. This body of literary material, described by them as the most valuable of the treasures in the human heritage is too varied to be described here. Some tales go back thousands of years. Idries Shah's Tales of the Dervishes offers samples of this richness. Others are new-coined. Shah has created some. It takes time to even begin to appreciate what a range and depth is there. When the Sufis claim they use stories to teach, our associations with the words "teach" and "teacher" limit understanding. Their insistence that the inculcation of a simple morality of an ethic is a very low-level stage of instruction begins to explain something of their scope. A real teaching story, whether thousands of years old, or new, goes far beyond the parables that are still part of our culture. A parable has a simple message: this means that. But in a Sufi teaching story, there may be layers of meaning, some of them not to be verbalized. Current ways of "teaching" literature in schools and universities may make it difficult for literary people to approach Sufi literature as it should be: Sufis do not pull apart a tale to find its meaning, but cite the case of the child who has dismantled a fly and, left with a heap of wings, a head, legs, asks "Where is the fly?" In other words, a student learns to use the mind in ways unfamiliar to us. They "soak themselves" in the material. They ignore the analytical approach, and the practice of memorizing and regurgitating. The meaning of a Sufi tale comes through contemplation, and may take years.

I particularly like the unsentimental Sufi view of life: "A tortoise carries a stranded scorpion across a river on its back. The scorpion stings the tortoise, who indignantly protests, 'My nature is to be helpful. I have helped you and now you sting me.' 'My friend,' says the scorpion, 'your nature is to be helpful: Mine is to sting. Why do you seek to transform your nature into a virtue and mine into villainy?'" With us, this tale is often quoted as an example of the wickedness of the scorpion and the helplessness of the tortoise. Poor little me. But these are psychologically sophisticated people. That people may enjoy suffering has only recently been accepted by us. Or that people may be brainwashed. Or that we are easily conditioned. Psychology is very much a "language" of our time. And so in this time it is often within this framework that they teach.

A Perfumed Scorpion (by Idries Shah) for instance. I have found nothing as subtle, comprehensive, perceptive and often surprising anywhere else, as the Sufi knowledge about the nature of the human being. Which may be abrasive. In one of the exchanges in this book which are traditionally used by Sufis to illustrate problems, the questioner asks about prayer. The answer: "Prayer depends on knowing how to pray and what it is for. The usual idea of prayer is merely emotional and performs a conditioning function." There are no simple messages here. The Sufis do not offer an indoctrination course. They say that our demand, often an unconscious one, to be indoctrinated and given "belief" is a barrier to what they have to offer. They insist, decade in and decade out--and always have done--that all human societies are based upon, and their continuity and growth reinforced by, the use of hope, fear and repetition. This structure is not visible to the majority of people, but it is employed in every type of organization, whether tribal, national, political, religious, recreational, educational or any other. "Because everyone is accustomed to being manipulated by hope and fear, because everyone assumes that repetition is necessary, the possible progress in analyzing this situation is virtually at a halt."

"The Commanding Self" is a Sufi technical term for the false personality, which is made up of what a culture puts into a person--parents, schools, the zeitgeist. This false self is an enemy which has to be recognized for what it is and then by-passed (not destroyed) if the Sufi understanding is to be received.

When I first read the Sufi contention that I am mere concoction of transient influences. I felt liberated, as if at last hearing news I had been waiting for. I know some people find it a threat. "What, me, a mere play of shadows? But there are more and more people who, perhaps because of the savage times we live in, which challenge us so directly, perhaps because of the way we all move about, forced to compare different cultures and to see ourselves as products of our own, welcome the news that what we really are is not what is to be seen, but is "something else," and "somewhere else." If our real self is initially only a "tiny shining precious thing," then it is capable of infinite expansion. The picture on the cover of the book is of a very ancient representation of the commanding self, like an angry biting lurid threatened, and threatening, animal. Some of us may be tempted to see this nasty beast as, too, an illustration of the frightening angers and paranoia of the world now.

Our current mind-set, which is a passionately or dogmatically defended atheism, does not deter the Sufis, who say that it is only a different manifestation of the religious impulse, almost a religion in its own right.

-- Doris Lessing (1994)

Inclusion and Exclusion

Prologue to Knowing How To Know
by Idries Shah
(published posthumously in 1998)

We are all interested in spiritual, psychological and social questions, and particularly in our personal problems, but in order to understand how we should learn, what we must know, we must have information.

The first important principle which we must understand is that there are two pre-eminent concepts; one is inclusion and the other is exclusion. Now this is extremely important – what we include in our studies, and what we exclude from our studies.

