Blog: On Idries Shah and Sufism by Steven Nightingale

We must look at the world we have made: the crudity of our politics, the menace of military force, the threat of oblivion from atomic weapons; the destruction of earth’s life support systems, the fundamentalism that corrupts religious faith.

What resource we might turn to, if we are to confront with wisdom and sentience so lurid an array of challenges? We stand in the most urgent need of examining the texts we study—the ways of life offered us in language—in search of authentic understanding, of insight into the working of our minds and the redemptive dreams of our spirit.

There is no resource like a good book: one born of long study, beautifully conceived and mindfully composed, with the most potent mix of learning, intuition, and instruction. Where, among the welter of volumes, the annual cascade of prizes and promotions and citations, might we identify such volumes, ones that speak to the life of the times and to the life of each of us?

Read more…


You must get your living by loving.
—Henry David Thoreau

In thy long Paradise of Light…
—Emily Dickinson

By the age of twenty-four, I had learned much about the attack on other life forms that humans (mostly men) have carried on over the centuries—an attack which,  in a spirit of consistency, we have directed with equal viciousness toward each other. Our ability to heal the sick has always been overmatched by our habits of extermination.

The world I saw had turned away from all but human meaning. Any of us could be summed up in social, psychological, political, or economic terms. In our separate, human world, life was easy to figure, according to this arithmetic of reality: pleasure, power, income, position, fulfillment. By such measures, you could sum up a man or woman; you could know them.

I could not see a way forward in the society I had been trained—that is, educated—to join. The work of understanding had, in my culture, been mostly set aside in favor of a dark, fierce progress. At the same time, history shows clearly what grows in us, sooner or later, when we are without understanding. Hatred grows, like gangrene.

I was, in so many ways, an intense young idiot. If I have any redemption at all from my idiocy, it is due to my visits, beginning that same year, to the wilderness of the Great Basin. I began in the Black Rock Desert; soon I was hiking every weekend throughout the Great Basin, into the brandy-colored canyons, along the skirts of alkali plains, high up through hidden and glittering aspen; far out in the country with the perfect cougar, golden eagle, horned owl, and graceful bull snake.

The Great Basin has enough land for light to show its clarity, playfulness, and suavity: sunlight, starlight, moonlight, morning light, twilight. A lustrous world comes forth once again.

Light, we are told, comes first in creation. To be simple witness to light, is one way to begin in hope to earn communion with this world. By such communion, we might see that when the movement of water makes a canyon, the movement of heaven becomes visible on Earth.

What if, beyond conflict and history, we are meant to understand this comely world? What if we are summoned by the world’s beauties? What if we are meant to see things whole, to learn the storybook and calculus of reality? All things, in such an understanding, would be related precisely and beautifully; and the symposium of the whole would be there for the cherishing. We learn of just such cherishing in country so generous that, like a lover, it gives all its gifts away, everyday, forever.

Are we doomed to suffering and separation? Within the sun, separate hydrogen atoms come together and fuse. That unity makes light. On earth, we work and play in hopes of just such coming together: of man and woman, body and soul, mind and nature, the rock of the planet and the radiance of language. By such unity, a sentence is made song, belief made knowledge; living made loving, and the earth made home.

We need not be condemned to useless learning, like a death in darkness thick as oil. In the Great Basin’s bounty of light,  anyone can learn what counts, what is useful.  How can we know what to do, unless we try to see where the light is going?