frager.jpgBack in the spring of 2000, when What Is Enlightenment? published its issue called “What Is Ego? Friend or Foe . . . ,” I was, if you don’t mind my “sharing,” in a terrible bind. At the time deeply committed to a career as a psychotherapist, I had spent years learning about, developing, and strengthening the ego-that fundamental sense of self and personal efficacy-in myself and in others. And for me, as for so many of my (boomer) generation, therapy was often much more than just something you did to feel better about yourself. It was a spiritual endeavor, a means of soul development, a way to discover and rediscover the “true self” on a path to nothing less than the full expression of personal potential in the quest for wholeness. 

By the time I entered the profession, therapy had long since leapt off its Freudian couch. Over the previous few decades, it had expanded its domain into personal growth workshops and mindfulness weekends, had stretched into yoga ashrams, and had proliferated up and down the social class spectrum in the form of recovery groups (AA being the godhead, so to speak) as a spiritualized version of support for just about every personal issue you could name. I had expanded with it, starting out as your garden-variety neurotic client, then as a kind of therapy-based spiritual aspirant (following a profound realization of Oneness in a particularly cathartic session), then as a student (first in a “spiritual psychology” program and on to a master’s in social work), and finally as a therapist helping others work their way, one issue at a time, to their own spiritual heart. Therapy, in its myriad forms, had established itself in our post-traditional culture as one of the few places where you could seek meaning without trying to believe in some hopelessly outdated bearded-man-in-the-sky type of God, and I was right there in the middle of it all. A true believer, you might say.

So what was the bind? Somewhere along the way I had fallen headlong onto a spiritual path entirely outside the realm of therapeutic process-a path of enlightenment, or ego transcendence. Somehow, while faithfully nurturing my way toward wholeness, while occupied with all of those sessions and group meetings and workshops, while pursuing countless guided meditations and visualizations and “heart openings,” I had begun to consider the outrageous possibility of being absolutely free, or enlightened, for real-now. And that, I was learning, meant dropping all notions of needing to heal first, which meant ending all process, leaving the past behind, killing the ego. Though still a dedicated therapist by day, I had begun “moonlighting” in a different spiritual world that pointed to a daring possibility, where the rules increasingly seemed to oppose those by which I had lived most of my adult life until that point. Indeed, I had an “issue” that no therapist I knew would be able to help resolve.

In some ways it was all coming down to the question of the ego. What is it really? Are the therapists right that it is essentially positive, the individual sense of self that needs to be stroked and strengthened over time? Or is it, as the spiritual masters say, an illusion of separation to be instantly dropped as the only obstacle to wholeness? Or could there be, I hoped . . . a definition that would encompass all?

It was on this doorstep of contradiction and inner conflict that the nice fat What Is Enlightenment? issue on ego fell with a satisfying thunk. Back then, WIE came out every six months, and the entire issue would be dedicated to one rigorously researched topic explored through interviews with a vast array of spiritual teachers and experts-and this one was no exception. Drawing from the wisdom and experience of spiritual masters, transpersonal theorists, and psychologists, and even from the director of the acclaimed film The Devil’s Advocate, it covered the topic from top to bottom.

But one article, more than any other, promised an answer to my dilemma: “The Man with Two Heads,” a double interview with Sheikh Ragip al-Jerrahi, Sufi spiritual leader, a.k.a. Dr. Robert Frager, transpersonal psychologist and professor. For obvious reasons, I was intrigued with this radical concept: two separate side-by-side interviews with one person fully steeped in both the spiritual and the psychotherapeutic paradigms. And as the original introduction to the article indicated, the affable Ragip/Frager immediately agreed to the idea. “Sure,” he said. “You could call it ‘conversations with a schizophrenic,’ because I’ll probably contradict myself. When I’m wearing my Sufi hat, I often say terrible things about psychology.” Despite this frank acknowledgment of the contradiction in his roles, I thought, wouldn’t he have to come to some kind of an answer, a resolution to this essential life-directing question? Wouldn’t he be the one to provide a unifying perspective?

Well, yes and no. But rather than give it all away, I’ll leave you to discover for yourself what the esteemed sheikh/shrink had to say.

And as for me? It is now six years of spiritual practice and contemplation later, four years since I shut my therapy office door for the last time and came to work for WIE. But despite such a life-changing decision, after rereading this article and recalling that time of confusion and inquiry, I have to admit that the grappling with ego, in all its definitions and dimensions, seems just as crucial and as challenging as ever. My “bind,” of course, pointed well beyond a personal issue to a timeless spiritual question-albeit one viewed through a therapy-colored lens. And that question, for those of us who are attracted to spiritual life, seems to be nothing less than: Are we, despite countless psychological flaws, willing to drop ego and dare to be free, right now?

