(or, What We Have Learned So Far)
All right. This is an insane mash-up of Sufism, Gurdjieff/Bennett/Fripp psychology, Robert Anton Wilson, CBT, and Marxist theories of ideology including Gramsci, Althusser and Eagleton. There's even a bit of Dianetics, the abreaction therapy which got real results before its rummed-out sci-fi-writing developer decided to turn it into a mind control cult. You ready for this?
You have a body, you have a nafs (ego), you have an intellect, and what is "you" past all that we call "heart" or "spirit".
The nafs is the part of the mind which lives in the here-and-now and adapts to it as best it can. The nafs is like a cat: with many admirable qualities and not "bad" in
any way, but utterly and completely selfish and forgetful about anything which isn't about fulfilling its needs. That's just its nature.
The intellect is a tool, a list of rules of logic. The Arabic word for intellect is 'aql which literally means "hobble". If your nafs is a camel or a donkey, your intellect is what prevents it running amok and eating all the dates, smashing up the tent, or just running to the hashish plantation and eating itself silly.
The spirit, Sufis say, is a "guest" in this $2.99 Real World Of Horrible Jobs, which lives in the house of the nafs. It comes from "elsewhere". It's an emergent phenomenon, not amenable to rules of logic.
The primary way that the nafs negotiates Life-As-It-Is is to build at least one IDENTITY: a "character", a script, a bunch of rules, set up to negotiate the challenges, games and rules of the Real World of Horrible Jobs successfully. "I am this - I am NOT that".
The nafs' needs are therefore those which will make the identity stronger - build up the "I" and its defences against the "not-I". Althusser put it this way, that the identity is interpellated by social structure - society provides the rules and the nafs "rolls up" a character to play them.
But let us also note that most people have more than one
Identity, and we're not just talking about DID/MPD people here. You are
not the same person when talking to your boss, your best friend, your
aunty, your lover or to the cop who's trying to arrest you on a demo.
The question is of course whether these Identities are part of a unified
complex, whether they're at cross-purposes, or whether sometimes
they're unaware of each other, or at least pretend to be.
example of what I'm talking about is the senior Buddhist monk I read
about in Thailand, who was in the habit of sneaking out of the monastery
late at night, putting on a wig and a fake general's uniform, and
cruising the casinos and whorehouses. Similar of course to all those homophobic politicians in the USA found hiring rent boys to "lift their luggage" and similar. Such people are not necessarily conscious hypocrites, but might
have two or more Identities, each attempting to get a piece of "the good
stuff" that a particular society has to offer, even if one is doing all
kinds of things that the other is shocked and appalled by. Someone who splits up their Identity enough can have their cake and eat it too, until someone else notices the bookkeeping errors.
we say "selfish", though, we may mean enlightened or benighted, depending on how far out from the body the nafs draws its boundaries. The
nafs is there to
provide for the body's needs but it also has needs of its own. Sometimes
the nafs puts its own needs ahead of the body's needs, tending to ill
health. Or other times the nafs will put the needs of others ahead of
its own immediate needs, in order to build up its chosen identity (e.g.
sacrificing lots of time, energy and resources on an organisation,
family members, etc).
Being a good provider for one's family or a community volunteer might be the nafs' way of getting its needs met, especially if it has a good relationship with the intellect. This
is why following "rules", as in dogmatic religion or politics, does not defeat the
nafs - it just creates the new "Good Person" identity, but it's just another identity, perhaps weaker and stronger in different parts than the old one, but no more creative. And we keep saying, "revolutionary" can be a pretty constricting identity as well - just another set of rules to follow. In fact, as we will explore below, a revolutionary, like a master musician or a darvish, is called up to serve creativity above all.
CBT analyses an identity as composed of a Bottom Line and Rules of Behaviour. We
teach our children them various rules which will enable them to play social games
effectively, and to use their intellect to work out ways in which the
nafs can get what it wants without evoking the wrath or opposition of others. And also, all through our lives, we develop further and secondary Rules based on our experience.
Bottom Lines might be seen as being composed of various mental "film clips" - either memories or fantasies with the label THIS MUST HAPPEN or THIS MUST NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN. These pictures are so painful they are shoved into the "unconscious" (the "id", the part of the mind which is "not-me" according to the Identity and thus actively ignored) and keep running on automatic without the identity having any conscious clue about why things keep going wrong. ("Why do I keep doing stupid / self-destructive things like that?")
So: therefore, much "unnecessary suffering" is caused by the nafs running one or more Identity "programmes" based on childlike, faulty, incomplete or obsolete Bottom Lines / Rules of Behaviour. It is difficult to underestimate the power of habit. People will keep on with Rules of Behaviour which solved one problem a long time ago but never got shut off, and therefore become the new, hidden problem.
It becomes even more complicated because the Identity will try to deliberately keep the mental film-clips running, because to switch them off will deprive the Identity of its raison d'être. An Identity will defend its own existence at all costs. Mindfulness practice will allow one to individually monitor these processes, find the Rules of Behaviour they embody. But it's very hard. All the nafs wants to do is to go back to running on automatic, which is so much easier (less effort).
