Heart, Self And Soul
Robert Frager PhD
Comparison between traditional Western Psychology and Islamic/Sufic Psychology
Traditional psychology assumes that the Universe is completely material and without meaning or purpose. According to Sufi psychology, the Universe was created in accordance with GodÂ’s will and is permeated with GodÂ’s presence.
Traditional psychology assumes that the human being is nothing more than a physical body and a mind developed from the physical nervous system. An important element in Sufi psychology is the spiritual heart, which is the location of inner intuition, understanding and wisdom.
In traditional psychology, descriptions of human nature focus primarily on human limitations and neurotic tendencies (clinical psychology), or on innate goodness and our essentially positive nature (humanistic psychology). According to Sufi psychology, all human beings are located between the angels and the animals. We share both natures and have the potential to rise higher than the angels or to sink lower than the animals. Hence, the struggle is to counter and overcome the negative habits and tendencies.
According to traditional western psychology, our highest state of consciousness is the rational, waking state. Sufi psychologists point out that, for most people, this is actually a state of 'waking sleep.' Most people are habitually heedless and relatively unaware of themselves or the world around them. (ie: living out early childhood conditioned beliefs).
Western psychologists hold that self-esteem and a strong sense of ego identity are important; that loss of identity is pathological. In Sufism, the sense of separate identity is one of the veils between God and human being that distorts reality and prevents us from knowing our true divine nature. The goal is to recognize the difference between the self-centered, negative ego and the positive, healthy ego; and transcend beyond living a life through the ego.
Western psychologies assume that personality is a relatively unified structure. In Sufi psychology, the human being is seen as a diverse collection of traits and tendencies, many of which are related to different stages of evolutionary development.
Western psychology considers logical reasoning as the highest human skill and the way to knowledge and wisdom. In Sufi psychology, the abstract logical intellect is considered as the 'lower intellect' and there is a higher intellect that enables us to understand the meaning of life.
Western psychology believes that almost all significant knowledge can be transmitted using logically organized rational prose. Sufi psychology believes that the written word is limited. The highest states of spiritual development are beyond rational description, and to achieve them, the rational, separate ego must be dropped.
For Western psychologists, faith means believing in things that are not real or ideas that have no solid evidence. For Sufi psychologists, faith means belief in the truth behind the varied appearances of material creation.
The three central concepts in Islamic/Sufi Psychology are the heart, the self and the soul. Each of these technical terms has a different connotation than its common English usage and meaning. The origin and basis of these terms is Quranic and they have been expounded upon by centuries of Sufic commentaries.
In Sufic psychology the heart refers to the spiritual heart or qalb, not the physical organ. It is this spiritual heart that contains the deeper intelligence and wisdom. It holds the Divine spark or spirit within each one of us. It is the place of gnosis and deep spiritual knowledge. The Sufic goal is to develop a heart that is sincere, loving and compassionate, and to develop the heart's intelligence. This intelligence of the heart is deeper, and more grounded than the rational, abstract intelligence of the mind. It is said that when the 'eyes of the heart' open, one can see beyond the surface appearance of existence, and that when the 'ears of the heart' open, one can hear the reality of the truth behind the words.
The spiritual heart functions in a similar manner as the physical heart. Just as the physical heart supplies blood to the body, the spiritual heart nourishes the soul with wisdom and spiritual light, and it also purifies the gross personality traits. When the physical heart is diseased the body suffers, when the spiritual heart is diseased the soul suffers. According to Sufic psychology emotions are from the self or nafs, not from the heart.
The self, ego or nafs is the aspect of the psyche that can be viewed along a continuum, and has the potential of functioning from the grossest to the highest level. The self at its lowest level refers to our negative traits and tendencies. For most of us, the self is controlled by emotions, desires and its gratification.
Sufic psychology identifies seven levels of the nafs, and the process of growth depends on working through these levels. Each level has specific traits and disorders (dangers that mislead), as well as methods for healing and transformation. The seven levels have been identified in the Quran. The seven levels of the nafs are: tyrannical self, regretful self, inspired self, serene self, pleased self, pleasing self and the pure self.
The soul or ruh is directly connected with the Divine, even if one is unconscious of that connection. The soul has seven levels or facets of the complete soul. These levels are: mineral, vegetable, animal, personal, human, secret and secret of secret souls. Each level represents the stages of evolution, and the process that it goes through in its growth. The soul is wholistic, and extends to all aspects of the person, ie: the body, the mind and the spirit. Each level of the soul has valuable gifts and strengths, as well as weaknesses. The goal is to develop the strengths and to achieve a balance between these levels, not forgoing the lower ones to focus only on the higher ones.
Imbalance is viewed as a stuckness at different levels of the nafs or ruh.
Traditional psychologies address one or two aspects of the soul, not wholistically.
Ego psychology deals with the animal soul, outlining the main motivation for existence being that of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
Behavioral psychology focuses on the conditioned functioning of the vegetable and animal soul.
Cognitive psychology deals with the mental functions of the personal soul.
Humanistic psychology deals with the activities of the human soul.
Transpersonal psychology deals with ego-transcending consciousness of the secret soul and the secret of secret souls.