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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 Elizabeth Hall

The Sufi Tradition


EH: Idries Shah, you are the West's leading exponent of Sufism, that

rich religious tradition growing out of the Middle East. Why, at a time

when new cults are springing up, do you refuse to be a guru? You could

easily become one.

IS: There are a lot of reasons. But if we are talking about the teacher

who has disciples, it's because I feel no need for an admiring audience

to tell me how wonderful I am or to do what I say. I believe that the

guru needs his disciples. If he had a sufficient outlet for his desire

to be a big shot or his feeling of holiness or his wish to have others

dependent on him, he wouldn't be a guru.
I got all that out of my system very early and, consistent with Sufi
tradition, I believe that those who don't want to teach are the ones who

can and should. The West still has a vocation hang-up and has not yet

discovered this. Here, the only recognized achiever is an obsessive. In

the East we believe that a person who can't help doing a thing isn't

necessarily the best one to do it. A compulsive cookie baker may bake

very bad cookies.

EH: Are you saying that a person who feels that he must engage in a

certain profession is doing it because of some emotional need?

IS: I think this is very often the case, and it doesn't necessarily

produce the best professional. Show an ordinary person an obsessive and

he will believe you have shown him a dedicated and wonderful person –

provided he share his beliefs. If he doesn't, of course, he regards the

one obsessed as evil. Sufism regards this as a facile and untrue

posture. And if there is one consistency in the Sufi tradition, it is

that man must be in the world but not of the world. There is no role for

a priest-king or guru.

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

IS: Not of all. Their followers need the guru as much as the guru needs

his followers. I just don't regard it as a religious operation. I take a

guru to be a sort of psychotherapist. At the very best, he keeps people

quiet and polarized around him and gives some sort of meaning to their


EH: Librium might do the same thing.

IS: Yes, but that's no reason to be against it. Why shouldn't there be

room for what we might call "neighborhood psychotherapy" - the community

looking after its own? However, why it should be called a spiritual

activity rather baffles me.

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

IS: Some are frankly 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

control people, and so on.

EH: They want to swap secrets.

IS: That's going a little too far. But they feel safety in numbers. They
actually feel there is something wrong with what they are doing, and

they feel better if they talk to somebody else who is doing it. I always

tell them that I think it would be much better if they gave up the guru

role in their own minds and realize that they are providing a perfectly

good social service.

EH: How do they take to that advice?

IS: Sometimes they laugh and sometimes they cry. The general impression

is that one of us is wrong. Because I don't make the same kind of noises

that they do, they seem to believe that either I am a lunatic or that I

am starting some new kind of con. Perhaps I have found a new racket.

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

as they do.

IS: I must tell you that I have not renounced the Eastern technique of
pretending to be interested in what another person is saying, even

pretending to be on his side. Therefore, I am able to draw out gurus and

get them to commit themselves to an extent that a Westerner, because of

his conscience, could not do. The Westerner would not allow certain

things to go unchallenged and would not trick, as it were, another

person. So he doesn't find out the truth.
Look here, it's time that somebody took the lid off the guru racket.
Since I have nothing to lose, it might as well be me. With many of these
gurus it comes down to an "us and them" sort of thing between the East

and the West. Gurus from India used to stop by on their way to

California and their attitude was generally, let's take the Westerners

to the cleaners; they colonized us, now we will get money out of them. I

heard this sort of thing even from people who had impeccable spiritual

reputations back home in India.

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

IS: It's understandable, but I deny that it's a spiritual activity. What

I want to say is, "Brother, you are in the revenge business, and that's

a different kind of business from me." There are always groups that are
willing to negotiate with me and want to use my name. On one occasion a

chap in a black shirt and white tie told me, "You take Britain, but

don't touch the United States, because that's ours." I had a terrible

vision of Al Capone. The difference was that the guru's disciples kissed

his feet.


Nasrudin was throwing handfuls of crumbs around his house. "What are you doing?" someone

asked him. "Keeping the tigers away." "But there are no tigers in these parts." "That's right.

Effective, isn't it?"


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

IS: Getting the masses is the easy part. A guru can attract a crowd of a
million in India, but few in a crowd take him seriously. You see, India

has had gurus for thousands of years, so they are generally

sophisticated about them; they take in the attitude with their mothers'

milk. This culture just hasn't been inoculated against the guru. Let's

turn it around. If I were fresh off a plane from India and told you that

I was going to Detroit to become a wonderful automobile millionaire, you

would smile at me. You know perfectly well the obstacles, the taxes, the

ulcers that I face. Well, the Indian is in the same position with the

automobile industry as the American with the guru. I'm not impressed by

naive American reactions to gurus; if you can show me a guru who can

pull off that racket in the East, then I will be surprised.