While no one can answer that question for us, there is help available for navigating this at once classic and contemporary terrain. That is why I chose to share with you, for this special edition of What Is Enlightenment?, the following pair of interviews. More than just a wise and educated guide, the “two-headed” Ragip/Frager is in fact uniquely positioned to illuminate the path of this all-important exploration. So I hope you will value, as much as I have, this eminently insightful and fascinating investigation into the nature of ego, the contours of human development, and the spiritual drive for ultimate transcendence.

What Is Enlightenment: What is the ego?

Sheikh Ragip: It’s interesting that when Freud’s writing was translated into English, what was translated as “the ego” is in German “das Ich” which means “the I.” So our modern theories of personality are built on this notion that ego is the “I”; it’s my sense of who I am. And Sufism would very much agree with this definition. Sufism explains that this sense of self, what it calls the “personal soul,” is an outgrowth of our capacity to objectify ourselves, to see ourselves as objects. Now, our capacity to do that gives us tremendous power to act, to plan; it gives us tremendous control. But the problem is that when you begin to say, “There is an ‘ I.’ Here I am, an object,” then by definition you’re also separating yourself from the world. If I say, “I” or “me,” that immediately assumes dualism. Because there’s “I,” therefore there has to be “other.” But from the Sufi point of view, we’re seeking unity-and that dualism, which is so powerful, is one of the greatest blocks to attaining unity. Who wants to give up “I”? We don’t want to give ourselves up; we’re terribly attached to this sense of “who am I?

So, fundamentally, the roots of the ego are this sense of separateness or individuality. We identify with this separateness instead of identifying with the soul, instead of identifying with the divine in us. And to the extent that we are attached to our self-content or self-image or separateness, that is one of the things that keeps us from truly pursuing a spiritual path. It holds us back from our deepest mystical experiences because often in those experiences that sense of a separate self dissolves. One of my old colleagues once said, “Everybody wants God but fights like the devil to avoid union!”

WIE: In your book Heart, Self and Soul, you also define the ego as “the collection of all those forces within us that lead us off the spiritual path.” Is the ego, as you’re describing it here, what in Sufism is called “the tyrannical nafs?

Ragip: Yes. In Sufism, the lowest level of the nafs or self is the nafsammara, or tyrannical nafs, which refers to all those forces in us that lead us astray. And at that level we are also unconscious of them, in denial that they exist, very much like an addict who says, “I have no problem with alcohol. I just have a little with breakfast, a little with lunch, a little something in between, but I have no problem.” It’s that denial, that unconsciousness, that makes the tyrannical nafs so incredibly powerful. And many of us are in that stage more than we’d like to think. I think it’s a stage that one drops into, for example, when somebody cuts you off on the freeway, or when someone is rude, or when someone hooks your pride or makes you angry. We descend to that level of unconsciousness. So it’s incredibly powerful.

Now Sufism speaks of the nafs as moving through stages or levels, and the second level is called the “self-blaming nafs” or the “regretful nafs.” At this stage, you’re more aware of it, but you’re still caught by it. It’s like, “I know I’m going to say the wrong thing, I hope I can stop . . . oh damn, here I go . . . ,” and you start the sentence and you know you should shut up, but you can’t; you just do it. In that particular stage, we at least realize that we’re off-center-we’re in the grip of something that is not our highest level of consciousness-but we still let ourselves do it even knowing that we’re driven.

And then, as we continue to work and see it more clearly, as we try to substitute positive action and meditation on the names of God, which are positive qualities, little by little we ideally weaken those forces and move out of their domination. But even then, these forces can get revved up in certain situations. We may be under control of them ninety-nine percent of the time, but they’re still there, except maybe in the very highest saints. There’s a classic story of the prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), where he goes out late at night to pray in the desert. And his young wife, Aisha, thinks he’s going out to meet another woman. So as he’s going out into the silence of the desert, she stomps out, and he looks at her and says, “Oh, Aisha, have you brought your little Satan with you?” And she says, “What little Satan?” He says, “Every human being has an imp, a little devilish part, their nafs.” And she asks, “Even you, O Prophet of God?” And he says, “Yes, even me. However, I made mine a Muslim.” Now, another translation of that is, “I brought mine into submission,” because “muslim” means one who submits. So while the great saints often exhibit the most extraordinary patience and self-control in situations in which the rest of us know we would blow it, I think that in all but the greatest saints, theoretically that potential to be tempted is still there.

WIE: Does that temptation take on different forms as one progresses on the path?

