Sunday, 25 November 2018

“This is the Home Service calling”: The Sufi Way

“This is the Home Service calling; Home Service calling. Are you receiving us?”

We live in a world inundated with information – of fact and fiction, opinion masquerading as fact, misinformation, disinformation, and misguidance, and we exiles from the Real World are in constant and growing danger of drowning in it, and of being buried and lost, like a hidden treasure, beneath an ever-growing mountain of egotism and globalized sham-materialism.

Perhaps we are not in a position to do much, at the present moment, about the all-pervasive beast of sham-materialism, but as the wise saying goes, “If you want to change the world, first change yourself”. As a part of that more manageable, but nevertheless difficult task – not least the question of how to get in touch with our own self at our authentic core and discover its real needs (as opposed to its desires) – we can turn our attention to how we communicate – with ourselves, with others, and with something transcendent that has risen above our own miserable difficulties.

So, we turn first to facts.

Of course, facts are very useful as correctives to misconceptions or misguidance (if we can sift out fact from opinion, falsity and fake news), and to provide pointers to remedial material and growth – I don't doubt that for a minute. But it needs to be emphasized that knowing a fact such as “Apples are nutritious” is not at all the same thing as actually eating, digesting and deriving nutritional benefits from a fruit. As Alfred Korzybsk is reported to have once said, the map is not the territory, or more accurately in his own words: “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” So the fact that certain fruit are nutritious might be useful in getting us to actually research nutrition and locate and consume suitably nutritious foods; though its limitations would be disclosed if it were to lead a person instead to binge on crisps and chocolate biscuits and eventually become obese.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The inspired self, and intuition: The Sufi Way

“How will I know if I'm being inspired and intuitive?”

Mind brain connections.
“How will I know if I'm being inspired and intuitive?”

In individual instances, you may every now and again realize that something you've thought, or said, or done, was in some way inspired, and you may congratulate yourself on what you take to be *your* inspiration, or you may assign congratulations to some “other”, perhaps someone who has influenced you, or to a psychic Muse.

Overall, however, you may not think “I'm inspired” or “I'm intuitive” and label yourself as such, in the early stages of such mastery. These instances may be few and far between, apparently random, or sporadic, and the process may well be prone to error.

Let's move on a few years, though, and say that one of your interests is computer programming, which most people would take to be a logical or “left brain” task. After that time, you may be able to look back, and see that in the initial stages, the tasks you set yourself were all very mechanical, approached in a very logical and methodical way, and perhaps that you surrounded yourself with a wall of reference books that you frequently consulted, out of necessity, to “borrow” material, or “just to be sure”. But now, years down the line, instead of being unsure about your abilities, when you are presented with a task, you may know instantly that some way or other the project is feasible, and even if you don't yet know how to complete it, you know whether or not you're likely to be able to find a solution either by yourself or with the aid of others who have already completed similar tasks. While initially it was more a matter of theoretical “know what” (which you can now see is “ten a penny”), now the primary approach is practical “know how”, and you can rest on the assurance that you have successfully completed similar, complex tasks before, and at the same time you realize that you may have to attempt several different approaches to the task, and often hit “brick walls” that you cannot get over, before you eventually complete the task.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Being How to Be: The Sufi Way

Whisperings of Love.
In the course of his lifetime, the thinker and teacher in the Sufi mystical tradition, Idries Shah wrote many books, including Learning How to Learn (a preparatory stage of study); Seeker After Truth; The Commanding Self; and Knowing How to Know. Some of these works alternate between more-didactic passages and narratives, poetry, and specially-designed teaching stories which, like an onion, contain layers of deeper meaning. Other works such as Tales of the Dervishes are collections of traditional teaching stories.

"Learning how to learn", "seeing how to see", and "knowing how to know" are abilities to develop and goals along the way, I would say, toward a more distant and yet immanent goal experienced in the here and now, which is "closer than your jugular vein", as the Sufis would say — awakening and "being how to be", which is a way of Being.

One of the tales first introduced in Shah's seminal work, The Sufis features the wise-fool Mulla Nasrudin, who is tasked with ferrying a pedant across a stretch of water.

Never Know When It Might Come in Useful

Nasrudin sometimes took people for trips in his boat. One day a fussy pedagogue hired him to ferry him across a very wide river.

As soon as they were afloat the scholar asked whether it was going to be rough.

‘Don’t ask me nothing about it,’ said Nasrudin.