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

IS: The most obvious question of all is for us the most difficult

But I'll try to answer. Sufism is experience of life through a method of
dealing with life and human relations. This method is based on an
understanding of man, which places at one's disposal the means to

organize one's relationships and one's learning systems. So instead of

saying that Sufism is a body of thought in which you believe certain

things and don't believe other things, we say that the Sufi experience

has to be provoked in a person. Once provoked, it becomes his own

property, rather as a person masters an art.

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

IS: In fact, it wouldn't work out like that. We progress by means of

NASHR, an Arabic word than means scatter technique. For example, I've

published quite a number of miscellaneous books, articles, tapes and so

on, which scatter many forms of this Sufi material. These 2,000

different stories cover many different tendencies in many people, and

they are able to attach themselves to some aspect of it.

EH: I noticed as I read that the same point would be made over and over
again in a different way in a different story. In all my reading, I

think the story that made the most profound impression on me was "The

Water of Paradise." Afterward, I found the same point in other stories,

but had I not read "The Water of Paradise" first, I might not have

picked it up.

IS: That is the way the process tends to work. Suppose we get a group of

20 people past the stage where they no longer expect us to give them

miracles and stimulation and attention. We sit them down in a room and

give them 20 or 30 stories, asking them to tell us what they see in the

stories, what they like, and what the don't like. The stories first

operate as a sorting out process. They sort out both the very clever

people who need psychotherapy and who have come only to put you down,

and the people who have come to worship.


One day Nasrudin lent his cooking pots to a neighbor, who was giving a feast. The neighbor

returned them, together with one extra one - a very tiny pot. "What is this?" asked Nasrudin.

"According to law, I have given you the offspring of your property which was born when the pots

were in my care," said the joker. Shortly afterwards Nasrudin borrowed his neighbor's pots, but

did not return them. The man came round to get them back. "Alas!" said Nasrudin, "they are

dead. We have established, have we not, that pots are mortal?"


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

the others.

EH: They are not fertile ground?

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


People ran to tell the Mulla that his mother-in-law had fallen into the river. "She will be swept out

to sea, for the torrent is very fast here," they cried. Without a moment's hesitation Nasrudin dived

into the river and started to swim upstream. "No!" they cried, "DOWNSTREAM! That is the only

way a person can be carried away from here." "Listen!" panted the Mulla, "I know my wife's

mother. If everyone else is swept downstream, the place to look for HER is upstream."


IS: There's no reason for them to bother us. Next we begin to work with
people who are left. In order to do this, we must cool it. We must not

have any spooky atmosphere, any strange robes or gongs or intonations.

The new students generally react to the stories either as they think you

would like them to react or as their background tells them they should

react. Once they realize that no prizes are being given for correct

answers, they begin to see that their previous conditioning determines

the way they are seeing the material in the stories.
So, the second use of the stories is to provide a protected situation in
which people can realize the extent of the conditionings in their

ordinary lives. The third use comes later, rather like when you get the

oil to the surface of a well after you burn of the gases. After we have

burnt off the conditioning, we start getting completely new

interpretations and reactions to stories. At last, as the student

becomes less emotional, we can begin to deal with the real person, not

the artifact that society has made him.

EH: Is this a very long process?

IS: You can't predict it at all. With some people it is an instant

process; with others, it takes weeks or months. Still others get fed up

and quit because, like good children of the consumer society, they crave

something to consume and we're not giving it to them.

EH: You say that conditioning gets in the way of responses to Sufi

material. But everyone is conditioned from birth, so how does one ever

escape from his conditioning?

IS: We can't live in the world without being conditioned. Even the

control of one's bladder is conditioned. It is absurd to talk, as some

do, of deconditioned or nonconditioned people. But it is possible to see

why conditioning has taken place and why a person's beliefs become

Nobody is trying to abolish conditioning, merely to describe it, to make
it possible to change it, and also to see where it needs to operate, and
where it does not. Some sort of secondary personality, which we call the
"commanding self" takes over man when his mentation is not correctly
balanced. This self, which he takes for his real one, is in fact a

mixture of emotional impulses and various pieces of conditioning. As a

consequence of Sufi experience, people - instead of seeing things

through a filter of conditioning plus emotional reactions, a filter

which constantly discards certain stimuli - can see things through some

part of themselves that can only be described as not conditioned.

