A conversation with Idries Shah about Sufism and mystical
Moslems; why followers need gurus, breaking free of conditioning, and the
ecstatic experience as the lowest form of advanced knowledge. By
religious tradition growing out of the
when new cults are springing up, do you refuse to be a guru? You could
IS: There are a lot of reasons. But if we are talking about the teacher
who has disciples, it's because I feel no need for an admiring audience
to tell me how wonderful I am or to do what I say. I believe that the
guru needs his disciples. If he had a sufficient outlet for his desire
to be a big shot or his feeling of holiness or his wish to have others
on him, he wouldn't be a guru.
can and should. The West still has a vocation hang-up and has not yet
discovered this. Here, the only recognized achiever is an obsessive. In
the East we believe that a person who can't help doing a thing isn't
necessarily the best one to do it. A compulsive cookie baker may bake
EH: Are you saying that a person who feels that he must engage in a
profession is doing it because of some emotional need?
IS: I think this is very often the case, and it doesn't necessarily
produce the best professional. Show an ordinary person an obsessive and
he will believe you have shown him a dedicated and wonderful person –
provided he share his beliefs. If he doesn't, of course, he regards the
one obsessed as evil. Sufism regards this as a facile and untrue
posture. And if there is one consistency in the Sufi tradition, it is
that man must be in the world but not of the world. There is no role for
priest-king or guru.
EH: Then you have a negative opinion of all gurus.
his followers. I just don't regard it as a religious operation. I take a
guru to be a sort of psychotherapist. At the very best, he keeps people
quiet and polarized around him and gives some sort of meaning to their
EH: Librium might do the same thing.
room for what we might call "neighborhood psychotherapy" - the community
looking after its own? However, why it should be called a spiritual
rather baffles me.
One can't help getting the feeling that not all gurus are trying to
IS: Some are frankly phonies, and they don't try to hide it from me.
They think that I am one, too, so when we meet they begin the most
disturbing conversations. They want to know how I get money, how I
people, and so on.
EH: They want to swap secrets.
they feel better if they talk to somebody else who is doing it. I always
tell them that I think it would be much better if they gave up the guru
role in their own minds and realize that they are providing a perfectly
EH: How do they take to that advice?
is that one of us is wrong. Because I don't make the same kind of noises
that they do, they seem to believe that either I am a lunatic or that I
starting some new kind of con. Perhaps I have found a new racket.
EH: I am surprised that these gurus tell you all their secrets as freely
I must tell you that I have not renounced the Eastern technique of
pretending to be on his side. Therefore, I am able to draw out gurus and
get them to commit themselves to an extent that a Westerner, because of
his conscience, could not do. The Westerner would not allow certain
things to go unchallenged and would not trick, as it were, another
So he doesn't find out the truth.
the West. Gurus from
to the cleaners; they colonized us, now we will get money out of them. I
heard this sort of thing even from people who had impeccable spiritual
back home in
It is an understandable human reaction to centuries of Western
IS: It's understandable, but I deny that it's a spiritual activity. What
I want to say is, "Brother, you are in the revenge business, and that's
different kind of business from me." There are always groups that are
chap in a black shirt and white tie told me,
vision of Al Capone. The difference was that the guru's disciples kissed
Gurus keep proliferating in the
Getting the masses is the easy part. A guru can attract a crowd of a
has had gurus for thousands of years, so they are generally
sophisticated about them; they take in the attitude with their mothers'
milk. This culture just hasn't been inoculated against the guru. Let's
it around. If I were fresh off a plane from
I was going to
would smile at me. You know perfectly well the obstacles, the taxes, the
ulcers that I face. Well, the Indian is in the same position with the
automobile industry as the American with the guru. I'm not impressed by
naive American reactions to gurus; if you can show me a guru who can
off that racket in the East, then I will be surprised.
Before we go any farther, we'd better get down to basics and ask the
IS: The most obvious question of all is for us the most difficult
organize one's relationships and one's learning systems. So instead of
saying that Sufism is a body of thought in which you believe certain
things and don't believe other things, we say that the Sufi experience
has to be provoked in a person. Once provoked, it becomes his own
rather as a person masters an art.
So ideally, for four million readers, you would have four million
IS: In fact, it wouldn't work out like that. We progress by means of
NASHR, an Arabic word than means scatter technique. For example, I've
published quite a number of miscellaneous books, articles, tapes and so
on, which scatter many forms of this Sufi material. These 2,000
different stories cover many different tendencies in many people, and
are able to attach themselves to some aspect of it.
