Basic Considerations – Idries Shah

A remarkably small number of suppositions about higher, inner, deeper, knowledge of man (and about the people engaged in transmitting it) underlie the errors into which most would-be students, disciples, followers and seekers are inevitably led.
The result of accepting these suppositions is always the same: the production of obsessed (‘conditioned’) people – sometimes called ‘believers’ – and the production of a restless state in people when things do not seem to measure up to their expectations.
A close study of these pitfalls is essential to anyone who wants real knowledge, let alone real fulfilment, tranquillity, real attainment.


Inner knowledge cannot always be approached as an answer to one’s psychological problems. It may be approached in this way by certain people, or by people at different stages in their lives. But it is not to be thus treated for all of the people, all of the time. To think that it can, creates more problems than it solves.


To believe that one can get everything from books is as good – and as bad – as believing that one can get nothing from books. Here again, the individual must abide by the instructions of his teacher, as to what books to read, when to read them, when not to read, how to read.


Reliance upon a prestige-figure, a great teacher, a body of literature, practices or an appeal to tradition alone is a chimera. People must learn how to extract the nutrition from all of these things, and from many others. They cannot ‘go it alone’ in this search.


The confusing of emotionality or sentimentality with spirituality is one of the major basic mistakes of would-be mystics, of occultists and of dishonest religionists alike. Emotion is powerful consideration in human life. It must be understood. Understanding it can only be accomplished under competent direction.


Competent direction is defined as direction by a competent teacher. Such a person, rare in the extreme, is not one who has called forth an emotional reaction because something which he says is acceptable to the hearer at the specific time when he hears it. Neither is he someone who relies (overtly or otherwise) upon strange or authoritative dogma. He is a teacher.


Looking for mystical or other higher aims as represented in individuals and societies with an outward mystical tinge is perhaps an obvious attempt. But there are – and always have been – innumerable individuals and organisations carrying on this teaching in such a manner and characterised by such externals that no superficialist would dream that they were engaged upon this high task.


When a real teacher prescribes a course of study, or enjoins individuals or groupings in action or inaction, or anything at all, this is the current form of the Teaching: and none other.


The belief that one is a teacher, or a seeker, or anything else, does not make one into that thing. People can – and do -believe anything and everything. Their beliefs are less important than their real state. The individual is generally unaware of that inner state. It takes a teacher to assess it and to prescribe for it.


Just as the outward form of teachings changes with times, peoples and cultures, so does the outward form of one and the same teaching appear to change. People who cannot adopt a `new’ phase of a traditional teaching have shown themselves incapable of the necessary adaptation, and probably nothing can be done for them.


Ancient systems do not work in modern times. They may train people to believe certain things: they do not improve those people. No true system is ancient. The knowledge upon which it is based is ancient. The trappings, formulae, externals must alter, sometimes frequently, if its operational efficacy is to be preserved.


Patience and impatience alike are pitfalls. This is because exercise of patience and impatience are preparations for something else. People who are one hundred per cent patient are as ill-equipped for learning as people who have no patience at all.


People who cannot tell the difference between a real feeling and one which has been trained into them are not capable of learning on their own. Their course of study must be prescribed for until they can discriminate. Only after that can they begin a real ‘search’.


People who mistake good fellowship, relaxation of tensions, or a mere sense of well-being for progress on a road to higher things have to back-track and learn certain earlier lessons. Otherwise they are merely candidates for encapsulated ‘wisdom’ and superficial systems.


People who think that spiritual, esoteric, higher movements spring suddenly into being have to learn that nothing could be further from the truth. Immensely intricate planning and preparation must precede any real teaching.


Learners cannot expect to stipulate which parts of a teaching specially appeals to them, on which they will concentrate. They have to learn the whole background of certain things before the inner content can have effect upon them in an effective sense.


When a teacher has announced that a true contact exists between him and an individual or group, it never becomes severed, even if the participants are not conscious of it. What makes them impatient or fearful is the superficiality of their emotion, not the reality of contact.


