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Learning How to Learn
Idries Shah
Published by Harper&Row/CA in 1978

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004


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Take warning from the misfortunes of others, so that others need not have to take warning from your own.
— Saadi, Rose Garden, 13th Century


With this quote from Saadi, the author Idries Shah lays down the theme of this book. Using the traditional Sufi method of "question-and-answer", Shah gives us a representative sample of "a hundred conversations" in which he answers questions asked him in a mailbag of over forty thousand letters from all over the world. Many of the answers come in the form of humorous tales, so anyone without a sense of humor is cautioned to stop reading at this point.

[page 21] Not only do humorous tales contain valuable structures for understanding. Their use also helps to weed out people who lack a sense of humor. Sufis hold that people who have not developed or who have suppressed their capacity to enjoy humor are, in this deprived state, also without learning capacity in the Sufi sphere.

When asked "What can you do about imitators?" referring to so-called Sufi groups that have sprung up in the West, Shah answered with this joke:

[page 21] It is said that a small boy was faced with an examination question: 'What is rabies and what can you do about it?' He wrote as his answer: 'Rabies is Jewish priests, and there is nothing you can do about it!'
       These Sufis are Sufists, not Sufis, and there is nothing that you can do about it.

He tells us that the only way one can do anything about the imitation is to spread information about the real. And he reminds us of the words of Jalaluddin Rumi, who said that "false gold only exists because there is such a thing as the Real . . ." And he offers the "Analogy of the Fur Jacket".

[page 22] In Fihi ma Fihi we find the allegory of the jacket. 'In Winter,' says Rumi, 'you look for a fur garment, but when summer comes you have no time for it, it is an encumbrance. So it is with imitations of real teachings. They keep people warm until time comes when they can be warmed by the Sun. . .'

Many people are baffled by the manner of Sufi teaching — they want the kind of logical coherence they have been taught is important and they do not find it in Sufi teachings. In other words they have a logical way of thinking they cannot get away from — a way of thinking that prevents them from understanding the Sufi way of thinking. They think within a box that the Sufis as a habit think outside of. The Sufis have a metaphor or saying for this: 'However fast you run, or however skillfully, you can't run away from your own feet.' (Page 26) The Sufis see these people looking for institutions with enrollment forms, requirements, objectives, etc., i. e., institutions with some form of visibility. Shah answers people who desire such study institutions:

[page 29] You started your question with the matter of the visibility of study institutions. But the world itself, as well as special attitudes, properly understood, constitute the Sufi school. Remember the words of Maghribi, who said to a monkish individual: 'What you are seeking in your retreat/I see clearly in every road and alleyway.'

In the words of Saadi, if a man full of imagined knowledge and arrogance went to visit the sage Koshyar, he would likely hear, 'You may think yourself wise, but nothing can be put into a full pot.' Learning how to learn, Shah tells us, must begin with emptying oneself of what we think we already know. As Hafiz said, 'You yourself are your own barrier — rise from within it.' (Page 32)

Some questions people ask are really foolish and such questions require a wise man to give an answer that sounds just as foolish, such as when someone asked Nasarudin what his house was basically like.

[page 53] In reply he brought this man a brick, saying: 'It is just a collection of these.' What the fool may do without realizing it is foolish, the wise man may have to do or say in order to show how unthinking the question is.

On the matter of secrecy, the Sufis know the importance of the open secret of the "Purloined Letter" — the letter that everyone was searching for was laid out in the open on the top of the desk where no one bothered to look for it. Shah says, "Many 'secrets' are best kept by the denial of any secret, or by people appearing, as Sufis often do, to be people of simplicity and ordinariness. The advantage of this to the Sufi is that it relieves him of the need to avoid or combat secret-seekers: they regard him as superficial or 'ordinary'." (Page 64)

Sufis can “see through the outward show and self-deception of others” (Page 65) and are thus able to deceive others by playing into their prejudices. If the others accept the deception the Sufi is left alone; if the others penetrate the deception, they are rewarded by the truth and a lesson about the superficialities of appearances. The story of the Turkish Maiden illustrates this point — Yusuf al-Razi illustrated how others judge by appearances in this famous story.