I noticed as I read that the same point would be made over and over
think the story that made the most profound impression on me was "The
but had I not read "The Water of Paradise" first, I might not have
IS: That is the way the process tends to work. Suppose we get a group of
20 people past the stage where they no longer expect us to give them
miracles and stimulation and attention. We sit them down in a room and
give them 20 or 30 stories, asking them to tell us what they see in the
stories, what they like, and what the don't like. The stories first
operate as a sorting out process. They sort out both the very clever
people who need psychotherapy and who have come only to put you down,
the people who have come to worship.
In responsible Sufi circles, no one attempts to handle either the
There's no reason for them to bother us. Next we begin to work with
have any spooky atmosphere, any strange robes or gongs or intonations.
The new students generally react to the stories either as they think you
would like them to react or as their background tells them they should
react. Once they realize that no prizes are being given for correct
answers, they begin to see that their previous conditioning determines
way they are seeing the material in the stories.
ordinary lives. The third use comes later, rather like when you get the
oil to the surface of a well after you burn of the gases. After we have
burnt off the conditioning, we start getting completely new
interpretations and reactions to stories. At last, as the student
becomes less emotional, we can begin to deal with the real person, not
artifact that society has made him.
EH: Is this a very long process?
process; with others, it takes weeks or months. Still others get fed up
and quit because, like good children of the consumer society, they crave
to consume and we're not giving it to them.
EH: You say that conditioning gets in the way of responses to Sufi
material. But everyone is conditioned from birth, so how does one ever
from his conditioning?
IS: We can't live in the world without being conditioned. Even the
control of one's bladder is conditioned. It is absurd to talk, as some
do, of deconditioned or nonconditioned people. But it is possible to see
why conditioning has taken place and why a person's beliefs become
mixture of emotional impulses and various pieces of conditioning. As a
consequence of Sufi experience, people - instead of seeing things
through a filter of conditioning plus emotional reactions, a filter
which constantly discards certain stimuli - can see things through some
of themselves that can only be described as not conditioned.
Are you saying that when one comes to an awareness
that he is
Exactly. Then he is halfway toward being liberated from his
say that we must smash conditioning are themselves oversimplifying
A number of years ago an American psychologist carried out an
had a group of American and Mexican schoolteachers look thru this
device. Most of the Americans saw a baseball player and most of the
Mexicans saw the matador. From what you have said, I gather that Sufism
might enable an American to see the matador and a Mexican to see the
IS: That is what many of the Sufi stories try to do. As a reader, you
to identify with one of the people in the story. When he behaves
EH: When one reads about Sufism, one comes upon conflicting
explanations. Some people say that Sufism is pantheistic; others that it
is related to theosophy. Certainly there are strains in Sufism that you
find in any of the major world religions.
IS: There are many ways to talk about the religious aspects of Sufism.
I'll just choose one and see where it leads. The Sufis themselves say
that their religion has no history, because it is not culture bound.
Although Sufism has been productive in Islam, according to Sufi
tradition and scripture, Sufis existed in pre-Islamic times. The Sufis
say that all religion is evolution, otherwise it wouldn't survive. They
also say that all religion is capable of development up to the same
point. In historical times, Sufis have worked with all recognized
religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Vedanta, Buddhism and so on.
Sufis are in religion but not of it.
Sufis are extraordinarily cautious about this. They don't allow a
context, they become a circus at best and unhinge minds at worst.
EH: So the ecstatic experience has its place but only at a certain time
a certain stage of development?
Yes, and with certain training. The ecstatic experience is certainly
advanced knowledge. Western biographers of the saints have made it very
difficult for us by assuming that Joan of Arc and Theresa of Avila, who
have had such experiences, have reached God. I am sure that this is
only a misunderstanding based on faulty stories and faulty retrieval of
give you a banal analogy. If I were training to be a runner and went
out every day to run, I would get faster and faster and be able to run
farther and farther with less fatigue. Now, I also find that I have a
better complexion, my blood supply is better, and my digestion has
improved. These things don't interest me; they are only by-products of
my running. I have another objective. When people I am associated with
become overwhelmed by ESP phenomena, I always insist that they stop it,
because their objective is elsewhere.
