What Is Sufi Psychology?
A method based on the mystical practice of the inner journey.
Posted June 27, 2020
Having been born and raised in Iran, I always had an interest in Sufism, a spiritual practice aimed at the inner journey of self-exploration and knowing one’s “true self." Among the most famous thinkers of this philosophy in the West, are Rumi and Hafiz from Iran. In my opinion, Sufism resonates with psychological thinking of getting to know the "true self," and unshackling from the false perception of oneself, which is acquired from the environment, prejudices, and others. A belief that if we get to the core of our true being, we would be in harmony with the universe, and its creator.
I had the opportunity to learn about “Sufi psychology” at the Sufi Youth Conference, where I was invited to talk about my specialty: fear. There I met Dr. Saloumeh Bozorgzadeh, the president of the Sufi Psychology Association, and she agreed to tell me more about Sufi psychology. The questions are mine, the answers are hers:
What is Sufism?
Saloumeh: Sufism is a discipline in self-knowledge. The goal is for one to know themselves. Not just the physical dimension of their being, which consists of their personality, emotions, body, social identity, etc., but also the spiritual dimension. The part of ourselves where we gather our strength, courage, compassion. The ineffable part of us that, although all aspects of the physical dimensions are constantly changing, this part has remained stable and unaffected. The part that makes you, you.
How did you get involved with Sufism?
Saloumeh: I‘ve been going to the M.T.O. Shahmaghsoudi®️School of Islamic Sufism®️ since I was a child. I would go with my father. However, as is part of the teachings of Sufism, you have to sort through what your true intention is with everything you do. You must separate out the things you do out of habit or due to social/cultural/familial expectations and customs, and truly explore what your goal and purpose is. That process was rather difficult because I realized how much I rely on and live my life based on the decisions that have been placed before and have been made for me. I noticed that I had a fear in determining what is best for me. I didn’t know and was crippled by making the “wrong” decision. The aspects that I knew as myself (my thoughts, emotions, etc.) all changed constantly. How could I possibly make a decision when the foundation that I am basing the decision on is so shaky?
The Sufi Master, Professor Sadegh Angha in his book Principles of Faghr and Sufism has said, “First you must know who you are, then you can determine what you need.” The fear and uncertainty of who I am when all my roles, customs, self-narratives have been stripped away is what made me actively seek out this path of self-knowledge and made me want to be a student of this school. There was no other option, I must learn who I am so I have something stable. As I learn more about who I am, the lessons also teach me a great deal about psychology and how we operate.
What is Sufi psychology?
Saloumeh: Sufi psychology is taking the principles and teachings of Sufism and applying them to contemporary psychology. Through this lens, our distress and pain stem from a lack of knowledge of who we are. We get caught up in the stories and limitations we tell ourselves, how the past has affected us, or fear of our ability to navigate circumstances in the future. All of this is because I don’t know who I am or what my capabilities are. Sufi psychology seeks to remind each individual that there is more to them than these aspects that are reactive to the environment. By going deeper into ourselves and tapping into the constant and stable part of my being, I am less likely to sway with what’s happening outside of me and the fluctuations that life has.
How is it different from other ways of psychology?
Saloumeh: Western psychological practices focus on what was described above as the physical dimension. It helps us navigate our thoughts, emotions, and social relationships which are important for this dimension. Sufi psychology brings in the spiritual dimension. The Sufi Master, Professor Nader Angha, uses the analogy of a lamp [Wilcox, 1995, pg. 3]. Western psychology is focusing on all aspects of this lamp; is the wiring frayed, does the shade match the stand, is this the proper lamp for the room, etc. Sufi psychology is more concerned with the light source and plugging it in.
How is it different from other eastern philosophies?
Saloumeh: Each practice has its own paradigm, its own verbiage, which resonates with different people in different ways. To compare them is to isolate aspects of them for the purpose of comparison. This becomes reductionist which does not provide a comprehensive understanding of either. What I can say is that a student of Sufism seeks to know. It is not enough to observe ourselves, we want to know who the observer is, connect with it, and like a drop, annihilate the self-created boundaries and narratives and become the sea.
Arash: The metaphor I have heard often used is comparing "knowing about a river in India," vs. swimming in that river—totally different experiences.
Which area of psychology overlaps more with Sufi psychology?
Saloumeh: Humanistic psychology is the closest due to its focus on self-actualization. However, I should mention that in Sufi psychotherapy, we use other theoretical orientations as well. Current, psychological schools of thought are ways to provide relief to the physical dimension. They help us become aware of emotions and thoughts, adapt socially, explore the effects of the past and relationship patterns, target the experience of trauma in the body, etc. This is necessary for functioning in the world. With Sufi psychology we add another element, we aim to redirect clients to seek that source within. The essence which has remained constant and stable, and though all around us shifts, that “source of life” shines, without pause. Even in the most difficult moments, it is our companion.
Wilcox. L. (1995) Sufism and psychology. Abjad: Chicago.