Although this concept is not instantly familiar in this form to most people, they can usually understand that it is necessary. However they have often made certain mistakes. These mistakes have been made by people who are studying higher things, and also by the culture in general.

The mistakes arise from not understanding or not emphasising correctly what is inclusion and what is exclusion. And although that error is not hard to correct, it has great consequences. Therefore we must clear it away, right at the beginning.

We start, simply, by giving some definitions of this problem.

I will first give you an example of how people ordinarily imagine ‘inclusion and exclusion’ is carried out. Religionists, (notice that I do not say ‘spiritual people’) for example, attempt to avoid things which are unpleasant, undesirable, and which are not permitted by their religion. This is exclusion: ‘I will exclude myself from the world. I will exclude myself from contact with bad people. I will exclude myself from the study of things which are not religious.’

This is familiar, traditional exclusion. When you are among this kind of religious people, you will find that you are forbidden to study certain things, or to go to certain places, or to carry out certain activities – even to think certain things .. .

That is exclusion. Therefore, for example, if you are a good monotheist, you are expected not to go into an idol temple and ring their bells – you must exclude that form of ritual, and you must include your own form instead. Even in the case of idol-temples, where I have seen statues of the Virgin Mary and Father Christmas included: on making enquiries I have been told that the priests of this temple – while very permissive about images – would not permit, say, the removal of idols . . . So this is exclusion.

This is not a strange concept to any of us, no matter what our culture is; it is standard procedure in all countries to include in this way and exclude in that. Yet people do not think of it in these terms.

If we go back to the origin of the reason for inclusion and exclusion, we find that the problem arises where there was in the past a different definition of an enterprise from the one which we understand today.

In other words, the activity has changed because the definition has changed. We must, therefore, go back to an earlier stage in order to understand how we can best employ exclusion and inclusion in our studies. When we do this, we immediately face a problem.

The problem is that those people who have become accustomed to including and excluding in a mechanical way will imagine that we are against them, or that we are opposing them. This is not our intention, however.  We are fortunate in some respects to be operating in the present-day world, the actual world. I would like to draw your attention to our good fortune. Thus, when I talk about exclusion and inclusion, I am able to refer you to the modern methods of studying any subject. The difference is that I am trying to introduce into this type of study the very ancient methods which have been lost, the method of specialisation. Specialisation is a modern phenomenon, but it is also a very ancient one. It had for long been lost. We are trying to specialise. As a small example, we can say that if we want to study something we must exclude.

If, for instance, we want to study Spanish we must exclude French, and we must include Spanish. If we want to talk in this room, we must exclude the children and the noise and we must `include’ the walls of the room and the language in which we are speaking; these are part of the necessities of the situation.

This is in fact a specialisation. We are narrowing down in order to see more clearly.  There is another method, however — still very well established in the mind of modern man. The method to which I refer is called, in modern terminology, ‘conditioning’.

Conditioning is not just specialising; it is becoming trained to certain responses so that one cannot think flexibly. We see the faults and the problems produced by this in political, religious and social life everywhere in the world today.

People become obsessed; an idea gets into their heads and as a result they become less capable, less — not more — able to learn. 
They are capable only of acting and feeling, emotions and intellect, and they are not capable of learning deeper knowledge.

We can help to restore to people the flexibility of specialisation and changing of focus. This is quite a different method of study from that which is familiar to most people today.

In the modern world we are in a paradoxical situation; because although in theory man knows that he can extend his attention to something and then remove it, he very often does not do so. In many areas he does not look at something and then detach from it, and look at something else.

Once he has found something to interest himself in, he cannot detach himself from it efficiently, and therefore he cannot be objective. Note that, in most if not all languages, we have words like ‘objectivity’ which leads people to imagine that they have it, or can easily use it. That is equivalent (in reality if not in theory) to saying ‘I know the word “gold”, so I am rich.’

The consequences of this lack of flexibility surround us everywhere, in every country, in every culture, and this lack of flexibility is a major danger to the existence of humanity. It can be said that man may even destroy himself in consequence. Such is the degree of importance which this matter possesses.

I would like to invite your attention to the consequences of this mentality in a situation such as that which I am trying to develop. 

What has happened on many occasions is that a lot of people come and they want to study, they want to learn, they want to organise, they want to develop themselves; and they say to me, ‘Give me the guidance, give me the material, give me the information, give me this, give me that.’

If I gave them those things, (or such of them as I might be able to) while they were suffering from this disease of obsessing themselves, I would be their worst enemy.

It is for this reason that you will probably have read that some of the stories which I have published make this point; they illustrate this seeming paradox that I can be your enemy if I give you something. This may be strange to our thinking, foreign to our ordinary thinking, but it is very true.

