A Brief Biography
Idries Shah was a teacher in the Sufi tradition and a prolific author with over three dozen books on various topics published. Shah was born in Simla, India, in 1924 the descendant of Afghan nobility. He spent most of his life in London, but traveled extensively and his parents exposed him to a wide variety of cultures during his childhood to show him a "multiplicity of impacts." Shah later described this unconventional childhood as the "Sufi approach" to education. In 1960 he started his own publishing house, Octagon press, and in 1965 started an educational charity, the Institute for Cultural research. As of 2013 the institute has suspended its activities following the formation of a new charity, the Idries Shah Foundation. Shah died, in London, in 1996.
His Works, My Discovery
I discovered the work of Shah last year while we were moving stock on the third floor in preparation for the refurbishment. Since then I've been reading his book 'Knowing How To Know' which is described as a practical philosophy in the Sufi tradition. I appreciate the honest practical writing of Shah and will share some of the more inspiring aphorisms from that book. However, I would recommend anyone interested in mysticism, practical philosophy, or especially Sufism to seek out his works. The book was published posthumously in 1998 (the edition I have) and in paperback in 2000. It represents the completion of a series of Shah's books that, the study of which, form a course he had developed during his life.
Some selections from Knowing How To Know (1998)
Are Men Machines?
People do not like being called machines. And yet most people are not even machines in lacking faculties for evaluating the qualitative nature of experience. Instead of being able to perceive the spectrum of influences in a single experience, they feel it transcendental if it moves them. Unlike a machine, too, the human being has no switching gear to turn experience on and off. And man has no means of engendering experience except by the most hazardous trial-and-error ones such as throwing himself into random situations or ingesting drugs.
One of the purposes of a real esoteric training is first to acquire lower control, control such as a machine might have, before higher controls can be attained.
You ask me why I criticise only one side, when I could be pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of both.
By doing so, you ignore the fact that nobody nowadays needs to write a book criticising, say, the plague virus.
Equally, when antibiotics are so well known, you merely record their efficacy or otherwise: You do not have to rhapsodise about them when this has already been done.
One must know the difference between constructive description and sheer wallowing in words.
In order to know this, one must have a basis of knowledge as to how words are used, and what is didactic and what is not.
Otherwise, you will merely be at the mercy of the conditioning power of words and personalities.
Cause and Effect
Every person must learn to ask himself:
'Am I attributing this or that thing, this appearance or that effect, to some cause or origin which may not be its cause?'
All cultures teach their people to do this in certain subjects and in a few areas. But the net result of this has been for people to do it in as few, not as many, instances as possible.
Selection from p. 81
"There is nobody more trivial than a person in authority who spends his time telling others what to do and who does not do things himself."
How sad that people dignify their activities too much.
They use fine words to describe processes which, if only looked at in the face, would enable them to acquire some humility.
People often have to 'burn off' surplus evaporating volatile substances.
But this is still regarded as significant, because self-esteem is so powerful that a man has to conceal his absurdity and even his normal needs by using bombast.
People do not like to be described as machines. It is true that only a man - not a machine or even an ape - could go so far as to describe the processes of physics and chemistry, even electronics, in lyrical, pejorative and hallowed terms.
Every Feeling is Qualitative
If you feel love, joy, excitement, interest, focused attention, confusion, disinterest, as the result of sitting down on a pin or hearing bird sing - these and other feelings all contain some negative functions, some self-indulgent ones, and some constructive ones.
This information is the result of higher knowledge, panoramic vision, call it what you will.
You will never reach a higher aim by means of increasing the volume of feelings without any training for perception of the spectrum within feelings.
Only by the last manner of working will you isolate 'worship', 'understanding', 'love', from dross.