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

IS: Exactly. Then he is halfway toward being liberated from his
conditioning - or at least toward keeping it under control. People who

say that we must smash conditioning are themselves oversimplifying


EH: A number of years ago an American psychologist carried out an
interesting experiment. He had a device that supplied two images, one to
each eye. One image was a baseball player, the other was a matador. He

had a group of American and Mexican schoolteachers look 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

baseball player.

IS: That is what many of the Sufi stories try to do. As a reader, you

tend to identify with one of the people in the story. When he behaves
unexpectedly, it gives you a bit of a jolt and forces you to see him

with different eyes.

EH: When one reads about Sufism, one comes upon conflicting

explanations. Some people say that Sufism is pantheistic; others that it

is related to theosophy. Certainly there are strains in Sufism that you

can find in any of the major world religions.

IS: There are many ways to talk about the religious aspects of Sufism.

I'll just choose one and see where it leads. The Sufis themselves say

that their religion has no history, because it is not culture bound.

Although Sufism has been productive in Islam, according to Sufi

tradition and scripture, Sufis existed in pre-Islamic times. The Sufis

say that all religion is evolution, otherwise it wouldn't survive. They

also say that all religion is capable of development up to the same

point. In historical times, Sufis have worked with all recognized

religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Vedanta, Buddhism and so on.

Sufis are in religion but not of it.


"Nasrudin, my son, get up early in the mornings." "Why father?" "It is a good habit. Why, once I

rose at dawn and went for a walk. I found on the road a sack of gold." "How did you know it was

not lost the previous night?" "That is not the point. In any case, it had not been there the night

before. I noticed that." "Then it isn't lucky for everyone to get up early. The man who lost the gold

must have been up earlier than you."

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


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



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

IS: Spiritual exercises are allowed only at a certain time and a certain
place and with certain people. When the ecstatic exercises are taken out

of context, they become a circus at best and unhinge minds at worst.

EH: So the ecstatic experience has its place but only at a certain time

at a certain stage of development?

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




                    AT HOME IN EAST AND WEST
                                    A Sketch of Idries Shah

   The English countryside is an unlikely place to meet a direct descendant of Mohammed, a

man described in Who's Who in the Arab World as His Sublime Highness the Sayid Idries el-

Hashimi, leader of the Sufi community. But there, no more than an hour from London, lives Idries

Shah on a 50-acre estate that once belonged to the family of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the

Boy Scouts.

   Shah, a witty, urbane man whose family palaces are in
Afghanistan, was born in Simla, India in

1924. As was his father before him, Shah is advisor to several monarchs and heads of state-

purely in an unofficial capacity. It was his father, the Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah, who first suggested

the partition of Pakistan. And his grandfather dissatisfied with both eastern and western

education built a school for his grandson. The curriculum included working for a year on a farm.

   Whether it was this unique education, heredity, opportunity or Sufism, Shah became a

remarkable man. He has written nearly a score of books, invented a device for the negative

ionization of air, written and produced a prize-winning film, established a printing house, and now

directs a textile company, a ceramics company, an electronics company, and the Institute for

Cultural Research.

   Shah was a founding member of the Club of Rome and while he retains his membership, he did

not attend last fall's gathering in Berlin. The criticism that followed the publication of Limits of

Growth, a controversial report commissioned by the club, taught him that his father's refusal to

join any organization was wise. The report forecast a worldwide collapse unless population and

industrial growth halted and Shah was accused of being a prophet of doom.

   It was not fear of controversy that disturbed Shah. When he leans forward to describe how his

books were taken from Persian university students and burned, his smile is genuine. Nationalistic

officials touched off the ritual pyre because Shah states plainly that Sufism is not an ancient

Persian religion.

   After an initial flurry of resentment when Shah and his Cultural Institute first occupied Langton

House, the local residents came to accept the inhabitants as English. Over a grilled sole at the

pub, Shah reported that the pub keeper once told him that, as master of Langton House, the

Indian-born Afghan was the village squire. Shah objected, pointing out that there was a larger

estate in the village and that its master was the squire. "Oh, no," replied the pub keeper, "he

can't be the squire, he's an Irishman."