We've already mentioned CBT, which deals with these thought/emotion complexes by questioning them - using the intellect as a tool to erase them gradually. Abreactive therapy (eg. Hubbard's Dianetics) aimed to erase these
mental pictures (engrams) by consciously recalling them and feeling the
pain which went along with them, to relieve the need to keep them
running consciously. I've got good results from solo abreactive
therapy like the Universal Conscious Process, but it only works if
there's a safe space in which you can feel these feelings without
pulling the emergency stop button.
Which brings me to the most important question of why psychotherapy is so difficult: the nafs will fight stubbornly protect itself and the Identities it creates. The counsellor will be in a therapeutic alliance with the intellect, but the nafs will be scheming to try to figure out how to keep its own little games going. So trained counsellors who can
provide such a safe space are generally worth the expense - for exactly the same reason that in Sufism one must have a spiritual master (someone who has actually learned to submit nafs to spirit) to make any progress.
But really, all psychology is a subset of the tools of reality tunnel hacking, for which see below...
We want to minimise or eliminate "unnecessary suffering" to leave as much emotional and physical energy necessary to (a) meet the being's own real as opposed to imaginary needs to survive in this world; (b) undergo the necessary suffering of creating something new in this world.
Creativity - i.e. introducing something into the world which wasn't
there before - comes from the spirit. What else comes from the spirit is
last-ditch holding operations when the nafs has lost control of a
situation and can't help itself. (Hence mothers ripping car doors off their
hinges to save the kids, people's "fairy godmothers" coming to them in a
dream and telling them not to kill themselves, and all other "I never realised I had it in me" moments.)
So each act of creativity is "fighting against gravity" - a guest in the house persuading her host to change how she does things and also her friends and neighbours. It is inherently unlikely. Fighting against gravity spends time, energy and resources to merely stand still - it is suffering. It is also worthwhile.
If we (intellectually) decide we want more creativity in our life, then our task is to make our house welcoming for the spirit. An Arabic proverb is that "the nafs is fed from the mouth, the spirit is fed from the ear". I'm sure you can think of various ways that you can declutter your life a bit so you can have more room for creativity.
A REALITY TUNNEL is the subset of the whole sensory experience of life as coloured by the Identity's need to divide the universe into "me" and "not-me".
The broad mass majority of people forget that they built their identity and believe that they ARE
their identity, and that their reality-tunnel IS reality. In fact, particularly in "intellectuals" (people who use their intellect as their primary tool for dealing with reality), quite often they'll adopt the reality tunnel first, and then "naturally" assume the Identity which goes with it.
As Althusser put it, if you kneel in the same place and pray for long enough you WILL believe in God, sooner or later. Wise people know, therefore, that their own reality tunnel limits them, and strive towards objectivity. Any idiot knows that someone else's reality tunnel is limiting them, and set themselves the goal of changing their minds through brute force, trickery or simple drudging repetition.
To use Gramsci's terminology, "common sense" is the rules that your nafs has learned about how to hold its Identity together in the World-As-Is. "Good sense" is what you learn from your own practice. "Common sense" is much easier to follow.
This is where "magick", variously defined as "folk
parapsychology" or "the art and science of changing consciousness in
accordance with will", comes in. All the magickal rituals boil down to is an individual
attempting to "hack" their own reality tunnel, in an attempt to make
possible what appeared to be impossible, or at least to make melt into
air what appeared to be solid - to expand their own personal universe and self-perceived qualities. What they all have in common is an
attempt by someone to break down and rebuild an identity which has become limiting.
it's only "magick" when one person or a group do it to themselves. If
one person or a group do it to someone else, it's called "public
relations", "propaganda", "psychology" or "brainwashing" - and the skills are precisely the same. Repetition, association, attention-grabbing, all that stuff they teach you in marketing textbooks. The technology is identical. (As R. A. Wilson pointed out, another name for building a new Identity from scratch and learning to live in it is "method acting".)
The reason magick has such a low success rate, though is the same reason that self-therapy is hard - if you don't have an objective therapist (or Master) overseeing the process, fooling or even brainwashing yourself is just too goddamned easy. Changing yourself is easy once you've become objective - but that is possibly the hardest thing imaginable, on your own. As Esmeralda Weatherwax put it, you need to know three things to be a Witch - what's real, what's not real, and what the difference is.
This is the hidden way in which "if you want to change the world, start
with yourself" is actually good advice rather than sappy moralism. Another word for reality tunnel hacking, which would include all the methods above, might be parallax practice - "an apparent change in reality brought about by a change in the observation-position of the observer".
You'd hope that this could add to real-world activities in order to make them easier, to deal with obstacles which might actually just be optical illusions if you shift your perspective.But vice-versa - the more you bring yourself into contact with
reality outside your personal reality tunnel (in particular, things that
are hard or painful, people who are mean or just disagree with you),
the more you can your own personal reality.