Ragip: Yes. For instance, if we stay with the stages of the nafs, what happens next, after the regretful nafs, is that we come to what’s called the “inspired nafs,” the inspired self in which the wisdom of the heart, the wisdom of that inner light, begins to come more and more into the personality, into consciousness, so that we really have an alternative now to the forces of the ego-which is intuition, a sense of guidance, a sense of connection to truth. The problem is that the lower forces are still somewhat in action. The reign of the ego is not by any means over, and the biggest danger, of course, is that the ego can begin to use the wisdom and the light for self-aggrandizement, for inflation, rather than for self-diminishment. Ideally, one says, “This light isn’t mine, this wisdom isn’t mine. It’s something that comes through me. It’s something from another source.” But the ego wants to say, “This is my wisdom. I know.”

There is an interesting book that’s just recently out by Mariana Caplan called Halfway Up the Mountain-which is a bad metaphor because it’s probably an endless mountain-but it talks about many of the dangers of having spiritual teachers who are halfway up the mountain, but have somehow stopped at this stage. It’s the most dangerous stage of all because if the ego gets inflated with real wisdom, real light, it’s very hard to change things. Because the light is real, the wisdom is real. The only problem is that the ego begins to attribute it to itself, not to something greater than itself. And so the self gets firmer, crystallized even; but what we want, of course, is for the self to become more transparent, less of a “thing,” lighter.

WIE: Sufism has a thousand-year legacy of saints, living embodiments of the Divine who have demonstrated with their own lives the possibility of a life that is free from the ego’s tyranny. How does the expression of the personality change in an individual who goes beyond the ego?

Ragip: They still have their personality, but one way to put it is that the personality doesn’t run them. They run their personalities. Another way to put it is that somehow the personality is beautified. It’s permeated with light and love. It’s still a personality, and it doesn’t mean they become generic, like a vanilla shake sheikh. They’re all different. But there’s a beauty there, because the personality has become like a vessel that holds the Divine. Like a clay pot that soaks up its contents, in holding the Divine, the personality becomes permeated with the divine qualities of love, light, generosity and divine compassion. And also, to push the metaphor, it doesn’t leak anymore.

One of my teachers once said, “If you haven’t got your basic life in order and have not begun to live a life of calmness, stability, service, honesty, practicing the basic virtues and then you meditate or do other spiritual practices, it’s like having a cow that eats organic grass and gives wonderful organic milk, but when you milk that cow, the milk goes into a pail with a couple of small holes in the bottom.” Terribly wasteful. You probably never get to use that milk. The personality is very much like that pail. Certain habits like dishonesty or lack of calmness are like holes that make it so we can’t hold the state of love of the Divine. We lose it. And the great ones don’t.

WIE: Throughout Sufi literature, the ego is often characterized as a kind of willful part of the psyche that actively opposes our spiritual progress. What is the driving force behind the ego’s agenda? What is the raison d’être of the ego?

Ragip: Well, there are probably two answers. One is self-survival. The ego is scared of change, scared to death of deep mystical experience and transformation, because from its point of view, that kind of change is death. It doesn’t think it’s going to survive it. And it may not. So it’s a survival mechanism. It is the part of all of us that wants to stay the same, a kind of inertial component in all of us that says, “Don’t change.”

Another aspect is that the ego is often talked about by the Sufis as connected to Satan, to the devil. And it’s interesting, Jung says much the same thing about the shadow. On the one hand, it’s that which we don’t see or accept in ourselves, but he also says that it’s connected with larger cosmic forces, what we call “Satanic forces.” And no one likes to talk about this. It’s not real popular. In fact I’m teaching a course in spiritual psychology to one of the new religious groups that is very focused on positive thinking, and whenever I bring this up, it’s like I’ve poked one of their sacred cows. “How can you say evil exists? The universe is good, God is good!” And part of me tries to say, “Wait a minute. Whenever there’s light, there’s shadow.”

It also seems like it’s not inaccurate to occasionally refer to the nafs almost as though it is motivated, like a person. On one level it’s a metaphor, but on another level, there’s also a sense that it seems to act like an entity. Sheikh Tosun Bayrak has often referred to the nafs as “the thief,” something that wishes to steal away that which is beautiful and valuable in our lives. It’s almost as if it’s a servant of Satan whose job is to test our faith. In fact, sometimes he has said to us as well, “Be especially careful after you’ve been on Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca], after you’ve really done some spiritual work, because thieves usually don’t go to empty houses, but if there’s something there . . .” When you grow, when you change, in a sense almost a counterforce can be activated.

WIE: How does Sufism recommend that we guard ourselves against this undermining force within our own psyche?

