Looking Again At The Attention
Factor In Sufi Concerns On The Web

by Qutub Sarmouni

Recently there was a flurry of social (not spiritual) excitement and controversy on the Web in regard to an article here on this website by me on Idries Shah and the Sarmoun Way beyond the Sufi Way.  A concerted effort was made to find my personal identity in the everyday world as a seemingly decisive attack on my anonymity and privacy.  Due to that effort, some discovered that I do in fact function in the everyday world as a multinational management consultant rather than as a “Master Sufi” with robe, rosary and sandals operating an exotic “Center” where starry-eyed zealots gather to do group exercises and hope for occult developments en masse.  This discovery has even been treated as some sort of exposure.  Curiously, what it can and should show is that a Sufi as such does not mix his spiritual transmission task with his professional work and livelihood, nor does he attempt to make his livelihood from his spiritual action as so many “Gurus” and would-be “Masters” do in our present day and age.  What the curiosity mongers are revealing currently on the Web about me is not about me, but about what is actually driving them, which is the Nafs, the mechanized Commanding Self of social ambition and excitement.


One of the most valuable contributions Idries Shah (May Peace Be With Him) made to the matter of The Way can be found in his book, Learning How To Learn (Octagon Press, London, 1978) in an article therein entitled, Characteristics of Attention and Observation.  With the current explosion of superficial pseudo-spiritual social attention exchange situations on the Web (purportedly about Sufism and other traditional approaches to possible human development), Idries Shah has brought forth some insights that have greater application than ever.  This is because the Web is a wonderful medium for would-be Sufis and self-claimed Sufi Teachers to exercise their attention problems.  The one thing they cannot handle is the presence of a Sufi (such as myself or Others) who might perform a spiritual transmission task (such as I do with oracles and articles) that does not include personal attention exchanges, accepting personal students or engaging in personal arguments with upset self-claimed “Sufis” or other “spiritual experts” who roam the Web, feverishly making points, picking verbal fights or trying to recruit or otherwise seduce seekers.


Do you want to understand the teachings of Idries Shah?  If so, then be prepared to understand that you have not yet understood what he tried to do for you when he discussed the very real difference between attention desires and spiritual aspiration, which is the difference between Nafs and Ruh, Social Self and Cosmic Self; which is expressed in Zen as the difference between Guest and Host; which is expressed by the New Seers of Mexico as the difference between the Tonal and the Nagual.  Will you really look into this now?


In his article, Characteristics of Attention and Observation, Idries Shah, enunciated twenty-one (21) principles to help us get a handle on the Attention Factor in purportedly “spiritual” situations where people are seemingly sharing or promoting very serious and profound spiritual concerns for the good of all.  I would like, if you will allow it, to share with you some of my own further observations on the Attention Factor Principles as my own response or commentary in the light of attention problems about Sufism and Spirituality on the Web.  Each principle as given by Shah will appear in bold characters followed by my remarks.


Shah: 1. Too much attention can be bad, (inefficient).


Qutub: Think of the times when you have gotten more attention than you could handle due to it being oppressive or threatening or because you found it boring and draining.  If a real Teacher were also to give you all the attention you might be seeking, would it necessarily benefit you if you were actually only seeking attention more than to actually learn or act upon the suggestions given?  Too much attention can be worse than useless.  This is as true with the Web and e-mails as anywhere else.


Shah: 2. Too little attention can be bad.


Qutub:  Excessive isolation in life can be psychologically unhealthy.  There are therefore healthy avenues available for attention exchange in life that do not have to lead us into mutual pseudo-spiritual and socially self-important exchanges on the Web or elsewhere.  If we will solve our attention problem by developing the ability to be natural, honest and down-to-earth with ordinary people without trying to promote our “spiritual” ideas or our “spiritual” identity, that is already an important field of personal learning.


Shah: 3. Attention may be “hostile” or “friendly” and still fulfil the appetite for attention.  This is confused by the moral aspect.


Qutub: When we have built up a lot of information and energetic concern about any subject in our brain, whether it be the Sufi Way or the War in Iraq, there is a big pressure to “make a difference” in order to stand out in some way as an important social influencer, which we can imagine is an ideal reason to bash and criticize others, get involved in mutual debate or confrontation, try to gain followers or let others try to convince us that they can lead us and help us. The mechanical morality then comes in that wants to say that our critics are all evil and those who agree with us are good.  What we may actually dread is simply being ignored or boring to others.  We can then happily make trouble or engage in social confrontation in order to feel we have social power which confirms our personal individuality.  Many people feel secretly good about even getting negative attention because they feel they would dissolve into nothingness without it.