An individual or group may continue in contact with a teacher for long periods of time, working effectively without conscious of it until he can bring them what they need. If, on the other hand, they cannot sustain any separation or apparent break in contact, he cannot help them, because his task is never to entertain them and work on a crude basis of assurance or reassurance, or ‘conditioning’. Such people are hypocrites. They need games, not studies.


When a teacher gives an individual or a grouping something to study, observe, to carry out, they should do so, even it does not appear logical or necessary to them. This is because it is seldom that the patient knows his ailment, whereas the physician does.


The ‘tests’ and studies which will yield the greatest result those which are least familiar to the students. This is because if people are given tasks with which they are familiar (through reading, report or practice) something in them will ‘cheat’ in their performance.


People who are put in charge of others, whether individuals or groups, in the current formulation of the teaching, regard themselves always as mere channels. If they take personal advantage or exercise any unnecessary pressure, they themselves will suffer in proportion.


People must now learn something which was formerly only taught in secret: that there are many varieties of spiritual, social, religious grouping. They are all time-centred. Most of them are anachronistic. In all of them except for real inner teachings there are serious contaminants stemming from their sojourn in the terrestrial sphere which makes them hazardous to everyone to a degree at least equivalent to their value.


People should familiarise themselves thoroughly with the materials or tasks given to them, instead of making them a source of criticism, self-aggrandisement or bickering.


Any form of greed – even for knowledge – effectively prevents real learning in a degree directly proportional to the degree of greed present in the individual, group or organisation.


Pride, in an individual or a group, is a form of greed.


When you look at a child, you notice that it has three kinds of qualities: those which help its progress, such as eating instinctively; those which could harm its future, such as eating poisonous things; and those which are neutral. In respect to higher teaching and learning, the adult human being is the same. He can acquire valuable nutrients in knowledge, and acquire dangerous ones, while thinking they are good for him. He can take in irrelevant ones, thinking nothing or that they are significant. Like the parent, the Teacher knows which are which.


Almost all people interested in metaphysics have at some time been studied for responsiveness to teaching by those who can teach them. Frequently, such would-be students are unaware that such a study has been made. They continue to seek higher knowledge through attempts to contact crude forms of what they imagine to be real teaching.


Organisations and other groupings set up for true higher study have, as it were, a life of their own. They are ‘concentration points’. It is vital that they continue to operate, and not be neglected nor turned into centres for ‘making golden calves’. This is because they are entities through which, in due time,higher communications are made.


Chronological repetition, meetings and studies, activities and exercises, which are carried out by means of a fixed schedule are almost always a sign of a deteriorated tradition. A real School varies its operations and movement in accordance with a simple pattern. This pattern is non-repetitious.


Man (and woman) has an infinite capacity for self-development. Equally, he has an infinite capacity for self-destruction. A human being may be clinically alive and yet, despite all appearances, spiritually dead.


Experiences of an unusual kind are often given to people in order to test as to whether they will react correctly to them. Most people fail in this test. The commonest example is with people who are made to feel something of true reality, and who immediately imagine that they should teach it.


Perceptions of another kind of being, when not accompanied by correct preparation, can be more harmful than a lifetime without any such perception. This is because unprepared people misinterpret their experiences and cash in on them at a low level. An example is people who become superstitious because they have sensed something at work which they are too lazy to try to understand. Another example is when people imagine that some true but minor ‘sign’ gives them an importance or a divine contact or character. Such people are already almost lost, ‘even if their repute rises to the heavens’.


The original motive of religious preaching is not social uplift, moral indoctrination and so on, but specific techniques of preparation of individuals and communities to enable them to endure and follow higher development. Most religious systems known to us, however, are today stabilised upon superficiality and emotionality and have lost all contact with the higher levels of meaning within their exhortation: they have the meat, but have lost the recipe.


Inevitable pitfalls in human learning are two: ‘conversion syndrome’ when people believe anything said by an individual or institution; and obsessional opposition, when they believe nothing. These are the two factors, though they may be combined in one person in varying proportions. The task of real higher teaching is to contact people and inform them quite aside from the question of faith or unfaith. Both the latter are aspects of brain-engineering, and have no place in teaching.

— Idries Shah, Knowing How To Know


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