Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sufism & Psychiatry (II)

by Arthur Deikman, M.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

   "Instructions for running the house had been left, for purposes of refreshing the memory, in the master's apartments. But after the first generation, so sacrosanct had these apartments become that nobody was allowed to enter them, and they became considered to be an impenetrable mystery. Some, indeed, held that there was no such apartment at all, although they could see its doors. These doors, however, they explained as something else: a part of the decoration of the walls.

  "Such was the condition of the staff of a house, which neither took over the house nor stayed faithful to their original commitment".

Arthur Deikman

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