Ragip: One way that Sheikh Tosun has spoken to this is: “What do you do when a thief comes into the house at night and you’re in your bedroom, and you hear this thief creeping around, you hear the candlesticks going into his bag? If you charge downstairs with a knife in your hand, the thief will also have a knife. If you have a gun in your hand, the thief will have a gun. No matter what you’ve got in the house, the thief is going to have the same. It’s going to mirror that power that you use against it, and it’s going to be terribly destructive.” So what do you do? The answer that he gave is, “You turn the light on!” Because the thief is a coward, and if you turn the light of awareness on the process, the thief will flee. You don’t fight. You see, the stupidest thing in the world is to fight with Satan. There are lots of great stories in Sufism and elsewhere that show that when you try to fight with Satan, guess who wins? It’s a very bad idea.

WIE: There is a famous passage in the Koran where, upon returning from battle, Muhammad says to his followers, “Now we leave the lesser holy war for the greater holy war-the war against the nafs.” In light of what you’ve been saying about not struggling against the ego, what do you think about the Prophet’s widely quoted metaphor of spiritual combat?

Ragip: I think it was a perfect teaching for the time. But you have to understand the context. The Muslims had just come back from fighting the Meccans who had more money, more cavalry, better equipment, better armor, and better weapons. But by means of faith, effort, and God’s grace, they won. So they’re coming back exhausted but feeling, “Wow, we did it! We’re great warriors, look at what we did! We beat the crap out of them! All those Meccan nonbelievers, we kicked their butts!” And it was at that point that Muhammad said, “Now we’re going to the greater war!” He was addressing that little piece of pride.

I think the problem is what we tend to do when we hear “holy war”-it’s too easy for it to become black and white. In a war, you know who your allies are and you know who your enemies are. But the spiritual path is much more subtle. The nafs never says to you, “I am your enemy. I’m going to mislead you from your spiritual path. I want you to meditate a little less. I want you to do your work a little less. I want to nail you!” It doesn’t do that. It says something like, “You’ve been traveling, so why don’t you take it easy. Don’t exhaust yourself; get a little more sleep. It’s good for your health. I’m your friend. I have your best interests at heart.” So this business is complicated

I also think it’s unfortunate that often we call it the “inner holy war” because war sounds very violent. I think it’s far more sophisticated to say it’s really an inner training-the way you train a beautiful, intelligent dog or horse or, in a way, a child. I think transformation through love is far more sane and sensible.

WIE: In Sufism, the relationship with the sheikh, or teacher, has always been considered to be essential in helping the dervish to go beyond the ego. There’s a quote from Rumi that states, “Whoever travels without a guide needs two hundred years for a two-day journey.” How does the relationship with the sheikh help the dervish in leaving the ego behind?

Ragip: One metaphor I’ve found very useful comes from a German psychologist who’s also a Sufi. She said, “You can see yourself clearly enough to make trivial changes in yourself, just like if you have a cut, you can bandage yourself. But fundamental change you can’t do for yourself because you’re too close to it. You can’t see the structure. You can’t see the forest for the trees.” She said, “While you can put a Band-Aid on your own cut, you can’t take out your own appendix.” And that kind of operation is equivalent to what the sheikh can help you with, which is fundamental change. Many things you can do for yourself, but there are certain levels of depth you just can’t reach by yourself. You can’t do it.

WIE: A growing number of spiritual practitioners in the West today are of the opinion that it’s not necessary to have a spiritual teacher or guide. Fueled by the antiauthority teachings of Andrew Harvey and a number of others, more and more people are now attempting to guide themselves beyond ego, often selecting from various traditions the practices and ideas they feel will most benefit them in their quest. In Essential Sufism you write, “The ego is afraid of losing control, and even more afraid of dissolving, and comes up with reason after reason for refusing to let go. . . .” Do you think that, in general, this impulse to walk the spiritual path solo, without a teacher, is possibly just another manifestation of the ego’s unrelenting agenda to stay in control of our life?

Ragip: Yes. I think that’s one way of putting it. But there’s a paradox. My teachers rarely told me what to do. At one level, I had to do the work myself. I had to do my own prayers. My beloved friend Haridas Baba many years ago said, “I can cook for you, but I can’t eat for you.” So the teacher can put a banquet out that you will then do the work with. Can you do that with the banquet that’s available in all the wonderful paperbacks at $9.95 and $15.95? Well, some people would say yes. My own experience is that I have been so inspired by my teachers. I don’t think I would have had the patience to stay with this path if it wasn’t for the love, the acceptance, and the example of my teachers. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to see myself honestly and clearly if it wasn’t for the sense that they saw me clearly and still loved me and accepted me.