attempting to read minds or move objects around. Do you think
who are able to get enormous grants for research into ESP. But I think,
yes, a great deal more can be discovered providing the scientists are
prepared to be good scientists. And by that I mean that they are
prepared to structure their experiments successively in accordance with
their discoveries. They must be ready to follow and not hew doggedly to
their original working hypothesis. And they will certainly have to give
up their concept of the observer being outside of the experiment, which
has been their dearest pet for many years. And another thing, as we
find constantly in metaphysics, people who are likely to be able to
understand and develop capacities for ESP are more likely to be found
among people who are not interested in the subject.
more coolly and calmly. The Sufis say: "You will be able to exercise
these supernatural powers when you can put out your hand and get a wild
dove to land on it." But the other reason why the people who are
fascinated by ESP or metaphysics or magic are the last who should study
it is that they are interested in it for the wrong reasons. It may be compensation. They are not equipped to study ESP. They are equipped for
something else: fear, greed, hate, or love of humanity.
that's what the job calls for.
and The Secret Lore of Magic, an investigation of Western magic. Today
there's an upsurge of interest in astrology and witchcraft and magic.
You must have
speculated somewhat about magic in those books.
this material available to the general reader. For too
things. They held onto this information as something to frighten
themselves with. So the first purpose was information. This is the
magic of East and West. That's all. There is no more. The second
purpose of those books was to show that there do seem to be forces,
some of which are either rationalized by this magic or may be developed
from it, which do not come within customary physics or within the
experience of ordinary people. I think this should be studied, that we
should gather the data and analyze the phenomena. We need to separate
the chemistry of magic from the alchemy, as it were.
and magic are up to.
Oh, it makes my books sell, but they were written for cool-headed
people and there aren't many of those around.
be enthusiasts, but having encouraged them - which I couldn't help - I
must now avoid them. They would only be disappointed in what I have to
say. You know, Rumi said that people counterfeit gold because there is
such a thing as real gold, and I think that's the situation we are in
with Sufi studies at the moment. It is much easier to write a book on
Sufism than it is to study it. It is much easier to start a group and
tell people what to do than it is to learn first. The problem is that
the spurious, the unreal, the untrue is so much easier to find that it
is in danger of becoming the norm. Until recently, for example, if you
didn't use drugs in spiritual pursuits, you were not considered
genuine. If you said, "look, drugs are irrelevant to spiritual
matters," you were considered a square.
It's astonishing. When people come here to see me, they want to get
something, and if I can't give them higher consciousness, they will
take my bedspreads or my ashtrays or whatever else they can pick up
around the house.
They are savages in the best sense of the word. They are not what they
think they are at all. I am invited to believe that they take
bedspreads and ashtrays by accident. But it never works the other way;
they never leave their wallets behind by mistake. One thing I learned
from my father very early: Don't take any notice of what people say,
just watch what they do.
introducing the Sufi way of thinking to the West?
enough to establish the Sufi phenomenon as viable. We don't plan to
form an organization with somebody at the top and others at the bottom
collecting money or wearing funny clothes or converting people to
Sufism. We view Sufism not as an ideology that molds people to the
right way of belief or action, but as an art or science that can exert
a beneficial influence on individuals or societies, in accordance with
the needs of those individuals and societies.
because it gives one something one cannot get elsewhere.
better watchmaker. A housewife becomes a better housewife. When
somebody said as much
left the hall. They didn't wait to hear that they weren't going to be
forced to be more efficient.
efficiency, even though it does make one more effective in all sorts of
ways. I think Sufism is important because it enables one to detach from
life and see it as near to its reality as one can
about an event or problem is not going to have any lasting
problems of this time similar to the outlook he might presently have on
the problems of the 16th century?
every contention. Instead of becoming the classical Oriental
philosopher who says, "All reality is imagination. Why should I care
about the world," you begin to see alternative ways
deal of their time jumping up and down waving banners that condemn the
various dirty beasts of the world. Such behavior makes the dirty beasts
delighted at the thought that they are so important and the jumpers are
so impotent. If the Trafalgar square jumpers had an objective view of
their behavior, they would abandon it. First, they would see that they
are only giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and second, they would be
able to see how to do something about the dirty beasts - and if it were
necessary to do anything about them.
Sufi metaphysics has even got a magical reputation. The truth is that
Sufi study and development give one capacities that one did not have
before. One would not kill merely because killing is bad. Instead, one
would know that killing is unnecessary and, in addition, what one would
have to do in order to make humanity happier and able to realize better
objectives. That's what knowledge is for.
that you are not interested in rational, sequential thought - in what
Bob Ornstein calls
say that I can live without it. I have it up to a certain point, and I
expect the people I meet to be able to use it. We need information in
order to approach a problem, but we also need to be able to see the
intuitive thought, where you don't reason the problem out but know the
answer without knowing how you got it.
