Talk with Dr. Yannis Toussulis Author of
Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden sources of a Sacred Psychology.
By David Paquiot
Both the suicide bombing that killed forty-one people earlier this year in Pakistan, and the dervish killed in the Iranian government‘s ongoing crackdown against the Sufis was a sobering reminder about how the cultural, political and social climates, to borrow a phrase from Dr. Toussulis, ‘change the articulations of sacred traditions.’ I was fortunate to have been able to further discuss some interesting points in his recent book: Sufism and the way of Blame which I reviewed in Issue 82 of Sufi magazine.
In your book you say that ‘ Religious teachings are not formed in a political vacuum, and that it is important to investigate their socio-historic context.’ You go on to treat Sufism as a multiplex phenomenon requiring a multidisciplinary approach to understand and appreciate it. Do you feel this takes away from the mystery at the heart of this mystical path, i.e that aspect of Sufism which lies beyond rational study and the mind?
Dr. Yannis Toussulis: For me, no. The point I make in my book is that Sufism is a cultural manifestation of something that is not exhausted by its multiple or manifold expressions. The heart of mysticism – any mysticism is a great mystery because it entails developing a unitive mode of perception.But such a mystery is not the same as the mystification that occurs in many esoteric or occult schools. The greatest mystery is found at the heart of life itself and not in esoterica. Sufism is one way of approaching that mystery. No one religion or form of spirituality can capture or encapsulate the sublime (and inexpressible) experience of discovering the unity that lies at the heart of life. The experience I allude to is an event, an encounter between human being and Being Itself. The rational mind (alone) is not sufficient to grasp such an event, but it nevertheless gives shape to it. One should, therefore, refine ones intuitive capacity (“spirit,” “heart,” etc.). One “catches” the experience at the heart of Sufism like a virus if one is intuitively prepared to receive it. But one must work hard to cultivate that receptivity, thus a contemplative discipline is necessary.
I have seen the sentiment expressed by some Sufis that what can be written or said about Sufism isn’t Sufism, that Sufism is an experience. Is it possible to shed light on this deeper aspect of Sufism while looking at both the sociohistoric settings and actions of some celebrated Sufis of the past?
Dr. Yannis Toussulis: I have detailed many of the “sociohistoric settings and actions” of some celebrated Sufis of the past in my book, so I will not repeat myself here. The deeper aspect of Sufism is that it helps catalyze and shape an “event.” The fully developed Sufi encounters something sublime (“God,” “Being,” etc.) in such a powerful way that it shifts his/her basic way of perceiving reality itself. This shift in perception leads to a transformation in psychological functioning; the “I” that I knew before this event is no longer the same “I.” Such an event must take on a number of interpretive forms to render it a fully developed experience. These interpretive forms are supplied by the given culture and/or religious tradition that one inhabits; and such symbolic forms are important because they help organize the “event” in a meaningful ways that can be communicated to others intersubjectively (or communally). Anyone who has an intuitive capacity can thereby attain a “taste” of such an experience, and much of Sufi poetry and metaphysics conveys that momentary impact or impression to a broader community.
Can one draw a line and say how much of the mystique of Sufism in the west can be attributed to Idries Shah, Gurdjieff, Bennett and just the natural mystique created over something novel. I would imagine given our love for novelty its harder to see things for what they are ?
“When it comes to spirituality or materiality, many of us in the West have a desire for something novel or exotic. Given this desire for something exciting and entertaining, are most of us in the West able to understand Sufism in its deeper aspects?”