   The house at Langton Green draws visitors, pupils, and would-be pupils from all over. Their

ranks include poet Ted Hughes, novelist Alan Sillitoe, zoologist Desmond Morris, and

psychologist Robert Ornstein. His best-known pupil, novelist Doris Lessing, has written of Shah's

work for publications as varied as Vogue, the American Scholar, and The Guardian.

   One opens Shah's door and steps into an English home decorated in a Middle-Eastern fashion.

Oriental rugs cover the floor; sheep, leopard and antelope skins are thrown across the couches;

and the soft tapestries on the walls contrast with the brass tabletops and trays. Shah has

deliberately combined hard and soft objects in order to modify the room's acoustic qualities and

produce certain harmonious resonances. It is a thing done mostly by "old-fashioned" people in

the East, but he finds it satisfying.

   Every Sunday there is buffet lunch for guests in the Elephant, a dining room that was once the

estate stable. Connected to the Elephant by a walkway is a large conservatory. Inside, flowers

bloom, vines grow, and guests can reach up from their lounge chairs to pluck grapes. Outside the

glass walls, icy rain drips off bare branches onto the bleak autumn landscape.

   It is a long journey from
Afghanistan to the county of Kent. The East regards Shah as a

hometown boy who made good in the wicked West and would like to see him act as their

political propagandist. This he refuses to do. Shah's greatest fear is that world tensions will

sharpen to until he is forced to choose between East and West. Until then, he is equally at home

in both worlds.

--Elizabeth Hall

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

Shah: Oh, yes. The ecstatic experience is absolutely the lowest from of

advanced knowledge. Western biographers of the saints have made it very

difficult for us by assuming that Joan of Arc and Theresa of Avila, who

have had such experiences, have reached God. I am sure that this is

only a misunderstanding based on faulty stories and faulty retrieval of


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

Shah: Not interesting at all. It is no more than a by-product. Let me

give you a banal analogy. If I were training to be a runner and went

out every day to run, I would get faster and faster and be able to run

farther and farther with less fatigue. Now, I also find that I have a

better complexion, my blood supply is better, and my digestion has

improved. These things don't interest me; they are only by-products of

my running. I have another objective. When people I am associated with

become overwhelmed by ESP phenomena, I always insist that they stop it,

because their objective is elsewhere.

Hall: They are supposed to be developing their potential; not

attempting to read minds or move objects around. Do you think that
researchers will one day explain the physical basis of ESP or do you
think it will always elude them?

Shah: If I say it will elude the scientists, it will annoy the people

who are able to get enormous grants for research into ESP. But I think,

yes, a great deal more can be discovered providing the scientists are

prepared to be good scientists. And by that I mean that they are

prepared to structure their experiments successively in accordance with

their discoveries. They must be ready to follow and not hew doggedly to

their original working hypothesis. And they will certainly have to give

up their concept of the observer being outside of the experiment, which

has been their dearest pet for many years. And another thing, as we

find constantly in metaphysics, people who are likely to be able to

understand and develop capacities for ESP are more likely to be found

among people who are not interested in the subject.

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


Shah: Something like that. Being disinterested, you can approach ESP

more coolly and calmly. The Sufis say: "You will be able to exercise

these supernatural powers when you can put out your hand and get a wild

dove to land on it." But the other reason why the people who are

fascinated by ESP or metaphysics or magic are the last who should study

it is that they are interested in it for the wrong reasons. It may be compensation. They are not equipped to study ESP. They are equipped for

something else: fear, greed, hate, or love of humanity.

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

or false.

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

that's what the job calls for.

Hall: You've also written a couple of books on magic: Oriental Magic

and The Secret Lore of Magic, an investigation of Western magic. Today

there's an upsurge of interest in astrology and witchcraft and magic.

You must have speculated somewhat about magic in those books.

Shah: Very little. The main purpose of my books on magic was to make

this material available to the general reader. For too long people
believed that there were secret books, hidden places, and amazing

things. They held onto this information as something to frighten

themselves with. So the first purpose was information. This is the

magic of East and West. That's all. There is no more. The second

purpose of those books was to show that there do seem to be forces,

some of which are either rationalized by this magic or may be developed

from it, which do not come within customary physics or within the

experience of ordinary people. I think this should be studied, that we

should gather the data and analyze the phenomena. We need to separate

the chemistry of magic from the alchemy, as it were.

