Sufism and Psychology: Clinical Perspectives – by Julian Zanelli |

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March 3 by The Running Son

[ Repost from: ]

Sufism and Psychology: Clinical Perspectives

By Julian Zanelli (part 2)

In part one of this article we looked at the Path from Personality to Being, in order to gain an insight into how Sufi Psychology differs from mainstream Clinical Psychology, in terms of challenging the identifications with the personality and experientially locating ones real origin. Now in part two we will outline some clinical perspectives within Sufi Psychology that a psychologist can employ that may facilitate the path from personality to Being.

Sufi Psychology is an integrative approach which, rather than being restricted by a rigid theoretical  framework, employs a variety of clinical techniques that the experienced practitioner can use to foster the growth of the client toward the general goals outlined in the first paper, namely a letting go of attachment, dis-identification from self and consciousness of Being. It uses a variety of therapeutic activities that sensitively, thoughtfully and intuitively challenge the fixed notions of identity that we hold onto so dearly.

Sufism has always been an eminently practical pathway, and so prefers experiential methods over abstract discussion s. For the purposes of creating consciousness of Being, Sufism differs from New Age approaches dramatically because it has a profound understanding of the process and direction of change. For over 1400 years Sufism has possessed a clear understanding of the relationship between personality and Being and has mapped out the pathways of change that result in is-identification from self. Sufism and Sufi Psychology direct attention toward de-structuring the ego/personality and re-integrating this transformed personality in order to get to higher consciousness or Being. This is unlike many other methods, such as New Age approaches, where the attempt is to bring Being into the personality, or more correctly, assuming to bring Being into personality. This distinction is not simply semantic but a fundamental perspective on the nature of reality. Chilean Psychiatrist Dr. Claudio Naranjo, who helped bring the Sufi ego/personality map of the Enneagram to the West, illustrates the dangers of confusing the process of integration succinctly when he warns us that “the ego rides the spirit’s wave”, (1) referring to some dangers in the early work on the psycho-spiritual path. It is inevitable that the individual will attach to some aspects of Being that emerge in to awareness in the course of psycho-spiritual work and assume them to be their own doing, and integrate them into the  personality. However this process is actively fought against in Sufi Psychology, since Being and its qualities must be properly recognized as other than “I”.

As mentioned in part one there is an obvious need to evaluate the stability of the client prior to undertaking psycho-spiritual development. Sufficient care needs to be taken in diagnosis and treatment so as not to forego rehabilitative, remedial or developmental work which may be necessary as a precursor for the work of Sufi Psychology. That is to say that consensual reality must be attained before it can be challenged. From the point of view of deconstructing and disentangling the sense of self and becoming aware of Being as the source of self, it is important to be able to tolerate a large degree of flux in self concept without either regressing or  resorting to interpreting experience in ways that are detrimental to ones health. As former Harvard Psychology Professor and Researcher, Dr Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) said (2)“You have to be somebody before you can be nobody”. For most people it is the very act of creating a functional sense of identity in the normal course of both childhood development and psychological work that allows us to make these readjustments, because it simultaneously builds in us the capacity to tolerate change and uncertainty, test internal with external reality, and establishes a basic trust and confidence that, irrespective of any disruption to our normal way of thinking, we will be able to continue functioning.

Clinical Perspectives

For the most part therapists try to be aware of their own perspectives and ideally will have the ability to operate out of multiple perspectives and aim to learn additional perspectives which expands both the therapist and the therapeutic outcomes. Following are some important perspectives which can set the scene for the work of Sufi Psychology expanding the experience and outcomes of therapy along a pathway toward consciousness of Being. These perspectives are not listed here in any specific order.


In the secular clinical setting we can clearly recognise the need and benefit of a client finding a subjective sense of purpose. However, it is difficult from the position of psychology alone to say that there is an objective reason for humans to be here on earth, i.e. what our objective purpose for existence is. Psychologists generally leave that conversation to religion and philosophy. In Sufism and Sufi Psychology purpose is recognised, not as a religious theory, but as a real phenomena flowing out from our ontological nature. There is an objective purpose in our existence, it is to fulfill, to the extent possible, the inward journey to the heart, to truly know ourselves and realise Being as the very source of us. Referring to this ontological origin of purpose, Fleur Nassery Bonnin says, “Since ontologically we can only experience life as truly meaningful when it is pursued according to its original purpose, when this purpose is not understood, we are bound to look for meaning in the wrong places.”(3)

This perspective brings us to the conclusion that, like all things, people are in harmony and function best when they are living and acting in accordance with the purpose of this journey of life. Meaning when they Have discovered the answer to the fundamental questions “Who am I and Why am I here”.