You have seen the operation of this malaise yourselves already in your lives, and therefore it is not necessary for me to emphasise it: but it would be worthwhile thinking about it.

If you do, I think you will agree with me that you have seen the consequences of this yourselves in past years.

Fortunately the malaise is not irreversible. It can be reversed: but only if we have the right conditions and the right people involved in the effort. But we cannot say that we have the medicine, or the remedy, for everybody in the world, on demand, and we cannot say that we can reverse the tendency in five minutes, and we cannot say that we can do this without perhaps some discomfort.

We must say these things so as to be realistic, and in order to tell the truth.

We are not dealing in promises and imagination; we are operating an enterprise. Although it is not romantic to talk in this way, (and most people demand, as their ‘price’ for giving attention, some degree of romanticism and imagination) we are interested in the results, and let other people be interested in fantasies. There are plenty of people who are emotionally-minded. We must be serious.

And we must also remember that many people are, effectively, asleep, dreaming romantic dreams. These people will always oppose this approach, dislike it, as they always have; and undoubtedly we are spoiling their amusement: or interrupting their dream.

They will not, however, realise that this is their condition, and they will therefore oppose these ideas, as always, on other grounds. This helps the cause of sleep, and therefore it is important for us to remain calm, and to recognise the disease. When a person has a disease, you do not attack him, but neither do you worry about all that he is saying.

If a man is in pain, or is in a fantasy world, you do not love him nor do you hate him, for that. You do not take very great notice or pay unbalanced attention to what a certain kind of sick person is saying or doing; because he is not capable of understanding you, and therefore you are in a false position if you react emotionally or even intellectually to his behaviour. It is very important to remember that. Remain calm, above all.

Therefore you will see that charity and kindness towards other people is not a virtue, it is a necessity — a necessity of the situation. It comes from a true diagnosis of the reality, and not directly from a high spiritual source at all. Charity and kindness is not a high quality, it is a realistic quality, and a necessary one. It stems from duty, sympathy and measure.

I invite your attention to the historical situation in which a teacher is dealing with a primitive people who have no sense of the situation, and no diagnostic capacities.

This teacher must appeal to them to be charitable and to try to be objective; he must initially appeal to them emotionally. He may represent charity as a virtue to them, because they do not understand anything else. But this is a primitive stage before the development of understanding. You do not need to be emotionally charitable towards a diseased person, a sick person, if you are a doctor. If you can see he is ill, you don’t need to say, ‘it is for the sake of God that I am being kind to him’.

It is for the sake of man that you are being kind to him; it is for the sake of the necessity that you are being kind to him.

If a man is suffering from pain, and he attacks you because he has got this terrible pain, you do not say, ‘I will not hit back because I am a religious man.’ You say, ‘I am a doctor, I know what’s wrong with him. My emotions are not involved and I must, from duty, try to help him’. You have here gone one stage beyond the primitive, and this is a very important argument, because most of the people in this world are still being taught as if they were primitive people.
They are being told: be charitable, be understanding, it is divine. They are thus being treated as if they were primitive savages: regressed, even, to an earlier stage than they were before. But they’re not so primitive any more: their supposed mentors are in fact treating them with something like contempt.

As a result they are easily confused. Because they are really capable of understanding this sleep, this narcoleptic malaise, they should be told about it on that level. This is the shortcoming of certain forms of allegedly spiritual instruction, which continue to treat people as if they were primitive tribalists living one, two or more thousand years ago.

And it is because the audience does not correspond in its cultural level with those who are teaching it, that very little progress can be made. As an example, I will tell you quite plainly that you will find, in certain forms of supposedly spiritual teachings, the audience are given promises and treated to threats. They are told, `If you do this, it will be good for you; if you do that it will be bad for you.’ And they are alternately frightened and promised wonderful things. Now this is the most primitive way of dealing with human beings, and it can indeed be necessary with a primitive community. It is not necessary for all members of all the communities of today. This is not to say that there is not a place for threat or promise; but only a place, and a specific one at that.

It is for that reason that a very famous woman, Rabia, one of the saints of our tradition, has left us a very beautiful prayer. She said, ‘Oh God, if I worship You from fear of Hell, then put me in Hell, and if I worship You from desire for Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.’ This is what that prayer means. That she is not doing something to please or displease God, she is doing it for another reason: because she understands something. This is a very important principle, and it brings us to a higher level than the generally familiar, primitive version of religion.

So you will see that if we are dealing with a primitive individual or community, we may well use threat and promise. But where we are dealing with a more advanced community, if we use these methods of fear and hope too strongly, we will actually regress the person to a more primitive condition even if he or she has already passed that stage; we will not only be doing such a person no good, we will be doing damage to a person who is now trained to respond mainly to fear and hope.