That is the difference
between romantic imagining and something that
rational, linear thought and that we tend to use very little of the
intuitive, nonlinear thought of the brain's right hemisphere.
of left-hemisphere activity, although it's often used
the proper form. I think that the behavior and products
of Sufism are
I don't want to discuss Sufism in Ornsteinian terms, however, because
I'm not qualified to do so. I can only say that insofar as there is any
advantage in these two hemispheres acting alternately or complementing
one another, then Sufi material undoubtedly is among the very little
available material that can help this process along.
for the study of Sufism?
than someone else. But some of the teaching methods that Sufis use seem
rather odd to the Westerner. If I were to say to you that my favorite
method of teaching is to bore the audience to death, you would be
shocked. But I have just results of some tests, which show that English
schoolchildren, when shown a group of films, remembered only the ones
that bored them. Now this is consistent with our experience, but it is
not consistent with Western beliefs.
sometimes shouting them down or shooing them away, a technique that is
not customary in cultivated circles. By experience we know that by
giving a certain kind of shock to a person, we can - for a short period
- increase his perception. Until recently I wouldn't have dared speak
about this, but I now have a clipping indicating that when a person
endures a shock he produces Theta rhythms. Some people have associated
these brain rhythms with various forms of ESP. No connection has been
made yet, but I think we may be beginning to understand
present, no learning takes place, and shock causes adrenalin to flow.
We also know from experience that when you find yourself in a situation
of grave danger, you tend to notice some very small detail with great
teachers a reputation for having bad manners. The most polite thing
they can say about us is that we are irascible and out of control. Some
people say that a spiritual teacher should have no emotions or be
totally balanced. We say that a spiritual teacher must be a person who
can be totally balanced, not one who cannot help but be
whether spiritual or political, and they keep complaining because there
are no leaders to follow.
this is the time for a leader. The problems that a leader would be able
to resolve have not been identified. Nor does the clamor mean that
those who cry out are suitable followers. Most of the people who demand
a leader seem to have some baby's idea of what a leader should do. The
idea that a leader will walk in and we will all recognize him and
follow him and everybody will be happy strikes me as a strangely
immature atavism. Most of these people, I believe, want not a leader
but excitement. I doubt that those who cry the loudest would obey a
leader if there was one. Talk is cheap, and a lot of the talk comes
from millions of old washerwomen.
like washerwomen. For example, if you are selling books and you send a
professor of philosophy something written in philosophical language, he
will throw it away. But if you send him a spiel written for a
washerwoman, he will buy the book. At heart he is a washerwomen.
Intellectuals don't understand this, but business people do because
their profits depend upon it. You can learn much more about human
nature on Madison Avenue than you will from experts on human nature,
because on Madison Avenue on stands or falls by the sales. Professors
in their ivory towers can say anything because there's no penalty
attached. Go to where there is a penalty attached and there you will
lectures at universities, and I have become terrified by the low level
of ability. It is as if people just aren't trying. They don't read the
books in their fields, don't know the workings of them, use inadequate
approaches to a subject, ask ridiculous questions that a moment's
thought would have enabled them to answer.
articles in learned journals and literary weeklies. The punctuation
gone to hell, full of non-sequiturs, an obvious lack of background
knowledge, and so on. I went to a newspaper and looked up the
equivalent articles from the 1930's. A great change has taken
good and terribly bad. There seemed nothing in-between. Now everything
is slapdash and mediocre. Why are so many famous persons in hallowed
institutions now so mediocre?
education becomes widespread and people become semiliterate, the culture
at the top is inevitably pulled down.
thinkers. But I do not believe that it is necessary for us to have 80%
blithering idiots in order to get 20% marvelous academics. This ratio
depresses me. I think that the good people are unbelievably noble in
denying that the rest of them are such hopeless idiots. Privately they
agree with you, but they won't rock the boat.
by the public, by everybody, so that the findings become part of their
way of thinking. At the moment, people have adopted only a few. They
talk glibly about making Freudian slips and they have accepted the idea
of inferiority complexes. But they have this great body of
psychological information and refuse to use it.
hasn't got the knowledge that would save it, but because nobody will
use the knowledge.
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