But I think, even more fundamentally, I see the teacher as a powerful role model, an example to show that transformation is possible. How do you know it’s possible? There’s somebody there whose personality has been transformed, whose vessel has been permeated by light and love. And I also think there are more esoteric aspects. I think certain practices frankly don’t have any power unless you’ve been given them by a teacher. They won’t work. So I think this business about being your own teacher ignores the importance of transmission, of lineage, of initiation. The spiritual path is not merely logical or mechanical. It’s not psychological or spiritual bodybuilding. It’s something much more subtle. I think there’s an energetic connection with the teacher. We talk in Sufism about the rabita al kalb, the connection of the heart.

Now I think there have been cases where that connection was established without a living teacher. I think St. Francis did that through Jesus. But that’s rare. How many of us are St. Francis? Very few of us. And also, my teachers have said, semihumorously, that it’s much better to have a dead teacher than a live teacher because they don’t give you much trouble. They don’t speak up. They don’t get critical. All they do is say, “Love, be happy, don’t worry,” because what else are they going to tell you in their writing? They can’t say, “Now, you know what you’re doing when you’re doing your practice. Why don’t you try not to do that anymore?” in a gentle or not-so-gentle way. When it comes to dealing with the subtle tricks of the nafs, it’s very useful to have a teacher because some people start to go into the woods and don’t know it. You really need someone to say, “Wake up, boy! You just took a ninety-degree turn and you don’t know it.”

WIE: Earlier you mentioned that the ego can appear to get stronger in response to our spiritual efforts. In Heart, Self and Soul, you also describe how your first conscious experience of the tyrannical nafs, or negative ego, in yourself came immediately upon your decision to formally ask to become a dervish [Sufi initiate]. Why is it that when one deepens one’s commitment to the spiritual quest, the ego seems to become more visible?

Ragip: Well, I think most people, especially before they take up the spiritual quest, are absolutely under the domination of the tyrannical nafs. But if we use the metaphor of the phar­aoh, the inner tyrant, who’s the best ruler? It’s not the ruler who has to call the troops out to keep order. It’s the ruler who gives commands and everybody says, “We must obey.” It’s the ruler whose authority isn’t questioned. And so it seems to me that until one gets onto the spiritual path, the ruler has it easy, because there’s no opposition. There’s no rebellion. But when we start on the spiritual path, there is a rebellion and then what happens is that, in a way, the forces of the tyrannical nafs that have been underground, that have been hiding, suddenly become revealed. That revealing is actually a weakening of their power because they’re no longer unconscious. But what happens is that, paradoxically, very often when you start on the spiritual path, you suddenly see the power of the nafs, and you think, “Oh, my God! I’m in much worse shape than I thought I was.” The problem is, you just didn’t know what bad shape you were in before. You were run by this thing. You weren’t fighting it. So when you first see it, there’s a shock.

For us, one of the greatest blessings is to fast during the month of Ramadan from dawn to dusk. One reason is that it’s an incredible mirror for the nafs. We get short-tempered. We say, “I don’t want to fast. I want to sleep.” Or, “I have to drive today. Maybe I shouldn’t fast.” We begin to hear the voice of the nafs. And one of the great blessings of fasting or doing any ascetic practice is to begin to hear the voice that’s opposing, that’s saying, “Don’t do this. I don’t like this.” It’s a bit like TheWizard of Oz. There’s this big powerful voice and you think, “Well, obviously we have to follow that.” But meanwhile there’s somebody saying, “It’s really just the little man behind the curtain.” Because the more clearly you see it, the more you really see it is like a trickster, and the less power it has. But you have to see it.

You see, the danger is that ascetic practices don’t always do that. Purohit Swami, who is one of the great Indian teachers of this century, has a brilliant translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, in which he says, “I have met many practitioners of hatha yoga, all of whom had strong wills and had developed great capacities and great power-and very powerful egos in the process.” So if you just do ascetic practices without the context that this is a practice of looking at yourself, the danger is, of course, you’re going to feed the ego-“I fasted for a month!” It’s interesting that in Islam you can’t fast for more than a month, and this came about partly to address this problem of self-inflation: “Well, you only fasted for twenty-nine days, I fasted for thirty-five!” So asceticism gives an incredible potential for ego inflation; but on the other hand, if we use it with this context of, “Watch what’s going on, watch the process,” then it really can reduce the ego tremendously.

WIE: In researching this issue, we learned that Orthodox Christian ascetics are often encouraged to soften their discipline when they have guests, so that they can’t show off their feats of austerity to others.