The importance of the subjective sense of purpose in mainstream psychological work is mirrored and magnified in Sufi Psychology, where the objective purpose becomes central and acts as an anchor that holds us firm against the turbulence of life’s challenges and events and sustains us in the often Confronting world of deep psychological and psycho-spiritual work.  Discovering a purpose to do this work creates a perspective larger than the self– that effectively holds the client –allowing them to gradually release their tight attachment and grip on the personality. As Victor Frankl famously said “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.(4) Conversely wherever there is an insufficient sense of purpose there will be an increase in hesitancy, doubt and fear, leading to the automatic clinging to the personality, which derails and hampers the response or action that follows.

So how do we facilitate the journey from the limited subjective purpose to incorporate it in the larger, Expanded and encompassing objective purpose? Like all real psycho-spiritual work this happens through a process of unfoldment.

We begin with the client’s purpose in seeking therapy which can and should be understood in its prima facie manifestation, as well as in its symbolic yearning for knowledge of self. Secretly, in the core of the problems of a client’s life, lies the desire to know their being more fully. Addressing both levels of the presenting issues allows the flourishing of this desire to grow and change through knowledge of Being.

Between these two levels of purpose, the subjective and the objective, lies a connection that the Sufi Psychologist endeavours to uncover and bring to the client’s awareness. This is done so that the client’s ordinary perception is once again expanded, and the client can see their illness, struggle and growth within a larger dimension, one that is beyond their normal delineations of self.

When the relationship between the subjective purpose and the objective reality of purpose is realised by the client, they experience a surge in psychic resources. There is a shift in willingness and preparedness in a client who attains this understanding to go through whatever is needed. It is this sustaining and energizing aspect of purpose that allows the client sufficient structure so that they don’t have to hold themselves together quite so vigilantly thereby facilitating the dismantling of the fundamentally narcissistic process of identification.

Authentic Contact

There are significant impediments to the establishment of all levels of contact that might occur in both mainstream psychology and Sufi Psychology, and these impediments are becoming more prevalent in Western society. Erich Fromm, in ‘The Art of Loving’, refers to those people, who are ostensibly healthy, but “ who chatter instead of talk, and who assert cliché opinions instead of thinking” , as “ zombies…. people whose souls are dead”(5) Perhaps this seems extreme however he was not alone as a clinician and theorist in this strong response to an increasingly large proportion of our society. Wilfred Bion described the issue as one of psychic formlessness and thus an inability to link together thoughts and feelings to become productive psychologically.(6) Bion referred to this constant regurgitating of information, without ever realising its true importance to them selves, as not having digested the information. More famously, and perhaps with a more spiritual emphasis, Jung(7) refers to the “aimless experience” of having projected the “soul image” or anima onto another, rather than having found it inside oneself. Each of these theorists approached the same deadness of the disconnected personality from different perspectives. These striking references are often noticed where narcissism is discussed in psychological literature, where excessive self interest seems to have a deadening effect on the individual and their relations with others. This theme will be further elaborated in part three of this article.

To some extent, this deadening self interest is an inevitable quality stemming from the alienation from Being, and it could be described as creating a gap between the outside world and the deeper and more personal core of a person. In fact, it is often subjectively experienced as a gap between the person and the deeper aspects of their self. The question, loosely posed, “How is this gap breached? ” is seen as the necessary doorway whose answer counters the relative psychic deadness of clients with limited internal lives. Most people are in this category, to differing extents, as they begin to disengage their systems of

This deadness, which is usually unconscious, is enlivened in certain moments where the personality no longer represses some part of our being. It is more than knowledge that moves in these moments of de-repression, it is always liveliness, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, but always lively. This liveliness is a quality of Being that one re-connects with as the repression partially lifts.

The ability to open up the personality to such an extent that it can receive and relate directly to another is of paramount importance to psychology and any real psycho-spiritual work. It is this endeavour that these, and other, psychologists have focused so much attentionon in the last 50 years.

In mainstream therapy, there is widespread acknowledgment that the quality of the therapeutic relationship affects the outcome of therapy. Sufi Psychology is not different in principle, however the ability and connection that the Sufi Psychologist brings into the process is significantly different. The level of the therapist’s development cannot be underestimated, as it provides the necessary precondition for what is called in this article, authentic contact, which is a level of connection necessary in order for the client to access some aspect of Being.