Shah: 4. When people need a great deal of attention they are vulnerable to the message which too often accompanies the exercise of attention towards them.  E.g., someone wanting attention might be able to get it only from some person or organization which might thereafter exercise (as ‘its price’) an undue influence upon the attention-starved individual’s mind.


Qutub:  Picture someone joining three different chat-forums on the Web: 1. a group who discuss Carlos Castaneda teachings, 2. a group who discuss Chögyam Trungpa teachings, and 3. a group who discuss Idries Shah teachings.  Then picture that the person tends to be either ignored or occasionally insulted by the Carlos Castaneda or Idries Shah chat-forums, but treated with frequent welcoming flattery, approval and interest by the Chögyam Trungpa people.  Further picture that the person begins to conclude that Tibetan Vajrayana is the superior spiritual tradition on the planet and that the only way to “develop” is to hang-out with Tibetan “Masters” who preach their insights to randomly collected groups of people.


Shah: 5. Present beliefs have often been inculcated at a time and under circumstances connected with attention-demand, and not arrived at by the method attributed to them.


Qutub:  Picture a seeker traveling in India who is trying to find a “Perfect Master”, a genuine Siddha, purportedly to get into union with God.  He hears of a Nath Siddha in the line of Lahiri Mahasay and the Kriya Yoga breathing approach to development.  Upon meeting the Nath Siddha, he is told, “I cannot initiate you into Kriya Yoga in your present condition.  First undertake some personal purifications and learn a profession.  If you do these preparatory things and return here in one year’s time, I will seriously consider initiating you.”  Then picture our seeker feeling slightly angry and disappointed.  Then picture that he visits a Sant Mat Master.  When he visits the Master’s center he is told, “Come right in, the Master is expecting you!”  He finds the Master sitting on a platform with beard and turban.  The Master has wonderful twinkling eyes.  He says, “Come, sit before me, close your eyes and listen for inner Divine sound.  This is knowledge.  It is all you ever have to do.  The breathing-with-mantra methods of the Hindu Yogis are useless and misleading.”  Our seeker sits awhile and there is indeed a feeling of blessing and an inner sound is heard a little.  He is thrilled.  He commits himself entirely to the Master.  Later on when he publishes articles in a spiritual journal, he explains that he deeply searched all the world’s traditions and concluded that Surat Sabd Yoga is the one and only superior method to go to Divine levels of existence.


Shah: 6. Many paradoxical reversals of opinion, or of associates and commitments may be seen as due to the change in a source of attention.


Qutub: Picture a Dutchman, age 30, who goes in search of spiritual development.  He meets a Teaching Master of the Naqshbandi Order in Pakistan.  He is told to return to Netherlands and employ himself at a tourist hotel in Bergen-An-Zee, where he is to read Idries Shah books thoroughly and stay in telepathic communion with the Master who will give him further instructions later.  Later that year, an attractive young lady comes to stay a few days in the hotel.  Our young man the Naqshbandi was very attracted.  He had wonderful sex with the young woman.  Two nights later, another young woman and her boyfriend came to see the first young woman.  Our young Naqshbandi found himself in a sex orgy with exchanges of both young women with both young men.  Along with this explosion of highly fascinating sex were discussions of “Natural Spirituality” as taught by the “Avatar” Bhagawan Osho Rajneesh.  Later he was having a discussion about the spiritual path with a friend he had met in India, who was also a seeker for Truth.  His friend asked why he had left the Naqshbandi Master to become a Rajneesh follower.  Our young Dutchman said that he had deeply read both Idries Shah and Osho Rajneesh.  When he read Osho Rajneesh’s books on Sufism, he said he “knew” immediately that “Bhagawan” was the “Superior Master”.  He never mentioned anything about his sex life to his old friend.


Shah: 7. People are almost always stimulated by an offer of attention, since most people are frequently attention-deprived.  This is one reason why new friends, or circumstances, for instance, may be preferred to old ones.


Qutub:  That someone begins to e-mail us about our wonderful, amazing Website and wants to collaborate can sometimes draw us into thinking and working along new lines and neglecting other kinds of thinking and personal investment that were being ignored.  That such a shift of our focus might actually be a downgrade and a distraction may not be registered by us if our social self is becoming flattered and excited.  The social self would rather expand its territory in something of lesser value than contract its territory in something of greater value.  This Mephistic or Faustian procedure used to be called, “Selling your soul to the Devil.”


