Explained: The Mystical Methods A Successful Sufi Employs
Aamer Sarfraz explains the methodology that is invested in becoming a sufi pir in light of the early traditions set in healing through psychiatric science, meditation and Buddhist zen. He also writes about how hypnosis, a famous method of mind manipulation is also used for the training of a sufi.
In addition to the time-honoured dexterities learned from his own pir/master/murshid, a successful Sufi keeps learning new mystical skills by hit and trial and keeps building up his arsenal as he grows older. As public service, he uses the power of his aura, observation, compassion, data (information) analysis, friends in high places, and the influence of a vast network of pir-Bhai community to help his clients while keeping his murid-constituency excited with the range of his power. Almost all leading Sufi pirs in Pakistan employ psychotherapeutic skills and cold/hot reading of personnel, knowingly or unknowingly, to practice and flourish their trade. Almost all of them have also tried but very few have learned or successfully utilised more advanced techniques like hypnosis and psychoanalysis.
The modern psychotherapeutic techniques commenced with Dr Franz Mesmer who proposed the theory called Animal Magnetism in the ate 18th century. He believed that paralysis and epilepsy could be treated with it. He theorised the existence of natural energy transfer taking place between all animate and inanimate objects; this concept attracted a significant following and his methods were called “Mesmerism”. In 1843, Dr. James Braid proposed the term “hypnosis” for a somewhat similar technique; the expression “Mesmerism” now functions as a synonym for “hypnosis”.
Around the same time, James Graham, exploited some paranormal tricks to treat infertility. There was nothing original about some of these adventures because such “innovations” had been in practice among the Greeks and the Romans but without having a name. For example, thousands of patients used to visit the Temple of Aesculapius in search of spiritual healing. Avicenna (980–1037 CE) had already documented the characteristics of “trance state’ (hypnotic trance) back in 1027 along with its possible curative value.
Hypnosis is actually a human state of semi-consciousness involving intensive concentration, reduced mindfulness, and a heightened ability to respond to suggestion. It begins with what is called “hypnotic induction” that involves a series of instructions which basically require the subject to keep fixating his eyes on an object (old technique) or closing his eyes and imagining (new technique) while following what is being suggested by the hypnotist. This is followed by a slow drift into a semiconscious state when further instructions can be given to the subject that are in line with the objective of the session. Hypnosis has been used with limited success to treat conditions such as stress, phobia, weight loss, pain management and for quitting smoking. The use of hypnosis in other contexts, e.g., a form of therapy to retrieve and integrate early childhood trauma, is controversial in medical and psychology professions. Research also indicates that hypnotising an individual may aid the formation of false memories; and that hypnosis does not help people recall events more accurately.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) must be credited for coming up with perhaps the most fascinating theory of mind. However, he was initially inspired by Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893 CE) and Josef Breuer (1842-1925 CE); both advocated hypnosis as treatment for psychological ailments and the latter believed in the power of suggestion during hypnosis and how it could be used to influence people. Freud also endeavoured to explain how the dreams work unconsciously to express drives as wish-fulfilments. Since patients did not remember the exact content of dreams, he practiced inducing a dream-like state thorough hypnosis. Freud gradually moved somewhat away from such thinking and delved into his own interest in the role of unconscious (pleasure principle) and conscious (reality principle) mental processes and sexuality, and how they affected human mental life. He invented the term “free association” for a female patient’s treatment through catharsis and later called it “psychoanalysis”. The Oedipus Complex and structure of mind (Id, Ego, Super-ego) – all came out of Freud’s fertile mind over the years. A significant amount of Freud’s work has since been contested but also in some ways added to by his colleagues Alfred Adler (1870-1937 CE), Carl Jung (1875-1961) and by the neo-Freudians.
Due to the nature of hypnotherapy and to its early links with mysticism, it is criticised by scientists for having no tangible basis to presume its effectiveness for curing ailments. The patients react very differently to it and a representative study sample may not be all that representative. In contrast to treatments, like Paracetamol for aches/pains or some therapies for mental health disorders, hypnotherapy does not offer a similar degree of relief to the majority of clients. It is also difficult to ascertain those who react well to hypnotherapy as opposed to those having a natural propensity to recover from the ailment. It is reported that approximately 15 percent of the population may be hypnotizable; 25% cannot be hypnotized, and the rest lies somewhere in between. You can rarely hypnotise people against their will. This situation in a scientific experiment would be similar to having no more consequence than a placebo effect. Most clinical reports claiming success with hypnosis to cure medical or psychological illnesses are anecdotal because they lacked control groups for comparing their effectiveness. The historical claims made about the power of hypnosis are, therefore, wildly exaggerated. Hypnosis is essentially a trick and a power-transaction between a hypnotist and a suggestible subject; it is not a paranormal state of consciousness.