Hall: That's not exactly what the contemporary devotees of witchcraft

and magic are up to.

Shah: No. My work has no relevance to the current interest whatever.

Oh, it makes my books sell, but they were written for cool-headed

people and there aren't many of those around.

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


Shah: Yes, it's just as with ESP. There's no reason why they shouldn't

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.
Their attitude is not at all a search for truth.

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


Shah: People want to be healed or cured or saved, but they want it now.

It's astonishing. When people come here to see me, they want to get

something, and if I can't give them higher consciousness, they will

take my bedspreads or my ashtrays or whatever else they can pick up

around the house.

Hall: They want something to carry away.

Shah: They are thinking in terms of lose property, almost physical.

They are savages in the best sense of the word. They are not what they

think they are at all. I am invited to believe that they take

bedspreads and ashtrays by accident. But it never works the other way;

they never leave their wallets behind by mistake. One thing I learned

from my father very early: Don't take any notice of what people say,

just watch what they do.

Hall: Let's get back to your main work. What is the best way of

introducing the Sufi way of thinking to the West?

Shah: I am sure that the best way is not to start a cult, but to
introduce a body of literary material that should interest people

enough to establish the Sufi phenomenon as viable. We don't plan to

form an organization with somebody at the top and others at the bottom

collecting money or wearing funny clothes or converting people to

Sufism. We view Sufism not as an ideology that 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.

Hall: Does Western society need this infusion of Sufi thought?

Shah: It needs it for the same reason that any society needs it,

because it gives one something one cannot get elsewhere. For example,
Sufi thought makes a person more efficient. A watchmaker becomes a

better watchmaker. A housewife becomes a better housewife. When

somebody said as much in California last year, 120 hippies got up and

left the hall. They didn't wait to hear that they weren't going to be

forced to be more efficient.

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

Shah: Of course. I wouldn't try to sell Sufism purely as a means to

efficiency, even though it does make one more effective in all sorts of

ways. I think Sufism is important because it enables one to detach from

life and see it as near to its reality as one can possibly get.
Sufi experience tends to produce the kind of person who is calm, not
because he can't get excited, but because he knows that getting excited

about an event or problem is not going to have any lasting effect.

Hall: Would you say that it might give a person an outlook on the

problems of this time similar to the outlook he might presently have on

the problems of the 16th century?

Shah: Very much so. And such an outlook takes the heat out of almost

every contention. Instead of becoming the classical Oriental

philosopher who says, "All reality is imagination. Why should I care

about the world," you begin to see alternative ways of acting.
For example, some of the finest people in this country spend a great

deal of their time jumping up and down waving banners that condemn the

various dirty beasts of the world. Such 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.

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

Shah: People talk about Sufism as if it were the acquisition of powers.

Sufi metaphysics has even got a magical reputation. The truth is that

Sufi study and development give one capacities that one did not have

before. One would not kill merely because killing is bad. Instead, one

would know that killing is unnecessary and, in addition, what one would

have to do in order to make humanity happier and able to realize better

objectives. That's what knowledge is for.

Hall: When I read your books, the message came through very clearly

that you are not interested in rational, sequential thought - in what

Bob Ornstein calls left-hemisphere activity.

Shah: To say that I'm not interested in sequential thinking is not to

say that I can live without it. I have it up to a certain point, and I

expect the people I meet to be able to use it. We need information in

order to approach a problem, but we also need to be able to see the

thing whole.

Hall: When you speak of seeing the thing whole, you're talking about

intuitive thought, where you don't reason the problem out but know the

answer without knowing how you got it.

Shah: Yes. You know the answer and can verify that it is an answer.

That is the difference between romantic imagining and something that
belongs to this world.

Hall: Ornstein, who seems to have been profoundly influenced by Sufi
thought, has suggested that most people today tend to rely on logical,

rational, linear thought and that we tend to use very little of the

intuitive, nonlinear thought of the brain's right hemisphere.
Would you say that Sufism can teach one to tap right-hemisphere


Shah: Yes, I would. Sufism has never been overimpressed by the products

of left-hemisphere activity, although it's often used them.
For instance, Sufis have written virtually all the great poetry of
Persia, and while the inspiration for a poem may come from the right
hemisphere, one must use the left hemisphere to put the poem down in

the proper form. I think that the behavior and products of Sufism are
among the few things we have that encourage a holistic view of things. 