This fact has been known, of course, for many thousands of years, and has been taught for as long a period of time. But there have always been large populations of the world which have been at some time ignorant of it.

Fortunately at this time, with the development of sociological and psychological knowledge and experimentation, there is a great deal of material published not by us but by experts all over the world which verifies and proves this point, and there is now no need to rely on our unsupported word for this information.

We are able to direct your attention to the scientific work which has been done in this field. This is a very great advantage which we have, which we would not have had even one hundred years ago, because the research material was not then available.

Therefore we must be thankful and grateful to the scientists who have placed these instruments in our hands, and we should not imagine that there is some conflict between us and the scientific method and scientific work.

We should also note in passing that such has been the power of the scientific revelations in the late twentieth century on this subject that even the traditionalistic religious people must take account of it, must take notice of this, and they must adjust their teaching in response to this scientific knowledge, otherwise their form of training will die out.

Now there was a very famous Sufi called Muhiyuddin Ibn el Arabi in Spain who pointed out in his writings that when you are teaching somebody something, you must first assess the level of that person, and you must have different circles of people in accordance with their capacity to understand.

For saying this, Ibn el Arabi was very seriously criticised, because he was ‘being unfair’ and people said: ‘There is no monopoly of truth. Tell the truth to everybody and they will understand.’

It is only in the last few decades, in the last few years, that Ibn el Arabi’s theory has been understood properly. We have been able to verify it because we know that you must speak to everybody in accordance with his understanding, otherwise you may be doing damage.

Now we can return to exclusion and inclusion. You will be aware that in traditional spiritual teaching we are told that we must make sacrifices, and we must hold back from gaining certain things which we want, we must not be over-ambitious. We must be considerate to other people, we must not make a great noise and must avoid pride, and so on. These are some of the virtues which we are expected to cultivate. There is a profound psychological reason for trying to cultivate these abilities.

This is what we must now understand: that these virtues which we are supposed to cultivate have a scientific background, and they are necessary, not for our social happiness, but for our psychological integrity.

When this has not been fully explained, and when it is not understood, there will be serious mistakes in the development of a group of people. It is not rare to find such diseases – in many if not all religious organisations. For example, people behave as though they are very humble externally, yet this is just a mask, this is a persona.

It happens when people judge others by their behaviour; ‘This man is very simple, he only eats one meal a day: therefore he must be good’. They judge him externally, and that is because we have been taught to judge externally. How does he behave, and not ‘what is he really like?’ It is this confused kind of mind which imagines that ‘miracles’ presuppose divine guidance, contact or the rest.

To refer again to the woman Sufi Rabia: when people claimed that onions had appeared by a miracle in her kitchen, she said, `My Lord is not a green grocer!’

Here is another important example: the idea of sacrifice and service. These are two important necessities for humankind. If they become diseases, if they become obsessions, then they are destructive to humans.

As an example: a week or two ago I was at a meeting where a lecture was given by a very famous religious figure in London, a man who has been teaching and preaching for fifty years.

He was constantly asking his audience to be humble and to repent and to sacrifice and to feel guilty, and the result was that they were all extremely unhappy because they had already sacrificed, they had already felt guilty, they had already served as much as they could, and they didn’t know what more to do.

But he was just going on like a recording — saying ‘You must suffer, you must sacrifice, you must be humble’, as if he were a doctor giving an aspirin to somebody and telling him that he must have 50 aspirins, 100 aspirins, 200 aspirins.

But too many aspirin tablets will kill you in the end! Any psychologist will be able to tell you that the people who are the audience of that religious man, his followers, have been conditioned into feeling unhappiness every time they meet him. Until he tells them that all will be well: is this a religious objective, or is it not?

There is another teacher of this sort, who is doing the reverse. He collects large numbers of people together, and he makes them feel happy by saying pleasant things to them, by telling them that everything is all right, and all they have to do is this, that and the other and they will be happy and successful — and they love him, and they feel very happy.

But unfortunately if you study them you find that they have become extremely inefficient and useless people. All they have is a sensation that they are happy. Now if this is what you seek, then that is the man to follow. But all he is really doing is mental engineering.

He is an engineer, just like the first man of whom I spoke was an engineer.

In both cases these gentlemen are excluding certain things and including certain things. But unfortunately the mixture which each has ended up with is a very unsuitable one, although nobody will blame them. That is one of the serious problems, that once people believe in something or somebody, they will never reproach or blame the person who is manipulating them, because they are unaware that any manipulation is being carried out.