[page 65] It is related that Hiri was once asked to look after a Turkish maiden by a Persian merchant who was going on a journey. Hiri became infatuated with this girl and decided that must seek out his teacher, Abu-Hafs the Blacksmith. Abu-Hafs told him to travel to Raiyy, there to obtain the advice of the great Sufi Yusuf al-Razi.
      When he arrived in Raiyy and asked people there where the sage’s dwelling was, they told him to avoid such a heretic and free-thinker, and so he went back to Nishapur. Reporting to Abu-Hafs, he was told to ignore the people’s opinions of al-Razi, and seek him out again.
      In spite of the almost unanimous urgings of the people of Raiyy, he made his way to where al-Razi sat. There he found the ancient, accompanied by a beautiful youth who was giving him a wine-cup.
      Scandalized, Hiri demanded an explanation of how such a reverend contemplative could behave in such a manner.
      But al-Razi explained that the youth was his son and the wine-cup contained only water, and had been abandoned by someone else. This was the reality of his state, which everyone imagined to be a life of dissolution.
      But Hiri now wanted to know why the Sufi behaved in such a manner that people interpreted it as heretical.
      Al-Razi said: “I do these things so that people may not burden me with Turkish maidens.”

On the assumption that conditioning is necessary for education, Al-Ghazzali pointed out:

[page 149] But the assumption that all human education, training and development must be done by these methods is as unnecessary as to imagine, say, that because a tomato can be force-ripened that there is no other way for a tomato to ripe.

On the matter of greed, Shah tells us that "Greed is the cause of loss and of the inability to profit from apparent gain." The greedy person who wins a huge lottery soon finds himself besieged by offers to make more money with the result that he is soon worse off than before he won the lottery.

Scholars and Sufis make an excellent contrast, and the nature of a Sufi can refer to anyone who does something without the academic credits that allow scholars to recognize other scholars.

[page 216] Sufis never have followed scholars, though they have frequently equaled or excelled scholars in scholarship.
      Sufis can do this because they do not regard scholarship as an end but as something useful: with the advantages and limitations corresponding to this function. Scholars, quite often, do not show signs of understanding that there is anything beyond scholarship, and therefore they are incapacitated — while they remain at this stage — from being able to have a higher objective. One must always have an aspiration higher than one's actual status in order to rise, even in an existing field.
       Such scholars, because they cannot move beyond their conception of scholarship, are driven to believe and to practice two things:
       1. They tend to make themselves believe that scholarship is of the highest nature among things and that scholars are a high, even special, product with some kind of property-interest in truth or even a peculiar, perhaps unique, capacity to perceive it. The historical records of scholars in this respect, not to mention their individual experiences in being refuted by events, do not daunt them.
       2. Because they know inwardly that this posture of theirs is not true, those of them in the appropriate field are compelled to resort to the study of the work, of their opponents (the Sufis). This is why scholars study the works of Sufis, but Sufis do not have to study the works of scholars, as one Sufi has cogently remarked.

Two such scholars compelled to study their opponents come to mind: Henry Bauer, who tried to debunk Velikovsky in his book, Beyond Velikovsky, and Richard De Mille, who tried to debunk Carlos Castaneda in his book, "Don Juan Papers". Neither of these authors have anything original to say, but they sell books that purport to tear down true scholars.

Most modern people in the West make fun of those primitive people who go to their local shamans or witch doctors for help. Shah points out what happens when modern medicine enters the world of those primitive people.

[page 254] In parts of the world it is still customary for someone who has taken a pill given to him under modern medical doctrine to take it to the local magician to have it made 'really potent' by means of a spell.

