Earlier: On Dimensions
“Dear Victor, I have a small question about working with books by I. Shah. Can it be said that there are certain keys for perceiving the meaning of any (or most) of the parables? For example, one can consider everything happening in the parable as processes happening inside a person (microcosmic key) or consider the same parable within the scope of the whole Earth, or, say, a School. Some esoteric sources speak about existence of such keys. Could you please clarify this matter?”
REMARKS ON WORKING WITH SUFI TEACHING STORIES
He that writeth in blood and proverbs doth
not want to be read, but learnt by heart.
Nietzsche. Thus Spake Zarathustra
I don’t know if there are any keys for perceiving any or most of the parables published by Idries Shah, and I don’t remember coming across any explanations of such keys or even references to their existence. Moreover, I have my doubts whether such keys (if I have understood correctly what you have written), exist. Why do I think so?
First of all, because the tendency to simply consider the stories within the scope or within the context of something, arises from the work of the mind. By limiting ourselves in this way, we cut ourselves off from that part of the message which a particular story can carry for other parts of what Gurdjieff used to call “our common presence” (whether we know about it or not).
It seems to me, it would be too easy: apply one of the interpretations of this sort and, as if by magic, the door will open. There are many stories and parables which do allow application of more or less simple decoding methods: these are allegorical stories. By taking them in an appropriate context, or layer, it is possible to uncover the meaning of their content, and to interpret it accordingly. However, Sufi teaching stories are not allegories. And if they are, they are not only allegories.
Of course, many of the Sufi stories may be interpreted as being related to psychological processes. That is a valid consideration which is even useful for developing one’s understanding. But even if a story is interpreted in a psychological sense, this does not mean that its meaning is exhausted by that. It may contain a great deal more.
Idries Shah himself wrote that Sufi teaching stories are works of objective art which are used to transmit (or, more exactly, can be used to transmit - given the right place, time and a prepared person), the Higher Knowledge. We cannot perceive this Higher Knowledge because we are not prepared for it. Moreover, we don’t know what it is, and often don’t even suspect its presence. Such a preparation can be helped by not only getting to know the stories but also by studying them and familiarizing (*01) with them. In the light of this, even though considering stories as allegories (whenever it can be done) constitutes a “lower” level of understanding, it can still be a useful method. The same applies to interpreting stories as relating to states of mind.
The problem, as Shah points out, is that if a person has “understood” (in his or her opinion) a story, then he has understood it only at the level where he stands at present moment (which, naturally, may be not so high). More precisely, he understands the story at the level of his conditioning. If the person decides that “this is the meaning”, it is as if internally he considers the problem closed and therefore he can cut off the chance of further, deeper impact of the story on his “inner being”. Here is, by the way, one more example of interpretation of a famous story “The blind people and the elephant” or “The Elephant in the Dark” by Sanai and Rumi – our different parts or our “selves” sensing the higher, unusual and inexplicable [teaching] material in the blindness or in the darkness of our “consciousness”…
After multiple readings the teaching stories not only stick to one’s memory but as if “seep in”. The result of their impact can manifest itself after a long time (*02) and in a manner quite different from what we associate with “understanding”. For example, the manifestation can be a certain nonstandard reaction in a right (time, place, and people) situation. Stories also carry the teaching in such a form that we can learn by adopting and absorbing the experience directly, without participation of our mechanical mind (*03). By allowing our lower, logical mind to deal with teaching stories in a way which is customary to it, and considering the result of this as “understanding”, we can find ourselves in a situation of a boy who had dismembered a fly into its components and then wondered where the fly itself went. (One of the favorite stories of Idries Shah).
The essence of the Sufi teaching stories, as well as other works of “objective art”, is the Cosmic Laws. Knowledge of these laws is the highest knowledge available to a human, since the laws of “our” Universe are the laws of our “description of the world”. Whichever form is used to transmit the true Knowledge, its essence stays the same (*04).
The stories contain in their inner structure (often invisible) fragments of these higher Laws (*05). We don’t have an instrument for real understanding of even these fragments (more precisely, we do have it, but it is undeveloped). Teaching stories are designed to develop this organ or organs. In which way? By “tuning” into the Laws. Penetrating inside the essence of a person, the special knowledge produces a kind of harmonization of the inner world of the student, “attuning” it to the consonance with the Infinite. This feeds the embryo of our “inner being”, our real “Self”, our soul. That explains why an impact on the mind and the feelings only, is not enough: one should give the higher energy an opportunity to penetrate deeper. Of course, this applies not only to stories, but also other types of teaching. To quote Rafael Lefort (“The Teachers of Gurdjieff”):
‘How were the
How much “power” a Sufi story has depends on how “high” are the Laws it is intended to transmit. From an outward point of view (literary, psychological, etc.) it is impossible to determine the precise content of a story, the “power” contained in it. (*06).
