The Relevance of Psychological Understanding to Spirituality

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is a comment by Dr. Alan Godlas on the relevance of psychological understanding to spirituality.

Some time ago, a friend wondered about the relevance of psychological understanding to following a spiritual path such as Sufism.  It might seem that following an Islamic Sufi path simply requires that one follow the basics of shari’ah, such as doing regular prayers, doing righteous actions that help out your fellow human beings, and following the guidance of one’s spiritual guide, in particular, attempting to remember and be grateful to God, and love God, as much as possible.  In addition to the basics of shari’ah, an Islamic Sufi path might seem to require extra prayers, nawafil, and, as we find with some Sufis, especially today in the Arab world, their Sufism might require extra attention to law. In contrast, developing a psychological understanding might seem to be irrelevant.  While it is true that certain Sufi shuyukh might not guide people in a psychological direction, traditional Sufi texts, however, have emphasised overwhelmingly two interrelated psychological principles: the ability of the untransformed an-nafs al-ammarah bi as-su’, commanding-compelling self, to distort unconsciously one’s perceptions and actions and also the principle that by knowing one's self one can come to know God.  These two interrelated principles, in brief, form the basis of the significance of developing psychological awareness on the Sufi path.

One reason why psychological work might seem to be irrelevant to spiritual work - aside from the fact that one’s spiritual teachers and friends may not have emphasised it - is that certain emotional experiences may seem to be counter-productive to spiritual experiences, or tasting, dzawq, as the latter are called by some Sufis in certain contexts.  It is indeed true that one can certainly get carried away by an emotion in a decidedly non-spiritual, dysfunctional, maladaptive, and unwise direction.  Hence Sufism does not adhere to one of the psychological and ‘new age’ mantras of the late 1960’s and 1970’s: if it feels good, do it!  Nevertheless, there can be a connection between emotional experience and spiritual tasting.

To understand this connection, it helps to understand the concept of a theophany, tajalli, a Divine Self-Manifestation, which is a bridge from the Divine to the human and psychological realm.  A different tajalli of the Divine Attributes or a particular appearance of the ‘Face of God’, wajhullah, occurs at each moment.  Nevertheless, our normal, ordinary human consciousness does not register, when we are aware of something, that both the ‘we’ that is the agent of feeling, thinking, and perception is a tajalli as well as whatever it is that is the object of our awareness.  Instead of comprehending that whatever is in our consciousness is a theophanic projection of Divine Attributes into three dimensions, what we imagine is that we are simply perceiving, thinking, or feeling something.  So, Sufi poets use the concept of a wave emerging in the Divine Ocean as a metaphor for our awareness at each moment, with the caveat that we have forgotten and are unaware of the ocean and the wave and, instead, are only aware of the drops of water on the beach.

In contrast to the emotional experience of feeling stranded on the beach of Divine Love and Unity like a fish out of water, and its many emotional variations, with no recourse except to flop around, yearning for a new wave to take us back; whenever we are given the grace of being able to make the effort to taste spiritually , we remember, even if only mentally, like what has been called a mind trip, to sip with unconditional gratitude whatever emotions, thoughts, and perceptions we are having while stranded.  Even if only mental, like a kind of hypothesis that our experience is the tip of a theophanic wave, this is the beginning of spiritual tasting, as we begin to imagine, and then, with grace, to feel the connectedness between our three-dimensional existence, being stranded on the beach of separation, on the one hand, with the oceanic and theophanic source in the Unity and Sea of Divine Love, on the other hand.

One of the most merciful and beautiful aspects of this is that even when experiencing the despair of feeling the utter absence of God or the anger of our rejection of God, religion, and spirituality or our confusion, exhaustion, apathy, or any thoughts or feelings; from the theophanic perspective, all of these states are the three dimensional tip of theophanic wave that extends from our world back into the Sea of God's Unity.

Another issue related to the psychological dimension of Sufism concerns the choices and courses of action that we can take in our lives, given that it is possible that our emotions, thoughts, and perceptions can, in spite of our best intentions, be influenced if not completely dominated by our genetically programmed fight/flight instinct and the conditioning of our egos such as by our commanding-compelling self mentioned at the outset.  In other words, in contrast to the adages, “Trust your gut!” “Follow your heart and you cannot go wrong,” gut feelings often feel good and straightforward because, generation after generation, following such feelings enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce.  In other words, our ancestors 10,000 years ago consistently survived because when strangers encountered them, our ancestors shot, or fled, first and asked questions later; or they instinctively pursued pleasure first and then took care of babies and families later.  Or, what we imagine to be our heart urging us to take one course of action or not take another may in fact simply be the product of our early childhood conditioning or programming, which can produce strong feelings about what we should or should not do when we face situations now that even vaguely and unconsciously resemble situations that we experienced during the first few years of our lives.