Which may be an answer to the question: "why is
life hard?" and also provide an answer to "why are people on the internet / in small socialist groups crazy?" (Because they spent far too much time talking only to people like them and they've totally lost any objectivity.)
Given the "reality tunnel" model, most people are looking at the world with sunglasses stapled to their foreheads and wondering why everything's so dark. They built their identity to survive and thrive in the World-As-Given, but their identity - their class position as well as all the other parts of their "habitus" - prevents them from understanding what's really going on without a lot of work. And this problem has only spread over the last 150 years or so.
Marx said that the workers have nothing to lose but their
chains, that they were the revolutionary class not only because they held the whole system up but that they had no selfish interest in doing so. But that was perhaps more true when the proletariat were only
useful as labour and breeders of more labour.
Since the early 20th
century, when the proletariat became first political subjects then
consumers, and therefore the objects of propaganda, no matter how
objectively immiserated we are, we now have our very IDENTITIES
(previously moulded by family, church and immediate society) moulded by
mass propaganda. No wonder we can no longer see the wood for the
thousand miles of billboards. Losing one's identity as a consumer of goods and media narratives is freakin' terrifying if that's all that been keeping you from existential dread and killing your family.
Of course middle-class snobs look down on the workers "wasting their money" on consumer goods, even though that - even more than religion - is now "the soul of a soulless condition". Not that prosperity gospels and fundamentalist religions - which offer you "suffering with a point", i.e. both the earthly and heavenly paradises - are getting any less popular in the current economic slump. But even just "opting out" of consumer society,
like the lifestyle anarchists and the Situationists wanted to do, can be
just another trap. The middle class just have a different set of identities to escape into.
A Sufi sheikh once said to me: "some people lose
their ego when they start coming here, and then they just grow another
ego". The political equivalent of this is to become a lifestyle revolutionary
- where revolutionary activism is not an attempt to change the world,
but an "entrepreneurial" attempt by the alienated subject to create a
new place in the world. Fighting the cops then having a few home brews
and vegan biryanis with your mates can be a lot of fun.
A similar problem is when the revolutionary group, or the revolutionary analysis
becomes the Identity which can't be relinquished. If you "are" your
party, or you "are" your analysis, and that "defending" either of those
is what your political activity is about, then you are not changing the
world. You are just building a little bunker to hide from it. Political
capital is not like financial capital, you can't keep it in the bank and
earn interest. It's instead like seed corn, if you don't get it out
there it goes rotten.
So perhaps in that sense, those of us who never got on with anyone,
not even the other misfits, have some kind of advantage... although of
course being the "stone which was rejected and is now the cornerstone"
can be another addictive Identity. Identities are necessary for
survival, but they are also limiting and become obstacles to
creativity and objectivity if they can't be taken off, amended or
discarded, by whatever means you find useful. And I have tried dozens of ways to do so. At the moment, my practice is a combination of revolutionary eco-socialism with Sufism, CBT and UCP.
The workers ceased to become a class-for-themselves when they accepted their interpellated identities as consumers. This process must be reversed before we will have a mass revolutionary movement. Revolution is therefore a matter of the whole working class performing collective magick / self-therapy.
Hazrat-e-Pir Dr Javad Nurbakhsh was Professor of Psychiatry at Tehran University as well as the Master of the Ni'matullahi Sufi Order. So he was ideally placed to sum up this blog's attempt to reconcile psychology and spirituality (although the politics and memetics are our own addition to the mix).
The way he put it, there were "superficial similarities" between Sufi practice and psychotherapy; the difference being that psychotherapy was about making the nafs healthy and strong, a necessary prerequisite to the Sufi goal of transcending the nafs altogether.
Gurdjieff talked about the goal of his practice being to "awake the
conscience". This is identical with "heart" or "spirit" in the schema
we've been using - a place of action which is independent from all the
(rightly or wrongly) selfish and self-serving considerations of the
nafs. (This "true conscience" we separate from the super-ego or "false conscience", that part of the Identity which enforces the rules on itself by nagging in a voice that the Identity is used to obeying.)
Essentially, most of the mystic traditions like Sufism or Zen work
on a "subtractive logic" to achieve this - if you are mindful of all
the thoughts and feelings that the nafs stirs up, and you stand back
from them and watch them settle through a meditative practice, then whatever is left is spirit. The goal then is not to abolish or wipe out the nafs - which would mean
physical death or being unable to look after yourself - but to develop
the spirit, heart, or true conscience as an alternative source of action.
This is necessary because only the "spirit" has any hope of being objective. Mysticism is an attempt to solve the observer-experimenter problem identified by Heisenberg by making the observer "nothing".
Like the Sufis, our equivalent for God must be The Ultimate Truth And Reality - al-Haqq. We should seek dissolution in the Truth - be prepared to sacrifice everything we ever wanted for ourselves to be able to serve that Truth. But we can only find that Truth by political, psychological, cultural and spiritual action. Through action we change our awareness; through changed awareness we discern right action. Trial, and error.