Ragip: There is a tradition in Sufism that has a very powerful focus on reducing the ego in this way. It’s called the Malami tradition or “the path of blame.” What the Malamis will do, knowing that the ego wants to be known and thought well of, is they will either be invisible or deliberately soften their practice in front of other people, so that other people think they don’t have much of a practice. The Malamis, for example, almost never wear special clothing. They don’t even have a special meeting place. They avoid all the trappings, because they know that the ego loves trappings. I have one very dear friend who is a highly respected teacher in this tradition. And I have seen him walk into our mosque in Istanbul and look like somebody who just walked in from the street, not like a visiting teacher. And he’s a wonderful, brilliant teacher. Many of the Sufis have this quality-as opposed to showing your practice to other people, almost deliberately showing that you don’t have one and then running to do your prayers where they can’t see you. So in that sense it is like war. It’s almost like a war against the ego. It’s very sophisticated. It’s like, “Whatever you want, I’m going to go do the opposite. You want to look good? We’re going to look bad. You want to be seen? We’re going to be invisible. And any time we’re gonna be visible, I’m going to make sure we don’t look the way you want us to.” It’s an incredible discipline.

What Is Enlightenment: In addition to your role as a Sufi sheikh, you’re also the founding president of a progressive academic institution devoted to transpersonal psychology. You mentioned to me previously that you are in some ways a very different person in your two different roles, and that as a result, you often even contradict yourself. In particular you said that when wearing your Sufi hat you often say terrible things about psychology, your chosen profession. Can you speak a little bit about your experience of the conflict between these two worlds?

Robert Frager: One way of putting the problem is that in using the term “psychology” in an academic setting, in an institution that offers a Ph.D. degree, we’re taking on the whole Western academic tradition with its emphasis on head alone-certainly not heart, much less soul. If you break apart the very term “psychology,” “psyche” means spirit or soul in Greek; and therefore, psychology or psychoanalysis is literally the scientific analysis, the logical cutting up, or parsing, of the soul, which in itself is pretty crazy. How in the hell do you parse the soul? How can you be analytic when it comes to the soul?

When you even use the term “psychology,” you’re buying into something that says logic will do it. But logic is a very limited tool. Certainly, logic has caused me to make a lot of wrong decisions in my life. And in Sufism, as soon as you get to the higher stages, forget logic. It doesn’t figure anymore because you have a paradox; what is that soul in you that’s transcendent? What is before the before? And after the after? These are not questions logic is ever going to handle

So I think psychology can only take one so far. And I think the problem with much of modern science and technology, including psychology, is that it doesn’t know its own limits. Huston Smith, who had the fascinating experience of being a professor of philosophy and religion at the ” Temple of Science,” MIT, wrote beautifully about this. He said there’s the huge night sky, which is this vast array of stars and things that you can’t see with the naked eye. And science is taking one searchlight and illuminating one piece. The problem with science is that it says, “Everything we didn’t illuminate doesn’t count.” So one of the problems with psychology, like much of modern academic science, is that it doesn’t really acknowledge the value of where it doesn’t go-which is to issues of the heart, to issues of ultimate meaning and value, to issues of the spirit.

Now, psychology does some things wonderfully. I’ve often spoken with Muslim psychologists, colleagues who’ve said to me, “As a Muslim, should I even be dealing with Western psychology? Isn’t it a distortion from our point of view as religious men and women?” And generally I’ve said, “Look, notice that the whole clinical field in psychology is really the psychology of the lower levels of the nafs [ego or lower self].” That’s all it is. It’s very valuable. In fact it teaches us some things about the nafs that we wouldn’t know otherwise. The Sufi tradition, for example, doesn’t talk about some of these fascinating defense mechanisms of the psyche-like repression or projection, the things that Freud and Anna Freud and the neo-Freudians laid out. Understanding this is very valuable. But if you think that’s all the psyche is, that’s absurd.

WIE: It seems to be a common view among transpersonal psychologists that before we can truly begin the work of abandoning the ego, it is essential that we first develop a strong ego. Indeed, ever since psychiatrist and meditation teacher Jack Engler first put forth the statement “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” this idea has come to be regarded as almost the first commandment of the transpersonal psychological field. I recently read Engler’s statement to the Christian Orthodox elder Archimandrite Dionysios, and he responded, “That’s like saying you have to become the head of the Mafia before you can become president!” What is your view on this?

Frager: They’re both right. I’ve noticed, and I’m sure this is true in Greece, the spiritual traditions in general don’t take children of one year old or even five years old into a monastery. But why don’t the ashrams, the monasteries, take kids in at birth if they really believe that the kids should be surrounded by spiritual beings and by spiritual discipline, instead of being surrounded by the worldly life? It seems to me that one reason is to give them a chance to develop their personalities, develop their likes and dislikes, mature enough so that they come to the monastery with a personality-even though, interestingly, that personality is developed in the world. You have to let them be in the world and develop to a certain extent, because only then do they have a real vocation and can they make a reasonable choice. In other words, they have developed their egos, they have developed their personalities to some extent.