Now you must note at this point that I have attacked what people imagine (quite erroneously) to be the very basis of the so-called spiritual teaching of almost the entire world, and I cannot hope to attack people in this manner without producing a very savage reaction.

But I would like you to remember that what the majority believes is not necessarily the truth.

This brings us to the point that it is not only a question of inclusion and exclusion, but it is: what are we including and what are we excluding? We must be specific as to what things it is necessary to exclude.

At this point we must say that the things which we include and the things which we exclude are offered to you to study and to experiment with, for the purposes of familiarisation. We cannot prove that the things which we include and the things which we exclude are different or superior, we can only say we offer them for study.

It is for this reason that we cannot convert you to a belief in what we are doing. And it is for this reason also that we can never be called a cult of any kind; because by definition we do not expect belief.

Those people who call us a cult are only showing their own ignorance of what a cult is. It is interesting to notice that the people who imagine that we are a cult are the people in the developed countries of the West, who have not yet become aware of the scientific research on this subject carried out by their own specialists. In the East we are not considered to be a cult. There are, of course, both in the East and the West, cults which use our name and imagine that they are Sufic. I exclude these, for they are obvious for what they are to all sensible people.

Our imitators are criticised in the West, and so they should be. We suffer from this disability, that what we are doing is so unfamiliar to this culture, which has not yet reached a knowledge of its own discoveries, that we are at a disadvantage, still.

As a matter of interest, I will illustrate this. I have here a list of more than 20 international authorities in literature, philosophy, science, and so on. All these authorities, some of whom are professors and some of whom are heads of departments in universities, and some of whom are respected individuals of the greatest importance in their own countries — all these people are writing chapters for a book on Sufism.

There are Cabinet Ministers, ambassadors, ministers; some are millionaires, some are commercial people, all of them are what is called, in English, household names. Everybody knows them as people of great achievement, greatly respected and of great calibre and importance. These people are all familiar with, and know a great deal about, the history and development and value of Sufism.
Some of them are Turks, some are Persians, some Pakistanis, some are Indians, some are Arabs from Egypt, of Iraq, from Syria, from Jordan, from the Lebanon, from North Africa and the Sudan, not to mention countries like Afghanistan. One of them is the Chief Justice of India, that is to say, he is the most important judge in India, and another one is a Christian ecclesiastic of the Coptic Church of Egypt; another is a hermit of India. Many of these people are not Moslems. They are not influenced by money or propaganda; they have their own communities, their own achievements, and so on. To each one of these people the Sufi history, philosophy and culture is well known, respected and understood. No such equivalent can be found in the West.


There was a peasant working in a field ploughing the ground with his horse, when a general in the army was going along the road beside the field. His horse got a stone in its shoe and became lame. The general, being accustomed to authority, shouted to the peasant:

`Hey, you, come here, and give me that horse’, and the peasant came to him and said, ‘Why should I give you my horse?’

The general said, ‘My horse is lame, with a stone in his hoof .' 

The peasant replied, ‘Who are you, that I should give you my horse? If I give you this horse, then I will be nothing, I will lose all my money, I won’t be able to do anything. I’m not going to give you my horse; my horse is my life.’

And the general said, ‘I am a general, don’t you understand?’

The peasant said: `What is a general?’

`A man in the army.’

Said the peasant: ‘Ah, now, I don’t know what a general is, but I know that when I was in the army, the sergeant was my chief, and if the sergeant told me to give him my horse I would give him the horse. But I don’t know who or what you are, because I never heard of your kind of people. If you want my horse, you go and get the sergeant, because I know whom to obey. I know that the man above me is the sergeant, but a general — God knows what a general is!’

The obvious ‘application’ of this story is that a man cannot see anything much higher, he can only see one degree higher and if he is just a peasant, a sergeant is like God to him.

That is perfectly true, but it is the crude moral. The interpretation I want to give you here is one of structure, that the man, the peasant, is working in a certain structure. The story is supposedly about hierarchy, but in fact it is concerned with structure.

The peasant has been in the army, so he has got two structures; one is the horse in the field. If he loses that horse he may die, or become penniless. The other structure is when the general mentions the army, he immediately understands the structure up to sergeant, and that is perfectly right for him, that he should work in that structure.

So it is structure I am talking about, structure and not hierarchy. The man received orders from somebody in the structure, and that was what he understood.

It is not sufficient for us to produce a structure in which to learn, and then to abandon that structure, and allow the people to continue studying in that structure for the rest of their lives. This would simply automatise them. It is for that reason we cannot have a mass movement. For that reason we must have an organic movement.

The difference between a mass movement and an organic movement is that a mass movement is composed of a mass of people, and an organic movement is more like a plant, in which messages are received when they are necessary and according to a certain requirement.