Often the power contained in a particular story is indicated by the number of its possible interpretations. Gurdjieff mentioned that the Gospels are works of objective art. This explains their charming influence on the people for the past two thousand years. Until our days the stories of the Scripture are repeated, commented upon, interpreted, and used as a source of inspiration. And this is not surprising. Being a creation of a higher consciousness the stories of the Gospels contain in their hidden essence the structure of the same laws on which the Universe is built. For example, the famous parable of the talents can be interpreted on the level of psychology, applied to the spiritual development of a person, a school and so on. The same story can be interpreted in the context of the physical laws of the Universe. Why? Because it describes a certain more general law which permeates all spheres. (*07). (This returns us to your question on “keys”).
Perceiving one (or even more than one) aspect of the story, we may not see that it contains different aspects and level coexisting harmoniously in it. A developed person, who understands teaching stories in full and “sees” the meaning and the laws contained in the stories, can organize them in such a manner, that not only one but a group of stories will bring the necessary influence. Naturally, the task gets more complicated when the method used is that of “scattering” the ideas, disseminating [seeds]”, e.g. when the method uses, in Gurdjieff’s terminology, “B influences”. In this case, the matter in question is books and their influence on wide audience over the long-term period. Since Idries Shah used compilation and writing of books as one of the basic methods of transmitting Knowledge (*08), he aligned stories in a particular sequence in order to ensure the necessary and maximally optimal impact of the Knowledge contained in them, on the consciousness of various groups of readers. It is this aspect, in my view, which explains Shah’s recommendation, repeated many times, to read each book from its beginning to its end, and not selectively. This should be done regardless of the fact, whether the stories appeal to us or otherwise, whether we remember them or not, “understand” them or not and so on. Here are some quotes from Shah:
Selective reading, following only the things which one decides are interesting or central to Sufi – or any other kind of – knowledge, can produce ludicrous results, if it does anything at all. This has been called ‘making a comb without the teeth’. I rather like one story intended to help the learner register the need to attend to all aspects of a teaching story, or of instructions given by an authentic teacher, or even procedures handed down (*09) from antiquity:
A man was seen, dressed in exotic finery, whooping it up in the streets of a city. Someone asked him why he was doing it. “Why not?” he asked, “I am on my honeymoon!”
“But where is your bride?”
“Oh, she’s been here once before, so she stayed at home!” (*10)
To learn something, you may have often to be exposed to it many times, perhaps from different perspectives; and you also have to give it the kind of attention which will enable you to learn.
In our experience, people fail to learn from Sufi materials for the same reason that they do not learn other things – they read selectively.
The things that touch them emotionally, or which they like or are thrilled by, they will remember or seek in greater quantity and depth.
Since these are often the last materials which they will probably need, and since such an unbalanced attitude towards anything makes the person in need of balance in his approach, we have situation to which you refer. (*16)
A Sufi book will have to be read in the ordinary way several times. If the mind of the reader is not correctly prepared, he will reject the book, read it selectively, or else indoctrinate himself with the contents. All these results are undesirable. (*18)
To ensure an impact of teaching stories on people, which would be so important in content, wide in scope and long-lasting, one needs to understand deeply the essence of this type of objective art, to know the psychology of modern people and to see clearly the goal of the Work (*11). I have no means of judging whether or not Idries Shah was the Teacher of the Age, as it is frequently claimed (if would be preposterous of me to try to make any conclusions on the matter not to mention that there may be different interpretations of this term), but the gigantic work carried out by him is unparalleled in our time. This work by itself is also a product of objective art, and it couldn’t be otherwise (*12).
Therefore, in order to expose oneself correctly to the higher influences conducted by Sufi stories, one should try to follow the recommendations given by the author-compiler himself.
If one tries to formulate the practical advices or rules of working with Sufi stories, recommended by Shah, then the following can be mentioned: (*13)
1. Every book should be read from its beginning to its end, and not selectively.
2. Read not just once, but several times, to memorize the stories better.
3. When reflecting about Sufi stories, discussing them (*14), interpreting them on different levels, trying to understand them, it is important not to consider any of the understandings, no matter how significant a “discovery” it may seem, as the final and only truth. One should always leave the possibility of another interpretation, another understanding, which may turn out to be a discovery of no smaller, and perhaps greater, importance and depth, even if is not always formulated (and maybe not always perceived consciously). In short, one should remain “open” to the baraka carried by these stories.