‘Have you never studied grammar?’

‘No,’ said the Mulla.

‘In that case, half your life has been wasted.’

The Mulla said nothing.

Soon a terrible storm blew up. The Mulla’s crazy cockleshell was filling with water.

He leaned over towards his companion. ‘Have you ever learnt to swim?’

‘No,’ said the pedant.

‘In that case, schoolmaster, ALL your life is lost, for we are sinking.’

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Exercises: The Sufi Way

"Did the writer Idries Shah give people exercises?" someone recently asked, while another asked rhetorically, "What is the value of merely accumulating data points from reading?" Elsewhere, someone contributed to this question, as it relates to the teaching stories, an important element of "the course", like the poetry, that is sometimes neglected.

Please forgive me, I certainly don't mean to teach our good friends here how to suck eggs, nor preach to the highly experienced and talented choir! But someone did ask these questions.

Zikr (an exercise used in other traditional circles) is a repetitive, iterative exercise in remembrance, that helps you connect, and leads to improvement in certain senses.

In certain early groups, Shah had everyone chant "Om mani padme hum" at the commencement of group meetings, just as Alfredo Offidani, a one-time responsible of Omar Ali-Shah, gives a "rosal of the new phase" to all neophytes, so at a certain level there can be exercises given to all-and-sundry, as well as individually-prescribed exercises, such as those involving the lataif.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Squaring the Circle: The Sufi Way

A friend who was a mathematician once remarked, in relation to my Sufi studies, that I was "trying to square the circle". What this is in his field of work is to construct a square equal in area to a given circle, a problem that you can't solve using geometry alone, though what he meant, of course, in layman's terms was that I was trying to do something that is considered to be impossible, or even insane. The Sufis' use of the octagonal symbol may, in one sense, represent an approximation, or half-way house, for Squarelanders who need to understand circles – the Sufic materials, according to the writer, thinker and Sufi teacher Idries Shah, being half way between "mere literature", shall we say, and active Teaching.

In the case of the constant, pi – which is the numerical value of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter – we simply cannot calculate the exact value of this irrational number, because even if we calculated pi to a million digits (and this has been done, indeed some can even recite the first hundred or so from memory), the answer will still, and always, be no more than an approximation of pi. "It's turtles all the way down," as someone once remarked.

There are ways around such difficulties, however, and we need not despair. pi expressed as the fraction 22/7 will be sufficiently accurate for many everyday uses, while those with more precise needs might use 3.142 or 3.14159. These values will be perfectly adequate "for most practical intents and purposes".

In a similar way, even something as simple at first glance as calculating the square root of a number like 2 is not a trivial task, since it is also an irrational number, 1.4142135623730950488016887242097... (ad infinitum), but again we can satisfactorily make use of an approximation like 1.4142.

In a sense we could say that the task of attaining Sufihood, or of coming to comprehend the answer to "life, the universe and everything", is a similarly boundless and irrational task.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The Future History of Brexit

“You know, a second referendum might not have been such a bad idea, after all, old chap.”

Remember the First Law of Holes: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”


Friday, 22 June 2018

The Internet ain't what it used to be

The first time I “went online” was in the 80s using a BBC microcomputer borrowed from work. I dialed a long distance number to connect via a very slow modem to GreenNet to access a bulletin board about environmental issues, for a magazine I was running. Being an expensive call, I set all content to spool to a text file as I was “browsing” the text (there were no images), and got offline again as soon as possible, reading the content later, and then incorporating it into the magazine.

Then around 1999 I discovered the free dial-up service FreeServe. Well, the service was free but it might take up to six attempts before I managed to fully connect, and I was charged for those attempts to connect. Whether this was due to issues with the new technology or a deliberate policy to swell their coffers, I do not know.

Wild West

I created my very first web site around that time, and found the usenet newsgroup alt.sufi, meeting people from around the globe who were actually interested in the Way, which opened up a whole new world. This was before the first big groups like Yahoo! groups came along and began to kill off usenet.

The internet was far more open then, and there was a lot more searching around and exploring. In those days, someone might come along to the web site and stay there for ages, slowly browsing through most of the pages on the site, or (being in a web ring of like-minded sites for a time) they might browse my site having just come from the previous site in the ring, and then wander on to the next site in the ring. Again, in those days, search engines would crawl and index the whole of the site and especially at AltaVista and Yahoo! you could find my site on the first page of many results, even though it was just a chicken shack operation.