For example, if the plant needs more water it calls for water and water comes up from the roots to the stem and so on. With a mass movement you don’t get that, you just get `the mass wants to do something’. But a plant is, of course, a very delicate, complicated and varied thing. Not all of the plant needs all of the water at the same time, so it must be properly organised. And that is why we use the term organic.

Many people talk about organic organisations, but they do not in fact have such an organisation, they have mass movements, and they call them organic. So you must not only listen to the words, you must look at the phenomenon. We have the phrase: Al mujazu qantarat al Haqiqa which means ‘The phenomenal is the channel to the Truth’.  That is the phrase which we use for this process.
We have forms in which we work. Now the form in which we work may be a vocational one, some kind of activity of manufacturing something. So we relate a number of people together, with an objective to manufacture something, it might be carpets, it might be tables, it might be artisan work. Providing that the people are carefully enough selected, and provided that the objective is correctly enough chosen, we will develop a remarkable result. This is the sort of operation which in the past has produced very great art and very great achievements in human culture. This is the type of operation in which we are working, the kind of operation of which you constantly hear rumours such as those about the Cathedral builders and about the great artisans of the past who had spiritual objectives as well as vocational ones.

It is this type of operation. However, in the West the information about who these people were and how they operated has been lost. People are anxious to know all about them. What they do not know is that if they did have this information, it would be of no value to them: it would only be museum- or catalogue-information.

The consequence of the attempts to rediscover these methods has been that people in the West have become emotionally aroused by art, because they can see and feel something in this art: and because emotion is so important to them, they have joined the two things together and they have become emotionally obsessed by art.

In doing this, they have lost the idea of method. Slowly, some people are rediscovering some of this, quite independently of us, and we are delighted to find that this is so.

I will give you an example which I used in a television broadcast, and which created a tremendous amount of interest, mainly in the form of letters.  The particular example which I chose and which created so much interest, was this: In the United States of America it was discovered that there is another way of teaching than the way which we have normally been accustomed to.

Other, that is, than the way of indoctrination and of tension, repetition and anxiety: ‘do it again, do it again’. And if this method of learning can be applied to human beings as it has been applied to animals, then our whole ideas about education will have to change.

I will summarise the method: It was discovered that if you take cats, and you teach them how to perform simple tasks, it takes a certain time because cats are difficult to teach; they have very little attention-capacity and they are not interested in trying to learn. 

They are not, therefore, taught very much.

A group of cats were taught certain things, to perform various tasks, and it was recorded how many hours it took to teach these cats.

Then the researchers took one of the ‘educated’ cats and they put it in a room with ‘uneducated’ cats, of the same age and of the same group, of the same family, and they discovered that the cats which had not been educated learned from being in the presence of the educated cat and watching it.

They learnt fifty times faster than the other cats. In other words, they learnt by association with the educated cats, only fifty times faster. The interesting thing is that when these experiments were first published in England, the man who wrote the article – the popularisation of this work – ended it with some significant words.
He said that it was possible that we are now learning why, in the Middle Ages, great artists and great thinkers used to have disciples with them all the time who simply adored the master and stayed with him, waited on him. They worked with him, and they learned; and they became masters in their turn, and therefore it may be that we are rediscovering a method of learning which is superior for certain purposes to our present-day methods of education.

Today, particularly in the Western world, it is difficult to apply this method of teaching to humans, and the reason for that is extremely important to observe.

The reason is that if you want to learn from a contemporary man or woman who is at the top of a profession, the only way you will be taught is by a mixture of propaganda and repetition and anxiety.

This will interrupt the learning system; he will not be content for you to learn from him as he goes about his daily work; you will not move into his house and live with him and learn from him, because this is considered to be inefficient. In fact, the truth is that the man who is an expert nowadays is too vain, too full of self-importance, and he insists first, generally speaking, on transferring that to you, his sense of self-importance. This interrupts the learning process.

But the cat which learnt didn’t feel anything – not ‘I am a great cat because I have learnt’ – therefore he could communicate. And so you will not find it easy to learn certain things from a Westerner nowadays because he just feels that his learning gives him some kind of importance.

This in turn is a barrier between you and him. And now you see the wisdom of the people in the past who taught us all, you and me, that we should have humility towards our teacher because this means that you are open to whatever he or she can teach. But unfortunately the tradition perhaps did not insist so strongly upon the humility of the actual teacher, and therefore the learning process has effectively been interrupted. We can, though, reclaim our heritage in this respect.

It will not have escaped your attention that the habit of people to sign their work and to become well-known as artists in their own name is a modern one; that none of the ancient artists put their name on their work. And the names of the people who produced the great objects of art of the past are totally unknown.