Modern people would be much less likely to deride these primitives if they realized the power of the spells they themselves are put under a hypnotic spell every time they visit their own modern medical doctor. Richard Bandler told me this story of a man in San Francisco who was told by his doctor that he had an uncurable disease. It was treatable, however, and he would remain healthy as long as he took the medicine the doctor prescribed for him. To impress upon the man (an interesting way of putting it), the doctor told him, "You will have to take this medicine everyday, or you might as well jump off the Golden Gate Bridge." The man remained healthy for years until one day his doctor informed him of a new drug which would cure his disease as soon as he begins taking the new drug. And sure enough, his disease was cured and the man no longer had to take any drug at all for his disease. But a strange thing happened: the man found himself late at night walking around in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge. He went to Bandler who under hypnosis helped the man recover what the original doctor had told him, "You will have to take this medicine everyday, or you might as well jump off the Golden Gate Bridge." The man had been placed under a potent hypnotic spell by the first doctor unbeknownst to the man or the doctor. Once he was released by the hypnotist of the spell, he resumed a normal life.

People mostly ignore the agency of spiritual beings who intercede in the events of the world. And yet, everyday things happen that cannot be explained any other way. This next story, "Who Guards the Coat", demonstrates the deeper reality that underlies the affairs of human beings. Habib Ajami went to the river for a bath and left his coat lying on the ground.

[page 262] Hasan of Basra was passing and saw it. Thinking that someone should look after this property, he stood guard over it until Habib returned.
       Hasan then asked Habib whom he had left looking after the coat.
       'In the care' said Habib, 'of him who gave you the task of looking after it!'

This next passage deals with the relationship between a teacher and a student. Below is the question followed by the complete answer given to it. After reading this conversation, I penned in the margin the phrase, "Thus a Teacher, So Also a Learner." This encapsulated my understanding that in any teaching-learning situation, the teacher must learn from the learner as much or more as the learner learns from the teacher. A teacher continues to teach willingly and happily only so long as the teacher is learning something from the learners. When the teacher stops learning, the teaching stops. If the teacher goes through the motions of teaching anyway, the learners suffer, unable to learn anything while matching with a teacher who is not learning anything at the same time.

[page 290, 291]
       Q: Is it enough to associate with a man of knowledge to acquire some of it? Does the Teacher not need the Student?

A : You must remember instances, at least, when you have not said anything and everything in your mind.

Have you ever thought about the people whom you may know who do not discuss with you things which they know, even though such things might be of abiding interest to you?
       You may 'know a man well', even meet him every day of your life, 'share his opinions', exchange ideas. At the same time, you may have no conception of his possession of certain knowledge and even of his capacity to pass it on if the conditions are correct.
       He may not seem an enigma to you; but he may be as deeply concealed as anything on earth.
       The conception that one knows all about a person because of shared experiences and the exchange of confidences is not a true one. It is based upon the misconception that people cannot avoid communicating whatever they are discussing with one another.
       Knowledge does not automatically 'brush off', any more than it can be transmitted by words alone; neither is it to be conveyed by training of any ordinary kind.
       You cannot, therefore, learn real knowledge merely by associating with someone who has it - especially if you do not even know that it is there, and if you are not focused correctly to learn.
       Someone or something has first to impart to you how to perceive the presence of knowledge. Without preparation there can be no teaching.
       As to the need of the Teacher, the great teacher Jami in his Lawaih says (Essay XXI) 'The Absolute does not stand in need of the relative, except for its manifestation, but the relative needs the Absolute for its very existence.' Similarly, the teacher is to be regarded as more important than the student in the situation of learning.
       That is to say, the Teacher is so to be regarded by the learner. The Teacher himself may regard the learner as more important, but that is a matter for the Teacher, and there is no point discussing his attitudes when the conversation is about learning and not teaching.

Thus Idries Shah shows us, to paraphrase Jami quotation above, "The Teacher does not stand in need of the students, except for the manifestation of teaching, but the students need the Teacher for their very existence." If the Teacher is to teach, students are required. If students are to learn how to survive in the world, a Teacher who is also a learner is required. Thus a Teacher, So Also a Learner.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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