I don't want to discuss Sufism in Ornsteinian terms, however, because

I'm not qualified to do so. I can only say that insofar as there is any

advantage in these two hemispheres acting alternately or complementing

one another, then Sufi material undoubtedly is among the very little

available material that can help this process along.

Hall: Why are the traditional Western methods of study inappropriate

for the study of Sufism?

Shah: They are inappropriate only up to a point. Both the Western and
Middle Eastern methods of study come from the common heritage of the
Middle Ages, when one was regarded as wise if he had a better memory

than someone else. But some of the teaching methods that Sufis use seem

rather odd to the Westerner. If I were to say to you that my 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.
Another favorite Sufi teaching method is to be rude to people,

sometimes shouting them down or shooing them away, a technique that is

not customary in cultivated circles. By experience we know that by

giving a certain kind of shock to a person, we can - for a short period

- increase his perception. Until recently I wouldn't have dared speak

about this, but I now have a clipping indicating that when a person

endures a shock he produces Theta rhythms. Some people have associated

these brain rhythms with various forms of ESP. No connection has been

made yet, but I think we may be beginning to understand it.

Hall: Recent studies of memory indicate that unless adrenalin is

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


Shah: Exactly. Concentration comes in on a strange level and in an
unaccustomed way. But using this knowledge has traditionally given Sufi

teachers a reputation for having bad manners. The most polite thing

they can say about us is that we are irascible and out of control. Some

people say that a spiritual teacher should have no emotions or be

totally balanced. We say that a spiritual teacher must be a person who

can be totally balanced, not one who cannot help but be balanced.

Hall: People in the
United States seem to be looking for leaders,

whether spiritual or political, and they keep complaining because there

are no leaders to follow.

Shah: People are always looking for leaders; that does not mean that

this is the time for a leader. The problems that a leader would be able

to resolve have not been identified. Nor does the 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.

Hall: If so, the washerwomen are spread throughout the culture.

Shah: They're not called washerwomen, but if we test them, they react

like washerwomen. For example, if you are selling books and you send a

professor of philosophy something written in philosophical language, he

will throw it away. But if you send him a spiel written for a

washerwoman, he will buy the book. At heart he is a washerwomen.

Intellectuals don't understand this, but business people do because

their profits depend upon it. You can learn much more about human

nature on Madison Avenue than you will from experts on human nature,

because on Madison Avenue on stands or falls by the sales. Professors

in their ivory towers can say anything because there's no penalty

attached. Go to where there is a penalty attached and there you will

find wisdom.

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


Shah: Well, in the past few years I have given quite a few seminars and

lectures at universities, and I have become terrified by the low level

of ability. It is as if people just aren't trying. They don't read the

books in their fields, don't know the workings of them, use inadequate

approaches to a subject, ask ridiculous questions that a moment's

thought would have enabled them to answer.
If these are the cream, what is the milk like?

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


Shah: The whole lot. Recently I've been appalled at the low levels of

articles in learned journals and literary weeklies. The punctuation

gone to hell, full of non-sequiturs, an obvious lack of background

knowledge, and so on. I went to a newspaper and looked up the

equivalent articles from the 1930's. A great change has taken
place. Forty years ago there were two kinds of articles: very, very

good and terribly bad. There seemed nothing in-between. Now everything

is slapdash and mediocre. Why are so many famous persons in hallowed

institutions now so mediocre?

Hall: Critics like Dwight Macdonald have said for years that as

education becomes widespread and people become semiliterate, the culture

at the top is inevitably pulled down.
But you're not really hostile to all academics, are you?

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

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

Shah: Of course, I'm not hostile to all academics. There are some great

thinkers. But I do not believe that it is necessary for us to have 80%

blithering idiots in order to get 20% 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.
For the sake of humanity, somebody has got to rock the boat.

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

Shah: What I really want, in case anybody is listening, is for the
products of the last 50 years of psychological research to be studied

by the public, by everybody, so that the findings become part of their

way of thinking. At the moment, people have adopted only a few. They

talk glibly about making Freudian slips and they have accepted the idea

of inferiority complexes. But they have this great body of

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

That story is intended to pinpoint this failure to use available
knowledge. People in this civilization are starving in the middle of
plenty. This is a civilization that is going down, not because it

hasn't got the knowledge that would save it, but because nobody will

use the knowledge.

Article originally published in Psychology Today, July 1975
Elizabeth Hall




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