In authentic contact the Sufi Psychologist connects to something higher in herself, creating a point of contact which can act as a door through which the client could connect to an aspect of Being. The client is required to have a level of trust in the therapist and a sincere desire for truth in that moment. The sincerity of the desire for the truth is such that it effectively rises above and supersedes the personality’s desire for self protection. It is as though the heart of the therapist acts as a door to a deeper realm, and the sincerity of the client acts as a key.

Authentic contact is a doorway that leads from alienation to consciousness of Being. It radically transforms our narcissistic traits and subsequent compensations for the deeper shame, allowing us to engage with the world more truthfully. Authentic contact here is not the contact between the two people, as it is commonly understood, but contact with an aspect of Reality.

Relationship to Truth

Implicit in this gradual change in consciousness of Being is a change in the personality’s relationship to truth. Psychologists are generally aware that the very nature of neurotic and distorted thinking contains at some level an unwillingness to face the truth. This is to be contrasted with psychosis, where there is not only unwillingness, but also an inability to tolerate and comprehend certain aspects of psychological truth (8). In contrast the psychologically healthy adult has the potential to face the truth, in fact it is one of his few existential and inalienable rights. His fear of it though, is a large part of what keeps him alienated from his deepest self.

In Sufi Psychology, truth is something that is given higher value than the personality . Since self preservation of the psyche arises as a drive to maintain stability of identity, despite the natural world around us constantly changing, clients unconsciously strive to remain as they always have been. Sufi Psychology challenges these static notions through an unyielding focus on truth. Such a focus on truth necessarily creates a dissonance in our internal lives, because the lies we live by, the untruths that
have become part of ever yday life are brought to light. Because we are attached to our notions of ourselves more than we love the truth, in psycho-spiritual work the objective is to gradually invert this
relationship. Clients can learn to love the truth more than they love their distorted notions of who and what they are.

Someone engaged in psycho-spiritual therapy must eventually be prepared to be expanded by truth, such that their whole mind is gradually transformed and they are able to recognise the soul saving vitality of Truth as coming not from their projections into it, but as existing on its own. In order to perceive and receive Truth, they cannot remain alienated from their own being and must be prepared to be changed so that they can experience themselves as “Am-ness”.

As the relationship to truth evolves, they see Truth as something that exists independently of them, but they realise that their surrender to it gradually transforms them.  In time this allows another relationship to invert, that of primary identification, which shifts from the personality to Being. Consequently their perception of self changes from seeing the personality as the doer and receiver (self as agent), to
recognizing that Being, previously perceived as external to them, is in fact the doer and receiver. What was previously distant and intangible is perceived as the Reality of Being, and what was seen as real is
now seen as ephemeral and illusory.


And so we can see in Sufi Psychology the purpose of life is a fundamental perspective, encapsulating all therapeutic activities, which acts as a primary interpretative lens. The Sufi Psychologist works with the client’s subjective purpose and elucidates the link between that and the expansive and encompassing objective purpose. Authentic contact is a method of further aligning with the truth, as the personality is momentarily bypassed and aspects of Being are experienced in the presence of another in the therapeutic setting. As clients surrender to Truth, which is not only a concept, but something experiential, they let go of their false reified notions of self, becoming less entrapped by self identifications and the constant distress and upheavals of the ego/personality.

Having looked at these broad clinical perspectives, part three of this article identifies some of the resistances and problems that psychologists can expect to encounter in their application.

(1) From the lecture “An Evening with Dr Claudio Naranjo: From Personality to Spirit – Enneagram” Sydney 2002
(2) Ram Dass: Consciousness and Current Events Tape # 2 Houston Texas; 1993. Hanuman Foundation Tape Library.
(3) Bonnin, Fleur Nassery: The Relevance of Sufism and Psychology.
(4) Frankl, V. Mans Search for Meaning. Pocket 1946
(5) Fromm, E. The Art of Loving : 1975 Unwin Paperbacks. p 95
(6) Sayers, J. Divine Therapy; Love Mysticism and Psychoanalysis. Oxford University Press, 2003
(7) ibid p 86-88
(8) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders IV TR American Psychiatric Publishing. June 2000

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RFB editor Jim Aldrich, Joshua Tree CA 2013

RunningSon aka Jim Aldrich, Joshua Tree CA 2013 | This site is dedicated with the deepest gratitude to Dr. Cláudio Naranjo, whose writings gave me life.

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