My former teacher Kennett Roshi once put it this way; she said, “If you look at the Buddhist iconography, there’s a picture of Maitreya, the Buddha to come, sitting on a giant beast. He’s larger than the beast-bigger, weightier, stronger. He hasn’t killed the beast but he sat on it, controlled it.” And that beast is the ego. I think that is the goal. The goal is not to kill the ego. It’s not to have no personality, but it’s to sit on it and to be bigger than it is. Now, sitting on it isn’t beating it or starving it. It’s sitting on it. I mean the ego might say, “I’m being abused.” But then who believes it? The goal is to somehow have developed yourself as a spiritual being so that the ego is a small part of you but a developed part.

Now I think Engler’s statement can certainly be misinterpreted to mean: “Well, I have to work just on developing my ego now.” My guess is the best way to do it is you work on developing your ego in the context of sitting on it. You don’t just go, “Let me feed this beast and let it go free and then by the time it’s really grown I’m going to have a hell of a time taming it.” That’s pretty dumb! What you do is feed and love the beast, but you train it as you’re nourishing it with love, with understanding.

WIE: So you’re saying that whatever aspects of self need to be developed to grow spiritually can all be developed in the context of spiritual pursuit?

Frager: Yes. I think developing ego out of the context of spirituality, where it’s just pandering to the ego, is a foolish mistake.

WIE: You’ve been speaking about ego in a number of different ways. One thing we’ve observed in the course of our research for this issue is that “ego” is a word that has traditionally been used differently by psychological theorists than it has been by the spiritual traditions. Whereas spiritual traditions have tended to use the word “ego” to refer to the enemy of the path, the compulsion to maintain and preserve at all costs our separate sense of self, our identity, Western psychology generally refers to it in positive terms as either our personality or as a set of capacities or functions that we need to live effectively in the world. Yet transpersonal psychology, in its attempt to bring psychology and spirituality together, often seems to blur this distinction by referring to the ego at times as an obstacle that needs to be transcended and at other times as simply the personality. Isn’t it essential, however, if we really want to be victorious in our quest for liberation that we know exactly what the obstacle we must face really is, and that we keep a stark vision of the negative ego-the enemy of the path-firmly in our sights?

Frager: Well let me seem to not answer this. I think, from a Sufi perspective, one very important component of the struggle to develop oneself spiritually is service-service to humanity but also service to the world, to all of creation. One of the great tools to do that is the personality structure, including the ego, the sense of self. Now even as you’re working to divest yourself of that separate sense of self, which is the last stage, in order to get there, paradoxically, you need to use that self well. It is the beast on which the Buddha rides. If you look at the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, when you go through the experience of nirvana, you go through the experience of union and dropping all separateness. But you come back to serve. In the classic ten ox-herding pictures, the last image is returning to the world with “bliss-bestowing hands”-which means with your personality structure. But the difference is that your personality is firmly under your control. It’s a tool that you use. It’s not the master.

WIE: So in this sense we’re speaking about the ego as personality as opposed to identity or attachment to self-image?

Frager: Well, ego is an essential part of personality. It’s not all of personality, but certainly when you say “I,” that’s a part of your personality, the core around which the personality is built. The individual personality is built on this funny delusion that we’re separate. It’s built around: “Who am I?” and “What have I done?” “What motivations do I have?” “What desires do I have?” “What relationships do I have?” There’s a weird presumption in there that there’s an “I” having relationships, there’s an “I” having desires. It’s a linchpin for the whole personality.

WIE: But it seems that the ego that the spiritual traditions are trying to get rid of is very specifically the ego as identity, the insistence that “I have to know who I am all the time, and I’m going to distort reality at any cost in order to see myself the way I want to see myself, in order to preserve this solid tangible notion of me.” This seems-at least potentially-to be something very distinct from the personality itself.

Frager: But that notion of a separate “I,” a separate “me”-if you pull that out, there’s not much personality left to hang on. What’s there?

WIE: Well, as you mentioned earlier, and this has also been my experience of the greatest masters I’ve known: as that need to have a separate sense of self, that need to know who we are, drops away, the personality becomes filled with something else. So there’s still a personality; there’s a structure there. But it’s no longer driven by a compulsion of anxiety and fear around preserving an identity. That’s gone, and what’s left is a fully human expression of something sacred.