Shah: 8. If people could learn to assuage attention-hunger, they would be in a better position than most present cultures allow them, to attend to other things.  They could extend the effectiveness of their learning capacity.


Qutub:  If we get sucked into cyberspace, endlessly pursuing attention-exchanges in any number of subjects, we actually have less and less time to deeply explore and learn those subjects.  We then become “Cyber-Zombies”.  Hakim Bey has spoken quite eloquently on this problem.  There is a huge difference between meeting people on the Web and meeting them in real life, just as there is a difference between meeting people and having a direct experience in solitude in nature somewhere.  What Hakim Bey calls immediatism is the principle of putting direct experience first before the secondary aim of social expansion in the world of empty talk, particularly on the Web.


Shah: 9. Among the things which unstarved people (in the sense of attention) could investigate, is the comparative attraction of ideas, individuals, etc., apart from their purely attention-supplying function.


Qutub:  Have you read and meditated on:

A.   All the works of Idries Shah,

B.    All the works of Chögyam Trungpa,

C.   All the works of Carlos Castaneda,

D.   All the works of Jiddu Krishnamurti,

E.    All the works of Osho Rajneesh,

F.    All the works of Aurobindo,

G.   All the works of Paramahansa Yogananda?


If you have not, then on what basis are you chatting to who about what on the Web and elsewhere?


Shah: 10. The desire for attention starts at an early age of infancy.  It is, of course, at that point linked with feeding and protection.  This is not to say that this desire has no further nor future development value.  But it can be adapted beyond its ordinary adult usage of mere satisfaction.


Qutub:  Becoming insatiable for attention exchange (both to get and give attention) on the Web can certainly go beyond “ordinary adult usage of mere satisfaction.”  Furiously sending e-mails and desperately checking what e-mails have arrived can become a major fixation for psychologically infantile individuals who identify their attention problem with “spiritual” subjects.  An undeveloped individuality cannot mature through social expansions, contacts, conversations or confrontations.  Our real value as human beings cannot be decided by our popularity or lack of it with other immature, undeveloped people.


Shah: 11. Even a cursory survey of human communities shows that, while the random eating tendency, possessiveness and other undifferentiated characteristics are very early trained or diverted (weaned), the attention-factor does not get the same treatment.  The consequence is that the adult human being, deprived of any method of handling his desire for attention, continues to be confused by it: as it usually remains primitive throughout life.


Qutub:  Some people will send-out hundreds of e-mails indiscriminately to all known spiritual authorities, leaders, teachers or traditional “Masters” just to see who might respond and offer advice or an invitation to participate in something with possible advantages worth exploiting.  The desire for attention in such cases has utterly drowned any real sense of inner direction.


Shah: 12. Very numerous individual observations of human transactions have been made.  They show that an interchange between two people always has an attention-factor.


Qutub:  This is because the “two people” are invariably two social selves rather than two real selves.  Two social selves are inevitably functioning as two puppets of their background unconscious psychological drives, which includes hidden attention concerns, whether to give it, receive it or both.  The Four Energy Strategies as developed by Redfield, author of The Celestine Prophecy, are a further delineation of what typically happens when human beings strive to energize their social self at the expense of others.


Shah: 13. Observation shows that people’s desires for attention ebb and flow.  When in an ebb or flow of attention-desire, the human being not realizing that this is his condition, attributes his actions and feelings to other factors, e.g., the hostility or pleasantness of others.  He may even say that it is a ‘lucky day’ when his attention-needs have been quickly and adequately met.  Re-examination of such situations has shown that such experiences are best accounted for by the attention theory.


Qutub:  The ebb and flow of attention desire on the Web and elsewhere will usually try to disguise itself as having or not having “time for serious discussion of important spiritual issues.”  Such people are either (A) heedless or (B) pretentious.  Neither state will yield a valid orientation.


Shah: 14. Objections based upon the supposed pleasure of attention being strongest when it is randomly achieved do not stand up when carefully examined.  ‘I prefer to be surprised by attention’ can be paraphrased by saying ‘I prefer not to know where my next meal is coming from’.  It simply underlies a primitive stage of feeling and thinking on this subject.


Qutub:  If one has psychologically wholesome attention-exchange situations in ordinary personal and professional situations on the basic earth without bringing up occult or spiritual subjects, then there will not be random ups and downs of attention-exchange in and around supposedly occult spiritual issues on the Web.  By recognizing one’s basic need to give and receive attention, one can arrange for it to happen without subjecting oneself to random flurries and deprivations in cyberspace with faceless people.