On a visit to India I seized the opportunity to talk to one or two spiritual teachers there. When I went to see one of them, a very important one, I was sitting with him when an American gentleman who had made great sacrifices to come there, was announced.
He said to this guru, as he is called, ‘Tell me, what is a guru? How can I recognise a guru? Who is the greatest guru in the world?’
That is all he wanted to know. In that respect this American gentleman’s questions were very much paralleled by my own post-bag. I get the same sort of questions every day from correspondents who read my books. And this Hindu gentleman, who was the guru, smiled and said to the American gentleman: `What I am going to say will not please you. I hope you have not come here to be pleased.’

And the American said: ‘Oh, no! I want the truth!’

`Very well, the answer is this. If I am walking through the jungle on a path and there is a stone in the path, and I trip and fall on that stone, and if I learn from that stone to look where I am going, that is my guru, because it has taught me something; not somebody who is going to teach me, not somebody who might teach you, but somebody who has taught you something. And if it is a stone, it is a stone. But you no doubt are thinking about human beings, about god-men.

`A guru is something or somebody from whom you have learnt something, not from whom you might or will or whom you respect or whom other people respect. If you can’t learn, the teacher, effectively, “does not exist”.’

Now we will return to the question of the structure and the learning.
There are real Sufic study-centres in many, if not most, areas of the world. They exist wherever they are needed, and have done so for many centuries.

These are organised deliberately. That is to say, we don’t use a Western system. Western and other primitive systems collect together people who are interested in a certain subject. It is then assumed that they are eligible and that they can learn. It is also imagined that someone who wants to do so, or who has been chosen by Heaven knows what process, will be able to teach them. Or even that, given enough effort or orientation, learning will come about.

To us that is an intolerably ‘oriental’ mentality. We regard this as oriental nonsense because you are impractical in this particular area: in this particular field you are not only impractical, but you imagine that you must not be practical, that this is not a practical area, and when I start to talk about practical things, you think that this is not spirituality, this is something else.

We find it difficult to work with such people. Naturally, the representatives of such thinking who come to Asia to study spiritual things are unsuitable to learn or to teach. Call it a paradox. It is a fact.

In other words, they go and look for the people who look like gurus to them. We don’t, generally, tell them because they don’t listen.
In fact I’ve tried to tell people but many don’t listen. Here is a very important point that you must remember: the people who advertise themselves and the people who have great visibility, people who make a lot of noise and people who are known to be great spiritual teachers, or the like – such people monopolise the communications media, the TV, the radio, the newspapers. They all have active, loud-mouthed disciples, which gives the impression that this is the spirituality of the East, because there are thousands of them going about.

If you go to places in India, for example, you will find thousands of Americans and English people, and Indians. In fact you may even find millions of Indians, because in India you can easily collect a crowd of one million people.

And everybody imagines that this must be a great spiritual teacher because he has got a million people listening to him at one time. But I must beg of you to note two things. One is that quantity is not the same as quality. Visibility is not the same as quality. And although I am saying this here, you must remember that if I say this in public, ten thousand important and respected people in England will shout me down and say that I am a liar and I am wrong and that it isn’t true and that I hate them; because they’re obsessed, and I am taking away their toys, their amusements.

But I am afraid it is the truth, nevertheless. It revolves just the same, as Galileo’s famous saying has it. But we continue to operate nevertheless. Now you will probably understand some of the reasons why we cannot go into competition with these people in the mass communications media or in forming a mass movement.

Now we will revert to this question of working format, of structures. We find it difficult to convince people in the West that generally we can work only with people who have been chosen as suitable for this work, not people who want to do it, even if they want to give up all their money and all their loyalty, and everything.
Suppose some people are not suitable: especially at any given moment. What are we going to do with them? I must remind you here that when we demand the right to choose the student, we are doing exactly the same as you are doing.

In your own educational institutions nobody has a right to study an advanced subject if they are illiterate. You choose a student according to capacities and previous education.

We insist on the same right. But do you see how far you have strayed from the path of your civilisation, your culture and your traditions in permitting the collection of people without any sort of preparation, without any sort of testing as to their capacity, in these extraordinary groups? Now there is a delicate point here. You may believe that in a democratic society everybody should have a chance to get some of what there is to obtain.

I agree. However, another mentality co-exists in Western people. It is, unfortunately, the mass-production mentality, the mentality which regards the human being not as a human being but as a product. This often lies behind modern thinking and you must be careful of it. The consequence of that mind-set: the factory mentality, is to think, ‘bring all these people into this room, tell them something, train them, and then push them out there as finished products’.