I want to give another, personal, recommendation: read Shah in English (*15). Translations can be better or worse but a part of the meaning (energy, influence) is unavoidably lost.
This message does not pretend to be an attempt to cover teaching stories from all, or many, sides (I am definitely unequal to such a task). I have simply tried to give an answer to the question according to my understanding of the subject matter, mostly using the material provided by Idries Shah.
*01 ”Familiarize yourself” is an expression used repeatedly by Shah in connection with the study of Sufi stories. (The original Russian comment emphasizes “familiarizing” in the sense of “becoming akin”). “Groups for the intensive study of this and other material proceed by a thorough familiarization with the contents of these writings: the student is asked to 'soak' himself in them, as rain soaks into the earth.” (“The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West”)
Clearly, this requires a special attitude to the material. This is why, when speaking about his books, Idries Shah mentions “…asking interested people to read them carefully” (“Learning How To Learn”, chapter “Thinking in Terms of Supply-and-Demand”)
*02 The patient needs time, as well as pomegranates (A story about pomegranates known to the readers of Shah)
*03 Rumi’s story about a merchant and a bird which pretended to be dead.
*04 It is the knowledge of the basic laws of Cosmos which allows applying them to completely different areas. Many stories about sages mention their intuitive ability to deal correctly with the matters of which they knew very little (or nothing at all). This is another aspect of “seeing”.
*05 This is what Shah calls inner dimensions. See the article On dimensions
*06 For example, why “The Story of Mushkil Gusha” from “Caravan of Dreams” has such an importance.
*07 It is not surprising how many interpretations were given, and can be still given, to the Seven Churches of the Revelation, considering the significance of the Law of Seven. In short, this is all mathematics. In a manner of speaking, Higher Mathematics, even though not the usual one …
*08 Even though the books were not the only methods; it is the books which are the subject of this article.
*09 “handed down”: (The original comment in Russian emphasizes different shades of meaning of this expression)
*10 “Special Illumination” by Idries Shah.
*11 A special difficulty in the work of Shah was that sometimes there was a lack of traditional material which would be applicable at present time in the West, and to build a necessary chain of influence he had to compose his own parables as missing links.
*12 In the light of the tasks carried out by him, during the last years of his life Idries Shah has prepared for publication a series of children’s books, containing teaching stories selected by him, and having excellent illustrations. Some of these books have already been published, but not all.
*13 Naturally, this excludes the methods that could be prescribed to an individual or a specifically selected groups by a real “seeing” teacher.
*14 By no means all stories are intended for discussion, especially in a random circle, on the Internet etc. Instead of absorbing the correct impact of the story one can get subjected to conditioning by a random, alien, incorrect (and, most importantly, unnecessary) opinion. It should be also taken into account that in a “wide” discussion, besides you and “your circle”, there are others who may not benefit from falling into dependence on interpretations expressed by those people whom they may consider as authority, for one or another reason (for example, because of a longer “track record” of reading or being interested). But these are more complicated questions related to working in groups and so on.
*15 Yes, yes, the objections are known (I’m like that myself!): no time to learn the language; I understand better in Russian, I am not [very] good at languages; boring etc, etc… But the issue can be formulated for oneself as a question of effort and payment. Besides, one does not have to learn the language separately, and in an academic setting. There are accelerated methods. And one can invent a method to learn a language through reading book(s). To sum up, given a serious desire…
Even in the Russian version of such an apparently easy to translate book as "The Teachers of Gurdjieff" by Rafael Lefort one can find idiotic distortions which cloud or change the meaning of the text. And this book, in my opinion, is invaluable in its concentration of the very aspects and principles of the Sufi work.
*16 Idries Shah, “Learning How To Learn”, chapter “Learning and non-Learning”
*17 A similar thought is stated by Shah in a different place:
“He [a person] must realize that merely supposing that he understands the foregoing is often simply a prelude to forgetting it.” (“Learning How To Learn”, chapter “The Levels of Service”)
*18 Idries Shah, “Learning How to Learn”, chapter “The Number of Readings of a Book”
In an article about Idries Shah and
Material on this topic can also be found in the book “Learning How To Learn” by Idries Shah
(chapters “Some Characteristics of Sufi Literature”, “Idiot’s Wisdom”, “The Numbers of Readings of a
Book”) and other books by him (see bibliography), on tapes (“On Learning from Stories”), in Robert
Ornstein (Robert Ornstein on Teaching Stories) and others.
Translated from Russian by Vladimir B.