Hence, from this Sufi perspective, we cannot necessarily trust our gut or our heart to guide us, because they do not necessarily reflect deep wisdom but may in fact be the product of very primitive genetic programming or early childhood conditioning.  In addition - even though every thought, feeling, and perception is a theophany, a wave-like connection to the Ocean of Unity - the theophanic nature of our consciousness does not mean that we should follow and act upon every feeling or even the deep feelings that we have.  Deprived of feelings as a source of guidance, some religiously oriented people, similar to rationalists in the modern era who promote reason as a guide to living, promote following religious law or scripture, such as fundamentalist Christians, Hindus, Orthodox Jews, and non-Sufi Muslims, as a source of guidance through the maze of life's twists and turns.  The problem here too is that in spite of one's best intentions, unconsciously the choices one makes - in deciding the particular scriptural verses to follow, in interpreting whatever scripture or law one is applying to one’s life, or in deciding what lines of reasoning to pursue - will in the very least be influenced if not completely dominated by one’s genetic programming or early childhood conditioning, namely by one’s commanding-compelling ego-self.

Recognising the unreliability of their feelings or rational faculties as guides, many followers of spiritual paths will consult authorities such spiritual teachers, life coaches, counsellors, spirit guides on subtle planes or in other worlds, or forms of guidance that they consider to be authoritative such as astrological charts, forms of augury such as the I-Ching, Tarot cards, or special prayers that as a consequence (they hope) will guide them to making the best choices in their lives.

Irrespective of the merits or flaws of such seemingly authoritative forms of guidance -the interpretation and applicability of which, like with one’s feelings and reason, is always subject, unconsciously, to the influence of one's ego - the psychological aspect of Sufism offers a different kind of solution to the problem of choice in life and to the fact that some courses of action may in fact be far superior and wiser than others.

In spite of being unable to rely on our feelings, even ones that feel profoundly deep-seated, as sources of guidance when faced with real choices in our lives, the psychological aspect of Sufism offers a solution, grounded in Islam but inherently if not explicitly present in many other forms of spirituality and also in humanistic psychology, that increases the likelihood that one’s choices will be less distorted by our primitive genetic programming and less dominated by our early childhood conditioning.  This solution, while not guaranteeing that a Sufi’s choices will be the best or wisest ones, stacks the deck in the Sufi's favour.  Being grounded in Islam, like with all of the world’s major religions, there are certain broad outlines to follow for a Sufi in making his or her choices, such as not killing or stealing.  Beyond that, however, for many of the situations in which we find ourselves, uncertainties and grey areas can appear quickly.  For the Sufi who recognises the potential of his or her ego, unconsciously, to distort his or her feelings and thoughts, the key to navigating the forks on our lives' paths is the concept of the simultaneous but disparate importance of the greater and lesser forms of effort, al-jihad al-akbar wa aswghar.

While, on the one hand, the lesser form of effort is any effort one may or may not need to make or any choice with which one is faced in one's life; the greater form of effort, on the other hand, is effort that one makes to diminish the unconscious and distorting effect of one’s own ego, for example, one’s genetic programming and early childhood conditioning.  In principle, the greater form of effort involves the attempt to remember, to be aware of, and to embrace with gratitude, unconditionally, the all-encompassing and all-pervading reality of God. Sufis refer to this reality by the name ‘Allah,’ traditionally called al-ism al-jami’, the all-inclusive Name, inclusive of all of God’s Qualities.  With such a remembrance, the key is that a Sufi responds to whatever he or she has just thought, felt, and perceived, that is, his or her consciousness, with the unconditionally grateful awareness that his/her consciousness has come into being and is all embraced in a wave-like theophany of the Divine Ocean.  With such a remembrance, the Sufi moves toward actualising his/her original nature as a mirror image of God and all of God’s Qualities, one quality, one moment, at a time.  With such a remembrance, in other words, a Sufi comes to know his or her self, in the sense of actualising and realising its potential as an all-inclusive microcosmic image of God.  Such an unconditional embrace contrasts with the conditional nature of one's genetic programming and psychological conditioning, which urges individuals to cut off their awareness from unpleasant states and avoid or change the circumstances, conditions, associated with unpleasantness and impels them to gravitate toward pleasure and to control circumstances or conditions in which they will attain pleasure.

Consequently, at any moment and to whatever degree that the Sufi pursues the primary and greater form of effort, remembering, dzikr, God, the all-inclusive Reality, with unconditional gratitude, and eventually with love, the Sufi will be moving in the direction of deconditioning his or her self and freeing it from habitual and unconscious dependence on conditioned responses to which he or she was habituated in childhood.  Furthermore, by adopting such an unconditionally grateful stance toward God and each of God’s Theophanic Manifestations in his or her own consciousness, the Sufi even starts to undermine the deep-seated fear of not surviving that is at the root much of our genetic programming.  Hence, by focusing on the greater form of effort, first and foremost, the distorting effect that one’s conditioned ego has on one's perceptions, thoughts, and feelings will diminish.  Correspondingly, to whatever degree that one is freed from the conditioned prison of one’s ego, this will increase the likelihood that one will be able to see reality with less distortions and hence make wiser choices in the secondary and lesser form of effort in one’s life, which, even though it is secondary in importance to the greater form of effort, is still of critical importance.

In sum, Sufis attempt to cultivate awareness of God, primarily by the practice of remembering gratefully God’s Inclusiveness, which helps them both to actualise their true natures, and know their selves, as microcosmic mirror images of God as well as to free them from being confined within conditioned habits of their egos.  As a consequence of such a greater form of effort, to whatever degree that Sufis are able to liberate themselves from the perceptual veils that are the conditioned habits of their egos, their ability to see reality as it is will increase; and hence they will be able to make better and wiser choices in the lesser but still important form of effort that is their lives.


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