Our conception of humanity is far higher than that. To me you are individuals, not objects to be processed by me and go through my course, just as if you were all the same, so that you all get exactly the same, and you all come out exactly the same at the other end. 

This is for manufacturing sausages, this is not for developing humans.

Now, you might say, ‘well that is not very efficient, there must be some way of overcoming this problem. How do we deal with a mass of people?’ And I have good news for you, because I can tell you we have developed means to overcome this problem. But we have not solved it in your way, and therefore you must look at the way in which we do solve it.

Our solutions are not the same as your theoretical solutions would have been. They are determined by possibilities, not fantasies.
In the first place, we know that when a group of people becomes too large, it must be sub-divided, in order to maintain the organic nature of the group, of the movement of people. This is not a strange conception to you, you can understand it, and you can see its advantages. And in order to deal with, to work with a large number of people at one time, it has been necessary to overcome the evils, the drawbacks, the disadvantages, which exist when you concentrate all the people in a geographical area which is the Western method. Consequently, we have a different communication system.

In talking about this special communication system, we must be careful not to become excited or emotionally involved with it, because this will interrupt it.

It is in two parts. The first part is that we give a task or an assignment or an activity to a group of people, and we ask them to follow that activity until we ask them to stop it.

This activity which we have designated for them contains all the requirements for that group of people up to the point when we want to stop their activity, or change it.

This is the first thing – the work, the elements are contained in the ambience, in the activity: that is the first communication. The atmosphere in which they work is communicating with them through the objects with which they are working.

In other words, the situation in which we put the people contains the elements, or half the elements which they need.

It is just the same as if we sent you on a journey somewhere, and we gave you some food and that food was sufficient for that journey. This is the first communication element.

The second communication element is that when the group is operating correctly in accordance with the requirements and in the proper balance without too much emotion, and without too much intellectuality, there is a direct communication among all the people connected with this work, and that communication is telepathic.

Now the problem is this, that in general most people in study groups do not want to study, they want attention. And they want to go and see some guru, or they want to be told something fantastic, they want to feel something in their stomach, therefore they are not learning at all; they are a sociological phenomenon, and therefore they cannot learn, therefore they want to learn desperately, and therefore nothing will happen.

It is a vicious circle. We are dealing with a sociological phenomenon, in such instances, and not with a spiritual or a learning one at all.  You will have observed in the groups in which you have worked, all kinds of groups, that there are a lot of people who want to attract attention to themselves, or want to make trouble, or want psychotherapy, or want money, or want comfort, or want parents, or something, from the group. Now we say that you can obtain all these things in the ordinary world much better, much more easily and much more satisfactorily, and therefore we always encourage everybody to have proper friends, proper social relationships and proper outlets, all their lives, so that they do not come to depend on us for those things. And the reason for that is that otherwise you will convert your study group into a social organisation and its objectives will be lost, its objectives will become social.

This is what has happened to spiritual groupings all over the world. It always happens. We must try to prevent it. Now there is not an infinite variety of people nor is there an infinite variety of groups. They fall into various categories. The number of types of people and the number of types of group are limited, so this helps us, because if they were infinite, we would not be able to work with them.

Therefore we generally find in a group of people, people who are at different stages, or who really belong to different groups. They should be in another type of group instead of the group in which they are. Now, our concern is that the majority of people in a group should be suitable for that group. Some of them will not be suitable, but it doesn’t matter as long as the majority is suitable for that group of people. So what happens in actual fact is, that people form groups, and many of these groups have no hope of developing into anything at all. But the members of the group will not accept that, because it is too uncomfortable for them to accept it, but nevertheless it is the case, it is the condition.

Fortunately, groups which have not got the stability potential, which have not got the potential of stabilising themselves, generally break up relatively soon, relatively early, or we help them to break up if we can.

There are many easy ways of helping these groups to deteriorate, and one uses those methods. For example, when we get letters from these people which reveal that they are seeking emotional excitement; or they ask questions which show us that they are merely looking for a social stabilisation, we send them the kind of direction which will cause the group to dissolve through dissatisfaction.

In an exactly similar manner, when somebody comes to me looking for a guru, I always talk like a materialist who is not interested in humanity and I behave in a very frivolous manner. I tell jokes, and my visitor soon decides that I am not a serious person, and goes away painlessly.

The verdict: ‘This man is no good at all. Thank God I didn’t get into his hands.’ And therefore we are all happy. This is rather an oriental technique, because in the West people do not like to lose their gravity, they do not like to lose their sense of dignity, and therefore they have deprived themselves of this weapon, they have thrown away this tool.

Do you notice how we include and others (through the desire for dignity) exclude an activity?