Frager: There is a personality there, but developmentally that personality initially formed around a sense of separate self. I’m saying that at a certain point, the sense of self is essential in human development. You don’t develop without it. I mean without that sense of self we’d probably be feral humans without a lot of intelligence.

In the course of development I think many of the great saints have developed a personality. They have developed a way of understanding and relating to people. And then it gets transformed, but there is still a structure there that allows them to understand the problems of people who come to them. So I agree with you that the personality ultimately becomes a structure that’s imbued with the Divine and it doesn’t have the capacity to throw one off, to distort in the way it used to. But I think, developmentally, that structure did grow up from a sense of “I,” from the ego. In the course of normal development, one develops an ego and develops a personality structure. And ideally in the course of normal spiritual development, one transcends them.

But I do think that to pander to ego growth is absolutely wrong. On the other hand, to avoid it is wrong. I think the real answer is to hold that growth in the context of the spiritual. It’s tricky because we are talking about two different levels. One is the normal maturation and growth of the ego. But at the same time that’s not all that’s going on. There’s another level. There’s something far greater going on here. All of this is in a larger context. This maturation and growth are happening but there’s a larger whole that that’s part of. It may have been Jung who said, “The problem with ego is that it wants to be the center of consciousness. It pretends to be the center of the whole psyche, of everything.” So if you say, “Grow, but you’re only a part of consciousness, don’t get inflated. You’re useful, but you’re not the president of this system. There is this greater Self and we may not see it clearly now, but it’s really what we’re going to connect with eventually.” That, I think, is one way of seeing how these two aspects fit together. It’s a matter of context.

WIE: It seems that one of the chief aims of transpersonal psychology is to bring together the insights of Western psychology and the wisdom of the spiritual traditions. But are the traditions really deficient in some way? To be complete, does Sufism need to be augmented by the ego-supporting methodologies of psychology? Do you think, for instance, that your own spiritual teacher, Sheikh Muzaffer, would have been a more enlightened man and a better master if he had undergone Western psychotherapy or been exposed to Western psychological perspectives?

Frager: You’re asking someone who is quite biased about this. I don’t think he would have been a better man or attained a higher level of spirituality had he undergone psychoanalysis, although there is a famous saying in Sufism: “Those who know themselves, know their Lord.” And certainly, psychoanalysis is one very powerful way of knowing some things about ourselves. My sense is that his full education as a Sufi went so deep that he attained a level of self-understanding and spirituality that was complete in some ways. However, he might have been a better spiritual guide for others had he known more about Western psychology. I’m not sure.

WIE: Why do you say that?

Frager: Well, to understand some of the mechanisms of distortion that his students were still stuck in, it may have helped for him to understand projection, rationalization, and the process of repression. However, my experience of him was that he understood the depths of the psyche intuitively in a way that was extraordinarily powerful and direct, and in a way that theoretical constructs might very well have distorted or inhibited. I felt so deeply seen by him and known by him, and I would guess that chances are that might have been somewhat distorted by personality theory. It was a kind of direct knowing, and I think when you put theory between the fact of knowing and the object that you’re knowing, it tends to distort it.

I had a wonderful teacher, Moshe Feldenkrais, who is an incredible teacher of movement and bodily functioning. He could work directly with anyone-from those with the most severe physical handicap limitations from accidents and birth defects, all the way up to great athletes and musicians-to improve their functioning. And he said, “When I’m working with someone, I don’t even think in sentences. Because the structure of grammar would get between my nervous system experiencing the nervous system of the person I’m touching.”

So, from that place, I would suggest that perhaps much of psychology, because so much of it is theory, is not necessarily useful if one has the ability to have one’s nervous system touch another nervous system, to have one’s soul touch another soul. When one gets to that place-and one doesn’t get to it by studying theory either-the theory only gets in the way.

WIE: So as to whether Sheikh Muzaffer would have been a better spiritual teacher had he been trained in psychology, it seems that where his capacity to guide really came from wasn’t somewhere that would have been in any way helped by more theoretical training.

Frager: Yes, yes. And I think that is true of the great spiritual teachers. Nobody taught them how to teach. Here you need a teaching credential that says, “Okay, now this person has theory, they’ve had supervised practice, now they can teach.” Well, who taught the great spiritual teachers? Nobody. They were able to receive guidance from that spiritual core, from that source of wisdom. They taught from that very real, immediate place, which is beyond the personality and beyond the limited life experience that any one person has. If one is in touch with that which is greater than the personal self, then one is in touch with that wisdom that’s greater than our personal history. So, the more I think about it-no, he wouldn’t have been helped by psychology.

Interviews by Craig Hamilton