My interest in universal Sufism recently led me to Fazal Inayat-Khan’s 1973 book Old Thinking, New Thinking: The Sufi Prism.
Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of The Sufi Order in the West in 1914, Fazal Inayat-Khan (1942-1990) was a psychotherapist and poet who led the International Sufi Movement from 1968 to 1982. Because he sought to incorporate the insights of modern psychology and dissociate from the traditional religious approaches of the past, Fazal's approach to Sufism was labeled “revolutionary and contemporary.” For Fazal, “sex, the family, children, education, the question of worship and devotion all take on new nuances and meanings when focused through the lens of mystical realism.” Accordingly, Old Thinking, New Thinking is described by its publishers, Harper and Row, as follows:
Old thinking explains, new thinking demonstrates. Old thinking puzzles things out, new thinking flashes with intuition. Old thinking is the tortoise, new thinking the hare. Rather than reject one for the other, the truly happy person dances between them. This is the message of Fazal Inayat-Khan’s piercing look at contemporary life through the Sufi prism. . . . Far from being buried in the scriptures and teachings of another culture, the creative Sufism explored in Old Thinking, New Thinking is a living, viable path for today. No magical formulas, fantastic techniques, or tricks will be found in these pages. But for those interested in becoming newly alive and who have the courage to travel deep within, this book reveals a way of seeing life that can sweep one toward final liberation from the world of illusion.
It should be emphasized that Fazal Inayat-Khan wrote his book in 1973. Accordingly, its language is non-inclusive, even as the book’s overall message is all about inclusion. Also, the book's chapters that deal with the unique challenges faced by the male and female genders contain, to my mind, a number of stereotypes that would puzzle and offend many people today. The excerpts I share this evening from Old Thinking, New Thinking are not drawn from those parts of the book. Rather, they explore the overall, the universal message of Sufism.
Sufism has always tried to be an answer to humanity in the time of its need, realizing full well that as the need of humanity changes, the answer has to change. If someone is hungry you can bring him water, but it will not satisfy the hunger. If someone is thirsty you can bring him food, but he might not be able to digest it through lack of water. As one delves deeper and deeper into Sufism, one will find that on the surface it is culturally colored to give the immediate answer to man at a particular time in his humanity.; however, as it leads you along further and further, it tries to bring you to a more balanced approach to life; not strictly water to the hungry or food to the thirsty or vice versa, but maybe water to the thirsty to begin with and then food afterwards, maybe food to the hungry to begin with and then water. It tries to be an answer which leads man to a greater, a more balanced understanding, and thereby an acceptance of his humanity, his real self.
. . . Sufism is something which must help you to see life as a permanent transition. It is something which must bring you to a realization of dynamic peace: peace, not with what is, but with what will be. It is not, of course, possible to explain exactly what is meant by these terms. It is not possible because first, every general statement is in part invalid, and that part of it which is invalid begins to lose its validity as soon as it has been expressed; and second, because we must be aware that to each and every one of us everything means something different. . . . [T]here is nothing we know that we can be sure about, because all that we know is unique, exclusive to our own little consciousness. This may, in fact, be man’s greatest basic insecurity, the fear of having to face the fact that we know, for sure, nothing.
Think of of it another way: many people in the world are sure of what they know, yet there is nothing that can be known which is not subject to change, and impermanent. Very few people are sure of what they know not, and yet all those things which are not to be known are, in the end, the only things we can be sure of, the only things of which we are certain. Sufism begins by giving man that security, which could also be labeled freedom, to approach the experience of what appears as life without hesitation, without prejudice, without fear, especially without this incredible plague of our mind which conceives that things ought to be in a particular way. . . . Sufism brings a freedom to function in the known without fear, to function in the unknown without certainty, and to approach the apparent realiy of life with a mystical insight into its unreality.
. . . [T]he meaning, the value, the worth, the reason of life [is] not in what we do, nor even in how or why we do it, since all these are forever changing – but in becoming the experience. Some may say this is not clear, how can it be understood? Others may grasp the concept but feel that it is not sufficiently stable, how can one build one’s life? How does it help me to live? Here [another] important aspect of Sufism must be brought out, an aspect which may be as shocking as, if not more shocking than, the previous ones. That is that if one really begins to live, consciously, one can never live in the same way again. . . . Although you will still function as a human being, you will still be able to calculate, add and divide, you will still be able to laugh and cry, to break and to destroy, to create, to wonder, to hurt, to love, to disdain, to reject, to accept, you will be able to do all these things like any other human being, yet the coloring of their meanings, the reasons for why you will do, how you will do, what you will experience of what you will do, all will have changed, because the driving power behind your consciousness will have changed. This is the transformation of the personality, of the character, the real transformation, separating – and this may by cynically put, but it is still valid – the human sheep from the human beings.
Sufism is not something which one can define in form, it is not a grouping which one can understand in structure, it is not a teaching which one can communicate in words. It is an approach to life, a way of life, helping you at the speed at which you are able to unload the weight, the gravity of fear and attachment, bringing you to a transcendent freedom, the freedom of experience.
All these are big words, and maybe in their size you have become lost, but they are also very simple words and one usually becomes lost in their simplicity. In the spiritual search, in the cultural search, in whatever search for meaning that mankind is engaged in, we usually look for something magical, something sensational, something fantastic. . . . And yet, when Sufism is presented to your mind, you are totally estranged from it because it is not at all the kind of answer you are looking for. It is not something to sell, it is not another gimmick to help you, another wine to dull the senses into believing that everything is all right.
It is a way to awaken. Sufism is a call, a cry to awaken, to the minds who are ready, to the human beings who have slept enough, but to those who still want to sleep it is merely a lullaby along in their dreams. It is a cry to awake to life, to integration, to meaning, to honesty, to honesty with ourselves. It is a cry to drop all sorts of holy trips, flat earths, ancestor worships, sentimental attachments to souls and spirits and other trickery which exist or not, neither their existence nor their non-existence being that meaningful in the end. It is a cry to the genes of your consciousness, to the chromosomal activity of your mind, of your being, to awake, and live. . . .
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Sufi Way
A Living, Twenty-First Century Tradition
Clarity, Hope and Courage
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
The Winged Heart
It Happens All the Time in Heaven
A Dance of Divine Light
Never Say It is Not God
Rumi and Shams: A Love of Another Kind
In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
Opening image: Michael J. Bayly.