The age-old problem is that this essential part of our being goes largely unnoticed or disregarded. It is usually deeply hidden and held a virtual prisoner by other parts of us who have us in their sway, and is as a consequence largely lost to us. The chief culprit in this affair is what Sufi mystics call the Commanding Self: the mixture of primitive and conditioned responses, common to everyone, that inhibits and distorts human progress and understanding. We are greatly hindered by unbridled ego, the allegedly sovereign intellect, by inappropriate or over- emotion, and by a number of unfortunate traits such as ignorance, impatience, lack of trust, vanity, pride, greed, hypocrisy, delusion and spurious imagination (not to be confused with the more felicitous creative imagination).
Put another way, and though it's not a popular thing to propose, you might say that in the case of the vast majority of unregenerate individuals, we are misguided. Indeed, we are "upside down in the world", "arse about face" or, as they say, the tail is wagging the dog.
In the early stages of the mystical education, it can take a great deal of time and effort before, as in the case of an alcoholic coming to the realization that they are an alcoholic, the person comes to the realization that they are not really a single, unified "I" but as the psychologist Robert Ornstein puts it are run by an inappropriately chosen "squadron of primitive simpletons"; that they are not in command of themselves; that they are essentially prisoners of their own self, and have problems; and that there are alternative possibilities and further dimensions to life of which they are pretty much ignorant or scorn.
The Sufis found centuries ago that attacking such issues head on will not yield positive results and often yields negative results, so they developed a means of tackling such issues indirectly, for example through the use of teaching stories and poetry, so as not to raise the aspirant's hackles and make him or her unnecessarily and doggedly defensive.
One of the aims of the mystics is to transcend the Commanding Self and the unbridled ego and free us from its shackles. The situation might be likened to that of a disenfranchised princess, true royalty, locked and heavily guarded in a dark dungeon inside a castle. In order to affect an escape, messages and materials have to be smuggled into the prison past the guards, sometimes using the unwitting guards, perhaps by appealing to and making use of their desires, such as their greed, and their undoubted talents and resources. They may be led to believe that this is an interesting exercise or swash-buckling adventure, that progress is in their best interests, that there is something, some reward, in it for them, and they may be encouraged to 'go with it' or at least turn a blind eye. In actuality, these elements are gradually being turned around and transformed and will eventually assist in staging a series of 'test runs' and 'coups'.
One of the methods that the Sufis use to aid this process are teaching stories. There's a tale in Idries Shah's The Magic Monastery which illustrates the situation, models or exemplifies a successful escape, and -- given in the form of a teaching story with successive layers of deep meaning -- in itself explains and forms part of the process of smuggling materials in past the subject's intellect, censors and conditioning.
A man was once sent to prison for life for something which he had not done.
When he had behaved in an exemplary way for some months, his jailers began to regard him as a model prisoner.
He was allowed to make his cell a little more comfortable; and his wife sent him a prayer-carpet which she had herself woven.
When several more months had passed, this man said to his guards: “I am a metalworker, and you are badly paid. If you can get me a few tools and some pieces of tin, I will make small decorative objects, which you can take to the market and sell. We could split the proceeds, to the advantage of both parties.”
The guards agreed, and presently the smith was producing finely-wrought objects whose sale added to everyone's well-being.
Then, one day, when the jailers went to the cell, the man had gone. They concluded that he must have been a magician.
After many years when the error of the sentence had been discovered and the man was pardoned and out of hiding, the king of that country called him and asked him how he had escaped.
The tinsmith said: “Real escape is possible only with the correct concurrence of factors. My wife found the locksmith who had made the lock on my cell, and other locks throughout the prison. She embroidered the interior designs of the locks in the rug which she sent me, on the spot where the head is prostrated in prayer. She relied upon me to register this design and to realize that it was the wards of the locks. It was necessary for me to get materials with which to make the keys, and to be able to hammer and work metal in my cell. I had to enlist the greed and need of the guards, so that there would be no suspicion. That is the story of my escape.”
There's another story in Idries Shah's seminal work The Sufis which illustrates the smuggling process.
Because the average person thinks in patterns and cannot accommodate himself to a really different point of view, he loses a great deal of the meaning of life. He may live, even progress, but he cannot understand all that is going on. The story of the smuggler makes this very clear:
Nasrudin used to take his donkey across a frontier every day, with the panniers loaded with straw. Since he admitted to being a smuggler when he trudged home every night, the frontier guards searched him again and again. They searched his person, sifted the straw, steeped it in water, even burned it from time to time. Meanwhile he was becoming visibly more and more prosperous.
Then he retired and went to live in another country. Here one of the customs offices met him, years later.
“You can tell me now, Nasrudin,” he said. “Whatever was it that you were smuggling, when we could never catch you out?”
“Donkeys,” said Nasrudin.
A third tale, The Indian Bird by Rumi in Idries Shah's The Way of the Sufi, also illustrates the issue and its ingenious resolution:
A merchant had a bird in a cage. He was going to India, the land from which the bird came, and asked him whether he could bring anything back for him. The bird asked for his freedom, but was refused. So he asked the merchant to visit a jungle in India and announce his captivity to the free birds who were there.
The merchant did so, and no sooner had he spoken than a wild bird, just like his own, fell senseless out of a tree on to the ground. The merchant thought that this must be a relative of his own bird, and felt sad that he should have caused this death.
When he got home, the bird asked him whether he had brought good news from India. “No,” said the merchant, “I fear that my news is bad. One of your relations collapsed and fell at my feet as soon as I mentioned your captivity.”
As soon as these words were spoken the merchant's bird collapsed and fell to the bottom of the cage.
“The news of his kinsman's death has killed him too,” thought the merchant. Sorrowfully he picked up the bird and put it on the window-sill. At once the bird revived and flew to a near-by tree. “Now you know,” he said, “that what you thought was disaster was in fact good news for me. And how the message, the suggestion how to behave in order to free myself, was transmitted to me through you, my captor.” And he flew away, free at last.
As well as smuggling messages in, a kind of metalanguage is being taught and developed in the process, so that messages may be smuggled out and two-way communication may be established, beginning the groundwork that will ultimately lead to emancipation, reunion and the re-establishment of a truly wise and loving, and rightly guided, regime.
Sources: The Magic Monastery, The Sufis and The Way of the Sufi by Idries Shah, Octagon Press.
Painting: Prisoners Exercising (After Doré) by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890).
• By Etienne de L'Amour ~ Google+