If this is close to what you are asking, then I have several propositions to make. First of all, mystical experience is rarely understood (on its own terms) by most people whether “Eastern” or “Western.” The very word “mystical” originally meant “close-mouthed.” In other words, not much can be said about mysticism to those who do not have an experiential reference by which to intuitively grasp its meaning. So the question you are asking does not pertain only to people in the West. The consumption orientation that has reached an apex in the West – and which has now spread globally – is definitely a barrier, but so is the assumption that “Easterners” (or traditionalists) understand mysticism far better than secular Westerners. One thing I can say for the “East” is that traditionalist cultures still maintain a deeper interest in mysticism, but often in a deeply conformist way that is reflexive in those cultures. Romantic sentimentalism, for example, is often confused with an appreciation for mysticism in many of those settings, but I doubt that this is necessary to penetrate the deeper secrets of Sufism. In many parts of the Middle East, Sufism is more like a social movement that bears many of the features of a folk-cult that many ascribe to out of habit, but how many people can really grasp the profundity of a great Sufi like Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, for example? Instead, Easterners” and Westerners have a marked tendency to follow their own habits, and this is no less true of Muslims than it is true of non-Muslims. As far as the Islamophobia that is so prevalent in the West, much of it is an unthinking response to the events of 9/11 and the politicization of religion. My point is that one must break through the deep conditioning of the mind and psyche in order to appreciate the transformative qualities of Sufism, and this task requires an understanding of both individual and collective conditioning. As for Shah, Gurdjieff, and Bennett – and not withstanding the fact that I am critical of some (but not all) of their teachings – I think that they were trying to do this in a somewhat haphazard way. Unfortunately, all of these teachers succumbed to their own mystifications in the process, a great danger that all teachers face as they become convinced of their own authority.
What need do you feel that Sufism is addressing currently in America given its sometimes anti religious, anti-Muslim climate and the entrenched materialistic propensities.
Dr. Yannis Toussulis: Given most sociological studies, it is actually surprising to find that the United States is one of the most religious societies on the planet. For example, one study found that approximately 84% of the people in this nation profess a belief in God and most of them are nominally Christian. Many in the Middle East also profess a belief in God but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are any less egocentric or “materialistic.” Over several years of traveling in the greater Middle East I found that there is a collectivistic form of ego-centricity that is no less problematic than the hyper-individualism that one finds in America. A collectivistic form of egocentricity simply presents different problems than the hyper-individualism. Being “religious” may be a starting point, but how many people become intelligently religious? One must question what it means to be religious in the first place.
What does it mean to be religious?
Dr. Yannis Toussulis: I use the word “religious” in its original sense, from the Latin religare, “to be linked together.” A “religion,” therefore is a vehicle for linking people together and reminding them of their interdependence. We can become more interdependent in an intelligent way or we can link up as an unthinking herd. Much of what passes for religion is actually reflexive habit or cultural conditioning. The Prophet Muhammad (sa) once said, “Prayer without knowledge is useless.” For me, being religious means that one must learn to think with both ones head and ones heart; one must unite the two in a form of intuitive-intellection. Sufism, in its classical forms, educates this ability in a very direct manner that is applicable to every-day life.
While reading your book I wanted ask you, ‘What is a Sufi’ and ‘How does one identify an authentic Sufi teaching or teacher?”
Dr. Yannis Toussulis: The most important question to ask is whether or not I have an authentic desire to know God — in and for Himself. In my estimation, most seekers are actually masking other needs that they have with a need for closeness to God or Reality. These needs include a deep desire for psychological healing, a need for community, and a need for simple solace and meaning. Of course, all of these needs may be genuine in their own right, but they are not the same as a burning desire to know God or to know Being in its own right. If I am genuine in my desire for a true form of existence, then I will see-through any partial or false teacher or teaching sooner or later. Of course, one may encounter many falsehoods along the path, but suffering them and learning and finding ones truer compass is all part of ones spiritual education. As William Blake once said, “the fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” You ask, “what is a Sufi?” A simple answer would be that a “Sufi” is one follows a premise – such as “God may exist” to its final conclusion. Simply put, the “I” (in the form that we imagine) does not truly exist. Instead, it may become immediately apparent that Existence is suffused with an intelligence and compassion that was formerly inconceivable. In the process – as one of my teachers once said, “you must be crazy without truly becoming insane.” To be a Sufi, it is often said, one must balance (mystical) intoxication with sobriety. Mystical intoxication must first be found and then tamed. Sufism is one way of doing that: it can enable one to find an “intuitive” form of intellection that, nevertheless, requires a greater form of rational intelligence to succeed in its enterprise.