Shah: 15. Situations which seem different when viewed from an over-simplified perspective (which is the usual one) are seen to be the same by the application of attention-theory.  E.g.: people following an authority-figure may be exercising the desire for attention or the desire to give it.  The interchange between people and their authority-figure may be explained by mutual-attention behaviour.  Some gain only attention from this interchange.  Some can gain more.


Qutub:  To gain more than attention-exchange on the Web is virtually impossible because authentic Teachers do not engage in socializing on the Web.  In a direct face-to-face meeting with an authentic Teacher, any potentially empowering radiation on the seeker will be wasted if the seeker is actually only seeking to get or give attention.  In such a situation the seeker is either superficially receptive or uselessly argumentative.


Shah: 16. Another confusion is caused by the fact that the object of attention may be a person, a cult, an object, an idea, interest, etc. Because the focii of attention can be so diverse, people in general have not yet identified the common factor – the desire for attention.


Qutub:  I used to keep three photographs up on a wall from three different magazines.  One was of Adolf Hitler surrounded by eager admirers where he was sitting at a table in a town he was visiting.  Another was of a famous chess grandmaster surrounded by eager and admiring chess players where he was sitting at a table in a town he was visiting.  Another was of a famous spiritual Guru surrounded by eager admiring followers where he was sitting at a table in their spiritual center dedicated to his teaching work.  In each of the photos, the leader or authority had the same look on his face and the eager admirers all had the same look on their faces.


Shah: 17. One of the advantages of this theory is that it allows the human mind to link in a coherent and easily-understood way many things which it has always (wrongly) been taught are very different, not susceptible to comparison, etc.  This incorrect training has, of course, impaired the possible efficiency in functioning of the brain, though only culturally, not permanently.


Qutub:  Flurries of shared curiosity, excitement and idle talk on the Web take place about anything, which includes everything from global political problems to the latest spiritual influences.  If one does not understand and observe obvious manifestations of existential sociological behavior, it is unlikely that one will correctly evaluate anything else that is being displayed on the Web (such as the Sufi Master oracle available on this Website).


Shah: 18. The inability to feel when attention is extended, and also to encourage or to prevent its being called forth, makes man almost uniquely vulnerable to being influenced, especially in having ideas implanted in his brain, and in being indoctrinated.


Qutub:  Beliefs and disbeliefs about particular individuals, situations or even whole cultures are easily generated in a brain that is dominated by hidden attention needs.  There are known advertising, propaganda and disinformation techniques for playing on the attention disabilities of human beings.  Self-appointed spiritual experts or socializers on the Web are just as vulnerable to such techniques as other groupings of people.


Shah: 19. Raising the emotional pitch is the most primitive method of increasing attention towards the instrument which increased the emotion.  It is the prelude to, or accompaniment of, almost every form of indoctrination.


Qutub:  Sometimes there is an emotionally arousing shared sociological event on the Web, such as an exciting new attraction or an intense controversy.  In such situations, the cyber-participants can be conditioned or indoctrinated by those they recognize as having leading opinions.


Shah: 20. Traditional philosophical and other teachings have been used to prescribe exercises in the control and focusing of attention.   Their value, however, has been to a great measure lost because the individual exercises, prescribed for people in need of exercise, have been written down and repeated as unique truths and practiced in a manner, with people and at a rate and under circumstances which, by their very randomness, have not been able to effect any change in the attention-training.  This treatment has, however, produced obsession.  It continues to do so.


Qutub:  A good example of this are all the would-be Naqshbandi Sufis in both the East and the West who try to apply the well-known and anciently established exercise called  Khalwat dar anjuman, Solitude in company.  Superficial interpretations of this, such as, “thinking only of God when with other people”, shed no light on the necessary application of Attention Theory.  Being observant of Attention Behavior when with a group of people who are ignorant of what they are really doing with and about one another would itself be closer to the real exercise of the old principle.  Socially mechanical people who imagine they are “Naqshbandi Sufis” (or anything else for that matter) have no spiritual advantage from their affiliation, whether on the Web or at one of their “centers”.


Shah: 21. Here and there proverbs and other pieces of literary material indicate that there has been at one time a widespread knowledge of attention on the lines now being described.  Deprived, however, of context, these indications survive as fossil indicators rather than being a useful guide to attention-exercise for contemporary man.


Qutub:  Many of the old teachings on such matters are framed as moral exhortations that tend to miss the real point of self-liberation from attention problems.  Modern sexed-up “spiritual” socializers on the Web would not have a clue about extracting Attention Theory from obsolete religious and mystical treatises.  That they are looking for the opposite sex and not for God would not register in the right place in their mind.