Toward a Sufism Psychotherapy
One of my graduate professors taught that as psychotherapists we ought to be accountable to describe what we do, and he proposed the following framework. He said we should be able to describe our philosophy, psychology, theory of psychotherapy, and "behavior in the office", and that there should be consistency between them. I think this could be a useful framework to begin to understand what an "applied Sufi psychology" in contemporary Western society could potentially be. It could also help sort out how various theories and models of intervention relate to each other, and provide a context for integration.
In this article I following the proposed framework I will describe how I approach the work of psychotherapy as a student of Sufism. Rather than an exhaustive treatment of the subject, I offer this as a “work in progress”. In order to cover all four categories, I will touch lightly on each. Subsequent articles may go into greater depth and include case examples.
Philosophy addresses such questions as “What is the nature of Being?, “What is the place of the Human Being in the grand design?”, and “What is the nature of knowing?”. While philosophy is too small a category to contain the perspective of Sufism, and is itself contained by Sufism, there is an inherent "world-view" that can perhaps be expressed (with the caveat that the words themselves neither contain nor necessarily transfer the meaning). This view can be summarized as "There is nothing but God".
From that perspective, the person can not be understood apart from the whole, whose nature is unity. Any perceived separation between myself and my client, then, is a reflection of the limitation of my own awareness.
Knowing is also based on the relationship to the whole. Whereas, in much of Western psychology, it is assumed that one can only know of one’s client what one derives by inference from information gathered through the senses, Sufism recognizes another kind of knowing, received directly from the Unity. "He knoweth what appeareth to His creatures as before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as he willeth" - Koran Sura II, verse 255. This revealed knowledge, known in Western traditions as gnosis, and in Sufism as erfan, is a direct cognition that enhances and clarifies the knowledge that the mind assimilates by sensory observation.
Psychology attempts to answer such questions as "What is self, and what is its origin?", "What is the nature of the human being?", "What are the relations between self, nature, and personality?", "What is the optimal inner state of the healthy human being?", "What is the cause of inner distress?" For this article, let us just consider one of these – the idea of “self”.
Much of Western psychology is under the influence of the belief that the mind is the product of the brain, and that "self" is but a construct, an organizing principle within a subjective world which reflects the competing needs of the body and the interpersonal environment. Most views see the self as a central feature of mind which is itself inexplicably the product of the brain. Therefore, from this perspective this tiny, mostly unknown entity, “self” is the result of physical causes within and without.
Sufism turns this image inside-out. From this perspective, self is now ultimately very large and includes everything within it. "You think you are small body, but within you exists the entire universe" - Amir-al-Momenin Ali. Self is caused by the only cause of everything, the original cause – Allah - Who is its origin (and ultimate destination).
The subject of psychological distress has been eloquently discussed in a recent article by George Matchette entitled Toward an Understanding of Diagnosis in Sufism Psychology (SPF Newsletter, V. III, No.1). As he describes, "psychopathology" is ultimately separation from the Divine. This can also be understood as being unaware of one's true identity. Without this awareness, all ideas about self are subjective constructs that miss Reality.
Theory of Psychotherapy
Therefore, it is the task of the "Sufi psychotherapist" (healer, really) to help the person remember his or her real self, and to try to assist the person to realize his or her relationship to the whole . This capacity is based on the therapist’s own awareness of his or her own real self and relationship to the whole. In this case, healing is the result of a magnetic resonance between the therapist and client. This resonance is a process of both perception and influence.
Both perception and influence are based on awareness. Awareness is experienced as light in the heart. It is increased by drawing closer to source of the light, the Reality, the point of Unity, where there is no separation. In An Introduction to Religion, Shah Nazar Seyyed Ali Kianfar states “According to Sufi teachers, knowledge is a divine ray that enters the heart of a salek who has prepared himself through practice, worship, and meditation. Mind also will be illuminated by this knowledge, and finally the striving human being will become a manifestation of that knowledge” (p. 51).
Magnetic resonance effects healing in the client because the therapist's awareness mirrors the client's. This mirroring awareness elicits from within the client the memory of his or her own true identity, the origin of existence, that calls forth growth just as the sun elicits the growth of the plant which struggles to reach for the rays that nourish.
The significance of this category is in distinguishing that whatever theories therapists espouse do not necessarily correlate with what they actually do. Two adherents to the same theory may produce very different effects in the consulting room, while another two therapists who are in warring theoretical camps may in fact appear technically very similar on videotape. Sufi psychotherapist has available the entire corpus of therapeutic competencies and techniques from which to cull interventions. These competencies are the part of the craft of psychotherapy.
The application of these skills, however, can be artful or artless. One can teach a person active listening, but can this person actually hear? What makes the difference, I believe, is in the quality of attention that the therapist brings to the listening moment. I recently learned that the Latin root of "therapy" means "to attend to". This quality of attention that allows the therapist to hear beyond the limitation of the client's subjectivity (and his or her own) is based on inner cultivation and concentration. This cultivation does not begin when one enters the consulting room. A colleague recently asked me, "Why limit it to “behavior in the office”?
Actually, this ability to hear, I believe, begins on one's meditation mat and prayer rug. One has to find a place of awareness within that is beyond information gathered by the senses, beyond the calculations of the brain, that is still and empty and receptive. In that place of meditation one can discover a source of light. This light will illuminate whatever crosses its field.
In Sufism, we practice by concentrating in the heart. Just as there is an "eye of the heart" there is an "ear of the heart". With this inward ear we can hear what our clients have not yet spoken, perhaps even to themselves; we can hear the whisper of the their true selves wishing to be heard amidst the clamor of their fragmented personalities. In order to hear with this ear, we must first be inwardly silent. This silence is cultivated by being very still within oneself. When we can sit still within, we become qualified to sit in the therapist's chair.
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