For all our progress in science, we are still not sure how the brain exactly functions despite our understanding getting better by each passing day. It is even more difficult to rationally determine or explain what mind/psyche/nafs actually is; which feels like a life-force flowing through the body when we are alive and departs once we die. Sufi method is essentially about optimising self-awareness and then a gradual process of refining concentration through increasingly difficult exercises of self-discipline. Buddhist Zen masters and Hindu Yogis have very similar workouts. The idea is to improve the focus of mind to such an elevated state that nothing else may exist for the seeker – a state of fana (annihilation). Once someone has achieved that degree of self-control over one’s body and mind, it helps him understand, resolve, plan and predict various matters far better than most other people. Whatever the believers or practitioners of mysticism may think, Sufi skills have nothing to do with any particular religion, kashaf, Ilham or being near to God; it is an acquired skill that can be developed through self-discipline and training. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed prophethood on the basis of his kashaf and Ilham, also believed that these “mystical” experiences were skills and techniques that could be learned.
Sufis advise you to pray five-times-a-day and do a tasbeeh (repeating words based usually on a Quranic verse) as often as you can when you approach them for blessings. These suggestions are actually very initial paradigms for evoking essential patterns of basic provisions in individual self-awareness and discipline. While most people struggle to satisfy these devotions consistently; they also notice that the quality of their lives has improved as a result of engaging with these assignments. Believers would have complete faith that this is due to the barakah of Sufi pir or is about prayer-power but direct benefits of self-discipline and mindfulness are well documented in scientific literature. If the seeker achieves this baseline (prayers + tasbeeh), and becomes a murid (disciple) after bayyat, the Sufi may introduce him to the spiritual protocol (adaab) at an appropriate time. This includes embracing the belief that Sufi pir is the best and the murid will always follow his command. Each murid’s spiritual journey from there onwards is different because he hands over his will to his Sufi pir.
The spiritual work given individually to muridain to meet their specific spiritual needs is called wird (plural=awrad). Wird (such as saying, ‘Allah, Allah’ or ‘Allah Hu’) is described as a unit of dhikr that contains further patterns of self-discipline and self-awakening; the goal is to improve concentration by learning to stop the flow of thoughts by living in the moment (mindfulness). Murid utters ‘Allah, Allah’ a number of times a day using a rosary at a specific time while keeping pir in his tasawwur (view). Initially, he is encouraged to live in the world but do dhikr in solitude. Later he is directed to perform dhikr as often as he can and even with each breath. You may note PM Imran Khan frantically working his rosary even during official meetings. If progressing successfully, dhikr al-qalbi is automatically activated; manifest as beating of the heart that can be noticed even from outside of the body. Awrad becomes increasingly heavy and it depends upon the strength of murid how quickly he can perform those at specific times and in a certain number daily while struggling against the body’s desire to sleep, eat and take rest.
Dreams are supposed to be indicative of spiritual states and are only related to pir who interprets them. They increase in frequency and content as murid struggles to wake up for tahajjud (dawn prayer) and sit for dhikr. Frequently, pir also appears in his dreams. Murid is always alert to the ishara (signs) from pir because coaching and signposting takes place through constant focus. If murid gets stuck, pir uses different methods to move him to the next stage including fasting, whirling, change of milieu and exercises to improve concentration. If these do not work, it means that murid has become stationary – this is the limit of his qualification. Unless he is the son of a pir, he hangs around in the circle but never becomes a Sufi pir himself.
For the progressing murid, the intensity of his feelings towards his beloved pir start growing – jealousy, possessiveness, and ambivalence are experienced. He is unsure whether these feelings are a blessing or a curse and tries to approach pir for clarifications. Pir will sometimes meet but on other occasions avoids him deliberately. On meeting, pir does not say much, which inflames murid’s feelings more and more. Murid reflects, meditates, and eventually finds his own meanings. His profound love for his pir grows to such a level that he perceives his pir standing in front of him whenever he needs him. On the other hand, Sufi pir searches in his visions to keep ascertaining whether his and murid’s soul and spirit have reached where they are bound with each other – fana fi-shaykh (self-annihilation in the shaykh/Sufi).
When the seven stations (lata’if) of spiritual growth are opened through dhikr and “the heart is completely cleansed”, murid commences the last phase of Sufi method: the muraqabat. Muraqabat are advanced contemplative exercises to lead murid through the higher realm of wahdat (unity). They are performed usually after ‘asr (afternoon prayer) in the presence of pir or alone at night. Murid is cautioned about the pitfalls of falling asleep during this exercise when alone. These continue for a number of days determined by pir and the murid cannot proceed to the next without his permission. At each stage, he is obliged to inform pir regarding his experiences. In the first muraqaba, the murid contemplates oneness (ahadiyya), and then proceeds to contemplate other specific attributes of God. In contemplating the various qualities and attributes of wahidiyya, murid’s task is to invite barakah from the source of each latifa. The objective is to return each latifa to its origin, thereby achieving annihilation in it.
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.